(Note: This episode was re-rated from 2.5 to 2 stars when the season recap was written.)
Nutshell: There's groundwork here for some potentially intriguing future material, but the episode itself is lackluster.
In "Collective," we're introduced to a small group of young Borg. They're the sole survivors of a Borg cube that suffered a catastrophe, and now the five of them are running this massive cube-shaped spaceship. Frankly, they're not up to the job. When it comes to being Borg, these kids need practice.
Enter the Delta Flyer, which is manned by the team of Chakotay, Paris, Kim, and Neelix (after "Memorial" and now this installment, one wonders if this is the new official crew of the Delta Flyer). We join them as—apparently trying to be more like the TNG crew—they are engaged in a game of poker, which is interrupted by the sudden appearance of said Borg cube, much to the dismay of Ensign Paris, who had a full house. (The shot that reveals the cube is nicely played for its mild shock value but logically dubious; one wonders why the ability of the Borg to sneak up within visual range of a ship isn't something we've seen before. What we have here is a scene for spurring an argument about cinematic ends vs. means, but never mind.)
The Delta Flyer is captured in a tractor beam and the crew members are thrown into a cell for use as ... hostages? Since when do the Borg take hostages? We'll see in a moment, but first some chit-chat.
It's an episode like "Collective" that has me hoping, hoping, hoping that the producers of Voyager are looking well beyond the end of the hour at hand. If you take the hour for what we've got, let's just say it's not the most compelling hour of all time.
For starters, I have to ask: Have the Borg as story devices been exhausted? I remember the awe of first seeing them in TNG's "Q-Who" all those years ago, and the terror of seeing them again in "The Best of Both Worlds." Over the past few years of Voyager, that awe has been replaced with a sense of nearly clockwork annual routine. The Borg were still interesting, but our fear that they might assimilate us was hardly a factor anymore. Instead the question was how the Borg would figure into a story about the nature of human individuality, particularly once Seven of Nine came on board. In spirit, she was our weekly Borg representative.
"Dark Frontier" last year was essentially the final word in Borg as action/adventure devices—one of the best-produced (but not best-told) Trek episodes of all time. Given that they were no longer the awesome terror of the galaxy they once seemed to be, "Dark Frontier" was acceptable use of the Borg, but by pulling out all the stops it also served as an implied resignation that perhaps the Borg were ready for retirement. An idea can only go so far before it becomes tired.
"Collective" appears to be an attempt to tell a "different" kind of Borg tale: Since we can no longer plausibly battle the Borg, we'll instead negotiate with adolescent drones—whose behavior resembles your average adolescent human more than your average Borg. When Voyager comes looking for their missing team, they find the Borg cube, but because there are only five drones—severed from the hive mind—who haven't a clue how to run a Borg ship, Voyager is able to swiftly stalemate the confrontation.
We learn that the five children—or "neo-natal drones," as the story sometimes calls them—had emerged prematurely from their "maturation chambers" after the shipwide catastrophe, a cybernetic-targeting pathogen that infected the ship and killed all the drones. The maturation chambers protected the children from being infected.
Now the juvenile drones demand that Voyager surrender its navigational deflector. They hope to modify it so they can contact the Borg and be reintegrated into the collective. If Janeway turns over the deflector, the Borg will release their hostages.
One oddity with "Collective" is its somewhat inaccurate title. These five Borg do not seem to comprise a collective. At first they do, but then they don't. They seem more like individuals who answer to a willingly established hierarchy. They don't act much like Borg. The leader of the five, the "First" (Ryan Spahn), represents the story's primary source of conflict: He's a drone who follows the Borg protocols and intends to rejoin the collective. It would seem the other four drones are less mature, and thus don't hold strong Borg-like opinions; they follow the First simply because he's the First.
But it seems these "drones" are capable of free, independent thought, and that provides a source of confusion at times, because it's hard to determine how exactly the story envisions these Borg. They're "different," which is supposed to be part of the point, I think. But they also talk among themselves like any individuals might. There's often no sense that they're connected, and something about it just doesn't sit right. In order to continue using the Borg, it seems the writers have to make them progressively less like Borg, and more human.
Naturally, the story involves heavy focus on Seven of Nine (be sure to join the online petition for renaming this series Star Trek: Seven of Nine—visit this page) who beams over to the Borg ship to confirm the well-being of the prisoners and negotiate with the drones. The core of the story emerges when Seven discovers that the Borg collective will not be dispatching a ship to retrieve this cube, which has been deemed a total loss. To the Borg, five neo-natal drones are not worth salvaging (which strikes me as perhaps the most believable Borg sentiment in the episode).
The central dilemma is (of course) a human one: Janeway proposes that the drones be "saved" if at all possible. Sure, there's some plotting along the way, including (a) Doc reluctantly re-synthesizing the pathogen that killed the Borg ship, for possible use as a weapon against the drones should negotiations fail; and (b) Harry Kim regaining consciousness aboard the docked Delta Flyer unbeknownst to the Borg, and his eventual venture through the cube in an attempt to blow up a shield generator so Voyager can beam out the prisoners. But if you want to know what the episode is about, it's the dynamic between Seven and the drones as she tries to negotiate with a leader who has one, and only one, goal—to rejoin the collective. Along the way, she comes close to connecting with one of the other drones, the Second (Manu Intiraymi), who seems to have traces of his pre-assimilated individual self somewhere beneath the surface.
Alas, these dynamics aren't on par with the potential. I expected more. The episode is too content to resign itself to standard negotiation-standoff "tension" dialog and predictable chatter. Although representing an inflexible attitude that seems to fit the Borg, the First is not a very interesting character. And with all due respect to the actors portraying the Borg, they just don't measure up. Here, one can very easily see Ryan's mastery of her character and the perfect vocal control; she is able to convey the masked emotion and Borg-like monotone without seeming forced, and there are subtle nuances that blend right into her performance. The same cannot be said for the other Borg players. They always seem to be "acting," and not convincingly (especially Spahn as the First).
What plays better are some sincere scenes between Janeway and Seven. The idea of utilizing Seven's insights to bring these Borg to some sort of new understanding of their situation is something that makes sense—after all, Seven experienced the process of being de-Borgified first-hand. The show's best-written scene reveals that the mental structure that the collective gave Seven when it assimilated her is an ordered structure that has also been a source of strength in regaining her individuality. It's a sense of order the Borg children, who were not fully developed before emerging from their maturation chambers, do not have. Seven worries that the transition for them will be even more difficult than hers. Between Seven, this installment, and "Survival Instinct," there ought to be some sort of therapy program for ex-Borg.
The final act of "Collective" is a muddle that doesn't work. It's as if the writers couldn't figure out an adequate way to resolve the story. The ending here is one of those tech wrap-ups where we have Janeway and Torres aboard Voyager throwing around meaningless technobabble dialog in a desperate last-minute search for a way to rescue the hostages before Voyager is severely damaged. Meanwhile, the final conflict on the Borg ship is poorly staged. Moments of tension feel misplayed by the actors and director, and the fact that the First is killed as a result of his inability to go against his Borg directives is a story point that doesn't come across as particularly important, though I get the feeling it was meant to be. Oh, and we've got Harry Kim lying critically ill, injected with nanoprobes, for no particularly necessary reason (beyond keeping him a peripheral aspect of the plot, which itself seems unnecessary).
And after the crisis ends, my lingering question was: What happened to the Borg cube? It apparently didn't self-destruct, so did Janeway just leave all that technology floating in space? In "Dark Frontier" the crew shaved 15 years off the trip by using Borg technology. Shouldn't this cube be a major cache of tech foodstuffs? But never mind.
That brings us to the story's coda, which simultaneously gives me great hope and worry. Four of the five drones (as well as a Borg infant that is beamed aboard the ship) are rescued and turned back into individuals. This screams for future storylines. We have four youths whose source for identification will be Seven of Nine. The pupil will now become the teacher. This could make for challenging material, a source of growth in the series. Then again, it could also make for redundancy if not handled carefully. After all, we've been down this road with Seven for almost three seasons now.
Though it's too early to say, the final scene already has me voicing one gripe: According to what the story told us earlier, these children are supposed to be disturbed—more so than Seven (who in "The Gift" was violent and unstable after being severed from the Borg). But they don't seem disturbed at all to me. They seem to be handling it way too okay.
But bringing aboard more Borg—and younger people—reveals a potential for the sort of community-building that this series should've focused on from day one. The key word is potential. Will it be used? (Of course, the worst-case scenario would be never hearing about these Borg again. That would be unforgivable, and probably unlikely, but not unthinkable given Voyager's track record. We haven't, for example, heard one single peep about those Equinox crew members that joined Voyager at the beginning of the season.)
Bottom line for "Collective": The general theme here that examines drones hanging with uncertain self-identities was done in fifth season's "Drone" (and to a lesser extent in this season's "Survival Instinct")—and I assure you it was done with much greater insight. "Collective" is reasonable, but it probably works best as stage setting. Now let's just hope the players actually decide to show up.
Next week: Return to Fair Haven. Just what we all wanted.