Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Survival Instinct"

***

Air date: 9/29/1999
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Terry Windell

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"How can any of us take a name for ourselves? We're not individuals. We're not Borg. We're nothing." — the triad

Nutshell: A nicely characterized example of people making tough decisions induced by bizarre sci-fi circumstances.

"Survival Instinct" is a relatively quiet character show whose themes are sensible, well-written, often intriguing, and, shall we say, quite firmly established in previous Voyager lore. This latest entry into Seven's backstory has some new and interesting nuances. It doesn't bring huge new insights along with it, but it does provide for a good hour-long story with some tough, emotional choices.

The script, as those who keep up with behind-the-scenes news might know, is the first and only Voyager script written by DS9 alum Ron Moore, whose departure this summer from the Voyager staff during the production stages of these first few episodes came under ominous and undeniably unfortunate circumstances. Too bad—this script highlights Moore's ability to find the characters' voices. I would've looked forward to more Voyager stories from him.

Anyway, no lamenting allowed; the task at hand is scrutiny of the latest offering that dissects the Borg collective. Contrary to those UPN trailers, which we can count on to be trite, over-sensationalized, and in this case just flat-out inaccurate, "Survival Instinct" is not about the Borg being back or Seven rejoining the collective. The story utilizes the Borg as concepts, certainly, but it is not a rehash of "Dark Frontier." The only Borg we see in this episode are confined to flashbacks sequences.

The story begins with at least one fresh breath of air: the notion that Voyager has run into what looks like—gasp!—a melding of civil societies. The ship has docked at a massive space station populated by—gasp!—friendly non-xenophobes who are actually interested in a civil exchange of culture and ideas. I was surprised at how fresh this seemed. The episode is cast with dozens of extras that fill the ship's corridors. Janeway's ready room is crammed with gifts and junk she has received from these visitors. The whole notion feels upbeat. It's a great idea simply on the psychological level: For once the Delta Quadrant doesn't feel so barren and lonely. This is an idea that deserves to be the spotlight of an entire show, or several. Although ... I must say I was somewhat disappointed in Tuvok's cranky lack of patience through this cultural exchange. All he can worry about is potential security problems and, apparently, the disturbance of his schedules. (C'mon, where's that Vulcan IDIC philosophy?)

Among the visitors to Voyager are three people (Vaughn Armstrong, Berlita Damas, Tim Kelleher) who, we learn, have something to hide. They want something from Seven of Nine. The story reveals that they maintain a constant telepathic link with one another, which they use to help circumvent security and hack into Seven's brain while she's regenerating.

Upon failing and being caught by security, they are forced to come clean about their objective: They are former Borg drones who have been recently freed from the collective. Unfortunately, they remain connected to each other in a way that prevents them from becoming individuals. They're a triad joined together at the parietal lobe. They constantly hear one other's thoughts, dream one other's dreams, and finish one other's sentences when speaking. How they can even function without a larger collective to assert control over them constitutes some sort of miracle. They're not sure how or why this triadic link was created in the first place, but they're sure Seven is the key to the mystery.

Of course, the nitpicker might wonder exactly how powerful this ability is, and ask why these three don't go in separate directions and see if their (supposedly biological) connection maintains its link. I'd be impressed by any organic brain with an amplifier that can transmit across light-years of space. Maybe the telepathy "permeates subspace"—cf. the Borg vinculum that was giving Seven multiple personalities last year in "Infinite Regress"—and distance is irrelevant. Hey, whatever. I'll play along if the implications are as interesting to ponder as they prove to be here.

Subsequently, Seven and Doc use weird Borgish nanoprobes, scans, etc., to join the triad into Seven's brain in an attempt to piece together Seven's memory lapses, wherein lie the clues to the triad's current problem.

As "Survival Instinct" unfolds, these scenes are intercut with a flashback narrative that documents an event from eight years earlier, when Seven and these other three Borg drones—who were all members of the same Borg unimatrix which had been aboard a scout ship that crashed—found themselves disconnected from the collective. Perhaps the episode's most poignant moments are the flashback scenes where we see these frightened drones' individual memories beginning to resurface. They're confused, yet slowly becoming aware of who they once were; the actors play them like robots waking up from a dream, with broken speech patterns and subtly percolating emotions emerging.

And they do not want to return to the collective. They realize they've been mutilated and abducted from their own identities, and now they plan to resist. The interesting exception is Seven. Having been assimilated as a child, individuality was a concept she never completely understood, and taking control of her actions is the titular "survival instinct," which tells her that death is likely, and returning to that which she has known longer than anything—the collective—is her best option. She plays the actions of a "good little Borg"—not out of duty or philosophy, but out of fear of the unknown.

Seven uses her nanoprobes to force the three other drones into a single-network triad collective that obeys Borg protocol. The result left them joined together permanently, even after being reassimilated by and later freed from the Borg. (All this stuff about nanoprobes and mental transceivers can be jargon-packed, but I suppose it's believable enough; it's sci-fi with plenty of "sci" and plenty of "fi.")

Back in the present, there's a malfunction in the mind-linking process that disables the triad and leaves them in a less-than-ideal situation: The triadic link has been destroyed, and they can't survive longer than a few weeks without it. Their only hope for survival in returning to the collective, where, if assimilated, they could live out "normal lives" as drones.

This brings about the episode's big central decision. Should Seven let these three live for a month as truly free individuals, or a "normal" life-span as drones? With the triad unconscious and the procedure irreversible once performed, the choice must be made for them.

The choice seems clear—Seven sent them back to the collective against their will once, and she wouldn't think of doing it again. There's a standout Trekkian dialog scene between Doc and Seven that scrutinizes Seven's motives. Doc asks if perhaps she's motivated by guilt to free them, even if it means their certain deaths. Seven responds with a speech about individuality, highlighting her unique perspective on the matter—as well as Doc's own unique perspective as a preprogrammed artificial lifeform—that says much about them both becoming "more than drones." This is good use of characters; only the combination of Seven and Doc would allow a scene like this to shine, because of their unique friendship and because of what they are.

(If I may digress, I must add that given Seven's attitude toward the collective in this episode, it seems particularly stupidly ironic that the UPN trailers would lift from an old episode a line where Seven says, "I will return to the collective.")

The scene after Seven makes this decision also has some resonance, showing that these three are grateful they have been released—but also showing that this quasi-redemption for Seven does not automatically bring about forgiveness from all.

In more trivial away-from-the-main-story matters, I see that even Moore can't make Harry into anything more than Our Lovable Goof, Harry. While in general I got a mild amount of amusement out of the scene where Tom and Harry are called into Janeway's ready room to answer for disturbing the peace on the space station (they were partially responsible for starting a melee), any scene that ends with Harry saying "We kicked their asses"—except of course substituting "rackets" for "asses" based on dialog setup tricks that I won't even bother to explain—is a scene that ranks extremely high on the Harry chump-o-meter. (I'll tell you what—I'd sure like to kick Harry's ... "racket.") I don't mean to Harbor Harry Hatred [TM], but will I ever be able to take this guy seriously again?

Anyway. "Survival Instinct" is a definite winner. I think I'll put this in the upper ranks of three stars. Since Seven has come onto this series we've seen a lot of stories with similar themes concerning individuality ("The Raven," "One," "Drone," "Infinite Regress," "Dark Frontier," possibly others). This is one of the better-done examples (although not quite on the level of "Drone"), but it doesn't venture all that far off the previously explored path.

Next week: B'Elanna goes through hell and back.

Previous episode: Equinox, Part II
Next episode: Barge of the Dead

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23 comments on this review

Daniel - Sun, Nov 2, 2008 - 9:09pm (USA Central)
Just watched this episode again. Sad that this was the only "Voyager" episode to be written by Ron Moore; he (that is, had he not cared about story quality and continuity) would have been a good fit in the Voyager writers' world - in fact, a great fit.I would give this episode 3 and 1/2 stars; the episode is a notable (on this show, anyway) example of less is more.The concept (Seven is confronted with a situation with respect to which her Borg training provides no resolution) is compelling but the story is not sensationalized. The acting is low-key but effective. The story is not overloaded with technobabble, and is told relatively directly without extraneous subplots. Moore seems to be saying that actions taken in the past will not only come back to bite us in the behind in the future (hardly a revolutionary concept), but he also pointedly notes that the present cannot be explained/is often enriched by exploration of the past, and such is necessary for "life" to be more than a random sequence of events.The Voyager writers, unfortunately,took an exactly different approach to storytelling-Kenneth Biller stated that each episode was meant to be viewed as a stand-alone - a sequence of random events.A sad irony, indeed.
EP - Thu, Mar 5, 2009 - 1:53am (USA Central)
I dislike this episode as much as "Hugh" from TNG, not because they aren't interesting or thought-provoking, but because they take the teeth off the Borg. The Borg were mega-scary in "Q Who" and "Best Of Both Worlds." Every subsequent story "humanizes" them just a little bit more, until we're left with their utter de-fleecing in VOY's "Endgame."

And that scene where B'Elanna is put off by Seven's typical haughty behavior struck me as bizarre and badly plotted, since B'Elanna is just as unsociable and short with people.
RedGenesis - Mon, Mar 16, 2009 - 9:53am (USA Central)
I quite liked this episode, but when watching it, one thing did stand out. why, for some reason, didn't anyone on the Voyager crew notice a Bajoran, walking about the Delta Quadrant with two aliens, when she came onboard the ship from the station. It's not like she tried to hide her nose ridges, and someone on the crew should have noticed a Bajoran, an Alpha Quadrant race, on there ship. Did they suddenly forget that?
Joe - Wed, Jul 29, 2009 - 6:16pm (USA Central)
RedGenesis

Let's face it, most of Voyager's aliens are close to identical anyway, minor prosthetic variations notwithstanding. Why would they think she was a bajoran as opposed to one of the many other nose-ridged aliens they've seen?
Sorry for the cynicism, good episode, great review.
Markus - Sat, Aug 15, 2009 - 5:08pm (USA Central)
I can't help but scream out aloud each time I see Janeway being stuck to this living christmas tree and squeaking "It's got me by the hair"... great slapstick! ;)
Michael - Tue, Jul 6, 2010 - 10:21am (USA Central)
Urgh, not big on this episode at all. It started off promising, with great multitudes of people coming onboard Voyager and there being some sort of conspiracy plot in the making. But all the pseudo-Borg reminiscing about past events, practically all of which involved static dialog, added absolutely no value and was nothing but boring padding. Am I watching Star Trek or some two-bit psychological drama?!?

For a sci-fi show, this episode had no "sci" and most of the "fi" was lackadaisical.

Two stars, and even that's greatly pushing it.
Michael - Tue, Jul 6, 2010 - 11:32am (USA Central)
"EP" is right: I hate the way they demolish the Borg mystique and veil of invincibility. I actually used to think the Borg were, well, COOL, but episodes like this one disannul that perception. I mean, here we have members of a collective that has been tear-assing through the Universe with nary an opposition being portrayed as just as susceptible to mental trauma and shit as members of the vastly inferior human species. Borg counseling, anyone? *snort*

And yeah, don't even get me started on Endgame! Janeway manages to accomplish what billions of other individuals and whole races never could. Puh-lease.
Cloudane - Wed, Jan 12, 2011 - 6:58pm (USA Central)
The first episode in ages that felt like more than just another day at the office. I can't put my finger on exactly why... lots of little things I think.. but you can tell it had Ron Moore's touch. It's a pity the creative team for Voyager were so dead set on mediocrity that he couldn't work with them for more than one episode.

I really appreciated the friendly aliens. Voyager tended to have a very depressing view of other species with 99% of them being Hard Headed Aliens Of The Week and so the TNG-like diplomacy and optimism (complete with our own Picardette humorously suffering the customs of the alien culture, in this case gift giving) was really refreshing. Maybe it was partly nostalgia but more of this would not have been cause for complaint - I don't see that its necessary for the entire quadrant to be nasty, and having nice aliens just reinforces the original mission of exploration and seeking out new civilizations. I hope if there's a new Trek series (as much as I hate the reboot idea) that they pick this style up again.

As for Harry though I don't think even the best writer in the world could've salvaged that character.. he's beyond repair. Why they kept him instead of Kes I will never understand.
Anthony - Sat, Dec 24, 2011 - 8:49pm (USA Central)
Michael, once again, showing how shallow his thinking is.

This episode was not about "The Borg," but about some Borg that were able to break free partially because of a freak ship accident. So, already, your thinking is starting off on the wrong foot about the episode.

This was an excellent character piece about the struggle of one's one individuality to come through once one is tied to another.

If the Borg is able to take away one's individuality, what happens when a small group can only be in the middle of individuality and group-think?
Jelendra - Tue, May 22, 2012 - 4:33am (USA Central)
A good episode...I enjoyed seeing the Doc and 7 interact again this time on the nature of "life". There werent any easy answers that technobabble could solve which made me enjoy this one all the more.. I also enjoyed the peaceful civilization they contact...I think Voyager really should be encountering hostiles through much of their journey, but its good for them to get a break now and then. Also nice to see Naomi Wildman's scenes with 7...
Justin - Fri, May 25, 2012 - 10:55pm (USA Central)
Leave it to a DS9 writer to shake things up a bit and put Voyager on a space station. And a friendly one at that. Not a coincidence I think. Neither was it a coincidence that Ron Moore's one and only contribution to VOY was a classic. What a waste. Brannon Braga is a tool.
Sybok - Wed, Jan 16, 2013 - 12:09pm (USA Central)
Sometimes when I eat too much meat it hurts to poop. And Bragga is a tool.
Chris - Thu, Jan 24, 2013 - 3:02pm (USA Central)
Hmm perhaps the Doc can fashion some tin foil hats to block the signals between the drones, problem solved.
Jo Jo Meastro - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 10:31am (USA Central)
While I liked the concepts and the unique in-depth look into Sevens' character, there was just something missing for me.

Maybe it was a bit too low key, maybe it was the way it failed to engage me emotionally or even make me care about the fate of these ex-Drones who came out of nowhere, or maybe it was just the fact I found it too plodding at times.

But there were some more remarkable scenes to be found and the exploration of the power of individuality, along with the peak into Sevens' damaged psyche, satisfied greatly on an intellectual level. 2.5 stars from me, this episode was lacking in heart what it had in brains.

One other thing, the less I see of that annoying Naomi kid the better. She might as well be a Care Bear with all the sugary cuteness the writers ram down our throats, Star Trek is terrible at creating likeable children and she's no exception IMO.
Jo Jo Meastro - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 10:42am (USA Central)
I noticed the scene I can recall Neelix appearing in had him firmly behind the counter in the mess hall and then quickly ignored again...I wonder if Ronald Moore had something to do with this haha
Jo Jo Meastro - Thu, Jul 4, 2013 - 10:43am (USA Central)
*the only scene

Apologies for the triple posting.
azcats - Fri, Aug 9, 2013 - 12:40pm (USA Central)
@Michael. he makes me laugh. i do enjoy the action mystery stuff that he does. but he does not like any character study whatsoever.

i rather enjoyed this one. i, also, enjoyed seeing them run into nice aliens. I was thinking yesterday, "how often do they go down to a populated world of friendly aliens?" it sure doesnt help very much. not many Rizas out there.

I enjoyed Naomi and Sevens conversations as much as i enjoy Sevens and Docs convos.

I like Naomi wildman alot. i mean. would you rather have her or Alexander? he was not so bright and he was a brat. Naomi is like an adult in a child's body. which makes sense, cause she is surrounded by ALL adults. very good addition to the show.

4 stars for character show. 3 stars overall.
Lt. Yarko - Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - 12:04pm (USA Central)
Definitely interesting concepts here, but I feel the reassimilate-or-die angle to be terribly contrived. And, what? Reconnecting to Seven will bring back memories that were wiped? How does that work exactly? It's too bad they couldn't have dealt with the main issues character presented without relying on complete techno-babble confusion to get from plot point A to plot point B. And why couldn't the trio have simply ASKED Seven for help rather than have all that pointless intrigue at the beginning? Very sloppy episode. 2.5 stars at most.
Lt. Yarko - Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - 12:05pm (USA Central)
character issues*
NIck - Sun, Dec 15, 2013 - 11:34am (USA Central)
Agree with Yarko, this was a very poor episode with a weak premise. Although, I loved the Alien space station at the beginning...too bad we didn't get to see the interior or its functioning.
Maxwell Anderson - Sun, Jan 5, 2014 - 1:07pm (USA Central)
I agree with EP. Voyager just fundamentally misunderstood the Borg in how they characterized them. The biggest thing is about the organization of the hive and of the cubes. It is established in TNG that the technological systems are spread out evenly with many redundancies throughout their cubes, so that if one is damaged, absolutely no vital systems get compromised. This ability to adapt and regenerate is what makes the cubes so scary and why the Borg are so hard to defeat. (I thought it was very clever how Michael Piller wrote the end of Best of Both Worlds - tapping into the mind and telling them it's time to sleep - in part because it does not violate this technological principle). In contrast, this principle is routinely violated in Voyager as the writers would usually end episodes with Janeway targeting some central hub that controlled everything so they could disable the cube. And in First Contact they establish that the queen is simply a mouthpiece for the collective, the billions-of-voices-as-one-voice manifest. However, Voyager constantly describes functions of the Borg as being "controlled" by the queen, or various queens, and if one is killed or disabled this can render the Borg defenseless somehow. This is just a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Borg work. If the queen is killed, the Borg can just make another one. They don't even need a queen. They all think in One Voice, right? The queen is simply there to better communicate with individuals outside the hive.

They also establish in TNG that when disconnected from the hive, drones become totally lost, unable to truly take care of themselves, destined to die without reconnection to the hive. This provides an understandable motivation for each drone's unquestioning devotion to the hive: without it, they will die. Here, however, Ron Moore inexplicably writes that when disconnected from the hive, drones immediately start remembering their former lives and thinking like individuals again. This is not the Borg I know from TNG! I would imagine the Borg drones in such a situation would act as a group to try to rejoin the collective, and not let anyone get in their way. I'm sure disagreement could ensue among the group, given their newly individual natures, and this could be interesting. But this is not at all what Moore writes here.
Elliott - Sun, Jan 5, 2014 - 2:55pm (USA Central)
@Maxwell :

I don't think it's fair to say the writers "misunderstood" their material. After all, the ægis falls upon any writer to reïevent his own material as well as reäppropriate the material of others even when that material belongs to a different franchise. In this case, we're talking about a conceptual villain within the same franchise. Obviously, you or anyone else are free to dislike and criticise the direction the writers took the Borg here and elsewhere, but that their conceptualisation of the Borg is different from what it may have been before does not connote misunderstanding.

Personally, I don't see that there was a different option, dramatically speaking, to take the Borg than where First Contact and Voyager did. In their early appearances, their "alienness" is attributable to our lack of familiarity with their culture. The same was once true of Vulcans and Klingons on TOS but, obviously, as we learned more about them, their motivations and cultural tendencies become more familiar to us and we see our own human culture within theirs. That is a natural evolution.

As Quinn from "Death Wish" let us know about the Q, while it may behove the Qs' politics to throw around terms like "omnipotent" and "eternal", this is really just a question of how their abilities and culture relates to most of the rest of the Universe, humanity included. When we're given privy to their inner-workings, we discover that they are very much like us. And the same is true of the Borg.

"One voice, one mind" is rhetoric, it's propaganda, much like "home of the free and the brave" or even "home of the whopper", once tested in the crucible, turns to ashes. When one understands his enemy, his enemy becomes less frightening and less toothsome. The only way for the Borg to have maintained their mystique, dramatically speaking, in the Trek Universe would have required *not* using them in stories. As soon as 7of9 became a regular character, this option left the table.
Maxwell Anderson - Wed, Jan 15, 2014 - 12:38pm (USA Central)
Of course they are "free" to do whatever they want. But what they did on Voyager was to fundamentally and without explanation reverse the organizational system from bottom up to top down, thus rendering them much much easier to defeat. I don't think I'm alone in criticizing the writers for choosing this path.

And yes, of course they could, "dramatically speaking", take the Borg in a direction that preserved the strength of their collective and that was more consistent with depictions in TNG and First Contact. (As I explained in my original post, the queen in First Contact was a mouthpiece, and nothing in the plot of that movie violated the organizational principles established in TNG. The problem starts in Voyager Dark Frontier.)

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