Nutshell: A reasonably engaging hour of sci-fi, as long as you accept that setup often substitutes for story.
A show of hands: Who thinks season-ending cliffhangers are gratuitous?
Oddly, the first season-ending TV cliffhanger I clearly remember is TNG's famous "The Best of Both Worlds." I was 14 years old and at a point where I was paying closer attention to TV as an avenue for storytelling. I was less cynical concerning plot devices (I wasn't a critic and didn't think in those terms then) and probably more open to possibilities. I had no idea how "Best of Both Worlds" would be resolved; it was one long summer. Would Picard die? Would Earth be attacked by the Borg? I really wondered. Maybe I was simply more naive and impressionable then. Maybe it's just that the cliffhanger was simply a lot better. Hard to say. Of course, it was probably also helpful that there wasn't the Web as we now know it to bombard us with spoilers. Or trailers that gave away half the surprises.
Ever since that TV season in 1990, I've been abundantly aware of cliffhanger after cliffhanger after cliffhanger. On all shows. Even lame sitcoms, for crying out loud, where suspense and caring about the characters is contrary to the point. It was probably that way long before 1990, but from my point of view, it started with "Best of Both Worlds," which will never, ever be topped (DS9's "Call to Arms" and Homicide's "Work Related" come closest, but no cigar). One just can't go back.
But anyway. "Unimatrix Zero." Like "Equinox" last year, it's pretty hard to critique half a story. Like most cliffhangers, it's all setup and no payoff. And unlike "Scorpion" from three years back, the presence of the Borg is not even close to a novelty value. Since "Scorpion," thanks to the presence of Seven of Nine, we've probably had close to a dozen stories about the Borg, and more if you count the indirect examples. The Borg have been part of Trek milieu for 11 years now. How long can the cow be milked before it dies?
Well, in the case of the Borg, I'll accept them as storytelling devices so long as what they represent continues to evolve and remain interesting, even if by definition we can never go back. The Borg were once awesome villains, whereas now they're cool but not nearly as compelling. They've changed. A lot. They used to be one mind. Now they seem less like one huge mind and more like an entity controlled by an individual villain leader.
It's just as well that the Borg have changed. Like I said, one can't go back, and that also goes for the writers. They must go forward, and forward is in changing the Borg into something other than what they were. Is it as interesting? Maybe not, but it's either that or abandon the Borg completely (which might not be such a bad idea).
The new spin here is a high-concept masterstroke: "Seven is contacted in Borg cyberspace by drones who have created a virtual reality where they can exist as individuals." It's like The Matrix, except kind of in reverse, and with an outdoor natural setting rather than a mysteriously generic city with Chicago street names.
The drones who can exist in this version of the Matrix, which is known here officially as Unimatrix Zero, are very rare (one in every million). Something about their brains allows their imaginations to drift away from the collective whenever they regenerate. Through the Borg hive link, these drones have found a common place where they exist and interact while they sleep—a virtual sanctuary. This virtual world exists completely apart from the real world. When they're awake, they're ordinary drones with no knowledge or memory of their virtual sanctuary. The central problem is that the rest of the Borg consciousness has recently become aware of this "defective" subset in the collective, and the Borg Queen (Susanna Thompson reprising the role) is determined to snuff it out. It's indeed a very clever story concept.
This of course all involves Seven in a very central way. It turns out that before her liberation from the collective, she was one of the 0.0001% of drones (gee, how convenient!) who exhibited this condition and existed in VR. She lived this virtual life for 18 years, and even had a VR lover for six years, Axum (Mark Deakins), who is the one who now contacts her asking for help.
Quick statistics lesson. The "one in a million" notion is a bit of a stretch given who all we see in UM-Zero. The chances of Seven and another human (the one here who was assimilated at Wolf 359, which itself is still a mystery that hasn't been explicitly solved) both having the UM-Zero defect would mean the odds would require about 2 million humans having first been assimilated, wouldn't it? The Klingon character's presence would mean, statistically, about 1 million Klingons would've needed to be assimilated. This all seems somewhat of a probability stretch. Maybe races that we as viewers know about have a higher likelihood of carrying the defect. Yeah, that's the ticket. But never mind—it's only a story. Nitpick I won't (though I guess I already did).
There's a fight in VR that seems to take a few lessons from The Matrix, although I'm still waiting for the day when Janeway learns Kung Fu. Unlike The Matrix, if you die in UM-Zero, it would seem you do not die in real life—you simply are forced out of VR until you re-enter your next regeneration stage—which could be an interesting advantage for our VR good guys.
With the Borg Queen tracking down the secret of UM-Zero—and coming closer every day—the crew's dilemma in the story is what to do about Axum's call for help. Seven convinces Janeway to help save UM-Zero from destruction from the Borg. Discussed is the issue that in doing so, our heroes could find themselves in the middle of a "Borg civil war" (an interesting image, that) though Janeway settles for the term "resistance movement." This leads to a Daring Plan involving a techno-virus that will allow the UM-Zero drones to retain their memories once they wake up from VR. In order for this to work, however, the virus must be administered to a central distributor on a Borg ship. The crew tracks down a Borg ship and prepares to initiate the plan. I must say that any Borg ship that could be vulnerable to this plan probably needs better network security or upgraded anti-virus software. (Repeat after me: It's only TV. It's only TV...)
Meanwhile, there's the Borg Queen seeking out the defective drones. What's the Queen's purpose? I didn't exactly get it in First Contact. I certainly didn't get it in "Dark Frontier." And here it appears that, really, there's nothing to get. The Queen is simply the Borg personified for the audience's benefit, and on that level, it probably works. Thompson's take on the Queen is one of a calm exterior with an evil villain inside. She sees and hears all through her video screen, and smiles evil smiles when things go her way, and looks menacing when they don't. To Thompson's credit, she does all this with Borg-like restraint, without going over the top. And although the very notion of the Queen as a villain strips away some of what made the Borg unique, it's still kind of fun (though the unspoken notion of Janeway and the Queen being arch-enemies is maybe pushing it).
The crew's Daring Plan involves Janeway, Tuvok, and Torres beaming onto the Borg ship to administer the virus. Because this is a cliffhanger, things don't go as planned. Actually, yes they do. The three of them are assimilated, but the story's twist reveals that their assimilation was part of the Daring Plan. I would guess that they're carrying the virus, and have still more tricks up their sleeves.
About that. I'd have my doubts about any plan that includes willfully being assimilated by the Borg. This goes beyond bravery and into the territory of implausible. I just have a hard time believing anyone would do it. If I locked you in a room and said, "Okay. Here's a hacksaw. I want you to saw through your forearm until it becomes detached, and don't worry about the blood, pain, or permanent disfigurement," would you do it? I doubt it. And I tend to doubt Janeway & Co. would so easily accept the horrors of assimilation in the interests of some master plan.
On its bottom line, "Unimatrix Zero" is another Voyager action show. (Seven's personal dilemma and any potential psychological VR implications are put on hold.) As such, it shows the Voyager virtue of visual panache. This is almost as good-looking as "Dark Frontier," which was one of the best examples of production design and special effects I've ever seen on the small screen.
There are a couple standout brain-dissection scenes where we get to see disembodied Borg heads. Very cool. And beautiful sets. And a nifty new Borg vessel that looks very "armored." Yes, as production goes, this is top-notch stuff which on its own is almost worth the hour's view.
But I also recommend the story, despite the holes and the fact that Janeway and her crew must be about one inch shy of insane. The concept is neat, and the story moves confidently through its motions as a techno-thriller. There's also some reasonable character work here, like the Janeway/Chakotay scenes, which choose not to go the "Scorpion"/"Equinox" route of conflict, but instead have Chakotay supporting the captain—they agree this time. It's one of few times all season we've seen Chakotay exhibit any sort of opinion.
Also noteworthy is the potential here for Seven, whose existence in UM-Zero takes an interesting spin; she's more human-like when her VR memories begin to resurface, and she even goes by her human name, Annika. Ryan brings additional humanity to her character with a toning down of the Borg qualities and inserting some subtle emotion in her speech and facial expressions—that is, until after the entire gravity of the situation reveals itself, at which point Seven asserts her true personality over her virtual one ("My name is Seven of Nine," she tells a mildly lovesick Axum).
There's also the re-promotion of Paris to lieutenant at the beginning of the show, which is handled by Janeway leaving a box containing a collar pip on his chair. This prompts Harry to comment, not without reason, "I didn't see a little box on my chair." This guy has been an ensign forever. What gives? Maybe Janeway is still punishing him for inappropriate pursuit of, um, another type of box back in "The Disease." (Did I just violate my PG review rule? Many apologies.)
I must admit that spoilers undercut the shock value, as it were, of the ending. Not simply Internet spoilers, but also the ones revealed in the trailers—Janeway getting injected with nanoprobes, the Delta Flyer being destroyed. Indeed, marketing of entertainment these days gives away anything if it's something that might make you want to watch.
"Unimatrix Zero" is still well worth an hour. It has potential. It's an incomplete story, and as always I don't expect any big impact on our crew to come out of it (including for the three who are now Borg drones). But as an entertainment and a season-ender, it gets the job done.
Upcoming: Rerun season. Stay tuned for the usual season recap and commentary article, which I'll have ready sometime this summer.
End-of-season article: Sixth Season Recap