Nutshell: Ambitious and often very effective entertainment, but the plot doesn't bear too much scrutiny.
"Dark Frontier" does probably exactly what UPN executives wanted it to—it provides "an epic two-hour telefilm!" during February sweeps that is accessible to the average sci-fi-but-not-necessarily-Voyager fan and features the Borg, the most popular and reliable of all Trek bad guys. Obviously, no expense was spared in producing this two hour "event." So the real question: Is it any good? Answer: Yes.
Next question: Could it have been better? Answer: Yes.
I also have to ask: Was this story really necessary? I mean, the whole story, when you think about it, doesn't really take us anywhere new, especially when it comes to its central character, Seven of Nine. "Dark Frontier" seems at times like it exists more for the sake of grand spectacle than for grand story development. Not that I would necessarily let that get in the way of enjoying it.
If "Dark Frontier" was trying to get my attention with pure cinematic audacity, it worked. The episode wastes no time in coming out big and bold, showing off production values in an entertainingly effective way. The first scene opens on a Borg scout ship, featuring a Borg point-of-view sequence as a drone wakes up to assist the ship's attack on Voyager, which it has detected as a target for assimilation. David Bell's score comes out stronger than music is normally ever permitted to be on Trek episodes these days, with an actual theme and a thundering attitude. Not long after, there's a brief battle, followed by large-scale special effects and explosions when Voyager beams a torpedo into the ship and destroys it. As action-adventure, to say "Dark Frontier" revealed its intentions confidently and effectively right up front would be an understatement.
The crew salvages debris from the destroyed ship in hopes of finding useful technology. A transwarp coil in particular would be useful; it could shave 20 years off the journey. What's left of the salvaged coil, however, is useless.
From here, Janeway devises a daring plan. A crippled Borg vessel is detected heading back toward Borg space. With a carefully executed maneuver, the crew could break its defenses and steal a warp coil. The plan is appropriately dubbed "Operation: Fort Knox."
While we're talking about Janeway, I'd like to comment on a character whose actions have long been controversial and inconsistently written. I find myself reminded of second season's "Alliances." At the end of that episode, the writers alleged that, in light of being stuck in the chaotic Delta Quadrant surrounded by brutal opportunistic enemies, Janeway's course of adjustment would simply be to maintain Federation morals—"business as usual," as Chakotay once put it. I found that attitude to be shallow, naive, and dramatically limiting. (To analyze Federation ideals, the writers must challenge them in new ways, even if it means willful deviation.)
Over the years of Voyager's uneasy run, that attitude has been changed. Now we have a Janeway that, while still maintaining diplomacy and a sense of morality, will go further to protect her crew and get them home more quickly. (It has been said that Kate Mulgrew feels Brannon Braga understands Janeway better than former executive producers Jeri Taylor or Michael Piller did; perhaps that partially explains this alteration in attitude.)
So the question is whether this robbery mission better demonstrates Janeway's strengths. I'm thinking it does; it shows through action the way she will push the boundaries of typical Federation morals in the name of her crew. And Mulgrew fares well when she's allowed to show her teeth. (Although, Janeway came off as a little smug in the scene where she introduces "Operation: Fort Knox" to the crew; Mulgrew sometimes goes overboard with the body language.)
Now then—what about the moral implications of this theft? Is it okay to steal from the Borg, even if they are one of the worst enemies the Federation has ever known? More immediately, is it prudent to charge into the lion's den for a great prize if there's a risk the entire crew could end up assimilated? While I appreciate moral and practical ambiguity, the writers don't seem to really be asking these questions so much as they arise as a side effect. "Dark Frontier" charges forward with plot and action without completely considering the consequences.
But no matter. "Dark Frontier" exists more often for plot and action than for philosophic content. On that level, it fares well.
In preparation for the big heist, there are holodeck training drills and information searches. The major character undercurrent here, naturally, is for Seven of Nine, who, at Janeway's request, searches through her parents' data logs, which were retrieved from the USS Raven more than a year earlier. Seven apparently has been avoiding these logs to avoid facing her old pre-Borg childhood memories—back when her name was Annika Hansen. The new need for information now has her facing up to the past.
"Dark Frontier" is not afraid to invent or even reinvent backstory for the sake of advancing its story. Through a series of Seven's flashbacks, we get new insight into Annika's parents, Magnus and Erin Hansen (Kirk Baily and Laura Stepp). The story reveals them as two scientists who undertook a mission to find and learn about the nefarious Borg, and became so obsessed with their leads that they disregarded orders from their scientist colleagues, effectively alienating themselves. Since there was no turning back, they simply pressed forward, hoping to find Borg. Eventually, they did.
The Hansens' audacity is remarkable. There's a fine line between brave and stupid, and the Hansens walked that line for three years, we learn, studying a Borg cube without being detected as "relevant" before finally crossing the line and getting themselves assimilated. In that time, they boarded the cube on many occasions, and even kidnapped dormant drones from their regeneration alcoves to study them. All the while, they tell each other, "This could prove our theory!" I kept asking myself: What's wrong with these people? Don't they care about getting themselves and their 5-year-old daughter killed or assimilated? In any case, I found the Hansens' overconfidence and obsession interesting.
Was any of the Hansens' Borg research intended back when last season's "The Raven" was written? I doubt it, but then again I don't really care; "Raven" kept the Hansens' history vague, and the rewriting of that history proves interesting and is put to good use in "Dark Frontier."
On the other hand, some of this reinvention I found a little annoying, because it flies in the face of established continuity. More specifically, these flashbacks allege that Starfleet knew about the Borg years before they could have. The first Borg episode, TNG's "Q Who," was about 10 years ago. Starfleet knew nothing about them. Here, the Hansens apparently knew about the Borg some 20 years ago, which is simply impossible given what we've seen before.
Is any of this continuity quibbling important to "Dark Frontier"? Probably not, but it is a blatant disregard for past history for those of us who remember the Borg's introduction back in the second season of TNG, and I have to at least mention my objection to the distorting the facts.
But again, no matter. Story advancement first, plot continuity second. "Dark Frontier" blends the flashbacks into the main story effectively, balancing Seven's feelings on the matter with the bigger plot involving the mission.
It's about this time that Seven is contacted by the Borg, who somehow know about Janeway's plan. They tell her, essentially, that she must rejoin the collective, or the Borg will assimilate Voyager. Why do they want her? "Because you are unique." Borg riddles. Gotta love 'em.
This leads to a very nice scene where Seven makes a plea to Janeway to allow her to stay on the mission even though she has been fraught with emotional distraction over the last few days. Seven knows something Janeway doesn't, but can't tell her about it. The plan must go on for Voyager's sake. Seven's sense of self-sacrifice is fairly affecting; the character certainly has come a long way in the past year.
The mission is nicely executed, as is Seven's capture. The story comes up with some interesting ways of giving Voyager the advantage, like the devices that make crew members temporarily undetectable from the Borg while on a Borg ship (which are established through the Hansen backstory, who used them to run around the Borg cube for hours at a time)—although, I was somewhat confused by the story's unclear intentions of how much of the plan the Voyager crew pulled off versus how much the Borg let them get away with it.
"Dark Frontier" is an episode whose action works through little details. The Hansen flashbacks benefit from some nice nuances, such as the Hansens giving the Borg drones pet names as a way of keeping track of them, or the frighteningly implicit consequences foreshadowed by little Annika (Katelin Petersen) saying "bye" as her parents beam a Borg drone back to the cube.
In the present storyline, we have good use of Naomi Wildman, a character whose presence manages to transcend the "cute" factor and tell us something about the other characters, whether serving as a reminder for Seven's truncated childhood, or playing off the captain in a scene that reveals Janeway's codependency of humanity and duty ("Keep your shirt tucked in; go down with the ship; and never abandon a member of your crew").
Once Seven returns to the Borg, the story's big hook is the reintroduction of the Borg Queen (Susanna Thompson), which is supposed to provide a one-on-one battle of wills, I think, over the nature of Seven's unique re-assimilation into the collective. It's at this point the story seems to resign itself to the fact the writers have used the Borg about a dozen times and now must ask, well, where can we go from here? The second half of "Dark Frontier" is entertaining, but psychologically it can't deliver much more than what we've already seen. It feels more like a series of skillfully executed set pieces than a story trying to find its way to some sort of emotional resolution. The Borg Queen's attempts to crack Seven are all too similar to the Queen's attempt to crack Data in First Contact: coercion, temptation, finding the crux of human morality, elusive riddles, etc.
The use of the Borg Queen had me asking questions with no apparent answers. For starters, what is the purpose of the Queen? As Data put it, "I wish to understand the organizational relationships." Is there some sort of hierarchy, where the Queen actually runs the collective? Or is the Queen simply a special liaison—a symbol of the hive mind—who is assembled whenever there is special need to psychologically crack an individual? (There's evidence here that could have it either way, but because by the end of the episode we'll now have two Queens that have died, it's apparent they aren't crucial to the collective.)
For that matter, I'm confused at why the Borg even want Seven of Nine back. What's so special about her individuality that makes her valuable? The Queen says that no other Borg has ever regained individuality, but I must raise my hand and ask about the entire colony in "Unity." (But, no; I must again remind myself that continuity doesn't count.) But even forgetting that for the moment, if the Borg assimilate Seven's memories, won't that be everything they need? Apparently not; the Queen wants Seven to remain an individual who willfully chooses to side with the Borg. How this helps the collective I'm not sure. The story thinks weird, elusive dialog will suffice as an answer. I disagree. It was interesting in First Contact; here it begins to feel like a shallow imitation.
Susanna Thompson works fairly well early on as the Queen (and she has great eyes for the part), but near the end her performance loses the surreal edge and seems far too concrete and flat to be anything more than a "Borg villain." Her attempts to coax Seven into abandoning her human compassion involves a host of psychological tricks, some of which are interesting, others which aren't.
The most compelling idea is the Borg's assimilation of an entire society while Seven is forced to assist, which proves quite effective and intense. Seven walks through the corridors as dozens of drones move mindlessly through the ship with their alien prisoners, as screaming emerges from an uncertain distance; it conveys a frightening chaos that seems like some surreal Nazi nightmare. It's a unique and powerful look at the Borg, and Seven's "human" choices in this situation are interesting.
On the other hand is the appearance of Seven's "father" in the form of a drone, which is going way too over the top, and in presentation seems like nothing more than a cheap "shock value" gag that puts forward no interesting consequences.
During all of this, the Voyager crew realizes Seven had been coerced into leaving them, so Janeway equips the Delta Flyer with the recently acquired transwarp coil to track Seven down in Borg space. They arrive there, which leads to a somewhat unexpected cinema cliché where Janeway and the Queen engage in the Borg version of the Movie Armed Standoff™ for the custody of Seven—with Janeway holding a big gun while lots of Borg threaten to come closer to her. The idea is handled somewhat klutzily (with tech procedures and "pure attitude" the key components in the showdown, and neither really winning a sense of urgency)—but I did enjoy the Queen's look of downright anger when Seven and Janeway beamed away.
Of course, I must point out that it strains the usefulness of the Borg as a believably powerful enemy in the galaxy if the Delta Flyer can get the better of them with some convenient technobabble and Borg connections, even though an entire fleet can barely deal with a single cube zeroing in on Earth. The Borg are neat enemies, but they lose their edge of implacability because of their willingness to negotiate near the end of "Dark Frontier."
Oh well. Despite Voyager's tendency to overuse the Borg, I still thought the actual execution of the action was well done overall, and the final chase managed to milk a good amount of excitement out a questionable ending. And, hey, we even got 15 years closer to home thanks to the transwarp coil.
If I may comment on technical aspects: Simply put—awesome. The visual effects are among the best and most convincing I've ever seen on sci-fi television, and succeed extremely well on the "cool" factor. The sheer number of visuals is impressive. The Queen's ship is a marvel of design complexity that is still consistent with Borg geometry and symmetry—and, well, it just looks neat. The story ventures into Borg territory, where we see massive space stations. The sets and makeup design are all solid and pleasing to the eye (even if green light rays perpetually shining on the Borg Queen was pushing it). I can't imagine what this all cost to produce; there's a lot on the screen, and most of it proves very effective.
As television production goes, "Dark Frontier" is easily the most ambitious thing Voyager has ever done. It's exceptionally well constructed. Unfortunately, it's not exceptionally well thought out. The story just can't keep up with the ambition. Nevertheless, it's probably good to have ambition, and I credit the producers for trying something so large, even if original ideas couldn't always fit the concept.
Next week: Choose your title: "Harry Gets Some" or "Lust in Space."