Nutshell: Very intriguing and poignant. Voyager at its best.
"Drone" opens with Seven looking into a mirror, practicing her smile. This is a wonderful scene. It works on the "cute" level, but there's a lot going on under the surface. It's quite clear that her smile is completely superficial. Seven doesn't feel like smiling, and she can't "feel" the smile when she makes it. It's just there. And knowing that frustrates her. In 20 seconds, without a single line of dialog, "Drone" has already managed to say something interesting about Seven: She's trying, but she's just not there yet—and it may be quite some time before she is.
"Drone" is one of the classic type of "human" Star Trek stories. What does it mean to be human and to have feelings? Why do we consider certain values so important? What kind of sacrifices should we make to serve the greater good? All of these questions have been asked dozens if not hundreds of times through the years of the Trek canon, but "Drone" does it as well as some of the best of them.
Once again, it accomplishes this through an analysis of Seven and the Borg. Voyager has played these cards many times, but when they're played as well as they are here, I'm hardly in a position to complain.
In this case, a freak transporter mishap causes Doc's mobile emitter to malfunction. And somehow, when Seven touches it, some of her Borg nanoprobes fuse with the holo-emitter technology. A bizarre technological process spontaneously erupts, and before long, Doc's emitter is assimilated by the nanoprobes, which in turn assimilates a Voyager computer station, turning it into a Borg maturation chamber. The chamber steals a sample of an ensign's DNA, and presto—a Borg fetus. It's surprising how plausible the episode makes this techno-evolution all seem. And the episode's visual conception of this process is neat—creepy and weird, and also irresistibly intriguing. Because this new Borg is based partially upon the 29th-century technology in Doc's emitter, there's the frightening prospect that this will become a very advanced new form of Borg drone.
So what's the prudent course of action? Pull the plug? Terminate the Borg before it can become a threat? Possibly. But that certainly wouldn't be the human thing to do, and it most definitely isn't what Janeway is going to do. The plan is to allow it to develop; since it won't have access to the Borg collective, the Voyager crew can train it to adopt human values. Janeway puts Seven in charge of this endeavor.
"Drone" is a primarily Seven-oriented episode, but it utilizes the ensemble much better than a lot of single-character-heavy shows. If "Drone" and "Night" are any indication, Voyager is doing a better job of balancing the cast than last season. (But somebody please promote Harry to lieutenant, already. Now he's an ensign who's running the bridge at night, for crying out loud.)
This episode is a melding of sorts of TNG's "The Offspring" and "I, Borg," as well as Voyager's "The Gift" from last season. It's not be the first episode of its kind, but who really cares? "Drone" is entertaining from beginning to end, working on every level—evoking mystery, fear, wonder, and eventually sympathy and pain.
The most noteworthy characteristic of "Drone" is that it made me care. Sure, some aspects of the story are more or less inevitable, but that didn't hurt the show because I felt for all parties involved in the plot—particularly Seven and the drone—and I was very caught up in the flow of the story.
Part of this arises out of the sense of amazement in watching this new Borg come to life. Within a day, it fully develops from fetus to adult. When Seven activates it, the drone is like an empty shell waiting for a set of instructions and a purpose—sort of like a computer with no operating system loaded. Being a Borg, the drone is able to assimilate information easily and quickly, which the crew provides in a manner that allows him to learn at an incredible pace.
J. Paul Boehmer, who plays the Borg drone, brings a detached sense of confused curiosity to the role, which proves immensely effective. He asks questions and is genuinely interested in learning the answers, but in some cases he doesn't understand the nature of the questions he asks or the answers he receives. He's extremely innocent, and certainly doesn't understand the nature of emotions, even though he obviously has them. But he's perceptive and is quick to clue in to the fact that people are nervous around him, as shown in a scene where he asks the Doctor, "Am I unwelcome here?"
Meanwhile, Seven helps him as best she can, but proceeds with caution when the subject of the Borg arises. There's that area of doubt—the question of whether the drone will seek out the collective if he learns about it. But as Janeway rightly says to Seven, they can't hide the nature of the Borg from him forever. The parent-child bond that begins to form between Seven and the drone (who adopts the appropriate name, "One") is quietly moving, especially the scene in the cargo bay where Seven shows One that he must regenerate in a Borg alcove. "Thank you," One tells her. Seven, caught off-guard, finds she can only repeat, "We must regenerate."
What's particularly interesting given this story's situation is that One is permitted the chance to become a very human, individualized Borg, unlike the individuals who are assimilated into the Borg collective and vanish into a hive bent on consuming everything it encounters.
When the moment comes when One must learn about the Borg collective, he exclaims, "I would like to experience the hive mind." The scene doesn't play out One's exclamation for us to fear, as one might initially expect. Rather, the scene as it unfolds demonstrates how Seven and the captain try to teach him about the nature of individuality, and how the Borg collective steals such individuality away from people forever. Slowly, they get through to him; One coming to grasp what it means to be an individual is a big part of "Drone's" appeal.
There's a significant action overture here, which also works on story terms, where the Borg collective learns of this drone's presence and sends a ship to intercept Voyager and assimilate him. What this demonstrates, alas, is the danger in adopting something so complex and inherently dangerous as a Borg. Even when the situation is seemingly controlled, an unknown variable can bring about disaster (in this case, One unknowingly sends a homing signal to the Borg). Before long, the Borg are looming in front of Voyager, spouting their usual threats of assimilation. The confrontation benefits from the typically impressive effects, including a spherical CG Borg ship.
Voyager's fate ultimately hangs on a noble sacrifice on One's part, who beams himself aboard the Borg ship and, with the aid of his superior technology, is able to take control and destroy it from within. It's not so much the confrontation with the Borg ship that's important; it's One's sacrifice that hits home. Even after One miraculously survives the destruction of the Borg ship, he denies himself emergency surgery once beamed back aboard Voyager. He realizes that his existence—an accident, as he even acknowledges—will put Voyager in danger if the Borg ever learn he survived.
I was moved by One's selfless act; who would've conceived of a selfless, noble Borg individual? Equally impressive is Seven's reaction to this sacrifice—which for her is a personal loss. Jeri Ryan's performance is heartfelt and on-target, leading into a finale that has no words, but just a silent Seven staring into the mirror like she was at the story's beginning. It's very nice, allowing the moment to speak for itself rather than offering us overly obvious dialog.
This ending peers into Seven's mind. She may not be able to make a smile work yet, but Seven knows partially what it means to feel and to be human. That may not be a particularly new concept in itself, but it's the fact that we've made additional progress—a step forward—that really counts.
"Drone" epitomizes the broadest concepts of Star Trek in its most visible forms. Everything that has always made Trek so accessible and appealing—new types of alien intelligence, action and special effects, neat gadgets—can be found here. But there's also the deeper meanings, questions, and emotions—the ongoing character analysis, the broad strokes of wonder and tragedy, the contemplation upon what makes us human. "Drone" is like the perfect balance of a little of everything, and the story pulls it all off within an appealing, pleasant, and quietly exciting hour. It's one of Voyager's best moments.
Next week: And one of the longest-standing Voyager mysteries is answered—how the crew goes about making new shuttles!