Nutshell: There's not all that much to the story, but what's here is executed well.
"Infinite Regress" is a true example of high concept. From the critical view, there's a weird phenomenon about high concept: It sends the mind, if only for a brief moment, into a bizarre series of gauging stages. In the first stage, the mind suspends analysis in favor of a sense of adventure, saying to itself, "Wow, that's a really cool idea." In the second stage, the mind's skepticism retorts, "But wait a minute—that's really just a shallow gimmick." In the third stage, the mind uses reason to strike a balance between the first two thoughts, with the sentiment, "Let's wait and see how they handle this idea, because it could just as easily work as fall flat."
Okay, maybe that's just my own thought process, but you get the point. A high concept's ability to suck you in can turn out to be its own undoing because of the question: Where can the story go from its setup as pitched?
The five-words-or-less pitch for "Infinite Regress": "Borg multiple personality disorder." Okay, so now what?
Well, if you can assemble some good performances and a good director, you might have something here. At least, you'd better hope so, because there isn't all that much meat to the story ... although there's an abundance of technobabble (albeit tolerable technobabble) and plot procedures that are somewhat arbitrarily conjured.
This is an episode that could've come off as pedestrian, but thanks to the skilled David Livingston (one of my favorite Trek directors) it ends up being intriguing and at times fairly intense and haunting.
What's causing Seven to experience "Borg multiple personality disorder," you ask? The crew's investigation leads it to the debris of a destroyed Borg vessel, where they find the Borg ship's "vinculum" is still functioning. The vinculum suppresses individuality in Borg drones, regulating and organizing their thought patterns for maximum efficiency in the hive mind. It "brings order to chaos," as Janeway aptly puts it. But somehow this vinculum is transmitting a signal that is causing Seven's brain implants to malfunction and bring forward the repressed personalities of other individuals the Borg had assimilated.
The crew must now shut down the vinculum in order to solve Seven's problem. Destroying the vinculum without first initiating a proper shutdown would not be a great idea because Seven could suffer brain damage. (PC users take note: This is what happens when you don't shut down Windows before turning off your computer—you get brain damage.)
The can of worms of course is: If this vinculum had been 5,000 light-years away, and Seven couldn't escape its side effects because it "permeates subspace" (you gotta love those tech rationales!), she would essentially be screwed. I can't see Janeway following a signal for five years to cure Seven of multiple personality disorder. But never mind; I'm reaching here. My point is simply that any plot device that alleges the ability to affect something half a galaxy away makes me somewhat uneasy.
"Infinite Regress" is primarily plot-driven. As such, there are some well-played ideas here to go along with the dubious ones. For example, I liked the subtle exchange where Janeway reluctantly agrees to bring the vinculum on board the ship so Seven can deactivate it. Janeway's skepticism is appropriate: Not only is there the "Trojan horse" issue, but one would think something as important-sounding as a "vinculum" might draw further Borg attention—and, personally, I wouldn't want to be caught dead with it when they came looking.
Naturally, the crew's attempts to shut down the vinculum are complicated by the fact that some nearby aliens had intentionally corrupted it with a virus designed to spread through the Borg collective and wreak havoc on as many Borg ships as possible. These aliens, listed in Seven's Borg database as Species 6339 (we never learn what they call themselves), want the vinculum back, because it is a Trojan horse—and they want the Borg to re-assimilate it. It's their retaliation for the bulk of their society being assimilated four years ago. (As a side note, it's an episode like this, among other Voyager offerings, that makes me wonder how it is the Borg decide whom they're going to attack and when.)
These aliens provide an understandable, but all-too-routine conflict. Their captain, Ven (Neil Maffin), is at least is willing to talk to Janeway, but when she refuses to turn over the vinculum to them until Torres can disable it, Ven opts to attempt taking it by force. This leads to the requisite battle sequence, etc. Although these aliens are provided with just enough motivation to avoid falling into the usual Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week paradigm, I couldn't help but think there was a more inventive way the writers could've handled this.
But forget all this, because it's not what makes "Infinite Regress" work (which doesn't say much about my ability to write in inverted pyramid style). This episode's selling point is its high concept implications—Seven exhibiting multiple personalities.
I would imagine such a device would be a lot of fun for an actor. Here, Jeri Ryan gets to show a much more diverse range, as buried personalities hijack control of Seven's mind, making her act out the parts of a lustful Klingon, a greedy Ferengi, a logical Vulcan, playful and scared children, a terrified Starfleet officer looking for a loved one who was supposed to rendezvous with her at Wolf 359 (oops), and so forth. "Infinite Regress" walks the line between compelling chaos and outright excess, but Livingston and Ryan keep the story on track.
A lot of this is interesting to watch simply because it's so un-Seven-like. There's one scene where a 6-year-old personality emerges and plays a game with little Naomi Wildman (a character who is starting to grow on me). Jeri Ryan dives head-first into the role in a way that, in another actor's hands, could've made the whole idea look silly, but here works well. Other characters, like the Klingon personality who tries to (ahem) jump Torres in engineering, highlight Ryan sporting a confidence that strikes me as refreshing: She's going all the way out there whether it ultimately works or not. And for me, it worked. Even if it didn't work, she'd still get an A for effort.
The final act, in which Tuvok mind melds with Seven to keep her individuality from disappearing into nothingness while Torres attempts to take the vinculum off-line is an exercise in blurringly fast-paced, pure technique. There's an interesting metaphor used to show the struggle inside Seven's mind, as we see Tuvok trying to find Seven on a Borg ship, while all of the other people in Seven's mind shout and get in his way. The way this is shot is eerie and intense; I thought it worked very well. In particular, the little girl screaming for help was effective and unsettling. The extreme cinematic chaos utilized in this sequence effectively conveys the chaos in Seven's mind. Meanwhile, chaos breaks loose on Voyager as the 6339s open fire.
Sporting hyperactive camera movements and even one noticeable jump cut (Livingston betrays his secretly repressed desire to direct an episode of Homicide), the final act pushes the envelope in a way that borders on excess—as we cross-cut between the 6339s' attack on Voyager, the battle inside Seven's mind, and Torres' frantic attempt to disable the vinculum. Livingston pushes almost too hard, but I still liked the net result.
If this episode is truly about anything substantive on a character level, it's that Seven has reached a point of no return in her evolution. She can no longer bear the voices that she once needed to survive as a part of the collective. Instead, she has come to appreciate her social ties. She is grateful to the crew for risking themselves to help her. And at the end she reaches out to Naomi, whom we suspect reminds Seven of something she herself never completed—her childhood. The story doesn't analyze these themes in any deep or groundbreaking way, but what's here is pleasant.
"Infinite Regress" is a superior example of an episode in the spirit of stories like "One" and "The Raven," which all fall into their own Voyager genre: Borg psychological thrillers. I liked it. It has energy and a strangely appealing impudence. It shoots for the moon at times, but, hey—if it works, it works.
Next week: Torres bonds with an alien—literally—requiring treatment from a Cardassian hologram. (Say what?)