Nutshell: A very nicely acted hour, though I'm not so sure aspects of the twist ending are completely fair to the viewer.
"Child's Play" is a well-acted study of characters who find themselves in emotionally difficult situations and have to make tough choices. For a long time, the story seems like one of the most fairly and even-handedly developed sci-fi child-custody issues that could possibly have been conceived given the setup material. But there's a twist ending that exists to give the episode some action zip and additional plotting intrigue. The twist ultimately works in story terms, but it somewhat undermines some of the earlier drama. After watching characters who ring so true given their apparent motivations, it's a bit frustrating to see that half their heartfelt dialog turns out to be laced with lies and deception.
The episode centers on (who else?) Seven of Nine, who has been successful in helping the Borg children adjust to life on Voyager. But her attachment could be nearing the end for the oldest of the children, Icheb; the crew has located the boy's parents, and they have set course to return him to his homeworld, Brunali.
Brunali is located right next to the exit of a Borg transwarp conduit. "Not exactly prime real estate," Paris notes in his typical metaphorical one-liner fashion. The Brunali comprise a primarily agrarian culture that has suffered numerous attacks by its Borg neighbors. The Borg usually leave the Brunali alone—unless they detect technology that's of enough interest to them. The Brunali therefore do everything they can to maintain a low profile and keep any advanced technology under wraps. Why don't they relocate?, Seven asks. Because home is home, and the Brunali won't be bullied by the Borg.
Icheb's parents, Yifay (Tracey Ellis) and Leucon (Mark A. Sheppard) are portrayed as understanding people. There's no forced conflict here. Yes, they certainly want their son back, but they're not made to be unreasonable forces against Seven, which is a good thing. They're characters who are not scripted unfairly, and the guest performances are on par.
"Child's Play" is the sort of basic story that for a long time doesn't have much plotting but instead simply and slowly analyzes a situation with its characters. Scenes exist to reveal attitudes and gradual understanding through sensible dialog that fits the situation. The story takes a simple problem and cranks it through various details that grow naturally from what's going on, as Icheb starts out wanting nothing to do with his parents, then gradually becomes open to the idea of returning home to live with them.
There's really no reason to describe these scenes in great detail. My analysis of most of the episode simply comes down to, "Yeah, that's a sensibly written scene." I'll also point out that the performances are right on target. I'm trying to remember the last time I criticized a Jeri Ryan performance, and I'm not sure if I even have. I won't be here, either; Ryan is once again the key to making us believe in the problem at hand. Seven has a lot of emotions at stake here, and we can see that she truly wants what's best for Icheb, while we also see that it pains her to send him back with parents that even to Icheb are strangers. Manu Intiraymi works well as Icheb in these scenes, taking the less-is-more approach of Borgish rendition. (There are, of course, also the typically solid Janeway/Seven discussions.)
I also liked the way this episode tied Seven's dilemma into her past involving her own parents. Part of Seven's skepticism concerning Icheb's parents boils down to the fact that she understands his needs as a liberated Borg better than his parents possibly can, and that his options on Voyager will better allow him to exploit his talents and interests in space travel. But there's also her worry of parental irresponsibility. Seven fears Icheb will be reassimilated if the Borg come visiting the Brunali world again, and the Brunali's determination for staying on the planet seems at odds with Icheb's well-being. Seven notes a connection here with her own parents' recklessness in chasing after Borg cubes. The situation hits her close to home. It's a character-history point that makes a great deal of sense.
As I already mentioned, "Child's Play" features a plot twist that the writers cleverly launch upon us near the end of the fourth act. It involves Icheb's parents turning out to have hidden motives, on the account that Icheb was really a bio-engineered weapon who was genetically altered at birth to develop a pathogen that would infect the Borg. His assimilation was intentional, and Icheb's parents plan to "deploy" him again, launching him toward the transwarp conduit in a ship designed to attract Borg attention.
Once Seven and the captain figure out what's really going on, we get an action premise where Voyager must rescue Icheb before the Borg capture him. Structurally, this is kind of weird, because we have a slow-moving hour for most of the way, and then suddenly we get what I'm opting to call the weekly Voyager Action Insert—the mandatory isolated action sequence that exists in the final act of so many episodes simply because the creators believe viewers will not tolerate an action-free show. (And preferably, something in the Action Insert needs to get blown up.) Hey, I have nothing against explosions, and I even think the blown-up Borg sphere here manages to work on its given terms (and is executed with some vigor). But I also feel a bit iffy about the fact that such sincere material (Icheb's parents coaxing him to return home) is instantly turned on its head into something so sinister. Within barely two minutes of screen time, we go from a story about one child to a story about defending a planet from Borg by using one child as a time bomb. That's not a huge problem given the way it all plays out, but it doesn't exactly seem like the story we started with.
The episode depicts the parents as people who are acting in the interests of a greater good—the protection of their planet from the Borg—but one wonders exactly how this plan is supposed to work given the way "Collective" resulted in the destruction of only one ship, left abandoned. Speaking of, the way this episode ties in with "Collective" is interesting, and shows that the writers might actually have been thinking a few shows ahead (!) when they wrote it.
But what really carries the show are the Seven/Icheb scenes and the emotional undercurrents. The final scene does a good job of reflecting on the actions of Icheb's parents. Seven calls those actions "barbaric," but Icheb's response isn't to wonder whether he can forgive his parents, but whether they can forgive him for failing to become the weapon he was intended to be.
The questions here, I think, look at this boy's odd place in life. Was Icheb's purpose preordained, and was being rescued by Voyager providing him a second chance to live a real life? If his original purpose in life was to destroy Borg, was he led astray by a combination of fate and Voyager's actions? Or was he freed from an enslaved existence supplied to him by his parents? Does defending a planet make it right to preprogram a life as a pathogen-carrying future Borg drone? The humane answer would be an obvious "no," but where does morality end and desperation to address a greater good take over?
Obviously, parents aren't always right and children aren't in the position to make the best decisions for themselves. Fortunately, Icheb now has Seven looking out for him, and her perspectives have a great deal of human reason. But Icheb's parents didn't have a son; they had living, breathing time bomb that they raised as a son. That's pretty meaty stuff. Funny, how it all comes to light in the last 10 minutes, while the first 50 exist in a world so much simpler.
Next week: Some members of the lower ranks go on an adventure with the captain.