Nutshell: A nicely characterized example of people making tough decisions induced by bizarre sci-fi circumstances.
"Survival Instinct" is a relatively quiet character show whose themes are sensible, well-written, often intriguing, and, shall we say, quite firmly established in previous Voyager lore. This latest entry into Seven's backstory has some new and interesting nuances. It doesn't bring huge new insights along with it, but it does provide for a good hour-long story with some tough, emotional choices.
The script, as those who keep up with behind-the-scenes news might know, is the first and only Voyager script written by DS9 alum Ron Moore, whose departure this summer from the Voyager staff during the production stages of these first few episodes came under ominous and undeniably unfortunate circumstances. Too bad—this script highlights Moore's ability to find the characters' voices. I would've looked forward to more Voyager stories from him.
Anyway, no lamenting allowed; the task at hand is scrutiny of the latest offering that dissects the Borg collective. Contrary to those UPN trailers, which we can count on to be trite, over-sensationalized, and in this case just flat-out inaccurate, "Survival Instinct" is not about the Borg being back or Seven rejoining the collective. The story utilizes the Borg as concepts, certainly, but it is not a rehash of "Dark Frontier." The only Borg we see in this episode are confined to flashbacks sequences.
The story begins with at least one fresh breath of air: the notion that Voyager has run into what looks like—gasp!—a melding of civil societies. The ship has docked at a massive space station populated by—gasp!—friendly non-xenophobes who are actually interested in a civil exchange of culture and ideas. I was surprised at how fresh this seemed. The episode is cast with dozens of extras that fill the ship's corridors. Janeway's ready room is crammed with gifts and junk she has received from these visitors. The whole notion feels upbeat. It's a great idea simply on the psychological level: For once the Delta Quadrant doesn't feel so barren and lonely. This is an idea that deserves to be the spotlight of an entire show, or several. Although ... I must say I was somewhat disappointed in Tuvok's cranky lack of patience through this cultural exchange. All he can worry about is potential security problems and, apparently, the disturbance of his schedules. (C'mon, where's that Vulcan IDIC philosophy?)
Among the visitors to Voyager are three people (Vaughn Armstrong, Berlita Damas, Tim Kelleher) who, we learn, have something to hide. They want something from Seven of Nine. The story reveals that they maintain a constant telepathic link with one another, which they use to help circumvent security and hack into Seven's brain while she's regenerating.
Upon failing and being caught by security, they are forced to come clean about their objective: They are former Borg drones who have been recently freed from the collective. Unfortunately, they remain connected to each other in a way that prevents them from becoming individuals. They're a triad joined together at the parietal lobe. They constantly hear one other's thoughts, dream one other's dreams, and finish one other's sentences when speaking. How they can even function without a larger collective to assert control over them constitutes some sort of miracle. They're not sure how or why this triadic link was created in the first place, but they're sure Seven is the key to the mystery.
Of course, the nitpicker might wonder exactly how powerful this ability is, and ask why these three don't go in separate directions and see if their (supposedly biological) connection maintains its link. I'd be impressed by any organic brain with an amplifier that can transmit across light-years of space. Maybe the telepathy "permeates subspace"—cf. the Borg vinculum that was giving Seven multiple personalities last year in "Infinite Regress"—and distance is irrelevant. Hey, whatever. I'll play along if the implications are as interesting to ponder as they prove to be here.
Subsequently, Seven and Doc use weird Borgish nanoprobes, scans, etc., to join the triad into Seven's brain in an attempt to piece together Seven's memory lapses, wherein lie the clues to the triad's current problem.
As "Survival Instinct" unfolds, these scenes are intercut with a flashback narrative that documents an event from eight years earlier, when Seven and these other three Borg drones—who were all members of the same Borg unimatrix which had been aboard a scout ship that crashed—found themselves disconnected from the collective. Perhaps the episode's most poignant moments are the flashback scenes where we see these frightened drones' individual memories beginning to resurface. They're confused, yet slowly becoming aware of who they once were; the actors play them like robots waking up from a dream, with broken speech patterns and subtly percolating emotions emerging.
And they do not want to return to the collective. They realize they've been mutilated and abducted from their own identities, and now they plan to resist. The interesting exception is Seven. Having been assimilated as a child, individuality was a concept she never completely understood, and taking control of her actions is the titular "survival instinct," which tells her that death is likely, and returning to that which she has known longer than anything—the collective—is her best option. She plays the actions of a "good little Borg"—not out of duty or philosophy, but out of fear of the unknown.
Seven uses her nanoprobes to force the three other drones into a single-network triad collective that obeys Borg protocol. The result left them joined together permanently, even after being reassimilated by and later freed from the Borg. (All this stuff about nanoprobes and mental transceivers can be jargon-packed, but I suppose it's believable enough; it's sci-fi with plenty of "sci" and plenty of "fi.")
Back in the present, there's a malfunction in the mind-linking process that disables the triad and leaves them in a less-than-ideal situation: The triadic link has been destroyed, and they can't survive longer than a few weeks without it. Their only hope for survival in returning to the collective, where, if assimilated, they could live out "normal lives" as drones.
This brings about the episode's big central decision. Should Seven let these three live for a month as truly free individuals, or a "normal" life-span as drones? With the triad unconscious and the procedure irreversible once performed, the choice must be made for them.
The choice seems clear—Seven sent them back to the collective against their will once, and she wouldn't think of doing it again. There's a standout Trekkian dialog scene between Doc and Seven that scrutinizes Seven's motives. Doc asks if perhaps she's motivated by guilt to free them, even if it means their certain deaths. Seven responds with a speech about individuality, highlighting her unique perspective on the matter—as well as Doc's own unique perspective as a preprogrammed artificial lifeform—that says much about them both becoming "more than drones." This is good use of characters; only the combination of Seven and Doc would allow a scene like this to shine, because of their unique friendship and because of what they are.
(If I may digress, I must add that given Seven's attitude toward the collective in this episode, it seems particularly stupidly ironic that the UPN trailers would lift from an old episode a line where Seven says, "I will return to the collective.")
The scene after Seven makes this decision also has some resonance, showing that these three are grateful they have been released—but also showing that this quasi-redemption for Seven does not automatically bring about forgiveness from all.
In more trivial away-from-the-main-story matters, I see that even Moore can't make Harry into anything more than Our Lovable Goof, Harry. While in general I got a mild amount of amusement out of the scene where Tom and Harry are called into Janeway's ready room to answer for disturbing the peace on the space station (they were partially responsible for starting a melee), any scene that ends with Harry saying "We kicked their asses"—except of course substituting "rackets" for "asses" based on dialog setup tricks that I won't even bother to explain—is a scene that ranks extremely high on the Harry chump-o-meter. (I'll tell you what—I'd sure like to kick Harry's ... "racket.") I don't mean to Harbor Harry Hatred™, but will I ever be able to take this guy seriously again?
Anyway. "Survival Instinct" is a definite winner. I think I'll put this in the upper ranks of three stars. Since Seven has come onto this series we've seen a lot of stories with similar themes concerning individuality ("The Raven," "One," "Drone," "Infinite Regress," "Dark Frontier," possibly others). This is one of the better-done examples (although not quite on the level of "Drone"), but it doesn't venture all that far off the previously explored path.
Next week: B'Elanna goes through hell and back.