Star Trek: Voyager (Season 3, Episode 26 & Season 4, Episode 1)
The Borg were a creation of The Next Generation and one of its most enduring legacies, as well as one of the most notable villains of all sci-fi. The appeal of the Borg as antagonists seems to fly in the face of the rules for good drama and good villains – by their nature they have no personality, they aren’t even comprised of notable individuals, they’re ridiculously and impossibly powerful, so much so that it’s difficult to even construct stories around them. But ultimately, all of those aspects make them terrifying, intractable, and memorable foes.
In all these ways and more, the Borg are very similar to another legendary, mechanical pop culture adversary – the Terminator. They don’t stop. They don’t get tired. They can’t be reasoned with or negotiated with. They shrug off whatever you can throw at them. The “Scorpion” two-parter was such an amazing and transfixing story when it aired because of its enticing, deadly simple premise – what happens when the Terminator gets out-Terminated? (Coincidentally, this was the literal premise of Terminator 2, one of my favorite movies)
The most impressive feat that “Scorpion” accomplishes is that it finds a new angle on the Borg to fit them into the story. Yes, the Borg do not ever negotiate with anyone… but what if they did? What if they were so overwhelmed by the appearance of an insanely stronger opponent that they would abandon their regular credo and accept help? Up until this point, the Borg had been such a static and monolithic force – unchanging and completely inflexible. “Scorpion” succeeds because it shakes up this status quo in an exciting and believable way. It represents Star Trek: Voyager firing on all cylinders both as an installment of the Trek franchise, and as a standalone show having found its footing.
The said shaking of status quo “Scorpion” accomplishes isn’t just contained to the Borg, but to the main cast with the addition of one of its most important characters, Seven of Nine. The backstage details and vagaries concerning this new character are thorny and very complex (as is the presentation of her after she is de-Borged). Suffice it to say, Seven (and Jeri Ryan) was an overall boon to the series and one of the most fortuitous decisions the producers made.
The cold open of the first part is one of the best and briefest of a Trek episode and communicates its entire premise explosively. A couple Borg cubes are closing in on an unseen ship, giving it their standard spiel about existence being over with, assimilation, yada yada. Before they can even finish their turbolift pitch, both cubes are promptly blown to shit by the unseen adversary. Wow! Lest we forget, just one of these titanic vessels almost conquered the Federation in “Best of Both Worlds.”
The appearance of the Borg in Voyager was not a shock, as they had been teased in several episodes during the latter half of Season 3. But this is their first reveal in full force, and as much as the crew has been preparing for it, what can you really do before meeting what is essentially the Grim Reaper in space? It’s a mental/head space you need to get in, more than anything.
A probe the ship sent out a while back alerts them to the presence of the Borg (and vice versa), and it appears that Voyager is headed directly into the heart of their expansive territory. Fortunately, there seems to be a convenient path through their space apparently clear of any Borg vessels, so the ship heads there. The fireworks happen not long after, when not one, or two, but fifteen Borg vessels rush past Voyager. That’s of course terrifying, but what’s even scarier is that they barely even pay the ship any mind, as if they have bigger fish to fry. Shortly thereafter, a massive battle leaves all those cubes totally wrecked. And also, Kes has been getting telepathic visions of mutilated Borg corpses and the destruction of Voyager. Spine-tingling!
The crew find a small alien ship docked to a piece of one of those wrecked Borg ships and beam aboard to investigate, where they meet the new Bigger Bad. Designated Species 8472 by the Borg, the new alien race is interesting from a conceptual standpoint, and thematically they stand as a dramatic counterpoint to the mechanical cyborgs. They are organic, like extremely organic – possessing a DNA density 100 times greater than any known lifeform (I don’t think that’s how DNA works, but whatever). Similarly, their ships are bio-organic in nature and though small, possess an absolutely terrifying amount of raw power. The aliens are also like eight feet tall, three-legged, telepathic, biologically resistant to assimilation, and can infect anyone with their own form of assimilation that consumes them alive (as one does to poor Harry Kim).
We also find out that they’re from a parallel universe/realm that’s not even space – it’s fluid matter (again, not sure how that would even work, but it’s definitely something new). They’re essentially the apex of organic life and they absolutely hate all other life for being inferior. The cold impassiveness of the Borg makes them scary, but the aggressive hatred and racial superiority exhibited by 8472 is undoubtedly worse. And according to Kes, they seem gleefully willing to exterminate all that is in their view.
Conceptually, it’s all strong stuff. The visual execution of the aliens is… OK, considering the technology of the time. It’s not the first time that Voyager has featured a CG alien (“Macrocosm,” with the overgrown viruses running amok on the ship). But beyond the SFX used to bring them to life, the design of 8472 leaves a little to be desired for me. The eyes are cool and appropriately evil-looking (I like the four-pronged irises), but their bodies look a little too spindly (especially their weird necks) and not quite threatening enough. They’re a little centaur-ish, which doesn’t exactly inspire terror. Plus the glimpses we get are much too fleeting to get a good look (especially back when it first aired in SD and long before streaming). Still, the effort and ambitiousness is appreciated.
But the real kicker of this new threat: that strip of Borg-free space? Species 8472 central! It leads to some good interpersonal conflict between Janeway and Chakotay. There was a very minimal amount of tension between the two initially in the series that was sidelined pretty quickly (and there was even that episode that implied there was some attraction between them). This is the first and biggest headbutting between the two, because they find themselves diametrically opposed on how to handle things.
Each’s viewpoint relates to their characters’ natures. Chakotay thinks the best course of action between facing two aggressive and colossally powerful entities with expansive territories is to find an out-of-the-way planet and hunker down. It fits with the tendencies of an armed resistance leader – he’s used to not fighting the enemy head-on, but rather slipping past them and being crafty about protecting their few numbers. Janeway is headstrong and determined, as any good Starfleet captain is, bolstered by her obsessive duty to get her crew home. Unwilling/unable to accept surrender, she decides on a new strategy…
Believing that the Doctor’s strategy of using Borg nanoprobes to cure Kim of his infection can be scaled up into a large scale weapon against Species 8472, she proposes negotiating with the Borg to give them this technology in exchange for safe passage through their space. It’s a bold and even crazy plan, but Janeway lays out the particulars in a believable way and the senior staff accepts it. Except…
Chakotay brings up some sound and decent points – what if it doesn’t work, we’re helping the Borg assimilate yet another species, etc. And of course, being Chakotay, he brings up Aesop’s fable of the Scorpion and the Frog (but changed to a fox for some reason) to illustrate the Borg’s inherently untrustworthy nature. The conflict between these two characters foregrounds the titanic clash of powers happening outside the ship in a compelling way. It’s good drama, because there’s really no compromise between their positions, and Chakotay’s position is saner. But Janeway’s is more exciting, so…
They proceed to the nearest Borg-infested planet and are met with the expected greetings of life-ending assimilation. BUT! Janeway states her case, shows them the preliminary research they’ve done, and amazingly, she gets beamed over to one of the cubes to talk. Crazy! Before they can get much worked out, a squadron of 8472 ships appear and one-up themselves on being monstrously powerful by easily destroying the entire planet. The surviving Borg ship tractors Voyager away from the fray in a seemingly protective gesture.
It’s one of the best cliffhangers of the entire franchise – I remember the instant angst and turmoil I felt watching it as it aired, knowing it would be an entire summer before I found out what happened next! It completely upends the expectations of Trek‘s most powerful villain in a believable manner and does what every good episode does – leaves us thirsting for what happens next and believing that literally anything could happen. Combined with the perfect episode beginning and strong material in between, it’s a tour-de-force Voyager episode that’s smartly written, conceived, and executed with thrilling excitement.
If there’s one thing we can expect from Trek, it’s that two-parters inevitably stumble in their second halves. And in that respect, “Scorpion II” doesn’t disappoint… in that it’s kind of disappointing (that makes sense). It’s not a bad episode at all, and expecting it to live up to the first part is a huge ask. There’s a lot that also happens in this episode, but it doesn’t have the same propulsive, confident energy of the previous.
The biggest, lasting thing “Scorpion II” gives us is of course the introduction of Seven of Nine. In order to work with the Borg on developing a weapon, Janeway requests that a single drone act as an interface (citing the example of Picard-Locutus). We are introduced to Seven, a brusque and aggressive drone who begins to work with Janeway and Tuvok to create the nanoprobe weapon. Rather than being cold and robotic, Ryan gives an intimidating and ruthless quality to Seven that drips with superiority and contempt for everyone around her. She perhaps has a little too much personality for a drone, but Ryan is fun enough to watch that it doesn’t matter much.
Before long, the Borg ship and Voyager are attacked by an 8472 bioship; it effectively gives us the impression of how aggressive and everywhere these fuckers are – nowhere is safe! The cube is able to destroy itself and the alien ship while transporting, Janeway, Tuvok, Seven, and a small contingent of drones aboard Voyager. Janeway is injured during the attack, and the Doctor has to put her into a coma to repair the damage. In an emotional but unintentionally funny performance (she’s normally a good actor, but…), Janeway begs Chakotay to make the Borg deal work and get the crew home.
The main issue with the episode is in how it handles the excellent Janeway-Chakotay conflict part one introduced. The story sidelines Janeway to give Chakotay an opportunity to betray her/go back on his promise. Seven informs Chakotay that the war between the Borg and Species 8472 is going very badly and that they need to change course and head deeper into Borg territory to complete the weapon. Chakotay’s response is predictably “fuck that,” and decides to drop all the Borg off on some planet and take their chances.
“Scorpion I” goes to the trouble of illustrating how unwinnable the ship’s situation is (and thus showing how the deal with the devil is the only way out), but “Scorpion II” is basically, “ah well, maybe not? who knows.” I mean, you’ve got thousands of Borg ships on one side, and who knows how many way worse 8472 ships on the other. Both of these sides have never met anyone whose shit they didn’t immediately want to fuck up, and there’s tens of thousands of light years of that stretching out in front of Voyager. If we’re not doing the deal with Borg anymore, what are we doing, Chakotay?
Not surprisingly, Seven decides to commandeer Voyager, and Chakotay promptly blows all her drones out into space. But she’s able to control the ship enough to create one of the 8472 portals and draw them into their fluidic space realm. Chakotay realizes that the Borg know about this place because they were the ones that invaded it first. They started the war by looking into new places to assimilate but walked into the wrong extra-dimensional room when they found someone much stronger than them. It’s a plot wrinkle that re-confirms everything we know about the Borg to be true while softening the extent of Chakotay’s betrayal to Janeway.
Speaking of, she’s awake now and not happy (but surprisingly alert, dressed, and with hair on point for having just gotten out of a coma). Chakotay deliberately going against her wishes while she was incapacitated really seems like it should be a bigger deal than it’s treated here. Their conflict just sorta resolves itself, and not a moment too soon, because the bioships are on their way.
Chakotay is seemingly relieved of duty, Species 8472 attacks, and Voyager somehow lasts long enough to fire off some of their nanoprobe torpedoes. They eventually work, 8472 retreats, and the ship is able to return to normal space. Shockingly, Seven betrays Janeway and tries to assimilate the ship. But Chakotay, using the neural interface he received last season from a rogue group of ex-Borg, gets into Seven’s head, and they overload her shit with a something pulse. Like putting too much air into a balloon! The End.
Deep Space Nine’s “Way of the Warrior” was an epic two-parter that kicked off that show’s fourth season. In many ways it served as a second pilot to restart the show with a new conflict, a big new character, and a renewed sense of purpose. Structurally, it marks a major turning point in the series, and in fact almost seems like a different show. “Scorpion” very much feels the same way and performs the same function for Voyager. It’s a soft reboot that introduces a new character that would very much grow to dominate the rest of the series.
Voyager would go on to feature the Borg as recurring antagonists and would get many more stories out of them than The Next Generation ever did, for better or for worse. Opinions on this development are mixed to say the least, but it’s hard to deny that taken on its own, the “Scorpion” two-parter represents some exciting and well-done lightning in a bottle. It mixes large scale, galactic (and extradimensional) action, finds a new dimension on and old foe while introducing a scary new one, and provides interpersonal stakes between the characters and adds a compelling new one into the mix. It’s Star Trek: Voyager utilizing its premise and qualities to full effect and stands as one of the series’ best installments.
- On the topic of Seven:
While the addition of Seven of Nine/Jeri Ryan was a win for the show, it does come with some major asterisks. The impetus of adding a hot babe was a well-publicized thing at the time, which is of course gross. Fortunately, they hired an amazing actor, and the depth of Ryan’s performance throughout the rest of the show is impressive and makes it extremely watchable; she always hits it out of the park. Unfortunately, they would present her in a conspicuously sexy catsuit so tight that Ryan reportedly had trouble breathing in (and the show wastes absolutely no time in transforming her from a Borg drone to an attractive human woman). As great a character as Seven is written and acted, the blatant sexism is always up there on the screen and difficult to forget.
Furthermore, the arrival of Seven coincides with the removal of Kes, just as she’s becoming interesting (and very powerful). It’s unfortunate that the show essentially swaps one woman out for another, since I guess we can’t have too many? Especially on a show where the lead is a woman.
Additionally, the backstage drama between Mulgrew and Ryan is widely known. Mulgrew was reportedly not happy with this new addition and was not nice to her new co-star. Knowing that, it’s kind of hard to watch their scenes together.
Seven’s presence also sidelines a lot of the other characters, and so much of the series feels like “Janeway, Seven, and Everyone Else.” Granted, she is a great character and she opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities, but the focus on Them Two feels unbalanced at times. It seems like the producers were trying to re-create the Picard/Data dynamic with Janeway taking Seven under her wing and teaching her the finer points of humanity/individuality. It feels forced a lot of the time, and again, the real life dynamic between Mulgrew and Ryan makes it not great.
- It bears repeating: it really is a shame Kes was gone by the next episode. Like, she’s never more useful and integral to the plot as she is in “Scorpion,” and then she’s immediately gone!
- The music is really great here, and I like the Species 8472 theme. It’s appropriately foreboding and memorable.
- The planet destroying sequence at the end of part one is really spectacular. I love the molten planetary debris raining onto the Borg ship. The SFX team really swung for the fences with these two episodes.
- There’s some good body horror gore, especially the pile of mutilated Borg corpses.
- Surprisingly, we never actually get a name for 8472. By the end of their introduction here they’re effectively Nerfed and they’ll appear a couple more times in the series before being sidelined completely. It’s a bit anti-climactic given their bold introduction here.
- The episode introduces the recurring character of holographic Leonardo da Vinci, played by the great John Rhys-Davies. As silly holo-characters go, you could do a lot worse. I really liked the nighttime scene of him being transfixed by the shadows on the wall. Worlds being created and destroyed in his imagination. It’s some good writing and acting, and as a creative person, I always intensely related to it – spacing out, letting your mind wander, and all the crazy ideas that can result.