Star Trek: Voyager (Season 5, Episode 2)
I love when a stupid idea works. There’s a particular thrill and amazement to seeing something that sounded totally idiotic actually succeed before your eyes. It’s like watching a daredevil do some insane stunt – “You’re going to jump over how many cars, you crazy person? That’ll never work!” Star Trek has had its share of very stupid ideas that have crashed and burned, at times spectacularly. Voyager scored low with its infamous “Threshold,” an episode that is exactly as idiotic, incredulous, and offensive to good taste as it sounds. On paper, the premise of “Drone” is even more idiotic than “Threshold,” but it lands that amazing jump, leaving you impressed and a little confounded.
I vividly recall hearing about the premise of “Drone” back before it originally aired and almost felt my eyes roll out of my head – the Doctor and Seven of Nine have a baby (also, Borg from the 29th century – ???). OK WHAT. This exact plot development was the fecal icing on the cake that capped off “Threshold,” with a warp 10-mutated Paris and Janeway giving birth to a trio of salamander babies. What saves “Drone” from the same horrific fate of “Threshold” is that the execution of its premise isn’t nearly as ridiculous as it sounds, and it builds a compelling story around one of the show’s most interesting characters (and best actors).
A nebula is about to be born near Voyager, so Seven, the Doctor, Paris, and Torres pack into a shuttle to investigate firsthand. This of course turns out to be a Very Bad Idea (ya think???), when the explosive birth sends out a surge of radiation that fries the shuttle. Voyager is barely able to beam them out, and the Doctor’s mobile emitter suffers damage in the process and needs to be repaired. Torres drops it off in the science lab and calls it a night. However, l’il Borg tendrils sprout from the emitter and begin to assimilate the console…
Seven’s transceiver (which alerts her to nearby Borg) goes off. Meanwhile, Ensign Mulchaey, this week’s
redshirt goldshirt enters the science lab to investigate and gets a couple of Borg tubules injected into his neck for his trouble. The bridge then detects power being re-routed to the science lab and a Borg forcefield in place. Tuvok and Seven lead a security team to investigate and find an unconscious Mulchaey and a Borg maturation chamber with a cybernetic fetus inside. Spine-tingling!
Turns out that the transport out of the shuttle scrambled the patterns enough so that Seven’s nanoprobes mixed in with the Doctor’s emitter. As a plot excuse to mix their technologies together, it’s decent. Transporter Accidents are responsible for about 60% of Trek plots (it’s true, don’t bother double-checking), so this is well-worn territory. It certainly could have turned out a lot more horrific – we’re potentially talking “Rascals”-levels of terror, here…
(In fact, the Borg drone is not only a “child” of the Doctor and Seven’s technology, but a third guy’s DNA. Kooky!)
You can see where this is going. It’s a storyline that has been done several times in Star Trek already. The Next Generation’s “The Offspring” featured Data “raising” an android daughter he built. TNG‘s “I Borg” had a disconnected Borg drone rediscovering its individuality and making friends aboard the Enterprise. Similarly, a Jem’Hadar infant was found by Quark and raised to young adulthood on Deep Space Nine’s “The Abandoned.” “Drone” borrows plot points and themes from all these episodes but still comes out as an entertaining and unique story in its own right. As much as Trek likes its Big Bads, it still can’t help but humanize and empathize with them, showing us that we all have the potential to be good people (well, almost all of us).
The Borg fetus grows quickly, but Janeway chooses not to terminate it. She gambles that despite its fearsome nature, it can be raised and taught to value individuality and be a useful member of the crew, much as Seven has become. Seven is skeptical, and fears its super advanced technology (based on the Doctor’s 29th century mobile emitter) could make the Borg that much more of a threat if the drone ever got into their cybernetic clutches. Undeterred, Janeway directs Seven to be their ambassador to the new drone.
Soon the drone is fully matured and emerges from its alcove. Seven tries to verbally explain his situation, but fails. Initiating a direct neural transfer, she uploads the necessary info into his brain. But he grabs her and starts to hungrily assimilate all of her knowledge until she pleads with him to terminate his connection. It isn’t until she tells him he’s hurting her that he immediately stops. It’s an oddly sweet moment and establishes that there’s an inherent emotional connection between the two.
The drone is played by none other than J. Paul Boehmer, who also portrayed the Nazi Hauptmann in “The Killing Game.” Just as he inhabited that odious role perfectly, he disappears into the makeup and costuming of the Borg drone. He portrays the drone as basically a large baby, with the appropriate physical mannerisms – he stomps around awkwardly, moves in ungraceful jerky motions, and follows Seven like a baby duck that’s imprinted on its mother. It teeters on the edge of cute and terrifying (as all children do). He can talk and understand great amounts of information, but he’s essentially a child and new to the world. It very much recalls Lal’s portrayal in “The Offspring.”
Having named himself One, the drone begins to assimilate large amounts of data Seven feeds him but seems especially curious about the Borg. Seven is hesitant to give him the full scoop, fearing that the lure of The Collective (and perfection) will pull him to them (similar to how Odo was hesitant to teach the young Jem’Hadar about his own people). She distracts him with a tour of Voyager, where his already vast knowledge and abilities proves to be useful in Engineering. Seven looks on with a faint hint of pride as One solves a problem for Torres.
Later, Seven tucks him into his alcove next to hers to regenerate, which is very cute. One thanks her, and Seven finds herself speechless in response. Ryan’s ability to emote both extremely strong and subtle feelings is incredible, and she runs the gamut here. The episode clearly intimates that their relationship is of a mother-son nature, although it thankfully doesn’t hammer it needlessly through dialogue (as other episodes have felt the need to).
But there’s trouble. While sleeping, One’s transceiver accidentally activates and a nearby Borg ship picks up the signal. It’s heading Voyager’s way, and Janeway and Seven decide it’s time to teach One about his people. Watching the Borg sizzle reel, One is fascinated but Janeway and Seven impress upon him how destructive The Collective is. They destroy not only entire civilizations, but people’s individuality. One understands that everything he has gained in his short life will be lost if the Borg possess him.
There’s barely any time for him to process this as a Borg sphere is upon them. For an unsettling moment, it appears as if the billions of voices are enthralling both One and Seven, but they quickly come to their senses. Despite One’s best efforts to modify Voyager’s weapons, they’re not able to overcome the attacking vessel. He decides the only way to stop the ship is from the inside. Seven warns they will try to assimilate him. “They will fail,” he replies boastfully (just like his mom), and beams aboard. Interfacing with the vessel, he overrides its controls and steers it into the newborn nebula where it’s crushed and destroyed.
Amazingly, One survives and is beamed to sickbay. He’s suffered extreme damage but refuses to let the Doctor operate by activating his forcefield. Having interfaced with the Borg, he understands that as long as he’s alive Voyager (and Seven) will always be in danger and chooses to self-terminate instead. Seven pleads with him to live. “You’re hurting me,” she says again, and Ryan’s delivery of the line is devastating. As older and more advanced in her humanity as Seven is compared to One, she is still something of a child herself in her emotional development, and her line tragically evokes the purity and nakedness of a child’s hurt feelings.
“You will adapt,” One says before shutting down. Ryan’s performance is remarkable as she stumbles away from the bed, literally disoriented by her pain. It’s the strongest personal connection she’s ever had to anyone since leaving the Borg, and it hits her like a ton of bricks. It’s not a surprising ending to the story, but it’s still an emotionally gutting conclusion.
Seven shuts down One’s alcove and stands in the darkness for a moment before looking into the mirror she was peering at in the beginning of the episode. She had been attempting to smile earlier, but it brought her no closer to understanding happiness. However, Seven now understands the depth of pain that’s possible from loss, which is unfortunately a part of being human.
Despite its inherent ridiculousness, “Drone” is a successful and resonant episode. The reasons why aren’t mysterious, as it relies on a compelling story, good actors, and a strong emotional core for its characters. Any weird idea can work if it’s taken seriously and done well, and sci-fi has plenty of examples of that in action. A quirky confluence of technology and plot threads gives life to One, as well as a haunting emotional rollercoaster of an episode for Voyager.
- It’s pretty weird that Mulchaey’s DNA is used as the biological basis for the Drone, but the episode quickly shuffles him out of the way once his donation is forcibly taken. Normally TV and movies are very eager to double-cast people that share any DNA whatsoever (Star Trek being no exception), but Mulchaey and One are played by different actors, which is kind of surprising. The episode goes to lengths to portray Seven and One’s relationship as akin to a mother-son’s, but certainly doesn’t involve Mulchaey in that – or the Doctor, for that matter. The inherent wackiness of this being having three legitimate parents is not dealt with at all, and could have made for a very different type of story – though given the level of discourse of 90’s Trek had where non traditional gender roles and such are concerned, that’s probably for the best
- Seven’s nanoprobes have been a plot point before, but there are many unanswered questions. They appear to be quite functional and self-sufficient, so why don’t they just re-assimilate her body? Does she have a finite supply in her body or are they being reproduced like blood cells? How come nobody else got infected with her nanoprobes during the transporter accident? Do they make apology cards for accidentally assimilating someone during a transporter malfunction? Is this thing on?
- Seven telling One he’s hurting her reminds me of Mina Murray telling Mr. Hyde the same thing in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic when he grabs her hand. Similarly, he lets her go, showing he’s not quite the inhuman monster everyone assumes him to be. Star Trek did it first!
- There are some brief but well shot battle sequences. I appreciate whenever they go to the effort of showing an unusual perspective and dynamic angles.
- It’s morbid, but the Doctor clearly gets his mobile emitter back from out of One’s head after he’s died. Oof.
- It’s brief, but the Doctor is absolutely insufferable in (sexually) harassing Torres about fixing his emitter. Like, waking her up on her day off and even video-barging into her while she’s naked in the bathroom. WTF, not cool!