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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Unimatrix Zero"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager s season finale, Unimatrix Zero. Nutshell: A reasonably engaging hour of sci-fi, as long as
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2000
      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for Voyager's season
      finale, "Unimatrix Zero."

      Nutshell: A reasonably engaging hour of sci-fi, as long as you accept that
      setup often substitutes for story.

      Plot description: Seven of Nine is contacted by Borg drones who have the
      ability to exist in a virtual realm that gives them freedom as individuals.

      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Unimatrix Zero"

      Airdate: 5/24/2000 (USA)
      Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
      Story by Mike Sussman
      Directed by Allan Kroeker

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      Rating out of 4: ***

      "We'll see you soon, Harry." -- Borg Queen, ominous unresolved mystery

      A show of hands: Who thinks season-ending cliffhangers are gratuitous?

      Oddly, the first season-ending TV cliffhanger I clearly remember is TNG's
      famous "The Best of Both Worlds." I was 14 years old and at a point where I
      was paying closer attention to TV as an avenue for storytelling. I was less
      cynical concerning plot devices (I wasn't a critic and didn't think in those
      terms then) and probably more open to possibilities. I had no idea how "Best
      of Both Worlds" would be resolved; it was one long summer. Would Picard die?
      Would Earth be attacked by the Borg? I really wondered. Maybe I was simply
      more naive and impressionable then. Maybe it's just that the cliffhanger was
      simply a lot better. Hard to say. Of course, it was probably also helpful
      that there wasn't the Web as we now know it to bombard us with spoilers. Or
      trailers that gave away half the surprises.

      Ever since that TV season in 1990, I've been abundantly aware of cliffhanger
      after cliffhanger after cliffhanger. On all shows. Even lame sitcoms, for
      crying out loud, where suspense and caring about the characters is contrary
      to the point. It was probably that way long before 1990, but from my point
      of view, it started with "Best of Both Worlds," which will never, ever be
      topped (DS9's "Call to Arms" and Homicide's "Work Related" come closest, but
      no cigar). One just can't go back.

      But anyway. "Unimatrix Zero." Like "Equinox" last year, it's pretty hard to
      critique half a story. Like most cliffhangers, it's all setup and no payoff.
      And unlike "Scorpion" from three years back, the presence of the Borg is not
      even close to a novelty value. Since "Scorpion," thanks to the presence of
      Seven of Nine, we've probably had close to a dozen stories about the Borg,
      and more if you count the indirect examples. The Borg have been part of Trek
      milieu for 11 years now. How long can the cow be milked before it dies?

      Well, in the case of the Borg, I'll accept them as storytelling devices so
      long as what they represent continues to evolve and remain interesting, even
      if by definition we can never go back. The Borg were once awesome villains,
      whereas now they're cool but not nearly as compelling. They've changed. A
      lot. They used to be one mind. Now they seem less like one huge mind and
      more like an entity controlled by an individual villain leader.

      It's just as well that the Borg have changed. Like I said, one can't go
      back, and that also goes for the writers. They must go forward, and forward
      is in changing the Borg into something other than what they were. Is it as
      interesting? Maybe not, but it's either that or abandon the Borg completely
      (which might not be such a bad idea).

      The new spin here is a high-concept masterstroke: "Seven is contacted in
      Borg cyberspace by drones who have created a virtual reality where they can
      exist as individuals." It's like "The Matrix," except kind of in reverse,
      and with an outdoor natural setting rather than a mysteriously generic city
      with Chicago street names.

      The drones who can exist in this version of the Matrix, which is known here
      officially as Unimatrix Zero, are very rare (one in every million).
      Something about their brains allows their imaginations to drift away from
      the collective whenever they regenerate. Through the Borg hive link, these
      drones have found a common place where they exist and interact while they
      sleep--a virtual sanctuary. This virtual world exists completely apart from
      the real world. When they're awake, they're ordinary drones with no
      knowledge or memory of their virtual sanctuary. The central problem is that
      the rest of the Borg consciousness has recently become aware of this
      "defective" subset in the collective, and the Borg Queen (Susanna Thompson
      reprising the role) is determined to snuff it out. It's indeed a very clever
      story concept.

      This of course all involves Seven in a very central way. It turns out that
      before her liberation from the collective, she was one of the 0.0001% of
      drones (gee, how convenient!) who exhibited this condition and existed in
      VR. She lived this virtual life for 18 years, and even had a VR lover for
      six years, Axum (Mark Deakins), who is the one who now contacts her asking
      for help.

      Quick statistics lesson. The "one in a million" notion is a bit of a stretch
      given who all we see in UM-Zero. The chances of Seven and another human (the
      one here who was assimilated at Wolf 359, which itself is still a mystery
      that hasn't been explicitly solved) both having the UM-Zero defect would
      mean the odds would require about 2 million humans having first been
      assimilated, wouldn't it? The Klingon character's presence would mean,
      statistically, about 1 million Klingons would've needed to be assimilated.
      This all seems somewhat of a probability stretch. Maybe races that we as
      viewers know about have a higher likelihood of carrying the defect. Yeah,
      that's the ticket. But never mind--it's only a story. Nitpick I won't
      (though I guess I already did).

      There's a fight in VR that seems to take a few lessons from "The Matrix,"
      although I'm still waiting for the day when Janeway learns Kung Fu. Unlike
      "The Matrix," if you die in UM-Zero, it would seem you do not die in real
      life--you simply are forced out of VR until you re-enter your next
      regeneration stage--which could be an interesting advantage for our VR good

      With the Borg Queen tracking down the secret of UM-Zero--and coming closer
      every day--the crew's dilemma in the story is what to do about Axum's call
      for help. Seven convinces Janeway to help save UM-Zero from destruction from
      the Borg. Discussed is the issue that in doing so, our heroes could find
      themselves in the middle of a "Borg civil war" (an interesting image, that)
      though Janeway settles for the term "resistance movement." This leads to a
      Daring Plan involving a techno-virus that will allow the UM-Zero drones to
      retain their memories once they wake up from VR. In order for this to work,
      however, the virus must be administered to a central distributor on a Borg
      ship. The crew tracks down a Borg ship and prepares to initiate the plan. I
      must say that any Borg ship that could be vulnerable to this plan probably
      needs better network security or upgraded anti-virus software. (Repeat after
      me: It's only TV. It's only TV...)

      Meanwhile, there's the Borg Queen seeking out the defective drones. What's
      the Queen's purpose? I didn't exactly get it in "First Contact." I certainly
      didn't get it in "Dark Frontier." And here it appears that, really, there's
      nothing to get. The Queen is simply the Borg personified for the audience's
      benefit, and on that level, it probably works. Thompson's take on the Queen
      is one of a calm exterior with an evil villain inside. She sees and hears
      all through her video screen, and smiles evil smiles when things go her way,
      and looks menacing when they don't. To Thompson's credit, she does all this
      with Borg-like restraint, without going over the top. And although the very
      notion of the Queen as a villain strips away some of what made the Borg
      unique, it's still kind of fun (though the unspoken notion of Janeway and
      the Queen being arch-enemies is maybe pushing it).

      The crew's Daring Plan involves Janeway, Tuvok, and Torres beaming onto the
      Borg ship to administer the virus. Because this is a cliffhanger, things
      don't go as planned. Actually, yes they do. The three of them are
      assimilated, but the story's twist reveals that their assimilation was part
      of the Daring Plan. I would guess that they're carrying the virus, and have
      still more tricks up their sleeves.

      About that. I'd have my doubts about any plan that includes willfully being
      assimilated by the Borg. This goes beyond bravery and into the territory of
      implausible. I just have a hard time believing anyone would do it. If I
      locked you in a room and said, "Okay. Here's a hacksaw. I want you to saw
      through your forearm until it becomes detached, and don't worry about the
      blood, pain, or permanent disfigurement," would you do it? I doubt it. And I
      tend to doubt Janeway & Co. would so easily accept the horrors of
      assimilation in the interests of some master plan.

      On its bottom line, "Unimatrix Zero" is another Voyager action show.
      (Seven's personal dilemma and any potential psychological VR implications
      are put on hold.) As such, it shows the Voyager virtue of visual panache.
      This is almost as good-looking as "Dark Frontier," which was one of the best
      examples of production design and special effects I've ever seen on the
      small screen.

      There are a couple standout brain-dissection scenes where we get to see
      disembodied Borg heads. Very cool. And beautiful sets. And a nifty new Borg
      vessel that looks very "armored." Yes, as production goes, this is top-notch
      stuff which on its own is almost worth the hour's view.

      But I also recommend the story, despite the holes and the fact that Janeway
      and her crew must be about one inch shy of insane. The concept is neat, and
      the story moves confidently through its motions as a techno-thriller.
      There's also some reasonable character work here, like the Janeway/Chakotay
      scenes, which choose not to go the "Scorpion"/"Equinox" route of conflict,
      but instead have Chakotay supporting the captain--they agree this time. It's
      one of few times all season we've seen Chakotay exhibit any sort of opinion.

      Also noteworthy is the potential here for Seven, whose existence in UM-Zero
      takes an interesting spin; she's more human-like when her VR memories begin
      to resurface, and she even goes by her human name, Annika. Ryan brings
      additional humanity to her character with a toning down of the Borg
      qualities and inserting some subtle emotion in her speech and facial
      expressions--that is, until after the entire gravity of the situation
      reveals itself, at which point Seven asserts her true personality over her
      virtual one ("My name is Seven of Nine," she tells a mildly lovesick Axum).

      There's also the re-promotion of Paris to lieutenant at the beginning of the
      show, which is handled by Janeway leaving a box containing a collar pip on
      his chair. This prompts Harry to comment, not without reason, "I didn't see
      a little box on my chair." This guy has been an ensign forever. What gives?
      Maybe Janeway is still punishing him for inappropriate pursuit of, um,
      another type of box back in "The Disease." (Did I just violate my PG review
      rule? Many apologies.)

      I must admit that spoilers undercut the shock value, as it were, of the
      ending. Not simply Internet spoilers, but also the ones revealed in the
      trailers--Janeway getting injected with nanoprobes, the Delta Flyer being
      destroyed. Indeed, marketing of entertainment these days gives away anything
      if it's something that might make you want to watch.

      "Unimatrix Zero" is still well worth an hour. It has potential. It's an
      incomplete story, and as always I don't expect any big impact on our crew to
      come out of it (including for the three who are now Borg drones). But as an
      entertainment and a season-ender, it gets the job done.

      Upcoming: Rerun season. Stay tuned for the usual season recap and commentary
      article, which I'll have ready sometime this summer.

      Copyright (c) 2000 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
      reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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