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[VOY] Jammer's Review: "Dark Frontier"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Warning: This review contains significant spoilers the Voyager TV movie, Dark Frontier. If you haven t seen it yet, beware. Nutshell: Ambitious and often
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 1999
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      Warning: This review contains significant spoilers the Voyager TV movie,
      "Dark Frontier." If you haven't seen it yet, beware.


      Nutshell: Ambitious and often very effective entertainment, but the plot
      doesn't bear too much scrutiny.

      Plot description: When Janeway hatches a daring plan to steal technology
      from a crippled Borg ship, Seven is coerced into returning to the Borg
      collective.

      -----
      Star Trek: Voyager -- "Dark Frontier"

      Airdate: 2/17/1999 (USA)
      Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
      Part I directed by Cliff Bole
      Part II directed by Terry Windell

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

      "There are three things to remember about being a starship captain: Keep
      your shirt tucked in; go down with the ship; and never abandon a member of
      your crew." -- Janeway to Naomi
      -----

      "Dark Frontier" does probably exactly what UPN executives wanted it to--it
      provides "an epic two-hour telefilm!" during February sweeps that is
      accessible to the average sci-fi-but-not-necessarily-Voyager fan and
      features the Borg, the most popular and reliable of all Trek bad guys.
      Obviously, no expense was spared in producing this two hour "event." So the
      real question: Is it any good? Answer: Yes.

      Next question: Could it have been better? Answer: Yes.

      I also have to ask: Was this story really necessary? I mean, the whole
      story, when you think about it, doesn't really take us anywhere new,
      especially when it comes to its central character, Seven of Nine. "Dark
      Frontier" seems at times like it exists more for the sake of grand
      spectacle than for grand story development. Not that I would necessarily
      let that get in the way of enjoying it.

      If "Dark Frontier" was trying to get my attention with pure cinematic
      audacity, it worked. The episode wastes no time in coming out big and bold,
      showing off production values in an entertainingly effective way. The first
      scene opens on a Borg scout ship, featuring a Borg point-of-view sequence
      as a drone wakes up to assist the ship's attack on Voyager, which it has
      detected as a target for assimilation. David Bell's score comes out
      stronger than music is normally ever permitted to be on Trek episodes these
      days, with an actual theme and a thundering attitude. Not long after,
      there's a brief battle, followed by large-scale special effects and
      explosions when Voyager beams a torpedo into the ship and destroys it. As
      action-adventure, to say "Dark Frontier" revealed its intentions
      confidently and effectively right up front would be an understatement.

      The crew salvages debris from the destroyed ship in hopes of finding useful
      technology. A transwarp coil in particular would be useful; it could shave
      20 years off the journey. What's left of the salvaged coil, however, is
      useless.

      From here, Janeway devises a daring plan. A crippled Borg vessel is
      detected heading back toward Borg space. With a carefully executed
      maneuver, the crew could break its defenses and *steal* a warp coil. The
      plan is appropriately dubbed "Operation: Fort Knox."

      While we're talking about Janeway, I'd like to comment on a character whose
      actions have long been controversial and inconsistently written. I find
      myself reminded of second season's "Alliances." At the end of that episode,
      the writers alleged that, in light of being stuck in the chaotic Delta
      Quadrant surrounded by brutal opportunistic enemies, Janeway's course of
      adjustment would simply be to maintain Federation morals--"business as
      usual," as Chakotay once put it. I found that attitude to be shallow,
      naive, and dramatically limiting. (To analyze Federation ideals, the
      writers must challenge them in new ways, even if it means willful deviation.)

      Over the years of Voyager's uneasy run, that attitude has been changed. Now
      we have a Janeway that, while still maintaining diplomacy and a sense of
      morality, will go further to protect her crew and get them home more
      quickly. (It has been said that Kate Mulgrew feels Brannon Braga
      understands Janeway better than former executive producers Jeri Taylor or
      Michael Piller did; perhaps that partially explains this alteration in
      attitude.)

      So the question is whether this robbery mission better demonstrates
      Janeway's strengths. I'm thinking it does; it shows through action the way
      she will push the boundaries of typical Federation morals in the name of
      her crew. And Mulgrew fares well when she's allowed to show her teeth.
      (Although, Janeway came off as a little smug in the scene where she
      introduces "Operation: Fort Knox" to the crew; Mulgrew sometimes goes
      overboard with the body language.)

      Now then--what about the moral implications of this theft? Is it okay to
      steal from the Borg, even if they are one of the worst enemies the
      Federation has ever known? More immediately, is it prudent to charge into
      the lion's den for a great prize if there's a risk the entire crew could
      end up assimilated? While I appreciate moral and practical ambiguity, the
      writers don't seem to really be asking these questions so much as they
      arise as a side effect. "Dark Frontier" charges forward with plot and
      action without completely considering the consequences.

      But no matter. "Dark Frontier" exists more often for plot and action than
      for philosophic content. On that level, it fares well.

      In preparation for the big heist, there are holodeck training drills and
      information searches. The major character undercurrent here, naturally, is
      for Seven of Nine, who, at Janeway's request, searches through her parents'
      data logs, which were retrieved from the USS Raven more than a year
      earlier. Seven apparently has been avoiding these logs to avoid facing her
      old pre-Borg childhood memories--back when her name was Annika Hansen. The
      new need for information now has her facing up to the past.

      "Dark Frontier" is not afraid to invent or even reinvent backstory for the
      sake of advancing its story. Through a series of Seven's flashbacks, we get
      new insight into Annika's parents, Magnus and Erin Hansen (Kirk Baily and
      Laura Stepp). The story reveals them as two scientists who undertook a
      mission to find and learn about the nefarious Borg, and became so obsessed
      with their leads that they disregarded orders from their scientist
      colleagues, effectively alienating themselves. Since there was no turning
      back, they simply pressed forward, hoping to find Borg. Eventually, they did.

      The Hansens' audacity is remarkable. There's a fine line between brave and
      stupid, and the Hansens walked that line for three years, we learn,
      studying a Borg cube without being detected as "relevant" before finally
      crossing the line and getting themselves assimilated. In that time, they
      boarded the cube on many occasions, and even kidnapped dormant drones from
      their regeneration alcoves to study them. All the while, they tell each
      other, "This could prove our theory!" I kept asking myself: What's wrong
      with these people? Don't they care about getting themselves and their
      5-year-old daughter killed or assimilated? In any case, I found the
      Hansens' overconfidence and obsession interesting.

      Was any of the Hansens' Borg research intended back when last season's "The
      Raven" was written? I doubt it, but then again I don't really care; "Raven"
      kept the Hansens' history vague, and the rewriting of that history proves
      interesting and is put to good use in "Dark Frontier."

      On the other hand, some of this reinvention I found a little annoying,
      because it flies in the face of established continuity. More specifically,
      these flashbacks allege that Starfleet knew about the Borg years before
      they could have. The first Borg episode, TNG's "Q Who," was about 10 years
      ago. Starfleet knew *nothing* about them. Here, the Hansens apparently knew
      about the Borg some 20 years ago, which is simply impossible given what
      we've seen before.

      Is any of this continuity quibbling important to "Dark Frontier"? Probably
      not, but it is a blatant disregard for past history for those of us who
      remember the Borg's introduction back in the second season of TNG, and I
      have to at least mention my objection to the distorting the facts.

      But again, no matter. Story advancement first, plot continuity second.
      "Dark Frontier" blends the flashbacks into the main story effectively,
      balancing Seven's feelings on the matter with the bigger plot involving the
      mission.

      It's about this time that Seven is contacted by the Borg, who somehow know
      about Janeway's plan. They tell her, essentially, that she must rejoin the
      collective, or the Borg will assimilate Voyager. Why do they want her?
      "Because you are unique." Borg riddles. Gotta love 'em.

      This leads to a very nice scene where Seven makes a plea to Janeway to
      allow her to stay on the mission even though she has been fraught with
      emotional distraction over the last few days. Seven knows something Janeway
      doesn't, but can't tell her about it. The plan must go on for Voyager's
      sake. Seven's sense of self-sacrifice is fairly affecting; the character
      certainly has come a long way in the past year.

      The mission is nicely executed, as is Seven's capture. The story comes up
      with some interesting ways of giving Voyager the advantage, like the
      devices that make crew members temporarily undetectable from the Borg while
      on a Borg ship (which are established through the Hansen backstory, who
      used them to run around the Borg cube for hours at a time)--although, I was
      somewhat confused by the story's unclear intentions of how much of the plan
      the Voyager crew pulled off versus how much the Borg let them get away with
      it.

      "Dark Frontier" is an episode whose action works through little details.
      The Hansen flashbacks benefit from some nice nuances, such as the Hansens
      giving the Borg drones pet names as a way of keeping track of them, or the
      frighteningly implicit consequences foreshadowed by little Annika (Katelin
      Petersen) saying "bye" as her parents beam a Borg drone back to the cube.

      In the present storyline, we have good use of Naomi Wildman, a character
      whose presence manages to transcend the "cute" factor and tell us something
      about the other characters, whether serving as a reminder for Seven's
      truncated childhood, or playing off the captain in a scene that reveals
      Janeway's codependency of humanity and duty ("Keep your shirt tucked in; go
      down with the ship; and never abandon a member of your crew").

      Once Seven returns to the Borg, the story's big hook is the reintroduction
      of the Borg Queen (Susanna Thompson), which is supposed to provide a
      one-on-one battle of wills, I think, over the nature of Seven's unique
      re-assimilation into the collective. It's at this point the story seems to
      resign itself to the fact the writers have used the Borg about a dozen
      times and now must ask, well, where can we go from here? The second half of
      "Dark Frontier" is entertaining, but psychologically it can't deliver much
      more than what we've already seen. It feels more like a series of
      skillfully executed set pieces than a story trying to find its way to some
      sort of emotional resolution. The Borg Queen's attempts to crack Seven are
      all too similar to the Queen's attempt to crack Data in "First Contact":
      coercion, temptation, finding the crux of human morality, elusive riddles,
      etc.

      The use of the Borg Queen had me asking questions with no apparent answers.
      For starters, what is the *purpose* of the Queen? As Data put it, "I wish
      to understand the organizational relationships." Is there some sort of
      hierarchy, where the Queen actually runs the collective? Or is the Queen
      simply a special liaison--a symbol of the hive mind--who is assembled
      whenever there is special need to psychologically crack an individual?
      (There's evidence here that could have it either way, but because by the
      end of the episode we'll now have two Queens that have died, it's apparent
      they aren't crucial to the collective.)

      For that matter, I'm confused at why the Borg even want Seven of Nine back.
      What's so special about her individuality that makes her valuable? The
      Queen says that no other Borg has ever regained individuality, but I must
      raise my hand and ask about the entire colony in "Unity." (But, no; I must
      again remind myself that continuity doesn't count.) But even forgetting
      that for the moment, if the Borg assimilate Seven's memories, won't that be
      everything they need? Apparently not; the Queen wants Seven to remain an
      individual who willfully chooses to side with the Borg. How this helps the
      collective I'm not sure. The story thinks weird, elusive dialog will
      suffice as an answer. I disagree. It was interesting in "First Contact";
      here it begins to feel like a shallow imitation.

      Susanna Thompson works fairly well early on as the Queen (and she has great
      eyes for the part), but near the end her performance loses the surreal edge
      and seems far too concrete and flat to be anything more than a "Borg
      villain." Her attempts to coax Seven into abandoning her human compassion
      involves a host of psychological tricks, some of which are interesting,
      others which aren't.

      The most compelling idea is the Borg's assimilation of an entire society
      while Seven is forced to assist, which proves quite effective and intense.
      Seven walks through the corridors as dozens of drones move mindlessly
      through the ship with their alien prisoners, as screaming emerges from an
      uncertain distance; it conveys a frightening chaos that seems like some
      surreal Nazi nightmare. It's a unique and powerful look at the Borg, and
      Seven's "human" choices in this situation are interesting.

      On the other hand is the appearance of Seven's "father" in the form of a
      drone, which is going way too over the top, and in presentation seems like
      nothing more than a cheap "shock value" gag that puts forward no
      interesting consequences.

      During all of this, the Voyager crew realizes Seven had been coerced into
      leaving them, so Janeway equips the Delta Flyer with the recently acquired
      transwarp coil to track Seven down in Borg space. They arrive there, which
      leads to a somewhat unexpected cinema cliche where Janeway and the Queen
      engage in the Borg version of the Movie Armed Standoff [TM] for the custody
      of Seven--with Janeway holding a big gun while lots of Borg threaten to
      come closer to her. The idea is handled somewhat klutzily (with tech
      procedures and "pure attitude" the key components in the showdown, and
      neither really winning a sense of urgency)--but I did enjoy the Queen's
      look of downright anger when Seven and Janeway beamed away.

      Of course, I must point out that it strains the usefulness of the Borg as a
      believably powerful enemy in the galaxy if the Delta Flyer can get the
      better of them with some convenient technobabble and Borg connections, even
      though an entire fleet can barely deal with a single cube zeroing in on
      Earth. The Borg are neat enemies, but they lose their edge of implacability
      because of their willingness to negotiate near the end of "Dark Frontier."

      Oh well. Despite Voyager's tendency to overuse the Borg, I still thought
      the actual execution of the action was well done overall, and the final
      chase managed to milk a good amount of excitement out a questionable
      ending. And, hey, we even got 15 years closer to home thanks to the
      transwarp coil.

      If I may comment on technical aspects: Simply put--awesome. The visual
      effects are among the best and most convincing I've ever seen on sci-fi
      television, and succeed extremely well on the "cool" factor. The sheer
      number of visuals is impressive. The Queen's ship is a marvel of design
      complexity that is still consistent with Borg geometry and symmetry--and,
      well, it just looks neat. The story ventures into Borg territory, where we
      see massive space stations. The sets and makeup design are all solid and
      pleasing to the eye (even if green light rays perpetually shining on the
      Borg Queen was pushing it). I can't imagine what this all cost to produce;
      there's a lot on the screen, and most of it proves very effective.

      As television production goes, "Dark Frontier" is easily the most ambitious
      thing Voyager has ever done. It's exceptionally well constructed.
      Unfortunately, it's not exceptionally well thought out. The story just
      can't keep up with the ambition. Nevertheless, it's probably good to have
      ambition, and I credit the producers for trying something so large, even if
      original ideas couldn't always fit the concept.

      --
      Next week: Choose your title: "Harry Gets Some" or "Lust in Space."

      -----
      Copyright (c) 1999 by Jamahl Epsicokhan, all rights reserved. Unauthorized
      reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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