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Unimatrix Zero

By Edward James Hines
Posted at October 4, 2000 - 10:37 PM GMT

"Unimatrix Zero" ***
Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
Story by Mike Sussman
Directed by Allan Kroeker

Captain's Log
The Borg Queen (Susanna Thompson) has identified a sickness within the Collective and begins removing the cortical arrays of "mutant" drones to determine the interlink frequency that conjoins them.

Meanwhile, during her regeneration cycles, Seven of Nine has started appearing inside a Borg "virtual construct" called Unimatrix Zero, where certain Borg drones with a "recessive mutation" can exist as individuals while their drone bodies are regenerating. Axum (Mark Deakins), one of the mutant drones, enlists Seven's help because the Collective has found a way to detect Unimatrix Zero. The mutant drones have designed a nanovirus that will mask the biochemical signature of their mutation and, thus, hide them from the Collective. Unfortunately, they cannot release the nanovirus into the Collective because when they awaken from their regeneration cycles, they have no memory of Unimatrix Zero. Only Seven can help them because she exists outside the Collective.

Janeway is also willing to commit Voyager resources to protect the mutant drones, but she suggests that Axum and his fellows begin an active resistance movement against the Collective. To facilitate this, the Doctor and B'Elanna Torres modify the nanovirus to nullify the mutants' cortical inhibitors. This should allow the mutants to retain their memories of individuality and Unimatrix Zero after they emerge from their regeneration cycles.

Meanwhile, the Borg Queen has been unable to disrupt the interlink frequency of the mutant drones, so instead she begins sending normal drones into Unimatrix Zero to "re-assimilate" the mutants.

Voyager spots a Class-4 Borg Tactical Cube and begins attacking its deflector generators while Janeway, Tuvok and Torres wait in the Delta Flyer for an opening in the Cube's shields. Their mission is to release the modified nanovirus into the Cube's central plexus, which will instantly transmit the nanovirus throughout the Collective and allow the mutant drones to exist as individuals. After the Away Team beams aboard the Cube, however, the Delta Flyer is destroyed and Janeway, Tuvok and Torres are quickly assimilated before they can complete their mission. Aboard Voyager, as soon as the Doctor detects the destabilization of their life signs, Chakotay orders Voyager away from the battle area. To be continued ...

"Unimatrix Zero" ranks as one of VGR's more effective, exciting and entertaining cliffhangers, along the lines of "Scorpion" and "Basics," but earns the most kudos for its honest (though veiled) approach to the Away Team's "suicide" mission. Realistically, there was no way for it to have succeeded given a fully operational, heavily armed Tactical Cube with multiregenerative security grids protecting its central plexus. The implication, however, is that Janeway was ignoring the odds, which in "Star Trek code" usually means that she will somehow manage to pull off the impossible. To the episode's credit, however, this doesn't happen, thus earning "Unimatrix Zero" an honored place next to "Scorpion, Part II," "Counterpoint" and "Think Tank" for using the "hole card technique."

In retrospect, Janeway clearly intended for her team to be assimilated. There was no way to avoid it. The audience, however, is supposed to believe at first that the away mission has gone horribly wrong — until Chakotay utters the stupefying lines, "So far, so good. You can take us out of here now, Tom." Then everything falls into place. Before leaving Voyager, we remember that Janeway ordered Tuvok and Torres to join her in Sickbay. Clearly, without needing a sneak peak at the "Unimatrix Zero, Part II" script, we can infer that the Doctor infected each of them with the modified nanovirus, which, when they are assimilated, will be distributed throughout the Tactical Cube and the entire Collective via the central plexus. Thus, the Away Team never actually intended to penetrate the plexus. Instead, they "got in through the back door." Insidious! And the Borg Queen complained that she was expecting something more cunning from Janeway. She should be careful what she wishes for.

Two of Janeway's well-known personality traits are at issue once again in "Unimatrix Zero": 1) her usually strict adherence to Starfleet principles, and 2) her inclination to assume mortal risk by herself.

Regarding the former, Janeway is concerned that aiding the mutant drones will violate Starfleet regulations and put Voyager in the middle of a Borg civil war. While her candor in such matters is usually respectable, she needn't have been so hard on herself in this instance — particularly given Starfleet's standing orders to exploit any weakness in the Borg Collective ("Descent"). Writers Braga and Menosky, continuity cop-outs that they are, missed out on the opportunity to recall Admiral Nechayev's directive to Captain Picard, which doubtless applies to all other Starfleet captains. For once, the producers could have spared Janeway some difficult decision-making and eased her concern that Starfleet might someday question her involvement with the Borg mutants. This decision was really a no-brainer, and Janeway could have saved her concerns entirely for the rigors that would be involved in the forthcoming mission.

Particularly poignant is the scene on the Bridge when Janeway lingers in her chair for a few extra seconds after Torres informs her that the mission is ready to go. The reluctance is palpable. While Tuvok and Torres betray no apparent concern for themselves, Janeway clearly has tangible reservations about subjecting herself to the inevitability of assimilation. "Guess I should be going," she remarks with exaggerated bravado to Chakotay, who can only stare back at her futilely — and there is a kind of awful finality to the look they share. Janeway offers him her hand in friendship; he offers her a few forced jokes; and then off she goes into the "valley of death." She doesn't want to have to do this, and we can't blame her for it. If there was ever a time when Janeway could be considered a bona fide hero, then this is it.

Janeway's second familiar personality trait is her tendency to embark on dangerous missions by herself, as in episodes like "Night" and "Good Samaritan." Tuvok once explained that this was her way of demonstrating that she is not above placing herself "in the trenches" with those under her command, and, when necessary, putting her life at risk to safeguard her crew. As previously discussed, aboard Voyager, this trait was no doubt heightened by Janeway's unremitting feelings of guilt at having stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant — a punishment she continues to inflict on herself whenever danger arises. In "Unimatrix Zero," as on other occasions, Chakotay craftily convinces her to relent and take along some help.

Seven's discovery that, as a Borg, she had a six-year affair with Axum inside Unimatrix Zero is a significant revelation about her character, but because of the urgency of current circumstances, not much is made of it. Presumably, the affair ended when Seven was liberated from the Collective over two years ago. Given the Doctor's "romance lessons" in S5's "Someone to Watch Over Me" and a lighter situation, one wonders if Seven would have eventually chosen to renew her acquaintance with Axum. As it is, despite Axum's familiarity to her, Seven has no actual memories to connect back to the affair; and being so recently restored to individuality, it's easy to understand her reluctance to resume a relationship she never knew she had.

One also wonders how long Axum has been searching for Seven, or more significantly, how he finally accomplished his objective. As a drone, he would have no memory of even being acquainted with Seven, so presumably this means he has only sought her out while he was inside Unimatrix Zero. But how would he execute such a search? There is no evidence of technology inside Unimatrix Zero. The only connection the mutant drones have to the outside world is a vague sense of when their regeneration cycles are ending. If their function inside Unimatrix Zero is to regain a fragment of the lives they had before they were assimilated, then how would Axum even have begun looking for Seven? Apparently, this is one of those questions we are not supposed to ask because not even the producers know the answer. Since the "how" does not contribute to the intent of the story, it is irrelevant.

Another question we should not ask is how the Borg Queen was able to re-assimilate some of the mutant drones. When the Klingon Korok (Jerome Butler) threatened to kill Axum inside Unimatrix Zero, Axum cited the futility of such an act. The attack might kill him and remove him from Unimatrix Zero, but only temporarily; Axum would return again during his next regeneration cycle. How is the Queen's campaign different? How are her drones able to permanently remove the mutant drones from Unimatrix Zero? Why wouldn't the mutant drones simply return again during their next regeneration cycle?

One other potential source of confusion involves the difference between a Borg "central plexus" and a "vinculum." Apparently, they are not the same things. The latter is "a processing device that interconnects the minds of drones." In "Infinite Regress," Voyager recovered a vinculum that had been infected with a virus. Species 6339 intended for the Borg to retrieve the diseased vinculum so that the virus would spread to all Cubes and destroy the Collective.

By contrast, a central plexus is a device aboard each Borg vessel that interconnects with all other Borg vessels. In "Unimatrix Zero," Janeway intends to access the central plexus of the Tactical Cube and release the nanovirus, which would be instantly transmitted throughout the Collective.

At first glance, these devices seem to perform the same function. On closer examination, however, conjecture suggests that a vinculum is Cube-specific and interconnects the minds of drones on a single vessel. A vinculum must also act as a "first line of defense" or "firewall" against the corruption of the entire Collective. In "Infinite Regress," the virus from Species 6339 was stopped by the vinculum of the Borg vessel that was destroyed. The virus did not spread to the rest of the Collective. Only the drones aboard this particular vessel were infected and destroyed. Similarly, in "Collective" and "Child's Play," the Brunali pathogen inside Icheb only spread throughout the Cube on which he resided. Finally, in TNG's "I, Borg," the vinculum aboard Hugh's ship must have caught and stopped the notion of individuality that he carried. While his ship was destroyed and his fellow drones disconnected from the hive mind, the notion of individuality did not spread throughout the Collective.

However, this conjecture does not explain why Torres believes the mutant nanovirus will penetrate the central plexus and be instantly transmitted throughout the Collective. Logically, given the evidence above, the vinculum aboard the Tactical Cube should catch and stop the nanovirus. Perhaps it will survive beyond the vinculum because it is mostly Borg-manufactured, unlike the Species 6339 virus, the Brunali pathogen and the Federation notion of individuality.

At the heart of the search for the latest threat to the Collective is actor Susanna Thompson, who reprises the Borg Queen from S5's "Dark Frontier" and really sinks her teeth into the character's newfound role as a "mad scientist" who talks to disembodied Borg heads. (One of these, if you look closely, resembles the prop of Data's disembodied head from TNG's "Time's Arrow.") Possibly the eeriest portion of the Queen's appearance comes at the end of her communication to Voyager when she says to Ensign Kim, "We'll see you soon, Harry." Janeway believes the Queen is worried about Voyager's involvement in protecting Unimatrix Zero, but could she be so worried as to be given to idle threats?

Kim's other significant scene involves his subtle protest following Tom Paris' promotion back to lieutenant junior grade. As misleading and delightful as the scene is, the fact of the matter is that Kim's implication is right: He deserves a promotion. What has Paris done in the year since his demotion to warrant regaining his lieutenancy now? Nothing. His advancement is undeserved and is just another instance of the "Braga bunch" restoring VGR to a status quo. Paris broke the rules in S5's "Thirty Days" and got busted fair-and-square. Kim has been working hard for six years and even recently began standing extra watches on the Bridge to work on improving his command skills. Paris, by contrast, tries to skip out on his extra Sickbay duties whenever possible. What would be so bad about Kim being the lieutenant and Paris being the ensign? So what if it's a role reversal from the pilot? Things like this happen in the military all the time. In TOS's "Court Martial," for example, it was revealed that a young James Kirk earned a promotion over his Academy instructor Ben Finney and landed command of the Enterprise first.

Jeri Ryan's experience making "Unimatrix Zero" must have been an interesting one since she performed most of it with a broken foot. If you notice, Seven is mostly photographed from the waist up, even when she's walking toward the camera, to hide Ryan's use of a cane. A photo double was used to show full-length views of Seven from behind, especially when she's running through the Unimatrix Zero forest. The only time Ryan is photographed nearly fully from the front is in a corridor scene with Janeway as they leave Cargo Bay Two. This may have been shot before Ryan's unfortunate accident.

There is a slight production discontinuity in Cargo Bay Two involving Ryan's photo double, in the scene when Tuvok facilitates the "bridging of minds." Ryan's photo double is in the background, walking away from the camera and mounting the regeneration alcove. She starts to turn around when the camera cuts away to Janeway staring at the alcove, and at this time you can hear the distinctive sound effect of Seven connecting to the regenerator. When the camera cuts back to a close-up of Ryan, she hasn't fully turned to face forward in the alcove, even though the sound effect indicated that she had already "connected."

Another production mix-up involves some visual effects running out of sequence with dialogue. During Voyager's battle with the Tactical Cube, Kim says that the port nacelle has been breached and is venting plasma. The visual effect depicting this, however, isn't shown until several seconds after the dialogue. To continue the confusion, a few minutes later — despite this ruptured nacelle — Voyager engages its warp drive and speeds away. The nacelle, curiously enough, is no longer leaking.

Also curious is a scene with Voyager encountering an asteroidal colony that the Borg have destroyed. The only discernable reason for its inclusion is to establish that the Borg are somewhere in the area through which Voyager is traveling. Otherwise, the scene contributes nothing.

In the teaser, when the Borg Queen separates Four of Twelve (Tony Sears) from the Collective and begins interrogating him, he refers to himself several times as "I," inexplicably reacquiring his notion of individuality way too quickly. Similarly, in "Survival Instinct," Seven's compatriot drones regained their individual identities not long after crashing. In contrast, both Seven and Hugh (from TNG's "I, Borg") continued to refer to themselves as "we" for some time after being cut off from the Collective.

Impressive in "Unimatrix Zero" are some of the visual effects sequences. While the establishing shot of the Unicomplex is lifted from "Dark Frontier," its interior is all-new and boasts a seemingly endless array of Borg alcoves stacked row upon row. The first shot of the Borg Queen is particularly effective, establishing one eye and then opening a mechanism to reveal the other. Her "assembly" sequence is the same from "Dark Frontier," except that this time it is seen mostly from the rear.

Unimatrix Zero contains a gathering of some familiar species. Other than the aforementioned Klingon Korok, there is a Hirogen and a Vulcan. Laura (Joanna Heimbold) is a human who was assimilated at ... you guessed it ... Wolf 359.

The Vulcan bridging of minds technique seems similar in form to the fal-tor-pan (refusion) from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, insofar as there is an individual serving as a telepathic conduit between two other subjects. The Doctor, true to his character ("Meld"), again strenuously objects to Tuvok using his Vulcan mind-melding techniques on Janeway and Seven.

Finally, in a probably unplanned parallel to TNG, VGR has also ended its third and sixth seasons with Borg cliffhangers (meaning, of course, that their fourth and seventh seasons also began with Borg shows).

Copyright Edward James Hines
4 October 2000

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Edward James Hines writes weekly reviews of Voyager episodes.

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