Voyager rewatch 3.17 – “Unity”

So here’s how it works: I assimilate you. You assimilate five of your friends. They’re your downline! They each assimilate five of their friends, and before you know it, we’ll all be cruising around in our very own cubes. Quit your job! Be a #BorgBoss!

I’ve said before that rewatching Voyager sometimes feels like I’m in conversation with my younger self. “Unity” is one of those episodes, and, guys, my younger self was an asshole.

Like. Here I am, fifteen-years-old, subliminating an unhealthy amount of feelings into my Janeway/Chakotay shipping, high off the ANGST and NEAR DEATH and ARM TOUCHING of “Coda” — and then along comes this dumb Borg slut, seducing my Janeway’s man with her soft voice and pretty blonde hair. What a whore! What a bimbo!

Et cetera.

(I wish I could say that I quickly saw the error of my ways, but instead I discovered the joy of wrapping up the same arguments in the blanket of feminism. I know they say you should be kind to your younger self, but this is a callout post.)

Further confessions: watching now, mumblety decades later, I find that I still have … issues with the way Riley’s femininity is presented. And I genuinely don’t know if they’re sincere, or if this is a lingering trace of my adolescent rage.

Chakotay has the WORST taste in women

Seriously, any time he tries dating outside the regular cast, it’s a disaster. (You could argue that Chakotay/Seven is also a disaster, but at least Seven isn’t evil!)

But part of my problem with Riley Frazier is that, in many ways, she’s presented as a love interest — and therefore feminine — first, and a character second.

It’s the wig, you see. Here we are, tens of thousands xBs,1 trapped on a world with limited resources and increasing conflict — but Riley has a wig of long, blonde hair.

It says a lot about priorities — not hers, but the writers/producers’. Yes, covering her scalp postpones the inevitable reveal, but a headwrap or skullcap would have done just as well. They needed Riley to be appealing and feminine, in appearance as well as manner, and went for the most obvious way to do that: white, blonde, long-haired, gentle.

And this is a real shame, because, with better character design and a different performance2, I think Riley could have been a really successful villain. She absolutely thinks she is the story’s heroine, and there are a lot of parallels with Janeway — her certainty, her determination, her willingness to make decisions on behalf of others — which are muddled by the way the character is presented. She has a bit of a Stepford Borg quality, which is mildly interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Having said all this…

You know how I keep saying that Star Trek isn’t sexy and shouldn’t try to be?

Well. The post-mindlink seduction, where Riley and Chakotay can feel sensations in the other bodies, was, in fact, sexy.

Though I do have questions, like, were all the other mindlink parties also involved? Did they consent to that? Did Chakotay consent to that? Because he does not seem like a group sex kind of guy. Is this basically a Borg sex cult? Why can’t I get that phrase out of my head? Is this why he was interested in Seven?

A note to my younger self

Here is a very obvious fact which I should have assimilated (heh) decades ago:

Janeway and Chakotay are not in a relationship. In fact, she still considers herself engaged and unavailable. Chakotay is both a free agent and a consenting adult3 and does not owe Janeway an apology for sleeping with a woman he found attractive.

I, however, may owe the internet an apology for the fic I wrote after I saw this ep.

I’m sorry.

We’re finally up to the bit where I talk about “Unity” and Star Trek: Picard!

“Unity” is sort of a cul-de-sac in terms of Borg arcs, but with one exception, it turns out to fit quite neatly into Picard‘s vision of the Borg.

The exception comes in the form of one of Picard‘s sillier details: that the Borg had never assimilated any Romulans until it picked up a Tal Shiar ship on the eve of the Romulan supanova. Usually I let stupid canon inconsistencies slide, but this one has always nagged at me, simply because it makes no sense.

(And, if you’re going to get into nitty gritty canon details, the very first hint of the Borg’s existence came in the form of a series of attacks on Romulan and Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. YOUR MOVE, CHABON.)

“Unity” gives us a very nice Romulan xB, who honestly seems pretty chill despite his assimilation and the cultural violence of losing his privacy. Oh, and he’s part of Riley’s Borg cult, but hey, no one’s perfect.

Otherwise, I’m intrigued by the parallels between “Unity” and Picard: the neutralised cube, the community of people recovering from assimilation. The differences, of course, are stark: this cube was undone by technobabble, and the xBs have a lot more agency, not being subject to Romulan control.

This ironically makes them a much less cohesive community, although I’ve gotta say that Riley’s solution of forcible re-assimilation into her cool, post-Soviet communist co-op seems a little radical.

Were I in Janeway’s shoes, I might have offered to supply the various factions with replicators — so they’re not fighting for resources — and my skills as a Starfleet-trained diplomat. But no one asks me.

(Is Riley’s solution evidence that STEM without ethics is doomed to end in human rights violations? Or is her approach simply the Federation philosophy taken to an extreme? In this essay, I shall…)

I digress. One consistent note between “Unity” and Picard is that rejoining the Collective — or a collective — is deeply attractive to xBs, even those who have been individuals for as long as Seven. But for Seven, Riley’s solution is an act of last resort.

(I would be mildly curious to see where the Borg Co-op are at now — except I think the most likely answer is that the Borg themselves turned up a day after Voyager left and went, “Hey, we forgot about you guys! Back to the Collective you go!”)

This is not a Janeway ep, but I’m gonna talk about her anyway

A moment which delighted me: the GLEAM in Janeway’s eyes as she announces they’re gonna raid the Borg cube for parts and intel, and the corresponding weariness in Tuvok’s non-expression.

A moment which fascinated me: the way Janeway circles Chakotay possessively as they debate Riley’s idea. I’ve read that Kate Mulgrew suggested this blocking, as a way of positioning Janeway as his conscience — you know, on his shoulder — but I’m intrigued by the way it’s framed.

Robert Duncan McNeill, back in the director’s chair, never zooms out; this whole scene is shot from Robert Beltran’s shoulders up, and Janeway never appears fully in the frame. They’re together, yet somehow alienated. Janeway doesn’t know Chakotay slept with Riley, but there’s a distance between them, even though they are well inside each other’s personal space. It’s interesting.

(Janeway would not cope at all with Covid-era social distancing requirements.)

Other observations

  • Where did the xBs get the fabric for their matching outfits? Why are all the men wearing trousers while the women wear skirts? How did the gender binary survive assimilation?
  • The scenes aboard the Borg cube suffered more than most from being SD-quality on a HD television screen. Something about the lighting made them look grainy. It’s a shame! I love those sets!
  • Hey, you know who WOULDN’T fall prey to a pretty blonde with mind control powers? MY MAN TUVOK.
  • Apparently every episode since “Fair Trade” has been set in the Nekrit Expanse. They just … forgot to mention that. Guys, you cannot be trusted to follow through on arcs, you need to spell this stuff out.
  • RIP Ensign Kaplin, who at least made it past the opening credits before she was unceremoniously killed. Is it weird that, between TOS and DSC, there are no African American women in the regular cast of any Trek?
  • This is Chakotay’s third shuttle accident, and the second where the shuttle is lost. It won’t be the last.

In conclusion

Despite my issues with Riley — and I may be completely off-track there — this is a really interesting, strong episode, and also a showcase for Robert Beltran. Four disabled Borg cubes out of five.

  1. Don’t worry, I’m getting to the bit where I talk AT LENGTH about how this episode ties in with Star Trek: Picard.
  2. I don’t know anymore if Lori Hallier’s performance is BAD, but I definitely don’t enjoy it.
  3. Yes, post-mindlink euphoria is a thing, but he seems pretty enthusiastic, and I think arguing to the contrary would make me come across like the Doctor Who fans who are still mad about “The Girl in the Fireplace”

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