[5 October 2004]
Seven of Nine, the Borg babe of the future, is a blast from the past. A former cybernetic drone rescued from the anonymity of the Borg collective, she’s a throwback to the times when tightly-dressed women with ice blue eyes and perfectly coiffed blonde hair matched steel with seduction. Think Kim Novak. Think Eva Maria Saint or Grace Kelly.
Kate Mulgrew, who played a different sort of woman, the starship Voyager’s Captain Kathryn Janeway, puts it honestly in the documentary feature that comes with Season Four’s seven-disc set. When Mulgrew first saw Jeri Ryan in her Seven of Nine catsuit, she asked another cast member out for a drink to celebrate, because, Mulgrew knew, “We were all going to get raises.”
Hell, everyone knew Voyager needed something. Before the fourth season, it was mainly known for not being as engaging as its predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, or as challenging as Deep Space Nine. Its premise, the adventures of a starship crew thrown 60,000 light years from Earth and now trying to find home, was exhausted. Still, the series marched on: in true Starfleet tradition, Voyager was an attractive ship filled with pleasant people, working together in the kumbaya future that Star Trek has always promoted. Enter Seven of Nine. And if she didn’t turn the show entirely around, she made an absorbing diversion.
It wasn’t just because of The Body. Yes, Seven was costumed like a pneumatic wonder, a saran-wrapped ideal of feminine ripeness. From the beginning, her look appeared gratuitous, even exploitative. Producer Rick Berman, one of the architects of the Trek franchise, came up with the idea of a “Borg Babe,” although it should be noted that another producer, Jeri Taylor, says in a featurette that she had no problem with Seven’s uniform: she was supposed to be a bit of an archetype. (Ryan, in the same featurette, views her costume as absurd as well, with the what’s-the-fuss offhandedness of a beauty queen.)
But it wouldn’t have worked if Jeri Ryan pulled a Pam Anderson. One of the rewards of sitting through the fourth season is observing Ryan’s evolution as an actor. In the first episode, “Scorpion, Part II,” Ryan debuts as a Borg drone, the cyborg race that seeks to assimilate humanity. Her designation is, literally, the seventh of nine. She’s a mindless automaton, pale and bald, with cables protruding from her body. Through a series of dramatic, albeit expected, developments, she ends up separated from the Borg’s hive mind and transplanted to Voyager as first a prisoner and later a crew member.
It doesn’t take long for Seven to acquire a more pulchritudinous shape. (Berman admits in the documentary that Paramount’s goal was to get Ryan in the catsuit ASAP.) But her buried human personality takes longer to surface. Throughout the season, she clings to her chilled Borg mentality, resisting Janeway’s efforts to thaw her. Early, in episodes such as “The Raven,” she attempts to break her Starfleet leash and return to the security of the Borg collective.
Her struggles bring a welcome touch of continuity to a series that was usually too episodic, with Voyager and crew severely tested in one episode with no apparent ill effects a week later. Seven’s transition isn’t a linear process; she makes progress and falls back. She and Janeway, who becomes mother and mentor both, clash and make amends. Seven is cruel and rude (refreshingly, she spouts few homilies and offers no philosophies). She wonders often if she is being re-made in the image of humanity, out of Janeway’s presumption that there is no better alternative. In “Prey,” Seven notes the contradiction between being told to assert her individuality and to fall within Starfleet’s militaristic hierarchy and obey orders where given. “Individualism has its limits,” Janeway replies.
Because she was brought in as the “breakout” character, Seven’s arrival significantly altered the balance of the ensemble (Jennifer Lien’s Kes is written out of the show altogether, as she takes the Wesley Crusher route, “evolving” beyond humanity; if that’s the next stop on the evolutionary train ride, I’ll stay here on the platform). But given that most of the other regulars are pretty vanilla, there’s little to complain about. And indeed, Seven became more identified with Voyager than any other character.
That said, other plots did emerge, however briefly. Half-Klingon engineer B’lanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) and California Golden Boy helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) share a nice moment in “Day of Honor” when, floating in spacesuits and abandoned, they declare their feelings for each other. (And then, the relationship appears to vanish in the second half of the season.) The ship finally makes contact with Starfleet in the entertaining “Message in the Bottle,” which features Voyager’s other noteworthy character, its holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo). The Doctor is also central to the sublime “Living Witness,” which takes a look at Voyager’s quest to return to Earth through the eyes of an alien species that blames the ship for its societal woes.
In the two-part “Year of Hell,” Voyager goes through an entire year of conflict with an alien race named the Krenim, and suffer lasting damage. The Vulcan officer Tuvok (Tim Russ) is blinded. Janeway turns remote, dictatorial, and nearly psychotic. Soon, the ship is a hunk of twisted, burning metal. In short, the episodes are everything Voyager could have been, but wasn’t. The show might have been an examination of humans tested by an extreme environment (see ABC’s new series Lost) rather than an episodic travelogue about firm-jawed officers cruising the galaxy’s highways in their luxury RV. Predictably, at the end of the “Year of Hell,” temporal abnormalities are corrected and all remains as it was before. No blood. No foul. And what a shame.
Thematic choices such as these leave us with nowhere to turn for interest but Seven of Nine. In the season’s final episode, “Hope and Fear,” she informs Janeway that the experiment has failed. Seven has decided to reject her humanity in favor of her hybrid self and leave the ship. But as always, Voyager is just teasing us. Seven of Nine isn’t going anywhere. By the end of the fourth season, Janeway’s experiment may still be in progress, but the returns from Paramount’s tinkering were readily identifiable. The Borg Babe was a smash.