“The Gift” of Choice… Unless You’re a Borg

When Star Trek: Voyager first aired in Orlando, where I was living during most of its run, it was on the local UPN affiliate, which also was the flagship television station for the Orlando Magic. As a result, I missed a lot of episodes, especially starting in 1996 (season three). Now, thanks to Netflix, I’m catching up on them, watching one or two a night before I go to bed.

I’ve just gotten to Season Four, which is when Seven of Nine joins the crew. And, at the time of this writing, I’ve just watched “The Gift”, episode two of that season and Jennifer Lien’s final appearance as a series regular. (She played Kes, in case the name is unfamiliar.)

I remember seeing “The Gift” in 1997 and thinking, “wow, that was a pretty decent episode. Janeway stuck to her guns and saved this woman from life as a Borg, who had brainwashed her into thinking she belonged with them. I can totally draw parallels to other fiction I have read/seen/enjoyed.”

Yeah. Fourteen years later, not so much.

To recap, “The Gift” begins shortly after Voyager and the Borg work together to defeat Species 8472, who are so powerful and so alien that even the Borg cannot assimilate them. At the end of the previous episode, the Borg liaison, Seven of Nine, attempted to assimilate the ship and crew, but was stopped thanks to a little foresight on the part of Janeway and company. They disconnected her from the Borg and planned to rehabilitate her as a human.

Seven of Nine, still a Borg.

The problem is this: Seven doesn’t want to be human. She wants to be a Borg. It’s all she’s ever known.

My 1997 self watched Janeway try to break through Seven’s shell and convince her that the Borg had damaged her, taken her away from her humanity and turned her into something she should never have been. I thought it was a noble effort, and at the end, during the “let’s show off the sexy new crewmember” scene, I figured that Janeway had broken through to Seven and convinced her she should be a human now.

And everyone goes home happy.

But my 2011 self doesn’t see it that way.

Throughout the entire episode, Seven made it very clear that she was a Borg, that she wanted to remain a Borg, and that she wanted to be returned to her people — the Borg, not humanity.

Janeway pretty much ignored that at every turn.

In Act One, when Seven is woken up to be told that her human immune systems are going to make her body reject her Borg implants, she tells Janeway she wants a subspace transceiver (probably something they can replicate quickly) and to be left on a habitable planet to await pickup by her people. Janeway, despite Seven’s loud and very clear protestations, says no.

Act Two is mostly about Kes’s growing telepathic abilities*, but is notable for Janeway saying that she believes Seven isn’t capable of making rational decisions for herself, so as ship’s captain Janeway is going to do it. Very alarming, and the expression on Janeway’s face echoes some of the expressions I’ve seen on television talking heads claiming that they want to remove choice to protect a group they don’t think can protect themselves. Case in point: the “opt-in to see adult websites” list coming soon to the U.K.. I was quite disturbed at this whole exchange, and the fact that the Doctor — a technological being himself, albeit one who Janeway continues to fight for the existence of — didn’t say anything. I could tell from his face that he wanted to, and Robert Picardo played the scene wonderfully.

Seven regards her newly-human parts.

In Act Three, Seven wakes up from surgery to find that she’s becoming more human, and that the Doctor has performed medical procedures to make sure this doesn’t kill her. She argues with Janeway, who again disregards Seven’s desire to remain a Borg and to return to her people, and then agrees to help Voyager remove some of the Borg technology she installed because… well… she’s stuck here.

But then she sees a subspace transceiver in a Jefferies Tube and makes an attempt to escape what, to her, is an untenable situation. She doesn’t try to destroy the ship; she doesn’t try to assimilate anyone. All she does is try to signal her people so they can rescue her from captivity — and how many episodes of Voyager did that happen in over the past three years? Kes’s new telepathic abilities assist the crew in stopping Seven, and the Borg is sent to the brig.

Act Four, however, is the worst of it. Seven is now in the brig, and Janeway tells her she’s met other Borg who were de-assimilated, and they all came to accept their new situation. She does make reference to the fact that Seven was assimilated while still a child, so she doesn’t have as many memories of being a human. Seven considers Janeway’s argument and, once again, says she would rather remain a Borg, that she doesn’t wish to become human, and that Janeway herself is removing from Seven the fundamental right of choosing her own destiny.

In Act Five, one really hopes that Janeway gets the idea. Seven — a Borg, a member of a species who isn’t supposed to show emotion, who is programmed not to show emotion — actually breaks down in tears and expresses her distaste at being forced to live as an individual, without the voices of the collective. Now, remember, only a few episodes ago Chakotay worked with some ex-Borg who formed their own collective and used it to serve the greater good — including saving his life. He knows what it feels like to be part of a group like that, and how beneficial it can be. But even he doesn’t stand up to Janeway and make her at least consider that she’s making a mistake. No, all that happens is we set up this series’s Picard/Data dynamic: Janeway tutoring Seven in humanity, the source of many, many heavy-handed episodes to come.

Seven, as human as she gets.Finally, in Act Six, as I said earlier, we end up seeing that Seven has come to terms with being a human. So, in the end, Janeway’s actions — which today I see at the very least as being misguided and at worst reprehensible (I believe all people should have a choice, as long as they harm no one else in making that choice) — turn out to be “right”. I did feel like another scene, where Seven maybe decompresses with the Doctor while getting her new eye put in or something, would’ve been very helpful in bridging the gap from tearful Borg to stoic-and-somewhat-willing human. Oh well. Janeway gets away with it again, and we warp on home.

It’s amazing just how much 14 years can change a person’s impression of a piece of art. What was a noble gesture in 1997 is now something to be viewed with suspicion, and it’s going to color every interaction Janeway has with Seven over the rest of the series. I realize that, over time, Seven comes to accept her humanity, and I realize that the chord being struck was supposed to be “kidnapped child is raised by the ‘evil’ parents, comes to love them, and is returned to her ‘real’ parents but doesn’t want to go because she loves the ‘evil’ ones”. It’s just… Seven wasn’t a child when she was turned back into a human. She was in her twenties. She had the ability to make the choice for herself.

She chose Borg. Janeway took her choice away. Not an action worthy of Star Trek, I should think.


* I was also not very impressed with the way Kes suddenly jumped in power from “some telepathic stuff” to “uber-telepathic being”. That should’ve been handled more smoothly, and over a somewhat-longer arc. As with the Seven storyline, it felt like there was a big jump in the middle. And Jennifer Lien’s 80s hair did not help matters much — she was much more believable with the short hair than the feathered ‘do.

Comments (15)

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  1. rich says:

    My 1997 self thought wow Jeri Ryan is hot.
    My 2011 self thought wow Jeri Ryan is hot.

    Sometimes a hot borg in spandex is just a hot borg in spandex..

  2. Mark says:

    I never liked Voyager, and this is part of why. I felt like the show forgave Janeway at every turn. Unlike Picard, Sisko, or even Kirk, Janeway never made a mistake – or, rather, the universe around never allowed her to make a mistake. Her every call turned out for the best.

    Kirk, by contrast, was basically an irresponsible jerk. He screwed up a lot, made a lot of enemies. He was a hero, so it usually worked out in the end, but the universe around him never tried to make him anything other than an irresponsible womanizer with an insufficient sense of the importance of the rules to hold the position he held. Picard, on the other hand, was a stickler to the rules, to the point that he got his people killed and regularly made his life harder than he had to.

    I don’t know much about Sisko – I didn’t watch all of DS9 – but I seemed to recall that he screwed up a lot.

    Janeway never made mistakes. If she irrationally mistrusted someone, they turned out to be a bad guy. If she followed the rules and sacrificed innocent lives, it was ok. When she broke the rules, it was ok, too. She was not judged as strictly as I wanted her to be, and it always rankled.

    • CS says:

      Just want to put my two cents about Sisko because, like you, not maybe people watch ds9 (my favorite but clearly not ‘trek’).

      Sisko was a very conflicted captain. He had his duty to the Federation on one had with an ever growing, and conflicting, interest in Bajor as emissary. This constantly makes him choose between two shades of gray in a moral mire. Once the Dominion war breaks out things become even worse as the sterling reputation of the Federation gets tarnished.

      I think the best example is “In the Pale Moonlight” where Sisco being faced with the choice to watch comrades die in combat or commit an escalating series of crimes. Neither choose is right and he clearly struggles with the outcome.

  3. jwbjerk says:

    I think if you get past the fact that she’s the protagonist, and that the writers make sure her actions usually lead to a “good” outcome– lots of Janeway’s actions turn out to be “at the very least as being misguided and at worst reprehensible”. She vacillates between idealistic, impractical compassion, and cold-hearted ruthlessness, but always she decides for the ship and for anyone else they run across. The unquestionable ideals she espouses in one episode will be totally ignored in another.

    No doubt i’m overstating the case– but if you engage with Voyager at this deeper level, i think you will often come to similar conclusions.

  4. SouthPaw says:

    You need to think of the Borg as a Mental Disease. We don’t allow people to make a personal choice to stay mentality disabled if they hurt them selves or other we force-ably medicate them.

    If she was making a choice to be gay it would have been wrong to force change.

    If the episode was written today more would have been done with the discussion on why this was a forced change.

    • CS says:

      “You need to think of the Borg as a Metal Disease.”

      While I understand your point I fear you are making a mistake. A major point in the discussion is that people should be be told what to “think”.

      Also that is generally a bold statement as I think you need to prove that Borg equates to metal disease.

  5. Fluffy Bunny's eval twin says:

    “…All people should have a choice, as long as they harm no one else in making that choice.” There you go Josh, shot down with your own arguments. The Borg are all about violently removing choice from their victims. That’s why Janeway does what she does.

    In regard to Kes; it doesn’t strike me as that unusual that a being with a nine-year life expectancy might experience periods of rapid development. That is to say, not that unusual in the context of a universe that allows humans to travel faster than light.

  6. frakkintalos says:

    I think it’s important to point out that although Seven is physically in her 20’s, her captivity left her emotionally stunted. She is essentially a child. As a Borg, she had no freedom or choice. She was held prisoner. I think Seven’s desire to return to the Collective was based off fear. She did not want to face the challenges of being human because it was foreign and alien to her. She reacted like any child in her position.

    I do agree that Chakotay should have at least questioned Janeway’s decision and we would have received some exposition explaining Janeway’s actions. At that point, she could have said that she was taking a gamble and trusting her gut. She could have said that Seven needs to mature in order to make a decision on whether to return to the Collective or not.

    I don’t even want to talk about how they flushed Kes down the proverbial obscure toilet of Star Trek.

  7. Siderite says:

    This is a great article. I haven’t often seen discussions on the topic of choice in sci-fi series and even less about how our views on this changes in time. And while I agree with you wholeheartedly about Seven’s right to choose, I also must point out that the story is consistent with the StarTrek universe. From Kirk to Picard, there was always the background of moral superiority of the humans over all other species. From Data to Seven and to Q, they had to teach other species how to be more like them.

    Also, I don’t think it is entirely a 1997 vs 2011 issue, either. I believe this to be more a Roseman circa 1997 vs Roseman of 2011 (pardon my Borg pun here). We don’t really value our right to personally choose when we are young and we need the experience of life to understand choice is personal, not a statistical function of our group.

    Anyway, I’ve always wondered how Star Trek could be rebooted for the present and I can tell with certainty that J.J.Abrams is not it. As Star Trek has always drawn inspiration for current political reality, a new Star Trek show would have to deal with terrorists and shadow governments and economic dependency and warfare. Maybe Voyager and DS-9 should be rebooted instead, with more focus on the Maquis.

  8. Kapitano says:

    Janeway was always portrayed as the moral compass of the crew – no matter how insane and irresponsible her actions were. The show has an amazing amount of moral dissonance, even for one with such, um, flexible and convenient morals.

    I think you can view Voyager in one of two ways. Either we’re seeing the events from inside Janeway’s twisted, desperately rationalising mind, where she’s somehow always right even when she’s obviously wrong. Or the crew is composed entirely of people with Stockholm syndrome, in thrall to a bully…who’s also probably mad.

    Janeway is either the hero of her own mind, or the villain of the delta quadrant.

  9. Matt says:

    I think you’re missing the point here: Seven didn’t have a choice- her real name was Annika Hansen- because the Borg abducted her and tried to obliterate her individuality. She was suffering from Stockholm syndrome, so to speak. There’s nothing reprehensible about rescuing someone in that situation. Complicated, maybe, because of the passage of time. But not reprehensible.

    I think you also gloss over the fact that we don’t really know how her newly severed mind was working at that point. Maybe she wasn’t yet making a “choice” to stay or leave.

  10. garrymoore says:

    hi to all escapepod.orgers this is my frst post and thought i would say hello to you all –
    thanks speak soon

  11. Josh Roseman says:

    Interestingly, I just watched “Nothing Human” last night — the one where a slug-creature attaches itself to B’Elanna and the Doctor creates a holographic version of Cardassian doctor (and war criminal) Crell Moset. Despite the fact that Moset is helping the Doctor figure out how to save B’Elanna, B’Elanna wants nothing to do with any cure Moset comes up with. She is lucid (although near death) when she makes this request.

    Janeway completely ignores it. She listens to the crew’s opinions but in the end disregards B’Elanna’s request and tells the Doctor to use Moset’s cure.

    Patterns of behavior…

  12. Siderite says:

    Let’s not forget that Star Trek is loosely based on British Navy stories where the captain was the representative of God and law on a ship. Prime Directive or morality getting in the way would not stop a desperate captain of a lost ship from saving her best engineer. I don’t know about Seven, but B’Elanna was an important asset.

    Anyway, how about the episode where Voyager encounters a race possessing the technology to send them home or at least half way, but who won’t share the technology with them. In order to solve the moral and logical conundrum of having the captain either failing her entire crew or failing her entire belief system, Tuvok chooses to buy the technology from a third party and then face the consequences as an individual, a volunteering spacegoat (err… scapegoat), so to speak.

    I personally would have loved more “evil Janeway” episodes. The same “logical solution” could have been applied from a moment on all the time, either by scapegoating a member of the crew or by the captain assuming the entire blame for everything, which is far more likely in the context.

  13. Wyrd says:

    Continuing with your analogy about the evil parents vs. the good parents:

    Good analogy. It helps underline your point about the flaw of the episode:
    In the real world, parents generally *aren’t* evil. Or–even if you wish to portray a given parent as evil, there isn’t any way you can separate the child from the “evil” parent without causing massive psychological damage to the child. To believe otherwise, or to believe that the child is guaranteed to eventually come to see that you made the right decision is deeply naive. And dangerous. Go check and see how many foster family kids grow up to have lives that don’t completely suck. It’s small numbers.

    Janeway’s lucky Seven didn’t turn sociopath or something.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.