The Girlfriend and I continue to obey some obscure drive to watch all of Star Trek, and currently we’re in the sixth season of Voyager. One of the most controversial characters in that series was Seven of Nine, a liberated Borg drone who was added to the cast in the fourth season and dominated the storyline for most of the fourth and fifth seasons. (Shorter version: some people think it’s a shame she displaced established characters and believe that her physical appearance was an attempt to pander to the adolescent audience; on the other hand, though, she’s a great character performed by a great actress and, my God, it’s a Borg crew member and the Borg are cool.) I’ve noticed that I have a seemingly disproportionate investment in this ancient controversy — I will defend Seven of Nine to the death as a major improvement to the show. I’m starting to realize that part of the reason is that I identify closely with her struggle to define herself in relation to her Borg past and her uncertain future. She was assimilated at such a young age that she hadn’t yet developed an identity of her own and will never not be Borg (the implants are required for her survival now, and she still retains the vast knowledge she gained as a member of the Borg Collective), but she can also never go back.
The revelation came when the Voyager crew met a trader who offered to sell Seven some components that belonged to her old Borg unit — I turned to The Girlfriend and said, “If it was me, they’d be offering DC Talk albums from my old youth group.” I’ve written before about how circumstances conspired to make the interpellation of evangelical Christianity particularly strong and yet particularly problematic and confusing in my early childhood. I felt very acutely the faults in evangelical culture — particularly its anti-intellectualism — but it was at the same time the only culture I had. Even as I was planning to convert to Catholicism, I didn’t have the courage to leave the Collective and chose the easy route of attending Olivet Nazarene University.
There was a parallel experience in Seven of Nine’s pre-Voyager past, when she and a group of comrades were disconnected from the Collective for a time. The others had been assimilated as adults and began to remember their past lives and react with horror to their present state. All Seven of Nine had to fall back on, however, was her experience as a terrified six-year-old girl, and she wound up taking radical action to bring her co-drones back to the Collective, permanently damaging them in the process. I wonder, too, how many relationships I wound up damaging due to my insistence on principles that I could not follow because at bottom I didn’t really believe in them. Then, too, there is an episode (after she was freed from the Collective) where she receives a powerful signal compelling her to return to the Borg. A crucial turning point comes when she realizes that she no longer wants the fellow crewman who has pursued her to be assimilated. This resonated with my high school experience, when I felt guilty for not “witnessing” to my friends and yet knew deep down that getting them to convert would be the worst thing I could do for them. Why destroy this perfectly normal, happy person?
I can’t map my narrative perfectly onto Seven of Nine’s, of course. For those who haven’t watched the show, I expect that the account I’ve given so far is hard to follow — but what’s important, what draws me in, are the motifs that have an uncanny parallel in my own life. For instance, it would be easy for Seven to be purely reactionary, refusing to use her Borg knowledge or technology after what they did to her. This would be like the former evangelical who preaches the cause of atheism with truly evangelical fervor. She uses the knowledge she’s gained, however, to provide unique benefits to the crew, just as I use the theology that has deeply shaped me to make my own strange contribution to the academic world. Another parallel: she calls Voyager her “new Collective,” and I have always been inclined to think of Chicago Theological Seminary (and subsequently Shimer College, though I don’t know if I’ve ever vocalized it) as my “new church.” Seven finds solitude difficult to handle, and I too found it difficult to handle the more “hands-off” approach of the Catholicism that I tried on during my college years. The constant emotional manipulation and gossip of the evangelical world was toxic, but at least people cared about me (in their way). It’s probably no accident that I’ve found myself drawn to small, close-knit communities throughout my career.
At least in the early episodes, Seven seems to admire the Borg principle of seeking perfection, even if their methodology has come to seem questionable to her. I wonder if I, too, held onto the evangelical certainty even as I let go of its content — leading to an impatience with liberals that continues to this day, and probably also explaining my almost immediate fascination with Zizek on discovering him my senior year of college. I’ve distanced myself from that attitude and even relentlessly parodied it (“they believe stupid shit, but by God, at least they won’t change their mind!”), but I don’t know if I’ve ever fully let it go or what that would even mean. A preference for forthrightness, an impatience with “niceness” — this is my paradoxical inheritance from evangelicalism, tempered as it is by my distrust of the compulsory niceness of evangelical culture itself. We could read Seven of Nine, an impatient, blunt, and irritable character if there ever was one, in a similar light: she preserves the absolute self-assurance that allows the Borg to believe they’ve improving the quality of life of those they forcibly assimilate, but she puts it in the service of her own individuality.
For me, this is why Seven’s relationship to Capt. Janeway is the most successful variation on the endless theme of “understanding humanity” that began with the bromance between Kirk and Spock. This time, the story’s not about an outside perspective (Spock) or about a character who wants to become human but never fully can (Data, Odo). Seven’s experience speaks to the problem of learning to become human in a new and different way, and so even though she’s embedded in one of the craziest, most over-the-top sci-fi creations in history (the Borg), it’s no longer “merely” a sci-fi thought experiment — it’s the story of my life.