June 28, 2022

VOY: Unity

The power of a shared, common purpose, and Know a Thing For What It Is.


On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Voyager, Unity (Season 3, Episode 17). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Janeway and The Cooperative.


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Transcript

Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. We’re still in the Red Squad recruitment drive, or Patreon Subscriber Drive, whichever sounds better to you. A massive thank you to those that have already joined or upgraded. If you haven’t, now is the time. The drive ends shortly.

 

We about to see the beginning of a long-standing adversary in this series as we come face to face with a, well, different version of the Borg. When we do, we’ll learn about the unbelievable power of a common purpose, I’ll share why it’s important to know a thing for what it is and, finally, I’m going to examine the danger of having too much power. Let’s get into it! This is the 17th episode of the 3rd season of Voyager, Unity.

 

<<Transporter>>

 

First officer Chakotay and Ensign Kaplan are in a shuttle returning to Voyager after scouting ahead through the Nekrit Expanse. The expanse is this massive area of space that has very little in it other than nebulas and plasma storms. “They should call this place the negative expanse.” 9:21 Charts and maps of the area are rare and almost useless because it’s volatile and constantly changing. Going around the expanse would have dramatically added to their journey home, so they decided to take the estimated month-long trip through it instead. The last few episodes, chronologically, have been dealing with crossing this area.

 

They’re struggling to get a navigational fix “Are you saying we’re lost?” 0:19 and can’t find Voyager. They find a Federation hailing beacon sending out a distress call, though. It’s coming from a planet with about 80,000 humanoid life signs. This is super unexpected, so they land on the planet to check it out.

 

The planet’s a wreck “This place looks like a war zone.” 2:26 They’re attacked within minutes. Caught in the crossfire between two factions they both get hit and go down. Chakotay wakes up in a makeshift medbay. Riley Frazier, a human is caring for him and shares that Kaplan didn’t make it. And if that weren’t bad enough, the attackers have already salvaged his shuttle; it’s gone and he’s alone.

 

Riley shares that she was a science officer on a Federation ship that was attacked about 8 years ago. Survivors were put in stasis and were left on this planet. There’s a very diverse group of alpha quadrant species here. “Everyone here has pretty much the same story.” 7:49 She goes on to say that a lot of the people on the planet have formed groups and often attack each other. “And now it’s anarchy.” 8:30 Her group has formed a cooperative that works together to make the most of the limited resources. Chakotay wants to help repair the communications array, but he’s hurt pretty bad and lies back down.

 

On Voyager, Tuvok picks up an unknown vessel on long-range sensors. They get into visual range and it’s “The Borg!” 10:12 They go to red alert and prep for battle, but the Cube is adrift…it’s dead in space! Janeway sees an opportunity. She and B’Elanna Torres, the ship’s chief engineer, come up with a plan to go on board and learn what they can about the tech.

 

Chakotay is getting around the cooperative. He offers to take them along on Voyager when they’re found, but Riley says they want to stay here. They just want to find a way to peace. He respects that and is eager to help, but still needs to recuperate. He rests a bit but then goes out exploring. The wound on his head appears to be getting worse, but he leaves the medbay and walks in on the cooperative. They have no idea he’s out and about. The people just go about their business; many are missing limbs or are heavily scarred. He sees a small group gather around Riley. It almost looks like she’s sitting in a barber’s chair; someone is doing some kind of work on her head or face. When she turns around, we see that she, and people working on her, are former Borg! “Are you Borg? We were Borg.” 18:41 They were assimilated at Wolf 359, the massive battle in The Next Generation Best of Both Worlds arc.

 

They explain that after their link to the Collective was broken they started to become themselves again. They figured out how to remove their Borg body parts. They’re working to return to as normal as they can, and live their loves. But as the de-Borg’ed, people started to see aliens and cultures they didn’t know or understand. So they did what so many do when they don’t understand something; they fight it. “We’re not like that. The cooperative is real.” 19:47 Orum, the medic, is Romulan. He says he was trained from birth to hate humans and the Federation, but he’s all-in on the cooperative. This thing is legit. After some questions and back-and-forth, Chakotay agrees to still help them.

 

Voyager has picked up Chakotay’s shuttle beacon and they’re en route. The Doctor is examining a dead Borg they brought over from the Cube. It was electrocuted and died. This lines up with what Riley was saying about how they went down; their Cube was taken down by an electro-kinetic storm. The people Chakotay is with are from this same Cube. The autopsy also uncovers that, even though they are biologically dead, the right stimulus can reactivate the Borg drones. Torres says they’re basically sitting on a bomb and they have no idea what or where the fuse is.

 

On the planet, Chakotay is getting worse. The cooperative offer a terrifying solution. The Borg link can heal both organic and inorganic material. “We still have Borg neurotransmitters.” 23:43 They can still link up!!! And they want to link up with Chakotay to heal him. He is freaking out, but they are staying completely calm. Orum explains this is temporary and there won’t be any lasting effects. Chakotay wants nothing to do with it, but if he doesn’t do this, “you will die.” 25:13 He agrees, and they make it happen. They connect and he sees everything. He sees Wolf 359, the assimilations of the people on the planet. “I saw faces…planets.” 28:28 There are some residual effects that Riley says will last about an hour. They can communicate through their thoughts. He knows these people intimately and can’t wait to help them.

 

Voyager finds Chakotay. He and Riley beam up and meet with Janeway. She pitches re-establishing the neural link with everyone on the planet. She believes this will resolve their differences and bring everyone together. They want to use the Cube to power the link. “They want us to reactivate a Borg ship?” 33:54 Janeway is adamantly against this. She offers supplies and help upgrading their security measures. Riley thanks her and returns to the planet. Janeway asks Chakotay about the proposal and he says he wants to do it, but understands what’s at stake. You know, like the Borg!! But, honestly, the Borg are from the Delta Quadrant, it was a matter of time until they ran into them. So Janeway lays out the real issue with this plan, “Not only is this imposing a choice on thousands that don’t have a say. But it’s also creating a new collective.” 35:56

 

Chakotay breaks the news to Riley. She’s disappointed but understands. On his way back to the ship, the cooperative reestablished contact with him through the link. They lied! They can still talk to him and coerce him! “Chakotay, we need your help.” 38:20 He grabs a phaser, stuns Torres and flies to the Cube. They direct him to the location of the generator. Despite Tuvok and a security team trying to stop him, he activates the generator and the entire planet is joined in a neural link. Two things happen immediately. First, all hostilities on the planet stop. Riley was right! Oh, but so were Janeway and Torres…the Cube reactivates as well; all the drones are waking up! The Cooperative seems to be true to their word, though. They don’t want anyone to get hurt so they initiate self-destruct on the Cube. They hail Voyager. “We are the new Cooperative.” 43:20 and they apologize for forcing Chakotay to help. They cut the transmission and the ship is on its way.

 

Janeway meets with Chakotay in private. He apologizes but she is very understanding; she knows he was coerced. He takes full accountability, though; a really stand-up moment for Chakotay here and a wonderful scene that shows that growing respect between these two leaders.

 

<<Red Alert>>

 

This is our second go with the Borg here on the Starfleet Leadership Academy, but in the production would of Star Trek, their story was almost complete – at least at the time. The wildly popular film First Contact had come out just three months before this episode aired and some, like Ronald D Moore, a co-writer of the movie, believed that should have been the end of the Borg in Star Trek. As we will see in future episodes of Voyager, and the entire first and second seasons of Picard, the Borg are an ongoing concern. 

 

Quarks – Ads

 

The Borg are from the Delta Quadrant, the part of the galaxy Voyager is stranded in. Honestly, despite Ron D Moore’s desire for the movie to be the end of the Borg, there was really no way for them to not be a part of this show. But this is a super unique take on them that plants a few seeds that impact Voyager in the long run.

 

First, and maybe most importantly, the idea that a person can be de-Borg’d is introduced. I mean, Picard was able to be, but he was Locutus for a short period of time. The people in the cooperative had been Borg for a long time. We see how Picard, by the time of the episode in the Next Generation, Family, looks fully human. No scars, no implants or physical remnants of being Borg. But the Cooperative, the xB’s, still have Borg components because of how long they were Borg. This seed gives us 7 of 9 and a huge part of the premise in the first half of the first season of Picard.

 

Second, this episode paves a road for a massive villain that will come up later in this season. Without giving much away, the crew believe that the Cube was disabled by an electro-kinetic storm. Everyone except for Torres, that is. Torres thinks there’s a species that rocked the Borg. And, well, let’s just say she isn’t wrong.

 

I really enjoyed this episode. I liked its take on the Borg and the impossible situation it put Chakotay in. I like the way they cooperative were the bad guys but they really weren’t. It was really well done.

 

My problem with this episode is that, aside from the seeds it planted, it doesn’t have any lasting impacts. I mean, they formed a new Borg Collective that they call a Cooperative; Borg bent on being altruistic. Hmm, maybe they could suddenly make that a plot point to close out a confusing storyline in a series that’s in still in production at the time I record this…

 

But Chakotay’s question at the end, that I’ll dive into later, is never addressed and that is a huge missed opportunity. I also think they missed an opportunity to talk about Riley’s plan and how it is what happens when attempts at diversity fail. They have such a great group of people on this planet. They’re from all parts of the galaxy, brought together by a common trauma and the need for survival. As people do, especially people with a scarcity based mindset, they form groups, gangs really, and fight each other. Real leadership, strong leadership would work to bring these groups together and build on what they have. But, apparently, that’s just too hard. So instead, they reform the collective, against everyone’s will, and enforce peace. Seems like a total cop-out to me that, in Star Trek should have consequences.

 

But, I think I’ve let the Command Codes seep into the Red Alert section. So, let’s get to it!

 

<<Command Codes>>

 

I’m going to talk about Chakotay’s powerful question at the end of the episode about sticking to your principles when you have authority and power. But before that, I get to share one of my colleague’s favorite things to say and how impactful it can be: know a thing for what it is. And on top of seeing leadership give up on diversity, we do see the groundwork for building a team based on a common cause.

 

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The members of the Cooperative are doing some rough, rough work. They have limited supplies, a litany of medical issues and concerns, and other groups attacking them on a regular basis. But, they persevere through this. When we see them, they are doing the hard work necessary for them to survive.

 

Now, this might be because of a single person that is a strong leader and has charismatically inspired everyone to work and struggle through hardship, but I doubt that. They’ve been here for like 5 years and while charisma can carry a team for awhile…that’s a long time! No, I think this is something bigger than a person, or even a group of leaders. They have tapped into the secret that can transform any team into high performance.

 

They have a common cause. A shared purpose. And every person owns it, every single person is dedicated to this purpose. For them, it’s kind of about survival but it’s also about peace and community. Or, as the episode states, Unity. They don’t just want to survive, they want to bring the splintered groups back so they can all live and work together. This cause is what keeps them going. In fact, when Chakotay hears their initial goals and then he sees the group in action, he can’t help but get swept up in it; he very much wants to help!

 

In this episode, Riley is the spokesperson, but it’s not clear that she is the leader or even in a leadership-type role. What we see is a highly functional team that knows what needs to be done and they’re doing it. My good friend, Thomas Hubbuch, and his team would call this an unbossed organization. And that is a very good thing!

 

As a leader, you can achieve this too, and you don’t even need a neuro-link to do it. What you do need is a crystal clear purpose that everyone has bought into and fully owns. When this exists, you don’t need a manager or a boss telling you what to do and approving things…everyone just does what needs to be done.

 

I once heard that the thing that stops most teams and organizations from performing at their peak is a thing you know well: M&M’s. And, no, not the delicious candy that melt in your mouth, not in your hand, but a much more sinister M&M. Managers and Meetings. These two things rarely contribute to better performance and almost always detract from it. So develop a strong, well defined purpose that every single person on the team is committed to, and you can eliminate every M&M that doesn’t directly contribute to that purpose.

 

While the cooperative works as a highly effective team without constant managerial interventions, Voyager isn’t quite there yet. They still exist in a quasi-military structure and what this means is that sometimes the Captain is going to come down on you. Now in the cooperative, that responsibility doesn’t land on just one person. The team holds the team accountable – and it’s super easy because everyone is sold on the purpose. But on Voyager, Janeway often has her work cut out for her.

 

Near the end of the episode, Chakotay apologizes for everything that has happened. It would have been very easy, and even expected, for Janeway to accept his apology and give feedback…or maybe a lecture…on exposing oneself to risk and stuff like that. Instead, though, she not only understands that he was essentially under the mind-control of the cooperative, but she also knows a thing for what it is. She knows Chakotay, and she knows that, based on who he is, of course he came from a place of help and friendship. “helping others, that’s who you are.” 44:39

 

A colleague of mine said this on a regular basis: know a thing for what it is. He used this as a tool to help him acknowledge his emotional attachment to an issue, but look at it objectively.

 

There is an old fable that illustrates this very well, but I’m kind of frustrated that it’s the perfect thing to share here. There is literally a two-parter in Voyager named after this fable! So, I’ll share it here, but we will absolutely be looking at it again, which, honestly, is cool. I mean, this is such a simple story but so valuable.

 

This is the story of the frog and the scorpion. A scorpion came upon a river. He wanted to cross it but he didn’t know how to swim and knew the river would sweep him away. As he thought about this, a frog came along. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the river but the frog refused. You see, this frog was quite experienced and knew about the scorpion. He told the scorpion that he knew he would sting and kill him if he let him on his back. The scorpion said that that was ridiculous. You see, he was experienced as well and explained that he couldn’t swim. If he stung the frog, they would both die. Reluctantly, the frog agreed.

 

As they finished crossing the river the frog started to thank the scorpion for not stinging him but he couldn’t finish his sentence. You see, the scorpion stung the frog. In his final breaths the frog asked why. And the scorpion responded, I’m a scorpion, this is what I do. The frog shrugged its shoulders in acceptance and quietly passed away.

 

Now, there are many variations on this fable, there’s one with a turtle, which is likely the original, and some that have snakes and humans. The lesson in all of these, though, is what I was just talking about: know a thing for what it is.

 

The frog would have been fully justified in getting furious and screaming at the scorpion, just like Janeway would have been justified in chastising Chakotay for putting himself in the position he did. But in both cases, they know the thing for what it is and respond accordingly. I think that’s the real lesson point here: respond accordingly.

 

If you touch a hot stove and burn your hand, it doesn’t do any good to get made at the stove. Like, what did you think would happen? Janeway could have accepted Chakotay’s apology but, given the situation, what could she have expected that would have been any different? He did exactly what anyone would expect him to do given the situation.

 

So instead of punishing Chakotay, or leaning into him or shaming him, she consoles him. She validates his feelings, expresses her understanding and offers a kind of sympathy. Because she knew a thing for what it was, a person for who he is, she was able to lead him through this really difficult situation. She was able to help allay his guilt, and they were able to move on.

 

In their final conversation, Chakotay asks an absolutely profound question, “I wonder how long their ideals will last in the face of that much power,” 45:09 YES! Wow, this is such a huge thought.

 

As a society we have wrestled with this concept for centuries. The phrase, absolute power corrupts absolutely is attributed to Lord John Edward Acton from a letter he wrote in 1887, but over a century before that, English Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder said, in Parliament, that unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it. He said that in the 1770’s.

 

Now, if you want an example of the potential for corruption due to power, look no further than colonial England, right? Or you can look at so many governments today, or most of them dating back as far as recorded history. It is really hard to dispute this. But, none of these governments or people had the kind of power the Cooperative has here. In seconds, they connected everyone’s mind and forced them towards a common goal and purpose. That is a massive amount of power!

 

And, yeah, I should mention. Earlier when I was talking about developing that shared purpose and the superpowers that can bring…don’t do it like this! No, you have to collaborate, communicate and actively enroll people into owning that vision. What the cooperative did here, like I said before, is giving up on all that and forcing it. In fact, and I promise I’m not going to make this any more political than this next part will make it, but the writer of the episode, Kenneth Biller, used the Soviet Union as the model for this cooperative.

 

Now I feel like this isn’t a hard concept to see and agree on when we’re talking politics or government. But what about at work? What about in a household? I don’t know about you, but I see the signs of this thinking every single day in every organization I’ve worked in or observed.

 

On the more benign end of the spectrum, you see things like managers working in offices or larger cubes while the workers are confined in smaller, less comfortable cubes or workspaces. Maybe you’ll see things like a manager taking a longer lunch break or something like that. Nothing nefarious going on here, but a clear separation that shows that the manager gets to do more than the others.

 

On the other side of the spectrum, you see things like people not being paid for overtime, employers monitoring social media, safety protocols not being followed, even bullying and outright discrimination and harassment.

 

When a person is put into a position where they have power, where their decisions have a direct impact on the lives and experiences of the people they work with, it can be so easy to make selfish choices. To see things through your eyes with little regard to the impacts to others. And I want to be fair here, I want to be clear; I’m not saying this is intentional. Just by virtue of having authority or power, even when you are well intentioned, you can make choices that cause harm.

 

Let’s look at the cooperative. Totally discounting the total unwilling mind-control portion of what they want to do to all the people on the planet, when they mind-control Chakotay, they have the best of intentions. Here’s a way we can get what we want, what we believe we need, super easily and with almost no bloodshed. Like, that sounds great. All they have to do is hijack the mind and body of an unwilling participant that they straight up lied to to make it happen. Their level of power almost blinds them to this. Yeah, they apologize at the end, but who’s apologizing to Torres?? She got phasered by her friend and superior officer!

 

To combat this, you have to be always vigilant and always intentional. When you’re faced with any decision that will impact others, include them in the decision making. Avoid situations where you are left, unsupervised, to make all the decisions. I think about store or location managers here. When I was a GM of a movie theatre, my district manager was like 800 miles away from me. I could run on my own for months at a time sometimes. To be sure I didn’t let that happen I leaned on my teams and colleagues. My management team, other GMs in the area, even one of the vendors I worked with that I trusted. I not only expected accountability, but I actively sought it out. And, on top of that, I was open to being accountable. When someone would question an idea I had, or something I said, I wouldn’t get defensive and stand up for my idea. I was curious and open to hearing what they had to say.

 

So, yeah, we can maybe agree that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I wish we got to see what came of the cooperative later in the series to see how it affected them. But, when you’re intentional and actively seek out…and accept accountability, you can change it up a little and say, UNCHECKED absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

 

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Computer, what are we going to watch next time….

 

Oh! It’s our first animated series episode! From its first season, the 4th episode, the Lorelei Signal. I absolutely remember this episode and I think it’s going to perfect for our first look at this series. Not only is Uhura featured in this one, but she ends up taking full command! I look forward to watching it with you.

 

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!