Torn between Past, Present and Future: Seven of Nine and the Experience of Time

Jim Watkins is assistant editor of Transpositions.  He has recently completed a PhD in theology at the University of St Andrews.  He enjoys reading books, visiting art museums and, of course, watching Star Trek.

One of the most persistent questions that Star Trek asks is “what does it mean to be human?”  And one of its chief modes of asking this question is through characters who experience an “incarnation.”  All of the TV series have one of these characters: Spock, Data, Odo, Seven of Nine (henceforth ‘Seven’), the Doctor, and T’Pol.  None of these characters are human, at least in the traditional sense, and they find themselves in circumstances that push them toward humanity.  In various ways, they each become more human.

It is, of course, ironic that we can learn more about ourselves by watching a fictional non-human on our TV screens.  In this post, I will offer some thoughts about how Seven helps us to understand our experience of time.

We first meet Seven in the Voyager episode ‘Scorpion, Part II’ when she is chosen as a Borg representative to negotiate with Captain Janeway.   As a general rule, the Borg do negotiate, but in this case they encountered a more powerful enemy and their hands were tied.  In the process of working with Voyager’s crew to defeat the new alien threat, Seven’s link to the Borg collective is severed and she becomes a permanent fixture of the crew.

The Borg are a collective of human-machine hybrids that operate as a unified hive mind.  For the Borg, maintaining order and unity while pursuing perfection in the most efficient way possible is the highest priority.  The Borg roam the galaxies looking for advanced civilizations they can assimilate so they can enhance their own collective.  Seven, herself, was assimilated when she was only a child.  The Borg are a powerful enemy to reckon with.  As the Borg say, “Resistance is futile.”

Because Seven is taken from the Borg collective to live with the crew of Voyager, she must learn to accept her individuality.  One of the more difficult aspects of individuality that Seven grapples with is her new experience of time.

As a Borg, Seven experienced something akin to timelessness. She had no memories of her past, desires for the future, or even a fear of death.  These are the sorts of things that individuals care about.

Removed from the Borg hive mind, Seven finds herself torn between the past, present and future.  In ‘Dark Frontier, Part I and II,’ the main conflict of the episode centers around an internal struggle within Seven to understand who she is now, in light of her past and in the knowledge of what it may mean for her future.  To prepare for a particularly bold mission to steal a trans-warp coil from a nearby Borg vessel, Seven reads her parent’s log entries prior to being assimilated by the Borg, and she essentially relives a portion of her childhood.  On remembering this part of her past, Seven is ashamed of and disappointed with her parents for arrogantly thinking that they could study the Borg without being assimilated.  As Seven struggles to come to grips with her past, she is contacted by the Borg Queen who tempts her with the possibility of returning to the Borg collective.  The Borg Queen reminds Seven that Borg is her true identity, and that her humanity died long ago.

Seven is faced with a difficult choice between two competing narratives about her life.  Can she return to the humanity into which she was born, or is she now forever Borg?  The German Philosopher Martin Heidegger regarded temporality as fundamental to human existence, and he argued that humans should learn to live authentically in the face of temporal disintegration, and especially death.  In many ways, Seven does learn to live an authentic life as part of the Voyager crew because she learns that a community is made of individuals, and not merely functional designations.  While the authentic life is courageous, what Seven needs is even more fundamental.  She needs the hope that, whichever narrative she ultimately chooses, her experience of time can be healed.

Fans of Voyager will know that Seven ultimately chooses to remain with the crew of Voyager.  If there is any healing for Seven’s experience of time, it is wrought by the fellowship and acceptance she finds in that community.  Seven learns to experience time in a community, and not merely as an individual or as a member of a collective.  As a member of Voyager’s ‘collective’, Seven has a community to share in her struggles to integrate her past and her future.

The portrayal of Seven’s experience of time on Voyager points to our need for the redemption of our experience of time.  We also are often faced with competing narratives about our past, present and future, and bringing these narratives into a meaningful whole can be a struggle to say the least.  There is no hope for a meaningful existence in the mere timelessness of a Borg collective.  Rather, the redemption of our experience of time is anticipated in the life of Jesus.  Jesus is not torn between past, present and future, and he also is not outside of time.  Rather, Jesus lives an authentic life in perfect obedience to the Father.  There is no sin in Jesus’ life that might lead him to question whether he truly is the Son of God.  Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as carrying out a coherent mission, in the knowledge that he has been sent by the Father for the love of the world.  The wholeness of Jesus’ life anticipates a day when our fragmented lives will also be woven into a meaningful, glorious whole.

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.  Fair use justification: the image is being used to comment on the character Seven of Nine.

9 Comments

  • Matthew Linder says:

    What I always found fascinating about Data as a character is that he was always involving himself with in the arts from painting to music. You have an interesting juxtaposition of a non-human entity acting as the agency creating art. Brings rather profound questions as to whether human agency is required to produce art. As I recall though Data was involved in the arts because they were an important aspect of being human thus confirming the agency requirement in making art.

    Seven’s journey of being thrown into a new narrative is often painful for her and as

    • Kevin C. Neece says:

      That is one of the most interesting aspects of Data’s character. His mother’s idea, as you may recall. His father thought that, lacking emotions, Data would not need a creative side. His mother insisted that, for the same reason, he would need them all the more.

      It is interesting that this particular aspect of Data is so prominent in his journey because it is perhaps our own creativity in which we most uniquely reflect our creator, when compared with other species on this planet. In this way, Data reflects the fact that we are made in our creator’s image and that expressing his likeness is at the core of being human.

      The reason Data’s creativity is more important than his emotions is perhaps that creativity is a more uniquely human trait that would give rise to greater development. Of course, Data only mimics great performers when he plays music. But, as Picard points out, he chooses whom to mimic and why. This seems to express, if not his own creativity, an outgrowth of his creator’s ingenuity, which has been passed on to Data. Similarly, Data’s paintings become a part of his connection to the essence of Dr. Soong within himself. In the same way, we are designed by our creator to seek experiences which lead us to him.

  • Matthew Linder says:

    oops… hit submit before i finished my thought.

    In regards to Seven and her journey of being thrown into a new narrative, this is similar to the narrative of the gospel we become a part of when we become a Christian. We are often confused by our new environment and it is a lifelong process of understanding the mind of Christ as he santifies us. This narrative shift many times is rattling to the depths of our core and we often have a hard time adjusting much like Seven did in “Voyager.” However, in the gospel narrative we will move from experiencing linear time to timelessness when we are one day in the prescene of God.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Matthew, thanks for these comments. You are right about Data’s interest in the arts, and this is just another way that he tries to transcend his programming and ‘become human.’

      I think you are also right to point out that becoming Christian means learning to accept a new narrative about our lives, a narrative about our adoption into God’s family. In some ways, Seven’s transition from Borg to Voyager probably mirrors this, but I’m sure we could also find ways in which it is different.

      I disagree with your suggestion that, when we are in God’s presence, we will move from experiencing linear time to timelessness (this was one point I was hoping to develop in my post). I think that the gospel offers us hope for an integrated or whole experience of time in which we no longer experience conflicts between who we were, who we are and who we will be. I also do not think that God exists in timelessness, but that God’s experience of time is analogous to, though quite different from, our experience of time.

      • Kevin C. Neece says:

        If I may sound like Spock for a bit, “Fascinating, Jim!” 🙂 I’m quite interested in the idea of a fully renewed and restored humanity at the end of the gospel story of redemption, particularly in relationship to Star Trek’s humanistic foundation. Certainly, the move from a concept of disembodied spirits floating on a cloud to renewed, flesh and blood humans on a perfected Earth is the first step in this.

        But I’m interested in this concept of an integrated experience of time. I was originally going to comment about the relationship between our humanity and our existence within the confines of time and how a timeless existence might alter our humanity. But, this concept of an essentially perfected experience of time is quite beautiful. I’m very curious as to how you arrived at this idea. Please elaborate! 🙂

        • Jim Watkins says:

          Kevin, thanks for this comment. I’m borrowing these categories ‘timelessness,’ ‘torn between past, present and future’, and ‘redeemed time’ from William Placher’s Narratives of a Vulnerable God (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994). Although he doesn’t phrase these categories in this way, he challenges the idea that eternity is a form of timelessness. Instead, he follows Karl Barth who argued that metaphysics needs to be reinterpreted in light of Jesus’s life. It seems to me that the idea is simply that whatever we say about God needs to first be questioned and challenged by what God reveals about himself in Jesus. Turning to notions about God, Placher suggests that Jesus’ temporal life implies that eternity and our current temporal existence cannot be adequately understood through a dichotomy of timelessness/time. Placher interprets eternity through the lens of Jesus’ experience of time, and the sense of wholeness or integrity that the gospels imply about the narrative of his life.

          I’m sure that this attempt to summarize Placher’s argument is not adequate, but it probably gives you a sense of where I’m coming from. At the very least, I think that a careful reading of the bible (the gospels and the rest of the bible) challenges classical notions of divine timelessness, and that we need to think more carefully about what it may mean for a human person to live in eternity. In my opinion, timelessness offers us a kind of escape from the human condition, rather than a full redemption of the human condition.

        • Jim Watkins says:

          I should add that I am not saying that doctrines of God’s timelessness describe a Borg-like God. There are many great theologians who have held to a doctrine of divine timelessness, and they would be appalled by this suggestion (though I hope they would like Star Trek!). My interest in this post is more directly about Seven’s struggle to integrate her past into her present so that she can embrace her future.

  • Kevin C. Neece says:

    “In my opinion, timelessness offers us a kind of escape from the human condition, rather than a full redemption of the human condition.”

    Can I just frame that quote and hang it on my wall? 🙂 I think you’re onto something there. There does seem to be an integration between eternity and time, as we have tended to describe them. If time does not exist in eternity, it begs the question as to why a process that takes time is necessary in order to accomplish eternal purposes. Similarly, if time is temporary, why did God choose it as a place in which to forge an eternal relationship with humankind?

    It would also seem to me that we need some new vocabulary here. Just speaking of eternity and time as two distinct categories implies that eternity is a timeless realm. What do you think might be some good alternatives?

    Seven’s progress as you describe it illustrates such an important part of being human. I quoted Ben Sisko in my comment on Cole’s post saying that, to the Prophets, “the future is no more difficult to see than the past.” This statement implies that to us, as beings who have a linear experience of time, the past is bound up with and is intrinsically a part of our present. His whole conversation with the Prophets in “The Emissary” about what it is like to live in this linear existence is an illustration of the harmony we have to seek in life as humans between where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going.

    I think this comes right to ideas that are at the heart of Star Trek. As Q says of humans in the TNG episode “Hide and Q,” “Change is at the heart of what you are. But change into what? That’s the question.” This may be, as Data points out, a “truism,” but it is a central theme in Star Trek. We know where we’ve been. We know where we are. Where are we going? Where should we seek to go and how do we get there?

    Seven’s experience reflects that of anyone who is overcoming darkness, imprisonment or abuse in their own past. These things also plague us as a species and it is the harmony of all history which Christ will ultimately bring that will bring the fullness of meaning and purpose to our struggle.

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