“Wake her,” commands Captain Janeway. Seven of Nine, the Borg woman who’s just been severed from her collective, opens her eyes. For a moment, we see from her perspective: Janeway is standing directly in front of her, arms crossed, with a stony stare. The tension is palpable. When Seven understands what’s happened, she shouts; Janeway glares. Throughout the episode, Star Trek: Voyager’s “The Gift,” Seven hurls insults, assaults crew members, and (naturally) threatens total assimilation. Janeway, though immovable, is not unemotional. Finally, Seven admits, “I cannot function this way — alone,” and it’s then that Janeway makes her a promise.
“You aren’t alone,” she says, “I’m willing to help you.”
This act of grace sets in motion a remarkable relationship between two of the strongest women in sci-fi history. As it unfolds over the remainder of the series, the mentorship of Seven of Nine by Captain Janeway demonstrates how different ways of thinking can lead to huge gains when they’re shared in a spirit of trust and collaboration. But more surprising and impressive is how the relationship presents a roadmap for two women who are paired because they’re “different kinds of women” in the eyes of men — a roadmap that allows them to overcome their circumstances and make each other stronger.
To fully unravel the relationship between Janeway and Seven, you first have to understand the relationship between Kate Mulgrew and Jeri Ryan, the actresses who played them — as well as Mulgrew’s relationship to the entire Trek franchise during that period. Nineties-era Trek was a big improvement from the sixties’ Original Series when it came to portrayals of women, but it still defaulted to “the male gaze”— when we watch Commander Riker hit on women who work for him on The Next Generation, for example, it’s from his point of view (how charming!) rather than theirs.
So when Kate Mulgrew took the helm as Captain Janeway on Voyager, she smartly had a stipulation: No sex, she famously told the producers. The captain would remain strictly professional, ensuring any “will they or won’t they?” plotlines would remain won’ts. “I said, ‘I’m not going to sleep with Chakotay,’” Mulgrew recounted to the audience at 2017’s Denver Comic Con. “It’s not gonna happen.”
Three seasons of Voyager went by. Janeway successfully fixed a rip in time, saved the crew from an alien virus, rescued Amelia Earheart, transformed into an amphibian (and back again), died over and over in a time loop, and, perhaps most surprisingly, refrained from hooking up with Chakotay while stranded alone with him on a deserted planet. But nothing could have prepared the captain for what Mulgrew would later cheekily term “a va-va-va-voom and beautiful, beautiful bombshell.”
That bombshell was Jeri Ryan, of course, who made her debut at the beginning of the show’s fourth season. Reporters deemed her a “knockout” and said she “oozed sex appeal.” Playboy even got in on the frenzy, calling her a “Borg babe” and touting a feature with her on their cover. Mulgrew later told StarTrek.com, “Sexuality was brought into Voyager, and that’s what I resented... and I was hurt by the immediate, extraordinary attention given to this character.”
The attention on the new character wasn’t just off-screen. From the moment she’s stripped of her Borg implants, Seven of Nine is impossible to keep your eyes off of. She struts around the ship like she owns the place, and wears an outfit that hugs the va-va-voom so tight that Ryan reportedly couldn’t even use the restroom without extra help to peel off her clothes. Her appearance is overtly sexual, as obvious as The Original Series’ green, dancing “slave girls” from Orion. Who could blame Mulgrew for being annoyed?
“The Gift,” the second episode of season 4 and the one in which Janeway and Seven make their pact, sets up their relationship as a tenuous one, born of necessity. Seven betrays the captain’s trust early on, and she does it again and again throughout their relationship, even going so far as to sow doubt amongst the crew in Janeway’s ability to lead. This is about as far as you can get from the female mentorship that would be portrayed years later on Discovery, which shows Cadet Tilly loudly and proudly introducing Michael Burnham as her mentor in the mess hall. Seven and Janeway are stuck with each other. As Janeway says to her best-work-friend Chakotay, “What’s the alternative? Toss her back to the wolves??”
Janeway quickly dispenses with trying to relate to Seven as a member of the group-thinking Borg collective, and instead tries to bring out her individualistic human side. For the most part, she accomplishes this by calling Seven’s attention to her own unique ideas and talents, sparking her innate curiosity about herself. In Janeway’s first breakthrough, she asks Seven what her favorite color was as a child. In a later episode, as they’re in the holodeck experimenting with sculpture, Janeway tells her, “Don’t be afraid of the clay.” It’s a metaphor for allowing yourself to change and mold into whomever you want to become, and it’s an important lesson for a woman who’s finding her way in a world that seems intent on objectifying her.
Although it’s out of her earshot, Seven’s crewmates Paris and Kim keep the tradition of the male gaze alive by openly debating whether or not it’s weird for Kim to be interested in her. The Doctor — who, by the way, is the one who originally replicated those skintight clothes for Seven — takes it upon himself to mentor her on how he believes she should behave socially, then becomes openly annoyed when she doesn’t want to date him. And ultimately, Seven even ends up doing what Mulgrew (and perhaps, Janeway) always vowed she wouldn’t — she gets romantically involved with Chakotay, who’s kept it professional with the captain all this time despite his obvious crush.
Throughout it all, Janeway offers friendship and advice. She steadfastly supports Seven even when she makes mistakes, and challenges her modes of thinking that are at odds with her development as an individual. Seven remembers her favorite color (red), takes up singing, and works with Ensign Kim to create the astrometrics lab, which takes her research to new heights. In season 6, she fosters a group of Borg children, further learning from Janeway to march boldly through her fears by being confident in her abilities — and to let the kids get a little creative sometimes, like when they’re playing with clay.
Mulgrew herself grew to appreciate Janeway and Seven’s special relationship, believing that Seven added as much to the character of Janeway as Janeway added to hers. In 2018, she told Star Trek Las Vegas, “Seven of Nine is what brought Janeway to life, as a deeply human woman... and I am deeply grateful for that.” Seven gave Janeway a chance to nurture a woman who was as alone in the world as she was. She also challenged Janeway’s own modes of thinking, forcing her to give reason to her strongly held ideals.
It’s fitting that the Janeway-Seven relationship is a pivotal part of the last episode of Voyager, as the aging Admiral Janeway goes back in time to save Seven’s life. Breaking with established norms and getting creative, she unflinchingly confronts her fear — in this case, the Borg Queen — fighting a literal battle with the woman who would force her protégé to conform once again to the desires of the Borg collective.
We don’t yet know who Seven is as a woman now, showing up sweater-clad and confident in the trailer for season one of Star Trek: Picard, but however she has turned out, Janeway’s influence will surely shine through. No matter how they came together, and despite how many times their struggles were seen from a man’s point of view, Janeway and Seven of Nine set a surprising standard for relationships between two strong, successful female characters. They had vastly different worldviews. They didn’t even really get along. But they broke the mold of female mentorship together by trusting in each other’s skills and talents, and using that strength to break new ground.
Jennifer Boudinot (she/her, @jenboudinot) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Collider, The Belladonna Comedy, and Points in Case. She's also the co-author of the books Dangerous Cocktails and Viva Mezcal. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a Kira with a hint of Dax.