When Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) first joined the crew of Star Trek: Voyager, she told Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) she didn't want to be disconnected from the Borg hivemind. In essence, she was resisting her basic humanity. And as the Borg say, resistance is futile, which now seems prophetic; in the most recent episode of Star Trek: Picard, "Stardust City Rag," Seven has returned and she is quite visibly, the most fractured, emotional, and human version of the character we've ever seen.
For Jeri Ryan, finding the new voice for Seven wasn't as easy as switching off a Borg implant. Instead, she had to dig deep to figure out who her famous character was in the brave new world of contemporary Star Trek.
**Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard, Season 1, Episode 5, "Stardust City Rag."**
"Finding Seven's voice was terrifying for me," Ryan tells SYFY WIRE. "I knew she would be changed, but the voice was what I was hung-up on. I could not hear her voice in it. I really freaked. I was in complete panic mode."
So how did Jeri Ryan reboot Seven of Nine? Turns out, former Borg drones still rely on the hivemind of the Collective. In Ryan's case, a collaboration with another Borg actor, Jonathan Del Arco, made all the difference.
"Luckily, Jonathan Del Arco — who plays Hugh Borg — had gone through a similar crisis when he'd had to figure out who he was now. He came over to help me with the scenes," Ryan explains. "I was literally pacing around and freaking out saying, 'I'm so screwed. I'm so screwed.' And eventually, he said, 'What if she makes a conscious choice to be as human as possible to survive?' And that was like a little switch going off.
"That's what I needed as an actor to make it make sense," Ryan adds. "That was how I could have her to speak so much more loosely and casually and in a much more contemporary way. Because her voice was so specific for those four years on Voyager."
Seven of Nine wasn't exactly the Spock of Star Trek: Voyager — in some ways, you could argue she was even more stoic and hardcore than any Vulcan. Her extreme emotional responses to anything on Voyager were often the direct result of some crossed signals ("Infinite Regress") or her internal tech breaking down ("Imperfection"), wired malfunctions instead of truly intangible reactions. In Picard, however, Seven is defined by her emotional responses, and Ryan says the biggest change in her character's life was precisely the moment she loses her former protégé and surrogate son, Icheb in the opening flashbacks of the episode.
"That loss more than anything else, shaped what she's become over the last 13 years," Ryan says. "When I was talking to Jonathan Frakes, who directed the episode, we agreed that this scene is probably the first time that Seven truly let go of her emotions. That was her breaking point. I'm a mom. It wasn't difficult to access those emotions, as a parent. But it was a hard scene."
Having to access vulnerability wasn't hard for Ryan, but it also meant that the emotional forcefield she wore around Seven for so many years would no longer protect her while shooting these scenes.
"When we were shooting the later scenes, where she is confronting Bjayzl and explaining everything that's happened to Picard — as I was describing this scene, I'd be sobbing," Ryan says. "We did several takes of that, because as I'd say what had happened, Jeri, me the actor Jeri, kept bursting into tears. For several takes, it was just me sloppy crying. You feel it so deeply as a parent. That is probably the greatest tragedy of Seven's life. Even more than being assimilated and having her parents assimilated at such a young age."
Considering this is Seven of Nine's first appearance in the pantheon of Trek since the Star Trek: Voyager finale in 2001, her character goes through quite a bit. Not only does she grapple with the death of Icheb, and eventually avenge herself upon the villainous Bjayzl (Necar Zagegan), but Seven also takes a second to chat with Jean-Luc Picard about their shared experience of both having been forcibly assimilated into the Borg Collective.
In what is probably the best scene in the entire episode, Seven point-blank asks Picard if he has really recovered all of his humanity after having been a Borg. It's a powerful scene that not only highlights Jeri Ryan's acting chops but also gives us insight into what's going on in Seven's head.
"I thought that was a really cool moment between those characters," Ryan reflects. "She's not encountered many people who have had this exact experience. I don't think she would have had this conversation with Icheb, so this is her only shot to ask this question. This is her one opportunity to speak with someone how has had that same experience she has had, or at least some version of that experience. And, she's not sure she's going to see him again."
Of course, Jean-Luc was assimilated by the Borg for a far briefer time than Seven of Nine. In "The Best of Both Worlds," the crew of the Enterprise managed to get Picard de-Bordged pretty quickly. Seven, on the other hand, was a Borg drone for years and years. Does she think Picard is kind of a Borg-poser?
"Ha! Yeah, Picard is a poser! You were a Borg for five minutes!" Ryan says with a laugh. Then she gets back to business, proving how seriously she takes her character's backstory. "I think once you've had those experiences of having your identity taken from you and all of those voices in your head — whether its a day or most of your life — I think it's enough a shock to your system, that it would affect you for the rest of your life. So, I think Seven recognizes it's a big deal no matter how long you were a Borg."
Despite all the heavy themes of loss and discussions about how to not turn into a total monster after being a cyborg, Jeri Ryan still managed to have some fun with Seven of Nine. She explains that in addition to finding the voice of the character again, she also wanted to make sure various physical mannerisms from the Voyager days translated into her character now. One of those things was a very subtle, trademark head nod, a sly visual reference to the Seven of old. When she is beamed aboard the Le Sirena at the end of "Absolute Candor," Seven gives Picard this old-school little nod, and Twitter went wild.
"Yes! That was so amazing that soooo many fans immediately lit up Twitter and said, 'that's the little Seven head tilt, the nod!' I wasn't sure anyone would notice it, and everyone picked it up right away in that tiny little scene."
For longtime Trek devotees, it's often the smallest things that matter the most, and in returning to Seven of Nine, Jeri Ryan understands this fact more than anything. Though she admits she hesitated before accepting the role again, that she was "intrigued" by who Seven had become. Nonetheless, to the end, Ryan was thinking of the fans and her own allegiance to the truth of knowing her character better than anyone else.
"The writers are fantastic. They also know that we know these characters because we played them for several years. So, they were open to some suggestions and changes that I needed," Ryan says. "She's an amazingly cool character. On paper. But I didn't want her to just be an amazingly cool character who just happened to have the same aesthetic around her eye. I think I finally found her again. I was surprised by how interested I was in playing her again. I love who she has become."
Star Trek: Picard Season 1 has five episodes left. Jeri Ryan could not reveal when and if she returns as Seven, but we're certainly betting she does. New episodes drop on Thursdays on CBS All-Access.