Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Q Who” (season 2, episode 16)
Written by Maurice Hurley; directed by Rob Bowman; first aired in 1989
Captain Picard’s old nemesis, the all-powerful Q, has been expelled from the Q Continuum, and wants to join the crew of the Enterprise as a sort of consultant on the “wonders you cannot possibly imagine” and “terrors to freeze your soul” that await humanity in the furthest reaches of space. Picard rejects Q’s job application, insisting that they’ll do alright without him, and Q decides to demonstrate just how big a mistake that is. He strands the Enterprise light years from the Federation, where Guinan’s people are from … or where they were from, until their home planet was decimated by something called “the Borg”. The Enterprise is scanned by an enormous, cube-shaped, eerily utilitarian ship, and by the silent, methodical cyborgs it beams over. Having apparently decided that the Enterprise has technology they can use, the Borg ship proceeds to use a tractor beam and laser to slice pieces off the Enterprise, killing a number of the crew before they manage to knock out the tractor beam. An away team beams over to the seemingly disabled Borg cube, where they learn that all Borg are joined from birth in a collective hive mind, allowing them to adapt to Starfleet weapons almost immediately … and allowing their ship to quickly regenerate and repair its damage. The Enterprise tries to retreat, but simply can’t outrun the freshly-regenerated Borg cube. As things look grim, Picard begs Q for help escaping this particular terror to freeze the soul, and admits that they need him. Satisfied that the lesson has been learned, Q returns the Enterprise to Federation space, leaving Picard to mourn his lost crew members … and to wonder what happens when the Borg come looking for humanity, as Guinan assures him they will.
Star Trek: Enterprise – “Regeneration” (season 2, episode 23)
Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 2003
In Earth’s Arctic, a research team discovers the wreckage of an alien ship, and the frozen bodies of several cyborgs that we, the audience, recognize as Borg. The scientists, though, have no idea what they’re getting themselves into, and their attempts to study the Borg go about as well as you’d expect. Soon enough, the assimilated researchers and their modified ship are travelling through space, with places to go and people to assimilate. Archer and his crew are sent after them in hopes of rescuing the scientists, but they eventually learn that there may be nothing left to rescue, when the assimilated survivors of an attacked freighter try to take over the Enterprise, infecting Dr. Phlox in the process. Archer connects the dots between these mysterious cyborgs and some fantastical stories once told by the inventor of warp flight, Zefram Cochrane, but never learns exactly what the drones are or why they were on Earth (something we already know if we’ve seen the film Star Trek: First Contact, which this episode clearly assumes we have). Archer is determined to get the researchers back safely, but finally comes around to T’Pol’s argument that the drones are no longer the humans they were, and that they must be destroyed – something Phlox is willing to do to himself, rather than become a drone. Luckily, the Doctor manages to technobabble his way to a cure for the nanites in his system, and Tucker’s modified phasers allow Enterprise to destroy the drones’ ship, but not before it sends a signal toward the Delta Quadrant, ominously foreshadowing … a bunch of stuff most of the audience has probably already seen.
I’ve argued before, and I’ll argue again, that Star Trek isn’t really about alien civilizations; it’s about humanity. The aliens of Trek tend not to be fully-realized imaginings of what an alien society might be like, so much as metaphorical representations of things we might find alien in other humans, and of things we may not always see – or want to see – in ourselves. Starfleet’s alien encounters aren’t meant to predict what an extraterrestrial encounter might actually be like, but to model the challenges and opportunities of finding common ground with those who seem different from ourselves. The aliens of Star Trek – most of them – are only alien so that they can be humanized.
And then there are the Borg.
It’s hard to overstate the impact the Borg have had on the franchise of Star Trek, and on its fictional universe, since they were first introduced in “Q Who” in 1989. Just over a year later, they would become the centerpiece of The Next Generation’s third-season finale and fourth-season opener, “The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2”, an edge-of-your-seat cliff-hanger which helped solidify TNG’s status, among geeks and mainstream audiences alike, as quote-unquote water cooler television. The Borg would go on to become one of the most widely-recognized elements of the franchise, both for the initiated and in mainstream pop culture, serving as: the antagonists of Star Trek: First Contact, widely considered the best of the Next Generation films; a go-to plot device when writers and producers wanted to rejuvenate later series, like Voyager and Enterprise; and in the wider culture, the source of both the widely-quoted line “Resistance is futile”, and an oddly fluid analogy for capitalism and/or socialism, depending on the analogy-user’s politics. But beyond all that, they also introduced something arguably new to the narrative of Star Trek: a threat that was not only alien, but seemingly impossible to humanize. Of course, this element of the Borg, and others, would be tinkered with over time, to varying degrees of success, which we’ll look at another time. But here, in their first appearance in “Q Who” – and, interestingly, in their last TV appearance (so far) in Enterprise’s “Regeneration” – they don’t represent an element of humanity, as most Star Trek species do; they represent the horrors we’d be left with in the absence of our humanity.
Having watched most of The Next Generation as it first aired – having grown up with the Borg as my boogeymen – it’s hard to see “Q Who” as a single self-contained story, without filtering it through my knowledge of the impact the Borg will have throughout the rest of TNG and beyond. But then again, I don’t think it’s unfair to bring that baggage to “Q Who”, since it isn’t really a single self-contained story. The episode is explicitly setting the Borg up as a looming threat which will return in future episodes; the god-like Q and the eerily intuitive Guinan each practically look into the camera and tell us as much. This looming threat was vaguely hinted at previously in TNG’s first-season finale, “The Neutral Zone”, in which several Federation and Romulan outposts are mysteriously destroyed in what “Q Who” reveals to be the Borg’s signature style, scooping entire cities off the surface of a planet. But where “The Neutral Zone” gives vague hints, “Q Who” presents us with an impressively fully-realized picture of what the Borg are, how they operate, and what the stakes will be when the Enterprise inevitably encounters them again.
The visual design of both the Borg and their ships would change in bits and pieces across future appearances, both to make use of advancing special effects and to incorporate sleeker sci-fi concepts, like injectable nanites for assimilating new drones (as Dr. Phlox experiences in “Regeneration”). But the visuals in “Q Who” clearly lay out the blueprint both for how the Borg and their ships will look on screen in future episodes, and for what they represent thematically. The Borg cube is categorically different from what Star Trek has trained us to expect in starship design – expectations embodied in the Enterprise D, with its smooth, brightly-illuminated surface, and its saucer section, drive section, and warp nacelles clearly delineated from each other. Next to that, the Borg vessel just looks wrong: a massive industrial cube, absolutely dwarfing the flagship of the Federation, and with nothing to distinguish the different sections of the ship, or even to indicate that it is a ship … until it starts moving very, very fast. The contrast couldn’t be starker, and this contrast carries over to the Borg drones themselves. The first time we see a drone, it’s in the engineering section of the Enterprise, where the clunky, undecorated technology of its cyborg implants look eerily out of place next to the bright buttons and smooth touch-screens of the engineering panels, and even Geordi LaForge’s own, relatively flashy cybernetic visor.
Though the episode doesn’t obviously lean into it, that contrast between LaForge and the Borg drones is important, I think, for what it says about why the Borg are not just scary, but unnerving – why they seem somehow wrong. It’s not the fact that they have cybernetic implants, which we’ve already seen on Geordi in TNG, and which, since “Q Who” first aired, have gone from science fiction to just plain science, with cochlear implants for hearing serving as a real-world example. It’s not what’s been added to the Borg drones that makes them scary, but what’s been taken away from them. Yes, their particular cybernetic implants are scary-looking, with a design that mimics the cold, industrial functionality of their ship. But that’s exactly the point. Geordi’s visor, with its relatively sleek, aesthetic design, is meant as a tool for him to use. The Borg drones’ implants look industrial because they are industrial; they’re not meant as tools for the drones to use, they’re meant to turn the drones themselves into tools of the collective hive mind. This contrast is supported, I think, by an exchange between LaForge and Ensign Sonya Gomez, which, though short and not mentioned again, is notably the first few lines of the episode:
Gomez: [To food replicator] Hot chocolate, please.
LaForge: We don’t ordinarily say please to food dispensers around here.
Gomez: Well, since it’s listed as intelligent circuitry, why not? After all, working with so much artificial intelligence can be dehumanizing, right? So why not combat that tendency with a little simple courtesy? [To replicator again, after it produces hot chocolate] Thank you.
The character of Gomez doesn’t always work as well as I’d like her to in this episode. The idea of letting us see this historic, horrifying first encounter with the Borg through the eyes of someone other than our familiar main characters is a good one, I think. But in execution, her fresh-from-the-academy naivete is overstated to the point that she seems borderline incompetent at times, which contrasts weirdly with what we’re told about her … and which the show would be far less likely to do, I think, if she weren’t a woman. (Wesley Crusher, by contrast, starts off much younger and more naïve than Gomez, and TNG consistently goes out of its way to show us how smart he is.)
But in this brief exchange with LaForge, that relative naivete does allow Gomez to point out something we might not expect to hear from our more experienced main characters: technology in itself doesn’t dehumanize us, but we sometimes dehumanize ourselves, and others, through the ways we use technology. Star Trek has tended, in general, to be very optimistic about the potential for technology to improve our lives, and that may make the Borg the ultimate Star Trek villain. The Federation is a dream of a future in which technological advancement will go hand-in-hand with cultural and ethical advancement, a future in which technology will help us to see the humanity in others, and become more thoughtful about our own humanity. The Borg, then, are the mirror opposite of that dream, a nightmare of a future in which technological advancement becomes an end unto itself, and seeing the humanity in others, and in ourselves, becomes – to borrow a phrase – irrelevant.
Q describes the Borg collective as “the ultimate user”, which is, I think, another way of calling it the ultimate dehumanizer … and it’s no coincidence that this is the “terror to freeze your soul” that Q uses to make his point about humanity not being as ready for exploration as it thinks it is. “Q Who” shows impressive self-awareness, I think, for an episode coming relatively early in the run of The Next Generation, since Q’s critique of Picard’s complacency seems to mirror one of the most common criticisms of TNG as a series: that the future it presents is perhaps too stable, too easy on humanity … too sterile, even. When Q forces Picard to confront the Borg, he isn’t just shaking the in-universe stability of the Federation, he’s shaking up the meta-fictional status quo of The Next Generation, by questioning its most unquestioned assumption: that societal and technological progress is an ultimately humanizing process, even if we have to make it through Khan Noonien Singh and the “post-atomic horror” to get there. The Borg aren’t just a threat to the fictional Federation, they’re an unsettling reminder – and a shockingly dark one, by the standards of Star Trek – that we could just as easily go the other way; that we could come out the other side of adversity stronger and more advanced than we are now, yes … but also less human.
As mentioned above, the Borg would go on to appear in a few more episodes of TNG, many episodes of Voyager, and a feature film; and throughout these appearances, certain elements of the Borg would inevitably change to suit the needs of the episode, series, or film they appeared in. The later changes to the appearance of the drones and their ships aren’t my cup of tea – again, I think the stark blocky-ness of the early cubes, and of the early drones’ implants, makes more thematic sense than their later, sleeker look – but these changes were natural enough, and admittedly a matter of personal taste. Less natural, and more thematically confusing, was the addition of a Borg Queen in place of the faceless, dispassionate, collective hive-mind “Q Who” so effectively introduces. While I understand the temptation for a film like First Contact to provide its audience with an easily-singled-out villain in the form of the Queen, the concept of an individual Borg leader makes the Borg less existentially frightening, to my mind, and certainly less distinct from other antagonists. But Enterprise’s “Regeneration” would, in some ways, take the Borg back to their roots … which is only fitting, I suppose, for what had seemed to be their last appearance in a Trek TV series. Of course, with all of the various Trek TV projects currently planned for the future, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if we saw the Borg again at some point, in some form or another. But as of the time I’m writing this – early 2019 – they haven’t appeared in a new episode of television in over 15 years, making “Q Who” and “Regeneration” bookends, of sorts.
If it’s hard to know what perspective to take when viewing “Q Who” today – whether or not to embrace the baggage of knowing the role the Borg will go on to play – it’s almost more difficult to know what perspective to take on “Regeneration”. Like “Q Who”, “Regeneration” introduces the Borg to an Enterprise crew who have never encountered anything like them before, with the tension steadily building as that crew realizes just how outmatched they are, how much of an existential threat the Borg represent to their civilization. There are a couple of important differences in the way “Regeneration” goes about this, though. The most obvious difference between “Q Who” and “Regeneration” is, of course, the latter episode’s lack of Q. And I’m not just talking about the character himself, though I’ll take every fantastic John DeLancie performance I can get. Besides being his enjoyably obnoxious self, Q also serves, in “Q Who”, as a narrative device. Not only does he send Picard’s Enterprise into Borg space, he repeatedly reappears to explain the Borg, often in blunter terms than Guinan is willing to do. “Regeneration” explains very little, either about the Borg themselves or why we’re seeing them here, 200 years or so before what had previously been humanity’s first encounter with them, in “Q Who”. What explaining is done in “Regeneration” is done by the crew of Archer’s Enterprise, who, unlike either Guinan or Q, know less about what’s happening than we do, assuming we’ve seen the Borg’s prior appearances in Trek, and particularly the film First Contact. And the episode very much does assume that, to the extent that, unlike “Q Who”, I’m not sure “Regeneration” would even make sense to a viewer who wasn’t already familiar with the Borg. But then, Enterprise, as a series, very much seems to assume an audience of long-standing Trek fans, and tying this episode to First Contact makes perfect sense, given that the entire series, since its first episode, has been rooted in that film’s portrayal of Zefram Cochrane’s invention of warp flight.
The other big difference between “Regeneration” and “Q Who” – the bigger difference, I think – is that this Enterprise crew gets an actual win, even if it is a limited one, in their first encounter with the Borg. Yes, they only manage to destroy a small assimilated ship with a handful of drones on board, not the big old Borg cube from “Q Who”. And yes, Archer’s Enterprise only beats the Borg after they send a transmission to the Borg stronghold of the Delta Quadrant. But a qualified victory is still a victory, especially considering that Picard’s Enterprise fails to mount any significant resistance whatsoever to the Borg on their first meeting, only escaping thanks to Q’s intervention. This difference makes a certain amount of sense, from a story perspective; unlike “Q Who”, “Regeneration” was aimed at an audience who’d seen the Borg beaten many times already, meaning that the sort of ominous non-resolution that worked for “Q Who” probably wouldn’t work nearly as well here. It makes less sense from the perspective of strict continuity, of course, raising all kinds of questions about why Archer’s and Phlox’s newfound knowledge of the Borg, and of how to defeat them, was seemingly lost to Starfleet. But these questions don’t particularly bother me, or even interest me, if I’m being honest; I’m firmly of the belief that continuity should serve story, not the other way around, and that it’s almost always better for a writer to break continuity for story’s sake than to tell a less interesting story for continuity’s sake. A bigger issue, for me, is that Archer’s victory over the Borg doesn’t really make thematic sense. If the episode largely builds its tension on the fact that we know, better than Archer, how far in over his head he is – how existential a threat Starfleet is facing – then letting him end the episode with a win, even a qualified one, might make us wonder what all that tension was for.
Where “Regeneration” does carry forward the thematic ramifications of the Borg, as established in “Q Who”, is in Archer’s insistence on saving the assimilated researchers and freighter crew, rather than killing the drones they have become. If the Borg represent the worst-case scenario for what we might become as we advance technologically – the entirely dehumanized mirror image of the humane Federation – then it’s unnerving to see that worst-case scenario confronted at the beginning of humanity’s road to becoming the enlightened Federation, when that road still could lead just as easily in the other direction. Archer’s initial refusal to even consider killing the new drones could be taken as his insistence that humanity not let itself be dehumanized by its journey into the stars. He resists the very idea that humans (and the alien freighter crew, for that matter) could be so fully dehumanized, even as we, the audience, know that they can be, because we know that’s what the Borg do. As is often the case in Enterprise, logical Vulcan T’Pol becomes the voice of reason on behalf of the audience, advising Archer that no matter what he feels to be true, all evidence points to the assimilated people being effectively dead already. But where I often find this dynamic frustrating, especially in Enterprise’s first couple of seasons, I think it’s done much better here than usual. Where Archer can tend to come off as a reckless jerk for ignoring T’Pol’s obviously good advice, I genuinely feel for him here, for the dilemma he’s struggling with. And what’s more, I think it really comes across that T’Pol appreciates his position, even as she advises him against it. Whatever other issues I might have with “Regeneration”, it serves as a relatively early example of Enterprise getting the Archer-T’Pol dynamic right. And when Archer finally accepts that she’s right, and that the drones’ humanity is gone, he is also accepting that some things may inevitably be lost as humanity continues out into space, mirroring Picard’s acceptance, in “Q Who”, that even the fully-formed Federation of the 24th century isn’t ready for everything that awaits them in that space.
Next week, we’ll experience a day in the life of an android, and a Taco Tuesday in the life of a ship’s computer, when we compare the TNG episode “Data’s Day” with the second of Discovery‘s Short Treks, “Calypso”!