“We have engaged the Borg”: The Best of Both Worlds (TNG) vs. Scorpion (Voyager)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2” (season 3, episode 26 & season 4, episode 1)

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Parts 1 & 2 written by Michael Piller; parts 1 & 2 directed by Cliff Bole; first aired in 1990

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise investigates the destruction of a Federation colony, and confirms Starfleet’s fears: the greatest threat they’ve ever faced, the cybernetic hive mind known as the Borg, have arrived in Federation space. Starfleet sends Admiral Hanson and Commander Shelby to brief Captain Picard on the tactical outlook for a full-on confrontation with the Borg, and it’s … not good. Having studied the Borg since the Enterprise first encountered them, Shelby remains on board to help, and immediately butts heads with Commander Riker. Riker is put off by her brashness, even if it reminds him of himself; and he’s protective of his First Officer status, despite having been offered command of a ship of his own, which Picard urges him not to turn down. But turning down command isn’t an option for Riker when Picard is abducted by the Borg, and is horrifically transformed into Locutus of Borg, their representative to the Federation species they plan to assimilate. With Shelby as his First Officer, Riker leads the Enterprise into battle with Locutus, and reluctantly executes their technobabble-y plan to blow up the Borg cube with Locutus/Picard on board – only to find that the Borg have already adapted to that technobabble, since Locutus knows everything Picard knew. As the Borg tear through half of Starfleet on their way towards Earth, Riker realizes that the only way to beat Picard is to give him up … which means rescuing him, since that’s the last thing Picard would have wanted Riker to attempt. After beaming Locutus back to the Enterprise, Data and Dr. Crusher find a way to break through the hive mind and make “first contact” with the actual Picard, who helps them take advantage of his link to the Borg collective. The Borg are tricked into destroying themselves, and Riker happily hands command back over to Picard, whose Borg implants are gone and his scars healing … the physical ones, at least.

VS.

Star Trek: Voyager – “Scorpion, Parts 1 & 2” (season 3, episode 26 & season 4, episode 1)

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Parts 1 & 2 written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky; part 1 directed by David Livingston; part 2 directed by Winrich Kolbe; first aired in 1997

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open on several Borg cubes, and on the old familiar threat that resistance is … not futile, apparently, as the cubes are easily destroyed by an unseen threat. Meanwhile, Voyager’s crew have realized that their journey back towards the Alpha Quadrant will lead them into the heart of Borg territory, and that their safest way through is a section of space ridden with quantum singularities. On their way through this “Northwest Passage,” Kes has some scary visions, which come true as Voyager comes across a defeated Borg fleet. An away team to one of the damaged cubes discovers what caused those singularities, and what made short work of the Borg: an alien bio-ship and its non-humanoid pilot, who attacks Harry Kim. The away team is safely beamed back, but Kim has been infected with spores that threaten to take over his entire body, and Voyager is left without its safe passage through Borg space, as the Northwest Passage turns out to be a battlefield in the war between the Borg and the aliens they call Species 8472. But the Doctor manages to repurpose Borg nanites to fight Kim’s infection in a way the Borg themselves could not, and Captain Janeway, desperate not to turn back and give up on getting back to the Alpha Quadrant, offers to teach the Borg how to modify their own nanites into weapons against Species 8472, in exchange for safe passage through Borg space. Against Chakotay’s objections, Janeway and Tuvok board a Borg cube and work on the weapon with a Borg representative, Seven of Nine, until the cube is destroyed, and Janeway, Tuvok, and Seven are beamed onto Voyager. The weapon is soon completed, and is effective enough to scare off Species 8472, but Seven refuses to honor the Borg’s side of the bargain and turns against the Voyager crew, who manage to sever her link to the collective, leaving her an unwilling guest aboard Voyager.

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When I wrote about the Borg’s first appearance, I noted that some episodes of Star Trek are especially difficult, today, to re-watch with fresh eyes – difficult to separate from their historical context in the Trek universe, and from the emotional context in which we first watched them. There might be no better example of this phenomenon in all of Trek than “The Best of Both Worlds.” I’m guessing that this is true, to some extent, even for folks watching this two-part cliff-hanger for the first time, since the Borg are one of those elements of the franchise – like Mirror Spock’s doppelganger goatee – which seem to have fully transcended the bounds of Trek fandom to become a mainstay of mainstream pop culture. Even if you’ve never watched an episode of TNG, there’s a good chance you’ve seen those iconic images of Patrick Stewart in his Locutus prosthetics. And beyond just the visuals, there’s a decent chance that you’re familiar with the basics of the Borg, the threats that “you will be assimilated” and “resistance is futile” – the existential threat of dehumanization, which makes those visuals of Picard’s transformation all the more frightening. If you’re not new to the Trek of the late 1980s and beyond, then “The Best of Both Worlds” probably feels like a piece of history as much as an episode of television. And if, like me, you remember watching Part 1 as an impressionable young person, and waiting anxiously for the payoff to its cliff-hanger ending, then chances are you can’t hear Captain Picard announce, “We have engaged the Borg” – or even hear a second or two of the episode’s soundtrack – without getting a chill up your spine, and maybe even a lump in your throat. It is, without exaggeration, physically impossible for me to put aside how I already feel about these episodes when I watch them now, or talk about them, or write about them.

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Still, I’m not an impressionable young person anymore – or at least not a young person – and for all the familiar feelings “The Best of Both Worlds” still stirs up in me with its iconic lines and musical cues, I also notice new things when I watch it now. That soundtrack, for instance, stands out from the music in a lot of other Next Generation episodes in a way I probably wasn’t aware of when I was younger. Now, I do notice a synth-heavy 1980s sci-fi sound in quite a few episodes from the first few seasons of TNG “The Defector”, also from season 3, is one that immediately comes to mind – but “Both Worlds” seems to lean extra-hard on that soundtrack style. This has the effect, I think, of really selling these episodes, right from the first moments of Part 1, as an event. As I wrote above, I’m sure that some of the importance that seems to radiate off of these episodes, when I watch them today, is retroactive, added by a brain that already knows these episodes’ place in Trek history. But the very deliberate musical choices made throughout these episodes – and especially the bombastic, super-dramatic theme that follows Commander Riker’s iconic order to “fire” on an assimilated Picard, leading into the cliff-hanger ending of Part 1 – suggest that the production staff knew full well what they were making when they were making it.

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In the same way that I’m impressed with how fully “Q Who” develops the Borg in only their first appearance, I’m impressed by how fully-realized “The Best of Both Worlds” seems to be as a Big Moment, a pair of episodes meant to stand out from all those episodes that came before them, and from most episodes of TNG that would come after. Watching now, at a time in TV history when shows like Game of Thrones (and even Star Trek: Discovery) have trained us to expect a game-changing twist every other week, an early blueprint for that approach to TV is immediately evident in “Both Worlds.” Almost every aspect of its production seems deliberately designed to sell us on the possibility that it might actually kill off Picard: the score; the brisk, action-packed pacing (at least by the standards of the normally calm and cerebral TNG); the gravitas of performances given by Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes as Riker, and Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan; and the script, featuring scenes like Picard taking a potential last look around the Enterprise before being abducted by the Borg, and Riker contemplating his readiness for command while Commander Shelby angles to become the Enterprise’s first officer. The possibility of Picard’s death felt very real when I first watched “Both Worlds” as a child, but even now, knowing that he doesn’t die, the stakes and tension still feel very real, and the fact that Picard doesn’t die here (because, in retrospect, of course he doesn’t) does nothing to diminish the impact of his abduction and transformation, something Patrick Stewart communicates perfectly while gazing quietly out into space in Part 2’s unsettling final scene.

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But for all its epic-ness, something I find surprising about “The Best of Both Worlds” when I re-watch it, now, is that it also works surprisingly well as simply a pair of episodes, not only as an event. It does so, I think, because of something else I only realized on more recent re-watches: this is a story about Riker, much more than it’s a story about Picard. Picard’s horrific transformation and dramatic rescue occupied my earlier memories of these episodes, for all the reasons listed above, but the plot of “Both Worlds” – its arc as a story – revolves around Riker, as he learns something about what he wants out of life, and about what he is and isn’t ready for. It’s interesting that The Next Generation uses this cliff-hanger event, with its potential for a huge shake-up to the show, to explain why Riker isn’t going anywhere. And I like that these episodes make the case that it’s okay for Riker to have grown out of the sort of ambition we see from Shelby; that being ready for a command of his own – as he clearly shows himself to be – doesn’t automatically mean he has to want one.

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One of the gaps in Trek’s utopian vision, I think, is its lack of much exploration into how a post-scarcity economy like the Federation’s would affect people’s attitudes toward their work. If we didn’t have to work for money, what would we work for? Given its focus on the quasi-military Starfleet, Star Trek has often suggested a desire for advancement up the ranks as an answer to that question. But personally, my hope for a post-scarcity world would be one in which we’re free to do the work we’re best at, and/or the work we’re happiest in, regardless of how prestigious the job might be; or to put that another way, a world in which Michael Scott could stay a good salesman, instead of being promoted to a bad boss (pardon me while I write an extensive Twitter thread detailing my theory of a shared Star Trek/US Office universe). I’m happy that “Both Worlds” seems to agree with me, and that it acknowledges that second-in-command is actually an important job in its own right – not just the runner-up position to captain – and that it’s perfectly reasonable for Riker to not want to leave a position he’s happy in, and well-suited for. Even with all the iconic lines in these episodes, this might be my favorite bit of dialogue:

Riker: The Captain says Shelby reminds him of the way I used to be. And he’s right. She comes in here full of drive and ambition, impatient, taking risks. I look at her and I wonder: what ever happened to those things in me? I liked those things about me. I’ve lost something.
Troi: You mean you’re older, more experienced … a little more seasoned.
R: “Seasoned.” That’s a horrible thing to say to a man.
T: I don’t think you’ve lost a thing, and I think you’ve gained more than you realize. You’re much more comfortable with yourself than you used to be.
R: Maybe that’s the problem. I’m too comfortable here.
T: I’m not sure I know what that means. You’re happy here. Happier than I’ve ever known you to be. So, it comes down to a simple question: what do you want, Will Riker?

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And while this might be a bit of a stretch, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we get this self-reflection from Riker in a pair of episodes focused on the Borg. When I wrote about the Borg’s first appearance in “Q Who,” and their last TV appearance (at the time I’m writing this, at least) in Enterprise’s “Regeneration,” I argued that the scariest thing about the Borg – scarier than their appearance, or the scale of their ships, or their ability to adapt – is their lack of humanity (something which, semantics aside, almost all other alien species in Star Trek have been granted, to some extent). The reveal of Captain Picard as the Borg-ified Locutus in “The Best of Both Worlds” is chilling – it literally sends chills up my spine – not just because Picard has been turned into a threat, but because he has been robbed of his humanity, of everything that matters about his identity. Picard is, normally, The Next Generation’s lead character and its moral center, a thoughtful, humane, comforting presence on the bridge of the Enterprise. It’s viscerally disturbing to see him on that bridge’s viewscreen, with his Borg prosthetics emitting a creepy red glow, announcing that, “From this time forward, you will service us.” The Borg’s erasure of this complex, humane individual – their denial that individuals should even exist, outside of their “service” to the hive mind – is the exact opposite of the worldview Troi argues for in her conversation with Riker. “What do you want, Will Riker?” is obviously not a question the Borg would allow him to ask, and they would undoubtedly call his comfort and happiness “irrelevant.” I wonder if this shouldn’t make us question the sort of ambition Riker misses in himself, if, like the Borg, it might lead him to disregard his own comfort, happiness, and ability to decide for himself what makes him comfortable and happy (and perhaps, by extension, to expect that others will disregard those things, as well).

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The tension between individuality and the collective is, of course, one that’s built right into the concept of the Borg, and so it’s no surprise that Voyager’s own Borg-focused, two-part game-changer, “Scorpion,” would explore that tension as well. If it’s hard to separate “The Best of Both Worlds” from its legacy as an iconic and influential moment for the Star Trek universe, it’s equally difficult to separate “Scorpion,” which first aired seven years later, from its place as a part of that legacy – as a pair of episodes obviously modeled on both the in-universe events, and the real-world impact, of “The Best of Both Worlds.” Both “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Scorpion” focus on a fateful, long-coming confrontation with the Borg, of course. But beyond that, they both: feature their respective captains held captive (more or less) on a Borg cube; have those captains, surprisingly, assist the Borg (though not intentionally on Picard’s part, as Admiral Hanson is quick to point out); explore the relationship between those captains and their respective first officers (and the role of a first officer in general); show an individual Borg drone acting, unusually, as an individual voice for the collective; culminate in the disconnecting of that drone from the collective, and the rescue of the human it once was; and even, weirdly, occupy the exact same episode numbering in their respective series (episode 26 of the third season, and episode 1 of the fourth). And if that episode numbering isn’t on-the-nose enough, “Scorpion” unapologetically acknowledges its similarities to “The Best of Both Worlds” with this exchange between Janeway and Chakotay, which nearly breaks the fourth wall:

Janeway: *reading from screen* In the words of Jean-Luc Picard: “In their collective state, the Borg are utterly without mercy, driven by one will alone: the will to conquer. They are beyond redemption, beyond reason.” And then there’s Captain Amasov of the Endeavour: “It is my opinion that the Borg are as close to pure evil as any race we’ve ever encountered.” *notices Chakotay smiling* What’s so funny?
Chakotay: Nothing.
J: You’re smiling. Obviously, I’ve said something amusing.
C: You sounded just like Amasov.
J: What?
C: Just now, while you were reading his log. You were using his inflections.
J: I did not.
C: Yes, you were. And before that, you were doing a pretty good Picard.
J: Was I?
C: It’s nothing to be ashamed about – echoing the greats. Ensign Hickman in Astrophysics does a passable Janeway.

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“Echoing the greats” (and echoing The Next Generation, in particular) is a common criticism of Voyager as a series (though “doing a pretty good Picard” isn’t a fair accusation against Kate Mulgrew, whose portrayal of Captain Janeway is one of the strongest and freshest elements of the series). But “Scorpion” isn’t only retreading familiar ground. Like “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Scorpion” points out that for all the advantages granted to the Borg by their collective hive mind, their lack of individuality is also a weakness. Locutus may know everything Picard knows, but he lacks the creativity to predict that Riker would compensate for that knowledge and use it against Locutus. Similarly, the Borg in “Scorpion” lack the creativity to modify their own technology to match that of Species 8472 the way the Doctor can, which makes them vulnerable to technology they can’t simply assimilate. But to its credit, “Scorpion” also adds something new to its take on the Borg, by acknowledging that our own individuality, precious as it is, can be a weakness, at times. Where Riker’s conflicts in “Both Worlds,” first with Shelby and then with Locutus, are representative of his own inner conflicts, Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay, in “Scorpion,” really are in serious conflict with each other. Their views are fundamentally at odds: Janeway thinks her collaboration with the Borg is justified by her responsibility to get her crew home, while Chakotay thinks collaborating with the Borg is unjustifiable. However genuine this conflict, though, these episodes argue that Janeway and Chakotay, and their crew, must find a way to act as a “collective,” whether they all agree on those actions or not. For Trek to acknowledge that the Borg’s existence as a collective isn’t what’s “evil” about them – that it’s possible for a collective to still allow and respect individuality, without eradicating it as the Borg have done – seems significant, and very much in keeping with the essentially socialist utopia Star Trek typically portrays, and argues for.

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And of course, there is something else that “Scorpion” adds to the Borg’s role in the Star Trek universe. Where “The Best of Both Worlds” is arguably a turning point for the entire Trek franchise, “Scorpion” is an undeniable turning point for Voyager in its own right, for its introduction of Seven of Nine. Her addition to the show as a lead character is a complicated thing, coinciding as it does (in the following episode, “The Gift”) with the abrupt departure of Kes, a character with much more potential than the show ever allowed her to develop. It’s hard not to be cynical about Voyager replacing a female character it might be reluctant to sexualize (given the premise that her species only lives for a decade or so, making her technically just a few years old) with one it’s obviously very comfortable sexualizing; even here in “Scorpion”, before we see Seven in her trademark skin-tight bodysuit, her Borg outfit is moulded around her in a way that’s very deliberately different from the clunky, industrial look of the drones we’d seen up to this point. But the addition of Seven also allows Voyager to capitalize on the premise of the series, something it doesn’t always manage in its preoccupation with “echoing the greats.” While Voyager never embraced serialization as much as its premise suggested it would, having the ship pick up new crew members along its way back to Earth is a great way to give that journey impact, to mark the time and distance that have passed. Granted, the show had already done that with Neelix and the soon-to-leave Kes, but adding a Borg to the crew allows a unique opportunity for Voyager to add to ideas The Next Generation had put forward, and not just “echo” them.

scorpion 2Even though Locutus has only been a drone for a short time before being restored to Captain Picard in “The Best of Both Worlds,” his rescue still introduces the idea that Borg drones might be redeemable. The difficulty of Picard’s rehabilitation is touched upon in the following episode of TNG, “Family,” but is rarely ever mentioned after that, owing to the self-contained, “reset-to-zero” nature of most TNG episodes. The idea would be further explored in the episode “I, Borg,” when a long-time drone is recovered from a crash site, gradually regains some measure of individuality, and is dubbed Hugh; but again, the episodic nature of the series meant that we would only ever see Hugh once more, and would get only a taste of the aftermath of his becoming an individual. “Scorpion,” too, is built around the question of whether, and to what extent, the Borg can change; the episode’s title is taken from Chakotay’s use of the fable of the scorpion and the fox (or the scorpion and the toad, as I’ve heard it elsewhere) to warn Janeway that the “nature” of the Borg is to assimilate and conquer, just as the nature of a scorpion is to sting. And taken on its own, “Scorpion” seems to prove Chakotay right, given that Seven of Nine and her fellow Borg do eventually, inevitably turn on the Voyager crew. But it ends with Seven, severed from the collective, now a passenger alongside that crew, and unlike The Next Generation, Voyager will get to take its time exploring nature versus nurture as it applies to a disconnected Borg drone. If the Borg represent a terrifying lack of humanity in Star Trek’s humane universe, then taking the opportunity to gradually humanize a former Borg, over the course of episodes and whole seasons, could be one of Voyager’s most significant contributions to that humane universe.

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