At this point in TNG, we’re seeing the writers be more aware of this pattern. They’ve begun to push back against the “humanity is perfect” ideal, and explore the flaws and mistakes that could be made by a group like Starfleet. However, we still look at Picard, Riker, Data, and the rest as the cream of the crop. They may make mistakes, and they have lost crew and suffered for those mistakes. But if their voyage of exploration requires the worst case scenario - that is, if it requires the sacrifice of the Enterprise and everyone aboard - that’s an acceptable loss in the journey of discovery. After all, that’s the worst that could happen. Right?
As I watched “Q-Who”, one of the best episodes of the Star Trek franchise that has ever been produced, I kept thinking of HP Lovecraft. I looked up some quotes by the legendary horror writer, and one jumped out at me. “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” What if the destruction of the Enterprise isn’t actually the worst-case scenario? What if, in this zeal for exploration and expansion, these men and women who we’ve spent nearly two seasons admiring catch the attention of something old, unknowable, and hungry?
The opening of this episode is almost painfully cute, with a junior engineer accidentally spilling hot chocolate on Picard while she chatters about her eagerness to explore. She’s so excited to learn about this ship and crew, and be a part of this mission, that she neglects to look where she’s going. (Holy shit, this scene is SO MUCH BETTER when viewed in the context of the larger episode. It’s a really solid summation of the theme.) Picard heads to his quarters to change, steps out of the turbolift, and into a shuttle, which currently sits light years away from the Enterprise. He barks at the pilot, who turns around and reveals himself as Q.
Q promised in his last appearance that he would never trouble the Enterprise again, which is why he spirited Picard away to the middle of nowhere. Picard demands that Q send him back to the Enterprise, and Q agrees, on the condition that Picard gives a request by Q a fair hearing. Picard nods, and without fanfare, they’re sitting in Ten-Forward. There’s a short squabble between Q and Guinan, who apparently have a fairly bitter history, but Picard insists they get down to business. Q agrees, and presents his request. He wants to be a member of the crew. He offers to forsake his powers if they insist on it, but claims that the crew of the Enterprise needs him, and that they aren’t ready for what’s out there waiting for them. Picard refuses. He doesn’t trust Q, and while he recognizes that they can’t possibly be prepared for the unknown, their determination and resourcefulness means that they are ready to face that unknown.
It’s to the writer’s credit that they craft a scene that places the viewer so firmly on Picard’s side, considering that as I wrote that last sentence, I realized how arrogant and contradictory that statement is. Picard genuinely believes what he’s saying. He’s a man that has committed his professional life to the discovery of the unknown, and he sees that discovery as something to strive for, to pursue, no matter the risk or the cost. Q smiles, says, “We’ll see about that,” and with a snap of his fingers, hurls the Enterprise to the other side of the galaxy.
Guinan realizes where they are. Her people are from this part of space. Her only advice to Picard is to begin the multi-year journey back to Federation space as fast as possible, without looking back. Even with this advice from an old and trusted friend, Picard still decides to take a look around, survey a few planets, collect some data. It’s a stupid, stupid choice that is completely in keeping with what we know of Picard. They find a planet, devoid and lifeless, with giant chunks ripped from the surface where cities used to be, and as they scan, Worf announces that there’s another ship on an intercept course. They put in on the viewscreen, and it’s a simple, perfect cube.
Perhaps the greatest sin of many committed by the writers and producers of Star Trek: Voyager (which wouldn’t air for seven years) was their effort to make the Borg a more comprehensible threat. It’s easy to forget that this first glimpse of what would become the deadliest enemy in the franchise was so utterly alien. That seems like a strange word for a science fiction show, but it’s worth noting that up until this point, every alien race encountered on this show was recognizable, in that they tend to be a manifestation of an aspect of humanity. Klingons are aggressive. Vulcans are logical. Ferengi are Gordon Gekkos. This show managed to make aliens extremely relatable and human.
Considering this portrayal of aliens as humanlike, it’s astonishing how completely ill-equipped the crew of the Enterprise actually is to deal with this threat. Picard hails them. No response. He asks if they’ve charged weapons or shields, which they haven’t. Guinan tells him that the Borg annihilated her people, scattering the few survivors to the ends of the galaxy, and Picard raises the shields, but the Borg ship is just sitting there, motionless. When a Borg soldier materializes in engineering, they respond with a security team, but Picard doesn’t attack. He tries to communicate, to ask the Borg what they want. It doesn’t react, but continues to examine the engine room, ignoring them completely. It’s only when the Borg soldier tries to take control of the computer that Picard finally, and reluctantly, orders Worf to attack. Worf shoots it, and when stun doesn’t work, he raises the power level of his phaser and kills the intruder. Moments later, a second Borg materializes and silently resumes the work its fallen comrade was doing. Worf shoots it, but this time a force field pops up and blocks the phaser blast. When the Borg is finished scanning the computer, it grabs a few hunks of equipment off of the downed Borg, and both vanish.
This show has drawn inspiration from a lot of sources, but most are fairly rooted in the science fiction genre. “Q-Who”, however, seems to draw the bulk of its inspiration from horror films. Describing the Borg as cold or emotionless isn’t quite right. They just feel viscerally wrong, and the crew has no clue how to deal with them. When the Borg contact the Enterprise, they don’t communicate with a captain or a spokesman. Instead, a chorus of flat voices announce that the Enterprise can’t do shit to stop the Borg from doing whatever they want, and if they try, they’ll be punished. It’s not a threat; it’s a notification. When the Borg lock onto the ship with a tractor beam that drains the shields in seconds, the Enterprise can’t sustain its defenses. When the Borg fire a laser and carve a perfectly round core sample out of the saucer section, killing 18 crew members, Picard is finally forced to fire, and manages to destroy a significant chunk of the Borg ship. There’s no blustering, no demands, no pleading from the Borg. They just sit there, silent.
There’s a lot of debate among giant nerds like me about Picard’s choice to send an away team over to the Borg ship. Considering that they’ve seen how ineffectual their hand weapons are against the Borg soldiers, it does come across initially as a foolish choice. I think, however, that at this point, it makes sense based on what we know of Picard. He still is trying to fit the Borg into the universe he knows and understands, still basing his actions off of his experiences and reactions. He doesn’t yet understand that this is unlike anything else they’ve encountered, and that they simply lack the fundamental comprehension of the situation to even comprehend how dangerous the Borg actually are. Riker, Data, and Worf beam over, and realize that the Borg are a hive mind, a collective consciousness that has the ability to adapt to threats instantaneously. Picard listens to their voices from the other ship, and Stewart does a masterful job of showing the growing sense of unease as his people prowl around the Borg cube, with the Borg completely ignoring them.
There is a moment, though, when the realization of what they’re facing hits Picard. Riker calls over and says that they’ve discovered that the Borg ship is regenerating, repairing the damage sustained at a rapid rate. Picard doesn’t hesitate, springing to his feet and barking for the away team to be beamed back aboard. As soon as Riker’s feet hit the deck, the Enterprise turns and warps away as fast as possible. The time for scans, diplomacy, and scientific curiosity is over. This ship and crew, which we’ve seen face all kinds of threats and challenges, is fleeing. Picard realizes, in this moment, that the Borg didn’t consider the death of their soldier or the damage to their ship a loss. This, in a nutshell, is what the Borg are. They take the damage, they adapt, and they regenerate. When the Borg ship leaps into pursuit, it slowly, methodically gains on the Enterprise, wasting no more energy than needed. Picard fires back at it, and this time, the weapons do absolutely nothing. As the cube draws closer and closer, Q appears. He speaks as the Borg casually rip the Enterprise’s shields away, and creep ever closer to snatching them back up in the tractor beam.
“You can't outrun them. You can't destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains. They regenerate and keep coming. Eventually, you will weaken. Your reserves will be gone. They are relentless.”
As brilliant and tense as this episode is, this moment is what cements it as iconic. Picard hears Q speak, and realizes the truth of the situation. For all of his arrogance, his bluster, his obnoxious tips and tricks, Q was right. They aren’t ready, and they aren’t prepared. There is nothing in Picard’s arsenal of technology or training that provides any options. The Borg are a storm, and there’s nothing he can do to stop them. Wesley isn’t going to pull a technological ace from his sleeve. Riker’s not going to propose a bold maneuver to win the day. Picard looks at his crew, who are staring at the encroaching Borg ship with bald terror, and he does the only thing he can.
Jean-Luc Picard begs.
This is the last gasp of Gene Roddenberry’s idyllic vision of what Star Trek should be. Picard is the iconic captain, the manifestation of humanity’s journey towards this utopic future. But none of that matters. Humanity is insignificant next to this threat. He begs Q to save them, and Q does. With a snap of his fingers, they’re back where they started. But the damage has been done. The real cost isn’t the catastrophic damage to the ship, or the 18 dead crewmembers. I mentioned Lovecraft earlier, and I stand by that comparison. Lovecraft wrote of threats that existed so beyond our comprehension and power that the only way we could hope to survive was to never catch their attention in the first place.
“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.”
The Borg know who and where they are. And they will be coming.
A few other thoughts:
- The design of the Borg ship is wonderfully surreal. Early, Data comments that there’s no command center, no crew quarters, and no engine room. The ship is homogenous, with no central point of activity. When they beam aboard, the fusion of technological and biological draws a huge amount of inspiration from HR Giger, and evokes a lot of the sounds and muffled creaks of the Alien films.
- I’m not always sold on Q, and there are definitely some Q episodes in the future that flop pretty badly, but GODDAMN does John De Lancie chew up the scenery whenever he’s on screen in this episode. Some of his dialogue should be cheesy, but he knocks it straight out of the park.
- Between the writing and Patrick Stewart’s performance, this show does a wonderful job communicating the reason that Q did this: that he saw it as a necessary lesson to teach the Enterprise crew the dangers of pushing too far. It’s also insinuated that the Borg were already beginning to sniff around Federation space, so this could definitely be interpreted as a warning of some sort.
- This episode was written by Maurice Hurley, who apparently argued constantly that Roddenberry’s rule of “no conflict between the crew” was hamstringing the writers. “Q-Who” seems to be a direct shot at Roddenberry’s vision, and reinforces that the further the show got from what Roddenberry wanted, the better it was.
Next week, we learn why you shouldn’t loan your chief engineer to someone who smiles too much, and we get to the dreaded “Space Irish” episode. Blah.
- Dietrich Stogner