Star Trek: The Next Generation – I, Borg [5.23]

The Enterprise picks up a wounded Borg drone, and in spite of Picard’s misgivings, end up calling him Hugh.  Picard wants to take advantage of the situation to use the drone as a way of carrying  destructive virus back to the Borg collective, but the crew becomes increasingly uncomfortable with this plan as Hugh develops more and more individual characteristics.  Eventually Picard thinks differently of the plan on moral reasons, and Hugh decides reluctantly to return to the collective, knowing that otherwise the Borg would continue to seek him, endangering everybody.

Written by René Echevarria . Directed by Robert Lederman.

Previous Episode: Imaginary Friend • Next Episode: The Next Phase

Comments:
When it first was aired, I, Borg semi-polarized fans.  There were those who felt that it basically ruined the Borg:  that the scariest and most compelling threat that the franchise had ever created had had their legs cut out from under them, and would never be effective again.  On the other hand, there were many (I’d say most) who felt the series was just doing what it did best – taking a faceless enemy and humanizing them, and thus doing something far more interesting than just having another knock-down brawl with some bad guys.  And so began (or continued, I guess, but this is where it really took off) the franchise’s greatest ongoing internal battle – the struggle between creating an enemy that is fearsome and dangerous in order to facilitate great tension and drama, and making friends with that enemy in order to espouse the ideals of tolerance and understanding that the franchise aspires to (but thus diminishing tension and drama).

When I first watched this episode, I fell bit more in the “Borg are now ruined” camp side, but this is one example where seeing it hindsight actually helps.  We now know that the Borg will be scary again, thanks to Star Trek First Contact.  We also know that we will again see the story of a Borg being humanized, but in far greater detail, when Star Trek Voyager introduces Seven of Nine, and that that story can work without diminishing the Borg threat.

So watching I, Borg now, free from all the baggage of my expectations, I find that the episode is quite a good one, and a fitting follow-up to Family (the last time the Borg were really dealt with).  If you look below the obvious Borg plot, it’s quite an interesting story about what lengths our heroes will go to to defeat an enemy.  As such, it makes good use of the various cast members to represent different stages in this process.

It starts with Dr. Crusher, of course, for whom the Borg under her care is not an intractable enemy, but an individual patient.  She expresses immediate concern about the idea of using that patient as the means of destruction of an entire race, even a race like the Borg.  But she expresses these thoughts in a way that not only fails to engender the sympathy of her crew mates, but by and large that the audience does not connect to either.

Next comes Geordi, for whom the Borg, or Hugh as he comes to be known, is basically a machine – an engineering problem.  It’s through Geordi that the script humanizes the Borg for the viewer.  We watch him transition from an attitude of coldness to a place of sympathy, and even something approaching friendship with the Borg.  Geordi becomes a bridge, for both the audience and the more hostile members of the crew, toward the position that the episode is leading us toward.

After that is Guinan, for whom the Borg represent death and destruction – the loss of her people and the loss of her world.  So naturally, she hates the drone who has been brought on board and even warns Picard that it’s too dangerous to have him there at all.  Of course, Guinan is apparently contractually obliged to get at least one scene per episode where she gets to show her moral superiority to everyone else, so she comes around after talking to Hugh herself and gets to be the one to tell off Picard.

To Picard, the Borg represent not just loss of life and loss of home, but loss of his very identity.  This is arguably less of a loss than Guinan’s, but of course Picard is not only our central character but also the series’ living embodiment of Federation ideals; and the Borg, with their enforced conformity and loss of individuality represent the antithesis of those values.  Not to mention the fact that the Borg actually destroyed a whole lot of Federation ships and people, and used Picard to do it, so we can understand why he feels so resentful.  We see him as cold and heartless in this story as we ever do, and though the actual scene where Hugh thinks he’s talking to Locutus defies logic on a number of different levels, it works well to shock Picard out of his entrenchment.

When we get to the last act, we have restored some equilibrium.  Picard is “back to normal” in a sense, no longer blindly determined to do what he describes would “under most circumstances…be unconscionable,” yet which made so much sense to them and us only moments before.  Only the Borg, with the way they have been portrayed on the series up until this point, could provoke such a reaction from both the crew and the audience.  The conclusion that follows is perhaps a bit too pat, but that’s a small price to pay for the dramatic experience that the episode has afforded us.

Guest Cast:
• Jonathan Del Arco (who plays Hugh) shows up as Hugh one more time in the show’s final season premier.  He also appears in the Voyager episode “The Void”, and in a bunch of episodes of The Closer.

Shout out to the Past:
• Of course, there are numerous direct references to previous encounters with the Borg, including Picard being referred to as Locutus.

Setting up the Future:
• Hugh and his situation in many ways anticipate Seven of Nine on Voyager.

• Hugh will reappear in the 7th season premier, Descent, Part 2.

Observations:
• Riker orders Dr. Crusher to come with a medical away team, but the the medical team is just herself!  Pretty short staffed in sick bay?

• The conference scene, where Dr. Crusher debates the morality of using Hugh “as an instrument of destruction” is a strong one.

• The actual plan to disable to the Borg, by giving them a shape to look at that they will find confusing, so confusing that they completely collapse, is a bit wacky.  It’s basically the 80’s version of Harry Mudd saying to his android, “Listen to this carefully, Norman. I am lying,” and having that result in smoke coming from his ears.

• Geordi is a great character to engage the Borg in dialog.  He’s the perfect character to be the first one who catches on to Beverly’s conscience.  He’s also the perfect one to tell Guinan off, which is desperately needed.

• Geordi has a lot of good dialog in this episode.  “That’s gratitude for you,” after he Borg threatens to assimilate him.  And an even better response to being threatened with assimilation:  ” Yes, but before that happens, could we ask you a few questions?”  Also his dialog about friendship with Hugh, and his big speech (see below).

• Coldness from Picard:  “Centuries ago, when laboratory animals were used for experiments, scientists would sometimes become attached to the creatures. This would a problem if the experiment involved killing them. I would suggest that you unattach yourself from the Borg, Mister La Forge.”  Also, “Because it’s been given a name by a member of my crew doesn’t mean it’s not a Borg. Because it’s young doesn’t mean that it’s innocent. It is what it is, and in spite of efforts to turn it into some kind of pet I will not alter my plans.”

• I like the fact that Guinan is actually uncertain, not present to tell Picard off.  It’s actually a good character moment for her, where she doesn’t come across as all-knowing, etc.  Of course, it doesn’t last.

• The difference between this and an episode of Doctor Who is that in Doctor Who, Hugh would have eventually escaped and killed half or more of the crew before being destroyed.  I like Doctor Who overall better than Next Generation, but it’s nice to have the variety.

• Hugh is called “Third”, while on Voyager, we had “Seven”, not “Seventh”.  Continuity!

• Riker says, dramatically, “The Borg” – just in case we weren’t sure after Data’s description of the approaching ship (cubical, etc.)

• Jonathan Del Arco turns out a good performance here.  He is able to deliver some key lines very effectively.  Examples include his conversation with Guinan (“You have no others. You have no home. We are also lonely,”) and with Geordi about friendship (“Like Geordi…and Hugh.”)

• Picard doesn’t pretend to be Locutus until Hugh calls him by such.  This brings up the question why Picard has a Borg name at all, when Hugh isn’t even aware of the idea of having a name?  The scene between Picard and Hugh doesn’t really make sense, but it’s cool.

• Picard is hopeful that Hugh might help to change the collective forever.  I guess that doesn’t really happen, not precisely.

• When Hugh is reconnected with the Borg, why don’t they instantly know that the Enterprise (with Picard on it) was nearby?

Dialogue High Point
There are a number of good bits, but I’ve gone for Geordi talking to Hugh about individuality.

Every time you talk about yourself, you use the word we. We want this, we want that. You don’t even know how to think of yourself as a single individual. You don’t say, I want this, or I am Hugh. We are all separate individuals. I am Geordi. I choose what I want to do with my life. I make decisions for myself. For somebody like me, losing that sense of individuality is almost worse than dying.

Previous Episode: Imaginary Friend • Next Episode: The Next Phase

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5 thoughts on “Star Trek: The Next Generation – I, Borg [5.23]

  1. Great review. I haven’t seen this one in a while but I remember liking that it presented a different perspective on the Borg. Reading this has put me in the mood to watch the story again!

  2. I liked this episode the first time I saw it, as a kid, and I still like it. I like the moral quandary, and the gradual unfolding of the complexity of the situation, and of the Borg.

  3. I much enjoyed this episode, and I quite appreciated how well Geordi worked in it. I feel that he’s a somewhat underrated character, but here he gets to show his stuff.

  4. Yeah, David, it’s a good Geordi episode. I’ve really enjoyed Geordi as I’ve been rewatching the series, and I’ve been surprised that he’s really had a number of good episodes – not as many as Data or Picard, of course, but they are there.

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