Star Trek: The Next Generation: "I, Borg"/"The Next Phase"

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "I, Borg"/"The Next Phase"

"I, Borg"

Or The One Where A Real Tin Man Gets A Heart And A Brain

It's been a while since we last saw the Borg. Nearly two seasons, in fact ("Best of Both Worlds, Part II"). Watching TNG straight through for the first time, I'm surprised at how infrequently the Borg appear, as they're the alien race I connect most strongly with this series. They make terrific antagonists, as they represent the polar opposite of everything Picard and the others are trying to accomplish; where the Enterprise's crew spends hours angsting over the precise amount of appropriate contact they can have with strange species, the Borg simply force their way of life on any and all they come across. For all its limitations and awkwardness, the Prime Directive is a noble goal, and it's hard to imagine a philosophy more at odds with it than "You will be assimilated." Like how Batman's rogues gallery mirrors his phobias and obsessions, or Spider-man's villains share his animal/insect, science-gone-wrong origins, the Borg is the best kind of nemesis: the sort that throws the hero's essential nature into stark relief. Plus, they're scary as hell, which isn't something that happens that often on TNG.

But watching "I, Borg," it becomes easy enough to understand why the Shareware That Walks isn't a more regular fixture on the series. What makes the Borg so effective and unsettling is also what keeps them from being all that easy to write about: they are singular in intent and by design, to the point where there are only so many stories you can tell about them. There's no characterization, no subtle shading, no variety of threat. The Borg are effective because they do not negotiate; they can't be swayed by one of Picard's speeches; and there are no great depths to explore. Sure, I'd be as curious as anybody to hear how Borg society works, but I'm not sure you could structure an episode around that, which leaves us with two options. Either we find out where the Borg originally came from (which would be fascinating), or we come up with a way to make them a little less scary and a little more distinct. 

"I,Borg" goes with the latter option, and while it's always a little disappointing when a cool villain loses some of its mystique, the episode overall does a fine job of giving us yet another tricky ethical problem, without shorting either side of the discussion. It's a bit too easy, sure. The stranded Borg goes from anonymous representative of its entire race to "Third of Five" to "Hugh" very quickly, and the transition occasionally feels cheated, but not egregiously so, and certainly not enough to derail the overall impact of the ep. The big trick here is how comfortable we are accepting the idea that the Borg, while still an immensely powerful and dangerous threat, are potentially more complex than simple one-note baddies. It's a jump that's more or less addressed directly in the text of the ep itself, interestingly enough. I can understand being let down by making the Borg less nightmarish, and "Hugh" is a little on the cute side. But overall, this works, because it reminds us that easy answers, even when they seem righteous, are still rarely a good idea.

The Enterprise is charting six star systems known as the Argolis Cluster when they get a signal from a small moon. It's coming from what turns out to be a sort of Borg shuttle-craft, crash-landed on the moon. There's a single survivor, and Beverly insists the Borg be beamed back up to the ship so she can treat him. (It? There's actually a lot of fascinating pronoun trouble throughout the episode; you can generally tell how a character is disposed towards Hugh by whether that character uses "he" or "it.") Picard is reluctant but gives in, possibly because Beverly's plea moves him, but possibly because the germ of an idea is growing in his mind. As soon as the Borg is ensconced in the brig, Picard asks Geordi if it might be possible to alter the creature's programming so that when it returns to  the collective, it will spread a virus that could wipe out the entire Borg race in one fell swoop. Geordi says it is possible, and starts to work on the booby trap, while Beverly, being a doctor and such, and there you have your episode.

It's a bit more complicated than that to be sure, but "I, Borg" sets up the parameters of its central debate fairly early on, and apart from Hugh's character development, there isn't really anything in the way of plot twists or striking reversals. And yet it never comes across as boring or belabored, because the question is so massive, and so tricky to negotiate, that it feels like it deserves the full running time to parse out. The Borg are murderous and deadly dangerous, and, as I said before, you can't negotiate with them. They are a threat that can't ever be mitigated by compromise or discussion. So under that logic, when presented with an opportunity that could potentially save millions of lives, isn't Picard obligated to take that chance, whatever moral misgivings his crew might have? But at the same time, the Federation is supposed to be better than their enemy. The Borg would embrace the chance to assimilate large groups without the cost of men or material, but surely Starfleet is above mass, uniform slaughter. The Borg are a life-form after all, however despicable by our standards, and to wipe out the entire race would run the risk of damning the Enterprise crew in the same way that Kevin Uxbridge was damned in "The Survivors" back in season 3.

And that's before you take into account the method of destruction. One of the most fascinating elements of "I, Borg" is the shipwrecked survivor that Picard wants to Trojan horse into killing off his own kind. Hugh is a bit on the cute side, and the episode might've worked better if he'd been more frightening at the beginning, if there was a sense of him having to transition from threat to friend, as opposed to just being sad and lonely separated from the rest of the Borg. He never seems dangerous at all, and no one ever asks if he's an assimilated Borg (like Picard was as Locutus) or "home grown." He's treated as just another orphan, and I'm not entirely convinced that's consistent with what we know of the Borg. The balance of a story like this is tricky to pull off, and if "I, Borg" fumbles, it's in making it too easy to sympathize for Hugh's vulnerability. He's not nearly as alien as he really ought to be.

At the same time, though, the episode helps us see the Borg's goals from their own perspective, and it smartly recognizes that, to themselves, the Borg are no more "evil" than we are to ourselves. Hugh misses the voices of the Borg hive mind, and he feels lonely and lost without the group consciousness to guide him. He's legitimately surprised that Beverly and Geordi might not wish to be assimilated, as though the thought had never occurred to his kind before. (Surely it must've, though? When they assimilate a race, I was under the impression that they downloaded all of that race's cultural knowledge; surely they would get a sense of how feared and despised they are.) I'm not sure if this is entirely believable in context of what we've seen before. You could say that Hugh is "young," and doesn't know all there is to know about being Borg, but that would seemingly violate one of the core principles of his kind, that there is no individual to develop, that all pieces are an equally important (and unimportant) part of the whole. But we've spent so long being frightened by the seemingly malevolent consciousness the Borg represent that there's something fascinating in the idea that "Resistance is futile" may not be a threat, but in fact a sincere, if misjudged, attempt at conciliation: Don't worry. It's all right. Soon you will be one with us all, don't fight it. 

This episode is also one of the first in recent memory to use Guinan as more than just a plot device. She's probably the only person on the ship with a more legitimate right to grievance against the Borg than Picard has, and initially, when she learns that Beverly and Geordi having Hugh on board and are running tests, she's extremely upset. When Geordi tries sharing his growing reservations about the project to her, Guinan gets even more upset, until she finally goes to see the captive herself. For once, Guinan isn't a source of ineffable wisdom, but an individual with an emotional response that may not be the healthiest response to the situation. There's a great scene late in the episode, after she goes to see Hugh, when Guinan visits Picard's quarters and directly asks him to convince her they're doing the right thing. The reason this episode largely works is due to moments like that, which admit that whatever choice they make, Picard and the others will be losing something: either they destroy the Borg and lose a piece of their humanity, or they let Hugh go unharmed, and risk feeling responsible every moment for the rest of their lives whenever they hear some new Borg atrocity.

In the end Picard meets with Hugh himself, in another great scene (and really the best in the whole ep): he pretends that he's Locutus, and tells Hugh that it's time to assimilate Geordi and the others. Hugh objects, even going so far as to refer to himself in the singular first person, and at that point, for Picard, it's really not a choice anymore. The only decision is whether or not to return Hugh to his own kind, or to try and protect him and let him foster his newfound individuality. Hugh, realizing that the Borg would never stop hunting for him, opts to go back, which isn't not a huge surprise. It is sad, though, since odds are the Borg will download his consciousness into the hive mind and then erase it. But that's also where the hope lies: Picard theorizes that in those brief seconds when "Hugh" is available to the entire collective, every single Borg will taste what it is like to be an individual. Only for a moment, sure, but who knows what effect it might have. 

This one works, largely for the reasons outlined above; and it also makes me like First Contact a little less, because Hugh certainly doesn't bring up a Borg Queen. (Also, I have a hard time accepting that Picard is still so pissed off about the Borg that he needs a guest actor to lecture him about Moby Dick.) I do think it cheats in making Hugh so sympathetic so quickly, but I appreciate the core concepts here, and overall, they were well-handled. The Borg may be a bit less scary after this, but let's be honest; they stopped being terrifying as soon as they were handily defeated in "Best of Both Worlds." This just leaves us with more stories to tell, and who isn't a fan of that?

Grade: A-

Stray Observations:

  • Surprised that Data wasn't more a part of this episode. The contrast between him and Hugh might've been interesting.
  • From what little I know of the rest of TNG, I don't think we ever get much more in the way of answers about the Borg. Which is too bad; once you get past the creeps, they really are fascinating, although I can't imagine they're all that easy to write for.
  • So, that look Hugh gives Geordi right before he transports away with the other Borg--did that mean his consciousness survived the downloading?

"The Next Phase"

Or The One Where Geordi And Ro Find The Vanishing Point

Oh, I like this kind of episode. It doesn't give me a ton to discuss, but I love it when TNG takes off its serious hat and wades in, knuckles bared, for some serious ass-kicking sci-fi pulp. Oh sure, there's some serious talk here about death, and about how we mourn the people we care about after they've left us, but that's entirely secondary to a story that has Geordi and Ro running around the Enterprise, invisible, desperate to find away to phase back into step with everyone else before the Romulans succeed in destroying the ship. This is suspenseful, beautifully constructed, and well-paced through out. We get some more quality time with Ro Laren, and Geordi gets to be completely competent and charming. At one point, Geordi shoves a guy through a wall and sends him floating out into space to die. It is totally hard-core.

Sometimes I think the Enterprise spends half its time flying through space with its chin out. How else to explain the set-up for "Phase": they find a Romulan ship in serious trouble (this happens even before the episode begins), and Riker and a few others beam over to try and help. There are some technical problems and the ship's engine gets ejected before it explodes, but the real important part here is that when Geordi and Ro beam back to the Enterprise with a piece of Romulan equipment that Geordi needs to fix in tow, there's a transporter malfunction, and the two are seemingly killed. The ep keeps this illusion up for a while, everyone doing their jobs with slightly grimmer expressions than usual--that engine jettisoning I mentioned happens before Ro re-appears on the bridge, and even though it has nothing really to do with the overall plot, is an exciting scene. As we've seen before on the show, the Enterprise crew is very good at doing their jobs in the face of tragedy. It sometimes seems off to me, just how good they are at it, considering how rare it is for anyone to die on the series; I have complete faith in the professionalism of Picard and the others, of course, but death looks like such a rarity in their lives that you'd think it would be more difficult for them to shake it off. But maybe that's just one of the benefits of living in an enlightened society, who am I to judge?

Besides, this isn't what I was getting at when I joked about the ship leading with its chin. Nor was I referring to Ro and Geordi's reappearance. Once Ro realizes that no one can see her, she can pass through solid objects, and everyone assumes she's dead, she decides that death is as good an explanation as any, and gets this mystical, peaceful look on her face as she tries to make peace with everyone she's left behind. Geordi's having none of this, however, and despite Ro's objections, he's determined to figure out what happened, and find some way to restore them both to their natural state. You could say this is some kind of argument between science and faith; Geordi refuses to accept what he sees without testing it, while Ro simply believes it at face value. And I like seeing it that way, because the skeptic gets to be right for once. As well, the whole ep is a subtle critique of Ro's beliefs; not only is she wrong about being "dead," she is shocked when Data's idea of a proper memorial service for his supposedly dissipated co-workers is a party-life affair where Riker plays trombone and everyone's laughing. So it works as an atheist's fable, although that's never intrusive or strident. The moral being, if Geordi had followed Ro's idea, they would've wound up dead, and so would everyone else on board the Enterprise.

And that's what I meant about sticking their chin out and begging someone to take a swipe. Because it turns out the Romulans, who Picard and the others were so keen on helping, are, in fact, evil, like nearly every other Romulan we've see on the series. Worf is the only one with any reservations about allowing them access to the Enterprise's computers, and Riker agrees with him, but he's get kind of an indulgent smile on his face, like, "Oh that Worf. Always such a paranoid nut. I think I'll keep him." Worf's right, though, although not right enough to realize that the Romulans are sabotaging the Enterprise's engines so that the next time the ship goes into warp, it will become a horrendous space kerblooey. Ro and Geordi hear the two main baddies discussing their plan, and we move into phase two: now, not only is it important for our heroes to get back in phase with everyone else before they starve to death (a concept the ep only really addresses after everything's been resolved), they've now got to do it before the ship moves on to its next destination. 

Ron Moore's script isn't the best he's done for the show, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, but it is really, really good, and through much of the episode, I found myself grinning to ear to ear. It's just built so nicely, starting us with one obvious danger (the Romulan ship is going to explode!) before moving to a mystery (what happened to Geordi and Ro?). Once Geordi and Ro's dilemma is established,  we spent time watching them struggle with what happened, establishing the rules of their strange condition (they can pass through objects, but not each other, no on else can hear them), and allowing a few scenes spent on them spying on their friends and fellow crew-members reacting to their deaths. But just as we're getting relaxed--Geordi is on the case, and we know he'll find an answer soon enough--we learn about the Romulan plot, and the race is on. And if that wasn't enough to get us worried again, we quickly learn that Geordi and Ro aren't as alone as they thought they were; there's a Romulan who is phased as well, and it's his job to make sure the Enterprise sabotage goes off without a hitch. 

This is just really smart writing, and while "Phase" lacks the depth of the series' greatest hours, it's a lot of fun to watch. None of the various threads that run through the episode ever get old; I thought maybe we'd spend too much time dealing with the reaction to Geordi and Ro's "deaths," but while we do get some scenes of Data planning that memorial service, it never wears out its welcome. Data and Worf talk some about death (I love watching Data and Worf hang out; it's maybe one of my favorite pairings on TNG, because they complement each other well), and Riker has plans to speak about Ro during the service, which unsurprisingly fascinates the hell out of Ro, and that's largely it. I'm not sure I'd use this specific episode if I wanted to hook someone on the series, but this is the kind of sharp, gratifyingly solid work that helps support TNG's more ambitious eps. It's just a neat adventure story, and you need those once in a while.

That said, I do have a reservation or two. Actually just one, and it's that chin thing. (Man, of all the jokes for me to repeat...) I appreciate that the Romulans have to be involved with this. The reason Geordi and Ro "disappear" is that the Romulans have been working on a device that would combine an inverter and a cloaking device, rendering them essentially undetectable for however long they want to be. The device malfunctions, our heroes are caught in the crossfire, and there you have it. But the fact that the Romulans are once again setting the Enterprise up for a fall has the unfortunate by-product of making Picard and the others look naive and overly trusting. It's not like there's any sort of surprise in the idea that the Romulans would be creeps. Apart from Worf's precautions, nobody really worries that much about what the Romulans might be up to, and while you need that ignorance in order to increase the tension in Geordi and Ro's efforts, I wish this could've been managed in a way that didn't make everyone else seem a bit foolish. Maybe if it was all some accident that only Geordi grasped the ramifications of, it might've worked better. Although that would've meant losing the chase scene with the phased Romulan, and the totally cool moment when Geordi shoves him through the outer wall of the ship. Hm. 

Generally, though, this was very fun, and a great change of pace after the more serious "I, Borg." It all culminates, as of course it had to culminate, at Geordi and Ro's memorial, as the two of them desperate try and get Data's attention by spreading chroniton particles. (It makes sense in context.) It's a great note to end everything on--two friends presumed dead appear first as ghosts, and then full on in the flesh. Reminds me a little of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and there are worse associations to have. The bad guys are thwarted, the good guys are saved, and we even have time for a short grace note at the end, with Ro contemplating the implications of their experience while Geordi wolfs down his second (or third, or fourth) dinner. Not every episode has to end in tears, and it's swell to see everything wrap up with a minimum of heartbreak. 

Grade: A-

Stray Observations:

  • "Oh please, not the death chant."
  • There is a surprising amount of hugging in this episode. The future is an odd place sometimes.

Next week: We finally get to "The Inner Light," and close out the fifth season with "Time's Arrow: Part I."

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