As a child of the 80s, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was the light of my teen years. It kindled my imagination and tickled my intellect, making me think about things in our world and beyond. But as we can only appreciate light if we know darkness, it is probably the darkest hour of “The Next Generation” that left the deepest imprint on my memory. The reason why it did so is closely related to the theme of the month here at SFFN: intelligent machines and what they tell us about ourselves.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” gave sci-fi viewers one such iconic intelligent machine: Lt. Commander Data, the loveable android who would be man in spite of his superior strength, memory and computational power. Yet, the series also offered a look at the reverse of the coin: technological terror embodied, not in robots going rogue and overthrowing their human creators, but in a monstrous merging of man and machine – the Borg.
The Borg were introduced as early as season 2’s episode “Q Who,” in which the all-powerful being Q pushes the crew of the Enterprise-D into a first encounter with them in attempt to humble Picard & Co. into the realization that there are bigger threats out there than they can face. And Q gets his point across. The Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that assimilate technology, knowledge and sentient humanoids in pursuit of perfection, prove too powerful even for Starfleet’s best. Captain Picard’s diplomatic approach does not work on them because they only communicate to announce that “resistance is futile”. They cannot be outrun, and they cannot be outgunned because they adapt to Starfleet weapons, becoming virtually unstoppable. But the Borg’s big break came with the season 3 finale, “The Best of Both Worlds”. This was the moment when “The Next Generation” made TV history and asserted its own identity, separate from its cult 60s predecessor, “Star Trek: The Original Series”.
“The Best of Both Worlds” killed two amazing birds in one shot: it broke end-of-series conventions by ending the season on a cliffhanger, leaving viewers in tense wait of a resolution to its conflict until the beginning of the following season, and established the Borg as one of the supervillains of sci fi. In this episode, the Borg kidnap Captain Picard in order to make him into their spokesperson for a smoother assimilation of Earthlings. The episode ends on the terrifying image of Picard turned into Locutus of Borg telling the Enterprise to surrender, which First Officer Riker counters with an order to fire.
What makes this into such a powerful moment is the threat that the Borg pose, not only to our favorite troupe of space travelers, but to humanity as a whole. The Borg come into contrast with most depictions of artificial intelligence in science fiction. Robots either affirm their machine superiority as they do in the “Terminator” or “Matrix” films, or they seek to be human such as Star Trek’s very own Data or the androids of “Blade Runner”. The Borg reject both and embrace both at the same time, and they are actually more than a sum of cybernetic and organic parts. They are also greater than one, for the Borg also reject the Holy Grail or robot aspirations: individuality. The Borg do not threaten humanity with death, but with assimilation, a fate that is far worse because it spells the corruption of humanity, not just its destruction.
In part 2 of this episode, we get to witness the process of assimilation as it happens to Captain Picard and the image is chilling. Assimilation comes across as monstrous because it threatens both the integrity of our bodies and that of our minds with technological violation. It consists in part of replacing organic limbs and eyes with cybernetic implants. The merging of man with machine is often shown to have grotesque consequences, with a classic example in Darth Vader from “Star Wars”, but the Borg take it one step further. They also erase any sense of self from their victims, turning individuals into drones. The Borg exist as a perfect collective, all of their minds interconnected into one omnipotent will that converts immediately into action, regenerating their ships and allowing them to adjust their shields based on the fire they draw.
The only real enemies of the Borg are subterfuge and individuality itself. And, well, a race from another dimension introduced later in “Star Trek: Voyager”, but we won’t talk about that in this article. The crew of the Enterprise defeat the Borg in part 2 of “The Best of Both Worlds” by hacking a sleep sequence into their system and rescuing Captain Picard. In a later episode, “I, Borg,” they capture an injured adolescent Borg whom they intend to send back into the Collective carrying a deadly piece of programming that would spell the end of the Borg as a race. However, the young drone slowly develops an individuality, coming to call himself Hugh. This foils Picard’s plans bringing forth issues of immorality and genocide. Instead, Hugh’s awakened sense of self spells later mutiny in the Borg Collective when he and a number of drones decide to escape.
To conclude, what gives the Borg their power to terrify us is the very mix of man and machine, resulting in the utter disregard for personal freedom. Of course, they are a very effective metaphor for the ill of collectivism that has threatened human society over decades, but one cannot discount the obvious: they reflect the ultimate technological nightmare. If robots are often used in science fiction to highlight emotion as an essentially human trait, what “Star Trek” teaches us about humanity through the Borg is that our most basic need is freedom.
Looking back at the Borg now in 2016 is a little disturbing when put into the context of the highly interconnected virtual world we live in. We are wired to our computers and phones, and social media brings other voices inside our own heads. The message about technology slowly taking over our lives and alienating us from our own humanity seems stronger now than ever. “The Best of Both Worlds” remains a cliffhanger to this day for we have yet to determine how far our dance with technology will take us.
Reference: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borg_(Star_Trek)) and Memory Alpha (http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Borg)
Images from TrekCore (http://tng.trekcore.com/)
Livia Miron is a hired writing gun in the IT industry and a creative writer in real life. She is a long-time Star Trek fan, a devout Middle-earther and a recent Star Wars convert. Currently, her passion for writing is driving her deeper and deeper into the mithril-laden mines of Hobbit fan fiction. Livia lives in Romania and is proud of her heritage, but she is also an incurable Anglophile.