In the twenty-third episode of the fifth season of The Next Generation, I wasn’t fucking ready for this. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of genocide, assault.
What do I even say about this episode??? I’m sure the fandom had a field day with “I, Borg,” and I’m certain that everything that can be said has been. I don’t doubt that the Star Trek community as a whole recognizes what an incredible work of art this is, so I know that what I’m saying has been said a thousand times before. I imagine, then, that many of us know why this episode feels so monumental. Up to this point, the Borg have represented a very specific antagonistic threat within The Next Generation. Both of their appearances are within episodes that are amongst the most frightening in the entire show’s run. They’re a force meant to inspire fear and tension. In short? They are there to give us a sense of futility and hopelessness. That’s why they’re so intimidating: their weaknesses are so rare and unknowable that any victory achieved against them is always temporary. In short? It’s only a matter of time before they come back and rain terror down on whomever they come across.
The history they have within this show is also uniquely personal. For both Guinan and Picard, the Borg represent their own traumas. Guinan’s people were forced into a diaspora because of them; Picard was ruthlessly tormented, assaulted, and violated by them. They have every right to be wary and mistrustful and fearful of the Borg. I think this episode is keenly aware of that and never tries to suggest that they shouldn’t have felt this way. The challenge, though, comes from the ethical conundrum presented by Third of Five. What do you do if you find one of your mortal enemies wounded and alone? Are you, as Dr. Crusher insists, morally required to help them? Are you, as Worf contends, ethically allowed to kill the survivor out of your own self interest? Or is the best plan to cut this Borg loose and run as fast as you can? All of these are viable options, but the solution presented and then accepted is much more intense than any of these:
Picard orders the team to infect the injured Borg with a virus that’ll wipe out the entirety of the Borg species, and then send the Borg back with it.
As a military maneuver, it’s brilliant. The Borg’s very nature is used against them, and these people can destroy this threat from a distance without ever having to risk their own lives. The important thing to note is that this allows them all to detach themselves from the act. You’ll see later that Picard asks Geordi to do just this when Geordi expresses doubt about the plan. If they think of these beings as nothing more than enemies (or “combatants,” to use a modern term), then it’s easier to do whatever they want to them.
With the exception of Dr. Crusher, that is. She is the only person who considers this to be an act of genocide. Well, perhaps the others do, too, but they’re okay with it. Why don’t they second guess themselves? Why is Dr. Crusher the sole dissenting person at the start of the episode? I think that’s tied to her profession, first of all. She’s sworn to protect and save life when she can, and despite that the Borg have done horrific things, Third of Five is still a living being and deserving of that life. Is that an easy thing to convince the others of? No, not at all, and even worse, she still has to comply with orders to facilitate the process of infection.
But through that process, a transformation occurs. It is an incredible thing to watch. Jonathan Del Arco is so unreal here that I cannot imagine anyone else playing Hugh. Hugh. The Borg in this episode becomes so fascinating by the people he meets that he allows himself to be named and then willingly adopts it. As Hugh discovers more and more about life apart from a collective, the more he realizes the emptiness of his own life. He admits to being lonely, y’all, and IT IS SO FUCKING HEARTBREAKING TO WATCH.
Hugh is not the only transformation that happens here, though. both Guinan and Picard are forced to reconsider their previous commitment to genocide despite being the most vocal supporters of it. We can thank Geordi for that, as he’s the second person to believe that Hugh is an individual person, not part of a collective. When Guinan does confront him, she’s confused as much as he is. And that lack of certainty on his part tears apart her perception of him. How can he be the monster she thinks he is if he doesn’t even understand what it is he’s doing? At the beginning of the episode, he’s so insistent about assimilation, but as the story progresses, he is more willing to question his programming.
There’s no better evidence of that than in the emotionally powerful confrontation between Picard and Hugh. With little hesitation, Picard slips back into Locutus, all so he can test Hugh’s dedication to the Borg’s ideals. He’s shocked when Hugh uses a first-person pronoun and refuses to assimilate Geordi. BECAUSE THEY ARE FRIENDS. FRIENDS. HUGH HAS A FRIEND AND IT’S GEORDI AND I WOULD LIKE TO BE BURIED ALONGSIDE THE DEAD BORGS ON THAT PLANET BECAUSE I SHALL NOT SURVIVE THIS EPISODE.
I think that “I, Borg” is about seeing the humanity in all living things. That doesn’t mean these people have to let their guard and see the Borg as a bunch of cuddly best friends. If anything, the ending to this episode is perhaps the saddest conclusion I’ve ever seen on this show. What will Hugh return to? Will his memories (and therefore, his progress) be erased instantly? Will he forget his first friend? Or is Picard’s hope possible? Can the Borg slowly change just because of one difference in the collective?
I sure hope so, cuz otherwise I’ll be over here drowning in my tears.
The video for “I, Borg” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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