The Borg are back.
“Descent” marks an important turning point in a number of respects. Up front, it's the first time Star Trek: The Next Generation has done a cliffhanger season finale more or less only because this is the sort of thing it does to close off filming block seasons; in other words, the first time the cliffhanger finale structure is implemented as a matter of course and functional habit instead of being the result of unexpected necessity. “The Best of Both Worlds” was born out of a narrative-melting crisis springing from the chaos of the third season's production as well as contract disputes with Patrick Stewart's agent. “Redemption” was a double length story done to lead into the 25th Anniversary year and to accommodate the bombshell return of Denise Crosby, as well as closing off Worf's epic story arc about his isolation from his Klingon heritage (oh how naive we all once were). And “Time's Arrow” wasn't even going to be a a two-parter until the building hype for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine started to concern viewers that Star Trek: The Next Generation was going off the air.
Interestingly enough, much of this remains palpable swirling about the thematic and aesthetic core of “Descent”. Most notably, of course, the Borg. What's important to remember about the Borg's status in Star Trek is their joint role as extradiegetic challenge and interloping threat: The Borg are not exactly a dark mirror of the Federation, and while it's tempting to call them purveyors of narrative collapse, they're actually not. “The Best of Both Worlds” threatened to be a narrative collapse, but if it had been that would have been the show doing that to itself-The Borg winning was a symptomatic result of the show's panic-stricken crisis, not the cause of it. The closest Star Trek: The Next Generation has actually come to narrative collapse is the forced artifice of “Chain of Command”, which examined the potential threat of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dispersing its older sister by purging Bajor and the Cardassian occupation from it. Crucially, this story came not long after two other double-length episodes meant to reassure us this wasn't going to happen (one of which even featured a cameo by the Borg). Since then, we've seen Gul Ocett on this side of the lot and there's even a Bajoran extra in “Descent” itself.
In practice, the Borg are actually more of a counterfactual narrative invader. They come from Star Trek's future, and as iconic as they may be to Star Trek: The Next Generation in pop culture they fundamentally do not belong here. The Borg represent all the darkness and ugliness the Star Trek universe inherits as part of its pedigree, the terrifying end result of science fiction's teleology and technological determinism gone horribly right. And, keenly aware of the show's perpetually unfulfilled potential, the Borg lie in wait for a moment of weakness to strike and appropriate. Not out of malice, but out of sheer opportunism and a compulsion to consolidate power and efficiency. As such, the Borg work best when they're used as a source of grotesque parallel and contrast to remind us of what it would look like if we were to allow the impulses of capitalism and modernity to continue to evolve and adapt unchecked. The reason the Federation fear the Borg so much, the reason Admiral Nechayev calls them “our mortal enemy”, is merely because of their inner consciousness playing on their unspoken, yet fundamental, self-doubt and self-loathing that, perhaps, they're actually not so different after all.
“Descent” is sometimes seen as the moment the Borg jumped the shark as it were, because in this story they're not a monolithic hive mind blindly absorbing everything but a handful of trained, individual strike force commandos. But this is actually the biggest reason why the Borg in this episode provide the biggest threat they have possibly ever posed, because as big of a deal the crew makes about how they're acting atypically, they're actually not. The “I, Borg” callback isn't just to throw out a red herring in the plot to play for time (seriously, with Data's prominent role here involving his oddly timed emotional resurgence, was there ever any doubt that Lore was going to turn out to be behind it all? But that's for next season), it's a firm critique of the previous episode's ethical underpinnings and moral dilemma that also reveals how terrifyingly powerful and dangerous the Borg really are.
This is not the same as critiquing, say Captain Picard's specific actions in that episode: In fact, the whole reason Alynna Nechayev is here is to further reinforce that he acted wisely and correctly-Let's not forget that Nechayev is the first Starfleet Admiral *overtly* coded as actively evil. Her very condemnation of Picard's choice lets us know that he made the right one. Rather, what “Descent” is attacking is the notion that moral choice was ever necessary: There is no moral dilemma in regards to the sanctity of life; it should be preserved and respected above all else no matter what, end of, and “I, Borg” was stupid to insinuate that wasn't the case and to put Captain Picard and Guinan in the position of neglecting that. So we have the Captain taking the fall for the show *yet again* by being put in between Admiral Nechayev and Commander Riker...and note that after Will reassures him all of that bothersome luggage is cast aside.
But what's really scary about “Descent” is how, from this, the Borg still manage to get the upper hand, even in spite of the crew's good intentions and noble actions. Remember, the Borg gestalt is capitalism given form, and what capitalism is best at is devouring and appropriating all other ways of thinking, even that which is used against it. And what's one of the very first things we learned about the Borg way back in “Q Who”? That any weapon you use against them will only work once, because they will then immediately learn, adapt and turn it against you a hundredfold. Jeri Taylor was right: “I, Borg” *did* change the Borg forever, but not quite in the way she thought. Because what the Borg have done here in “Descent” is, terrifyingly, assimilate the very concepts of individual positionality and human empathy themselves. They've taken two of the most sacred tenets by which Star Trek operates, ground them into the engines of capitalism and turned them back against us in an attempt to quell any resistance we could offer before we reached a point where we were prepared to effect change.
The Borg's endgame is, and always has been, to kill off Star Trek as Star Trek: The Next Generation before it transitions to the form that will do battle with them on their own terms. And even if they were to fail here, they'd still be ready for us in the future. Either way, they win.
It's in this way that the Borg have given us their timeliest and most critical challenge to date. Through assimilating and weaponizing empathy in the name of capital, they've transformed themselves into the living embodiment of the one and only thing that could truly be called Star Trek: The Next Generation's greatest threat: Grimdark. It's been creeping into the series ever since Michael Piller became head writer and executive producer, and its only been magnified by the presence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the intense scrutiny both series have been subjected to that goes above and beyond anything we've seen before. It is the fatal flaw of two major showrunners, one of whom wrote this episode. And now grimdark has come to life more frightening and monstrous than we ever could have imagined, the symbolism sealed by the Borg's apparent claiming of Data-Who better than he to represent those selfsame virtues the Borg have stolen from us? A transhuman character who acknowledges there's still more for him to learn and grow from.
And who better to mastermind it all than a psychopathic fascist android?