Thursday, August 6, 2015

“Measure of a Non-Human”: I, Borg

The Borg are somewhat unique in the pantheon of Star Trek species. While not the first to be portrayed as villainous or antagonistic, they are the first to be designed explicitly to fill that role from the beginning, and nothing else (or at least the first successful attempt at this, given the Ferengi are in some ways a rough draft of the Borg). In spite of the kind of stereotypical “planet of hats” jokes, every other alien culture in Star Trek, even the Original Series Klingons, was created to have more than one facet about them. Not the Borg though: They were very clearly designed to be an enemy the crew couldn't debate or reason with intellectually, only fight with old-fashioned weapons and pray they could run away from relatively unscathed.

You can read this as beneficial or harmful depending on your perspective. One way you might defend this is to argue that, as such fitting metaphors for the engines of capitalism, it's good that the Borg are a faceless evil who exist just to get blown apart by phaser blasts. After all, you'd want no quarter for the oppressing hegemony: It's irresponsible to borderline collaborator levels to portray the kind of captailism the Borg represent as anything other than utterly irredeemable. However there's also the small fact that these are sentient beings, not monsters you can take pot-shots at in low-rent action sci-fi, and it's no less reactionary when Star Trek turns the Borg into their version of cannon fodder to satiate the bloodlust of a certain subset of its fanbase who really just wants brainless military science fiction where they can run through corridors shooting things. This is, for example, pretty much the default mode of depicting the Borg from about 1996 onwards, and it's a hard sell to claim that did Star Trek any real favours.

So in that sense “I, Borg” is an important and necessary story to do. By putting a face to the faceless enemy it humanizes them (literally, in Hugh's case) and points out the insularity and shortsightedness bound up in all forms of hate. Michael Piller is quit right to extol the virtues of this episode on that count, and to say this is a very Star Trek message to deliver. But as much as this episode might get praised for those reasons, it's not quite as simple as some might want it to be and we can't, in my opinion, go patting ourselves on the back for a job well done just yet. “I, Borg” for me is something of an inverse of “Cost of Living” and “Imaginary Friend”, and kind of an outlier in my history with Star Trek: The Next Generation on the whole. While those were episodes I always remembered strongly that turned out to be nowhere near as good as I though they were, this is a story that's always been pretty iconic for me and that I can fully understand why it gets the praise it does...But I just can't bring myself to like it and have never been able to.

Obviously Guinan and Captain Picard are off in right wing hawk fantasy land here, quite casually contemplating open genocide, and that's kind of a big deal. Michael Piller was of course in love with this idea, saying “I think it's just a great premise which forces both Guinan and Picard to confront their own prejudices. And you would think these are two characters who have none, but when it comes to the Borg the old issue is 'know your enemy'”. Dramatically, of course, it makes sense for them to harbour at least some bigotry towards the Borg: Picard is supposed to be of a transitional generation while Guinan is ageless, and both bear scars from what they did to their respective lives, wiping out Guinan's people and forcing the survivors into refugee camps and assimilating Picard and forcing him to give him their knowledge of Earth's defense systems in order to launch the attack at Wolf 359. I'm still not sure even circumstances this traumatic would lead someone to advocate exterminating an entire species, but maybe I have too much faith in the human condition. Maybe it's my own personal biases, but I simply cannot see these characters ever coming up with a plan like this.

This is also another decent, though not exceptional, Geordi and Beverly story as they're the first ones to realise Hugh's value as an individual and turn against the plan to make him a carrier for the anti-Borg virus. A plan which, I should point out, never should have gotten as far as it did, but I going to set that aside for now and come back to it a little later. It makes sense that they would feel this way, given their status and positionalities as scientists and teachers. I'm a bit upset (well, comparatively speaking), that Geordi wasn't the first one to bond with Hugh and needed to be swayed by Beverly, but it more or less works as written I suppose. The larger issue is, of course, that apparently everyone else on the Enterprise is 100% OK with mass genocide, and I have a pretty hard time accepting that.

This is no utopian story about conflict resolution and moving beyond bigotry like “The Wounded” was as the stakes are so horrifically, cartoonishly high there's no real room for that kind of nuance. And I know nobody remembers it, but didn't Captain Picard call out Kevin Uxbridge for grief-induced genocide way the hell back in “The Survivors”? And no, he isn't allowed to be hypocritical because it's the Borg this time and OMG look at the wonderful conflict-If you're opposed to genocide, you pretty much have to be opposed to it on principle. You don't get to debate it. There's no conditional genocide clause, in spite of what United States foreign policy might have you believe.

In spite of the heinousness of the topic, the issues I have with “I, Borg” are really just an extension of the issues I had with “Cost of Living” and “Imaginary Friend”. My big problem, as you've probably been able to surmise, is that this is happening to the Enterprise crew. Had Picard's role here been filled by any nameless Starfleet bureaucrat that would have been one thing: That's the kind of order Starfleet Command would give, but it's also the kind of order the Enterprise crew should be questioning and standing against. This is a constant problem this creative team in its myriad incarnations has had since the third season and has become endemic this season: Treating the main cast as if they're the establishment instead of a progressive force.

It's episodes not just like this one and “Cost of Living”, but also episodes like “The Offspring” and just about everything to do with Ro Laren (and looking ahead to next season, “Relics”) as well, that really get under my skin. Yes I know you can read Captain Picard's attitudes here as an extension of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” and “Family”. Yes I know that makes good drama. But I don't care because I don't like it. This is not what I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation to see. That's not what I personally feel this show is about, and really, what it's even very good at. I get that these characters were never very popular with writers for a great many reasons, but you know what? That isn't the charcters' fault. That's the fault of uncreative, imagination-starved jobbers and fanboys who never wanted to give Star Trek: The Next Generation the chance to be itself. You can talk my ear off about dramatic fiction writing 101 until you're blue in the face, but that will never change my opinion that absolutely none of that ever applied to Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first place.

I think what it comes down to is that I just really don't like the Picard/Borg story arc. I think by now it's become the biggest, highest profile violation of this show's ethical and philosophical core that exists. If you want my opinion on a better way this story could have been handled, and I'm going to presume since you're here you at least wouldn't mind reading it, here's how I think you could have done the Picard/Borg arc without compromising Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism. Recall that Michael Piller's original idea for “The Best of Both Worlds” was to respond to received fan wisdom at the time that Captain Picard was too aloof and stoic and not human enough (meaning he wasn't a clone of Captain Kirk). So the whole idea of having him assimilated by the Borg was proof by absence: Show what Picard would look like if he was really stripped of his humanity.

After you bring him back though, the best way to drive this theme home was to have him act even more “human”. Here I don't mean “human” in the sense the writing team probably does (meaning a deeply flawed, yet lovable and badass asshole), but a *utopian* vision of humanity: Picard should be the one to show the Borg mercy. He should forgive them. As the final proof of the return of his humanity, Picard should extend a hand to the Borg to try and help them reclaim their “humanity” too (and to hedge against any errant anthropocentrism, you can substitute that placeholder phrase for whatever descriptors you personally think evoke empathy and emotional maturity). Picard should be the first one onboard with what Geordi and Beverly try to do here, and the rest of the crew ought to be right there with him. In those circumstances, Hugh's story becomes about how the Enterprise crew helps him break free of the shackles of capitalism to discover his own identity, in much the same way they've helped so many visitors before him. That's how you do a story about utopian conflict resolution.

And yet I'll still grant you all the mileage you want that this episode as aired is a functional piece of drama. I've always been aware of “I, Borg”'s stature within the fandom, and I can see why. Like I said, it's always been an iconic story for me even though I don't particularly enjoy it. There was a Hugh action figure made by Playmates I was always aware of (I think I even made up a story involving him where he joined the Enterprise crew, probably as a subconscious reaction against this episode), and there were a lot of publicity stills from this shoot that showed up in the various magazines and reference books I had. And this episode sets up a lot from a continuity perspective too: It leads directly into the “Descent” two parter, which as of this writing I still remember as one of my favourite stories, and it also lays the groundwork for one subplot in Michael Jan Friedman's “War and Madness” summer event miniseries. Although that might be damning with faint praise, as “War and Madness” is probably my least favourite of the DC line's summer event miniseries.

Look, I'll be perfectly straightforward with you all. When it comes to material like this, the best, most sophisticated critique I can muster is “I don't like it”. I don't like watching this kind of story. I don't like seeing these characters behaving this way. This is not the way I imagine these people to be. And I don't care how many overtures you can make to the textual quality of “I, Borg”: The fact remains this is not something I'm going to willingly sit down to watch to pass an evening's time.


  1. I think I can forgive the genocide plan (wow, what a statement!!) on the grounds that the Borg weren't considered 'alive' per se, more like some sort of out of control evil computer, which you'd happily nobble with a virus any day of the week. Of course they back out of their plan as Hugh's emerging personality convinces them that the Borg is in itself a unique entity... only it doesn't, as they are convinced when Hugh starts acting like them rather than the Borg, which comes uncomfortably close to "this foreign culture has no value unless it starts acting like us". The crew are then excited because maybe Hugh can Westernise all the Borg and bring them closer to the American humanistic individual idyll rather than the Borg's own unique culture.

    Okay, yes the Borg go around actively enslaving people, but we don't know if that's true of all Borg. In fact, at this point in the series wasn't assimilation limited to Picard alone and the idea still being that they were this unique race and it was technology they assimilated, not biomatter? When did the whole 'the Borg bolster their numbers by enslaving people' thing actually arise?

    (For the record I liked this episode, but there's some fridge logic stuff that makes me doubt myself there)

    1. The mass-assimilation thing really started with First Contact, and the decision to make the Borg into zombies. Even there it's explicable as an emergency measure to facilitate taking over the Enterprise after their own ship was destroyed--it's not until Voyager until you get assimilating entire species as the Borg's standard modus operandi.

    2. I would think that the Borg Queen in First Contact espouses some philosophy that counterindicates the "emergency measure" interpretation even if the plot itself allows for it.

      Though it's also interesting to recall that the attempted assimilation of Data in FC is treated as the Borg Queen trying something special and new and extra-super-duplicitious, since normally, Data, being non-organic, would be uninteresting to the Borg (Itself a callback to a line in BoBW where Locutus declares Data obsolete.)

      Isn't there a scene with Locutus in Best of Both Worlds looking over the crew in turn and declaring how each of them would be assimilated?

    3. No, the line is how to most effectively kill each of them, and I can't remember if it's Locutus or Hugh that delivers it.

      It is entirely possible that the Borg Queen says something like that in First Contact. I pretty much instinctively tune out all the scenes with her in them, because they're godawful.

  2. I don't understand why you think the Enterprise crew arn't the establishment. To me it always seemed clear that the reason they could get away with talking back to Starfleet/the Federation was because they were high ranking within Starfleet/the Federation. To me they've always come across as the privileged, the self obsessed white Western 'explorers'.

    I've probably watched more of the show, so perhaps I'm missing something important. I got that impression of Star Trek after a handful of episodes across several seasons (I, Borg was one of them), so it's more than possible you've seen something in the canon I didn't. But this didn't seem out of character to me at all, or against the show's ethos. It' comes across to me as a vision of human unity brought about by destroying everything that isn't a particular sort of Western culture. Of course they'd commit genocide.

    1. You are missing something important. Star Trek doesn't always live up to its ideals, but the ideal of Star Trek has always been, as Kirk puts it in Arena, that while humans are often killers, "We're not going to kill today." A recognition of our flaws, and an effort to overcome them. War is sometimes necessary but it's always a waste of lives, even when you can't talk your way out of it. The whole point of the prime directive is to try to prevent the forced imposition of Federation culture on pre-Warp societies, though TOS is reallllly inconsistent about it.

    2. I think there's an inconsistency between what it states as it's ideals and what it shows. I feel like what you expressed is the show's stated ideals rather than what I see. I'm going to try and explain but I'm not sure how successful I'll be here-

      It is supposed to be a vision of a united future Earth right? Why is it so white and so male? Does Federation/Earth culture in the show not seem static and homogenous to you? And why is the culture so biased towards Western Europe? The majority of the world (four billion) is Asian, so why are there so few Asians in Starfleet and no visible influence of Asian cultures on the Federation? Where are the turbans and the headscarves? Where are the people I grew up around? I'm not even really talking about main characters here, the extras and the background factor into this as well. Even in the most recent Star Trek movie there are no human background characters in anything other than Western dress and no symbols of other religions. In London, one of the most multicultural cities on the planet.

      So I looked at that, across all the series, and I wondered what had happened to them. And it makes me think of 'Lord' Lytton's famine and the Mau Mau, Haiti, the Congo, the Herero and Nama peoples. Because-

      Down the road from my father's house back home, once you get away from the area tourists go there's a village. There are no roofs on any of the buildings, no doors or windows and a lot of the walls have been pulled down. But you can tell these were houses. People lived there. It was a Turkish village. There arn't any Turkish people in that part of the country any more.

      There's I see in Trek, a human one. I can't help comparing it to something like Transmetropolitan- another vision of a future Earth. Transmet probably has more white people proportionally in the main cast but the background shots of the City are full of people of all races and you can see influences from all over the world in their clothing, and food and in throw away lines about things like throat singers jamming on street corners. Even something like Orion (German show, Vaka Rangi covered, worth watching) seems to go out of it's way to provide little details and human variation. Trek...doesn't.

      I have no idea how well I've communicated that and it is just my reading. I know it's not the reading the creators intended, but it's what I absorbed from a thousand little ques in their world. You're welcome to disagree, everybody sees different things in these sorts of shows. Trek makes me uncomfortable, it feels like a whole world that's been designated 'white space' (ie if you're anything else your presence must be justified). It feels, fundamentally, unwelcoming to someone culturally mixed, like me. I don't mean this to insult the show or to somehow say that you 'shouldn't' enjoy it. Just....this is what I see as problematic in it, and in my case it stops me from enjoying the show or seeing it as living up to it's stated ideals.

    3. Plus, of course, your "united future earths", even when they take a stab at racial diveristy tend to interpret "racism isn't a thing and all races are equal now" to mean "everyone acts like a middle-class late 20th century white man", as though any divergence from that particular set of cultural values is itself only the product of racism: when racism is finally over, these overwhelmingly white writers say, everyone, black, white and any other skin tone you care to mention, will wear polo shirts and pull their pants up and like film noir and classical music.

  3. This is an episode that links strongly to might-have-beens for me. It's pure hypothetical stuff, but I always felt like if there was a missed opportunity during "The Best of Both Worlds" to actually shake the status quo, and give us a Riker Enterprise, and a post-Picard crew, then "I, Borg" would have been the right kind of storyline for the eventual rescue of Picard. I mean imagine the pathos and the inner acting of the core cast if instead of some random Borg, the Borg they rescue is Locutus. Imagine if Guinan's pep-talk to Riker about "getting over Picard" really took, and he and Worf are pretty personally invested in an alpha-strike against the Borg Collective and Beverly and Geordi have to convince Riker, still full of ghosts about his responsibility and failing to save Picard, that this Locutus is glitching, is re-understanding individuality, and we get to see Patrick Stewart's take on the reassertion of individuality over the collective. And so eventually, Beverly & Geordi have to convince the Riker/Worf bromance to get over their own guilt, ghosts, and in doing so, they all get their Picard back.

    Guinan's hard line would mean more if Picard had been taken from them as well. A story where Deanna and Data are kind of caught in the middle of opposing forces from Riker/Worf and Beverly/Geordi would be a fascinating angle to play. And of course we'd presumably have like, Shelby as a wild-card, were this the case.

    Anyway, instead we get Hugh. We get a Pet Borg for the Enterprise. And we get some pretty uncharacteristic behavior. But anyway, Gates McFadden and LaVar Burton are awesome here.

  4. SF things about the morality of genocide are particularly useless, I think, since it's only in SF/Fantasy that you can even conceptualise such a thing as justfiable genocide, i.e. if you're facing species annihilation at the hands of a an inhuman race with no free will and no redeeming features. In the real world, 'justfiable genocide' isn't a thing, not even potentially or conceptually.

    1. True, true. Typically even Tolkien's orcs - an entire race generated to be villified, created by the most crass evil straw man of all - are ultimately all depicted as victims. Victims of callow, envious divine figures tampering with their species by way of eugenics. Because as soon as you start asking questions. Who are they? How did they come to be? You've defeated the intention of "purity of villainy".

      The notion of The Borg as "created to be hated" was going to last about as long as it took for "Both Worlds, Part 2" to end and for somebody to be like, "well, what's the next Borg story?" Ultimately, they're all victims, too. Victims of a programmer who programmed a program so long ago that the Galaxy itself has forgotten whodunnit.

      Of course, tangentially I'd like to say that in my head-canon, it was the El-Aurians who programmed The Borg's original incarnation, before it was a spacefaring-race-assimilator. Essentially before those brain-bugs from Season 1 hijacked the technology with their pure hive-consumer ethos.

      As for the rest of Guinan's ethics here, I mean, I like Guinan more than 3/4 of the core cast, but I've been questioning her ethics all along as she manipulates space-time itself with her witchery hocus pocus.

    2. (The straw man is Morgoth, BTW, not Tolkien. Tolkien after all didn't create "orcs" as a concept, he just borrowed them. He was an avid sub-creator.)

    3. Aye jack, with you on this.

      The thing I always get about the Borg is that they are us, any of us turned into The Other, they are us trapped within the machinery of Capitalism, just turned into gun-fodder.

      For me that is an awful thought, that they are us, are there inside those machines.