Monday, December 19, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: I, Borg

The Next Generation, Season 5
"I, Borg"
Airdate: May 11, 1992
122 of 176 produced
122 of 176 aired


The Enterprise finds a crashed Borg scout ship, and a young injured Borg. Responding to Dr. Crusher's humanitarian instincts, Picard agrees to allow the Borg on board for treatment. He soon realizes this may be an opportunity to destroy the Borg once and for all, but as the lost drone begins to assert his independence, the morality of his plan becomes less certain. In the face of such an enemy, is any response to extreme?
We are the Borg. You will be a-blub-blub-blubb-gub.


Kevin: I think this is a very strong episode overall. First, this is probably one of the most organic, non-heavy handed treatments of one of these Big Questions the show has done. It anchors the drama in Picard and Guinan's experience with the Borg and LaForge's experience with a Borg. I'll get to the substance of the debate in a second, but I liked how the characters responded to the setup of this episode. Crusher is compassionate, almost to a fault, but it felt much more organic and interesting, than say "The High Ground." LaForge did a good job portraying a kind of everyman response to the idea of destroying the Borg, but coming around as his experience changes his mind. I particularly liked Guinan's scenes, both with LaForge and Picard. It was great to see her so upset. It would have been painful and unrealistic for her to be serene and wise here. I loved her asking Picard to convince her of the wisdom of the plan to destroy the Borg. The role reversal is interesting and really elevates her character.

Matthew: Yeah, this is a superb character story. Picard is an interesting nut to crack, here. He is the one who originates he genocidal virus idea. My question is, how soon did he come up with this idea? In fact, I think it is what motivated him to acquiesce to Crusher's request in the first place - he hatched at least the kernel of the plan immediately upon hearing about a Borg survivor. It adds a really interesting shade to his character's experience, one that is reiterated by Counselor Troi, as essentially being analogous to a rape victim. If anything, I wish Picard hadn't changed tacks quite so dramatically by the end - I think he should have been overruled by his crew or something. Firstly, I think the ending as presented here is a bit pat (i.e. "maybe the taste of individuality will infect them"). But secondly, It would square better with his later portrayal as a gun-wielding maniac in "Star Trek: First Contact." Anyway, yeah, it was really great to see Geordi and Guinan come around to essentially adopting Crusher's ethical stance. I will discuss that more below. Another thing I really liked about this episode was how much it added to the Borg mythos. We get much more emphasis on assimilation, talk of cybernetic implants, and the introduction of the "X of Y" naming convention. I wish Hugh had offered a stronger rationale for wanting to return to the collective - he seemed pretty attached to his individuality, and there was never any countervailing force introduced, only loneliness was hinted at.

Kevin: I like the moral dilemma presented here. It's disturbing to see our heroes contemplating genocide. I liked that they discussed declared versus undeclared wars, and whether the ends justify the means. On the one hand, seeing Hugh's emerging individuality and Picard come to grips with it has plenty of dramatic and philosophical teeth, but I think it in the end gave Picard an out. From the beginning of the conversation, he states his position is predicated on the idea that Borg are an absolute threat to their safety and one that cannot be changed by any means, and that if there were such a means, he would use it instead of the plan to use the drone to destroy the collective. Hugh neatly delivers the evidence of the potential to change. Every person or nation that has engaged in genocide has used some variation of Picard's justification for their own ends. What if Picard is right this time? If we take it as read that Borg are bent intractably on the Federation's destruction and will eventually succeed, is what Picard is doing then OK? I enjoy watching Picard wrestle with his own conscience, and in the end, seeing it win was gratifying and interesting, but I think it would have been more interesting to see what happens when the immovable object of Federation morality hits the unstoppable force of the Borg.

Matthew: If you'll excuse some philosophy nerdery here, the thinker this episode's plot most closely parallels is Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas wrote that human beings regard "the Other" as someone or something not worthy of consideration and ethical treatment, but that the primal moment of ethics springing into being is when we are "faced" with the other. Once we see their face, we are moved almost by instinct (and certainly before reason) to regard the other as a transcendentally worthwhile being, who demands respect. If Rene Echeverria did not have this in mind while writing, I'd be shocked. I'd love to ask him.  Crusher is a trained healer, whose attunement to alterity (i.e. "otherness") has been weakened by the practice of her compassionate art. When she is faced with the Borg, she immediately sees a "living, breathing boy." Picard, Guinan, and Geordi each have different reasons for not acknowledging the Borg as worthy of ethical consideration. Picard, of course, is motivated by his anger. Geordi has never considered whether they can have feelings. Guinan seems to gauge whether beings are deserving of empathy based on whether or not they show it towards others. But they all must re-evaluate their positions when put in primal contact with the face of the Other. Again, I would have preferred if Picard's emotional damage had left him too scarred to experience that transcendent ethical awakening. But any way you slice it, it's fascinating and compelling to watch.

Kevin: My only real complaint is the over-neatness of how the episode is resolved. They seem very concerned about the Borg knowing they were there, but then were fine with Hugh keeping his memories. Both Borg ships were small craft that did not seem to herald their return in a meaningful way. It's not as bad as "Descent" or [randomly select an episode of Voyager], but it's the start of the Borg getting watered down by subsequent appearances.

Matthew: I've mentioned how pat I felt Picard's moral turnaround was. But also I was definitely annoyed by Geordi hanging out with Hugh while the Borg come pick him up. Sure, it was explained (quite lamely) by the line "the Borg assimilate civilizations, not individuals" (Just WTF does that even mean? That they will only attack your planet when there is a quorum call?), but it really strained credulity. One would think the Borg, having assimilated billions if not trillions of beings before this point, would deductively reason that a random Starfleet Guy on the planet means a vessel nearby.


Kevin: This is the high point of a strong episode. Picard and Guinan portrayed anger very well, to point where I wondered if one of them was going to have a PTSD attack. Their arcs were really well portrayed and felt very organic. Their awakenings were not dictated by the script, but by their experiences and their own personalities. It makes the episode because if didn't play well, it would have robbed the episode of any impact.

Matthew: It was really great to see Stewart and Sirtis butt heads. I wish it would have gone on for longer. Stewart's acting out of his character's stress and pain was really well done. It was also great to see Whoopi Goldberg play against Stewart, Burton, and Del Arco. The best part of this script was the conflict between the characters, and the actors really rose to the occasion. All of their scenes crackled with energy.

Kevin: LaForge and Crusher had some lovely scenes together again. Their exchanges in the lab were great, and remind us, like Disaster, how awesome they are together. There were notes of Geordi's friendship with Data in his relationship Hugh as well. Now that I think about it, it really makes sense that Geordi is the one to forge a relationship with him.

Matthew: I was a bit disappointed that there was no mention made of Geordi's sharing of eye prosthetics with Hugh. But yeah, both actors did a really good job of portraying a burgeoning empathetic relationship.

Kevin: Jonathan Del Arco did a good job portraying the range of vulnerability and emotions for Hugh. It's sad what they eventually did to the character, but it's certainly not hard to see why they brought him back. I particularly liked the scene in the Ready Room with Picard.

Matthew: Del Arco was very, very good. He brought a great, naive charm to the role, which was perfect, since it was as if a child had woken up with a fresh personality and a set of doctrines to defend. I didn't mind what happened to Hugh in "Descent." I just minded what happened to the Borg.

Production Values

Kevin: I loved the Borg makeup on Hugh, particularly the eyepiece. Truth be told, I prefer this makeup to the zombie-version of the films and Voyager. There's something more austere and other-worldly about the pale Borg.

Matthew: Agreed on the make-up. The hologram thingie always jazzed me up when I was a kid. I still think it looks neat, and I wonder if they had it specially made, or if it was a pre-existing design. We got a re-use of the science lab set, with the lift and everything. I found the planet matte painting a tad disappointing. It was very easy to see that they were in a confined room, and it lacked dimensionality. This was a step back from matte scenes in episodes like "BoBW" and "Silicon Avatar."

Kevin: I liked the use of the Planet Hell set. It looked like the set used for Transfigurations, and I liked it then, too. The makeup on the dead Borg, particularly the bit of exposed brain was great, if a tad upsetting. I like the reuse of the lab and the Okudagram of the object test was top-notch.

Matthew: Yeah, the Okudagrams were great all around. Drawing so called "impossible shapes" is a challenge, and it was done well enough here. There was also a really cool 3D Enterprise graph that Picard was looking at in his ready room. Also: Fencing! Seeing it again reminds me of how cool it was in "Time Squared."


Kevin: This is a 5 for me. The moral question is one of grand scale and it's handled well. The characterizations are great and really propel the episode, particularly in expanding Guinan beyond mere counselor-at-large. I think what put this over the top for me is that despite the big questions being asked, the episode never felt heavy-handed. Given how preachy lesser topics have gotten, it's nice to see such an epic question handled so naturally.

Matthew: I'm torn on this one. I think I've talked myself into a 4 for this. Shocking, right? The philosophical elements are great, and normally they'd have me in a super-charitable mood. I just feel like Picard's character suffers a bit here, and the story is less dramatic as a result. He should have stuck to his guns and the conflict should have been amped up. I also think Hugh's thought process is a bit undernourished - we should have gotten a strong argument for returning to the Borg. A more minor flaw, but still one that sticks in my craw, is the ending with Geordi on the planet - setting a dangerous precedent for future stories. But this is a high 4. The writing, acting, and production are all well above average. It just lacks a few teensy bits of follow through in several areas. So that makes a 9 between the two of us.

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