Hello and welcome! We’re back for the latest installment of ‘Final Frontier Friday’, and true to my word, there isn’t a single Romulan in sight! We’re turning back to ‘The Next Generation’ this week, to cover an episode that’s come up a few times in the past: ‘Q Who’.
Coming late in the show’s second season, ‘Q Who’ is arguably the most important episode from the period before ‘The Next Generation’ finally “got good”. In the space of an hour, it not only not only introduces the Borg but in doing so it forwards the loose arc of Q stories that ran throughout the series. Indeed, while this is his third appearance overall, this is arguably when it becomes clear that Q has an interest in the Enterprise and her crew that goes beyond whatever the larger machinations of the Q Continuum might be that week. And in smaller terms, it sets up the animosity that exists between Q and Guinan, a relationship that would be further explored in his next appearance.
But of course, the episode’s greatest legacy lies in the introduction of the Borg, perhaps the single most iconic antagonist to emerge from eighteen years of ‘Star Trek’ spin-offs. Though they didn’t appear until the latter half of the second season, the conception of the Borg goes back at least a year prior, as the first hints at their existence were dropped in the first season finale. Developed to fill the role of a recurring antagonist for the new series. Though this role was originally intended for the Ferengi, it quickly became apparent that they had utterly failed to resonate in the same way as the Klingons before them. Enter the Borg. First envisioned by then-showrunner Maurice Hurley as a sort of insectoid hive that would plunder resources and technology from anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. These early plans (derailed first by the 1988 Writers Guild strike and more permanently by Hurley’s departure at the end of the season) included a season-long story arc that would have seen the Borg overwhelm the Romulans before being defeated by a desperate Federation/Romulan alliance. Over time, they evolved from insectoids into the more budget-friendly cyborgs we all know and love.
While returning to his quarters to change out of a soiled uniform, Captain Picard steps out of a turbo lift and… into a shuttlecraft? On finding Q at the helm (who with a wave of his hand cleans Picard’s uniform), Picard reminds him that he gave his word not to trouble the Enterprise again, to which the demi-god replies that they’re nowhere near the Enterprise.
Back on the Enterprise, Guinan senses something amiss, but can’t put her finger on what it is. Not long after, the bridge noticed Picard’s absence – and that of a shuttle – and begins a search. On board that shuttle, Picard refuses to hear Q out, demanding instead to be returned to the Enterprise. On a whim, Q agrees, transporting them to Ten Forward. After exchanging a few “pleasantries”, Q explains that he wants to join the crew, having been kicked out of the Continuum. Picard declines, explaining that he doesn’t trust Q. Trust him or not, Q insists, Picard needs him. They aren’t prepared for what’s out there. After a few ominous words, Q transports the Enterprise to System J-25, some 7000 light years away, promising “a preview of things to come.”
On investigating the sixth planet in the system, they find evidence of an industrialized civilization, but “where’d there should be cities, there are only great tips in the ground”. Data points out that this matches the pattern of the mysterious attacks on Neutral Zone outposts. No sooner is this connection made than a strange, cube-shaped vessel appears. When the ship doesn’t respond to hails, Picard calls Guinan, who has some familiarity with this part of space. Though she doesn’t know much, she is able to identify the cube as belonging to the Borg, who devastated her civilization a century ago. Heeding her warning, the shields are raised, but not before a single Borg materializes in Engineering.
Worf and Picard lead a security team to Engineering, where they observe the intruder. Q also appears, gloating as Picard attempts to communicate with the Borg, who simply ignores him. When the Borg becomes aggressive, they are forced to kill it. No sooner does it hit the floor, though, than a second Borg appears, and now impervious to phaser fire, finishes what the other began. During a briefing, Q appears just long enough to ask if Picard is sure he doesn’t need help. Finally, the Borg attack, locking a tractor beam on to the Enterprise and cutting out a piece of the ship. After disabling the tractor beam and damaging the cube.
While both ships effect repairs, Riker leads an away team to the cube to gather whatever information they can. Onboard the cube, the team discovers “slots” in the wall through which dormant Borg interface with the collective, a “Borg nursery”, and learns that the Borg will ignore anything they don’t consider a threat, and finally notices the rapid self-repair the ship is undergoing. At that, Picard has them beamed back and retreats with the Borg in hot pursuit and closing.
With Q present and occasionally taunting, the ship continues to flee as the Borg ship gains ground and depletes the Enterprise’s shields. With their shields down and engines disabled, the crew braces for the inevitable. Faced with no alternative, Picard finally admits that Q was right: they need his help. At that, Q gladly transports them back to where they started, acknowledging that he understands how hard it was for Picard to say that, that a lesser man would have thought it humiliating. The episode closes on Picard and Guinan musing over a game of chess as the realization sinks in that the Borg will be coming…
Let’s get this out of the way up front, shall we? ‘Q Who’ is good. While it’s not the best that the second season has to offer (stay tuned), it’s definitely up there. It starts out as a more or less standard Q episode before segueing into a tense standoff against the inexorable force of the Borg.
While Q’s involvement can be seen as the producers hedging their bets on the introduction of a new villain, it actually contributes a great deal to the episode’s effectiveness. For example, his presence allows the writers to reveal information about this new enemy even as the Borg themselves remain a largely silent and implacable foe throughout the episode. There’s a school of thought in fandom that the Borg were far more menacing before we learned as much about them as we ultimately would through their appearances on ‘Voyager’ and even their later ‘Next Generation’ episodes, and by definition ‘Q Who’ presents them at their most enigmatic. In fact, if you’re familiar with the Borg, you likely noticed that in my synopsis I avoided using a lot of the vocabulary that would come to be associated with them (“slots” instead of “regeneration alcoves”, etc). That’s an exercise I decided to indulge largely as a way of underscoring just how much the conception of the Borg has shifted, even just between this episode and their next appearance in ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ – which yes, we will be getting to here, just as soon as I figure out how I want to handle two-parters.
That shift is something that can no doubt make this a bit jarring to watch for people who know the Borg more in the form they took from ‘First Contact’ onward, similar to the way the Klingons seen on the original ‘Star Trek’ are nearly unrecognizable next to their ‘Next Generation’ counterparts. I consider myself lucky to have first encountered the Borg here (way back when), but even knowing what it was like to watch this without any foreknowledge, some of the bigger conceptual changes still stick out like a sore thumb.
The big one, of course, being the assertion that their primary interest is the consumption of resources and technology. As Q describes them, “the ultimate user”. Though this isn’t terribly hard to reconcile with the later concept of assimilation, it is reflective of just how much farther they still had to go. In fact, while it is a fair argument that the Borg worked better when they were more mysterious and monolithic, I’d argue that they didn’t actually strike the right balance until ‘The Best of Both Worlds’. Here, we just don’t quite know enough about them.
Setting aside any discussion of the Borg’s long-term effectiveness, there’s no arguing that ‘Q Who’ provides an effective villain introduction for them, and that’s an easy thing to foul up. There is a tendency in comics and serialized storytelling, in general, to introduce a new villain by having them kill or otherwise one-up an established character. That’s a cheap, lazy way to establish “villain cred”. None of that here. Here, the Enterprise is put up against a threat for which they are utterly unprepared (and, but Picard’s own admission, inadequate) and they are handily overwhelmed. It’s easy to overlook, but the episode makes no bones about the fact that had it not been for Q’s intervention, they likely would have died in the course of a final escape attempt. And really, the only reason Starfleet as a whole and the Enterprise, in particular, is able to hold its own against the Borg in later episodes is that they’ve had time to prepare.
And speaking of Q, this is also a significant episode for him. In his prior appearances, he’s been screwing with the Enterprise crew on “business”, putting Humanity on trial or offering Riker a place in the Q Continuum. Here, though, he’s been cast out by the Continuum, and where does he come? The Enterprise. It establishes his interest in humanity (especially Picard) as something specific. In his own strange, fickle, sometimes petulant way, he likes these people. Or at the very least he’s fascinated by them. In establishing that, ‘Q Who’ effectively lays the groundwork for all of Q’s later appearances, as he became less of a villain and more of an all-powerful nuisance.
What do you think of ‘Q Who’? Is this earlier iteration of the Borg more compelling than what came later? Would you have liked to see Hurley’s original arc play out or are you happy with what we got? Let me know in the comments and make sure you check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!