I’d previously thought I was done with Season Five, but I want to step back into it one more time to cover “I, Borg” both because judging by the Picard press, Hugh will be a major character in the upcoming franchise installment but also because I think the episode’s message is of particular import. While I certainly understand the negativity engendered by the episode—to wit, undermining the Borg as villains, a trend that will continue in “Descent” parts I and II–I do think the episode itself stands on its own as a great Trek moment, and I want to focus this week on Hugh and his impact on Picard and Guinan. The point Rene Echevarria’s script makes is that encountering an enemy and coming to know them as an entity and a culture renders violence so much more difficult. We know that the most effective means of de-radicalization involve focusing on reintegration and creating a new social network within the context of the larger society, but as some argue, what’s even more important to this process is the existence of a “cognitive opening” and affording the individual the opportunity to engage in self reflection. Hugh’s presence serves as both cognitive opening and the impetus for self-reflection for both Guinan and Picard.
The Enterprise discovers the drone who will become Hugh at a crash site on a random, Class M moon. Once the Away Team identifies the crash and survivor as being Borg, Picard finds himself faced with a dilemma. Dr. Crusher wants to treat the drone’s injuries because she’s a doctor. Worf argues that they should simply kill the drone and flee the system. Captain Picard eventually decides to allow Dr. Crusher to treat the drone so long as he’s kept in a detention cell. When Counselor Troi attempts to feel out Picard’s mental state, he completely shuts her down because of course, he’s fully recovered from his experiences in “Best of Both Worlds I and II.” Spoiler: he isn’t. During a conference with the senior staff, Picard and LaForge with Data’s help craft a plan to insert a sort of virus into the drone’s programming that will bring about total system failure in the Borg Collective. In case we didn’t understand what the intent was, Crusher clarifies that Picard means to use this drone as the means to commit genocide on the Borg. Largely, the senior staff seems completely okay with this idea until they begin to get to know the drone.
While LaForge works on crafting the virus and identifying the best ways to insert it into the drone’s programming, he does the most human thing imaginable. He names the drone, and Hugh comes into being. Hugh is completely cooperative. He genuinely seems puzzled that anyone would refuse assimilation, but eventually, he comes to understand that his friend Geordi prefers to remain human. Over the course of this transformation, LaForge begins to question his orders. Guinan and Picard, the two individuals who have suffered the most at the hands and implants of the Borg, refuse to meet Hugh, remaining staunchly committed to their total destruction. However, a frustrated Geordi demands that Guinan go Listen to Hugh as that’s what El-Aurians do. Shocked by Hugh’s humanity, Guinan goes to Picard and argues with him to abandon his plan. Picard meets Hugh and discovers that when pressed, Hugh has achieved individual awareness. Suddenly, Picard cannot go through with his plan and offers Hugh asylum with the Federation, but as a Borg ship enters the star system to rescue its missing drone, Hugh makes the decision to sacrifice himself to the Collective in order to protect his new friends.
Certainly, Crusher and LaForge are plot drivers in the episode, but Guinan and Picard serve as the heart and soul of the episode. Goldberg’s Guinan is pitch perfect here; she’s hurt, angry, and full of understandable wrath. Picard, too, can only conceive of the Borg as an collective enemy, if you’ll forgive the pun, and he even admits that he had avoided meeting Hugh because he did not think his resolve to commit genocide would survive looking Hugh in the eye. Jonathan Del Arco’s performance as Hugh is beautifully understated but no less powerful for it, and without the believable innocence he brought to the role, I don’t think the episode would have worked. Because we the audience believed in Hugh, the reconsideration by Picard and Guinan feels understandable and ultimately acceptable.
As I mentioned above, Hugh serves as the ultimate cognitive opening. Dealing with Hugh, accepting his person-hood, forces both Picard and Guinan to disengage from their own radicalized behavior. They step back from seeing violence as the solution. Certainly, the episode is about Hugh’s coming into his own as an entity, but frankly, I think the most important message in the script lies in how Picard and Guinan step back from the precipice which they were so set to traverse. Hugh’s transformation is significant in terms of the Borg’s future, but as far as Trek messaging goes, Picard’s is more important. Picard and Guinan both grapple with the reality that their enemy is not entirely comprised of faceless evil. Rather, in each drone lies a potential Hugh, a potential sentient being worthy of respect. When they start to accept Hugh’s humanity, for lack of a better term, they can no longer countenance the wholesale destruction of his people or even betraying him by weaponizing him.
That lesson was valid in 1992, and it is all the more valid in 2020. Hopefully, going into Picard and the new year, neither the showrunners nor we as viewers will forget it.
Rating: Four cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- I really, really love that Crusher holds everyone at that conference table completely accountable. She refuses to let them downplay the enormity of what they’re about to do and instead calls a genocide a genocide. I do wish the episode had explored the question of whether genocide on that level is ever appropriate, but I think thematically, that would have made for a very different episode.
- Okay, yes, I get it. Hugh completely neuters the Borg as a villain, but I do feel that the Borg had a limited shelf-life as a villain anyway. They serve as this faceless, Act of God type villain, and while that works for a handful of episodes, how do you make it interesting over and over and over? I don’t know, and I’m not the only one who doesn’t.
- I also understand that it’s a little strange to be talking about Picard and Guinan as being radicalized, but in a certain sense, they have been. There’s a thing called the Significance Quest Theory, which basically explains radicalization as a function of a human being’s desire for personal significance. The desire becomes warped when that desire is melded with both some form of ideology that presents violence as an acceptable means for effecting some goal and a social group that supports the use of violence in service of that ideology. As we see with Troi, Worf, and even Riker, the senior staff largely remains comfortable with complete eradication of the Borg. Guinan and Picard both insist that the Borg’s actions and nature justify their annihilation and use “war” as their narrative. Crusher rightly points out that no official declaration of war has been made. Both Picard and Guinan then use this narrative basically as an excuse to engage in vengeance. For Picard especially, wreaking that vengeance is a personal affair. As Troi reminds us and him, the Borg violated and mutilated him, so as we see in First Contact, destroying the Borg very nearly becomes an all-consuming aspect of Picard’s identity. When viewed through that lens, then, First Contact represents, albeit not entirely, Picard letting go of that radicalization and disengaging from his previous course of action. Sure, the argument doesn’t quite fit on all fours because this is largely a vengeance narrative, but the undercurrent is certainly present.