Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Problem with Hugh: "I, Borg" Dissected


So here we are, my time with Season Five of The Next Generation is drawing to a close. However, before we hit the cliffhanger of "Time's Arrow" or the monumental "The Inner Light", let's pause and take a moment to consider the Borg.

Coming almost two years after "The Best of Both Worlds", it's been well overdue for a return of the assimilation specialists but was this really what we wanted as fans from their next appearance?

Actually before we get there, I need to talk about something else.

Of all the blogs I have written thus far, this one has been the most difficult to get right or more precisely get to a point where I'm happy with the content. It's much like my A-Level English Language exam I guess; I had the choice of two extracts to analyse and decided on the one I was much more familiar with.  It was, of course, a bad idea and possibly cost me an A grade.  Now, I'm not saying that I should always write about the less interesting episodes or the ones I am not overly thrilled to discuss but this is the first one that I've talked about that I genuinely liked on the original viewing and still like today. It is perhaps that sense of familiarity that makes it more difficult to construct something on the page around the themes and concepts of the episode without overcooking it and ruining an otherwise very enjoyable fifth season outing.

My initial conclusion as I tapped away on the keyboard was that "I, Borg" sanitises the Trek villains, giving them a personal face which in turn makes you feel sorry for them. In fact it isn't and I couldn't be further from the point if I tried. What we actually get is a piece which looks at what happens when you instill a Borg with individuality; is it right to send it back home on a suicide mission? It reinforces that the whole is much stronger than the parts it is constructed from and that the creatures beneath the masks may not actually have the same drives as they are programmed with by the Hive mind.


Importantly in the bigger Star Trek picture, this marks the first of several instances where the audience is made to re-examine some of Star Trek's more prominent nemeses. In  Deep Space Nine we had the opportunity to analyse the Jem'Hadar on several occasions including "The Abandoned" and "Hippocratic Oath" while Voyager encountered a replica of Starfleet Academy to study Species 8472  "In the Flesh". In itself this was something of a considerable turnaround given that the crew joined forces with the Borg to stop them only a year previous. In fact from the fourth season of the Voyager, the presence of Seven of Nine was a weekly reminder that the Borg could be saved and "unassimilated" (but that's for another blog in the future). 

As I've mentioned, I was all out prepared to go down the line that this is about making the Borg human when actually both "I, Borg" and the occasions listed here give us a better insight into the cultures of these races. In fact I would go as far to say more than any other episodes where they appear. Indeed, I would highlight them as essential viewing if you have any interest in these species and their understanding their background within the Star Trek universe.

Within "I, Borg" there are five key individuals whose actions and thought processes carry the story, helping to unravel a bit more about the cybernetic lifeforms. It these people we need to focus on to understand the core of the episode, namely Picard, Geordi, Beverly, Hugh (the Borg) and Guinan. Initially it is Doctor Crusher who twists the captain's arm to bring the lone survivor aboard to receive treatment that will save his life and Picard is vehemently against bringing it aboard although ultimately convinced otherwise.  It of course allows for another chance for the crew to get a close look at a Borg and while it means we see a "proper" Borg under the microscope it becomes apparent that it could have other uses.

Picard is placed in a difficult situation here. He himself was captured and mutilated by the Borg to speak for them in "The Best of Both Worlds". During his fencing match with Guinan, the bartender is keen to show,by faking an injury, that the Borg will take no prisoners no matter whether the Enterprise has saved one of their number of not. Even though he is haunted by the experience as Locutus it seems is is uncertain how to proceed given that this lone drone is aboard the ship. Guinan is adamant that any sign of weakness will be stamped on by the Borg and Picard is clearly being too soft and for once, she's probably spot on.


Picard is not the only one guilty of changing judgement and generally being unsettled as the episode evolves. Before he has one to one contact, he is all for the use of their prisoner as a conduit to fire an "...endless and unsolvable puzzle...", as Data puts it, into the Collective consciousness which will disable their neural network. He refers to the drone as "it" when discussing its need to feed in the holding cell. His second discussion with Guinan wherein he notes that she "...tore my foil out of my hand..." to demonstrate that the Borg were dangerous when Picard felt sorry for her. Jean-Luc is clear that he does not want to speak with Hugh and that IT is a Borg and not a person but once he has the final face to face meeting where Hugh uses the first person to describe himself, Picard is made to realise that this individual has become different; he is no longer the single-minded machine from the beginning of the episode.  

When Hugh chooses to resist the commands of "Locutus" he then comes to terms with the fact that this drone has been changed.  He is not like the others however they will still come for him no matter what stands in the way  It is a difficult journey for the captain because of his own personal experiences and I'm not still not convinced that he would ultimately even entertain the possibility of giving Hugh asylum based on the past but this is Jean-Luc at one of his most vulnerable moments, to some degree reliving a horrific nightmare and I believe that it is impairing his judgement but ultimately he sees that sending Hugh back - at his own choice - would spread "a feeling of singularity..." through the Collective which could be worse than the initial concept of a computer virus.


Guinan too is in an equally difficult position, perhaps from the other side of the coin. She, like Picard, shares a dialogue with their Borg prisoner but her initial outlook is strongly against any reasoning while Picard approaches the situation with at least a pinch of skepticism  She reminds Geordi that he, like Picard, cannot let his guard down because the rest of the Collective will come looking whether they like it or not.  They are relentless in their purpose, Ultimately her perceptions, at least in regards to Hugh, are altered because he shows an understanding of individualistic terms and concepts that he has himself acquired through interaction with the crew. Guinan even needs the captain to convince her that they should send him back as a sleeping weapon and incites him in turn to meet with the drone.

Notably it's not often that TNG delves into some form of continuity. It's a facet that would be utilised most significantly in DS9 and to some extent through the Borg/Hirogen/Kazon arcs (for example) within Voyager. Perhaps only Q and the Klingon/Worf/Gowron arcs are the only true examples within this series and with the Borg we get a third. Their first appearance ("Q Who") was referenced in "The Best of Both Worlds" and "I, Borg" in turn reflects on the latter with the benefit of a two year gap. It's almost as if they waited long enough for us to "forget" about the Borg before bringing them back. The crew and the viewer are invited to revisit our perceptions of these creatures and now I actually think nothing has changed in my mind as to how we should view the Borg after the credits roll.  They are still going to assimilate and seek to improve themselves.  Hugh is the exception that proves the rule. Whether it was conceived that the Borg would then be left in utter turmoil after this I don't know but their next appearance reigns in this attempt to destroy them in extreme measures - and I intend to examine that in more detail later.

Now originally in draft one, I was going to propose the question about whether or not we need to see a Borg become an individual  however as it progressively rewrote itself I came to see that we do need this and here's why. 

Essentially, what do we know about the Borg by this time? Very little apart from the whole assimilation thing, generally malevolent, unstoppable, adaptive and fly around in big (and small) cubes conquering anything in their path - but getting one Borg on its own gives both the TNG crew and us, the viewer, the chance to see a Borg drone up close and personal; to see how it reacts in an unfamiliar environment and also to understand that there is a living being under all those technological additions. In a way, the Borg themselves might even be slightly responsible for Hugh's transformation given the fact he adapts to his environment the longer he is there. To put it even more bluntly - he assimilates the culture around him and forms his own choices, the last of which is to be returned to the surface to be collected by the Borg. Whether that was intentional or not, this episode does make you think and while we watch the crew develop their opinions as Hugh develops his personality we do change our views but they are strictly limited to this drone and no others.  The Borg are still the Borg just as the Jem'Hadar are still the Jem'Hadar - lest we be reminded of Chakotay's speech in Voyager in reference to the scorpion and the fox; "It''s in (their) nature." to be the way they are.

Now going back to the question I posed right at the start of this blog - is this what we wanted? Ok, so it's been almost two years since Picard became Locutus and we saw the aftermath of Wolf 359. In this time the incident has become a memory to both the viewer and the Enterprise crew. Now it would have been an easy call to give us something good similar as even Riker notes that they are at war with the Borg (even though there has been no formal declaration). Instead Rene Echevarria flips the sentiment of the story and force a reevaluation while reminding us that these guys are still out there and could threaten at any time (can't wait for my Star Trek: First Contact blog). In the conference lounge for example we are strongly reminded by Riker that the Federation is at war "(even though) there's been no formal declaration..." noted by Beverly, who is the only one capable of seeing past the Collective to the person beneath. She does that from the very start, retaining the medical, objective eye from start to finish and it is her viewpoint that all eventually transition to. Beverly can see beyond the single-mindedness and the ruthlessness to the teenager who she sees as deeply vulnerable. Through all their dislike and distrust of the Borg, it is the doctor and Geordi that dramatically alter Hugh - it is effectively their "fault" he becomes an individual and they have to deal with it... And will have to again with more serious consequences.

I like how the conflicts rise between the crew and it is a rarity to see so many opinions generated, discussed and actioned within such a short frame of time. In many ways I Borg needs to be singled out because it embraces those differences in a world that was envisioned without conflict by the then recently passed on Gene Roddenberry. Do we need to feel sorry for the Borg? As a whole, probably not because of what they represent and the still vague background that existed in 1992. It wouldn't be until Voyager that we have a more defined perspective on the effect of becoming Borg, being a part of their Hive mind for so long and then being disconnected. Here we have no point of reference to Hugh's past. Has he always been Borg? Was he assimilated? We have no idea and his subsequent appearance wouldn't give much more.

Knowing what we do now about the way in which the Collective operate,  this seems like a missed opportunity BUT saying that there is consideration of a plan to cause havoc in the Collective however ultimately it comes down to being human and Geordi and Beverly's interaction with Hugh that causes the most significant changes. Ultimately Hugh is given a choice and his decision is based on what he sees as the best for the whole, for the ship and for Geordi. He realises that they cannot be assimilated and his return will stop that from happening.

Our individuality here is the ironic twist. Whlie it becomes a concern within the final quarter of the show that they cannot force Hugh to go back it will disrupt the Collective of his mother ship however not as we may have thought as he is transported away at the conclusion. That's where "I Borg" proves to be a further winner. Actions, for once, have consequences and again this is where it wins against other "humanising" episodes. The results of the Enterprise's interference will be felt. We do not experience this in Voyager or Deep Space Nine however the thread is that while one individual can be different it does not mean that the whole can also be altered.

So what do I actually conclude from all this?   Aside from it being one of my longer efforts of late and taking a damn long time to construct I'm actually pleased with it and haven't ruined an episode.  We know the Borg a little better here after "The Best of Both Worlds" because we assess them on a more intimate level and we are not simply seeing them pursed by the Enterprise to Sector 001. Writing this has taught me to go a little easier on occasion and not to look for things that aren't there but I want to make it clear that I won't do a plot synopsis.  That's not what I'm about. I have some ideas about episode blogs for the future so they don;t end up just being me droning on about episode after episode. 

I want discussion and that's what you'll find here.  My thoughts and feelings on Trek in its different shapes, forms and sizes.  "I, Borg" is a solid episode, it does indeed make you think about the Borg and what's really underneath. To some degree you do feel that it's not a great conclusion in the fact that Hugh is sent back, but the final beam out shot where he looks to Geordi heralds something that COULD have been a lot more interesting than it turns out to be...