Why Star Trek: Voyager Did Not Ruin the Borg

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There are times, Catarina, when I find myself transfixed by a shadow on the wall, or the splashing of water against a stone. I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.

Leonardo Da Vinci, “Scorpion, part 1,” Star Trek: Voyager

That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you either with weapons or with ideas, but to co-exist and learn.

Benjamin Sisko, “Emissary,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

After all these years, you’re… showing what the Borg are, underneath. They’re victims. Not monsters.

Jean-Luc Picard, “The Impossible Box,” Star Trek: Picard

During Picard’s first encounter with him, Q, an omnipotent Loki-like being, places humanity on trial for being a “dangerous, savage, child race.” Picard and co. are able to demonstrate the evolution of human empathy and understanding by freeing the lifeforms at Farpoint Station. And in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s finale, “All Good Things…”, Picard and co. again demonstrate humanity’s potential by recognizing a temporal paradox. But as the episode draws to its end, Q whispers an ominous warning to his pseudo-friend:

“The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons…you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknowable possibilities of existence.”

Years prior to this final warning, Q flings the Enterprise-D crew across the galaxy into the path of the hive-mind directed, cybernetic species known as The Borg Collective. Residing in cubical starships, thousands of drones–existing with their free will and individuality in-service to the greater Collective–marshall the aggregate knowledge, experience, and processing power of billions of minds to adapt to and consume the technology and individuals of other species.

Aside from The Dominion, Star Trek has consistently presented the Borg as the ultimate threat to humanity and the Federation. As part of their inherent drive to add biological and technology distinctiveness to their collective consciousness and forms, the Borg violate and mutilate its victims–severing limbs, invasively integrating technology throughout bodies, suppressing their victim’s identities, emotions, and desires; they are a relentless force capable of withstanding and adapting to most offensive and defensive technology from the Federation, the Romulan Star Empire, and, specifically, Arturis’ species.

In “Hope and Fear,” Arturis (of Species 116 in the Borg’s “colorful language”) describes the Borg Collective as “a force of nature. You don’t feel anger toward a storm on the horizon, you just avoid it.” Beneath the dark weight of thunderstorm clouds, the muscular brutality of crashing ocean waves, or the sweeping winds of a hurricane, humanity often feels a kind of humbling smallness. Feeling powerless, human beings often seek shelter from or avoid these terrifying, deadly reminders of our mortality and, ultimately, our frailty. In the same way, the Federation has sought to avoid confrontations with the Borg Collective while also trying to prepare for the inevitable.

The relentless might of the Borg is best demonstrated in their initial appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Q Who” and “The Best of Both Worlds.” In both stories, the Enterprise can only run from this nemesis. If they damage them, the Borg regenerate. If they run, the Borg pursue. It is only through a clever manipulation of a low-level system (the command to regenerate) that the crew of the Enterprise can defeat the Borg who murdered and/or assimilated 11,000 Starfleet and Federation personnel at the Battle of Wolf 359. But the brilliant narrative turn of Star Trek’s development of the Borg as adversaries is the intimate, traumatic assimilation of Jean-Luc Picard into the Borg figurehead, Locutus (“The One Who Speaks”). In my video essay “Living With Trauma” on my YouTube Channel, Completing the Shelf, I track the development of Picard as a recovering victim of this traumatic violation by the Borg. Nothing could make an audience hate an adversary quite like this sort of treatment of the protagonist. Nothing can make the characters more fearful for their safety than one of the best of them so easily falling to the enemy.

So, the question is, is this the true trial of humanity within the Star Trek narrative–to see the Borg as a race of the oppressed rather than as oppressors of races. And if we can make that shift in our perspective, what then do we do?

Before Hugh helped Picard recognize the Borg as victims in Star Trek: Picard’s “The Impossible Box,” Star Trek: Voyager’s development of the Borg through Seven of Nine and their many encounters with the cybernetic collective plumbed the vulnerable depths of this multifaceted antagonist. When Voyager first foreshadowed the Collective with that Borg corpse at the end of “Blood Fever,” the Borg were again portrayed as ominous villains, especially off the heels of the successful Next Generation film, Star Trek: First Contact. But when they returned as the central focus of the two-part episode, “Scorpion,” the Borg were suddenly the victims of a species who, for the first time, provided sufficient resistance to the Collective’s adaptive abilities.

Due to their densely coded cells, Species 8472 could not be assimilated. This conflict between the Collective and Species 8472 gave the Voyager crew an opportunity to study just how assimilation technology works and how it could be used to counter this new adversary from Fluidic Space. And this is the key to Voyager’s many intentional or unintentional interactions with the Collective: beginning with the Doctor’s study of the Borg corpse, his dissection of the Borg nanoprobes, and their eventual work to restore humanity to Seven of Nine, Voyager engaged in active inquiry. They investigate. They learn. They meticulously advanced their knowledge through grit and loss and experimentation–sometimes on defense (“Scorpion” and “Unity”), sometimes on offense (“Dark Frontier” and “Unimatrix Zero”). In “Scorpion,” when Janeway realizes that the Borg cannot assimilate Species 8472, she discovers the Collective’s major vulnerability–they cannot understand what they cannot assimilate, but humanity can. This is one of those moments Q points forward to: humanity’s “ability to expand” its mind, being open to options it’s never considered. And for this, some might argue that Star Trek: Voyager’s portrayal of the Borg “ruined” or weakened the franchise’s greatest threat. Instead, I contend that the purpose of an antagonist in fiction is to propel the protagonist into meaningful change.

When I taught high school English and Advanced Placement Literature courses, I would equip my students with five simple questions to help them analyze fiction and determine a theme: 1) Who is the protagonist? 2) What do they want? 3) Who or what gets in the way? 4) How does the protagonist change to get what they want? 5) What truth about human life is revealed through the protagonist’s change? The “who or what” that “gets in the way” of a protagonist, or a Federation starship, is often the conflict or antagonist. That’s their function in a narrative: to compel the protagonist to change. If Voyager didn’t present humanity adapting to the Borg through inquiry and experimentation, the Borg would not have survived as a meaningful antagonist in the franchise. The thrilling terror of the Borg’s relentless resistance in “Q Who” or “The Best of Both Worlds’ ‘ would impact the audience less and less and, in essence, reduce the Borg to a one-note villain.

Gene Roddenberry’s “vision” is often cited by devotees of the Star Trek franchise as they debate the merits of various creative or narrative decisions. Adapting one man’s creative preferences to serve one’s own perspective has turned the phrase “Gene’s Vision” into a joke in some corners of the fandom; however, the way in which Voyager depicts human beings collaborating, studying, sweating to learn and adapt to the seemingly insurmountable is just what Roddenberry’s particular humanism expressed in Star Trek: The Original Series and, again, in its sequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Consider this statement by Roddenberry on the TNG Season 5 DVD feature, “A Tribute to Gene Roddenberry”:

Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.

As my co-host Abby Sommers says on our podcast “First Flight,” Star Trek portrays smart people who do smart things and are, ultimately, great at their jobs.

For the franchise to authentically celebrate human ingenuity and grit, the Federation must, bit by bit, deconstruct the Borg. Not only that, but to “pass” Q’s trial of humanity, we must, like Picard and crew did all those years ago at Farpoint Station, see the Other with imagination and empathy and discover just who we are through our evolving relationships with them. Mindless drones (“Q Who”), victims (“Survival Instinct” and “The Impossible Box”), the Cooperative (“Unity”) or the new organic drones featured in Star Trek: Picard’s third season–whatever they may be called, our heroes of Starfleet must continue growing in the face of the Borg or risk figuratively dying as a narrative worth watching and considering thoughtfully.

Star Trek as a storytelling tradition offers audiences entertainment, intriguing science fiction ideas, and, most of all, thoughtful examinations of the human condition. In order for us to continue our own growth as a people, we must consider Janeway’s holographic Leonardo Da Vinci’s approach to solving a problem like the Borg: “I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.” The Emissary of the Prophets would agree, arguing that we exist “to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here” (“Emissary,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).

And that is why Voyager did not ruin the Borg, but, instead, featured our capacity to learn, imagine, and become more than the barriers that divide and hinder us.

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Christian. Husband. Dad. Educator. Published in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2016). I tweet #StarTrek, #MicroTreks, #polltrek, and co-host @FirstFlightPod!

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