TNG: S5E23: “I, Borg”

In whichwe explore ethics, individuality, and continuity. 

In contrast to the last episode, I remember this as one of the greatest episodes in the TNG canon. Let’s watch me be disappointed.

"Is it too late to throw the bulkhead back on it, beam up, and pretend we were never here?"

“Is it too late to throw the bulkhead back on it, beam up, and pretend we were never here?”

We’re charting the Argolis cluster for colonization. By this we mean they are staring at a star, when they detect a transmission coming off a moon. No slice-of-life being interrupted here, this one is all about the thing that they found five seconds after the stock footage ended. There, on a planet made of styrofoam and beanbag innards, they find a life-form, nearly dead. Well, nearly ‘deactivated,’ anyway.

Picard is all for letting the drone die, in order not to tip off the Borg of their presence. Worf wants to actively kill it and make it look like it died in the crash. Beverly, however, is already saving it, because that’s what she does. Picard gives an absolutely fantastic resigned shrug, and we must once again remember that psychiatric care in the 24th century must be fantastic. He’s hardly engulfed in cold sweat at all. Troi does have to carefully explain PTSD to him without insinuating too hard that he’s a prime candidate and that she ought to be relieving him of duty at the first sign of trouble.

The Borg drone’s implants are broken and with them its brain is dying, and Geordi suggests it ought to be a simple matter to construct new ones. This is important. As of this moment, Federation science seems to be capable of reverse-engineering Borg brain-implant technology. One ought to expect a scary AI cluster intelligence to iterate designs more quickly, and this points again to the Borg weakness – the Collective can really only think one thought at a time. Since it’s so easy to mess with Borg stuff, Picard suggests  infecting the Collective with a terminal computer virus.

It’s up to Beverly to point out that this is genocide at the conference table. The argument that gets taken up is a familiar one: Is the presence of a potentially existential threat sufficient cause to warrant the extermination of the enemy? At what point do you give up on diplomacy and negotiation as a lost cause? Does an enemy that has declared Total War have civilians? These questions are posed in act 1, and interrupted by the Borg waking up before Picard can do much more than strongly state his thesis.

"We are the Borg. We consume our own poop."

“We are the Borg. We consume our own poop.”

Other items of note – apparently, Borg implants can replicate any sustenance their organic parts require. That’s an incredibly useful piece of equipment and I want one. Of course, the question does arise – where is the mass for those molecules coming from? Do their implants rearrange elements into new elements, or just atoms into new molecules? I don’t know enough organic chemistry to answer that one, partly because that class was at 8AM.

Picard is later letting off some steam fencing with Guinan. It remains to be seen whether she’s actually not good at it or whether she’s letting him win to make a point. Although on this point, her famed objectivity is a bit strained. Also, this is a different fencing room than the last one. Don’t get me wrong, this one is better. In part because it looks more like the two of them found an unused cargo bay and unrolled a mat, rather than having an entire room of the ship dedicated to an obscure sport. Oh look, she was just making a point. Oh, Guinan. You’re so clever.

Geordi goes in to rig up a power coupling that the drone can feed off of. I am actually okay with him doing this. Not because it’s a good idea, but because he’s not the type of person to order someone else to get in the cage with the Borg. In so doing, he gets a little information from the drone, whose designation (not really a name) is Third of Five, as it was one of five drones assigned to that ship. Presumably, that ship was six of ten available on that cube, which was 80 of 316 in that area, et cetera.

Geordi and Beverly have an argument about the ethics of using Skinnerian methods to map the drone’s neural pathways. Beverly very much sounds like she’s rehearsing for the “I was only following orders” dance. She pretty strongly feels that the plan being discussed is unethical. At what point, when planning the genocide of an entire species, have you crossed a moral line? When you don’t bow out of the plan immediately? When researching the method on a living test subject? Or just when you refuse to press the button? Granted, history is written by the victors and nobody is going to yell at Picard for ending the Borg threat, but still, you have to wonder here.

"Despite all our rage, we are still just Third of Five in a cage."

“Despite all our rage, we are still just Third of Five in a cage.”

During the testing process, Beverly and Geordi make small talk, and wind up giving it a name. His name is Robert Paulson.

Nah, just messing with ya. His name is now Hugh.

They also get the chance to explain to Hugh that they don’t want to be assimilated, which Hugh seems genuinely confused about. And he has apprehensions of the future – he wants to know what will happen to him, which brings Geordi around to Beverly’s side.

Guinan is not at all happy about this development. Whilpe it’s not precisely surprising, it is still jarring from someone normally so cool-headed. But she’s able to face Hugh and provide another data point to reawaken Hugh’s organic empathy. Eventually, Geordi gets pissed enough at himself for empathizing with Hugh that he goes off and explains the concept of individuality and friendship. And Hugh decides they’re friends.

The future equivalent of that fax attachment that your useless sales department opened and brought down the Exchange server for five hours last week.

The future equivalent of that fax attachment that your useless sales department opened and brought down the Exchange server for five hours last week.

Stunned reaction, cut to their virus. Meet Topological Anomaly 4747, a shape that the Borg won’t immediately discard, they will try to analyze, and which will then fork bomb the entire collective. With the weapon built, Geordi expresses his doubts, and Picard makes the comparison to laboratory testing rats. With that harsh delivered, it’s now up to Guinan to strong-arm Picard into hearing Hugh out. She’s gotten to the point where she can at least treat Hugh as an enemy combatant instead of a weapon. Picard isn’t there yet, but the pattern is there and it’s assured that something transformative is about to happen.

Hugh recognizes Locutus. Picard rolls with it and tries to get Hugh to agree that he’s just a borg drone, but all of Hughs conversations have prepared him for this. The crew does not wish to be assimilated, and resistance is not futile, and Hugh makes Picard’s decision a tough one.

There is, however, a loophole. If they let Hugh upload back into the collective, then before the Collective wipes his memory, there’s the chance he’ll transmit individuality throughout the collective – another Beatles and Blue Jeans victory for the Federation… if Hugh agrees to go back at all.

Which of course he does. Individual that he is, freedom of choice or no, he has an ingrained sense that the good of the many must outweigh the good of the one. The same self-sacrifice that got Q his powers back. They beam him down, the Borg come to collect him and the debris of his buddies, and there were no lasting repercussions whatsoever, except that we see Hugh’s gaze drift to glance at Geordi right before he’s beamed up. Still though, it’s just one of those things that happens and is never referenced again, right?

2 thoughts on “TNG: S5E23: “I, Borg”

  1. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S7E01: “Descent: Part 2”

  2. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S6E26: “Descent: Part 1”

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