TNG: S6E26: “Descent: Part 1”

In which Star Trek delivers a fantastic return to form.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Data are playing poker. Stephen Hawking tells a joke requiring knowledge of special relativity, and Isaac Newton gets mad. Einstein is winning, and we kind of gloss over how Hawking loaded those cards into his little mechanized holder.

You miss your old familiar friends, but waiting just around the beeeeeeend...

You miss your old familiar friends, but waiting just around the beeeeeeend…

As should now be expected, the game is cut short by a Red Alert – a distress call has been received from Ohniaka III, and they encounter a ship of no known configuration. It is asymmetrical, ugly, and unmoving, and the scene at the outpost is pretty grisly. Plasma bruns, Riker being a little bigoted against Ferengi, and some old friends.

There was a firefight. By which I mean an actual firefight using cover and dynamic movement on both sides. You may remember that previously we’ve only seen Borg walk around like robots. They also seem personally invested in each other, and grasp concepts like individuality and revenge. Even Data is acting uncharacteristically, twisting up in rage and getting a bit murderous. Once one of the Borg identifies Data, they retreat and the Borg ship fades away into subspace using a technology which seems to be fundamentally different from known Warp technology. I want to take a moment on this because it may be important later.

Normally when ships go into warp, they kind of stretch out and then leap forward into the distance, finally vanishing in a point of light as they pass c. Think of a sonic boom; it’s nothing like that. All ships we’ve seen operate on that principle. Even the visual effect is the same, and is more consistent than the transporter effect even for the same species in different eras. The Borg ship, however, disappears as though passing through the matereal of space like it’s a beaded curtain, and it suggests, with only a little bit of dialogue by Geordi to bolster it, that something very different is going on. Even the Borg ships we’re used to seem to use the sake type of FTL as the Federation – just better.

Due to his outburst of anger, Data has asked to be relieved of duty, which means he’s not there in the conference room when Riker lays out the weird Borg behavior – individuality and names and empathy. Sound familiar? Picard is worried and has Worf post armed guards on every deck. The Enterprise has 42 decks, if you count the sections below engineering used to store antimatter pods, which for the purposes of posting guards I definitely would. Worf will therefore need no fewer than 84 security officers assuming he makes them do 12-hour shifts and only posts one guard on every deck. In order to post a two-man team on every deck (so that if one is brutally killed by his own incompetence the other one can call for backup) on three watches, Worf would need access to 252 officers or crew under his command, which is about a quarter of the entire population of the ship.

Data and Geordi are trying to figure out whether Data actually experienced anger or just some sort of weird malfunction. Geordi immediately runs into the ‘turtles all the way down’ problem when trying to talk about what ‘angry’ feels like. Data is hopeful that this means he’s built sufficient complexity in his neural net to feel emotions. Geordi is worried that anger is the onle one he’ll get. That’s a legitimate fear. Anger, fear and lust are probably the most basic emotions for biological entities that need to reproduce, and Data doesn’t need to reproduce and is by far the most robust entity in any room he’s in.

"If you were a little less principled, we wouldn't be about to lose fifteen ships in battle."

“If you were a little less principled, we wouldn’t be about to lose fifteen ships in battle.”

Due to the increased reports of Borg activity in the area, Starfleet has sent an admiral, who will use the Gorkon (as in, the chancellor who died for the Feredation-Klingon alliance) as her flagship (under its real meaning rather than just the ‘coolest ship in the fleet’ definition the Enterprise has been using) while Picard commands a task force under her. She also has some questions about why Picard didn’t turn Hugh into a weapon against the entire Collective.

This scene is fantastic, particularly in the light of an episode like Duet. The episodes that tackle difficult topics have been scarce for the past few seasons – there have been several essays on humanist ethics but no real debate. Here we see Trek trying to ask some of the darker questions – are high-minded principles worth it when tens of thousands of lives die because Picard let one prisoner of war go home without weaponized brain-AIDS? Star Trek certainly has a thesis, which Our Hero does not flinch from expressing, and the presentation of the argument makes Admiral Nechayev less likable as a person… but she’s not entirely wrong. Maybe not even mostly wrong. There are certain ethical quandaries when dealing with an enemy capable of literally total war.

Data has been trying to elicit some of the fun emotions by listening to uplifting opera, watching comedy and porn, but to no avail. He also gets to have a conversation with Troi about the ‘negativity’ and ‘positivity’ of various emotions, which allows a delightful little shot across the bows of the whole concept of the Sith litany. She tries to convince Data that he’s not a bad person, but looks a little worried when he admits to feeling pleasure at killing a Borg drone.

The Enterprise has been on high alert for sixteen hours, including several false-alarms. So much so that Picard even snaps at Riker for not bringing a fully-functional prototype of the Borg energy conduit drive. Nachayev’s comments have him second-guessing himself as to whether the moral action (letting Hugh go) was the same thing as the right action.

DON'T GO INTO THE LIGHT!

DON’T GO INTO THE LIGHT!

Data is trying to recreate his moment of anger by ramping up the strength of a Borg holodeck program past the safety limits. I dunno about Data feeling angry, but I feel shocked and amazed that someone finally put in a requirement that Holodeck safety limits have to be overridden by two senior officers’ voiceprints rather than just a pretty please. We are saved from this stupidity by a legitimate Borg contact within the Enterprise response sphere. The Borg slide away using their ‘energy conduit’ drive, and the Enterprise dives right in after them, whether they wanted to or not.

On the return to normal space, the Enterprise is isoalted and confronted by the Borg ship, and two drones beam onto the bridge as a distraction to let the ship escape, but one of the intruders is still alive. Still alive so that Picard can carry out his orders to throw away his ethics in favor of tactical advantage.

Fun thing to note – the Brig attendant is a Bajoran, and he’s wearing the earring. Evidently Riker’s calmed down a little about the uniform code since he jumped down Larren’s throat about it.

The Borg wakes up and gives his name (Krosis) and some religious-sounding zealotry about The One who will destroy inferior biological organisms. And then, rather than going on with rank and serial number, just starts listing ways to immediately kill people. Luckily, Data, as a non-biological entity, doesn’t have to be destroyed and can be assimilated. Unluckily, the Borg seems to be equipped to manipulate Data somehow – with a device, and with some psychology he seems to have prepared. But only the first fix was free.

Geordi has now found some more information about the conduits they travelled through. He’s calling them trans-warp conduits. We’ve heard the term trans-warp before. Back in Kirk’s day, the Excelsior was said to have trans-warp drive which, once the kinks were ironed out and installed in every ship in the fleet, just became the new warp drive. These conduits allow for approximately 20 times current maximum speeds, but potentially only between ‘stations’ that have already been set up somehow. During this exposition, Data steals a shuttlecraft and flies it through a conduit and away. The only thing to do is follow.

They find the shuttle abandoned in the middle of a field and start up some search and rescue procedures – pilots in shuttles during surveilance, command-level officers on search teams, and Beverly Crusher running a skeleton crew on the Enterprise with orders to bug out immediately in the event of a Borg attack. While it’s nice to see these kinds of procedures established, one has to wonder what the justification is in doing all this for one crew member. Sure, yes, he’s Picard, no one left behind, but this is just begging for trouble.

Also of note: phaser rifles. I can’t remember if we’ve seen those yet, but one of the security guys is carrying one, and I can’t help but question its utility. It’s not power – hand phasers are already capable of vaporizing rock. It’s not precision or accuraccy – phasers are recoil-less weapons with no arc that seem to be perfectly capable of being fired from the hip and in snap-shots. About my only guesses are better battery life and maybe some room for some built-in aiming control software. Maybe an IFF system. That would be pretty useful.

Someone has clearly been enjoying the Civilization II Throne Room.

Someone has clearly been enjoying the Civilization II Throne Room.

Speaking of search procedures, Picard, Geordi, and Troi are all in the same group, which just so happens to be the one that finds a structure out in the middle of nowhere. Inside is a great hall with the Borg insignia everywhere. Casual observers may not remember, but this symbol existed back at least as far as The Best of Both Worlds where it could be seen on a few panels. It was never very prominent, though, so our heroes can be forgiven for not recognizing it until it’s too late and they’re surrounded by screaming biomechanical rabble, and towered over by Lore, who’s even smugger than usual because Data has finally joined him and taken his rightful place as the lesser brother.

Did we miss something awesome?