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It's the Enterprise-D's Kobayashi Maru, with added Q - let's meet the unstoppable force that is the Borg
It’s a tragedy of epic proportions! Newly assigned Ensign Sonya Gomez spills hot chocolate all over Picard’s uniform. And then he’s in a shuttlecraft... with Q! It's already a great episode and we haven't even reached the credits. It seems Q wants to join the Enterprise’s crew. Everyone’s understandably sceptical - most especially Guinan, who apparently has not only run into Q before but seems to think she can defend against his powers! Picard manages to get Q so irate he zwooshes the Enterprise off into deep space. They meet a giant flying cube. Say hello to the Borg - and they’re kicking ass! Worf manages to zap one (Worf 3, Aliens 5), then they power up and ignore him completely. Gomez is shaken when 18 people are cut out of the Enterprise with the Borg’s cheese sampler beam. But Riker has got his Kirk on and wants to beam over and see if he can rescue them... he can’t - and now they’re all going to get blown up! But Picard rescues everyone by throwing himself on Q’s mercy, and our loveable god-like entity zwooshes them off back home in time for tea.
"I’ll give you this... it’s a meeting the captain won’t soon forget."
The stories throughout Maurice Hurley’s watch as head writer tend to have a framing incident in the teaser and coda that reflect the themes of the main episode. In this case, its first impressions... and boy, do we have one heck of a first impression here as Hurley gives us the most memorable villain-species in Trek history: the Borg.
But is it "Q Who" or "Q Who?" The on-screen title lacks the question mark but the screenplay has it, and it seems some TV guides were given the title in the form of a question.
The script references back to “The Neutral Zone”, because originally the powerful alien race would have been insectoids who were supposed to appear at the beginning of season two before the writer’s strike intervened. How much better for everyone that it turned out this way! Hurley gives us such a brilliant monster story here that it makes monster-of-the-week shows like second-season Space 1999 seem like they stopped short of going the whole hog. And although there’s plenty of Borg to come in later Trek, none of it is half as satisfying as this single episode (yes, even “The Best of Both Worlds”, which is nonetheless a brilliant two-parter).
This right here is TNG’s very own Kobayashi Maru scenario: they can’t win. And Hurley mounts this story compellingly, with a built-in parachute in the shape of Q. It’s a marvellous piece of writing, and by far Hurley’s greatest contribution to Trek canon. The Ferengi had fallen completely flat as a Big Bad, but Hurley cranks the villain-o-meter up to 11 and gives us something enduringly scary.
More than this, the Borg are a prescient insight into our own relationship with technology, which is simultaneously fearful (witness movies such as The Terminator) and dependent (what’s the longest you’ve gone without stroking your smartphone...?). The question of technology is perhaps the quintessential ethical challenge of our time - I wrote an entire book, The Virtuous Cyborg on this. That Hurley is engaged with the same sort of questions here is apparent in the teaser:
GEORDI: We don’t ordinarily say “please” to food dispensers.
SONYA (amused): Since it’s listed as “intelligent Circuitry”, why not? After all, working as much with artificial intelligence as we do, can be dehumanizing -- right? So, maybe we can combat that tendency with a little simple courtesy.
If we do not wish our destiny to be that of the Borg, we have to wrestle with our relationship with our tools, and the associated assumption that the world is made up of resources to assimilate. Because make no mistake: the Borg is already here. But they didn’t arrive in a cubic spaceship - they appeared on our laps, in our pockets, and in our hands...
Worf’s win against a Borg in this episode takes him to 2-1 against the aliens and robots this season, which means after season one’s disastrous 1-4 defeat, our resident Klingon is finally having a winning season! You go Worf! You could count it as a defeat when the Borg come back and ignore his phaser blasts, but if Worf doesn’t end up on the floor, I’m not counting it as a loss.
It’s the first of two appearances by Lycia Naff’s Sonya Gomez, whose job is to be young, enthusiastic, and competent. She’s basically a spare Wesley Crusher.
I really don’t think this episode needed her, but I suspect the team were looking for a recurring character to pair with LaForge, and they make better use of her in “Samaritan Snare”.
There’s a tiny scene with Colm Meaney’s O’Brien, who has now definitively taken over the transporter room.
But it’s all wildly overshadowed by our two recurring guest stars, Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan and John de Lancie’s Q, who are electric on screen together. I love that they have her put up a defensive posture as if she could defend against Q’s powers - that's the only possible explanation of this scene; Q even confirms this by warning against Guinan.
It’s a great performance by Goldberg who has few lines while she’s on screen with de Lancie but a great many compelling reaction shots. Having de Lancie in an episode is always an asset, pairing him with Goldberg is pure television gold.
And there’s also some very special guest stars who don’t get an on-screen credit. The voice of the Borg collective is a composite of director Rob Bowman, Bowman’s assistant, and writer Maurice Hurley himself. He not only invented the Borg, he was the first person to join the collective!
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
There’s so much to talk about in the SFX team that I might not be able to fit it all into the filesize limit set by email! Let’s start with the Borg themselves, who are satisfyingly clunky and paradoxically distinct; every one is different.
Costume designer Durinda Rice Wood said of the design:
I was tired by the streamlined, stainless-steel concept of ‘scary’… With the Borg, the idea was that the drones lived for centuries, and that their body parts would wear out and be replaced with mechanical body parts. I wanted to show that they didn't wear out uniformly, so some of them had eye patches, and some had fake legs or arms..
The lead make-up designer, Michael Westmore, came up with the idea of giving them zombie skin tones as if “the life had been leached out of them”, in order that “viewers would know they were seeing a creature that couldn’t be reasoned or negotiated with.”
And the SFX team get to give them a swanky shield that looks a great deal like the Holtzman shield from the 1984 David Lynch Dune.
Then there’s the Borg cube! What a brilliant studio miniature. Forget Borg spheres and other platonic solids, this cube is just brilliantly utilitarian. It says it all with its brutal lines and daunting size.
One of the greatest SFX shots in TNG - the Borg cutting a cheese sample from the Enterprise!
And the sets too, look at these!
Not to mention, one of the greatest sci-fi matte paintings of all time, provided by the legendary Syd Dutton!
The special effects teams truly outdid themselves in this episode, and indeed won two Emmy awards - for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series and Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Drama Series. Yes, you read that right. It was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects, which it surely should have won, but lost out to ABC’s adaptation of War and Remembrance. Frankly, the TNG production team was robbed, but you just can’t compete with World War II when it comes to awards ceremonies. Whoever may have picked up the statuette, we all know that “Q Who” endures as a supreme achievement in science fiction television.
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