This article is part of our ongoing Picard Explained series, featuring the insights of our resident Starfleet officer Brad Gullickson.
The go-to villains of Star Trek have seen better days. The Romulans are in shambles. The Borg are catatonic zombies held under guard by the leftover Romulans. Has anyone checked in on the Klingons?
While most of Episode 3 of Star Trek: Picard, entitled “The End is the Beginning,” focuses on the disgraced Jean-Luc (Patrick Stewart) assembling a crew of space pirates to boldly go where Starfleet would dare not wish them to, the B-plot takes us deeper into the Romulan Reclamation Site housed within the disconnected Borg Cube ship. We’re still mostly in the dark about exactly what the Romulans are doing with the technology they’re extracting from the Borg, but we are told flat-out by one former drone that they are seen as property to be exploited and hazards to be warehoused. The idea being that the Romulans are looking to return their Star Empire to its former glory by standing on the very advanced backs of these nameless and listless creatures.
The drone, by the way, is Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), the second most-famous Borg in the franchise after Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, also expected to return later in the series). As seen in the fifth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation “I, Borg,” Hugh was the first drone severed from the Borg collective. Rescued from the rubble of his scout vessel by the Enterprise-D, he was given his name by Cheif Engineer Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) and taught the value of first-person pronouns.
As Hugh discovered self, Starfleet asked Captain Picard to plant a doomsday virus inside his mainframe that would spread and eventually eradicate the Borg when he was reconnected to their hive. Still suffering from his time as the assimilated Locutus, Picard briefly considered such genocidal behavior but was eventually persuaded to embrace Hugh’s humanity thanks to the empathy of La Forge, Data (Brent Spiner), and Dr. Beveryly Crusher (Gates McFadden).
Picard returned Hugh to the Borg unharmed, or so he thought. The drone was infected, not with a virus, but with an identity of self. The personal pronoun sent the Borg into a state of chaos, cleaving the poisoned splinter-cell from the Collective, and allowing Data’s diabolical twin brother Lore to take control in the two-part episode “Descent.” Hugh ultimately champions an uprising against Lore, and by the climax, he becomes the leader of an incredibly bewildered community.
The next time we saw the Borg was on the big screen, looking to dominate the universe by going back in time to eradicate Starfleet before it ever formed in Star Trek: First Contact. What the hell happened to Hugh and his self-centered Borg during the 28 years since we last saw him? How did his Cube become the Romulan Reclamation Site? Why would the Romulans name him the Director of said site?
We may or may not get answers to all of the questions raised by his appearance. While they are curious, they don’t really matter. What’s important is that Hugh (and Seven of Nine) represents a recognizable humanity to a group that Star Trek itself established as the greatest threat in the galaxy. As the franchise has done with the Horta (“Devil in the Dark”), the Klingons (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), and the Romulans (“Unification“), the Borg are revealed not as black and white villains. They are sentient, no more or less worthy of life.
Hugh takes a liking to Data’s long-lost daughter Soji (Isa Briones) because he witnesses her speaking to an unconscious Ex-B (a.k.a. an Ex-Borg) using their native tongue. Such respect for their sentience enamors her to Hugh, and he allows her access to a separate cell of disconnected Romulan Borg referred to as “The Disordered.” These reawakened folks are in a far worse state than Hugh, shuffling from one wall to the next while mumbling to themselves.
Soji specifically wants to converse with Ramdha (Rebecca Wisocky), the last lifeform assimilated by this specific Borg Cube. Having mysteriously/miraculously (at least from Hugh’s perspective) obtained classified records, Soji knows that Ramdha was an expert in Romulan mythology during her pre-Borg life. Soji believes that such knowledge of a “shared narrative framework” is what’s helping her cope with the trauma of assimilation.
As Soji pries into Ramdha’s tarot-like card game, an anger is ignited in the patient. Ramdha objects to the word “mythology,” calling it closer to “news” than fiction. She flips a card featuring two sisters, one cloaked in white, one cloaked in black. “Which one are you?” asks Ramdha. “The one who lived? The one who died?” It’s Harry Potter prophecy time.
Ramdha comes to her own conclusions before Soji can even contemplate the words and reaches for a guard’s phaser. The Disordered Romulan damns Soji as “The Destroyer” before she is subdued. Like the Zhat Vash, the secret sect of anti-synthetic goons unveiled in the last episode, Ramdha clearly believes that Data’s daughter represents the end-times.
Humanity has always feared A.I. Since Mary Shelley cobbled together a collection of limbs in Frankenstein, we have concerned ourselves over man’s tampering in God’s realm. The creator is damned to be hated by their creation. The robots will rise. The Terminator is coming.
Star Trek is not anti-science.
When the Borg were first introduced in “Q Who?,” the second season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, they were used by the god-being Q (John de Lancie) as an example of the threats the Federation were not prepared to face. The Borg were terrifying. They represented the death of individuality, the ultimate end to Spock’s logical mantra, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
When the Borg returned in “The Best of Both Worlds,” they kidnapped, tortured, and perverted the great Jean-Luc Picard. The Borg were the Other, easily dismissed as vile, mindless, murderous savages. The only good Borg was a dead Borg.
Then came Hugh. He had a child’s curiosity. He had desires of his own. He connected with Geordi La Forge. He wanted what we all wanted, a place to be.
Star Trek initially used the Borg as this magnificent metaphor for the evils resulting when individuality is extinguished. The Federation could be dismissed as a whackjob socialist organization, but at least they were not the Borg. Starfleet has your back, but they don’t want your back.
Once Star Trek positioned the Borg as the be-all and end-all of villainy, they began their pivot. That’s the Gene Roddenberry way. You must confront your biases.
In 1966, nothing was scarier than a Russian. Therefore, Roddenberry put one on the bridge of the Enterprise. In 1987, nothing was scarier than a Klingon. Therefore, Roddenberry put one on the bridge. In 2020, nothing is scarier than a drone. Therefore, Roddenberry demands one on the bridge.
Fear is what drives subjugation and war. Jean-Luc Picard gave up his command to battle such infectious emotions. However, removing himself from the conflict did very little. The world only got darker when he sat it out. There’s a lesson here for us all. Get in the game. Change never occurs from the sidelines.
Borgs and synthetics are frightening. They represent what comes next, meaning our time is obsolete. We fear that we’ve crafted our own armageddon. It’s a dread that has possibly unified Starfleet and the Romulan Star Empire. The enemy of our enemy is our friend.
Star Trek has always taught us when you look at your enemy, you find yourself. Dread is built from a distance; from cowardice. To go where no one has gone before is to explore the interior as much as the exterior. Exploration of the final frontier is a unifying adventure. We’re all one tribe under the stars, and the beings we create are our children.