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The Trek Nation - Q Who?

Q Who?

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 18, 2008 - 11:20 PM GMT

See Also: 'Q Who?' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While LaForge tries to deal with an overly enthusiastic fresh-out-of-the-Academy new engineer and Guinan has a feeling that something is about to go awry, Picard steps out of a turbolift and finds himself on a shuttle with Q. The super-being has been exiled from the Q Continuum and wants to become a member of the Enterprise crew, believing it will be an entertaining adventure even if Picard won't let him use his super-powers. "Your help is not required," says Picard icily. Suddenly the Enterprise is hurled thousands of miles across the galaxy, where it encounters an unknown alien ship that Guinan recognizes. Before she can explain how they destroyed her own civilization, a half-humanoid, half-artificial being beams into engineering and begins to scan the ship's computer. Concluding that Starfleet weapons are no match for their own, the Borg demand the immediate surrender of the ship. Locking on a tractor beam, the Borg damage the Enterprise and remove a section of the hull, killing the 18 crewmembers nearest the breach. After a brief battle that damages the Borg ship, Picard agrees to let Riker lead an away team, where he, Data and Worf discover that the Borg operate as a collective mind and can pool their resources to repair their ship much more quickly than the Starfleet crew. Beaming the away team back, Picard attempts to flee, but the Borg follow. Just as it appears that the Enterprise will be destroyed, Q reappears and taunts Picard about his arrogance. Only after Picard begs for help does Q return the Enterprise to Federation space. Shaken, Picard tells Guinan that maybe Q did the right thing for the wrong reasons, revealing to humans that the Borg threat is out there so that Earth has time to prepare.


Analysis: There are a lot of mediocre-to-bad episodes in the latter third of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season, so I think it's important to note that right here, with "Q Who," is where the series became great. There have been many terrific standalone episodes to date, but here we meet the adversary who will carry through not only this series' finest arcs, but those of Star Trek: Voyager as well, plus what is widely regarded as the best of the next gen movies. Looking back from twenty years on, the episode seems low-key, seamlessly integrated into the second season; it has terrific pacing, a good sense of humor, terrific character exchanges and a sense of doom that builds steadily without ever seeming contrived. The visceral horror of the Borg, the assimilation of individual minds into their collective, has not yet begun. This is a brilliant spot of potential that the writers were smart enough to seize and build upon later.

At the start, it looks as though the episode may be a comedy, first with Ensign Gomez spilling hot chocolate all over Captain Picard, then with Q appearing and kidnapping him when Picard heads to his quarters to change his uniform. None of the Q episodes are purely comedic but most of them have quite a bit of humor, even if Q's sense of what's funny can be much more mean-spirited than the Starfleet officers'. When Q first appeared, though, the officers were in danger of taking themselves too seriously and it was good to have Q around to shake them out of that earnestness. This time, however, Q's shakeup is of a very different nature, though it's still rather amusing to watch as the ship hurls like a boomerang across the galaxy after Picard scoffs at Q offers to trade delusions of godhood for delusions of being human. The dialogue to that point has been sharp and witty, particularly as Q and Guinan hurl insults at each other while striking poses like angry cats. Picard tries to be the calm, rational, dignified opponent to Q's gleeful taunts, but he seems very close to stomping his foot when Q refuses to take "no" for an answer to his request to join the crew.

The toss across the galaxy is pure temper tantrum, and it's unclear at first that there's any real menace besides the long voyage home. Guinan speaks ominously of the beings that destroyed her civilization, but she's remarkably vague on the details. The first Borg to beam onto the ship ignores the crew other than to cast aside the hapless ensign sent to neutralize him; his follower brings improved personal shielding yet no more curiosity about the Starfleet officers. There are no demands or unnecessary threats, but at the same time, there's no willingness to make contact, no attempt to negotiate or find common ground. As it becomes increasingly obvious that their technology is superior, it also becomes increasingly obvious that the Borg have no use for negotiation or common ground. They're here to take what they can use and discard the rest. For Picard, who has generally dealt with hostile first contacts via a combination of reasoned debate and a show of technological strength, this is a new situation. Even his worst-case-scenario option - to protect the crew and run away - doesn't work. Two long conferences and another call for suggestions on the bridge fail to provide a single useful option for facing this new threat.

The Next Generation is particularly interested in questions about what constitutes a life form and what makes a being sentient. Having Data aboard, these are subjects that come up again and again, with the repeated conclusion that although he is entirely artificial, Data is a sentient individual with all the rights of a living being. The Borg are the flip side of Data: their babies cry like human babies, but they're already hooked into a hive mind, with machinery replacing organic matter and incubators replacing contact with caretakers. Clearly the cube as a whole is sentient, and from what Guinan has said, there's a much larger network of them out there attacking entire solar systems. Individual Borg, though, might as well be robots. They make no decisions; they follow directives. This kind of a society is what's really scary on this series, not hostile Klingons whose honor has been maligned or suspicious Romulans preparing for a border war.

Even Q, by contrast, seems almost benign beside the Borg. Sure, he's all-powerful and a pain in the rear, but for the most part he's an imp (an accusation he levels against Guinan that Picard flips back on Q). His technology, or whatever power substitutes for it, may outclass the Q, making Picard's ship seem weak and incompetent, but he lives to negotiate and spar and quarrel; despite his love for the sound of his own voice, he'd be horribly lonely in a collective mind with no one to listen to him. It makes perverse sense that, having been tossed out by his fellows, he'd want to hang out with Picard, who bristles every time Q flirts with him and snaps every time Q pushes a sensitive button. After all, it sounds like Guinan is doing something similar by being on the Enterprise...she's just a lot quieter about her unusual origins and abilities.

For all his ascetic qualities as captain, Picard is deeply invested in the individuals around him, whether they're green ensigns who can't behave in engineering or boy wonders trying to come up with solutions for escaping a seemingly unstoppable enemy. The Borg crew is functional and efficient and extremely unpleasant, just like their ship, which can repair itself as it moves through space into the undifferentiated ugly black monstrosity first encountered by the Enterprise. Bubbly Gomez is vocally horrified by the deaths of 18 crewmembers, but Picard is no less distressed, even if he's more circumspect about expressing his feelings aloud. Q might well be speaking to both the captain and the ensign when he says that they shouldn't be out in space if they can't handle a bloody nose.

And where Guinan sees cruelty on Q's part, Picard sees something...not benign, perhaps, but valuable. It's easy to become complacent even around Q, who as he claims hasn't really caused any harm. When outposts blow up along the Neutral Zone, the Federation naturally suspects the Romulans and prepares to meet that threat. Thanks to Q's hint, Data realizes that something far more deadly may be behind that unresolved situation. It isn't safe out there, which makes for a much more interesting show.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.