Friday, February 11, 2022

Star Trek: I, Borg

Episode: "I, Borg"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 23
Original Air Date: May 10, 1992

An away team discovers an injured Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco) in a ship wreckage.  While Riker wishes to abandon him for the Borg to collect and Worf advises killing him outright, Dr. Crusher's compassion prevails.  The drone is brought aboard the Enterprise to heal.  Both Picard and Guinan must confront their traumatic histories with the Borg.  Meanwhile, in his effort to create a virus to implant in the prisoner, La Forge befriends the drone and even gives him a name: Hugh.  Hugh emerges as an individual and that changes everything.

Without question, this is one of the greats.  If "Darmok" is the entire Star Trek concept boiled down to a 42-minute vignette, "I, Borg" is the episode which affirms that concept's adherence to the most important Next Generation story.  After "The Best of Both Worlds," the writers weren't sure how to bring the Borg back.  What do you do with an adversary who is darn near invincible?  Writer RenĂ© Echevarria found the answer.  When conventional methods won't work, you find the Star Trek way to win.

And let's be clear, the original virus idea was neither conventional nor Star Trek.  It would have been a flat out war crime.  With all its tolerance preaching, Trek still tends to view alien species in monochromatic terms, especially the recurring antagonists.  The Klingons are all this way.  The Romulans are all that way.  It's human nature.  When all you know of a culture is its military, you tend to miss the nuances.  But surely there are peace-loving civilians on Klingon.  No doubt, there are artists and musicians on Romulus who have never touched a phaser.  To paraphrase Fareed Zakaria (I think), most intelligent beings want a better life for their children and for someone to pick up the trash and fix the potholes.  But Trek rarely digs that deep.

(Yes, DS9 will eventually try.  But even that series could have done more.)

The Borg are the ultimate expression of this unfortunate Star Trek tendency.  In the collective, the individual is irrelevant.  The genocidal impulse defines the entire existence of their culture.  As such, biological warfare briefly passes for a justifiable course of action.

The brilliance of "I, Borg" lies in its challenge to the narrative concept of the Borg.  Hugh learns from Geordi that not everyone wishes to be assimilated - a genuine surprise to him.  From Guinan, Hugh learns that resistance is, in fact, not always futile.  From Hugh, the others are able to see past the desire for vengeance.  As he softens, they soften.  

The friendship between Hugh and Geordi is genuinely touching.  Hugh turning his head to Geordi one last time as he and the other drones are transported away...  It's one of the most moving moments in the franchise.

Del Arco nailed it, one of the best guest star performances in the NextGen run.  We'll dig deeper into his story in a moment but this is worth sharing first because of its direct pertinence to the narrative.  Del Arco based his portrayal of Hugh on his first partner, Eddie, who had recently died of AIDS.  He channeled his own grief into the part as well.

Acting Notes

Jonathan Del Arco was born in Uruguay, March 7, 1966.  His family moved to Port Chester, New York when he was ten years old.  He entered the theatre world straight out of high school, winning a part in a touring production of Torch Song Trilogy.  He made his Broadway debut in 1988 in Spoils of War.  

Television work began in 1990.  In addition to Trek, he made guest appearances on Miami Vice, The Wonder Years and Blossom.  Later, he played the same principal role, Dr. Morales, in two separate series: The Closer and Major Crimes.  He has, to date, made five more Trek appearances, four times as Hugh - once in NextGen, three times in Picard.  Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine) is one of his best friends.  He helped her prepare to reprise her own Voyager role in Picard.

Del Arco is a prominent political activist, particularly favoring both environmental and gay rights issues.  He has worked on numerous Presidential and Senatorial campaigns.  He is married to Kyle Fritz, a talent manager.


  1. This is also one of my favourite episodes. This actor did lend a sense of tragedy to the role and now I know why. He suffered the loss of his partner to a dreadful disease. I was not a fan of what happened to him in Picard. He is quite. Good actor.

  2. This was a powerful entry in the series. 1982, wow. Back then peoples' contemporary cognizant span was longer than "oh that is SO last week!". We'd recoiled at news of Jonestown, and Symbionese Liberation for years and knew what collectives were capable of. For Hugh to rediscover himself and allow the Borg to reclaim him with his new self-programming was clearly the solution to an awful problem we faced in the '80s. This wasn't just a STNG episode; it was story of calculated defiance, conscience and real courage.

    1. Oops. I made a mistake on the date. It was '92. Now corrected.

      Your broader point is well made. The Borg, like the Cybermen in Doctor Who, are clearly meant to symbolize communism - or at least what the average Yank/Brit fears in "communism." The state obliterates individuality and creativity. In reality, communist states value both more than we give them credit for and capitalism requires more uniformity than we're willing to admit. Spend your life in service to the state or in service to the corporations. It's not as different as we want to believe.

      I'm not saying totalitarianism is a good thing. I'm just saying the best answers lie in the middle of the spectrum, not on either end.

      Also worthy of broader discussion: for all its promotion of diversity and inclusion, Star Trek still blatantly states that to be human is the best. With Hugh - or Spock, or Data, or Worf - the exciting breakthrough comes not only when he sheds the yoke of compliance but when he becomes more like "us." When we do get the stories of Spock embracing his Vulcan side or Worf embracing his Klingon side, the dalliance is never allowed for very long. The broader narrative drive is always to bring them back into the human fold.

      All of which brings me back to another point (You've really got me rolling this morning, Geo.). As the Trek concept continues to expand in the 2020s, this universe needs more stories - why not entire series? - set in non-human worlds. Again, DS9 came the closest in allowing sustained contact with the Bajorans. But the bolder move would have been a story on Bajor, all Bajorans in the principal roles. I'll admit up front, it would not be easy to do this well which is probably exactly why it hasn't been tried. But if the franchise is to be true to the original vision, it needs to happen.