Trek-a-Week #13: Q Who
This seemed like a very necessary episode to include in our watch list, given that it introduces the Borg, who will figure prominently in TNG and beyond— and also, though, because we’ve not had a Q episode yet. Re-watching it, though, my big question was: is this a good episode or an important episode?
Q Who gets off to a rocky start with an extended, painful back-and-forth between Geordi and a new addition to the crew, Ensign Gomez. I can only assume that Gomez was intended to be a recurring character on the show, given how much screen-time is given to the ponderous Act I conversation with Geordi, the “hot chocolate incident,” etc. After all this set-up, bizarrely she disappears post-Act I and — aside from one brief reappearance later — is never seen again.
After this we get a Guinan scene: Guinan senses something is amiss and calls the bridge to see if anything unusual is going on. This isn’t the last time we’ll see Guinan’s “spider-sense” tingling. I’ve never been really on-board with this aspect of her character. It seems strangely mystical for the scientific/humanist underpinnings of Star Trek. Anyway…
We then get to the meat of the episode: Q’s been kicked out of the Q Continuum and wants to join the crew of the Enterprise. Were I to do my usual digging for Big Philosophical Themes™ in this episode, the ensuing discussion between Q and Picard would be where I would start. We see classic Trek values in play here as Picard — surprisingly, given their past encounters with Q — gives some genuine consideration to Q’s request:
Q: Sir, do you mock me?
PICARD: Not at all. That’s the last thing I would do. You, by definition, are part of our charter. Our mission is to go forth to seek out new and different life forms, and you certainly qualify as one of the most unique I’ve ever encountered. To learn about you is, frankly, provocative.
But let’s get to the big deal in this episode: the Borg. All these years later, they really hold up. Not just the great ’90s goth/industrial costume design, but the whole concept; they’re genuinely scary. They are (as Q keeps pointing out) not like other Trek aliens. They can’t be reasoned with, they don’t turn out to be just a mama protecting her babies or a petulant “child”eventually reined in by its alien parents, etc. It’s tempting to analyze the Borg to tease out what they represent politically/socially, but the main staying power behind the Borg as Star Trek baddies is that they’re shambling, terrifying monsters whose indifference makes them all the more frightening.
In this respect Q Who reminded me a lot of The Doomsday Machine. Beyond that, though, I noted a number of other call-backs to TOS that I’ve got to assume were intentional. For example, we get Spock’s trademark line, “fascinating,” from Data in this episode. Also, Picard reprises Kirk’s grim parting line, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” from The City on the Edge of Forever as they try desperately (and futilely) to outrun the Borg.
Last week I tried to set up a Trek TNG dichotomy between brainy episodes (The Measure of a Man) and action episodes (A Matter of Honor) so far, but this episode shows that there’s another facet in play here, the internal character conflict episode— in this case specifically: when to realize/admit you’re wrong. Q is most certainly a jerk. But he’s right. And Picard ultimately admits it.
That’s what this episode is about. As Katherine pointed out in last week’s post, admitting you’re to blame is something that’s frowned upon and it’s hard to do. Here the issue is admitting you’re wrong. And Picard does it when he realizes that he was indeed wrong. He/the Federation aren’t, in fact, prepared for what’s “out there.”
I couldn’t help but think that Q’s penultimate line…
Q: That was a difficult admission. Another man would have been humiliated to say those words. Another man would have rather died than ask for help.
…was also a tacit call-back to Kirk and TOS, a second season TNG “thesis statement” that this Star Trek series — and this captain — are not like the ones that came before.
Odds and ends:
- Troi is finally important to the narrative! I can’t remember if we’ve even seen her before in our TNG episodes.
- I loved the Great Escape reference: Q bouncing a ball against the wall in the shuttlecraft a la Steve McQueen.
- They did a fantastic job with the digital redo of the Borg ship interior for the Blu-ray, but I still kinda love the original matte painting better. Matte paintings: a lost art.
- BABY BORGS!
Given how we’re jumping from episode to episode, like skipping the entire first season of TNG, there are some introductions that I’ve missed. Q Who is the first time we’ve seen the character Q since starting our viewing of this series. And, OMG, the Borg!! So there’s a lot to take in in this one. Without giving away my age too egregiously, dear reader, I’ll just remind you that TNG aired from 1987 to 1994 when I was in my late teens to early twenties. So I was busy with stuff, you know, college, etc., and aside from the occasional viewing with my roommates and gushing about how sexy Picard was, I do not have intimate knowledge of characters and stories, which is part of why I am enjoying watching them almost thirty years hence.
The opening scene introduces a new Ensign who is clearly very bright and eager to please. She is taken under Geordi’s wing — have I mentioned that he is likely my very favorite Star Trek character? — and we see his calmness and kindness as he reassures her and gently guides her in ship rules. Sonya is the sort of one-dimensional brilliant-but-ditzy girl who’s a whiz with particle physics but goofily says “thank you” to the AI machine that makes her a drink — think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. After Sonya spills her hot chocolate on Picard, he gets in the turbolift to head back to his quarters and somehow ends up in the shuttlecraft with Q.
We get the idea that Picard has met Q on a couple of previous occasions and it has not gone well. What I love about Q is that he brings an element of magic into Star Trek. Yes, this is a show about science and engineering and fact-based decision making. And here we have a character who is basically a Shakespearean Puck whose role is to provide humor and conflict. In Elizabethan folklore, Puck is a household sprite who, depending on his mood, plays annoying tricks on people or helps them out with their chores. Q sees Picard’s soiled uniform and cleans it with a wave of his hand. Is this science? No! It’s magic!! Did this sort of thing ever happen in TOS?
Q claims he wants to be a crew member of the Enterprise and seems to chafe at Picard’s resistance and, what Q sees as, arrogance. With another magical wave of his hand, he sends the ship thousands of light years into an unknown sector of the galaxy. Q is intent on teaching Picard a lesson about as of yet unknown adversaries, “The Romulans, the Klingons. They are nothing compared to what’s waiting.” Sure enough a ship is soon detected on an intercept course for the Enterprise. The foreign vessel sports a very industrial design, all metal pipes, but, shaped as a box, it’s really hard to believe that this thing can move fast through space. I get that they want to convey a very mechanized, anti-aesthetic design. However, there is a reason that all the other Star Trek spaceships look streamlined, like a shark cutting through the water, and not like some clunky cube. And, yes, I realize there is no air in space so a ship doesn’t have to be aerodynamically designed. It just doesn’t look right!
The introduction to the Borg is chilling and just awesome. A cyborg beams aboard the Enterprise and starts gathering information, oblivious to others around him/her. When finally shot down by Worf, another Borg appears to take its place and in a completely unemotional way, plucks the valuable bits off the downed Borg before they both beam back. When Riker, Worf and Data then beam over to the Borg ship to check things out, they are ignored by crew members and show us a first look at this new enemy. The Borg ship as a hive complete with pods for each body and a “collective” mind, explaining why a scan did not reveal individual life forms, is a fantastic concept. The idea of humans working together as a mass of insects is intriguing and obviously not first thought of by Star Trek. Even Picard and Troi admit that not having a single leader would avoid the pitfalls of individual mistakes. The Borg “nursery” with infants in drawers already receiving biomechatronic implants and the camera pan-out revealing the ship interior like a prison with rows and stories of cells is effectively horrifying.
Another interesting reveal in this episode is that Guinan, who’s provenance has never been clear, is apparently the same kind of creature as Q. He refers to her as an “imp” and “where she goes, trouble always follows.” She actually proves very helpful to the officers when analyzing the Borg since the history of her people included a devastating attack from them. The outlook is grim and it doesn’t take long for Picard to realize that they are out-gunned and the Borg cannot be reasoned with. He desperately appeals to Q to end it and openly admits that he is frightened and needs help. At this, Q spins the ship back to its original position (with magic!) and to safety. It seems kind of a lame ending — wasn’t the crew able to outwit the Borg? — but we feel the supreme importance of confessing vulnerability. And, more importantly, we have a harbinger of the enemy to come, as the Borg now have knowledge of the Enterprise and will surely pursue them. This episode, at least, ends with minimal damage done and, as Puck himself would say, “A merrier hour was never wasted there.”
Next Episode: The Defector