Monday, July 4, 2011

When the Borg Return, Picard's Character Grows In "I, Borg!"

The Good: Acting, Character, Intriguing plot
The Bad: Nothing tangible, Actually
The Basics: When the Enterprise finds a wounded Borg, Picard must put morality ahead of his own personal vengeance.

Fans of Star Trek The Next Generation anticipated, in the wake of the events in "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" (reviewed here!) that when the Borg returned, it would be a very Picard-centered event. After all, being assimilated by the cybernetic creatures and forced to kill thousands of humans was a rather traumatic event for the Captain and it's hard to heal that in a single episode. Strangely, when the Borg did return, it ended up being a remarkable ensemble piece, as opposed to just a story about Captain Picard.

When the Enterprise responds to a distress call, they find a damaged Borg ship and a severely wounded Borg youth. Dr. Crusher insists on saving the Borg's life and when Picard sees it, he decides to use the opportunity to learn all he can about the Borg through Third of Five. Ad Geordi and Dr. Crusher study the boy, they name him "Hugh" and he exhibits signs of individuality. When Data designs a way to use Hugh as a weapon against all of the Borg, Picard is faced with an ethical dilemma: destroy an enemy or do right by Hugh?

"I, Borg" is a great example of Star Trek The Next Generation doing what it does best without seeming boring. Here we have a rather tight ethical dilemma to explore and the person most trusted in the series is compromised. The tension between Picard and Geordi in this episode works very well at establishing a mood that keeps the pace surprisingly tight for an episode that is essentially a morality play.

And the morality play comes across best through Picard's character. Of anyone on the ship, Picard has the most reason to hate the Borg. Essentially, he was raped by the Borg and here the story becomes, what justice exists in revenge? This is an episode that highlights what might be the best in human ethics. Given the opportunity to destroy those who wronged him, Picard may take the high road and his journey to that point is compelling and - when viewed from a psychological perspective - terrifying. In particular, one of the later scenes in the episode where Hugh and Picard speak and Picard assumes his Borg identity is rather disturbing from a psychological/character perspective.

It's also an opportunity for Patrick Stewart to do some great acting. Here, he makes Picard angry and compassionate, splitting the character into both a cold warrior and a victim. Stewart plays it perfectly, negotiating the strange dichotomy with a completely altered physical presence depending on the scene. His eyes become steely in the scenes where he is fighting against Hugh and sad and lighter when he comes around. It's a magnificent performance by the accomplished actor.

Yet, as I mentioned, this is an ensemble piece and the acting and character beyond Patrick Stewart as Picard is extraordinary. Whoopi Goldberg gives a very convincing performance as Guinan, expressing anger for the first time in that role. Goldberg uses her facial expressions and tones of voice to realistically portray Guinan opening up to Hugh. Similarly, Gates McFadden earns her keep in "I, Borg" by infusing her character with a rebellious spirit. At every step of the way, Dr. Crusher opposes using Hugh as a weapon and McFadden manages to make her character's objections sound reasonable and dignified as opposed to whiny and annoying.

The standout character of "I, Borg" is Hugh. Hugh puts a face and name to a villain that has been menacing and cruel and senselessly conquering in the Star Trek universe. Hugh embodies a freedom that the Borg have never had and he makes for a compelling character. Jonathan Del Arco, who played Hugh, makes his mark with wonderful facial control that bleeds away during the episode. As his character becomes more human, Del Arco masterfully infuses more facial and vocal expression into his performance, illustrating the change well beyond the lines.

Rounding out the performances is Levar Burton as Geordi La Forge. Burton gives a wonderful performance beyond what he has done on this series since "The Mind's Eye" (reviewed here!). Here, he is not being tormented physically or psychologically, but as he becomes the person who is expected to carry out the captain's orders to use Hugh as a weapon, it becomes obvious he is morally tortured and that works well. It's a different angle for him to explore and here he makes Geordi interesting. As a side note, I find it mildly amusing that the writers of Star Trek The Next Generation lifted Geordi's relationship with a Borg separated from the Collective from a novel entitled Vendetta (reviewed here!) but failed to make the necessary connection that author Peter David did; a Borg would naturally interface with Geordi because of his cybernetic VISOR!

There is a lot to enjoy about "I, Borg," but it is not perfect. The performances are all great and as a result the piece has the feeling of being polished so close to perfection, but it's closer to a 9 in my book. It's just something intangible that keeps it from being the very best television can be. But, it ought to be more than enough for anyone who likes a good debate on the ethics of war. It's also an excellent study of healing and getting to a point beyond vengeance for being wronged. And that's something everyone might enjoy.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the fifth season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode or DVD set reviews, please click here to visit my index page!

© 2011, 2008, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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