TV Review | Star Trek: The Next Generation | Season 2, Episode 16, "Q Who?"
Episode Summary: Q tries to prove that Picard needs him as part of their crew by hurling the Enterprise 7,000 light years away where they encounter the Borg for the first time. (IMDb)
I know this is a strange one, being a random episode of Star Trek, but I recently saw a list of what were the most-watched episodes across all series and saw that this episode was on it. It's not one held up very often as one of Star Trek's best, but I've always thought it captures the dangers of exploration better than almost any other episode.
This is a 'first contact' episode with what could easily have been a race we never saw again; it's a Q episode, although less humorous than usual as he truly challenges the Enterprise for a purpose rather than a prank; it's a Guinan episode where we find out more about who she is and where she came from.
It's all of those things and more. When I first watched "Q Who", it was one of the most riveting episodes of TV I had ever seen, and I didn't get to see it again until years later and it was still just as good. The first few seasons of The Next Generation aren't exactly great, but this episode was and still is exceptional.
The Next Generation may have carried over the voice-over from the original series about exploring new worlds and encountering new life and new civilisations, but Picard's Enterprise seemed to deal more with anomalies and diplomatic issues rather than pushing the final frontier.
"Q Who" provides a shock to the system as the Enterprise-D encounters a race that is portrayed as truly alien and unknowable. There's no diplomacy with the Borg, primarily because they are so advanced in comparison to the Federation that Picard's ship is little more than a technological curiosity.
Later episodes - especially in Star Trek: Voyager - may have diluted the threat of the Borg and removed a lot of the mystique surrounding the species, but this is arguably their single most terrifying appearance, even better than the acclaimed two-parter, "The Best of Both Worlds".
The majority of the episode is spend trying to figure out just how to deal with this new race they have encountered, and the crew are frustrated at every turn. The puzzlement turns to fear as the Borg start 'dissecting' the ship and the 'heroes' are forced to run.
It's rare in any series outside of Game of Thrones to see the 'good guys' be so utterly dominated that they can do nothing but run, and practically unheard of in Star Trek. As far as I can remember, it doesn't happen again until the Dominion War gets fully underway years later in Deep Space Nine.
I liked The Next Generation while growing up, but it has lost of lot of its appeal thanks to the near-infallible ethics and morality of Picard and his crew. I think the fact that they are vulnerable for pretty much the entire run-time of the episode is yet another reason that makes "Q Who" so memorable for me.
Space travel is extremely dangerous and something that we are already aware of even now with our limited experience. And yet it is often shown as comfortable and relatively risk-free in Star Trek, something this episode completely and utterly counters.
Crew members die, chunks of the Enterprise are carved right out of the hull and the Borg prove entirely invincible, repairing any and all damage inflicted by the Federation ship. Picard and his crew have no answers, no solutions, and are left with the ominous knowledge that the Borg will be coming now that they are aware of their existence.
As far as TV limitations can go, the Borg are obviously all still humanoid in nature so actors can be put into make-up and costume - but it is their nature and behaviour that makes them alien. And unlike a lot of science-fiction, this 'alienness' isn't simply drawn from a non-Western culture like many other species in Trek - they simply don't act like any humans at all.
A majority of science-fiction dealing with aliens has always disappointed thanks to how familiar most invented races behave, often proving analogous to a culture somewhere on Earth. That isn't the case here and it's just another aspect of the Borg which serves to explain why they became such popular antagonists: they could be the 'other' to anyone.
The cast all do a great job throughout, perfectly portraying people who are at a complete loss over what course of action to take, their disbelief increasing every time the Borg block or counter those action - right up until Picard swallows his pride and admits that he needs Q's help to survive this encounter.
Q concedes that it takes a great man to admit that and he does indeed save the day, but his warning that space and the terrors it can contain are still out there is a 'promise' that the show never really lived up to ever again.
Yes, there were plenty of issues and lots of drama to sort through in later episodes, but there was never again the sense of dread that permeates this entire first encounter with the Borg. Admittedly, The Next Generation was never the show for that type of tone, but it would have been very welcome to experience it from time to time.
"Q Who?" is not only one of The Next Generation's best episodes, but Star Trek as a whole. We get to see the first encounter with a race truly alien to the characters' understanding and, while antagonistic, they're not evil - they're just advanced enough to be indifferent of our existence.