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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds VI – The Beginning (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

The Borg are, quite possibly, the most significant addition to the Star Trek mythos since the Klingons. They are one of the few modern pieces of Star Trek lore that will be instantly recognisable to a broader audience. They have featured, in some way, in all four of the Star Trek spin-off series. They are constantly rumoured and suggested as a viable antagonist for the rebooted film series. The Borg are a pretty big deal.

And yet, like so many pop culture villains, they seem less threatening the more we know about them. One of the more frequent complaints about the use of the Borg in Star Trek: Voyager was that it made the aliens more familiar, more understandable, more relatable. Continuing to build off the premise of the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg became an alien species that Janeway would reason and negotiate with, in stark contrast to Q’s characterisation of the collective in Q Who?

Although Star Trek: Enterprise did manage to turn the Borg’s fascination with mankind into a causal loop, televised Star Trek never managed to produce an origin story for those cybernetic monsters. Ever ready to fill in a perceived blank in the canon, the expanded Star Trek universe has actually proposed a number of origins for the Borg.

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There’s a debate to be had about whether we need an origin for the Borg. After all, part of what made the Borg such a compelling adversary was how absolute they were. They were unwavering, uncompromising and unstoppable. The Borg are. They are something truly monstrous and almost impossible to comprehend for our heroes, a species unlike any other species in the Star Trek canon.

Of course, they didn’t remain that way. And although Voyager tends to attract a lot of criticism for “diluting” or “weakening” the Borg, it’s a process that began with The Best of Both Worlds and continued through Star Trek: The Next Generation. And, to be fair, it’s a decision that is entirely justifiable and understandable – and which produced a number of fantastic stories. After all, stories are built around change and dynamic movement, the very act of involving the Borg in stories meant that they had to change and evolve, despite the fact that their stubborn implacableness was a vital part of their identity in Q Who?

An inflexible enemy incapable of change is a fantastic concept, but difficult to execute within the context of an on-going narrative. Though Q Who? argued that the Borg were only interested in technology, The Best of Both Worlds had them assimilating Picard. Then Locutus suggested that life forms could be adapted to serve the Borg. Then the Enterprise introduced the concept of individuality to the collective, caused a schism in Descent. First Contact gave us the Borg Queen, giving us the personification of the Borg Collective. From there, concepts like Unimatrix One flowed logically.

So, if the Borg can change, it makes sense that they should have a beginning. The expanded universe has offered a number of origins for the Borg. These origins tend to fall into familiar patterns and tropes, using the Borg in fairly conventional narratives. Given the importance of the Borg in the grand tapestry of Star Trek, it’s no surprise that their origins are typically “big” “event” stories, ones that satisfy various preconceptions about how our characters are the centre of their fictional universe.

Star Trek: The Manga and Star Trek: Legacy both tried to tie the origin of the Borg back to the original Star Trek, as if to make the Borg something of a linking thread among the Star Trek franchise, an enemy spanning all possible generations – it’s just that Kirk never realised how close he came to facing them. These stories seem to suggest that Kirk must be the centre of the Star Trek universe, so that he must be related (even tangentially, in the case of Legacy) to the creation of the Borg. That’s your standard “hero creates villain” trope, a standard of this sort of storytelling for quite some time.

David Mack’s Star Trek: Destiny trilogy gets points for cleverly serving as both an origin and a final story for the Borg, bringing their creation a full circle. After all, if you are going to accept the flexibility of the Borg, and dismiss completely this idea of the Collective as a constant, that’s a smart way to do it. “I am the beginning, the end,” the Borg Queen boasts in First Contact, and given the way that Enterprise had already put the Borg’s first contact with mankind in something of a time loop, it makes a certain amount of sense to link the beginning and the end narratively. (If not causally.)

And Destiny also has a variation of the “hero created villain” trope. Although the Borg are not created by any of our Star Trek regulars, they are created by the crew of the Columbia, who were recurring guest stars on Enterprise. While it’s not as direct as putting Kirk a degree or two away from the origin, it still links the Borg to humanity. It still suggests that humanity as a whole are ultimately responsible for the creation of their own worst enemy. (In fact, the Borg origin is really one of only a handful of problems I have with the otherwise superb Destiny trilogy.)

As such, Annie Reed’s The Beginning is probably the best possible origin story for the Collective. Published in Strange New Worlds VI, it focuses on the creation of the first Borg Queen on an anonymous alien world. It works quite well, because it avoids explicitly mentioning the Borg until the last line, even if there’s a lot of hinting and suggestion in the short story. (The presence of nanobots should be the first clue, but Reed structures the story so it becomes more obvious as it goes along, with star-shaped mechanical implants breaking skin eventually dropping in words like “assimilate.”)

Reed shrewdly avoids too much foreshadowing or foreboding in her short story. There’s no mention of the Federation or of humanity or anything like that. The Borg are allowed to develop completely independent of the rest of Star Trek continuity, which is a nice touch – all too often the Star Trek universe can feel a little too crowded or incestuous in expanded universe materials. Instead, Reed tries quite hard to merge various interpretations of the Borg in one internally consistent portrayal.

So the story focuses on the Borg Queen, treating her as a focal point of the race, but it also builds on the rather basic body horror themes that informed a lot of the early Borg stories. Reed postulates that the Borg are the result of bio-engineering gone horribly wrong, with nanobots instructed to “perfect” their host – in essence turning the Borg into a horrifying twist on the infamous “grey goo” scenario – self-perpetuating nanobots consuming everything they come in contact with. It’s a simple explanation for the Borg, but an effective one.

Reed doesn’t focus on the Collective aspect that much – narrating primarily in first person singular from the perspective of the Borg Queen. As a result, the Borg don’t necessarily feel as alien or unsettling as they should. The short story’s protagonist remains eerily relatable for most of the text, and there’s a sense that The Beginning might have been a little stronger had it been more willing to explore or play with the more unsettling aspects of Borg transcendence – the emergence of the Collective and the subsuming of the individual.

The skewing of the Queen’s perspective as her views realign with that of the emerging cybernetic race is suggested quite well, but The Beginning never allows that individual her to get truly lost and consumed. There are hints here and there, from her faltering memory to the suggestion that the nanobots are thinking for her, but the central character never becomes truly unrecognisable and alien. She never feels as strange as one might expect from the Borg.

Still, this is a minor problem. As far as Borg origins go, The Beginning is the strongest of the bunch, if only because – somewhat ironically – it feels so organic.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

3 Responses

  1. That makes a lot of sense. And, yeah, I totally agree that the Star Trek world gets a little crowded. I wonder what that is, that impulse to connect and understand disparate elements. You’d think the through-line of the UFP would be enough to satisfy fans in need of continuity. But no, we generally just can’t help ourselves.

    Perhaps we draw lines from one independent Star Trek to another to make the world seem more ordered. Or maybe to enhance re-watches. After all, the sixth of seventh viewing of this or that episode, or even this or that movie, can’t have that much more to reveal about itself. So to say that Ilia is the Borg Queen, we can watch TMP through a new lens, and thus justify a re-watch.

    • I get that. I’m as guilty of that as anybody. I’m rather fond of my own “nobody cares that much about these characters or episodes, so I’ll put my own head-canon on it” theory that a Caretaker was in someway responsible for the events of The Royale. I love those nerdy connections. (And I am as curious as the next person about the origins of the Borg.)

      I just find it a little weird when that sort of thing becomes the default norm for expanded universe Star Trek storytelling. (It’s part of the reason that I really dislike Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars duology.) It’s one of the things that sort of bugs me about the expanded universe, along with the strange character choices (like Ezri’s weird career shift and rapid promotion). I’m much more interested in pushing outwards (like Ford or Bonanno or Duane would do) than looking inwards. (And, I should qualify, I do love the work of many contemporary tie-in writers like Bennett or Mack or McCormack.)

      I sort of feel like writing these connections down, even in the expanded universe, rather than simply leaving them inferred or open to fan interpretation, some how diminishes them – it feels like it limits the potential and the options. (One thing that Bennett is, as a rule, very good at, is in filling in the blanks in character motivation. Somehow explaining why Chekov would leave the Enterprise after The Motion Picture or how Picard went from a guy who lost the Stargazer to the captain of the flagship is much more interesting than telling me what the Breen look like.)

      That said, I readily admit to being a little hypocritical here. I feel a little guilty about liking the fourth season of Enterprise so much – it is very blatantly “connect the dots within the mythology” storytelling, pure fan-service. And yet I think it works amazingly well. I rationalise my attitude by arguing that it’s the final broadcast season of second-gen Star Trek, so nostalgia is appropriate, and that it’s really just finally fulfilling all the expectations associated with being a prequel series, so it’s really doing something that was promised three years earlier.

      So it’s something I understand, but also something that frustrates me.

      • Ditto those feelings.

        I didn’t watch Enterprise or Deep Space Nine in their original runs, so I’m catching up now starting with Enterprise. Halfway through, I’ve noticed how winky the show is with canon. I don’t mind disturbing canon too much, but these violations basically undermine the very foundations of Star Trek. And for nothing more than an average episode.

        Archer’s crew continually encounters the strange new worlds and new civilizations that Kirk and Picard would supposedly discover one and two hundred years later. Q Who, The Last Outpost, Arena, and Balance of Terror are all rendered pointless once we discover that the pre-Federation already encountered all those species. The big Borg reveal of Enterprise is entirely contingent on prior knowledge of the series. That might be better accepted in a sequel series. Actually it is better accepted in a sequel series. The scene is almost identical to Chakotay’s discovery of a Borg in the Delta Quadrant. Setting the same scene 200 years before Q Who strips the mystery of that TNG episode. It also creates a new mystery: Why has no one read Captain Archer’s log?

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