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Star Trek: Borg (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 were the breakout aliens of the era surrounding Star Trek: The Next Generation. They appeared in all the spin-offs following The Next Generation – providing a piece of back story for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a nice mid-run bump for Star Trek: Voyager. They are probably the only Star Trek alien created in the wake of the original television show that can be identified readily by casual television viewers and movie-goers; ranking with the Klingons or the Romulans.

As such, it’s a surprise that the franchise waited so long to capitalise on them so ruthlessly. Q Who? introduced the Borg, and they appeared in the following season’s cliffhanger finalé. The Best of Both Worlds became something of a minor television phenomenon, and the Borg reappeared a couple of times in the years following. That said, it wasn’t until 1996 and 1997 that the franchise really pushed the Borg to the fore.

With the release of Star Trek: First Contact into theatres, the Borg were everywhere. They got spin-off comic books, a build-up to a cliffhanger appearance in Voyager, and even Star Trek: Borg.

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Star Trek: Borg was a rather interesting piece of work. On the one hand, it’s a very cynical cash-in on the high-profile of the Borg. At the same time, it’s a wonderful showcase for both John de Lancie and director James L. Conway. Even if the box does credit Conway as director of “favourite” episode Little Green Men. This always confused me; Little Green Men was great, but surely the story to use while pushing this sort of epic insert-yourself adventure would have been The Way of the Warrior?

Either way, there’s a sense of incredibly cynicism around Star Trek: Borg, as if the studio just really wanted to have something on the shelves that they could use to capitalise on the release of First Contact. As with Star Trek: Klingon before it, and as was the style in the video game market of the nineties, Star Trek: Borg is a full motion video game. This turns the story into a playable movie, essentially, capitalising on the storage space available on a CD-ROM to stitch together a video game from pre-recorded clips.

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The result is something that almost seems like a “lost” episode of Star Trek, with filmed inserts featuring actors on real sound stages, delivering scripted dialogue while the user is driven to particular story points where they drive the direction of the plot. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to have been too much time or money invested in this interactive Star Trek episode. Star Trek: Borg was very obviously shot on the standing Voyager sets, which makes the use of external stock footage from The Next Generation feel particularly awkward. There’s a sense that nobody is really too preoccupied with any of this.

The game’s wardrobe is taken from Voyager, even though the came is set contemporaneously with The Next Generation, although the flash forward sequences set at the same time as First Contact do feature a character wearing the uniform of The Next Generation. The cast of the video game is populated by guest actors who have recurred on the franchise, with none have the screen presence necessary to firmly establish a new senior staff in the sixty-odd minutes of original footage available.

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More than that, there’s the fact that the script for Star Trek: Borg comes from writer Hilary J. Bader. It’s quite telling that the box art describes her as “a writer for many loved Star Trek episodes”, without naming any of those. Bader is another person who seems to have been invited to contribute to Star Trek: Borg because she has had some fleeting experiences with the franchise, with no real concern for how those experiences speak to her abilities as an author. The box wisely avoids to cite Battle Lines or Rules of Acquisition as Bader’s past work; two episodes hardly “loved” among fandom.

It’s hard to tell how many of the core problems with the game’s storytelling are rooted in Bader’s scripting or the game’s design. It is impossible to play through Star Trek: Borg without hitting a narrative dead end, without dying and having Q provide you with necessary background information to make it work the second time. Similarly, the plot hinges on actions and events that aren’t alluded to or explained before they unfold, with your character’s racial characteristics becoming vitally important to solving some problems before they’ve even been explained.

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(One plot twist involves using “a B’jani Pain Trance” to fake death, for example. This would be fine, except that it’s never mentioned beforehand. Q compares it to playing possum, but only after the character has used it. This issue is compounded by the fact that the B’jani have never appeared on Star Trek before, and thus there’s not even an extra-narrative bit of foreshadowing; similarly, the fact the video game unfolds from a first-person perspective makes it quite possible for the player to gloss over the fact that they have been cast as an alien.)

The plotting of the game is decidedly loose, with the main narrative thrust of the story seeing a young Starfleet cadet sent back in time by Q to the time period surrounding the Battle of Wolf 359. His father died on the USS Righteous, and Q has afforded this young recruit the opportunity to set things right – defeat the Borg and save the ship. Of course, the plot never really explains why Q is so interested in this single story of tragedy stemming from Wolf 359. Similarly, the resolution to the whole issue of re-writing history seems trite and casual, thrown into the last few minutes of the game.

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It’s unclear whether these problems are the result of the brief given to Bader or due to her own creative choices. However, the script for Star Trek: Borg doesn’t even work on a more intimate level. In order for the narrative to pack the necessary punch, the audience needs to invest in this entirely new crew. We need to understand these strangers, and root for them to come out on top against all odds. Quite frankly, Bader’s script is not very good at establishing and defining character.

None of the characters, barring the ship’s counsellor, ever seem to have too much personality. The dialogue feels leaden, and the quips are almost painful. “Death in battle,” the obligatory snarky doctor observes, “if he were a Klingon, he’d be ecstatic.” The script sees Q and the player stepping into the roles of “Doctor Quint and Lieutenant Sprint”, a rhyme that ultimately feels more cringe-worthy than playful.

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And yet, despite that, there is a sense that John de Lancie and James L. Conway are trying their hardest to make this work. There’s an early sequence featuring a Borg intrusion on to the bridge of the USS Righteous that is far more gripping than one might expect. Similarly, Conway tries as hard as he can to disguise the fact that he’s shooting on familiar sets. Dennis McCarthy provides a suitably atmospheric score for the adventure, even if it occasionally feels a little overly familiar. For his part, de Lancie has an incredible amount of energy invested in his performance here, and he’s clearly relishing the chance to be a true leading man.

As with the audio books he has narrated or the work that he has written, there’s a genuine sense that de Lancie loves the character of Q. This enthusiasm carries over, and Star Trek: Borg works much better as a showcase for Q’s character (and de Lancie’s charm) than it does as an exploration of the franchise’s favourite cybernetic menace. As he frequently does on the shows, de Lancie manages to play corny and cheesy material with an incredible skill, making his dialogue seem so much more interesting than it is.

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Star Trek: Borg feels like a corny old cash-in, which is really what the game amounts to. At the same time, it does showcase the talents of its lead actor, John de Lancie, and the video game director, James L. Conway.

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

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