Watched: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 23, “I, Borg”
Synopsis: The title of this beloved episode is presumably a play on Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and, perhaps it is not even necessary to say, it was the inspiration for the title of this blog. The Enterprise crew discovers a Borg crash site with a single survivor, a young male drone who needs assistance from Dr. Crusher if he is to go on surviving. Crusher, the doctor who, in Season 1, revived a group of long-dead Twentieth-century humans without so much as consulting her captain, persuades Picard to bring the drone on board for repairs.
Back on board, Picard shuts down Troi’s somewhat graphic attempt to provoke an admission that he is still traumatized by his abduction by the Borg then quickly comes up with a plan to program the rescued drone as a weapon to destroy the entire Collective. Crusher is predictably the first to object to the plan but, one by one, key characters begin to see the immorality of using the drone, who at first refers to himself as Third of Five, to commit an act of genocide.
Third of Five seems to ask for a name and is christened “Hugh” by Geordie who appears to have a knack for befriending artificial and partially artificial lifeforms (by my count, there was an android, a hologram and now a drone). To cope with his sudden alienation from the collective, Hugh bonds most closely with Geordie but he also learns from every individual he encounters. From Crusher, he learns that he is lonely; from Guinan, that resistance is not futile and from Picard he learns what it is to resist.
Picard then hits upon the idea that reintroducing Hugh into the Collective with his newly found individuality intact “might be the most pernicious program of all.” First, however, Hugh has to choose to give up his selfhood. He wants to stay on the Enterprise with his friend Geordie but he does not hesitate to insist upon returning to the Borg cube from whence he came. Hugh has learned the most paradoxical lesson of individuation, that we are sometimes most ourselves when we choose to give ourselves up for others.
Reflection: If the body of this episode is built around an examination of selfhood, conscience and self-sacrifice, its heart is an examination of fear. With his plan to wipe them out, Picard reacts to the Collective the way we all react when we are terrified—he tries to make the scary thing disappear. There are only two real-world ways to make something disappear—run from it until you can’t see it any more or destroy it.
Picard can hardly be blamed for the fact that it did not occur to him to have a conversation with Hugh. The Borg had not exactly shown themselves to possess El-Aurian listening skills and their statements were unfailingly predictable. After shooting down the moral concerns of his officers and his trusted friend, however, Picard reluctantly admits that he had also not wanted to engage this particular Borg because he did not want anything to get in the way of his plan to ensure the Federation’s safety from its most inexorable enemy.
As individuals, the citizens of the Federation may not “[blow] the lid off the visual acuity percentiles” the way Hugh did but they possess many kinds of intelligence that the Borg lack. They possess emotional intelligence, aesthetic intelligence and imagination. Every time I have, not just wanted to, but felt I had no choice but to do harm, I have suffered a failure of imagination. Imagination, the ability to produce mental images of things outside our direct experience, is not just what allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, it is what makes it possible for us to reason beyond fear. No solution to any problem has ever been found that did not first present itself in the imagination.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge distinguished between the workings of what he called Fancy and the Imagination. When we are employing Fancy, we are merely recapitulating what we know, even if we re-arrange the elements. Every time you watch the same old sitcom with different characters or hear people laugh at a joke based on a simple stereotype, you are witnessing Fancy at work. The Imagination, on the other hand, can do more than recapitulate and manipulate elements; it unifies them, producing something that is more than the sum of its parts. Coleridge called this capacity esemplastic.
An esemplastic unity is born when two polarities—in this episode, the polarities are the desire to survive at all costs and the desire to do the right thing—come together to produce an offspring that contains each polarity but that expresses more than can be realized through simple addition. Guinan warns Picard that, if he does not speak with Hugh at least once, if he does not at least imaginatively allow for the possibility that Hugh has become something Picard had not thought possible, he might find it difficult to live with his decision to carry out his genocidal war plan. In his conversation with Hugh, Picard does not let go of his desire for the preservation of his civilization. Instead, he sees that seeking survival through an immoral act, no matter how justified it seems, would destroy the Federation just as surely as the Borg would if they saw the opportunity.
Coleridge did not believe that his principle of unity from polarities describes only the human imagination; he regarded it as the fundamental principle of Nature. It is the process that gives us the world and all that is in it, including each of us and our sense of right and wrong. Lay theologian C.S. Lewis likened our moral sense or Reason to the ancient Vedic principle of Rta. According to Lewis, “that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, almost participation in the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple.”
Had Picard refused to see, or even attempt to see, Hugh for what he had become, it would have appeared that he was making the most natural choice possible but, in fact, he would have been true to only the smallest, most obtuse part of his nature. When he chose instead to open a tiny chink in his imagination, he opened himself to that which makes us most what we are—creatures of infinite possibility. As we eventually saw in the season 6 cliffhanger episode, “Descent,” this decision led to complications and suffering and was, thus, not a clean victory. It was a victory, nonetheless. Sometimes, we have to throw ourselves into the flow of Rta by doing what we know is right, knowing also that it is the only way to retain the most precious part of ourselves.