The Borg are the ultimate enemy because they defy definition. They are whatever the plot requires them to be, from a frightening new adversary to even an ally. Since they were first introduced to Star Trek canon in The Next Generation episode ‘Q Who?’ in 1989, the Borg have served as a foil for The United Federation of Planets, a dark reflection of Starfleet ideals.
These lofty ambitions of exploration and interstellar reconnaissance are only possible thanks to technological advancement, which is the epicentre of Borg culture. Both are also post-consumer societies, having grown beyond the need for money, and both have also eliminated prejudices. From this perspective, the Borg represent a kind of utopian society, but where Starfleet values the individual and, to quote Vulcan philosophy, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”, the Borg is the death of the identity and more like a virus in its own Prime Directive to assimilate every other life form.
More than its enemies, the great plight of Starfleet is in trying to define whether it’s a military institution or a research organisation committed to exploration. Though this dilemma most obviously plays out in Deep Space Nine and, later, in Discovery, it’s woven into every iteration of Star Trek. But whereas nearly every other adversary Starfleet encounters can at least be reasoned with, laying the way potentially for peace, the Borg cannot be negotiated with.
Only in drones liberated from the Collective can Starfleet engage with the Borg on any other level than as enemies. But in separating from the hive mind, these drones are no longer true Borg, nor do they default back to whatever species they had belonged to before. They’re each their own kind of hybrid, retaining an otherness. In the Picard trailer, it’s obvious that fan favourite Seven of Nine has become so much more human since the end of Voyager, some twenty years before. Her voice is more natural, her appearance more relaxed, and yet she still possesses her ocular implant which marks her out as a former drone. It’s telling that this latest instalment of Star Trek also features Hugh who, in the TNG episode ‘I, Borg’, was discovered disconnected from the Collective and explored his individuality, encouraged by the Enterprise-D crew.
The effect and influence of the Borg is written large across thirty years’ worth of Star Trek. Their assimilation of Jean-Luc Picard immediately springs to mind, and the Battle of Wolf 359 which claimed the lives of 11,000 people, including the wife of Benjamin Sisko. Rarely does the issue of research and reconnaissance factor into our association with this enemy. This can also be said of Starfleet, whose interactions with the Borg are almost always military in intent, never for the sake of knowledge. Except for one example, of course.
Revealed in flashbacks in Voyager, the parents of Annika Hansen – who would become Seven of Nine – are shown to be researching the Borg, often breaking with protocol in an obsessive pursuit for knowledge and understanding. The Hansens’ endeavours are not framed with the same bravery and bonhomie as the exploits of Kirk, Picard and co, but rather serve as a cautionary tale. The flashbacks feel like something plucked from a horror movie, the tension palpable as the viewer knows what’s lurking just around the corner. Far from boldly going, the Hansens seem doomed. Yet in their intent they come closer to the inherent values and ideals of Starfleet than Picard or Janeway.
Janeway acts as a kind of surrogate mother figure – or lover, depending on your head canon – to Seven of Nine, helping in her transition from drone to individual. There are other occasions where the crew of Voyager help to free drones from the collective, as in the two-part ‘Unimatrix Zero’, but this action could be viewed as antithetical to the Prime Directive, that principle prohibiting Starfleet from interfering with the development of alien civilisations. By their very nature, the Borg are in a constant state of development, and in assimilating other species they are only fulfilling their biological imperatives. Aren’t the Borg entitled to the same right of life and propagation as any other species Starfleet encounters?
The Borg may defy definition, functioning in whatever capacity the plot needs them to serve, but that’s left them ambiguous. Perhaps it’s time for definition and with Picard on the way, it looks as though that time might soon be upon us.