What makes for truly awesome bad guys in science fiction? First, they must be intriguing — either because we want to know what their motivations could be, or because they're so alien that we just want to know more about what makes them tick. Most importantly, though, bad guys have to change over time. Good characters can't remain static or each meeting with them grows more repetitious. It's possible that Star Trek's hive mind cyborgs known as the Borg are a perfect model for bad guys — even though there are a lot of problems with them, too.
Until last week, when I posted an article about bad guys who were too easy to defeat, I had always thought of the Borg as a tragic failure. They started out ultra-badass but became slimy space vampires in the end. But many of you disagreed with me, and made excellent points. So now I've rethought my position on the Borg. Here's why.
The Borg Are Creepy Because They Are Us
Initially, the Borg are one of the most intriguing enemies ever invented by Star Trek. Though we're told that the Borg assimilate lots of life forms, we only ever see humans and humanoids on their ships (correct me if I'm wrong on that). They are basically humans who have been altered to be mind-controlled, networked slave bots. So they're the version of humanity that has wedded itself to machines, and also crushed out all forms of individuality — they are the nightmare version of us, perhaps from the future, and they're out to destroy us all. A bad guy who represents something that we could become is in many ways more terrifying than a bad guy who is just plain different. Plus, we see how easy it is for the Borg to take over Picard in "The Best of Both Worlds," which is even more disturbing.
Their Weaknesses Are Complicated
Unlike other Big Bads, the Borg have a weakness that's actually a complex puzzle that the crew needs to figure out over time. There's no weak scale in their armor, or simple weapon that can defeat them. Instead, the Enterprise crew has to basically hack the Borg's hive mind, using cunning and — ultimately — a weird kind of psychological warfare. In the second part of "Best of Both Worlds," the crew defeats the Borg by implanting a "sleep" command in their shared operating system, using Locutus/Picard as a backdoor. That was actually a very clever hack.
Even more clever, to my mind, is in the episode "I, Borg," where Geordi and Data pretty much adopt an abanoned Borg and turn him back into an individual. They name him "Hugh" because it sounds like the word "you," which is an especially difficult concept for the hive minded creature to learn. This is a fascinating episode because it deals both with the psychology of individualism, and the notion that an idea ("individualism") could become a weapon. When Hugh returns to the Borg hive mind, his sense of self is shared with the collective — and, as we discover in a later episode, it has destroyed the Borg's power structure. Suddenly the group has fragmented, and each of their ships is a different shape. Basically, the humans cripple the Borg with a deadly meme.
The Borg Are Not Static
Like the Klingons, who changed a lot over time — from enemies to frenemies to honored allies — the Borg are changed forever by their relationship with humanity. I think we see this most forcefully in the aftermath of "I, Borg." But of course the Borg we see in First Contact are even more radically different, though it's hard to know if this is entirely the result of the individuality virus or just a retcon along the lines of the Klingons' new foreheads and culture. I think basically the arc of the Borg on Star Trek: TNG works marvelously. We see an enemy who changes, and becomes more easy to defeat in a realistic way. The inclusion of 7 of 9 on Voyager makes sense in this arc, too. Like Hugh, she is a post-Borg creature, half-machine, half-individual.
But I'm not as convinced by First Contact, which rewrites the Borg so much that it strains credulity. What makes them scary is that they are a hive mind — even if ultimately a disorganized one. Giving them a sexy fascist leader seems out of keeping with their basic trajectory.
Still, aside from these missteps, I think the Borg actually do work nicely as examples of an enemy who changes over time but remains fascinating and scary.