In the Borg’s first appearance there are neatly done details that add to how terrifying they are. Q-Who is a ‘Q’ episode as the name suggests and after briefly kidnapping Picard, he returns him to Ten-Forward where he and Guinan meet on-screen for the first time. Q is clearly alarmed by Guinan’s presence and vice-versa and while there is no epic battle it is made abundantly clear that Guinan has the capacity to at least attempt to take on Q with nothing more than her fingers. It’s only later that we learn that the Borg nearly completely wiped out her people. We don’t know what the Borg are at that point but by a kind of transitivity of bad-assness they are up there with the almost omnipotent Q. Even the end of the episode in which Picrad is forced to ask Q for help, the Borg are undefeated. Instead Q sends the Enterprise hurtling back to a region of space a long way from the Borg. No story featuring the Borg will end with them being that singularly frightening again (although they will have their moments mid-story) because after that point they will suffer defeats and setbacks and reveal vulnerabilities.
There’s no way of ever recapturing that level of fear, however Episode 6 of Picard “The Impossible Box” makes a solid attempt by making the Borg the stuff of nightmare. I should confess that as a child I had nightmares about the minotaur (perhaps why I am fascinated by labyrinths). There is something dreadful at the heart of the maze. The monster at the centre of the largest “impossible box” in the episode (the ruined Borg artefact, being picked over by the Romulans like Victorian archaeologists at Knossos) is long gone but it is fitting that the episode ends in the chamber of the Borg Queen.
Enter the maze, confront the monster, discover the prize. For both Jean-Luc and Soji the monster is fear and the prize is truth. Jean-Luc is at least aware of the nature of what he is confronting but on teleporting onto the cube he is overwhelmed by the horror of it all. His rescue by XBs (ex-Borgs) and the emotional meeting with Hugh (the former Borg from I, Borg) is genuinely moving. So much of this show has focused on Jean-Luc’s failed attempts to help others and the unhealed wounds of his career, personified by the emotional ruin of Raffi who even-so still pulls her shit-together to get Jean-Luc safely into Romulan space. Hugh provides a counter to that, the messy, morally compromised decisions Jean-Luc had made when the Enterprise rescued a wounded Borg drone have not ended in further misery but rather in Hugh leading a huge project to help the core victims of the Borg, who are the Borg themselves.
Soji has a far more dangerous journey. The customary flashback that opens the episode is replaced by Soji’s nightmare. Her personal subconscious maze are the corridors of her childhood home and at the centre the fear is personified by her father and some secret in her laboratory. Knowing what we know about Soji, we have reason to doubt all of this. She is a Blade Runner style replicant and like Rachael in that film, unaware of her true nature or that her dreams are not what they seem.
Narek, a Romulan so deceitful that he may be plotting against himself, understands that Soji’s dreams may serve a purpose as a means for Soji to resolve the discrepancies between the history she believes about herself and the reality of her past. Narek’s fidget toy is a Rubik cube like puzzle box which he uses as a metaphor for the process of unlocking Soji’s memories. The objective being the location of Soji’s home.
Exploiting, Soji’s emotional crisis as she discovers more and more about her past is false, Narek takes her to a genuine labyrinth. Devotional labyrinths are a feature of gothic cathedrals, a single twisted path that has only one route to follow. A feature of Romulan culture is a meditative practice that appears to follow a similar idea. A room with an inlaid path on the floor with turning points marked out in lanterns. Soji follows the path under Narek’s guidance, revealing the truth about her nature to herself and the features of her homeworld to Narek and his sister. At the centre of the labyrinth is not just the truth but also death and betrayal.
Possibly Narek’s murder attempt is intentionally flawed. In the true spirit of Romulans being the galaxies drama queens he delivers Soji’s death via his own puzzle cube. Yet he can’t not have known that any attempt to kill Soji would result in her turning into a super-powered android assassin. A plot hole or Narek aiming to cover himself while enabling Soji’s escape?
Labyrinths have another feature: they are compact. They hold a long journey within a small space. The Borg build their ships as cubes or spheres for similar reasons, they are both shapes that within limitations maximise what they can contain. Likewise, this is an episode that defies its running time. Somehow it does all of the above and yet finds time to give us insights into the rest of the cast. Chris Rios, Raffi and Agnes all get moments and insights into their character. Elnor does what Elnor does best: be the nicest, sweetest character in the show and a machine of death.
I’m not expecting the following episodes of Picard to be quite as good as this one but they won’t need to be. The show worked its way to its centre and it delivered a wonderfully paced story full of insights and emotion. I wanted to applaud.
- The shot of Picard staring through the display at the image of Locutus so that their faces merge was nicely done but…it’s a cheat. The photo he would have been looking at would needed to have been reversed for it to look that way.
- Elnor is the Tilly of Picard.
- I thought Agnes was going to confess. It’s hard to like her given her actions but she is clearly suffering. Elnor’s observation about her being haunted was also very nicely done.
- I had given up on the whole Chris-is-a-hologram but having watched more of Voyager, I note that the Doctor had a mobile emitter that allowed him to go other places. Just saying. In the final episode of Voyager, the Doctor (now called Joe) is casually wandering around Earth and has also got married to a non-hologram.
- Also, apparently the gizmo that Picard escapes via appeared in Voyager as well but I haven’t seen that episode.