The Borg – space zombies

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for various Star Trek series, including the most recent season of Star Trek: Discovery and the first three episodes of Star Trek: Picard.

As part of a series of articles I wrote leading up to the release of Star Trek: Picard, I covered the Borg from an in-universe perspective, as well as looking at some possible options for their role in the new series. You can read that article by clicking or tapping here. While Star Trek: Picard remains a mysterious show even now that we’re three episodes in, the Borg’s role has been somewhat on the sidelines so far, as we’ve really only seen a few former Borg and the disabled Borg cube used as a setting.

For a while I’ve been wanting to look at the Borg from a storytelling perspective, because I think they’re one of Star Trek’s most interesting villains. Not only that, but they have an analogue outside of the franchise which we can compare them to – zombies. Both the Borg and zombies fill a similar role in the stories they appear in, and both can fall victim to the same storytelling pitfalls.

Let’s start with the most obvious comparison – and why both the Borg and zombies are a frightening adversary for any heroes to be pitted against. With the exception of the Borg’s first appearance in The Next Generation’s second season episode Q Who, the Borg’s sole purpose has been assimilation. By forcibly injecting their nano-technology into both machines and living organisms, practically anything they touch can become part of the Borg Collective in a matter of moments. Zombies are a low-tech, biological version – in almost every zombie story, the zombie infection spreads through biting. Thus both Borg and zombies don’t just kill, they turn everyone the heroes lose into another enemy to fight. And the infection or invasion can never be truly over until every last individual is defeated, because if even one Borg drone or one zombie remains, there’s the possibility for them to attack others and start all over again.

The Borg take on a similar role in some respects to zombies – such as those in The Walking Dead.

This one factor – that every friend lost doesn’t just reduce the numbers on the heroes’ side, but increases the number of enemies to fight – is huge. It means that a story featuring a Borg or zombie attack is completely different in tone and scope from any other war or invasion or battle that we might see in science fiction. And it’s a frightening prospect, seeing allies quite literally turned into enemies before the very eyes of the heroes. In fact, it’s arguable that the Borg’s appearances are as close as Star Trek as come to crossing over into the horror genre. The underlying premise, certainly, would be at home there. And if ViacomCBS ever chose to go down that route, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a Borg-themed horror film or series.

One of the great things about entertainment and storytelling is that it’s subjective. The audience can interpret themes and points in a story in different ways, and anyone who’s ever taken a literature class can attest that! When I was in school and in the few literature classes I took at university, my teachers were always talking about analogies and themes and metaphors. And when it comes to the Borg, there are different interpretations as to a real-world analogue.

One of the most obvious is communism. Despite what’s often been said, Star Trek doesn’t really depict a “communist utopia”. The economy of the 23rd and 24th Centuries has always been deliberately ambiguous, and really I think it’s fairer to describe it as a post-scarcity economy, thanks in large part to technologies like food replicators and interstellar travel. Humans in Star Trek can still, for example, own and inherit property – like we see Joseph Sisko and the Picard family do – something which indicates that we’re not looking at communism. But that’s rather beside the point. The Borg, to get back on topic, with their lack of individuality and aggressively expansionist mindset, are arguably a metaphor for Western fears of communist states during the latter part of the Cold War. The history of Star Trek is littered with Cold War metaphors, and at the time the Borg were created and debuted on screen in 1989, the Berlin Wall hadn’t yet fallen and the Soviet Union was still the world’s “other” superpower.

Since the concept of the “walking dead” came to mainstream attention in the 1960s, critics have said the same thing about zombies, too – that they’re a metaphor for America’s communist adversaries. The comparison plays on a crude stereotype – that all people in a communist state are brainwashed and forced to do the state’s bidding. However, my intention isn’t to critique the concept, merely to acknowledge its existence. In a very real sense, part of what makes zombies and the Borg so frightening is the idea of losing oneself, and suffering “a fate worse than death”. For many in the Cold War era, ideas like communist infiltrators and brainwashed citizens returning from overseas – including former prisoners of war – were genuine concerns, if somewhat overstated and exaggerated.

Picard’s transformation into Locutus of Borg was shocking.

It’s those underlying real-world fears that give power to the Borg when they appear. They wouldn’t be so scary if it weren’t for a shared fear we have of losing our identity – stoked by fears from the Cold War era, perhaps, but just as relevant today in the age of radicalisation via social media. How many young men – and it is almost always young men – have been involved in mass shootings or terrorist attacks after being radicalised online? The concept of brainwashing – and our collective fear of it – is still very much alive in society today. The emphasis has shifted from the state to individuals, perhaps, but the basic fear remains the same. And it continues to make villains like the Borg intimidating.

When it comes to turning that into an exciting, heart-stopping story, though, it’s all too easy to fall flat. What we’ve seen in Star Trek, especially in Star Trek: Voyager, is the overuse of the Borg. The same thing has happened to the zombies in The Walking Dead, and can happen to other villains in other series too – the Daleks from Doctor Who come to mind as another example of overuse. The fundamental problem with having the heroes outsmart and defeat the same villain too many times is that they simply lose their fear factor – no matter how powerful it may once have been and what underlying social factors are propping it up.

Every victory over the same opponent adds to a feeling that victory for the heroes is inevitable. And in many cases, we know that. Even in a series like Game of Thrones, which could be utterly unpredictable, nobody was genuinely expecting that the Night King would be victorious – we all knew that somehow, some of the heroes would survive and find a way to win. That didn’t make the story any less exciting, and nor is Star Trek: First Contact any less exciting for first-time viewers who expect Picard and his crew to find a way to defeat the Borg. The tension and drama comes on a moment-to-moment basis, and also, as in many stories, part of the enjoyment comes from the journey even if the overall destination – victory, in this case – is known.

But when the same scenario plays out over and over again – a scrappy Starfleet crew faces off against impossible odds and beats the Borg, for example – it gets less and less tense and less and less dramatic with each new revision. When we see the Borg lose to Janeway for the fourth or fifth time having already seen them bested twice by Picard, they become stale, and the stories in which they appear become uninteresting.

The addition of the Borg Queen is symptomatic of this. After several prior Borg stories, and with their first big-screen appearance looming, there must have been some discussion about how to make the Borg intimidating again. It wasn’t enough to have this faceless mass any more, the Borg needed something new in order to fit the bill as big-screen villains. Part of that stems from the need to keep the story cinematic; to have those moments where Picard is traumatised by his memories of the Borg Queen, to have Data tempted and taunted by her in a way a nameless drone couldn’t, and to be able to have dialogue between heroes and villains which is often a tense yet satisfying part of storytelling in and of itself. But a significant part of the Borg Queen’s role in First Contact and subsequently has been to rejuvenate the Borg as a faction from a storytelling perspective.

The Borg Queen in First Contact.

Telling unique and different Borg stories has become as much of a problem for Star Trek as making the zombies scary again is for The Walking Dead. Unlike that series – which I’d absolutely argue had a natural lifespan (forgive the pun) of about four seasons and should have ended at that point – Star Trek has a much richer galaxy to explore and plenty of other villains to play with. The Borg are not essential to Star Trek in the way that zombies are to zombie stories – and that’s definitely been a saving grace.

With the exception of the Star Trek: Enterprise episode Regeneration in 2003, there hadn’t been any Borg stories in Star Trek since Voyager’s finale in 2001 – and none which were set further forward in the Star Trek timeline. After an absence of close to two decades, then, there’s an argument to be made that enough time has passed for a renewed look at the Borg. For new fans and younger fans who didn’t see every single appearance in order, and for more casual viewers who may not have seen any Star Trek episode or film since the turn of the millennium, that’s probably a fair point. But even then, because the Borg are essentially “space zombies”, in an era where zombie stories have become a television and cinematic genre in their own right with dozens of examples, perhaps we’re still burnt out.

Here’s where the Borg’s trump card comes into play – they aren’t just a metaphor for our fears of communism or brainwashing. Because of their technological nature, they can absolutely be an analogy for our overreliance on technology and for our fears of the evolution of technology in the future. This is what Star Trek: Discovery’s second season did, very successfully in my opinion, with the Control AI. Now I’m absolutely convinced that Control was meant to tie in somehow to the Borg and their origins when the story was originally written. Why that angle was scrapped (if indeed it has been wholly scrapped) is unclear, but it could be related to the Borg being an integral part of the story of Star Trek: Picard. That’s my current theory on that, at any rate.

The whole point of the Control storyline in Discovery was that artificial intelligence might not be a good thing to pursue. When an AI surpasses humanity in its abilities, it becomes inherently unpredictable. It can overwrite its own programming and could turn on us. This isn’t just a science fiction story trope – scientists like Stephen Hawking have expressed genuine concern that an AI could ultimately be harmful. Technological progress has advanced so rapidly from even when The Next Generation was first on the air and computers were basically glorified calculators and typewriters to the modern day where everyone has an internet-enabled super-smart camera-and-microphone connected-to-everything always-on computer-phone about their person 24/7. Those changes have, thus far at least, been a net positive for humanity. In Africa, for example, the rise of mobile phones has meant many of the world’s poorest citizens have access to the internet and information, as well as the ability to send and receive money securely without relying on banking. But with change comes fear, or at least a sense of uncertainty. Discovery played on those fears and concerns about the pace of technological change quite expertly.

The nanobots Control used to “assimilate” Capt. Leland are reminiscent of Borg technology, and play on the same fears of out-of-control AI.

The decision to have Control be an invention of Section 31 was another masterstroke. Since Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (and many others, of course) have demonstrated to the world that major governmental organisations run hidden technological surveillance on, well, everyone, mistrust of technology and technological communication has only grown. The idea that we’re all being watched all the time by “big brother” in the various three-letter agencies, and their international equivalents, has caused a lot of people to be incredibly uneasy about technology in general. Once again, Discovery tapped into this to great effect.

To get back to the Borg, regardless of whether or not Control was meant to be related to them in some way, the same principle is at work. The relentless march of technology could see us literally plugging ourselves into some giant network of machines, or augmenting our bodies with technological upgrades. In a sense, we already do. Our phones and computers are arguably an extension of ourselves, we’re almost constantly networked to billions of others via the internet, with all of their experiences and information only a few keystrokes away, and as medical science advances we’re able to replace defective body parts – like hips, for example – with synthetic replacements. The Borg are simply a few steps further along from we currently are in their embrace of technology.

For many people, the unstoppable march of technology is something they find intimidating. It means that the future is always changing – and people in general have an inbuilt mistrust or fear of change. Thus the Borg stand out in stories that feature them as a kind of nightmarish vision of a future gone wrong.

By playing on these two deep-rooted, almost instinctive fears, the Borg are truly a frightening opponent for the heroes in Star Trek stories to face.

Keeping that fear alive is a task for the new creators of Star Trek. In Discovery, Control hit the reset button by showing us at least a potential precursor to the Borg we’ve seen before. Enterprise threw 24th Century Borg against a 22nd Century crew – not that it was always apparent, but that was part of the goal of that episode. And finally, in Picard we have the Borg absent from their own setting – a derelict cube being slowly picked apart and studied. There’s an inherent creepiness to the aesthetic of the cube – a kind of cold, inhuman feel, amplified by the lack of windows and endless maze of identical rooms and corridors. If the showrunners wanted to play up that aspect they absolutely could, and it will be interesting to see where Picard takes this angle.

What has to be avoided, however, is the trap that ensnared Voyager’s Borg episodes. Repetition leads to a loss of that fear factor, and without it the Borg become stale and boring – it would be better to see the faction utterly defeated in a climactic battle than to have them crop up again and again in random episodes over several seasons. The serialised nature of current Star Trek storytelling, which has replaced the episodic, “monster-of-the-week” format, means that we’re less likely to see individual Borg-centric episodes any more. And that’s probably a good thing overall – despite my personal preference for episodic storytelling in Star Trek.

The episode Q Who introduced the Borg for the first time.

At the end of the day, the question for the Star Trek franchise and its new creative team is what to do with the Borg in future. We saw what I’m certain was an abortive attempt to show some kind of origin story in Discovery’s second season, and now in Picard we have the creepy abandoned cube as a setting, as well as the return of Seven of Nine and Hugh as liberated ex-Borg. Both of these approaches are different, and that’s good. As great as The Best of Both Worlds and First Contact were, those stories were lightning in a bottle – not something that can be recaptured or repeated, at least not to the same effect. And the way stories approach and treat the Borg will have to change if they’re to be as intimidating as we want them to be. That doesn’t mean the Borg have to change in their core outlook or philosophy; doing so would mean they’re no longer the villain we remember, after all. But it does mean they have to be written in a different way and that their inclusion in future Star Trek stories has to be very carefully considered.

In a sense, the Borg’s greatest and most frightening aspect – their relentlessness and faceless nature – is also part of their undoing when considering their inclusion from a storytelling point of view. Because of their philosophy and the way they approach their assimilation targets, the Borg are very much a one-trick pony. They show up, either en masse or on a single vessel, overwhelm their opponents, forcibly assimilate them, and move on. They have one unwavering goal, and essentially only one method of achieving it. There are no Borg spies, no Borg generals to be outwitted, no Borg personalities to provide personal drama and conflict in a story. With the exception of the Borg Queen – who isn’t even really an exception as she is simply the face of the Borg, not a leader – the Borg operate as one entity with one goal and one approach.

The Voyager two-part episode Scorpion, which introduced Seven of Nine, took one of the most interesting looks at how the Borg’s single-mindedness can be their undoing. By presenting them with an opponent in Species 8472 who could not be assimilated, the Borg were on the back foot as the only method they had of information-gathering and conquest – they use assimilation for both purposes – did not work. This was a unique take on the Borg in Star Trek, but it had the unintended consequence of making them less intimidating as a result. As previously mentioned, any time we see a supposedly imposing villain failing in their objective, beaten and in retreat, it lessens the fear factor. As the audience, we know that they can be beaten – changing how we perceive stories. It stops being a question of “will the heroes prevail?” and instead becomes “when and/or how will they prevail?”

We need only look to Doctor Who for a case in point. Since its 2005 reboot, Doctor Who has seen its main villains, the Daleks, so thoroughly overused that they long ago became completely dull and unexciting. And two other villains, the Cybermen and Weeping Angels, have suffered from overuse too. As a result, since the latter half of Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor, the show has limped along feeling played out. New villains and storylines have fallen flat – a consequence of mediocre writing – and the show is absolutely ready to go back on hiatus as there are no good ideas. It’s a lesson for Star Trek to learn, especially as production ramps up and there are multiple shows (and at least one film) all in various stages of development. Sometimes less is more. And also, when a storyline has run its course, and when a villain has done all they can reasonably do, unless there’s a new way to approach that story it’s time to put an end to it and move on.

The Borg haven’t yet reached that point. There is still space in Star Trek for new and exciting Borg stories, but they will have to be properly planned, not simply thrown in at the last minute. Like Doctor Who’s Daleks, the Borg are an iconic villain, emblematic of the franchise that spawned them. But they aren’t an infallible storytelling device that guarantees a successful film, season, or episode. And mishandled or overused, all the threat, tension, and drama they can bring will melt away leaving a bland, uninspiring film or episode behind.

The Artifact represents a new direction for Borg-related stories in Star Trek.

Between the zombies in The Walking Dead and the Daleks in Doctor Who, we have two great examples of how to mishandle and overuse villains like the Borg. Star Trek is fortunate to have such a rich history of alien races to draw on, and can hopefully avoid those pitfalls as we move into what will hopefully be the franchise’s second “golden age”.

The Borg are a frightening and compelling faction in the Star Trek universe, and there is still scope to learn more about them and see them return – in both big and small ways – in future episodes and films. And I’m looking forward to that, as well as to seeing what Picard has in store for this absolutely iconic faction. As I’ve said many times already, it’s a fantastic time to be a Star Trek fan right now. There’s just so much going on, and so much more to come. Discovery has had hits and misses, but in my opinion at least, Picard has been outstanding so far, and I’m interested to see what will come next. Surely, after the success the franchise has experienced over the last few weeks, this won’t be our last look at the 24th and early 25th Centuries – and unless something major happens to the Borg by the end of Picard’s first season, I’m sure that sooner or later we can expect to see them back once again.

The Star Trek franchise, including all films, episodes, and series mentioned above, is the copyright of ViacomCBS and Paramount Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.