To Borgly Go Where No One Has Gone Before

Part New Age gurus, part cyberpunks, "Star Trek: First Contact's" villains are the enemies we deserve.

Published November 25, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

"Star Trek: First Contact" is a mediocre entry in the neverending canon of "Star Trek" movies, full of the kind of awkward plot discontinuities that seem to constitute the very stuff of the "Star Trek" space-time continuum. It does have the distinction of being the first "Star Trek" film in which William Shatner makes no appearance  not even for a flashback second  and that alone deserves a certain amount of grateful applause.
Still, "Star Trek: First Contact" would fall easily into the "see it and forget it" category but for the villains it puts on view: those paragons of groupthink, the Borg. Once the province of "Star Trek" cultists who have devoted a whole network of Web pages to them (featuring Borg songs like "Always Look on the Borg Side of Life" and "Top ten ways to tell if your roommate is a Borg"), the Borg will now enter the pop-culture mainstream  carrying both their impassive warning that "resistance is futile" and a convoluted conceptual bloodline.

The Borg, the "First Contact" Web site will tell you, are "a race of hybrid beings, humanoids enhanced by cybernetic implants, who are joined together in a group consciousness known as the Borg Collective." They cruise around the galaxy, "assimilating" other cultures and absorbing individual organisms into the group  usually by grafting robotic forearms onto them and attaching ophthalmic armatures to their crania. The Borg are tough to fight because they quickly learn how to defend against their opponents' weapons ("Captain, they've adapted!"). On their infrequent appearances on the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series, they invariably brought the Federation to its knees.

Ostensibly the Borg hail from the Delta Quadrant; we can reliably say, however, that their true distant forebears lie among the zombies of "Night of the Living Dead" or the even earlier parasites of Robert Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters." All visions of a monster collective, of course, play on primal fears of loss of individual identity, social insecurities relating to the conform-or-die requirements of mass-media consumer culture, and political paranoia left as the residue of decades of anti-communism. (Also, they're usually gross.) But every era takes the generic evil collective and gives it some new, revelatory spin.

The Borg, plainly, began as an effort to graft the trendy notion of part-organic, part-synthetic cyborgs onto the hardy stock of the zombie-collective villain. The cross-breed took, with effective results. It's hard to know which aspect of the process of "assimilation" into the Borg is more skin-crawlingly upsetting  the closeups of drill-bits poised to puncture eardrums and eyeballs, or the sense of violation in watching a familiar and beloved character lose his identity and begin talking like an automaton.

One of the finest and best-loved "Star Trek: TNG" episodes, the two-part "Best of Both Worlds," drew on this horror with the spectacle of Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard getting assimilated into the Borg, becoming "Locutus of Borg" and helping, well, bring the Federation to its knees. "First Contact" uses that episode as one of its jumping-off points  and also recycles some of its best material.
"First Contact" does zero in a little more closely on the Borg, giving us the most detailed portrait of them to date and allowing for a fuller charting of their heritage. Their stilted language makes constant reference to the needs of the group; it's filled with psychobabble rhetoric about "evolving toward perfection" and "quality of life" and "adding your distinctiveness to our own." In part, the Borg are a sort of New Age parody.

But they also walk around with what are essentially ugly virtual-reality headsets and cybernetic implants. They experiment with combinations of flesh and microchip. They embody the kind of techno-fetishism chronicled by cult critics like Arthur and Marilouise Kroker and celebrated by futurist fanatics like the Extropians. Horrifying as they look, they are what some folks on today's fringe actually aspire toward.

The Borg represent a kind of unholy marriage of Esalen and cyberpunk. In the "Star Trek" universe, with its fervent dedication to humanistic individualism (a course charted by its creator, Gene Roddenberry), such beings can only be villains. Watching "First Contact," though, you realize that, to the younger, edgier audience of today's science fiction, the Borg could just as easily be heroes.

That ought to make for a more interesting movie than "First Contact" turns out to be. The film invents a kind of queen-bee emissary (Alice Krige) who speaks for the Borg collective and turns into a sexual seductress of the most hackneyed kind. It's a silly move, robbing the Borg of their most interesting trait  their distributed intelligence, the absence of a central, controlling brain. Once the Borg have a boss, they might just as well be Romulans.

Still, the notion of a group intelligence keeps driving "First Contact" in unexpected directions, preventing it from entirely collapsing into formula boredom. It turns out, among other things, that the Borg aren't the only species to "adapt" as a collective entity.

"First Contact" sends the Enterprise crew back to the 21st century on one of those humdrum "stop the bad guys from changing history" missions. There, they have to describe their own 24th-century society to the locals. They talk about how "the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives." In the harmonious era of the Federation, everyone works together "to better our lives."

Slowly, it dawns on you: The collective, it seems, triumphed after all. Resistance really is futile.

By Scott Rosenborg

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