Saturday, March 12, 2011

Watching the Borg part 1

Watching the Borg Part One

For those of us who watched Star Trek The Next Generation, the episodes containing the alien threat called the “Borg” were some of the best science fiction we’d ever seen on television. And for those of us who study cyborgs and narratives that discuss human-machine hybridity, the Borg shows, especially the two part episode "The Best of Both Worlds," are a treasure trove not only of viral quotations (“Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”) but of images and conflicts that bear analysis and are a source of both enjoyment and terror.

The first part of Best of Both Worlds aired during the week of June 18, 1990, and was an immediate success. And then…the waiting commenced. Three full months. I remember the couple weeks leading up to the concluding episode, Best of Both Worlds Part 2, as taking forever; the show was that gripping.

Here I could provide a detailed plot summary, but for now I just want to remind readers of the salient points of Part 1. The Borg are a race of cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs, who sport multiple mechanical prosthetics that link them to each other. In the world of restoration vs. augmentation, the Borg are augmented with a vengeance. If they were ever simply human, that time has passed; none are without the monstrous-looking facial implants, wires and cables running from head to neck and back, inhuman lights and readouts announcing the cybernetic elements of the otherwise organic humanoids.

The Enterprise answers a distress call and discovers an entire colony which turns out to have been destroyed, or “assimilated,” by the Borg. When the Borg cube (their “ship” is a huge cube, perhaps the least aerodynamic “ship” in the history of representation) is discovered in Federation space, the Enterprise moves to intercept it; the Borg demand that Captain Picard surrender, and move to cut the Enterprise apart. The Enterprise escapes briefly, but soon is found and boarded. Picard is kidnapped, and the Borg move off to attack Earth.


I want to name a set of points I want to make regarding the Borg, and perhaps explain the viral nature of their fictional fame.

First, there were certainly cyborg films before this. The first Terminator, RoboCop, were both made in the 80s, and Terminator 2 was being filmed in 1990 and was released the next year. These films imagined cyborgs as one-offs, more or less; they were monsters of augmentation, but they were a single cyborg, wreaking havoc. In some ways they were just the new monsters on the block; Terminator for example is a pretty straight up horror film, just happening to have an interesting side premise (nuclear war caused by military AIs run amok; future war fought against cyborgs and drones). But the Borg combined the specificity of the cyborg iconography from the 80s with the image of many many cyborgs linked by communication networks seemingly implanted in their bodies and dominating their actions. This horrific linking is part of what makes them more terrifying; they borrow insectoid horror from films like Alien (and from sci fi novels like Ender’s Game, where Earth must fight hordes of insect-like aliens with advanced weaponry).

Second, where the Terminator is a killing machine, the Borg are…what? They have no personal grudge or survival danger that appears to motivate them. But their impact is total; the first evidence we see of them is a huge crater where an entire colony, an entire city of 900, used to be. Everything is gone; it is the Romans destroying Carthage and salting the ground. The away team asks if the coordinates are accurate; when told they are “in the center of the city,” they gaze stunned at the prospect: an immense grand canyon like cavity. It is a moment both of utter speechlessness (nothing is said for the rest of the scene) and of an awful sublimity (the perspective is vast, dwarfing the mere humans with their tiny devices blinking). This is nothing a single body could do, even one augmented as Terminator. This is a different scale of horror. And this is not simply in terms of destruction; it also refers to power and speed of their technology; the first encounter with the Borg (in Season 1) took place 7000 light years away from Federation territory.

What can do this kind of damage? Several things point to the uncanny elements that link the Borg to what is about to descend on the 1990s. First when we see the Borg ship, it looks a lot like…well, like a corporate headquarters: huge, square, with the thousands of windows that a huge modern office building would have. Second, its crew are massively linked by telecommunications devices, so much so that they seem to actually be devices. Third, the logic of the Borg seems incomprehensible to humans. The Borg come to a civilization, and simply announce that they will “assimilate” the culture, which means somehow taking it “into” its body, and then destroying what is left. Resistance is indeed futile; the Borg bring an overwhelming amount of power and force and terror to their victims, raining shock and awe on them, not least of which is the seeming lack of reason for doing so.

Now consider the 1990s. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the virtual end of the Cold War radically alters the familiar landscape of geopolitical conflict. The Reagan cold war 80s is morphing into the neoliberalism of the 90s, with the penetration of capital markets through the world, especially in China. The 90s saw the ebb of Cold War and the resulting power vacuum filled by the “winning” side’s overwhelming use of linguistic force to push ideas such as free markets, the efficiency of Western models of commerce, consumption and consumer choice, individualism, and so on. This did not mean, of course, the end of war and violence; the 1990’s saw the eruption of the Congo Wars, the first Gulf War, the war in Chechnia, and the variously named wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan Genocide, the Taliban gaining control of Afghanistan, and the Somali Civil War.

In addition, the 90s saw the rise of the Internet, and the beginning of the massively wired world we now live in. For many years the Internet was relatively private network of military and academic researchers and private companies and government. In a sense it might as well have been 7000 light years away from most people in the world. The 90s saw the emergence of the World Wide Web project of Tim Berners-Lee, with its nascent browser and wide reach. By 1996, this was no longer the case; the Internet was a common word, previously hidden or private networks were assimilated into the “inter-net,” and during the last half of the 90s “traffic on the public Internet grew by 100 percent per year, while the mean annual growth in the number of Internet users was thought to be between 20% and 50%. (see Coffman, K. G; Odlyzko, A. M. (1998-10-02). The size and growth rate of the Internet. AT&T Labs). The Borg-like growth of the Net is based not on a centralized and hierarchical plan, but on the relatively decentralized nature of the net (born, at least partly, of its original need to survive a nuclear attack).

My point is that the Borg appear from nowhere looking like a massive corporation bent on assimilating all cultural difference, using wired and wireless communication technologies that allow them instantaneous communication with each other in accomplishing the “prime directive” of overcoming resistance and literally in-corporating cultures, economies, peoples, and spaces.

The second point is that the episode Best of Both Worlds has what is known as a B story line: the conflict between Riker, the first mate of the Enterprise, and a younger female upstart, Lt, Shelby, a Borg weapons expert who both covets Riker’s job and clearly expects him to accept a captaincy (he’s been offered one but hasn’t taken it, begin conflicted about leaving the Enterprise “team”). When I first began “reading” the Borg episode, I saw the main conflicts as alien assimilationist Borg vs. autonomous Federated humans and allies, and secondly, a story of gender (Riker threatened by Shelby; Shelby acting “masculine” within a male dominated world, out-manning and un-manning men around her).

However, I watched the show yet again the other night (on a Polish site with Polish subtitles and strange ads for Internet involving a cartoon cat ignoring a mouse opening the fridge behind her and throwing masses of food out of it; the cat is licking its lips at the cheap internet-friendly cell phone advertised Pozniej 908 zt!). And I found that, there is certainly an issue of “other” in terms of gender; Shelby comes at Riker like the Borg come at humans, with no guilt or shame about wanting his job and dismissing his reluctance to move up the ladder. But it is this latter ladder element I now see; it isn’t simply gender, but the way Riker and Shelby are part of a corporate-like structure (well it IS the Enterprise after all) in which they are vying for positions. Admiral Hansen (who is “championing” Shelby as the up and coming talent) describes Shelby’s way of “cutting through” the work of others, “getting us on track,” and deserving of “a wide latitude.”

So while the Borg’s wide swath of destruction is readable as the uncanny power of the new wired, netted, and Evil Empire free corporation, the plot arc of the B story is the same kind of corporate dynamic within the Enterprise, resulting at first in inefficient conflict and an anti-meritocracy (authoritarian Riker is enraged at Shelby’s perceived disrespect and is constantly hemming her in, clearly betraying the supposed meritocracy of the Enterprise and hurting the joint cause of finding some answer to the Borg). The resolution of their conflict, based both on gender and on the corporate competition of the 80s and the show’s ideological answer to the Borg within.

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