Monday, 23 June 2014

Bringing Back The Borg

"We are the Borg, lower your shields and surrender your ships, we will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own, your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."

The Borg: perhaps the scariest enemy every created in Star Trek, and certainly the breakout hit of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  After the first attempt to create a recurring foe for the second Star Trek series, the Ferengi, ended up creating a comedic race rather than the desired threatening species the writers managed to pull a real rabbit out of their hat.

However, I was very nervous about using the Borg in my Star Trek game and put off their debut until our fourth block of gaming.  I was quick enough to use the Klingons, Romulans, Q, Cardassians and Bajorans - as well as more obscure races like the Husnock and Iconians - but the Borg were something I didn't want to run into. 

Because the Borg... have problems.

The Borg appear in only 6 episodes of Next Gen, but make a huge splash.  The Enterprise doesn't beat them on their debut: they escape.  The two parter "The Best of Both Worlds" is often mentioned as one of Next Gen's finest moment and the fate of Captain Picard in that episode must have kept fans howling with rage when the season ended on a heck of a cliffhanger.  When the TV series finally ended, they brought the Borg back for the movie First Contact which is definitely the best Next Gen movie and often in the running for the best Trek movie full stop.  Especially coupled with a film budget, First Contact gives us some fantastic special effects including a starship battle scene the likes of which Trek had never done before.

You ain't seeing this on a TV budget.

But the Borg mutated over their many appearances and in doing so lost a lot of their fear factor.  Being used so rarely in Next Gen - less than once a season, and with half their episodes being two-part stories- - helped keep them scary.  Fighting them rarely, with their goals somewhat obtuse and the method of defeating them difficult to impossible, meant their appearance always felt like a serious threat.  They appeared numerous times in the latter half of Voyager, however, where they suffered seriously from Badass Decay.  Once 39 ships couldn't stop them and the Enterprise only victored by having a secret backdoor - suddenly it seemed a wee scout ship was punking cubes left and right.  If I was going to use them again, I would need to go to some effort to make them a threat again.

It's really not her fault, bless: Voyager suffers not from a bad lead actress IMHO but bad writers.

Their goals also changed through their many appearances.  First Contact played up the zombie horror angle to the Borg - they assimilate targets, turning your friends and crew members into new Borg drones.  However, this was explicitly not part of their original deal: when introduced in Q Who, the Borg are only interested in technology and the biological beings flying enemy starships are just a distraction.  (The Borg seem to grow their replacements in vats and convert them from an early age - we see a baby Borg in this episode.)  The transformation of Picard to Locutus was mentioned in dialogue as an oddity when it first occurred; yet by their next appearance, I, Borg, they talk about it as thought it's their modus operandi.  This body horror aspect is very scary, but are the Borg maybe scarier if they simply don't care about people and kill 18 people while cutting a piece out of a starship not by malice but by sheer indifference?

This is scary, but it is too evil for an enemy supposedly bereft of emotions?

Finally there's the collective angle.  The Borg are a single intelligence distributed amongst their many drones; they speak with one voice, think with one mind.  Locutus is introduced (and named) to act as an intermediary but the rest of the Borg remain personality-less..... but then First Contact gives us the faintly kinky Borg Queen, some sort of representative of the collective intelligence across all Borg Cubes whose exact nature is let purposefully vague.  On the one hand this gives the Borg a mouth piece for villain rants and Star Trek's trademark philosophical arguments with enemies.... but it also means the normally faceless Borg gain a face and with it lose some of their mystique.  Like the Daleks before them, giving the Borg a master figure may work in the original appearance but rather hijacks their future endeavors.

Alice Krige rocks it in the debut, but then, she is an Shakespearean actress darling.
So, what do I do with the Borg? At the start of the season, I decided to feature them not in their Cube-flying planet-eating resistance-futiling horror but as friendly ex-collective refugees - the rogue Borg of Descent making a reappearance.  These Borg sought not to assimilate people or technology but ideas and culture.

The Star Trek CCG was the first ever collective card game I ever played - I was a big fan for a few years.
They kept their Borg attitude - stilted speech patterns, minimal emotions and somewhat amoral towards biological life - but they sought to avoid the Federation, having no urge to assimilate them but instead possessing a fear that they would be annihilated for the collective's past crimes.  (Dialogue in story summed it up with dialogue to the effect of: "We knew we were afraid of the Borg for bringing us to the edge of extinction: it never occurred to us the Borg were afraid of us for the same reason")  The classic Star Trek morality got to rear its head as the crew decided whether to follow Starfleet's instructions and hold these Borg captive for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant, or if letting them escape was the morally right course of action.

However, that wasn't going to be enough for me - now I'd started to tryand rehabilitate the Borg, the urge to do a full-on Borg story was too great.  I had a hole for a series finale - unlike previous years no-one had chosen to do their spotlight episode at the end, so it needed a strong plot.  Ailsa's character has a recurring love interest she wanted to get rid off, so we put her second-to-last to set up a possible break-up or death around the events of the finale.  Raj was considering his character retiring to civilian life - a grim final adventure would make that easier to explain in character.  And since we'd had very few action scenes across the whole series, the chance to do a whole splodey episode was too good to pass up.

I didn't make it a surprise to the group - I told them at the end of Week 7, then spent much of Week 8 setting it up. Wreckage they could not immediately identify as a Borg Cube; strange nanite gas that was giving crew-members exposed to it some sort of metallic tumour; two members of crew immune were the ones who who have cybernetic implants.... and then, in the grand finale, the nanites manage to work their way into the ship's computer and it's holographic avatar.

HA HA HA HA IT DOESN'T SPECIFY NON-HOLOGRAPHIC!  (Though admittedly most Holographic cards were non-Unique)

So we're set up for a "Die Hard On A Spaceship" effort.  If the Borg win, they get control of a warp-capable starship to spread their collective back across the Alpha Quadrant.  If the starship crew can't take back the ship, they may have to self-destruct for the good of the Federation.  No named character is safe as I have free reign to bump off as many people as I want to keep the Borg scary.... and yet, they should possibly avoid actually punching or shooting everyone, causing most of their carnage with a certain methodical planning.  Engineering section filled with guards?  Hack computer; seal Engineering; fill atmosphere in Engineer with deadly gases; walk in while the guards lie choking to death.  The stakes need to be high.

"Computer, verify Captain Satlek, Six Three Alpha Hotel.  Initiate auto destruct sequence."  "Computer, verify Commander Saph Betal, Zero Four Juliet Hotel.  Initiate auto destruct sequence."  "Computer, verify Lieutenant William Anderson, Six Six Golf Romeo.  Initiate auto destruct sequence." "Computer, this is Captain Satlek.  Destruct code zero zero zero mark zero."
Which is not to say my Borg won't have a bit of attitude.  My final quote of episode 8 by the Borgified computer gives you a hint where it's going to go: "We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. We will absorb your technological distinctiveness into our own. Resistance is futile... but enjoyable."

Let's hope I'm more a Best of Both Worlds and not a Voyager Borg episode, eh?

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