Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Q Who”

“Q Who”
Written by Maurice Hurley
Directed by Rob Bowman

Season 2, Episode 16
Original air date: May 8, 1989
Star date: 42761.3

Mission summary

The Enterprise has a new arrival: manic pixie dream girl Ensign Sonya Gomez, who tries to charm us by being polite to replicators, babbling on incoherently, and spilling hot chocolate (so much cuter than coffee) on an unsuspecting Captain Picard. The captain heads to Officers’ Quarters (really? They have their own district away from the riff-raff?) but the turbolift dumps him instead onto a familiar-looking shuttlecraft out in the deepness of space… with Q.

Guinan has a hunch that something’s wrong, but no one believes her until Riker realizes the captain and shuttlecraft six are both missing. Picard, meanwhile, demands to be returned to his ship and upbraids Q for interfering when he promised he wouldn’t. Q then snaps them both back to the Enterprise and is surprised to find Guinan, an old and not-so-amiable acquaintance. It seems Q has alienated everyone, including the Q Continuum, and he has no place to go now. He offers to join the Enterprise‘s rag-tag crew! Picard acknowledges that it’s a “provocative” offer, but ultimately says he can’t possibly trust him.

Q: Oh. Well, you may not trust me, but you do need me. You’re not prepared for what awaits you.
PICARD: How can we be prepared for that which we do not know? But I do know that we are ready to encounter it.
Q: Really?
PICARD: Yes. Absolutely. That’s why we’re out here.
Q: Oh, the arrogance. They don’t have a clue as to what’s out here. […] You judge yourselves against the pitiful adversaries you have encountered so far. The Romulans, the Klingons. They are nothing compared to what’s waiting. Picard, you are about to move into areas of the galaxy containing wonders more incredible than you can possibly imagine, and terrors to freeze your soul. I offer myself as guide only to be rejected out of hand.
RIKER: We’ll just have to do the best we can without you.
Q: What justifies that smugness?
PICARD: Not smugness, not arrogance. But we are resolute, we are determined, and your help is not required.
Q: We’ll just have to see how ready you are.

Q snaps his fingers again and the Enterprise is flung 7,000 lights years away. It will take nearly three years to get to the nearest starbase. But hey, isn’t Guinan from around here?

RIKER: What can you tell us?
GUINAN: Only that if I were you, I’d start back now.

Oh. Well, she’s just a mysterious, unfathomably old alien. What does she know?

They find a class M planet in the sector, which looks like all the machine parts have been ripped away, just as with the outposts mentioned in “The Neutral Zone.” Because its ears are burning, a giant cube flies through space to meet the Enterprise. Guinan warns them that this sector is home to the Borg, a relentless, cybernetic intelligence that wiped out her entire species. Cool! Picard goes in for a closer look.

Once the Cube is in range, a Borg beams over to Engineering and starts zapping the terminals, extracting information. Picard tries to reason with it but it ignores him. Worf is able to neutralize it, but a new one just pops up in its place, some kind of mechanical hydra. Worf gets this one, too, but the Borg already got what they wanted from the computer. They lock a tractor beam onto the Enterprise and cut out a little slice of the ship’s hull, taking 18 crewmembers with them. The Borg have a message: resistance is futile.

That’s not so great, actually, so Picard calls a meeting.

Q: The Borg is the ultimate user. They’re unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They’re not interested in political conquest, wealth or power as you know it. They’re simply interested in your ship, its technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume.

So what do they do? They fire at the ship until the tractor beam is released, but the Cube is repairing itself and will be functional again in no time. Why waste the opportunity for research? Riker, Worf, and Data beam over to investigate this new, dangerous species, and find out that… they’re a relentless cybernetic intelligence. News, huh? It seems the cube is very generic, but each borg has his own little cubby hole that they can plug into.

Picard decides it’s time to get out of there, and once his full complement is back on board (well, aside from the unlucky eighteen) he tells Wesley to gun the engine full-throttle. The Cube pursues, and even at maximum warp the Enterprise isn’t going to get out of this one.

WORF: The Borg are still gaining.
Q: They will follow this ship until you exhaust your fuel. They will wear down your defenses. Then you will be theirs. Admit it, Picard. You’re out of your league. You should have stayed where you belonged. […] You can’t outrun them. You can’t destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains. They regenerate and keep coming. Eventually you will weaken, your reserves will be gone. They are relentless. […] Where’s your stubbornness now, Picard, your arrogance? Do you still profess to be prepared for what awaits you?

Jeeeeez, what an obnoxious winner. But he’s not done until he has Picard begging.

PICARD: If we all die, here, now, you will not be able to gloat. You wanted to frighten us. We’re frightened. You wanted to show us that we were inadequate. For the moment, I grant that. You wanted me to say I need you. I need you!

Q obliges and snaps them back to where they were. Phew.

Mulling over what’s happened, Guinan and Picard discuss what this means for humanity and the Federation. Now the Borg know humanity exists, and they’ll be coming to finish what they started…

PICARD: Maybe Q did the right thing for the wrong reason.
GUINAN: How so?
PICARD: Well, perhaps what we most needed was a kick in our complacency, to prepare us for what lies ahead.


Maybe it’s just because it’s sandwiched between “Pen Pals” and “Samaritan Snare” that my memory was so rosy, but even after two seasons of waiting this didn’t quite meet my expectations.

Q is back, and he’s as malevolent as ever. This is worth celebrating! In his first two appearances he seems petulant and silly (the costumes don’t help), probably intended as a throwback reference to Trelane & Co., but I think here he really comes into his own as a dangerous being. They retconned this encounter in First Contact to make meeting the Borg early a way to “save” the Federation by helping them prepare, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Q’s setting up the pawns to fight a battle that would not have otherwise been fought, because he wants Picard to lead the charge. It’s perverse and disturbing and selfish and I love it. You know he wouldn’t do it if a betting man didn’t have his money on the Borg, so you also know the odds are stacked against our heroes. Picard’s a diplomat, so what happens when you pit him against a power that cannot be reasoned with? This is drama, the stuff that’s supposed to be on TV. About damn time.

But let’s face it, we’re all here for the Borg. By next season they’ll have come a long way from their roots (power supplies?). The Cube looks really silly when it first appears. I kind of blinked and thought “that’s it?” but maybe I’m spoiled by the mid-90s First Contact effects. All the Borg look the same, too. They aren’t recognizably different species and there’s absolutely no mention of assimilation, so presumably that evolved later. Without the troubling elements of loss of identity and self, the first appearance of the Borg is kind of… underwhelming. They don’t seem any different from the doomsday machine, and you get the distinct impression all this could be sorted out by planting some malware. There’s no bite, not like a proper villain. They’re obviously powerful but they aren’t scary just yet. This thread will get somewhere worth getting to (eventually) so I’m still left rubbing my hands in excitement.

So given those promises, I’d peg this as a Warp 3. But “Q Who?” has something much more powerful going on than just a new villain and some cheesy effects: it represents the complete take-down of the philosophy of the first two seasons. We’ve spent two years listening to how the Federation is perfect and everyone is so special and they go on these amazing adventures and know what’s best… and then Q comes up and tells them it’s all bullshit and there is plenty out there in the universe that will kill them, and if they’re going to cry about it they should pack their bags and go home. It’s amazing. All of us at home seething at these smug bastards occupying our Enterprise, and someone tells it like it is. These people are arrogant! They don’t know what’s out there! Space is terrifying and wonderful and deadly! It finally steps into its own as a descendant of the original series, and you get the feeling they’re about to embark on an adventure–one worth having–for the first time.

Just try to keep that in mind when you watch “Up the Long Ladder.”

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: Borg babies! I guess is supposed to be creepy but between the bad costumes and cheap plastic accoutrement it just looks like trick-or-treat at the baby Gap. I mean look at his widdle hat…

Best Line: Q: If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross, but it’s not for the timid.

Trivia/Other Notes: I’m sure we all know this, but it bears repeating: the Borg are named such because they’re cyborgs, and they were initially supposed to be a race of insects, but that’s too expensive.

Ensign Gomez must have pissed off someone other than me, because she’s in the next episode and then never appears again. You don’t think you know her but you do: Lycia Naff was the triple-breasted Martian prostitute in (the original) Total Recall.

If you thought the Guinan/Q standoff looked weird and/or familiar, it’s because it’s the stance she uses in The Color Purple when she finally stands up to her abusive husband. That’s not loaded, or anything…

Q bouncing the ball in the shuttlecraft is, of course, a reference to The Great Escape.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 15 – “Pen Pals.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 17 – “Samaritan Snare.”

About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.