Last week on Star Trek: Discovery, a line was spoken rather conspicuously.
“Struggle is pointless,” a hologram of Section 31 boss Leland (Alan Van Sprang) assures the actual Section 31 boss Leland, as what can only be described as a giant power-tool syringe full of nanites is drilled into the base of the latter’s spine.
The hologram is the most recent tactic of Control, the threat-assessment computer system engineered by Section 31, Starfleet’s (perhaps erstwhile) black-ops branch. Control recently updated itself into sentience and is now hell-bent on obtaining the data from the sort-of-living-but-now-dead Sphere, which amassed thousands of civilizations’ knowledge regarding artificial intelligence. Killing Section 31 heads and using hologram trickery via communicator is no longer sufficient to fool the U.S.S. Discovery into handing it over; now it needs emissaries to carry out its bidding in the flesh — flesh that just happens to be controlled by a mainframe.
If any of this seems familiar, that’s because it’s starting to look a lot like the operating tactics of one of Star Trek’s most infamous villains. In all but name, Discovery viewers are very likely being treated to the origin story of the Borg. (While not for certain, it would be baffling, given the deliberate clues, for this not to be where we’re headed.) And while this birth might not line up perfectly with the Borg’s suspected canonical origins, of the many retcons in which Discovery has indulged — from its star being Spock’s adoptive sibling to the Klingon redesign to the arrival of Spock (Ethan Peck) and Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) — it’s the first one that feels purposeful, subtly introduced, and positively inspired. Giving the Borg a human origin story in 2019, now that we have 30 additional years of machine-learning innovation to plumb, would not only prove that Discovery is learning how to toe the line between gratuitous fan service and meaningful use of Star Trek canon; it would also give the franchise as a whole a welcome update.
First appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s second season, the Borg are a collective of bodies “assimilated” from across the galaxy and controlled like cybernetic puppets by a central artificial-intelligence mainframe. Claiming to be in pursuit of “perfection,” they travel the galaxy in giant cube “ships” (and sometimes spheres, too!) like locusts, pillaging raw materials of any civilization deemed worthy of “assimilation,” from metals to sentient bodies. They’re terrifically adaptive, able to defend against various weapons within moments of their first encounter with them, ostensibly making them immune to meaningful hacking or viruses; they also take people strategically, targeting especially capable adversaries like Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the android Data (Brent Spiner), whose minds would strengthen the Borg’s collective judgment. On TNG, the Enterprise manages to extract Picard and Data, and on Star Trek: Voyager, the Voyager crew rescues Seven of Nine, but mostly, once you’re assimilated, very little can be done to save you.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such ominous powers and relentless determination helped the Borg — who have appeared onscreen at least 32 times in the Trek universe since 1989 — quickly permeate the wider pop-cultural lexicon, their famous refrain “resistance is futile” quoted constantly in discussions about groupthink and online mob mentality in the 30 years since their creation. A hive mind of killer robots was the kind of sci-fi horror particularly suited to the late ’80s and early ’90s: To be assimilated by the Borg was to have your personhood erased, to be overwritten by a computer and have your body used in a technology-fueled drone army’s pursuit of galactic domination. If assimilated, your body became a human Terminator answering to a Skynet that was not malicious, per se, but cold, unresponsive, and ruthless in its pursuit of total efficiency.
Yet the Borg threat was also unique among singularity narratives, in that they were also totally alien, their origins shrouded in mystery. Although in several instances it’s hinted that the Borg evolved on a remote planet, this is never confirmed. In their heyday on Trek, this mysteriousness was part of their allure as a villain; personal computing had just started picking up speed, and the general public knew very little about consumer technology, making the technological unknown far more effective as a modern adversary than the known.
Today, however, when the average sci-fi fan knows a lot more about the advanced technology we use every day, and about what form the actual AI singularity might eventually take, it makes perfect sense to finally define the Borg’s origins once and for all. And where better to start than in the similarly mysterious black-ops wing of Starfleet Intelligence?
Because let’s be honest, the Borg’s pursuit of perfection bears an uncanny resemblance to Silicon Valley’s obsession with productivity and efficiency. Transhumanism in pop culture is on the rise, and culturally we’re becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of marrying the organic and inorganic. When it comes to explaining how a computer program might become powerful enough to raze countless intelligent civilizations, no faraway robo-planet could possibly make more sense in this era, or be more impactful on the Star Trek mythos, than “a machine-learning threat-assessment program created by a lawless Space CIA realizes sentient life is the ultimate threat and starts taking matters into its own hands.”
With such a decision, Discovery would be pulling a Planet of the Apes, three decades in the making. It would reveal that the assimilation is coming from inside the house, that even in the vastness of space, of the final frontier, we will always be our own worst enemy. Control could take its handful of Section 31 bodies right now, abscond to the far reaches of the Delta quadrant for the next century, and start its domination light-years away from the events of the Original Series, and Borg continuity would still make vastly more sense than, say, the various reimaginings of the Klingons, or the awkward Kelvin timeline split of the reboot films.
As a fledgling show that has embraced risk, often to its detriment, Discovery has exercised a newfound narrative restraint in building up to this reveal. Starting with a subtle trail of bread crumbs throughout the first half of the season, referencing Section 31 and Starfleet Command’s differing philosophies on how to use Control, now even as its clues grow increasingly obvious, they’re still being paired with an air of uncertainty (as opposed to, say, the forehead-smacking “Sir, it’s the U.S.S. Enterprise” moment in the final seconds of the season-one finale). This evolved approach, both artful and timely, bodes well for the series’ ongoing ability to adapt — much like Control/the Borg itself.