[Ed. note: significant spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard through episode 3.]
When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, the writers wanted to replace the Klingons that had plagued Captain Kirk in the series’ original 1960s run with a new threat to the United Federation of Planets. They initially introduced the profit-obsessed Ferengi, but discovered their appearance and motivations made them better suited to comic relief. They were far more successful with their next great threat: the cyborg hive mind the Borg.
While TNG and Star Trek: Voyager greatly expanded on the mythology of the Borg, and the way they assimilate other species while spreading throughout the galaxy, the writers have never explained where the Borg actually come from. Now Star Trek: Picard seems poised to answer that question, along with other questions posed when the alien race was first introduced.
The Borg were initially meant to be introduced in TNG’s season 1 finale, “The Neutral Zone,” which sees Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the crew of the USS Enterprise investigating the destruction of several Federation outposts in Romulan-controlled space. A plot where the Federation and Romulans team up to defeat the Borg was scrapped due to a pending Writers Guild of America strike. Instead, the following episode has the near-omnipotent alien being Q (John de Lancie) taking the Enterprise across the galaxy to introduce Picard to the Borg, making it clear that he and the Federation aren’t prepared for the threat they represent.
That change raised a plot question: If the Borg were already close enough to Federation space to start obliterating its outposts in “The Neutral Zone,” why didn’t they press the attack? Picard’s third episode, “The End Is the Beginning,” posits that the Romulans may be the answer. The Romulans were first shown harvesting technology from a partially destroyed Borg cube in Picard’s premiere, “Remembrance,” but this episode demonstrates how the extremely destructive giant spacecraft came under their control.
The Cube encountered a Romulan ship and assimilated the crew into the Collective. Somehow, that caused a systems collapse in the Cube, and the Collective severed all links to it. While most people who are assimilated by the Borg, like Picard himself once was, can be physically and mentally restored to their former states, the Romulans who were assimilated are now mentally unstable. These “Disordered” are kept in a sort of psychiatric ward aboard the ship.
Romulans are notoriously secretive, and they never revealed in “The Neutral Zone” what was happening in their own territories. It’s possible that the Borg attempts to assimilate the Romulans had similar results — stopping their invasion in its tracks until it started up again after Picard’s encounter with the Collective. The question is why the Borg would have such a problem assimilating Romulans.
That could connect back to Picard’s primary plot: Picard’s quest to protect the android Soji (Isa Briones), the daughter of his friend and colleague Data (Brent Spiner). Soji is being hunted by the Zhat Vash, a secret Romulan organization said to have existed for thousands of years “to keep a secret so profound and terrible, just learning it can break a person’s mind.” The organization has an unexplained profound hatred and revulsion for all forms of synthetic life, which has caused Romulans to eschew all forms of AI, androids, and cybernetics. They view Soji as a mythical force of destruction.
They might be right to be afraid. Soji doesn’t know she’s an android, and doesn’t understand her capabilities and programming. She repeatedly pestered the director of the Cube reclamation project to let her interview Ramdha (Rebecca Wisocky), an expert in Romulan mythology who is among the Disordered, by claiming that she wants to use mythology to help heal the minds of the assimilated Romulans. However, once Soji starts speaking to Ramdha, she reveals that she knows about the incident that caused the Cube to collapse, even though she later can’t recall how she acquired that information.
Soji was apparently created by Bruce Maddox, a decidedly amoral Federation cybernetics researcher who argued in TNG that Data shouldn’t have rights, and should be disassembled and studied. Even though Soji, like Data, is clearly sentient, Maddox likely views her as a means to an end. He isn’t the first to have an interest in combining androids and Borg technology: the Borg Queen tried to get Data to join the Collective in Star Trek: First Contact. A version of the Borg that didn’t need organic hosts, or cyborgs with the Borg’s adaptability and coordination would be truly terrifying.
But where does this Romulan fear of artificial life come from? It’s possible that the Romulans encountered the Borg millennia ago. While they were spared from assimilation due to some quirk of their biology, the incident gave them a strong aversion to working on any comparable technology. Concealing that knowledge even in the face of the Borg invasion of Federation space would be terrible, but it doesn’t feel like a secret that would “break a person’s mind.”
For that, maybe the problem the Borg have assimilating Romulans isn’t random, but intentional. If the Borg were created by the Romulans, or some progenitor race of the denizens of Romulus, the ill effects could have been part of the initial programming that persists now. The Delta Quadrant might be the center of the Borg’s known power, but given that the world of Star Trek is full of wormholes and cosmic beings that can transport ships across the galaxy, that doesn’t have to be where they originated.
It’s also possible that Q’s role in informing Picard about the threat of the Borg isn’t over. In the first episode of Picard, Picard dreams he’s playing a game of poker against Data, who has a hand of five Queens of Hearts. This makes Picard aware that he’s dreaming, but it could also be a hint at who’s behind the dream. Q often appeared to Picard in obnoxiously obvious ways, but at other times, he worked more subtly. It’s unclear whether he actually helped Picard confront his past and survive a near-fatal injury in the iconic TNG episode “Tapestry,” but he does guide Picard through a trial in the series finale “All Good Things…” through visions that some characters are quick to write off as symptoms of a degenerative neurological disease.
When Picard is diagnosed with the same disease referenced in “All Good Things…” in the second episode of Picard, his doctor suggests his strange dreams are likely a symptom. But the dreams are guiding Picard’s mind to Data and his daughter at a critical time, rousing him from retirement to take action and fight for the future of the Federation. Q put Picard and humanity on trial throughout TNG to see whether the species had the capacity to think outside normal perceptions and comprehend the vast possibilities the universe has to offer. He warned Picard, “the trial never ends.” It’s possible Q has returned for the next phase, testing Picard’s ability to unravel one of Star Trek’s greatest mysteries, and perhaps finally defeat one of its greatest threats.