Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Q Who"

****

Air date: 5/8/1989
Written by Maurice Hurley
Directed by Robert Bowman

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Ah, at last, here's the most absolutely necessary episode of TNG's second season. Q forces Picard to hear his request to join the Enterprise crew as a guide. In a wonderful dialog scene that gets to the heart of the human drive for learning by personal experience, Picard refuses on the grounds that Q's presence would defeat the purpose of exploration. (That, and no one likes Q anyway.) To prove his point with a twist of the knife, Q hurls the Enterprise into an unexplored part of the galaxy (two years away from the nearest Federation outpost), bringing the Enterprise into contact with a cybernetic alien species called the Borg. (The episode also implies that the Borg were responsible for the destroyed colonies along the Romulan Neutral Zone.)

The best aspect of "Q Who" is its ability to mix the intellectual with the visceral. In other words, it's the best kind of TNG action show, and should stand as a lesson to sci-fi shows that are action-oriented: Your action works only if it grows from a point of emotion, in this case genuine scariness. The Borg are scary precisely because they cannot be reasoned with and because their technology is vastly superior to the Enterprise's — and those two avenues are the basis by which nearly all TNG stories are typically solved. The Borg have often been described simply as "implacable," and I agree that that's the best adjective for them. They are an implacable foe, and we learn that very quickly by their behavior in this episode.

The industrial-cube design of the Borg vessel is brilliant in its simplicity: Here's a society that has no regard for style or aesthetics but simply raw function. When they communicate, it's with terse directives; they epitomize the laconic. The episode puts good use to Guinan by revealing that not only has she had past dealings with Q, but that her people's world was destroyed by the Borg, essentially turning them into nomads.

Because this is an episode of TNG, the crew is still genuinely curious about the Borg, as are we. An away team beams over to the Borg ship and we get a chance to see their hive-like society, with imaginative visuals and production design. The "Borg nursery" is an intriguingly chilling detail. Such ominous concepts are all the more interesting to ponder when considering the presence of the young and naïve, evidenced here by the cute and plucky Ensign Sonya Gomez (Lycia Naff), whose infectious drive to do her part as a member of the Enterprise crew is met here only with danger. If the show had truly wanted to punch us in the stomach with its dark ambitions, it would've had Gomez die.

The episode plays by its rules. The Borg are a superior and implacable enemy, period, and the only way out is through Q, to whom Picard makes an urgent plea for help when there are no other options. Q sums it up nicely when he says, "It's not safe out here." Indeed, and it's nice to be reminded of that by an episode that is equally as visceral as it is curious, and all but promises that the Borg will be coming for us. If ever an episode deserved to be saved for a season finale in a season that didn't have an adequate (or even tolerable) finale, it's this one.

Previous episode: Pen Pals
Next episode: Samaritan Snare

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36 comments on this review

John Campbell - Fri, Jun 19, 2009 - 1:18am (USA Central)
Regarding "Q Who?":

I love how Picard attempts to get on his moral high horse about the crewmen who were killed, and Q basically tells him to stop being such a big baby.
Dan B - Sun, Nov 29, 2009 - 9:01am (USA Central)
I love Q episodes. I've always wondered why they never included Q into any of the feature films. His dialoge writes itself and hes a fantastic charactor.
Latex Zebra - Wed, Mar 28, 2012 - 4:10am (USA Central)
This episode gives me chills. Even now, the intro of the Borg was well worthy.
unknown - Sun, Aug 19, 2012 - 9:03pm (USA Central)
awesome episode
Rosario - Sun, Nov 4, 2012 - 11:43am (USA Central)
Now if only the Borg had stayed like this, or at least evolved into something different than what was done with them in Voyager. Wheeling and dealing, bribing and coercing, cunning and untrustworthy etc.
None of those adjectives should apply to a race of cybernetic zombies who seek perfection through the assimilation of other species. You're either pursued and assimilated (or escape) or you're ignored as too primitive. No deals!
xaaos - Fri, Nov 16, 2012 - 2:47am (USA Central)
The Borg should have just ignored Enterprise, since it is way too "primitive" compared to their technology. What would be their gain by assimilating them? Just a waste of time!

The episode is awesome, possibly the best of this season. But having watched Voyager and First Contact movie, Borg in this episode look less frightening and simple, wearing too much plastic.
Paul - Mon, Dec 17, 2012 - 10:12am (USA Central)
The dialog in this episode really sells it. Picard's reasoning for not accepting Q is pitch perfect ("Learning about you is frankly provocative. But you're next of kin to chaos."). The dialog on the bridge at the end is great, too. The episode is also probably the best use of Guinan in the entire series (next to "Yesterday's Enterprise").

Also, I think this is the first episode where Q becomes focused on Picard (as opposed to Riker in "Hide and Q" and just general mayhem in "Farpoint"). I think the scene in Ten Forward is where Q changes his focus that then carries through to the end of the series.

In that way, this episode does far more than put the Borg storyline in motion. Also, it's interesting that TNG -- which wasn't much into continuing storylines up until this point -- drops hints about the Borg for the next season and a half ("Peak Performance", "Evolution").
Jay - Mon, Jan 14, 2013 - 12:15pm (USA Central)
The claim that Q "brought contact with the Borg much sooner than it should have been", which Guinan alludes here, would seem to run counter to the notion that the Borg are responsible for he destruction in the Neutral Zone...the Neutral Zone isn't remote.
Rikko - Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - 10:38pm (USA Central)
Wonderful episode. As xaaos said, it's probably this season's best.

It is funny now, my first reaction to it was negative. I wasn't very conviced by the episode and when Ginan started talking about the evil aliens that destroyed her world I was ready for yet another disposable alien of the week.

But...the BORG, the B-O-R-G! They were just awesome and I didn't mind their suits, sure they'd get better but it's still light-years ahead of most early TNG designs (The Ferengi, anyone?)

And, of course, Q is great. He always is :)
William B - Tue, Apr 2, 2013 - 4:32pm (USA Central)
One of the best things about making the introduction to the Borg happen in a Q episode is that it allows an "out" fully consistent with the TNG universe and the episode's own rules which do nothing to diminish the threat the Borg pose. There is no way the Enterprise could escape the Borg in this episode, full stop. Essentially, Q tells Picard (and the audience) that the only way to get out of being destroyed by the Borg is to ask for Q's help, which runs *hard* counter to Picard's wishes and to our desire to see the Enterprise triumph. We also get the clear indication that since Q won't get them into the next mess, he will not get them out of it.
Patrick - Wed, Apr 10, 2013 - 6:24pm (USA Central)
This episode is just plain genius. Ron Jones' score is haunting and memorable. And beyond the introduction to the Borg, we get a cryptic backstory for both Q and Guinan whose dealings were 2 centuries ago (the 22nd century).

Just think of it: we could have had an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise with a clever story showing Q and Guinan's "dealings". (I think they were husband and wife at some point...) It could have been epic and mythic during the Manny Coto years. No, instead we get the Ferengi and the Borg shoehorned in instead...*puke*
Chuck AzEee! - Thu, Apr 18, 2013 - 7:50pm (USA Central)
Arguably the funniest episode of TNG I have ever seen. Just plain hilarious, so funny it seemed at times the cast was trying to hold their composure during most of the scenes.
Chuck AzEee! - Thu, Apr 18, 2013 - 7:53pm (USA Central)
I'm sorry about my previous review which was meant for Deja Q.
Grumpy - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 12:54pm (USA Central)
Chuck... Let's pretend your comment suits either episode. :)

Now that I think about it, mixing Q with the Borg is a fundamentally flawed idea, contrary to what William B suggests. Taking Q at his word, he believes Homo sapiens (and presumably allied species) to be a "grievously savage child race" worthy of extermination... unless we solve his puzzles and play his games. Yet the Borg, which Q is clearly aware of, have escaped his judgment. Why?

Maybe Q is lying about his attitude toward humanity. Or maybe, in the fullness of time, the Borg will meet the same judgment, but not this century (and, apparently, not in centuries past). Or maybe Q's indictment was for all non-transcendental beings, not Earthlings alone, and Q lumps humans and the Borg in the same category.

Or maybe Q is a huge hypocrite who applies a double standard. Which is what it looks like when the writers ignore their previous premise for the sake of introducing the new Big Bad.
Patrick - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 1:51pm (USA Central)
@Grumpy
The Borg are like a force of nature. What good is it for Q to put them on trial. It would like trying to prosecute locusts. There would be no entertainment value in that.

The Dominion, on the other hand would be interesting. I'd love to have seen the Female Changeling try to intimidate Judge Q and fail miserably.
Grumpy - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 3:39pm (USA Central)
The more obvious possibility (which I overlooked earlier) is suggested by Q's admiration for the Borg in this episode. He has judged them; they meet his approval.
William B - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 6:03pm (USA Central)
I think it's a bit more complicated -- it's stated several times that the Q Continuum is *interested* in humanity, e.g. their interest in giving Riker Q powers to test him out, Amanda Rogers' parents taking such an interest in humans they decided to turn human, etc. Either Picard or Riker in "Hide and Q" theorize that the Q Continuum is actually worried about what will happen when humanity increase in power. The Borg assimilate but it stands to reason that the Q Continuum don't see in the Borg the human capacity for growth that make the Q Continuum interested in humanity and _possibly_ concerned about it in its future.

As far as Q himself, we know that he doesn't have the right to toy with whole races (like the Callamarain in Deja Q) and the Q Continuum punishes him for doing so. It would not surprise me if he couldn't wipe out the Borg if the Q Continuum has no interest in doing so, without severe punishment or expulsion. Q himself at least does seem to *want* humanity and Picard to pass the tests he puts in front of them (made explicit in All Good Things). He doesn't interfere enough to save humanity from the Borg, but he gives them a head's up which is mostly what allows them the mild level of preparedness they have by TBOBW.

I don't want to overstate Q's helpfulness -- he does that trickster figure thing of giving enough information to inflame the thoughts of Picard et al. to get to the character growth they need, but he does so at a price and refuses to hold to human moral standards or respect for life.
William B - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 6:08pm (USA Central)
To bring Voyager into this for a second, "Death Wish" even suggests that Quinn is responsible for Riker's existence and thus for Riker's saving humanity from the Borg; and the idea that humanity can expand in creative ways but the Borg can simply assimilate other tech comes up in "Scorpion." I don't know if my suggestion about the Continuum being interested and concerned about humanity because it has greater possibility to expand than other species (like the Borg) is text exactly, but I think it is consistent.

This still leaves open the question, which comes up so often in Trekdom, of why humanity is so awesome, as opposed to the Vulcans/Klingons/Romulans/Cardassians/Bajorans/Betazoids/whatever. I like Grumpy's idea that maybe Q was lumping all these races in with humans, but All Good Things suggests that it's Earth in particular that is in jeopardy.
Grumpy - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 9:59pm (USA Central)
"...All Good Things suggests that it's Earth in particular that is in jeopardy."

An anomaly in the Romulan Neutral Zone that disrupts all life isn't going to affect Earth alone. However, I'm not so sure there was ever any threat at all...

Q doesn't evolve from judge to trickster, I'm now convinced. He was *never* a judge; the trial was a sham. It was his way of tormenting humanity. The most exquisite torment Roddenberry conceived for his evolved humans is to accuse them of not evolving enough. This is especially hurtful to Picard, ever the mouthpiece for Roddenberry's humanism. Q's needling in "All Good Things..." brings it full circle: his examples of *not* trying to change and grow -- Riker's career and Data's quest -- are precisely how most humans would try to better themselves.

In other words, Q is neither judge nor teacher. He is, as Picard observes, "next of kin to chaos," and his only motivation is to screw with people. The screwing takes the form of a thorough humbling in "Q Who?" and (barring events outside his control in "Deja Q") that's all he ever did in one form or another. No wonder Picard hated him.

Fair to bring Voyager into it, William B, especially the contrast with the Borg in "Scorpion." In that sense, perhaps "Endgame" should be read as extending the theme of "All Good Things..." but in a way that was muddled by its crappiness.
William B - Fri, Apr 19, 2013 - 10:07pm (USA Central)
@Grumpy, good point about the anomaly starting in the Neutral Zone -- I was just flashing back to Q showing Picard the amino acids not forming on Earth, but of course it would basically destroy life in most of the Alpha/Beta quadrants.

I agree about Q as trickster, though I think he actually is a bit of a teacher and a judge in some ways too -- he's ... a bit of everything. I do think humanity (and other races) would have been destroyed had Picard not resolved the dilemma, but then again I think Q always suspected (knew?) Picard would win, so....

"The most exquisite torment Roddenberry conceived for his evolved humans is to accuse them of not evolving enough. This is especially hurtful to Picard, ever the mouthpiece for Roddenberry's humanism. Q's needling in "All Good Things..." brings it full circle: his examples of *not* trying to change and grow -- Riker's career and Data's quest -- are precisely how most humans would try to better themselves."

Agreed -- I would go further and say that that is what the show is arguing too. Picard needs to use his personal connections as resources to solve the mystery; if he hadn't worried about Commander Riker's career future!Riker wouldn't be the admiral ready to save him despite an unstable political situation based on Picard's role in getting him to admiralty (though we also know that future didn't end up coming to pass), for example.
T'Paul - Sun, May 26, 2013 - 5:18pm (USA Central)
I really wish the Q - Guinan story had been built up a bit more... seems like it would have been interesting, plus the poses they struck when they saw each other, would have helped us to learn a bit more about Guinan's species.
Frank Wallace - Mon, Jul 8, 2013 - 10:16pm (USA Central)
A great episode. But for me, the problem is that each time the Borg were used afterwards, except for Best of Both Worlds, they got less and less worthwhile. Voyager just totally destroyed most of what was interesting and good about the Borg as a villain and as a species. First Contact as well established some real stupidity with the Borg Sex Queen.
dipads - Tue, Jul 30, 2013 - 11:07pm (USA Central)
Can anyone answer why Guinan seems to be the only crewmember not wearing a communicator badge (combadge)?
Paul - Wed, Jul 31, 2013 - 12:51am (USA Central)
@dipads: She's not a crewmember. And like other civilians on the ship (Alexander?) she doesn't wear a com badge.
Ian - Sun, Aug 11, 2013 - 6:57pm (USA Central)
This episode is obviously brilliant, but it's also incredibly ambitious. There are moments here where I forget that I'm watching TV and not a movie. The dialogue is poetic at times. The lighting choices gives it an air of intimacy and intrigue. The acting is superb. The drama is very real.

And since I'm a musician, I have to call out Ron Jones here for special acclaim. Whenever I consider what was lost when he was removed before season 5, I think of this episode. The music is inventive and communicates the feelings of the characters clearly and without taking attention away from them. Just the variety of tools he uses from his original instrumentation to stark dissonance .... it's very impressive.

And at the end - for total contrast - once the Enterprise is safe, he introduces a sweeping theme (the "They will be coming" theme) that at once is reassuring but suggestive and hauntingly beautiful. To me, it suggests that the crew has entered a new paradigm now that they've encountered the Borg.

Hear it here:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxklAsl2v2I

Just watch a few fifth season episodes where the music is mostly wallpaper, and hop back to this episode. It was a serious loss for the series to have that change in values about what the music could bring the show.

What an episode.
Nick P. - Fri, Sep 6, 2013 - 8:57am (USA Central)
Ian, finally, someone like me with regards to trek music. Despite everyone saying how TNG got better as it went along, I find season 5-7 almost unwatchable because of the scoring. If you watch the borg episode from the season 6 and this one back to back, the season 6 one cannot even compare. whether it is acting or affects, but most importantly the music. Trek lost something huge in Jones (or at least the era).
SkepticalMI - Tue, Sep 24, 2013 - 6:00pm (USA Central)
"Oh please"

With those two words, and years before the words Deep Space 9 were ever uttered, Gene Roddenberry's magical utopia finally and thankfully died.

I'm not one of those people who think that morally gray storylines, edgy stories, and corrupt societies automatically make stories better; quite the opposite in fact. I like the broad optimism of Star Trek. I like the moral decency of Picard. It's a strong and necessary part of Trek, and one I agree with completely. But there's a difference between a generally positive look to the future and a silly perfectionist world that Roddenberry envisioned for TNG. That just reeks of smug superiority, as if he knew better than the rest of us how to live. It made for insufferable speeches and boring stories. It's difficult to write for Superman; not impossible, but difficult. And if done incorrectly, it reeks of arrogance and a holier-than-thou attitude. I don't want to hear about how much smarter and better Gene Roddenberry is. I want to see wondrous sci fi stories set in a fun space opera universe. Optimism is fine, perfection isn't.

Think about it. What was the theme of this episode, once you get past the awesome music and the fun Q antics and the bizarre and incredible presence of the Borg? Q humbling Picard. Picard, who represents all that is right with humanity, "evolved" past all frailties and irrationalities and failures of us simple modern day humans, thought he was ready for anything. Thought the Enterprise was the pinnacle of existence. And Q simply proved him wrong. And Picard admitted it. He was smug. He was arrogant. He needed to be humbled.

"Perhaps what we needed was a kick in our own complacency, to prepare us for what lies ahead"

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the first two Q episodes. In both of them, it ends with Picard proving Q wrong (first about humanity in general, then about Riker). And in both of them, Q acts very much like Trelane by the end of the episode, essentially a whiny petulant child. It's all part of the greatness of humanity in that we're even better than an omnipresent being with an IQ of 2,005. But Q here, being smarter than Picard and more importantly being right works so much better. Of course, he's still a complete jerk about the whole thing. He's certainly not llikable. But by providing a more than adequate foil for Picard, a foil that he can at best tolerate but never defeat, works so much better. Sure, it regresses a bit after this, but Tapestry and True Q have Q right back in the mode he was in here. A mode he is perfect for. And a mode that sets up All Good Things very very well. In any case, the first two Q episodes were emblematic of Roddenberry's view of humanity, which is completely rewritten with this episode.

And it doesn't go too far in cutting down the utopia either (Like DS9 arguably did). Despite being wrong, Picard's still the hero. And he's still the hero by the end of the episode, and he's still the best that humanity has to offer. He is absolutely right to be concerned and angry about the death of 18 people. But Q is absolutely right that, in the grand scheme of things, 18 people is nothing. It is to Picard, because he's responsible for them. But Q's actions here may have saved all of humanity by preparing the Federation for the Borg. So in that perspective, the death of 18 people may have led to a greater good.

And so Picard doesn't press the point. He doesn't let his pride get in the way. He begs for his life from Q. And he recognizes the value of what Q did. He recognizes his mistakes and moves on. Just like Trek. And so we can still maintain the optimism of the Trek world, we can still maintain hope in the future. We just need to understand that it's "good", not "perfect". It's Spider-Man instead of Superman. And this action by Q was all that was needed to get TNG to that point, and thus allowing the series to shine.

And even if my thematic interpretation is way off base, this is the best episode of the series so far, hands down. An absolute joy to watch from beginning to end.
William B - Tue, Sep 24, 2013 - 8:32pm (USA Central)
@SkepticalMI, brilliant analysis. I think you're right, and this is what makes this episode change the series for the better. This episode is the thing that allows both "The Best of Both Worlds" and "All Good Things" (among others) because both episodes rely on the possibility that humans might not survive; in BOBW that they are not strong enough, in AGT that Picard himself is not good enough. There is real humility in both stories, and that humility begins here.
SkepticalMI - Mon, Sep 30, 2013 - 7:29pm (USA Central)
Thanks for the kind words William. And I enjoy your analyses as well; even if I don't agree with you it's usually a unique insight into the episodes.

One other minor thing I noticed. In Q Who, Tapestry, and All Good Things, Q is generally fond of Picard and is trying to help him out, albeit in his own alien way that is difficult for Picard to accept. And indeed, Picard is very opposed to Q throughout the episode(s), but ends up at least understanding Q at the end. It's probably the best portrayal of Q. It's also the portrayal in QPid, but I guess it didn't really work out in that one...
Tom - Fri, Mar 28, 2014 - 4:30am (USA Central)
This is for me the first truly great TNG episode so far. For the first time, the Enterprise is confronted with a threat that's genuinely scary. The Borg will become the most iconic of any Star Trek antagonist, save perhaps for the Klingons. They're scary in a way that the silly all-powerful beings or self-reproducing crystals of earlier episodes were not (not to mention tarpit monsters).

As SkepticalMI stated, I agree that this is a watershed moment, or at least, since I haven't watched the rest of the series yet, it's the first time that the Enterprise crew gets its own smugness rubbed in its face. I think this is especially welcome after all the arrogance displayed in the previous episode, Pen Pals.

The Enterprise is vulnerable, not invincible. It's the first time that we see it being defeated. Picard has to beg Q. I think that this is much better than in previous episodes when the Federation super heroes were shown defeating Q, who is supposed to be an all-powerful being after all. They also don't get their 18 crew members back. That hurts.

I also love the brilliant acting by John de Lancie.

My only criticism is when Guinan is shown as potentially having magical powers like Q. That seemed to come out of nowhere.
SlackerInc - Sat, Apr 5, 2014 - 2:09pm (USA Central)
Tom, my criticism is related to the same issue you have, but from a different angle. I thought it was quite intriguing that they set Guinan up to have a lot more to her than meets the eye; my disappointment is that they dropped this thread and never went back to flesh it out (other than showing she could perceive alternate timelines to a degree).
Dave B in MN - Tue, May 27, 2014 - 10:38pm (USA Central)
We all know it's a great episode, so I'll have to echo what others have said and praise Ron Jones again for such a wonderful musical score. He's a part of the reason I love earlier TNG (before Season 6) so much.
Tim - Thu, Jun 5, 2014 - 8:14am (USA Central)
SkepticalMI,

I love your analysis, particularly the part about the "broad optimism" of Trek. I don't think the "magical utopia" ever truly died, especially in TNG.

Case in point: Picard not destroying the collective when presented with the opportunity. I guess the writers didn't have the courage to let him go through with it. A pity, because that's as close as TNG could have come to a "In The Pale Moonlight" moment, discounting alternate (Yesterday's Enterprise) timelines and such.

The Borg were hands down the scariest Trek villains. One could have lived under Dominion Rule, with hope of a better tomorrow. Not so in the Borg Collective. I can watch this episode and BoBW two decades after the fact and still get chills up my spine. Can't say that any of the Dominion episodes invoke that sort of response.
NCC-1701-Z - Mon, Jun 9, 2014 - 11:47pm (USA Central)
Can't help but think that if this were BSG, Gomez would have been blown into space/machine-gunned by Cylons/nuked/met some other grisly end early on in the encounter with the Borg.

Great episode, best use of Q since "Hide and Q" and still sends chills down my spine on repeat viewings despite the relatively cheap effects and costumes by today's standards.

I guess that goes to say there's only so much CGI can do and in the end, it all depends on good writers. If I ever run a TV show, I would splurge extra money to get the best writers possible even if it meant below average effects. Just look at Doctor Who, or even the original Star Trek.

This is the one episode that can end with our heroes on the NCC-1701-D getting their ass handed to them and it still comes off as awesome. TNG solves problems usually with some variance of negotiation and technology. The Borg won't negotiate - they just want your ship and won't listen to you - and their tech is light years ahead of Starfleet's, knocking out their main advantage. And no matter what ingenious solution you come up with, the Borg will just adapt and keep on coming. At the root, I think that's what made the Borg so scary this time around.

Best line goes to 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."
(I had that quote in mind during the closing scene of VOY's lame "Friendship One".)
Elliott - Tue, Jun 10, 2014 - 9:47am (USA Central)
No you didn't. You watched sfdebris' review of "Friendship One" and came here to tout it as your own opinion. I think it's great to bring in other reviewer's opinions here for debate, but plagiarising is a step too far.
Angel - Thu, Jul 24, 2014 - 7:04am (USA Central)
Was always amused in this episode when Picard orders Worf to "locate the exact source of that tractor beam, lock on phasers" and it takes Worf 4 shots to actually even come close to remotely hitting it =D

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