Descent Parts 1 & 2 (original airdates: June 21st, 1993, September 20th, 1993)
Written by Jeri Taylor, Ronald D. Moore, and René Echevarria
Directed by Alexander Singer
I’ve always liked the idea of Data’s brother Lore more than the execution. I think that is due in part to Brent Spiner’s decisions as an actor when he plays Lore. He’s not merely doing a more human Data or an evil version of the android. Spiner chooses to be a mustache-twirling embarrassment. Lore never feels like a genuine threat to the Enterprise, always a momentary annoyance they have to deal with. That continues in this two-parter that I wish was better because it does hold one crucial aspect, it features the return of Hugh the Borg.
The Enterprise encounters a Borg attacking a Federation outpost, and the invaders don’t behave the way the crew has become used to. They are emotional, they have names, they fight with fury rather than following commands. Data also experiences a surge of anger and almost kills the Borg. It slowly becomes clear that the Borg are connected to this change in the lieutenant commander. One of the Borg being held prisoner even activates a device that allows him to coerce Data into allying with him. Eventually, it’s revealed that Lore is the mastermind behind all of this, and the story takes a downturn into feeling rushed and not entertaining. Part one’s mystery is much better than what unfolds in part two.
The conflict in this story needed more time to develop and is woefully rushed. We never get a full understanding of how Lore came to lead these Borg and when the split with Hugh and his faction occurred. There’s some throwaway dialogue so the show can get to the plot beats the episode needs to hit. I would have rather things slowed down, and we spent more than 10 to 15 minutes at most we get with Hugh. “I, Borg” is a compelling episode, and the character’s return feels totally wasted.
Hugh will be returning in “Picard,” and I hope there is a more extended amount of time devoted to fleshing out his character decades later. With the structure of television changing since the 1990s, I suspect the plot will be much more decompressed, and the story will be allowed to explore the nuances that actually help with world-building and character development.
Phantasms (original airdate: October 25th, 1993)
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by Patrick Stewart
It’s another Data-centric episode except this one plays with a fascinating concept and really explores it to its fullest. One experience Data needs to have to be human is having an illness, and here we actually see what that might look like for artificial intelligence. Data has dreams of a rotary phone ringing, men disassembling the floor of Ten Forward, and eventually a cake of Counselor Troi with her head begging him not to take a slice of her. Ultimately, we learn that Data’s consciousness is exploring dreams and that something sinister has crept its way into the neural pathways of the android.
There’s a particular conceit shows from this period of television had that no matter how crazy or wild the hook in the cold open is or what twist we get just before the commercial break, by the end of the episode, everyone will be back to normal. Even Picard’s trauma from being assimilated by the Borg is basically forgotten and doesn’t seem to affect him too much by this point. We’ll eventually see it return in Star Trek: First Contact, but for the most part, Picard is who the captain always has been.
The same is very accurate for Data. His quest to be a human will never be resolved on the television series, and so it becomes a static character trait, the same way a piece of backstory for a Law & Order detective is never relevant until if and when the actor leaves the show. Data is also never going to be a genuine danger to the crew. In Descent, we see him manipulated into being evil by Lore, and here he’s manipulated by something inside his programming. But I have a problem with all of this.
If Data is an autonomous being, as previously declared in many episodes where Starfleet wants to take the android, then why is he not held accountable for his violent actions? He stabs Counselor Troi here and, while it’s revealed to be manipulation, why are there not serious security discussions had about Data. If he is granted the same rights of free movement and thought as the human crew members, then should he not be held to the same consequences? If you were a crew member on the Enterprise and were witness to the many times Data went berserk or commandeered the ship, wouldn’t you expect the leadership to contemplate removing Data from his position? The episode ends with no bad blood between Data and Troi, but it harms the realism because there’s no weight to the actions of the character at the center of the story.