In Star Trek, there are few villains as terrifying as the Borg. They are seemingly unstoppable, with a complete disregard for the life or value of the individual. Pale and grotesque, they take what they want from entire civilizations and burn the rest. They strip away bodies, violently replacing flesh with mechanical parts they deem more useful. But in a twist, Star Trek: Picard fundamentally challenges long-held perceptions of the Borg, and in doing so challenges how disability has been viewed in Star Trek and beyond.
Disability has long been a fraught topic in science fiction. The augmentation and replacement of the physical body with technology has long symbolized the loss of humanity. It’s the primary question in the anime Ghost in the Shell, for example, asking how much of the human body does a person need to lose before they lose humanity altogether? In Star Wars, the substitution of flesh with a machine symbolizes Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark. The more of his physical body he loses, the less human he becomes. “[Darth Vader] is now more machine than man, twisted and evil,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.
It is a view that is pervasive in Star Trek as well — For Captain Picard, the removal of his external Borg prosthetics is a key part of regaining his humanity, after he is rescued from the Borg. Years later, he still resents the Borg technology that remains inside him. While posing as a bounty hunter on Freecloud in “Stardust City Rag,” he calls Seven of Nine, “disgusting thing. Once they get the Borg inside them, there is no coming back, no matter what they think. Defiled is what you are. Cursed.”
While Picard was certainly laying in on thick to try to sell his deception, these were his true thoughts earlier in his life. In Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard informs his bridge crew, “You may encounter Enterprise crewmembers who've already been assimilated. Don't hesitate to fire. Believe me, you'll be doing them a favor.” Later in the film, Picard casually roots through the guts of the assimilated Ensign Lynch, whom he had just gunned down on the Holodeck. Picard feels that he lost his humanity when assimilated, at least in part. He is sincere in his belief that death is a mercy compared to the trauma he experienced himself. He views his own hard-won return to humanity as a miraculous exception, but he also knows that he did not come out unscathed. It is impossible for him to be the same man he was before.
Over the years and in multiple Star Trek series, other individual Borg have broken free from the collective, and their stories have always been exceptional. Hugh from Next Generation and Seven of Nine from Voyager are prime examples. But in Star Trek: Picard, former Borg are beginning to forge their own culture and identities, distinct from the collective and distinct from who they were before assimilation. Before his death, Hugh emerged as a leader in the movement, serving as executive director of the Borg Reclamation Project. “[xB’s] is what we call ourselves. A new name can be the first step to a new identity,” he tells now Admiral Picard in “The Impossible Box.” With this new identity, a new name – just as he chose to be Hugh instead of Third of Five, decades ago on the Enterprise. He wants his people to be proud. He wants Picard to be proud too, and to help other people undergoing the same journey.
Disabled activist Alice Wong has long had an affinity for cyborgs like Hugh. In fact, she proudly identifies as one herself. “I have hardware inside of me with a spinal fusion,” she told me over e-mail. “My assistive devices, the power chair that I use in the day, the BiPap machine that helps me breathe, and other equipment, are natural extensions of my organic body. I am tethered to them because they sustain my life and enable me to do what I want to do. Electricity is just as vital to me as blood, water, and oxygen.” To Alice, the mechanical aspects of her existence do not detract from her humanity in the slightest. It is an attitude that is common within the disability rights community, but one rarely seen in media – Our view of the world is rarely represented. And it is one seen in Hugh.
On the Artifact, the Borg reclamation process involves the removal of many Borg implants. It does not appear that the procedures are entirely for the benefit of the xB’s. In the world of Star Trek: Picard, Borg technology is very valuable. xB’s are butchered for their implants, then those implants are sold on the black market. In the second episode of the series, a Romulan doctor on the Artifact describe the removal of Borg technology as “harvesting.” It appears the Romulans are removing the technology for their own profit and purposes, although it is not explicitly stated. It is certainly more merciful than the painful, grisly fate Icheb met at the hands of Bjayzl and her butchers, but it is not essentially different. Many of the xB’s on the Artifact are left partially blind and missing limbs.
Hugh bitterly accepts Romulan harvesting in exchange for the lives of the xB’s. He compromises, attempting to work within a hostile system to do what is best for his people. To Hugh, the lives of the xB’s are just as precious as anyone else’s. To Hugh, a disabled life is better than no life at all. Disabled life is worth living. Life after trauma is worth living. It is a powerful, optimistic message, evoking the best Star Trek has to offer. And it is a powerful message in today’s society, where disabled people are treated as though our lives are worth less.
I hope, in the second season of Star Trek: Picard, we learn more about the xB’s. Are there other leaders fighting for freedom? Other enclaves of former Borg, who perhaps haven’t had their bodies much at all? The hatred of Borg and former Borg is widespread in the world of Star Trek: Picard, even if Picard himself has become more enlightened on the subject. Perhaps Picard could find his own identity as an xB? Or, as Hugh himself put it: “A Picard who would advocate for free Borg. That would be quite a thing, wouldn’t it?”
Star Trek: Picard streams on CBS All Access in the United States, in Canada on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and OTT service Crave, and on Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries and territories.
Sara Luterman (she/her, they/them) is a freelance journalist located outside Washington DC, focused on disability politics, policy, and culture. She is also a lifelong Star Trek fan. You can find her work in The Nation, The Washington Post, and Vox, among other outlets.