The other day on Mastodon I got to thinking and talking again about how some of the ideas of Star Trek: Picard’s first season really with resonated me, but that it was mostly a problem of execution of them to me, and that was part of why I watched the full of its second season despite disliking so much of it. (I haven’t finished watching the third season, and am not sure if I will, but I did read all the spoilers for it.)
I’m going to lead with this: The key motivation for me was how important I think the Borg Coöperative are to Star Trek and why I loved the idea of late in life (ex-) Admiral Picard being the only diplomat who could “properly” welcome them to the Federation. A bunch of the seeds were laid in Season 1 for the Coöperative, and then Season 2 entirely ignored them to do its own weird thing, in the process messing up some key parts of the Coöperative (not just in a “that’s not my canon” nitpicky way but missing some of the underlying raison d’etre and character motivations, including unthethering it from the “Prime” timeline altogether in a “we don’t even trust it to be canon” sort of way).
It feels important to lead with motivation like that, because that’s going to be a running theme in what follows.
(Also, I’m using the rare-to-English diaresis for the word “coöperative” in this article mostly because it is fun and I can pretend to be high society like The New Yorker, but also partly because it is fun how it can be confused to be Swedish enough to be a “Borg umlaut”.)
A Brief History of the Borg Coöperative
A quick informational aside: Star Trek canon is primarily broken down into three main wiki databases. Memory Alpha tracks TV and movies, Memory Beta tracks video games and novels, and Memory Gamma tracks everything else from comics to toys to all sorts of weird tie-ins with a vague notion of continuity. So terms like “Alpha canon” are a useful shorthand for “Star Trek stuff that happened on the TV screen or a movie screen”.
In Alpha canon prior to Star Trek: Picard there is one single, mostly standalone Star Trek: Voyager episode teasing the idea of the Borg Coöperative. The basic concept is that which is implied by the name: a group of Borg, disconnected from the Collective (we all know and “love”), decide to try to build their own culture with something more in lines with Federation ideals and as a “worker-led coöperative” where they could elect their own leaders and strive for a better Borg society.
In the classic fashion of Voyager, the idea is never revisited, there’s no ongoing plot threads from that episode, there’s no idea what happened to those people and that “movement”, it was just one mostly self-contained episode among many.
So, of course, being a good idea with interesting repercussions, Beta canon had a blast with it for a couple of decades. I mostly am aware of how Star Trek Online portrays the Coöperative, but I read several of the key novels as well, for various reasons. The basic throughline I think is pretty obvious: in the Delta Quadrant power vacuum left by the death of the Borg Queen and infectious destruction of a lot of key Borg communication channels, the nascent Coöperative of that lone Voyager is given a massive petri dish of former Borg Collective toys with which to grow and peacefully expand their culture. Over time, depending on source/take, even notable figures such as Hugh and Seven of Nine serve in various elected positions in the Coöperative (Presidents and Councilors and such), further enriching the knowledge transfer of Federation ideals, until eventually the Federation recognizes the Coöperative as proper allies (including in the fight against still deadly remnants of the Collective) and then eventually members.
The Coöperative is such a fun idea to Beta canon because the irony is never lost on most of the Beta writers that the Collective is frightening for how quickly they assimilate other species, but the Collective is not the greatest assimilation force known to the Star Trek galaxy: the Federation is much slower at assimilation, but the history of Star Trek suggests it is more deeply the winner. The Borg Collective gets a couple of interesting battles deep into the heart of the Alpha Quadrant but mostly fails to get a lasting beachhead, stymied time and again (and back in time) by the Federation.
The Federation frees what seems like only a few dozen Borg total, infects them with Federation ideals and virtues, sends most of them along on their merry way with seemingly zero after-care or oversight, and most of that was done by a single ship lost in the Delta Quadrant, the Borg Collective’s home turf, that was barely a threat (though did get time paradox lucky to eventually kill the Queen, but it was either that or more years in hell, so Captain Janeway felt free to violate several sections of the Temporal Prime Directive for that outcome in the Prime timeline). It wasn’t an attack force. It wasn’t a planned strike. It was one silly ship talking to people.
If you’ve been following along in Alpha canon, that irony of the Borg Coöperative being an accident of infection of Federation ideals shouldn’t be a surprise. The Alpha canon is full of Federation “exceptionalism” like that. Time and again, the many shows suggested that the Federation was more enlightened than everyone else and concepts like democracy and Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations would always win in the face of just about anything. There’s something delicious about that winning even against the Borg Collective’s culture, even if some of it was an accident and all of it was a very slow form of assimilation.
Beta canon followed that to some of its logical extremes: that picture of Borg Coöperative members serving in Starfleet as another “species” adding diversity of thought and culture to the Federation.
I personally love that. That’s my Star Trek.
The Immediate Problems with Star Trek: Picard
I’m going to get back to the fun shortly enough, but I feel in the interest of context I briefly need to mention some of the biggest shortcomings I saw in Star Trek: Picard.
I think it is clear at this point that Star Trek: Picard put the Borg Coöperative onto the tee, went to swing at it, and entirely whiffed it.
It’s implied but never actually text in any season of Star Trek: Picard that the Borg faction that bookends Season 2 is even the Borg Coöperative. It seemed obvious to me, with my exposure of Beta canon, but it has been the source of a lot of Season 3 confusion.
The other thing that bugs me the most about how Season 2 presented their origin of an Almost-Coöperative is that it misses some of those key bits of Federation ideals that make not just the Beta canon Coöperative but also the brief, nascent Coöperative that Voyager briefly interacted with in a single episode. The Almost-Coöperative is presented as having a traditionally symbolized Queen and while they request to join the Federation don’t seem to have internalized quite so much of Federation ideals.
Though admittedly a lot of that is still implication and supposition because there is not enough text there in Season 2. Maybe Agnes there is just an elected Ambassador chosen based on a bunch of information, and not actually a Queen. We have basically no idea because they showed us the “twist” that it was Agnes then didn’t really have time to tell us anything about that. Twist done, the show decided the only thing it really had left to do that season was roll the credits credits.
That leads into what I think were the largest problems of Star Trek: Picard: “No tell, only show” and “twists/late infodumps over exposition and character motivation”. Neither of these problems originate with nor are unique to Star Trek: Picard. One is just kind of an accidental product of post-Lost media. Everyone knows “People love twists!” Everyone forgets that we used to generally know character motivations as an audience and have some semblance of reasons to watch a given scene rather than assume it might be relevant later, maybe, if the “twist” is right and it wasn’t a red herring.
The “No tell, only show” seems like the obvious pendulum extreme affecting almost all of current “prestige television” and precisely what you’d get from a generation and a half of writers drilled on “Show, don’t tell”. “Show, don’t tell” comes from a good intention. It’s meant to spark creativity. But it’s a pendulum and both extremes are painful. Too much “tell” and not enough show and the audience is bored because they are getting didactically lectured at with nothing interesting to see. Less appreciated is the other extreme: too much “show” and not enough “tell” is a recipe for boredom in its own way. Things that might have taken a two minute conversation take 20 minutes of scenes across two or three episodes. Without knowing their greater context in the scheme of things those scenes can feel like complete wastes of time for maybe a brief “oh that’s what that was about”. (Which is easily confused for “twists” and exacerbates and feeds the other problem.)
To me Star Trek: Picard is one of the most emblematic shows in all of television for “No tell, only show” especially because we have the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and TOS, Voyager, Enterprise): so many TNG episodes are an amazing balance of tell and show. So much of Star Trek storytelling is dropping the right “Captain’s Log” at a good moment to quickly push the audience on to the next thing they need to know.
The combination of these problems leads me to this feeling like most of the story of Star Trek: Picard was told “backwards and upside down”.
The Rearrangeable Bones of Star Trek: Picard Season 1
I have this impression that you could especially take the first season, “simply” reorder it, and tell the same story better. That if you focused on getting more motivations up front, rather than saving things for “twists” that don’t quite impact because you had no idea of character motivations. Especially, if we assume that one of the end goals, because of the second season bookends, was to set up seeds for the Borg Coöperative.
I have this gut feeling that most of what follows could possibly be done in an edit bay with a talented Editor using just the existing show as it was and maybe a choice “Former Admiral’s Log” voice over here or there.
Here’s what I imagined this could play out (the other day, mostly extemporaneously on Mastodon; I’m sticking to mostly light edits, plus new asides):
- In the deep past Romulans discover Mass Effect’s Reapers also exist in Star Trek
- This drives Romulan paranoia in general. The Romulans build a cult around this and also make it a founding mission of the Tal Shiar to destroy synthetic life before it starts
- This kind of explains why a species with the science of Vulcans but fewer morals ultimately creates/enslaves the Remans rather than builds robots
Dropping in a quick aside here, to break the bullet point rhythm, it’s still an incredible shame that given the events of Star Trek: Nemesis that not a single named Reman existed in Star Trek: Picard. Since I’m busy armchair quarterbacking my way through a rewrite of the show anyway, I’d have shown the Qowat Milat to be primarily Reman and a Reman Unificationist group. “The Way of Absolute Candor” versus the culture of secrecy and lies of Romulus prior to the Hobus explosion seems almost obviously an outside force and certainly in my headcanon easily sounds like a Reman concept. (Sure, it is implied to mean more like a Romulan counter-movement/”Buddhist reformation” of Surak’s teachings on Vulcan, and “absolute candor” in emotions primarily, but you don’t just drop that title in the middle of the Tal Shiar-obsessed Romulans and expect it to not also imply fewer secrets and lies.) Probably Elnor should have been a Reman. That’s about all I plan to say about Elnor.
Back to the story reorder in progress:
- Romulan Tal Shiar infiltrate Starfleet top brass (because of course they do, Tal Shiar!)
- Romulans blow up Federation synthetics and blame it on Synthetics going rampant, just like all those old Earth movies predicted
- Nobody catches this but the ex-Tal Shiar love interest of a retired Admiral who lost all his political power trying to save Hobus explosion (Romulan destruction) escapees and largely failed
- No one believes the nutty anti-Romulan conspiracy theory from the fuddy pro-Romulan ex-Admiral
- Having “gotten away with it” the Tal Shiar move on to their next priority target acquired from Starfleet intelligence: a derelict Borg cube reclamation process
- The cranky old Admiral convinces a weirdo civilian and small weird crew to drive him there to that cube to desperately catch the Romulan spies in the act, even though no one believes him
- Along the way they stop at Omega Station (also imported from Mass Effect, because why not) for light hijinks and to pick up 7 of 9
- They don’t catch the spies in time and the Romulans damage the project near to destruction
- 7 of 9 finds that she can at great risk reactivate much of the old Borg Tech, gets repairs kicked off (just in time)
- 7 of 9 is so tempted to become the cube’s new Queen, but manages to get new safeties installed with a bit of Federation flavor
- Lost for where the trail leads next the Admiral and odd crew stumble into a scientist on the project who thinks she has a good idea where the trail goes next
- That scientist (Soji) tells the Admiral that she had leaked details of her home colony to the Tal Shiar agents, thinking them friends, but is cagey about it
- They go there and are greeted by the kindest Soong in the history of Soongs and a whole colony of androids
- The Tal Shiar threaten to blow up the place “because the Reapers will return soon”
In that order, even as just bullet points, I feel like that’s a pretty good plot. Certainly better than what Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard seemed to show us, right?
I think that leaves clear villains the whole way through with clear motivations. I think that it leaves lots of building blocks for wilder things to come “next season”. Again, I don’t think I actually deviated from the story actually in the show (near as we can figure in some places where things are far too much subtext rather than text because the show generally abhors “text”).
Missing “Bones” in Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard
I think that there’s only a couple things that I would have loved to see or at least have told in that season, rather than leave things to supposition.
- The Tal Shiar agents continue to evil monologue about the Reapers as confession before a Federation war crimes tribunal
I like to highlight the Federation ideals here. Don’t murder the villains, let them face justice and account for their actions.
- Don’t show the Reapers to any main character, but only tease the audience they are real
We don’t know anything about this species other than a brief glimpse through what might have been a portal. There’s no text here, just wild special effects.
Beta canon suggests it could be any number of things with a common fan favorite being the TNG-introduced Iconians of the Iconian Empire using a classic Iconian Gateway, which yes all do predate Mass Effect by some time.
Despite mocking this element of the show as just ripped from Mass Effect, I appreciated. I like my Mass Effect most when it is a lot like Star Trek, and I did like a lot of things about when Season 1 felt the most like “Picard Effect”.
I love the idea that at all times in Starfleet history there are barely known existential threats that are just out there, encountered once, if at all, and “never followed up on”. Part of the fun of something like the Beta canon is all the fan hype about “This time it is the Iconians for sure!” but Alpha canon has never mentioned them again outside of a throwaway gag in Voyager and a throwaway mention in Discovery (centuries after TNG).
It’s great to have these bits of unexplained whatever. “Give us more tell” also doesn’t mean “tell us everything”, it’s still a pendulum. Briefly show and leave unexplained works well when intentional.
- Redeem Soongs and invite back to Federation, finally
Star Trek: Picard seems to get so close to doing this. I like the idea of a completed redemption arc for the Soong family over way too many generations. The Soongs are exiled from the Federation for getting too deep into Federation-outlawed genetics experiments, while in exile realize that genetics experiments are tough without a big enough population to experiment upon, and pivoted to never technically outlawed by the Federation research into robotics and sentient machines. (Obviously the Federation invested quite a bit into these things still. The Exocomps as the easiest next thing to point to. It was certainly not outlawed in the Federation to science these things.) It is plausible that being in exile gave them a somewhat leg up and some of their experiments even in that time might not have met Federation ethics standards. But TNG and then Star Trek: Picard make it clear that once the research was complete, the Federation had much fewer qualms about taking advantage of the final products. (After all, what is the measure of a man?) (At least until that Romulan spy sabotage thing, whoops.)
The right thing to do would be to welcome the Soongs back into the Federation after their androids (and “synthetics” derived from same) had done so much for the Federation for so many years. It’s cool and all to see “yet another” sad goodbye to Data himself, but welcoming the Soongs back into the Federation I think would be a much more interesting, weird, but satisfying ending that the show could have uniquely given us. It’s a finale to a TNG arc (that ENT expanded) a lot of people wouldn’t see coming but I think would grant a strange amount more of closure to Data as a character than any “chess ending” or “poker hand”.
The Borg Coöperative Bones of Season 2 of Star Trek: Picard
I think the bones are there for something really interesting in S1 setting up a teed shot for the Borg Coöperative. S2 mostly seemed not to know how to use them.
I think some of these were good bones in S2:
- 7 of 9 is given a glimpse of being “Queen” in a fascist timeline or mirror universe and further reviled by it
The Borg Coöperative should not have a Queen. It should be more of a democracy. That idea that the Collective’s culture is so strong that it really wants a Queen, and that in that position Seven of Nine realizes she’s incredibly tempted and has such a hard time resisting. (It is futile, as they say.) Using an alternate timeline or the mirror universe to push that message on paper is a good way to build up that kind of resistance, to help build the sort of person that could take Collective technology and democratize it. The sort of person that could be the first, term-limited “President” of a Coöperative. The kind of person that could stand up and say “No more Queens!” and mean it.
(Agnes doesn’t really make sense at all in S2.)
- The Borg Coöperative somehow uses a time loop to bootstrap an interestingly sized fleet; Borg and time travel are peanut butter and jelly
- Only one ex-Admiral can convince The Coöperative to join the Federation as allies
There is a fun symmetry to be had in using Star Trek: First Contact style shenanigans to help strengthen the Coöperative (versus reduce the Collective). (But do it on purpose, with motivation! You don’t spend nine-tenths of First Contact’s runtime wondering if the Borg are friend or foe and accidentally helping them instead of fighting them.)
On paper, the idea of Jean-Luc Picard being invited to be the ambassador to the Borg Coöperative for the Federation also has some delightful symmetry. PTSD included. So far as I recall that’s not even an idea that I think much of Beta canon considered, but it’s an interesting one (that S2 squandered).
There too, motivation would add good drama. PTSD gives Picard a lot of reasons not to trust the Coöperative, and have a tough time imagining people that might volunteer for the sort of thing thrust upon him as Locutus. But if the audience has a good idea that the Coöperative is who they say they are, up front, that’s good dramatic tension, not just “he’s probably right, no one should trust the Borg” which S2 suggests right until the last minute “twist”. It places Picard in the role not as the Ambassador friendly to both sides from the start, but the Ambassador doing due diligence to grow a proper trust (and maybe never quite getting there but still trying to at least do the right thing for the Federation).
But beyond the good bones above, I still wish that the reclamation Cube had been more involved somehow in the S2 Coöperative. It was setup so interestingly for that. I wish Seven of Nine was more properly involved in electing leadership. That also seemed interestingly setup but then not paid out. I wish the Coöperative was less reliant on alternate timeline resources and some sort of continuity drawn back to the Voyager episode. Not because I’m a stickler to any of the Beta canon origin stories, but because a “worker’s coöperative” should come from the same place it is in rebellion against and there is such juicy fun in the idea that Voyager, of all ships, with no other help, accidentally seeded an entire faction of “good Borg” in the home turf of the Borg while just trying to get home.
It’s been a long road, getting from there to here. I’ve continuously explaining to people why I think S1 had some good ideas despite poor execution and that S2 was worse because the Borg Coöperative is a great idea and it was so poorly executed most people have no idea at all, whatsoever, what “Agnes’ Borg” were even supposed to be. (And they still might not even be the Coöperative. That’s still more subtext and showrunner tweets after the fact than anything substantive, especially since they were too busy to lend a hand at all in Season 3.)