Q Who (or Q Who?)
Updated: May 23
The all-time classic Next Generation episode “Q Who” rolled around again in the nightly airing of vintage Trek shows on the Heroes & Icons cable channel.
The episode title had a question mark on the script, by the way, but not in the actual episode, above. (Go here for a Star Trek script archive.)
This episode was such a thrill to watch in the spring of 1989. I’ve talked about this before, but the first two years of The Next Generation were rocky ones for us fans.
We were so excited to have a new Star Trek on the air, with such terrific production values. But the first season had been tarnished by Gene Roddenberry’s meddling, and it wasn’t until the third season that the show found its way under new writing showrunner Michael Piller.
In-between was a largely undistinguished second season that was hamstrung by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike: there were 22 episodes, not the usual 26, and the season premiere was a rewritten script, “The Child,” from the aborted 1977–78 Star Trek: Phase II project (which had morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture). For that matter, the season finale was a horrendous “clips show,” “Shades of Gray,” to save money.
In charge of the writing staff was veteran TV producer Maurice Hurley, who had emerged in the middle of season one as the “last man standing” from Roddenberry’s capricious “Mad King” rule—a kind of Irish drinking buddy who at least knew how to write, and stabilized the show after Roddenberry (and his meddling lawyer, Leonard Maizlish) agreed to step back from actively ruining each and every episode with cringeworthy Wesley scenes.
I’ll be a total nerd today and give my breakdown of the season two episodes, as I vividly remember watching them all, first-run. (We finally got cable TV around Christmas 1988, allowing me to watch the episodes without the broadcast snow of channel 5 from Boston.)
All-time classics: The Measure of a Man, Q Who.
Outstanding: Elementary, Dear Data, A Matter of Honor, The Emissary, Peak Performance.
Okay: Loud as a Whisper, The Dauphin, Contagion, Time Squared, Pen Pals, Up the Long Ladder.
Ugh: The Child, Where Silence Has Lease, The Outrageous Okona, The Schizoid Man, Unnatural Selection, The Royale, The Icarus Factor, Samaritan Snare.
All-time stinkers: Manhunt, Shades of Gray.
You learn a lot about a showrunner by watching his or her series. For me the quintessential Maurice Hurley episode is “Time Squared,” in which the ship retrieves a delirious Captain Picard from six hours in the future, after the Enterprise has been destroyed, and has to figure out how to stop it from happening (again).
Cool concept, right? It is. Kind of unforgettable, in fact.
And yet the episode—written by Hurley himself—is bleak, pointless, and ultimately mean-spirited.
There were a bunch of second-season episodes like that—particularly “Where Silence Has Lease” and “The Royale.”
For Hurley, space was a bleak, dark, nihilistic place where nothing made sense and you were left to stew in your own frustrations—which is pretty much what we, as the audience, had to do while he was in charge.
Hurley was also responsible for canning Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher, who he personally and professionally loathed (one senses a lot of sexism there—McFadden was like an outspoken New York theater person who freely complained when something stunk).
I quite like Diana Muldaur as Dr. Pulaski. She’s a vivid actress with a ton of smarts, kind ahead of her time as far as portraying a commanding yet feminine leader. And I’m not just saying this because she retired to my hometown, where she was partly raised.
(True story: I read a Starlog article where Muldaur mentioned her family’s connection to the Vineyard. I realized a high school classmate I knew, who was a year younger than me, had the same last name. I asked her the next chance I got, and before I could finish the sentence, I heard the MOST THRILLING WORDS IN ALL OF HIGH SCHOOL: “Yeah, my aunt’s on Star Trek.” The family actually arranged a brief meeting for me with “Aunt Dinny” upon her next visit, which was the highlight of my young life. Many thanks to all the Muldaurs, who were always so patient with nosy Star Trek fans—or at least, this particular fan.)
Alas, it was professional malpractice to make Pulaski critical of Data being an android. They thought they were reviving the Spock–McCoy “feud”—but Spock was tough and arch and could defend himself with a deadpan joke. Good grief, picking at Data was like kicking a puppy. It made the audience hate the new doctor. What were they thinking?
After Hurley quit at the end of season two, Rick Berman rehired Gates McFadden—practically on the same day. Muldaur had never meshed with the rest of the company and doesn’t look on the show as a fond memory. But it is true she was there for an entire year; she should be thought of as more than a footnote.
Back to “Q Who”: credit where credit is due! Hurley wrote this personally and it introduced the most consequential alien race of modern-day Trek: the Borg.
It’s an absolutely phenomenal, entertaining episode—brilliantly directed by Rob Bowman and scored by Ron Jones—in which Q arrives, having been kicked out of his god-like continuum, asking to join the crew. Picard says no.
Q, to prove that Picard needs him, sends the Enterprise flying into far-off space to encounter the terrifying Borg—a man–machine hybrid species who operate as an insect-like hive and are the ultimate, unstoppable adversaries.
They were so unstoppable, in fact, that they had to be modified in their subsequent appearances—to the point where they became unrecognizable from the original concept.
But wow, those first two episodes: “Q Who” and the cliffhanger half of “The Best of Both Worlds.” It’s not just dramatic, it’s practically biblical.
And “Q Who” sticks the landing. The ship is about to be Borg food. Picard—in one of a million indelible moments brought to life by Patrick Stewart—admits he was wrong and asks Q to save them:
The end of this episode, as Picard and Guinan realize the Borg will be coming for them—whoa. We were all like, I wanna watch that!
In the end, it was so awesome to contemplate precisely because it was so impossible to realize. The Borg come and destroy the Federation—well, obviously, that can’t happen.
But if the Federation defeat the Borg—well, then the Borg weren’t the awesome foe we thought they were, were they?
And that’s pretty much the cop-out of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II.” It turns out that “Part I” was so powerful precisely because Michael Piller wrote it thinking he was leaving the show—he had no idea how to resolve the story, at the time, because it wasn’t his problem.
So when he stayed and had to find a way to write the good guys out of their apocalypse—he came up with the “sleep-mode” gag. It was the best of a bunch of bad options, but it was anticlimactic.
If they had been really planning ahead, the only way to do a Borg storyline while keeping the integrity of the Borg would be to find, say, the Borg’s ancient enemy and make a deal with them for protection—only to find out the enemy is actually worse.
That way you can have human drama with the new enemy, while respecting the conception of the Borg as a species utterly without human weakness—because the Borg, by definition, had no humanity, and you can’t do drama without humanity.
Well, what do I know?
“Q Who” remains a high-water mark in all of Star Trek, and it’s always fun to watch.
If you think you know everything about Star Trek (Neil S. Bulk!), try browsing the aforementioned script archive.
The “Q Who” script has some deleted bits, like this moment with Geordi and Sonya in engineering which would have stopped the pacing dead in its tracks during the Enterprise’s final flight from the Borg:
If you’re finding this blog post via some of my social media outreach, go here for the other Star Trek-related columns I’ve written.
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Thanks folks! Warp speed!