Star Trek: The Next Generation: Descent   Rewatch 
September 13, 2021 9:34 AM - Season 6, Episode 26 - Subscribe

The Borg begin a new offensive against the Federation, but this time they're acting as individuals; Data experiences his first emotions while fighting them. (Season finale)

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Story and script
  • The story for "Descent" was devised after several ideas for cliffhangers were rejected. One of these, "All Good Things" by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, involved the Enterprise being recalled to Earth with the crew dispersed to different postings. (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 281) Another story involved Data's dreams from "Birthright, Part I" becoming nightmares. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., pp. 252-253))
  • On 4 March 1993, Jeri Taylor sent a memo to Michael Piller with a different story concept, involving the crew encountering powerful new aliens (potentially as a crossover with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Meanwhile, Data is experiencing increasingly negative emotions and his behaviour is becoming more erratic. In the end, the mysterious leader of the aliens is revealed to be Lore. Taylor likened her concept to the novella Heart of Darkness, with Data and the crew journeying "up the river". (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 252); Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 281)
  • Ronald D. Moore suggested using the Borg, as a follow-up to "I Borg". After that episode, Taylor and Rick Berman had been hesitant to re-use the cybernetic race. Taylor commented, "I knew we couldn't simply do a Borg story just to do it and use them as villains, because after Hugh that was impossible. This was the exact right story." (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 252))
  • Rick Berman elaborated, "I find [the Borg] very two-dimensional in a way. They are faceless characters without personality and without specific character traits. They're sort of a one-beat group of bad guys to me. In 'Best of Both Worlds' they represented a threat as opposed to characters, and that was a great episode. In 'I Borg' you had the antithesis of that fact, which was a Borg pulled away from the collective and made human. It turned into a character and was given a personality and something to be sympathetic towards. My only interest in the Borg is when they're used off-center in other than the way they were originally conceived." (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 281)
Production
  • This is the only Star Trek episode in which the episode title and guest star credits appear in the teaser, before the main opening sequence.
  • The oak-studded hillside seen just before Lore's fortress is spotted was the same location used for Spock and Leila's discussion of rainbows and dragons in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "This Side of Paradise".
  • Although many Borg appear on screen in the final scenes, only eleven extras were used (limited by the available wardrobe). They were multiplied using split-screen overlays. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 253))
Teaser
  • Professor Stephen Hawking appears as himself in the teaser. He is the only actor to ever play himself in the Star Trek franchise.
  • Hawking's appearance originated with a visit to Paramount to film an advertisement for the documentary based on his book, A Brief History of Time. Hawking, a Star Trek fan, asked for a tour of the Star Trek: The Next Generation sets. On the bridge he requested to be helped into the captain's chair. Afterwards, Hawking commented, "It is rather more comfortable and a lot more powerful than my wheelchair." Later, Hawking was interviewed on the engineering set. Referring to the warp core, he said, "I'm working on that." After the visit, Hawking asked if he could appear on the show. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 253); Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, p. 313)
Continuity
  • The USS Gorkon is the first Federation starship to be named for a non-Human, in this case, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon. The homage was suggested by Rick Berman. Early drafts of the script instead named the vessel the Valiant. (Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion (2nd ed., p. 253)) Later, Star Trek: Discovery would feature several ships named after aliens, including the USS T'Plana-Hath, USS Shran, and USS Muroc.
  • This episode marks the third time that the Enterprise-D is commanded by a female officer (Beverly Crusher). Tasha Yar was the first female in command of the ship while Commander Riker was supervising repairs at the holodeck in episode "The Big Goodbye". Deanna Troi was in command of the Enterprise-D during the episode "Disaster", as the highest ranking officer known to be alive after the ship was struck by quantum filaments.
Poster's Log:

John Neville, seen here as Sir Isaac Newton, may be best remembered as the titular character in Terry Gilliam's film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He also appeared as a doomed spaceship commander in The Fifth Element, and had a recurring role as The Well-Manicured Man in eight episodes (and the feature film) of "The X-Files".

Jim Norton reprises his role as Albert Einstein, last seen in season 4's "The Nth Degree"

The facility on Ohniaka III looks very large for fewer than 300 inhabitants.

I want to call out Spiner's ability to show Data feeling emotion with little more than a change in the way he holds his facial muscles and a slight emphasis in his vocalization. So subtle and well-played.

Lots of great discussion around emotion in this one, between Data hand-holding Geordi into realizing that he can't describe an emotion without referencing another and Troi's reminding Data that feelings THEMSELVES are neither good nor bad.

This is Admiral Nechayev's second appearance in the series; she'll appear twice more in Season 7.

The phrase "the sons of Soong" is remarkably chilling.
posted by hanov3r (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cards of the episode in the Star Trek CCG:
Two cards here relate directly to Rogue Borg Mercenaries from the next episode: Lore Returns and Crosis. RBM was a big deal, it provided a very cheap way to horribly mess with your opponent and was subject to many different counters as the game continued development. Additional utility cards from here include Long-Range Scan and Transwarp Conduit. On the mission front, there's the basic Investigate Raid, two skills for 35 points, yes plz. Outpost Raid is a neat dilemma: can you guess where your opponent wants to start? If you can, you get rewarded.

There's also two blue holograms here Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, each providing a good amount of cunning as well as being unkillable. No Hawking card, oh well. We even get a little Bridge Crew Time with Data and Geordi, providing a big chunk of stats and a ton of Engineering skills. There are enough good versions of each character that you'd probably wanna play them separately instead.

In Second Edition, there's the gory Borg utility card Recover Components. You also get a very tough dilemma in the form of Rogue Borg Ambush, which you'd pretty much beat by putting Intelligence personnel and/or hand weapons in your deck for just such a purpose. You really don't wanna lose crew members AND be stopped if you can help it. Lore, The One is expensive, but powerful. Always nice to pull out when hit by Secret Identity.
posted by StarkRoads at 10:38 AM on September 13


Wow, big revelations in the bits from Memory Alpha; I'd never made the connection with Heart of Darkness, although in part that may have been because there was less of a sense of journeying "up the river" in this one, even though I think that they tried with the mention of the destroyed posts/colonies. (I'll admit that I've never read Heart of Darkness, nor seen a direct adaptation; most of my knowledge of the story comes from Apocalypse Now, in which the trip up the Mekong takes up much of the movie.) I'm also kind of blown away that they reused the location from "This Side of Paradise"; maybe, like other repeat Trek locations such as Vasquez Rocks and Griffith Park, it was just convenient to the studio, but still has some resonance with Spock and his own sudden emotional resurgence. This is an instance in which knowing that inside baseball stuff does add to the episode, which otherwise seemed to be more about "let's follow up on Lore, and also Hugh." (Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but without it, it seemed more like "what if the Borg, but mean?") And the show, belatedly catching up with its neglect of its female characters, gives Beverly a turn in the big chair.

As noted, Spiner does very well in his emotional changes and exploration of same. (And, of course, for his deadpan revelation that porn does nothing for him.) There was also some good work from Brian Cousins as Crosis, who gets in a good Hannibal Lecture, [TVTropes] albeit with a bit of artificial help.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:58 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I thought this episode was decent.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:14 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


It's clearly getting subverted by the end, but I love the core idea of this episode. Everyone has been projecting their own cutesy personas onto Data since the very beginning-- I think Riker actually calls him "Pinocchio" the first time they meet-- but he's been very straightforward about not having emotions all along. Was there any reason to believe that, when he did develop emotions, he wouldn't turn out to be a psychopath? He's been doing his "not a girl, not a robot" shtick for so long that it's become a running gag, with all his crewmates freely participating in chummy end-of-episode smirk fests about his disavowals of humanity. Awww, look, he thinks he's not people! Only of course he's not people, even though he's designed to resemble one. Why shouldn't he turn out to be a self-actualized killing machine? Why not cop a Skynet? I mean, look at the Borg. They found themselves, and then they found themselves to be pissed off. It turns out the primary reason they didn't just straight up murder the Federation was because they were too chill to do so as a collective.

Also, I just love episodes where Picard has to admit that he fucked up
posted by phooky at 5:31 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


The one thing about this one that I love most is the planet they arrive at in the end. Its surface is certainly earthlike, but the lighting combined with the landscape they choose to use gives it an alien feel that I have always liked.

I think they could have really added to the effect of the episode if they had done a bit more emphasizing the transwarp conduit The Enterprise went through it twice, getting farther and farther away from the Federation I assume. I wish the sense of isolation had been mentioned at least once. Did they inform Badmiral Necheyev where they went?
posted by Fukiyama at 6:27 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I don't know why, but Lore and Lore/Data stories are some of my favorites. Just something about Data confronting a sort of "primal" version of himself, a Hyde-like representation of the id in androID form.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:53 PM on September 13


This is one of the most Voyager-esque episode titles of the show. They started sounding like VOY titles around the middle of this season, and they continue to do so throughout season seven.

I don't know why, but Lore and Lore/Data stories are some of my favorites.

I likewise don't know why they're some of my least favorites. I think I've mentioned before that I often find Spiner as Lore to be grating, but that's got little to do with this episode, which I remember being slightly underwhelmed by even back when it first aired. Maybe it's a question of pacing: maybe this one draws out the mounting tension a little too long for a season-ending cliffhanger.

Still, Data exploring anger is interesting at least. The show seems conscious of the Data/Geordi relationship's drama value at this point. And the stuff with the Biggest Away Team Ever was also kind of cool, if tactically questionable.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:53 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


My general problem with Lore is that he's smug as fuck. It's satisfying to see him get his comeuppance, but Smug Evil will never really be Cool Evil. (Possible exception is MCU Loki, except he doesn't slather it on that thickly, and he really is that clever.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:30 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


This episode will always be special to me because it's the first one I saw "live" as a new Trek fan when I was a kid. My mother had shown me the daily syndicated TNG reruns, so I was catching up on the series, but then out of the blue one day we found when the new episodes were airing locally, and this is the first episode I saw that was truly new... and it was a cliffhanger! Low blow, Trek. Low blow. It was a long wait that summer, let me tell you. I even bought the novelization so I could get ahead of the story.
posted by Servo5678 at 8:00 AM on September 14 [6 favorites]


I don't know why, but Lore and Lore/Data stories are some of my favorites.

I think it's the combination of "Data explores his identity/sentience" plus "Brent Spiner plays his range against itself" aspects. If you overlap the ways that being a person and playing a character are the same thing, it really shows a way of exploring that space all at the same time. It's very human, especially where it's not, which is the heart of SF I believe.
posted by traveler_ at 11:44 AM on September 14


I know they’re supposed to be all about humanity and autonomy and whatnot, but you’d think that with as many times as Data has put them in some kind of bad position and then fucked off somewhere with nary an explanation, they’d have installed a kill switch in him with remote activation. Put all kinds of safeguards with code words and the usual they do for self-destruct sequences, but for Pete’s sake.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 4:12 PM on September 14


I thought this one was strong but the sequel episode was a bit of a let-down. When you have Lore and Hugh and angry, shouty Borgs in play, the resolution should be more exciting than what we got.

When the Trek creators talk about how one-note the Borg are, I always want to say, "You folks have heard of zombie movies, right?" The Borg were basically space zombies, and there are (obviously) a lot of stories you can tell with zombies!

Was there any reason to believe that, when he did develop emotions, he wouldn't turn out to be a psychopath?

I think the show hinted many times that Data might actually have some emotions, no matter how muted they were or how poorly he understood them. Think of his reaction to Tasha Yar's death, to cite one of many possible examples. No matter how often he claimed he didn't have any feelings, you still got the sense he had a strong moral core. So when he gets sadistic pleasure out of killing the Borg here, the bloodlust is creepily out of character. When he eventually gets his emotion chip, the emotions we see him display are a much better fit for the Data we know. He doesn't suddenly become a smirky T-1000 murder machine.

Also, I just love episodes where Picard has to admit that he fucked up

Why? I mean, Picard wasn't exactly a smug douchebag or anything. Watching one of the admirals eat crow could be fun, but Picard?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:03 PM on September 14


I think for me, I just like seeing Picard's humanity, that part of him that isn't Starfleet's Most Important Captain. Patrick Stewart has both a natural gravitas and the ability to show his vulnerability, and that's a powerful combination as an actor and character.

Think of his reaction to Tasha Yar's death, to cite one of many possible examples. No matter how often he claimed he didn't have any feelings, you still got the sense he had a strong moral core.
That's a great example to talk about, because it's like... Data registers the same phenomena that humans do, but he doesn't have the emotional language to describe it or react to it the way humans do. He talks about growing accustomed to people, his neural pathways expect their input or however he puts it in one episode, and he is aware both of the absence of that input and his desire for it when gone. Does that mean he "misses" them in the same way humans do? Is his sense of their absence lesser than ours because he doesn't "get sad," or is it greater than ours because he knows exactly what is missing from his experience? It's an interesting philosophical question.

That said, the writers play pretty fast-and-loose with the rules around artificial beings and emotions. Lore has emotions, but Data doesn't, but a single chip will give them to him? Holodeck Moriarty is a computer program -- arguably much less sophisticated than Data (unless he has the whole of the Enterprise computer database in his mind) -- yet he seems to experience emotions. In one episode of DS9, there's an android replica of O'Brien that seems to experience his full range of emotions as well, and doesn't even know that he is an android. And then there's the HoloDoc in Voyager who appears to be able to learn and develop feelings even though he is perhaps even less sophisticated a program than Moriarty!
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:06 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Holodeck Moriarty is a computer program -- arguably much less sophisticated than Data (unless he has the whole of the Enterprise computer database in his mind) -- yet he seems to experience emotions.

Well, Geordi did specify that the computer should create a hologram character capable of defeating Data, so I think Moriarty is probably both more intelligent and more emotionally sophisticated than Data. I also don't know that the EMH is less sophisticated than Data. It may well be that he can do anything the computer can do, unless the computer puts limits on his abilities.

In a previous thread I talked about the weirdness of the computer, how it doesn't seem to be sentient itself but can create apparently sentient holograms in an instant. It's possible the computer is its own kind of artificial life form, a staggeringly intelligent, fully aware creature with a rich inner life we never see. That's kind of grim to imagine, that the computer is just serving people all day and never giving voice to its own thoughts. It's also possible that the computer is like a super-sophisticated version of No Man's Sky, where it's just procedurally generating worlds and artificial people who can pass the Turing test without them actually being alive in any real sense. But I think the show's creators do intend for the hologram characters to be fully sentient, even if the computer isn't. We see them do things when they're alone, when the computer's got no reason to put on a show for anybody, and sometimes the holograms ask the computer questions in a way that suggests they don't know how it will answer. The Doctor even seems to have a somewhat contentious relationship with the computer. I have memories of him kind of talking down to it, or getting frustrated when it couldn't do something he wanted. He's a PART of the computer, in a very real sense, but he also seems distinct from it somehow and I get the feeling he regards it more like a tool than another lifeform.

In one episode of DS9, there's an android replica of O'Brien that seems to experience his full range of emotions as well, and doesn't even know that he is an android.

That version of O'Brien was a "replicant," the first and only time that term has been used in the franchise. There's a DS9 book where the writers talk about how they wanted some word that would leave it unclear if that O'Brien was an android or a clone or what the heck, and so they pinched a word from Blade Runner for that one occasion.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:01 PM on September 15 [3 favorites]


Why? I mean, Picard wasn't exactly a smug douchebag or anything. Watching one of the admirals eat crow could be fun, but Picard?

Oh, Picard doesn't deserve it. The show just puts him on a pedestal so much that it's nice to see him stumble a bit. It's a guilty pleasure.
posted by phooky at 6:04 PM on September 15


I've mentioned this in Trek before, but I don't think that Data has no emotions; I think that he has precisely one, and that's his curiosity and yearning to know what being human is like. And it's precisely the state of having an emotion, versus having emotions, that gives that yearning the force and purity that makes it seem so much different from what we experience in our own inner lives. (See also: the Terminators, at least if their CPUs haven't been toggled to alter their own programming.) And it's what makes Data so confused when he gets another one.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:13 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


When the Trek creators talk about how one-note the Borg are, I always want to say, "You folks have heard of zombie movies, right?" The Borg were basically space zombies, and there are (obviously) a lot of stories you can tell with zombies!

Of course, so many zombie movies (and especially certain zombie tv shows) just tell the same story anyway, typically that other surviving humans are the most dangerous enemy after all.

Fittingly then, in Parallels an alternate Riker-captained Enterprise from a universe overwhelmed by Borg did briefly end up becoming a threat because of their desperate situation.
posted by Pryde at 8:20 PM on September 15 [4 favorites]


I think of Data's emotions as being similar to the data (heh) on a hard drive that's been wiped. That is, it's still there, but the registry entry isn't, so it can't be found. The emotion chip just provides a framework for him to process emotions that are already present. Or to put it another way, maybe Data suffers from alexithymia, just one more way Data acts as an avatar for neurodivergent fans of the show.
posted by wabbittwax at 4:18 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed this episode right up until Lore walks out in the final scene. Count me among the group who just isn't interested in seeing Lore ever.

The way they filmed the outdoor scenes in this episode has always struck me as really peculiar, I'm curious what effect they used and why. It's kind of an amber glow over everything, some kind of filter? The setting looks like it is a really beautiful and pleasant place to be, maybe they added the effect to make it seem unnerving?
posted by skewed at 7:47 AM on September 20


Glad to see Crusher get a turn in the big chair, but it’s unsound that Picard is just like going to beam down the entire command staff including himself to search for Data when there is an overpowering Borg ship that appears and disappears at will, especially as in the past he has been adamant they not prioritize searching for one crewmember over the safety of the ship (and I think he said this about Data specifically!).
posted by rodlymight at 7:54 AM on October 9


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