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Captain Picard’s toughest moral dilemma transformed Star Trek history

Star Trek The Next Generation's Captain Picard was forced to make countless ethically challenging decisions during the series, but this one changed everything.

Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard in Star Trek TNG episode I Borg

Star Trek wouldn’t be what it is today with Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard. Tasked with creating a character to live up to Shatner’s mighty Captain Kirk, franchise mastermind Gene Roddenberry (wisely) decided that instead of trying to emulate the former captain, he should create an entirely new type of captain to lead the Enterprise in the successor series, The Next Generation.

It was one of Star Trek‘s greatest gambles and one that undoubtedly paid off. Mid-way through the second season, set almost exactly 100 years after TOS in the Star Trek timeline, Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard really began to take shape proving that he could challenge Kirk for the title of the best Star Trek captain. The primary difference between the two was that Picard was framed as a patient, reserved, somewhat cold, and deeply considered character, in contrast to Kirk’s adventurous spirit and sheer charisma.

Something that united the two best Star Trek characters (sorry Spock) though was their need to make heavy, weighty moral choices. When you’re in command of the USS Enterprise, making life-and-death decisions is just part of the job, and that was never more evident than in TNG’s classic ‘ethical dilemma’ episode, ‘I, Borg’, where Picard was forced to make his toughest decision. The implications changed Star Trek history forever.

The first TNG Borg episode after ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (an all-time great two-parter), ‘I, Borg’ sees the crew of the Enterprise-D stumble across a lone Borg survivor, wounded. It’s beamed aboard the Enterprise and healed, much to the disdain of Picard (his resentment for the Borg still fresh after his recent experience as Locutus).

Hugh in Star Trek TNG episode I Borg

Meanwhile, Geordi and Data concoct a plan to turn the Borg into a tool of mass destruction, by creating a virus that they can infect it with, and then returning it to the Borg collective. In theory, when the Borg is returned to the collective it would spread this virus through the entire collective, destroying them all. Crusher, in particular, is shocked by the proposal and fights not just for the rights of the single Borg drone (which is beginning to reclaim its individuality and is given the name Hugh) but for the whole Borg collective. She argues that the plan would be tantamount to genocide.

As is standard, the crew debates the issue while Picard listens, weighing up the options and alternatives. On one hand, he could destroy the Borg and save billions of lives by preventing their brutal, mindless conquest of the galaxy. On the other, he would be using an ‘innocent’ individual to wipe out an entire alien species. Like all the best TNG episodes, Picard is offered no good options and the characters are forced to test their concepts of morality.

Ultimately, Picard decides that he cannot condone the genocide of an entire species, no matter the consequences. The goal of The Federation and Starfleet is to explore and understand new life, not wipe it out.

The adherence to his fundamental principles, regardless of his personal experience and the chance to save countless individuals from assimilation, is what sets Picard apart as a character, and here it transformed Star Trek history. If the Borg had been destroyed, the events of the Star Trek movie First Contact would never have happened. Without the influence of Riker, Troi, and Geordi, would Zefram Cochrane ever have succeeded in creating his warp technology, leading to first contact with the Vulcans?

Then there’s the impact on Janeway’s journey in Voyager, which saw her battle against the Borg multiple times. And, of course, the Frontier Day attack in Picard season 3 never would have happened either: all those lives would have been saved, including Ro Laren, and Shelby. The ripple effect on the franchise would have been enormous. It’s a fun counter-factual to consider, but with Picard in command of the Enterprise, there was never going to be any other course of action taken. Sisko, on the other hand…

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For more on Star Trek, check out why the best of TNG is summed up in the episode ‘Tin Man’ and see our picks for the best Star Trek starships. Or, learn about why Picard’s greatest romance is also his most forgotten, before seeing what we think is the best way to watch the Star Trek movies in order. You can also see what’s new on Paramount Plus, and learn all about Avatar 3 to swap sci-fi franchises.