Star Trek: The Next Generation Recap – Breaking Down Q

Writing these recaps is proving tougher than I thought, mostly due to the time commitment, so I’ve decided to approach these differently.  Rather than recapping whole episodes, I’m going to focus on a particular topic that covers multiple episodes.  I’ll be writing these as I go along, so won’t necessarily cover future episodes in any particular detail and may well require an update if something else comes to mind as I watch.  For the first of these, I’ll be looking at the evolution of the depiction Q’s character up to his season 3 appearance, Deja Q.

Star Trek: TNG had quite a few reoccurring characters outside of the main crew.  Few of them would be as memorable as the omnipotent trickster Q though.  So much so, that he would be a part of the show’s very first episode, Encounter at Far Point, as well as its last, All Good Things….  Wonderfully played by John De Lancie, Q’s appearances would regularly result in him being a thorn in the side of the Enterprise’s crew, in particular Captain Picard.  The reserved and introverted Captain, would regularly be weary of the antics of the mischievous Q, a being that was so above all around him that they were merely playthings for him to kick around and occasionally dissect.  As an audience member, his antics and the increasingly despairing Captain were a joy to watch.

Q was not always this impish figure though.  Although there are regular moments of him playing dress up and goading the crew in his early appearances, it was accompanied with a level of masochism and misanthropy, that gave the character a much more sinister edge, as well as being in many ways more in keeping with the god like powers that he demonstrated.  Not only that, but Q would be responsible for bringing the Enterprise, as well as the whole Federation, up against their most iconic and relentless foe, the Borg.

With his first appearance in the very first episode of TNG, Q is putting humanity on trial.  In many ways, this would be a central theme of many of Q’s episodes.  He always enjoyed testing the crew of the Enterprise as representatives of the human race, but with this earliest appearance it always felt like the threat was greater.  These were barely playthings for him, instead being ready to snuff them in an instant during a recreation of a post-nuclear war Earth court room.  If anything, there was greater enjoyment for him from the baying crowds, his throne floating above them all and the general setting than for the people he was toying with.  As with future encounters, this is all about Q, but here Picard and his officers are nothing more than props in his elaborate theatre.  It is only when Picard’s words manage to partly get through to him, he decides that they might be able to offer him something worth seeing.

As mentioned during my original recap of this episode, it is a shame that Q would end up being mostly in the background for the remainder of the episode, as he is by far the strongest element of the story.  There is little of that mischief that he would become known for though, so it is interesting to see that the striking judge’s outfit that he dons for the court scene would become memorable enough for it to make an appearance once again seven seasons later in the final episode.  Besides this outfit though, Q’s dress up motif was well established early on, but also takes on a far more playful vibe as the show went on.  In this opening episode, as well as the judge’s outfit, we also see Q wearing outfits evoking Earth’ history of warfare.  His first appearance is that of a conquistador, then as a mid-20th Century American army officer and lastly as a drug addicted 3rd World War soldier.  There is far less of a playfulness to these costumes, instead they are used by Q to demonstrate the violent and destructive nature of humanity and the reason that they should be annihilated.  Similarly, the images evoked by Q in his second appearance, Hide & Q, are that of the French Napoleonic era battlefield.  This is certainly done in a much more colourful fashion than the previous costumes, but it appears that he is still viewing humans through the eyes of their military conquests, a position that the crew and the show as a whole posits is something our society has moved away from (in turn, suggesting that we currently our still existing in a world in which military might is defining for our species).  Indeed, the game that Q creates for the crew is one of battle, with them fighting for their lives against a group of pig like creatures also dressed in French Napoleonic costume, armed with muskets.

The real test though remains in the same vain as his first appearance and is not one based on strength.  It is to test humanity’s resolve when given ultimate power.  Q, both the individual we see and the species as a whole, are fascinated by humanity and their potential, but they are still little more than test subjects for them.  Although Riker may very well have succumbed to the power he is given quickly, the rejection of him and his gifts from his crew is one that baffles and shocks Q.  For Q, seeing another species not wanting to take the easy option and have to work hard to achieve their goals is something that appears to be the most alien thing about this alien species.  Again, Q appears as a mirror to see our humanity and the things we consider important.  His study of humanity is central to his appearance on the show, rather than his comedic value.

With his next appearance though, Q is perhaps filling his darkest role.  Even more so than Q, The Borg would become the defining antagonist for this version of Starfleet.  Their forced collective conscience and striving for technological perfection serves as a dark mirror to everything that the Federation stands for, far more effectively and sinisterly than anything we would ever see in a Mirror Universe episode.  Thrust seven thousand lightyears away, right into the path of an oncoming Borg cube, Q forces the Enterprise to confront a seemingly unstoppable nemesis to show them how unprepared they are for dangers out in the far reaches of the galaxy.  Of all his appearances, this is the one filled with the least jovialness, as he threatens and taunts the crew and his involvement ultimately causes the death of 18 crew members, deaths that Q makes clear really happened and aren’t being corrected.  In some ways, this episode demonstrates a different path that could have been taken by Q, one in which he is a more elusive figure.  It is up for debate whether his actions have caused the Borg to take notice of the Federation and result in them attacking their space in the closing episode of Season 3, but it is heavily suggested later on that they were on their way anyway, as well as a few hints previously with references to attacks along the Natural Zone there bear similarities to destroyed cities that they discover during this episode.  If the Borg were already making their way to Earth, Q’s forced confrontation could very well have saved the destruction of Earth, along with many other planets.  Throughout the episode though, he still finds time revel in the threat he causes the Enterprise’s crew, to be proven right about his belief that they are not prepared and, most importantly, to knock Picard down a couple of pegs when he has to beg to be saved.

It is striking then that the next time we see Q, in Deja Q, it is of him stark naked dropping onto the bridge.  Here, it is clear that the show has decided that they didn’t not have more mileage for the darker Q.  Instead, it has been given over completely to comedic Q.  Barred from the Continuum and his powers removed, Q is forced to live life as all of us mortals have to, back pain out of nowhere and craving for 10 chocolate sundaes.  His evil mischief and desire to dissect what he considers lower species, are replaced by a simpler arrogance and annoying playfulness.  Not that these elements are not enjoyable to watch, but it strikes me as a lesser path that the show decided to take (this episode also gave us the Picard face palm meme, so can be forgiven for almost any sin).  The final moments also decide to make Q into sympathetic character, who decides to make a selfless act in sacrificing himself to allow the Enterprise to save a planet from a moon about to crash into them.  Fortunately, he claims the act to be purely so that he can end his mortal life quicker and his surprise realisation that it was a selfless act does come across as sincere.  This is almost immediately followed by him leading a Mariachi band, which is one of the most remembered Q moments, even it is at completely odds with previous moments of dress up of Q as members of various historic armed forces of Earth.

That is not to say that Q would never have that sinister edge again.  I think you can see signs of it again with Tapestry and also in the final episode All Good Things… but this still strikes me as a changing moment for the character.  It is the moment when Q would join Lwaxana Troi as a reoccurring side character that pop in for an episode to make a few jokes.  Fortunately, he was far better at it than Deanna’s mother, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

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