Responding to an attack on a Federation outpost, the Enterprise unexpectedly encounters the Borg. But they've changed dramatically since their last encounter with our heroes; now fiercely individual and driven by bloodlust, they have no apparent interest in assimilation, only destruction. Alarming as this is, there may be an even greater concern for Data, who experiences his first emotion during the Borg attack -- a violent outburst of anger that may be his first step in becoming a sociopath.
No one could ever accuse The Next Generation of overusing their most popular adversary, the Borg. (Voyager would be the series to do that.) This was the first time the nemesis had been seen since "I Borg," which itself came nearly two full years after "The Best of Both Worlds." The problem (as I see it) was that that Borg cliffhanger was so powerful, so iconic, that any attempt at another Borg season ender was inevitably going to compare badly.
But "Descent" didn't actually start out as a Borg story. Several ideas for the season finale had fallen through (including one about Data's newfound dreams turning into nightmares), when the writers decided to take some inspiration from Heart of Darkness. They envisioned Data's desecnt into corruption (the inspiration for the episode title) at the hands of his insane brother Lore. But they felt a further catalyst was needed. (Indeed, the finished episode doesn't even reveal Lore until the final seconds.) Writer Ron Moore suggested that this catalyst could be the Borg, and showrunner Jeri Taylor lifted her ban on using them because of the potential to depict them differently (and not simply as villains).
This could explain why the writers were willing to attempt another "Borg cliffhanger"-- because to them, the Borg were secondary to the tale of Data's emotional awakening. But unfortunately, I don't find this story very compelling either. There are just too many reasons not to believe that Data will become a sociopath. For one, if they were going to write Data off the show, they certainly wouldn't make us hate the character on his way out the door. For another, even Troi doesn't believe Data can turn evil, explaining it to him in a counseling session (with a good example of how anger can be a productive emotion). And on more nitpicky level, this isn't Data's first emotion. That was a huge belly laugh from Q, which on at least some small level should alleviate the concern that Data is only capable of negative emotion.
Then again, a lot of characters aren't acting much like themselves in this episode. Picard (he of many speeches from the moral high ground) is suddenly not sure that what is "moral" equates to what is "right." (Good line, though.) Near the end of the episode, he is allowed to beam down to a planet that might be crawling with Borg -- with no objection from Commander Riker. Stranger still, the captain decides to leave Crusher in command of the ship. (Though at least that sets up some good material for the doctor in Part II.) Plus, of course, there's the Borg, who in gaining individuality and ranged combat weapons seem to have lost their signature personal shields.
Actually, the one scene that really works completely comes right at the top of episode: the holodeck poker game between Data, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking. This is the only time in all of Star Trek that someone played himself on the show, and it came about because Stephen Hawking asked. The writers were eager to accommodate him, though staff writer Naren Shankar recalled that they struggled for a long time to come up with a sufficiently "profound" scene for the professor to play. Michael Piller ultimately solved that problem by suggesting they eschew the profound and go with a poker game.
According to producer Rick Berman, Hawking himself did a writing pass on his own scene -- and the writers weren't about to re-write him. Much of the humor was Hawking's contribution, from a highbrow "perihelion precession of Mercury" joke at Isaac Newton's expense (because Newtonian physics couldn't explain it until Einstein's General Theory of Relativity), to the more accessible "Wrong again, Albert" (a nod to how Hawking in turn has disproved some of Einstein's work).
By all accounts, Stephen Hawking's sense of humor should come as no surprise. During a tour of the set he took during this episode, he remarked of the warp engine, "I'm working on that." (It was also one of the rare occasions he asked to be lifted out of his wheelchair... so that he could sit in the captain's chair.) Brent Spiner has also told a story of running into Hawking many months after filming this scene, and having the professor demand "where's my money?" (That is, his winnings from the fictional poker game.)
- Hawking's appearance as himself isn't the only Star Trek "first" in this episode. For the first time (and only time, in all of Star Trek), the episode credits run over the teaser instead of Act One. I'm not sure if they didn't want to distract from the action of the Borg fight, or if Act One in fact ran too short to fit all the credits in.
- This was the first time a shootout scene was filmed without live sparks or flames. All the "phaser hits" in the sequence were generated in post-production.
- This episode is also the first time a Starfleet ship is named for a non-human. The Gorkon (a shout-out to Star Trek VI) was named when Rick Berman requested an alien reference.
- In another Star Trek VI connection, the exterior of the building on the Borg planet was the same location where the Khitomer conference was filmed.
"Descent" is an unfortunate mix of several less-than-convincing ideas. I'd say it wraps up season six on a disappointing C+.
And since that is the end of season six, it's time for a short recap. The season was very strong overall, with only a couple of outright clunkers and a great many A- efforts. I'd say the top 5 episodes, starting with the best, are "Chain of Command, Part II," "Tapestry," "Chain of Command, Part I," "Relics," and "Second Chances" -- though many other excellent episodes get crowded off the list by limiting it to just five.
Next up, the seventh and final season!