“Q Who?” would turn out to be one of the most influential episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It introduced some of the nastiest villains in science fiction: the Borg.
Derived from the word “cyborg,” the Borg were meant to give The Next Generation what the Ferengi could not: a deadly, remorseless enemy.
Their presence had been hinted at in the final episode of the first season, “The Neutral Zone,” and later revelations in the series suggested they were responsible for the disappearance of Romulan outposts mentioned at the time.
Budget restraints prevented the Borg from being depicted as insectoids, which is what Maurice Hurley, the writer of “Q Who?”, originally had in mind. But the hive concept he introduced survived to become the Borg Collective.
In addition, the Borg’s unique cube-shaped ship and their eerie appearance — reminiscent of both the biomechanism designs of H. Giger and the cybernetic, laser-eyed Lord Dread from the 1987 series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future — all contributed to the Borg ascending to the heights of Star Trek villainy, exactly as Hurley had intended.
Designing the first Borg costumes presented Star Trek‘s resident costume designer, Durinda Rice Wood, with a challenge: these half-machine, half-human creatures were supposed to look like nothing the TV viewer had ever seen before.
“They said to me, ‘This is going to be the new bad guy of the universe’,” she recalled years later.
They wanted a new bad guy and they wanted it to be a cyborg. They wanted something that was cold and like an automaton, they all kind of looked alike and they didn’t have emotions. That’s what was going to be the scary thing about it. I was tired of the futuristic, clean, stainless steel imagery of the time. I was interested in more texture, the ugliness of humanity and the ugliness of nature. The idea was always that they would be half human and half mechanical. Their body parts would wear out and they would replace them with mechanical parts, so I wanted to make all of the mechanical parts different and unique for each person, thinking that their parts would wear out at different times. You know, when you get older one hip goes and that gets replaced and it happens differently for everyone.
Wood’s first designs were inspired by a H.R. Giger drawing, who was known for his work on the film Alien movie.
One idea was to integrate the Borg’s face with the body, but time restraints made it hard to pull off:
I wanted it to melt into the costume more, but they wanted the face to be bright white. The thing is, we couldn’t do it. We just couldn’t do it in a week — we could have done it in three weeks. For something that the world has never seen before, you need time to develop it and invent it!
Wood came up with the idea of running tubes connecting different parts of the Borg costume. This helped to make it clear each drone was unique.
She also planned to give the Borg a complex color scheme that mixed different shades of black to create a dark, distinctly organic look.
I wanted them to be a little bit more greeny black. In fact, in the first rendition of them the skin underneath was a dark, dark greeny black and the parts on top were black. So overall there would be a feeling of inky, greeny black — a sort of a sewer black. I didn’t want it to be regular black.
The realities of television production intervened and the finished drones were a uniform color. The Borg only acquired a more complex color scheme for Star Trek: First Contact, which had the advantage of a feature film budget.
The producers originally intended the Borg to be without recognizable genders.
We were trying to make them androgynous. I remember somebody — I think it was Rick [Berman] — saying they shouldn’t be totally male or female. That was part of the scariness of them; you couldn’t work out whether they were male or female.
In the end, nearly all the Borg actors were male, but one of Wood’s early drawings shows a female drone, years before the viewer was introduced to Seven of Nine and the Borg Queen.
Because the Borg combined costumes, makeup and props, Illustrator Rick Sternbach was asked to give his input.
He recalled that his sketches were a little different from Wood’s:
My drawings had a number of implants and some kind of a suit for the actor to wear. My early take on the color was more of a silvery gray.
The next person to weigh in would be Robert Blackman, who replaced Wood as costume chief during the third season.
The Borg outfits remained pretty much the same for “The Best of Both Worlds” but were significantly reworked for the episode, “I, Borg.”
That was a conscious effort to make them look less like jumpsuits with things applied to them and more like full bodysuits. They were brilliantly created by Durinda in such a short amount of time, but I felt that we had used them over and over again and eventually you think, […] there’s too much space in between all of the stuff. The connecting tissue was more dominant than the actual object, so I just visually reduced it and we tried to butt as much stuff up against each other as we could and still have the actors move. Then eventually I think Rick [Berman] and I came up with this together — we repainted them so that they were a little bit more rusty, a little bit less perfect.
Makeup Supervisor Michael Westmore explained how the Borg’s makeup evolved:
The idea was that the Borg were almost drained of their blood. If we had them the same color as a human, they wouldn’t be as scary, so their skin went very pale and we shadowed them.
The original headpieces Westmore designed were relatively simple affairs that featured the tubing Wood had designed for the costumes.
They wanted to keep the makeup down, because they had all the dressing to go through, so the heads in the very beginning were like helmets with a lot of tubing running around them.
When Patrick Stewart was assimilated into the Collective and became Locutus of Borg, though, a more sophisticated look was required.
My son Michael, who did all the Borg electronics in the eyes and the head, found this little laser that was only one inch long. We mounted it on Patrick Stewart as Locutus. There’s that scene at the end of the first part of “The Best of Both Worlds” where Patrick turns his head and looks directly into the camera with his laser. We had no idea what was going to happen. Boy, the phone rang! Rick [Bermanj saw it and said, “Oh, my God, what a great effect!”
For Star Trek: First Contact, Production Designer Herman Zimmerman had hired Ricardo Delgado, who had previously worked on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, to come up with Borg concepts.
Delgado was only able to provide a few ideas before being hired by Disney. The task of creating a look for the sinister yet seductive Borg Queen fell to Debra Everton, who, together with Gina Flanagan, did all the costumes for First Contact, except the new Starfleet uniforms.
She called she came up with a similar silhouette to the old Borg, “but much more elaborate for a feature’s scope.”
I wanted it to look like they were Borgified from the inside out rather than outside in. It was tricky to get the layers and the depth into the costumes so it would look like the piping and the tuving were coming out of them. We collaborated on the headpieces with Michael Westmore. I’m really happy with them. And when you see them all lit and in their element, they’re very creepy.
Makeup was still Westmore’s department. Rick Berman had told him, “This is our chance to see the Borg the way we’ve always wanted them to do them.” That meant a lot more detail. It had taken an average of two hours to apply the Borg makeup for television. For the movie, that became five hours.
The first thing that changed was the helmet. Supposedly that’s where the Borg’s biomechanical components make their connection with the body. Berman wanted to see that connection revealed.
Instead of having an entire helmet, now we have these individual pieces that are on the head, so you get this bald look. That way the pieces look like they’re clamped into the head individually, instead of being a full cap that pulls over the top.
The film also marked a long overdue first for the Borg. Whereas previous drones were all assimilated humans or human-like species, Star Trek shows fans assimilated Bolians, Klingons and Vulcans.
“One day for the fun of it, when I came in they had thrown some Bajoran noses on some Borg,” said Westmore, “so we had some Bajoran Borg.
Then near the end, I asked Rick about letting me do a Cardassian Borg. You have to look quick for him because he only worked two or three days.
Text adapted from Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens, Star Trek: The Next Generation — The Continuing Mission (1998)