For a science fiction television show with phasers and starships and people with pointy ears and bumpy heads, Star Trek: The Next Generation was surprisingly subtle at times. So subtle, in fact, that it’s taken me until just now to realize that Guinan – played by Whoopi Goldberg – was probably the worst motivational speaker ever.
The episode I refer you to is one of, if not THE best TNG episode, “The Best of Both Worlds – Part I.” A brief run-down for the non-Trekkies out there: The crew of the Enterprise is hiding in a nebula and about to face off against the Borg, a seemingly-unstoppable foe that cannot be reasoned or bargained with and is already responsible for the destruction of countless worlds, including Guinan’s. Unable to sleep before the big showdown which may well determine the fate of not only the Enterprise, but perhaps every civilization on this side of the galaxy, Captain Picard finds himself pacing the decks and eventually in the Ten Forward lounge talking to his very old buddy.
Picard is in need of a serious confidence boost. They talk briefly of hopeless battles, of Nelson at Trafalgar, of the Fall of Rome. “This is just another page in history,” he says. “Is it the end of our civilization? Turn the page.”
Pretty much anyone else in that situation, whether they believed it or not, would have responded, “Heck no! You’re gonna go out there and beat the shit out of those Borg!” But Guinan, in all of her infinite, mysterious wisdom says, “This isn’t the end,” then recounts her world’s destruction and how her own race lives on. She then makes this declaration: “As long as there’s a handful of you to keep the spirit alive, you will prevail.”
It is, at first glance, hopeful. Strength of the human(oid) spirit, big picture, even if this goes bad, it’ll eventually turn out good kind of stuff. But rather than a pep talk from his vaguely wise pal on his darkest hour, Picard instead gets what is essentially a death sentence. What her sage words translate into is “In a thousand years, humanity will win the day, but right now, 99.9% of you are going to be wiped off the face of the universe, starting with this ship.”
It obviously isn’t the answer Picard wanted or even expected. When they cut back to him after her monologue, he is scowling, but doesn’t have an opportunity to respond as the Borg start dropping the 24th Century equivalent of depth charges into the nebula and the Captain has to head back to the bridge. The two have one last meaningful look as Picard tries to reassemble his poker face, and then the moment is over. In a few short minutes, Picard will be taken by the Borg, assimilated into their collective consciousness, and used to wipe out nearly all of Starfleet before the Enterprise crew can rescue and disconnect him. He’ll bear the psychological scars of this event for the rest of his life even though he and all of the Federation do, in fact, kick the Borg’s collective ass on numerous occasions. Still, one wonders how differently things might have gone if his old buddy hadn’t basically told him, “Yeah, you’re all gonna die.”
It is an odd moment, because Guinan is generally the person one went to when they needed good advice or a pick-me-up. As a result, she endured more than her fair share of Geordi’s whining, but never told him he should just give up on women and invest in a good bottle of lotion and some killer holodeck pornos. Data also sought her wisdom as part of his quest to become more human, and she never told him to just accept the fact that robots ain’t people. Nearly everyone on that ship came to Guinan at one point or another, and while some of them were told things they didn’t particularly like hearing, they were almost always helpful, not defeatist.
This, of course, all assumes that Guinan was perfect, which she was not. She had a keen sixth sense and centuries of experience to draw from, but she was still fallible. After enduring some long-past torment by the near-omnipotent entity, Q, Guinan thought it was a perfectly splendid idea to stab the once-god with a fork when he was temporarily mortal, and then made smug remarks at his expense when he was nearly killed by some other grudge-bearing entities. And she initially reacted badly to the Enterprise bringing on a Borg drone later in the series, but was turned around on the matter after a talk with it/him. So her speech to Picard may very well have been colored not by wisdom, but by her traumatic past.
And it may also have been the nature of the pair’s unusual relationship which was once described as “beyond friendship, beyond family.” Perhaps unlike the rest of the crew, Picard simply would not have accepted empty platitudes and false hope from Guinan, and she knew better than to try and bullshit him on the odds of survival. Even though I believe – in this one very special case – he was looking for some nice, comforting bullshit.
Writing-wise, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s incredibly difficult to create suspense on a serialized show of that nature, because you pretty much know everything’s going to work out, the hero will beat the villain, and everything will be hunky-dory come time for next week’s episode. Having the sage of the ship tell the Captain in a very carefully-measured way that they are doomed is exactly how to manufacture that suspense, especially when you follow it up with the Captain getting kidnapped and turned. By the end of “Best of Both Worlds – Part I,” we really don’t have any idea what might happen.Somewhere, deep down, we know that things will work out as they always have, but the status quo is so fucked with that cliffhanger that it’s hard to say that with certainty.
Regardless of how you look at it, Guinan’s pre-battle discussion with Picard is an incredibly nuanced, subtle, and devious moment between two wonderfully-realized characters. And though I would think twice before getting a pep talk from Guinan on the eve of a hopeless battle, I do think that moment, that relationship, and that event would have been lessened had she gone the expected, easy route and told Picard what he needed/wanted to hear. It’s those little scenes that made The Next Generation what it was, and they are very sorely lacking in modern television of any stripe.
So raise a glass to Guinan when you get a chance, and remember her inspiring (paraphrased) words: “We’re all gonna die!”