For many reasons, I watched "Q Who?" yesterday evening. I hadn't seen it in a long time, maybe fifteen years. As ever when I watch a Next Generation episode, I was vaguely disappointed at how much worse the episode was than I remembered it. TNG episodes were never quite the right length. There was always too much or not enough plot to fill the time. There's almost always too much Wesley. Plot points are hinted at, but never developed at all. "Q Who?" has two: Ensign Sonya Gomez, who could have filled the naive-but-competent niche much more believably than Wesley, and Guinan, who apparently has magical powers of which Q is afraid--watch her put her hands up when she faces off with Q in 10-Forward. But of course there were many throughout the series, perhaps most glaringly the aliens in "Conspiracy", who never showed up.
For all that, the episode is still pretty good. And I think I finally understand why. It is the episode in which the series finally buried the influence of Gene Roddenberry.
As a former Trekker, I realize that questioning the greatness of Roddenberry will strike some as nearly blasphemous, but let's not kid ourselves. Gene Roddenberry nearly killed Star Trek, and the Star Trek Gene Roddenberry liked was pretty awful. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is as near a perfect expression of Roddenberry's idealism as you can find, and it is perfectly incoherent. The plot makes no sense, not even from a superficial narrative point of view. V'Ger is nearly omniscient, but unaware of its malevolence; Will Decker is supposedly competent and qualified to command, but has almost no loyalty from his (Kirk's) senior crew; Ilia is from a species famed for its sexuality, but sworn to celibacy (which is a deeply ambivalent statement about the way in which Roddenberry conceived female sexuality); Spock is supposed to have achieved self-mastery, but deceives Kirk and everyone else to draw nearer to V'Ger; and Kirk is supposedly competent and ready to take on yet another alien threat, but doesn't even know how the new Enterprise works. As for the plot, it's almost unspeakable. The first two acts are essentially "getting the band back together"; it's telling, by the way, that only Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are shown as having the ability to even try to lead a life without the Enterprise. V'Ger itself is totally nonthreatening: its only real act of aggression against the crew is to kill Ilia, who is thus the baldest redshirt ever. And the final act culminates with Decker, fake Ilia, and V'Ger melding together and ascending into a higher plane, leaving Kirk and crew behind. The only characters to have any sort of real development, choice, or growth in the entire film are a) the son of a man Kirk destroyed, b) his robot clone lover, and c) space junk.
Think of it this way: Will Decker, a guest star about whom we know nothing, is the protagonist of TMP. No wonder no one cares about the movie! He doesn't even have a particularly interesting choice. His options are (a) do nothing, and see Earth be destroyed or (b) become a potentially omnipotent being. This is a much less interesting choice than even the Silver Surfer faced. Norrin Radd gained a portion of the power cosmic, but in order to save his world he had to give his soul to Galactus and take part in the destruction of millions of other civilizations. Will Decker, by contrast, gave up ... nothing.
And Kirk was a bystander. Re-run the entire movie without Kirk. Does anything change? Kirk is awkwardly shoved in to the entire plot, with nothing to do. Even McCoy gets to show off his deep reluctance to rejoin the service. Absolutely nothing in this analysis is weakened when you read the novelization, which Roddenberry himself wrote. Instead, the problems with the plot and the characters become even more galling, because the woman who dies on the transporter pad in the beginning of the film is Kirk's girlfriend, Lori Ciana. Even in the novel, Kirk is hardly distressed by her death.
Yet TMP is the realization of Roddenberry's vision for the series. It is superficially idealistic, its central dispute is resolved when We Understand Each Other Better, and the moral is something hazy about the human spirit (or, to take the movie poster, the "human adventure").
And that's the key to understanding why Star Trek fans were so astonished by the Borg. The Borg represent an invasion of Roddenberry's narrative by the science fiction of the 1970s and 1980s. They are, as Q explains, an enemy so remorseless, relentless, and completely opposed to everything about Roddenberry's Star Trek that there is simply no way for Picard and his crew to respond within the practiced and easy repertoire of the original series or the first season of the Next Generation. The Borg can't be bargained with, reasoned with, or outfought. Instead, in their original, pure form (roughly lasting through the end of the sixth season of TNG), they are simply the Adversary.
Nothing in Star Trek before "Q Who?" compares with the Borg except for Armus, and Armus could be safely contained, like the Talosians. Remember that Roddenberry had already decided that there would be no real enemy for the Federation in the new series. Worf had joined the bridge crew, the Romulans had retreated back behind the Neutral Zone, and the Ferengi were the closest thing Starfleet had to an enemy. The Ferengi, of course, were evil because they were greedy. Unsurprisingly, none of this worked dramatically. The writers quickly decided that Worf had to struggle with his Klingon heritage, the Romulans were re-introduced as soon as possible, and the Ferengi evolved into the shrew and useful race of DS9. To give depth to the Federation, the post-Roddenberry writers even invented the Cardassians, more threatening and sanguinary than the Romulans but also more human in their essential motivations.
The pivot for all of this re-invention was the Borg. By introducing a race with which the Federation could not be reconciled, and against which Starfleet was pitifully powerless, the writers redefined Star Trek once and for all against the episodic nature of the original series' conflicts while serving notice that the easy, New Frontier idealism of the first show was no longer operative. And the show was better for it.