Ex-Borg Hugh's Character Arc in 'Picard' Embodies the Best of 'Star Trek'

The former Borg drone Hugh died in "Nepenthe," the seventh episode of Star Trek: Picard, killed by a blade thrown from the hand of Narissa (Peyton List), a Romulan spy of the Zhat Vash, a faction determined to eliminate synthetic life from the galaxy.

While Hugh died covering the retreat of Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), his life leading up to this final, fateful reunion with the former Starfleet admiral became, with his reappearance on Star Trek: Picard, one of the most gratifying transformations in Star Trek's history.

After last encountering Hugh decades earlier, leading a resistance movement against Data's unstable twin brother Lore (Brent Spiner), Jean-Luc Picard and Hugh were reunited in the Star Trek: Picard episode "The Impossible Box."

Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the ex-Borg Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco) reunite on 'Star Trek: Picard.' CBS All Access

"Welcome to the Borg Reclamation Project," Hugh says to Jean-Luc when the captain arrives on the Borg Artifact, a smile opening on a face that once conveyed nothing but the emotionless certitude of Borg assimilation. "I don't know what you're doing here, but I'll help you, anyway I can."

Even among the series' many high-profile returns—William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Data (Brent Spiner) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan)—Picard's embrace of Hugh, a minor TNG guest character, has a powerful emotional heft. Much of the credit goes to returning The Next Generation guest star Jonathan Del Arco, who this time portrays Picard's latter-day Hugh as a battle-worn campaigner, who has put down his sword and embraced a life of fellowship. While the Hugh of TNG was expressionless, even as he learned the value of individual life, Del Arco gives the Hugh of 2399 an emotional openness that's nothing like anything we've seen from a Borg or ex-Borg ("xB") before.

"You use 100 percent of yourself. Give everything you have to offer." Del Arco told Newsweek. "I'm glad to hear it's resonating."

Jonathan Del Arco as Hugh. CBS All Access

While there have been more central Borg characters to appear in Star Trek series, none have embodied the anonymous substance of Borg individuality quite like the former Borg drone Third of Five, named Hugh by Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) in The Next Generation fifth season episode "I, Borg."

Unlike Picard, who was assimilated to lead the Borg into battle against the United Federation of Planets, there's nothing special about Hugh. The Borg Queen may have chased Voyager across the galaxy to get back Seven of Nine, but Hugh means little to the Collective. After the Enterprise crew return him to the wreckage of his Borg scout vessel, the Borg reject Hugh, cutting him adrift with all the other drones "infected" by his brief experience of individuality.

Hugh as he appears in TNG episode "I Borg." CBS Home Entertainment

Ever since, he has given his life to the de-assimilation and empowerment of former Borg drones. If the Borg have a working class, Hugh is its hero.

Living aboard a decommissioned Borg Cube the Romulans call the Artifact, Hugh works with Romulan doctors to de-assimilate former Borg drones and acclimate them to life as individuals. His efforts are shown as both hopeful and dire, the scenes aboard the Borg Cube shot across two massive soundstage sets, designed to impart a Romulan prison camp oppressiveness atop the immensity of the fallen Borg threat.

"After all these years, you're showing what the Borg are, underneath," Picard tells Hugh after touring the medical facilities where former Borg drones have their cybernetic implants removed. "They're victims, not monsters."

In "Stardust City Rag," an earlier episode of Star Trek: Picard, we see the consequences faced by xBs in a galaxy that hates them when Star Trek: Voyager character Icheb (Casey King in Picard, but originally portrayed by Manu Intiraymi) is torn apart by parts harvesters.

"These people who got disconnected from the Collective and are now in the galaxy are vulnerable to predators and vulnerable to people who want to pirate their parts. They're considered scum; they're the lowest of the low, the most hated people in the galaxy," Del Arco said, describing the state of the Borg during the time of Star Trek: Picard, decades after the collapse of the hivemind. "The world has been turned upside down."

While Del Arco hadn't appeared in a Star Trek show since a 2001 episode of Voyager—in which he played a non-Borg character—his return wasn't completely out of nowhere. Del Arco spent years in collaboration with Star Trek: Picard executive producer James Duff, appearing as medical examiner Dr. Fernando Morales on two shows Duff created, The Closer and its spinoff Major Crimes, which made his Trek homecoming logically sound enough for any Vulcan.

"It's great writing and storytelling, and great makeup and costumes—we're all part of making a show," Del Arco said. "It's just such a lucky moment when it all comes together."

While Hugh embraces individuality in the original TNG role—"We are Hugh," he says, half getting it—he is a fundamentally different character on Star Trek: Picard. The Borg drone introduced in "I, Borg" is learning about the world, often slipping into the endless "why?" line of questions dreaded by parents. But by 2399, he has learned enough to be, as he describes himself with his last words, "a hopeful fool" for a better galaxy.

Hugh helps Soji and Jean-Luc escape the Borg Cube using hidden Borg Queen technology in "The Impossible Box." CBS All Access

"It was a horrible thing to happen, but his sacrifice represents hope. Giving your life is the ultimate gift. There is hope underneath despair. That's sad, but in a weird way that's a hopeful moment," Del Arco said. "You have to find the light in it. You're only a hero in the hard times."

While Hugh died in "Nepenthe" to help Jean-Luc Picard uncover the secret of synthetic intelligence and save Data's daughter Soji Asha (Isa Briones), his end is made personally powerful by the life he lived. His final sacrifice wasn't for a Starfleet admiral on a galaxy-spanning mission, but for a fellow victim of the Borg. He died protecting the xB.

The next episode of Star Trek: Picard, "Broken Pieces," will stream on CBS All Access beginning Thursday, March 12.