(This article contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard Season 3.)
We typically think of a hero in a sci-fi action series like Star Trek as someone who never surrenders. James T. Kirk famously cheated on his Kobayashi Maru test because he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios. Seasons often end with epic, large-scale space battles in which the enemies get blown up, and sometimes we need that; it can be cathartic to watch when the real world isn’t as simple. In Star Trek and our society, we tend to equate surrender with failure, but that is not necessarily the case.
Nancy Colier in Psychology Today defines it this way:
“When we surrender (…) [we] don’t give up to or on the situation, but rather, we give up the notion that we should be able to or can manage the situation, that we can control any of it.”
Giving up on the situation is what the crew of the U.S.S. Titan would have done, if they had handed Jack Crusher over to Vadic in s03e08 “Surrender.” They refuse to do this, out of loyalty to the Crusher-Picard family, but also because they still have some control over the situation through Jack’s telepathy. He uses his newfound powers on the hostages Vadic is holding, which allows the crew to ultimately defeat her.
In the same episode, however, another conflict ends with a very different outcome. Android brothers Data and Lore, enemies since their creation, fight for control of their shared body. Data knows that Lore is more ruthless and aggressive than he is. He also knows that Lore has always wanted what Data had, ever since he tried to take Data’s place aboard the Enterprise when they first met (TNG s01e13 “Datalore”). So instead of continuing a battle he knows he can’t win, Data gives Lore everything: all his cherished memories of his shipmates, his best friend, his first love, and his cat. By taking those memories as his own, Lore essentially becomes Data. They embrace inside their mindscape and merge into a single consciousness.
According to Colier, though, this is not a true surrender, since sharing the memories is a deliberate tactic on Data’s part. He is still managing the situation; he knows exactly what his brother will do. However, in “The Last Generation,” when Jean-Luc Picard surrenders to the Borg Collective, he has no idea what will happen.
The Borg have been a nightmare for Jean-Luc ever since he was assimilated over 30 years ago (TNG s04e01 “The Best of Both Worlds Part II”, s04e0 “Family”). He hates and fears them enough to have considered genocide against them (s05e23 “I, Borg,” Star Trek: First Contact). When his son Jack’s mysterious mental powers turn out to be an inherited connection to the Borg, Jean-Luc sees this connection as a problem that needs to be fixed. Jack, who’s only known his father for a few days, takes this the wrong way and assumes that he is the problem. He runs away to confront the Borg Queen on his own and is promptly assimilated and given the name “Vox” (“voice”) to match his father, once known as Locutus (“he who has spoken”) . Jean-Luc follows his son to the Queen’s cube, plugs into the hive mind and tries to reason with Jack, who is too far gone as Vox to listen. Jean-Luc is trapped inside his deepest fear, being taunted by his worst enemy. He’s out of options and he knows it. This is his response:
“Then if you won’t leave, I’ll stay with you to the end.”
He doesn’t know that by saying this, he will finally get through to Jack, who will defeat the Borg Queen, turn the tide of the traditional space battle, and allow himself and his father to be rescued by the Enterprise. All Jean-Luc knows at this point is that he loves his son enough to surrender everything, even himself.
“We can do everything right and well, and still not reach the goal we had set out to achieve. When we turn the results over, we are, amazingly, granted access to the present moment in a new and fresh way.” (Colier)
Jean-Luc has done everything he could to protect Jack from danger since learning of his existence, but he realizes he can’t. What he can do is be there for his son, even inside the hive mind. It is this moment that allows Jack to look at their relationship in a fresh way, to understand that his father loves him, and that the hive mind is no substitute.
“I am not alone,” he says to the furious Borg Queen, just before she and her cube explode
“Resistance is futile” is the Borg Collective’s mantra. Every encounter they have with Starfleet proves this to be wrong, with Starfleet resisting in all sorts of ways: reversing assimilation (“The Best of Both Worlds”, VOY s04e01 “Scorpion”), infecting the hive mind with a virus (“I, Borg”, VOY s07e26 “Endgame”), or even negotiating a truce with Jurati’s Collective (PIC s02e10 “Farewell”). Ironically, the moment Jean-Luc stops resisting becomes the moment of the Borg’s most conclusive defeat.
Jean-Luc’s results on the Kobayashi Maru as a cadet are unknown (although I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has written fan fiction about it), but it’s clear he understands its meaning. Kirk understood it too, when he saluted Spock for his choice to die for the crew in The Wrath of Khan.
Our greatest heroes are not those who never surrender, but those who understand when surrender is its own victory.