On Star Trek, 'Q' Is For 'Quite Extraordinary'
The all-powerful plot device known as Q provided several Star Trek series with a necessary dose of perspective and snark -- and paved the path for our culture of internet commenters.
The sci-fi series of the late 1980s and early 1990s were painfully earnest; it wasn't until the very late 1990s and 2000s that the conventions of the spaceship genre bent away from "hypercompetent idealists have a tricky day at work" toward the "a crew of screw-ups accidentally get things right" premises of Farscape and Firefly. Picard could drop a line like "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives....We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity," and the audience could nod along, because of course that's what very sincere people in unflattering jumpsuits would be interested in doing. At a certain point, this sort of high-minded solemnity needed a corrective. That very necessary corrective was Q.
Q was the guy who strode into a scene, assessed a Klingon, then cooed, "Macrohead...with a microbrain." And then, years later, greeted the Klingon again with "Microbrain! Growl for me -- let me know you still care!" This callback schtick was both funny, and a foretaste of the kind of extended performance comedy that took over the internet in the last decade.
Q was a gossip, a dispenser of casual insults -- and, as such, he forced all those ceaselessly improving Starfleet prigs to rise to a challenge and actually become better. Sure, every episode Q was in would have him admitting to learning some sort of lesson, but the more interesting side effect was how Q forced every Starfleet captain he met into figuring out when one held one's temper and when one used one's anger as a way to get shit done.
Q was glorious because he was impervious to the Starfleet ethos. Why should an omnipotent, immortal being care about being competent, polite, and focused on the betterment of anything? That's so eight billion years ago. It's far more fun to troll people, and Q was providing an on-screen primer from the Bush I administration on. Q is the ur-Internet Commenter, someone with a blithe disregard for facts, courtesy, conversational give-and-take, community guidelines, or reality. (Okay, so the last one is legitimate -- see also "omnipotent, immortal being.")
Only Q has more style. He appeared in only twelve episodes across three different Star Trek series, but he's worn everything from a Civil War uniform to a monk's habit to a pirate's costume to a red silk robe meant to entice Captain Janeway into becoming his baby-mama. (Spoiler: it didn't work.) Every line delivery is florid: John de Lancie's portrayal of Q does not involve chewing the scenery so much as putting it in a blender, turning it into a foam emulsion shaped like Lord Byron ("mad, bad, and dangerous to know"), then putting that back on a plate for the poor suckers required to act opposite him. It is delightful. While I enjoy the easy, platonic chemistry Q had with Janeway (whom he called "Kathy"), it's the obsessive goading Q did of Picard that I adore. When Q says, "Mon capitaine," there's no doubt he means it. Nobody else is his captain.
Thirty years ago, when Q debuted, he was an anomaly. Now, the boundaries-ignoring, snarky antihero is practically a command position on any TV spaceship. But let's all pay respect to the OG space Internet Commenter, someone who had limitless potential and used it to troll the Federation for lolz. When the writers' room invented Q, they were forecasting the future.