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In "Best of Both Worlds" part 1 act III, the Borg hail the Enterprise and demand the personal surrender of Picard:

"Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise, registry NCC-1701-D, you will lower your shields and prepare to transport yourself aboard our vessel."

Picard refuses, and the Enterprise fires on the Borg vessel. The Borg respond by capturing the Enterprise in a tractor beam, which also completely drains the Enterprise shields. Then -- instead of beaming drones over to capture Picard -- they start attacking with a cutting beam. Commander Shelby instructs Data to rotate the phaser frequencies, which disables the Borg cube and allows the Enterprise to escape to a nearby nebula.

This is a completely different tactic than what the Borg do in act IV. The Borg fire charges into the nebula, which forces the Enterprise out, where it is again captured by the Borg tractor beam. This time -- instead of using the cutting beam -- the Borg board the Enterprise, kidnap Picard, and head toward Earth.

The Borg use the cutting beam again in part 2 act V. However, this occurs after Picard has been kidnapped back by the Enterprise crew. Picard is still part of the Borg consciousness at this point, so their objective to make Picard one with the collective has already been fulfilled. They have different goals in this act.

Why do the Borg bother with the cutting beam in act III, instead of simply kidnapping Picard like they do in act IV?

  • The Borg's goal is to capture Picard. They outright state it in the quote above, and actually follow through with it in act IV.

  • They're not interested at this time in destroying the Enterprise, disabling its warp drive, or assimilating its crew. They had an easy chance to do these in act IV, but instead they headed to Earth.

  • Enterprise shields do not seem to be an impediment to the Borg's transporters. Their tractor beam drains the ship's shields, and this question shows that the Borg can transport through Starfleet shields anyway.

  • The out-of-universe answer is that it adds time to the episode, adds dramatic tension, and gives Shelby an opportunity to order the phaser frequency rotation. However, I am looking for an in-universe answer.

  • Perhaps they adapted their technique? – Liath Jan 26 at 9:54
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    If I had to guess, it's because Picard has been proven to be useless/valueless as an interlocutor in the assimilation of Earth and because the Enterprise has increased in value because of its innovative attacks. The Borg don't want to waste time assimilating it right now (Earth is the bigger prize) but they do want to disable it, prevent Picard from being used as a vector for an attack via subspace and come back for it later. – Valorum Jan 26 at 10:25
  • @Valorum: Your comment does explain why they used the cutting beam in part 2 act V. However, the question is about part 1 act III, when they clearly want to capture Picard and at that time consider him valuable. – Dr Sheldon Jan 26 at 20:10
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    @DrSheldon - He's on their 'to-do' list. – Valorum Jan 26 at 20:22
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    @Liath: You may be on to something. Perhaps the Borg are compelled to use default tactics -- even if they would be expected to fail -- and will only adapt to a new strategy after the default tactics have failed. An answer that justifies this with other examples could be an accepted answer. – Dr Sheldon Jan 26 at 20:35
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In their first encounter, the Borg are likely attempting to disable the Enterprise both to knock out a potential threat and possibly to demoralize Picard to aid in assimilating him.

By the second encounter after forcing the ship from the nebula their timetable has likely been considerably disrupted and the ship had at that point proven itself far more effective in resisting them than they had anticipated.

Given that they were now behind schedule and had to assume that Starfleet would respond with a far more powerful attack than one ship, they shifted their approach to the fastest and most direct strategy available to them.

They needed Picard’s knowledge of Starfleet’s plan and capabilities as quickly as possible to prepare an effective defense and to get themselves back on schedule. One assumes that their plans for invading Federation space extended beyond one ship assimilating Earth.

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From https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Cutting_beam

"In conjunction with the Borg tractor beam, their cutting beams were used to "scoop" pieces of starships or cities for assimilation by Borg drones and collectives."

Therefore, their original plan may have been to slice off part of the Enterprise, possibly that part where Picard was located, and assimilate the entire section. As Hugh said in the episode I, Borg, "The Borg assimilate entire civilizations, not individuals," so they may have preferred using their normal tactics of assimilating the entire ship, including Picard, for that reason. When that failed, they changed tactics to snatching Picard only.

  • The Borg learned the layout of the Enterprise from their encounter in "Q Who". Neither use of the cutting beam (part 1 act III or part 2 act V) occur near the bridge, where Picard would be expected to be found. As to targeting only an individual, the dialogue in part 1 act III continues: "What the hell do they want with you?" "I thought they weren't interested in Human lifeforms, only our technology." "Their priorities seem to have changed." – Dr Sheldon Jan 26 at 20:20

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