Seasons Three & Four, Episodes Twenty-Six & One — “Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II”

© Copyright & TM 2016 Paramount Pictures.

© Copyright & TM 2016 Paramount Pictures.

by Jarrod Jones. It’s almost impossible to believe now, but there was a time when most people thought Star Trek: The Next Generation was a whole bunch of nothing compared to the Original Series. No Kirk, no Spock, no McCoy, you get the hell out of here seemed to be the consensus from Trekkers, Trekkies, and everyone in between.

Though TNG was pulling in the ratings to justify its continued existence (thanks to the innovation of first-run syndication), the Trek faithful remained hesitant when it came to embracing the continuing mission of the Enterprise-D, even as the third season was coming to a close in 1990. (Because The Final Frontier was so great. Sure, guys.)

The behind-the-scenes production of the first two and a half seasons of The Next Generation were the television equivalent of that prom scene at the end of Carrie, but in spite of this (or, if you let producer and writer Maurice Hurley tell it, because of this), TNG ended up crafting one of the most influential Trek tales of all time. “The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II” went to a darker place than the show had ever dared before, at a time when Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew were at their most vulnerable. And the cliffhanger that separated the third and fourth seasons—by an excruciating length of three months—became the stuff of legend. Star Trek: The Next Generation achieved legendary status by going where the saga had never gone before, to the nerve-punishing annals of nigh-Lovecraftian terror.

It wasn’t just a frightening pair of episodes; “Worlds, Parts I & II” were also the most cinematic the show had been up to that point. The opening sequence of “Part I,” where Commander William Riker and an away team investigated a giant hole in the ground that used to be a Federation outpost called New Providence, exemplified the scope of its ambitions by dropping a titanic mystery into our laps before the first commercial break. The culprits of such horror? An ancient collective known only as The Borg. (You remember them; they were introduced in the second season episode, “Q Who?”)

An amalgam of the Cenobites from Hellraiser, trashed concept designs from H.R. Geiger (probably), and a really chill swarm of killer bees, the Borg were nothing like the adversaries Starfleet had faced before. The Borg were an unknowable threat looming in the cosmos, threatening to undo everything they had ever known. Yet there was no internalized hostility from The Borg; if anything, the mechanized collective appeared aloof in their task to assimilate the Enterprise, their detachment evident by their “don’t futz with us and we won’t futz with you” attitude concerning Lt. Commander Shelby’s two visits to the conceptually byzantine (and ultimately confining) Borg Cube. More on Commander Shelby in a minute.

The Borg doesn’t appear too often in these episodes (they hide in the Cube more often than they don’t), but their very presence punctuates a mounting dread that sends Commander Riker on a tail spin towards inevitability—in the second episode’s final moments, he’s literally half a word away from hurling the Enterprise into the midsection of the Borg Cube. What makes these episodes so captivating is that you can never blame the otherwise stoic Enterprise crew for letting their nerves show a bit. As the viewer, we know about as much about The Borg as they do, and the episode does a remarkable job of conveying our shared despair in a visual language that’s giving me the willies just thinking about it.

The episode’s more frightening moments: We watch as the Enterprise heads further into a dense nebula, shrinking further and further away from its pursuers; an away team discovers Picard’s communicator on The Borg Cube… along with his uniform; the Enterprise comes upon a Starfleet graveyard left behind in the Borg’s wake. Then there’s the now immortal image of Jean-Luc Picard stripped bare, not just of his uniform, but his humanity, fully assimilated into the Borg collective with a single tear streaming down his face. Here Patrick Stewart’s booming elocution is put through a digital filter for maximum intimidation as we begin to realize the worst. (“Your life—as it has been—is over. From this time forward, you will service… us.”)

Of course, the Borg’s sole interest in Picard was for his voice—he was to be an ambassador of sorts, the voice civilizations would hear just before bionic implants got jammed behind their collective right ears. Those who dreaded Picard’s demise by the end of the second half of this two-parter likely felt pangs of relief when they heard what Locutus of Borg had to say. He spouts the typical “Resistance Is Futile™” corporate speak, but he peppers his statements with endearment, addressing Commander Riker as “Number One.” The Trek faithful knew that it was Picard’s own humanity showing through the Borg imperative (what little remained anyway), screaming out for help.

As for Riker, he was beset from all sides—by his duty to his Captain, his reluctance to command, and his realization that someone will one day replace him with little fuss. Here “Best of Both Worlds” throws in another engaging conceit, one with enough depth that it could have crafted an entire episode of its own: Lt. Commander Shelby, a Federation officer who would very much like to take Riker’s place at Picard’s side, arrives as Starfleet’s specialist on The Borg, a plucky young go-getter who consistently undermines Riker’s authority, goes over his head when he blocks her suggestions, and is always prepared to leap at an opportunity to advance. “Damn, you are ambitious, aren’t you,” Riker says, with more than a little envy.

Riker bristles at Shelby’s ambition, even when her reach never extends beyond his own (as Picard makes sure to remind him). Riker’s ambivalence out of context could be seen as sexist, but subtext betrays the truth: Riker is afraid of getting older, losing the qualities that made him such a respected First Officer. It is his nagging reticence at leaving the Enterprise (more specifically, the family he’s come to know) that makes him so prickly to his colleague.

Normally, a female guest star would be subjected to an eye-rolling romance with Riker in some fashion, but for “Best of Both Worlds,” actor Elizabeth Dennehy remained refreshingly stoic, if more than a little antagonistic. (Shelby to Riker: “You’re in my way.”) A perfect foil for our beloved Number One. With a gorgeous harmony of performance, special effects, sound design, and dauntless determination, this two-part episode became a revered showcase for what could (and would soon) be possible in the annals of Star Trek. The scope was expanding. The Next Generation had finally arrived.

BEST LINE(s):

Commander Shelby took over Borg tactical analysis six months ago. I’ve learned to give her a wide latitude when I want to get things done.” – Admiral J.P. Hanson, master of understatement.

Mr. Worf. Dispatch a subspace message to Admiral Hanson. We have engaged the Borg.” – Captain Picard.

I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you will service… us.” – Locutus of Borg.

Mr. Worf. Fire.” – Commander Riker.

Deanna Troi: “How do you feel?” Captain Picard: “Almost human.”

BEST MOMENT: Could there be any other? The final seconds of “Part I” were Star Trek: TNG at its most intense: The crew of the Enterprise are ready to blast the Borg Cube out of being, but the Borg have an ace up their sleeve. Riker stares down what was once his Captain and without blinking he gives the command to Lieutenant Worf: “Fire.

EPISODES’ MVP: Captain William T. Riker. For the second half of “Best of Both Worlds,” Will Riker found himself promoted to Captain of the starship Enterprise. And while he’d been skirting around leaving to advance his career for far too long, when the time came, Riker stepped into his fate to ensure the safety of his commanding officer—to say nothing of the entire human race. He wasn’t one for speeches, but Will Riker definitely earned his pips that day.

© Copyright & TM 2016 Paramount Pictures.

© Copyright & TM 2016 Paramount Pictures.

CAPTAIN’S LOG:

– Star Dates: (Part I) 43989.1, 43992.6, 43993.5, 43996.2, 43998.5 (Part II) 44001.4, 44002.3.

– Obviously there was no mention of The Borg in the Original Series, but the prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise saw fit to pit The Borg against Starfleet in its earliest incarnations for absolutely no reason whatsover. (Though they are never referred to as such… yeah, that was totally The Borg.)

– There have been feeble attempts to make The Borg a part of TOS canon, most notably by tying the Borg collective to the V’ger, a vessel encountered by Captain Kirk and crew in The Motion Picture.

– Elizabeth Dennehy (Lt. Commander Shelby) is the daughter of Sheriff Will “I’ll Blow Your Damn Head Off” Teasle himself, Mr. Brian Dennehy.

– The time before the Enterprise intercepts the Borg (one hour) and the time Starfleet can arrive with backup (six days) gives “Part I” a powerful sense of foreboding. Picard’s tour of the Enterprise just before battle underlines the dread.

– Short-lived as it was, it was crazy to watch Riker and Shelby’s pips grow by one. It almost gave the impression that this tenuous partnership was about to become more of a permanent thing.

– RIP Admiral Hansen, you creepy ol’ curmudgeon, you.

– What is that look on Riker’s face when he realized the Melbourne, the very ship Starfleet had offered him to command, was among the wreckage of the Borg onslaught? Was it relief? Regret? Either way, Jonathan Frakes’ infamous poker face ain’t tellin’.

9 out of 10