Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Best of Both Worlds”

The Best of Both Worlds“The Best of Both Worlds”
Written by Michael Piller
Directed by Cliff Bole

Season 3, Episode 26
Original air date: June 18, 1990
Star date: 43989.1

Mission summary

The Enterprise investigates a distress signal from Jouret IV, with whom they lost contact 12 hours earlier.  When they arrive, not only are there no life signs of the 900 inhabitants, but there are no signs life was ever there at all. What’s left of New Providence, the settlement, is a giant crater. Picard is joined by an Admiral Hanson and young Commander Shelby, who believe that this is an attack by the Borg… an attack that has caught the Federation completely unprepared.

Hanson also has some non-Borg-related gossip. The first is that Riker’s long stint on the Enterprise is hurting his career, and that he’s been offered a third command (this time, the USS Melbourne) that he has not yet accepted. The admiral suggests that Picard give Riker a kick in the pants and then accept Shelby as his replacement.

Shelby is doing fine replacing him on her own, beating Riker at a game of poker, then heading off to an away mission an hour ahead of schedule against Riker’s orders. She does turn up a unique signature–a Borg “footprint”–that confirms the Borg’s involvement in the destruction of several other Federation colonies. But Riker is still wary of Shelby’s impetuousness and inability to follow orders. When he complains to Picard, however, Picard reminds him that Riker was much like that when arrived aboard the Enterprise, and that perhaps it’s time he took his rightful place in the captain’s chair.

Riker seems genuinely torn about what to do. He claims that the Enterprise needs him, but when he sits down with Troi to discuss his dilemma the struggle is clearly more personal:

RIKER: What am I still doing here? Deanna, I pushed myself hard to get this far. I sacrificed a lot. I always said I wanted my own command, and yet something’s holding me back. Is it wrong for me to want to stay?

Troi answers that while he and Shelby are alike, Riker has something more: maturity.

TROI: You mean you’re older, more experienced. A little more seasoned.
RIKER: Seasoned. That’s a horrible thing to say to a man.
TROI: I don’t think you’ve lost a thing, and I think you’ve gained more than you realize. You’re much more comfortable with yourself than you used to be.
RIKER: Maybe that’s the problem. I’m too comfortable here.
TROI: I’m not sure I know what that means. You’re happy here. Happier than I’ve ever known you to be. So, it comes down to a simple question. What do you want, Will Riker?

The 8-ball says: Ask Again Later.

Meanwhile, another Starfleet vessel has encountered–and presumably been destroyed by–the Borg cube.  Shelby admits that Federation technology is 18-24 months away from any advancements sufficient to actually give them a chance against the Borg, and Geordi confirms that an encounter even with the flagship will likely end as all the previous encounters have. Nevertheless, no other ship is close enough to intercept, so the Enterprise goes it alone.

It turns out the Borg have been looking for them. To everyone’s surprise, it’s not interested in the ship’s technology or even its variety of alien life–all it wants is Picard. Sure, leave the chaff behind… He of course declines, but the Borg don’t take rejection easily and trap the ship in a tractor beam. By fluctuating some gobbledygook they break free long enough to hide in a nearby nebula. With tensions high, Shelby suggests separating the saucer section, but Riker says that’s much too dangerous at this stage of the game. Nevertheless, she brings the idea to Picard behind his back. He agrees with Riker, but Riker is furious that she would circumvent the command hierarchy. Off the record, she tells him to his face that he’s become too soft to command, and that he’s standing in the way of her career.

Picard, meanwhile, seems to be preparing for a futile battle. He and Guinan share a moment on the brink of the apocalypse:

GUINAN: Do you expect this battle to be won?
PICARD: We may yet prevail. That’s a conceit, but it’s a healthy one. I wonder if the Emperor Honorious, watching the Visigoths coming over the seventh hill, truly realized that the Roman Empire was about to fall. This is just another page in history, isn’t it? Will this be the end of our civilization? Turn the page.
GUINAN: This isn’t the end.
PICARD: You say that with remarkable assuredness.
GUINAN: With experience. When the Borg destroyed my world, my people scattered throughout the universe. We survived. As will humanity survive. As long as there’s a handful of you to keep the spirit alive, you will prevail. Even if it takes a millennium.

If that didn’t reassure enough, the ship seems to be hit by something and Picard has to run to the bridge. The Borg have found a way to sniff out the Enterprise, who must leave the nebula or be destroyed. They get caught in a tractor beam–again–but the Borg don’t want the ship. They beam aboard and kidnap Picard! To make matters worse, they set course for Sector 001–Earth.

Picard refuses to cooperate, but again, these Borg don’t take no for an answer:

PICARD: I have nothing to say to you, and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.
BORG: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.
PICARD: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self determination.
BORG: Freedom is irrelevant. Self determination is irrelevant. You must comply.
PICARD: We would rather die.
BORG: Death is irrelevant. Your archaic cultures are authority driven. To facilitate our introduction into your societies, it has been decided that a human voice will speak for us in all communications. You have been chosen to be that voice.

Yeah… that’s not good.

The Enterprise, now commanded by Riker, is scrambling to put together a weapon that will destroy the cube, but they obviously have to retrieve Picard first. Riker reluctantly allows Shelby to command an away team to bring Picard back, but first all they find is his uniform. They are able to sabotage one small part of the cube to get it to drop out of warp, so that the Enterprise may use its massive deflector shield weapon. They eventually do find Picard, but he’s been upgraded, into one of Them.

The away team beams back and reports the bad news to Riker, who gets to see it for himself onscreen:

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.

Riker knows what to do.

RIKER: Mr. Worf… fire.

To be continued…

The Best of Both Worlds

Analysis

Part of me is irritated that there’s been little set-up over the last year for the impending Borg invasion, but the writers make that work, because as much as we are unprepared, so is the Federation. I have seen this plenty of times and it still makes me tense. Watching this, I am worrying about the Enterprise. I am worrying about humanity. I am worrying about Picard. And the writers sucker you in, because for three seasons you’ve expected the happy ending that Gene Roddenberry promised humanity. After all these years, I still feel the gut-punch when Picard appears onscreen as Locutus and tells us that life as we know it is over. He’s right. “The Best of Both Worlds” changes everything. It makes you doubt. It makes you fear.

For three years with Captain Picard, and the three years before that with Captain Kirk, we have seen a vision of the future where no problem is insurmountable. Where humanity can outsmart, outmercy, and outgun any villain. More importantly, this vision of humanity has a credo: live free or die. We have seen in the past our heroes choosing a third option (so clever!), or when all else seems lost, indeed choosing to die (so brave!). But what if there is no choice? What if subjugation and slavery don’t beget heroes, or strength, or self-determination? What if they just destroy? What if who we are at our core, our sense of individuality and self-worth and positive thinking, is meaningless in the face of an advanced enemy? This is the anti-Lord of the Rings. There is no Red Dawn speech about dying with dignity and courage. There is no Sam putting on the ring and continuing the journey alone. It’s got the darkness with none of that hope.

To the Borg, humans aren’t people–they’re a resource to be exploited, to serve their needs. Their culture, their strength, their families, their individuality and beauty and essence is irrelevant. This isn’t just war, where one side would just kill everyone (or sometimes let their culture be as long as they paid tribute, like the Romans that Picard so helpfully quotes). This is worse, more insidious, more disturbing: the complete subjugation of a people’s identity to service the bare production needs of another. This is slavery. “The Best of Both Worlds” folds a great science fictional idea in its own right, the hive mind, into a gut-wrenching retelling of American history. We were our history’s Borg. It’s not a coincidence that the few words of hope we get are from (regrettably magical negro-ish) diaspora-veteran Guinan. When the Borg march out Picard as one of Them–as a voice for slavery–it still sends chills down my spine. One could not imagine a more devastating portrait of our future. I for one cannot think of another episode that so powerfully elevates Star Trek into the realm of thoughtful, groundbreaking art.

And then there’s the fact that that’s where the episode ends. Hopeless. With Picard lost (at Riker’s hand!), with Earth about to be destroyed! Even knowing that in the end it will all be OK (aside from some paralyzing PTSD Picard has to look forward to), I sit back and think: oh my god, how are they going to do it? How on earth could they ever come back from this precipice? And that, my friends, is a brilliant cliffhanger.

If there’s anything about this episode that feels less solid, it’s the Riker/Shelby story. Part of it is that I’m just not very interested in Riker’s manpain angst over whether to take this Totally! Awesome! Promotion! or whether he’s getting flabbier with age. Is he ready for command? Uh, duh, he takes command all the time, where’s the question? (Though I will note that I really enjoyed the conversation between him and Troi, which felt natural and sincere.) But part of it is that I think they made a real misstep with Shelby. Once again, the writers have confused strong women with disobedient wackos. Sure, Riker took risks and maybe endangered himself a little more than he should have. But Riker would have NEVER, EVER disobeyed direct orders from a commanding officer, circumvented the chain of command, tried to make his crew work past the point of exhaustion, or told a superior office whose job he wanted that said officer was weak and in the way. Hanson can talk all he wants about how she’s Grade A sidekick material, but she has no respect for the hierarchy and no captain in his right mind would want someone like that as his Number One. Add to that the creepy sexism of Hanson’s interest in her (“Just an old man’s fantasies,” he says–EW) and Troi dressing down Riker in front of the whole bridge for wanting to go on the away mission himself, it just feels… off. Jumbled. Without a clear conflict. Is the problem that Riker’s got flabby authority? If so, then let him be wrong–let her idea about the saucer separation be the right one, and Riker really is standing in the way of the right, if not the risky, decision. Or is the problem that Shelby is a loose cannon whose ambition is itself a risk? Fine, then reprimand her–don’t just have a little pout-fest in the elevator. I guess I still leave this whole conflict really unsatisfied at what point it’s trying to make aside from add dramatic tension to a story that really, really doesn’t need any more of it.

Oh and the away team rescue mission scene is totally unnecessary and boring.

But those are small flaws in the face of such a riveting and game-changing cliffhanger.  This is one of the best episodes of a television series ever made. Hands-down.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

threadalertThread Alert: The Borg are looking sharp! I like Picard’s ab upgrade. But seriously, I love the Borg outfits. They’re just the right mix of creepy/cool, and the $0.25 laser they strap to his head was an absolute stroke of genius. In this iteration, they look a bit more stripped down and utilitarian, rather than “Q Who” where they looked like baby Katamaris that have just collected a bunch of scrap metal along the way.

Best Line: PICARD: This is just another page in history, isn’t it? Will this be the end of our civilization? Turn the page.

Trivia/Other Notes: This is the first use of “Resistance is futile.”

They wanted to bring back the Borg earlier, but had a difficult time fitting them in. The writers very much wanted a “queen bee” for the hive, and it was writer Michael Piller’s idea to make the queen bee Picard himself.

Piller admitted that when he wrote this episode, he wasn’t sure how it would end.

An original draft had Picard and Data combined into one Borg unit, but this was dropped because it makes absolutely no sense.

The inspiration for Riker’s dilemma about whether to stay or go was Piller’s ambivalence about whether to leave the show when his contract was up after this episode. Like Riker, he ultimately decided to stay, after personal encouragement from Gene Roddenberry.

Dr. Crusher was written onto the away team because Gates McFadden really wanted to fire a phaser.

The final scene, where Picard appears as Locutus, had one rehearsal. Patrick Stewart turned to the camera and said, “I am Locutus of Borg. Have you considered buying a Pontiac?”

Ron Jones, who composed the music, said of his five-note leitmotif that he wanted it to sound like “an epitaph for humanity.”

George Murdock, who plays Admiral Hanson, was God (or rather, “god”) in Star Trek V.

This episode was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Effects.

Elizabeth Dennehy, who played Shelby, looks an awful lot like her father, Brian Dennehy.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 25 – “Transfigurations.”

Next post: Season 3 Wrap-Up.

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About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.