Star Trek: The Next Generation: ‘The Best of Both Worlds’: A Flickcharter’s Review
The summer of 1990 was undoubtedly a long one if you were fortunate enough to be a Star Trek fan at the time. That was the summer of “The Best of Both Worlds”, the first-ever (and, arguably, best) cliffhanger for the franchise, still considered to rank right alongside the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas as one of the greatest television cliffhangers of all time. Yesterday, Trekkies had the opportunity to witness this most beloved of episodes in all its glory on the big screen, though it wound up being a mixed experience.
“We have engaged the Borg.”
It took a while for Star Trek: The Next Generation to begin to move out of the shadow of its predecessor, the original Star Trek series. The show found ratings success upon its debut in 1987, thanks largely to a lack of sci-fi competition on television, but many fans wondered if this new, completely different crew, with a stodgy French captain with a British accent, could ever truly live up to the original Kirk and Company. A writer’s strike during the show’s second season certainly didn’t help.
Season three marked a massive turnaround, however, and it was largely thanks to one man: Michael Piller. Brought on board TNG for season three as an executive producer and head of the writing team, Piller upped the ante for Star Trek storytelling in a way that truly brought TNG into the limelight, and that quality held for the rest of the series’ seven-season run.
The benchmark third season culminated in “The Best of Both Worlds, Part One”, a massive episode for both that stodgy French captain, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his stalwart first officer, William Riker (Jonathan Frakes). What makes the script for “The Best of Both Worlds” unique in television is that the collaborative writing process was skipped, with Piller holing himself away to write it solo, telling his colleagues, “I just think I have a feel for this one.”
The soulless, cybernetic Borg had been introduced in season two as a massive new threat to the United Federation of Planets, and when they returned for the season three finale, it was with a surprising intent: to abduct Picard himself, “assimilate” him into their collective hive mind, and turn him into the Borg’s voice as they began their campaign to absorb the entirety of the Federation, beginning with Earth. The episode ended with Riker, now in command of the starship USS Enterprise, ordering his crew to fire on the ship bearing their captain in a desperate, last-ditch effort to save Earth.
It was a cliffhanger that packed a punch, indeed. Ironically, Michael Piller had written it with no intent of ever finishing the story himself, for he never expected to return to The Next Generation for season four. Of course, Piller continued with TNG and went on to co-create two more Star Trek spinoff series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, so when he returned for season four, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to extricate himself from the corner he had painted himself into.
It was inevitable that the payoff in Part Two would not quite live up to the suspense at the end of Part One, but what is great about “The Best of Both Worlds” in its entirety is what it managed to accomplish with its two lead characters. Picard had been viewed for three seasons as a bit of a stodgy, stuck-up character (much to Stewart’s chagrin), but by having his humanity stripped away by the Borg, it bestowed a great measure of the same in the eyes of the audience. Riker, forced to take charge when the captain is taken from him, is made to reevaluate his “comfortable” position as First Officer on board the Enterprise after passing up a command of his own too many times. Ultimately, both characters find their place, and remain there more securely for the rest of the series.
Of course, “The Best of Both Worlds” served as the precursor to Star Trek: First Contact, the most successful Trek film featuring The Next Generation crew. They would serve well as a double-feature, the beginning and end of Picard’s harrowing experience with the Borg.
Watching “The Best of Both Worlds” edited together as one feature-length adventure on the big screen, a few things were immediately apparent to this lifelong Trekkie. Foremost, there was much to enjoy in noticing the details: In pre-CGI days, the effects for The Next Generation were achieved with highly-detailed starship models that still hold up, even when blown up on such a big screen. The digital remastering looked great. Incredibly, it was the first time I truly noticed that people can be seen moving within the Enterprise itself during the show’s title sequence. The detail put into the sets and costumes of the Borg ship holds up well, even given the advancements made in the presentation of that oft-used enemy race in later incarnations of Trek.
As much as the humanization of Picard goes a long way towards cementing that character’s place in Trek history, and the iconic image of Picard as a Borg is used to represent the show, this is really Riker’s story, and Jonathan Frakes carries the piece. The interplay between Riker and outsider Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) – brought in as an “expert” on the Borg, butting heads with Riker because she’s after his job, and winding up serving as his second-in-command – is truly enjoyable. Frakes shines in a key scene with Whoopi Goldberg‘s Guinan, in which the latter forces the new captain to realize he must learn to let Picard go if he is ever to hope to defeat the knowledge the Borg have gained from him.
Alas, this particular presentation of “The Best of Both Worlds” had the effect of lessening the impact, in two key ways. First, we were presented with a bit of a making-of, the kind of documentary you would find on your Blu-Ray special features, and somehow watching the kind of thing you would normally watch after the feature – no matter the interest it might hold for a Star Trek fan – dulled the effect.
With the editing together of the two episodes, there was one key factor in the show’s impact that was utterly lost: the cliffhanger. Even without having to wait four months to see what happens, there’s no denying the power of that “To Be Continued…” title card, backed by a thunderous musical cue from composer Ron James. Instead, here, when Riker commands, “Mr. Worf…fire,” he does, and suddenly the suspense is gone.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: “The Best of Both Worlds” is being released on Blu-ray on April 30th. Unless it’s the only Star Trek story you’re truly interested in, go for the complete Season Three which will be released on the same day, and then watch “The Best of Both Worlds” and wait for the release of season four.
You’ll get a better effect.