Sunday, June 12, 2011

3-26, 4-01. The Best of Both Worlds

The Enterprise, caught by the Borg.
















THE PLOT

The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from one of the Federation's outermost colonies. Riker leads an Away Team, beaming down to the center of town... only to find himself standing at the edge of a giant crater where the colony should be. An investigation of the wreckage confirms what they already suspect. This was the work of the Borg. They have arrived in Federation space - years before anyone could have projected, leaving Starfleet all but completely unprepared for the fight to come!


CHARACTERS

Capt. Picard: Tries to push Riker into taking the profferred command of the Melbourne, telling his first officer that "Starfleet needs good captains," and that he is ready to "work without a net." As they prepare to face the Borg, he indulges in a moment of reflection, touring the ship on the eve of the hopeless battle. When talking with Guinan, he refuses to aknowledge the situation as hopeless, insisting that they might yet win. "It may be conceit," he allows, "but it's a healthy one." Comparisons are drawn to Nelson at Trafalgar, with Guinan pointing out that Nelson did not return from that campaign and Picard countering that despite Nelson's death, the fight was won. This is clearly designed as foreshadowing, in the event that Patrick Stewart chose not to return for Season Four (a distinct possibility, at the time of filming).

Riker: Given the possibility of losing Patrick Stewart, the writers make sure to give Riker a meaty role so that it will feel natural for him to take over as lead. The first portion of Part 1 deals with Riker's lack of career advancement. He has been offerred command of the Melbourne, marking the third time he has been offered his own ship. Riker remains indecisive about moving on, even as it becomes clear that his hesitance is now hurting his career. The bulk of the 2-parter then puts Riker in command, after the Borg take Picard. Riker is preparing an Away Team when Troi must tell him the same thing he once told Picard: As acting captain, it is inappropriate for him to lead an Away Team. His place is on the bridge, commanding the ship.

Commander Shelby: Part One establishes Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) as a potential replacement for Riker. Had Patrick Stewart bowed out, she would presumably have taken over as first officer to Riker for the remainder of the series. Assuming writing as sharp as what's on display here, it might even have worked. She bristles under Riker, accusing him of knowing only how to "play it safe." Though Riker finds her reckless and lacking respect for chain-of-command, he acknowledges that she "knows her stuff," and is willing to put up with her aggressiveness for the sake of her genuine skill.

The Borg: The design of the Borg interiors is noticeably more polished than in Q Who, though the producers wisely chose to keep all the design elements consistent with that first appearance. The Borg took note of Picard and, seeing him speak for humanity, have decided that he will be the perfect "human voice" to speak for them as they "improve themselves." The Borg's collective mind ends up also acting as its weakness at the end - though the amount of damage they inflict up to that point is such that they are defeated here without it affecting their status as a genuine threat.


THOUGHTS

Long before Star Trek: Generations hit the big screen, The Best of Both Worlds had already delivered what that film promised (and largely failed) to deliver: Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Movie. The fantastic teaser sets the tone right off. This is going to be something big. The Best of Both Worlds had a lot riding on it. The Borg made a real impact on their first appearance, the first original TNG villain to really do so. They were established as a threat Picard and his crew simply could not stop. It took Q snapping his fingers and whisking them away to save them.

This time, the Borg are here. Q isn't around to blink away the danger. Our heroes have to genuinely stop them. And, as the opening hammers home for us... Starfleet just isn't ready. The Borg are too powerful. Obviously, the Enterprise will stop them. The trick for this 2-parter is to stop them in a way that still leaves them feeling like a legitimate threat, something that doesn't feel like a letdown after all the buildup.

Part 1 has to pull double-duty, as well. Given the uncertainty about Patrick Stewart's return for Season Four, the writers had to construct the first part of what might have effectively been a second pilot, setting up a new crew dynamic for the potential Picard-less series. A part of me can't help but wonder what that series would have been like, with the strong leader established in more than 70 episodes suddenly removed and Riker having to take his place. It might have been very interesting, particularly given the tension between Riker and Shelby. Then again, without Patrick Stewart's strong presence anchoring even the weakest episodes, it might just have resulted in the Star Trek franchise getting a much earlier rest than ended up being the case.

Given Patrick Stewart's decision to return, Part 2 also has to pull double-duty. It has to resolve the cliffhanger to Part 1 in a way that doesn't feel like a cheat, while ending in such a way that both Picard and Riker can convincingly return to their previous roles. Though Part 2 isn't quite as strong as Part 1 (building a threat up is always more dramatic than resolving it), it still succeeds admirably. The notion of Riker having to defeat the thing that was Picard by deliberately doing things in a way that differs from Picard's methods is a strong one. Meanwhile, the visual of the graveyard of starships left in the Borg's wake at Wolf 359 hammers home once again how powerful a foe Riker's Enterprise is facing. The look on Riker's face at the destruction of the Melbourne - the ship that might have been his - is a nice touch.

There aren't many Star Trek episodes of any series that have achieved iconic status. This is one of them, and it's fully deserving of it. A two-part action movie with a driving pace, which nevertheless finds time to do some excellent character work. A piece that revolves around the characters of Picard, Riker, and Shelby, but which also allows every member of the ensemble something to do. Mix in the best special effects the series had seen up to this point and an outstanding music score by Ron Jones, and what you have is a better Star Trek movie for the small screen than well over half of the actual bigscreen entries. In just about every significant respect, The Best of Both Worlds is a triumph - and on a level that in the dismal days of Season One would have seemed frankly unimaginable.


Overall Rating: 10/10.


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