Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation 3x26 "The Best of Both Worlds"


You should know all about "The Best of Both Worlds."  That is, you may think you know all about "The Best of Both Worlds."  It's the famous third season finale that sees the epic return of the Borg, which might as well be the Collective's first appearance (even though it's referenced as far back as the first season and first seen in the second season's "Q Who?"), and of course the assimilation of Picard.

But the funny thing is, this is actually a Riker episode.  It may be the most famous Riker episode ever, but it's probably very rarely thought of in that sense.  How can that possibly be?

Main characters receiving promotions in Star Trek will always be one of the fuzziest matters of the franchise.  On the one hand, it seems by the very groundbreaking nature of the Big Giant Challenges they overcome on a weekly basis, the whole lot of them should be promoted, well, on a weekly basis, except in instances like space-displaced Voyager (although one of the famous and funniest knocks against it is that someone like Harry Kim could remain an ensign for seven years no matter the circumstances).  Riker in particular was frequently discussed as a surefire captain of his own ship, but he always balked at the idea (until the end of Nemesis).  The logistical reasoning is clear enough: you hardly want to lose one of your main characters to something as paltry as career growth.  With the classic structure of the franchise rarely deviated from (Deep Space Nine came the closest; heck, Sisko wasn't even a captain until the end of his third season), once a crew is established it mostly remains intact until the end of the series.  By the film era, the original series crew strained credulity (poor George Takei!) by sticking together for as long as it did.

But funny enough, this is the episode where the issue is explored most deliberately, whether for Riker or otherwise.  Riker, for the record, wasn't even a commander when Picard chose him as his first officer.  It was Picard's own selection that put Riker on the career fast track.  And ironically, it was also this career development that slowed it down.  Because Riker realized that he would never be in a position to be as integral to the fleet again.  Even his own command could never compare to serving aboard the flagship, under Jean-Luc Picard.

Which is what makes this episode doubly agonizing.

The first layer of agony is ambitious Shelby, who appears as Starfleet's so-called Borg expert.  She not only has the necessary tactics, but the yearning to replace Riker as commander of the Enterprise.  The most famous episode of the series can actually become a little annoying because of her.  Tellingly, she's never seen again.

Other firsts include this being the first season finale cliffhanger in franchise history.  It also becomes the first two-part story since "The Menagerie" in the original series (which itself was probably in that format only because it featured extensive cuts from the original, previously untelevised pilot).  Both concepts are subsequently duplicated over and over again, until DS9 and to a lesser extent Enterprise introduce serialized storytelling that run across multiple episodes and in some instances entire seasons, as well as the second season of Voyager.  The cliffhanger especially is never really matched.  It would be impossible even from an objective standpoint.

Part of the reason for that is that Patrick Stewart, Picard himself, was not guaranteed to come out the other end when the next season arrived.  And just imagine Next Generation without him.  That dramatic order from Riker to open fire could very well have been the final fate of Picard.  That's part of the reason some fans will always rank the second part of this story as less satisfying, because it becomes much more predictable once you realize Picard is safe, and the story is no longer at all about Riker.

But then again, the massive battle at Wolf 359 is commemorated in a big way in the DS9 pilot "Emissary."  No other single event in franchise lore has had such direct ramifications.

So what does the title ultimately mean?  You might have assumed all along that it's a reference to the Borg, both mechanical and organic.  And you might as well consider yourself right.  But in this part, it might as well  mean the phrase, "having your cake and eating it, too," which would mean Riker staying commander, remaining aboard the Enterprise, but still having the chance to have his own command, under the worst circumstances possible.  "The best," in this instance, would also be the worst.  Incidentally, there's a comic book sequel called exactly that.

How could you possibly consider this anything but a Star Trek classic?  Unlike the jump between "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan, fans will probably continue to consider "Best of Both Worlds" as intrinsically more significant than First Contact, no matter how good the film is.  And that may be all you need to know about that.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Elizabeth Dennehy
George Murdock
Colm Meaney
Whoopi Goldberg

Memory Alpha summary

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