Star Trek is an enormous and complex cultural entity whose impact on politics, technology, and storytelling are undeniable. It’s also as flawed and problematic as any other massive media franchise. Lifelong Trekkie and Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief Dylan Roth attempts to make sense of it all for die-hards and outsiders alike in his monthly column: Infinite Diversity.
“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.”
– Captain Jean-Luc Picard, on the eve of battle with The Borg. (“The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” [TNG])
Welcome to another installment of Infinite Diversity: SUFFICIENTLY RANDOMIZED, in which I ask fate (in the form of a random number generator) to select an episode from the Star Trek canon for me to write about. This is the third edition of ID:SR, and once again, the computer gods have seen fit to select a two-part episode for the column. That’s three two-parters in a row. Just for shits and giggles, I calculated the probability of picking three consecutive two- or three-part episodes out of the pool of 728 (bearing in mind that I can’t select the same story twice) at about one in ten thousand, so, wow. You now have a better chance of winning second prize in the Powerball drawing than I have of picking another giant-sized Star Trek episode for the next installment. (That’s a million bucks, folks. Can’t win if you don’t play.)
This month, the computer has chosen a beloved classic among Star Trek fans, one of those rare episodes even non-fans are aware of: “The Best of Both Worlds,” still considered one of the greatest TV cliffhangers of all time. As with any installment of Infinite Diversity, I do my best to make this column accessible to even the totally uninitiated, but Trek newbies would do well to get the basics HERE before moving on.
Star Trek: The Next Generation follows the crew of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D, successor to Kirk’s ship from The Original Series) as they explore the galaxy, meeting new cultures and solving problems using diplomacy, science, and occasionally force. More than any other series in the canon, TNG is about peace and understanding, about ethics and philosophy, and all of this is embodied in this Enterprise‘s commanding officer, Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is an intellectual, a scholar, an accomplished diplomat. He’s got more in common with Spock than with James T. Kirk. He may not be much fun, but he’s unshakably principled, a paragon of compassion and curiosity.
During its second year, Picard’s mission of peaceful exploration encounters a truly terrifying obstacle: The Borg. After being flung halfway across the galaxy into unknown space, the Enterprise is attacked by a hostile race of cyborgs who share a collective consciousness and cannot be negotiated or reasoned with. Interested only in the ship’s technology, The Borg slice a chunk out of the Enterprise just to study the hull, venting eighteen people into space. Q, the omnipotent trickster responsible for putting the Enterprise in the Borg’s crosshairs, describes them best:
“You can’t outrun them, you can’t destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains; they regenerate and keep coming. Eventually you will weaken, your reserves will be gone… They are relentless.”
– Q (“Q Who” [TNG])
While Q eventually returns the Enterprise to their own territory, now that the Borg are aware of the Federation’s existence, it’s only a matter of time before they arrive on their doorstep and take whatever it is they want, and Starfleet isn’t remotely equipped to stop them.
Starfleet thought they had time to prepare. They were wrong.
The Turning Point
“The Best of Both Worlds” is an enormously important story both in-universe and behind the scenes. By the end of its third season, The Next Generation was finally starting to build a competitive audience, not just among science fiction die-hards but also the public at large. The knowledge that the third season finale would feature the highly anticipated return of The Borg brought in 10.1 million viewers, and the shocking cliffhanger finale ensured that 12 million would tune in for the conclusion that fall. “The Best of Both Worlds” is the story that launched The Next Generation into the pop cultural zeitgeist, right up there with Kirk and Spock. For the first (and arguably only) time, Star Trek was a HIT SHOW.
For better or worse, The Borg would go on to become the definitive Star Trek villain of the nineties. They featured in only three more episodes of TNG, but when they showed up it meant serious business. They starred in 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, the film franchise’s biggest hit since The Voyage Home ten years before. When The Borg began appearing on spin-off Star Trek: Voyager, viewer interest spiked. (This, ultimately, would be The Borg’s undoing—the more often they appeared, the more often Voyager bested them, the less intimidating they became, until they eventually devolved into a joke.) The Borg’s catchphrase, “Resistance is Futile,” continues to survive in the American lexicon.
Likewise, the events of “The Best of Both Worlds” have a long-lasting impact on the world of the show. The Borg’s effortless slaughter of 39 Starfleet vessels at Wolf 359 is the Federation’s first crushing defeat in a century, and it totally changes the nature of the fleet. (I explored this shift in great detail in a previous entry.) It’s a cultural trauma akin to Pearl Harbor or 9/11—Starfleet never gets over it. One episode (and a ton of apocryphal comics and novels) explores alternate universes in which “The Best of Both Worlds” had ended differently, and the various outcomes led to dramatically divergent worlds. Few events in the Star Trek canon have had this kind of influence on future stories.
The impact of “The Best of Both Worlds” is most visible through its effect on Captain Jean-Luc Picard, for whom the Borg invasion was uniquely intimate. When The Borg invade Federation space, the Enterprise is sent to intercept them and attempt to slow them down to give Starfleet time to build their (doomed) defense at Wolf 359. The Borg use this opportunity to capture Picard, who as commander of Starfleet’s strongest ship they deem to be the greatest threat to their conquest. The Borg assimilate Picard—plugging him into their collective consciousness, altering his body with cybernetic implants, and downloading his knowledge and experience for use against the fleet. He becomes Locutus, the voice of the collective.
When the fleet is slaughtered, Picard’s voice is the last they hear, his mutilated face the last they see. Picard, helpless to control himself, unable to keep the collective from using his knowledge of the fleet’s weaknesses, is conscious for every moment of it.
While The Borg is eventually defeated and Picard is rescued and restored, the kind of wounds he suffers from his time as Locutus are the kind that never truly heal. Picard is a more vulnerable, more human character from here on out, his visage of perfection permanently cracked. He carries the guilt over his role in the deaths of tens of thousands of his comrades with him for the rest of his life. And what’s more, something now festers within the heart of this man who prides himself on his compassion: hatred.
The Big Chair
Picard isn’t the only character to have a major character in this story. In the days leading up to the Borg incursion, Commander Will Riker, Picard’s first officer and right hand man, is offered command of the USS Melbourne. This is the third time Riker is offered a ship of his own, and if he refuses this time it may mean never having that opportunity again. Being first officer aboard the Federation flagship is arguably a more prestigious post than command of a lesser craft, but holding that position for too long could also mean letting his career atrophy, never reaching its full potential.
The decision should be obvious, but there’s a complication: Will Riker is happy.
Of all of The Next Generation‘s main cast, Riker is the character who’s grown the most in the first three seasons. Originally a private officer with a faraway look in his eyes, Will has developed into a man defined by his joviality. He hosts a weekly poker game for his fellow officers, he plays trombone in Ten Forward (the ship’s bar and lounge), he makes jokes, and he’s very supportive of his shipmates. Captain Picard is the Enterprise crew’s stern dad; Commander Riker is their cool older brother. While the behind the scenes explanation is that actor Jonathan Frakes was allowed to inject more of his own personality into his character, in-universe Riker’s change of personality seems the result of finding a home and letting down his guard. Riker finds that commanding his own ship may not be worth leaving that sense of belonging behind.
But there’s an even bigger hurdle in the way of Riker’s career advancement, which is the fact that he’s a popular character on a successful TV show. While today’s television shows may have the budget or ambition to follow a few characters to a new location concurrent with the old one (Battlestar Galactica did this now and then), this wasn’t an option for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1990. Will Riker wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Legend has it that the same could not be said for Patrick Stewart, the Shakespearean actor who it’s alleged was growing bored with the character of Jean-Luc Picard. The cast and crew remain tight-lipped on the subject, but during the summer of 1990 (between Parts One and Two of “The Best of Both Worlds”) rumors suggested that Stewart’s contract with Star Trek was up in the air, and that the cliffhanger had been written to allow the show to continue without him, if need be. 25 years later, however, this legend remains just that, and considering how much scholarship now exists about the series, it seems unlikely that such a ploy could happen without the whole story coming out. It’s more likely that viewers worked themselves into a tizzy during the off-season based on rampant speculation.
Not that you could blame them—Part One seems tailor-made to tee up a major cast shake-up for The Next Generation, putting Picard’s future in jeopardy and introducing a new character, Lt. Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) as an ambitious young officer gunning for Riker’s vacant job, assuming he accepts his new command. In Part Two, with Picard leading the enemy invasion, Riker is given a field promotion to Captain and command of the Enterprise, which would allow him to have his cake and eat it too, albeit with a heavy cost. Shelby is selected to be his first officer, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Picard was destroyed along with the Borg, and the ship (and show) carried on with Riker as Captain and Shelby as XO. (As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of licensed and fan-created work along these lines.)
Instead, the crew (led by Captain Riker) successfully recaptures Locutus and uses his connection to the Borg consciousness to defeat them before they can assimilate Earth. Picard is restored (though physically and emotionally scarred), and Riker, with barely any explanation, returns to his previous rank and position, where he would remain for another twelve years. Lt. Commander Shelby disembarks to lead the fleet’s rebuilding efforts and is never heard from again. While Riker has a number of solid character episodes ahead of him, this is basically the end of his development. It’s a disservice to the character, but it is to the benefit of the show, which would have been worse without him (or Picard, for that matter, if it had gone the other way).
“The Best of Both Worlds” was immediately followed by “Family,” in which Picard visits his brother in their hometown of La Barre, France, and deals with the psychological trauma of his abduction. It’s one of the best Star Trek stories, and yet it features virtually no sci-fi elements. (Gene Roddenberry hated it, so you know it’s good.)
The Picard vs. The Borg arc is picked up again in Season Five’s “I Borg,” where the crew discovers an injured Borg and must figure out what to do with it. The episode is wrapped up in the feature film Star Trek: First Contact, where Picard goes all John McClane on those cybernetic bastards.
If you want to see a good episode (besides this one) that highlights just how much being aboard the Enterprise has changed Riker, I recommend Season Seven’s “The Pegasus,” in which Will must confront a former commander (Terry O’Quinn), and a troubling decision he made as a junior officer. For a peek at a Riker-helmed Enterprise in a timeline where Picard was lost to The Borg, take a gander at “Parallels,” also in TNG‘s seventh and final season.
Next month: Do Androids Cry?
Infinite Diversity will return in four weeks! Follow @DeadshirtDotNet on Twitter to keep up with what’s new here on Deadshirt, and feel free to tweet @DylanRoth with suggestions for future topics for Infinite Diversity, or just to talk about Trek. He truly never gets tired of that.