TNG S03E26 The Best of Both Worlds (5 out of 5 stars). Season 3 of TNG aired in first-run syndication in the US between 25 September 1989 and 18 June 1990. In the UK, we first got access to the new Star Trek via VHS tapes available for rental. Finally, on 26 September 1990, Season 1 started airing on BBC2, beginning with Encounter at Farpoint and continuing in a seemingly-random order (and with a few episodes omitted). But the BBC had only bought the first three seasons and there was no plan in place for them to acquire any more. As frustrating as it was for American fans to have to wait three whole months for The Best of Both Worlds Part II to air, there was a chance that UK fans would never see the episode at all. With rare perspicacity and attention to detail, the BBC secured special dispensation to air Part II the week after Part I, in May 1992, despite having not purchased any other Season 4 episodes. My memory told me that they showed Family as well, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. That story wasn’t shown in the UK until 14 April 1994, followed by the rest of Season 4.

So, the impact on me wasn’t quite the cataclysm that American fans felt (Patrick Stewart recalls a family in the next car over yelling at him in traffic “You have ruined our summer!”). Behind the scenes, Michael Piller took on the writing duties for this one solo. He had promised Rick Berman he’d work on the show for a year. He’d sorted out the writers room, he’d developed a pipeline to find new scripts and new writers, he’d figured out what made the show work and he’d groomed an ideal replacement in Ira Steven Behr. As a parting shot, he was going to write the best damned episode the show had ever seen, and leave the series on an impossible cliffhanger which would guarantee renewal (not that that was really in doubt at this stage). And pity the fools who would have to write their way out of the corner Piller had painted them into.

Watching “part one” again (it isn’t identified as such on screen), it’s not all about that crackerjack ending. There’s a sense of foreboding from the earliest scenes. Sure, we’ve seen destroyed colonies before, but there’s something apocalyptic about this one, helped by a nifty matte painting crater which concludes the terse teaser – shorter even than many of the TOS ones. Borg experts are called in to give their views, notably Lt Commander Shelby, played with clarity and intensity by Elizabeth Dennehy, who adds some Roddenberry-baiting friction to the bridge crew. Adding to the subtle feeling of “anything might happen” she’s also presented as Riker’s replacement should he finally accept a captaincy – even taking up Troi’s bridge chair to Picard’s left. (Frakes apparently disliked this plot strand, and thought it was ridiculous that Riker stuck around to be second banana when he could have had his own ship, and it’s hard to disagree.)

There have been pacing problems in other episodes, but this one accelerates smoothly, and the character beats in the first half, even the ones that we feel we’ve seen before, have a detail and a freshness that makes for engrossing viewing. Riker muses that he might be too comfortable on the Enterprise. He won’t be for long. The spectacle of Shelby seeing the Borg as an opportunity for career advancement is a delicious piece of irony. Getting short shrift are Beverley Crusher (no surprise there) and Worf, but the pattern of doling out good scenes over the course of a season is now well-established and we don’t need every cast member to get a major plotline every week, especially not when… we have engaged the Borg!

After a series of “bottle shows”, we get our first space battle in ages and it’s a doozy, followed by the shockingly transgressive sight of a Borg drone beaming onto the bridge, tossing Worf aside like a rag doll and making off with Picard. Suddenly, terribly, Riker has what he wants. He’s the captain now, without having to choose between command and staying on the Enterprise. And now both ships are heading for Earth at warp 9. Cliff Bole directs all of this wonderfully well, and Ron Jones delivers an iconic score.

And then… quite unexpectedly, instead of a last minute solution to this intractable problem… I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Mr Worf. Fire. To be continued. Wow. Fucking wow. Get out of that one.

TNG S04E01 The Best of Both Worlds Part II (5 out of 5 stars). And of course, it was that same Michael Piller who had to solve the problem he’d so brilliantly created. The grammar of this is interesting. First the “last time on…” which recaps part one and builds to that amazing climax. Then another short scene which builds to its own climax and functions as a teaser. Then the titles. But we knew (if we stopped to think about it) that blowing up the Borg ship wasn’t going to be the answer, even if we suspected (fallaciously) that Patrick Stewart had had enough of spandex in space and was going back to Shakespeare. And unlike Data’s shuttlecraft blowing up (or even Kirk’s seeming death in The Tholian Web) this has an air of sepulchral finality about it which is grimly convincing.

Once again, the effects team works wonders. The devastation of the battle at Wolf 359 is horrifying. We’ve never seen anything like this in any previous incarnation of Star Trek on the small or large screen. Finally, they separate the saucer section again, and Riker takes the battle bridge (although there’s no time or budget to show much of the lengthy separation procedure on-screen).

Riker’s plan involves kidnapping Locutus and trying to find out not just what he has told the Borg but what the Borg has told him. In an amazing scene, Picard manages to break through the alien programming, and grabs Data’s arm. Their hive mind which seemed like such a strength in Part I now becomes their fatal flaw. While this doesn’t quite have the shocking novelty of Part I, nor is the Shelby-Riker relationship as fascinatingly spiky, it’s something of a miracle that this works at all – but it does, as science-fiction adventure, as tension-filled climax, as character drama and as visual spectacle. And the win isn’t easy. We don’t end with the bridge crew laughing together as red-shirts carry off the bodies of their fallen comrades in the background. This victory was hard-won. It hurt. And the pain will continue into the following episode.

TNG S04E02 Family (5 out of 5 stars). “The injuries are healing.” “Those you can see.” While TNG never embraced serialised storytelling the way that DS9 did, taking an extra episode just to put the Captain back together emotionally was a commitment to making big story swings matter that I greatly respected at the time and still do. Plenty of episodes to come will hit the big red reset button with a blithe insouciance that beggars belief but if Piller was going to come back for more, he wasn’t going to ignore the cataclysmic pair of episodes he’d just delivered (although Ron Moore’s name is on this script). And in fact, the massacre at Wolf 359 will come back more than once before this journey is over.

The commitment to dealing with the trauma of past episodes doesn’t guarantee an engaging hour of television, but everyone’s on their game here, with three separate stories centred on Worf, Picard and Beverly reflecting off each other, and no stellar anomalies, android doubles, childlike aliens with godlike powers or Holodeck malfunctions anywhere in sight. Picard’s story is the most interesting of the three, with lovely location work, fantastic casting of Jeremy Kemp as Robert Picard and Samantha Eggar as Marie. These aren’t space officers talking technobabble. They’re ordinary people, dealing with universal, yet specific problems.

O’Brien gets a first name, Miles, and as if that wasn’t good enough, I finally spotted some background artists with the good uniforms. I believe this is the only TNG episode without Data or a scene set on the bridge.

Season 3 wrap-up

  • Yum, yum, yum. This is the stuff. The general flailing about of Season 1 and the uncertainty of Season 2 are behind us, and while not every episode is a banger, the floor is higher, and the lows far less frequent.
  • All of the cast have come into their own, and if Troi, Crusher and La Forge are never going to really get any character development from this point on, at least they now feel like familiar friends and not three mannequins stiffly reciting meaningless dialogue at each other. They each have good moments, usually opposite another better-defined cast member: Troi with Riker (or her mum), Crusher with Picard, La Forge with Data.
  • Not only has the show made peace with its past, it’s now doing things which Star Trek has never done before. A willingness to continue expanding the tapestry (as opposed to repeating what’s been done before, or disconnecting from the past entirely) plus a rich set of characters to do that with is a very potent mixture.
  • Average score for Season 3 (up to and including The Best of Both Worlds “part one”) is a very impressive 3.56, the best since TOS Season 1. Stand-out episodes (apart from the gangbusters finale) include the totally brilliant Yesterday’s Enterprise, the tense and character-driven The Defector, the fascinating The Most Toys and the heartbreaking Sarek. Disappointments include the dreary The Price, the incredibly stupid The Vengeance Factor and the sluggish Transfigurations but note that they all scored 2s and everything else was 2.5 or better. So it’s not that this series is getting 5s across the board, rather it’s that there are no catastrophic failures anymore. Good news.
Trekaday 032: Tin Man, Hollow Pursuits, The Most Toys, Sarek, Ménage à Troi, Transfigurations
Trekaday 034: Brothers, Suddenly Human, Remember Me, Legacy, Reunion, Future Imperfect