After the mother of all cliff-hangers (or perhaps, in light of the episode’s age, I should call it the grandmother of all cliff-hangers), season four opens up with the resolution, and this pattern will repeat itself several times over the course of the remaining seasons. Picking up exactly where the story left off, we see the deflector dish discharge to no effect, and the Borg commit a classic Evil Overlord blunder by warping away from the disabled Enterprise. The crew must now deal with the immediate problems of getting the ship operational because their aid will be required at Wolf 359, which is where Starfleet and possibly some Klingons have opted to make their stand against the Borg. Admiral Hanlon promotes Riker to captain, and Riker, after reminding Shelby that she is both a pain in the ass and that she has much to learn, promotes Shelby to his first officer.
Once underway, the Enterprise speeds to Wolf 359 and arrives to find a ship graveyard, including the wreckage of the U.S.S. Melbourne, the ship Starfleet offered Riker in the previous episode. Data locates the Borg cube’s trail, and Riker orders the ship on an intercept course while instructing Shelby to ready the saucer section for separation. Shelby notes that she herself had briefed Picard on her plan, but her faith in Riker’s cunning is such that she complies. As expected, once the two sections of the Enterprise engage the cube, the Borg ignore the saucer section, but Shelby’s saucer section serves as enough of a diversion that Worf and Data successfully launch a shuttle from the main shuttlebay from which they beam aboard the cube.
While the ships continue their battle, Data and Worf track down Locutus/Picard and beam back to the battle bridge. Once there, Data attempts to hack the machine part of Locutus since they have failed to contact the human Picard within Locutus. Data succeeds, and Picard reaches out to him advising him to put the Borg to sleep. The Borg power down, allowing Riker to destroy the Borg cube and end the threat against Earth.
The summary above doesn’t really do the episode justice because the resolution of “The Best of Both Worlds,” is again a Riker story. However, while the first episode focused on whether Riker was ready to sit in the Big Chair, Part Two throws Riker into command under truly terrible conditions. Part Two is a trial by fire, and Riker rises to the challenge. He looks beyond the horror of Wolf 359, and I once again cannot explain to you how it felt to be sitting in front of a television and see the level of devastation. Sure, these are make-believe ships in a make-believe universe, but Wolf 359 really is the first time I had ever seen a story so willing to sacrifice so many on the altar of good storytelling. Moreover, several seasons of TOS and all the preceding seasons of TNG conditioned me to believe in the infallibility of Starfleet, despite “Conspiracy.” Wolf 359 destroyed that faith and therefore paved the way for my experience of DS9, which is a topic for another post.
Returning to Riker, my favorite moment of the episode is a scene between the newly minted captain and Guinan. Riker having retreated to what is now his ready room after mishandling his first meeting as captain (it’s a show from the nineties, folks, there’s a meeting in every episode) finds himself completely at sea, and Guinan, whose spidey-sense is on point as always, comes to visit him. She tells him that he will have to let Picard go just as she will have to do, no matter how close her relationship was with Picard, and frankly, she’s right. Despite Picard’s expressed distaste for parenting, over the course of these three seasons, he has become a father figure to most of the crew, and children must always say goodbye to their parents and mentors. The episode forces Riker to face not only the loss of Picard but, more importantly, compels him to step into the role of captain without the safety net of Picard’s wisdom. Note, Guinan does not tell Riker not to grieve that loss, but she does tell him that he must accept that the chair belongs to him now just as we all must move beyond our parents to become adults in our own right.
While I would not have wanted to lose Patrick Stewart’s Picard at this juncture, I feel a bit that Riker’s arc gets shortchanged with Picard’s return. Riker, unlike most of us, manages to retrieve his metaphorical father and restore him to health, and the episode ends with Picard in command of the Enterprise. Patrick Stewart’s contract locked him into service as Picard for seven years. Riker’s elevation was therefore never going to be permanent, but in terms of story and character development this episode would have been the perfect time for Riker to come into his own. I do wonder what that series would have looked like. Still, the daring rescue by Worf and Data that we get and the following emotional scene in which Picard manages to reach out to Data despite his assimilation make for great television. Seeing that pale arm grab for Data still carries the same emotional weight now that it did thirty years ago, which is a testament to how truly good this episode is.
Rating: ALL the Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- Seeing Wolf 359, I wonder if the writing team behind Star Trek 2009 rewatched this episode for inspiration for the wreckage around Vulcan. The two sequences feel very similar to me, but I don’t have any facts on which to base that supposition.
- I really feel for Marina Sirtis in this episode because once again, Troi serves more as Maguffin than as a character. She literally just tells Data and the audience that the arm motion is Picard so that we can all trust it and move the plot forward.
- Shelby gets similarly sidelined. While she capably commands her saucer section, that’s all she does, before a fairly perfunctory goodbye sequence. Again, I know that she gets more development in various books, but I still would have liked to have seen more of her.