At the Brink

Best of Both Worlds Part One: Best Cliffhanger of the Nineties

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.
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I’d planned on covering “Sarek” before jumping to the end of the season, but looking back, I have spent more than enough time in season three. While I highly recommend Mark Lenard’s performance in that episode for your own rewatch, I’m going to skip it and cover “Best of Both Worlds” Part One.

The Borg return, only this time pushing toward Earth and successfully capture Captain Picard. During his captivity, the Borg assimilate Captain Picard into Locutus, ostensibly for the purpose of communicating with mankind, a species that has thus far proved more difficult to assimilate than the Collective anticipated. With Picard’s knowledge incorporated into their hive mind, the Borg destroy thirty nine star ships, resulting in the loss of nearly eleven thousand lives in Part Two, if I may jump ahead a bit. The events in these two episodes serve as the opening sequence in “Emissary”, are referenced in “The Drumhead,” and sparks what happens in “Unity.” As such, this story has ripples that extend all across the entirety of the franchise, even informing First Contact and therefore Enterprise, so when I say that this story is possibly one of the most important contributions TNG makes to canon, I do not exaggerate.

I will also tell you that, much like “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Best of Both Worlds” holds up, though its impact is not what I remember. To be frank, however, very little can touch that experience. “Best of Both Worlds Part One” aired in 1990, and at that time, binging was not A Thing. We were still locked into the routine of having to wait week by week for a single episode of our favorite shows, and generally, seasons did not end on cliffhangers. Such endings weren’t entirely nonexistent, but I had never experienced anything quite like this. “Best of Both Worlds Part One” closes with a shot of Picard as Locutus and Riker giving the order to fire the modified deflector dish, leaving the fate of both Picard and the Enterprise in question. I can remember sitting on the floor in front of the old CRT TV in stunned silence. I also remember feeling absolute rage that I would have to wait MONTHS before finding out what would happen to my beloved ship and crew.

These days, such an ending is becoming increasingly commonplace, so I don’t know that I can adequately convey just how traumatic this experience truly was. As expected, knowing what would happen going in reduced the emotional impact of the Locutus reveal. However, time and emotional distance from that reveal gave me the opportunity to focus on the Riker subplot more than I have in the past. I think I found myself far too focused on the Borg plot, so I brushed past Riker’s crisis of conscience and Shelby’s attempt to move up in the ranks. However, there really is quite a lot to unpack there.

Lieutenant Commander Shelby has been assigned to the Enterprise in her capacity as “Borg expert” (scare quotes intentional), which seems strange considering that she’s developing theories and data based on the information and experience relayed to her by the only Federation personnel ever to encounter the Borg, the very crew to whom she finds herself assigned. However, what I failed to appreciate at the time is that Shelby is indeed incredibly competent as an officer, even though she never gets a first name. She’s ambitious, to the extent that she goes over Riker’s head to speak with Captain Picard about a plan to separate the saucer section. She leaves to investigate the Borg-destroyed colony before Riker. She eagerly chomps at the bit to usurp Riker’s position, and Riker finds the whole experience unsettling. The episode seems to want us, the audience, to find her just as disagreeable. Why, of course, Commander Riker, your seasoned experience is more valuable than Shelby’s enthusiasm, so even though you continue to turn down promotions like they’re littered around Starfleet, it’s completely normal to believe that you’re staying where you are for valuable experience. Shelby’s point is that Riker is stagnating, and even Riker himself begins to wonder if she’s right. He asks Troi, who gets to give him actual, solid advice by saying that he’s being silly. She’ll do it again when he tries to lead the away team to rescue Picard. Riker spends a fair amount of time in this first installment getting schooled by the ladies around him, and it’s probably good for him.

Interestingly, despite the episode’s major event being the revelation of Picard as Locutus, this episode is about Riker, and it seems to be dealing with the early TNG issue of Riker’s career that comes up periodically. Frankly, I appreciate that the two-parter grapples with this question of why Riker remains as First Officer. The show has set him up as a both an officer who has done a tour as First Officer before and one who more than competently serves in that capacity on the Enterprise. Of course, the conceit of the show is that assuming Frakes’ contract looked like Stewart’s, the actor signed on as Riker for seven seasons. Therefore, we, as the audience, know that Riker will remain a fixture of the series until the end. However, in the universe established by the show, Riker should have moved on to the big chair by now.

With Spock, this was never an issue because Spock’s primary focus was a scientist. Command never interested him, so TOS never had to grapple with the issue of career advancement. Honestly, I love that this episode and its concluding part deal with this question for Riker, but as I mention above, I wonder at the script’s treatment of Shelby’s enthusiasm and ambition. Of course, she’s a throwaway character, but I do think the story sacrifices her in order to justify Riker’s position on the ship.

Rating: The Whole Pot of Earl Grey Tea

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. Once again, we get a great sequence between Picard and Guinan. Of course he references the Battle of Trafalgar, and Guinan’s response is both pithy and foreshadows a potential fate for Picard—Nelson did not return from Trafalgar. The end of the episode leaves in doubt whether Picard will suffer a similar fate. Beyond the foreshadowing, however, I love the chemistry between Goldberg and Stewart. Goldberg’s discussion of the El-Aurian diaspora is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and Stewart’s Picard never condescends in the face of that pain.
  2. Dr. Crusher gets to fire a phaser! This is one of the few episodes in which she does, and I have to imagine that Gates McFadden got a bit of a charge out of getting to engage the Borg.

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