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Monday, September 24, 2007
Star Trek: TNG Top 10: #1: The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1
What "City on the Edge of Forever" was to classic Trek, "The Best of Both Worlds" is to Next Generation. It's that one episode that transcends the series and the franchise as a whole. The first part is one of those classic hours of television in which every element, every nuance and every last detail is, quite simply, perfect.

All that and it features the greatest season-ending cliffhanger in television history. Three simple words, "Mr. Worf, fire" and then the music builds to a crescendo as it goes to black and says "To Be Continued..."

If you were a Star Trek fan in June of 1990 when this first aired, you probably vividly recall where you were when you first saw this epiosde and the cliffhanger in question. I know I do...

I spent a lot of time in the summer of 1990 watching and re-watching this episode, trying to figure out just how in the hell they'd get out of this one. I had a paper route and at least once a week while folding papers, I'd rewind the tape, watching this one again, looking for clues, details, elements, something that would tell me how the cliffhanger would be resolved. I'd sit down with my list of episodes from season three, mapping out how long until the season-premiere came and then lamenting--dammit, it just wasn't soon enough. I think the word you're looking for here is obsession. But you know, when an episode is this good, you can almost overlook that.

Had it just been the cliffhanger to end part one, this one might have been top five...definitely top ten. But it's the way everything came together in such a great way that pushed this up as not only the best hour of Next Generation to ever grace the airwaves, but also one of the top five hours of television of all-time.

Written by executive producer Michael Piller, "The Best of Both Worlds, Part One" has it all. The Enterprise is sent out to a planet that has clearly been attacked and destroyed by the Borg, indicating the Borg have reached Federation space. Commander Elizabeth Shelby is brought in to verify this. Turns out Shelby is something of a Borg expert--and also on the fast-tract to comand. She's the new rising star of Starfleet and has her eyes firmly set on Riker's job. Seems Riker's been offered his own command--the third time now in the three years of the series. But he's torn. He pushed himself hard to get to the Enterprise, but now that he's here, he likes where he is. He still has his ambitions, but to put his career is not longer the single motivating force in his life. Because of this, he comes into conflict with Shelby and is accused of "playing it safe."

The character story for Riker reflects where writer Michael Piller was at the time. He'd risen to the second-in-command of Next Generation and appeared ready to head out and run his own show. But he was happy with his role on the Next Gen staff and wanted to stay, but he realized there was a bright pool of talent coming in behind him. I'm guessing Ron Moore and company weren't doing end-runs around Piller to Rick Berman's office, but you can see how Piller might have felt he was a crossroads of his career. Thankfully for Star Trek fans, he decided to stay and keep working on Trek, crafting the next few seasons and seeing the creation of the best modern Trek, Deep Space Nine.

In between the Riker/Shelby conflicts, we discover the Borg are coming. The Enterprise receives a distress call and heads out to investigate..and are met by the Borg. The Borg hail the Enterprise and demand Picard surrender to them. Confused by their sudden interest in Picard, the ship fights back and then goes to hide in a nearby nebula. Picard figures that by keeping the Borg occupied looking for him, it will give Starfleet time to get a force together to take on the Borg ship. Meanwhile, the crew tries to come up with ways to defend themselves and the ship against the Borg.

The Borg eventually tire of waiting and force the Enterprise out of hiding. The Enterprise tries to draw them away from Federation space at full warp, but the Borg overtake the ship. They beam on board and take Picard hostage. Riker is now in command and pursuit of the Borg ship begins...and they're on a path that will lead them into the heart of Federation space.

Meanwhile, Geordi, Sheby and the engineering staff are working against time on a weapon that will use the deflector dish to channel energy through it and possibly destroy or disable the Borg ship. Only problem--it will require all the Enterprise's power to do it. They have to get the ship out of warp.

An away team, lead by Shelby beams over to the Borg ship to try and get the ship out of warp (the Borg ignore things that aren't perceived as a threat) and maybe rescue Picard. They take out a few energy nodes, dropping the ship from warp. Geordi readies the weapon. The away team encounters resistance after taking out a few energy nodes...and in the midst of battle, sees Picard. Except he's been transformed by the Borg. The away team beams back and heads to the bridge.

The weapon is ready. This is their shot as the Borg ship is repairing and ready to head back to warp. Shelby argues they can sabotage the ship again if they need to but they should wait and try to get Picard back. Riker says there is no time and tells Geordi to be prepare to fire. The Borg ship hails and Picard appears on screen--he's now Locutus of Borg. He's been assimiliated and tells the crew they will be as well.

All eyes are on Riker...the music swells and Riker says three little words, "Mr. Worf, fire."

And that's it for a long, long, long hot summer. (I've included a video of the final three minutes of part one here for you to re-live the greatness that is this episode).

Every single thing about this episode is perfect. Performances are A-plus. The Borg are still menacing and scary. When the Enterprise heads to answer the distress call and we see the Borg ship appear on screen, it's a chilling moment. Battle sequences are great, the personal conflicts are superb and the quiet scene of Picard touring the ship before heading into battle was a clear signal they might just kill off the captain of the Enterprise. And then, the musical's perfect. It is memorable, it sets the mood and it's sweeping. I'd put it on par with some of the work of the great John Williams for how well it captures the mood of this episode. The build up to a crescendo at episode's end....just fantastic.

And then, as I've said before--that cliffhanger.

The interesting thing was writer Michael Piller wrote part one and had no idea how part two would go. So while Trek fans spent all summer wondering if Picard would die or if Q might somehow intervene to save the crew, Piller apparently had no more idea than we did how it would all end.

And that explains "Part Two" which is good and paired with part one it's a great two-hour television movie. But after a summer of speculation, wonder and worry, it could never compare. In subsequent viewings, it's gone up a lot in my estimation and the "sleep" subroutine to shutdown the Borg doesn't feel as much like a cheat as it did on the first viewing. But still, "Part Two" isn't quite the nirvana that "Part One" is. It does have some great moments, such as the Enterprise seeing the destroyed remnants of the fleet at Wolf 359 (we'll later see the battle in the premiere of Deep Space Nine) and we do rescue Picard. We also have a nicely done little plan by Riker to play on Picard's knowledge that is being used by the Borg.

But you know, for four months in the summer of 1990, Next Generation owned me. This episode owned me....and it's part of that fuels my fondness. And then, all the other parts that came together to make what may be the perfect episode of Star Trek--not just Next Generation but the franchise as a whole. It's an episode that when I surf past and it's on, I will watch from wherever I wander in....reciting dialogue as it goes. I've lost count of how many times I've seen this one...but you know, thinking about it for this list, I'm ready to see it all over again.


posted by Michael Hickerson at 9/24/2007 10:20:00 AM | |
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