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The Best of Both Worlds: A Retrospective

I am Locutus – of Borg. Resistance – is futile. Your life, as it has been – is over. From this time forward, you will service – us.

– Locutus introduces himself

I only found out last week that The Best of Both Worlds is twenty years old this June. For those unfamiliar with the title, it’s the two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which represented both the franchise’s first real cliffhanger (there was a two-part episode of the original series, but that was simply to incorporate a framing device around the original unaired pilot, The Cage – which featured an (almost) completely different cast) and the first real showcase of perhaps the franchise’s most iconic antagonists, the Borg. It’s also a damn good two hours of television.

Picard could always spot a square...

In fairness, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I, the finale to the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, represents the crown on the third season of the show. Although Star Trek: The Next Generation is regarded – perhaps correctly – as the most entertaining of the franchise, and perhaps the show within the Star Trek which has had the greatest impact on popular culture, the truth is that the first two seasons floundered a bit, seemingly like a lame retread of the Original Series (even adapting episodes and borrowing unused plots). Truth be told, in today’s somewhat more hazardous climate, I ponder whether the show would have made it to a third season – it might have been lucky to make it past its initial run of episodes.

Either way, it was the third season where the show found its own feet and its own unique identity. Twenty years ago, the show produced a rake of episodes which could vie as the best moments in the history of the franchise. There’s Yesterday’s Enterprise and The Offspring, to name but two. Episodes like Sins of the Father, The Enemy and The Defector set up the galactic politics which the show would handle particularly well (and its spin-off, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, would handle even better). A young writer by the name of Ronald D. Moore would join the show’s staff, making his name with a superb run of episodes. He’d go on to work Deep Space Nine (and, very briefly, on Star Trek: Voyager) before attaining fame as the creative force behind the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Even the mandatory Q episode – Deja Q – was perhaps among the very best of the franchise. In short, the entire season is on the shortlist of my favourite television seasons of all time.

So, after a season reintroducing and updating the classic foes – the Romulans and the Klingons – it seems appropriate that the season ends with a smackdown between the Enterprise and the show’s most successful new villains. After the failure of the Ferengi to become a legitimate threat (comically large skulls, big ears and ridiculous capitalism somehow didn’t lend themselves to a credible foe), the producers decided the show needed a new, bigger and – most importantly – different threat. And the Borg are certainly that.

We were picking ourselves up off the floor as well...

They were introduced anonymously as the culprits behind the complete obliteration of outposts along the Romulan borders. Entire bases scooped off the face of planets to feed some sinister source. The creatures themselves appeared in Q Who?, in which the series’ god-like trickster decided to give Picard and his crew a taste of the true horrors of space. The Borg are cybernetic organisms, all sharing the same consciousness, their organic flesh distorted with machinery and the individual’s will and consciousness lost to the hive mind. They travel around in grotesque cube-shaped ships, seeking to “assimilate” cultures and societies into their blissful consciousness. Q himself summed up the horror of the collective:

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!

In fact, the only thing which saved the Enterprise from its first encounter with a lone cube was Q himself, who relented when Picard begged for assistance (“You wanted to frighten us. We’re frightened. You wanted to show us that we were inadequate. For the moment… I grant that. You wanted me to say ‘I need you’. I need you!”). And so this new monstrosity was set up.

The Best of Both Worlds picks up a year on from that fateful encounter. Starfleet has been preparing itself for an ecounter with “the Borg threat”. Truth is, nobody has any idea how to deal with it. The fact of the matter is that Q had to whisk Picard half way across the galaxy to introduce him to this foe, so you figure that time might be on your side.

Skilfully, the two-parter takes its time introducing us to the true threat that the Borg do. We are carefully and slowly introduced to the sheer impossibility of the creatures. First as Riker and his away team find themselves standing in a crater that used to be a Federation colony – literally uprooted from the planet and taken god-knows-where for god-knows-what. Then we discover that – despite the fact they were last spotted over seventy years a way, but have somehow closed the distance in just over a year. Finally, we hear ominous tales of freighters sending out distress calls about a cube-shaped ship before disappearing off the grid. The show takes its time before it even dares to show us the creatures – nearly halfway through the first part.

Somebody's had some work done...

We are introduced to the Borg ship through a long distance shot, as Picard walks up to the viewscreen. The music pounds in the background, as we see the cube grows closer and closer. Picard instructs his bridge staff to magnify the view, and we see the mangled and blackened cube up closer – dwarfing our central character as he stands in front of the view screen, the music kicking into a higher gear. There’s a note of sheer dread in Picard’s voice as he informs the crew to let Starfleet Command know “we have engaged the Borg”. The engagement between the Enterprise and the Borg, when it comes, is swift and lobsided. The Borg take what they want and are gone in under a minute.

The script is wonderfully effective at illustrating the potential of the Borg, despite the relatively low special effects budget. Through use of the series’ fantastic cast (particularly Patrick Stewart as Picard), and some ominous foreshadowing (Picard’s pondering if the Roman Empire knew it was about to fall as the Vandals loomed on the horizon), the treat is established. We see little of the destruction that the Borg cause first hand, instead we see the consequences – the wreckage after Starfleet’s last ditch confrontation, Picard after his transformation.

However, the core of the story rests on a character study of Riker. The wonderful thing about the cast of the Next Generation, one that was arguably missing from Voyager or even Star Trek: Enterprise is that not only were they all fairly talented, but each of the characters got a chance to grow and evolve over the run. The Best of Both Worlds is rightly regarded as a turning stone for Picard – he is abducted and his body is distorted, his mind warped. Picard, perhaps the embodiment of the optimism and capacity for greatness of humanity in Gene Roddenbery’s bright future, would scarred and wounded by his experience – in effect spending his career suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (witness his attempted genocide in the superb I, Borg or his vendetta in Star Trek: First Contact). However, the true character exploration at the heart of the story is that of Commander William T. Riker.

Riker had the distinction of being imagined as this iteration of the show’s version of James T. Kirk (they even share a middle initial). While Kirk would have to wait until the movies to grow up (somewhere around Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Riker got quite a bit of growth and development here. The show would make Riker’s leadership skills, stemming from a less-than-perfect relatrionship with his father, a key undercurrent of the series. How could a man so charismatic and driven – first officer of the flagship at such a young age – become so content in the shadow of Picard? Here, the writing suggests that Riker is afraid of command – terrified of the responsibilities and choices that come with it. When the Borg take Picard, he’s confronted with his greatest nightmare – thrown into the big chair and forced to “let go of Picard”.

The Best of Both Worlds might not necessarily be the best hour of Star Trek ever produced, but it’s certainly up there. It codified the structure of Star Trek seasons – from here on out, cliffhangers became the order of the day. It also proved that Star Trek could offer stories truly huge in scope, despite the handicap of a television show’s budget. Here, there’s a huge threat heading straight for the heart of the Federation – for Earth – a threat generally conserved for the movies (and even then, only the biggest of them). It is perhaps the first moment of on-screen space opera the show attempted, and it came off amazingly. In many ways, the larger story arcs that the show (and indeed the franchise) would attempt could be traced back to this one show.


5 Responses

  1. “I am Locutus – of Borg. Resistance – is futile. Your life, as it has been – is over. From this time forward, you will service – us” – That’d make an excellent wedding vow.

    Classy post. Again, I direct you towards the Star Trek cruise, which I think would fit superbly into the BOBW celebrations 🙂

    Wikipedia uses the term “Borg Leitmotif”, which really has to go into my top 10 favourite phrases this year, or ever.

    • Thanks. It’s a great little episode. Borg leitmotif? Never has pop culture sounded so pretentious.

  2. If you ever need a Trek Borg arm, they sell them on entertainmentearth.com. I think I’d go for one the phasers first though.

    I have my priorities straight 😐

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