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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Best of Both Worlds: is it really that good?

September 13th, 2016 by Dave Bowling Comments

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No, this has got nothing to do with Miley Cyrus. Shame on you for thinking that! Call yourself a nerd…

So, anyway. Back to Star Trek. Star Trek III had blown up the original Enterprise but a different ship was named Enterprise and given to Kirk at the end of Star Trek IV. With the success of the movies and syndicated repeats of The Original Series, Paramount smelled the smelly smell of a cash cow. They planned a new series set on a different starship Enterprise even further into the future, featuring unknown actors who would be paid low salaries. Gene Rodenberry was brought back onboard and he decided to reuse several planned concepts for the aborted Phase II series planned in the 1970s. The first officer, a young Human male, had some form of still smouldering tension with an alien female officer; there was an emotionless officer who wasn’t human and struggled with understanding humanity; some of the script ideas would be recycled etc. But Rodenberry was adamant that there would be no interpersonal conflicts like those that marked Spock and McCoy’s interactions. Nobody in the crew argued, which drove the writers spare.

Still, Star Trek: The Next Generation hit screens in October 1987. The fifth starship Enterprise trekked through the stars of the 24th Century with a Klingon, an android, a half-Betazoid telepath and a bald Shakespearean actor wondering what the hell he was doing. At first there was little to separate it from some of the more esoteric episodes of The Original Series, with omnipotent entity Q standing in for similar aliens like Trelane and Apollo. Hell, the first episode proper admitted straight off the bat to recycling its plot wholesale from classic episode The Naked Time, featuring a form of water compressed into a polymer by gravity that intoxicated the crew. Rodenberry’s attempt to show a peace between the Federation and the Klingons, with Worf serving on the bridge of the Enterprise as its main example, robbed the franchise of arguably its best antagonists. His attempt to replace them with the Ferengi, originally intended to be wealth-obsessed pirates who ate their business partners, fell flat due to a make-up job and toadying portrayal that made them appear as little more than comic relief. And no matter how many basin haircuts and weird brows you give them, Romulans just look too much like Spock. And so we had a series desperately looking for someone to provide drama. Eventually they would find this in Season 4 with the Cardassians, but in the meantime the producers had another idea.

The last episode of Season 1, titled The Neutral Zone, saw the Enterprise encountering the Romulans for the first time. Something had flown through the neutral zone between the Romulan Empire and the Federation, destroying outposts on both sides like it had just scooped them off the surface of their planets, prompting the Romulans to come out of a long period of isolation. The cause of this massacre would be revisited in Season 2, when Q, having been kicked out of his people’s society for terminal arseholery, asked Picard for sanctuary on the Enterprise. Picard refused, on the grounds that having an omnipotent troublemaker on board was borderline suicidal. Q claims that Picard needs him because Starfleet isn’t prepared for threats that await it; Picard arrogantly replies that they are. So Q flings the ship thousands of light-years through space, into a solar system where all the major settlements have been removed in the same way as the neutral zone outposts seven months earlier. They are then intercepted by the Borg, a race of cyborgs with a hive mind responsible for the destruction. They assimilate the Enterprise’s computer database, adapt to make themselves immune to the ship’s weapons and start to dissect it. Only when Picard pleads with Q that he needs him after all, is the majority of the crew spared. But as bartender Guinan, whose homeworld was destroyed by the Borg, says, now that they’re aware of the Federation’s existence, the unstoppable menace will be coming…

So fast-forward to the end of Season 3. The Enterprise is called in to an outlying Federation colony, which has lost all form of communication. They find that the main settlement has been scooped off the surface, as if the Borg had done it. After confirmation from a self-professed expert on the Borg, Lieutenant-Commander Shelby, Starfleet goes onto a war footing.

Okay, right away I’m gonna say that Elizabeth Dennehy’s performance as Shelby is brilliant. She constantly clashes with Riker, telling him that he’s not willing to take the kind of risks she thinks are needed for the coming fight. She’s even gunning for his job, having heard on the grapevine that he’s in line for a promotion. Her sparring with Jonathan Frakes is great to watch.

Anyhoo, despite 18 months warning Starfleet is not ready for a Borg attack. They’re working on new weapons, yes, but they’re at least two years away from deployment. So in a make-do moment, the Enterprise and the hundreds of civilians onboard head into combat. They locate the Borg ship, apparently looking for them in particular.

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The Borg want Captain Picard to surrender to them directly. He refuses, the two ships fight briefly, both are eventually damaged and the Enterprise makes a run for it, hiding in a nebula to make repairs. Shelby and the crew come up with an idea to jury-rig the ship’s deflector dish, usually used to push meteors out of its path, into a massive phaser cannon operating on frequencies the Borg seem vulnerable to. Riker disapproves of her other plan, to use the ship’s saucer module full of civilians as a decoy, and she takes it to Picard directly. So we get more Riker-Shelby argy-bargy, then the Borg start lobbing explosives into the nebula to force the Enterprise out.

The crew make a run for it, only to be snared and Picard kidnapped straight off the bridge. The Borg ship heads for Earth with the Enterprise in hot pursuit, but they need to get the enemy ship down to sub-light speeds so they can power their mega-phaser thing with the main engines. In a particularly eerie scene, Picard is told that the Borg collective hive mind wishes to add the Federation’s technological and biological distinctiveness to itself, regardless of what anyone in the Federation has to say about it. But since “primitive” cultures like ours are authority-driven, the Borg announce that they have chosen Picard to be their voice of authority…

Shelby, Data, Worf and Dr Crusher beam over to the Borg ship, looking for Picard and a way to slow the Borg ship down. They find Picard’s discarded uniform, blow some stuff up and make the cube drop out of warp speed to spend a few minutes on repairs. It’s this point when they find Picard, partially assimilated by the Borg and protected behind a force-field. The away team retreats, and despite Shelby’s desperate protestations Riker prepares to let them have it. The Borg ship then hails the Enterprise and the assimilated Picard, calling himself Locutus of Borg, robotically announces that their way of life has come to an end. With dramatic music swelling in the background, Riker orders Worf to open fire… and first-run audiences have to wait six months to find out what happened.

Luckily I was watching this on BBC2 and only had to wait one week. Part 2, opening the show’s fourth season, immediately sees the Enterprise fire its mega-phaser thing… and it doesn’t do any damage. Locutus says that because the Borg assimilated all Picard’s knowledge and experience, they were already prepared for this attack. In fact, they are prepared for anything Starfleet can throw at them and creepily calls Riker “Number One”, Picard’s pet name for his first officer.

So the unstoppable Borg head back to Earth, Picard’s assimilation is completed (with Locutus involuntarily shedding a tear as the human inside screams against imprisonment within his own brain) and the Enterprise repairs all the power systems it blew out when firing the mega-phaser thing. Riker gets a field promotion to Captain and appoints Shelby as his first officer.

'Resistance is futile'

‘Resistance is futile’

Meanwhile, Starfleet has been waiting in the Wolf 359 solar system with an armada of 40 starships to ambush the Borg. The Borg proceed to completely destroy 39 of these ships and cripple the last one. Although the producers don’t show the actual battle, presumably because of budgetry considerations, there is something incredibly eerie when the Enterprise, trailing the Borg ship by a long way, flies through the battlefield of wrecked starships. Especially when you remember that one of them was the ship Riker was offered command of in Part 1. Trying some original thinking on Guinan’s advice, Riker comes up with a plan.

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The Enterprise manages to catch up to the Borg ship and, with some jury-rigged modifications to adapt its weapons so the Borg can’t adapt to them, follows Shelby’s plan to separate the ship. Sure enough, as Picard was briefed about the plan, the Borg ignore the saucer section. This allows Data and Worf to fly a shuttle from the saucer up to the cube, beam aboard and kidnap Locutus.

Apparently deciding that Locutus can speak for the Borg from the Enterprise  just as well as he can from the cube, the Borg head off for Earth again with the Enterprise trailing by a good ten minutes. Data tries to hack Locutus to get some sort of insight into the Borg and eventually succeeds as Picard breaks through the Borg conditioning. The cube decides to take care of the Enterprise once and for all, stops just short of Earth and proceeds to muller the erstwhile hero ship.

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‘Who wants a barney, eh?’

Just before Riker orders ramming speed, Data implants a command into the Borg hive mind via Locutus. The cube begins regenerating itself, but with no damage to repair the power grid feeds back and blows it to pieces. Picard’s implants shut down and he regains control of his own body. Unfortunately, he remembers everything, something that will become important down the line. As Shelby departs for a new job replacing Starfleet’s losses and Riker decides to stay where he is, Picard (now minus his implants but sporting a load of sticking plasters) wonders how close he came to personally wiping out his home planet.

So then, the eternal question: does it hold up? Is this story still as good now as it was 26 years ago (sweet Odin’s beard that makes me feel old)? The answer is, yes it does. The writing and acting are just as good now as in 1990, and while the effects, costumes and sets have come a long way since, there is still more than enough to justify your interest. While this isn’t Patrick Stewart’s greatest acting moment in TNG, his portrayal of a man with all the humanity of a production line robot that still knows everyone on the ship intimately is damned eerie. There’s a reason that this storyline is considered the best in TNG’s run, and that’s mainly because it is.

The only criticism I really have is that we never see the Battle of Wolf 359. The closest we get is a message from an exploding ship and the views of the starship graveyard. True, we do see part of the battle in Deep Space Nine’s opening episode Emissary, which kinda set the tone for some epic battle sequences from season 3 onwards. But it would have been nice to see something here. Ah well, this is still excellent even then. Fighting, space battles, dramatic tension you can chew on… there’s something for everyone here.

4.5 out of 5 nerds

4.5 out of 5 nerds

All photographs c/o Paramount Pictures and Memory Alpha

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Dave was born at an early age to parents of both sexes. He has been a self-confessed geek for as long as he can remember, having been raised through the 80s on a steady diet of Doctor Who, Star Trek, Red Dwarf and (sigh) Knight Rider. Throw the usual assortment of Saturday morning cartoons into the mix and we have something quite exceptional: someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of utter tosh; a love of giant robots and spaceships fighting; and the strange desire to leap tall buildings in a single bound while wearing his underpants over his trousers. The death ray is currently in the works and one day you shall all bow to him, his giant space station and fleet of funky orange space shuttles...

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