by Tony Dayoub
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the cerebral sequel series to the 60s science fiction classic, was just wrapping up its third season after an extended shakedown cruise when the behind-the-scenes tumult in the writer's room finally started to subside under the watchful aegis of new showrunner Michael Piller. Since taking over at the start of season 3 (reviewed here), Piller had completely overhauled the staff. He pushed out many still carrying grudges over bruises incurred in previous years in favor of new, relatively inexperienced writers (many of whom would one day go on to create their own notable sci-fi shows). The results were apparent onscreen. Many of the third season's episodes were among the franchise's best ever, shows like "The Offspring" and "Yesterday's Enterprise." (A review of Season 3's Blu-ray set is forthcoming.) But despite the new blood behind the scenes and a cast whose camaraderie offscreen was legendary, TNG still suffered from a noticeable stodginess.
Some blamed the fact that lead character Captain Jean-Luc Picard was played by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Patrick Stewart, a dignified Brit whose style contrasted sharply with the tongue-in-cheek athleticism of his predecessor, William Shatner. Though Stewart's nuanced performance was one of the principal things that made TNG can't-miss-television, even in its middling earlier days, the show hadn't quite won over audiences yet. Then, on the week of June 18, 1990, it would air its season finale, a cliffhanger written by Piller himself featuring Picard and first officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), that would keep viewers unsettled all through that summer as they waited for its conclusion to air in September. "The Best of Both Worlds" was the name of the two-parter, and it has been edited into a feature-length film that will premiere tonight in theaters across the U.S. before its restored 1080p HD release on Blu-ray this Tuesday.
In this classic diptych, Riker wrestles with whether he should stay on the Enterprise or accept command of his own ship. An imminent invasion by the cybernetic Borg brings Lt. Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy), an eager consultant who aims to take over Riker's position, onto the ship. While Shelby and Riker butt heads over strategy the Borg attack, kidnapping Picard and assimilating him into their robotic collective. This puts Riker in command and Shelby as his second, and together they must protect Earth from the rapidly encroaching Borg as they devise a secondary plan to free Picard from their influence. The first part builds to a brutally open-ended finale, the camera panning from a two-shot of Shelby and Riker, coming to rest on the now-acting captain as he orders his weapons officer to fire a new, untested weapon at his former superior—a Borg-ified Picard now known as Locutus.
For TNG fans, that summer would prove to be the longest one ever. Rumors circulated that Stewart would not return for a fourth season, making way for Frakes and the marvelously abrasive Dennehy to head up a youthful cast. Piller, having thought he was leaving the show, hadn't figured out how to write himself out of the corner in which he placed himself. Meanwhile, the press had begun to follow every new development in a way not seen since Dallas's "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger. A last minute decision to stay made the episode even more personal for Piller, solidifying the parallel between his own choice and the dilemma Riker had faced. Now Piller had to resolve the situation.
The second part, which launched the series' fourth season, never quite comes off the way the first one did. Much of the wonderful conflict between Shelby and Riker that fueled the first part is sidelined in favor of a tech-heavy plot involving getting all the players back to square one by the time the episode concludes. But there are some nice moments that resonate: the Enterprise flying past a graveyard of dead Starfleet vessels drifting in space (including the one Riker had been offered to command); Locutus's capture by Klingon security chief Worf (Michael Dorn) and the android Data (Brent Spiner); and most importantly, the humanity of Picard's mixed reaction after the ordeal—equal parts relief and disgust at the violation of having his body and soul transmogrified into that of his enemy's.
Those who attend tonight's theatrical event will get a taste of what is the finest extra included in the upcoming Blu-ray, a surprisingly frank, 30-minute featurette titled 'Regeneration: Engaging the Borg.' In it, most of the episode's major players, including director Cliff Bole and guest actor Dennehy, discuss their memories of making an episode which nearly everyone agreed had the whiff of something special. Dennehy still seems surprised at the legacy surrounding it, especially the fact that she's still discussing it more than 20 years later. But "The Best of Both Worlds" made a lasting impact, even if only within the Star Trek franchise. Locutus' attack on Starfleet would serve as the backdrop for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's pilot. And the Borg would return countless times, allowing Picard to resolve his antipathy of them on the big screen's First Contact, becoming the primary bad guys on Voyager, and even reappearing in the prequel series Enterprise. The Borg proved to be just the right dystopian shot in the arm that the utopian Star Trek: The Next Generation needed in order to midwife a fledgling revival of the Star Trek franchise.
For tickets to tonight's screening go to Fathom Events. The Blu-ray is available Tuesday, April 30th.