Previously on Star Trek: The Next Generation…
“This is the real reason the Borg are here and, more to the point, why the Borg win. What they impose on the show, what all of ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ does, is narrative collapse. Defined as a combined diegetic and extradiegetic threat to the continuation of a specific structure such that the risk no further stories within it can ever be told becomes frighteningly real, narrative collapse manifests itself when the narrative internalizes its own unsustainability, and can only be averted through a blood sacrifice. And this is precisely what’s happened to Star Trek: The Next Generation, because, even by its admittedly rocky pre-existing standards, this season has simply gone too far. The show’s infuriatingly constant failure to follow its own example and live up to its potential has become pathological, and it’s now even found itself staffed by people who not only don’t understand it, but openly hate it and actively work towards the detriment and dissolution of its ideals. The Borg see this, take advantage of it, and they make their move early.The very thing Star Trek: The Next Generation was supposed to be self-evidently superior to such that open warfare with it would be unthinkable in this form catches it completely off guard and horrifically curb-stomps it into submission, dealing a crippling blow that even tears apart the Enterprise family…”
“Because also like Michael Piller, I’m approaching this as a two-parter, but have only put actual thought into the first part. When Piller wrote ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, he was not anticipating returning to Star Trek: The Next Generation for its fourth season (which it was most assuredly getting, just in case you may have had any doubts) and had no clue how to bring everything home again. He set up the most terrifyingly comprehensive and meticulous deconstruction of the show he could think of, and wasn’t planning on being in a position to undo it. Will Captain Picard survive? If he does, how will we get him back? Will Patrick Stewart come back? Will Michael Piller? Can we stop the Borg from realising the Federation’s destiny before its time? Can we prevent the narrative collapse and save Star Trek: The Next Generation, and, if we do, what will we be forced to give up? How am I going to continue this essay even though I’ve made all of the points I wanted to make already?
Right now, I honestly don’t know.”
And now, the conclusion…
There was no question about it. Star Trek: The Next Generation was *the* show to talk about during the summer of 1990. Throwing out a milestone in television history and the most infamous cliffhanger ending since “Who Shot J.R.?” will do that to you. There was nonstop speculation in every entertainment rag in the industry about what was going on behind the scenes and what the show might be planning for its fourth season premier. Patrick Stewart likes to tell about a story how he was driving in downtown Los Angeles at some point during that summer and stopped a red light when a family in a convertible pulled up next to him. The mother leaned out the window and screamed “YOU HAVE RUINED OUR SUMMER!”.
But that alone speaks to the stature the show truly had among the pop culture of the Long 1980s. Mainline history will tell you that “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” were what finally established Star Trek: The Next Generation as a show that could stand on its own without constantly living in the shadow of the Original Series; that this was the moment where people finally warmed up to the “new” crew and tuned into their adventures for their own sake, not because of the name they inherited. This is reverse logic: The very fact “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” had the impact they did proves how well-known and well-loved Star Trek: The Next Generation *already was*: Shows don’t go from obscure footnote to worldwide sensation *literally overnight*, as The Official Star Trek Master Narrative would seem to want you to think they do. History is littered with examples of shows that do provocative and game-changing stories that completely fail to capture the imagination of the public-at-large at all.
I won’t list any. I’m sure you can all think of a few.
What did happen after these episodes aired, however, was a minor, but significant shift in the tone and general consensus of Star Trek fan discourse. So naturally, that’s what the historians disproportionately focus on. And there is genuinely a turning point that happens here that’s important to talk about: Prior to “The Best of Both Worlds”, the prevailing attitude in Trekker circles about the two series was that only one was really Star Trek. There was, in the words of more than a few would-be historians, “Star Trek”, and then there was “That New Show”. Trek purists had a *lot* of grief to lay at the feet of Star Trek: The Next Generation-Nobody liked it because, they would say, Captain Picard was too cold and distant, the show’s plots were unoriginal and lazy, they couldn’t warm up to any of the actors, or that the show was too boring, clinical and preachy. What it all came down to, of course, is that Trek purists didn’t like Star Trek: The Next Generation because it wasn’t the Original Series.
After “The Best of Both Worlds”, however, that changed. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation and how shockingly brazen and brave it had been. Now, it would seem, the word at the Star Trek convention was that there was “Star Trek”, and then there was “That Old Show”. A cynical person might say this shift in fan discourse only happened because Trekkers finally realised just how many Not-Them people were watching, enjoying and deeply loving Star Trek: The Next Generation and that it maaaaybe might not be such a bad idea to not completely and totally alienate them. And considering it had just casually tossed out what was immediately clear had become an instant television landmark, they were finally forced to admit that yeah, OK, maybe Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually pretty good after all.
So Star Trek: The Next Generation gets to come back more popular than ever before, and so does Patrick Stewart, whose agent apparently managed to straighten out that contractual dispute in time. And so, in fact, does Michael Piller, who was convinced to stay on as executive producer and head writer at the personal request of Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry, no doubt aware his remaining time was limited, took Piller aside during the production of “The Best of Both Worlds” and told him he thought the show needed one more year to catch on and that it would mean a lot to him if Piller stayed on. All but explicitly telling him the unspoken secondary clause of that: “You’re the only person who can make this show work”. And Roddenberry would have been right, of course.
Michael Piller would recount in later years how much this new reality confounded him. Brannon Braga says he walked in on his first day as a staff intern during the summer hiaturs and all he remembers was Piller constantly chanting “How do we beat the Borg? How do we beat the Borg? How do we beat the Borg?” over and over again to himself. Yet the solution, as Piller also points out, was so elegant he almost missed it when it presented itself to him. Stop trying to consciously will a narrative into existence. Listen to the characters, to what they’re saying to each other and to you and to how they would personally respond to the situation as it unfolds. Let them solve the problem themselves like the free agents they are. Piller, it turns out, was trying too hard and overthinking his prompt. The characters know what to do because they exist apart from you and have their own agency-All you’re doing is channeling their thoughts, their voice and their actions onto paper.
Michael Piller called this “Zen Writing”. I call this meditating on your divines and letting your spirit guides show you the way.
If only that were the end of the story. But “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” also comprise a narrative collapse, and a narrative collapse can only be averted through blood sacrifice. So what’s the tragic consequence of Star Trek: The Next Generation coming back from the brink of complete Borgification at the last second? Quite simply put, Star Trek: The Next Generation has to end. That is, the Star Trek: The Next Generation we’ve been following since 1987 has to end, and something else bearing its name has to take its place. Star Trek: The Next Generation must be *made* to change, and, unlike ascending to a grander form, this change must be brought upon by external factors rather than its own spiritual apotheosis. The show does not change its own mark, but is depowered and has its mark changed by other people.
While “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” is the finale of the old show, we’re still a good month or so away from the debut of the new one. What we have in the interim is a somber and morose epliogue for the story that just died, and nowhere is that clearer than in “Family”, which, while produced well after, was moved to the top of the queue as it’s the natural conclusion to the Wolf 359 tragedy. As the Enterprise limps back to drydock for extensive repairs, the crew reconnect with their respective families to come to terms with the trauma they’ve all just experienced. “Family” is a strong attempt at an ensemble show, with some character development regarding Wesley and his father (though the fact both he and Beverly are defined almost exclusively by the absence of Jack and the tension surrounding Captain Picard remains deeply uncomfortable) and some more of Worf’s backstory fleshed out with the introduction of the Rozhenkos, his adoptive family, that will further lay groundwork for the big Worf story at the back end of the season.
But of course, the big draw for everyone is Captain Picard coming to terms with the deep wounds inflicted by the Borg and the introduction of his own “canonical” family on Earth. Those wounds are still very raw here and he’s still in shock, as is the show itself. That’s perhaps to be expected. But the ramifications of this story last far beyond the chaotic interregnum of the early fourth season and cast a shadow over everything Star Trek will ever do from now on. I’ve said I’m not a fan of Captain Picard’s established backstory here when compared to the one John de Lancie gave him in “The Gift”. I stand by that, even though “Family” must be praised for the quiet dignity it affords the Picards both in terms of writing and acting. But my larger issue with this story is that while it was arguably right to take the time to examine the effect “The Best of Both Worlds” had on Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s collective psyche, it never actually heals these wounds. Captain Picard will continue to be traumatized by what happens here for the rest of his existence in this form, to the point he’ll be pushed into antihero territory.
And the thing about Star Trek is that it’s supposed to be about healing.
Drama, however, is not about healing. It is about the glorification of conflict, misery and suffering to the level of the epic, because that’s what people seem to like to watch. This is something I’ll freely confess I’ll never be able to understand: I am privileged in many areas of my life and am keenly aware of the specific advantages I have at my disposal. But even so my life has its fair share of hardships and, as of this writing, the last nine months in particular have not been especially easy for me. I have to set aside time for art and entertainment, and when I do I don’t want to wallow in the difficulties I have to endure everywhere else in my life. That’s not to say I want to forget about what the world is like or be lulled into complacency about the hegemonic status quo, but I do want to have my imagination broadened, a smile brought to my face and to be inspired that a better world than the one we’ve got is attainable. You can call that “escapism”, but I guess that depends on what your definition of “escape” is. And if you have anything you think you need to escape from.
I would imagine people less fortunate than I would feel even more strongly about this, but I can’t speak for anyone but myself.
The Master Narrative of Received Star Trek History will say that “Family” is important because it introduces inner conflict, and thus humanity, to Captain Picard. But did it really? Wasn’t the whole point of “The Best of Both Worlds” to demonstrate the captain’s humanity by stripping him of it? Aren’t there other ways to showcase a person’s humanity and the trials and tribulations we all go through besides shining a spotlight on them and forcing them to emotionally break down for our amusement? And what does it say about us as a culture that this is what we like to watch for entertainment? Television, as a medium, relies on spectacle to sustain itself. You can’t, in fact, have visual media of any kind without spectacle. There are even literary genres that don’t work without it. Our moral compass lies, I think, in where we place that spectacle.
Angst-ridden internal conflict is a form of spectacle, and I would argue voyeurism, that has attained a veneer of legitimacy from would-be intellectuals because it feels more real and authentic than, say, casual and upfront depictions of sexuality, pretty art design or action scenes. I think it’s very much worth asking yourself if that’s really true. Just because something “feels” real doesn’t mean it is: That’s the devil’s clause of cinematic representationalism. Guy Debord tells us that a society is in trouble when the hollow simulacrum of a thing replaces the thing itself. I think a society that willfully partakes in communal voyeurism of ironic cynicism is actually a complacent one, having resigned itself to the hegemonic status quo and an acceptance that nothing can ever change. This is the Long 1990s. And this is what Star Trek: The Next Generation, in whatever form it’s going to take from here, must now be prepared to stand against.