This was not meant to be.
This war’s not supposed to be happening.
The demons of our future have finally caught up with us. Forced to face a full disclosure of human ugliness before we were prepared, they found us, they fought us and they won. A tragedy of such proportions that its reverberations are still being keenly felt to this day, made even more tragic by the knowledge of how entirely avoidable it was. What happened? What went wrong?
“The Best of Both Worlds” is the episode that just about universally gets cited as the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation stopped messing about, came into its game and at long last stepped out of the shadow of its predecessor. Even in the comparatively recent re-evaluation of the series in mainline fandom that posits the *entirety* of Season 3 as the show’s high water mark, not just “The Best of Both Worlds”, this episode *still* gets wheeled out as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s finest hour time and time again.
It’s not. It’s not any of those things. But it is important.
Nor is any of that other received history true either, by the way: As I never tire of pointing out, Star Trek: The Next Generation was never cult or unpopular, consistently being rated among the top twenty most watched shows on television for its entire seven year run. In fact, ratings had been steadily climbing over the course of the third season, and while “The Best of Both Worlds” may well be the peak of the show’s early popularity, with damn good reason, I might add, it didn’t do anything more to make or break this show’s success then anything else we’ve been looking at over the past three years. But it can perhaps be said that Star Trek: The Next Generation was still not being embraced by a particular subset of its audience, namely hardcore Star Trek fans, pretty much only because it wasn’t the Original Series. Fans being fans, they loudly voiced their non-directional dissatisfaction at anyone who made the ill-advised decision to listen to them, including members of the production team.
Due to a combination of Trekkers being pretty much the dictionary definition of “vocal minority” and a dangerously myopic view held by Paramount corporate that Trekkers were Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s primary demographic, one can perhaps understand why Michael Piller went into this story with the express intent of demonstrating Captain Picard’s humanity, which fans seemed to think he lacked, by stripping him of it. Piller had grown increasingly distant from his writing staff as the third season went on, rightly figuring most of them would be walking out on him by year’s end (sadly, this was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I’ll bet this is exactly what strained his relationship with people like Melinda Snodgrass). He delegated more and more day-to-day operations to Ira Steven Behr, whom he came to confide more and more in, only taking on the last-minute cleanup jobs on scripts the other team members had already worked over (and here also we can perhaps see why Behr’s positionality has become increasingly central to the show’s ethos in the waning half of the year).
But now Behr has given his notice too, and even Piller himself has almost committed to following suit. So he decides to shoulder the full responsibility for the season finale himself, one of the most ambitious efforts the show’s done to date, because he figures he has a strong feeling for it. In later years, Piller would say the subplot about Riker’s uncertainties about accepting promotion and moving on came explicitly out of his own self-doubts and insecurities he was experiencing as he was writing it.
And yet there’s an unmistakable and inescapable sense of cynicism and futility about “The Best of Both Worlds”. Part of the impetus to end the year in this particular fashion was due to contract negotiations stalling between Paramount and Patrick Stewart’s agent (an impasse that, it should be noted, Patrick Stewart himself was apparently unaware of: He’s said he was worried upon reading the initial script that Piller was writing him out of the show). From what I’ve read, somebody actually came down to the writers and told them “Hey, contract negotiations with Patrick are running long and we don’t know if we’re going to be able to cut a deal, so we may have to kill Picard”. How lurid must your sensibilities be, and how depressed must you be creatively that the *first* course of action your mind turns to in this situation is “kill ’em off”? This is both the true legacy of “Skin of Evil” and a tragic end result of a year that’s proved to be little more than anger and tears for all aboard: Just as bitterness and frustration led the creative team to kill the alternatecast of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and destroy their ship in the most spectacularly violent manner imaginable, here they seriously entertain the notion of killing off a major character once again just for the shock value and to twist the knife one final time.
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.
And yet even so I can understand the tears, the anger and the pain and I can empathize. In its own way, this season has been as difficult and as hurtful for me to write about as it sounds like it was to produce. I knew Season 3 was going to be hard for me and I knew I wasn’t going to like it as much as fan consensus dictated that I should-I never have. But I underestimated the real toll it would take on me, especially given it happened to fall during another rough patch in my personal life. I’ve had deadlines slip and neglected my mental and physical well-being to pull all-nighters to make up for it (in fact I’m doing that right now). I’ve felt impossibly frustrated, held back and stifled all throughout this whole process. I’m so angry that the show is not living up to my memories of and expectations for it, and I’ve been running into *massive* creative blocks the likes of which I’ve *never* had on this project before as absolutely all of my enthusiasm and inspiration has slowly been sapped from me over the course of the season.
Almost every episode this year has been one I’ve hated, and I yet I’ve not been able to skim over *any* of them because they’re all not only historically important, but actually *well constructed*. And I feel all the angrier at the show for making me trudge through all this as it’s been keeping me from getting to the last Dirty Pair movie and from bringing closure to that period of my life. Like Michael Piller, I feel tired, worn down, burned out and unsure where I’m going to go from here.
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.