“No Future”: The Best of Both Worlds
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.
March 18, 2015 @ 12:07 am
Oh Josh, I love this blog and your writing, but it's not worth your own well being. Perhaps you should consider taking a sabbatical? If you are not enjoying it, don't do it – or at least don't do it until you feel more up to it.
Thanks for all your efforts on behalf of people like myself who turn up here every few days in keen anticipation of learning something new – such as what " narrative collapse' actually means or the existence of Raumpatrouille Orion – but I.don't want that at the erasure of your wellbeing. Please take care of yourself, chum.
March 18, 2015 @ 10:37 am
I'm truly humbled by your support, but to be perfectly frank there's no way In hell I'm stopping before I get to cover Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy 🙂
How I'm going to handle TNG Season 4, which I'm getting a sinking suspicion is on balance even worse than Season 3, remains to be seen, however.
March 18, 2015 @ 11:49 am
What a cliffhanger!
Can we all pull together to help Josh reclaim his humanity? Or will he become drained of life and attached to a computer screen forevermore: Joshcutus of Blog.
Hang in there, brother!
March 18, 2015 @ 12:21 pm
I, for one, encourage you to stick with this until the bloody, terrible, horrifying end. I mean, that's Star Trek into Darkness at this point.
Seriously, though. Although I'm not exactly able to see into your headspace, or even speak with you in real time, I can speak as someone who has also let a significant portion of his life and thoughts be taken up with an intellectual project that goes up on the internet on a regular basis. And as someone who has produced a work that doesn't always feel all that rewarding, but whose final product aims to be remarkable. Vaka Rangi, in the full scope of the project, is immensely remarkable. It can become a touchstone in a whole new way to understand Star Trek and what it means.
The powerful neurotic force of fandom has run Star Trek for too long, and overwritten its power in the popular culture of our society and our planet too forcefully. Vaka Rangi is a contribution to overcoming that, and finding new routes to Star Trek as one of our culture's most powerful myths that can articulate its most transformative power. I believe in this project, I believe in its power and potential, and I am immensely glad to see it running, exploding with ideas. I know I'm not the only one. And I know I won't be the last one.
It's more than just my own personal love of reading your work. Although there is that. This project is seriously valuable. And even if you have to learn how to laugh at the ridiculousness (as girlfriend Gillian and I have, especially at Menage A Troi and all the sexual connotations in Beverly and John's relationship in Transcendence), well, it's going to get pretty damn funny around late-period Voyager.
Remember. For every "Who Watches The Watchers," there's "The Bonding." For every "The Enemy," there's "Booby Trap." For every "The Most Toys," there's "Tin Man." Fuck, Josh. I love Tin Man. You know what else I love? "The Wounded," "Clues," and "Brothers." The Drumhead, Half a Life, and The Host. Darmok, Ensign Ro, Cause and Effect, The First Duty.
Chain of Command. Tapestry. Descent. Gambit. Thine Own Self. Journey's End. Pre-Emptive Strike. . . . . . . .
I don't expect we'll agree on all of it. But this is a project that can change how people see Star Trek. It's changed a lot for me already.
March 18, 2015 @ 1:11 pm
Hear, hear! I've been watching ST for as long as I can remember, and this blog has completely shifted the way I see it and think about it. Not to mention, I've had no idea about any of the behind-the-scenes stuff until now.
Most of all, this blog has inspired me to go back and watch episodes I haven't seen in ages with fresh eyes. I watched "Transfigurations" and "Tin Man" yesterday. As someone working a recovery program, the view of these stories presented here helped me apply them to my life in very meaningful ways. Josh, overall your analysis has helped me to come to grips with why TNG (and now ST as a whole) has meant so much to me over the years.
This blog has also inspired me to begin daydreaming about a blog project of my own. Hopefully, one day that'll get off the ground and it will be thanks in large part to Vaka Rangi.
Also, this whole damn thing is worth it just for the connection of Pro Wrestling to Star Trek. 🙂 My two loves.
Don't give up the hope, true believers!
March 18, 2015 @ 6:05 pm
Of 'coincidence,' Mycroft said in Sherlock's head that 'the universe wouldn't be so lazy.' My life has taken a turn toward deconstruction, swerving even harder in that direction today. This after a fairly extensive period of reflection in what I hesitate to call sabbatical because nobody sabbaticals for two years.
There's some inherent danger it seems in reflection and introspection. To me it's been a huge impediment to productivity. Ironically within the confines of the timeframe of Season 3's analysis, I have not been able to produce. I should of course mention that I'm a professional painter.
It's complete artist's block. Much of it is winter. Much of it isn't. But it does seem to be an 'all or nothing' proposition. Again, shades of Season 3. It's either a high watermark or it's 3 good episodes in a sea of troubled creative processes and missed opportunities for greatness.
But that's the way of art, isn't it, both visual or alliterative?
You're either producing en masse, and being genuinely happy with a handful of pieces, or you're not producing. It's no different with a group project that "must" be produced than it is for a single creative figure, whether that's me, you, or Michael Piller in 1989.
C'est la vie, though. I can always muster essay-length over-analysis of pop culture storytelling. Because frankly – and this isn't diminishing the great thought-rewards I've found contributing to these critical lenses – but frankly, it's not that terrible of a cost, for me at least. This isn't a blank canvas and a pallet of oils staring at my face – it's a dialogue. A critique of a finished thing somebody else did 25 years ago, hanging on the wall, and sometimes we critique the piece too, and sometimes we critique the critique. But I'm ALWAYS game for an art critique session.
The Federation's Starfleet HAD to be destroyed. We've been witnessing and discussing how stagnant and wrongheaded it is compared to our Enterprising travelers all along (that plus the traveler survival is after all the spearhead of DS9 some time down the road – though we should note that the new Starfleet that comes after deconstruction is not a "Good Starfleet"). But it had to go. Even the colonialists must be consumed.
All institutions decay, then collapse. Schools of thinking, schools of art, governments, fictional organizations, TV shows, TV show blogs, fandoms. Tomorrow still comes.
TO BE, CONTINUED.
March 19, 2015 @ 1:10 am
So, I wasn't going to say anything, but two weeks from yesterday, I've got this article scheduled to drop on my blog (http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com) that basically owes its existence to the fact that I discovered this last summer and went binging on the archives. I don't know that it's the best thing I've ever written, but I think it's really good, and it led into a new project that's been (a) a lot of fun and (2) helped me work through my issues after Doctor Who ruined my Christmas back in '13.
So, y'know, thank you.
March 19, 2015 @ 11:36 am
If there's one thing I learned in academia, it's how to hackishly bang out reasonable-sounding criticism.
I suppose I could just throw out a basic essay-length pro-and-con critique piece three times a week: A fair few number of my posts have basically been that, and I'm sure plenty more of them will be in the years to come. But I always force myself to put out something a bit more than that whenever possible, firstly because I think that's what my readers want and expect but also because this is Star Trek.
Star Trek has been so much a part of my life for so long, I constantly feel the need to put out as definitive a statement on each episode as I can, especially now that we're in the era I grew up with and actually paid attention to. This project is my one shot to come to terms with and close the book on what the franchise has meant to me that I feel like I'll have let everyone involved, especially myself, down if I don't put my best effort forth all the time.
And also, as other commenters have pointed out, I do very much feel the weight of the fifty year history of Star Trek criticism. I feel obligated and duty-bound to put out something radically different than that which came before me. If I don't, what's the point of even bothering, really?
March 19, 2015 @ 11:58 am
I have been so moved, flattered and honoured by the outpouring of support here over the past few days. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected or even hoped that this project would mean so much and be so inspiring to so many people.
In fact I'm touched to the point I feel like something of a bastard confessing that I actually didn't have any plans to walk away from the blog after this, and now I feel really bad that this seems to be what you all took from this essay. Yeah, things are rough at home and no, this wasn't my favourite era of Star Trek ever to revisit, but the blog's not going anywhere anytime soon: There's still a post in the queue for tomorrow, and I'm almost done writing next week's essays. I start work on Volume 4 next week.
TNG Season 4 is still coming (…eventually), and I'm certainly not jumping ship before I get to my favourite part of the whole franchise (TNG Seasons 5-7 and DS9 Seasons 1 and 2). And though I may be at a creative crossroads for this particular piece, I'm sure I'll work something out. I have to!
K's comment above has me thinking about creativity. I remember once reading somewhere somebody saying that creativity is not a limited resource, and the more you use the more you have. I think that's true: Trying to say something new and interesting about TNG Seasons 2 and 3 was a challenge to be sure, but what you might not know is that this isn't my only creative outlet: I'm working on a bunch of other projects behind the scenes, and all while this blog has been a bit of a slog I've had all of them to preoccupy me. In spite of everything that's happened over the past 6-12 months, I feel more creatively energized then I think I've been in ages.
(In fact, one of the reasons my patience with this season has been wearing thin is that, for complicated and boring procedural reasons, it's been preventing me from making progress on one specific project I'm really excited about. That will be changing soon, though.)
So again, I'm really moved and flattered by everything everyone's been saying, and I hope you all continue to enjoy the slapdash ramblings I throw up on here.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Dirty Pair move to watch 😉
March 19, 2015 @ 11:42 pm
Speaking of which, Josh, I'd like to start watching Dirty Pair but I'm not sure what set of DVDs I should get. Which would you recommend ?
March 20, 2015 @ 11:06 am
I am honoured that you've decided to check out the Lovely Angels! As it so happens, I've now seen the entirety of the Classic Anime series so I'll do my best to give you as comprehensive a set of recommendations as I can!
One of the many great things about Dirty Pair is that each incarnation is a separate individual reboot of the series, so you can get into one totally free of any continuity baggage from all the other incarnations. In the Classic Series, this means there are five different, self-contained interpretations of the story spread across four DVD volumes: The TV series and its two-part OVA finale With Love from the Lovely Angels, the OVA Movie Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, the theatrical feature Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture the ten episode OVA series Original Dirty Pair and the other OVA movie Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy.
Nozomi Entertainment holds the current Region 1 license to the Classic Anime Series. All of the TV stuff, including With Love from the Lovely Angels, is collected on a two-volume DVD set creatively entitled " Dirty Pair Part 1" and " Dirty Pair Part 2." The episodic OVA series Original Dirty Pair has its own single-volume set, entitled "Dirty Pair OVA Series", and all three movies are bundled together in a single set called " Dirty Pair Features". You can find them all on my site's Amazon Store, or just search Amazon yourself for "Dirty Pair": The DVDs will likely be the first thing that crop up. They're all budget releases too, each volume only comprising three discs in a lightbox format, so won't even set you back too much!
Which ones should you get? Well, I'd recommend pretty much all of them as they all have their set of virtues, but to start out it's worth thinking about how much you're interested in, the way the show is distributed elsewhere and the fact that some of the stories are definitely stronger than others.
March 20, 2015 @ 11:09 am
Here's my personal take. The TV show is a TV show and thus has a somewhat changeable baseline of quality built in by default thanks to the demands and vagaries of network broadcasting. Generally speaking, I find the first half of the TV series to be absolutely phenomenal, while the back half is entirely hit-and-miss, but there are standout episodes and low points all throughout. Of the two episodic series, Original Dirty Pair is clearly superior on balance, with some of the best and most provocative storytelling in the entire franchise. Every single episode is a triumph and a masterpiece.
Then there are the movies. Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is the most popular of the three by far, if not the most popular Dirty Pair work ever. But in my opinion it's hands-down the weakest of the movies, and one of the weakest productions of the entire Classic Series: The animation, direction and cinematography are all transcendentally brilliant thanks to anime legend Kōji Morimoto, but the story is a wash-out and the characterization of Kei and Yuri is as wrongheaded as it gets. But the first twenty minutes of the movie are worth a look by themselves…so long as you shut it off right afterwards.
For my money, Affair of Nolandia and Flight 005 Conspiracy are not only the best of the movies, they may be the two best single Dirty Pair stories Sunrise ever produced. They're the closest thematically and tonally to the original novels, especially Flight 005 Conspiracy, and I think they get a bad rap from Western Anime fans only familiar with the slapsticky charm of the TV show because these films are much more serious and mature. But they're both absolutely brilliant: Flight 005 Conspiracy might just be the pinnacle of Sunrise's Dirty Pair, but I have a slight preference for Affair of Nolandia in spite of its more rudimentary animation and art direction because of how unassumingly ambitious and metaphysical it is.
It's also worth keeping in mind that all of Sunrise's Dirty Pair franchise is available to stream free and legal on YouTube and Hulu thanks to Manga Entertainment, so you don't need to buy the DVDs to enjoy them. However…I believe Manga uses an English dub language track for all but the TV series, which in my opinion is resoundingly horrendous. Certainly Original Dirty Pair is dubbed, which had me cringing when I was writing that series up. If you want to experience the original Japanese versions with subtitles (plus a more accurate translation), you simply have to buy the DVDs.
My advice is that if you don't want to be like me and collect the whole Classic Series on home video, start with the DVD release of Original Dirty Pair ("Dirty Pair OVA Series") and the collection of the three movies, and watch selected highlights of the TV series online. I'll be writing up a new page for this blog soon that will host my more detailed recommendations for anyone that might be of use to.
Hope that helped, and hope you enjoy the show!
March 22, 2015 @ 10:51 pm
Wow, thanks Josh, for taking the time to set that all down.
March 23, 2015 @ 12:33 am
Well done Josh. Really I do love this blog and what your writing stands for – in the end it's more than Star Trek as I do see you pouring your whole being into this project. It can be hard to carry on when exhausted but hopefully, yeah through creativity we can find new resources (I think I just did that this weekend).
I kind of see it as perfect synchronicity that you shared the feelings above with the Borg appearing. As you have the weight I imagine of Start Trek fan criticism as an entity (the Borg) coming at you from the future as with TNG. No wonder you feel like you are being consumed and absorbed by this project. Good work and keep it up, we're on your side!
March 25, 2015 @ 10:21 pm
Adam: "The powerful neurotic force of fandom has run Star Trek for too long, and overwritten its power in the popular culture of our society and our planet too forcefully. Vaka Rangi is a contribution to overcoming that, and finding new routes to Star Trek as one of our culture's most powerful myths that can articulate its most transformative power. I believe in this project, I believe in its power and potential, and I am immensely glad to see it running, exploding with ideas. I know I'm not the only one. And I know I won't be the last one."
Hear, hear! Am right there with you man, this planet needs you Josh!
March 25, 2015 @ 10:24 pm
K.Jones – I am also an artist myself and have too been experiencing a blocked phase. O am hopeful though, as my partner and I have leased a new art studio in a beautiful setting near our home. the creative laboratory awaits!
March 25, 2015 @ 10:38 pm
Hi Josh, I like how you caught us with your own narrative collapse on the blog.