See also: My foreword for this review
And so here it is — the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least in the form of a television show. When TNG premiered in the fall of 1987, it, as the future of the Star Trek franchise, was the crown jewel of Paramount's most valued properties. The need for it to succeed as a television show was so great that Paramount essentially invented a new model for getting the show on the air by bypassing the broadcast networks and selling the show syndication style directly to individual stations. A lot of shows were syndicated (talk shows, game shows), but no weekly dramas with the network-caliber production values and costs of TNG. TNG's reinvented distribution model ensured the show would be on for at least one full 26-episode season. Given how that first season was generally received, one wonders if the show would've survived on a broadcast network, at least without some serious tinkering.
But Paramount's business shrewdness paid off, TNG continued, improved, and became more popular with each season, and by the time the seventh season had arrived, the studio's plan was to cultivate Deep Space Nine and Voyager on television while turning TNG into a film franchise. In 1994, TNG as a TV series would end at the height of its popularity. But because it was transitioning into a movie franchise, the final episode of TNG could not be the final word for these characters. Indeed, the series finale would have to maintain much of the status quo that was typical of the series for much of its run.
That created an interesting conundrum: How do you end a series at the height of its popularity and deliver a finale for an audience with lofty expectations while not fundamentally changing anything on the show — while also capping off a season that many (myself included) considered to be among the show's weakest? The task fell to TNG writers Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, who, ironically, had already finished writing the script for the forthcoming Star Trek: Generations, which would launch the TNG cast onto the movie screen. (Filming for the movie would begin literally days after TNG would wrap as a TV series. That must've been a strange wrap party: "Hey, everybody! We're graduating from high school, but next week we start college in the same building!")
So it's kind of odd and miraculous — given the overall weakness of the seventh season, where creatively the show was sputtering on fumes, and where Moore and Braga had just finished writing a feature film alongside their existing TV duties, and given the constraints required of this particular finale — that "All Good Things..." somehow managed not only to work, but to be the best Star Trek series finale made. They really pulled it together.
The episode's opening scene plays on the season's oft-hinted, never-truly-explored will-they-or-won't-they involving Worf and Troi, as the two return from a holodeck date and Worf moves in for a kiss (and not one that was imagined in Troi's mind like in "Eye of the Beholder"), before they are interrupted by a frazzled Picard, who insists he has been moving back and forth through time. His time shifts are initially dreamlike and he can only remember fragments and feelings, to the degree that everyone at first asks him if perhaps it was in fact just a very realistic dream. (There is initially no observable evidence of Picard having physically left the Enterprise.)
And then, as Picard is in the middle of explaining what he remembers, the scene cuts to 25 years in the future where an old, long-retired Picard is tending to his vineyard. An older Geordi walks into the field, visiting the former captain for the first time in years. The episode is fairly graceful in its use of exposition to fill in the backstory of the future timeline. There's a throwaway line, for example, where Geordi mentions his wife Leah and their children, and it's clearly meant to be Leah Brahms; it's a detail typical of Moore and Braga's script, which is accessible to the casual viewer but filled with Easter eggs for loyal TNG fans (although, in this case, I'm not sure that I actually buy this particular detail about Leah as a likely outcome).
In the future, Picard lives with Irumodic Syndrome, a degenerative mental condition that's a sort of 24th-century dementia. This is crucial to the story because it means old Picard has less credibility when he says he's moving back and forth between time periods. Everyone assumes he's hallucinating, thus creating more narrative obstacles. (The story even gives us reasons to doubt old Picard's mental sharpness, as he sees raving people yelling at him in the vineyard, a detail that initially cannot be explained even with what we in the audience already know about his time jumps.)
In terms of pure fun, the scenes in the future are the episode's most enjoyable because they give us entertaining glimpses of a possible future for all the characters as Picard embarks on the classic storytelling mission of getting the band back together for one last concert tour. It's like doing the years-later reunion show before the show actually ends, and the script and the actors don't disappoint. It's amusing to see versions of all the characters who are grumpier and more crotchety, particularly Patrick Stewart's take on the old and defensive Picard, who is very much aware of how he is perceived when he tells people that he is traveling through time.
The story's notion of future Data is pretty much perfect. Data as a professor at Cambridge, with an artificial streak of gray hair and a snarky housekeeper named Jessel who tells him how ridiculous it looks, is laid-back comedy gold that feels like the right epilogue for this character (and far more so than the hollowly unfortunate one we got in Nemesis). Data has changed (he mentions that Jessel makes him laugh, but we wisely never see it on screen, and he uses contractions, which we see on screen but which is wisely never mentioned in dialogue), but more crucial is that Data is more the same than he is different.
To change gears (which the episode itself does frequently and without warning), there's also the matter of Picard's transitions into the past timeline circa "Encounter at Farpoint," where he is first arriving on the Enterprise as its captain via a shuttle being piloted by Yar. These scenes also contain nods for longtime fans, like the inclusion of O'Brien in a red uniform, and the more magnified, inquisitive personality of Data (which mellowed significantly after the first season). Picard discovers that the strange hallucinations of shouting people have followed him into the past, leading him to declare a red alert in the shuttle bay in the middle of his first address to the ship's crew, a fact that is important because there's no record of this having happened when he returns to the present. It's as if the three timelines exist independently and are not affected by anything Picard "currently" (is that the right word?) does in each of them.
And somewhere within this balance lies the brilliance of "All Good Things"; it has all of these character touches and details for the fans but they never get in the way of the intricately plotted story being told. Indeed, in many cases, they are in service of that plot, involving the mysterious spatial anomaly forming in the Devron system in the Romulan neutral zone. This anomaly is first established in the present timeline, and Picard uses this knowledge to investigate the possibility of its connection in the other two timelines.
I've said in the past that the distilled essence of a lot of TNG — if you put aside all the usual Roddenberry tropes of an evolved, peaceful human philosophy of seeking out new life, etc. — is about telling stories that show in detail its characters' methodical process of solving technical problems. "All Good Things" is like an embodiment of that notion. Here is the ultimate technical brain buster for Picard: Figure out what's happening in the Devron system and why and how it all connects through the three time periods. The stakes are significantly upped when Picard suddenly finds himself in the same show-trial courtroom (which explains the hallucinations of the stark raving madmen) as the one from "Encounter at Farpoint," with Q as the judge, who explains that this latest incident, which Picard is solely responsible for, will spell nothing less than the end of humanity if Picard can't solve the puzzle of the anomaly in the Devron system.
The best Q stories are the ones where Q is a complex blend of scathingly funny and malevolent, where he's trying to sincerely teach a lesson as much as he belittles humanity's best intentions. Q is also best when he's a foil for Picard, scoffing at all of Picard's speeches, which has the added effect of showing the writers poking fun at their own platitudes. Q is all of the above in "All Good Things," and reveals to Picard crucial clues including the fact Q is responsible for Picard's time shifting. Patrick Stewart and John de Lancie are great as usual in their scenes where Picard and Q joust verbally, conveying philosophical ideas right alongside plot points. As an echo back to the very first TNG episode, the idea makes for an effective and appropriate bookend for the series.
Of course, the fact that Q doesn't reveal himself until nearly the end of the first hour is solely a matter of dramatic convenience, as is the precise timing of Picard's timeline shifting. It's all for the sake of constructing a narrative rather than having a truly logical reason. But that construction is such that we always have the same information Picard does, such that we can try to solve the mystery alongside him.
In the meantime, the story continues to develop the character pieces, like the Picard/Crusher scenes in the present, where they finally seem to be addressing feelings that have long simmered under the surface — which of course sets up the reveal in the future where Picard and Crusher were married and are now divorced, and where she is now the captain of the medical starship Pasteur, which Picard arranges transport for himself, Data, and Geordi to the Devron system.
Then there's Riker being taken aback by the prospect of Worf dating Troi; he'd always thought in the back of his mind that they'd wind up together again someday. In the future, Riker and Worf are estranged and haven't spoken in decades because of Troi's unfortunate and untimely death. Riker is an admiral who commands a retrofitted version of the Enterprise, whereas Worf is in the Klingon government, which is on generally bad terms with the Federation. (In the process of investigating the Devron system, the Pasteur is attacked by Klingon vessels, and Riker must come to the rescue of the Pasteur's crew, which allows the episode some notable action.) The Pasteur's scans of the Devron system reveal that there is no anomaly, which is not at all what Picard was expecting.
Like I said, the future contains more curmudgeonly versions of everybody. It's fun watching Picard turn the screws on Worf to get him to grant him a favor (as well as watching Worf then gripe about it); meanwhile, the bad blood between Riker and Worf leads to a shouting match when they finally come face to face with each other; and Crusher puts her foot down and tells Picard not to question her orders on her own ship. Age has turned everyone into an old fart, albeit sometimes rightfully so.
"All Good Things" manages to marry the story's plot, character, and action together into a well-oiled entertainment that represents a good balance of the essence of TNG. But special mention also needs to be made of the direction by Winrich Kolbe and the assembly of the story by the editors, who make a complex narrative not only easy to follow as it jumps between its three tiers, but also a rather deft example of film editing with effective transitions and paralleling cuts, particularly as the events accelerate toward the end. Everyone brought their A-game here.
But Picard still isn't able to solve the mystery, particularly since the anomaly doesn't exist in the future, and for some reason is much larger in the past than in the present. This is where Q provides the large and revelatory hint that for my money provides the most intriguing scene in the episode. He takes Picard eons into the past on Earth, where life is about to begin in the primordial soup. But in this past the anomaly has grown so large that it occupies the entire Alpha Quadrant. This scene is simultaneously haunting and funny: Q walks Picard to the very moment life is supposed to begin on Earth, but instead: "Oh! Nothing happened. See what you've done?" This sort of larger-than-life concept is on a scale that TNG tended to avoid most of its run, but it pays off here. And especially as filtered through Q's cynical detachment, the tone of the scene feels right.
Ultimately, the Devron system sci-fi anomaly at the center of "All Good Things" is in the very typical vein of absurd TNG technobabble (and, make no mistake, this episode doesn't scrimp on the jargon), but the details are so well thought-out, the stakes are so elevated, and the plot services character so well (and vice versa) that all the technobabble works in spite of its arbitrary nature. And there's a definite gee-whiz factor in the plot converging across three time periods.
In the future, it turns out the Pasteur's scans actually created the very anomaly that Picard has been searching for in all the three time periods; the reason there was no anomaly when he went to look for it was because it hadn't been created yet. But now he convinces Admiral Riker to take the Enterprise back to the Devron system to see if the beginnings of the anomaly have been formed — which now they have. Ah, but this is the one piece of the plot that doesn't appear to follow the story's established temporal rules: Wouldn't the Enterprise actually have to go backward in time a few hours to before the Pasteur's scan in order to see the anomaly's beginnings? I quibble because I care.
Meanwhile, note how the temporal distortion is causing DNA changes in the present storyline, which results in, for example, Geordi's eyes to heal themselves. This is only a temporary effect; Crusher notes that the DNA changes may wind up actually killing everyone if the effects can't be counteracted. (This plot point acknowledges, in what plays like a rebuke to "Genesis," that DNA isn't magic and that mutations are likely to kill you before they transform you.)
The technobabble's solution is a means to an end that requires Picard to convince the crews of all three timelines that they must risk all to venture into the anomaly and create a "static warp shell" to collapse it, which may result in everyone's deaths. Everyone in the present and future are on board, but in the past, Picard, who is dealing with a new crew who has only just met him, must make a rousing speech to convince them of this crazy plan's necessity. He makes a great speech — growing from his future knowledge to say that he knows this group is "the finest crew in the fleet." (Although I gotta say that I wonder if any speech would be so quickly and easily received when it meant likely death in absence of any real explanations.)
The convergence of the three Enterprises into the anomaly is a compelling scene of sound and fury (and lots of technobabble), and the moment when the three crews can see the other Enterprises inside the anomaly on their respective viewscreens makes for a genuinely cool and slightly chilling sci-fi moment. All three ships are subsequently destroyed in what amounts to a closed-loop reset plot that is undone by either arbitrary temporal mechanics or Q's will, take your pick. (Picard later steps out of the turbolift having fixed all the timelines and been returned to a normal reality where only he remembers the events of the entire episode.) This kind of closed-off reality might have felt like a cheat if the story itself didn't resonate and the characterization weren't so well realized.
In the end, the entire exercise is revealed to have been a challenge created by the Q Continuum — but where Q played the part of wild card by opting to help Picard with hints along the way. Picard and Q have a closing discussion that's a classic examination of Star Trek themes — but in a decidedly TNG way, where the themes emphasize thinking that goes beyond our idea of linear existence rather than the more TOS-like humanistic philosophical ideas. Really, "All Good Things" works so well not simply for all the reasons I've already mentioned but because it's simply the right ending for this series. Earlier in the episode the writers had Q mocking Picard for spending so much time on trivial matters like Data's quest for humanity or Riker's career aspirations, rather than more important things like stretching the boundaries of conventional thinking when it comes to the very nature of existence.
In reality, "All Good Things" is about servicing both masters. The temporal plot is a complicated and interesting puzzle, yes, and the lofty conceptual sci-fi goals in Q's speech are worth pondering. But it's also all a device to connect with the audience on a simpler level and show us these characters from three different perspectives — to explore how they've drifted apart in one possible version of the future, and how maybe that future can be changed for the better now that Picard has returned to the present with knowledge about it. (In reality, this meant the writers weren't beholden to anything that happened in the future scenes, and in fact Moore and Braga had already written Generations, which would swiftly contradict this episode's version of the future by destroying the Enterprise, among other things.)
In the final scene, Picard joins his senior staff for the poker game, something he previously had never done. "I should've done this a long time ago," he muses. Presumably he always wanted to maintain a certain distance between himself as the captain and the rest of the crew. But in this final scene we see a makeshift family come together — just as it ultimately, reluctantly did when it had to be reassembled in the future so it could do its part in saving humanity. "All Good Things" is not afraid to think big, but it knows the story is about the people as much as the puzzle. These seven characters are the crew of the starship Enterprise, and these were its television voyages.