I suspect — or at least hope — that for everybody, there are those precious few hours in front of a television or at the movies that stand apart from all the rest as the most obviously memorable. They're the ones that live on in the imagination as truly thrilling experiences. They stick with you and you remember them fondly, and then you put in the DVD so many years later ... and it works about as well as it ever did. Certainly, it works as well as you could possibly expect given the passage of so much time and the fact that not only has television changed, but so have you.
Those particular TV episodes vary from person to person, and whether or not you were at a place to enjoy a particular episode in that way probably has as much to do with you as the show. But for me, at age 14, it was "The Best of Both Worlds." I suspect that I'm not the only one who feels this way about this particular show. But at that age ... well, what can I say? It was awesome. And it was captivating. It was Trek with a visceral edge we had rarely seen the likes of before.
The Borg. After the scene in "Q Who" where they sliced a hole through the Enterprise and then revealed themselves as an implacable pack of locusts who could not be reasoned with and possibly not defeated, here was finally the episode where they had finally reached Federation space. The Enterprise answers a colony's distress call and arrives to find the entire colony has been scooped off the surface of the planet. Evidence it was the Borg is confirmed in the wreckage. "We're not ready," Admiral Hanson (George Murdock) says ominously. Here is an episode of Trek with a uniquely palpable sense of danger, foreboding, and a feeling of being outmatched. There is no talking your way out of a confrontation with the Borg. They are coming, and they aren't stopping. How can we possibly defeat them?
In the background, we've got some solid character work. Riker has been offered another promotion to captain, but he's balking again. In the meantime, an ambitious hotshot, Lt. Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy), is posted to the Enterprise to help work on a way to defeat the Borg. Riker hasn't left yet, but Shelby already has her eye on his job. Michael Piller's script skillfully weaves the issue of Riker's and Shelby's careers in between the action involving the Borg, which the Enterprise engages when they turn out to be the closest ship to intercept them. Shelby's ambition is bold, as in the moment after she saves everyone's asses with quick thinking and then stands above Data and Wesley; Picard subtly "relieves" her and retakes command. In another scene, she goes over Riker's head and takes her idea about separating the saucer straight to Picard. When Riker busts her on it, she tells him bluntly, "You're in my way." This is ballsy character conflict rarely seen on TNG.
And there's a haunting, quiet discussion as well, with contemplations of The End, in which Picard and Guinan wax philosophic in the face of possibly inevitable decimation. Picard's contemplation of the end of humanity's role in history is the epitome of grace under pressure, as he reflects upon it in a larger context of history: "Will this be the end of our civilization? Turn the page." Hints that would later add to the speculative fire abound. Guinan: "Nelson never returned from Trafalgar." Picard: "No, but the battle was won." Will this conflict, even if victorious, see the end of Picard? And Guinan's testament to the human spirit offers reassurance: "As long as there's a handful of you to keep the spirit alive, you will prevail." It's brilliant writing.
The new development in the Borg is that they want Picard specifically. When he refuses to surrender, they attack the Enterprise and kidnap him and set course for Earth, resulting in a pursuit where the Enterprise away team attempts to rescue Picard from the Borg cube.
As a production, the episode delivers; it features some of Trek's best-looking and best-executed ship pursuit scenes (including a venture into a nebula). It has an unforgettable score by Ron Jones (including the Borg theme) that is easily the most memorable single score in the entire post-TOS canon. And there's action on the Borg ship that is somehow made more frightening by the zombie-like slow-motion of the Borg drones that zero in on the away team. And who can forget that chilling moment when Picard is revealed as Locutus of Borg? Great stuff.
At the time, the ending cliffhanger was nothing short of a total coup. Season-ending cliffhangers were rare compared to today (where they are now frequently perfunctory and obligatory; we can thank the success of this episode). The cut to black in this episode prompted double-take whiplash. "Mr. Worf — fire." That's how the season ends? It was such a shock that the line to this day is still my benchmark for all cliffhangers. (As in, "That season-ender was no Mr.-Worf-fire.")
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