HEAT VISION

How 'Best of Both Worlds' Saved 'Star Trek'

Thirty years ago this week, 'Next Generation' made franchise history with its first cliffhanger.
Paramount Television/Photofest
Thirty years ago this week, 'Next Generation' made franchise history with its first cliffhanger.

Blame the Borg for why Star Trek: The Next Generation became what it is today. 

From 1987 to 1989, the voyages of Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D struggled to be anything more than a passable background watch in its creatively-turbulent first and second seasons. (Season two’s “The Measure of a Man” and “Q Who?” being the lone must-watch exceptions.) The latter episode introduced the Borg, who would return in 1990’s game-changing third season finale: “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1.” The episode, which turns 30 this week, forever changed both the series and the franchise — becoming one of the greatest hours of television the genre has ever produced. Looking back on “Best of Both Worlds” on its 30th anniversary, it’s hard to imagine Star Trek without it — or anticipate the impact this landmark hour would have on the franchise’s future. 

It’s ironic that the series’ most lethal enemy is responsible in part for saving it. Going into season three, the Next Gen writer’s room was a near-constant (and tumultuous) game of musical chairs. The late TNG showrunner Michael Piller had the unenviable task of curbing that turnover and putting the series on more stable ground. At the time, Piller’s hire was a head-scratcher; he had no sci-fi experience but a solid TV career on such crime shows as CBS’ Cagney & Lacey. But in hindsight, Piller was the perfect fit. Season three is well-regarded as the year Star Trek: The Next Generation became, well, freaking Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it was a stressful and exhausting effort, by the end of which left Piller contemplating leaving the show. (Rumors also circled that lead actor, Patrick Stewart, wasn’t happy and had one foot out the airlock to leave the series, too.) 

Piller, as the story goes, wrote his personal experience into the fictional drama and themes of the episode. He saddled Riker (Jonathan Frakes) with a case of the “should I stay or should I go's” when offered his third shot at taking command of a starship — just as the Borg return to assimilate humanity. On their way to add Earth and its populace to their hive-mind collective, the Borg take a human representative: Captain Picard. Now, Riker is forced to take the very center seat he was afraid of, with his mission being to save Earth by potentially having to kill his Captain and friend. 

The emotional stakes of “Best of Both Worlds” couldn’t be higher, or more compelling — hence why fans regard it as TNG’s analog to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Which is ironic, given that 1982 sequel’s similar role in saving the franchise.) And 30 years later, like the best of the Star Trek features, this season finale only gets better with age. 

The first cliffhanger in Trek history, June 1990’s airing of “Best of Both Worlds” brought audiences to the edge of their couch cushions as Riker gave that iconic order to fire on Picard — AKA Locutus of Borg —  while the former Enterprise captain was aboard the Borg cube. A fade to black and one “to be continued…” later made fans borderline obsessed with how it would all play out, with the months-long wait to the season four premiere feeling nearly unbearable. When Next Gen returned in the fall with “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II,” first officer Riker got promoted to Captain and was given a chance to prove his mettle against Picard — and work with his crew to save him and the galaxy. 

While the episode’s tension falls short of the riveting “Part I,” and has a too-pat conclusion — Data (Brent Spiner) helps defeat the Borg by basically issuing a computer command to put them all to sleep —  “Part II” puts a satisfying bow on this influential storyline. In fact, the ramifications of which are still being addressed three decades later in Star Trek: Picard. (The events of “Best of Both Worlds” would also inspire the best Next Gen movie, Star Trek: First Contact.)

Not enough credit is given to the role the episode’s thematic tentpoles play in its timeless success. Despite being set in the 24th Century, "Best of Both Worlds” connects with modern audiences thanks to the very relatable and universal emotional drama Riker grapples with. You don’t have to have served on a starship to know what it’s like to feel stuck, or fear change — especially in regards to one’s career and how sometimes we let it feel like it determines our worth. That’s what Riker struggles with in both “Parts I and II,” on top of feeling caught in the shadow of a great officer like Picard as he literally must take on the man who taught him everything he knows. 

The episode also doesn’t get much credit for how satisfying it wraps up that storyline for Riker. By radically accepting that an extra rank pip on his collar doesn’t determine his status or worth, Riker makes the very emotionally-honest realization that lets him have an arc even though he’s staying put on the Enterprise bridge. (Piller’s script argues that one doesn’t need to move on or change jobs to evolve personally within their profession. Ironically, Piller would stay on the series as well, before leaving to help oversee Star Trek spinoffs Deep Space Nine and Voyager. The former wouldn’t exist without the storyline established by “Best of Both Worlds”, either.) 

Prior to this installment, Picard and crew had yet to really come into their own, or push the limits of Trek and creator Gene Roddenberry’s often rigid storytelling. Working within those constrictions, and using the inner lives of its main characters to service an external conflict, reinvigorated the series in a way that would fuel the franchise for three decades. 

And 30 years later, like Wrath of Khan before it, “Best of Both Worlds” only gets better with age.

  • Phil Pirrello
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