So there you have it, folks. The third season. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Season numero tres. Not season one or season two. The one after that. You know the one I'm talking about. Awwww yeah.
Okay, let's be honest: the reason I did a "season overview" when we got to the end of season two a few months back is that there were an odd number of episodes, and I wanted an easier week. So here I am, pretending like I'm actually able to think of the show in discrete, 20+ episode chunks. I'm not; I remember most of what went on, and I'm fortunate that I have all these helpful reviews lying around to remind me of what I've forgotten, but trying to make sense of all this? Please. I'm lucky if I can remember socks. (Not wearing socks. Just the concept of socks eludes me—I mean, I get that there are feet, and there are shoes, but what's this nonsense about putting something between them?) Plus, and once I've got a good whine going I refuse to be stopped, season two was easier to recap because a lot of it wasn't very good at all. I could cherry pick the good moments and then proceed to take a lot of cheap shots at the rest of the crap. And you guys know me. You know I love them cheap shots like sweet, idiotic candy.
Here we are, nearly halfway through the series (and this current project isn't even a year old! We'll do 'em yet), and while the cheap shots are there, they're harder to come by. TNG has come down with a bad case of quality; I don't think I went below a "C" grade this entire season, and I'm not even sure I went that low. TNG has finally become the sort of show where you don't have to say, "Hold on, I'm sure it will get better next week." Good episodes are no longer an anomaly, which makes watching them more enjoyable but means I can't just fall back on "Gosh, Wesley's a bit of a nit, isn't he?" jokes anymore. TNG is finally worth of the Star Trek mantle; I'd say this was overall at least as good as TOS' first season, and maybe even as good as its second. Or maybe even better? I dunno, I hate ranking like that. The point is, we don't have to make excuses anymore. It's actually possible to say, "I prefer TNG to TOS" now and not have anyone snicker.
Most bad-ass moment: Data has his revenge, "The Most Toys"
I know, I know. "Why didn't you pick Riker's final command in 'Best Of Both Worlds, Part I'?" That's a good question—and looking back, this isn't a season that lacked for ass-kickery. There's the "The Hunted," which starts off about a guest star kicking butt and climaxes with Picard exerting his Prime Directive obligations in perhaps the greatest example of a passive-aggressive smack-down I've ever seen. There's "Sins of the Father," which has Picard and Worf both proving their worth against the Klingon Empire. There's "Yesterday's Enterprise," which is nearly a full hour of the Enterprise crew going hardcore. (Er, not that way. T'other way.) (Also, man you're gross.) Picard's mind-meld breakdown at the climax of "Sarek" is kind of bad-ass. And of course, there's that last beat in "Worlds," which works as both an amazing cliffhanger and a character highpoint to boot. In the end, I pick Data, not because his decision to kill and his final confrontation with his kidnapper was the most dramatic of these or the most intense; it's just the one that was the most unexpected. He remains a mystery—a sympathetic, even lovable character who is still utterly alien.
I can't think of anyone who improved dramatically this season, apart from the show itself. Deanna Troi remains a non-entity, Wesley was tolerable, and it was nice to have Beverly back in the doctor's chair. Looking over my recap from season two, I see a lot of goofy headlines, but I'm not feeling that right now. I'm glad I switched to two episodes a week on the show, because the stories are finally deserving that level of attention, but it also makes it harder for me to hold together a picture of the entire season. So! We all agree, "Best Of Both Worlds, Part 1" is amazing, though I think "Yesterday's Enterprise" is probably my favorite overall episode of the season (and of the series thus far); "Worlds" isn't really complete in and of itself, and while the combined two-parter is very strong, it doesn't quite reach the same levels of conceptual elegance as "Yesterday's." This is definitely a matter of personal preference, though.
A while back, I said that TNG was a show about consequences, which was, let's face it, a pretty facile thing to say. Good drama is always about consequences because that's where conflict lies. What makes this third season so generally consistent is its depth. The best moments all seem to revolve around pre-existing concepts, like Tasha Yar's death or Data's mind or the threat of the Borg lurking somewhere out in the dark. TOS rarely revisited old material; it was a show whose episodes could be viewed practically in any order, which did its best to hit the reset button by the end credits. This is fine, and I would never argue that TOS is a shallow series; it just had different intentions. TNG, on the other hand, exists in a universe where every outcome could have future ramifications. Not all of them do. Hell, most of the aliens we meet we never see again. But just enough return and just enough old plots resurface to add weight to every decision. It's old lore that Kirk was the fighter and Picard was the thinker. That's because for Kirk, a rash decision endangers his crew; for Picard, a rash decision could endanger civilizations. Heady stuff. It's time to see where we go from here.
"Best Of Both Worlds, Part II"
Or The One Where SLEEP!
Cliffhangers are tricky. But resolving a cliffhanger is nearly impossible.
I should qualify that—resolving a cliffhanger in a way that maintains the same level of excitement is nearly impossible. There are plenty of ways to get a hero out of a jam. You can cheat, although I wouldn't advise it. ("He didn't get out of the cocka-doodie CAR!") Nothing wreaks havoc on your narrative's integrity like shifting the pieces of last episode's carefully laid trap until the exit is clearly marked. So you need to have an escape hatch in place from the start, but that shouldn't be that difficult, right? After all, it's not as though you come up with the first half of the story, then screw off for six months and suddenly realize the second half is due tomorrow and you need to somehow answer this question in twenty minutes or you'll never pass Beginner's Science Fiction. No "Part I" should air without a "Part II" either in the can or thoroughly planned out. This isn't a long running fantasy series. Nobody gets to take six years off between seasons just to figure everything out.
So the resolution isn't the tricky bit. The tricky bit is finding a resolution that doesn't feel like a let-down. A cliff-hanger is a sort of narrative implosion: a ton of energy builds and builds right up to a final point, when it all closes in on itself, locking the audience in place, forcing them to fixate all their attention and energies on a single scene. But resolutions always have a way of deflating energy, not intensifying it. Because all of our TNG-related thoughts are tuned in on Riker's order, by the time we get around to watching the result of that order, we've played through a thousand different scenarios in our minds. Like the Enterprise fires, but the weapon is ineffective. Or "Fire" is actually code word for some secret plan to rescue Picard. Or the Enterprise tries to use its magic weapon, but the Borg ship destroys them. Or the Enterprise shoots, and the Borg ship is destroyed and Locutus along with it.
Did I say "a thousand different scenarios"? This was a slight exaggeration, and that's the problem. There are only so many ways to finish off a hanging moment like this one, and odds are, you'll come up with the right one. And even if you don't, so much emphasis and expectation is placed on a single moment in an on-going story that when the other shoe finally does drop, you'll most likely be disappointed. Watching these two episodes back to back, if one were able to cut out the end credits of "Part 1" and the "Previously on Star Trek: The Next Generation" montage that opens "Part 2," the cliffhanger would be barely noticeable, and that would work just fine. It's impressive from a character perspective that Riker is able to give the order, but his order is made irrelevant so quickly that the sequence, on its own, has only mild dramatic impact. The real drama here comes from seeing Picard as Borg. It would've been possible to cut this scene differently and not lose much in the way of pacing or information—have "Part 1" end with the Enterprise's magic bullet failing, and the crisis would still be relevant. We just wouldn't be so focused on one particular beat. I'm not saying either episode should have handled the cliffhanger differently; using Picard's knowledge as a way to defuse the Enterprise's efforts is a legitimate out, though a mildly shocking one, and it's consistent with the Borg's approach to assimilation. And I can't imagine "Part 1" ending a second sooner or later. It's just interesting to note how our expectations are affected not so much by the contents of the episode, as they are by how those contents are presented.
That goes for the rest of "Part 2" as well, really. As a TNG episode, it's excellent, a few minor quibbles aside. The Borg remain a powerful threat, Riker's transition to the captaincy is well-handled, and Picard's eventual rescue and redemption are satisfying and consistent with a show that doesn't really do multi-episode arcs. (Sure, they'll reference details over multiple episodes, but the connective tissue is never as strong as on, say, Battlestar Galactica.) And yet it is a little bit of a letdown, because it fails to live up to the epic potential that "Part I" raised. The Borg ship destroys a huge chunk of the Federation fleet, but we don't see the battle, and even as the Borg ship raises towards Sector 001, we don't get a true sense of the epic. That's because we only see what our main characters see, which means we're restricted to the Enterprise, to the occasional filtered message and view-screen horror, and to a few glimpses of Picard-as-Locutus hanging out with the Borg. Going by the rest of the series, none of this should be a surprise, and I don't hold it against the show that it didn't exponentially expand its horizons at the start of its fourth season. It's possible to raise a few legitimate criticisms of "Part 2," but by and large, this is a terrific conclusion to one of TNG's brightest moments. It just feels like a little less because we've come up to the edge of what the show, with its budget and with the creative assumptions of the time, was capable of.
Still, it's impressive how seriously "Part 2" takes Picard's loss, and Riker's plan to rescue him and save Earth is nail-biting stuff. That the Borg use Picard's mind against his former comrades makes sense, although it's a hazy area. I'll buy them being able to predict the magic weapon, but given what Picard knows of Riker, I'm surprised they didn't take the time to destroy the Enterprise when they had the chance early on. The Borg are single-minded, yes, but Picard knows Riker won't be stopped so easily, and that means the Borg know it; they also know that the Enterprise is the best ship in the fleet. But OK, they want Earth, so however convenient it may be for our heroes that their greatest enemies don't murder them while they're sitting ducks, I'll allow it. It's also odd that the Borg are taken relatively off-guard by Data and Worf's rescue mission, but at least here, the individual Borg fight back immediately on sensing the intruders.
Most of this episode is taken up with the climactic confrontation with the Borg cube, and it's some of the most exciting space action the series has ever done. By separating the saucer section from the rest of the ship, Riker successfully distracts the Borg long enough to wound them, by taking advantage of their greatest weakness, their collective will. This is not a race which understands bifurcation easily, and there's a great sense of pushing right up to the edges of what's possible, and then going further because, hell, what've we got to lose? Shelby's ascension to First Officer makes sense in context, thought I'm not sure assigning someone new to the ship to the second highest position of command on the eve of the most dangerous battle anyone on board has ever faced makes good sense. And Riker's pre-game chat with Guinan gave us some interesting info on her relationship with Picard (OK, it just reminded us once again that there's a Big Mystery without actually confirming anything), but I'm not sure how relevant it was. It's a conversation that fits plausibly in the moment but that Riker so thoroughly ignores it can't help but look like wasted time in hindsight.
The highlight of the episode, apart from the space battle, is Picard's return to the Enterprise. Actually, screw the "apart." This is the good stuff right here. His first words as Locutus in Sick Bay are excellent reminders of the nature of the Borg threat; he assures those present that he won't harm them, he's just there to observe before their inevitable defeat, and there's no hostility or threat in his voice. (If Data, with his moral code and unflappable calm, represents the ideal qualities of computer-based intelligence, the Borg represent all that a lifetime of sci-fi movies and books have taught us to fear: no mercy, no sympathy, no passion. Just will.) Using Data to interface with the Borg part of Picard's consciousness is a cool variation on the traditional mind-meld, and the final solution to the threat, suggested by Picard, is clever and believable. That it comes from Picard himself is no surprise, but it's nice to have Riker's faith in the importance of a rescue mission paid off.
My favorite scene in the episode is its final one. Picard has been restored to the captain's chair, and why wouldn't he be? There will be some hurt feelings from people in the Federation who don't understand that the Borg got their information from him against his will, but he spent so little time as a half-machine, surely it's an experience he'll be able to put behind him as quickly as he does every adventure. And yet there are those bandages on his head, for wounds that haven't quite healed properly. And there's that final, wordless moment as the full impact of what happened to him comes clear. I'm sure we'll see more of this soon, but it's telling that the first we see of Picard after he's been re-humanized, he's cramming down the work as fast as he can. He has to keep moving, you see. The moment he stops, he's back on that ship, and he's lost in a thousand other faceless minds, his will perverted into the collective, his body a parody of efficiency and control. "Part 2" was an effective ending, and the two episodes as a whole are well-crafted, but for my money, its most powerful moments are also its most fleeting. The Borg came on his ship, and they stole him, and they changed him. He's back now, and they're dead, but something is lost forever. Peace of mind, perhaps. I doubt he'll be sleeping well soon.
- Debating the best approach to the Borg, Beverly raises the possibility of nanites. I believe this will become more relevant in the future.
- The Shut Up, Wesley Moment: Riker orders him to set a course to ram the Borg ship, and Wesley freaks out a little. Grow up, kid.
- You'll notice I didn't write about Generations this week. I'm easily swayed by the will of the collective. Also, I'm anal, and that means we won't be getting to any of the TNG movies till the end of this season, at which point I'll double up on Generations and First Contact. (I will then spend season 5 pretending that there are no other TNG movies, and hoping desperately you will believe me.)
- Next week, we pay a visit to "Family," and deal with some "Brothers."