“All Good Things… ” (season 7, episode 25; original aired 5/23/1994)
Or The One Where We Come To The End
The truth is, most television shows die hard. Unlike film or literature, a television show is a narrative which is started without a definitive conclusion in mind. The continuation of their main narrative is dependent on the whims of the public, and the commitment of the creative and financial team which keeps the series going. There are exceptions, of course, and it’s getting more common now for shows to announce their own end-date ahead of time, to allow for greater closure (and ratings), but this is still a rarity. With most shows we watch, the odds of getting a satisfying ending, one that works as an episode of television and manages to tie up narrative lose ends in a compelling way, is slim to none. The longer a series airs, the more the audience investment grows, and the more difficult it becomes to maintain the expected level of quality. The central cast becomes more expensive; performances go from nuanced to caricature-based; characters are cheapened by writing that’s quickly running out of ideas; plots are more and more likely to be tedious reheats of older classics. This is just as true about cult shows as it is about any other—more true, in fact, as I doubt the fans of NCIS are going to have their hearts broken any time soon. But Community? Fringe? Even a Mad Men or a Breaking Bad is not immune to gravity, because let’s face it, the better the show, the trickier the high wire act of making entertaining television becomes. We grouse about imperfections. Some of us are paid to do so. But the simple fact of the matter is, great television should be nearly impossible, and the longer it goes on, the longer the fall back to reality.
By these standards, the success of “All Good Things… ” is a minor miracle. It’s not a perfect episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it’s not the best episode the show ever produced; if this double-sized entry had shown up earlier in the season, or during some other year of the show, I’d probably still enjoy it, but it wouldn’t have meant as much as it does, for obvious reasons. In all honesty, judged as an episode and not a finale, this is sitting on the B+/A- line. It’s more towards the A-, but the science fiction McGuffin that drives most of the action doesn’t quite work, and while the final scenes are strong, the various thematic implications they attempt to pull together aren’t as fully realized as they should be. But “All Good Things… ” isn’t just another episode of TNG. It’s the finale, the last ever, the concluding onscreen voyage of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise, unless you count the movies, and, if my review schedule didn’t already make this obvious, I don’t. As endings go, I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen better, sure, but that’s nothing for TNG to be ashamed about, and considering the limitations of the show, and the largely fumbling seventh season, this is better than I, or anyone, could have hoped for. Like I said, minor miracles. As a reviewer, I can criticize, but as a fan, well, it’s a little dusty in here, isn’t it? Shut up, it’s just something in my eye.
Of course, it isn’t enough. How could it be? I wanted more Riker, more Worf, more Data, more Beverly, more Geordi, more Troi. And more Picard, even though “All Good Things… ” is all about Picard, in the same way so many great hours of the show have been. After two months of struggling to find new ways of saying, “This isn’t very good, really,” and getting more and more excited about finally finding my way to the end of a project that has taken up so much of my time and effort, I got to that last poker game, and Picard’s casual final line (so perfect, and so beautifully un-stressed; the significance is to us, not the characters), and all I wanted was 10 more minutes. Five, even. I’d take a stupid Data joke, or Troi talking about “sensing” something, or Worf being mocked, or, ugh, Lwaxana freakin’ Troi—anything, for it not to be over. Not quite yet. Because when you live with a show this long, it becomes something more than a bunch of actors standing around spewing techno-babble. Relationships deepen, affections grow stronger, and even the slightest gesture takes on greater significance. This is what television shows have that no other medium can truly replicate: time. No book or movie, however long, can wear down our defenses through sheer attrition, setting its hooks, and becoming a part of our lives without us ever realizing it. Sure, we’re all adults, and we understand the distinction between fiction and reality because most of us (fingers crossed) are still on our meds. But with great art, emotions don’t really distinguish between reality and fiction. It’s all affecting, and it all matters, and even though I never thought I’d give Picard a call or go drinking with Riker, saying goodbye to these people isn’t a meaningless gesture. Stories are intangible objects, but they have weight, and they leave a hole in their absence.
“All Good Things… ” works in part because writers Brannon Braga and Ron Moore don’t oversell its significance. Yes, it’s a double-sized episode, and yes, we have a couple of special guest stars in the form of John de Lancie’s Q and Denise Crosby as pre-dead Tasha Yar. Yes, there’s time travel, and yes, the fate of the whole human race is at stake. But while we see Picard dealing with a potential future and his past alongside his present, and while there are occasional references to the show closing its doors, the finale never becomes overly consciousness of its own importance. The ensemble gets to shine, but it’s not a conspicuous shine, and we don’t waste a lot of time on big speeches or game-changing emotional confessions. This makes sense, as for all its drama and occasional mind-bending crises, TNG is, at heart, a low-key show. Well, maybe not exactly “low-key,” but barring Tasha’s death in season one, the paradigm shifts have been more by implication. There are plenty of drawbacks to low-key serialization, but it’s strength plays into one of the key reason television has become so important in people’s lives: it creates a comforting continuity, a place you can always come back to when you need to escape. TNG is people doing a job they love, and getting through the day. They have strong principles, and ideals they’d give their lives for, but this isn’t a universe that regularly requires such a sacrifice.
It makes sense, then, for all its devastating possibilities, that “All Good Things… ” doesn’t do much to change the established status quo. Part of this is undoubtedly because of the movies; Star Trek: Generations was being filmed when the show ended, and that limited the degree of shake-up the writers could pull. That doesn’t make it any less fitting, though, and any finale that didn’t end with the crew of the Enterprise hanging out and getting ready to go on another adventure would, I think, have been a lie. Here’s what happens in the episode: Picard becomes unstuck in time. He travels through three distinct periods, the show’s present, the past, and the future. In the past, he’s just coming on board the Enterprise to take command of the ship, alongside Tasha Yar and a not-quite-complete crew. In the future, he’s an old man with a vineyard, alone, who only gets visits from friends when he’s diagnosed with a fatal disease. At first, he doesn’t know why he’s jumping around, and, since he can’t retain his memories and no one notices the transition, he isn’t even sure anything is happening. But it goes on, and the memories get easier to hold on to, and he realizes there’s a problem in the Devron System, just inside the Neutral Zone. Something has created a temporal anomaly, and it’s getting larger; worse, it’s getting larger as it goes backwards through time. Even before Q shows up to belittle him, Jean-Luc realizes this can’t be good.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room right off, shall we? Yes, it’s a fairly large plot hole that Future Picard is able to see, and ultimately interact (via Admiral Riker’s Enterprise) with the anomaly. Supposedly, the anomaly was created when three different ships hit the same area of space with a tachyon beam, and it began with future Picard; since Future Picard doesn’t realized what’s happened until after the anomaly was created, and since the anomaly, being made of anti-time, is moving backwards, there shouldn’t be anything to see when Admiral Riker brings his Enterprise back to the Devron System. But because he needs to see something in order for the episode to work, to give us the great climax of all three Enterprises sacrificing themselves to save humanity, I’m willing to let it slide. (There’s also the fact that the episode states that the anomaly was created by all three Enterprises firing the tachyon pulse at once, but it was actually Captain Beverly Picard’s ill-fated USS Pasteur which fired the initial beam in the future.) More problematic is the somewhat underwhelming nature of the finale’s central mystery. It’s fine, but it’s no more than fine, and given the ambition of so much of the rest of the episode, the reliance on tech-babble for the solution is a little disappointing. The fact that Picard causes all of this because he’s traveling in time is odd as well; Q indicates that this is a test by the Continuum, which works passably well as justification, but plot and character don’t gel as powerfully here as they did on the series’ best hours.
Thankfully, if the plot isn’t great, the execution is. As mentioned, the finale, with all three ships destroying themselves one after the other is thrilling, and the episode moves at a good clip throughout; for the first time in ages, we have a two-part episode that never feels overly padded or self-indulgent. (It also never feels like a two-part episode, since it was designed to be shown as a single unit.) Each separate time period has a distinct, easily recognizable vibe, even when characters are standing on the same sets in both, and it’s impressive how ably Patrick Stewart manages to shift his performance between each of the three Picards. The change is more obvious in Future Picard, a old man made bitter by years of obsolescence and loneliness, but even Past Picard is distinct, the somewhat cold, distant leader the character was at the start of the show. As for the other characters, the future comes off the clearest, and also the most depressing, a not-completely awful place which is nonetheless disappointing. Yay, Picard and Beverly got married! Boo, they’re divorced. Yay, Data is a professor at Cambridge! Boo, he’s turned into kind of a dick. (I can’t decide if this is a subtle reference to the emotions chip or just more evidence that the future kind of blows.) Yay, Worf and Riker have risen in power! Boo, they’re estranged, and even worse, they’re estranged because Troi is dead. In “All Good Things… ,” tomorrow is a lonely place, and while the ending of the episode strongly implies that this future is avoidable, it’s still bracing to see Future Picard ranting like a lunatic while his former shipmates look on in discomfort.
The return of Q is the best choice the writers make, especially as this is a return of the slightly-scary, threatening Q of the earlier part of the show’s run. “Things” doesn’t overuse him, either building to his first appearance by making Picard aware of his involvement before even we are. (I guess if you were really clever, you might notice that the people who keep taunting future Picard were the peasants from the trial scene in “Encounter At Farpoint.”) Q gets some of the best lines in the episode, and he and Picard play off each other as beautifully as they always do. Better, his involvement in the finale goes a long way towards justifying the plot. Everything Picard goes through is the latest stage in humanity’s on-going trial, and it’s all designed to force him to think of time differently than the way we foolish mortals so often do; not as a line, in which events proceed in orderly fashion one after the other, but as a great, well, tapestry, in which every moment of our lives and ever moment of everyone else’s life informs everything. Nothing exists in isolation; everyone matters. It’s a fascinating idea, one worthy of a show that’s spent so many years building its ensemble and working to create a universe in which each different species come together and fight and struggle towards common understanding. Exploration doesn’t end at space, just as human progress didn’t end at the night sky. There will always be new frontiers. At one point, Q takes Picard back to the very beginning of life on Earth, and it’s such a staggering, wonderful moment, to think of how far we’ve come, and how far we can go. There’s a nagging part of my brain that doesn’t think the actual storyline quite lives up to this, but I’m just going to hum loudly until he shuts up.
It all ends with a poker game, as is only fair. Out of every scene in the episode, Picard’s final conversation with Q, and the poker game, are my favorite. The chat with Q sets up the possibilities, opening the door to the next step, but, well, it’s a little scary out there. The stairs are steep, the air is thin, and the way is dark. There is a time for boldness, for stepping through the door and fighting your way up higher and farther, but there’s also a time when you need to come home. That’s all the poker game is, really. There’s no amazing twist, no heartbreaking revelations. There are just friends. Picard finally decides to sit in, and in a way, it’s almost like the entire episode has been building to this moment, all the drama and the danger and the crisis contrived to get Picard ready to take his seat with Riker, Troi, Beverly, Geordi, Worf, and Data, and deal out the next hand. Yes, the future is bright and there are so many places we may go tomorrow. But today is for the people we love and the lives we share with them. With this crew by our side, anything is possible. With a good ship and better company, the sky’s the limit.
- Thank you. I feel fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to write these reviews, and even more fortunate for the engaged, creative, and frequently hilarious commenters. I’m going to follow the finale’s lead and not get too sentimental here, but it’s been a pleasure working for and with you all, and I hope to see you sometime early next year for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.