by William Moon
For this 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series that’s as important to the development of science fiction on television and in popular culture as its famed predecessor, let’s take a look at the show’s most famous episode(s), the two-part season-spanning classic “The Best of Both Worlds”, as well as the episode that immediately followed it, the low-key, character-driven “Family”. When taken together, the three hours really get at the heart of the myriad ways TNG set itself apart from The Original Series and also set the stage for some of the heights the franchise would reach going forward.
At this point, there’s little left unsaid about “The Best of Both Worlds”, almost certainly the TNG episode that holds the most sway in mainstream culture. The two-parter features one of television’s all-time great cliffhangers, which combined the shock of seeing our stalwart hero Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as an insidious Borg with the realization that we were gonna be stuck with that image for several months. Cut to Riker ordering Worf to fire and perhaps the most insanely overwrought music cue in TV history, then sit on your hands until September for the conclusion. Truly, this was Trek at perhaps its most dramatic and action-packed. The Original Series had never really had the budget or technology available for such large-scale drama, though the movies featuring the original crew were able to make a giant leap forward in that department. Certainly, the previous bar had been set in the excellent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which carried the franchise to dizzying, hammy, Shakespearean heights. If this was TNG’s attempt to top it, it was a pretty strong one.
But there’s more to that episode than just an awesome cliffhanger, or even the marvelously villainous Borg. The credited writer for both parts one and two was Michael Piller, the head writer for the series at the time and one of its showrunners and executive producers (along with Rick Berman). Piller had just taken over that position on the show earlier in season three, the season that “The Best of Both Worlds, Pt. I” ended. Prior to him, the series had run through a host of writers and showrunners in its first two-plus seasons, with the constant turnover being a major factor in the show’s general lousiness over its first two years. Piller’s immediate predecessor as head writer was Michael Wagner, who presided over the writer’s room for the first four episodes of season three, just long enough to point the show in a better direction before rather abruptly departing. Piller was more or less thrown into the role, and his decision to fill out the third season with episodes submitted by freelance writers (done in order to keep the show’s production on schedule) turned into an unexpected goldmine for the franchise, as it brought Trek stalwarts Ronald D. Moore and Rene Echevarria into the show’s orbit. But by the end of the season, Piller was unsure if he wanted to stick around. His indecision about his future with the show heavily informed his script for the season finale.
While the image of Picard staring back at us through a viewscreen with Borg implants all over his face is what sticks with the viewer the longest (and his subsequent bad blood with the Borg being the impetus for future episodes and easily the best of the TNG movies), the real main character of the two-parter is Will Riker. The possibility of Number One leaving the Enterprise for his own command hangs in the background of everything that unfolds in the episode, with his experience being captain in Picard’s absence and his willingness to do whatever it took to save Picard and all of the Federation from the Borg both playing heavily into his eventual decision to stay. Of course, just as Riker’s decision to stay or go reflects Piller’s real-life situation, his ultimate choice to stay reflects Piller’s, as well. I could get into the mechanics and inspirations of the cliffhanger (Patrick Stewart was rumored to be leaving the show, among other things), but what matters here is Riker’s character arc through the episode. It’s important for the show to have done this, and it comes up much more heavily in “Family”.
Speaking frankly, “The Best of Both Worlds, Pt. II” is fine, but not amazing. Part one had a great ending, but was also a great episode from start to finish, introducing a strong guest character in Lt. Cmdr. Shelby, bringing the Borg back for the first time since season’s two uncharacteristically excellent “Q Who”, and doing some generally excellent work in the production department as far as effects, sound, and music are concerned. Part two was always going to have a hard time matching that, and it only kind of does. It’s a solid conclusion, but not as across-the-board stellar as part one. The decision to have Picard-as-Locutus play such a major role in the massacre of the Starfleet forces at Wolf 359 was a bold move, though, as it allows for the show to deal with something it had rarely faced before, consequences.
The aforementioned Ronald D. Moore is the credited scribe for “Family”, which aired as the second episode of season four. In reality, Moore wrote the episode somewhat in step with what Piller was doing with the script for the season premiere. Together, they pitched the idea to series head honcho Rick Berman and convinced him to let them do it. “Family” was seen, at least by Moore and Piller, to be sort of “The Best of Both Worlds, Pt. III”. Moore in particular was adamant that the events of the previous episodes couldn’t be ignored going forward, particularly the way they would impact the character of Jean-Luc Picard. While season three on the whole had been far stronger than the first two seasons of TNG (and still stands as my favorite season overall of the show), this was really the first episode to truly stop and examine the events of a previous story in this fashion.
I once wrote an exceedingly long list ranking the episodes of my favorite Trek series, Deep Space Nine, and much of what I love about that series has its groundwork laid in this stretch of The Next Generation. For all of The Original Series and for TNG up to this point, every episode was disconnected from a larger story, with the exception of a few two-parters (which were often aired on the same night). The concept of serialized TV (now the norm across the medium) was pretty rare at this time, with Trek being especially resistant to it. The loose arc across the Nicholas Meyer-involved Trek movies (II, III, IV, and VI) has been the only really serialized story to appear in the franchise to this point (and VI hadn’t yet been released at this time), though a few vague attempts had been made at it in the franchise’s past. (The “Conspiracy” storyline in season one of TNG, for example). Recurring antagonists like the Klingons and Q are one thing, but real character development across episodes is another. Kirk and Spock are more or less the same guys in the last episode of TOS as they are in the first or any other episode of that series. The same was no longer true of Picard, and Patrick Stewart (the show’s single greatest asset) plays his character’s damaged state beautifully, holding it in as long as a singularly composed man like Picard can before letting it all out in one of the franchise’s five most devastating moments.
(Trek doubles down on this with the decision to kill off Jean-Luc’s brother and nephew, who are so important to this story, offscreen in Star Trek: Generations. I still have mixed feelings about that, since I definitely don’t think they did enough with Picard’s storyline afterwards to make it worthwhile, but it could’ve worked if the sequels had bothered to pick up on this thread at all.)
Of course, Picard’s visit to the family vineyard is just one of the storylines in “Family”, and each of the two others similarly resonate, with Worf processing the fallout of his decision to accept formal dishonor for the good of the Klingon Empire in “Sins of the Father” (also written by Moore) and Wesley playing a holodeck recording of his late father (the boy’s lingering grief over the death of Jack Crusher had been established in “The Bonding”, also also written by Moore). In concert, all three stories show a Star Trek that’s more mature from a character standpoint, where the crew would be challenged by things rooted in their own humanity, things that wouldn’t stop challenging humans just because they’d become able to fly out amongst the stars. Unsubtle racial and social allegories and the many, many Gene Roddenberry-approved stand-ins for God still had a place in the franchise, but there was a quiet power to this type of storytelling, which resurfaces on DS9.
When taken together, we see a three-hour stretch (with commercials, of course) that showcases the dizzying, stirring highs of all-out war with the Borg, the shock of possibly losing the show’s main character to the villains, the resolve of the series’ supporting characters, and the ways in which all of this sci-fi drama affects these people in much the same way our lives affect us. If pressed, I’d list “Family” as my personal favorite TNG episode, with several others also in strong consideration. (“The Best of Both Worlds”, “Q Who”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Survivors”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “The Most Toys”, “Reunion”, “Darmok”, “Cause and Effect”, “I, Borg”, “The Inner Light”, “Chain of Command, Pt. II”, “Ship in a Bottle”, “Tapestry”, “Birthright”, “Lower Decks”, “Parallels”, and “All Good Things…” are some of them.)
The legacy and importance of The Original Series is too strong for it to have been truly superseded by TNG, but it was this stretch of three episodes when the latter series did something else. It had been building outward on Star Trek as it had existed, with more aliens and adventures, but now it began building inward, further into its characters’ psyches, showing us who these people really were and how much they were or weren’t like us. Mixing these human elements together with the new life and new civilizations of the original five-year mission, that really was the best of both worlds.