Episodic or serialized Star Trek: The Best of Both Worlds


In this series, we continue to take a look at Star Trek, comparing and examining its ventures into various formats from self-contained episodes, to long form serialized formats, and everything in between.

By Star Trek: The Next Generation’s third season, it had finally begun to stand on its own despite a rough first two seasons.  Also, by this point, as both cast and crew had become more familiar with the material they had finally ventured beyond rehashing unused Star Trek concepts from the 60’s and 70’s.

On top of that, the episodic format of television popular in the 60’s had become overshadowed by long form storytelling shown in various popular series from the 80’s and early 90’s like various cop and hospital dramas, as well as evening soap operas. While episodic television didn’t disappear completely, as The Next Generation adhered to that structure for the most part, the landscape of television was changing.

It was becoming clear that audiences were enjoying the extended dramatic tension of story lines and character arcs that lasted for more than a single episode.

The Best of Both Worlds, Part I

The famous season three cliff hanger continued the threat posed by the Borg as introduced a season earlier, in addition to some occasional and subtle foreshadowing of their presence.  It also utilized its intended nature as a season end cliffhanger, Star Trek’s first, to threaten the status quo that the crew had become so accustomed to preserving.

Watch this rubber band snap.  Almost.

This episode is primarily based around Commander Riker, and he experiences multiple layers of conflict that tense up this episode.  First, we learn he is turning down multiple offers to become captain of his own starship, causing him to doubt himself once Picard calls him out on this.  Maybe he can’t command.  Maybe he has become too soft.  Does Starfleet have a place for someone like that?

Well, it certainly has a place for Commander Shelby, a hotshot young officer much like a young, but female, Riker.  She is the external threat to Riker’s own personal dilemmas.  She is everything he used to be in addition to being somewhat of an expert of the Borg since the Enterprise’s first encounter with them.

She makes it abundantly clear that she isn’t just gunning for the Borg, she’s gunning for Riker’s job.

The third and most obvious threat is the Borg themselves.  They prove to be just as overpowering as before.  The Enterprise is the only line of defense between the Borg and the rest of the Federation, and the Borg are barely phased by the Enterprise’s resistance.

The real game changer is Picard’s capture.  Up to this point we keep getting hints that this battle won’t stick to the rules we are used to seeing.  Riker might leave the Enterprise.  Or the Borg might win.  Or Picard, horror of all horrors, becomes a Borg.

Once his assimilation is complete, and once Picard’s rescue seems impossible, Riker finally must face his own doubts and he must overcome Shelby’s own headstrong desire to rescue Picard again.  Riker realizes his duty to Starfleet supersedes his loyalty to Picard, who may very well be gone forever.  He orders Worf to fire their new weapon they’ve been working on.  Thus begins one of the longest summers of the 1990’s if you watched it then.

This climactic moment not only ties together Riker’s multi-layered dramatic tension into one climactic choice, it sets the stage for the rest of Star Trek.  Or does it?

An episode unresolved or a story arc just beginning?

Let’s try to forget for a moment that we know what comes next. With this episode concluding Star Trek’s third season, all we are left with are questions.  Questions that throw everything he have come to expect from Star Trek into chaos.  Will Picard die?  Can Star Trek work with Riker as captain?  Do you even like Shelby?  (I really did, actually)

With the bounds of the single episode story gone, we can finally start to see some elements of Star Trek mesh with longer story arc techniques.  Riker’s personal crisis isn’t just a single plot point.  It’s a reflection on his entire time on the show so far and possibly a crucial factor to its future.

The Borg certainly seem unstoppable.  What is cost of the Enterprise failing to stop them?  If they do stop them, certainly it will cost them Picard.  So as an audience we are left feeling held emotionally hostage.  Either we hope the Enterprise fails so Picard might be able to survive, or we hope Riker succeeds and the Federation is saved, and maybe Riker realizes he has what it takes for the big chair.

Another element that this episode introduces in conflict between its characters.  Roddenberry was said to have been entirely against the idea that the crew of the Enterprise would have interpersonal conflict.  As manifestations of his idealized future, he didn’t see that such professional officers would ever stand for such a discordant work environment.

Shelby’s antagonism only intensifies Riker’s own personal drama.  She isn’t willing to wait around for Riker to feel good about himself and neither is she considerate of his ailing ego.  She knows why she is there, to fight the Borg, and she won’t stand for Riker’s emotional flailing getting in her way.

Related Story. How do you like Star Trek: episodic or serialized?. light

Character conflict, personal drama challenged or intensified by the plot, open-ended plot points, continual references to previous events in the series, these are all hallmarks of television that we are used to seeing today or binge-watching on Netflix.  This episode succeeds more than most previous episodes of Star Trek of possibly and irrevocably altering or damaging the elasticity of Star Trek’s rubber band of episodic storytelling.

How did these features affect you when you first saw this episode?  Do these have anything in common with other series within or out of Star Trek that seem to keep you hooked?  Or maybe it’s just over dramatic phooey, and Star Trek should stick to telling us thinly veiled morality tales and leave the melodrama to the soap operas.