Star Trek: The Next Generation's first and best cliffhanger.
This, for me, is the only episode that can give 'Yesterday's Enterprise' a run for its money in the competition for the accolade of Best Episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Ever.
What makes it so good? Well, the Borg, for one thing. OK, Doctor Who's Cybermen may have got there first, but both the concept and execution of the Borg are so well done on The Next Generation that hardly matters. The idea of beings with a hive mind who don't care at all what happens to them personally, letting themselves be mown down for the greater good and allowing those behind to adapt, mixed with the body horror of their appearance, dark metallic appliances sticking out of humanoid skin, is as chilling as it was in their first appearance, in 'Q Who?' Here, they are more threatening than ever, and we see their mythology start to develop as their later trademark "Resistance is futile" appears, along with, crucially, the promise that they will "add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own."
This is the introduction of the idea that the Borg assimilate other lifeforms, as well as or instead of reproducing themselves (in 'Q Who?' there were nurseries aboard their ships), and this idea will change everything and dominate their later appearances. I first saw this episode when I was young, and I remember being completely and utterly shocked when Picard turned to face the camera, Borg parts all over him, and when he announced later that he was "Locutus of Borg". To me back then, the idea of the Captain being turned against the crew was thrilling, intriguing, exciting, and the perfect hook for me to want to watch what happened next. Now, being older and wiser, I'd be a lot less surprised, but at the time it really made an impression, and it's a fantastic cliffhanger. Picard is so much the heart and soul of The Next Generation, partly thanks to Patrick Stewart's captivating performance, partly thanks to the calm and power of the character, that this cliffhanger is truly spine-tingling.
Adding to the power of that ending is Riker's dilemma over whether to stay in career stasis on the Enterprise or accept a promotion to another ship, and his inner conflict over having to rise to the position of Captain in such circumstances. Between Picard and Guinan's conversation about the loss of captains in battle and the repeated references to the fact it's past time Riker moved on to take that position, it's really possible to believe that Picard might be lost and his seat left to Riker. And, of course, it's leading up to the truly chilling moment when Riker looks at his captain and friend on the viewscreen and gives the order, "Fire!"
Oh, and the Borg are a practically unstoppable force out the destroy the Federation too. There's also that minor issue. Phew! So much drama.
The cliffhanger to this episode is so good it's inevitably its major talking point, but the rest of the episode is equally well done. I've always liked the character of Shelby a lot - not in the sense that I'd ever particularly like to meet her in person, but in the sense that I like the idea of the character and the way she shakes things up a bit. She's also one of very few beautiful women on the show that Riker never flirts with, and she has an entire plot revolving around her relationship with him that has nothing to do with sexuality - you could replace her with an ambitious male officer and the plot would still work. This is really refreshing and one of the reasons I really like seeing her onscreen.
Perhaps 'Yesterday's Enterprise' just has the edge for me still, but it's a close-run thing - this is among the very best The Next Generation has to offer. It's also the episode that really got me into Star Trek on television in general, and The Next Generation in particular (my first love was always the movies, especially The Wrath of Khan). And for that, I will always be deeply grateful.
Bits and pieces
- I thought it was a nice touch that it was Dr Crusher who first saw Picard-as-Locutus on the Borg cube. All the crew are shocked and horrified, of course, but she is the closest to him (as well as Guinan, perhaps) and the most personally hurt by the whole thing.
- One of my favourite things about Borg episodes are those scenes of the crew walking around a Borg cube and all the Borg completely ignoring them because they don't perceive them as a threat. The sets are brilliantly creepy anyway, and the whole idea that these aliens simply don't care enough to take you on until you actively start killing them just makes them all the more terrifying in their power and complacency.
Data: Early bird? I believe Commander Shelby erred. There is no evidence of avifaunal or crawling vermicular lifeforms on Jouret IV.
Picard: It's something of a tradition, Guinan - the Captain touring the ship before a battle.
Guinan: Before a hopeless battle, if I remember the tradition correctly.
Picard: Not necessarily. Nelson toured the HMS Victory before Trafalgar.
Guinan: Yes, but Nelson never returned from Trafalgar, did he?
Picard: No, but the battle was won.
Picard: I wonder if the Emperor Honorius, watching the Visigoths coming over the hill, truly realised that the Roman Empire was about to fall.
Picard-as-Locutus: I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life, as it has been, is over. From this time forward, you will service us.
Gives me shivers down my spine every time I watch it. Four out of four doomed captains.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.
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