Death Is Irrelevant: TNG & “The Best of Both Worlds”

Dissecting the Power and Impact of
One of Star Trek's Most Influential Episodes

by Rob Heyman for TrekCore.com

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Twenty-four years ago this month, a grueling summer-long wait was about to come to end. Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation were about the find out if Picard -- captured and transformed by the Borg in the thrilling two-part episode “The Best of Both Worlds” -- was going to be destroyed by the Enterprise.

For those of us around at the time who watched “The Best of Both Worlds” on television (and saved it for endless rewatching on VHS), the season premier on September 24, 1990, could not come fast enough.

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Part One of “The Best of Both Worlds” is widely celebrated as the one of the best episodes of Star Trek – at the very least, the best of The Next Generation. But what is it about this episode that made it so memorable among fans and a noted achievement among critics. It even seemed like The Next Generation itself could not escape the long shadow of this episode in the years that followed, never quite able to deliver another Borg episode -- or another cliffhanger for that matter -- with the same fresh spirit and adrenaline.

In retrospect, the success of the Borg finale for Season Three can be attributed to good timing, a writing and production staff hitting its creative stride, and a hunger for a new Borg episode after their memorable “Q Who” appearance in Season Two. Composer Ron Jones’ propulsive musical score must be mentioned here as well with a king-sized asterisk.

It’s an astonishing achievement in television scoring and, I would argue, a large factor in the finale’s overall success. When I first saw the finale in the summer of 1990, I didn’t just watch it – I “heard” it. It became a cinematic experience, and when the orchestra launches into a bombastic frenzy in those final seconds after Riker orders Worf to fire, I knew I had just witnessed something very special.

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After a total of three exciting episodes committed to Picard’s abduction (if you count the unofficial third part “Family”), it was easy to forget that Star Trek was about more than just the Borg. It didn’t help that Picard ended “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” in his ready room casting a troubled stare out the window.

Was he telling us that he really wasn’t cured of his experience? Or was that look intended to communicate his fears that the Borg are still out there and that their story isn’t over? At the time, I saw it more as an omen of things to come, as I’m sure many fans did – an echo of the creep ending of “Conspiracy” from Season One. As a result, everything after “Family” just felt like filler until that next, inevitable Borg episode.

One has to wonder how The Next Generation would have played out had it not had “The Best of Both Worlds.” The cliffhanger certainly attracted many new fans and garnered the series widespread acclaim. Personally, the two episodes that sold me best on The Next Generation were “Yesterday’s Enterprise and “Hollow Pursuits,” both also from the third season. “Tin Man” is another terrific installment from that season.

With so many stand-out shows that year, it’s likely The Next Generation would have turned out just fine without the Borg’s return in the season finale. The Next Generation was on a hot streak, and the original series, which had loomed so large over the show those first few seasons, was suddenly a distant memory.

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With the incredible success of “The Best of Both Worlds,” you’d expect the producers to have kept the momentum going in the fourth season with a lot more action-adventure. Instead, they chose to go personal, stocking many of the season’s early episodes with inexpensive family stories and “bottle” shows. Even the music, which had made minor celebrities of Ron Jones and Dennis McCarthy after Season Three, became increasingly more muted and lifeless – owing in no small part to executive producer Rick Berman’s mind-boggling mandate to keep the music as low-key as possible.

When Ron Jones was fired at the end of Season Four, it was clear that a chapter had come to an end and that there would probably never be another "Best of Both Worlds." After all, what was a Borg episode without Ron Jones? The themes he crafted in “Q Who” were expanded to incredible effect in "The Best of Both Worlds." I often wonder how he would have played with these themes had he been around to score the more-intimate “I Borg” in Season Five.

It’s not entirely fair to hand all the credit for "The Best of Both Worlds" to Ron Jones. Part One, in particular, was also a very well-written story featuring some long-overdue character conflict. Casting Elizabeth Dennehy as Riker’s adversary was a coup, and the special effects were top-notch, especially for the time. It was definitely a package achievement. Jones just gave it that extra, satisfying kick.

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For its remaining three seasons, The Next Generation tried to strike a balance among family drama, action-adventure, and “weird shit” with mixed success. When we finally get another real Borg adventure, it comes in the form of another two-part episode called “Descent,” which played like a cheap copy of “The Best of Both Worlds” with little of the same excitement.

In truth, “Descent” more closely echoes first season’s “The Arsenal of Freedom,” with Crusher standing in for Geordi this time in a fish-out-of-water command turn. Whereas in “Arsenal,” you can almost see the sweat pouring down Geordi’s face, Crusher’s stab at the big chair is almost too easy, even with the contrived tension between two bridge officers. Jay Chattaway does get a chance to loosen up the score a bit for, especially in Part Two, but it’s certainly not on par with what Jones gave us for “The Best of Both Worlds.”

The Borg, as we all know, would return time again for the news series and movies. It’s a testament to the achievements of “Q Who” and “The Best of Both Worlds” that these villains enjoyed such longevity. For itself, “The Best of Both Worlds” marked a moment in time – and what a moment it was! Fans may forever debate the best episode of The Next Generation, but I don’t think it can be argued that “The Best of Both Worlds” was the moment when the new series truly arrived and asked to be finally taken seriously.

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Rob Heyman writes The Absent Prompter blog, providing analysis and criticism of American print and broadcast media, and is a contributing writer for The Logbook, a retro-pop-culture site focused on movies, television, music, and gaming.

  • James G.

    Good read. That episode still resonates today, from the first shot of the Enterprise orbiting the planet with Jones’ score letting you know this one is special.

    One correction – the article says Picard is looking out his window at the end of Family. It’s the end of BOBW Part II.

    • Mike C.

      Right. Picard’s nephew ends Family star gazing. And the ‘remaining three seasons’ comment is not quite accurate either. Bloggers..

  • Paul

    Still think bermans decision to go low key on the music was bad. And also would have been interesting if they had more lower decks style episodes.

  • James

    A truly brilliant two-parter, epic in scope with a great score and a sense of dread and menance that the series wouldn’t articulate again until the First Contact film.

    For me, TNG never quite lived up to it’s full potential, there were too many soap opera style stories. There were also some frankly baffling and lurid pieces that just didn’t work, like Sub-Rosa, Realm of Fear, Man of the People, Dark Page and Journeys End, to name just a few. Not only that, but there were main characters that felt poorly drawn such as Riker, Troi and Beverly. It was telling that by the time Lower Decks came around, it was such a breath of fresh air that many fans lauded what is in fact a pretty average episode. Eventually, from season 4 onwards, DS9 would eshew the more fantastical stories for the type of space opera that some of the fans wanted. It would also explore its characters in greater depth – allowing them to have real human failings to go with the more evolved sensibilities fo the 24th century.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love TNG, but it wouldn’t be until All Good Things rolled around until there was an episode that could compare to TBOBW. In my opinion, the Borg were squandered with I Borg and the poor two-parter of Descent. First Contact would re-imagine them as a potent threat once again, but the film was sadly the last hoorah for TNG as the film series died a painful death with the lamentable Insurrection and the abysmal Nemesis.

  • CoolGeek

    A great two parter that has stood the test of time.Ironically, it wasnt until the season three ending cliffhanger of Voyager until we got another truly great Borg story.

    • jerr

      Is it ironic or just coincidence?

  • archer9234

    I still can’t get over the fact they fired Ron Jones. The guy who scored the most popular episodes. I mean WTF was he doing wrong? Did Berman use his personal tastes in music, to decide he should fire him, or what.

    • CoolGeek

      A lot of the behind the scenes tension is covered in the notes for the excellent ” Ron Jones Project ” box set cds.Apparently Berman was not a big fan of Jones from day one.Jones was hired before Berman gained nearly full creative control over the series.Apparently Berman thought ” Music is supposed to enhance scenes, not call attention to itself ”.How dare Jones write music that is so dramatic and compelling.By the end of season 4 Berman had enough of this, let Jones go and made it a mandate that episode scoring be not memorable in the slightest.

      • archer9234

        It’s totoally dumb to use your personal tastes of music to dictate a series. If I worked on a show that used say rap. I hate rap. But if the show works damn good with rap. I’m not gonna fire the team for that. It’s one thing to tell Jerry Goldsmith his original Enterprise theme is bad contextually for TMP. It’s another to fire a person who’s music was in no way feeling out of place or stupid.

    • SpaceCadet

      The blu-ray feature on the 5th season blu-ray set with the show’s musical composers also goes into detail on this subject.

  • Charlie

    Never heard about the Ron Jones thing… sounds lame (pun intended).

    My long-time nagging question about TBOBW is whether they ever considered having Riker do the “These are the voyages…” monologue at the beginning of Part II. That would have started that episode on a much more startling and chilling note, and might have maintained the suspense level for a while even after the cliffhanger was resolved in, oh, about five seconds.

    Precedent for the captain NOT doing it was set at the end of TWOK, so unless it was a contractual thing with Stewart, I think it would have been worth the trouble and nominal expense of dubbing the new opening.

  • StuUK

    Fortunately for me I didn’t have to endure the loooong summer hiatus between parts I & II of the BOBW; my Dad surprised me one day by handing me both parts on VHS. Watching this story through for the first time, I do remember the charge of excitement running through me was so intense with that initial encounter with the Borg cube, those scenes gave me goosebumps! (a proper fanboy! haha!!). I watched those tapes a couple of times that day.
    There have been some truly great episodes of Trek over the years but it’s The Best of Both Worlds I continue to site as my favourite 90 minutes of not only the entire franchise, but television as a whole.
    I’ve thought a lot over the years as to why I adore this episode so much; It’s a combination of circumstances I think:
    • Firstly there wasn’t much in the way of sci-fi television airing in the 1990; Next Gen pretty much enjoyed a monopoly over a sci-fi loving audience at the time…
    • And if the sci-fi hungry audience were teased by the peaks and troughs of seasons 1 and 2, none of us could have been anywhere near prepared for how consistently good Season 3 was going to be, so by episode 26 of that year Next Gen. could not have been more in our good books!
    • Also, the show was of an age where you could have accepted the possibility that perhaps Patrick Stewart might have had enough of the role; there was certainly no internet to readily chase up confirmation of such an assumption.
    • One of the big considerations in my opinion was that we had only met the Borg once before and the only way our heroes survived that encounter is because Q helped them cheat their way out of it. We left “Q-Who?” with a sense that the Borg represented this ultimate unstoppable force, no morals, no ethics and no capacity to negotiate… They were right and the galaxy were wrong! — In fact I felt that from the moment that Locutus was born as this spokesperson, this middleman between the Borg and humanity, the reputation of the Borg as being this unstoppable foe started to get a little watery, indeed by the time Voyager hit it’s stride we grew used to Janeway dealing out an ass whupping to the Borg over and over again. By the close Berman’s 24th century I would still consider the Borg powerful, scary and a force to be reckoned with for sure, but unstoppable? – It was clear that Janeway didn’t seem to think so!

    • James

      Sometimes we love something, even though we are fully aware of it’s flaws. That’s certainly the case with me and Star Trek ;)

  • Jed

    I’ve got to say I love BOBW as much as the next guy, but I’ve always had a problem with the lighting and production values on the Ent bridge specifically in this episode. Compare this episode to yesterday’s enterprise where you have explosions on the bridge and in engineering, with lighting to match. By contrast BOBW has nothing at all, save for a few camera shakes! For me it does seem a rather odd choice. Compare the warp coil breach in yesterday’s Ent to virtually the same scene in BOBW where Geordie evacuates engineering. It all seems rather flat. Likewise when the ship is about explode near the end, we have no explosions or mood lighting just flat lighting and a slight frown from will Wheaton to convey the mood!

    • SpaceCadet

      I agree. Yesterday’s Enterprise is my favorite episode of TNG but BOBW part I is a close second. On the new commentary of Yesterday’s Enterprise, Ron Moore comments that the way the Enterprise-D bridge is lit in that episode is how it should have been for the whole series. At least the shots on the Borg ship in BOBW are more atmospheric compared to the bridge scenes and the music helps sell the tension and excitement as well.

    • archer9234

      The nature of TV time. Destroying a set requires repair work. That wastes hours and days of work needed for a set used all the time. They can blow up sets that are one time or secondary use. But action never takes place in Troi’s, office for example.

      • Smithian

        Considering we never saw the battle bridge again, they could have blown that to bits and not worried about it later.
        In all fairness, the production teams got very good at redressing the sets effectively – a lot of battle damage was mocked up quite well. They did a bang-up job (literally) on many of the vital sets of Voyager in “Year of Hell” that came and went pretty effortlessly from the audience’s point of view. I’m not mentioning this to start a debate on whether they should have kept the sets that way all season though!

        • archer9234

          That could of worked. Except the battle bridge is used for temp sets in every episode. Like UP shipyard in Booby Trap, the science room with the raising lift, the court room in measure of a man. If it wasn’t used so often they could of blown that up easily.

          • Smithian

            Ah yes, forgot about that.

  • Data

    It’s not too late, Ron Jones is still around and active – let him re-score “Descent” and other episodes for an alternate version to choose on blu ray or online to download!! It would get A LOT out of “Descent”, you wouln’t believe it!! Come back Ron!!!!

  • Smithian

    It’s juicy gossip and worthy of note, but this purported look back at BOBW spends an inordinate amount of time bemoaning the loss of Ron Jones and memorable music, even going so far as to presume his firing constituted the end of an era. He is a great composer, Rick Berman’s instincts about the role of music were wrong, but there are enough people debating whether seasons 5 or 6 were TNG’s best to safely say the show survived the injustice. Retitle the article at least?