Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Gold Standard - For A While - Of Season Finales: "The Best Of Both Worlds!"

The Good: Well acted, Excellent plot, Suspense, Good character development
The Bad: Nothing to speak of
The Basics: The Borg return with Picard as their target as a new officer arrives with Riker's job as her target.

The third season of Star Trek The Next Generation is arguably its best, an argument I have been making the past few weeks as I've written reviews for episodes in that season. Contributing to its success is the season finale for the third season, "The Best Of Both Worlds." For a long time, this remained the season finale that defined what a great season finale ought to do. Personally, I believe it was succeeded by Star Trek Deep Space Nine's fifth season finale "A Call To Arms." But, until then . . .

"The Best Of Both Worlds" is the episode Trek fans were waiting the entire season for. Since the second season episode "Q-Who?" (reviewed here!) there has been a new menace on the horizon, the Borg. The Borg have been alluded to a few times since: "Peak Performance" and "Evolution" come right to mind. Here, we see the foe again. Admiral Hanson arrives with the Borg Tactical Specialist, Lieutenant Commander Shelby. Shelby is intelligent, ambitious, and gunning for Riker's job. Riker, in turn, has been offered a promotion, to become captain of the U.S.S. Melbourne. The Borg are sighted and when the Enterprise engages them, they make a shocking revelation; they are after Picard. The Enterprise flees, but the Borg are relentless.

This is an episode that feels very much like it could be the transition between two casts: Riker has been ready to ascend to the captaincy, Shelby is a viable enough character to succeed as an interesting enough first officer and the conclusion of the episode allows for any - or many - cast members to be killed off. In some ways, "The Best Of Both Worlds" is the ultimate tease. This is an episode that plays upon suspense perfectly, dragging out the tension until it releases it in the episode's final line.

"The Best Of Both Worlds" succeeds because the characters in it are ripe with conflict. Riker wonders what I've been wondering ever since "The Icarus Factor," which is "What is my purpose for being here?!" Riker's character has been in decline since that second season episode and here the character himself confronts that. Add to that Shelby is nipping at his heels for his position. And Picard, Picard finds himself the target of a ruthless enemy. He plays out his apprehension at being singled out quite well.

Of course, some aspects of this make little sense. How the Borg know about Picard at all is awkward; Riker visited their ship in "Q-Who?" Of course, Picard attempted to communicate with the Borg in that episode, but how they figured he was special from that communication is beyond me.

The characters in this episode work because the acting is perfectly primed. The entire cast gives it their all and it shows in the finished product. This episode is by no means a Wesley Crusher episode, yet one of the moments of finest acting comes at the hands - or face, in truth - of Wil Wheaton. Wheaton plays Crusher perfectly as tired in a brief scene in Engineering. It's memorable in his performance and it works.

But more than a brief moment, the rest of the cast is wonderful as well. Michael Dorn plays Worf as horrifically emotive in the last scene of the episode, Whoopi Goldberg does well in her cameo, and Gates McFadden lends humanity to Dr. Crusher, especially near the end of the episode.

The acting of the episode, however, hinges largely on three people: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Elisabeth Dennehey. Dennehey plays Shelby and she brings arrogance, competence and a frustrating characteristic of evoking annoyance to Shelby. Having seen her in other things since, all in generally likable roles, Dennehey is illustrating her acting talents well here. Stewart goes through the entire range of acting tricks with Picard here. He plays Picard as confident, shaken and in his facial expressions alone, we see the moment he loses heart in the battle with the Borg. And Stewart's final performance in the episode is groundbreaking for him.

But the episode often comes down to Frakes. We've been wondering what happened to Riker in a season where Data and Worf would get more episodes than ever and Riker's characterization was shaky. Frakes didn't have many acting opportunities to rise to the occasion. Indeed, his directing "The Offspring" implied perhaps Riker's days were numbered and Frakes would move behind camera. Regardless, here Frakes gives a wonderfully human performance wherein he makes Riker both commanding and vulnerable.

I was lucky; when I saw this episode, there was only a week between the finale and the new season's premiere. I feel fortunate about that. Today, you can get both videos and watch the episodes back to back which works well. "The Best Of Both Worlds" is a tight action adventure/chase story with a lot of characterization thrown in and while the end eases the tension, it is hardly cathartic. You'll definitely want to see the next episode. And after all, that's what a great season finale does.

Accessible to all, more appreciated by those who have a vested interest in Star Trek The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds" is a cinematic masterpiece with a lot going for it.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek episode or film reviews, please visit my index page on the subject!

© 2011, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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