Commander Riker grapples with his career path, and a decision whether to accept a new command or remain happy and "comfortable" aboard the Enterprise. But when the Borg arrive in Federation space and abduct Captain Picard as part of their new designs to attack Earth itself, Riker is thrust into the captain's chair, ready or not.
I've written before of the profound impact this episode had on me and Star Trek fans everywhere when it first aired. But that really can't be overstated. Many people actually believed there was a chance that Captain Picard was being written out of the show. First, there was the poignant writing within the episode itself, which spoke of the doomed Captain Nelson touring his ship before the Battle of Trafalgar. Then there were the rumors that Patrick Stewart wasn't happy on the series and actually had asked to leave. (It turns out there was the tiniest kernel of truth buried there, in that when Stewart first took the job as Picard, he did so believing there was no chance the series would last longer than one season -- and that was the way he'd wanted it at the time.) I don't think anyone actually believed we'd come back next season to see the Borg cube blown apart in the first five seconds, but it was hard to imagine just what the writers were going to do.
Ironically, episode writer Michael Piller had no idea either when he wrote this episode. In fact, he'd decided to leave the series. He was wrestling with the very issues Riker articulates in this episode: the conflict between ambition and happiness. Piller wrote this subplot with his own experiences in mind, and this incredibly personal touch is an often overlooked part of what makes this episode so great. Yes, the Borg return, the action is amazing, and Picard's assimilation is an unbelievable shock... but through it all is this emotional story of inner conflict and uncertainty. Piller wrote this script with one foot figuratively out the door, having made his decision to leave, and with the freedom that came from knowing that whatever problems he concocted would be someone else's to solve. Then Gene Roddenberry made a personal appeal to Piller, acknowledging how much he'd improved the series, and managed to change his mind.
But we'll leave the wrap-up of the cliffhanger for next time. There was plenty of challenge just in creating it. The writers had actually been considering a "return of the Borg" story all season long, but couldn't arrive at a story they liked. The problem they kept facing was that as a villain, the Borg had limited personality. Some of the writers proposed that what they really needed was a "queen bee" to put a face on the adversary. It was a suggestion Piller opposed... until he himself finally came up with the idea to make Picard that queen bee. It required a bit of hand-waving (acknowledged in dialogue in the episode itself), given that the Borg cared nothing for individual life in their first appearance, but the idea was too compelling to discard over that minor quibble.
There are plenty of other great moments in the writing well before that compelling cliffhanger. The ambitious Commander Shelby is a wonderful guest character, a thorn in Riker's side. It's amazing that this level of conflict between Starfleet characters would be allowed, given Gene Roddenberry's usual edicts against such things, but this contentious relationship is a key part of the story. From the poker game in which she upsets the status quo, to her outright defiance of Riker in their turbolift argument, Shelby is a compelling presence. (And made it seem just a bit more possible that Picard was actually being written out of the show. To be replaced by this new character?)
It's almost random, but this is actually a fun episode for Dr. Crusher as well. Gates McFadden had approached Michael Piller to ask if she could get to fire a phaser some day, and he granted that request by putting her on the Away Team at the end of this episode. We get a smart nod to continuity (and the fact that she wasn't around in the second season for the Borg's first appearance); she has the clever idea on how to stop the Borg ship ("sting them in a tender spot..."); and then, as requested, she gets to fire a phaser. It's all just great fun use of her character, and it's really not even too big a stretch that she's there, given that they're on a mission to rescue a potentially wounded crew member.
But even more impressive to me than the writing on this episode is the composing. The musical score to this episode (and the conclusion) is Ron Jones' finest work among a great deal of fine work on the show. It was some of the earliest Star Trek: The Next Generation music made available for purchase, and I've listened to every track more times than I could possibly count. The music is just so clever and inventive. It's also powerful, using twice as many musicians as the average episode.
The Borg attacks are scored in 3/4 time, a usually airy time signature associated with waltzes, of all things. But Jones transforms it into something sinister and relentless. He makes a perfect choice in using a synthetic choir to vocalize the Borg themselves -- a choice initially resisted by the producers, until he argued that apocalyptic stakes of this episode called for a more over-the-top approach to the music. From the unsettling tones of the initial fade-in, to the screeching fanfare that plays over the "To Be Continued..." card, there's not a wrong note in this score.
All that said, even though this episode is among the series' very best, we fans can still acknowledge a few minor (maybe even humorous) imperfections. The opening teaser, while dramatic, is utter nonsense. They have to beam down to find out about the gaping hole where a city used to be? (Good thing they don't actually materialize at "the center of town," as O'Brien claims, but on the rim of the crater.) Or how about the unnecessary barrel roll Geordi makes under the closing engineering door? Ah, who really cares when you get so caught up in watching this episode, even if it's for the umpteenth time.
- This episode marks the first occurrence of the ubiquitous Borg catch phrase, "resistance is futile."
- Actor George Murdock guest stars as Admiral Hanson. He's given much better material to work with than he had in his previous Star Trek appearance, as "God" in the horrendous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
- In another connection with a Star Trek film, the nebula in which the Enterprise hides from the Borg is created with footage from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
- The first appearance of Picard as a Borg is simply iconic. The flare of the laser as "Locutus" turns toward the camera is simply brilliant. (And, according to a member of the special effects team, an unintended accident!)
And since that does mark the end of season three, it's time to look back on it as a whole. What a turning point for the series this was! In the two seasons prior, I'd found only one A episode and one A- episode. Season three had four of the former and three of the latter, putting nearly a third of the season in the "top shelf" category. And that quality was generally quite consistent; only five episodes out of 26 rated any lower than a B-. In short, season three was when Star Trek: The Next Generation really got good.
My top five episodes of the season (as noted, all but one of them A grade): The Best of Both Worlds, Yesterday's Enterprise, The Offspring, Deja Q, and Hollow Pursuits.
On to season four!