Monday, July 4, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: The Best of Both Worlds (Part 1)

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: June 18, 1990
73 of 176 produced
73 of 176 aired


The colony world of Jouret IV is devastated by an attack reminiscent of the neutral zone outpost destructions from two years prior. Starfleet's conclusion is that the Borg are finally mounting their long-feared offensive against the Federation. The Enterprise is dispatched to the area with a mission specialist, Lt. Commander Shelby. Riker is offered the command of the USS Melbourne, in an attempt to put seasoned commanders at the helms of the fleet. Will the Federation be able to prepare itself for attack in time, and will things ever be the same?
My place? Both of you? Tonight? Oh, of course I meant to play poker.


Matthew: Whereas many "serious" episodes have started with a lighter teaser, this one kicks off right away on a downer. The New Providence Colony on Jouret IV has been annihilated, and we are treated to a view of its crater. This mood carries through the rest of the episode. Everyone is serious, worried, and concerned. The B story, which investigates why Riker hasn't moved on to the command of a "lesser" ship, doesn't offer much of a respite. Even poker scenes, usually a nice bit of comic relief, are overtaken by Riker's chafing against the upstart Commander Shelby - and losing. I don't mention all of this as a criticism. In fact, I'd say it's a strength of the episode. We've had plenty of light shows. Getting the dark one once in a while punctuates the seriousness of the franchise - similar to "Balance of Terror" in TOS, or "Conspiracy" in TNG. The tension builds through the whole episode, climaxing in the delicious cliff-hanger. It's really well done.

Kevin: I think that what I enjoyed most about the B-plot is that the A-plot gives it consequence. Either decision Riker makes will have some import for the universe and since it's a season finale, there's always a chance this time he might actually go. It's the opposite of "Icarus Factor" where it seemed a foregone conclusion he would stay. As for tone, I agree fully. I remember watching this for the first time when it was run with Part II in a single block, advertised as a movie-of-the-week type airing, and I barely handled commercial breaks. I don't know how I would have made it the whole summer. The tension was palpable and consistent.

Matthew: What does the title mean? That Picard as Locutus somehow represents the best of both worlds? I'm having a hard time seeing it. Anyway, speaking of Locutus, I think it adds a nice tension to the story, seeing how much everyone misses him and is hurt by his capture. I wish, though, that the Locutus character had been more of a Mephistopheles, one who extols the virtues of the Borg in persuasive fashion, as opposed to just being a repeater of the same stuff we've heard already. Now, we will get a tiny bit of this in the second part. I just think it should have been a more major element of the whole story - one that would have made the title a little more sensible. I also question the need for a "Queen Bee" character to personify the Borg. I think they're scarier as a completely person-less force.

Kevin: I actually think it works a little better if their bridge to humanity remains distant and off-putting. It wouldn't make sense that they could easily understand the soft sell. Even assimilating Picard's knowledge shouldn't make them natural experts at persuasion. They could have turned up the performance in Part II, but overall, I kind of like it that even when they are trying to not be horrifying, they are even more horrifying.

Matthew: I'm a big fan of the Riker story, personally. It caps the arc his character has been on - from ambitious Kirk wannabe in Season One, to conflicted but slightly more comfortable bearded guy in Season Two, and now as a "seasoned," happy, confident, settled man in Season Three. In one sense, it's a way of hanging a lampshade on the fact that he was set up as a climber, but will seemingly inexplicably stall for the duration of the show. But in another sense, it fundamentally changes his character and makes him grow in satisfying ways. But instead of just establishing this in a ho-hum way, the episode then raises the stakes for the character in the biggest possible way - taking away that security and stealing the Captain from him, putting him on the spot. The Shelby character is a great counterpoint, pushing Riker to realize that he's changed and grown. Shelby is a nice female character, in the sense that her female-ness never gets in the way. Only crusty Admiral Hansen indicates that he wants to bone her. Riker, thankfully, never expresses an iota of interest. She is competent and strong regardless of her gender. Maybe not the ultimate feminist character (one who is competent and strong in perfect concert with her gender), but still a very good one.

Kevin: The writers really deserve credit, and I always want to positively reinforce good behavior. They don't have the best history of portraying strong, assertive women, especially when they are in the role of antagonist. ***cough***Angel One***cough*** So, it's really nice that all the conflict feels organic, and even when Shelby is being a tad obnoxious, it never reads as if I should dismiss her for just being a bitch. I also really enjoy the way the plot focuses on Riker and his career choices without sacrificing the ensemble nature of the show. The show is pretty tightly packed, but everyone got something to do in a way that was interesting and in character.

Matthew: Why is there only one Borg cube? I feel like one line of dialogue, even a conjectural one from Data, could have answered this nagging question.

Kevin: As ever, there are a few niggling problems with the Borg. Their ability to adapt might be a tad too useful to be credible. Have they never encountered phaser-like technology before? Why not preemptively adapt to all the frequencies. Also, why do they ignore the crew until they start firing. In the podcast, I draw a comparison to the Borg collective to a single human body. It can't possibly respond to every stimuli as once. There has to be some prioritization. But even so, they are invading their home, wouldn't that qualify as a priority? Still, none of the questions detract from the feel and energy of the episode, and really, if we can't nitpick, we're not happy.


Matthew: Jonathan Frakes has been put in an unfortunate position in some recent episodes - just reacting to things, being sort of a lumbering, even boorish male presence. Here, all the nuance and interest returns. His scene with Marina Sirtis is just wonderful, and they both nail the feeling of being old lovers and good friends. His butting heads with Shelby has all kinds of layers, too. He doesn't just seem like a jealous dick. He has legitimate beefs with Shelby. But his vulnerability and uncertainty are exposed by their confrontations.

Kevin: I'm discussing it here, because all the credit goes to Sirtis and Frakes, and not the writers on this one. Three seasons of working extremely hard to make sure it still feels like they have a relationship in the absence of supporting dialogue pays dividends. The entire Ten Forward scene felt real, and credible. You could almost sense Troi thinking about the irony that Riker left her to pursue a career he now seems to not want as badly. I also liked the interactions with Shelby, as I like nuance. He doesn't just have one feeling toward or about her or about his career, and it all comes out in their dialogue.

Matthew: The two guest stars both carry their weight. George Murdock, who also played "God" in STV, is a credible, crusty admiral. Elizabeth Dennehy really shines as Shelby, coming in and delivering a lot of technobabble in convincing fashion. I'm sure many fans were disappointed that she didn't get picked up as a recurring character.

Kevin: Hanson shutting down the idea that Picard is "assisting" the Borg was pretty stellar. I really felt like he was talking about an old friend. Elizabeth Dennehy should find Suzy Plakson and start a club for awesome guest actresses who got criminally neglected by subsequent writers. They can have jackets made. I've said it before, but it bears repeating here, but sci-fi dialogue takes just the right amount of credulity to deliver. Too little is boring; too much becomes heavy handed. She nailed it, and she had a lot of technobabble for a newbie.

Matthew: I loved the scene with Picard and Guinan discussing the "fall of the Federation Empire." Of course, you have to credit some writing here - the lines are wonderful. But the wistful way they play it is really great. Lesser actors might not have given the lines the punch they needed.

Kevin: It's really a credit to Whoopi Goldberg that these scenes always read so naturally and organically. She is usually there to dispense advice, but I usually forget that while she is doing it. It never felt hackneyed or like they were using her as a crutch, and I think she should get credit for making sure her character always felt three-dimensional.

Production Values

Matthew: The Borg cube of course looks great again. How much is a re-use and how much is new is hard to discern. It seems as though some of the interior sets have been expanded and had detail added to them. Instead of the mannequin extras from "Q Who," we get fully decked out Borg extras. The space battle effects are nice, with the "modulating" phaser fire.

Kevin: The vastness of the Borg cube really came across in a wonderful way. The idea of an enclosed space large enough to have a vanishing point is unsettling in a really primal way. The Borg doodads all around looked awesome. The people in charge of the servo controlled mechanisms really did their job. The nebula was a reuse of the Mutara Nebula from WOK, but they did some work on the Enterprise shots to make it more sophisticated than merely layering the Enterprise over the nebula.

Matthew: The matte work on Jouret IV was really well done. The painting itself was very cool, and definitely creepy, seeing such a huge crater with little technological elements at the edges. But the integration was nice, too, with a nice pseudo-3D effect, with multi-planed movement of objects.

Kevin: While I was aware it was a painting, my first though was "Wow. That's awesome matte painting." I also want single out the music for praise. That last few seconds before the fade to black alone were awesome, and throughout the show, it really drove home the seriousness of the situation.

Matthew: I liked the number of extras in this show, and the fact that they were all doing "important looking" things. The guy working on the ceiling in Engineering is the one who sticks out for me.

Kevin: I liked a lot of the camera work choices. The shots of Picard's tour of the ship springs to mind. Also, the seating and camera arrangement during the conference scenes was different and it really drove home how different things were in the story.


Matthew: There's not much argument for anything less than a 5. All three elements of a great episode are consistently above average, and at times truly excellent. The writing is the real star, in my book, building to a very exciting and satisfying "cliff hanger" conclusion. I'm not arguing that it's perfect. There are episodes I like better. But it's definitely in the upper decile of TNG shows.

Kevin: This one is not just high quality in terms of production, writing, and acting. It's also gripping to watch. The whole is even more than the sum of its awesome parts and despite having seen it at least a dozen times, I am still transfixed every time I sit down to watch it. This is a 5 for a total of 10. 


Remember, folks, if you'd like to, you can now subscribe to our podcasts via iTunes! But here's the direct download link for you old-fashioned types...

No comments:

Post a Comment