Trektember TNG – #9: The Best of Both Worlds

Star Trek: The Next Generation is thirty years old this month!  To celebrate, Redeeming Culture is assembling the finest crew of culture redeemers from all over the internet to investigate the spiritual harmonies in this cornerstone of science fiction.

For more about Trektember, read our preview post.  Please note that there are minor plot spoilers for this episode below.

Kevin C. Neece, author of The Gospel According to Star Trek, takes us to the brink of assimilation with the legendary season 3 & 4 two-parter, The Best of Both Worlds.

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Recap

The Borg are on the move. As the Enterprise investigates an attack that has left a Federation colony completely destroyed, it becomes clear that the Borg are responsible, and that they intend to make their way to Earth. This time, however, they are not only interested in technology. They are assimilating others into their collective—beginning with Captain Picard.

His transformation into Locutus, the Borg “spokesdrone,” leaves Will Riker as captain, with ambitious Starfleet Borg expert Lt. Commander Shelby as his First Officer. Despite their friction, the two must work together with the Enterprise crew to confront the Borg threat, which is now headed to Earth with all of Picard’s knowledge and experience; and Riker must also confront the possibility not only of losing Picard forever, but of being the one who kills him.

Review

Considered one of the greatest cliffhangers in television history, “The Best of Both Worlds” was the moment Star Trek: The Next Generation came into its own and truly distinguished itself from the Original Series. Star Trek had ventured into two-part episode territory before with TOS’ “The Menagerie” (which was a re-use of footage from the original, unaired pilot, “The Cage”), but never had it left its fans on the edges of their seats for an entire summer.

It was more, though, than the uncertainty and speculation that came amidst the seemingly very real possibility of a series shake-up that made the episode a breakthrough moment for the series. There was the complexity of the drama (Riker’s uncertainty regarding his career choices met with Shelby’s brash determination, and the ominous new villain), a reinvention of the Borg that marked them as a seemingly unstoppable menace, and the high stakes—Picard himself kidnapped, dehumanized, and transformed into an agent of monstrous, unfeeling evil. The story is epic on every level, offering a vision of a Star Trek that could build a deeper mythology, challenge preconceptions of its stories and characters, and truly go where no one had gone before.

Viewed today as a feature-length Blu-ray presentation, the infamous cliffhanger loses its punch and the episode is forced to stand on its own as a single story, no gimmicks. Perhaps surprisingly, it works. The strength of the narrative is rooted in its characters’ personal struggles, the uncertainty of change, and the seemingly insurmountable new odds. The event episode crystalizes into a clear picture of what TNG would become from this point on, no longer merely echoing its predecessor, but forging its own path into the unknown.

Reflections

Humility
It’s a two-way street. Shelby boards the Enterprise, brazenly seeking to become second in command, believing Riker to be on his way out. Not only does she let Riker know of her intentions, she tells him, “You’re in my way.” Never mind that he outranks her. Riker is forced more than once to rein Shelby in, but is also shaken by her confidence and questions whether he has lost the drive and ambition that had characterized his career as a younger officer.

Shelby grudgingly takes his notes and ultimately learns to respect his authority, but Riker also has to learn to not hold his hurt pride against her and to trust her expertise—especially where the Borg are concerned. The pair begin to work together quite well as they learn to set their egos aside and cooperate, each gaining respect for the other’s approach, different as it may be.

Christians love to talk about humility. But we often seem far too focused on how others should be showing it and far less interested in showing it ourselves. Humility sounds like such an awful word. It reminds us of “humiliation.” But it really just means respecting other people and not assuming our way is always the right way. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul writes, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

As the dynamic between Shelby and Riker demonstrates, humility doesn’t look like defeat or abject capitulation. It means shaving the sharp edges off our approach and learning to treat others as fellow travelers to be helped and learned from, not as combatants to be fought and dominated.

Humanity
This is the episode where the Borg shift gears. Sure, assimilation was probably an invention for this story, but we can retcon it to say this was their plan all along. In any case, this is when the Borg take on their true menacing power as cybernetic zombies, subsuming sentient beings into their collective race of mindless slaves. This is the threat the Borg now bring—a fate worse than death. “If he had died,” Guinan tells Riker, “it would be easier. But he didn’t. They took him from us a piece at a time.”

What is she referring to here? A piece at a time? It seems as though the Borg took him all at once. They kidnapped him.

But that was just the first piece.

They took him away physically. There was a chance to get him back. But he was trapped. Inaccessible. One of them. It was unclear exactly what was happening.

Then the main viewer blinked on, and from the depths of the Borg cube emerged Locutus, a new personality associated with a familiar, now partially obscured face. Picard’s voice now spoke with their voice, asserted their will, and undermined the intimate bond between captain and crew.

“The knowledge and experience of the human Picard is part of us now,” Locutus declares after the Enterprise’s failed attempt to fire on the Borg ship with the main deflector. “It has prepared us for all possible courses of action. Your resistance is hopeless, Number One.” Punctuating his sentence with a stinging use of Picard’s favorite nickname for Riker, Locutus demonstrates that all of Picard’s knowledge, even the most intimate, may now be used as a weapon and the Borg will strike at the heart. This is the “piece at a time” taking to which Guinan refers body and soul.

The Borg are fearsome, not because they destroy us utterly, but because they don’t.

Here, “The Best of Both Worlds” reaffirms something that has always been a core truth of Star Trek: We are more than our mere DNA. The Borg are fearsome, not because they destroy us utterly, but because they don’t. Instead, they draw out of us our essential humanity, drain us of what it means to be who we are, and enslave us to their will; even using our own knowledge against the ones we love. A drone may retain the biological aspects of a human being, but no longer retains essential humanity. Knowledge, experience, wisdom—these are all mined for use. The biological is totally subordinated to the technological, and goodness is subsumed into the identity of evil. This affirms a biblical truth that our being is about more than our material selves. To echo Jesus’ words, the Borg may gain the whole world—entire worlds, in fact—but those who become Borg lose their souls.

Hands
During the process of extracting Picard from the Borg, Data is attempting to directly access the Borg collective consciousness in order to stop them destroying Earth, using something of the Borg’s own data mining techniques against them. At one point, Locutus begins to move, clearly trying to attack Data and escape. Data stops Locutus’ Borg arm with his free hand and, using his formidable android strength, overpowers it and detaches the tools from its end, rendering it powerless. It is interesting to note that only the Borg arm attacks. Picard’s organic, human arm remains at his side. The mechanism is attacking the mechanical man.

Then, as Data gains access, Picard’s human arm reaches out. In a movement similar to the one Data used to stop the Borg arm, he grasps Data’s arm from above, pulling it into a vertical position. Rather than free his arm so he can continue to use his hand, Data allows Picard to hold it in place. Presumably, this is because Data sees the gesture for what it is—not an attack, but the first inklings of a connection, Picard’s humanity reaching out to his friend.

The hand that overpowers Locutus with phenomenal strength is the hand that allows Picard to reach out with gentleness.

Data, of course, outwardly appears to be human, but is physically technological in his composition. Yet, his programming allows him to express a kind of humanity that exists as something more than the facts of his mechanical construction. So, with one hand, Locutus attacks as a machine against a machine. With the other, Picard reaches out as a human being to a friend. One hand mechanical, one organic. One attacking, one gentle, but with Data, it’s the same hand. The hand that overpowers Locutus with phenomenal strength is the hand that allows Picard to reach out with gentleness.

Data represents a balance, wherein his “soul,” if you will, is guiding the growth and development of his being. Technological though he may be, he strives for a kind of humanity that exists beyond the bounds of the physical. Locutus and the Borg, on the other hand, represent imbalance. Technology is completely out of control, crushing all growth and development except that which furthers their goal of complete domination. They privilege the synthetic over the organic, but still see the organic as useful to their ends. The soul, however, is to be discarded. It is useless. And their unrelenting pursuit of an inhuman “perfection” demonstrates that reality.

In the story of “The Best of Both Worlds,” then, we see an illustration of not only the importance of the soul as our essential humanity, but of its resilience despite all the forces that come against it. It therefore represents a hope that, while our hands may do both evil and good and our actions may either affirm or deny our own souls, we are ultimately in the hands of the One who made us; and from his grip we can never fall.

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Thanks for reading Trektember on Redeeming Culture. Tomorrow Ryan will examine the fallout from Picard’s assimilation with the very next episode: Family. See you then.

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Kevin C. Neece is the author of The Gospel According to Star Trek series and a speaker on media, the arts, and pop culture from a Christian worldview perspective.

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6 thoughts on “Trektember TNG – #9: The Best of Both Worlds

    • Excellent analysis, as ever, Kevin! I like all the spiritual themes you highlighted, and would add another: vocation. It can be a struggle, as Riker finds out, to discern who we are and what we’re meant to be doing with our lives. Praise God that God is faithful to us through it all – and, I believe, opens up more than one possibility consistent with our fundamental vocation of loving and serving God and neighbor.

      • Well said, Mike! I heartily agree. I had to hold myself back on this one and still ended up with three reflections! The Riker story probably has as much to say as the Picard story. Thanks for sharing that thought and for your kind words regarding the piece. 🙂

  1. Excellent point, Mike! In that light, vocation, the perspective in this episode turns out to be a pretty nuanced one. Some people only see affirmation or success from building, growing, or moving up. It’s a Man’s Wisdom thing, not that those are markers at all, but that they’re the only ones, and that something is wrong if a person is not constantly rising. This is the Federation’s position on Riker, that he’s stagnant, and only for that reason. But being the Captain cannot be everyone’s vocation. Not enough of those are needed in the universe. God would know this, and would design people who will love their particular activities: security, engineering, piloting and what have you. Some cinematographers, editors, actors and writers move into directing, but many of them simply love cameras, compiling stories and moments, performance, or the written word. They have found their best places. Someone needs to be an excellent First Officer, and for Riker, that may be the calling he loves simply because he was made for it.

    I realize that the issue arose in the story because there were light talks of Stewart possibly not coming back, and that the resolution mostly has to do with the need for character stasis in most series – once Stewart stays, Riker can’t be promoted and stay in the show – but Michael Piller still had to write in the narrative realities to make those elements make sense, and he handled the issue well.

    • I quite agree, David! To me, Riker is an excellent example of finding one’s calling by serving another. In essence, he has subordinated his ambition to his (let’s be honest) love for Picard. He stays because this crew is his family, this ship is his home, and this captain is his father figure and mentor. His struggle in this episode is to find the dignity in his role, first by learning that he can indeed take command – succeeding Picard, of all people – and then learning that he belongs where he is by having Picard restored to him. An interesting moment of note is when the destruction at Wolf 359 is discovered. Among the ships Shelby identifies is the Melbourne, the very ship of which Riker was offered command. Staying put even saved his life.

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