Apologies, wrestling fans, but today we’re going to look back at something different. I’m in the midst of polishing up a book about Star Trek: Enterprise and need extra time, so I figured instead of taking the week off, I’d give you this: my non-spoiler reviews of my two favorite episodes from each “second-wave” Star Trek show. That covers The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. (Note: I’m going to cheat and count two-parters as one episode.)
Star Trek: The Next Generation
“The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II”
The Borg invade Federation space.
Air dates: June 18 & September 24, 1990
Written by Michael Piller
Directed by Cliff Bole
Nielsen rating: 10.1 & 12.3
If the original Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever” is the Citizen Kane of the Star Trek universe, that one episode from long ago that critics continue to praise, then “The Best of Both Worlds” is Star Wars, a dazzling game-changer with universal appeal that remains one of the most memorable episodes in Star Trek television history. Begun almost in secret by Michael Piller (with no input from the rest of the writing staff, save Ira Behr), this sequel to “Q Who” reinvents the Borg as the people-assimilating zombies they’d become famous for and gives them one of the franchise’s most famous catchphrases, “Resistance is futile”— a defining expression only surpassed in Star Trek lore by the Vulcans’ “live long and prosper.”
The end result rivals the Star Trek feature films, eclipsing Star Trek V (1989) in popularity by such a large margin that it turned “little brother The Next Generation” into the coolest Trek on the planet and heir-apparent to the feature film throne.
But let’s back up a bit, shall we?
At its heart, “Best of Both Worlds, Part I” is a Will Riker episode. And it’s obvious from the opening teaser, when he finds a crater where there once was a colony, that this isn’t going to be just another day at the office. But then, even before Riker has a chance to knock the dust off his boots back on the Enterprise, a hotshot lieutenant commander comes on board and basically starts doing his job just as Picard all but shoves Riker out the door as he says, “You know, the Enterprise will get along just fine without you.”
As all this is going on, the Borg are content to skirt the edges of the story, with the only Borg of note debuting at the end of “Part I” and incarnated by a Next Generation regular. That makes what’s usually cited as the definitive Borg episode one that’s really all about the Enterprise crew, with guest star Elizabeth Dennehy and the core cast creating their own internal drama.
Jonathan Frakes, as Riker, serves as the lynchpin, painting the portrait of a sympathetic everyman struggling with personal and professional decisions while Lieutenant Commander Shelby, with no hesitancy in her personality, makes the guy look like he’s standing still. Dennehy, as Shelby, provides the ying to Frakes’s yang, delivering her dialogue with a self-assuredness and professionalism that belies her later admission that she knew so little about the show that her dialogue might as well have been a foreign language. Her trick is to give Shelby’s attitude an edge that somehow magnifies the bitchiness of her lines. There’s a superficial quality to it, as if Shelby’s afraid to let anyone get close—an opposite to Riker, who speaks with a welcome tone that invites others into his world. Putting the two personalities together is a recipe for fireworks, but much of it plays out beneath the surface through subtext. And boiled down to essentials, what it all comes down to isn’t Riker versus Shelby anyway—it’s about Riker versus Riker, with Shelby providing a mirror to help Riker sort out who he is and what he is to become. The hanging question throughout “Part I” is whether or not Number One can make the big decision, and the episode boldly answers it with the final line, a moment nearly every aspect of the story is building toward.
For “Part II,” the producers give us a conclusion with the same writer, director, and music composer. The result is a continuity that allows “Part I” and “Part II” to go together like a seamless whole, belying the fact that Michael Piller wrote the first part with absolutely no idea what the second would be about.
Beginning with the dissipation of the tension built up by “Part I”—a necessary evil due to the nature of the cliffhanger—Piller again uses Riker as his centerpiece and rebuilds the narrative into a counterpunch that plays against expectations. This time, the Borg is more prevalent, with some marvelous acting by its new spokesperson, though almost all the scenes take place on the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Shelby is pushed into the background, offering no significant contributions, and the big battle between the Borg and the Federation is conveniently skipped, with the Enterprise late for the party, allowing the series to simply show the aftermath. (Parts of the battle are later shown in the Deep Space Nine pilot.)
But be that as it may, “Part II” still packs a wallop and is one of The Next Generation’s finest hours, again using the whole ensemble and striking the perfect balance between character-driven scenes and action sequences. We might miss the big battle, but an emotional “graveyard scene” afterward is one of “Best of Both Worlds” most memorable moments. And when the episode reaches its climax, it pulls a rabbit out of its hat to finally bring its story to a satisfying conclusion and make the whole two-parter the standard by which all others are judged.
“The Inner Light”
Touched by an alien probe, Captain Picard suddenly finds himself living the life of another man.
Air date: June 1, 1992
Teleplay by Morgan Gendel & Peter Allan Fields
Story by Morgan Gendel
Directed by Peter Lauritson
Nielsen rating: 11.1
Conceived by an outside writer and overseen by a rookie director, The Next Generation’s magnum opus is basically Captain Picard in a Quantum Leap-like story with little conflict, no villains, and no technobabble; just the poor guy learning to play a flute while adapting to an adopted culture. And Stewart, giving one of the finest performances of his career, works with a guest cast to make it more compelling than any mind-bending space and time tale Star Trek has ever come up with.
Shot with simplicity on indoor stage sets—with lighting used when necessary to create an exterior look—the episode covers about thirty years whilst giving Picard a taste of “the road-not taken.” He must create a new life for himself as Kamin, a friendly, small-town craftsman with a growing family. Joining Stewart, a capable group of guest stars work hard to assist him. Richard Riehle, who would later turn up for episodes of Voyager and Enterprise, plays a good friend while Jennifer Nash and Patrick Stewart’s own son, Daniel, play Kamin’s offspring. But it’s Margot Rose and Patrick Stewart who form the heart of the story, with Rose playing a patient wife who loves her husband unconditionally while Stewart plays his character’s gradual acceptance and appreciation for her so powerfully, the audience can’t help but be moved by Eline and Kamin’s relationship.
There’s also a B story with the usual characters attempting to resuscitate an unconscious Picard on the bridge; though this merely serves as a frame for Picard’s fantasy life.
With an episode such as this, just about everyone involved deserves praise. But the make-up department, expertly aging Stewart and the villagers as the story progresses, deserves special mention for selling the idea that many years pass between each act, and composer Jay Chattaway provides the episode with such a gorgeous musical plot point, he more than earns his pay as well.
Truly a must see for anyone, Star Trek fan or not, “The Inner Light” should have won Patrick Stewart an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama. (He wasn’t even nominated, though the episode itself was nominated for an Emmy for make-up and went on to win the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.) Regardless, “The Inner Light,” with its mixture or beauty, hope, and heartbreak, remains the measuring stick by which all other The Next Generation episodes are judged.
For reviews of every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, you can buy my book at Amazon. (And here’s the link if you’re in Canada.)
My wife and me with the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation
Deep Space Nine
An elderly Jake Sisko recounts a freak accident which caused his father to become lost in time.
Air date: October 9, 1995
Written by Michael Taylor
Directed by David Livingston
TV rating: 6.9
“The Visitor” is to Deep Space Nine what “The Inner Light” is to The Next Generation—that special episode with so much universal appeal that it outshines virtually everything else, including the more expensive and ambitious two-parters, with its simplistic beauty. It was the first Deep Space Nine episode to be nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and it topped a 1996 TV Guide list ranking the best Star Trek episodes of all time.
A Ben/Jake Sisko story (polished by an uncredited René Echevarria), “The Visitor” is a “love through the ages” tale that eschews romance to instead explore the love between a father and a son. For those of us who grew up tossing around a ball with Dad in the backyard, it’s especially meaningful, but what really makes it unique is its imaginative structure. Like some of the episodes of the 1980s Twilight Zone series, instead of ending with a twist, it begins with one. Opening with an elderly Jake Sisko at the end of his life, the plot unfolds like a chess game in its late stages working its way backwards toward the beginning, a narrative tool that was obviously developed organically from the story, as no writer would sit down and spontaneously invent it at the beginning of the process. It’s a daring choice, as it puts the weight of the episode on the shoulders of a guest star and asks him to carry the show, but it pays off. Tony Todd, beginning the episode in old age make-up, serves as a pinch hitter for Cirroc Lofton, taking over the part of Jake for much of the episode, and hits a grand slam. Todd, of course, had already secured himself free tickets to Star Trek conventions for life for his work as Worf’s younger brother, Kurn. But his work as an older Jake Sisko here is even better. Sharing the stage with him as “the visitor” is Rachel Robinson, daughter of Andrew Robinson (Garak). While her understated performance is far less memorable than what her father brings to the show, it’s the perfect complement to Todd’s charismatic storytelling, giving the two futuristic characters a chemistry that reverberates throughout each scene they’re in.
And then there are Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton. Brooks, playing a part reminiscent of Kirk in the “The Tholian Web,” does the most with the least; his character appears infrequently, arguably becoming the titular character, yet Brooks plays him with such emotion, his love for his son spills over into scenes he’s not even in. Lofton, meanwhile, might be overshadowed as Jake Sisko by Todd, yet gives perhaps his greatest performance of the series.
Credit must also be given to the set decorators, make-up, and wardrobe teams who effectively create the illusion that we’ve broken the bonds of Star Trek’s present and are catching a glimpse of a possible future. (Sadly, only the make-up team’s work would go on to be nominated for an Emmy.) And with all the elements working together, they produce a synergy that can’t be described in a recap or review. “The Visitor” is a must see, an episode that transcends Deep Space Nine and Star Trek, entertaining and moving nearly anyone who gives it a chance to do so.
Me, hanging out with René Auberjonois, who played Odo on Deep Space Nine
“In the Pale Moonlight”
Sisko enlists Garak’s help to persuade the Romulans to help the Federation in the war against the Dominion.
Air date: April 13, 1998
Teleplay by Michael Taylor
Story by Peter Allan Fields
Directed by Victor Lobl
Nielsen rating: 4.8
“Moonlight” takes Sisko where no Star Trek leading man has gone before, ultimately leaving Star Trek’s established ideals behind. Teaming up with Garak, circumstances lead Sisko down a path where each questionable decision he makes digs himself into a deeper hole until he’s forced to come out the opposite end. And Avery Brooks uses the opportunity to give one of his finest performances of the series.
The savvy script, actually written by Ron Moore and based on a draft by Michael Taylor, is another offering with many things happening offscreen, reported to Sisko, making the story seem bigger than what was actually shot and simultaneously making an inexpensive show seem more luxurious than it really is. Add to this that some of these reports are coming from Garak, and the plot becomes even more complex. Can we really believe Garak’s claims, or is he making some of them up to get Sisko to go along with his plan? Heck, knowing Garak, he might not even have the friends on Cardassia he claims to at the beginning and is simply manipulating Sisko from the outset.
Over the years, this episode has led to a lot of discussion about where the idea of “the ends justifying the means” fits into Star Trek’s idealistic universe and what Gene Roddenberry would think of it. But such arguments miss the real point. The episode doesn’t defend immoral decisions “for the greater good.” It doesn’t try to say the rules of a dystopian universe are different from the rules of utopia. What it does is explore these ideas to challenge the preconceived beliefs of Sisko and the audience before leaving the ultimate judgment of Sisko and his decisions up to the viewer. It’s not about what Gene thinks of it, it’s about what we think.
It’s noteworthy that the episode was originally conceived as a Jake episode, with the framing device being about his attempts to discover what his father and Garak are up to. Switching the frame to an insider’s perspective serves the story better, turning a mystery episode into a more personal “What am I doing?” episode that forces Sisko to deal with the consequences of his decisions on camera. At the same time, this doesn’t negate the Jake story idea. Having the young man discover a clue that leads him to investigate what happened in “Moonlight” would make for a really fun sequel—more fun, in fact, than the original Jake idea, because we would already know exactly what he’s stumbled onto and know why his father wants to stonewall the investigation. As it happens, however, Deep Space Nine did not pursue this story, leaving a good idea out there for a Star Trek novel.
Regardless, “Moonlight” represents one of the finest hours of Deep Space Nine, being a pivotal part of the war arc that spans Season Six while also remaining an episode that can be enjoyed on its own, requiring no other episodes to understand and appreciate the story. As a top notch offering, it’s no fake.
For reviews of every Deep Space Nine episode, you can buy my book at Amazon. (And here’s the link if you’re in Canada.)
“Before and After”
On her deathbed, Kes begins living her life backwards.
Air date: April 9, 1997
Written by Kenneth Biller
Directed by Allan Kroeker
Nielsen rating: 4.5
This high concept Kes story begins six years after the previous episode. Kes wakes up on her deathbed with no memories before beginning to process what’s going on while she continually moves backwards in time. It’s like a literary short story and the perfect episode for someone who doesn’t regularly watch Voyager because it’s completely self-contained, requiring no knowledge of the series or even Star Trek at large to understand it.
Jennifer Lien (Kes), beginning the episode as an elderly grandmother before getting younger throughout the hour, delivers several different stages of her character that are each more interesting than the Kes we regularly know. (Seriously, if writers were to decide to have her stay a grandma for the rest of the series, it would probably be an improvement.) She even gets a new hairstyle designed to hide her ears and save the actress time in the make-up chair (which she keeps for the remainder of the season).
Unfortunately, with Kes’s short lifespan allowing the episode to explore a lifetime of events inside just a few years, there’s no need for the show to attempt any significant make-up or costume changes for anyone besides the main character…which saves money but robs the episode of the scope and originality presented in The Next Generation’s “All Good Things” and Deep Space Nine’s “The Visitor.” And the story itself begins to lose a little momentum about halfway through as the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together and the whole thing becomes more of a standard Voyager plot. But writer Ken Biller deserves credit for thinking outside the box and finding an area of turf, inspired by Martin Amis’s 1991 novel, Time’s Arrow, that finally gives Kes an important story, and Jennifer Lien deserves praise for expertly executing the game plan.
Season Four’s “Year of Hell” would borrow several elements of this episode and expand on them in a sequel of sorts.
Me, visiting the Captain Janeway statue in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana
“Year of Hell, Parts I & II”
When aliens tinker with the timeline in an attempt to restore their empire, Voyager suffers the effects.
Air date: November 5 & 12, 1997
Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
Directed by Allan Kroeker & Mike Vejar
Nielsen rating: 4.7 & 5.2
Braga and Menosky craft a bold plot into this long-form ensemble piece with a story that takes place over the course of a year. (Today a show would take such a concept and run with it for a whole season.) The key to what makes it special is the creative use of time as an experimental weapon. Aliens are tinkering with the past in an attempt to shape the present more to their liking, but they can’t seem to get it quite right, turning their butterfly effect experiments into more of a deviant artform than a scientific achievement. And it’s especially fascinating to reflect upon how Season Three’s “Before and After,” which starts in the future before going back in time, works with this episode as an abstract prequel or sequel, depending on your view of timespace.
For the show’s lighting and design teams, “Year of Hell” offers an opportunity to create a seemingly new show, with dark and gritty visuals giving the Voyager new looks that go even further than the original Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” and The Next Generation’s “Yesterdays’ Enterprise.” (Janeway even breaks out a new hairstyle.) Meanwhile, “Part I” gives the crew quite a journey, taking us from a beginning in which The Doctor brags about the crew’s unity to a middle where Chakotay floats the idea of breaking up the family, to a finale where it actually happens. It’s all played brilliantly and poignantly, with tragedies adding up throughout the hour that change how the crew thinks and behaves while altering the nature of the show (if only for a little while).
Kurtwood Smith, after previously appearing as the Federation president in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Odo’s counterpart in Deep Space Nine’s dystopian thriller, “Things Past,” plays Annorax, the alien with the keys to a Death Star-like time weapon. A combination of arrogant and vulnerable, the character provides the episode with its only constant, setting up a second part in which we hope for his defeat.
The concluding episode is surprisingly quieter than the first, filled with conversations which, while less noisy than bombast and battles, are still compelling, with some internal conflicts lacing the discussions as Voyager’s usual command structure and rules are tossed out the window. Meanwhile, Kurtwood Smith gets even more time to flesh out his time-meddling bad guy, with Chakotay and Paris on board his ship asking the tough questions. “I’ve been studying your previous incursions,” Chakotay says. “No matter how close you get to restoring the timeline, one component is always missing: Kyana Prime. Who was on that colony? Who did you lose?” This, of course, cuts to the heart of the matter: Annorax has made a mistake, and his attempts to undo it by further tinkering with time only dig him and everyone else into a deeper hole. It’s like he’s trying to solve a Rubik’s cube without the proper expertise. The more he tries to move pieces around to solve one side, the more he inadvertently moves pieces out of position on the other sides.
Janeway, meanwhile, forms an alternate plan to end this all, even if it means going down with the ship by herself. Her part in the episode is a study of obsession, with the captain simply unwilling to take no for an answer. Nonetheless, she helps give us a satisfying conclusion to another successful two-parter and even includes a poignant coda that makes it all the more worthwhile to watch.
For reviews of every Voyager episode, you can buy my book at Amazon. (And here’s the link if you’re in Canada.)
“Shockwave, Part I & II”
Captain Archer learns that the Suliban are trying to sabotage Enterprise’s mission.
Air date: May 22 & 18 September , 2002
Written by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga
Directed by Allan Kroeker
Nielsen rating: 3.3 & 3.2
This two-parter gives us the evil Suliban and a dash of time tinkering for this thrilling follow-up to “Cold Front” where the plot alternates between everything going wrong and everything going right while including one of Star Trek’s most shocking cliffhangers.
With John Fleck returning as Silik the genetically enhanced Suliban and Matt Winston returning as Daniels the temporal agent, “Shockwave” feels like a melding of Dr. Who and The X Files. (Like Dr. Who, there are a lot of moving parts spanning four dimensions, and like The X-Files, there’s a lot going on in the periphery.) Within this framework, there’s much to digest. The story opens with a disaster costing thousands of lives, the apparent result of Reed’s negligence. That leads to Reed trying to clear his name while Archer deals with the fallout of the accident—which happened whether it was Reed’s fault or not—as Enterprise is recalled and, in a near-meta comment, has its mission cancelled. (“From what the Admiral tells me,” Archer says, “Ambassador Soval will use this to convince Starfleet that we need another ten or twenty years before we try this again.”) And while all this would seem to be enough to serve as the foundation for an intriguing episode, the real story is hidden beneath the surface, with Archer learning the truth from an outside source and becoming the central figure from there on out for the remainder of “Part I.”
“Part II,” written and directed by the same people who gave us “Part I,” provides a satisfactory conclusion that hits all its marks, though it eschews any ambition to do anything more, featuring two stories that essentially run in place. The A story is mostly set aboard Enterprise, and the B story features Captain Archer and Daniels in the far future. Neither is very original (apart from the view of a post-apocalyptic 31st century), but both are serviceable, with the effort by the crew of Enterprise to retake the ship proving to be its strongest suit. (Sadly, Archer’s most significant contribution to the episode seems to be finding an old spoon.)
Eventually, “Part II” winds its way to a conclusion that predictably returns the show to its status quo, though it also includes a coda that gives us some character growth.
An arctic dig uncovers several ancient cybernetic beings that revive and steal a spaceship.
Air date: May 7, 2003
Written by Mike Sussman & Phyllis Strong
Directed by David Livingston
Nielsen rating: 2.7
Enterprise sneaks in a Borg episode that cleverly serves as both a sequel to Star Trek: First Contact and a prequel to The Next Generation’s encounters with the species in the 24th century—while simultaneously playing the story straight, as if the aliens really are mysterious beings we’re meeting for the first time. The latter is the master stroke that helps recapture the magic of the Borg’s introduction in TNG’s “Q Who,” though this time most viewers get to watch from a different perspective, knowing the Borg as well as they know Enterprise’s crew.
Of course, introducing the Borg on Enterprise at all is a gutsy call that risks making the show appear desperate amidst declining ratings and forces the episode to match the lofty expectations established by previous Borg appearances, with fans ready to throw things at the television screen if they feel even remotely let down. Fortunately, the writers and producers are savvy enough to avoid the issues that plagued Season One’s “Acquisition” (the Ferengi episode no one wanted) and turn this one into a thriller, with plenty of action tucked inside some diverse settings, backed by a tight narrative and Brian Tyler’s cinematic score. (In fact, Tyler went on to score many hit movies, including Iron Man 3, Now You See Me, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and half a dozen Fast & Furious films.) Inside this playground, “Regeneration” has a little bit of everything, from early scenes set in Arctic Circle that pay homage to The Thing, to later scenes set aboard Enterprise and a freighter that are reminiscent of Star Trek:First Contact and “Q Who”. There’s even the show’s first loss of crewmembers, with Scott Bakula expertly playing Archer’s painful decision to let them go.
In the end, it’s not only worthy of making most lists of “essential Borg episodes” but stands out as one of Enterprise’s best offerings.
That’s all for this week! Sorry if I missed your favorite episode. I did have to make some difficult choices.
Me and my wife with William Shatner