Should Picard have died in “Best of Both Worlds”?
I have a local station, WADL, that on Saturday and Sunday nights airs Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. In order. And I’ve come to really enjoy watching both series on those nights. I know there are ways to watch these shows at my convenience, but there’s just something more fun about knowing that while I’m watching “City on the Edge of Forever”, there are other fans watching it at the same time as me.
A few weeks back, the station aired the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds”, which got me to thinking about rumors I had heard about the episode. According to some sources, Patrick Stewart was in contract negotiations between seasons, and it was possible he might not have come back, and Part II would have been his last episode, and Captain Picard would have been killed off or otherwise written out of the series. And that got me to thinking.
Would the Star Trek franchise have been better off without him?
Before you go gathering together torches and an effigy with my face on it, hear me out. While I’ll admit I’m a guy who thinks Kirk was the better captain, I do like Picard, and I think Patrick Stewart is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. What I’m suggesting, however, is that if Picard had been written out of the show, maybe it would have been healthier for the movies that followed and the franchise as a whole. I’ll explain, but first let me say this: I understand why Stewart was kept on. Picard was and is a popular character, and producers tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to making major changes to a show; the philosophy generally followed is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
With that said, let me take you back to “Best of Both Worlds, Pts. I and II”. Picard has been assimilated by the Borg, and has been used to cut a swathe of destruction through forty Starfleet vessels at Wolf 359. In Sector 001, local defenses are likewise disposed of, and it’s only through the efforts of Captain Riker and the Enterprise crew that Picard is rescued and the Borg vessel destroyed. Earth is saved, Picard is cured, and by episode’s end, Jean-Luc is once more in command and Riker resumes his position as first officer. And despite her playing a pivotal role in this groundbreaking two-parter, Lt. Commander Shelby’s fate is unknown, as she’s never, ever mentioned in the series again.
Let’s look at those facts again (and I mean the facts we knew of at the time of the episode, not anything revealed later in the Deep Space Nine pilot): Picard was essentially used as a weapon to kill thousands of his fellow Starfleet personnel. From the way things are presented, there appear to be no survivors, just a graveyard of shattered vessels containing numerous corpses. Worse, it’s entirely possible the Borg scooped up any survivors along the way for assimilation, their very souls raped by the Collective before experiencing the sweet release of death when the Enterprise eventually destroys the Borg cube.
And yet, there’s not even the slightest doubt that Jean-Luc Picard is fit for command after an ordeal like this? A man plugged into an alien hive mind, whose intellect was probed and mined for key military data, who was indirectly responsible for weakening the Federation and killing thousands, is both legally and medically cleared to return to duty right away?
Setting aside the questionable wisdom of putting this man back in command, let’s look at what’s more likely to have happened in this scenario. Debriefing would take months, if not years. He was a member of the Borg Collective, so what might he know? Furthermore, Picard is to anyone’s knowledge the first person to be rescued from the Collective; medically, they might be able to better understand how to free others. There’s no way he’s immediately leaving Earth, not when he’s such a valuable intelligence asset.
And now let’s turn our attention to Riker. The man was promoted; he got to sit in the Big Chair. He spearheaded the salvation of planet Earth. In the wake of forty ships destroyed at Wolf 359 and Starfleet’s subsequent buildup, would his superiors simply let him slip back into the XO position? Would Picard? Would Shelby, who proved herself an excellent first officer?
We saw in “Best of Both Worlds” that Riker is more than ready to be captain. Why is he still an XO by the end of the episode? There’s no logical reason for him to stay in the position. Oh sure, you could argue he wants the Enterprise or no ship at all, but he doesn’t really get to make that call. If he doesn’t want a command, then Starfleet should ground him and put Shelby in the Enterprise’s XO position. I don’t get to pull that sort of bullshit on my boss, why does Riker? His defiance is ridiculous. Starfleet allowing him to get away with it is more so.
So Picard shouldn’t be captain, and Riker shouldn’t be first officer, and Shelby shouldn’t be walking off into the sunset deprived of the position she’s rightfully due. While the ending of “Best of Both Worlds” gives you warm, fuzzy feelings, it’s full of so many plot holes that the second part drags down the first. We go from a buildup where the status quo might be changed Forever! to one where ultimately there are no consequences whatsoever. I’m serious. In the follow up episode “Family”, Picard goes home, has a good cry, and then he’s just… fine.
And in the long run, this cripples the franchise.
“Best of Both Worlds” establishes the precedent that nothing ever changes. Well, okay, Wesley finally leaves, but was anyone sorry to see him go? And they had already hinted as early as season one that young Crusher was on his way out to join Starfleet eventually. Other than Wes’ departure, the main cast stays the same, and stays in their respective positions, never talking about things like career advancement or promotions. Starfleet never seems to pressure anyone to take on new assignments; everyone is quite comfortable where they are. The only person who gets promoted is Deanna Troi, who then somehow outranks Data, the super-intelligent android who himself actually commanded a vessel in combat!
These problems plague the show throughout the rest of its run, and continue on through the movies. And yes, I’m well aware of Worf’s transfer to Deep Space Nine. But remember what I said about producers being hesitant to change the status quo, doing so only when absolutely necessary? Michael Dorn never would have joined the cast of DS9 had the show been doing well in the ratings. He was there to rope in all the TNG fans.
“Best of Both Worlds” set the tone of the show’s cast remaining static to a point that would eventually stretch credulity. In an environment where the Borg are an omnipresent threat, logic would suggest Starfleet would want senior personnel to take on new assignments, so as to spread that knowledge around in positions of responsibility. Still later, in the time of Insurrection, the Dominion war is raging, and rather than Starfleet attempting to transfer experienced officers to ships crewed with undoubtedly green recruits, everyone is (once again) still together on the Enterprise. And what is this vessel, one of Starfleet’s most powerful starships, being used for?
Hosting parties. There’s a war on, and men and women are dying, dammit! This is no time for idle pursuits.
Where was I? Oh, right, Insurrection. Worf shows up, because rather than spend leave with his parents or his son Alexander, he would much rather hang out with his old shipmates. What a dick.
Hey, remember that touching DS9 finale, “What You Leave Behind”, where Worf is set to move on to bigger and better things? He’s named Federation ambassador to the Klingons, a post of great importance. But screw that. In Nemesis, he’s right back to answering Picard’s phone calls. How many DS9 fans do you think that pissed off? Between this and no DS9 characters showing up at all in First Contact, it was like they were relegated to second-class fan status.
And Riker’s situation is even worse; the ambitious young officer from season one has become a yes man content to play second banana for fifteen years [!] until finally getting command of the Titan. If Starfleet wasn’t willing to put this guy in command of a starship during a war, why would they give him the Big Chair during the peace? That’s yet another reason why Nemesis sucks more than Star Trek V.
Well, maybe not. But it’s close!
Seasons one and two of TNG get a lot of flak, and most of it is deserved. But in the episode “The Arsenal of Freedom”, we had a young Lt. La Forge take command of the Enterprise and pretty much save the day. What happened to that guy, that young officer so full of promise?
When The Next Generation was conceived, one of the biggest fears of the producers were comparisons between the new characters and the TOS characters. Just look at how many Kirk vs. Picard arguments have raged over the decades. And so there was a concerted effort to make sure there were virtually no overlaps between old roles and new. Communications officer? Nope, now the tactical officer handles calls. Science officer? Naw, now we’ve got a thing called “Ops”. Captain? We’ve got one of those, and an XO besides. There was so much effort to eliminate any possibility of side-by-side comparisons that I was shocked Starfleet hadn’t abolished the role of captain altogether and just had ships run by committee.
But then a problem occurred when everyone realized how stupid it was that the Chief Engineer wasn’t a member of the regular cast. There were no less than four chiefs of Engineering on the Enterprise during season one, raising the question of just why this position had such high turnover.
So eventually, someone decided to take a character off the overcrowded bridge, and all of La Forge’s character development was flushed.
Sure, Geordi received two promotions in two years, which is a pretty impressive feat. But season one’s La Forge is nothing at all like season three’s; there’s no ambition beyond being Chief Engineer. And sure, it’s an awesome job with considerable prestige. But what happened to that guy who sat so proudly in the captain’s chair in an early episode? We never saw him again. Except in an imaginary future.
I realize this seems like a bit of a tangent, but it goes to the mindset of the show’s producers. There was no long term planning, not when the series started, and not between seasons three and four when Stewart was going through contract negotiations (there are conflicting stories about this. Stewart said he had signed a six-year deal, while Jonathan Frakes says otherwise. Or it could be Stewart had an option to opt out after three years, or he was renegotiating in light of the show’s unexpected success). It seems they were content to plan things out a handful of episodes at a time and hope for the best, and you should just be grateful you’re getting a new Star Trek show at all. Don’t take risks, don’t make waves, don’t generate any controversy. And long-term storytelling? That’s risky.
I lay a lot of the blame on Gene Roddenberry, of course. He’s to Star Trek fans what Lucas is to Star Wars fans, in that he’s the architect of this great creation, and at the same time, he was the guy holding the can of gasoline and a box of matches and threatening to burn it all down. In the old days, Roddenberry had producers like Gene L. Coon and Fred Freiberger around to make sure things didn’t get out of hand (and I know Freiberger is much maligned for producing the original series’ “turd season”, but without Fred, there probably wouldn’t have been a third season at all, since Gene was phoning it in).
But beyond that, I think you can trace this problem to Rodenberry firing Gates McFadden at the end of season one. No, not because I’m a huge Dr. Crusher fan; no offense intended towards Ms. McFadden, but I found her character to be boring. What happened was Dr. Pulaski didn’t catch on with the fans (why, I don’t know. The show had no conflict before she showed up, and her being on hand to provide it was refreshing), and Gene didn’t take well to the criticism. I attended a Star Trek convention during that time, and according to the host, Roddenberry said in response to people’s dissatisfaction with Pulaski, “I don’t make Star Trek for the fans; I make it for me.” Few men have a larger ego.
Fan backlash was pretty ugly, and Rodenberry caved to pressure and brought Dr. Crusher back. This entire incident only bolstered the studio’s desire to play things safe; to them, it bore out the value of the policy of fan appeasement. Trust me; Gates McFadden’s presence or absence on the show during subsequent seasons would not have swayed ratings one way or another. Pulaski was sadly (in my opinion, anyway) booted and Crusher was returned, and the dozen or so Dr. Crusher fans rejoiced.
Would Patrick Stewart leaving the show have had that dramatic of an impact? Good question. TNG had much more of an ensemble cast than its predecessor; Worf, Data, and Riker all had strong followings. Without Stewart there, perhaps we would have seen a greater push to give the other characters more to do?
One thing TNG did right was to spread the love a little bit, and give various cast members opportunities to shine. Worf had “Heart of Glory”, Geordi had “Booby Trap”, Troi had “Face of the Enemy”, and Crusher had “Remember Me”, all of them quality episodes showing how the “lesser” cast members could more than hold their own in the spotlight. Without Stewart present, perhaps there would have been a greater push to give these characters more than just one or two episodes per season. And with Elizabeth Dennehy on board as Commander Shelby, we would have gotten some stories for her as well.
And let’s not forget that TNG had done quite a bit to expand its supporting cast, with recurring characters like Miles O’Brien, Ensign Ro, and Lt. Barclay. All of them had wonderful episodes devoted to them, and actor Colm Meaney was so impressive he was promoted to major character status on Deep Space Nine. So while Stewart was an important component of the Star Trek franchise, he was by no means the keystone whose loss would have resulted in the franchise’s collapse.
But Tom, you might be asking. How would Stewart leaving help the franchise in terms of your complaints about the characters being static? Wouldn’t everyone still be stuck where they were? I’ll touch on that in my next article, where I’ll speculate on what a Picard-less Star Trek universe would have looked like, and what that would have meant to the rest of TNG, as well as the movies and the series that came after.