Quiet Revolutions: Star Trek: The Next Generation

Look, I’ve said before that I am a pretty huge Trekkie. I even have another blog devoted entirely to the subject (visit breakfastwithspock.wordpress.com or don’t) but this is going to dodge the intensely nerdy aspects of fandom. Here, we’re talking about how the separation of serialized and episodic television permanently ended.

“TNG” had tried to go serialized once before. Deep in Season 1, the writers attempted to introduce an arc about a bug like race they had code-named “Borg” and how this threat attempted to take over the Galactic Federation. The episodes were mostly unconnected small stories about corruption at Federation HQ, with Riker and Picard eventually fighting a group of parasites that had possessed members of High Command.

You see, the designers hadn’t quite come up with what these “borg” were going to look like. Early designs have them drawn as similar to giant cockroaches, with elements from other insects but the costumes were too expensive. Ultimately, the arc had to dropped and reduced to what it was shown as in the first season. That being said, the writers didn’t want to drop the Borg and ultimately brought them back in an extremely compelling way.

After showing up briefly in the great “Q Who?” the threat of these alien beings was something that hung over the crew of the Enterprise. In the finale of the mostly solid third season, they do return, hard.

“The Best of Both Worlds” is the best hour of any Star Trek series. It is relentlessly, brutally tense but the story isn’t what’s important here. What’s important is the way a season of episodic television changes what it means to be episodic and that’s all about expectation.

Let’s set it up. In the last few minutes of “The Best of Both Worlds,” Captain Picard has been captured and bio-medically modified by the Borg, Riker has had to assume control and the away team has had to abandon their attempt at getting the only man who could save them back. Borg/Picard, now known as Locutus appears on the view screen and prepares to assault the Enterprise. Riker, steps up and makes the only decision possible.

And that’s it. For a whole year.

On a show like “Star Trek,” where problems were always solved in 44 minutes, it was unheard of to had a two part episode, much less one that carried over from one season to another. Even worse, this was the end of a season, still at the point when most people didn’t really consider what a season of television was. Seasons used to run for around 28 to 30 episodes. People were used to getting a new episode almost every week of the year, when network television wasn’t being beaten out by holiday programming or sports.

This wasn’t the case in 1990. No one was prepared for the show to do this. Since then, it’s become something a little more common, across usually episodic shows, even with terrible sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” using season finales to place characters into tough situations. Few shows have ever been able to match this sort of season finale even in scale, whether it’s the “Mulder’s dead” in season 4 of “The X-Files,” the “Where am I” moment of “Alias,” the Cylon invasion of New Caprica in “Battlestar Galactica” or the massive and never answered mess of questions in the “Twin Peaks” second season finale, no one has managed to pull a finale quite this powerfully and radically change audience expectations.

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