Interestingly, I fell in the latter category. I wasn't interested in the outer-space adventures of Captain Stubing and his jam-packed crew of the Odds and Sods of Gene Roddenberry's brain pan. However, like most skeptics, I was won over like a flattered debutante at a speak-easy.
The reasons were many. The design, settings, acting, invention and the very evolution of the show as encapsulated in some great storylines!
However, the Next Generation wasn't so high-quality merely because of the contained storylines. It's because of the way each story impacted similar, later tales in the series. Even the self-contained as Manson episodes had rippple effects out into the overall mythos. Unlike later shows like Deep Space Nine and the unrelated Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: The Next Generation was not a "serial" that specifically continued on cliffhangers week-to-week. Outside of a few two-parters, each episode was its own story within a bigger, evolving series.
However, the EVOLUTION itself is the key and the best episodes are those that tied multiple threads together into singular, thrilling tales of adventure and exploration. Examples of this are manifold! One of the prime examples of this growing tapestry is the bridge between seasons 6 and 7 known as "Descent"!
"Descent part 1" and "Part 2" bring(s) to the forefront two brilliant subplots from the Next Generation, that of the unstoppable villains known as "The Borg" and that of central character Data, his quest to be come (more) human and his growing legacy that started with his creator Doctor Noonien Soong and continued in the artificial body of his malevolent brother Lore (all three of whom were played by Brent Spiner).
When we last saw The Borg, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart, AKA "Dad") and the crew of the Enterprise-D had allowed a Borg Drone who had (re-)discovered his own individuality to rejoin the collective instead of using him as a weapon of genocide to wipe out the entire Cyborg Race!
When we join Data in this episode he is hanging out solo on the Holodeck with computerized representations of Isaac Newton (played by John Neville), Albert Einstein (played by Jim Norton) and Stephen Hawking (played by... Stephen Hawking), all engaged in a game of Poker (luckily for us all, not of the "Strip" variety).
Just where our blossoming young Positronic Android might be going with this bizarre-ass holographic experiment will have to wait like Alice, Flo and Dingy, because robot-boy, along with Commander Will "butterfingers" Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Worf "Chuckles" Rozhenko, son of Mogh (Michael Dorn) soon finds himself on a beseiged space station teaming with...
Well, teaming with BORG! Or so it would seem. The thing is that these are no ordinary, garden variety, standardized, generic, general, nondescript, across-the-board, blanket, broad-brush, common, global, overall, universal Borg. These mechanical douche bags are emotional, vicious-as-Klingons and individual enough to have names and to be cared for by their equally aggressive cybernetic compatriots. Think that's surprising, considering what we know about our space-faring Cenobites? Well, guess what! When attacked by one of them, Data (who is as incapable as Spock of feeling emotions) gets angry for the first time... and after killing said borg in self-defense he feels satisfaction! Yes... the kind of Satisfaction that a girlscout feels when she's sold more cookies than that rotten old Katie down the street. Yeah!
New behavior for the Borg, new behavior for Data... could this be a coincidence? Further... could it be coincidence that every time this new 1993 (or, rather, Stardate 47025) model of The Borg attacks a Federation Colony, the Enterprise is the closest ship in range? These questions get even more vital (and frightening) when a captured borg "drone" named Crosis (Brian Cousins) begins to tease, taunt and (most frighteningly) make a lot of sense to Data. That's right... Borg who have Names... Borg who refer to themselves as I... Borg who are confused, lost and angry... does this remind anybody of anyone?
Well, it reminds the crew of Third of Five (Jonathan Del Arco), who gave up his "designation" for the name Hugh! Could Hugh be "The One" that Crosis and the other renegade de-assimilates keep talking about?
Needless to say, "Descent Part 1" is all about the Mysteries that must be resolved within the second half! Director (of both parts) Alexander Singer does an excellent job of bringing the script(s) by Ronald D. Moore and Jeri Taylor to life, exploring the suspense and menace while never missing the resolution of the adventure. The writing and directing here are made even more noteworthy in that this is a completely different path from anything we've seen from Data or the Borg before... yet it still fits well with both what came before and after! (Though Star Trek: First Contact returns to the Collective Consciousness of The Borg, Star Trek: Voyager explores the concepts of De-Assimilating from The Borg in greater detail).
Make no mistake, however, this episode is no mere stepping-stone. This is as serious as it gets. Imagining beings as powerful as Data with an army of cybernetic organisms at their disposal, unhampered by compassion or mercy (or anything but aggression) is chilling enough. Seeing what everyone's best friend can do when corrupted is the real nightmare here. Obviously both episodes rely on the excellent acting of Stewart and Spiner, here leading the excellent cast, however, the second episode expand the parts of Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Doctor Crusher (Gates McFadden) to heights hardly seen until this episode.
As the crew risk everything to bring home their favorite son, a damn-near LITERAL Skeleton Crew mans the Enterprise to engage the Borg. This brings me to one of my favorite aspects of the second half... bickering bridge crew members Ensign Zandra Taitt (Alex Datcher) and Lieutenant Barnaby (James Horan) are in such obvious competition and needling animosity that either they're currently married or they used to date. I'm kind of shocked that Crusher never turned around and said "Okay, you two go get a room. Please, just sleep together and get this over with. Holy shit, man!"
Seriously, man, I can totally see a spinoff sitcom staring Horan and Datcher called... Oh, I don't know... "Ten Forward" or something! They could be this couple that just recently broke up but are forced to share the same Starfleet Bridge, on which comedy ensues each and every Tuesday at 8:30 PM. Their friends, like that awesome Ten Forward Bartender, tend to try to push them to getting back together and EVERY sweeps week they come THIS CLOSE to sleeping together, but it doesn't QUITE happen. Further, every so often "The Soong Brothers" show up to crack jokes as the series' recurring "Nutty Neighbors" while Benito Martinez' Chief Salazar is the stalwart "Straight Man" of the series! It's Sam and Dianne from Cheers meets Fred and Ethel from I Love Lucy! Dude, each episode writes itself. I can even hear the THEME song, man!
Oh... I'm going off the rails again, huh? Well, when Rick Berman reads this he'll be ripping me off, but good!
For all its coolness, "Descent" isn't quite perfect. Clearly there was more character development to be had here and Data's oddities didn't begin with his high-five with Crosis. Further, for all of the implied build-up and context there is never any actual meeting between Hugh and Geordi. The wrap-up even feels decidedly... wrapped up... considering the depth and ramifications of this episode. For all of Admiral Alynna Nechayev's (Natalija Nogulich) admonishments to Picard about having let Hugh go at the end of "I Borg", Picard and the Gang are somehow content to leave things with a big "We don't know what were going to do yet, but buh-bye, Captain Pee!"
Still, these issues amount picked nits in two really great episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the same time it's more than fair to say that in a two-part episode it would be almost impossible to cover every single cybernetic, positronic base. The Novelization by Diane Carey covers a lot of these elements, so you nitpickers should head to the library and enjoy the companion piece! Hell, even "The Best of Both Worlds" required the follow-up episode "Family" to tie up its (minimal) loose ends!
And that's part of the greatness of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's not a cliffhanger-rich, serialized show, but a series of episodic episodes. Still, each episode builds on the last and the continuity leads to a rich, exciting story that took seven years to tell (amid many decades of the overall saga). Four Stars out of Five for Star Trek: The Next Generation's Sixth to Seventh Season bridge "Descent". It not only fits into the Star Trek Android saga and the Star Trek Borg saga, but it fits beautifully within Star Trek on the whole. So until I get assimilated just for being a big, dumb nerd... I'll see (most of) you true believers in the next nanoprobed REEL!
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