Every Monday with “Freeze Frame,” we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features here.)
Anyone who lives on the East Coast knows that we got hammered last week – twice actually – with record snowfalls. New York City basically shut down last Wednesday, and on my way home from the Techland offices late Tuesday night, you could sense a city shutting down in advance of the upcoming chaos. Schools were already closed off, the streets were empty, and there was a palpable sense of a Metropolis in a state of waiting.
And much to my surprise, a calm, ominous sci-fi scene came into my mind.
It’s a sequence that takes place in the first part of The Best of Both Worlds, the definitive two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that brought audiences face to face with the ferocity of the Borg. Picard confronts the giant Cube, the Borg unleash holy hell, and the Enterprise manages a last-minute escape from the Borg tractor beam. It’s the ferocity of the Borg’s attack, upon their very first encounter, that shocks Picard. He almost loses his ship in a matter of second; This is an enemy the humans cannot match in terms of technology or firepower. And when the Enterprise escapes to a nearby nebula, hoping to do nothing more than hide from the Borg and conduct repairs, TNG entered an emotional territory it had never really considered before: Pure dread.
This has always been one of my favorite Star Trek scenes, one of the most genuinely original and unpredictable. It’s not just another away mission, not just another diplomatic dispute or spat between crew members. Floating in the nebula, Picard walks through the ship in a state of silent contemplation. Reaching a darkened Ten-Forward, he finds Guinan sitting in the shadows. He tells her he’s walking the ship before a battle; she says she thought the tradition was a captain walking a ship before a doomed battle. Picard corrects her, but not very convincingly.
I think many television series spend years trying to reach a moment like this, where the routine plotlines come to a halt, elevating in the face of something profound. There’s a reason such revelations are so rare: It’s hard, once you establish the rules of a given universe, to then find a way to break down those rules in creative – but believable – fashion. You risk alienating your viewers by throwing a wrench in the works.
But The Best of Both Worlds does it just right – not only in this night-before scene, but in the attack that follows during which Picard is abducted and assimilated. It finds a way to send the story spiraling into uncharted territory, touching upon a tone that I don’t think it was ever able to touch again. Picard walks his ship, past his crew, all too aware that they are collectively unprepared for the enemy that awaits them out there, in the black of space. He talks to Guinan about the fall of the Roman empire, about how this might be just another turning of the page in the great history of civilizations. For all the red alerts, emergency saucer separations, and disappearing shields, this is the one moment of the TNG universe where failure and death seems like a real option. And yet Guinan offers him the comfort that even if this ship should fall, humanity will find a way to survive, just like her species did after being decimated by the Borg. (Check out the Techland Screening Room: Breaking down Primer, the best time travel movie ever made)
It is gallows philosophy, horrifying but honest. And it was here where Star Trek went beyond a case study in courage or science to meditate instead on how a man should confront the specter of death. More than death; interspecies genocide.
…Not that I was thinking of genocide last week, as the blizzard blew in. It was more the muted calm of a people bracing for the worst. Picard escapes to the nebula, confronts the unthinkable thoughts in his mind, compares his burden of leadership to all the great captains through the eons, and Star Trek touches greatness.
How about you: Any Star Trek fans out there? This scene is brilliant, no?