Let’s not mince words here. ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ is, if not the best season finale that ‘Star Trek’ has to offer, certainly the best cliffhanger. With later seasons of ‘Next Generation’ following the model of big, season-ending cliffhangers – to say nothing of ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’ following suit (‘Deep Space Nine’ wisely did its own thing, favoring ominous status quo changes, often established with a single line of dialog) – this episode’s particular success has been often imitated but never equaled. In fact, I defy you to watch this, whether it’s for the first time or the hundred-and-first,  without immediately wanting to start the second part. And then imagine having to wait three months to find out what happened.

On the subject of cliffhangers, I was lucky enough to see the feature-length edit of the two-parter that Paramount released theatrically to promote the ‘TNG’ blu-ray box sets several years ago. And that was certainly an experience. But I bring it up not to gush about how cool it was to see this on a giant screen (though it was) but rather to castigate them for butchering the cliffhanger in the edit. When Riker gives the climactic order to fire in the feature edit loses the iconic musical sting that accompanies the “To Be Continued” title card at the end of the first episode. Instead, it cuts abruptly into a different piece of music and a newly rendered exterior shot of the Enterprise firing on the Borg ship before cutting into the first scene of ‘The Best of Both Worlds, Part II’. It’s an understandable cut, but the execution kind of breaks the cliffhanger for me. Not only am I, honestly, accustomed to hearing that final sting, but as I said the cuts are abrupt enough to be jarring.

And yes, that has been bothering me for six years. Why do you ask?

But I digress. The bottom line is that it’s been over twenty years since I first saw this episode and that cliffhanger gives me chills every time. I’m not exaggerating. I watched that scene three times today. Chills. Every time.

But there’s more to ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ than just a great cliffhanger. From the word “go” there’s a palpable sense of tension. This despite the fact that the Borg don’t even appear until the halfway point. And of course, once they do arrive, the tension only escalates as they begin their characteristically relentless pursuit of Picard.

But for all the tension and spectacle, the episode also succeeds on the character front. Most prominent, of course, is the dynamic that develops between Riker and Shelby, the latter just abrasive enough to get under your skin without being annoying to the viewer as her mere presence forces the former to ask himself some really tough questions about his life. And before he can really figure out what he wants, the choice is taken out of his hands as Picard’s abduction forces him to assume command. It’s not an accident that Riker had to be stopped from leading the rescue party to the Borg ship – much is made in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ of Riker himself stubbornly refusing to allow a former captain of his to lead a similarly dangerous mission. When Troi reminds him that his place is on the bridge, you can see the realization sink in. Suffice to say, the irony is not lost on him.

There are a lot of small moments that should be singled out for praise. Picard urging Riker to reconsider command of the Melbourne is a wonderful example of the relationship the two men have cultivated over the last three years. Picard’s conversation with Guinan would be excellent in a novel, with Stewart and Goldberg only serving to elevate it. And contrast Picard’s unusually obvious unease on the Borg ship with the steely resolve of Locutus – which is itself a marked contrast to the determination we usually see from Picard. I could go on, but I’m fairly certain I’ve already set a record for length with this column.

But I can’t wrap this up without saying something about the music. I rarely mention the scores for ‘Star Trek’ episodes because while they’re rarely bad, they seldom truly stand out. ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ might be the most pronounced exception to that rule that there is. I’ve said a lot about the sense of tension that permeates the episode. A lot of that would still be there even without Ron Jones’ masterful score, but I specifically said that it’s palpable “from the word go.” That’s because of Ron Jones. The first thing you hear in ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ is not Patrick Stewart reading a captain’s log entry, but an eerie but subtle piece of music that does more to set the tone for the episode than even the reveal of the Borg attack on Jouret IV.

While ‘The Next Generation’ got off to a famously rocky start, by the end of its third season the show had fully come into its own. ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ might be the best possible illustration of exactly that. The cast are all much more comfortable in their own skin, the writing has improved by leaps and bounds, and even the special effects and cinematography has changed for the better. ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ is a “case in point” for all of that.

And that’s it for this week. Share your memories of ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks when, well…