The End of Star Trek

I've watched through "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in the past year and a half (seven-season's worth!), having watched many many episodes live or recorded on VHS when I was younger.

I re-watched the very last episode recently, a two-parter and probably the most excellent stuff the show has to offer (beautiful performances by Patrick Stewart, well-crafted story, heart-wrenching imagination-prying outcomes, etc.).

Captain Picard has become unstuck in time (a la Billy Pilgrim) and is deliriously jumping between three different time periods. In one time, he's just received his assignment as captain of the Enterprise (scenes taking place just before the pilot episode), the second is pretty much present-day as far as the show's arc goes, and in the last one, he's an old man, retired, working in a vineyard, and suffering from an advancing neurological disease. In due course, Q (more on him in a later blog post) shows up and tells the captain that he will be responsible for destroying HUMAN EXISTENCE. (Q even takes the captain to the dawn of life on earth and dips his hand in the primordial soup!) Captain Picard has to convince the crews in all three periods that he's not crazy and to trust him with their lives.

What I think is brilliant about this episode is that it showcases what's undying in that franchise - the reason episodes are still played in movie theaters and that people my age dress up as Deanna Troi for Halloween - the relationships between the characters and the lives they make for themselves on the Enterprise.

[And, really, this is what brings anybody back to a particular TV show. Sure, the situation is necessary: the Jeffersonian must join the FBI to solve murders, there must be an appointed Slayer, the Bluth family must run out of money and have made deals with Sadam Hussein. (There must be a serial killer on the Miami police force.) But without Brennan's and Booth's slow-burning romance, Buffy having her high school buddies and their tweed-clad British librarian, and, well, the family belief that once you open the vodka you have to finish it or else it'll go bad - without those things, without the relationships, nobody would watch.]

The Captain and his crew manage to pull together in all three time periods - overcoming their unfamiliarity in one and the eroding effect of age in another - to save humanity. Q says to Captain Picard, once they've succeeded, "That is the exploration that awaits you -- not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting unknown possibilities of existence." It's a wonderful line, for sure, breaking open the imagination as to what future, well, enterprises the Enterprise could pursue, what new adventures...

But my favorite thing, the master stroke, happens after this. Some of the crew (the senior staff) are in Commander Riker's quarters playing poker. Many episodes have featured similar scenes for their cold opens - the weekly poker game that the crew have made a tradition. The episode and the season and the whole of The Next Generation ends with Beverly losing and Riker raking in all her chips; Deanna joining the group to play; Worf, Geordi, and Data already there; and finally Captain Picard entering to the group's momentary silence. It turns out he's just there to join them, and he sits down at the table. Data gives him the cards to deal, and in the last seconds of the episode he stops and looks up (in a wonderful Patrick Stewart-ian way) and says that this - this playing, this gathering, the hanging out with them - is something he should have done a long time ago.

Because maybe the charting of the most important unknown possibilities of existence is finding out that you don't need to be alone.

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