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It’s day 3 of the countdown till Star Trek Beyond and I’ve moved on to looking at the third Star Trek show: The Next Generation. Launching in 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation revitalized the franchise and really changed how nerd properties were perpetuated. Previously, every iteration of Trek had come with the same characters; it was always Kirk, always Spock, always McCoy. Now, for the first time, there was a new series with the Star Trek name but no returning heroes, a new crew with a new status quo and new dangers.
This is the show that would launch Star Trek’s renaissance, eventually leading to two spin-off shows and a full series of movies all its own. The ‘90s was the decade of Star Trek and this show is the reason why. As befits such a monumental series, I’m celebrating it here with a top 12 list as, even though the show is really good, its quality is much more limited to characters and short episodes than an overarching kind of quality in the vein of Deep Space Nine or Voyager.
12. REMEMBER ME
I think a lot of folks consider this a weaker episode but I really like it, mainly because it’s one of the few episodes to focus on the ship’s Doctor: Beverley Crusher. Dr. Crusher was always a weak link on the show, lacking the definition of a lot of her peers, but this episode actually afforded her a greater amount of depth and identity, playing off her back-story in a neat and clever way. What’s more, the core concept at hand is damn creepy and I’ve always liked it when Star Trek went into horror territory.
In the episode, an old friend comes to visit Dr. Crusher but things go wrong when he disappears and no one remembers him ever being on the ship. As the episode goes on, more and more people start disappearing and Dr. Crusher is the only person to realize they’re gone. What’s more, the universe itself seems to be shrinking around her and time is quickly running out.
That’s a great set-up for a horror story, doing a nice job to negate the standard systems that would keep Dr. Crusher safe. See, even though the shrinking space is a problem the bigger and more chilling threat is that the universe seems to be editing itself with each disappearance so there’s no one to help her solve the problem.
It eventually turns out to be the fault of Wesley Crusher, this being the third time he almost killed his mom, when he created an experimental warp field that dropped Dr. Crusher into a pocket universe shaped by her fears of losing people. That’s a nifty concept and does a good job emphasizing Crusher’s back-story as a single mom with a dead husband. The show rarely touched on Crusher’s dead spouse so whenever they did it was a nice change of pace.
11. CHAIN OF COMMAND
Here’s one I think a good amount of people are actually kind of aware of, even if it’s not a full awareness. The episode is about Picard leading a black ops mission against one of TNG’s B-list bad guy groups; the Cardassians. The Cardassians are a pretty unique creation of Next Generation’s middle years as they’re essentially a functional authoritarian state, a space dictatorship that the Federation is forced to interact with. They don’t have the secretive sweep of the Romulans or the warrior honor of the Klingons, they’re scheming, viscous monsters famed for genocide and imperialism.
Though they were introduced earlier this is the episode that really cements how creepy and oppressive their reign is. The main gimmick of the episode, and the part that pretty much everyone remembers, is that Picard gets captured by them and ends up tortured for several days on end by a Cardassian played by David Warner in one of his best Trek roles.
These are the parts of the episode that really stick with you, seeing Warner’s detachment as a torturer and the way he indoctrinates others into a view of disassociation and inhumanity, even teaching his daughter that Picard doesn’t actually feel pain or comprehend the world like a real person would. It’s a chilling look into an authoritarian regime that comes off all too realistic. There’s also a pretty interesting B-plot about a new Captain taking over the Enterprise in Picard’s absence but the prisoner stuff with Picard is what really sells this episode.
10. HOLLOW PURSUITS
Here’s a pretty fun little episode that was refreshingly focused on comedy. I’m honestly surprised there aren’t more TNG episodes that take the comedic touch given how much of the show basically functioned as a space sitcom. Anyway, this episode introduced one Reginald Barclay, an intelligent Star Fleet officer who suffers from crippling social anxiety. Given that there’s a running joke about how the ship’s councilor was objectively terrible at her job, Barclay has a lot of trouble overcoming his anxiety and ends up retreating into the ship’s holodeck instead.
The holodeck is one of the major advancements featured in TNG, a massive expanse of space that could ship into any location imaginable that the crew were theoretically meant to use for recreation. I say ‘theoretically’ because more often than not the holodeck ended up getting used for questionable reasons or came to life and tried to kill everybody. This episode is a former as we see Barclay use the deck to create simulated versions of the crew to be his friends or even have sex with him, or occasionally he just beats them up to vent his frustrations.
It’s a screwy idea but one that definitely makes the concept of the holodeck a lot more worthwhile than just using it to stage meandering film noir episodes. It actually feels like it’s taking the human experience forward, asking questions about what’s legitimately acceptable in a virtual space and how people might use VR to escape from reality. Given the growing prevalence of social media, VR, and now AR the entire situation is a lot more relevant now than it was in the 1990s.
9. A FISTFUL OF DATAS
Speaking of the holodeck, here’s another fun episode that made great use of that little plot device without ever feeling long-winded or contrived about it. The set-up is that during a slow day on the Enterprise Worf and his son Alexander head down to the holodeck to play through an Old West program and are later joined by Councilor Troi, who Worf was involved in a flirtatious relationship with at the time.
However, in the midst of their fun Geordi and Data mess something up while trying to run the ship’s systems through Data’s brain, causing the holodeck to develop a malevolent sentience visualized by casting every one of its Old West characters as Data. From there, Troi, Worf, and Alexander must work together to complete the story and escape the holodeck before they end up six feet under.
One of the nice things about this episode is how aware it is that the premise is incredibly goofy. There’s no real attempt to make the villains imposing or threatening, just letting them stand as boilerplate cowboy baddies because that’s exactly the kind of villain the holodeck would produce.
What’s more, the episode places a welcome emphasis on Worf’s relationship with his son Alexander, which was rarely explored in great detail but always proved engaging when it popped up. Finally, this is the best Councilor Troi episode there is as she spends the whole thing doing a hilarious Clint Eastwood type impression and the laconic nonchalance suits her exceptionally. All around it’s just a very fun episode with great adventure and some major laughs.
Fun fact about Star Trek: The Next Generation, series regular Brent Spiner ended up the show’s favorite tool for multi-part episodes. Seriously, Spiner is a good actor in his own right but the number of times the show calls upon him to play a ton of characters at once is just staggering and honestly only works a few times and this episode is the best example of it.
Spiner’s main character was Data, an android that Star Fleet discovered on some random planet and Picard appointed to his crew as a fun way to tempt fate. Seriously, it’s actually a major plot point that nobody knows how Data’s programming works so Picard decided to give him access to the ship’s control seems like a huge risk.
Living up that risk, in this episode Data receives a mystery signal and goes rogue, hijacking the ship just when a young child is in desperate need of some anti-venom they don’t have on board. Data taking over the ship is one of his best scenes, it’s a chilling vision of how mechanically efficient and truly deadly he is when he’s truly unleashed.
The back half of the episode features Data heading down to a planet where he meets his evil twin Lore and his creator Dr. Sungh. This is where Spiner shows his acting skill as he plays all three characters in what’s essentially a one-man show. All around, this is a pretty great one.
7. YESTERDAY’S ENTERPRISE
Another two-parter, this episode is one of the few really good time travel stories to come out of Star Trek. The story gets into some very weird mechanics of time travel and destiny and whether or not an event was always going to happen or was driven by choice but really none of that matters. What matters is that it’s a very well told and emotional story enabled through the central gimmick of a temporal jump.
The set-up is that while traveling through space, the Enterprise encounters a mysterious energy vortex. Just as the ship is getting ready to investigate, a ship emerges from the vortex and all of reality shifts around them. The ship that emerges from the vortex is the Enterprise-C, a ship that, in the main time line, was lost defending a Klingon colony from Romulans.
However, now that the Enterprise-C has warped into the present, it was never lost fighting the Romulans and the Klingon/Federation peace treaty never manifested. As such, we’re confronted with a dark alternate present where the Federation has been at war with the Klingons for nearly 10 years and has become highly militarized as a result.
The crew all wear side arms and turtlenecks, the ship’s lighting is low to conserve power, and military rank is valued above all else. It’s a dark vision of the present and eventually the crew realizes that the only way to avoid this future is to send the Enterprise-C back through the vortex of time so that the Romulans can destroy it. It’s a tense and dramatic story of how all of reality can turn on the life or death of one ship and one crew.
6. THE WOUNDED
Another Cardassian episode, in fact, this is the episode that actually debuted them as a new enemy for the Federation to contend with. It wasn’t till the spin-off show Deep Space Nine that the Cardassians were a genuinely major threat to the Federation but they remained a serious thorn in Star Fleet’s side during the TNG days and a blotch on their record, as this episode shows.
See, the episode revolves around a diplomatic agreement that was reached to end years of hostility between the Cardassians and the Federation and while there’s some wiggle room in the document it’s basically a confirmation of victory for the Cardassians.
The agreement, coupled with some mysterious recent Cardassian movement, ends up prompting a major Star Fleet general to take action against the Cardassians, launching an assault on several of the territories that were given to them by the Federation.
It’s a powerful story that plays on national pride, PTSD, neglected veterans, and the power of hatred as Picard works desperately with the Cardassian authorities to coral the general and avoid another war. This episode features some of Picard’s best speeches and best moments along with a knock out ending twist.
5. THE MEASURE OF A MAN
Another Data episode, this one functioning as pretty much the only good thing to come out of TNG’s early seasons. It’s about a scientist named Dr. Maddox who initially wanted to experiment on Data to figure out what made him tick. Maddox’ first proposals were declined but now he’s back with a transfer order and Star Fleet backing to dismantle Data for weird experiments and such. The situation prompts Data to resign which opens the question of whether or not he can resign and launches a legal proceeding over whether or not Data has the actual right to make his own decisions and whether or not he’s the property of Star Fleet.
When people say TNG was steeped in philosophy and high-minded discussions of ethics and the like this episode is what they’re thinking of. It’s an elaborate courtroom drama where Picard is called upon to defend the rights of man and human dignity through debate and philosophy, though ultimately his argument boils down nicely to “we don’t know.” This is really the episode where Patrick Stewart most came to embody this role and moved on from a British curiosity to a real talent and a name in his own right.
The debate and argument at hand are also pretty well realized and they find a way to really make you, the audience, think about what actually does define sentience and the things we extend humanity to. Given our current long, slow march towards artificial intelligence I can’t help but think this episode will only prove more and more vital in the years to come.
Even though The Next Generation was very much its own show it also featured a number of episodes with cameos from the original cast, the best of which was easily Relics. The plot is that the Enterprise comes upon a mysterious giant metal object floating in space. Eventually, the crew realizes the object is a Dsyon Sphere, a hollow metal shell built around a star to harness the star’s power and warmth.
While exploring the sphere, the crew comes upon a ship locked in orbit with a pattern trapped inside its transporters. Activating the system, it reveals Scotty, the engineer of the original Enterprise. Scotty’s ship was dead in space and so, to avoid dying of starvation, he’d rigged up a way to keep his pattern preserved inside the transporter and had been stuck there in suspended animation for decades.
The real star of this episode is James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty. Doohan was always one of the best parts of the original series for his humor and while he’s funny here, its his dramatic chops that truly elevate this episode. Doohan’s role as a man out of time, trapped in a future that’s so thoroughly surpassed his understanding of technology, is a brilliantly tragic take on his original role as the best engineer in Star Fleet. It emphasizes nostalgia and the passage of time in a great manner and even features Scotty and Picard getting drunk on the bridge of the original Enterprise.
3. THE PEGASUS
Now, for a change of pace, we have an episode zeroed in on the Enterprise’s first officer William Riker. Riker was originally intended to be the young, hands-on, hotshot officer who would go on away missions rather than risking the Captain. It’s an idea that goes all the way back to the failed 1970s Star Trek Phase 2 TV pitch.
Obviously, none of that manifested as Riker being the away guy would’ve left Picard empty and flaccid, so instead Riker became more of the roguish lady’s man of the group, filling the role of “guy who has a lot of sex” that every Trek after the first one has felt the need to produce.
This episode takes him seriously out of his comfort zone when his old commanding officer comes in to direct the Enterprise on a top secret mission to salvage Riker’s old ship the Pegasus. From the outset it’s clear there’s more going on than we know and the episode gets a lot of drama out of Riker struggling between his loyalty to Picard and his oath of secrecy to his former Captain.
It also helps that the incredible Terry O’Quinn, who just devours the part as a kind of authoritarian Picard, plays Riker’s old captain. Much like ‘The Measure of a Man,’ this is an episode defined by ideology and philosophy about the struggle of ideals between loyalty, safety, and justice and it’s a great watch.
2. BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Another Riker-centric episode, though it’s not quite as character driven as one might think. This is easily Next Generation’s most famous episode as it features the blockbuster storyline of the Enterprise engaging the Borg on their own terms, Captain Picard getting captured and assimilated, the infamous route of the Federation at the battle of wolf 359, and the Borg’s attack on Earth. It’s a dynamite premise that took two episodes across two seasons to complete and pretty much put Next Generation on the map as the Star Trek show of the era.
The plot is that Riker is considering leaving the Enterprise for a Captain’s chair of his own when the ship is called in to investigate mysterious attacks on Federation colonies. While investigating they come upon a Borg cube and during the encounter Picard is captured and assimilated, becoming Locutis of Borg. From there it’s a desperate, ever worsening drive to defeat the Borg and rescue the Captain as Riker is forced to take command of the Enterprise.
It’s a great episode with a lot of action and dark, dramatic moments that felt legitimately new and different for a TV genre show. What’s more, the visual of assimilated Picard became iconic of the whole franchise and immediately transmitted the Borg into the collective conscious of an entire generation of nerds as the new sci-fi boogiemen of the age.
Here’s a choice that’s probably not going to win me any new fans. Conventionally, ‘Best of Both Worlds’ is cited as the best TNG episode and while I certainly see the appeal this is my list and from where I’m sitting Q-Who is just the stronger story all around. ‘Best of Both Worlds’ has a lot of great elements and stand out scenes but the actual story tends to fade from most folks memory, overpowered by the handful of great moments with weaker filler scenes between them.
‘Q-Who’ is a chilling and compact story from start to finish, the premiere of the Borg and the best Q episode by far. For the uninitiated Q was a reoccurring villain on TNG played by John de Lancie. He was more of a mischievous imp than a true threat as he had the power to do anything but generally just used it to annoy everybody: not this time however.
This episode, Q launches the Enterprise across the galaxy into the delta quadrant where they’re confronted by a mysterious and deadly cube spaceship filled with freaky Cyborg beings. Within, they come upon a cold and eerie world of silent automatons, alien aesthetics, and a nursery where babies have their limbs amputated and replaced with Cyborg parts. When the cube inevitably turns its attentions to the Enterprise it seems as though no force in the universe can stop them, in the end forcing Picard to appeal to a higher power to escape.
Like I said, I like Star Trek when it has a horror edge to it and this episode is scary, especially Q’s monologue about the nature of the Borg. It’s the only time we see him ever frightened, which says a lot about what a threat the Borg. What’s more, the fact that Q seems unable to actually destroy the Borg (simply teleporting the Enterprise away) comes with its own chilling implications. ‘Best of Both Worlds’ may have showed us what the Borg could do but this episode left a lot more to a much more terrifying author than the show’s writers: our own imagination.
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