Currently ranked second on my list of best Star Trek series is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Almost twenty years after Captain Kirk and company began their 5-year mission (that lasted only 3 seasons), Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew began their continuing mission, which lasted seven seasons, the standard length for the subsequent two series. Along for the ride are First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), Ship’s Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Chief Operations Officer Data (Brent Spiner), tactical officer and later Chief of Security Worf (Michael Dorn), Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) who was replaced only for season two by Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur), and Chief of Security Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) whose character was killed off towards the end of season one and appeared in a handful of other episodes both as herself and her daughter (temporal mechanics, naturally). This group comprises the primary crew with Dr. Crusher’s son Wesley (Wil Wheaton), Transporter Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney), and bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) in prominent guest roles. Gene Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett appeared in the series both in person as Deanna’s mother Lwaxana, as well as vocally as the voice of the ship’s computer.
Across 178 episodes, the Next Generation crew proved incredibly popular, becoming one of the highest rated syndicated series in television history and, in its final year, becoming the first and to-date only Trek series (and syndicated series for that matter) nominated for Best Drama Series at the Emmys (along with 58 total nominations and 18 wins). Of the 178 episodes, 28 of them earned four-star ratings. Typically, both parts of a two-part episode would carry the same rating, but a few episodes managed to stand out more in their second part than the first, leading to two episodes showing up on that four-star list that don’t have the corresponding first part also considered.
Breaking down the numbers, of the 28 episodes, five two-part episodes (and both parts) were included on the list, making it 23 to choose from. It was difficult to narrow. I eventually ended up with 15 that could conceivably make the final top ten. The eight episodes that didn’t make it through were “The Naked Now,” “When the Bough Breaks,” “Symbiosis,” “Redemption: Parts 1 & 2,” “Time’s Arrow: Parts 1 & 2,” “Relics,” “Descent: Part 2,” and “Gambit: Parts 1 & 2.”To be fair to the five that did not make the final list, I’ll highlight those here with brief comments: “Elementary, Dear Data” was the first episode of TNG to effectively use holodeck technology to great success. That success would lead to numerous other such episodes, though few were as inventive or as timely. In this episode, Geordi inadvertently instructs the computer to create a foe that is capable of defeating Data, not the Sherlock Holmes persona he has taken to playing. As the computer-generated Moriarty becomes self-aware, the episode becomes a cat-and-mouse game that puts the ship at risk and calls for some creative manipulation to resolve. In “The Outcast,” Riker falls in love with a member of an androgynous species who have no use for gender specificity. When it was released in 1992, the concept of gender identity as a cultural touchstone was a long way from coming to the forefront, though its roots had already been formed decades earlier. The concept makes the episode feel incredibly prescient with its forward-thinking examination and rebuke of gender normativity.
For the episode “I, Borg,” Data’s brother Lore (also played by Brent Spiner) is at the heart of a movement leading liberated Borg drones in a plot to take over the Alpha Quadrant. Lore tampers with Data’s programming forcing him to experience only the emotions he wants, turning Data against the Enterprise crew. The episode is fascinating for its exploration of individuality and the duality that had been at the heart of Data’s character for a long time. Its look at brainwashing and warmongering adds depth. “The Quality of Life” naturally follows the season two episode that is included in the list below (“The Measure of a Man”). A group of mining repair bots refuse to work in a dangerous tunnel, exhibiting signs of sentience that their creator insists is not possible. As the drones attempt to protect themselves and others, the exploration of the meaning of intelligent life gets a fascinating workout.
While there were two second-part episodes that received four stars with their prior episodes only receiving 3.5, neither of them ultimately make it into the top ten. That’s because having an inferior predecessor simply acts as a demerit on the second part, even if it’s perfect. And “Chain of Command, Part 2” is nearly perfect. After Picard is relieved of command and sent on a secret mission to infiltrate a Cardassian planet, his capture leads the Enterprise, under questionable replacement management, to lead a secret rescue attempt in order to free their captain. The episode is most noted for the riveting torture sequences between Stewart’s Picard and David Warner’s Gul Madred. In this tense tête-à-tête, Madred tries hard to break Picard, using the four lights on the wall as a focal point for his brainwashing attempt. Suggesting that there are five lights and not four, Stewart’s brilliant performance captures that slow descent into madness exceptionally well and provides an emotional anchor point for the episode, most notably his post-trauma confession to Counselor Troi.
Of the remaining ten episodes, seasons five and seven have the most entries while seasons one and six have none. Each season featured at least two different four-star episodes. Seasons five and seven also have the most four-star episodes during the season with seven apiece. Next week’s list will be incredibly difficult to winnow down and I might just do a top twenty over two posts. It was just that good.
The Measure of a Man
The character of Data spends the entirety of the series trying to become human, his emotional disconnect to the crew a constant reminder to him that he’s not quite human. Attempting to mimic the human characteristics around him, Data struggles to gain the level of humanity he desires, while those around him envy that quality. In season two, a scientist goes through Starfleet channels to secure the right to interrogate and examine Data, which could involve dismantling him. Picard and crew must convince a neutral arbiter that Data deserves the right of self-determination.
On many occasions, the Star Trek franchise has examined the human condition and what it means to be human. It looks at the mental, emotional, and philosophical aspects of that question. Through Data, the series was able to tap into that concept from an outsiders perspective, putting him through countless trials, both metaphorical and literal, as he is in this episode. The question is examined thoroughly and succinctly with exemplary exposition, making it one of the pinnacles of such pensive episodes across the breadth of the Star Trek franchise.
Before the USS Enterprise-D sailed through the cosmos, its predecessor Enterprise-C had been involved in a skirmish at Narendra III outpost. When the badly damaged ship enters a temporal rift and ends up face-to-face with its successor, an alternate timeline occurs, changing the course of history, putting the Federation and Klingon Empire into a long-standing and deadly war while reviving Tasha Yar who had died during the first season of the series.
The only way to fix the past timeline is to send the Enterprise-C back through the rift so that it could continue the battle it had conspicuously left, possibly resulting in the deaths of the crew. Trek has a long and varied history with these kinds of moral and temporal queries, asking the audience to decide whether saving the one or few is worth the destruction of an entire history. This is one of the series’ best attempts to answer that question, with a particularly hopeful, yet gutting emotional payoff.
The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2
This season three cliffhanger was a turning point for The Next Generation. Many say it’s when the show became good, but the show was always good. With this episode, it became great. The Borg had been introduced in an earlier episode featuring Q (John De Lancie), a god-like alien who constantly tested the Captain and crew. Yet, their true villainy would not be exposed until this two-part episode. As the Borg set their sights on the Alpha Quadrant, the USS Enterprise tries to stand in its way. With the Borg, nothing ever goes as planned and the cliffhanger ended with Captain Jean-Luc Picard being assimilated and addressing the gathered Starfleet ships at Wolf-359 as Locutus of Borg, advising that resistance was futile.
What followed in the first episode of the fourth season was one of the most tense and exciting hours of television ever broadcast. The heroes win out in the end, but not without myriad sacrifices. It’s this particular encounter that played into the emotional turmoil going on in the mind of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Every episode in the Star Trek canon must be compared to this episode as it stands out as one of the best episodes in the franchise’s history.
Star Trek is one of those shows that has drawn myriad talents from Sarah Silverman and Ashley Judd to legends of the small and silver screens. One such legend, Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Jean Simmons was even a fan of the show and gets her chance here to guest star as Admiral Norah Satie, a legendary Starfleet officer noted for uncovering and exposing countless conspiracies within the Federation. Attempting to sneak sensitive diagrams off Capt. Picard’s ship into the hands of the Romulans, a Klingon infiltrator is suspected of working with a Romulan collaborator aboard Enterprise and Admiral Satie comes along to ferret out the culprit.
As the plot unwinds, the crew begins to suspect that Admiral Satie may be seeing traitors where none exist. Simmons’ terrific performance helps ground the episode as she carefully explores the power and single-minded focus of a woman used to finding conspiracies everywhere. A rebuke of McCarthyism and obsessive paranoia, this episode is a fascinating glimpse into the ideas and concepts that have defined the humanist approach Starfleet has long explored.
After the huge success of “The Best of Both Worlds,” Star Trek: The Next Generation began to end each season with a cliffhanger, all of which were terrific episodes. That puts a lot of pressure on the second episode of a season, the potential of a let down after the adrenaline rush of the prior episode was high. As the fifth season got off to a terrific start with part 2 of “The Descent,” expectations for the subsequent episode wasn’t incredibly high. Yet, it ended up being not just a better episode than its predecessor, it was easily one of the best episodes of the entire series.
The premise was that Picard and a member of a strange new alien race, played by Paul Winfield, become trapped on a planet together where the Tamarian ship erects a dampening field that blocks communication and evacuation. Dathon and his Tamarian people speak in allegory, a style of linguistics unheard of, and something even the universal translator can’t translate. Attempting to bridge the diplomatic divide, the two struggle to communicate, the looming specter of an invisible creature increasing the necessity of a quick arbitration. Will Picard and Dathon come to an understanding before one of them is hurt or killed? Can the Enterprise figure out what’s going on before they lose their captain for good? Those are the questions answered in one of the best written Trek episodes of all-time.
Cause and Effect
While most of the Star Trek series dealt with temporal mechanics, none did it with more grace, wit, and cleverness than the Next Generation writers. “All hands, abandon ship. All hands, abandon…” That phrase resonates throughout the episode as in the pre-crawl opening, the USS Enterprise is destroyed. After the title, the ship is intact. As the episode progresses, the ship is destroyed several times as the members of the crew begin to experience feelings of déjà vu. They slowly piece together the fact that they are in a temporal causality loop and only the correct actions will get them out of it.
The episode progresses at full tilt with the tense action and excitement running through each jump back in time. The year before Bill Murray’s ubiquitous Groundhog Day, the crew of the starship Enterprise brought the idea of having to relive the same short period of time over and over again to life. The writing is stellar as the subtle differences between each loop make for engaging television. This episode showcased what the series had figured out over time, which was how to tackle time travel with finesse and creative energy.
The Inner Light
A strange alien device orbiting a barren planet knocks Picard unconscious where he experiences a lifetime as a member of the ancient alien culture. It takes time for Picard to come to grips with his fate while the Enterprise crew try everything they can to wake him. That lifetime passes in the blink of an eye as the alien device hopes to ensure that the people of the planet live on even if their planet cannot.
A bittersweet story about a dying world gives Stewart a chance to flex his acting muscles, giving the audience a glimpse into a life lived with a looming catastrophe on the horizon. Stewart must deal with his desire to return to what he believes is his life, but also come to the realization that he has no future outside of this planet and must live the life he’s given to its fullest. It’s a fascinating concept that has been explored only a handful of times, but each time, the series finds the sorrow and the joy in a life fully embraced.
Opinions on this episode are quite divided, but this is one of the most potent episodes of the series’ seven-season run thanks to its exploration of emotional trauma and the burial of such memories under years of repression. Season seven had a wealth of terrific episodes (and a handful of duds), but this one was one of my absolute favorites. Troi’s mother Lwaxana arrives on the USS Enterprise as a tutor to a race of telepathic aliens who are attempting to learn to communicate verbally. As she taxes her mind with the constant neediness of the Cairn, a dark secret that she’s repressed for decades begins to break through her psyche, causing her to exhibit erratic behavior that threatens to destroy her mind.
Over the course of seven seasons, the series had developed Lwaxana and Deanna Troi’s relationship to the point where we knew exactly what to expect. Deanna loved her mother, but was often embarrassed by her and dismissive of her claims to royalty. Lwaxana loved her daughter, but doesn’t understand why she’s chosen to live such an austere life aboard the USS Enterprise and why she doesn’t communicate telepathically more. This episode upended their relationship by introducing a buried secret about the loss of a child and how Lwaxana must learn to live with the memory rather than try to hide it away forever.
Like the “Balance of Terror” episode of the original series, Lower Decks takes us outside the bridge to give us a handful of young officers who experience love and loss as they try to survive aboard a massive starship where each member of the crew has a purpose, but few of which will actually achieve something greater. As the quartet of officers work diligently to achieve success, each approaches their job with as much skill and dedication as expected of all officers.
While the Enterprise bridge crew are trying to deliver a Federation spy back into his position in Cardassia, they must rely on this quartet and each of their specialties in order to successfully accomplish the mission. With a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation and its predecessors and successors, the narrative focuses primarily on the highest ranking officers on the ship, giving us a glimpse into the life and death decisions they make every day. Episodes like these enable audiences to experience what life is like for those on the periphery of the crew, giving them a chance to shine and exemplify why sometimes sacrifices are made, but no sacrifice is too small.
All Good Things…, Parts 1 & 2
When Star Trek: The Next Generation started, no one knew for sure it would be a success. With no network behind it, the series had to forge a new path through syndicated waters, a daunting task with so few major successes before it. By its seventh and final season, it was the most successful syndicated series of all-time and had already spawned one coexisting television series and had a second in the planning stages. The series went to the big screen four times before the well ran dry, but there’s no question that it went out on top of the television heap, both in terms of ratings and in terms of quality.
The stakes were high for wrapping up a hugely successful television series and they couldn’t have picked a better way to go out. Like Voyager would do later, the final episode had a fair bit of time traveling in it. The entire plot revolved around the concept as Picard finds himself shifting between his past, present, and future selves. In a consistently shifting narrative, he must convince all of his contemporaries that they should act quickly to protect the timeline, which is in the process of collapsing between multiple timelines.
The series ender offered Stewart a chance to stretch his acting muscles once again with younger and older versions of his character. While his performances in Descent and Inner Light were his best, this was a perfect showcase for the actor. Everything worked out well, moving from one timeline to another, giving the audience a slow-burn story of tension and excitement. While there were a handful of better episodes throughout the series’ run, it was a welcome relief to have a terrific ending on which to go out.