I recently finished watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Only seasons 3-7, I should add, after I was loudly and repeatedly warned away from the first two.) I loved the show as a kid, and I had a lot of fun revisiting it with adult eyes, seeing wisdom and thematic depth I’d never realized were there—although, that said, my basic reaction hasn’t changed much since age 11: “Ooh, cool space adventures!” It is, wonderfully, a show that can be enjoyed both as literary sci-fi and as spectacle, even if its low-budget special effects invariably lagged light-years behind its ideas. Uneven as its run may have been, TNG was broad in scope, huge in ambition, and usually an entertaining hour of TV.
So I figured I might as well write about a handful of my favorite episodes. I chose to leave off iconic favorites like “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Best of Both Worlds,” “The Drumhead,” and “The Inner Light,” because I feel like by now they’ve been praised nearly to death. (Though it bears repeating that “The Inner Light” is just stunningly good. As is “Chain of Command,” for that matter.) Instead, I selected ten episodes that may not yet have received their due, but which thrilled me, intrigued me, and moved me more than I expected…
(I’ve listed the seasons and episode numbers after each title. And if these aren’t enough, here are five more that almost made my list: “The Hunted,” “Remember Me,” “Disaster,” “Relics,” and “Parallels.”)
This episode has all the economy and power of a classic sci-fi short story. Nothing superfluous: just a near-deserted planet, a pair of elderly guest stars, and a wrenching twist. The Enterprise gets involved, of course, and Picard employs some deductive reasoning to unravel the planet’s mystery, but “The Survivors” is primarily about its title characters, the Uxbridges—about the intensity of their love, and husband Kevin’s commitment to nonviolence. Through them, the episode investigates ethical concerns already familiar to TNG viewers, but in an unusually thought- and emotion-provoking manner.
As an android, Data’s fundamentally different from every other character on the show, and that difference was exploited by many solid episodes, with “Brothers,” “Hero Worship,” and “Thine Own Self” high among them. But I prefer “The Most Toys,” where he’s imprisoned by obsessive collector Kivas Fajo, played by Saul Rubinek. The relationship between the dickish Fajo and his emotionless captor makes for meaty drama, as well as an object lesson in Data’s personhood and unshakable moral high ground. And the ending, wherein Data tells Riker a chilling white lie, is icing on an already delicious cake. (…with mint frosting)
This is how you draw on ancient franchise history, courtesy of a script by fantasy legend Peter S. Beagle. Bringing back Mark Lenard as Spock’s father, now a wizened ambassador, “Sarek” throws the Enterprise into the middle of a diplomatic crisis and the outbreak of an emotional epidemic, then ties them both to a tragic metaphor for Alzheimer’s and the ravages of age. Rarely has the loss of self-control been illustrated as starkly as it is in Lenard’s agonized performance and in Patrick Stewart’s ferocious breakdown scene, both of which grant startling rawness to such an elegant episode.
Geordi is maybe the most lovable character in TNG: friendly, hard-working, and incredibly nerdy. So it’s disturbing to see him thrust into the Manchurian Candidate scenario of “The Mind’s Eye,” programmed by the Romulans to be a perfect assassin and saboteur. The episode takes the form of a procedural, with Geordi leading an investigation into espionage he doesn’t realize he’s comitting, and Data gradually piecing the clues together. “The Mind’s Eye” is a tense and sharply written hour which expertly raises the stakes by playing on the audience’s built-in fondness for its characters.
TNG, for a variety of reasons, was never especially good at “epic.” It’s not for nothing that most of these episodes are small, intimate, and Enterprise-centric. But with the two-part “Redemption,” they at least gave it a shot, forcing Worf to resolve his divided loyalties as the Klingon empire explodes into civil war. The Romulans are involved again, and the plotting’s a little too busy, but nonetheless it’s fun to watch Picard navigate his own conflicts of interest, or Data take command for the first time. Between the convoluted interstellar politics and Worf’s identity crisis, “Redemption” is the show going big in a way I can’t resist.
This episode delivers the pleasure of Patrick Stewart acting opposite Paul Winfield, who plays an alien captain trapped with Picard in the wilderness. It also has the Enterprise crew doing what it does best, i.e. devoting all their expertise to a big, vexing problem. But it’s on this list for one big reason, which is its unforgettable conceit: that the alien’s race communicates solely through culturally specific metaphors. Like all great sci-fi, “Darmok” makes me reexamine my world; it encourages me to ponder just how strange and impressive an achievement language itself really is.
This is the “Groundhog Day… in space!” episode, one of my favorite “fun” episodes (along with “Clues” and “Conundrum”) and one which toys with TNG’s bread and butter: some weird phenomena is affecting the Enterprise, and the crew has to figure out what, then stop it from killing everyone. The narrative structure here is unusually experimental, the gradual discovery of the time loop is very satisfying, and the cold open is probably the most memorable of the show’s run. Nothing too weighty here, but it’s fleet and imaginative just like good genre fiction should be.
This one really shocked me. Its premise, with Counselor Troi forced onto an undercover mission aboard a Romulan vessel, is certainly tantalizing, but in execution it’s a masterpiece of rising tension. (Admittedly, I might just be especially susceptible to stories like this; I spent roughly half the episode physically shaking.) Watching Troi bluff her way through a high-pressure mission provides no end of pleasure, as does seeing her go toe to toe with Carolyn Seymour as the ship’s unyielding captain. Few TNG episodes develop an atmosphere of danger quite as thick as the one in “Face of the Enemy.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s a rare episode that’s quiet, tender, even Ozu-esque. The slender story is that of two middle-aged professionals (Picard and Nella Daren, played by Wendy Hughes) who meet one night, slowly become interested in one another, play some duets—she on piano, he on his “Inner Light” flute—and fall in love. It’s a little awkward, especially since he has his “gruff captain” persona to maintain, but they push through any workplace difficulties… until duty forces him to endanger her life, and they decide a break-up would be for the best. It’s sensitively handled, unlike so many TNG romances, and a precious glimpse at Enterprise life in between big missions.
Finally, here’s the second-to-last episode of the whole series. It’s a story that could only have been told so late in the show’s run, reversing our POV so we can experience the Enterprise and the Federation from the outside looking in. Using Ro Laren, a recurring character known to bristle at authority, the episode turns morality on its head and tacitly asks that we empathize with terrorists. It’s a daring gambit, and it’s tough to imagine a show pulling it off outside of a sci-fi context. Like many of the episodes listed here, “Preemptive Strike” acknowledges that sometimes, the right thing to do is anything but obvious.