A little over thirty years ago, on September 28th 1987, a re-booted Star Trek series aired its premiere episode, Encounter at Farpoint. Set almost a century after the original series ended, with a whole new crew looking to explore strange new worlds, a new ship (The Enterprise-D) and shock – a Klingon in Starfleet!
Like it’s predecessor, the show preached tolerance, compassion, equality with strong ethic for learning but it arguably went even further in showing that we all can have important roles to play, regardless of gender, creed or physical disability – we are all human after all. And it did all this with stories about bio-mechanical space zombies, feuding warrior clans, time-travellers,an android who longs to be human and a devious God-Like character with hidden motivations.
The show brought us some beloved characters and some hated ones (“Shut up Wesley!”), gave pop-culture two oft-quoted but completely unthreatening catchphrases (“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”/”Make it so.”) and after a slow start was a roaring success, running for seven seasons, 4 films and it spawned three more Star Trek Spin-off shows. It also earned 19 Emmy nominations, 5 Saturn Awards, 2 Hugo awards and a fans for a lifetime as it boldly cemented its place in pop-culture folklore.
Resisting the urge to celebrate thirty years with a Top 30 episodes list, we’ve settled for ten episodes to check out. The first couple are more for fun, things get serious below decks. Bur first, let’s hear that theme one more time:
Frame of Mind
Season 6, Episode 21
One of the most criminally underrated episodes of Trek; and exhibit A that apart from having a fine beard and a bloody weird way of sitting down Jonathan Frakes can also act; the episode sees Riker rehearsing his role as an Alien in a mental institution for a play. Then he is an alien in a mental institution with delusions of being a Starfleet Commander. We think we know what is going on, but both realities seem to hold their inconsistencies. A surreal and often over-looked episode which seems to have heavily influenced the Doctor Who outing Amy’s Choice.
Cause and Effect
Season 5, Episode 18
A famous opening sequence starts with the destruction of the Enterprise…and after the post title-credits we’re returned to a game of poker.
Effectively Star Trek does Groundhog Day (only before Groundhog Day), special credit goes to Frakes as director and the rest of the production crew for making each run through the same events feel different. Even if the ultimate resolution and explanation don’t quite make sense, this is a strong example of the writing team taking a sci-fi concept and running with it; and it’s still hard to top that opening teaser.
Season 7, Episode 11
It’s Worf in an episode of Sliders. Like the previous, a case of the writers taking a sci-fi trope (in this case Parallel universes) and running with it. Other episodes might have been braver, or delivered an important message, but this is just all out fun. Worf’s experiences in the alternative universes range from the comedic to the action filled and throw up some interesting possibilities – like the one where Worf and Riker are the only survivors on a ship ravaged by war with the Borg. Okay, so it really kick-started the Worf-Troi love story that statistics show 0% of fans even came close to enjoying, but don’t let that deter you from a hugely enjoyable episode.
Season 6, Episode 16
“My only regret is dying and finding you here!”
One of many brilliant barbs Picard has at Q’s expense in this one (another favourite: “I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you; the universe is *not* so badly designed.”) in Star Trek’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life. After being attacked on an away mission Picard dies owing to complications with his pacemaker. At the point of death Q whisks him away and offers him the chance to go back and prevent getting injured in the barfight as a young man which meant the pacemaker had to be fitted.
Picard changes his history, but without that brush with death as a young man he becomes a safe, uninspiring, grey mid-ranking officer and he realises he’d rather die as the man he was than live as the man he has become.
Aside from again providing a showcase for the excellent chemistry Patrick Stewart shares with recurring guest star John de Lancie (Q), like a lot of episodes on this list it uses Picard to explore what it means to be human. In this case: we are the sum of all our experiences, good and bad,
Season 3, Episode 10
Another strangely over-looked piece. Taking its inspiration from the cold war, a member of the Romulan military defects to the Federation with what he says is vital information about a forthcoming Romulan attack. The Enterprise crew want to believe in his intentions but natural suspicion and distrust help contribute to a personal tragedy.
The episode opens with Data performing in a Shakespeare play so he can better understand human nature; and while the metaphor is a little heavy handed it is no less correct – this is a weighty and rich exploration of human nature and feels like a Shakespeare tragedy in space. It also demonstrates how the writing team weren’t scared of ending episodes on a real downer when it was merited.
The episode serves as a companion piece to another impressive Season Three episode, The Enemy.
All Good Things…
Season 7, Episodes 25 & 26
Twenty-five years further into the future a temporal anomaly develops that threatens all of existence. Picard works to prevent it across three timelines – the further future, the show’s current day timeline and right at the start of the show’s run, when his command influence was at it’s weakest.
Next Generation was in a different era when TV shows tended to be episodic, and this does an excellent job of linking right back in to the first ever episode, effectively tying all of Next Gen up in a neat package – and as a fan there is nothing like the threat of undermining everything you’ve become invested in over seven years to ratchet up the tension.
The production team were writing the script for the TNG crew’s first big screen outing, Generations, at the same time as writing this. Years later they would admit that this was the superior effort.
“Five-card stud, nothing wild… and the sky’s the limit.“
And now we come to the inner circle, the four episodes which consistently top polls for Best TNG episode and were critically acclaimed and loved loved by the fans. It speaks to the range and breadth of the writing team that this group of ‘elite’ outings are all very different types of episode.
The Inner Light
Season 5, Episode 25
An alien probe forces Picard to live a lifetime as a member of a doomed civilisation.
In one way it’s a hard episode to talk about without just watching it. Low on action, high on characterisation, this is a beautifully crafted episode with a strong message. Picard, in his alternative life as “Kamin” sums up that message far more eloquently than I ever could: “Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
And if there was an award for the most bittersweet Trek ending? This would win in a landslide.
Season 3, Episode 15
Regarded by some fans as the best episode in all of Trek, this feels like one made for the hardcore fanbase. A rift in time causes the Enterprise’s predecessor, the Enterprise-C to arrive in the ‘modern day,’ drastically altering the timeline: The Federation is now losing a long and brutal war to the Klingons, and Tasha Yar is still alive.
Not only does Yesterday’s Enterprise deliver on the action, it gives Denise Crosby the chance to give Tasha the proper send-off her character deserved. It delivers action, suspense, sacrifice and is a grand scale Science-Fiction story with a strong human element, which the series was by now beginning to make its trademark.
Chain of Command Parts 1 & 2
Season 6, Episodes 10 & 11
The first part is an intriguing mixture of politics and espionage as Picard, Worf and Crusher are recruited into a clandestine mission and a new, brash, by-the-book Captain (played by Ronny Cox) takes command of the Enterprise and immediately clashes with Riker.
But the cliff-hanger – Picard being kidnapped by the Cardassians – sets up the bravest and boldest hour in Trek history, as part two sees Picard tortured by his captors. Patrick Stewart gives a tour-de-force performance and he is matched by David Warner; one of the all-time great Trek guest stars.
The production team decided that if they were going to discuss human rights abuses and torture, they were going to commit fully, while Patrick Stewart researched his part partly in tapes sent him by Amnesty International; and the result is an intensely real, uncomfortable but compelling piece of television.
Best of Both Worlds Parts 1 & 2
Season 3, Episode 26 & Season 4, Episode 1
Bringing back the Borg after a one-off appearance in Season Two, the First episode is full of a sense of foreboding that the Federation have meant their biggest nemesis and the second episode is a fast-paced romp as our heroes try and rectify a grave situation, but it’s all about the greatest cliff-hanger in Trek history…hell, one of TV’s best cliffhangers.
After a slow beginning, Season Two had begun to pick up momentum and Season Three had attracted the sci-fi hardcore, but THIS is the cliffhanger that earned TNG mainstream attention; without this there may not have been four more seasons, four films and three spin-off series. There is every chance that without this we aren’t discussing the recent launch of Star Trek Discovery.
It’s a perfect example of disbelief you have as a viewer that they cut *there*, and making us wait for the resolution was cruel, but brilliant. In a chilling moment, Picard – the Captain of the Enterprise – has been turned into a Borg. And it gave us yet another TNG quote that as entered the collective consciousness:
“I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life, as it has been, is over. From this time forward, you will service us.”
Ending with Riker ordering Worf to fire on the Borg Ship, fans spent an entire summer screaming “They can’t kill Picard!!!!”
I can hear the reactions to this episode list now: What about Darmok you blithering idiot? Or Measure of a Man? Don’t you realise how important Sins of the Father was? Pegasus showed Starfleet’s darkside! Parallels are you joking? As always, comments are encouraged.
On a person level, I’ll just say that I’ll never have the words to explain just how much this show has meant to me, firstly as a young kid and re-watching it again (several times) as an adult. I hope this has gone some way. A massive heartfelt thank you to anyone and everyone involved with the production of this amazing television show.