Star Trek: The Next Generation was my very first encounter with science-fiction. Literally, when I was five, six, maybe seven I first saw an episode of the second son of Gene Roddenberry, and from then on I was hooked. Really, my whole addiction to SF and started there.
I sometimes have to remind myself just how ground-breaking a show this was. It broke boundaries of the time in the way that the most cutting edge shows today do. And it beat Apple to the iPad by over a decade — strangely a source of no small pride to me.
It had its poorer episodes, as with all shows. But it had some real gems amongst its 178 episode run. Below are my own personal top five, and an bit by way of explanation of why I rate them so highly.
5) I, Borg
(Season 4, Episode 02)
In I, Borg the Enterprise crew find an injured Borg drone, and take him aboard the ship to try and make him into a weapon against the Collective. But when they get to know their isolated enemy, they find the humanity within him, even naming him Hugh.
One of the things that I most liked about this episode was the moral ambiguity that it introduces. Hugh is part of what constitutes the greatest threat the Federation has ever known. He’s also a lost child once separated from the Collective. One by one the crew comes to sympathise with Hugh, even down to Guinan and eventually Picard — the two crew members who have the most reason to hate him. The agonising over whether to go through with a plan which makes tactical — but not human sense — is palpable. The crew stare into the alien, and see their own humanity staring back.
(Season 5, Episode 23)
I debated whether or not to include the landmark two-parter The Best of Both Worlds on this list. In the end, I elected not to. But I have included the episode which followed them, as I think is the element which carries the real weight. Picard comes to terms with what the Borg did to him and made him into — and, I suppose, what he did as Locutus — at the same time as facing up to his own family issues.
At the same time, Worf’s adoptive human parents help him come to terms with his banishment by the Klingons, and Wesley watches a recording that his father made for him before he died. “Family” is a rare example of TNG taking the time to stop and consider consequences. As a result, it’s one of the rawest, most emotional and most character-heavy episodes that TNG produced, and it’s brilliant.
3) Chain of Command, Parts 1 and 2
(Season 6, Episodes 10 and 11)
I know, a two-parter is cheating. But taking one in isolation would be stupid. “Chain of Command” is probably the darkest that TNG ever got. It’s not a series that was renowned for its dark, serious, gritty themes — see DS9 for that — but an episode which has Picard being repeatedly tortured — “There are four lights!” — certainly meets that requirement.
The scenes between Cardassian interrogator Gul Madred and a near-broken Picard are brilliant, showing off just what a talented actor Patrick Stewart really is. It’s also the first time that the Cardassian’s have really seemed sinister and threatening, and in that “Chain of Command” does lay the groundwork for a lot of what comes in DS9. Additionally, the friction between a Picard-less Enterprise crew temporary Captain Jellico was fascinating — and had a further impact on later episodes; this is the last time you see Troi in that odd catsuit thing of hers.
2) The Measure of a Man
(Season 2, Episode 9)
In my opinion, this is the most traditionally science-fiction that TNG managed. It could have been written by Asimov or one of the classic SF authors. In a bid to disassemble Data for study, a Starfleet scientist attempts to prove that he is “merely” a machine, and thus property.
The courtroom trial format is a excellent crucible for hard issues of what entails sentience and where the line is between a thing and a person. More than that, the fact that Riker has to act as prosecutor sets up a real conflict of interest. The final scene, where Data reassures and thanks a conflicted Riker is a touching and fitting conclusion.
1) Yesterday’s Enterprise
(Season 3, Episode 15)
This was a no brainer, when I sat down to write this post. TNG did a few “road not travelled” episodes, but this is definitely the best. A temporal anomaly pulls the Enterprise-D’s predecessor out of time, and as a result changes the timeline to one where the Federation is losing a war with the Klingons.
On one level, this gives Tasha Yar the send off that her death in season 1 robbed the character of. On the other, it shows how war would — and in later series did — change Starfleet. With subtle alterations to costuming and ambience, the entire mood of the show changes. And as the Klingons bear down on them for the alternate Enterprise’s final battle, Picard’s short rallying speech sends shivers down the spine:
“Attention all hands. As you know, we could outrun the Klingon vessels. But we must protect the Enterprise-C until she enters the temporal rift. And we must succeed! Let’s make sure that history never forgets the name, Enterprise.“
Feel free to disagree in the comments.