Most agree Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the best science fiction series ever produced, and with certainty Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the best thing about it.
Played by venerably bald actor Patrick Stewart, Picard is one of the most complex and nuanced characters ever to appear on screen. He’s also the first ever Star Trek character to get an entire television show named after him in Star Trek: Picard.
Before you watch Star Trek: Picard you need to understand the man it’s about. And to do that, you’ll need to watch the best Picard episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You can’t just pick any episode with Jean-Luc’s name in the synopsis, you’ll need the ones that matter most. We have them for you, right here.
Binge the best Picard episodes, in order, before you watch Star Trek: Picard. This is The Essential Picard.
1. Encounter at Farpoint | Star Trek: TNG S1 E1 & 2
What seems like the primary story of Encounter at Farpoint, the Enterprise investigating strange happenings at a far off waystation, is actually the script’s B-story. It’s a smokescreen for what’s really going on, a secret subplot in which an omnipotent being tests not just the Enterprise but humanity as a whole to see if we should be allowed to continue on existing. Much of the criticism leveled at this episode focuses around that weaker waystation storyline, but the rest of is brilliant on every level. Not only is this our first introduction to Captain Picard as a character, but our first introduction into what would become the central theme and maybe even friendship of the show: Picard’s relationship with Q. It’s here that Picard first stands up for the human race and it’s here that a certain omnipotent being begins to develop a begrudging respect for the puny mortal Enterprise Captain.
2. Q Who | Star Trek: TNG S2 E16
If Encounter at Farpoint sets up one of the central themes in Picard’s life, then it is Q Who that first sets the stage for Picard’s chief antagonist: The Borg. Later in the series (in the next item on this list in fact) he’ll get up close and personal with these villains, but here Jean-Luc gets his first introduction to them. The Enterprise is thrust into a situation they are totally unprepared for by Q as a test, a test which they fail completely. Picard is not ready, his crew is not ready, and they only survive because Q lets them. Dealing with that failure is Picard’s burden to bear and it has lasting consequences for everything that follows in his life after this specific moment.
3. The Best of Both Worlds Part 1 & 2 | Star Trek: TNG S3 E26 & S4 E1
Ranked by many as the best episode Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced, Best of Both Worlds is also the most pivotal moment in Jean-Luc Picard’s entire life. It’s here that he’s captured and assimilated by the Borg. His mind is split open and a new persona is created. It’s here that Picard becomes Locutus it’s here that Picard as Locutus murders his own people and betrays every ideal he’s ever held dear. If it’s your first time watching it you’ll probably wonder how anyone could ever come back for what happens to him, but then Jean-Luc Picard isn’t anyone. You can’t understand Picard until you understand Locutus.
4. Family | Star Trek: TNG S4 E2
In the wake of his assimilation by the Borg, the Enterprise Captain needed time to heal. So, in the second episode of season four we follow him as he returns to the pastoral vineyard where he grew up. There he re-acquaints himself with the family he left behind to join Starfleet and attempts to rediscovery himself by rediscovering who he was. Somewhere along the way he ends up fighting with his brother in the mud. Picard isn’t really better by the time this Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ends, but maybe he’s gained a new understanding of himself, and by watching we’ve gained a new understanding of him.
5. The Drumhead | Star Trek: TNG S4 E21
In the Next Generation episode Drumhead Picard’s principles are put to the test by a Starfleet Admiral bent on sacrificing freedom in the name of safety. Much of it takes place as a courtroom drama, giving Jean-Luc a platform to speechify on the things he holds most dear. At the same time our Captain must face his own demons, struggling with the guilt over the part he played in the Borg attack he lead in Best of Both Worlds. In the end, of course, Picard stands up for freedom while noting that vigilance is the price that must be paid to protect it.
6. I, Borg | Star Trek: TNG S5 E23
In the episode I, Borg – Star Trek: The Next Generation stands on its head and questions everything we’ve been thinking about the series’ most villainous villain: The Borg. Til now they’ve been mindless, faceless bad guys. Totally irredeemable. But here, that notion is put to the question when a drone who is freed from the collective and given a taste of free will. The drone chooses a name, Hugh, and becomes a person. For Picard, it’s the ultimate test of his recovery from his own assimilation. Will he embrace the idea of saving the Borg from themselves or will he doom them all and choose to treat them as monsters worthy only of destruction?
7. The Inner Light | Star Trek: TNG S5 E5
Here’s the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that most frequently battles with Best of Both Worlds for the greatest TNG episode crown. It’s also perhaps the most purely Picard episode, with the plot almost totally focused on a world happening inside Jean-Luc’s head. There’s a mystery to be solved but what matters most is the impact solving it will have on Picard. It’s the place he learns to play the flute and it’s the moment that makes him regret the roads not taken on his quest to having a grand Starfleet career. Like all great television, The Inner Light leaves both its protagonist, Picard, and its audience, changed by the experience.
8. Chain of Command Part 1 & 2 | Star Trek: TNG S6 E10 & 11
In Chain of Command Picard is put to the ultimate test when he’s captured by the Cardassians and treated as a war criminal. For the Cardassians, that means they’re free to torture him for whatever information they want. Jean-Luc goes through one of the most trying experiences of his life at the hands of a sadistic Cardassian interrogator who stops asking questions about Federation defenses and simply asks Picard: “How many lights do you see?” There are only four but he won’t stop hurting our Captain until Picard agrees to say he sees five.
9. Tapestry | Star Trek: TNG S6 E15
In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fifteenth episode of season 6, Q returns to let Picard revisit his past and consider what might have happened if he’d done things differently. The pivotal moment in question involves a fight against Nausicaans in his youth, a fight which results in damage to Picard’s heart. It’s that damage that might ultimately kill our Captain in the here and now, but if he’d never been injured, if he’d never gotten in that fight… would he be the man he’s become? Would everything be different?
10. All Good Things | Star Trek: TNG S7 E25 & 26
The two-part finale episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation finds Picard again sparring with Q, settling once and for all the question Q raised in TNG’s very first episode: Is humanity worth saving? The plot is one of complicated time travel, with Picard leaping back and forth through different points of his life. In the first time period we see his present with the Enterprise crew we already know. In the second, Picard is an old man tending his family’s vineyard. In the third, Picard is on his first mission aboard the Enterprise, the one we saw seven seasons ago in Encounter at Farpoint. When the episode and the series is over, Jean-Luc learns a lesson about valuing the ones he loves most.
BONUS EP: Captain’s Holiday | Star Trek: TNG S3 E19
By the end of Captain’s Holiday little has changed in Jean-Luc’s life and he hasn’t grown or learned as a person. But by god he has a lot of fun. That’s good enough to make Captain’s Holiday worth watching, but maybe not good enough to include in our official Best Picard Episodes top ten list.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s nineteenth episode of season three, an overworked Jean-Luc Picard is forced to take a vacation by his crew. He chooses the pleasure planet Risa, where he starts out reading a book and, thanks to meeting an unusual woman named Vash, ends up in an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.
Essential Jean-Luc Picard Movies
To get the full length and breadth of Picard you really need to watch more than just the best Picard episodes, you need the movies too. Not all of them, especially not Star Trek: Insurrection, but if you’re Jean-Luc Picard focused you should definitely watch these.
Star Trek First Contact
In Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard again encounters the Borg, only this time they’ve adapted. Still battling the demons of his assimilation by the collective Jean-Luc must face his greatest fear as his ship is taken by his mortal enemy. The entire future of the human race is at stake, but Picard’s own anger towards the Borg could put everything at risk. First Contact ranks as the best ever Next Generation movie among both audiences and critics; and in our ultimate Star Trek ranking list we ranked it as the sixth best thing Star Trek has ever produced. Yes, even better than Star Trek cruises.
Star Trek: Nemesis
Star Trek: Nemesis is not a great Star Trek movie but it does force Jean-Luc to consider his past as he encounters a Picard clone raised by Romulans. More importantly, a key member of the Enterprise crew sacrifices himself to save Jean-Luc, a sacrifice sure to have implications in Picard’s future and perhaps in the new Picard seres Star Trek: Picard.