“The Best of Both Worlds” is routinely cited not just as the best Star Trek: The Next Generation episode but as one of the greatest pieces of science fiction programming ever created. Who are we to argue? That two parter probably is Next Generation’s best episode. We’ll concede that right here and now. So when we came together to discuss our favorite episodes, we agreed that one is entirely off limits.
The other contender? “The Inner Light.” Absolutely an amazing episode. It won a Hugo, for crying out loud, and it’s fondly remembered by pretty much everybody. Which means it, too, is too easy a pick. So out it goes, we tossed it right out of contention, just to make things interesting.
So to celebrate the impending arrival of Star Trek: Picard we’ve put together a a guide to the best Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, aside from the one where Picard gets turned into Locutus the Borg or the one where Picard plays a flute. Make it so…
Encounter at Farpoint | S1 EPISODES 1&2
“Encounter at Farpoint” is the only episode on our list which actually made it on to the Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level Blu-ray set. It’s worth it. This was the premiere episode and while in the beginning fans were a little unsure of how to react to this bold new vision, over time this two-parter has aged like a fine wine.
It introduces the crew and then sends them on a complicated mission, in which they’re put on trial for the crimes of humanity by an omnipotent being named “Q” and then must unravel the mysteries of a far off outpost which in the end turns out to be two imprisoned aliens who leap up into the stars like stunningly beautiful space-faring jellyfish.
It manages to weave in all the elements which made Star Trek: The Next Generation so great into a single, nearly cinematic storyline with huge special effects. Even though the characters are still getting to know each other, the chemistry is almost instantaneous. Plus it has Q. You can’t go wrong with Q.
Skin of Evil | S1 EPISODE 23
Counselor Troi’s shuttlecraft crashes on a remote world, and the Enterprise swoops in to the rescue. Unfortunately, they discover they can’t beam Troi or her pilot up, so they send down the requisite away team. On the ground, they discover the craft being guarded by a living pool of black liquid, an entity that calls itself Armus. When the creature refuses to let the team past, security chief Tasha Yar tries to move past him. Instead Armus blasts her with a wave of psychic energy…killing her instantly.
Trek gave us one of the best known onscreen deaths with Spock’s demise in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but the death of Yar was a shocking and unforgettable moment in a series that at that point still felt fairly safe and predictable. For many younger fans in the eighties it was one of their first exposures to the death of a major character on a TV show, and it was all the more shocking in that pre-internet era. Yar’s death was so sudden, Armus’ actions so offhanded, that it is to this day one of the most memorable TV deaths ever.
The Measure of a Man | S2 EPISODE 9
After the Enterprise puts into spacedock for maintenance, Data is confronted by a Starfleet cyberneticist named Maddox who wants to study Data’s positronic brain. Unfortunately, they soon learn that by “study,” he actually means “disassemble.” Data, quite understandably, refuses to submit to the procedure, and threatens to resign. Maddox counters by suggesting that Data is not a sentient being, but rather a machine, and furthermore property of Starfleet, therefore, he can’t resign…and can’t refuse. Picard demands a hearing be held in order to determine Data’s legal status, with Picard acting for the defense and Riker forced against his will to serve as prosecutor.
The very best Star Trek episodes delve into the Big Questions, and there are few bigger than the simple question “What does it mean to be alive?” “Measure of a Man” is one of the very best Data stories Star Trek: The Next Generation ever told, and even gave Riker something interesting to do.
Q Who | S2 EPISODE 16
Nearly every episode involving Q is worth watching but this one combines the best Star Trek guest star in John De Lancie as Q, with the best Star Trek villain: The Borg.
It was Q who first introduced the crew of the Enterprise to their cube-shaped foes, as part of one of his cruel jokes to teach humanity its insignificance. Q shows up on the bridge and flings the Enterprise beyond the borders of known space, where they encounter a race of impassive and seemingly unstoppable cyborgs who immediately set to work carving out portions of the Enterprise’s hull.
The best thing about “Q Who” is that in the end, Picard and his crew don’t win. They only survive because Q snatches them up and takes them back to the Federation, leaving them with dead crewmen, a hole in their hull, and a haunting warning: The Borg are coming.
Yesterday’s Enterprise | S3 EPISODE 15
If “Best of Both Worlds” is the episode most often cited as TNG’s best, then “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is a close runner up for the title of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s best episode.
It involves time travel and the creation of an alternate universe, when the Enterprise-D’s predecessor, the Enterprise-C suddenly appears out of a time rift badly damaged and on its last leg. The ship’s emergence changes the timeline and transformers Enterprise-D from a ship of exploration to a ship of war as part of a Federation in the midst of a losing battle with the Klingons. The crew of the Enterprise-C was supposed to give its life defending a Klingon outpost, but by escaping through the rift they destroyed decades of peace. Picard must choose between sending the crew of the Enterprise-C back through the rift to face certain death, or fighting a battle that the Federation cannot win.
This Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ends with Picard on the Enterprise bridge, surrounded by flames, firing phasers in a hopeless bid to distract their enemy while Enterprise-C returns to her death in the past.
Hollow Pursuits | S3 EPISODE 21
Not everyone on the Enterprise is a born hero. “Hollow Pursuits” was our first introduction to a recurring character named Reginald Barclay, given the unfortunate nickname of Broccoli by the snickering Enterprise crew.
Barclay is everything everyone else in the Star Trek universe is not. He’s awkward and shy, he stutters, he’s easily intimidated and even more easily convinced he has some fatal disease. Barclay has no idea how to deal with the real world, he retreats into the holodeck, creating fantasy worlds where he’s a confident hero and the crew of the Enterprise are his admirers or even servants. LaForge tries to work with him, to no avail. Troi tries to treat him, with only limited success.
Yet for all his psychosis Barclay is utterly brilliant and “Hollow Pursuits” offered our first look at what the world of the Enterprise might be like for someone who isn’t part of the ship’s heroic bridge crew. In the end Barclay overcomes his anxieties long enough to save the ship, and after being commended by Geordi swears off the fantasy world of the holodeck. Don’t worry, he’s addicted. It won’t last.
Data’s Day | S4 EPISODE 11
Like “The Measure of a Man”, this episode is about Data, his identity, and his relationship with humanity. Instead of handling the topic in an overtly philosophical or legalistic way, however, ‘Data’s Day’ takes a somewhat lighter approach.
The episode is framed as a “day in the life” recorded for Commander Maddox, which includes a wedding, a birth, and the application of Sherlockian principles to solve a political mystery. There are many reasons for ‘Data’s Day’ to be included in this list, but it’s greatest merit lies in the wedding subplot.
Data has difficulty with the complex matrix of emotions that go along with weddings – the pressure, cold feet, etc – and we get to see his interactions with various crew members as he works through them. There is even a moment when Troi and Data discuss what it would mean for Data to ever marry someone. The wedding subplot also gives us one of the most enjoyable scenes in all of The Next Generation: Data dancing.
Darmok | S5 EPISODE 2
Everyone in the Trek verse may be able to understand each other’s words, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily understand each other. In ‘Darmok’, the crew interacts with a race who communicates entirely in metaphors and mythological allusions.
Universal translators can convey the words the Tamarians say, but not what they mean. After a frustrating initial attempt at communication, the Tamarian captain and Picard are transported to and temporarily stranded on a nearby planet. There they bond and face off against a murderous foe, while the crew tries to make sense of the language and whether the Tamarians are a threat.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode is wonderful for a number of reasons. It interrogates a basic part of the Trek ‘verse – universal translator – and makes you really think about the nature of language and how complicated communication is. Also, the metaphor-based Tamarian language is just so damn evocative. Who wouldn’t rather grumble “the beast at Tenagra” instead of “this is a problem”?
Relics | S6 EPISODE 4
Like every Star Trek series since the original, Star Trek: The Next Generation often struggled with the balance between acknowledging previous incarnations and striking out on its own. Sometimes the result was far from stellar (“The Naked Now”), but other times you get episodes like “Relics”.
In the sixth season episode, the Enterprise crew finds Scotty’s bio signature trapped in a transporter and, essentially, brings him back to life. The former chief engineering officer is eager to get back to work and, initially, excited about the technological leaps that have been made while he was away. As he realizes how far he has fallen behind (and that Ten Forward no longer serves real alcohol), though, Scotty finds that it is difficult living as an anachronism.
The episode’s strength is largely drawn from the viewer’s nostalgia for the original series cast and James Doohan’s performance – a performance that is sweet and sad despite being full of Scotty’s characteristic charm. Whether you think this is one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s best episodes will largely depend on how you feel about the original series’ Chief Engineer.
Chain of Command | S6 EPISODES 10&11
Captain Picard, Lt. Worf, and Dr. Crusher are deployed on a covert mission to destroy a weapons factory on a Cardassian planet. Unfortunately, the mission goes wrong and they learn that the entire thing was a Cardassian ruse to lure in and capture Picard. While Worf and Crusher escape, the Captain is taken prisoner. Over the entire second episode of this Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter, Picard is tortured and interrogated by Gul Madred (David Warner).
While Trek had plenty of conflict and even death throughout its history, “Chain of Command” dipped into dark territory that was rare for the franchise until Deep Space Nine shook things up. Appropriately enough, “Chain” also set up the Cardassians as a major nemesis, a thread that would be played out over the course of DS9. Best of all, Patrick Stewart gets the chance to really show his acting chops as the tortured Picard, playing off an equally masterful actor in David Warner. Picard’s defiant cries of “There are four lights!” remain one of the best moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
More Of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Best Episodes
We’ve just scratched the surface. Delve deep into the mind of Captain Jean-Luc Picard with our list of The Best Picard Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.