I think I’ll start a mini-countdown to commemorate the end of a project that took me over a year: watching every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in sequence. That’s right, we went from the rough, badly-written first season to some of the finest Sci-Fi ever made in seasons 4 and 5, to the iffy conclusions of season 7.
Watching these episodes made me realize what a salutary show this has been. It was encouraging in difficult times to see the principal characters collaborate, devise creative solutions, and active work to better not just humanity but all the species they encountered. It also made me aware of a number of its flaws. The show was famously preachy and kneecapped itself by not allowing meaningful conflict between the characters. The female characters- not just Troi and Crusher, but also Yar, Pulaski, Ro, Guinan, were seldom written well and it’s astonishing how often a show this progressive fails the Bechdel test. Troi, especially, is rarely given much to do. She’s often absent when a counselor would be most useful, rarely gives good advice, and doesn’t evince much intelligence or sharpness of mind until she starts wearing a uniform mid-season 6 that covers Sirtis’s cleavage.
But gosh, when this show was good, it was really, really good. Here’s the bottom half of my top 20- I’ll continue with the top 10 later, and conclude with a survey of the bottom twenty episodes.
20. “Parallels” (Season 7, Episode 11): It’s the best episode in a very inconsistent final season, aside from the show’s sterling finale. It’s a great parallel universe story, but rather than taking the easy way out and redoing “Mirror Mirror” it has Worf flit in and out between universes, often realizing only belatedly that the change has taken place. It has Dorn’s best acting in the series; having such an straight-arrow, easily flustered character like Worf at the center of this madness was an inspired choice. Additionally, unlike “Mirror Mirror” it has a strong emotional core, as Worf learns that he is wed to Troi in some of the parallel universes and their relationship advances through the dimensions. I especially love the little underplayed differences in each universe, ranging from a Ferengi bridge officer to a blue-eyed Data.
19. “Relics” (Season 6, Episode 4): Ironically, Scotty gets more to do here than he ever did in the original series. (I don’t mean to bash TOS so often, but it’s weaknesses- particularly its parochialism, it’s grating masculinity, and it’s neglect of the supporting cast- turn me off big time.) Using a convenient plot twist to allow the miracle-working engineer to appear in an episode set 70 years after his last canonical appearance, it ruminates on the need of the old to feel useful and needed. The scene where Scotty conjures the original Enterprise bridge on the Holodeck and commiserates with Picard is one of my favorites in the series. It’s a great love letter to the original series and boasts strong sci-fi credentials with the appearance of a Dyson sphere.
18. “Data’s Day” (Season 4, Episode 11): Brent Spiner’s Data is delightfully curious and childlike in this episode where he records his observations during a 24-hour period that sees a Roman espionage plot, a childbirth, and Miles O’Brien’s wedding. This novel approach gives meat to the android’s series-long arc of becoming more human. Like “Relics” it has an iconic scene that rates among TNG’s best as Dr. Crusher teaches Data to tap dance (for which a pregnant McFadden did her own choreography). It’s Spiner’s best performance as Data that doesn’t involve him acting out of character or playing multiple personas.
17. “Unification, Part 1” (Season 5, Episode 7): As great as it is to see Spock in the second part of this story, I always felt it was a wasted opportunity centered around obvious betrayal and a weak villain in Sela. Part 1 though, is pure magic, as Les Landau gives it a cinematic scope. Mark Lenard gives his final performance as Sarek, giving the stentorian Vulcan a heartbreaking farewell. And for all the show’s pathos, it plays off its humor well, particularly as Picard endures an uncomfortable Klingon ship and its begrudging commander, and Riker and crew track down a Romulan plot with the help of a dour alien bureaucrat. It gives us some of our best looks yet into the Vulcan and Romulan psyches.
16. “Deja Q” (Season 3, Episode 13): One of the sharpest-written episodes that uses comic effect very well indeed. Q is kicked out of the continuum and is forced to seek refuge on the Enterprise. It’s a great premise, but made better by Guinan’s total lack of sympathy, some great deadpan one-liners from Worf, and Data’s attempt to inculcate the defrocked immortal into the ways of humanity.
15. “The Wounded” (Season 4, Episode 12): The Cardassians are introduced in this tightly-written episode that finds Picard and crew tracking down a rogue captain violently pursuing his own agenda. Given his later role on DS9, we forget how bold and trusting it was to give Colm Meany the lead in this episode as he struggles through his loyalties between his former and present commanders, while combatting his own prejudices. Between Bob Gunton as the tortured Captain Maxwell and Marc Alaimo as proto-Dukat Gul Macet, the guest acting is some of the series’ strongest as it explores the deep damage war exacts on those who survive.
14. “Q Who” (Season 2, Episode 16): Another key villain is introduced in this episode, the Borg in this case. Q decides to teach the crew a lesson and sends them to the farthest reaches of space. I love that, because it refutes Picard’s humanism in a subtle way, as the captain himself notes at the end of the episode: the Borg encounter, which exacts the highest number of crew deaths we’ve seen on the series so far, is needed to kick the Federation out of its smugness and complacency. The most dramatic scene, where a desperate Picard has to admit that he is out of his league and beg for help, is profound, and Riker, Worf, and Data’s exploration of the Borg Cube is pure sci-fi greatness as we learn about this hive species.
13 and 12. “Best of Both Worlds, Part 1 and 2” (Season 3, Episode 26; Season 4, Episode 1): This is often considered the high point of the series. It’s a smart two-parter that takes big risks that mostly pay off, but I can’t rank it that high for a few reasons. Part 1 is bogged down by a deeply uninteresting storyline about Riker’s promotion and his sense of competition with Commander Shelby. While it does have a rewarding climax, as Riker makes a truly command-level decision by firing a potentially lethal weapon at a ship holding an assimilated Picard, much of the build-up is shrill, obvious, and botched. Part II is a bit better, and succeeds because of a greater sense of its own bigness; it freely throws out phrases like “Wolf 356” as if it knows that they will become ensconced in Trek lore, and we can feel the palpable desperation of the crew through strong acting from the supporting cast, dramatic pacing, and an intense score.
11. “Cause and Effect” (Season 5, Episode 18): This episode could have been a disaster, as the crew is stuck in a time loop, and relives the same few days over and over again. Branon Braga writes his first of many mind blowing, reality-distorting episodes, using some clever conceits- a glass broken by Crusher, a card game that evinces a sense of deja vu. Frakes, too, does the right thing by shooting each round through the time loop differently, as slowly, the crew becomes aware of their dilemma and is able to communicate a message to their future selves. There’s a great payoff at the end too, as we see Frasier Crane arrive from the Original Series movie-era as a time-displaced Starfleet captain.
What do you think so far? I’ll reveal my top 10 soon, but to list my five honorable mentions of episodes that barely missed the top 20: “Lower Decks,” “Frame of Mind,” “Loud as a Whisper,” “The Emissary,” and “The First Duty.”