Putting together a top ten list is difficult at the best of times. A top ten list for the Star Trek movies would be a little easier and we’d only lose two (But which two? Is the Final Frontier better than Nemesis? Is Nemesis better than Into Darkness?) and we probably all would agree on at least two of the top three no matter the subjective opinions. But when it comes to selecting just ten episodes from the 178 available of The Next Generation, that task becomes quite complicated. There are lots of top ten lists and they tend to be quite varied- with the exception of one particular two parter that seems to appear on all lists. Over the last year and a half I have watched through every episode of Star Trek with the exception of the Original Series which I’d already seen in its entirety some years back. So I have seen every single episode of Star Trek including the Animated Series, which if you haven’t watched is very much worth your time and has some stellar episodes such as Yesteryear which returns through the Guardian of Forever (Last seen in the critically acclaimed City on the Edge of Forever) to visit Spock’s childhood.
But for many, The Next Generation was a series that brought Star Trek into the present, it allowed for greater use of women and minority actors in ways that the Original Series struggled with at times- female Admirals? The Original Series struggled with a female First Officer! The Next Generation was bright, bubbly and optimistic. And above all it was fun. There are hardly any bad episodes in its 178 episode run- save some stinkers in the first two seasons and arguably some bad episodes in Season 7, though I don’t share the seemingly majority view that it was a bad season.
I’m also going to be a little controversial in my selection, because this is a subjective list. It is my top ten. And I have to be honest, I am not a big fan of The Best of Both Worlds. I’m not even sorry, it bores me rigid, More rigid than when you press that worryingly accessible button in Datas back. I’m also not going to be touching on many of the series main villains- I like the Borg, but I really didn’t enjoy what they did with them in TNG, I thought I, Borg was dull because we knew Picard would never send Hugh back as a weapon, and I disliked Descent because I think Lore was wasted in it, as were the Borg. The first episode to feature the Borg is my favourite but that’s mainly because I have a love for all things Q and can even stomach Deep Spaces Nine’s “Q-Less” because of John DeLancie. You’ll notice in this list a few episodes that have similar themes, that’s because the quirkier sci-fi premises appeal to me more. I would much rather a time travel episode or parallel universe episode than an episode featuring the Borg. I’m also no big fan of the Klingons so don’t expect any of those episodes to feature prominently.
So, I don’t like the Borg, I don’t like Klingons, and most of the first two seasons I can take or leave. So already you might think we’re off to a bad start, but there are just so many episodes of TNG that it is difficult to not find ten great ones even with the above provisos. So, here we go, kicking off at my personal number ten we have:
A season three episode to start with. It is believed by many that it was during the third season that TNG started to move out of the shadow of The Original Series and became its own show. Aided by new costumes, new production values and the return of Dr Crusher, the third season was the one that slapped you in the face with a Bat’leth and announced the show had truly arrived.
This episode features a guest appearance from Mark Margolis (Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!) as the central antagonist, who, interestingly we never actually see in the episode. His character, Dr. Apgar, is killed off at the very start of the episode in an explosion off screen, it is then that Riker is accused of his murder and the officials of Apgars planet insist on extradition. In order to decide if an extradition is justified, Picard uses the Holodeck to create a time line of events based on the testimony of three people- Commander Riker, Apgars wife, and the third hand hear-say evidence of Apgars assistant. We never see the living Apgar, nor a consistent Apgar and so we never actually see Apgar at all.
The story takes inspiration from the wonderful Japanese movie Rashomon, in that it tells the story from the perspective of different characters. Ultimately it is shown that Riker didn’t kill Apgar, his death a sad accident. The Next Generation did court room drama exceptionally well, probably better than all the other Star Trek shows save the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine. It is a great episode, and the fun Rashomon style makes it a stand out episode, even if the majority of those involved in its production hated it.
9 – The Royale
This might be an odd choice, and is one of only two episodes from pre-season three to feature here. It’s one of the most bizarre episodes ever created. It has a surreal quality to it and a hint of menace that our characters are in real danger. Apparently there were budgetary problems and it is easy to see how that would be an issue. Re-creating an entire 20th century dive hotel isn’t a cheap thing to pull off and so we are left with a revolving door into nowhere, the large reception area/ casino and the single bedroom.
The Royale begins when the Enterprise finds the debris of an old Earth vessel in orbit of a storm ravaged planet. Storm ravaged except for one area where the eponymous Royal is situated. Riker, Worf and Data beam down as the most expendable crew members and investigate only to become stuck on the planet. It turns out the hotel Royale was created by an alien race who were responsible for the accidental destruction of the old Earth vessel. To make amends they place the only survivor into a simulation of the Royale based on a terrible and cliché ridden book they find on the vessel.
The episode features some wonderful stock characters and an immediately re-watchable scene where Riker et al must pretend to be foreign investors who win it big and buy the hotel- thus reaching the end of the book and being able to leave.
It’s a flimsy excuse and riddled with problems- such as why the alien race didn’t monitor the surviving crewmember and at least read his diaries to understand he hated the world they’d created? They clearly could read Earth languages as they had read and fully understood the set up in the book- even able to create working elevators, a casino, rooms, in fact everything perfectly. It makes you wonder why they didn’t stick around and communicate with the downed crew member of the old Earth vessel. There is also no explanation as to why finishing the story of the novel would allow them Riker et al to exit or why the aliens might set up the hotel to prevent transporters functioning.
However, despite its flaws – a couple of rewrites might have made this a universally adored classic- it is still a fun episode and allows for a story outside the normal reality of what we are used to on the Enterprise.
This is another episode that falls in to the weird category. In fact, it is better to describe this as a collection of set pieces rather than a real episode, all the pieces tied together under a loose narrative.
This episode marks a “first” for Star Trek TNG, it introduces us to Worf’s callisthenics program. On the Holodeck, in a obstacle laden wasteland Ricker and Worf battle against monsters and creatures with exposed skulls for heads. It is such a bizarre way to start the episode that it is clear we’re in uncharted territory.
Shortly after, the Enterprise discovers a hole in space. Because of course they do. And no sooner have they lost two probes to the thing but Wesley Crusher goes and gets them sucked in. Fucking Wesley. Inside the hole the Enterprise is met with a series of bizarre situations, first an easily destroyed Romulan Warbird is dispatched and immediately after they meet the Enterprises’ sister ship Yamato.
Worf and Rikers visit to the Yamato finds a deserted ship that seems to exist within an Escher painting. The Bridge leads into the Bridge which leads into the Bridge which leads into etc etc and we are given one of the most surreal, perplexing and exciting little scenes in all of Star Trek. In fact, it is this scene alone, set aboard the Yamato, that puts this episode on the top ten. I wanted to see more of the twisted ship, but I would have to wait till Voyagers under appreciated episode “Twisted” to see the full extent of MC Eschers Federation Star ships.
It is discovered, eventually, that this is all a test staged by a powerful entity called Nagilum who decides to test how humanity deals with death by threatening to kill half the crew. Picard has none of it and decides to set the ship to self destruct, choosing 20 minutes as enough time for people to come to terms with death. Another beautiful scene follows where Troi and Data visit Picard in his quarters and attempt to convince him to shut off the self destruct, but through his cunning, wit and guile (and Data and Troi calling him Jean Luc) he determines they are simply manifestations of Nigilum. Its hokey, its silly, and really it was a poor con on Nigilums part when he can recreated a Galaxy class star ship but not realise no one outside of Dr Crushers would call the Captain by his first name(s). But it’s a disturbing scene.
Of course by the end of it all Picard outwits Nigilum and the ship goes on its way. The episode, again, may not be on most peoples top lists, but it has a charm and a surreal feel to it that keeps your attention and your enthusiasm for the 44 minute run time.
I’m a sucker for a time travel episode, as well as for a fish out of water episode and Times Arrow manages both beautifully. The two part finale/ opener of Seasons 5 and 6, it charts the Enterprises visit to Victorian San Francisco and the first time Guinan will meet Picard.
The story isn’t anything spectacular – a daft tale about energy aliens using a snake to suck energy out of dying San Fanciscans in the past so they can fed through their heads from a central hub in the present. In fact it is one of the most ridiculous stories TNG, or indeed Star Trek, ever told. But it is through the Victorian framing device that the story comes alive. Whether it is Picard and his crew pretending to be actors in order to put off paying their land lady rent, or Data defeating an out of costume Marc Alaimo at poker, building some sort of computer contraption, inspiring a young Jack London, Guinan and Picards flirtations or Samuel Clemens sheer entertainment factor, this episode hits so many high notes that we can forgive the rather disappointing story that allows it all to happen.
This is an episode that had it been any other actors, or any other setting, or if it had involved anyone other than the wonderfully acted Samuel Clemens then it would have fallen flat, but despite its story it manages to work on a character level and is just great fun to watch- think of Data at the reins of a horse drawn carriage bombing around the corner to pick up his comrades and tell me it doesn’t make you smile. It is also good to have a meaty role for Whoopi Goldbergs Guinan and it is one the greatest missed opportunities in Star Trek that they never really investigated the character in any real depth- we know that she has had past dealings with Q, and there is a hint that she herself might even be approaching, if not meeting, the power levels of the Q. However, if we couldn’t get those story lines then this at least goes some way toward addressing her past.
Other stand out moments surely must be the discovery of Datas head underneath San Francisco and the first time we are introduced to both Guinan and Samuel Clemens. This isn’t the most popular episode and I can see why people dislike it, but for me it is the best two part story the show ever did (I don’t count the pilot or finale as they weren’t, strictly speaking, two parters). Yes, I think this story is better than The Best of Both Worlds and I am not joking.
6 – The Drumhead
Another court room drama from TNG, and it again shows us just why this show was able to stand out and deliver some truly amazing stories. I debated placing it higher up on the list, but in truth, as much as I love it, there are episodes I enjoy more. However, it gives us something to really chew on – a potential conspiracy involving the Klingons, the Romulans and Starfleet personnel serving on the Enterprise.
The episode starts with two rather alarming discoveries- one that a Klingon exchange officer has been relaying information to the Romulans, and an explosion in the Warp Cores dilithium chamber believed to be sabotage, and of course the two must be linked. Musnt they?
With little progress being made, Starfleet sends in the big guns- Admiral Norah Satie, a renowned and respected advocate. She sets to work interrogating the crew and so becomes aware of a vast conspiracy on the Enterprise when she discovers a young medical technician has Romulan ancestry- albeit a grandfather and aside from some slightly pointed ears he looks nothing like the Romuans we know.
Saties paranoia grows and she stages an open hearing even putting Picard on the stand in full view of the crew and an invited admiral. It is at this point that Pcard shows us that whilst Kirk had the brawn he has the brains and sitting comfortably proceeds to destroy Satie with his words, or more specifically, the words of her Advocate father.
This has the desired effect and Satie breaks down, bringing the proceedings to an end and leaving her a broken husk of a woman. Yeah, take that oldie! When you mess with the Enterprise massive you better expect a life shattering emotional self destruct. Maybe double fist punching her captain-Kirk style would have been more humane, but her performance and the air of paranoia and conspiracy are thick and highly enjoyable. Satie just wont let up, even when it is discovered the explosion was just an accident she still insists a conspiracy is happening. Her paranoia and conspiracy mind set might not have been that recognisable to audiences in the 1990s, with the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts decades earlier, but today we can view the episode through the eyes of a society living in a time when this type of conspiracy paranoia exists, where Muslims are seen as the enemy as a given rather than as exceptions and viewed through a modern lens the episode is even more powerful and evocative than it could ever have been upon release.
Numbers 5-1 will be coming soon.