Top Ten TNG – Part Two

And here we head into the top five of my admittedly subjective countdown.  But then, what countdown isnt?

5- Frame of Mind

Riker is a difficult character at times – he started the show a bit too prim, a bit too proper, a bit too anal, but over the years he changed from a normal pest to a sex pest. No wait, this is supposed to be looking at his positive changes. Despite the fact that when viewed as a marathon of episodes Riker comes across even more creepy than in individual bites and really needed to attend sexual harassment seminars, as well as the fact that he cant sit down like a normal adult, Riker did have some great episodes. I considered including Future Imperfect on this list as well as the creepy and slightly terrifying Schisms and though they both stand out as great episodes for the character, Frame of Mind stands out as a great episode for the actor. Many times the characters are interchangeable in some story lines, Data could just have easily been the central character in the LaForge lead The Minds Eye and really, Trois empathic abilities aren’t really that useful in Face of the Enemy. But Frame of Mind really is a Riker necessary episode, and it is an acting tour-de-force from Frakes. Try imagining it with any other character? I can’t. Maybe Picard but even at his most helpless in his Cardassian torture scenes, Picard still didn’t break in quite the same way as Riker did.

It is an episode of Inception levels with scenes nested inside scenes- the big question being “is Riker really acting in a play or is he really in an asylum?” with the answer being neither.

It is an episode that keeps you guessing right up until the final reveal, and even when that happens you never quite trust that the episode is being honest with you and you expect yet another layer. It is a great episode where the bits that are all in Rikers mind are nested also within Rikers mind and even we as an audience never quite know what reality is real and which one isn’t, ultimately being shown that neither are.

Star Trek has done the scenario countless times where we never quite know what reality is the right one, but this episode is probably the best of all these types of story lines. One of the best things about Star Trek is that it can create almost any genre through its story telling and in this instance we get a psychological chiller to rival any big screen movie. For a light hearted and family friendly show, The Next Generation had moments of pure horror and terror and only one other episode comes close to this level of chill- the aforementioned Schisms, though the Troi centric Eye of the Beholder is also worthy of note.

It is the closest TNG ever really came to a full blown horror film and viewed back to back with Schisms is sure to give you a restless nights sleep.

4 – Timescape

Deanna Troi is one of the most under used characters in Star Trek. Not underused as in never around, but that when she is around you often feel she is not needed. That is no comment on actor Marina Sirtis, but on creator Gene Roddenberry’s very 80’s decision to include a counsellor as part of the main cast of characters. It is only once we get Troi into a uniform and have her taking part in command situations that she actually becomes an enjoyable to watch character. Although Troi isn’t essential to this storyline, she is welcome, something I likely would not have said had this been a season 3 episode where Troi always felt a bit too whiny, a bit too unnecessary and a bit too “oh shit, we don’t know what to do with her but we have her”. Mid Season 5 onwards Troi is the Troi we should have had all along, and in this cracking little time dilation episode she shines.

Returning from a conference in a run about craft, Picard is joined by Data, Geordie and Troi and the short scene where they are just sitting around, cutting the breeze, is a joy to watch if only for the impressions of fellow delegates by both Troi and Picard. They all feel like real people, who really work together in this scene rather than just characters in a show. They have their space aged Spitting Image session cut short when time starts to freeze, with different characters freezing in time for short periods.

Through some technobabble wizardy they are able to avoid what is discovered to be pockets of time and make their way to the Enterprise only to discover it is frozen in space about to be destroyed by a Romulan Warbird. Using more technobabble, Geordie is able to beam Picard, Troi and Data to the Enterprise and allow them to move around, unaffected by the time freezing annoyances.

On board ship they discover an in time frozen Dr Crusher getting lazer blast murder killed by a Romulan- the later explanation is that the Romulan was actually shooting at someone else but Crusher got in the way- but if you look at the proximity that seems a bit of a stretch, but there we go.

One of the best things Patrick Stewart has ever done happens in this episode. As they enter Main Engineering and see the ealy stages of a Warp Core breach, smoke frozen in place, Troi and Data try to have a sensible discussion only to be interrupted by a giggling Picard who has decided to draw a smiley face in the warp core smoke. Sadly this is all due to Picard going a little mad due to something something something time freezing something technobabble. But basically, Picard is being affected by the time bubble and must cut short his artistic endeavours.

Ultimately, as you expect, time is unfrozen, the ship is saved, Crusher is saved and it was all a hilarious misunderstanding caused by interdimensional beings living inside the Romulans temporal core like some sort of sparrow nesting in your chimney. Only it’s a time sparrow and instead of a chimney it’s a black hole and instead of causing problems with ventilation it causes time to freeze and makes Picard regress to an infant who if we’d left alone with the warp core smoke any longer would have undoubtedly drawn a cock to go with his smiley face.

A great time travel like story without much time travel but some great science fiction story telling and some brilliant and understated character moments.

3 – Parallels

I don’t like Klingon episodes. And I don’t like Worf episodes. As with Marina Sirtis, this isn’t because I dislike Michael Dorn, its just I don’t find Klingons particularly interesting characters. Save for the internally conflicted Belana Torres and the always watchable General Martok, I just don’t enjoy spending time with Klingons. I find them too one dimensional, at least the Ferengi grow as a species however slightly by the end of DS9, and certainly the Klingons in Enterprise have an arc and e actually see how and why they develop the way they do. But by the era of the Next Generation I found Klingons dull and didn’t give a hoot about their internal politics and Gowrons scary eyes.

But Worf did have some good episodes and I think his best was undoubtedly Season sevens Parallels. As with time travel, I have always loved alternate reality stories, those great “what ifs”? of story telling and seeing characters we know in different scenarios. Parallels follows Worf as he dimension shifts thanks to passing through a singularity on his way from a tournament. Once back on the Enterprise he dimension shifts whenever he is near to Geordies Visor because reasons. It’s a pretty weak justification, but it doesn’t matter because it gives us a chance to see a variety of different what ifs – what if Nurse Ogawa was a doctor? What if Picard was never rescued from the Borg? What if Wesley Crusher never left? What if we lived in a reality where we covered a dead persons genitals with a sparkly flannel? What if the cake was chocolate? Okay, so I;m being a bit flippant, but it is great story telling and fun to watch. It even touches on a possible Worf/ Troi relationship that forms a major part of the series finale, All Good Things

It would have been nice if this had been maybe a season 6 or even 5 episode and allowed the Troi/ Worf romance to really blossom, but this was 90s TV and had to be episodic. It is one thing that was a real let down for Voyager especially, but episodic TV was once the norm. Whereas today pretty much every show is serialised, back ion the 90s we had to end with a great big reset button. DS9 managed to get around this, but it ultimately destroyed Star Trek on television by introducing serialisation too late to the franchise with Enterprise.

But I’m waffling. This episode is just fun from start to finish and Data really suits a red command uniform. The most alarming thing is seeing one potential reality where the Alpha Quadrant is overrun by the Borg and the desperation coming from that universes Riker. It really hammers home how much of a threat the Borg could have been and should have been had serialisation been a thing in the 90ss. All in all Parallels is one of the Star Trek franchises best alternate reality episodes, beaten only by Mirror, Mirror and possibly In a Mirror, Darkly. I have to say, despite the acclaim I never really got on board with DS9s alternate universe stories, probably because they failed to give it a proper conclusion- one of DS9s rare misses. But this episode is right up there and definitely, for my money, the best of the 80s/90s era Trek episodes to deal with alternate reality.

2- The Next Phase

Along with Parallels, this episode was on a video box set for the bets of TNG. A box set that had two episodes focusing on each main character and two episodes on the ensemble (the number one position below was also on that box set). I remember spending all of Christmas day in my room watching the box set. In the days before affordable and space saving complete series of shows, the big selling item was the “Best of” box set or special edition box set. There was a Q Continuum box set featuring all the TNG episode with Q, a TNG Borg box set, as well as a best of Data box set that came in a plastic case with a 3D plastic replica of Datas face because this was the 90s and we were creepy.

But the episode, despite being a “Geordie” episode in the box set is actually a two hander between him and occasional guest character Ensign Ro. During a beam out from a damaged Romulan ship the two are apparently killed.

They awake to find they cannot be seen, they cannot be heard and they can move through any object. One annoying thing about these kind of phased stories is they never quite address how the characters are able to touch the floor- they physically cannot touch anything yet never sink through the floor. It is one of those things we have to accept.

The plot of finding that the Romulans had developed secret technology to allow phasing isn’t the most engrossing, but watching Geordi and Ro move about the ship, failing to interact with people is a joy to watch. One scene features Ro in a turbo lift with Riker, who tells Captain Picard he wants to give Ro’s eulogy to Ro’s total shock. Another standout scene is on board a shuttlecraft with Data and Worf discussing possible memorial themes. Of course this is television and has a limited time we can spend with these characters, but it always surprises me how fast TV shows move from death to mourning, to funerals and memorials. This can’t have been more than a few hours at most since the apparent death and Data is able to organise a party in their honour. Clearly data is the Van Wilder of Starfleet.

Without doubt though, the best scene is at the memorial, Ro is shocked and Geordi excited that their memorial is a bright and bubbly party with Riker on trombone. Ro states she’ll now never know what Riker was going to say about her as she shoots a phased phaser blast through his face and Geordies plan goes into action- after realising they are not dead but essentially cloaked they discover they can uncloak if they are bombarded by a certain type of radiation, its typical Star Trek techno babble but gives us a great scene where Geordi and Ro partially decloak and wave at Picard and Data who react in the most relaxed manner ever. There is also fun scene earlier where Geodi is pissing about in Engineering and Data scans him with a device which gives him the later idea for how to decloak. It is an almost slapstick scene, expertly played by Data actor Brent Spiner and Geordi’s LeVar Burton.

An exciting episode, with a lot of fun and a lot of great character moments. And finally, we come to number one. No, not Riker, but my favourite episode of Star Trek TNG. But first, just a few that didn’t make the Top Ten but are none the less great:

Q-Who introduces us to the Borg, introduces a possible history between Q and Guinan and has Q finally being the character he will continue to be after a rather shaky start in his earlier two episodes. On that we must mention the sequel to this episode, Deja-Q which features a depowered Q in one of his most fun episodes. In fact, this might be the best Q episode of them all. I’ve already mention The Measure of a Man and Schisms, but there is the quality Season Two episode Time Squared with not one but two Picards, though one has no idea what is going on. And finally I want to mention the finale episode, All Good Things… which is possibly the best finale to any Star Trek show and really came full circle from the pilot.  I could go on with honourable mentions – Contagion from season two was great, the Dr. Crusher helmed Remember, Me is a glory to behold.  In fact, a top 20 list might have been easier to compile.  But lets move on to my favourite episode of The Next Generation- bearing in mind of course, this entire list could change in a year!

1 – Cause and Effect

This episode has it all- it opens with a spinning and out of control Enterprise that explodes before Picard can even give the order to abandon ship. It has time travel, time dilation and alternate timelines as we progress. The actual story is only maybe 8 minutes of episode time, at the end of which the ship explodes and we find ourselves back at the beginning. It is a simple story that hid a complicated plot. Each time they go through the time loop it is slightly different as they start to learn more and more about what is happening with some truly creepy moments such as in Dr Crushers quarters where she hears ghostly voices that turn out to be after images of previous time loops.

It turns out that the ship encounters an anomaly through which a starship flies captained by Dr Fraiser Crane. As they try to avoid impact they opt for going with Datas suggestion of a tractor beam, over Rikers suggestion to push them out of the way by decompressing the cargo bay. Why they didn’t do both and increase their chance of success is because the plot has to happen.

Each loop begins with a poker game and over the repeated timelines we see our crew become familiar with the cards dealt to the extent where they are predicted in a very well shot scene. I haven’t mentioned direction much in the previous entries but here it is vital. A lesser director may have been tempted to reuse shots from previous loops, but every single time we go through a time loop we get entirely different camera work- no simple task when there are only so many angles, and toward the end of the episode we get some very creative and interesting camera work from director Jonathan Frakes.

Eventually they manage to avoid the collision, but the episode stands as a testament to the creative power of Star Trek. Despite the fact that the episode is really just several variations on one eight minute story, we get one of the most memorable and well received episodes of not just The Next Generation but Star Trek as a whole. I was already a fan of the show- which is why I got the box set on VHS that this episode was in- but it was this episode when I finally accepted myself as a Trekkie. No matter that I know the ending, that there is no real suspense any more, this is my favourite episode of Star Trek The Next Generation and it is one I can watch over and over again. It is a true ensemble show as every character gets something to do and even though Data is ultimately the one responsible for saving the day (using Rikers plan) it is a show that uses all the characters equally and as such really embodies Star Trek The Next Generation as a show that was about an entire crew of people and not just a small triumvirate.

I’m sure some of these episodes will appear on your Top Ten Worst list, but for me these are the episodes I can throw on and watch over and over again and through the mix help to sum up just what The Next Generation was.

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