I could have made the usual “here are 10 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in order of how well I liked them” post, but I didn’t do that. Instead, I chose 20 episodes (TOS’s 79 episodes merited a top 10 list, so it’s not completely insane to focus on so many from TNG’s 178) and arranged them in categories.
TNG didn’t always have its shit together in terms of depth and complexity of character, but when it got things right, it got them really right. More often than not, these ended up being Picard episodes, but I tried really hard to find examples beyond JLP. Season 3’s “The Enemy” gives us some solid development in both the A- and the B-story, with Geordi stranded on a hostile planet with a Romulan and Worf refusing to save another Romulan’s life on the Enterprise. “In Theory” is probably the best “Data learns what it means to be human” story; “The Next Phase” gives us more Geordi and also some Ensign Ro (a supporting character better fleshed out than, say, Beverly); “Disaster” somehow manages to put the entire crew to the test in one form or another and delivers a little something about all of them. It was the first time Counselor Troi realized just how useless she was, and it also marked a major turning point for Picard. And then there’s good ol’ “Chain of Command part 2,” which is almost entirely just two guys in a room, but remains one of the most compelling hours of television this series produced.
More often than not, TNG’s attempts to deliver some cool science fiction premise just flat-out failed, as far as I’m concerned. Occasionally though, they realized that telling a compelling story about characters could be enhanced by some unique-to-Trek sci-fi plot device. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” managed to sidestep Gene’s idea that there was no war in TNG’s time, and showed us just how interesting that setting could be for Trek. “Second Chances” sounds like a hack idea on paper, but actually gave us one of the best Riker stories of the series. And the holodeck-within-a-holodeck mindfuck of “Ship in a Bottle” actually overcame my usual disdain for the Victorian era in general and the trappings of Sherlock Holmes in specific. This was a story that could probably not be told anywhere but on TNG, and they handled it exceptionally well.
I Have Something in My Eye
The final scene of “All Good Things…” (which didn’t quite make it into my top 20) notwithstanding, TNG has made me cry — legitimate tears, not just a dispassionate “huh, that’s sad” — twice during its run. Once, famously for us, with Picard’s utterly heartbreaking flute solo following his adventures in an entire other lifetime in “The Inner Light,” and once at the end of “The Offspring,” as Data struggles (and fails) to keep his daughter Lal alive.
As I hinted at earlier, TNG didn’t have a lot in the way of war stories. Which is strange when you consider that some of the very best TOS stories involved escalating tensions with an enemy or presumed enemy. Two exceptions spring to mind: “The Wounded,” which not only fleshed out Chief O’Brien’s character considerably but also introduced the Cardassians to the series; and “The Pegasus,” which dared speculate that perhaps not every Starfleet officer is quite so noble and virtuous as the ones whose adventures we’ve been following.
We’ve said a lot of not-great things about Roddenberry’s “vision” (drama without conflict just isn’t interesting storytelling, in my book), but there were a few times when TNG really made it work for them. I’m talking about episodes like “The Measure of a Man,” which explores the fundamental idea of what it means to be human (or at the very least, sentient), “I, Borg,” which teaches us that our enemy isn’t always 100% for certain our enemy and “Darmok,” which goes a step further and actually manages to pull off a fantastic story without any real conflict between any of the major players. (I’m not always right; just usually.)
Strange New Worlds
I pointed this out many times on the show — despite the claims of the opening narration, the Enterprise-D spent more time shuttling diplomats and delivering serums than it ever did “seeking out new life and new civilizations.” Two examples jump out at me: “Q Who?,” the first truly great Q episode, in which our omnipotent pal attempts to jar the Federation out of its complacency; and “The Chase,” a story so big and epic that it would have made a better movie than any of the four we ended up getting.
TNG wisely did its best to stay out of TOS’s shadow for the first couple of years (a quick Bones cameo in the pilot and “The Naked Now” notwithstanding), and the two-part episode featuring Spock was more than a bit disappointing for a number of reasons. On two occasions, however, the show managed to spotlight supporting characters from that earlier series and breathe life into them that they’d never had before. “Sarek” almost made the “I Have Something in My Eye” list with its depiction of Spock’s father and his failing mental health, and “Relics” gave Scotty more to do than any episode or movie had done before.
Oh, and then there’s “Lower Decks.” I couldn’t really find a category for this episode, and that’s kind of why I liked it so much. It was such a departure from the norm of this show (down to some downright experimental directing/editing choices), and it managed to make us care more for characters we only spent 47 minutes with than it did for a few that we spent 6-7 years getting to know.