The Essential Star Trek: TNG, or So, You Want to Understand Picard
As a latter day convert to the series, I’ll be the first to admit, Star Trek: The Next Generation can be a difficult show to get into. But with Star Trek: Picard on the horizon, there’s no better time to try! As with most Trek shows, the first couple of seasons are kind of rough. It’s clear from the jump that the show was still struggling to figure out what it wanted to be, while trying to carve out an identity distinct from The Original Series. But not so distinct as to be unrecognizable as Star Trek. You see the problem.
A lot of The Next Generation’s earlier run is in keeping with The Original Series’ low-budget, high-melodrama action, and while the show would keep enough of that tone to remain recognizably Trek, starting in the second season (when the show, and Riker, “grew the beard”), it would begin to lean more into its specific strengths. Chief among these strengths were the performances of Brent Spiner and a then relatively unknown (if you can believe it) Patrick Stewart, the latter an indescribable casting boon for the syndicated sci-fi franchise. While TNG had settled into being a relatively strong ensemble series by the start of the third season, most of the series’ best episodes still tended to focus on Data, or more often, Picard. Below, you’ll find a list of what I consider to be the most essential episodes of the series.
S1E01 — Encounter at Farpoint (Pilot)
I’ve included the pilot, not because it’s a particularly strong episode, but because of the work it does to introduce the primary cast of The Next Generation, amply detailing the status quo we’ll come to enjoy across most of the rest of the series. To be frank, Farpoint is kind of a difficult watch (it took me three tries to break through). It’s slow, and the stakes never quite congeal, but importantly, it introduces us not only to the (initial) crew of the USS Enterprise-D, but also the mysterious Q, an enigmatic figure seemingly with the power to bend space and time to his will. Q reoccurs several times throughout the series, and while his origins are never explicitly revealed, Encounter at Farpoint serves as kind of introduction to who Q is, and what he’s about (what he’s about is fucking with Captain Picard). Here, Q decides to put all of humanity on trial. The representation for the defense? The crew of the enterprise. The nature of the trial? Well, that would be telling...
S1E23 — Skin of Evil
Skin of Evil is not a GOOD episode, in fact it’s actually pretty bad, but since it features the death of one of the main ensemble, it’s an important one for establishing the NEW new status quo. It’s messy, and its monster of the week on a strange planet plot is extremely old school Trek, but ultimately, Evil is worth it, if only to preemptively address any questions of “Hey, what happened to that person?” if you don’t intend on doing a full watch of the series. It’s also honestly kind of unintentionally funny, in a shockingly dark “life is cheap in sci-fi” kind of way.
S2E09 — The Measure of a Man
This is the first truly good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data, the Enterprise’s android navigator, is on trial for his very humanity, and must prove to Federation officials that he is a sentient being with his own rights and not simply property of Starfleet. The twist is that while Captain Picard defends Data in court, the prosecution is led by none other than an extremely reluctant, but still competent Commander Riker! There’s a general axiom with TNG that a lot of the best episodes are basically courtroom stories set in space, and this is where that precedent is established. Spiner, Stewart, and Frakes all give excellent performances as Data stands trial for, essentially, his life.
S2E16 — Q Who
Q returns, and flings the Enterprise 7000 light years away, where the crew encounter the menacing Borg for the first time. While more John De Lancie is just nice on its own, this is another precedent-establishing episode and introduces what will become one of the greatest threats to the Federation throughout the TNG-era: The Borg. Unfeeling, uncaring, all must be assimilated. The Borg are a great enemy, because they’re both incredibly deadly, and also extremely tragic. Every assimilated Borg was a thinking, feeling person forcibly conscripted into a nigh-unbeatable cyborg army. While the Borg would ultimately go on to become relatively defanged by the end of Voyager and the TNG-era, in their first appearance they become one of the most terrifying, and, appearances aside, altogether alien enemies in all of Star Trek. Resistance is futile.
S3E15 — Yesterday’s Enterprise
Remember Tasha Yar from season one? Remember how she got killed unceremoniously by that hideous goop monster? What if she came back and instead we gave her a proper send-off? What if there was some timey wimey nonsense? This is a classic Trek premise executed exceptionally well (with guest star Christopher McDonald, to boot!), that sees a rift in time rewriting the events of Federation history. The Enterprise-D’s predecessor (the Enterprise-C, surprisingly enough) suddenly appears after having been presumed destroyed years ago in a battle with the Romulans. This of course causes the timeline to go slightly wonky, and as a result, the Federation is at war, the uniforms and sets are slightly different, and Tasha Yar never died. Yesterday’s Enterprise is another high watermark for the series, and provides a much improved send-off for an early-season character who otherwise never quite got her due. Just ignore the fact that that send-off is tragically and unpleasantly undercut in future seasons, and it serves as a nice bookend for the Tasha Yar. It’s also just a really fun sci-fi action story, too!
S3E17 — Sins of the Father
Worf learns that his father is to be tried posthumously for helping the Romulans to facilitatie the massacre of a Klingon outpost at Khitomer that left Worf an orphan to be raised by the Federation. Returning to the Klingon homeworld, Worf attempts to defend his father’s honour in a trial, with help from some unlikely allies. Ultimately, while Worf’s father is proven innocent, Worf must make a difficult choice between his family’s honour, and the good of the Klingon people. This is another one of those great “trial in space” episodes, but this time filtered through the unique perspective of the Klingons, a violent, honourbound society. Michael Dorn and Patrick Stewart are great throughout, as Worf is torn between his loyalties to the Federation, the Klingons, and his family, and Tony Todd turns in a great guest performance, as well.
S3E22 — The Most Toys
Another great episode where Data has to prove his humanity, The Most Toys sees the Android captured by a collector of rare and mysterious artifacts. While it’s a bit of a retread of themes explored in season two’s The Measure of a Man, The Most Toys on the other hand sees Data arguing against someone who simply cannot be reasoned with. Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise try desperately to find and rescue their android pal. There’s a bit of a feeling of old school Trek to this episode, with its outlandish human characters, but it culminates in an excellent couple of scenes where Data appears to react emotionally for the first time… Or does he? The Most Toys ends on an ambiguous and somewhat tragic note, as Data contemplates once more his place in the universe, and what it means to be human.
S3E26, S4E01, S4E02 — The Best of Both Worlds + Family
The two part finale/premiere of season 3 and 4 is widely considered the absolute height of the series, and I’m sure most most fans will agree that the subsequent episode, Family, should be included in that consideration, since it functions as a denouement to the whole story. In The Best of Both Worlds, the unthinkable happens: Captain Picard is assimilated by the Borg, and renamed Locutus of Borg. During his time as Locutus, the captain’s memories and knowledge of Federation defenses is used by the Borg to attack Starfleet, to absolutely devastating results. The significance of these events would continue to have repercussions for years to come (Deep Space 9’s administrator, Benjamin Sisko, notably nursed a deep loathing for Picard after his wife was killed during Locutus’s rampage), leaving both the Federation, and Captain Picard scarred. In particular, the second TNG film, Star Trek: First Contact, depicts Picard’s trauma manifesting in a truly spectacular blood vendetta against his former abductors. Although the crew eventually manages to restore Picard’s humanity, he never completely recovers from the ordeal, and lives in constant fear that one day the Borg may return… and so will Locutus.
Following those events, Family is a much more straightforward episode, and sees Picard return to his family’s ancestral vineyard (check out Star Trek: Picard on CBS All Access for more hot vineyard action!), to spend time with his brother’s family. The relationship between the two is strained at first, as Robert clearly harbors resentment towards his brother’s leaving to pursue a career with Starfleet. The high point of the episode is an emotional fight between the brothers, where Captain Picard fully breaks down and tearfully admits the terror and guilt that’s consumed him following his time among the Borg. We also get to meet Worf’s adoptive human parents, and folks, they are adorable.
S4E21 — The Drumhead
After the Enterprise is sabotaged, Admiral Satie is dispatched to root out the saboteur, ultimately discovering that crewman Simon Tarses is 1/4 Romulan, and not 1/4 Vulcan as he had stated in his application to Starfleet. Using this information as a pretext, Admiral Satie conducts a show trial, condemning Tarses as the saboteur on the basis of his biology. When Picard attempts to defend Tarses, Satie expands her investigation, and begins to question Picard’s suitability for leadership, particularly questioning whether he has truly recovered from his time spent as Locutus. This is maybe the definitive “trial in space” episode of Star Trek, and it features some great twists and turns, while offering a critique of the Federation’s authority structure. Some people use this episode to joke that TNG can tend towards “Horatio Hornblower in space.” Now, I don’t really know what that is, and I absolutely refuse to look it up, but if it leads to more Trek episodes like this, then I’m all for it.
S5E02 — Darmok
While attempting to make contact with a race whose speech appears to consist of a curious series of repeated phrases, Picard is unwillingly beamed down to an alien planet with the captain of the alien ship. While there, they struggle to understand one another, as the alien captain simply repeats the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” much to Picard’s consternation. After several misunderstandings, Picard and the alien captain are confronted with a dangerous creature, and must attempt to work together to defeat it, while the Enterprise crew simultaneously works feverishly to decipher the mysterious alien language. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Temba, his arms wide. Shaka when the walls fell. Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.
S5E25 — The Inner Light
A mysterious probe approaches the Enterprise, and when they investigate, Picard is scanned with a beam of energy, and wakes up in a small village, where his life aboard the Enterprise is cast as a delusion. While Picard initially resists, he goes on to live life as Kamin, an iron weaver, who spends his free time learning to play a simple flute. As his life proceeds, Kamin learns that his planet is suffering from a drought, and increased solar radiation, which will ultimately lead to the end of his entire civilization. Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise tries to find a way to wake Picard from the coma he’s apparently been in since being scanned. This episode is another in a long line of “How can we best permanently damage Picard’s psyche?” and in some ways, the audience’s, as well, especially following the very touching denouement. There’s a good reason why mention of “Picard’s flute” will bring a tear to the eye of even the most stoic of TNG fans.
S6E10, S6E11 — Chain of Command
Another two-parter. Picard, Worf, and Dr Crusher are assigned to run a black ops mission to the Cardassian homeworld, and during their absence, the Enterprise is given to Captain Edward Jellico, whose style of command clashes with the crew’s expectations. When Picard is unexpectedly captured during the mission, he is subjected to all manner of torture by Cardassian military leader, Gul Madred. Madred attempts to break Picard psychologically and emotionally, while the Enterprise crew does their best to get him back. Unfortunately, Jellico’s command style causes problems, particularly when Riker has difficulty following the captain’s orders. It’s another showcase episode for Patrick Stewart, TNG’s not so secret weapon, as he struggles to resist Madred’s indoctrination. As to whether or not Madred was successful… well, ask any TNG fan about these episodes, and they’ll tell you one thing: there are… FOUR LIGHTS.
S6E15 — Tapestry
When Picard is killed in an accident aboard the Enterprise, Q takes him back through his life, A Christmas Carol style, to try and show him how he might have avoided this future. When Picard is given the option to make a different decision, Q returns him to a life which he finds has changed radically. Q is a character who’s at his best when used sparingly, and when his motives are unknown to either the audience or the characters, and he’s at his most enigmatic here, toying happily with Picard, his only ostensible friend, while he relives significant moments from his past. It’s a fun spin on a what-if concept, and one that gives us a lot of insight on how exactly Picard became, well, Picard.
S6E21 — Frame of Mind
Riker finds himself flashing between an alien asylum and his life on the Enterprise, and must determine what is real, and what is not. Not unlike Picard’s journey in The Inner Light, this episode plays with Riker’s perception of reality, and features some great work from Jonathan Frakes. It’s also one of the most surreal, and trippy episodes of the series with scenes that feel almost dreamlike in their execution (a device later used to great effect in seventh season episode, Phantasms, where Data starts dreaming), and manages to suspend your disbelief for juuust long enough to wonder if maybe Riker has been mad this whole time.
S7E15 — Lower Decks
Hot off the heels of Sub Rosa, one of the worst episodes in franchise history (Dr. Crusher falls in love with a ghost who boinked her grandma. No, really.) comes one of the series’ best. Lower Decks follows several young crewmembers aboard the Enterprise as they go about their daily duties, and contend with their lives in deep space. It’s a great little peek behind the curtains at “the rest of the crew” because, outside of our focus on the seven main characters and their associates, we rarely get to see much of the Enterprise’s larger crew. Since the ship itself has a full complement numbering in the hundreds, it obviously makes sense that the whole operation isn’t simply being run by those seven people. There are dozens of people working behind the scenes, most of whom almost never get a moment in the limelight. Lower Decks highlights their contributions, their frustrations, and their sacrifices, many of which simply go unnoticed by the audience week to week, because they just aren’t the focus of the show. Lower Decks takes great pains to show that, in Starfleet, however it doesn’t matter how insignificant you might feel, your contributions matter, even it seems like no one notices.
S7E25, S7E26 — All Good Things
Our final two-parter, and the finale of the Star Trek: The Next Generation. So few shows manage to stick the landing on their final episodes, especially when the later run of the series is as notoriously rocky as TNG’s could be. It’s not that seasons 6 and 7 of the show were bad, so much as the show had generally fallen into a comfortable routine by that point. By this point in a show’s run, the audience is generally familiar with the plot and character beats, and we have a general idea of where we’re going from episode to episode. It’s not necessarily bad, but it can get a little boring. All Good Things is anything but. The episode finds Picard jumping between the past, present, and future, as he navigates an ongoing crisis, issues prior to the Enterprise’s launch in the premiere, and problems 25 years into the future, where Picard has left Starfleet, and returned to his family’s vineyard. Once again, at Q’s behest, Picard must solve a problem involving a time anomaly that grows larger the farther into the past it travels and begins to threaten most of the Alpha Quadrant. If that weren’t enough, Q also reveals to Picard that humanity has been on trial since the events of Encounter at Farpoint, and Q is very close to reaching a verdict. It all depends, as so many things do, on Picard. All Good Things does the impossible and manages to balance grand scale space opera with the small scale personal problems of the Enterprise crew, to craft a satisfying ending to an overall satisfying series.
So that was TNG. Those are the best episodes of the bunch (and a few necessary moments of place-setting early on). If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, these are the ones I recommend. TNG is mostly solid, sometimes bad, and occasionally transcendent. Unfortunately, one thing the show never really seemed to nail down was its female characters. Most of Deanna Troi’s episodes revolved around her falling in love with some new beau, much to Riker’s consternation. Dr. Crusher’s episodes on the other hand, either tended to focus on her mother/son relationship with Wesley, or otherwise revolved around her falling in love with some new beau, much to Picard’s consternation. Pulaski was just awful. She was nothing but needlessly cruel to Data, and was only introduced because one of the producers didn’t like Gates McFadden (a crime, most people would say). And honestly, the less said about how the show treated Tasha Yar in the early going, the better (the term “rape gangs” is thrown around pretty liberally). LeVar Burton’s Geordi LaForge was similarly underutilized as an episode lead, but turned in some excellent supporting work. The storyline where he recreates a famous scientist and then falls in love with that recreation was… not great. But there is otherwise some solid work scattered here and there. I’d recommend watching the whole series, if you have the time, because there are definitely some solid stories I didn’t have room for. There are also some weirdly messy and terrible ones that truly need to be seen to be believed.
Code of Honor — Watch this one to see just the absolute nadir of Star Trek. This episode is so bafflingly and appallingly racist, you’ll wonder how it could have been made in 1967, and then remember it was actually made in 1987.
Justice — Wesley is sentenced to death, and for some reason, the Enterprise crew isn’t happy about it.
Datalore — Surprise! Data has a “brother!” His name is Lore, and he’s not very nice.
Conspiracy — The Federation has been infiltrated by shapeshifting alien mind controllers! This plot point is never mentioned again!
Elementary, Dear Data — Using the holodeck, Geordi creates a Moriarty so intelligent not even Data himself can outsmart him.
The Outrageous Okona — Finally, Star Trek and Joe Piscopo, together at last!
Who Watches the Watchers — After a violation of the Prime Directive, Troi and Riker must contend with primitive aliens who believe Picard is a god.
Deja Q — Q loses his powers, and the Q continuum dump him aboard the Enterprise, much to Picard’s chagrin.
Captain’s Holiday — Picard takes a vacation and meets an intriguing archaeologist/thief.
Hollow Pursuits — Lt Barclay fucks everything up, as usual.
Brothers — Data meets his father! And Lore comes back to fuck everything up, as usual.
Reunion — Worf discovers there is more to his family than he first realized.
Final Mission — Wesley goes on one last mission with Captain Picard.
First Contact — A botched mission to a pre-first contact world leaves a disguised Riker in hospital, injured. But not too injured to make itwith a hot lady alien!
Half a Life — The episode that managed to make Lwxana Troi tolerable, and even sympathetic, after she falls in love with a man whose race unilaterally commits ritual suicide at the age of 60.
Ensign Ro — An interesting look at the side of the Federation you don’t usually see — the part where treaties and nonintervention fail, as Ensign Ro, a Bajoran must contend with her history as a refugee, and her potential future with Starfleet.
Silicon Avatar — The Crystalline Entity from Encounter at Farpoint returns, and the Enterprise teams up with a scientist Kila Marr to track and study the entity… but it turns out Marr has another agenda…
Unification — Hey, they got the real Spock for this two-parter!
First Duty — Wesley and his fellow cadets are on trial for an incident that resulted in the death of a fellow cadet. Picard insists he tell the truth.
I, Borg — A lone Borg drone is taken in by the Enterprise and taught the notion of free will.
Relics — The Enterprise accidentally finds Montgomery Scott’s transporter signature and brings him into the 24th century. He has trouble adjusting to the future’s future.
Schisms — Several members of the crew are abducted by monstrously powerful interdimensional beings and experimented upon. This is never brought up again.
Lessons — Picard must grapple with his personal feelings for a specialist aboard the Enterprise, when he must send her on a dangerous mission.
Second Chances — This is getting out of hand! Now there are two of them! Rikers, that is.
Phantasms — Data starts to dream, and has bizarre recurring nightmares. This episode scared the hell out of me as a kid!
Dark Page — Lwxana Troi falls into a coma, and it’s up to Deanna to figure out why. This is a pretty solid Deanna episode that doesn’t focus squarely on her falling in love, but instead uses her empathic abilities to solve a mystery from her past.
Sub Rosa — You gotta watch this one if only to truly understand that “Dr Crusher is horny for a ghost that seduced her grandma” is a storyline that made it all the way through production.
Pre-Emptive Strike — Ensign Ro finds her loyalty to the Federation tested by a dangerous mission against the Maquis.