A long time ago I wrote a post on my Top 5 Star Trek Original Series episodes. So today I thought I would carry on, and write about some top Next Gen. And since it’s two and a bit seasons as long as TOS, it’s a slightly longer list.
Now, I may have, at some point, once or twice, referred to TNG as The Beige Trek. Because it is beige. And they have too many meetings. Which is very beige of them. But also, I do like it very very much. And sometimes I love it. And sometimes I think it’s meh and then I watch it and sigh and reluctantly concede that, yes, this is a very, very good show. So, out of its impressive 178 episodes, what are my Top 12?
12. The Wounded
It was a struggle to get this down to twelve. If I’d had twenty spaces, I think I’d be reasonably happy I hadn’t missed out anything on my own personal top tier. But, yes, The Wounded. Where we suddenly find out this Federation had this massive great war we’d never heard of. For this is the introduction to the Cardassians. Who are there to creep us out, and then make us feel bad for feeling creeped out, and then we feel sort of justified at being creeped out, but damn it, there’s a peace treaty and no-one wants war…
Mostly though, this is about what happens after the war, and to the people who fought and can’t let go. For once the star of the show isn’t one of our regulars but the most important person in Starfleet history, Miles Edward O’Brien. He fought against the Cardassians and his feelings about that are extensively explored in DS9. He can never completely let go, but in this episode his former captain is even more unable to move on from the war, and tragedy ensues. It’s almost DS9 in its themes and execution.
11. Night Terrors
I think this might be my most unusual choice on the list. Next Gen does flat out horror! One of only two eps where the soundtrack is unrelentingly dark. Gorgeous scares, and while naturally science gives the answers, we’ve still got corpses waking up, creepy nightmares, and people losing rational control cause, hey, everyone needs their sleep.
10. Frame of Mind
This is one hell of a messed up episode, in a good way. Riker’s in a mental institution, and he’s not mad. At least he thinks he’s not mad. It puts some of my deepest fears onscreen: mental health institutions abusing their patients, refusing to trust their patients, making patients play a game in order to be believed. It’s scary, and unsettling, but it’s important. And this is possibly Frakes’ greatest performance. The climax of the story as he shatters one false reality after another is incredibly cathartic.
Bit of a theme in the next three: Romulans! My favourite Trek aliens, though I’m so often disappointed in how they’ve been written. But when it’s good, it’s the best. We get our first real look at Romulan society, with civilians and soup and how to say hello. Spock is also in it. That’s quite good too.
8. The Face of the Enemy
Troi episode! Weird how every time the writers actually give her something to do, it’s great. And this is the best one. Romulans!! Carolyn Seymour! Follow-up to Unification! Romulan society! Conflict between the military and intelligence services! This is the sort of episode Marina Sirtis deserved at least twice every season.
7. The Defector
For a long time this was my fav episode. But I think I overwatched it. It’s still brilliant though, with Admiral Jarok, the Romulan defector, being one of the all-time great Romulan characters. The conflict between his duty to the Empire, his duty as a father, and his duty to his people, is explored beautifully. I love the politics, and the resolution, the utter paranoia of the Romulan state, and Picard bringing in some Henry V to frame the situation.
6. Chain of Command
I think this might have been the one Star Trek my parents watched before they let me see it. (Why couldn’t you have stopped me watching Wrath of Khan???) And yes it was considered suitable viewing for a wee child. I mean, it’s Star Trek. It’s Educational. There’s a fair bit of the contrived and silly in the first episode, but overall it’s massively outweighed by the good. Which are the obvious: Patrick Stewart and David Warner and their every scene; and the maybe less popular view: the crew of the Enterprise being jerks at Jellico for no reason. They’re assholes! Have some respect for your captain! (I love that Jellico is so in the right but I think we’re not meant to be on his side? But I so very, very am.)
There’s a bit of a theme that’s about to develop: Picard and Q and their being awesome together. (Yes, I am ridic excite for the next season of Picard). And this is merely my third fav story where they’re hanging out. But it’s probably the best for pure Picard and Q. And what a pitch: Picard dies, and Q is God (how brilliant is that scene? “I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.”). And while I’m naturally inclined towards eps that at least try to include the whole ensemble cast, Tapestry is great enough I’m cool with Picard and a whole bunch of people I don’t know. Stewart is magnificent as ever, and there’s no better Picard character study.
4. Yesterday’s Enterprise
This one scared the crap out of me as a kid – Garrett and Riker’s death make-up was probably a touch unsuitable for my small person eyes. But it was thrilling then, and it still is now. We get the goodbye that Yar deserves, and Denise Crosby’s delivery of “I’m supposed be dead” kills me every time. Picard and Guinan get their share of top notch scenes and they are electric to watch. They manage to create a truly worthy captain of the Enterprise in Rachel Garrett with only a handful of scenes. She’s also one of the first female captains we see in Starfleet (I believe she’s the third after the doomed captain in Voyage Home, and Tryla Scott).
There’s so much world-building done so efficiently, and some marvellous writing/acting where we see these are absolutely our heroes, a bit harder, a bit harsher, but still good, decent people, being brilliant and doing their best.
For me, the final battle still holds up, and Picard leaping to the tactical console will never not be cool.
3. Q Who
The Borg are introduced as Q flings the Enterprise thousands of light years away. Now, this is one of those episodes with Endless Beige Meetings, but it just so happens to be a great enough episode that I don’t really care. We’re actually properly exploring a strange new world (well, ship) and civilisation! And we get to see Starfleet officers being proper Starfleet explorers! But they are out of their depth. And that’s the brilliance here: this is a threat our heroes can’t handle. And Picard recognises that, and gets one of TNG ‘s most magnificent lines as he admits it: “You wanted to frighten us? We’re frightened. You wanted to show us we were inadequate? For the moment, I grant that. You wanted me to say ‘I need you’? I NEED YOU!” Damn, that’s good stuff.
2. All Good Things…
As the TNG finale, this has everything I could ever ask for. The story is as epic, while still being intimately concerned with the characters. It celebrates the past, looks to the future, and appreciates the present. Patrick Stewart is once again asked to show off just how fine an actor he is, and everyone in the ensemble gets their moments. Even though everyone has aged, setting part of the story before Encounter at Farpoint, and bringing back Yar and O’Brien is inspired. The ep does a wonderful job aping the atmosphere of season one, and allows us to appreciate just how far all these characters have come.
And then there’s the final scene. The final, perfect scene that makes me tear up a bit just thinking about it. It’s warm, it’s joyous, it’s optimistic, and it’s perfect.
1. The Best of Both Worlds
Such a controversial, I know. But this is one thing about TNG that is not over-rated. It’s *so* good. Thirty-one years later, it’s still *so* good. Top-notch Star Trek. Top-notch science fiction.
Its age means it’s easy to criticise the effects, if that’s your thing, but for me nineties Trek holds up superbly in that department. It’s state-of-the-art model work, and that stuff ages ridiculously slowly. And though it might be old hat now, this was only the second time we’d seen a Borg cube, and its design remains incredibly cool, but it was even cooler at the time. It was, like the Borg themselves, so different, so threatening, and so thrilling.
More importantly the ep does magnificent stuff with our characters as we see them contemplate the end of their civilisation. Patrick Stewart is in top form, Whoopi Goldberg gets some of her best stuff, and we get a brilliant foil for Riker in Commander Shelby (who so very deserved return appearances.) For this is really Riker’s story. It’s about his self-doubts, his lack of ambition, his coming face to face with who he is, and what he’s capable of doing. Many of the best scenes are between him and Shelby as we get a rare female character where her being ambitious is seen as a good thing. And the shape of their relationship through the story is a mirror to Riker’s relationship to Picard, and both are used magnificently to explore Riker’s character.
And then the atmospheric plot! It’s dark, it’s scary, it doesn’t let up! It introduces, builds up, and executes the threat in such style. The word iconic is overused, but I do feel there are multiple iconic Trek scenes in this one. My personal favs being Shelby naming the destroyed ships at Wolf 359, and the stab through the chest as we move to Riker’s face when she says “the Melbourne”; and Picard’s “We have engaged the Borg.” I still get shivers.