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How do you follow up one of the most beloved sci-fi TV shows of all time?
The cast and crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation can answer that question in a way few in Hollywood can, with the voyages of the Enterprise-D managing to step out of the considerable shadow cast by the original crew.
Patrick Stewart (Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Riker), LeVar Burton (La Forge), Michael Dorn (Worf), Gates McFadden (Crusher), Marina Sirtis (Troi) and Brent Spiner (Data) brought Star Trek to new heights over seven seasons and 178 episodes.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Star Trek this month, The Hollywood Reporter counted down the top 100 episodes of Star Trek across all six TV series. Every day through Friday, we're breaking that list down even further — ranking the episodes by individual series.
Here, you'll find the cast and writers behind TNG sharing what makes these episodes the best of what the crew had to offer.
It turns out, sometimes it pays to be paranoid. Picard and Riker discover an alien infestation, with parasites preparing to slip into the Federation by taking over officers. The episode culminates with Riker and Picard teaming up to take down the possessed Lt. Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan) to explosive results. It's the favorite episode of TNG property master Alan Sims, who had to use all of his talents for the hour. "Creating the tongue puppet parasites, the live worms that were eaten by Riker to puppeteering the queen parasite that burst out of Dexter Remmick's host body … What an episode," recalls Sims.
"Skin Of Evil"
Tasha Yar's death famously came from actress Denise Crosby's desire to leave Trek (though she would later return as an alternate timeline version of character and then, the character's daughter, Sela). It's shocking for killing off a main character, and her funeral gives us an early example of Data's journey to understanding humanity.
Patrick Stewart stepped behind the camera to direct TNG's Halloween episode, which saw Data begin having nightmares — and gave viewers one of the most iconic and schlocky scenes in Star Trek history: the cellular peptide Troi cake (with mint frosting!).
If Data's creator Noonian Soong could create an android — why couldn't Data do the same? The surprisingly funny and touching episode showed Data dealing with loss after he creates — and loses — a daughter. The episode marked the directorial debut of Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker), who would go on to be among the most prolific actor-turned-directors in Trek history.
"They were always capable, but you saw the progression of them becoming not just good directors — but becoming really good directors," Michael Dorn (Worf) says of working with costars Frakes and LeVar Burton (Geordi La Forge) as directors.
Brent Spiner gets to show off his considerable acting chops in this episode, playing Data, his brother Lore, and their creator Dr. Noonien Soong — who has called his sons home to say goodbye as he nears death. There's a real sweetness to Lore, who is genuinely upset when he learns Dr. Soong is dying, though that's undone when Lore attacks his father later in the episode, which also introduces the notion of Data's emotions chip.
The shine starts to come off Commander Riker in this episode in which he's forced to come to terms between the demands of his duty to the Enterprise, and to his former commanding officer, who is up to no good. In many ways, this episode feels like a mix between the holier-than-thou TNG and the less perfect original series, giving Riker's blind loyalty to his superiors a long overdue exploration. Of course, his former superior officer is none other than Terry O'Quinn, showing both slightly more hair and slightly more humanity than he would as Lost's John Locke.
"Cause and Effect"
Forget going back to a period of Earth's history to hang out with Mark Twain — this Next Generation time travel story from writer Brannon Braga sees the Enterprise-D crew stuck in a loop that leads in their deaths over, and over. The teaser, showing the Enterprise being destroyed, may just be the greatest opening in Star Trek history.
"Frame Of Mind"
If David Fincher had directed a Star Trek episode in the early 90s, perhaps it would have been something along these lines. The episode sees reality blur as Riker is imprisoned in an alien insane asylum and told he has committed murder. Jonathan Frakes gives a stellar performance of a tortured Riker that is unlike anything viewers saw in the show before or after.
The crossovers between The Next Generation and the original series were remarkably few, as if those working on the new show were fully aware of the potential that it would be overcome by nostalgia. This late-era episode — which brought James Doohan's Scotty back from the void to deal with the fact that most of those he knew were now gone — threatened to be every bit as sentimental as that synopsis sounds, but managed to avoid that fate thanks to some nice performances from Doohan and LeVar Burton's Geordi LaForge, and a great script from future Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore.
"The Lower Decks"
"Have you ever had a dream of working on the Starship Enterprise? I know — like every night!" says The Guardian's Hoffman of one of his favorite Next Gen episodes. "This season 7 Next Generation episode offers a glimpse at what life is like for the members of the crew who are off to the side, the ones who aren’t sure if Captain Picard knows their name and, yes, the ones who are in the most danger during away missions."
Star Trek always struck gold when Picard entered the court room, and in this episode he spoke out after one of his crew was the victim of a witch hunt, partially for being a quarter Romulan (not Vulcan, as he said on his Starfleet Academy application). Admiral Norah Satie (Oscar nominee Jean Simmons) conducted a trial, and makes it into an indictment of Picard himself.
"Jean Simmons was a joy to work with," recalls Michael Dorn, who rates the episode as his favorite from his Next Generation years. "If you watch the very ending, it's a very cool scene between Picard and Worf, basically talking about how you have to be on guard from people like Satie. Constantly."
By the final season of TNG, the series was beginning to strain to find new stories to tell about the much-loved cast. On the face of it, audiences had seen the basic concept of "Parallels" before — a crew member finds themselves traveling to a different dimension without any control — but what makes this episode special isn't just the insight it provides into the usually all-too-insular Worf, but also the thrill of seeing so many "What If"? versions of familiar ideas from the series' past. As the series headed towards its conclusion, it was a surprisingly graceful, and fun, way to provide fan service without ruining the show as a whole.
Having successfully defined the Borg as an almost unbeatable hive mind of destructive force, "I, Borg" sets out to do the seemingly impossible and humanize them. The result is something that speaks as much to Star Trek's inherent humanist outlook, as one Borg is given his individuality back while Picard and Guinan are forced to overcome their own prejudices against the enemy that in some ways ruined both of their lives. More ethically tricky than a lot of TNG, it's to be lauded for showing how flawed the leads can be — and also raising the specter of the many deaths the Enterprise was responsible for in "The Best of Both Worlds" two-parter.
"As a kid watching Star Trek I would never have imagined that I would be the first Borg to define an entire alien race- playing Hugh has shaped my life in so many great ways, proud to be a part of the legacy," says guest star Jonathan Del Arco.
"Redemption Parts I & II"
The original series may have primarily been the Kirk, Spock, Bones show, but The Next Generation was able to truly have seven leads — each getting his or her own time to shine multiple times a year. Next Generation celebrated its 100th episode by delving deeply into Worf's story, examining a family dishonor that has plagued him. It's a complicated and undeniably badass arc, seeing Worf resign from Starfleet, Picard navigate the tricky waters of a Klingon civil war, and the Enterprise bridge crew temporarily commanding their own ships. For good measure, there's the return of Denise Crosby as Sela, Tasha Yar's half-Romulan daughter, born after the "Yesterday's Enterprise" version of Yar went back to the past.
"The Measure of a Man"
The emotional touchstone of Next Generation was Data's quest to understand humanity, and there's no more poignant example than the android's very sentience being put on trial — with Picard and Riker finding themselves on opposite sides of a trial for Data's rights and life.
"Even though I was hardly in the episode, I thought it encapsulated everything that was good about Star Trek," recalls recalls Marina Sirtis (Troi), of her favorite episode from TNG.
"Elementary, Dear Data"
Holodeck episodes became a mainstay of Star Trek beginning with Next Generation — and the greatest contribution to this genre came courtesy of Data's love of Sherlock Holmes. Geordi asks the computer to create an adversary who could beat Data, and the computer grants that wish in the form of the sentient Moriarty (Daniel Davis).
"I was twenty years old when we began to boldly go and twenty three years later, I was going with them," recalls Davis, a fan from the days of the original series. "I was sent sides for an episode of The Next Generation called 'Elementary, Dear Data.' I auditioned for the role of Professor James Moriarty and two days later I was on the holodeck with Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton. It was a brilliant script that combined the Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek mythologies. But it was mostly Star Trek, and presaged the questions of reality vs. virtual reality, computer generated consciousness, whether self awareness is all that is required to define our humanity."
"Ship in a Bottle"
Daniel Davis had already established himself as one of Next Generation's greatest villains with his turn as Moriarty in season 2, and he cemented his status with the sequel, which raised even greater questions about the rights of artificial intelligences and the nature of reality. The holodek program is initially able to outsmart the likes of Data and Picard — who ultimately grants Moriarty his wish to live in the real world, though he in fact will continue to live in a holographic simulation in a Matrix-level twist that predates the 1999 film by years.
"It was an extraordinary thing to be a part of and five years later, I was able to revisit the character and some very mind bending plot twists," recalls Davis of his work on Next Generation. "The cast and crew were as great a pleasure to work with as any I've known in my career. And thanks to the world of conventions, I'm able to enjoy reunions with them from time to time. Cogito Ergo Sum! Happy Anniversary, Live Long and Prosper."
"All Good Things"
Trying to sum up seven years' worth of adventures seemed like a tall order for the show's grand finale, but writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore pulled off the near-impossible with a story that doesn't just send Picard spinning through time into the past of the series and the future of the characters, but goes all the way back to the pilot of the series to reveal that everything really had been leading up to this moment, but no-one had realized it just yet. Add in some fond farewells from familiar faces and great performances from the regular cast, clearly relishing their last chance to play on TV together, and you have arguably the best series finale of any of the Star Treks.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, ad veteran Trek producer Ronald D. Moore recalls his first meeting with Patrick Stewart years earlier on set of the writer's first episode, "The Bonding."
"He was very gracious meeting this young writer and in my enthusiasm, I pitched him the story for the next episode I was writing," says Moore. "He listened with a smile, then said, 'Lovely. Just bear in mind that the Captain doesn’t do nearly enough screwing and shooting in this show,' and then he walked away."
"Chain of Command, Parts I & II"
There! Are! Four! Lights! The two-part "Chain of Command" manages to mix another bravura performance by Patrick Stewart — the second episode, which focuses on Picard being tortured by the Cardassians, is compelling viewing thanks to the interplay between Stewart and David Warner as Gul Madred — with a sly commentary on the status quo of the show itself, with Picard's surly temporary replacement (Ronny Cox's Edward Jellico) finally letting Deanna Troi wear a real Starfleet uniform and calling some of the regular cast out on their storytelling tropes. A victory lap from when the show was at its peak.
No alien race in Star Trek history has been as terrifying as The Borg — and it all began with Q flinging the Enterprise to the other side of the galaxy. The hive mind villain's terror would only increase with "Best of Both Worlds" — and subsequently lose some of its mystique as the Borg was further explored with "I, Borg" and in Voyager. But it all begins here, where the Borg is at the height of its mystique.
Not many shows would be gutsy enough to start an episode by killing off the leading man, but TNG was in the middle of its imperial period, and knew that Picard could be magic-ed back to life via the omniscient Q at any point. He does indeed return, but with a twist — given the opportunity to change his past by Q, he takes it and finds himself a lesser man as a result. Essentially "It's A Wonderful Life," Trek-style, the episode reveals more about what makes Picard tick (literally; the Macguffin is his artificial heart) and plays out as a morality tale about letting go of regrets over past experiences.
The episode followed the traumatic events of "Best of Both Worlds" and allowed Picard to deal with the trauma of being made into a Borg pawn who murdered thousands of people. Pausing to consider a previous episode was a rarity for Trek at the time — as the show went from adventure to adventure without stopping to reflect on what had come before. It contains the best Picard monologue of the series — but not everyone was a fan of the episode.
"Gene Roddenberry hated it. He wanted to throw it out," Ron Moore, then a young writer on Next Generation, told THR last year. "We all met in Gene's office and Gene just said 'this isn't the 24th century.' 'These brothers reflect outdated, 20th-Century modes of childhood development. Mankind had solved these kind of issues by then. I hate this.' " Fortunately for us, the episode made it to air.
Considered one of the greatest sci-fi stories every told on television, the story grew from Next Generation's unusual policy of allowing the submission of unsolicited story pitches. Writer Trent Christopher Ganino pitched the story and ultimately shared a credit with Eric A. Stillwell, then a production assistant on TNG. This Next Generation tale explores what would happen had a key historical event not kept the peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. It turns out, Picard would be in charge of a militarized version of the Enterprise, and Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) would still be alive. The Enterprise-D teams up with the Enterprise-C, whose crew ultimately decides to return to their own time to sacrifice their lives to defend a Klingon outpost, thus restoring the universe to its proper timeline. Tasha goes with them … and later we learn gave birth to a daughter.
"The Inner Light"
Without doubt the best Star Trek episode named after a George Harrison song — although who could forget Enterprise's third season classic "Wah-Wah"? — this episode is a poignant showcase for Patrick Stewart, who gets to live out the remainder of Jean-Luc Picard's life in just 40-odd minutes after the captain is transported into the life of an alien scientist after being zapped by a probe on the Enterprise bridge. Watching him grow old against the backdrop of a dying planet is one of the most beautiful things TNG managed during its seven year run. No wonder this episode won the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
"The Best of Both Worlds Parts I & II"
The two-part episode was the first (and many consider the greatest) cliffhanger in Next Generation history, seeing Picard abducted by the Borg and forced to be its de facto head, Locutus. The arc introduced layers of psychological complexity to the show and would pay off with 1996's Star Trek: First Contact, considered the finest TNG film.
"All of us were quite thrilled they had the balls to leave Picard on the Borg cube," Jonathan Frakes told THR last year for the arc's 25th anniversary. "It's commonplace now. Shows like Lost and House of Cards — they'll kill off a regular and think nothing of it. This was 1990. It was not commonplace to be killing off any of your series regulars. That was a big "who shot J.R." type of plot."
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