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In the late 1980s, Gene Roddenberry reinvented his game-changing Star Trek franchise with a new cast of characters, led by Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The result, Star Trek: The Next Generation, changed the franchise forever.
Fans spent seven years tuning into the adventures of the Starship Enterprise-D. Its popularity grew to a fever pitch in its final season, where it became the first syndicated program to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for best dramatic series. After its finale, its legacy has only grown through an HD remake, four feature films and an upcoming sequel series focused on Picard.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of The Next Generation‘s series finale, The Hollywood Reporter lists, in chronological order, the 25 best episodes of the series’ 178 installments. So grab an Earl Grey tea (hot!), turn off those four lights and prepare to be transported.
“Encounter at Farpoint” (Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2)
Roddenberry started his follow-up to the original series with a bang: putting humanity on trial. The Next Generation‘s pilot not only introduces the crew of the Enterprise, bringing together Picard and first officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), but also debuts playful and perennial nemesis Q (John de Lancie). The highlight of the episode comes from the spectacle of the Enterprise’s saucer section separation, a marvel in technology at the time and indicator that TNG would be a worthy successor in the captain’s chair.
“Skin of Evil” (Season 1, Episode 23)
When actress Denise Crosby wanted to opt out of her contract, the show created a memorable ending for security officer Tasha Yar. Her death occurs with surprisingly little fanfare, at the receiving end of a blow from the malicious and murky alien Armus. But the episode concludes with Yar imparting heartfelt final words to each of the senior crewmembers on an idyllic holodeck hill. Her speech represents how quickly a crew can become a family, and how painful it can be to lose one of those members.
“Conspiracy” (Season 1, Episode 25)
Though the first season of TNG is its shakiest, its final episodes showcased what would soon be the series’ trademark breadth of storytelling. “Conspiracy” follows up on a previous plot that mentioned an unknown force infiltrating Starfleet Command. It turns out this force is a species of parasites, infecting and controlling the higher ranks to dominate the galaxy. This episode is most remembered for the effect of an admiral’s exploding head, an image so graphic that it was initially banned from broadcast in the U.K.
“The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, Episode 9)
As Starfleet’s first android officer, Brent Spiner’s Lieutenant Commander Data inspired many examinations of what it means to be human. The best example comes in “The Measure of a Man,” which sees a cyberneticist attempt to seize him for disassembly and study. Data is put on trial to argue whether his sentience elevates him from mere Starfleet property. The episode culminates in a passionate courtroom performance from Picard as Data’s lawyer. He was not only able to earn the android his freedom, but also provide years of discourse in discussing the rights of artificial intelligence.
“Deja Q” (Season 3, Episode 13)
Q’s godlike powers were the source of many TNG storylines. But the finest came when said powers were stripped, as the now-castrated Q learns the ways of mortals. It’s an opportunity for the crew to exact revenge on their consistent tormentor, as well as allow John de Lancie to express some melodramatic and sentimental aspects of his character. The relationship between him and Data, both classmates on the human condition, is delightful, especially when the former gifts the latter with the ability to laugh. Additionally, this episode produces the infamous Picard facepalm, a reaction that launched a thousand memes.
“Yesterday’s Enterprise” (Season 3, Episode 15)
One of TNG‘s first forays into time travel is momentous, as the emergence of a time rift sets reality onto a completely alternate timeline. The Federation and Klingons are at war, with Picard leading a militarized ship and Tasha Yar back on deck. Bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) is the only one who knows the status quo, leading an entire ship to sacrifice themselves at a Klingon outpost to revert the universe. While the episode is a welcome return for Crosby, it also gives the series a second chance to provide Yar with the noble ending the show denied her character initially.
“The Offspring” (Season 3, Episode 16)
In an episode both hilarious and heartbreaking, Data tackles the difficulties of parenting. Building an android daughter, he and the crew show her the human experience, as Picard fends off a Starfleet admiral looking to separate her from her newfound family. She ends up tragically shutting down because of her rapidly-advancing interface, leaving Data alone in his Sisyphean task of understanding the people around him. “The Offspring” also serves as the directorial debut of Jonathan Frakes, whose unique style led him to take the chair for many other episodes in the franchise, as well as two Trek films.
“Sarek” (Season 3, Episode 23)
While TNG lacks a Vulcan main character, its take on the logical race produces one of its best installments. Mark Lenard reprises his role from the original series as Spock’s father Sarek, in the throes of a disease that causes him to lose emotional control. With a trade resolution on the line, Picard volunteers to mind meld to carry the load, resulting in Stewart running the gamut of fury, ecstasy, and despair. While Sarek’s affliction draws parallels to dementia, Michael Piller’s script also served as a sign of the times, with Roddenberry’s health simultaneously in decline before his death in 1991.
“The Best of Both Worlds” (Season 3, Episode 26 & Season 4, Episode 1)
“Fire.” With one word, Star Trek transformed its storytelling. After introducing the Borg in season two, this two-parter accelerates them into the role of main antagonists, showing their collective danger as they aim to destroy Earth. Their envoy: An abducted Picard, converted into mouthpiece Locutus. Part one ends on the series’ biggest cliffhanger, as a Riker-led Enterprise fires upon the Borg and their former captain. “All of us were thrilled they had the balls to leave Picard on the Borg cube,” Frakes told THR in 2015. “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.”
“Family” (Season 4, Episode 2)
The follow-up to “The Best of Both Worlds” pushes Picard’s psychological consequences front and center, a break in TNG‘s continuity. The captain attempts to take some time away from his trauma by visiting his brother at his country vineyard. A conflict between the two turns physical with a fight in the mud, but the mood quickly shifts when Picard admits his guilt in nearly being the instrument of humanity’s demise. It’s another remarkable performance from Stewart, as he shows that an iconic captain like Picard is still, to quote his brother, “a human being after all.”
“The Drumhead” (Season 4, Episode 21)
Star Trek’s foundation is discussing the themes of today through the setting of tomorrow. One example is “The Drumhead,” a statement on McCarthyism and the dangers of fanaticism. Picard delivers another winning courtroom performance as he defends a cadet outed as Romulan. But the standout is Jean Simmons as Admiral Satie, whose initial judiciousness succumbs to her bloodthirsty biases. The last scene, one of Michael Dorn’s favorites, has Picard speaking to the wolves in sheep’s clothing that exist today. “Someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish — spreading fear in the name of righteousness.”
“Redemption” (Season 4, Episode 26 & Season 5, Episode 1)
Worf’s role on the show allowed TNG to create several stories around the politics of the Klingon Empire. Elements were slow-played throughout the first four seasons, including Worf’s discommendation from the Klingon High Council and a series of assassinations. But it all came to a (ridged) head in “Redemption,” as the Klingons break into full-out civil war. The jam-packed story involves Worf resigning from Starfleet, Picard navigating rough diplomatic waters, and Data commanding a ship. But the biggest twist comes in the debut of Sela, Tasha Yar’s half-Romulan daughter from the events of “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” also played by Crosby.
“Darmok” (Season 5, Episode 2)
It’s the episode that taught every Trekker the story of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Picard, stranded on the surface of a dangerous planet, must work together with a Tamarian officer, who can only speak in metaphors. As absurd as the concept may be, it’s a stark allegory on how to bring down the walls of communication that exist between societies. As Ian Bogost writes for The Atlantic, “Perhaps one day we will learn this lesson of the Tamarians: that understanding how the world works is a more promising approach to intervention within it than mere description or depiction.”
“Disaster” (Season 5, Episode 5)
Though the show boasts an outstanding ensemble cast, it often struggled with writing stories for the ship’s empathic counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). “Disaster” puts the characters in unusual pairings and situations, including Troi in the captain’s chair, as she works with a combative crew to prevent the ship’s destruction. Elsewhere, Picard confronts his distaste in children when he’s trapped with three of them in a turbolift, and Worf becomes an impromptu doula as he delivers Keiko O’Brien’s (Rosalind Chao) baby.
“The Outcast” (Season 5, Episode 17)
The first Star Trek episode to broach homosexuality and gender identity centered on the androgynous J’nai. One member of the species struggles with her feelings for Riker, concealing a closeted gendered identity. After being outed, they deliver a passionate monologue that serves as a reprieve to politicians acting to stymie LGBTQ rights, “What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?” Unfortunately, their speech falls on deaf ears, and in one of the series’ darkest endings, they are coerced to undergo conversion therapy.
“Cause and Effect” (Season 5, Episode 18)
Massive systems failures. Frantic shouting. The destruction of the Enterprise. Then it all starts over again. This is the unique repetitive structure of “Cause and Effect.” It turns out the ship is stuck in a time loop, and the crew must piece together memories from the various repeats to work their way out of it. A complex story by Brannon Braga gets its legs from Frakes’ direction, making sure every repeated scene is done from a new unique viewpoint. The episode proved to be so popular that the concept was re-utilized in an episode of Star Trek: Discovery.
“I, Borg” (Season 5, Episode 23)
Where does one go after portraying a series’ big bad as destructive, unified, and nearly invincible? “I, Borg” unpacked the threat posed during “The Best of Both Worlds,” as the crew captures an injured Borg in the hopes of using him as a weapon of mass destruction against his people. Their captor begins to separate from the collective and gain free will, questioning his new place in the universe. It’s a stark episode as Guinan, Picard and the audience by proxy take a hard look at the creatures so brutally villainized and question what heart beats inside that metallic shell.
“The Inner Light” (Season 5, Episode 25)
While Trek’s creativity spans countless planets, its most beloved story focuses on only one location. An intruding probe causes Picard to live out 40 years as an alien scientist on a slowly dying planet. It’s yet another powerhouse performance by Stewart, as he is taken on a journey of love, loss and ultimately legacy, as it turns out this simulation was to impart the memories of the now-extinct planet. The episode closes with Picard’s solemn flute song in their honor, but the show whistled a happier tune when “The Inner Light” received the Hugo Award for Dramatic Performance.
“Relics” (Season 6, Episode 4)
Crossover with the original series was rare in TNG to not cloud the skies with nostalgia. But James Doohan broke form, returning aboard the Enterprise as Montgomery Scott after decades in limbo. Scotty struggles to place himself in the new era, telling Picard while on a replica of the old Enterprise, “I don’t belong on your ship. I belong on this one. This was my home. This was where I had a purpose.” The script, from future Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore, does find a place for him, as he and Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) combine engineering efforts to save the day.
“Chain of Command” (Season 6, Episodes 10 & 11)
“There. Are. Four. Lights!” This two-parter showcases the true brutality that comes with the art of war, as Star Trek does 1984 in 2369. Picard gets ambushed in a Cardassian trap, then maliciously tortured in the hopes of divulging Federation secrets. It’s an arduous test of will for the captain, as he struggles to maintain rigidity under the extreme pain and harsh lights. What makes this story shine even brighter are the dazzling guest performances from Ronny Cox, who plays Picard’s militaristic replacement, and Trek film veteran David Warner, who embodies his sadistic yet complicated tormentor.
“Tapestry” (Season 6, Episode 15)
Though references had been made to Picard’s youth and his artificial heart, it took until now to bring that story front and center. After dying during a mission, Q — channeling Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life — offers Picard the opportunity to change the past, a second chance at life. Doing so, though, puts him on a path to timidity, and he discovers what makes him tick is his recklessness, a vital thread in his colorful tapestry. “Tapestry” showed while the decisions made in one’s youth may be hurtful or regretful, they are parts to the sum of the person they’ll become.
“Frame of Mind” (Season 6, Episode 21)
“Frame of Mind” is TNG at its most experimental. Brannon Braga’s script melts the walls of reality, as Riker continually shifts between the Enterprise and an alien insane asylum. Frakes gets the opportunity to go dark with the first officer’s usual good-natured attitude, as he runs himself ragged questioning his sanity. It’s a dark and ambitious installment of the franchise that had never been done before, and has never been done since.
“Parallels” (Season 7, Episode 11)
Braga’s next hit came with his take on the multiverse, an expansion on what was first broached in “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” This time the passenger is Worf, whose trip back to the ship derails when he begins to hop between alternate dimensions. Having the Klingon be the surprising center is a highlight of Michael Dorn’s fantastically humorous and befuddled take on the character, and presents several “What if?” scenarios that cash in on years of fan service. One of those elements is the romantic pairing of Worf and Troi, a decision still divisive to fans today.
“Lower Decks” (Season 7, Episode 15)
After years of watching the adventures of the senior staff, Star Trek finally pulled back the curtain on the other characters who frequent the Enterprise. “Lower Decks” showcases a set of junior officers, with Worf, Riker and Geordi as their bosses. The group struggles with proving their worth to their superiors, hoping to rise to their rank eventually. The episode’s change of pace proved essential for the franchise, deepening the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict that continued in Deep Space Nine. The “Upstairs Downstairs in space” format also inspired Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies, inspiring their annual Doctor-less episode.
“All Good Things…” (Season 7, Episodes 25 & 26)
To close out the series, TNG created a feature-length time-spanning epic. A time anomaly sends Picard hopping across decades, ranging from his first mission aboard the Enterprise to when the crew is old and gray. It all comes back to Q’s trial from the pilot, showing how far the series has come with its characters, yet how much it maintained the Roddenbarrian theme of optimism in humanity. Despite the massive scope of the episode, the series ends on a simple note as the crew sits down to one of their many poker games. “Five-card stud, nothing wild,” says Picard, dealing out cards to his staff and closest friends, “and the sky’s the limit.”
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