The Star Trek franchise is a worldwide phenomenon and a cornerstone of science fiction and popular culture. Created by Gene Roddenberry, the series made its debut on television on September 8, 1966 – and now, fifty years, five TV series (not counting the short-lived animated series or the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery) and thirteen feature films later, it’s still going strong. In honor of that incredible milestone, let’s take a look at the Top 10 best episodes of one of the franchise’s most successful spin-offs – The Next Generation.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG for short), also created by Gene Rodenberry, was the successor to the original television series that ran from from 1966 to 1969. Set a full century later, it featured a new captain, new crew and a brand new starship Enterprise. It took a while for the series to find its groove, with the first two seasons being notorious for their overall poor quality, but TNG persevered and got much better over time, running for a full seven seasons. The cast also reprised their roles for four feature films.
10) The First Duty
Young Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton) is probably the most divisive character in TNG. A child prodigy that stood out like a sore thumb and was promoted to the honorary, and ridiculous position of acting ensign in the show’s early years, Wesley started out as an obnoxious, too-smart-for-his-own good Gary Stu insert and never fully recovered. Over time, he only showed up in the occasional guest appearance, as the show’s solution to his poor characterization seemed to just be writing him out completely. The First Duty was one such standalone episode and is, in my opinion, the best Wesley Crusher episode in the whole series. An incident during a training exercise at Starfleet Academy leads to the tragic death of a cadet from a flight team that Wesley was apart of. An investigation is soon underway, and the crew of the Enterprise decides to help out in any way they can in order to clear things up. Unfortunately, the truth behind the incident is not as simple as it initially seems. The reason why I like this episode is because it’s the only one in which Wesley feels like a fully fleshed out character. It’s the first time we see him struggle to come to terms with an actual mistake, and a very costly one at that.
At the same time, his arc intersects with that of Captain Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart), who also had a troubled youth (that will come back later in this list). It’s great to see this man, who throughout the series has been shown to be an exemplary Starfleet officer, acknowledge his own failings and use that experience to try and guide young Wesley as he goes through a similar ordeal. Plus, we finally get to meet the minor supporting character Boothby, the groundskeeper at the Academy who Picard had spoken of in high regard in previous episodes. Granted, all the character work for Wesley that we see here is basically completely undone the next and final time he appears in the series, but The First Duty still stands on its own as a damn good episode.
9) Lower Decks
Lower Decks is a fascinating standalone episode from the show’s final season that lets the audience experience life on board the USS Enterprise through the perspective of a handful of junior officers as opposed to the senior staff, played by the main cast. It’s a welcome new dynamic that gives a welcome sense of depth and personality to the crew of the ship. We may be used to thinking of them as redshirts and goldshirts, but they are people as well, with their own motivations and backstories. Lower Decks also builds on the events of The First Duty, as one of the characters, Bajoran ensign Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill) was on Wesley’s flight team, which is not something that can be easily forgotten or forgiven after the incident.
It’s also interesting how the crew’s mission during the episode is known only to the senior crew members – usually, since they’re principal main characters, the audience would have whatever knowledge they do, but this time, you really don’t know why the ship has a particular heading or why there’s an unknown, off-the-record patient in sick bay. Lower Decks keeps you in the dark, but gives you enough clues to kind of piece the whole thing together. It’s unlike anything the show’s done and it’s very well handled. If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite work, it’s the ending, which is a bit of a downer.
Tapestry is one of TNG‘s fabled Q episodes, which tend to be among the best in the whole series. Q (John de Lancie), an omnipotent being from a race known as the Q Continuum, first appeared in the pilot episode of the series, Encounter at Farpoint, where he put humanity on trial for being a savage race not fit to explore the universe. Since then, he developed an odd fascination with the crew of an Enterprise and with Captain Picard in particular, whom, in his own bizarre way, Q considers something of a friend. In Tapestry, Picard is mortally wounded and his artificial heart is failing – Q shows up an offers him a second chance, sending him back to his youth, right before he received the injury that would force him to get an artificial heart. Picard, who has always lamented the mistakes he made in his past, finally has a chance to set things right, using the knowledge and experience he’s gained with age.
Trying to mess with the past is never as simple as it seems, however, and Picard slowly begins to understand how important those formative years of his life were, because of the mistakes he made and not despite them. It’s a story that’s been done before, but it’s handled very well here and John de Lancie’s deliciously over-the-top antics as Q are almost always a welcome addition.
7) All Good Things
The series finale of Star Trek TNG is often cited as often of the best finales of any show and it’s easy to see why. All Good Things has Picard travel through past, present and future, trying to untangle a mystery while the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. It bookends the series with clever callbacks to its very beginning and ends on a note that’s both unusual and quite appropriate at the same time – a humble, but brilliant payoff to all those years of watching the senior officers playing poker.
Why isn’t it higher on the list? Well, mostly because it’s pretty much exactly what you’d want and expect from a Star Trek TNG finale. It hits the right notes, but doesn’t reach for the sky – after all, Star Trek: Generations, the first of many feature films to star the TNG crew was already well underway, so even though the series was ending, the voyages of the the starship Enterprise were far from over. All Good Things is almost a textbook example of how to do a series finale, and that not-quite-predictability is the reason it’s number 7.
6) Deja Q
Another Q episode makes the cut, and a fine episode it is. In Deja Q, Q once again pesters the crew of the Enterprise, this time claiming that the Continuum stripped him of his powers and made him human. While Picard and the rest don’t quite believe him, they do allow him to stay on-board while they’re trying stop an imminent disaster – an asteroidal moon is losing orbit and is about to crash into a highly populated planet. Watching Q trying to cope with suddenly becoming human leads to some classic fish-out-of-water hi-jinks, which John de Lancie gleefully embraces – but there’s a deeper layer to this, as Q must also come to terms with losing both his immortality and his powers. He is frail, mortal and dependent on others for survival and this newfound vulnerability makes him a more complex and interesting character.
Naturally, his powers are eventually restored – Q is, after all, at his best when used sparingly, so he could hardly become a series regular – but being human, even for a short while, changed him for the better.
5) Yesterday’s Enterprise
Alternate timelines and/or parallel universes are pretty common in science fiction and Star Trek has a storied history with both – Yesterday’s Enterprise being a fine example of how to do it right. When a ship from decades in the past is sent to the present via a temporal anomaly, it causes a ripple in time that creates an alternate timeline, in which the Federation and the Klingon Empire are currently locked in a bitter war. The Enterprise is a military vessel, its crew battle-hardened and weary of the prolonged conflict.
These are dark, desperate times and the contrast with the bright, hopeful world of the series proper is startling. Apart from a fascinating look at a possible alternate history, Yesterday’s Enterprise is also best known for bringing back the character of Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), who was unceremoniously killed off by a monster-of-the-week at the tail end of the first season. It was a laughably clumsy way to write out a main character on your own and Yesterday’s Enterprise corrected that by giving the character a far more dignified send-off, earning back a lot of the goodwill that the early years of the show squandered.
4) Face of the Enemy
Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), the ship’s counselor is, sadly, one of the weaker characters from the main cast, partly because she was forced to wear revealing skin-tight outfits throughout most of the series (until she got a proper uniform in the show’s final stretch) and partly because TNG never seemed to fully make use of her empathic abilities. She was a valuable member of the crew and helped others when they were conflicted or overwhelmed by emotions, but there weren’t that many episodes that really let her shine as a character – fortunately, Face of the Enemy is one of them and it’s excellent. Deanna is kidnapped, surgically altered to look like a Romulan and forced to pretend to be an intelligence officer on board a Romulan warbird.
It’s a highly unusual situation and it puts her diplomatic and improvisational skills to the test. We see Deanna take charge and tackle an extremely delicate and difficult operation head on and it’s a blast. The reason behind her abduction leads to a tense standoff between the warbird and the Enterprise in the second half, which has a brilliant payoff. Face of the Enemy is a wonderful episode full of twists and turns that lets Deanna Troi be a badass, which is more than enough to earn it a spot on this list.
3) The Inner Light/Lessons
I’m kind of cheating here by putting two episodes, but these two work so well together that I have to put them both up. In the penultimate episode of season five, The Inner Light, an unknown probe zaps Captain Picard with some kind of energy beam. In the twenty or so minutes the crew tries to figure out what’s happened, Picard experiences a lifetime as Kamin, a scientist from a long lost civilization. He becomes a respected member of the community. He has children and granchildren. He learns the flute. The old-age makeup in the latter half is unconvincing at best, but apart from that, this is a very emotionally charged Picard-centric episode. The ending is profoundly moving and may be one of the most memorable scenes in the entirety of TNG.
The other episode, Lessons, is from the sixth season and has Picard fall in love with a fellow officer from the Enterprise, Lt. Commander Nella Daren (Wendy Hughes) of stellar cartography. Now, on paper, it sounds like a disposable filler-episode – Captain falls in love, struggles with the idea of possibly ordering his beloved to her death and then his romantic interest is never seen or mentioned for the rest of the series. What makes it really stand out is that it actually ties into the events of The Inner Light. Picard and Daren start to bond over their love of music, with Picard, of course, playing the flute – and eventually, he opens up to Daren about where he learned. Now, it’s been well established that Picard is a very private person, so for him to share such an incredibly personal experience goes to show how much he cares for Daren. It contextualizes his feelings in a way that makes the relationship feel incredibly meaningful, as short as it is. The excellent performances and great chemistry between the two don’t hurt either.
2) Sins of the Father
TNG has a winning streak when it comes to stories that focus on Klingons. If what you’re watching has a Klingon-centric plot, chances are it’s one of the better episodes of the series and Sins of the Father is one of the best. A Klingon officer joins the crew of the Enterprise as part of an exchange program (Commander Riker previously participated in a similar program by joining the crew of a Klingon vessel in A Matter of Honor, which is another great episode) and informs Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) that his father has been branded a traitor to the Klingon empire in light of newly discovered evidence. Worf must travel to the Klingon homeworld to defend his family’s honor and Picard agrees to take the Enterprise there.
It quickly becomes apparent that the situation is a lot more complicated than it seemed at first, as trial of Worf’s family honor is deeply embedded in Klingon politics. Picard stands by his officer, in accordance with Klingon law and tradition, while the crew of the Enterprise races to examine the evidence against Worf’s father. This is a very important episode, both in terms of overarching story for the series, and on a personal level for Worf. The Enterprise’s security chief’s badass credentials have often been questioned, considering how often he got smacked around on the show, but Sins of the Father sees Worf at his best – confident, stoic and ready to make whatever sacrifice is necessary for the good of his family and the Klingon Empire. This is also a fantastic episode for Picard, as he gets to show how deeply he respects and admires one of his officers, while also being a badass, throwing out stiff upper lip one liners that need to be heard to be believed, and even fighting off a few Klingon assassins. Great stuff.
1) The Best of Both Worlds (Part 1)
The Best of Both Worlds Part 1 is the best episode of Star Trek TNG. It features the show’s most popular and most memorable villains – the Borg – and sets the stage for one of the most gut-wrenching cliffhangers in science fiction history. It’s an outstanding episode for Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) whose role as First Officer is put into question by the presence of Lt. Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy), an ambitious young officer that has her sights set on his position.
Riker is forced to ask himself if he’s become complacent with his role as second-in-command, jeopardizing his career in the process and his doubts become all the more pertinent when the Borg return and compromise the safety of Captain Picard. Personal stakes are high and the fate of the Federation hangs in the balance. It’s the perfect TNG episode. Why put only Part 1? Well, I already put two episodes in one spot (All Good Things is also technically a two-parter, but it’s usually shown as a single, double length episode), but the real reason is that Part 2 isn’t as good. It’s still a fantastic episode, but like All Good Things, it’s mostly what you’d expect it to be, which makes it fall short of Part 1.
There are a couple of episodes that didn’t quite make the cut, but still deserve to be mentioned here. The Measure of a Man is a great episode for Data (Brent Spinner), the one-of-a-kind android that aspired to be human. Probably the show’s best character outside of Picard, Data’s childlike innocence and naiveté, combined with his extraordinary intellect and abilities led to a lot of character growth and philosophical debates, as well as some hit-or-miss comedy. The Measure of a Man tackles the question of Data’s status – is he a living, sentient being, or simply property? It’s a smart, well-written episode that tackles complex issues very gracefully. Its sort-of-sequel, The Quality of Life, in which Data himself discovers a new life form and must defend it, is also worth watching for similar reasons. One final episode I’d personally recommend is the season five episode Disaster, in which the Enterprise is crippled, putting various members of the crew in hazardous situations across the ship. It’s a great standalone episode that shakes up the status quo in a very effective way. Deana Troi is the senior officer on the Bridge and she finds herself dealing with the responsibility of command, Captain Picard is trapped with a group of frightened children, whom he’s notoriously awkward around, etc. The crew of the Enterprises is challenged in unexpected, clever ways, which makes for a pretty great story.