Star Trek: The Next Generation viewer’s guide

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In the “Star Trek 4 Dummies” episode of Laser Time, I quickly ran through a “preferred” viewing order for The Next Generation. The goal was to sift through 178 episodes of generally good TV and offer up two episodes per season as a decent starting point for those interested in dabbling without fully committing. I purposely left out some obvious choices because I wanted to offer a solid sampling of “normal” episodes, ones that demonstrate the show at its most typical, week-in week-out formula.

First, a preachy preamble: Star Trek can be ham fisted. It can be hokey and, like this interlude,  it can be preachy. It doesn’t always hit the mark it sets out to strike. But the point is the writers try, and when they succeed, they really deliver on this supremely optimistic view of the future, and in the case of TOS and TNG, inspire generations of writers, actors and scientists to do good work in the real world. This “let’s TRY, dammit!” attitude is part of why it became my favorite show of all time, and I sincerely hope this list motivates holdouts to take a look. And maybe you’ll even enjoy it!

Encounter at Farpoint (Original Air Date 9/28/87)

Farpoint

As you might suspect, the best starting point for a series that spans seven seasons is, in fact, the first episode. As a two-parter, this extra long ep (about 90 minutes) does a decent job of setting the stage not just for the cast, the ship and the mischievous Q, but also the “state of humanity” in the 24th century.

Not long after Jean Luc Picard steps out of the shadows in the show’s opening scene, a seemingly omnipotent alien only known as “Q” manifests on the bridge of the Enterprise D and demands answers. Specifically, why are we out here, what is our purpose, and by the way, humanity is a “grievously savage child race” that has no business this far from home. Q then essentially puts humanity on trial, which Picard – ever the diplomat – delays by arguing Q’s accusations are not presently true of humans. He asks for a test of humanity today, where we have undone poverty, greed, money and the pursuit of power for power’s sake. Q agrees to this test, and then they’re off to Farpoint Station.

There’s a mystery at Farpoint, of course, one Q believes humans will not be able to conceive, much less solve. So, while this may be a rough looking episode and certainly dated to a degree, it’s a thoughtful show that gets things moving. By the end we’ve met the characters, convinced Q we’re no longer barbarians and earned, for the moment, a place among the stars.

Or you know, we could just watch DANCING With the Stars while slamming Flamin’ Hot Cheetos down our throats and complaining about the new Xbox or iPhone or liberals or tea party or whatever petty thing that keeps us in this perpetually catatonic hellscape that has Orwell spinning in his grave. Our call!

 

The Big Goodbye (Original Air Date: 1/11/88)

BigGoodbye

When the first season of a show wins a Peabody Award – given for “distinguished achievement and meritorious public service” – that’s a clear sign something’s going right. This ep, written by Tracy Torme (son of singer Mel Torme), gives us a great political/diplomat story alongside a sci-fi “uh oh technology is going to kill us” sub plot..

A reclusive, insectoid race (Jarada) wants to talk to the Federation, and Picard is the man on the case. However, this race is obsessed with order and protocol (they’re bugs, after all), and a simple mispronunciation 20 years ago led to two decades of silence. Naturally this demand for absolute accuracy has Picard a bit stressed out, so he decides to unwind on the holodeck. His program of choice? A hard boiled vision of ’20s gangsterland, where he’s Dixon Hill, private investigator.

And of course, the Holodeck malfunctions because [reasons] and it’s now a race against time to get Picard off the holodeck before the Jarada conference. The thing is, said malfunction also made it so people can actually die on the holodeck, so the gangsters are now (effectively) shooting real bullets. So that adds some tension. Anywho, it’s a solid-ass Trek tale that, again, is something most television can’t offer and at the VERY LEAST tries to come up with something visually and conceptually interesting, all without depending on character flaws, love triangles or some other easy way out. Plus it’s cool to see these confident thugs try to leave the holodeck…

 

Where Silence Has Lease (Original Air Date: 11/28/88)

WhereSilence

While Trek generally excels in the drama / adventure / morality tale arena, it rarely dabbles it outright horror. And while this episode doesn’t quite scare your pants off, it’s still an uncharacteristically dire scenario that shows how even “perfect” humans can start to crack.

Without spoiling too much (because the less you know, the better), this ep sees the Enterprise trapped inside some form of spacial phenomena. The twist is the phenomena reads as “nothing” on the sensors; even though they can see the distortion, the readings tell them there it literally no mass, no heat, no anything ahead of them. They then get too close, the ‘nothing’ envelops the ship, and now they’re stuck inside this empty void.

Cue a series of unsettling, genuinely creepy moments – including the appearance of another Galaxy class ship (the Enterprise’s double, the Yamato). I don’t want to say much more, because it really is a cool show, and a great example of Trek showing how all life isn’t humanoid, and our concepts of good and evil may not apply to some of that life.

 

Q Who (Original Air Date 5/8/89)

QWho

I purposely avoided too many Q or Borg episodes, because I figure those have worked their way into the public consciousness. You don’t need ME to tell you The Best of Both Worlds or Deja Q are amazing.

But it just so happens the first Borg episode is also a Q episode, and this duo makes for some of the best television 1989 had to offer. Here, Q again appears on the bridge, this time asking to become part of the crew. Why, with his knowledge and seemingly limitless power, he would be invaluable! But Picard declines, saying the crew is fully capable and humanity knows what it’s doing.

Naturally this triggers quite a response from Q. He basically says, “Oh you think you’re so tough? You have no idea what’s out there and your arrogance will get you killed.” To drive this lesson home, Q teleports the ship far off course, and thus begins the long road to not just Best of Both Worlds, but also First Contact (the movie) and many Voyager stories to boot.

The slow, creeping reveal of the Borg is what makes this such a success. The cube is the ultimate function over form, yet its total lack of design makes it supremely intimidating. The individual Borg pay no attention to humans, as they don’t even register as a threat. Here is an enemy that doesn’t feel, doesn’t forget and most importantly, doesn’t negotiate. They exist to exist, and that means stamping out and absorbing anything else in their path. They’re unlike anything the Federation has encountered and, despite being a “lesser” syndicated show, unlike anything most viewers had encountered either.

Even though Q intervenes to save the day, the lesson is still taught – we don’t have all the answers, and there can be battles with no peaceful resolution. Some foes will not listen, will not yield, will not discuss terms or bother declaring war. And even then, brute force is still not the answer. What do you do, and what does it mean to our species now that the Borg know we exist?

16 thoughts on “Star Trek: The Next Generation viewer’s guide

  1. I tried to watch next gen a few times, but the the show just feels off to me. I’m usually pretty good at getting over things I dislike in a t.v. series I know I will enjoy, but there is just something that puts me off about next gen.

  2. I recently watched Where Silence Has Lease and though I can understand A) the points you make and B) why people enjoy it, I just found it awfully, uh… long. Boring. I really couldn’t wait for it to end. And the ending itself is.. stunted?

  3. Thanks a lot for writing this Brett. I’ve actually never seen a single episode of TNG before, but I’ve been meaning to get into it for while ever since I realized it’s all on Netflix. I’ll definitely use this since I probably wasn’t going to fully commit to watching every episode anyway.

  4. So If I were to watch TNG, should I watch the HD remastering or is the original quality the way to go?

    1. Seeing as the whole series is on Netflix, that’s probably the easiest path to take. The Blu rays do look markedly better though, so if you watch the first four eps on this article and enjoy, Season 3 onward is much better and might be worth upgrading to BD.

  5. I finally started TNG because you always talked about how good it was and when they put out the Blu-Rays, I jumped in. I just got to season 3, the first 2 seasons are patchy but luckily this blog http://jphalt-startrekindex.blogspot.co.uk/ has been quite good at letting me know what episodes I should skip. Seems like from Season 3 onward most episodes are great

  6. Good job of convincing me to jump on the wagon (…).
    even though I was around when it aired originally, I only checked it sporadically and it didn’t catch me. but as the saying goes – “with great bandwidth comes great availability” – and knowing where to start should do the trick.

    another thing i’d like to know is what transformers episodes onw should see before the 86 movie (saw it years ago, didn’t recognize a single character), and what later episodes are actually worth watching.

  7. Excellent article Brett, and well done for avoiding at least some (heh) of the obvious episodes to recommend. I personally also love Silicon Avatar, which I’m watching again right now and hasn’t lost anything.

    Deep Space Nine had a pretty damn good finale as well, although that had the excuse of finishing the Dominion War which was always going to be cool.

  8. Oh wow, I’ve been interested in checking out TNG since that Lasertime, so this is basically exactly what I needed. My mother loved it so it’s something that was always on in the background during my childhood but I could never really comprehend what was going on, though weirdly, one of my earliest memories is putting a banana over my face and pretending to be Geordi.

    Also, poor Worf… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edflm7Hh3hs

  9. As a kid I never got Star Trek, and it wasn’t until recently after many years of listening to you guys podcast (and friends begging me to watch) that I finally folded.

    Man, I regret not watching it sooner. Season 1 is rough, but Encounter at Farpoint blew me away with how… large its scope was, especially for a pilot. Then the episode Where No One Has Gone Before (with the Traveler adjusting the Enterprise’s warp engines so they fly across the galaxy to parts unknown) cemented how incredible this show is.

    I can’t put it as elegantly as Brett, but even now, to someone who only knew of it through pop culture references, it still shocks me. So few things have a positive outlook on the future, and considering this stuff is 20+ years old? That’s the real kicker.

    Star Trek 4 Dummies was a great, great episode and I would love to listen to a monthly, quarterly, whatever-would-work podcast where Brett and guests mused and talked about Star Trek.

    I’m just about to finish season 2 and I cannot wait to start season 3 after the incredible hype its received from everyone.

  10. About a year ago I made watching Star Trek a part of my “sleep schedule”, passively watching an episode before bed on weekends. I started with ToS, which was alright, but Next Gen has been great.

    I’m nearing the end of Next Gen, and I’m really glad I gave the series a fair shot. It’s entertaining enough, and I’m even more glad that I can appreciate the milieu of references and at-length conversations on the subject. I enjoy most of the popular episodes, including those mentioned here.

    Two of my favorite episodes took me by surprise as they were basically horror-themed; “The Game” and “Night Terrors”. The Game was basically Body Snatchers, but Night Terrors felt like the beginnings of a Dead Space scenario… I even grabbed a few screens: http://willwakeup.tumblr.com/post/35524148495/star-trek-tngs-night-terrors-somehow-gave-me

  11. I watched TNG almost religiously as a kid and i’m sitting here reading this piece just nodding my head in agreement to every entry.

    Then i get to the top of page three and see the pic of Picard at the end of The Inner Light and, i shit you not, teared up.

    I probably haven’t seen that episode in almost a decade, as it is rarely shown in reruns on Syfy today or on TNT, USA and a few others in years past, and for some reason that episode resonates with me the most…

  12. Just finally watched this show over the course of last year and it is one of my favorite shows ever, I will be going back to this throughout my life many times for certain. Just wonderful, thanks for always talking about it Brett as that definitely helped in getting me too check it out.

    Working on the fifth season of DS9 now and enjoying that quite a lot as well, can’t believe I had pretty much just watched the movies and some random episodes until so recently.

    Thanks again for always pushing ST Brett very good article I will probably keep in mind when trging to sell this to friends.

  13. Started watching this lately on Netflix and this list seems to be a pretty good guide so far (even though I’m watching it all anyway). Thanks Brett!

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