The Inner Light (Original Air Date: 6/1/92)
One of the most obvious choices, I agree. But it’s such a powerful episode – for writing and humanization of the seemingly infallible Captain Picard, and not effects or action – that it simply must be included.
Within the first few minutes of the episode, Picard is zapped by a strange probe and awakens in a village where everyone calls him “Kamin.” At first he demands to be returned to the Enterprise, but the rather docile and non-threatening villagers say he’s just waking up from a deadly fever and all that stuff about spaceships and aliens is a hallucination. Naturally he resists this, but as weeks, months, years roll on, he finally accepts that Kamin is his real name, and his real life is on this planet.
And that’s basically the whole show. He lives an entire lifetime in the span of one show, a life he never had, with a family, close friends and children. Imagine returning from that, only to wake up back on the Enterprise and realize 20 minutes have passed. It’s a humbling, devasating, enriching moment for Picard, one that ultimately won the show a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
Tapestry (Original Air Date: 2/15/93)
By this point in the show, we know Picard has an artificial heart. It’s the result of a rather brash decision he made in Starfleet Academy, where he cheated and then assaulted a group of alien thugs despite being outmatched. He ended up impaled with a knife and gravely injured, and this consequence changed his life – it brought him down to earth, essentially taking the Kirk out of him and molding him into the disciplined Picard we know.
Sadly, that same decision also leads to his modern-day death, as Tapestry opens with his artificial heart irreparably damaged by phaser fire. If he had a regular heart, he would have lived. So, Q takes this opportunity to show Picard “what might have been” and let him survive, but only if he can change his fate by avoiding that academy scrap in the first place.
Of course Picard succeeds, but this breach of character sends him down a mundane, totally average path in life. That difficult lesson was never learned, and instead this Picard learned to play it safe, to avoid risks and stay within the norm. You see the blue science uniform above? That’s the highest he can rise in this world, and this new, juxtaposed Picard (old mind trapped in the new ‘safe’ reality) would rather die than carry on like this.
As is Star Trek tradition, they undo and solve all this mess in the last five minutes. And again, Q steps in to save the day (though his intervention is what allowed the episode to take place at all, so it’s expected). But hoo boy, what a ride.
Timescape (Original Air Date: 6/14/93)
Ah, back to some sci-fi weirdness. There’s no Big Question to consider or huge character arc to see, it’s just a fun, visually striking episode about the fabric of space/time. Neato!
Picard, Troi, Data and Geordi return to the Enterprise only to find it locked in battle with a Romulan Warbird. But like, literally locked – it’s frozen in time, with phasers and explosions floating in place. After some technical trickery, the quartet is able to pierce the time bubble and examine it, but once on board things only get weirder.
They see things like Dr Crusher apparently being shot by a Romulan. They see a warp core breach in progress. They travel to the Romulan ship and see similar, seemingly contradictory events unfolding there as well. In some places it seems like the Enterprise was trying to assist the Warbird, others it looks like they’re fighting to the death. Whaaaa?
The answer is… some technobabble silliness best left to the show. I just wanted this in here to balance out all the ACTING ACTING ACTING of the previous few episodes.
All Good Things.. (5/23/94)
Ah, symmetry. Notice how this image is just like Encounter at Farpoint? That’s cuz Picard once again finds himself at the mercy of Q and his omnipotent judgment. But this time, it’s supposedly Picard who’s responsible for the crisis – a spacial anomaly that travels back through time and undoes humanity!
This double-length series finale takes us to the future, back to the past (specifically the first episode’s costumes, cast and set design) and through a roller coaster ride in the present. It’s the best possible ending for the show, and better than any of the TNG movies produced afterward. For all the crap I give Ron Moore (and others give Brannon Braga), they crafted what I consider the best final episode of any show, ever. I can’t think of another show that wraps everything up so well, rewards longtime viewers yet still delivers a tale that anyone could watch.
I remember tuning in to watch this on the exact day – May 23 – and feeling completely satisfied. I’d already been watching reruns every day for years, and was already at a point where I could tell you the name and season of an episode within the first 60 seconds (all books, people – no internet yet!). I can’t think of anything in the modern era that closed out something so many people loved so well, and in a way that pleased just about everyone. I don’t recall much dissension about this episode… it’s pretty much regarded as one of the best, period.
I’m sure there are numerous shows that pulled this off… but did they have the social cache of TNG? Did they break ratings records and justify the entire medium of first run syndication? Did they outperform all expectations and leave things at the height of popularity instead of waiting for the cash to dry up? Did they run for seven acclaimed years and inspire memes 20 years into the future? No seriously I’m asking, I don’t watch that much TV these days. I guess The Shield had a pretty good ending. Sopranos? People talk about that show a lot.
Anyway. That’s a good start to TNG, as curated by a super opinionated whiner. If you like what you see, I fully suggest watching the entire show, but I understand that’s a lot to ask. However, if you want to see something that I put right alongside The Simpsons as a personality-defining piece of pop culture, you won’t be disappointed.
SHOP SOME STAR TREK AND SUPPORT LASER TIME!