The Enemy (Original Air Date: 11/6/89)
While the Federation and Klingons are no longer enemies (as they were in TOS), the Romulans have remained a sly, overly aggressive adversary in the 24th century. Any time they cross our path, a “misunderstanding” is sure to follow, and we’ll once again have to talk ourselves out of a war. This tension is best exemplified in The Enemy, when Geordi and a wounded Romulan officer end up stranded on a barely hospitable planet. With Geordi’s vision out and the Romulan’s mobility shot, they are forced to put generations of hostility aside and get off the surface.
But the coolest part is the B story, where – for whatever reason – Worf is the only suitable donor who can save another Romulan’s life. If you thought Federation relations were icy, it’s nothing compared to the disgust and animosity between the Klingons and Romulans. Worf, specifically, lost his parents during an infamous Romulan skirmish, so he has an extra layer of hatred seething below the surface. But when it comes time for him to save the day and avoid a potential political nightmare (“Romulan officer dies at the hands of the Federation! At last the war we’ve always wanted!”), Worf… does not help. He lets the Romulan die out of principle, despite Picard pleading for him to volunteer.
That is some cold ass shit, and not what you expect on generally uplifting television. But it’s the RIGHT CALL for characterization – there is no way Worf would make that compromise, because, unlike Picard, Riker etc, he’s not part of humanity’s “perfect” 24th century. He’s a true Klingon, and collaborating with Romulans is off the table. Most shows would try to teach a lesson about burying the hatchet, but instead, this ep sort of says “hey, this guy stuck to his guns and sometimes that’s more important than bending your personal beliefs.”
That’s all kinda spoilery, but the scene-to-scene drama still makes this worth watching. Plus, you see two sides of the same coin – an old rivalry lives on, but thanks to Geordi and Centurion Bochra’s proof that shaky compromises can be made, the war is delayed for another day.
The Offspring (Original Air Date 3/12/90)
Season two’s exceptional “The Measure of a Man” ruled that Data was a sentient being with the same rights and privileges as any human. But what happens when he creates his own child? Is this technological miracle similarly protected, or does it fall to the Federation as property? Can anyone actually “own” life?
That’s the Big Question posed by the episode, but the joys of this episode are the “first step” moments that show Lal attempting to understand human interaction. To me, that makes The Offspring a true Trek story – some decent laughs, a moment of questioned morality and, best of all, some drama and strife that doesn’t involve personality flaws. In a way, everyone’s right, but also wrong. Or at least ambiguous enough to give you pause.
This is also the episode that gave us the immortal Picard Double Face Palm, which IMO only further backs my previous statement. It’s a dead serious scene with AaaAaAACTING, and Picard’s frustrated face palm is genuine, but Data disarms the whole moment with an innocent – childlike, even – glance at the put-out captain.
It’s also the first episode directed by a castmember – Johnathan Frakes, who would go on to direct First Contact and Insurrection!
The Nth Degree (Original Air Date 4/1/91)
By season four, it’s increasingly hard to choose just two episodes. But this one blew me away as a kid, so I’d like to think newcomers would get a kick out of it as well.
See that crazy contraption up there? That’s a completely physical, real-world effect made with light, mirrors and all that good stuff. Seeing this thing in action is incredible, especially in 1991 – but what’s the deal? Welp, a strange probe knocks Lt Barclay unconscious and when he awakens, he’s notably smarter. Within minutes he’s beyond genius level intellect, and before long he’s integrated himself with the ship’s computer via that device you see above. So, for all intents and purposes, Barclay IS the ship.
What he does with that power, I’ll leave for you to discover. Obviously Barclay does not remain one with the Enterprise, but this is another case of the journey being more interesting than the destination.
Half A Life (Original Air Date 5/6/91)
Science fiction, at its best, examines a contemporary issue and wraps it in enough far-out concepts to make said issue more palatable or understandable for a wide audience. The hope is, your prejudices will be checked at the door when space lizards are trying to solve their egg-laying politics. Next thing you know, BAM you just comprehended both sides of the abortion debate and are better equipped to discuss either side. (Damn, someone write that story.)
Anyway, Half A Life shows pretty solid reasoning for all sides of assisted suicide / right to life / health care concerns. The scientist you see above is close to a breakthrough on his experiments which, if successful, will literally save his planet from destruction. But his society is one where, at age 60, everyone must submit to “The Resolution” and honorably kill themselves. To refrain for any reason – even finishing your life’s work to save a world – is unheard of.
It’s a great example of TV slowing the hell down to just… talk. There’s not a whole lot of technobabble or forced action scenes, it’s just discussion, discussion, discussion. I won’t say this episode really makes a bold statement about any of the issues it touches upon, but again, it’s thoughtful TV.
I, Borg (Original Air Date 5/11/92)
After their first harrowing encounter in Q Who, and the devastating mini-war seen in Best of Both Worlds, how do you continue to use the Borg without making them seem anything less than unstoppable? Why, you go the Alien route and focus on just one – what does it do when it’s separated from the collective?
Turns out, it’s pretty scared and confused. Like anyone would be when cut off from a stream of unified thoughts and voices. But the more it learns resistance is NOT futile, and that other species do NOT want to be assimilated, the drone eventually starts regaining pieces of individuality. It’s an amazing breakthrough once again told through solid acting and some great, thought provoking writing.
The twist – having this much access to one drone has revealed a crippling weakness, one that if exploited could wipe out the Borg. But do we do this, even against an enemy that would not hesitate to do the same to us? Or should the crew keep this Borg on board, now that it’s starting to rediscover what it means to be human? Difficult choices, both with severe consequences. And that means another riveting episode of TNG.