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)
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)
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)
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)
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?