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Star Trek 102: The Best of The Next Generation

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, we’re holding a month full of Star Trek  related fun. We’re reviewing every episode of the show’s first season, from The Cage through to Operation — Annihilate!, one-per-day for all of May. We’re also looking at some of the various spin-offs, tie-ins and pop culture intersections, so there’s always something going on to do with Star Trek. Anyway, with the release of the new film, we thought it might be interesting to make some recommendations for fans of the new films who wanted to “dip their toes in the water” so to speak. Today, we’re making recommendations from the first of the 24th century spin-offs, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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Produced more than twenty years after The Man Trap was first broadcast on American television, The Next Generation is an entirely different version of Star Trek, standing quite distinct from its direct predecessor. It favoured philosophical discussions and moral dilemmas over pulpy action and science-fiction thrills. That’s not to suggest that one approach is better or worse, just to illustrate that the shows were very different.

The Next Generation never really came into its own until its third season, which ranks as one of the best seasons of Star Trek ever produced. Indeed, you’ll notice that quite a few of the selections on this list are part of the show’s third year. While not quite as episodic as its direct predecessor, it’s still possible to wade into these episodes without any real context or familiarity. The show is accessible, even as it developed its own internal continuity.

The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II

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What it’s about: They are the Borg. They cannot be reasoned with. They cannot be negotiated with. If you fight them back, they will keep coming, because they are many and you are few. It doesn’t matter how many you are, you will always be few. Given advanced warning that a mysterious cybernetic race known as the Borg were coming in the second season, it turns out that the enemy has arrived a lot sooner than expected. And the Federation is not prepared.

Why it’s great: The Best of Both Worlds is one of the best television cliffhangers ever produced. It’s iconic, and rightly so. However, the episode around it is also pretty spectacular. Since The Next Generation was first broadcast, the Federation was presented as sacrosanct. It was a body large enough to protect its members from any horror the universe might hold and to help spread peace and good will into the cosmos. Suddenly, presented with the threat of the Borg, it isn’t good enough.

The Best of Both Worlds works as a science-fiction epic with massive stakes (the future of the Star Trek universe!), but also as a more intimate personal drama when Commander Riker finds himself thrust into command with little warning. It is clever, it is powerful and it’s compelling viewing, even two decades later. It remains the gold-standard of Star Trek two-parters.

The Offspring

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What it’s about: Data creates a daughter. He teaches her about life. Though he protests that it is impossible for him to love her, millions of people in the audience remain sceptical.

Why it’s great: Data was the breakout character of The Next Generation. There were multiple reasons for this. Brent Spiner was almost as perfectly tailored to the role as Leonard Nimoy was to Spock. The character also lends himself to the types of philosophical explorations that the franchise does so well. An outsider looking in, Data offers a perfect vehicle for a commentary on humanity. The irony, of course, being that he is in many ways more innocent and more human than many of his crew members.

The Offspring is a wonderfully powerful piece of television because it plays to the strengths of The Next Generation. It relies on the strong ensemble to convey emotion, it wrangles with philosophical issues that are broad and abstract, but it keeps things accessible. Most of us will never have to determine if our android co-worker’s daughter is really a life-form, but The Offspring uses that as a springboard to explore issues around parenting and individual rights.

Also, if you do not cry, you are not human.

Lower Decks

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What it’s about: “Weren’t you one of the little people?” Q asks O’Brien when he arrives on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. We spend so much time with our lead characters that we tend to forget the Enterprise has a pretty substantial population. Lower Decks essentially focuses on a bunch of these random character, looking at a fairly typical Star Trek episode from their point of view. It allows us to see the show (and our characters) in a relatively novel light, which is no small accomplishment for a seventh-season episode.

Why it’s great: I always suspected Riker was a bit of a jerk, and it’s nice to have that confirmed, I suppose. In all seriousness, though, Lower Decks is – like a lot of these episodes – a concept that wouldn’t really work on any of the other Star Trek spin-offs. The core cast of The Next Generation was so tightly-knit and so well developed that it was interesting to get a look from the outside, staring inwards.

Just what must it be like to be “anonymous helmsman #42”? How crazy is it when Picard asks you to do that crazy thing he was probably just talking about in his Ready Room, but you don’t get an invite because your name isn’t in the title credits? These are wonderful plot points, and Lower Decks does a wonderful job making us care about about these guest stars in a relatively short amount of time. It also has a very powerful pay-off.

Chain of Command, Parts I & II

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What it’s about: When Picard is tapped to head a covert strike team hoping to cripple a Cardassian biological weapons dump, the Enterprise is given to the command of one Captain Edward Jellico, who starts doing crazy things like forcing Troi to reveal less cleavage. The monster. The mission goes belly-up, with the Federation and the Cardassians pushed to the brink of warfare, while Picard finds him at the mercy of the sadistic Gul Madred. In what will become a recurring theme of this list, Patrick Stewart gets to demonstrate how awesome he is.

Why it’s great: Patrick Stewart was always the show’s ace-in-the-hole, even during the pretty dire first season. So I don’t feel bad dedicating several entries on this list to how incredibly awesome he is as a performer. More than that, though, Chain of Command works for several reasons. First, it puts Stewart opposite one of those rare dramatic performers who can hold his weight against the Shakespearean actor. David Warner is great, and the scenes between Warner and Stewart sizzle.

More than that, as mentioned above, it’s always interesting when the show upsets the group dynamic among the cast of The Next Generation. Drafting in an outside commanding officer with a different way of doing things is a great way to generate conflict. Ronny Cox is wonderful as the exceptionally stiff micro-managing superior officer who just rubs up against the senior staff the wrong way.

I, Borg

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What it’s about: Investigating a crashed ship, the Enterprise finds the cutest little Borg drone. While Picard tries to justify using this sole survivor as a biological weapon against a deadly enemy, Geordi finds himself striking up an unlikely friendship with a drone cut off from the hive.

Why it’s great: The Next Generation always wrestled quite well with ethical questions, and I, Borg presents a doozy. Picard is generally such an enlightened character that it’s fun to see him caught so brutally off balance. Watching the most logical and reasoned lead actor in the franchise treating genocide like a viable option is unnerving. I, Borg is a wonderful encapsulation of the ethical issues that The Next Generation would probe so skilfully.

Yesterday’s Enterprise

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What it’s about: Time travel must suck. In a nice reversal, this time a ship is pulled forward in time. That doesn’t stop things from getting messed up. The Klingons and the Federation are at war. The Federation is losing. Oh, and Tasha Yar – the regular killed less than a year into the show’s run – is alive. However, fixing the problem is easy. The Enterprise C must be sent back in time to help the Klingons in their hour of need. The catch? In order to preserve history, the Enterprise and everybody on board must die.

Why it’s great: Several reasons. For one, it’s a clever time travel story. The Next Generation typically played around a bit more with time travel than any of the other shows, offering several different models of time travel. However, the real hook is emotional. Like The City on the Edge of Forever, it plays the whole “the needs of the many…” card, which is generally a sign of a potent moral dilemma.

More than that, though, it also manages to serve as an effective farewell to a character who had departed the show two years early in a rather disappointing fashion. Yar was never an exceptional character, more notable as a trivia question answer than as an interesting part of the ensemble. Yesterday’s Enterprise manages to make her a compelling character and gives her some closure.

It’s shame it didn’t stick.

Tapestry

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What it’s about: Picard is near death. He meets Q, who claims to be God. Offering Picard a chance to travel back into his past to correct a past mistake, hilarity ensues. Also stabbing.

Why it’s great: Again, The Next Generation gets all philosophical. In this case, it’s a beautiful exploration about how our failures are as much a part of who we are as any of our successes. It’s essentially a beautiful forty-five minute morality play, but it’s a clever one executed with enough wit and flair that it works. The episode also pairs up Patrick Stewart with recurring guest star John deLancie, and the pair play off one another as well as they usually do.

The Measure of a Man

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What it’s about: Data is reassigned to the care of a mad scientist who wants to dissect him to figure out how he works. But don’t worry, it’s okay. He totally probably knows how it is supposed to work. And it’s not as if there isn’t a back-up or anything… oh, wait. Naturally, Data does not take kindly to this, and an argument ensues about whether Data could be considered alive and what measure of sentience he has.

Why it’s great: Once again, Data serves as an effective vehicle for the franchise to poke and prod at the central philosophy of Star Trek, as weirdly specific and probably not-really-applicable philosophical questions (is a fictional robot alive?) give way to broader questions with more universal appeal (what is life and how do we measure it?). It’s clever and powerful stuff.

Airing as part of the show’s second season, you could make a convincing argument that The Measure of Man represented the point where The Next Generation went from being a fairly mediocre spin-off of the original Star Trek to a worthy successor.

The Inner Light

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What it’s about: Zapped by an alien space probe (you’d be surprised how often that happens), Picard wakes up on a strange alien planet. As the years pass, he begins to give up any hope of being rescued. Meanwhile, his crew worry about what to do with his unconscious body as the minutes tick away.

Why it’s great: Patrick Stewart is awesome. When he is given great material, he is simply beyond words. Here, Patrick Stewart is tasked to live out an entire life on a strange planet with strange people, but he still makes it feel particularly poignant. The Inner Light is a beautiful episode of Star Trek, and one which hinges on the central performance of the show’s leading man. It’s a clever story, but one which wouldn’t really work without Stewart.

Sins of the Father

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What it’s about: Worf discovers he has a brother. Oh, and apparently the Klingon High Council is planning to name his deceased father as the traitor responsible for the dastardly Romulan attack on the Khitomer Outpost.

Why it’s great:One of the real advantages that The Next Generation had over its predecessor was the ability to tell long-form stories. While The Next Generation never quite embraced serialisation in the same way that Deep Space Nine did, it put considerable effort into world-building and character arcs – the kind of things difficult or impossible with a purely episodic science-fiction adventure.

Sins of the Father really kicks off a decade-long exploration of Star Trek‘s most recognisable alien race, which runs under the pen of Ronald D. Moore from here until the final year of Deep Space Nine. Exploring the culture and customs (and history and motives) of an alien species, The Next Generation offered something which was – at the time – unique for network television. Sins of the Father is all the more powerful because it refuses to wrap itself up neatly, and because it denies the comfort of a “to be continued…” tag. This is something Worf (and the viewers) will have to live with.

Pegasus

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What it’s about: Riker’s old commanding officer shows up and starts reopening old wounds while searching for the wreckage of a ship long thought lost. Unfortunately, the eponymous ship won’t stay buried and a shady secret from Riker’s past finds itself exposed to the cold light of day.

Why it’s great: Before he created the superb and revived Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D. Moore cut his teeth on Star Trek. He worked on both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, before departing the franchise after a few weeks on Star Trek: Voyager. Moore added a bit of shading to the idealised future of the Star Trek universe, daring to suggest that the franchise’s ideals were worth nothing if they couldn’t stand up to a little scrutiny.

Pegasus is a powerful piece of television because it dares to suggest that humanity isn’t as perfect as it might like to let on, and that even our beloved leading characters might harbour some shameful secrets they’d rather keep concealed.

Want some quick Star Trek recommendations? Try our quick “best of” lists for the shows for those looking to dip their toes in the franchise water:

3 Responses

  1. The TNG picks are right on the money! I would add “The Drumhead” to my list.

    • That was actually on the shortlist of candidates that didn’t make it like Cause and Effect or All Good Things or Parallels. There’s a lot of gold there to choose from.

      • And Darmok, Relics, Frame of Mind, Unification, Sarek, etc

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