Thursday, April 3, 2014

My Top Ten "Star Trek: The Next Generation" Episodes

I wasn't the most consistent viewer of "Star Trek," but when I was in junior high, I spent every weekday before dinner watching the syndicated reruns of "Next Generation" and marveling over an adventure show where problems were solved by smarts and diplomacy as often as fisticuffs and gunplay. It was my gateway into science-fiction television, and though I never became as attached to the other "Star Trek" iterations, I still count myself as a "Trek" fan wholeheartedly. Here are my top ten favorite episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate. And I am totally cheating and counting two-parters as single entries.

"Q Who" - "Next Generation" famously suffered through some rocky early seasons, but Q episodes were always a a highlight. I debated between "Q Who" and "Deja Q," but this one has to make the list for the first appearance of the Borg, the greatest villains introduced by the "Next Generation," and a great supporting turn by Whoopi Goldberg, who joined the cast in the second season. And I love that the whole story was a lesson in hubris - there's always going to be something out there that humans will be unprepared to face.

"Yesterday's Enterprise" - I used to get this one mixed up with the seventh season episode "Parallels," but "Yesterday's Enterprise" is the far better episode, a time travel story that has the Enterprise-D encounter its predecessor ship, the Enterprise-C with some dramatic consequences. I always appreciated that this episode gave Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and was so fully committed to a fairly heady premise involving alternate timelines. You almost never see time travel stories that deal so much in similar consequences.

"The Offspring" - The tale of Data's daughter Lal is one of the funnier hours that the show ever came up with, but also one of the most poignant. Data's experiments to understand humanity and his own existence better were hit-or-miss, often coming across as too pat or contrived. However, his first jaunt into parenting is definitely one of the hits, giving us a brief glimpse of relationship I wish we could have seen expanded into further episodes. It also makes a good counterpart to the famous "Measure of a Man," which just missed a spot on this list.

"Hollow Pursuits" - Poor Lieutenant Barclay. He's that awkward introvert we all know who loves shows like "Star Trek," but is rarely portrayed as part of the "Star Trek" universe. This episode fixes that, giving Barclay the spotlight for a self-contained adventure that takes a piece of future technology we're familiar with, the holodeck, and using it in a way we don't expect - namely giving a man's fantasy life a little too much life. I always liked it when "The Next Generation" gave us a break from formula, especially for stories as much fun as this.

"The Best of Both Worlds" - There's no denying the impact of the Borg on the "Star Trek" universe, and this was arguably their best appearance on "Next Generation," finally clashing with the Federation in full-scale combat. There are so many memorable moments in this two-parter: the wrecked Federation fleet, the first separation of the Enterprise's saucer and stardrive, and who can forget the shocking cliffhanger that introduced Locutus? It's no wonder this remains one of the series' most popular stories, and influenced so much "Star Trek" to follow.

"Darmok" - The first episode that I remember watching, and one of the best examples of a "Star Trek" story that favors thinking through problems instead of using brute force. I've read through enough analyses of this episode to understand that the linguisitic puzzles are pretty much bunk, considering the use of the universal translator, but still the message and the execution of it are so well done that they hit home beautifully. And special kudos to Paul Winfield's performance as Dathon, still one of my favorite guest appearances on the show.

"I, Borg" - There were only six episodes in the entire run of "Next Generation" that featured the Borg, and I've managed to include four of them on this list. This is the last, where Geordi LaForge meets a young Borg he names Hugh, and teaches him the foreign concept of individuality. This is such a wonderfully thoughtful episode, that really gets into what it means to be human and how we define the self. And after the fireworks of "Best of Both Worlds," it's a good reminder that every villain in "Star Trek" is a potential friend.

"The Inner Light" - Boldly going where no man has gone before can take on many different forms, and perhaps no voyage of discovery Captain Picard ever took was as strange and wonderful as the one he experiences in "The Inner Light," where Picard lives out the simple life of a man on a different planet, from a different civilization. It's such a quiet, seemingly uneventful episode where it's not clear what is going on until the final set of reveals, but the emotional punch that it delivers rivals anything else that "Star Trek" has ever done.

"Ship in a Bottle" - I always had a thing for the holodeck episodes, which often provided a nice change of scenery or access to unusual characters. Daniel Davis's Moriarty was introduced way back in the Season 2 episode "Elementary, Dear Data," a clever story but nothing special. I'm glad that they brought him back for this follow-up, where the question of whether a hologram can be considered a form of life is introduced, and there's a twisty plot involving figuring out who is in what frame of reality. I don't even mind that the ending cheats.

"All Good Things" - The finale two-parter gives us a chance to say goodbye to all the beloved characters, gives us another ripping time travel story, and brings back Q in the judge's outfit to deliver a final lecture. It makes for a fitting ending to the series, giving us a peek at what the future holds in store for the crew without setting anything in stone, revisiting familiar themes, and leaving plenty of room for more adventures. "The Next Generation" went out on top, and precious little in the "Star Trek" universe has come close to it since.


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