by Christopher Jones
Asking a fan to name the five best episodes of a Star Trek series is like asking Barclay which holodeck program is the best escape from reality. There are too many good ones to choose just five. Neverthless, I’m going to set out to name five of the very best episodes from each of the series and explain why I feel they are some of the greatest examples of Star Trek. In this first installment my focus was on The Original Series, and now I’m moving on to the first of the modern series, The Next Generation.
(There’s also an audio version of this Captain’s Log available here.)
All Good Things…
The final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the crowning achievement for the series that resurrected science fiction on television. Crafted from the classic time-travel mold, “All Good Things…” adds a paradoxical twist by throwing in a spatial anomaly that stretches the current real-world theories of matter and anti-matter and applies them to time—creating an eruption of anti-time whose very existence erases our own. Its message sums up all of Star Trek, and in fact science fiction as a genre, in just two sentences. When Picard discovers that the story’s turning point was when he realized the paradox—that the anomaly began in the future rather than in the past—and thus opened his mind to possibilities he had never considered, John de Lancie’s “Q” responds with an intriguing revelation, saying, “…that is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”
The Best of Both Worlds
We live in an age where technological advancement is outpacing social development. Many fear that we are creating a monster that, while benign and beneficial at present, will eventually destroy us. In the Star Trek universe this fear has been personified in the collective known as the Borg. Part organic and part machine, the Borg were once like us but gradually integrated bionic parts into themselves. Eventually this resulted in a total loss of freedom. As our own science makes such things more and more possible, many see the beginning of the end for organic life and the start of a silicon-based existence for mankind. Besides being a very entertaining and suspenseful voyage for the Enterprise and one of the greatest cliffhangers in televison history, “The Best of Both Worlds” is a great illustration of the fear that the loss of free thought instills in us all.
Cause and Effect
It may surprise some of you to find this episode on my list, but from the day “Cause and Effect” aired I was hooked. I once heard Jonathan Frakes say that when they were first handed the script they were thinking, “What is this?” It was just so thin! But that one short sequence of events repeated over and over is captivating. When the Starship Bozeman suddenly emerges from a subspace rift, there is no way that the Enterprise can avoid collision. During the following 17.4 days, the crew—forgetting everything each time the sequence repeats—must find ways to send clues to themselves in the next loop. A great episode for those who love mysteries and problem-solving, “Cause and Effect” finds Picard and crew doing what they do best. Throw in Frasier as a Starfleet captain and how can you go wrong? (Though I wish Niles had been his first officer! …or at least Lilith.)
The Inner Light
Every once in a while Star Trek hits on a story that is just great science fiction, a story that works even if all the elements unique to the series are removed. “The Inner Light” won TNG one of its two Hugo Awards, and for good reason. After a beam from an alien probe knocks Picard unconscious, he finds himself on an unfamiliar world with a woman who claims he is her husband of three years, and that his name is Kamin. Picard settles into his new life while the Enterprise crew searches for a way to break the link with the probe and restore the Captain safely to consciousness. For Picard, the years go by and he becomes a father and then a grandfather. He helps search for a way to save the dying planet, and then sees his own life nearing an end. Thirty years after arriving on the planet Kataan, Picard, now 85 years old, witnesses the launch of a probe that will preserve the memory of the Kataan people—the very probe that brought him there from a thousand years in the future. Twenty-five minutes after he fell unconscious he wakes up aboard his ship. But for him a lifetime has passed.
You mean Q is God? OK… of course he isn’t really, but that’s what he wants Picard to believe in “Tapestry,” probably the most serious Q episode from TNG. No doubt we’ve all questioned at one time or another what our life would be like had we made different choices. Q offers Picard the chance to do something about it after the Captain is severely injured in an attack and seemingly dies. Finding himself in a pure white void inhabited only by John de Lancie clad in a white gown, Picard is taken on an It’s a Wonderful Life tour of his earlier days. Given the opportunity to avoid the fight that cost him his real heart when he was only 21, he takes it and is returned to the Enterprise a better man. Or so it seems. He finds that altering a single choice he had made in his youth results in him living an average life, devoid of accomplishment, as a lieutenant junior-grade. In the end he convinces Q to give him one more chance, in which he repeats his original decision. We may not like some of the choices we’ve made, but for better or worse they did make us who we are.
In addition to these five, here are some other episodes that I consider the best of The Next Generation:
“A Matter of Time”
“Cost of Living”
“Ship in a Bottle”
“The Measure of a Man”
“The Nth Degree”
“The Quality of Life”
“Thine Own Self”
So those are my picks for the best of TNG. Certainly there are many others that I love and that are great examples of Star Trek. Think of this as a starting point. No doubt you’ll disagree with some of my picks, and you may even think I’m living in one of Barclay’s holodeck fantasy worlds for leaving your favorite off the list. But that passion and debate is what has allowed Star Trek to endure for 45 years. So feel free to add to the comments below and let me know which episodes are your favorites and why you love them.