Nasa / Space

The five best Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes of all time

Jay Garmon ranks the top five episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. See if your favorite TNG episode is on his list.

While Star Trek is indisputably the most influential sci-fi TV series ever, it's successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was almost certainly a better show -- and we've got the top five NextGen episodes lined up to prove it.

5. Chain of Command One sentence says everything you need to know about this episode, Jean-Luc Picard, The Next Generation, and Star Trek in general: "There...are...FOUR...LIGHTS!" The plot of this two-parter is an extraordinary meditation on the horrors of war, and the contests of ego and will that underpin such conflicts. Captain Picard is removed from command of the Enterprise to take on a covert, likely illegal mission to stop a Cardassian superweapon. He fails, and becomes a prisoner of war subject to torture at the hands of a brilliant interrogator played by the inestimable David Warner. In the meantime, an equally extraordinary Ronny Cox plays Edward Jellico, the micromanaging new captain of the Enterprise as intent on breaking his crew and his Cardassian opponents as Warner's character is determined to break Picard. There's almost no action, but plenty of tension and confrontation, making for a two-hour character study that has only grown more timely and poignant in the years since. 4. The Measure of a Man

At its core, Star Trek has been about tolerance and understanding, with reason triumphing over prejudice. There is no better example than this NextGen episode, which sees the crew of the Enterprise directly confront whether Data, an android, is a person or property. The stakes are high -- should Data be ruled non-sentient, he will be forced to submit to a dangerous series of experiments that could permanently maim his intellect, and possibly kill him. Worse still, should those experiments succeed, Starfleet will have a clear path to manufacture a race of synthetic lifeforms it considers less than equal. The slavery allegory is explicit, and this episode shies away from none of the parallels. And, in a magnificent twist of storytelling, Commander Riker is forced to serve as the prosecution against Data, using his personal friendship to argue against the independence and future of his comrade. It's a courtroom drama of the highest order, and a parable of equality almost unmatched in the annals of genre television.

3. The Best of Both Worlds The first great season-ending cliffhanger in NextGen lore, and perhaps the greatest action-centric storyline in Trek history. The long-awaited Borg invasion of the Federation finally begins, and it's every bit as disastrous as we feared. Worse still, the battle becomes immediately personal, as Captain Picard is kidnapped and converted to a Borg drone, leaving the Enterprise crew leaderless, and the enemy with all the intimate information necessary to destroy everyone we've come to care about. Each crewmember is forced into unwilling growth as they take on unexpected tasks and roles under the newly minted Captain Riker, leading to some of the most stirring character moments NextGen had yet seen. The plotting is tight, the tension is fraught, and the stakes are no less than the annihilation of all life as we know it. And to succeed, the crew must be willing to risk losing Picard. This was the moment that The Next Generation found its stride, and the episodes that followed were the high-water mark for the series and, perhaps, the franchise. 2. The Inner Light

Arguably the most personal story in the history of Star Trek, rendered via a tour-de-force acting performance from Patrick Stewart. The Enterprise discovers an ancient probe that somehow links itself to Captain Picard, mentally transporting him to a distant world where he is mistaken for a local villager. Living years for every moment he lies unconscious on his ship, Picard grudgingly becomes a member of the alien community, making friends, taking a wife, and becoming a father and grandfather. When Picard is finally rescued, both he and the audience are left to wonder whether he has returned to his true home, or left it forever. Stewart renders this transformation with stunning nuance and depth, making even the simple playing of a flute a heartrending act of emotional loss. There is no better example of the power of science fiction to tell the most captivating of human stories.

1. Yesterday's Enterprise

This episode introduces us to two new ships named Enterprise. The first is the NCC-1701-C, the immediate predecessor to NextGen's signature starship. The Enterprise-C was thought lost 20 years ago in a Romulan attack on a Klingon outpost. The second Enterprise is a strange new version of the familiar NCC-1701-D, now morphed into a battleship fighting a decades-old war with the Klingon Empire -- all because the Enterprise-C was inexplicably thrown forward in time. Our regular crew is transformed into more militant versions of themselves, save for Worf, who is shockingly replaced by a no-longer-dead Tasha Yar.

As the story unfolds, we encounter an ingenious remix of the moral trap posed by the greatest original Star Trek episode ever: Is it justifiable to sacrifice innocent lives in the present to save billions of others in the future? What makes the modern update so compelling is that the innocents in question are in on the debate, with the crew of the Enterprise-C and Tasha herself certain that, to restore the timeline and prevent a multi-billion-casualty war, they have to die. While self-sacrifice is heroic, Tasha and crew are asked to give themselves up to erase a timeline, thereby ensuring no one remembers the choice they made. The debate informs the action, of which there is no shortage. The choices made by characters old and new are heartbreaking, and the final result is the finest hour of television Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced.

Disagree with the rankings, or simply want to swap stories about the foremost five TNG episodes? Hailing frequencies are open in the comments section.

Check out these related Geekend posts:

Disclaimer: TechRepublic, TV.com, and StarTrek.com are CBS brands.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

37 comments
megaace
megaace

I too was surprised that "Darmok" & "The Offspring" were not on the list. Darmok was my favorite episode while the Offspring was a photo finish!!! Both of these episodes were potent, emotionally charged episodes. I was moved to tears (seriously) in both!

RandyPenguin
RandyPenguin

As far as I am concerned, duking it out with "Yesterday's Enterprise" for top spot, should be "Cause and Effect." Of course I'm very partial to time-travel stories, so you can see why I put those two right on top ...

Wishful One
Wishful One

This episode was #1 on my list. A totally amazing story. Picard lived a full, long life within one hour, then got to come back and be himself again. I had to share this episode with my youngest girl, when, instead of "Dad", she one day began calling me "Father". Now when I drop her off for school, I tell her: "Go carefully, daughter." Happy Day!

NthDegree
NthDegree

Maybe it would help elevate this episode to the top of the list if you took time to realize the full impact of what happened to Picard. To him this alternate life gave him a wife, children and grandchildren that he will probably never have in reality. He experienced all the grief and heartache that would come from the loss of friends and family. It was a real to him as it is to us in the real world. Imagine when he awakened. What a shock it must have been. We are usually given time to deal with the death of loved ones. To him they happened all at once. He also knows that he carries the only knowledge of a long dead race of what appears to be gentle caring people, surely a great loss in itself. To cram all of this into a 40 minute (minus commercials) epsisode was a bit of masterful writng. When the playing of a simple flute at the end of the episode can envoke all of the emotions he has felt, all of the loss and yes, even happiness, surely that is something to recognize.

JumpinJohn
JumpinJohn

Very much liked The Inner Light, for reasons Jay articulated well, but when it aired, I thought it would be disliked by many viewers. I was surprised that when the studio auctioned off Trek memorabilia a few years ago, the final price for the flute prop was way above expectations.

plptba
plptba

I think it's also the greatest Star Trek episode of all time from all of the series. Am wondering how the future Star Trek movies will undo all the damage they did to the story line in the most recent Star Trek movie.

B-42
B-42

Your top 5 are all excellent. I would give my top spot to "The Inner Light". At its core, the story is about the desire to connect to one's past or future family, culture, or civilization in a lasting and meaningful way. The Inner Light probe was like an Egyptian or Mayan pyramid, but with a far more powerful connection for Picard. Historical research can be made interesting, such as has been done on current TV with "Who Do You Think You Are" and "History Detectives".

dl
dl

With all due respect to the popularity of Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a higher quality, better written, better acted, better directed, better implemented, and immensely more entertaining and provocative series than any other Star Trek enterprise (pun intended). "The Visitor" has oft been reported as the most beloved episode of all Star Trek episodes. Admittedly, Deep Space Nine didn't find its feet until the third or fourth season, but once it did, it addressed issues far more effectively and poignantly than any of its predecessor series (or the movies). Plus, it finally had a Star Trek captain who should record a record album (Avery Brooks, now a professor a Rutgers University, does an amazing one-man show of Paul Robeson where he brilliantly sings "Old Man River").

Mark.Moran
Mark.Moran

I can't argue with the episodes on the list but I can argue with their order. I can't believe best of both worlds was only #3. Best of Both Worlds Pt 1 was by far the most amazing STNG episode. (And because I saw in in the US in the late 80's and live in the UK, I had to wait almost 6 years to see PT2 !!!) :)

TheChas
TheChas

One of my personal favorites was Relics from the 6th season. Montgomery Scott and Jordi working to get an old ship running so they could find and save the Enterprise was just classic Star Trek storyline. Let's not forget "A Fistful of Data's or the one with the little binary beings that used the memory storage of the Enterprise to hold their societal data for a reboot. Chas

ITOdeed
ITOdeed

Can't remember the name of the episode, but the one where the Enterprise doctor contracted a fatal aging disease on an away mission. The transporter bio-filtered the disease in the end. Made me think of a way to live forever by saving your bio info as a young person, then recalling that sub routine over and over forever. Nice thought.

marsha.hinnen
marsha.hinnen

While I also agree that the five episodes listed are among my favorites, don't overlook the "Tapestry" epidsode, in which Q grants Picard's wish to undo the foolish behavior of his younger, less disciplined self, with unexpected results. The episode makes an interesting statement about the way in which even those experiences we consider "bad" can have a positive effect on our lives.

wyldwezl
wyldwezl

One of my own favorites, which might vie for #4 or 5 is from season 6-- [i]Lessons[/i]. Maybe it's because I'm a musician and realize the bonds that can form between players, but it's well done. As for the part where Nella and her crew are trapped on the planet and nearly are incinerated, well, I guess there has to be some sort of adventure. With Picard playing his Ressican flute, it's a flashback to [i]The Inner Light[/i]. Oh, and let's not forget the roll-up piano! Another, for its psychological impact, is [i]Frame of Mind[/i]. There were points in the episode even I wasn't sure which was real and which was the fantasy. Similar in that respect to [i]Total Recall[/i]. Really, it's like being a kid in a candy store to pick just a few favorites-- I even sometimes enjoy the ones that showed up as the bottom 5.

ghirte
ghirte

Don't remember all of these episodes but agree, "The Inner Light" was extraordinary. Wonderful performance by Patrick Stewart. I have this on DVD and watch several times a year. I'll have to see if the others are on DVD.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm satisfied with any arrangement that leaves 'Yesterday's Enterprise' on top. It's an episode that is not only the best of the franchise, it's great television, period. "Let's make sure history never forgets the name 'Enterprise'!" "Tell me about Tasha Yar."

pgit
pgit

Not the most commanding episode, but definitely the best meme/cultural touchstone ST ever rendered. Even my non-trekkie wife calls people "Pakleds" on occasion. And in the middle of convoluted and/or illiterate conversation she's been known to put on a curious look and utter "we look for things..." If warranted by the situation she might drop the follow up line(s). I have to disagree that NG was better than the original. Sure, in almost every measurable way it was better TV, but there's no way NG or any of the others can match the cultural impact of the original, in large part because none of them aired in 1967. The times had as much to do with that impact as any of the tangible assets. Would there have been a Next Generation, Voyager, DS9... without Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones? That too makes the original the "best" in a unique way.

Dknopp
Dknopp

It is outrageous that they were able to get the caliber of Patrick Stewart for this franchise. "Inner light" is my favorite NG episode. You kinda get that same feeling of living a different life when you think of when you were a teenager. I also really liked "Cause and Effect". When I first saw it I thought something was wrong with the broadcast because they started the card game scene over right after a commercial, and the first time they did it there was really no change at first, until the bluff statement. I streamed it and the feeling is not there without the break of the commercial.

victor.gutzler
victor.gutzler

I have no quip with choices 5 - 2, and though Yesterday's Enterprise was very entertaining, but since time travel should be verboten in the Trek universe, why not bump the choices up and put a humorous episode into the 5th spot, like Hollow Pursuit's (holodeck rendition of a short Riker and goddess of love Troi) or Data's Day (I still put a grin on like Data did when dancing with Crusher whenever my wife tells me to look happy)....

SpatsTriptiphan
SpatsTriptiphan

I agree with the first three but I was never thrilled with 4 and 5. One of those should be one with Data's brother Lore. The other should be the holodeck comes alive in the 1930's - The Big Goodbye

elangomatt
elangomatt

I have never thought very highly of the "Inner Light" episode, not quite sure why. One of my favorite episodes is the one where they keep repeating from the poker game through the Enterprise exploding. It might have something to do with the fact I love Groundhog Day, but it has always been one of my favorites.

bward11
bward11

The concept of shifting universes is still holds.

mike.motes
mike.motes

I do not disagree with any of the choices. I offer for your consideration, "All Good Things...."

Ajax4Hire
Ajax4Hire

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra; the beast at Tanagra Darmok and Jalad on the Ocean. I do not need to say more.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...but I managed, which is why you don't see "The Wounded" or "The Defector" on this list.

Quarkspace
Quarkspace

Spot on with number one, that was a poignant episode. Darmok is also one of my favourites: "Shaka, when the walls fell"

Chuck L
Chuck L

"Half a Life" ranks high on my list of best NextGen episodes. David Ogden Stiers (of "M*A*S*H" fame) plays a scientist confronted with having to abandon his incomplete, life-long work simply because his society requires him to kill himself on his 60th birthday so as to not become a burden to the younger generations. This is probably Majel Barret's best turn as Lwaxana Troi, she of advancing years and aching for companionship, who falls for Dr. Timicin only to find out that he's not going to be around much longer. But she finally comes to terms with the inevitable; her simple "We are ready, Mr. O'Brien" while holding hands with Timicin on the transporter pad is a poignant end to the episode, whose theme hit home "back" in the 20th Century. This episode also includes an emotional performance by Michelle Forbes as Timicin's daughter ("Where will you live? And where will you die?"). Forbes would later be "recycled" as Ro Laren.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Can't say I disagree with your choices for best Star Trek TNG episodes. I also like "Sins of the Father" myself. Matt

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Yesterday's Enterprise" involves the entire Federation mythos. It explains much about the Federation - Klingon Empire alliance, trots out a version of the Enterprise not seen before, tosses in some time travel and the surprise return of a dead crew member for good measure, and lays down a premise that was used as the springboard for several subsequent episodes.

JeffDeWitt
JeffDeWitt

What damage? The intent was to reboot the franchise, not for the least of reasons was that all the shows and movies over the years had so confused things no one really new what cannon was. Now they have a fresh start. As to this list I can argue with any of them (although I too really like "Relics"), and while "Yesterday's Enterprise" is probably my favorite "The Inner Light" just blew me away the first time I saw it, just awesome storytelling and the sort of story that really can't be told outside of science fiction.

rmerchberger
rmerchberger

Jay is going to do the best 5 ST-DS9 episodes next... He started quite a while back with the "5 worst of" of ST-TOS, then ST-TNG, ST-DS9, ST-Voyager, ST-Enterprise -- then he ranked all the movies (worst to best), then started the "5 best of" lists of the series (in the above order)... Patience, young grasshopper.... ;-) IMHO, the point in the series when Odo was no longer a shapeshifter, I thought the series took a huge downturn. They kinda brought it back with the Dominion war & whatnot, but (again, IMHO) there was a bit too much "suspension of belief" at play there to bring the series back on track... Also, DS9 wasn't the only Trek series that had an amazing singer - Brent Spiner is an amazing singing talent and did record an album (titled "Old Yellow Eyes is Back"). No, his role never "made captain" - but he did achieve the rank of Commodore and did command a ship in one of the books (_Imzadi_) Close enough for me.... --- And another Star Trek captain *did* record an album: William Shatner. Now, I'm not saying he really _should have_ ;-) as his rendition of "Mr. Tambourine Man" could make you bleed from your ears... (one last time, this is IMHO...) Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next list...

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

I've seen "The Inner Light" twice (don't have the DVD) and I always find it very moving. Wonderful touch that at the end he gets the flute and knows how to play it. Convinces you that the years on the dying planet weren't just a dream.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Other than Enterprise I have them all and I just might weaken and get Enterprise even though I didn't like it. Col

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...also a personal favorite, and I love the Kelsey Grammer cameo at the end.

swjslj
swjslj

I like this episode, too. I often use it as an example of where I think Obama Care is headed.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

but they messed it up. That whole Xindi war thing dragged on too long. I did like the alternate universe episodes towards the end (yes, I stuck with it for its entire run). They even changed the opening theme. Still, I may also acquire it if I can find it cheap enough. Same thing with Voyager. I enjoyed it, just never got around to getting it. Now, I'm not willing to pay a premium for it. I like his choices for the top five. Must have been a tough choice as there are so many. David Warner plays a villain so well. So does Ronny Cox. I loathed both their characters which is a good sign they are acting well. Ronny Cox also played Senator Kinsey in Stargate SG1 and did an excellent job of being loathsome.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Of [b]Logan's Run[/b] nothing more and nothing less, don't read more than is possible into a Star Treck Story Line it's not real life. But if this Helps Ossama Bin Ladden was a staunch Republican till he died. He was in the process of attempting to ridding the world of Obbama. Dont you feel so much better now knowing who your political allies are? :D Col

swjslj
swjslj

Possibly, but TNG more fully developed the concept. There was much consideration of the cultural and personal aspects of a legislatively-decreed maximum life span. Logans's Run didn't have much of a storyline at all. As for your whacky Bin Laden statements; enjoy the Kool-Aid.

Editor's Picks