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.
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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 also follow him on his personal blog.