Often regarded as the best series of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation (or ‘TNG’ for short) had a long run – seven seasons puts it in the higher band of Star Treks when it comes to longevity – and there are dozens of fantastic episodes to choose from. However, I have decided to narrow down my Top 7 best Star Trek TNG episodes – and it’s only 7, no Honorable Mentions this time, and for the sake of fairness two-parters count as one episode. So, coming in at number 7:
7 – The Offspring
Who doesn’t love a Data-themed episode? The Offspring depicts a crucial step in Data’s journey to becoming more human as he tackles the challenges of parenthood, having created an offspring based off his own specifications in the ship’s lab. It is truly fascinating to see how Data manages his daughter’s development, and when Starfleet threatens to separate the two his urge to defy their instructions to remain with his child marks a highlight of this episode that showcases just how far Data has come as a character. This is a key episode for Data fans and deals with the classic sci-fi concept of the paternal aspects of the role of creator that can also be seen with Dr. Soong and Data, and is now presented through Data and Lal. The poignant ending serves to hammer home the emotional weight of this episode, and easily puts it in the top ten for being the perfect transition from lighthearted to tragic.
6 – Tapestry
For many of his episodes, Q’s appearance is somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, having an omnipotent entity serve as an obstacle to the crew is an interesting concept, one that classic Star Trek dealt with on occasion, and it opens some intriguing narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, in many cases, these opportunities are rarely realised, particularly in Q’s later appearances in Deep Space Nine and Voyager. However, the Season 6 episode Tapestry is a perfect example of the potential of Q as both a character and a plot device being met, with a strong story that delivers some really interesting character development for both Q and Picard. The premise is essentially that Q appears to Picard at a moment when he thinks he is going to die and offers him the choice to change things about his life that he disliked – particularly his rash actions as a young man in Starfleet Academy. Picard quickly realises, however, that altering the past can have severe ramifications for the present, and the method by which this episode conveys this theme is brilliant. Overall Tapestry is a great example of a character-driven TNG episode that still manages to get the best out of its sci-fi concept.
5 – Yesterday’s Enterprise
From one time-travel based episode to another, Yesterday’s Enterprise also deals with the idea of history changing, and presents its events as being almost akin to the mirror universe episodes of the original series and DS9. This episode gives us an idea of the history that unfolded between the original series and TNG, as the crew of the Enterprise-D encounter the earlier Enterprise-C thanks to a time anomaly, and this results in an alternate timeline in which the Federation and the Klingons are still at war, and we finally get to see the Enterprise-D go up against a squadron of Klingon warbirds head on. This episode also sees the surprise return of Tasha Yar, who in this alternate timeline is still alive and replaces Worf as tactical officer, which is a nice surprise for Tasha fans and leads to a fantastic scene between her and Guinan, who retains the ability to detect how different the alternate timeline is from the original, allowing for some interesting moments with her as she tries to figure it all out. Ultimately, Yesterday’s Enterprise is a classic with a great sci-fi concept executed perfectly.
4 – Phantasms
Some of the best episodes of TNG are the spooky ones, and the ones that deal with psychological threats that cannot simply be solved by diplomacy or weaponry. Phantasms presents some bizarre and memorable imagery in the form of Data’s dreams involving the crew and other strange characters in a complex subconscious metaphor for the issue that also happens to be affecting the ship at the time, and it makes for great viewing. One of the best things about Phantasms is just how accurately it portrays what dreaming is actually like, particularly a recurring dream, and the idea of the crew being able to use the holodeck to enter Data’s dreams was a stroke of genius. Definitely an episode that should be watched at night, Phantasms is a great mix of wacky and wonderful.
3 – Cause and Effect
As far as mysteries that unravel slowly as the plot progresses go, you don’t get much better a case than in Cause and Effect. The seemingly insignificant goings-on of a relatively ordinary day on the Enterprise become crucially important when they are revealed to culminate in the total destruction of the ship, only to be repeated again and again in a seemingly infinite loop. The best thing about this episode is how gradual the story develops – Cause and Effect keeps its cards close to its chest (ahem) until the last minute, and every scene is critical to the crew figuring out how to save themselves from destruction.
2 – The Inner Light
Arguably one of the most mind-boggling episodes in Star Trek history, The Inner Light is both tragic and moving, as Picard lives out an entire life on a seemingly alien planet that has been lost to time, and is given haunting memories of a world long gone. This is one of those Star Trek episodes that leaves a lasting impact, particularly on the first viewing, because it just comes out of nowhere yet it carries such a huge emotional weight – so much in fact that the events of this episode go on to be discussed by Picard as a major event in his life that he cannot forget, which is unusual for Star Trek which tends to brush major psychological damage to their characters from the trauma they face on a day-to-day basis under the rug. That being said…
1 – The Best of Both Worlds
Yes, the obvious choice for number one, ‘The One Where Picard Gets Assimilated’ is without doubt one of the greatest episodes of Star Trek of all time, and it trumps all other Borg appearances to date. As discussed in a previous article on How to Fix – Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg experienced severe villain decay over the course of their appearances on Star Trek. In the early days, however, the Borg were a truly sinister threat, and the episode The Best of Both Worlds is a perfect demonstration as to why. The Best of Both Worlds doesn’t pull any punches as Picard is taken by the Borg and used to effectively wipe out an entire fleet of Federation starships at the Battle of Wolf 359, an experience which haunts him for the rest of his life, and the psychological aftermath of which is depicted in the next episode, Family. What is interesting about The Best of Both Worlds is that the production team toyed with the idea of using this episode as a means of killing Picard and having Riker take his place as Captain of the Enterprise-D, and at the time of the episode’s airing it must have seemed to fans as though Picard’s fate was truly hanging in the balance, which is perhaps what gives this episode more stakes and suspense than many other episodes of Star Trek in which you can be reassured that no-one will die. Even with the hindsight that Picard obviously survives, this episode has lost none of its grit and great character moments between the crew in Picard’s absence drive the story relentlessly forward.
And that concludes the Top 7 Star Trek: TNG Episodes, do you agree with this list? Post your favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the comments below, and be sure to check out other articles below:
- Star Trek – Top 10 Federation Starship Classes
- How to Fix – Star Trek: First Contact
- Star Trek – First Impressions of Deep Space 9
- Star Trek – Ranking the Opening Titles