As they say in the business world, if you’re not growing, you’re stagnating. Although I have plenty of thoughts left about gaming (next month’s article has to do with the power of Kickstarter and Greenlight to shape the industry, and why it somehow seems to work), I thought I’d take a quick diversion into Geekery’s favored son: Star Trek.
Growing up a nerd in the late 80s through the 90s, it was a foregone conclusion that Star Trek: The Next Generation would profoundly weave itself into the fabric of my life. Setting aside armchair psychoanalysis about the reasons it appealed to me, it was simply a well acted, well produced show with a high level of technical effects polish and just enough philosophical underpinnings to give every story arc an measure of depth. I was aware of Kirk Trek (mostly from the movies, not the TV show) and enjoyed some of the later story arcs in DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise. However, those other “Trek” shows just felt like fair to great science fiction. TNG, to me, was great television. Beyond the technobabble, aliens, and fantastic space battles, there was this central unifying exploration of the human condition by wonderfully talented actors, writers, and directors.
For anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, or for those who haven’t been back in a while, please enjoy my list of the 10 Essential episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Lower Decks (Season 7)
Synopsis: While enduring the Enterprise’s promotion evaluation process, four junior officers find themselves involved in a top-secret mission.
Notes: By the time you reach the seventh season of a TV show, plots and characters start to get a little stale. While there were several good episodes in the seventh season, this was the only one that stuck out as particularly memorable. The narration was told from the point of several officers, one a semi-recurring actress, one of which guest-starred in Season 5’s The First Duty, and two completely new characters. The regular cast was set more in a background role, which had the odd effect of giving the audience an “outside-looking-in” point of view. The actual conflict in this episode was fairly generic, but how it was explored was fresh and very intriguing.
Loud as a Whisper (Season 2)
Synopsis: The Enterprise ferries a deaf and mute ambassador who leads difficult peace talks.
Notes: The first episode that felt like new “Trek” to me. All of Season 1 and the first part of Season 2 felt like The Original Series 2.0. It tried too hard to stay faithful to the themes and ideas of the its predecessor, and that made it feel forced at best and outright derivative at worst. The idea of exploring communication (first seen here, and perfected later in Darmok) became a recurring theme through the rest of the series. It was deeper, more meaningful, more relatable than what had come before, and showed the range and capability of a very talented cast.
Tapestry (Season 6)
Synopsis: After being attacked on an away mission, Captain Picard dies and meets Q in the afterlife who offers him the chance to change a crucial moment in his history and prevent the mistakes he made in his youth.
Notes: This isn’t exactly an original theme, but it is still incredibly compelling. It’s the whole Butterfly Effect-meets-Temporal-Causality thing: if you change one small thing in your past, how does your future look? Kind of Christmas Carol , with Picard cast as the anti-Scrooge. The 1998 film Sliding Doors explores a very similar theme, for the legions of Gwyneth Paltrow fans who read this column. And it is a great look at Picard, before he earned his four collar pips.
I, Borg (Season 5)
Synopsis: An injured member of the dangerous cybernetic race known as the Borg is captured by the Enterprise crew and examined. During the following interactions, they rethink their attitude towards the Borg.
Notes: The early seasons of TNG established the Borg as the embodiment of the faceless enemy. Sure, they had actual faces, but a “collective” hive-mind prevented any one of those faces from being truly distinct. Since it is the easiest to demonize an enemy without a face, this episode came in an turned everything upside down. Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggin put it best: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”
Cause and Effect (Season 5)
Synopsis: The destruction of the Enterprise near a distortion in the space-time continuum causes a temporal causality loop to form, trapping the ship and crew in time and forcing them to relive the events that led to their deaths.
Notes: It’s Groundhog Day in space, though, to be fair, Cause and Effect aired a year prior to the Bill Murray movie. However, this episode has, by far, the best teaser (the short segment of the show prior to the opening credits) of the series. I would defy anyone who has not seen the episode to shut it off after hearing a slightly panicked Picard yell “All hands, abandon ship! Repeat – All hands, abandon…” before the Enterprise explodes and the show fades to the opening theme. Dr. Crusher’s annoyed voice when she knocks over her glass for the thousandth time is pretty funny, too.
The Measure of a Man (Season 2)
Synopsis: The android officer Lieutenant Commander Data must fight for his right of self-determination in order not to be declared the property of Starfleet and be disassembled in the name of science.
Notes: There were a lot of high-concept episodes of TNG, and The Measure of a Man is one of the very best of them. At the time, the idea of an artificial life form was beyond the pale of technology and firmly entrenched in the realm of science-fiction. However, modern developments in advanced computer-based algorithms have pushed the concept of true artificial intelligence from beyond imagining to just over the horizon. At what point would such a system be considered conscious? And can that consciousness, once established, be considered the threshold of life? The issues raised in this story about the nature of life itself seem more worthy of a philosophical salon than a cheeto-crumbed couch, and that speaks to the heart of what makes Trek TV awesome.
The Best of Both Worlds (Seasons 3-4)
Synopsis: The Enterprise must battle the Borg, intent on conquering Earth, with a captured and assimilated Captain Picard as their emissary.
Notes: From a storyline perspective, this might be the single most important episode in the first revival era (TNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise, Movies 7-10). The Battle of Wolf 359, and the resulting socio-political fallout, deeply influenced the events of everything that came afterward. Without it, we wouldn’t have the Defiant. Sisko wouldn’t have commanded DS9. Starfleet’s patrol strength, obliterated by the attack, might have been sufficient to prevent the formation (or at least the proliferation) of the Maquis, thereby precluding the mission which ends up sending Voyager to the Delta Quadrant. This episode is a turning point in the meta-arc of pre-reboot Trek. And it has some really cool explosions.
Darmok (Season 5)
Synopsis: Picard is captured, then trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language incompatible with the universal translator. They must learn to communicate with each other before the beast of the planet overwhelms them.
Notes: Communication as a source of conflict was explored in Loud as a Whisper, but perfected in Darmok. The writing was fantastically inventive – usually, “alien” languages are made exotic by a collection of vaguely Eastern European and Middle Eastern vowels, hard Rs and the occasionally phlegmy consonant. The writers of this episode turned that on its head – making the challenge about context rather than phonology. As I’ve said before, when exploration, conflict, and communication fit seamlessly together, you have the makings of epic Trek.
Yesterday’s Enterprise (Season 3)
Synopsis: The crew of the Enterprise must decide whether to send the time-travelling Enterprise-C back through a temporal rift to its certain destruction in order to prevent their own disastrous timeline from ever occurring.
Notes: For a long time, this was my favorite episode, and it is tough to put my finger on any one reason why. I loved the connection with the old uniforms. I love alternate timelines (the “Mirror, Darkly” universe is always strangely compelling). I love how they “rewrote” Tasha Yar’s story. I loved the exploration of the Enterprise lineage. But most of all, I loved that it gave context for the entire setting of first revival trek. The Khitomer Accords, the Federation-Klingon Alliance, the reputation of Starfleet as a science-and-diplomacy-first organization… all of it can be traced in some way to this single moment. If Best of Both Worlds connected a single moment to everything which followed, Yesterday’s Enterprise connected a single moment to everything which came before.
The Inner Light (Season 5)
Synopsis: An alien probe controls and disables Captain Picard, who wakes up as “Kamin,” a resident of the planet Kataan. While the crew of the Enterprise tries to jar the probe’s influence, “Kamin” lives through the final, dying decades of his homeworld in the span of approximately twenty minutes in the form of an interactive “ancestor simulation”.
Notes: The story writing is inspired, and Patrick Stewart’s performance is on par with anything in the history of the silver screen. The hauntingly beautiful melody Picard plays on the Ressikan Flute as the episode closes adds an emotional layer to an already deep and evocative narrative. Yes, there’s a sci-fi premise. But this is a story that’s far beyond good Trek: this is flat out good television. And, perhaps, even better than that.
The Wounded (Season 4)
Synopsis: The Enterprise crew cooperates with the Cardassians to track down another Starfleet vessel, the Nebula-class USS Phoenix, after it appears to have gone rogue, attacking and destroying a Cardassian space station that was said to be unarmed.
Notes: A very entertaining plot arc, and a solid guest appearance by Bob Gunton (Ethan Kanin on 24) as Captain Benjamin Maxwell. The narrative about below-board dealings by one’s enemies is timeless and eminently relatable. The philosophical nuance in the narrow line between one’s ideals and self-preservation is compelling, and balanced in such a way to make it an uncomfortably difficult decision. O’Brien and Maxwell’s forlorn rendition of “The Minstrel Boy” together near the end of the episode remains a personal highlight of the entire series.
The First Duty (Season 5)
Synopsis: While visiting Starfleet Cadet Wesley Crusher at Starfleet Academy, the crew of the Federation Starfleet starship USS Enterprise learn of an accident that claimed the life of a cadet.
Notes: The right decisions are rarely the easy ones. Courageous acts of moral fortitude are very often rewarded with scorn, derision, and pain. Digging a hole with lies starts you down a path that rarely ends without suffering. This episode is shown at the United States Air Force Academy for these reasons, and you owe it to yourself to give it a watch, as well.
The Drumhead (Season 4)
Synopsis: An explosion aboard the Enterprise brings a Starfleet Admiral out of retirement to investigate the possibilities of sabotage, espionage and treason aboard the Federation flagship.
Notes: Another great message episode about suspicion and witch-hunt mentality. It wasn’t written by Brannon Braga, but it has that same dark edge which crept in during the fourth season, when Star Trek began to “mature.” While the core of the franchise has always been positive, episodes like The Drumhead add a psychological “id” to the occaionally distracting categorical optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.
Chain of Command, Part II (Season 6)
Synopsis: Captain Picard is taken from command of the Enterprise for a covert mission, and his replacement is assigned to deal with the Cardassians openly.
Notes: What is light without the darkness? Like The Drumhead above, Part II of Chain of Command explores the psychological and physiological aspects of torture on the human psyche. Here, the producers (and Patrick Stewart, who was said to have lobbied passionately to keep the strong, intense nature of the episode intact) are to be commended for their courage. This is a theme that must be handled with incredible care and tact to pull off. Not just the writers, directors, and cast need to be on their game – the lighting, sound, costume and set design also must be absolutely perfect. Otherwise, the balance between gratuitous violence and flippant minimalization is upset. Slate.com has a fantastic writeup from a few years back – it is worth a read once you have watched the episode.