Well, this is it: my top-25 list of TNG episodes. You may not agree with them all, but that’s why this is my list — emphasis on the my. And if you’re wondering why any of the expected episodes are missing, here’s a partial explanation.
Here we go.
25. Redemption (Season 4 Episode 26, Season 5 Episode 1)
The Plot: Over the past couple of seasons, the Duras family has been trying to goad the Klingon empire into civil war. They finally succeed, and Worf and Picard are drawn into it since they’ve both been involved with the ascension of Chancellor Gowron. But even as Worf fights to regain his family’s honor, it’s revealed that Sela, Tasha Yar’s daughter from an alternate timeline, has been supporting the Duras family. War breaks out and it’s up to the Federation and the Klingons to work together to end it before it gets too out-of-hand.
Gowron: You both fought as warriors. You have proven your hearts are Klingon! I return your family honor. I give you back that which was wrongly taken from you. Let your name be spoken once again. You are Worf, son of Mogh.
Notable Guest Stars: Denise Crosby as Sela; Tony Todd as Kurn; Robert O’Reilly as Gowron
Why It Was Great: With the exception of Geordi and Beverly, this truly was an ensemble effort. It had some cool ship-combat scenes; it allowed Michael Dorn to be as Klingon as he wanted to be; and in the end Worf got his unfair discommendation reversed. In the original series, Klingons were pretty much the villains of the week and Romulans were the sneaky-yet-honorable ones, but over the past four years of TNG the writers and producers had built a well-developed society with its own cultural mores and historical myths. This was the culmination of all of that work — at least until Deep Space Nine. It’s not my favorite cliffhanger of the series, but it was a damn good one.
24. Rascals (Season 6 Episode 7)
Picard: Thanks, Number One. [A Ferengi guard eyes Picard and Riker suspiciously.] He’s my Number One Dad! [Picard and Riker hug.]
The Plot: A vortex in space turns Picard, Guinan, Ro, and Keiko O’Brien into children and they have to cope with this. At the same time, a group of Ferengi attempt to capture the Enterprise.
Notable Guest Stars: David Tristan Birkin, Isis Jones, Megan Parlen, and Carolyn Junko King as the younger versions of Picard, Guinan, Ro, and Keiko, respectively.
Why It Was Great: If you’re in your 30s now and you were a TNG fan then, odds are good that, as a kid, you dreamed about being on the Enterprise. You probably spun out all sorts of fantasies about how you saved the ship. Maybe you wrote some nascent fanfic. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself. But anyway, the episode itself brought up those feelings in 14-year-old me, and even watching it now I still enjoy the humorous moments and the fish-out-of-water jokes in the story. Plus there was more added to the Ro/Guinan friendship, which was always good. I just liked this episode.
Also, forgive me, but I saw these two images and just had to upload them in all their glory:
23. Where No One Has Gone Before (Season 1 Episode 6)
Picard: Yes, but where is this place?
Data: Where none have gone before.
The Plot: An experimental procedure intended to increase warp-engine efficiency backfires spectacularly and the Enterprise is flung so far away from home that they end up in a place where thought becomes reality.
Notable Guest Stars: Stanley Kamel as Kosinski; Eric Menyuk as the Traveler
Why It Was Great: This was probably the first really good episode of TNG. It was a bottle show; it had really cool special effects; it developed most of the main characters in one way or another. Plus, the episode was originally written by Diane Duane and Michael Reaves, TOS novelists, and although Maurice Hurley substantially rewrote the episode (you can google the original episode script if you want) it was still an episode written by the tie-in novelists. As a big fan of the novels, I approved of this. You kind of have to ignore the “Wesley is special” speech, which was handled in a somewhat-clunky fashion, but the rest of the episode was good enough to look past that.
22. All Good Things (Season 7 Episodes 25-26)
The Plot: Captain Picard discovers that he’s been traveling back and forth through time — to the pilot episode, to 25 years in the future, and then back to now. He eventually discovers that Q is behind it, trying to get Picard to expand his mind just enough to justify humanity’s continued existence (which was called into question in “Encounter at Farpoint”). But if Picard doesn’t figure it out, he could be responsible for the end of humanity itself.
Q: It’s time to put an end to your trek through the stars.
Notable Guest Stars: John de Lancie as Q; Andreas Katsulas as Tomalak; Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar
Why It Was Great: After seven years, how do you say goodbye to a series? Well, you do it by referencing the pilot again, and by bringing back the characters people love (or love to hate), and by giving your star (Patrick Stewart) a task that seems insurmountable. Honestly, even watching “All Good Things” these days, I’m still unclear how Picard closing the temporal anomaly actually changed anything. I realize the whole point was for Q to get Picard to think a little bit bigger than he’d ever done before, but that was kind of a weak moment. Still, the future scenes were really cool and the ending, when Picard sits down to play poker with the rest of the characters, was a nice coda on what is regarded by many people to be the best run of a Trek series.
21. The Arsenal of Freedom (Season 1 Episode 21)
The Plot: An automated hail brings most of the main crew down to a planet where, years ago, weapons were big business. A leftover demonstration model menaces Riker, Yar, and Data; Beverly and Picard must deal with the salesman-hologram; and, up on the Enterprise, Geordi and Worf face another demo unit, one with the power to destroy the ship.
Rice: Tell me about your ship, Riker. It’s the Enterprise, isn’t it?
Riker: No… the name of my ship is the… Lollipop.
Rice: I have no knowledge of that ship.
Riker: It’s just been commissioned. It’s a good ship.
Notable Guest Stars: Vincent Schiavelli as the Salesman Hologram; Julia Nickson as Ensign Lian Su; Marco Rodriguez as Captain Rice
Why It Was Great: I contend that this was one of the best episodes of the first season. Although the effects weren’t perfect (especially on the planet), every main character except Wesley was involved in the story, and I truly thought that they were in peril. I especially enjoyed the battle sequences with Geordi in command and the backstory we got from Beverly while Picard had to take care of her. It was just an overall good episode in the tradition of the original series, and I’ll still watch it whenever it comes on.
20. Starship Mine (Season 6 Episode 18)
various characters, to Picard: You keep a saddle on board the Enterprise?
The Plot: With everyone off the ship so it can be cleaned*, a group of mercenaries sneaks aboard to steal a highly-explosive by-product of the warp engines. They didn’t bank on Captain Picard still being there, having gone back to get his saddle, and he has to wage a one-man guerilla war to stop the mercenaries while also staying ahead of the deadly cleaning beams.
Notable Guest Stars: Tim Russ as Devor; Glenn Morshower as Orton; Patricia Tallman as Kiros
Why It Was Great: Coming right on the heels of a show about the ship is… yes, another show about the ship. You can kind of see what I like in a Star Trek episode, can’t you? Anyway, if you take out most of the scenes at Commander Hutchinson’s party, this was a great episode that showcased Captain Picard’s lesser-known talents and gave Patrick Stewart a chance to be an intelligent action hero.
19. Descent (Season 6 Episode 26, Season 7 Episode 1)
The Plot: Data realizes that he feels emotions, and as he interrogates a Borg captive, is convinced to leave the ship and join his brother, Lore, who has taken a splinter group of Borg and given them individuality. The Enterprise crew must search a sensor-dampened planet for Data, as well as Picard, Troi, and Geordi**, who have been captured by Lore. Meanwhile, Beverly has been left in charge of the Enterprise and faces off against the Borg supership run by Lore’s crew.
Data: The sons of Soong have joined together, and together we will destroy the Federation.
Notable Guest Stars: Stephen Hawking as himself; Brent Spiner as Lore; Jonathan Del Arco as Hugh
Why It Was Great: Ever since his first appearance in “Datalore”, Lore has been one of the most compelling villains TNG has had to offer. Combine him with the Borg, who are possibly the most inexorable enemy the crew has ever had to face, and you’ve got a recipe for awesomeness. Of course, the episode did have its flaws — that quote above being one of them, and the “let’s tramp across this planet that looks an awful lot like California” scenes, and Beverly having to lay the smack-down on Mr. Barnaby while also reminding us of the metaphasic shielding she was involved with a few episodes back — but overall we reached a very satisfying conclusion to the Lore arc: Data was forced to kill his brother and eventually disassemble him. The Hugh arc also ended (and didn’t we all want to know what happened to that guy, right?) with Hugh working to save the rest of the individualized Borg. Overall a very good two-parter.
18. The Drumhead (Season 4 Episode 21)
Picard: With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.
The Plot: A Starfleet admiral goes on a witch-hunt to find Romulan sympathizers aboard the Enterprises, outing a young man who’d kept his heritage secret in order to join Starfleet.
Notable Guest Stars: Jean Simmons as Admiral Norah Satie
Why It Was Great: Although I didn’t really go for this episode when I was younger — it was a bit over the head of my 12-year-old self — I’ve come to appreciate it now as both a nod to McCarthyism and a prescient look at American culture in the months immediately following 9/11. For an episode without any real action scenes, it was compelling, especially in the way that the Picard/Worf relationship was furthered. Unfortunately Worf was often used as the jingoist/patriot character, but in this episode Picard’s quiet determination to do what’s right and stand up for the true character of Starfleet and the Federation won Worf — and the viewers — over even further. Plus, as a fan of musicals, it was nice to see Jean Simmons again.
17. Silicon Avatar (Season 5 Episode 4)
Dr. Marr: Why are we pursuing the Entity, if not to destroy it?
Picard: We are not hunters, Doctor. Nor is it our role to exact revenge.
Dr. Marr: What do you propose? We track it down, greet it warmly and ask it if it would mind terribly not ravaging any more planets?
The Plot: While assisting some terraformers, Riker and an away team are ambushed by the Crystalline Entity — the creature that destroyed all life on Data’s home planet. Though the crew escapes with only minimal casualties, an expert on the creature, Dr. Kila Marr, comes aboard that ship and commences hunting it even as Picard and Data attempt to communicate with it and figure out what it is and why it does what it does.
Notable Guest Stars: Jason Marsden as the voice of Remy Marr
Why It Was Great: I know that Brent Spiner wasn’t a fan of this episode, and to be fair it did have its weak points, but I personally really liked it — even the parts on the planet when it was very clear that Carmen Davila was going to be enjoying some Riker lovin’ in the very near future. Even though the colonists were on screen for a very short time, they were well-established enough that their peril (and death) was impactful***. However, as is usual with these mid-series shows, Picard and Data show us that we should be trying to figure out what our enemy is and why it attacks us before just killing it out-of-hand. And they were getting so close when Dr. Marr killed the Entity, too, that it just hurt to see that creature destroyed. Even if it had been fully evil (as the aliens in ID4 were), at least we’d have known. For what it’s worth, the Crystalline Entity is explored further in Orion’s Hounds by Christopher L. Bennett, which is worth a read.
16. Remember Me (Season 4 Episode 5)
Beverly: If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!
The Plot: Wesley’s latest science experiment traps Beverly inside a warp bubble where her fears of being alone manifest in the form of the crew disappearing, one by one. Meanwhile, outside the bubble, Wesley and the Traveler must find a way to save the doctor before the bubble collapses.
Notable Guest Stars: Eric Menyuk as the Traveler
Why It Was Great: Hey, look, another bottle show! No, but seriously, I’ve always liked episodes where something is wrong with the ship or with one character, and s/he has to figure out how to solve his/her own problems. It’s the same way with the tie-in novels — my favorites usually are the ones that don’t involve a “planet-of-the-week” mystery. Beverly’s predicament was both confusing and intriguing simultaneously, and if the Traveler was something of a deus ex machina, it was all right, because Gates McFadden carried the episode pretty much on her own. Also, the Picard/Beverly scene on the bridge was quite nice, and when Picard disappeared, his heartbeat being deleted from existence, the fear Beverly felt became very real to the viewers.
15. Schisms (Season 6 Episode 5)
The Plot: Crew members are going to sleep but waking up more tired than before, and as Riker and Troi begin to investigate, they discover that an alien race is experimenting on them — and the experiments are becoming more invasive each time.
Data: Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature, / An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature.
Notable Guest Stars: Lanei Chapman as Ensign Rager; Ken Thorley as Mr. Mot
Why It Was Great: Star Trek does horror! I enjoy mysteries, and I always have — I was a big fan of the Cat Who series, and I still love Sherlock Holmes, Psych, and even House. This story layered in the mystery very well, and also the horror — blood turned to some other liquid, arms cut off and reattached, people being sucked through portals (not such a good special effect there). It was a very effective episode, and one of the few Riker-centric ones that I actually enjoyed.
14. Who Watches the Watchers (Season 3 Episode 4)
Liko: I believe I have seen the Overseer. He is called ‘The Picard’.
The Plot: The Enterprise crew assists an embedded team of scientists on a pre-warp planet with Vulcanoid people living on it. When one of the natives is injured, though, the crew brings him to the ship (because it’s their fault he was hurt) and he inadvertently sees Picard as a god.
Notable Guest Stars: Kathryn Leigh Scott as Nuria; Ray Wise as Liko; Pamela Segall (now Adlon) as Oji
Why It Was Great: The third season of TNG had some really stellar episodes, and this was one of them. Though the premise was somewhat flimsy (and recycled later into Insurrection), this was a way to further cement Picard’s desire not to violate the Prime Directive the same way Kirk used to do with impunity. However, it also showed what happens when the best of intentions go horribly awry. Great acting all around, and until he was actually shot, the viewers never really believed that Liko would loose that arrow on the good captain.
13. Frame of Mind (Season 6 Episode 21)
Data: Your unexpected choice to improvise was an effective method of drawing the audience into the plight of your character. You gave a truly realistic interpretation of multi-infarct dementia.
The Plot: While performing in one of Beverly’s plays, Riker begins experiencing vivid hallucinations that he’s actually inside a mental asylum on a planet in turmoil. But as the episode progresses, Riker’s hallucinations become those of the Enterprise crew and his reality the asylum itself.
Notable Guest Stars: Susanna Thompson as Jaya
Why It Was Great: This was by far my favorite Riker episode and possibly the best episode of the sixth season (except for “Descent Part 1”). As with “Schisms”, this was a horror story that screwed with the characters’ perceptions — where was Riker, exactly? Had he ever gone down to this planet? Was he really just a madman? It seems interesting that the sixth season of Buffy also put their “is this an asylum?” episode right around the same time in its run****. Anyway, Frakes gave an excellent performance here, and the final scene, where he breaks down the sets from the play, makes us believe that he’s going to be affected by what happened for quite some time. (Of course, the fact that TNG didn’t really have story arcs meant that next week he was fine, but still, a fan can dream.)
12. Conspiracy (Season 1 Episode 25)
The Plot: Captain Picard is asked to meet with some high-ranking officers, who warn him of a conspiracy in the ranks (first hinted at in “Coming of Age”). After Picard’s friend, Captain Keel, is killed, he diverts the Enterprise to Earth where another friend, Admiral Quinn, attempts to infest the Enterprise with parasitic creatures. As Riker and Picard infiltrate Starfleet Headquarters, they discover that the queen of the creatures has taken over Quinn’s aide, Commander Remmick, and they must stop him before he calls the rest of the aliens to Earth.
Picard: Friendship must dare to risk, Counselor, or it isn’t friendship.
Notable Guest Stars: Henry Darrow as Admiral Savar; Ward Costello as Admiral Quinn
Why It Was Great: It was cool to see the writers paying off something they hinted at only a few episodes before, and in such a way that there’s real danger present. The aliens blew up an entire starship to stop one man; they infiltrated the entirety of Starfleet Command; they threatened to bring their entire race to the Federation with the intent of taking it over via “peaceful coexistence”. While the action sequences were a little silly (Geordi through the doors, Worf through a table), the final showdown was well-done and, although it never happened in canon, the aliens have been signaled and, at some point in the future, they will come for us. (The DS9 relaunch explores this in greater detail.)
11. Conundrum (Season 5 Episode 14)
The Plot: An alien race looking to obliterate its longtime enemies wipes the memories of the Enterprise crew and installs one of their own as the new first officer, as well as false computer records indicating that the Federation is also at war. But when the ship gets to their opponents’ main command base, they start to realize that something is amiss.
Riker: For all we know, you and I could be married.
Ro: For all we know, you and I could hate each other.
Notable Guest Stars: Michelle Forbes as Ensign Ro; Erich Anderson as MacDuff; Liz Vassey as Kristin
Why It Was Great: This episode will forever be known as “the one where Riker boinks Ensign Ro”, but at least it happened organically. Anyway, the memory-loss/fish-out-of-water concept is a good one in fiction — our established characters lose their memories and have to figure out exactly what they do, and it’s up to us as the viewers to see where they gravitate to. Once the crew got their memories back, it was more like a post-trauma situation where everyone (seen through the Ro/Riker/Troi triangle) has to deal with the consequences of what happened. Also part of this trope: the fact that even though you don’t know something’s wrong you still don’t act “badly”, as evidenced by Picard refusing to fire on the command base. One wonders why we’ve never heard from these races again, but then, this was TNG, and everything was resolved in 45 minutes (for the most part).
So, there you have it: the first part of my top 25 episodes. I’d love to know if you agree with my choices, but don’t tell me something’s missing — there are still ten more to go. (Actually eleven, but I’ll explain that tomorrow.)
* The actual explanation is far more technical, but it’s basically just a big cleaning job.
** I swear that dude gets kidnapped more than Dawn Summers. If you were playing the home game and you just read that reference, drink.
*** I hate that word too, but I couldn’t find a good synonym.
**** Aaaaand… drink.