Star Trek fans all have their favorite episodes. Some times, they will list their favorite episodes by series. Other times, they list them in context of the entire franchise.
Picking favorite episodes can be very difficult. There are so many, the majority of which tackle some very important and controversial issues. Others are just plain old fun. In honor of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s 25th anniversary, here is my list of top five favorite episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation and why. The episode ranked second, third, and fourth, could easily be interchangeable.
In reverse numerical order:
Episode no.: Season 4 Episode 9
Original air date: December 2, 1990
In this episode, Wesley Crusher is preparing to leave for Starfleet Academy. Before he leaves, Captain Picard asks Wesley to accompany him on one final mission. The mining shuttle goes down on a desert planet, along with Captain Dirgo, the mining shuttle’s captain. Captain Picard becomes gravely injured. The arrogant Captain Dirgo dies, leaving Wesley to save Captain Picard’s life, while the Enterprise is busy dealing with a different crisis.
This episode may not be the meatiest episode. But it is one of my favorite episodes because it nicely illustrates how the relationship between Captain Picard and Wesley has grown. What seemed to be not too long ago, Captain Picard would refer to Wesley as, “the boy.” Captain Picard was not good with children, and at times, there was extra tension between Captain Picard and Wesley. I like to say this is because Captain Picard is Wesley’s father, and he doesn’t quite know how to deal with that secret. And we must not forget the time that Captain Picard said, “Shut up, Wesley!”
During Samaritan Snare — Season 2, Episode 17 – there is a lot tension between Captain Picard and Wesley, as Captain Picard has to accompany Wesley to Starbase 515; Wesley to take his Starfleet exams, and Captain Picard to get a new cardiac implant. The conversation is awkward and forced. Even if they ended their trip agreeing that they enjoyed it, they were both still very uncomfortable with the situation.
Fast-forward two years later. As Captain Picard is resting on the brink of death, he says the following, “Oh, I envy you, Wesley Crusher… You’re just at the beginning of the adventure.” Every time I hear him say this, something — I think perhaps dust and allergies — gets in my eyes. This something in my eyes flows freely during the following last lines of the episode:
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Mr. Crusher.
Ensign Wesley Crusher: Yes, sir?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: What are you doing in such a filthy uniform?
Ensign Wesley Crusher: You don’t look so shipshape yourself, sir.
[Picard presses Wesley’s hand]
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Wesley… you will be missed.
Not only does this episode illustrate the growth of that relationship, but it illustrates the growth and maturity of Wesley. It was a very nice way to say good-bye to a character that people either loved to love, or loved to hate. I was one of the people who loved to love Wesley because, as I wrote in my post about the impact Star Trek had on my life, the character of Wesley Crusher was hugely important to me.
The Inner Light
Episode no.: Season 5 Episode 25
Original air date: June 1, 1992
In this episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is rendered unconscious by an unknown probe. When he wakes up, he finds himself on another planet. He also finds that his name is “Kamin,” and that he is married. He spends the rest of the episode living his life as Kamin, and slowly detaching himself from his life as captain of the Enterprise. During his time as Kamin, he tries to save his planet from extinction, has two children, his best friend and wife die, and learns to play the flute. Later, he is re-awakened to find himself back on-board the Enterprise and realizing it was all a dream. Unbelievably, he lived an entire lifetime in 25 minutes.
Articulating why this episode is in my top five is rather difficult. Considering it won a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation, you’d think I could articulate why it is just so bloody good.
One of the reasons this story had a huge impact on me is simply because of this idea of experiencing the entire life of someone else. Not only experiencing the entire life of someone else, but experiencing their culture and society. Just image. You wake up and are told you are someone else. You remember your real life so very vividly, but others insist your real life is all but a dream. And you fight this for a very long time. Then slowly, you leave behind your real life and embrace this new life. With every passing day, this new life starts to become more real than your real life, until your real life is nothing but a dream. Then, you wake up to find it was all a dream. This new life that you grew to love and embrace was not real.
I would have a very mixed reaction to this experience. On one hand, I’d be very thankful that I had the opportunity to really learn and know about a civilization that no longer exists; to truly experience it. On the other hand, I would end up feeling a huge sense of loss to know that this reality no longer exists; all that is left are the memories placed within me. After all, it became every bit my real life as my real life is. Both are equally real.
The second reason I love this episode so much is because I think that personal histories are extremely important. Where you come from, your lineage, your heritage, they are part of your fabric. My personal history was destroyed during World War II. My dad’s side of the family had to flee Poland between the wars, and our family tree ends with the arrival of my great-grandfather on Ellis Island, before they made their way to Canada. This saddens me for a great number of reasons. A part of my history has been lost forever. So the concept that the history of Kataan was so important to these people that they built a probe, hoping that it would one day encounter someone, and they could pour their entire essence into one person… I have no words for just how meaningful it is to me.
There are two moments in this episode that put something in my eye. The first is when “Kamin” is watching the launch of the probe. His best friend and wife reappear, and tell him the function of the probe. Filled with a mix of huge emotions, “Kamin” says, “Oh, it’s me, isn’t it? I’m the someone.” This something in my eye, once again, flows freely when Captain Picard plays what would later be known as the Orchestral Suite From The Inner Light on the Ressikan flute found within the probe.
There are many other reasons why I adore this episode so. Unfortunately, I lack the ability to do so. It is a wonderful personal story, with superb acting.
Episode no.: Season 3 Episode 16
Original air date: June 12, 1990
In this episode, Data becomes a father. He creates another android, naming her Lal, which is the Hindi word for “beloved.” This episode not only re-examines Data’s rights, but the rights of all androids like Data. It also tackles a very difficult subject: what makes a good parent, and when does the state have a right to interfere?
That alone should tell you why it is such a wonderful episode. But there is so much more. Admiral Anthony Haftel wants to seize Lal, as he believes that Data is not capable enough to be her parent. Captain Picard passionately fights the admiral, reminding him that Data is a sentient being and has rights. Watching Lal as she develops along her own journey towards humanity was joyful.
There is so much I love about this episode. First, it seems as if Captain Picard has forgotten that Data is not the property of Starfleet and has the same rights as beings created from flesh, bone and blood. Captain Picard tells Data of his concerns regarding not being consulted about the construction of Lal, only for Data to tell him, “I have not observed anyone else on board consulting you about their procreation, Captain.”
Then, the admiral comes on-board and orders Data to hand custody of Lal over to Starfleet. Data is about to comply, when Captain Picard finally regains his senses about Data’s rights, and proclaims, “There are times, sir, when… men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders. You acknowledge their sentience, but… you ignore their personal liberties… and freedom. Order a man to hand his child over to the state? Not while I’m his Captain.”
It caused a knowing sigh when Data expresses why he decided to make Lal. Watching Data’s difficultly understand why the admiral wanted to take Lal was heart-wrenching. Even more so when Data says the following to the admiral, “Admiral. When I created Lal, it was in the hope that someday, she would choose to enter the Academy and become a member of Starfleet. I wanted to give something back, in return for all that Starfleet has given me. I still do. But Lal is my child. You ask that I volunteer to give her up. I cannot. It would violate every lesson I have learned about human parenting. I have brought a new life into this world. And it is my duty – not Starfleet’s – to guide her through these difficult steps to maturity. To support her as she learns. To prepare her to be a contributing member of society. No one can relieve me from that obligation. And I cannot ignore it. I am… her father.”
The most difficult moment to watch was when Lal came to realization that she would be separated from her father. Experiencing a flood of emotion, and not knowing what to do with it, she went to Counselor Troi’s quarters. The something in my eyes began to appear with the words, “I feel…” while she struck her chest with the tips of her fingers, later to be followed with, “This is what it means to feel!”
Then these two bits of dialog caused the tears to flow.
This first bit caused both tears of joy and tears of grief:
Lal: I feel.
Data: What do you feel, Lal?
Lal: I love you, Father.
Data: I wish I could feel it with you.
Lal: I will feel it for both of us.
Lal: [her last words] Thank you for my life. – Flirting… Laughter… Painting, family… Female… Human.
And finally, when Admiral Haftel was recounting the events of Lal’s surgery, “There was nothing anyone could have done. We’d… repolarize one pathway, and another would collapse. And then another. His hands… were moving faster than I could see, trying to stay ahead of each breakdown. He refused to give up. He was remarkable. It just… wasn’t meant to be.”
This episode was always a very powerful episode for me, always causing me to cry. I, like Data, felt that being a parent was very important, that continuing my personal history, through procreation, was important. This episode has an even greater impact now that I’m a parent.
Chain of Command
Episode no.: Season 6 Episode 10 and 11
Original air date: December 14, 1992 and December 21, 1992
In this two-part episode, Captain Picard hands command of the Enterprise over to Captain Edward Jellico. Captain Jellico holds no favor with the crew. While Captain Jellico is in command of the Enterprise, Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher, and Lieutenant Worf head off on a covert mission. While they are on that mission, Captain Picard is taken as a prisoner by the Cardassians, and tortured by Gul Madred, while Captain Jellico holds negotiations with the Cardassians.
In the first of these two episodes, we get to know Captain Jellico. He is not liked. There is a lot of tension between Captain Jellico and the crew. He is very dismissive of the crew’s feelings. In this episode, we also see Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher, and Worf heavily training for this covert mission, which we later learn is to infiltrate Celtris III in search of biological weapons. It’s a trap and the episode ends with Worf and Doctor Crusher escaping, and Captain Picard taken to be interrogated by Gul Madred.
It is the second episode that the story has its huge impact. In this second episode, another really difficult topic is explored: torture and prisoners of war. Gul Madred does whatever he can to wear Captain Picard down. The tactics he uses include: cultural humiliation, physical pain, starvation and dehydration, forced nakedness, stress positions, sensory deprivation, and sensory bombardment. Gul Madred also lies to Captain Picard about the fate of Worf and Doctor Crusher.
The torture tactic that is most memorable in this episode are the lights. Yes, it was difficult to see Captain Picard stripped of his dignity when they cut off his clothes. Yes, it was difficult to see him endure intense physical pain. Yes, it was difficult having to watch him eat a partially-formed live bird, direct from the egg, after being starved for days. But the lights, an homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, were magnificent in their power as a means of torture. When Gul Madred sees that after all of the torture, he still hasn’t broken Captain Picard’s will, he lies once again and says the Enterprise was lost in battle. He then gives Captain Picard a choice: he can remain in bonds for the rest of his life, or he can live in paradise simply by stating he can see five lights. As Captain Picard is considering this offer, another Cardassian interrupts, asking why the prisoner isn’t ready to be released, and must be returned now. As Captain Picard is being released, he turns back and exclaims one of the most memorable lines in the history of Star Trek, “There are four lights!”
Later, in a rare moment of vulnerability, a moment that causes the air to be sucked out of my room, Captain Picard admits to Counselor Troi that he really did see five lights.
Simply, this is just powerful television, and why it is on my list of top five episodes. Human will, human psyche, and human spirit are both very fragile and very powerful, both at the same time.
The Measure of a Man
Episode no.: Season 2 Episode 9
Original air date: February 13, 1989
In this episode, Data is transferred under the command of Commander Bruce Maddox to undergo experimental refit. Commander Maddox wants to disassemble Data. Instead of undergoing the procedure, Data resigns. Commander Maddox points out that Data is the property of Starfleet, and therefor is not permitted to resign. Captain Picard does not agree with this and requests that Captain Philippa Louvois, the Starfleet Judge Advocate General for the 23rd sector, look into this determination. She agrees that Data is the property of Starfleet, and therefor, he cannot resign. Captain Picard decides to challenge this ruling, and requests a hearing to determine Data’s legal status: is he property or is he a sentient being. As Data’s commanding officer, Captain Picard acts as Data’s defence. Commander Riker, being second in command, has the unenviable task as acting as the prosecutor.
Even though there had been a number of episodes dealing with a large number of important social topics, for me this was the first episode to really hit the viewer in the face with a topic that can be difficult to tackle. Still to this day, many societies are dealing with the repercussions of slavery, and the rights of individuals to be treated equally within a society. Human rights issues are often one of the most heated and debated issues facing global societies, not only within a specific society and culture, but how we deal with societies and cultures outside of our own. If there is one thing that Gene Roddenberry did consistently well, it was to slap viewers in the face, forcing them to truly examine their views on sensitive and heated topics.
This episode was truly powerful. Between Guinan helping Picard to realize this trial was also about slavery, Commander Riker’s ability to do his job extremely well, even though he hated every second of it, to Captain Picard’s passionate speech, this episode helped to set the tone for many more extremely powerful episodes.
Some of my favorite scenes include Commander Riker finding Data’s off switch while preparing for the trial. Another favorite moment was the following dialog between Guinan and Captain Picard:
Guinan: Consider that in the history of many worlds, there have always been disposable creatures. They do the dirty work. They do the work that no one else wants to do because it’s too difficult or too hazardous. And an army of Datas, all disposable… You don’t have to think about their welfare, you don’t think about how they feel. Whole generations of disposable people.
Captain Picard: You’re talking about slavery.
Guinan: Oh, I think that’s a little harsh.
Captain Picard: I don’t think that’s a little harsh, I think that’s the truth. But that’s a truth that we have obscured behind a… comfortable, easy euphemism: ‘Property’! But that’s not the issue at all, is it?
This conversation followed the first part of the trial. It was during that part that a certain something entered my eyes, as a result of two simple sentences, uttered from Commander Riker, “Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut.”
Not only did those words put something in my eyes, but it sucked the air right out of my chest. Powerful.
The next moment caused the tears to swell once again, but this time tears of joy. Not only did they cause tears of joy, but they also caused huge applause and the words, “You tell them!” to exit my mouth. It was when Captain Picard made the following speech:
Now, the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this… creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be; it will reach far beyond this courtroom and this… one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom – expanding them for some… savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him, to servitude and slavery? Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well, there it sits! – Waiting.
Captain Louvois gave an elegant speech when giving her ruling. At the end of her speech, she determined that Commander Data has the freedom to choose. I cheered and applauded.
The last lines from this episode are also some of my favorites:
Data: Is it not true that, had you refused to prosecute, Captain Louvois would have ruled summarily against me?
Commander Riker: Yes.
Data: That action injured you, and saved me. I will not forget it.
Commander Riker: [smiles] You’re a wise man, my friend.
Data: Not yet, sir. But with your help, I am learning.
There are so many amazing episodes in this series. Picking my top five was a difficult task. However, it boiled down to the fact that even 25 years later, these episodes still manage to cause the same huge emotional impact as they did when I first watched them. I do not come to emotions easily. When something can bring me to tears, or can suck the air out of my chest, I am ever so grateful and thankful for having the opportunity to bear witness to them.
I have watched this entire series more times than I can count. And every time I watch these episodes, I feel that my life is more enriched because of their existence.
If you had to pick your top five favorite episodes for Star Trek: The Next Generation, what would they be?