With the new series Star Trek: Picard now in full swing, it’s only natural that viewers might want to check out its predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Premiering in first-run syndication from 1987 to 1994, The Next Generation (or TNG) was the first Star Trek TV series to become a mainstream cultural phenomenon while it was still in production (rather than in reruns), and penetrated the public consciousness in a way no Star Trek has since.
But before you go Binge Mode into its 178 episode run (available on most major streaming services), heed this warning: the first two seasons of TNG are not good. They are the result of a production so strife-ridden that it inspired an entire documentary called Chaos on the Bridge. If you are the kind of viewer who absolutely needs to watch every episode of a show in order, the first 48 hours of your journey are going to be a test of your endurance, where the good episodes are outnumbered by the mediocre, the embarrassing, and the straight-up offensive. Be kind to yourself and check out these ten episodes from the first two years to get the highlights and the important plot points, and then go boldly into Season Three with your head held high and your spirit unbroken.
“Encounter at Farpoint” (S1E1)
Written by D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Corey Allen
Production of The Next Generation was tumultuous from the very beginning, as series creator Gene Roddenberry and Paramount executive John Pike wrestled over the running time of the series premiere. Pike wanted a movie-length event, but Roddenberry insisted that the first episode be a standard one-hour affair. Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, story editor on The Original Series and producer on The Animated Series, was tasked with writing the episode, and was told to aim for 90 minutes. Then, at the eleventh hour, Roddenberry informed her that the episode would be two hours after all, and that he would write a “prequel” story to tack onto the beginning of her script and pepper callbacks to it throughout the episode. (This allowed Roddenberry to skim a handsome slice of her royalties. “I forgot,” Fontana was quoted as saying, “working for Gene Roddenberry always costs me money.”)
“Encounter at Farpoint” is not a good episode by any stretch. In college, my friends and I once watched through it and took a drink each time we would have turned it off if it weren’t called “Star Trek,” and we got hammered. It’s over-acted, over-scored, and sadly indicative of the rest of Season One. What makes “Farpoint” worth watching is the way it establishes each member of the crew and their relationships with each other (Fontana’s work), and the introduction of the fan-favorite antagonist Q (John de Lancie, a Roddenberry addition), who would go on to star in some of the series’ best episodes. If you need another reason to power through, the events of “Farpoint” are also revisited in TNG’s excellent series finale.
“Where No One Has Gone Before” (S1E6)
Written by Diane Duane & Michael Reaves
Directed by Rob Bowman
This episode has the rare distinction of having been adapted from an already-published Star Trek novel, The Wounded Sky, by its author Diane Duane and by Michael Reaves, who would go on to co-create the cult cartoon series Gargoyles. (As with many episodes on the first two seasons, it was heavily re-written by producer Maurice Hurley.)
In “Where No One Has Gone Before,” the Enterprise is hurled into a far corner of space where thought and reality intermingle, allowing our new crew to lose themselves in memory and fantasy. The episode serves both as an exploration of a mind-bending science fiction concept (think Michael Chrichton’s Sphere, but less scary), and as a way to get a lot of information about our characters out at once. We’re also introduced to The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) who appears twice more later in the series, and neither of those episodes fully work without the context of this one. While “Where No One Has Gone Before” is definitely still an example of the series finding its footing, it’s pretty watchable and pays off down the road.
“The Big Goodbye” (S1E12)
Written by Tracy Tormé
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan
While the concept of an interactive, holographic rec room was introduced in Star Trek: The Animated Series back in 1974, The Next Generation is where the holodeck as we know it is born. Essentially a magic room where the crew can play extremely realistic video games, the holodeck became a device through which Star Trek’s writers could play out fantasies of their own, mashing up the format of Star Trek with whatever other genres excited them. The “Holodeck Episode” became a staple of TNG-era Star Trek from 1988 to 2001, and even established its own specific set of genre conventions, which all begin right here in “The Big Goodbye.”
“The Big Goodbye” sees Picard let his hair down (figuratively) to play the role of 1940s private detective Dixon Hill, with classic film noir stylings. But it also digs into the concept of creating an immersive simulation populated with characters so real that it’s hard to argue that they aren’t alive. Style and substance combine to create the first legitimately good episode of The Next Generation, which also won the show its first Emmy and the franchise’s only Peabody Award.
Story by Robert Lewin & Maurice Hurley
Teleplay by Robert Lewin & Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Rob Bowman
Okay, now back to the shlock. Commander Data meets his evil twin! Actor Brent Spiner is credited with the idea of playing his own character’s hammy nemesis, most likely as an excuse to chew up scenery. Spiner clearly relishes the privilege of playing against himself as both a naive genius and a smug sociopath. The producers were clearly pleased as well, since not only would Spiner get the opportunity to play Lore on three more occasions, but Spiner would be allowed to accumulate more and more roles throughout the franchise, as many as three in a single episode.
Camp should always have a place in Star Trek, and “Datalore” is an example of The Next Generation feeling out just how silly it should be. The tone of the episode is all over the place — Lore is a genuine menace, even scary at times, but this is also the one in which Picard shouts “Shut up, Wesley!” on the bridge.
“Datalore” contains some essential backstory for Data that’s mined for better stories later on, but it’s also a good time, resting in that sweet spot of silly that you’re equally likely to enjoy genuinely or ironically.
“Heart of Glory” (S1E20)
Story by Herbert Wright & D.C. Fontana
Teleplay by Maurice Hurley
Directed by Rob Bowman
Early in the development of The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry decided that, in the century between The Original Series and The Next Generation, the United Federation of Planets had made peace with their most famous rivals, the Klingon Empire. This decision served two purposes: First, it put the kibosh on the expected deluge of spec scripts that amounted to “Those Nasty Klingons are At It Again,” and second, it spoke to Star Trek’s overall message of peace and tolerance. In Roddenberry’s dream of the future, no one remains enemies forever.
The symbol of this progression was Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon Starfleet officer who eventually became the most prolific character in all of Star Trek, appearing in 270 episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, combined. “Heart of Glory” is the first of many Worf-centric episodes, introducing us to the Klingon expatriot’s complicated relationship with his home world.
It’s also the first appearance of guest actor Vaughn Armstrong, who would go on to appear as a dozen different characters across four Trek series.
“Skin of Evil” (S1E23)
Story by Joseph Stefano
Teleplay by Joseph Stefano & Hannah Louise Shearer
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan
SPOILER ALERT for this episode. If you want to go in fresh, skip down to the next one.
The early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation were hellish for the writers’ room, but the cast was struggling with their own intolerable conditions. In Chaos on the Bridge, actress Denise Crosby describes week after week of frustrating fourteen-hour shoots during which she’d have nothing to do but stand silently at her station behind the captain’s chair on the bridge and steal food from the set of Cheers between shoots, since their own production often lacked craft services. After months of killing time waiting for her character to be given anything interesting to do, Crosby decided she’d had enough and asked to be released from her contract and written off the show.
And so, eleven minutes into “Skin of Evil,” Security Chief Tasha Yar is killed suddenly by the monster of the week. Star Trek fans were accustomed to anonymous crew members getting unceremoniously offed to create the illusion of danger to the main characters, but any time something similar had ever happened to someone familiar, the death would always be undone somehow by the end of the hour. Not this time. In “Skin of Evil,” Lt. Yar dies, stays dead, the story continues without her, and then the final minutes are spent mourning her loss in genuinely touching fashion.
The episode as a whole is still about as cheesy and uneven as the rest of the first season, but Tasha’s death is a landmark for the series that is never forgotten, as characters take moments to remember their fallen comrade throughout the rest of the series, and Denise Crosby even makes several return appearances on the show, always to better effect than when she was in the regular cast.
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“Elementary, Dear Data” (S2E3)
Written by Brian Alan Lane
Directed by Rob Bowman
All holodeck episodes are indebted to “The Big Goodbye” to a certain extent, but this is especially true of “Elementary, Dear Data,” in which Data and Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) cosplay as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and match wits with a super-intelligent representation of Professor James Moriarty (Daniel Davis). In typical holodeck fashion, it’s all fun and games until a malfunction changes the rules and now If You Die in the Game…
Seeing Data and Geordi indulge in what is essentially their own fanfiction is charming, particularly because of the way that Data and Geordi’s relationship already parallels Holmes and Watson. Data is an analytical genius who struggles with social cues; Geordi is a brilliant everyman type who’s often called upon to translate Data’s scientific babble into plain English.
It’s also refreshing that they actually use Sherlock Holmes, rather than a pastiche a la Basil of Baker Street, even if this happened by accident — the producers of TNG mistakenly believed that Sherlock Holmes was in the public domain, and were surprised to receive a bill from the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for use of his characters. A series of misunderstandings between Trek producers and the Doyle estate prevented TNG from revisiting the Holmes program until the sixth season’s “Ship in a Bottle.”
“The Measure of a Man” (S2E9)
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Robert Scheerer
Draw a big red circle around this one. If you watch only a single episode from the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it must be “The Measure of a Man.” While there are many later episodes of TNG that are superior productions, this may be the series’ best and potentially most important story, a rehearsal for a debate our civilization may face in this century.
The debut TV writing credit for author/attorney Melinda Snodgrass, “The Measure of a Man” puts Lt. Commander Data on trial for his life when an ambitious cyberneticist (Brian Brophy) claims the right to dismantle him for his research. Does Data have the right to choose to participate? Is he a piece of equipment or a person? It’s up to Data and Picard to prove he’s the latter, while Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is forced to argue the opposite position. Ruling over the case is the sharp, witty Captain Phillipa Louvois (Amanda McBroom), who also happens to be Picard’s ex.
The reason you’ll find “The Measure of a Man” high on so many lists of all-time great episodes in the franchise is that it exemplifies so much of what makes Star Trek, Star Trek. It’s a high-concept sci-fi story with real-life parallels, it’s a springboard for discussion, a touching character piece, and ultimately an optimistic projection of our future as a civilization that has stopped repeating its own ugly history.
“Q Who” (S2E16)
Written by Maurice Hurley
Directed by Rob Bowman
Much of the blame for the rotten first two seasons of The Next Generation can be placed on head writer Maurice Hurley. He butted heads with most of the writing staff (over 20 writers were hired and fired during his tenure), helped chase cast member Gates McFadden off the show, and was in constant conflict with Gene Roddenberry over his “wacky-doodle” vision of the future. The show got measurably better the moment he quit and was replaced by Michael Piller, who would help guide the franchise for the next decade. But Hurley did make one indisputably positive contribution to Star Trek: The Borg.
Hurley had been planning to unveil his new Big Bad since late in the first season, when it became clear that the hyper-capitalist Ferengi were not going to work as the series’ signature antagonist. Delayed by budgetary constraints and a WGA strike, Hurley finally got to bring his unstoppable cybernetic horror machines to life in “Q Who,” an episode that ties together threads from several previous episodes and set the stage for some of Trek’s most popular stories.
“Q Who” is everything “The Measure of a Man” isn’t — it’s dark, scary, effects-heavy, fairly violent for TNG — and yet it’s still 100% a Star Trek episode. Watching these two back-to-back serves as a good sampler of what The Next Generation has to offer.
“The Emissary” (S2E20)
Story by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler and Thomas H. Calder
Teleplay by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
Directed by Cliff Bole
At last, some romance! “The Emissary” introduces K’Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson), a half-Human, half-Klingon diplomat who is absolute kryptonite for Lt. Worf’s practiced stoicism. She’s tough, confident, snarky, and has zero respect for the patriarchal Klingon traditions that Worf holds dear. The chemistry between Plakson and Michael Dorn is fantastic, leading to a love scene that is remarkably intimate despite showing us basically nothing.
Most Worf episodes center around Klingon politics and his attempts to reconcile the culture he was born into and the one in which he’s chosen to live. “The Emissary” touches on these, but it’s primarily a personal story, one that helps us get to know what kind of man Worf is when he’s not at work. What does he want out of life? Apart from vague ideas like “duty” and “honor,” what’s important to him?
K’Ehleyr returns two years later in the pivotal and aptly-titled “Reunion.”
To be clear, it’s not that The Next Generation suddenly became a perfect television show at the start of its third season. There are certainly still forgettable, cheesy, and tone deaf episodes ahead of you on your voyage. But you’re likely to notice a difference right away, and not just because the costumes and lighting have changed: the stories are more character-driven, the tone is more consistent, and the ratio of bad to good episodes flips. You’ve arrived at last at the Next Generation your friends rave about. And when you’re finished, there will be 38 early episodes that you haven’t seen, waiting for you… if you’re feeling brave enough.