Perhaps you want to watch Picard or Star Trek: Discovery, but you “probably should check out some of the older stuff first”. Maybe you’ve always been curious about Star Trek: The Next Generation but “that’s a lot of episodes to get through…who has the time?”. Or you watched the series when you were younger, and want to go back to it, but you’re wary of those really bad episodes along the way.
In any case, I have a guide to help you. Other people have delivered their verdicts on whether each episode is worth your time. I have gone a little further. So much of the Next Gen is golden – or at least a well-crafted silver – but I have reduced the 7 seasons down to what I consider to be the very best episodes.
This list includes only 30 of the 178 episodes in the series. If each episode is 45 minutes long, that means that you have less than 23 hours of Next Gen remaining. Even then, I’ve suggested a few that you could skip (but would be mad to do so). I’ve also highlighted what I believe are five of the very best episodes. If you only want to take a quick dip in the Star Trek pool, you can be in and out in under 4 hours.
There may be some gaps in your understanding (Where did that character go? How did that character come back?) but recaps are built into the dialogue of every TV series. This list is about getting you the best, most important bits.
Season 1 – 4 Episodes
Episode 1 & 2 – Encounter at Farpoint – It certainly makes sense to start at the beginning, and these two episodes set you up with what the crew (and the ship) are all about. You’ll also see the show at the bizarre end of its sci-fi spectrum, with the all-powerful entity known as Q. He is the most antagonising of antagonists, and he just loves to play god with The Enterprise.
Episode 26 – The Neutral Zone – aaaand then skip right to the end of Season 1. No, really. You want the abridged version? Here it is. There are many great moments in the first season (and some horrendous ones…) but it hasn’t really made it’s mark yet. The final episode is a step up though. You get a look at the Romulans, a species with espionage practically built into their DNA. You’ll also get to see everyone on the crew at their best, and get a real taste of how the two main officers on the crew make such a great partnership.
Season 2 – 4 Episodes
Episode 8 – A Matter of Honor – now that you’ve seen a little Romulan, have a whole heap of Klingon, the drunken-pub-fight empire. Riker, the ship’s second-in-command, is temporarily assigned to a Klingon ship for reasons, and he must embrace their violent and cut-throat lifestyle to survive. He does, and it’s really fun to watch.
Episode 9 – The Measure of a Man – this is my first favourite on this list. Why? Well, nothing happens. No phasers and fired, no one throws a punch, there is zero peril. It is, on the other hand, entirely captivating. You also get to really see one key element of the show: really good acting that elevates the source material. This episode is ‘only’ concerned with the question of whether or not Data, the ship’s android, is alive or not. The court case that ensues is a delight.
Episode 16 – Q Who – oh man, this is the other reason I love Star Trek. The episode starts with the return of the reality-bending Q, who amuses himself at the crew’s expense… before drawing back the astral curtain to reveal one of the (in my opinion) best villains/monsters in all science-fiction. If you don’t know The Borg, well I don’t want to spoil too much. Visually they are somewhere between goofy and creepy (as only TV monsters can be) but in terms of villainy they tick a lot of boxes. It’s the air of inevitable doom that does it for me.
Episode 20 – The Emissary – Next Generation likes to occasionally attempt a romantic story, and it usually falls flat. Either the affair is sickeningly sweet, or one or more of the people involved comes across like a sex-pest. In this case, the romance is fun to watch. On one side, a human-raised Klingon officer desperately clinging to tradition, and on the other is a half-human, half-Klingon with a firm belief in being true to yourself. It’s an angry-passion, and it’s delicious. The rest of the episode is also great.
Season 3 – 6 Episodes
Episode 10 – The Defector – Next Gen hits a confident stride in season 3, almost every episode is wonderful. This one is an absolute gem. Intergalactic politics, Romulan shenanigans, twist and turns, high-grade acting. All tremendous.
Episode 13 – Déjà Q – if you’re not a fan of Q by now, skip this one. If like me, you enjoy his brand of megalomania, this is a truly fun time. This isn’t about him causing a problem though; this time it’s all about Q. His arrogance, his vulnerabilities and his total lack of empathy.
Episode 15 – Yesterday’s Enterprise – if you’ve followed this guide up until now, there’s a bit of continuity missing for this episode. A main character made a surprising (and underwhelming) exit in an earlier season, and wibbly wobbly time allows for a reappearance. Nonetheless, this is a superb story about trying to reset a broken timeline, only to cause more cracks to appear.
Episode 17 – Sins of the Father – I swear I’ve not put every Worf episode on this list, but some of the best political wrangling and tensest character moments take place in the Klingon-centric episodes. This one tells you more about the angry, war-driven, assassin-filled society than any previous instalment.
Episode 23 – Sarek – there’s a lot of emotions in this one. You… have to see the episode to know why that’s actually a very clever line… um… so anyway, at its core this is an episode about a brilliant, intelligent, widely respected person who refuses to accept his senility. It hits a lot of emotional points, and hits them hard. The acting is sensational too. The scenery is comprehensibly chewed.
Episode 26 – The Best of Both Worlds, Part I – this is how you end a series. Again, you might just watch this and the next episode and get the best image of Next Gen. I will say no more about it, other than to say…
Season 4 – 4 Episodes
Episode 1 – The Best of Both Worlds, Part II – …both these episodes rule.
Episode 7 – Reunion – If you’re not a Klingon fan like myself, or you weren’t that into the romance story in ‘The Emissary‘, then you could step past this. If you enjoy the angry love and Klingon politics, you’ll want this episode. It’s another episode aiming for your emotions, so be warned.
Episode 24 – The Mind’s Eye – It’s the Machurian Candidate in space. Brainwashing and murder. Fun fun fun.
Episode 26 – Redemption, Part I – Even if you’re only watching the episodes on this list, you will by now see all the elements that make Star Trek great. Political intrigue and back-stabbing, complex alien cultures, fun twists-and-turns, acting greater than a sci-fi TV series ever needs. This two-parter has all those elements, woven together with great skill. Next Generation certainly knows…
Season 5 – 5 Episodes
Episode 1 – Redemption, Part II – …how to get you hooked for the next season.
Episode 3 – Ensign Ro – Ro is a character that should have gone somewhere, but the actor wanted to go somewhere else. Nevertheless, this is a intriguing episode that proves that not everyone in Starfleet is a goody-two-shoes, and tackles the topic of ‘refugee crisis’ in a fascinating way that stays clear of heavy handed messages.
Episode 18 – Cause and Effect – Every sci-fi worth its salt has a time loop episode. This take on the concept is one of the best, because there isn’t one person reliving each day in detail. Instead the whole crew feels the creeping panic of the most intense deja vu, but never fully remembers what is happening when things reset. Luckily, this crew is super smart.
Episode 23 – I, Borg – A single Borg drone is disconnected from the collective and held on the Enterprise. Rather than punting the thing into space (which Picard would happily do right from the start), the crew decides to experiment. All good stuff.
Episode 25 – The Inner Light – you could skip this episode. The only aspect of the Enterprise involved in this story is Picard. It’s a standalone story. You should absolutely watch this episode, however, because it is a wonderfully emotional and captivating story. If you’re off to watch Picard after this, The Inner Light will make the captain’s life story so much more compelling.
Season 6 – 4 Episodes
Episode 10 – Chain of Command, Part I – imagine watching a show for six seasons, and then they changed the main character mid season. You’d find it hard to watch. Well, that’s actually a deliberate point of this episode. The Enterprise is needed for a special mission, and a militaristic, regimented officer temporarily takes over the ship. And Picard? He and his officers go special ops for a brief spell…
Episode 11 – Chain of Command, Part II …which leads into an episode that I will say nothing about, except that this one is very hard to watch, but in a very good way.
Episode 14 – Face of the Enemy – Troi, the ship’s counsellor, has to pretend to be a Romulan. I’ve skipped a lot of Troi-centred episodes (and some were very easy to skip) but this one deserves your attention, and has some of the best political chicanery so far.
Episode 21 – Frame of Mind – an episode where nothing is what it seems, everything is a lie, where even the plot twists may/may not be make-believe. Just wonderful.
Season 7 4 Episodes
Episode 11 – Parallels – huh… if your following this list, then you’re watching two reality-bending episodes in a row. They are widely different concepts, with a focus on different crew members. Honestly, this entire episode is worth it for a brief Riker vs Riker moment at the very end.
Episode 12 – The Pegasus – so much of season 7 is actually quite mediocre, without a lot to add to the legacy of the series. This episode is a big diamond in the rough. Oodles of slow-burning tension, officers questioning right and wrong, lies and mysteries between friends and one of the cutest moments between Picard and Riker you’ll ever see.
Episode 25 & 26 – All Good Things… – Having taken the shorter road to the end, these last two episodes may not feel as significant. They certainly aren’t the best episodes on this list. It’s some of the biggest and boldest sci-fi you’ll see, but it might also leave you a bit winded. What is important, at least to me, is that these two episodes demonstrate one of the rare times that a science fiction TV show goes out with grace. Some try for one last season and fall flat, others are shut down before they can even say ‘conclusion’. Star Trek: The Next Generation brings in Q to bookend the series, raises the stakes to the highest degree, before delivering a beautifully tender final scene that is just right.
I watched most of Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was younger, and recently revisited the whole series and the movies before taking a run at Picard. Reflecting on all the episodes this way really reinforces how much of this show is just so much fun. The majority of episodes are full of interesting moral dilemmas, political mysteries, inspired science fiction and wonderful acting.
I did feel a bit guilty about some of the episodes culled. There’s a two-part story where Spock shows up, removing those made me feel cruel. If you disagree with my choices, and think that other episodes should be on this list, well… isn’t that just further proof of how great this series is? Let us know!
I would, of course, recommend you watch the whole thing, if you have time. Or at least, most of it. Maybe I’ll do another list of the absolutely skippable episodes. You know, like the one with implied ghost-human intercourse… or the one where the writer’s tried to make a statement about apartheid and ended up being weirdly sexist… or when a virus makes the crew lose all their inhibitions…
THANK YOU FOR READING
Written by Rufus Scott