10 groundbreaking episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Feature Juliette Harrisson 5 Nov 2012 - 08:43

Juliette salutes ten episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that set trends, took risks and experimented...

Star Trek: The Next Generation has often been described as ‘ground-breaking.’ But if I were marking an essay that said that, I would be demanding to know, ‘Ground-breaking in what way?’ And so here are ten episodes that might, for one reason or another, be described as ‘ground-breaking.’ 

‘Ground-breaking,’ it should be noted, does not mean ‘first.’ None of the tropes, themes, plot devices or issues discussed here appeared first on Star Trek; all had been explored before in different ways, often in different media, sometimes in differently formatted television shows (usually Doctor Who). But it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that showed that these things could be done within the framework of US series television, and within the sometimes conservative world of Star Trek at that. 

‘Ground-breaking’ also does not mean ‘good.’ Some of the episodes listed here are not, in fact, what you’d call ‘good,’ and could even be described as ‘bad.’ But they are trend-setters, risk-takers or experiments, without which Star Trek as we now know it – perhaps genre television as we now know it – would not exist. 

10. Chain of Command, Part Two 

Captain’s Log: Picard has been captured by a Cardassian who tortures him (for information, but they don’t really get much further than the ‘break the prisoner’ stage) while Riker struggles to deal with his replacement Captain.

Ground broken: More recent genre shows like to torture their protagonists on a regular basis, but it was a bit less common to make your lead look so vulnerable back in the day. Can you imagine Kirk being captured and tortured for an entire episode? Maybe if it gave him a chance to get his shirt off…

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Picard doesn’t break, of course. He’s the hero. He does, however, admit to Troi that he was about to crack, and had actually started to see five lights. In the episode’s other storyline, Jellico and Riker’s conflict is less ground-breaking – you could tell Jellico was going to be problem when he got rid of Picard’s fish.

Defining moment: There! Are! FOUR! LIGHTS!

Quotable: See above.

 

9. Darmok 

Captain’s Log: Captain Picard struggles to communicate with an alien captain whose language appears to be too complex for the universal translators.

Ground broken: The concept of a language that communicates ideas entirely through imagery and metaphor may be ultimately unfeasible (how did they develop sufficiently complex stories to provide the metaphors in the first place?) but the idea of an episode devoted to the attempt to communicate without the benefit of a common language is rather nice and the story is simple but touching (I cried).

The more things change, the more they stay the same: For all that everyone goes on about how the universal translators don’t work on the Tamarian language, it seems to have no problem with basic vocabulary and grammar like Proper Noun and Proper Noun at Proper Noun (and especially Proper Noun’s children, their faces wet), which is what makes eventual communication possible. Picard uses one of Earth’s oldest stories to connect with Dathon. (And on another level, Paul Winfield is an old friend, having played the unfortunate captain of the Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

Defining moment: "Picard and Dathon, at El-Adrel" (Tamarian captain, meaning that Picard and Dathan came together as allies)

Quotable: "Sokath, his eyes uncovered!" (Dathan; Tamarian way of saying 'By George, I think he’s got it!)

 

8. The Measure of a Man 

Captain’s Log: Data is put on trial to determine if he is a sentient being with the rights of one, and Riker is forced to speak for the prosecution.

Ground broken: The nature of artificially intelligent life had been explored many times in literary and cinematic science fiction, but such detailed explorations were less common on the small screen, where robots tended to be faceless evil or comic relief. Data was introduced as an inverse Mr Spock, an emotionless character playing the Pinocchio/Tin Man role, trying to acquire and understand emotion rather than suppress it. This episode established that he and other artificial life forms also provided the perfect material for metaphorical explorations of issues of prejudice and tolerance, something Star Trek would use them for repeatedly over the next several years.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: In case you didn’t realise this: slavery is bad.

Defining moment: "We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose" (Louvois)

Quotable: "It brings a sense of order and stability to my universe to know that you're still a pompous ass – and a damned sexy man" (Louvois to Picard)

"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. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him, to servitude and slavery? Your Honour, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well, there it sits! – Waiting" (Picard)

 

7. Cause and Effect 

Captain’s Log: The Enterprise is trapped in a time loop. The Enterprise is trapped in a time loop. The Enterprise is trapped in a time loop…

Ground broken: Time loop stories are something of a staple, though it’s worth noting that this episode aired a year before the release of Groundhog Day made them really popular. But what’s special about Cause and Effect is that there is no Bill Murray – no character retains their memories from loop to loop, which makes it much more difficult to extract themselves from the situation (they don’t even realise they’re in such a situation until 26 minutes into the episode). The crew do experience déjà vu until eventually they work out what’s happening, they hear recordings from pervious loops and Data is somehow able to send himself a message from one loop to the next, but without anyone able to remember previous loops properly, the situation is much scarier than these things usually are.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Naturally, there’s quite a bit of repetition in this episode (though the script does very well and making each loop different without breaking the ‘rules,’ partly by starting several loops in).

Defining moment: Frasier Crane appears out of nowhere, wearing an old-fashioned Starfleet uniform and looking very confused/irritated – he’s been trapped in the time-loop phenomenon for decades.

Quotable: "All hands abandon ship!" (Picard – the great thing about time loop episodes is that you can blow up the ship in spectacular style over and over again…)


6. The Big Goodbye 

Captain’s Log: Picard, Data, Crusher and a visiting historian find themselves trapped on the holodeck with the safety protocols off.

Ground broken: When the makers of the original Star Trek wanted to do a fun, themed episode (making use of costumes, props and sets they had lying around on the Paramount backlot) they had to create increasingly daft Planets of Hats (planets with a single defining characteristic). Planet of the Space Nazis! Planet of the Space Gangsters! Planet of the Space Romans! And so on. But The Animated Series had introduced the concept of the ‘recreation room,’ a room in which holographic projections could make it appear that our heroes were in another space and time entirely. The Next Generation reinvented this as the holodeck, so that when they wanted to do a Western, or a Sherlock Holmes mystery, or an episode about Depression-era gangsters, they just trapped everyone on the holodeck and turned off the safety protocols (why this is possible has mystified fans for years, though Voyager’s Extreme Risk offered something resembling an explanation). The Big Goodbye is far from the best holodeck episode; Elementary Dear Data and Ship in a Bottle both went further in using the holodeck to explore the nature of life and reality, Hollow Pursuits used the holodeck for a character study, and for sheer silliness you can’t beat Voyager’s Bride of Chaotica! (though A Fistful of Datas does pretty well). But The Big Goodbye is the first, the episode that set the precedent, that established how the holodeck could be used to liven up the show and expand its horizons. Without the basic run-around that is The Big Goodbye, there could be no Ship in a Bottle.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Westerns and Depression-era mobsters. There are Star Trek’s favourite settings, out of all of history and all of literature.

Defining moment: A couple of ambitious holodeck characters step out of the exit and, rather more dramatically than they would in later years, they disappear.

Quotable: "But you spell knife with a 'k'" (Troi, when Picard complains about alien spelling)

"I spell knife with an 'n'. But then I never could spell" (Picard to Troi)

 

5. Lower Decks 

Captain’s Log: We see a mission near the Cardassian border through the eyes of the junior officers involved.

Ground broken: Star Trek is famous for its ‘expendable ensigns’ (classic Star Trek’s ‘redshirts’) who have no names, no identities and who are always the first to die on every mission. After the previous year’s Tapestry’s distinctly unflattering depiction of the lower ranks of officers, Lower Decks takes apart the whole concept of the expendable ensign by shining a spotlight on the ensigns’ feelings, problems and personal lives (using one familiar face, Alyssa from sickbay, one ensign who came with a history courtesy of Wesley’s dalliance with perjury in The First Duty and two new faces). This is the first episode of Star Trek that will make you weep for the death of an expendable ensign.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Our look at the ‘lower decks’ focuses on junior officers, all bucking for promotion. Apparently Starfleet exists in a world without mechanics (though they do have a barman).

Defining moment: Picard announces Ensign Sito’s inevitable untimely death to the crew, and for once we actually care.

Quotable: "Riker! I bet he sleeps in his uniform" (Sam Lavelle)

 

4. The Inner Light 

Captain’s Log: Captain Picard is knocked out for twenty-five minutes. In other news, one thousand years ago a civilization with excellent radio but limited technology for space travel was wiped out when its star went supernova.

Ground broken: As far as Starfleet is concerned, all that happens in The Inner Light is that the Captain was knocked out for less than half an hour. Various Admirals and those in charge of the money must have completely mystified by subsequent requests for intense counselling and several weeks for the Captain to re-learn his job. The Inner Light tells the story of a group of people we don’t know and will never see again, who’ve been dead for a thousand years, and yet does it in a consistently entertaining way, with a story that alters Picard forever. It’s also rather brilliant.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Honestly, as far as the rest of the twenty-fourth century world is concerned, nothing actually happened.

Defining moment: Picard plays the flute, all that remains of a civilization, and we know that he will never be the same again.

Quotable: "If you remember what we were, and how we lived, then we'll have found life again" (Eline to Picard)

 

3. Skin of Evil 

Captain’s Log: Deanna Troi tries to negotiate with an evil oil slick. But more to the point, first it kills Chief of Security Tasha Yar.

Ground broken: There was a time, back before Game of Thrones and True Blood and The Vampire Diaries and Heroes, when, outside a soap opera, killing off anyone in the credits was pretty rare. Even if you were to find yourself needing to off a major character, you’d usually do so in the most dramatic way possible, probably involving great self-sacrifice of some kind (even the expendable ensign in Lower Decks got a noble exit). Poor Tasha Yar is killed in the line of duty, right at the beginning of the episode, by a rather rubbish evil oil slick. It’s sudden to the point of abrupt and happens for no grand cause or special reason. As a regular cast member, she gets a nice funeral, but otherwise there’s a brutality to her exit that was thoroughly unexpected at the time.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: In the grand old tradition of Star Trek main characters, although she never quite manages to come back, over the next six years Tasha Yar does not stay quite as dead as one might expect.

Defining moment: "That thing just sucked the life right out of her. There's nothing I can do" (Crusher on Yar; twenty-fourth century version of "He’s dead, Jim")

Quotable: "Death is that state in which one exists only in the memory of others… Hailing frequencies closed, sir" (Yar’s final message)

 

2. The Best of Both Worlds, Part One 

Captain’s Log: The Borg attack the Federation, and Picard is captured and assimilated into the Collective.

Ground broken: Q Who introduced the Borg and certain elements of their make-up – their ability to adapt to weapons, their collective, hive mind, their implacable method of attack. Their Oxo-cube-like ships. But it was The Best of Both Worlds Part 1 that introduced the concept of assimilation into their mythology. Doctor Who fans might perhaps have seen it coming, since the Borg are essentially scarier, more intricate Cybermen, but for most of us the assimilation of the Captain was a serious shock. Like Chain of Command, this episode puts the hero in an untenable and apparently inescapable position, but it goes one step further in actually making him an enemy – an enemy on whom Commander Riker immediately opens fire. When you watch this at ten years old, there is nothing more shocking.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Picard is back and on the side of the good guys by the end of the following episode, of course. But that’s as it should be, and he’s pretty traumatised by the whole thing. (Our heroes also hide in a pinky-purpley-blue nebula, a sure sign of an episode wanting to emulate The Wrath of Khan).

Defining moment: "I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life, as it has been, is over. From this time forward, you will service us" (Locutus of Borg)

Quotable: "I wonder if the Emperor Honorius watching the Visigoths coming over the Seventh Hill truly realized that the Roman Empire was about to fall" (Picard)

 

1. Encounter at Farpoint 

Captain’s Log: The crew of the newly launched USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D – and humanity in general – are put on trial by a mysterious and powerful alien. Also, something involving giant space jellyfish.

Ground broken: Eighteen years after the last live action episode of Star Trek and thirteen years after the end of the animated series, with three good films and The Motionless Picture under their belts, Encounter at Farpoint proved that Star Trek could come back to television. It also proved that making more Star Trek didn’t have to mean making carbon copies of the original 1960s series. With a visibly middle-aged, British-accented captain, crewmembers with disabilities (visual impairment), or who were members of former enemy races (Klingon) and a female chief of security (however briefly), Encounter at Farpoint showed that The Next Generation really was a new generation within the Star Trek family, not a clone of its predecessor. It didn’t get everything right (miniskirts on male crewmembers was a nice thought but it didn’t work, the aforementioned jellyfish looked a bit daft and only a show made in the 1980s would put a counsellor on the bridge next to the Captain) but it got enough right to give us seven years of The Next Generation, seven years of Deep Space Nine, seven years of Voyager and five years of Enterprise.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: Q may be synonymous with all things Next Generation (and occasionally Deep Space Nine and Voyager) but the concept of a being with godlike powers and a childlike personality messing about with humanity because he can has Gene Roddenberry and the peak of the Kirk years written all over him.

Defining moment: "Space… the final frontier." For those of us who are children of the 1980s, this is Star Trek. That ethereal bing-bong sound leading into Jerry Goldsmith’s exhilarating theme from the first feature film, Picard’s deep Shakespearean tones preparing us for a ‘final frontier’ that evoked an endless horizon, that starfield whizzing past that seemed so exciting (before it became a screensaver). Without Encounter at Farpoint, there is no modern Star Trek. That’s pretty ground-breaking.

Quotable: "Just hoping this isn't the usual way our missions will go, sir" (Riker)

"Oh no, Number One. I'm sure most will be much more interesting" (Picard)

Star Trek: The Next Generation is showing in HD on SyFy in the UK, every weeknight at 7pm.

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