Leading the charge back to television for the Star Trek franchise (just as Star Trek: Discovery is now), and paving the way for three further series to follow (fingers crossed that happens again), Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s 7 seasons had some very high points, and a couple of very low ones (that some would simply call “season 1….”, not that I’m one of them.)
These are the top 25 “must-watch” episodes, not necessarily the top 25 for quality, or indeed my 25 favourites, but the 25 stories that give you the best flavour of the series and its relatively unplanned story arcs. Just don’t forget that, like The Original Series, The Next Generation is a product of its time, and as such certain issues that writers wanted to bring to the screen not only necessitated allegory, but sometimes stretched it thin so as not to raise issues with censorship.
If you only ever watch 25 stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation, these are they, at least in my opinion. The only rules in place are that they have to be from the TV series (no films), and multi-part episodes count as one story (even if an episode is pretty much an epilogue.) If you get chance, try to watch the majority of all 7 seasons at some point… but by the Great Bird of the Galaxy avoid Shades Of Grey (S2). And Justice (S1)… A ‘10 episodes to avoid’ might have legs actually… But I digress.
If you are able, I would also recommend watching episodes of The Next Generation in remastered form on Blu-ray, even with the minor changes to the effects shots, as in more than one case this has corrected an actual error. As with most episodes of Star Trek TV shows, the live-action footage was captured on 35mm film, and thus the restoration work done on the negatives looks fantastic in HD.
This list is presented in a viewing order I would suggest, and is primarily in production order as they flow better that way, rather than in a rank order.
Skin Of Evil (Season 1)
The episode is memorable for not only killing off a member of the main cast (one not even wearing a red shirt!) but also for the almost inconsequential way in which the death occurs.
The story sets up quite a bit that comes afterwards, and fortunately comes towards the end of the generally lacklustre first season. As such, it’s quite obvious things have settled down and both cast and crew are more confident in what they are doing. I warn you though, this episode has a complete lack of any light-heartedness and is very much a dramatic presentation.
Conspiracy (Season 1)
Though the themes of this episode are hinted at in Coming Of Age (season one’s nineteenth episode) this episode also works well as a stand-alone story. Though Coming Of Age isn’t a bad episode by any means, it falls way outside of the top 25. Starfleet seems to have taken a turn for the weird, and an old friend of Captain Picard summons him for a secret meeting. Data also, through the analysis of comm traffic has discovered a disturbing trend in Starfleet orders…
This is the episode where phasers appear to be a little bit tortuous and not as efficient as they should be (though to be fair in early Next Generation they do look like Dustbusters) and do an awfully good impression of the Veron-T Disruptor (see Season 5’s The Most Toys). Overall, this is a well-written episode with some effects that look a little… well 80s now – exploding meat-pack included.
The Neutral Zone (Season 1)
Data finds a long-lost Earth capsule that literally has the past inside in the form of 3 easily cured cryogenically frozen patients from the early twenty-first century. The trio attempts to acclimatise to the twenty-fourth century, and the massive change in human culture. Meanwhile the Enterprise is to rendezvous with a Romulan vessel after decades without contact, only for the results of shared data about attacks along the neutral zone to usher in a serious sense of foreboding. 80s serial guest star Peter Mark Richman makes the most of his scenes, while the appearance of the Romulans in the form of Commander Tebok, played by Marc Alaimo, who would go on to be not only the first Cardassian we’d see, but then Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine.
This may be a debatable inclusion in a pure top 25 episodes by quality alone, but the groundwork laid in this episode, for more than one foe of the Federation, is vital to the vast majority that follows in not only Next Generation, but Deep Space Nine and Voyager, too.
The Measure Of A Man (Season 2)
From one episode that is crucial to others but considered purely on its own merits is a debatable entry on this list, to an episode that absolutely belongs in the top 2 stories – and one that rivals even Best Of Both Worlds (yes, I said it!)
Data is ordered to undergo dismantling so that Commander Maddox of the Daystrom Institute can study him. Data is not comfortable with that and refuses, only to find his final recourse to resign isn’t an option to him as he is seen by Starfleet as property. Cue the best courtroom drama episode of Star Trek ever produced including an astonishing performance from Patrick Stewart backed up by an understated but incredibly potent interaction with Whoopi Goldberg, and superb work from Jonathan Frakes, especially in the Blu-ray exclusive extended versions of the story.
Q Who (Season 2)
Q arrives, has a stand-off with Guinan and requests to join the crew of the Enterprise much to the annoyance of Commander Riker and Microbrain (aka Worf.) Captain Picard makes the mistake of stating his belief that his crew and Starfleet as a whole is ready to meet whatever is out there. So Q clicks his fingers and throws the Galaxy class Enterprise to the solar system designated J-25 to discover a planet with readings identical to those found in The Neutral Zone. Not only that… but a cube shaped ship enters orbit.
It turns out that resistance is futile and your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to that of Trek fandom, as this is one of the episodes that really will grab you – though its direct sequel is still to come.
The Emissary (Season 2)
An old flame of Worf, in the form of the half-human, half-Klingon, Ambassador K’Ehleyr, arrives on the Enterprise in a unique way. At the behest of Starfleet Security, the Ambassador is on board to warn and assist the crew of the Enterprise regarding the threat posed by a K’Tinga class Klingon Cruiser, the crew of which have been in suspended animation for 75 years. The crew of the IKS T’Ong are on a secret mission to attack the Federation, and are, of course, unaware that peace has broken out between the former enemies.
Susie Plakson’s turn as K’Ehleyr cements her position as a go-to actress for the franchise after her superb debut as Doctor Selar earlier in the season (The Schizoid Man) and would go on to reprise this part and manage to take on two further alien races in roles as the female Q in Voyager and Lt. Tarah of the Andorian Imperial Guard in Enterprise, making four in total. No other actor has played a Vulcan, an Andorian, a Klingon and a Q!
Who Watches The Watchers (Season 3)
Foreshadowing Star Trek: Insurrection, a Federation research team has been revealed to the indigenous lifeforms on a planet with a (very) pre-warp civilization, causing a breach of the Prime Directive, necessitating Commander Riker and Counsellor Troi to go undercover as the Vulcan-eque Mintakans to rescue a researcher. Hilarity ensues. That is, if you find Picard being referred to as a God and having people sacrificed to him hilarious.
This one’s such a good foundation for new viewers as to quite why the Prime Directive is so important in the Star Trek universe that it was drawn upon for the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness. It shows Next Generation at its thoughtful best.
Yesterday’s Enterprise (Season 3)
You know something major has occurred when the end of the pre-credit sequence involves Worf being replaced by Lt. Yar… The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C, the Ambassador Class predecessor to the Galaxy Class Enterprise-D, turns up after going missing and being presumed destroyed for 22 years. Unfortunately Guinan’s extra-normal perception detects that the timeline has changed.
This story sets up a few things, as well as being downright brilliant in its own right, and is every bit as much a must-watch as Best Of Both Worlds.
The Offspring (Season 3)
Jonathan Frakes graduates Paramount Academy with his directorial debut here, bringing the best out of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner in particular, as Data struggles to understand why he has to inform the Captain of his attempts to procreate when none of the other crew have to.
A great performance from Hallie Todd as Lal which, literally, is the heart of the story, elevates this into the top 25.
Sins Of The Father (Season 3)
Mogh, father of Worf is accused of betraying the Klingons to the Romulans, and thus instigating the Khitomer massacre. Starfleet’s only Klingon officer isn’t going to just let it lie, only to find he has a brother he knew nothing about.
This is the first time Worf interacts with the Klingon High Council, at least on-screen, and comes into conflict with the Duras family for the first time – the actions in this episode would reverberate through both Next Generation, DS9 and into Star Trek: Generations.
Sarek (Season 3)
From one father, to another. Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan, whose son is none other than Ambassador and formerly Captain Spock, comes aboard the Enterprise much to the delight of Captain Picard. Unfortunately it seems that Sarek is incapable of visiting the Enterprise in good health, and is suspected of being the cause of heightened tension and conflict aboard ship.
Once again Mark Lenard is outstanding, and Patrick Stewart’s performance as he grapples with Sarek’s erratic emotional state is a slightly uncomfortable highlight.
Best Of Both Worlds/Family (Seasons 3 & 4)
J-25 turns out to be a solar system not far enough from the Federation, and the readings from The Neutral Zone are forgotten as a single Borg vessel prepares to cut a swathe through Federation territory, with Captain Picard and anyone else in their way becoming little more than collateral damage.
Guest star Elizabeth Dennehy shines as Lieutenant Commander Shelby, lighting a fire under Riker. The cliff-hanger, Star Trek‘s first as a season closer, drove fans up the wall for months, with the main story wrapped up in the first episode of season 4 and an epilogue in the second episode of the season, Family, that underlined quite what the Captain went through as Locutus, once again proving who was leading the cast in more ways than one.
Reunion (Season 4)
K’Ehleyr returns to the Enterprise with not only the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council in tow, but also her son, Alexander. It turns out that 3 to 4 year old Klingon children grow up really fast as Alexander was conceived during his mother’s last visit to the Enterprise, and he looks like he’s about 5. The episode also returns Duras to the screen and introduces Gowron. Unfortunately Alexander loses his mother, after she investigates Worf’s dishonour and the Khitomer massacre, when Duras murders her. Worf doesn’t take that lying down and ensures that the candidate for Chancellor got the point, dis-commendation or not.
This story continues Worf’s journey into Klingon culture which doesn’t really conclude until at least DS9’s What You Leave Behind… or perhaps the “canon” 2009 film prequel comic story, Countdown.
The Wounded (Season 4)
A veteran Captain of the Cardassian/Federation War, Ben Maxwell has taken it upon himself to launch his Nebula class starship, the USS Phoenix, into a one-ship war against the Cardassian Empire, believing that they are rearming to challenge the Federation once more. A Cardassian Gul (Captain) and two aides join the crew of the Enterprise to stop the Phoenix destroying further Cardassian vessels and outposts.
This is the first appearance of the Cardassians on screen with Marc Alaimo staking an early claim to the de-facto portrayal of a Cardassian commanding officer, Gul Macet, in advance of landing the regular role as Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine. We also learn a bit about Chief O’Brien’s background in the process – giving Colm Meaney some decent room to show what he can do.
Redemption (Seasons 4 & 5)
Gowron attempts to take his place as Chancellor of the Klingon High Council but the sisters of Duras, Lursa and B’Etor reveal the deceased candidate’s son and challenge the succession. The result is a Klingon Civil War, and Worf’s loyalties are split between the Federation and his own people. It seems the Duras are also getting help, as they have done before, from another race with cloaked ships. Leave it to Captain Data to sort out the situation.
Will someone please tell me how Picard isn’t a Fleet Captain or Commodore at this point, when he’s in command of a fleet? Though the season cliff-hanger is nowhere near as compelling as that in Best Of Both Worlds, this two-part story serves to delve into Klingon culture and set a few things up for both Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.
Darmok (Season 5)
How do you talk to a race that appears to speak in gibberish, even with the universal translator doing its best? According to the Children Of Tamar, the best solution is to beam your Captain and that of the vessel you are trying to communicate with down to a planet with a dangerous creature, give each officer a knife and see if they can work out their differences. Paul Winfield (who also played Captain Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan) does a superb job as the Tamarian Captain who communicates with Captain Picard by metaphor – it turns out that knowing the story of the example you’re citing helps quite a bit.
The late, great Michael Piller remarked of this episode “I just think Darmok is the prototype of what Star Trek should be.” It has also be used by Linguistic teachers as an example of how language can develop while the premise alone in the form of the billing blurb for the episode inspired Russell T Davis to write Midnight, from the fourth series of Doctor Who‘s revival.
Unification (Season 5)
A bit of Sarek again, as Spock goes undercover on Romulus conducting cowboy diplomacy, prompting Picard and Data to pretend to be Romulans, and get transported to Romulus aboard a Klingon Bird Of Prey. There’s a reference to ear licking. There’s a discussion between Data and Spock. Tasha’s daughter, the Romulan commander, turns up. Jonathan Frakes sings the Next Generation theme tune in a blooper.
Do I really need to say any more? The great and much missed Leonard Nimoy on Next Generation is all the recommendation this one needs.
The Outcast (Season 5)
As potent today as The Original Series’ Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, this episode now appears to tackle gender identity and uses the metaphor of a member of an androgynous race, the J’naii, who leans towards being female as a mirror for the struggle of those who are gender fluid or transgender, though it wasn’t the original intent.
Riker becomes involved romantically with the female-leaning Soren, only to find such a person is viewed as a throwback in need of therapy by their own people. It’s equally heart-breaking and brilliant. Bizarrely it appears that our wider knowledge of the human condition as a whole has caught up with this episode which was originally conceived to provide an allegory for different sexualities, and was criticised for not being awfully successful in that endeavour at the time. The horror of Soren being forced to undergo mental alteration for her perceived “criminal perversion” of being female rather than without gender, is now all too real.
I Borg (Season 5)
It’s not a person damn it, it’s a Borg! Except it is a person, even though it’s a Borg, it transpires. A single-minded Captain Picard is determined to introduce a virus-like problem into the collective using a teenaged Borg an Enterprise away team has rescued from a crash site as the conduit. Guinan, even being one of the last remnants of a race all but wiped out by the Borg, disagrees and convinces the Captain to actually talk to “Hugh”.
This one is a wonderfully written and executed episode which lays a path for later developments – Borg can indeed become individuals again.
The Inner Light (Season 5)
Captain Picard is ensnared by an alien probe which as far as the rest of the crew is aware, forces him unconscious. They are unaware that another man’s life is being experienced by Jean-Luc, which we the viewer get to experience with him.
Patrick Stewart excels (as he often does) in a great bit of science fiction that won a Hugo award and was nominated for an Emmy. Jay Chattaway’s score for this one is also unforgettable.
Chain Of Command (Season 6)
Take one Patrick Stewart and one David Warner, put them in a torture room with 4 lights. Put Patrick in chains and make David a Cardassian who is torturing Picard for information, while Dick Jones, ahem, I mean Captain Jellico (Ronny Cox) is running the Enterprise. Some say this is Patricks Stewart’s finest performance as Captain Picard, and considering the actor actually researched with Amnesty International for this role, it’s not surprising. The bold interactions between Jonathan Frakes and Ronny Cox are great scenes.
Great as the episode is, however, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, and I am amazed the BBFC gave it a PG certificate.
Tapestry (Season 6)
Picard is dead. Q is God. The universe, fortunately, is not that badly designed. Q gives Jean-Luc the option to go back and fix what ails him (his reliance on an artificial heart) by avoiding his injury at the hands of a burley Nausicaan in the first place. Unfortunately it turns out that the result would be a very different man.
Okay, so this one is basically the Next Generation version of It’s A Wonderful Life, but it also has Q to recommend it, as well as the fact that you learn more about Jean-Luc’s youth and why he laughed when he was stabbed through the back and heart.
Frame Of Mind (Season 6)
Riker appears to find himself in an insane asylum on an alien world, with his known history as a Starfleet Commander on the Enterprise seemingly all a delusion… except he appears to be slipping between realities, or are they delusions too?
Jonthan Frakes is allowed to show his acting chops in this reality-bending tale – and he conveys Riker losing his grip on reality very well. This story does the idea better than Sucker Punch ever could, not to mention a lot earlier.
Lower Decks (Season 7)
This one provides a rare glimpse into the lives of junior officers aboard the Federation Starfleet flagship, two of whom are up for promotion. Meanwhile something is going on, involving a rescued unknown from the border with the Cardassian Empire, and the Bajoran ensign who was part of the Nova Squadron cover-up at the academy with Wesley Crusher (see season 5’s The First Duty).
This is possibly the most popular episode of season 7 and deserves to be. It gives a different perspective on the daily lives of those aboard the Enterprise. At one point Sito Jaxa (the Bajoran ensign) was due to reappear in Deep Space Nine, and this rumour developed at one point to include Thomas Riker, but alas, it never happened.
Encounter At Farpoint/All Good Things (Seasons 1 & 7)
The trial of the human race that Q instigates in Farpoint is seemingly ongoing, and it appears that Captain Jean-Luc Picard may be the destroyer of humanity itself, in the time-jumping finale to Star Trek: The Next Generation on television.
Okay, I am cheating here a bit. Encounter At Farpoint in itself, isn’t great, but without it the splendour that is All Good Things makes no sense. Thus you have to watch the first episode of Next Generation for the last to work. However, even with all the introductions and John DeLancie being frankly fantastic as Q, Farpoint doesn’t deserve to be in the top 25 on its own merits… All Good Things really does, though, and as the conclusion to the story that Farpoint starts, forgive me the conceit of putting them together as one story here.
Of course, like any other list of this nature, everyone will have alternative selections and to be utterly fair my ‘almosts’ include some brilliant episodes such as Ensign Ro, Second Chances and The Most Toys. Then again, Next Generation is my favourite TV show of all time, so there is very little of it I don’t enjoy or wouldn’t show to a friend.
Look out… Deep Space Nine is next in my sights.