In the spirit of recognizing the solid storytelling in Star Trek: The Next Generation, what follows is a list of the 10 episodes everyone should see before they die.
#10 - The Drumhead
Speaking of preachy... This episode epitomizes one of the major elements of the entire show—Picard taking a stand on moral issues in the face of a corrupt bureaucracy. In the later seasons, there’s always this tension in Picard, between the liberal ideas he's adopted as a Starfleet captain and the Traditional values he was brought up with...in France...even though he has a British accent. They don’t ever explain that. Or how such a conservative family could still be around in such an “advanced” society. Anyway.
#9 - The Nth Degree
I know what you’re thinking...
The ninth best Next Generation episode came first.
By far one of the best things about the later seasons of Next Gen was Lieutenant Barclay. Nervous, neurotic, and accident prone make for good ingredients in a lovable character. Wait... Shouldn’t Roddenberry’s "perfect" society have done away with these qualities by genetic engineering and selective breeding? Anyway, in this episode, Barclay accidentally makes himself the smartest, most charismatic person alive.
#8 - Masks
Captain Picard could have been an archaeologist. In this episode, he gets to show off his mad skills. Throughout the course of the ship this alien device gradually converts the Enterprise into a replica of the civilization that built it, including Data. As a result, Brent Spiner gets to play multiple characters, which he does really well (and which happens quite a bit actually, now that I think about it).
#7 - Elementary, Dear Data + Ship in a Bottle
These two episodes (the first from Season Two and the second from Season Six) are basically two halves of the same story. Data and Geordi are messing around on the Holodeck in Season Two, playing Sherlock Holmes, and the computer accidentally creates a holographic version of Holmes' archvillain Moriarty self-aware. Trouble ensues. Just really clever stuff, and a fine adaptation of Holmes to boot.
#6 - The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II
By far the most important contribution Next Gen made to the Star Trek universe (aside from the badass-ness that is Captain Picard and Data) was the Borg. A hive mind of cybernetic drones bent on galactic domination. They’re pretty much zombies. Except, if the zombies were super strong cyborgs linked to a central computer that can tell them exactly where you are and how to kill you, based on the knowledge its accumulated over several millenia of turning trillions of other people into zombies. In this season-straddling two-parter, they manage to zombify Captain Picard. How do you defend against an enemy which has just obtained all the knowledge of one of your foremost military commanders?
So, my dad made a good point. It’s a cliffhanger, right? Check it out:
...and that’s it. My dad said that was the only time he checked the TV Guide every week all Summer.
#5 - Cause and Effect
Always in Star Trek (that is, until the travesty that was Star Trek: Enterprise) the coolest episodes involve time travel. They rarely hold up logically, but they're awesome just the same. In this episode the Enterprise gets caught in a time loop. ...Also, Frasier Crane makes a cameo appearance.
#4 - All Good Things...
Isn’t it the worst when good shows just kind of fizzle away, or jump the shark and end on a low note? Thankfully, Next Gen wasn't one of those. Its finale really satisfied. Picard finally sat down at the poker table with the rest of the guys. Plus, it involved time travel.
#3 - Darmok
Now this is just a really, really good episode. One of Trek's biggest cop outs has always been the Universal Translator. Basically it makes everybody speak English. Which is dumb. I mean, even if it like overrided the communications system and simulated them speaking in English over the speakers, they should still be mouthing in their language, right? Anyway, in this episode, it stops working—rather, it can't translate these guys' language. So they've gotta figure it out. Turns out it's a super cool language, P.S.
#2 - Chain of Command, Parts I & II
Captain Picard steps down as captain of the Enterprise and goes on a super secret black ops mission. Um, do I really have to say anymore? Maybe that he gets captured and tortured by Russians! I mean...Cardassians. (You see, they’re this alien race that the Federation is in a Cold War with. All similarities are coincidental, though.) It’s pretty interesting, though, ‘cause we rarely ever get to be reminded of the fact that Starfleet (not to mention the larger Federation Military) is about much more than flying around in starships. There must be ground troops, artillery, troop ships to ferry them all from planet to planet, special forces, in short, just about everything we have. I mean, surely they’re at least kinda prepared to defend themselves against an all-out invasion, right?
#1 – The Inner Light + Lessons
"The Inner Light" is the best episode ever. Seriously. Picard gets probed by this satellite thing and it takes over his brain and makes him live an entire lifetime in a matter of minutes. Throughout which time he teaches himself to play the flute in his free time. When he dies in that life, he wakes up and he's back as Captain Picard of the Enterprise. The satellite shuts down and the only thing the crew can find inside is a small box containing the very flute Picard dreamed about playing.
What a fantastic idea to explore the effects that such an experience might have on a person, which the series does in subsequent episodes. One of those is "Lessons," which isn't as good in itself, but it builds on "The Inner Light." Picard falls in love for reals, sharing his second lifetime and flute with someone for the first time, leading to this poignant scene:
Later, he has to make the decision to sacrifice her in the name of the greater good. It's rough. Fantastic television.