10 Best/Favorite Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation

My love of science fiction was solidified by being able to watch this show every week night throughout much of middle and high school. This franchise is my favorite science fiction thing, mainly due to its optimistic portrayal of human society. The stories are based on honest sincere characters, all doing their best to work as a team. They have personal goals, but being on a shared assignment they have shared goals. The main one to expand human understanding through exploration. I think everyone could get behind that. Of course the galaxy is a complex place and that can be used to parallel international relations, and the series offers nicely balanced discussions of these problems. And I appreciate that they aren’t always an overly transparent allegory.

I list my favorite stories with short descriptions that also explain my fondness for the episode. I tried to be brief, but may feel compelled to add to this later.

10. Preemptive Strike – Military espionage. This is a wonderful model for the way conflicts develop in Star Trek. Ro Laren is split. She’s never been the best Starfleet officer and that background makes her cover story all the more believable, but then she slowly realizes her allegiance belongs elsewhere. The beauty of this episode is her relationship with Picard. She hates to let him down, and it weighs on her. In the end Picard completely understands her decision, and yet she also understands his position. There is conflict but both sides are right in their way. I wish the model provided by this episode has been a blueprint for the bigger conflicts we got in DS9.

9. The Defector – Diplomacy, with a bit of a mystery. Deepens the conflict with the Romulans.  The Defector being genuine is a nice surprise that shows that some Romulans are not supportive of the main thrust of the Empire’s actions. His false intelligence report shows the lengths the Romulans are willing to go to fully expose a single defector. While also displaying the resourcefulness to use the opportunity to lure the Federation into a trap. On the Enterprise side of things, it’s interesting to see them so uncertain what to believe. I love that their natural response is to trust, but they have to forcibly remind themselves this is just the sort of thing Romulans might to do to abuse their trust. In the end their mistrust is correct, but not for the reason they thought. The earnestness of the defector really makes this work.

8. Who Watches the Watchers – Diplomacy and interpersonal relations with a heavy theme of understanding our own limitations, integrity. A research station on a pre-warp civilization gets screwy and the Enterprise must salvage things without completely violating the Prime Directive. It doesn’t go well, given that at one point they think Picard is a god. He is determined to undo what damage has been done and even takes an arrow to prove a point. I like lengthy discussions of how to handle this delicate situation.

I recall this one having a really nice bit of score as well.

7. Clues – A mystery with an unusual sort of diplomatic ending. This episode really showcases the kind of drama and subtle conflict that characterizes Star Trek. The crew trusts each other enough to see that something is up. Only by letting many small seemingly insignificant happenstances matter enough to add up to a full blown mystery to we get to the point of seeing that Data isn’t quite right. Those moments when Data seems to be going against the crew are intense. He’s usually our stalwart, so it’s very uncomfortable and disconcerting – even terrifying- to have him against us! It’s such a relief to find that it’s just a promise to a rather xenophobic species.

6. Thine Own Self – An exploration of personal integrity and taking the right risk. The subplot about Troi taking the commander’s exam is a nice window into how people can still be challenged in the “utopian” world of the Federation. It shows how different people have different skills and we need them all to work together and explore the galaxy. Competition and strife are not a requirement.

Data’s story encapsulates what humanity has become. Rather being quick to judge, he is quick to help. He is open-minded and his natural curiosity keeps him exploring many options. Even as others instruct him otherwise, he can’t help but see the world the way he always has. He is objective, looking for logical cause and effect, and is motivated by his care for those around him. That’s really the heart of this episode. Data is naturally selfless and even while the town opposes him he keeps making every effort to help them.

At the end when the young girl is questioned about Data by the Enterprise crew and says that Data was her friend too, I am always moved. It’s sad that from her perspective Data is dead, but it works out well that Data can be beamed up and repaired. But Data is our friend and we can’t help but want this extraordinary man to be friends with everyone.

5. Measure of a Man – A What-is-Life episode that shows we have much to discover just looking inward. I love getting to so formally discuss the nature of Data and his sentience and rights therein. Riker’s defense feels very real, that he did his best. I always get the impression that he’s going to win! Maddox calling Data “he” at the end is a beautiful touch that shows that all involved parties learned to appreciate Data all the more.

4. Reunion – A Diplomacy episode, also a personal relationships episode. Relations with the Klingons continue to complicate. Picard is working hard to arbitrate over the succession of power in the Empire. Meanwhile the personal cost Worf’s previous decision is going up. Knowing that Worf is honorable pushes K’Ehleyr to keep investigating the Duras’ family role in the Kitomer Massacre.  This leads to real tragedy and further complicates relations.

3. Inner Light – A personal relationships episode, and a discovery/understanding episode. Even though the audience understands what is happening to Picard as he lives this life we are given a chance to get attached to his new family and the fate of this new planet. Which perfectly reflects his experience. Picard discovers just how much he values family and a simple life. I believe this experience greatly changed Picard. Another touching detail: at the end he clutches the flute close to his heart.

2. The Offspring – Similar themes to Measure of a Man, looking inward for discovery and understanding, but much more personal. Data’s building a another android is endlessly charming. His defining it as “procreation” leads to a surprise for the whole crew, and the Captain’s reaction is quite natural as he’s immediately aware of the ramifications of Data’s work. Once Lal chooses an appearance it’s a ton of fun to watch her learn the basics. We can imagine that Data’s first days were similar. Once Admiral Haftel arrives of course the mood changes, but not as much as when Lal’s life is in danger! Hearing the once antagonistic Admiral describe how Data worked to save Lal is perfectly moving. Getting this information from him solidifies that connection we’ve all had with Lal, and with Lal’s fate sealed everyone is sad to see her leave, but we can be excited for the possibilities introduced.

1. Darmok – An episode of understanding and diplomacy, while also a discovery mission. This is what Trek’s all about. The crew has an unusual not-quite first contact mission before them and Picard is taken from them. So we get to see how Riker and the rest of the crew operate without him and we get to see Picard on his own. We see his first response to to refuse a fight, yet there’s a willingness to trust and that is the key.

Riker, like everyone and anyone left in the dark, cut off from communication about the situation he is in, tries to take control and therefore lashes out in relative acts of violence. His actions even hinder Picard at a crucial moment. This of course leads to tragedy as all lashing out in ignorance tends to. Again we have a complex interesting story without in-fighting or pettiness, everyone is doing the best they can with the information available to them. That’s the Star Trek that has me call myself a fan.

But the team is still able to overcome all this. Especially Picard, who is able to read the Tamarian’s captain’s actions and come to an understanding. Understanding, that is the theme of this episode. And to me understanding is an underlying motivation behind the spirit of exploration. We explore to increase our understanding.

Of course why not a list a few as “runner-ups” in no particular order:

  • Q Who
  • Lower Decks
  • The First Duty
  • Data’s Day
  • Disaster
  • Unification
  • Face of the Enemy
  • Frame of Mind
  • Ensigns of Command
  • Déjà Q
  • The Price
  • Identity Crisis
  • The Nth Degree
  • The Quality of Life
  • Lessons
  • Booby Trap
  • Galaxy’s Child
  • Suspicions
  • First Contact
  • Silicon Avatar

What is a “Science Fiction” film?

What makes this genre uniquely stand apart? Is it just extra-terrestrial locations or space travel? I think it’s pretty easy to see that those would define the genre in a very superficial way. What does the film think it’s about? (Yes, a reference to Daniel Framption’s Filmosophy) What does it make you think about? The answers to these questions in the most general sense are the themes of a film. So to discuss what science fiction is I will prefer to focus on the themes commonly explored by the genre.

Themes are basically what movies are about in a general sense. Rather than examining the specific details of each film’s world, characters, or story, an examination of theme allows us to compare films very quickly without dipping into spoilers. For example both Contact and Arrival are depictions of encounters with aliens that involve much decoding, with a large part of that “decoding” being thanks to the emotional state of the main character. Blade Runner and Terminator explore outcomes of our own AI creations getting beyond our control. The Running Man and Death Race 2000 are about dystopian societies defined by their devotion to the reality of their media. Easy enough.

But we want to generalize the whole genre of Science-Fiction. Can we? From a mainly literary standpoint Wikipedia summarizes with a couple quotes: According to American writer and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”[5] American science-fiction author and engineer Robert A. Heinlein wrote that “A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”[6] (emphasis mine). Both of these definitions highlight the genre’s tendency to describe human changes or futures imagined around our understanding of science and technology. This is easy enough to utilize for film.

After that, this section on Wiki then descends into pretend/non-definitions given by editors, writers and modern academics. The whole point of a definition is to provide boundaries to a discussion so that it makes sense (i.e. about something). The last sentence of the section is useless and adds nothing to our discussion: “Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty [in defining science-fiction], saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”[9] Right before that we are challenged “American science fiction author and editor Lester del Rey wrote, “Even the devoted aficionado or fan—has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is,” and the lack of a “full satisfactory definition” is because “there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction.”[8] Really? Speaking as a “fan” or devoted aficionado I have no trouble explaining what science fiction is. Perhaps it’s my math and physics education? Asimov and Heinlein not only wrote in the genre, but they also had science backgrounds. Some may scoff and jab “well you’re talking about hard sci-fi”. That’s fine if it makes you more comfortable think of it that way. But I don’t think being rigorous with definitions is hard. Let’s use their simple and clear definitions to delineate limits.

First, then, let’s go down another level: What is science? Science is the knowledge and the methods by which we acquire further knowledge. Secondly, what is technology? Technology is the tool that either assists our methods or is what we create from current understanding to assist us in other actions. We can see how the human desire to explore is motivated equally by the additions to both of these. We explore to grow our understanding, and we then create something that allows us to explore more, then we push that technology to it’s limit, which creates an new “necessity” – putting us in an cycle of invention and exploration.

It’s interesting to note that technology isn’t always a physical tool, from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, and the like or it can be embedded in machines”. So certain types of knowledge are technology. I’m familiar with this usage. I recall something as simple as making lists or labeling things a certain way being referred to as “technology”. Another example, to help remember your 9 column on the multiplication table: simply put your hands out, then count the number you wish to multiply by 9 and drop that finger. The number left the lowered finger is the tens digit and the remaining number of fingers to the right of it is the one’s digit. I suppose then “reverse psychology” could be considered a technology. These are all bits of knowledge that when applied function as tools. Science is the knowledge considered in the abstract, but technology is what we get when we utilize that knowledge. Said another way, science is concerned only with the knowing of a thing, but technology is the application of that knowledge – it is where the actual effects then come from.

Recall that Asimov said that sci-fi “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Given how closely science and technology are related – and that those measurable reactions are results of the effects of applied knowledge, we can say simplify that to: Science Fiction is the genre which explores the effects of technology on humanity.

Now that we have a rather simple looking definition let’s see how it applies to some well-known films.

Some are very obvious: Blade Runner, Frankenstein, Westworld, The Terminator, THX 1138, Zardoz, Sorry to Bother You, and The Matrix all deal with man’s creations biting him back. Notice with THX 1138, Zardoz and Sorry to Bother You that we have different levels of embedded technology but still have a story that explores possible effects of social technology. We can throw in A Clockwork Orange, Equilibrium and Brazil. Interesting to note that we have surpassed some aspects of these film-worlds in terms of technology, so the hubris comes from the application. In this way the dystopian sci-fi sub genre is well-established and detectable.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Timecrimes, Primer, The Fly and Lucy all feature relatively small pockets of people effected by a new technology. A film’s focus determines its themes, so by focusing on those effected or involved with the technology we can say that our definition holds.

Then we have the idea that our advancements get us closer to extra-terrestrials, Alien, Starship Troopers, Event Horizon, Solaris, and Star Trek: First Contact all stem from the idea that we’ll encounter aliens once we’re sufficiently advanced. This brings us to the first possible challenge to this definition. What if the film features alien contact with modern/current levels of embedded technology?

Arrival, Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind deal with current humanity first getting in touch with alien life. In these cases the aliens just come to earth unprompted by humans. The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s exactly what happens, as well as Close Encounters, Predator, E.T. and Virus. In 2001 after the initial contact, the monolith is moved and it’s later detection does depend on sufficient advances in technology. But there are a large number of alien encounters that feature the aliens doing all the traveling requiring no technology by humanity. Does this break my definition? I don’t think it does, since it is not necessarily implied that the technology is a result of human tinkering or ingenuity. It is no small feat to traverse the great distances in space and that achievement would effect everyone involved. Alien contact is completely dependent on technology. Of course that aspect of such encounters within a film-world are far overshadowed by the much more society-altering alien contact.

Now, to possibly rock the boat: Star Wars has many tropes or accoutrement common to science fiction but the themes are not anything like we’ve been considering here. The robots, aliens, and spaceships are nothing new, in fact, they are old and commonplace. The presence of advanced technology is not examined by the story, because the technology is not advanced to that world. One could argue that the Death Star is new, but the Empire is already in control before it arrives and the potential to examine an even more dystopian galactic society stops with the films climax. Vader even points out that the Force is more important than the technology. As is now common knowledge the story is modeled after the hero’s journey which comes to us from mythology adventure stories, so that is the primary theme of the story.

A similar example: The 5th Element. Again we have a movie that looks high-tech to us, but all the characters are used to flying cars and space-travel. Everything is new to Leeloo so her reactions don’t count for the world, and while she is a main character the film doesn’t focus on presenting the world to the audience from her perspective. Though this is an unknown they are working against it is no presented as something to explore.

I’d like to rewatch Earth Girls Are Easy to see how it shakes down. It’s like ET, but we don’t really see the same sort of reaction from society, the romance is the main focus. The ship repairs aren’t some big story element, nor does the world react much to the presence of here-to-fore unknown alien life. Rather we see the human-like aliens blending in just being slightly off, and thanks to those only slight differences a bond is formed. The climax has our main character leaving with the aliens, so that perhaps is our defining moment to consider. She is not motivated by a desire to explore the unknown but by the emotional bond formed with the alien. How is that different from Contact or Arrival? Simple: In those last two the whole world is involved, so the movie most certainly focuses on the effects of alien contact with humanity. But didn’t I say that the main characters determine the story and therefore themes of a film? I did.

See? Even with hard and fast definitions there’s still plenty to discuss and debate. I think such a debate is much more interesting than just throwing our hands up and declaring everything is relative, ambiguous, or just a system of possibly contradicting dualities.

I argue that genre should come out of a work’s themes, which come from the character actions and story of a film. A useful definition for the genre of Science Fiction is that it consistently explores the effects of technology on people.