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
- Face of the Enemy
- Frame of Mind
- Ensigns of Command
- Déjà Q
- The Price
- Identity Crisis
- The Nth Degree
- The Quality of Life
- Booby Trap
- Galaxy’s Child
- First Contact
- Silicon Avatar