It’s Labour Day weekend here in Canada, and I am four episodes deep into the Space Network‘s Star Trek marathon. The network is showing the supposed 10 “best” episodes of each of the five canonical Star Trek TV series. For their complete list of episodes click here.
I’m particularly interested in their list of the best ST:TNG episodes (and maybe in a future article I’ll look at the other series, as well). Space lists their top 10 as:
#2/16 “Q Who?”
#3/15 “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
#3/26 “Best Of Both Worlds (Part 1)”
#4/01 “Best Of Both Worlds (Part 2)”
#5/18 “Cause And Effect”
#6/10 “Chain Of Command (Part 1)”
#6/11 “Chain Of Command (Part 2)”
I wanted to list my personal top 5 ST:TNG episodes. See, for some reason the suits seem to think that the strength of Trek is shiny ships and exploding shit (see those atrocious JJ Abrams movies). The mainstream media, meanwhile, seems to think that the power of Trek is its penchant for commenting on current social issues.
But when considering the best ST:TNG episodes, an interesting thing occurred to me: the best episodes were in fact pure science fiction offerings. In those episodes, things rarely blew up, and social commentary was kept to a minimum. But interesting fringe science ideas were well explored.
So here is my personal top 5:
5. #4/14 “Clues”
The crew is rendered unconscious, with only android Data aware of what happened when they were out. But, bit by bit, it becomes clear that Data is lying to them about how long and why they were unconscious. As clues mount, so does the paranoia. It’s a classic science-fiction mystery, topped with a great character theme, that this crew has implicit trust in one another, even when pushed to an unreasonable extent.
4. #2/16 “Q Who?”
I remember watching this when it first aired, in a bedroom in my Aunt’s Scarborough house, while other guests were engaged in more social activities. By this point, I was getting sort of bored with the predictable outcomes of the episodes, and was not prepared for the introduction of a truly terrifying Big Bad… The Borg. Of course, The Borg would become a staple of villainy in the Trek universe, and the writers would find a way to anthropomorphize them, essentially sucking away their profound ‘terrifyingness’. But this first appearance of an uncaring, relentless foe whose interest is in fundamentally dehumanizing us was a glorious shock.
The episode has not aged particularly well, as the acting is stiff and the art direction laughable. But its essence, that the Enterprise crew cannot handle this threat, and that they must turn to the all-powerful Q to rescue them, still resonates.
3. #3/15 “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
Legend has it that the writers threw this one together frantically over a Thanksgiving weekend. It tells the tale of a “temporal anomaly”. A ship has come forward 22 years in time, and its arrival has changed the timeline. Instead of the bright, shiny and optimistic true timeline, our crew is living in a disheveled reality, torn by decades of war with the Klingon empire.
2. #5/2 “Darmok”
One of the great passports of geekery is the phrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” The brilliant brilliant premise of this episode is that the “universal translator”, so useful in the Trek universe, is rendered ineffective when faced with a race who communicates in literary metaphors. Think about it: an automated translator can decode the meaning of words, and how grammar works, but is useless in delving into cultural and literary heritage. The magic of this premise is that it shows how knowledge of the arts and humanities is critical in an apparently technology-based existence. Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, while decoding the core mythology of his new alien friend.
1. #5/25 “The Inner Light”
This episode won the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and soars entirely on the back of Patrick Stewart’s heroic performance. The Enterprise encounters an alien probe, which does something science-fiction-y to Picard. He is transported to alien world where he must live an entire life as a member of that culture, raising a family, and progressing to extreme old age. Only then is he returned to the moment of the ship’s encounter with the probe, whose mission, it turns out, was to preserve the life experience of a long dead civilization, the memory of which now resides solely in Picard’s memory. It is a tour-de-force of storytelling, with much emotional depth and consequence, and a worthy holder of the #1 spot.
Disagree with my list? Let me know in the comments below.