It has recently come to my attention that some of you, who I considered friends, have made it t0 the year 2015 without ever having watched my favorite television program, Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite its free availability on the World Wide Web.
I get it. The show is impenetrable, watching the whole thing takes 178 hours. It’s also extremely silly — nearly every episode has a moment when grown men in pajamas throw themselves around in their chairs:
But I want to make the case Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is important and worth your time in 2015, and I want to suggest about 40 hours of Star Trek viewing that will cover all of the great episodes.
My Office Is Gone. What Will I Do? How Will I Live?
I love Star Trek because it gives us a vision of the future where reasonable people resolve conflicts by talking.
Our heroes fly around on a 1,000-person spaceship run by Starfleet, which is Earth’s peacekeeping/military organization. Earth, along with a bunch of alien planets, is part of the United Federation of Planets (The Federation) which is a like a space U.N., devoted to universal liberty, rights, equality, sharing knowledge, and exploring the galaxy.
In the world of Star Trek, hunger and poverty have been eliminated. Energy comes from matter-antimatter reactors (or something). Food is created instantly in replicators. Humanity has dedicated itself to exploration and self-improvement.
In the first season, in an episode I’m going to tell you to watch, Captain Picard defrosts a cryogenically frozen Gordon Gecko type figure from our century named Ralph Offenhouse, and they have this conversation:
Offenhouse: There’s no trace of my money — my office is gone — what will I do? How will I live?
Picard: [Amused] This is the 24th century. Those material needs no longer exist.
Offenhouse: Then what’s the challenge?
Picard: To improve yourself… enrich yourself. Enjoy it, Mister Offenhouse.
This depiction of the future feels impossible in 2015. Corny. Twee. Look at the big science fiction films that came out last year: The Hunger Games, Days of Future Past, Planet of the Apes, Interstellar, Transformers: Age of Extinction (I didn’t see this but I’m guessing based on the title), Snowpiercer… all of those movies show us a future where humanity gives in to its worst impulses, with apocalyptic results.
The politics of Star Trek point to something important in our culture that we don’t think about as being fundamental to the way we live. Author Daniel Quinn writes:
Nothing is more fundamental than food. There’s only one way you can force people to accept an intolerable lifestyle. You have to lock up the food. Though it surely isn’t recognized at the time, locking up the food is the beginning of the hierarchical life we call civilization.
As soon as the storehouse appears, someone must step forward to guard it, and this custodian needs assistants, who depend on him entirely, since they no longer earn their living as farmers. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and storage of surpluses — something that had never been necessary when everyone was just working a few hours a day. They soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. In a single stroke, a figure of power appears on the scene to control the community’s wealth, surrounded by a cadre of loyal vassals, ready to evolve into a ruling class of royals and nobles.
What these founders of our culture fundamentally invented for us was the notion of work. They developed a hard way to live — the hardest way to live ever found on this planet. Their revolution wasn’t about food, it was about power. That’s still what it’s all about.
Star Trek has a special place in my heart because it shows us a future where we continue to advance technology and explore without destroying ourselves or shouting over each other on Twitter all day. We should all be aware of the many difficult material concerns in our lives, and the unjust power structures that we’re implicated in. But what does life look like without them? Who’s thinking about what comes next? Captain Picard, that’s who.
Guys In Pajamas Looking at Viewscreens and Sitting In Chairs
One of the important things to know about TNG is that it sucked for the first few seasons.
That’s not surprising —how do you write a great, dramatic episode of TV when one of the main rules is that the cast can’t have conflict with each other?
TNG writer David Gerrold said:
Well that came from [Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s] lawyer Leonard Maizlish, a scumbag of a human being. I cannot say enough things — he was a truly evil human being. He was going to be Gene’s helper on the show. He appointed himself Chief of Staff and he would go around and say we can’t do this and we can’t do that and “on Star Trek everybody loves each other.” For those of us who had written for the show knew that wasn’t true! We knew our people got into arguments. But what happened was he would go to Gene and say “you can’t let David do this and can’t let Dorothy do that.” Everybody has to be good friends. It is that whole “band of brothers” thing we established in the first. Well, no. There should be tension between these people who have different jobs.
Roddenberry died in 1991, and new writers joined the show. One of them was Ronald D. Moore (who would go on to create Battlestar Galactica) who said about the Star Trek formula:
When I came aboard in the third season, NEXT GEN was very much the new kid on the block. There was a lot of static from the fans about the old series. “You can never replace Kirk and Spock; it’s not the real Enterprise, and this isn’t STAR TREK.” People forget that. Now NEXT GEN, everybody holds it up as the greatest thing. But nobody was giving us those plaudits at the beginning. We felt a bit under siege when I was there. There wasn’t a lot of support out in the fan community. At conventions people were still selling bumper stickers that said “Kirk and Spock forever.”
You just can’t keep feeding the audience the same thing over and over again, while at the same time, talking out of the other side of your mouth, saying, “But it’s all completely different; it’s a STAR TREK you’ve never seen before. It’s so different; we are doing things with STAR TREK that no one has ever done.” It’s still guys in pajamas looking at viewscreens and sitting in chairs. It can be more than that.
The silver lining here is that TNG is a show designed for syndication — each episode is a self-contained story, and it’s okay to skip around. My episode guide below is designed to get you through the bumpy early seasons to see what TNG looks like when it becomes more than the sum of its parts — a great ensemble, world-class writing, and science fiction that is unparalleled today.
Measure of a Man
So where to start? The first great episode of TNG comes in season 2, Measure of a Man. The Enterprise docks at a starbase, and a scientist there wants to disassemble the Enterprise’s android Science Officer, Data. No weapons are fired in this episode, there are no action sequences. But it’s one of the most gripping episodes of television I’ve ever seen, a little allegory about slavery, artificial intelligence, friendship, personal sacrifice, the rights of the individual vs. the greater good.
Patrick Stewart (the actor who plays Captain Picard) recently said that this was “the first truly great episode of the series,” and he gives an incredible performance. I think this is the first time he really commands the screen and finds his character — you’re watching the creation of a television icon. Whoopi Goldberg gives a great performance as well.
The first season stinks. You should watch the poorly-paced pilot because it’s the pilot. You should watch Skin of Evil because an important character leaves the show. You should watch The Neutral Zone because I mentioned it above. You can watch season one on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or get the Blu-ray on Amazon.
- S01E01: Encounter at Farpoint
- S01E23: Skin of Evil
- S01E26: The Neutral Zone
The second season is much better, though Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) has been weirdly replaced by Diana Muldaur as Dr. Pulaski. After this season, Dr. Pulaski will go to wherever Mandy went after season one of West Wing, and never be heard from again. Assuming you already watched Measure of a Man, there’s only two episodes you can’t miss here. Watch on Netflix, Amazon, or get the Blu-ray.
- S02E08: A Matter of Honor
- S02E16: Q Who
TNG starts to hit its pace in season three. Yesterday’s Enterprise is one of the best episodes of Star Trek. Brad Shoemaker recommended that I include The Offspring, which he says “moved him to tears.” Sins of the Father is a great Ronald D. Moore episode that sets up Worf’s story for the rest of the series. The Best of Both Worlds is TNG’s best cliffhanger. Netflix, Amazon, or Blu-ray.
- S03E10: The Defector
- S03E13: Déjà Q
- S03E15: Yesterday’s Enterprise
- S03E16: The Offspring
- S03E17: Sins of the Father
- S03E18: Allegiance
- S03E26: The Best of Both Worlds
You can tell that things are clicking by the fourth season because the cast and crew can nail an episode like Family, a character study without any science fiction conceits. Data’s Day is kind of goofy — you can skip it if you don’t like goofy episodes — but I love seeing what happens on the Enterprise on just a normal day. Netflix, Amazon, Blu-ray.
- S04E01: The Best of Both Worlds: Part II
- S04E02: Family
- S04E11: Data’s Day
- S04E12: The Wounded
- S04E21: The Drumhead
- S04E26: Redemption I
Two incredible streaks in this season: episodes 1–6 and 18–26 (with a few exceptions). Darmok is a great episode about language and communication, it’s a great example of a story that Star Trek can do but no other show since could. By this point in the series you’ve probably formed an opinion about Wesley Crusher, but Wil Wheaton steals the episode in The Game. It’s hard to believe that the writers, actors, and crew pulled off I, Borg, The Next Phase, The Inner Light, and Time’s Arrow back to back to back. The Inner Light is considered the finest episode of TNG.
- S05E01: Redemption II
- S05E02: Darmok
- S05E03: Ensign Ro
- S05E05: Disaster
- S05E06: The Game
- S05E18: Cause and Effect
- S05E19: The First Duty
- S05E23: I, Borg
- S05E24: The Next Phase
- S05E25: The Inner Light
- S05E26: Time’s Arrow, Part I
Seasons six and seven begin the more campy, self-aware era of TNG. Rascals is a perfectly silly episode that I mostly recommend for the scene where Riker shows the Ferengi how to use the Enterprise computer. Chain of Command is an iconic pop-culture moment, and sets up one of the best Star Trek villains. Tapestry is a great Picard episode. The Chase is like National Treasure meets TNG. Netflix, Amazon, Blu-ray.
- S06E01: Time’s Arrow, Part II
- S06E07: Rascals
- S06E10: Chain of Command, Part I
- S06E11: Chain of Command, Part II
- S06E12: Ship in a Bottle
- S06E15: Tapestry
- S06E20: The Chase
- S06E21: Frame of Mind
- S06E25: Timescape
- S06E26: Descent, Part 1
This season is a bummer, it’s hard to say goodbye to the characters, and it gets corny towards the end. But All Good Things… might be the most satisfying series finale of any TV show, it’s a masterpiece. Netflix, Amazon, Blu-ray.
- S07E01: Descent, Part II
- S07E11: Parallels
- S07E15: Lower Decks
- S07E25: All Good Things…
If you like what you watch in this guide, it’s worth your time to go back and watch the episodes I had you skip. Especially after Ronald D. Moore joined the show in season three, TNG developed a subtle continuity that lasted from episode to episode, and one of the things that Star Trek nerds like is seeing how those stories play out in the background through all seven seasons.
There are two Star Trek shows that take place after TNG: Voyager, which doubles down on episodic, planet-of-the-week stories and has a more adventurous, campy tone; and Deep Space Nine, which tells dark stories with consequences for the characters in long, serialized arcs about sacrifice, war, loss, and ethics.
The Dumb Movies
The Next Generation movies are dumb and bad, with the exception of First Contact, which is dumb and exciting. The saving grace here is that you can watch the movies and then watch the killer Red Letter Media reviews of each movie. These are remix/reviews that are incredibly funny and taught me a lot about filmmaking.
My advice is to take a break in between watching Next Generation and watching the films, you want to let that concrete set before you ruin it in your memory with the half-baked characters and awful cliches of the films.
- Generations (Netflix, iTunes, Red Letter Media Review)
- First Contact (iTunes, Red Letter Media Review)
- Insurrection (iTunes, Red Letter Media Review)
- Nemesis (iTunes, Red Letter Media Review)
Deep Space Nine
Next Generation has a direct sequel; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In many ways, it exceeds the quality of Next Generation. I wrote an episode guide for DS9 here.
If I forgot any key episodes, let me know at @MaxTemkin. If there’s interest, I’ll write similar posts for Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise.