Star Trek is beloved by legions of people from all ages, walks of life, and origins. But for the unfamiliar, starting on Star Trek for the first time can be overwhelming with 700+ hours of TV, over a dozen movies, and novels and comics to boot. Wondering where you should get started? If you're looking to kick things off by watching The Next Generation, here are some pointers.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Aired 1987-1994 -- 7 Seasons, 176 Episodes
Starring Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, Wil Wheaton
The Original Series (1966) quietly went off the air after slumping ratings, but a cult following grew. That following led to the production of several feature films, and in the late 1980s, Paramount execs debated over creating an all-new Star Trek for an updated era. Shatner and Nimoy had become known stars in the interim, and it was decided a new cast would be used for budgetary reasons. Thus, The Next Generation was born.
Initially, reception to The Next Generation was mediocre at best. The series struggled to find its footing during the first season, and the ways in which it attempted to differentiate itself from the 1960s took some time to gain traction. The show was recycling old ideas, maligning characters, and frequently coming off as silly, exposition-heavy space drama which suffered under the weight of Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that the characters bear no conflict with one another. The actors expected the series would be canceled after its first season, but what happened was the opposite: The Next Generation got better every year it remained on-air, evolving into a superior piece of science fiction that is now regarded as one of the great sci-fi television series of all time. The production wasn’t without its bad episodes, but its overall quality continued to climb as the seasons moved forward. Following Roddenberry’s death, the scope of the series opened, the writers were given more freedom, and the characters and stories were able to evolve into wonderful, layered dramas.
The Next Generation trades TOS’s style for one focused on diplomacy and negotiation, examining the family and personal lives of its characters as much as their interactions with those they encounter in space. It is both aesthetically and narratively different from its predecessor, and for that, remains the most popular series in the franchise. There are few terrific episodes to recommend from the first two seasons (save for a few exceptions), but plenty to enjoy overall.
Skin of Evil (Season 1, Episode 23)
Not a perfect episode by any means, it is one of the only episodes truly worth recommending from the first few seasons. It is an early example of the type of material TNG would become, and features a memorable death of one of the series’ (up to that point) lead characters.
Picard and Data in Measure of a Man
Measure of a Man (Season 2, Episode 9)
In this allegory of slavery, Data’s (Brent Spiner) sentience comes under fire and Picard (Patrick Stewart) must defend his rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data's reassignment for study and disassembly. It features some of the series’ finest writing up to this point. Written by former attorney Melinda Snodgrass, the episode was her first-ever television credit. TNG producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller both cite it as one of their favorite episodes.
Q Who? (Season 2, Episode 16)
Q (John De Lancie) is one of The Next Generation’s most famous nemeses. The omniscient and humorous character is introduced in the series’ pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, and revisits the Enterprise-D on multiple occasions throughout the seasons. Q Who, an abstract and artistic episode, is Q’s first truly interesting episode as it also introduces the Borg, another dominant force in Trek canon from that point forward. The next Q episode, Deja Q (Season 3, Episode 13) is also a great watch.
Yesterday’s Enterprise (Season 3, Episode 15)
A temporal rift opens, and the USS Enterprise-C emerges, changing the timeline into a reality where the Federation is in a bitter war with the Klingon Empire. The only person on the USS Enterprise-D who realizes that something is not right is Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), and she must help return the displaced starship to its proper time, in order for the Enterprise-D crew to save themselves.
Picard becomes a Borg in The Best of Both Worlds
The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II (Season 3, Episode 26 and Season 4, Episode 1)
One of Star Trek’s best stories overall, this season finale and opener sees Captain Picard captured and turned into a Borg.
Data’s Day (Season 4, Episode 11)
In this delightful and lighthearted episode, Data records a day in his life for Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy), including observations on Chief O'Brien's (Colm Meaney) wedding, and the mystery of a Vulcan ambassador who apparently dies in a transporter accident. He also receives dance lessons from Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).
Darmok (Season 5, Episode 2)
“Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” is one of TNG’s dorkier lasting catchphrases, stemming from this stellar episode wherein Picard is captured, then trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language incompatible with the universal translator. The two must adapt and learn to communicate with one another before a beast on the planet destroys them.
The Inner Light (Season 5, Episode 25)
Another of the series’ best hours, Picard wakes up on a foreign planet where he goes on to live a complete lifetime in the span of approximately 20 minutes. The episode is a rich, fascinating, and fully-developed concept with wonderful sci-fi footing.
Cause and Effect (Season 5, Episode 18)
Time loop stories aren’t overwhelmingly original, but the story seen in this episode is a fantastic example of the concept at work.
James Doohan and Patrick Stewart in Relics
Relics (Season 6, Episode 4)
The Enterprise discovers a ship that crashed on a Dyson sphere more than seventy-five years prior with a single survivor suspended in the transporter buffer: Scotty. Fans of The Original Series are delighted to see James Doohan reprising his role as Scotty in this episode in a melancholic exploration of human aging.
Chain of Command, Parts I & II (Season 6, Episodes 10 and 11)
Another excellent TNG two-parter, this dark episode finds Picard captured and tortured while a stern and militant replacement helms the Enterprise in his absence.
Lower Decks (Season 7, Episode 15)
As with many series, the final season signaled a bit of decline in quality. Lower Decks is one of its better installments, as junior officers speculate on the reasons for recent unusual actions taken by the command crew near the Cardassian border.
The aging crew in All Good Things...
All Good Things... (Season 7, Episodes 25 and 26)
The series finale is one of the better series finales in the history of television, perfectly wrapping up the series. It is nostalgic and reminiscent while existing as a great episode on its own -- a rarity in television after seven years.
Notable mentions include The Big Goodbye (Season 1, Episode 11), the only Peabody Award-winning episode and the first of many holodeck malfunctions, with a fun guest role by Lawrence Tierney; Time’s Arrow (Season 5, Episode 26), a fun romp through Mark Twain’s moment in history, but the second part of this two-part feature (Season 6, Episode 1) is a bit of a disappointing resolution; and Tapestry (Season 6, Episode 15) gives us another Q episode where Picard dies and is given the opportunity to revisit his earlier days.
TNG is huge, so there are plenty of others. What are your favorite episodes for introducing beginners to the fascinating world of The Next Generation?
(Looking for a similar guide for The Original Series, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise? Look no further.)