Star Trek catch-up: The Next Generation (part 1)

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons from 1987 to 1994. It was by far the most successful Star Trek series, and it’s difficult to overstate its impact on pop culture, both at the time and now. For most of its run, it was one of the only ongoing science fiction series on television, and its competitors tended to be either short-lived knock-offs (seaQuest DSV) or cheap and decidedly niche (…Doctor Who).

These days TNG is often dismissed as “too utopian”, with too-perfect characters and an artificial lack of conflict. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. By this point in his life, Roddenberry definitely had strange ideas about what Starfleet and the Federation would and wouldn’t do, and some of his notions about what a utopia looked like were … troubling. I strongly feel that Star Trek is at its best when those ideas are subverted, deconstructed, or just politely ignored.

On the other hand, I don’t think the characters or setting were excessively perfect, or even conflict-free. But TNG is like The West Wing: it’s a series about intelligent people who are making wholehearted, good faith attempts to do the right thing.

The other reason I think that some people dismiss TNG is that it hasn’t always aged well, and it’s harder to be forgiving of the ’80s and ’90s than the ’60s. Television has moved on to serialised storytelling with more complicated — if not antiheroic or outright villainous — characters, and TNG’s good-hearted, episodic nature is no longer fashionable.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of the darker, serialised SF TV we have now is still inspired by TNG, if only in terms of the creators striving to be different. Babylon 5, for example, was very much in dialogue with TNG, and strove to set itself apart from that whole style of television.

Personally, I think there’s room for both forms. Even in the same franchise. So I can’t get into arguments about whether or not DS9 is better than TNG, because they set out to do completely different things, and each excelled. And it’s too soon to say whether Disco will excel, but it’s as much a product of its time as TNG was.

Because TNG ran for so long, and had so many watchable episodes, I’ve split this post into two parts.

Things it’s useful to know before watching TNG for the first time

  • Remember how I warned that TOS was a product of its era in the sense of being super brightly coloured?
  • Well, TNG is a product of the late 80s and early 90s.
  • It’s beige.
  • So beige.
  • It has much better gender dynamics than TOS, but was still criticised for sexism in its day, and is quite dated now. The main actresses have all been pretty open about how hard they had to fight for good storylines, and even reasonable costumes.
  • Rather than focusing on three main characters, with everyone else incidental, TNG aimed to be more of an ensemble — with mixed success. Spoilers: the female characters and the disabled man of colour are the ones most frequently sidelined.

The series is long, and I’ve picked thirty-something highlights. None of which come from season one, and trust me, there’s good reason for that.

Let’s go!

Episode: “The Measure of a Man”

Summary: A court room drama focused on one simple (“simple”) question: is Data a sentient being or the property of Starfleet? Grant Watson described this episode as the series’ “first bona fide classic”, and he’s not wrong.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s a classic both in the sense of encapsulating a lot of what TNG did best (storylines which turn on dialogue and ideas rather than action sequences) and what, for better or worse, became fixed in people’s minds as “proper Star Trek” (long, well-acted speeches about abstract concepts).
  • Picard’s ex-girlfriend calls him a pompous ass.
  • It marks the point in the series where the writers and actors have become familiar and comfortable enough with the characters to start relaxing and leaning into the natural camaraderie which had developed on set, and to build on what had previously been fairly stilted character development. (And, because the series is so episodic, you don’t need to see what has gone before in order to appreciate what you have now.)

Warnings and caveats:

  • I like this episode, but it really is very talky. It’s one to put on in the background while I work on a craft or art project.
  • Louvois goes straight from calling Picard a pompous ass to adding that he’s “a damn sexy man”. Girl, we know. You don’t have to say it out loud, you’ve been having hatesex with your eyes since the scene started.

Episode: “Q Who”

Summary: Piqued by Picard’s rejection of his request to join the crew, the omnipotent Q chucks the Enterprise to a remote part of the galaxy, where they encounter an enemy like nothing they’ve seen before.

Reasons to watch it

  • Introduces the Borg, relentless cyborg aliens who seek to assimilate the universe into their collective mind. Will go on to be defanged in TNG, restored to terrifying brilliance in the movies, and then an ongoing and usually fantastic presence in Voyager. I’ve had nightmares about them basically since they were introduced.
  • Q is extremely into Picard and it’s kind of great.
  • Guinan versus Q is always a show worth seeing.

Warnings and caveats:

  • The pacing is just really weird? The are scenes of immense tension, followed by scenes of … nothing at all. And it takes a long time to get to the actual plot.
  • Particularly dire is the opener, which introduces a super-smart Academy graduate who proceeds to talk too much and then spill hot chocolate all over the captain. If you can get through the secondhand embarrassment, it’s an interesting look at an early run at a Tilly-type.

Episode: “Deja Q”

Summary: Q is chucked out of the Continuum and turns up, naked and mortal, on the Enterprise. Shenanigans ensue.

Reasons to watch it

  • Guinan stabs Q with a fork.
  • Everyone else gets to exercise their wit at his expense, or play straight man (person) to him, or both.
  • Some nice Data scenes.
  • We’re into season 3 now, which means the regulars are in nicer costumes and the whole show just looks better.

Warnings and caveats:

  • This is really quite inconsequential. I kept wondering, as I watched, if I really needed to include it in this list — but then something amusing would happen. If you didn’t like Q, or you just don’t care very much, you can skip this.
  • On the other hand, the episodic nature of the series is that a lot of it could be written off as inconsequential.
  • Q’s “gift” to Riker at the end is two scantily-clad silent women. It’s not great.
  • There are some really awful special effects and make-up designs here.
  • I didn’t mean to give you all two consecutive Q episodes. A little goes quite a long way.

Episode: “Yesterday’s Enterprise”

Summary: A rift in time throws the Enterprise into a universe where the Federation has been at war with the Klingons for twenty years — and it’s not going well.

Reasons to watch it

  • Also features the return of Tasha Yar, a season 1 regular who left because actress Denise Crosby could see there wasn’t going to be much good writing for any of the female characters.
  • lot of Discovery‘s aesthetics are borrowed or updated from this episode, from the darkened rooms lit by glowing tactical maps to the endless calls over the intercom. There’s a lovely consistency in What It Looks Like When The Federation Goes To War.
  • In addition to Tasha, we have a meaty role for Guinan, and the sole appearance of Captain Rachel Garrett of the previous Enterprise. Sort of makes up for the lack of Counsellor Troi in this timeline.

Warnings and caveats:

  • I guess if you hate time travel, this might not be for you?
  • One guest character gets a truly gross death.

Episode: “The Offspring”

Summary: Data creates a child.

Reasons to watch it

  • An interesting and bittersweet follow up to “The Measure of a Man”, which covers similar ground but with more emotion.
  • (That’s not a joke, but it could be.)
  • Despite being Team Data Is A Person, Picard is initially all “WTF, you made a new person without consulting me?” And Data calls him out for his hypocrisy, and it’s an excellent moment to wave in the face of anyone complaining that the TNG characters are too perfect (or that the characters in any other series are not perfect enough).

Warnings and caveats:

  • The first act is so into the gender binary that it might as well have been written in 0s and 1s. (On the other hand, this does mean that Lal gets to throw their own gender reveal party.)
  • This isn’t the episode to seek out if you want a happy ending?
  • I don’t think this episode is as clever or meaningful as it thinks it is, but it comes close.

Episode: “Sins of the Father”

Summary: Worf’s long-lost brother turns up with the news that their late father is accused of betraying the Klingon Empire to the Romulans.

Reasons to watch it

  • This episode lays the foundations for the Klingon Civil War Arc, Star Trek‘s first venture into something approaching serialisation. (It’s also a follow-up to a season 2 episode, “A Matter of Honour”, which nevertheless isn’t essential viewing.)
  • Tony Todd is fantastic as Worf’s brother, Kurn. He does comedy and drama equally well, and it’s almost a shame when the focus switches to Worf.
  • Awkward dinner parties with Klingons are one of my favourite obscure tropes.
  • Picard takes his first step down the path of whatever the Klingon equivalent of a weeaboo is.
  • I strongly and respectfully disagree with Grant Watson about Discovery, but we have a lot of common ground where TNG is concerned, so I’m just gonna quote his review:

    In many ways “Sins of the Father” is a pretty reasonable template for where The Next Generation went as the series went on. It’s based firmly around one of the lead characters, it follows on from the events of previous episodes and it leaves plenty of dramatic opportunities open for future episodes and writers to pick up and continue.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Quite a few of the actors playing Klingons are more or less wearing brownface along with the prosthetics. It’s not as overt as in TOS, but it’s uncomfortable. And I have to assume that someone behind the scenes felt the same way, because that make-up style was mostly phased out by DS9.
  • Fat jokes. Klingon fat jokes. (Two of them, which is two more than most Star Trek episodes have.)
  • This episode is really weirdly structured. That’s not really a warning or a caveat, just an observation. And maybe it’s the sort of thing you only notice when you’ve watched it *mumblety* times.

Episode: “Sarek”

Summary: The revered Ambassador Sarek visits the Enterprise, where it becomes apparent that he might in fact be THE WORST.

Reasons to watch it

  • Um SAREK.
  • TNG worked quite hard to distance itself from TOS. Worf was a last-minute addition to the cast, and intended to be a very minor character, because the showrunners were reluctant to include Klingons at all, or any other overt reference to TOS. (Sooooooo … the opposite of what Star Trek has done in the twenty-first century.) This episode marks the first on-screen reference to Spock, and it comes late in TNG’s third season. It’s a big moment!
  • Also, this episode is (a) a melancholy exploration of ageing, dementia and the twilight years of a legend; (b) a masterclass in acting delivered by Patrick Stewart and Mark Lenard; (c) a really great justification for all the Picard/Burnham fic I just know someone is out there wanting to write.

Warnings and caveats:

  • I imagine this would be hard to watch if you have or had a loved one with Alzheimers or dementia.
  • There are some rather cheesy “fight” scenes.
  • Beverly slaps her son, which is honestly hard to watch these days, because our whole idea of the acceptability of hitting one’s child has changed. Especially when he’s seventeen.

Episode: “The Best of Both Worlds” (parts 1 and 2)

Summary: Picard is abducted and assimilated by the Borg.

Reasons to watch it

  • This two-parter marked TNG’s coming of age as a series, and the birth of online fandom. The internet was tiny and user-unfriendly in 1990, but everyone on it was talking about the cliffhanger that summer.
  • It introduces Commander Shelby, a fantastic female character who is essentially Riker, but a pretty blonde woman. (Good news: though this is her only appearance, she does not die!)
  • The second part is weaker than the first, but it’s still a great blend of action and emotion, which leaves Picard, and the Star Trek universe, altered forever.

Warnings and caveats:

  • This is really a Riker story. If you don’t have much tolerance for him — mine varies — you need to settle in for a bit of eye rolling.
  • Body horror ahoy.
  • There’s a bit where the elderly male admiral openly admits to fantasising about Shelby, and needless to say, it hasn’t aged well.

Episode: “Family”

Summary: Recovering from his traumatic assimilation, Picard visits his family home for the first time in decades; Worf’s human foster parents pay him a visit; Beverly finds an old message from her late husband to Wesley.

Reasons to watch it

  • This is storytelling on the smallest scale, without even an attempt at a science fiction B-plot. It was unprecedented in Star Trek, and I don’t think the experiment has ever been repeated.
  • Believe it or not, the notion that Picard should suffer ongoing effects from his assimilation was radical and even controversial at the time.
  • Meanwhile, Worf’s human foster parents are CONCERNED and they LOVE HIM SO MUCH and they worked SO HARD to learn about his culture. They are the anti-Sareks.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Picard’s brother is a bit of a dick, which is fine, but there’s a bit where you find out that he’s so dedicated to recreating the past in his home that he won’t let his wife get a replicator, and it’s like, Marie, honey, why haven’t you taken your delightful child and divorced the bastard?

Episode: “Reunion”

Summary: 24th century contraceptives are unreliable. Also the Klingon Empire is on the verge of civil war, and the only person who can save it is Picard.

Reasons to watch it

  • Suzie Plakson is fantastic as K’Ehleyr, the diplomatic liaison between the Federation and the Klingon empire, and also Worf’s ex.
  • (Go back to season 2 episode “The Emissary” to meet her for the first time; I didn’t include that here because, honestly? It’s kind of dull.)
  • I love Klingon politics almost as much as I hate every single thing about Worf finding out he’s a father.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Look, I love Worf, but he’s a terrible boyfriend and he’s going to be a terrible dad, and I just want to spend the whole episode going, “K’Ehleyr, sweetheart, you can do better.”
  • The gender dynamic here is really just … not great.
  • Aaaaaand then K’Ehleyr gets fridged, and Worf goes in to avenge her death, shouting about how she was “his mate” and it’s just so frustrating.
  • So this is an important episode, and I enjoy a lot of it, but I also keep a cushion on hand to throw at the annoying parts.
  • And then you realise that, of the three women Worf is romantically involved with over two series, only one makes it out of that relationship alive.
  • To reiterate: I love Worf. But I think he needs to stop dating.

Episode: “Future Imperfect”

Summary: Riker wakes up to find he’s captain of the Enterprise, negotiating a peace treaty with the Romulans, and has a teenage son … and he has no memory of the last sixteen years. Or is it all an elaborate plot?

Reasons to watch it

  • Every couple of seasons, TNG would do an episode where Riker thinks he’s losing his mind. This is my favourite in that niche subgenre, not least because I’m a sucker for a time jump.
  • Andreas Katsulas (Babylon 5) made a number of appearances as Tomalak, an arrogant and occasionally charming Romulan, but this, to me, was the highlight.
  • Romulans and a time skip? Be still my beating nerd heart.

Warnings and caveats:

  • There’s a bit where Troi describes future!Riker’s late wife as “an excellent captain’s wife”, and I had to pause Netflix to explain to the cat that that is not a real job and shouldn’t have been prioritised over her professional role as ship’s counsellor.
  • The cat seemed to be listening, but honestly, I think he was just humouring me.

Episode: “The Wounded”

Summary: A Starfleet captain tries to single-handedly restart a war.

Reasons to watch it

  • Introduces the Cardassians, who will go on to be the most interesting alien antagonists/villains of this era. YES, EVEN MORE THAN THE DOMINION.
  • It’s a melancholy look at the impact of warfare on a culture, even one as utopian as the Federation.
  • Next time someone whinges about Discovery inventing a war that no one mentions ten years later, you can remind them of that time TNG invented a decades-long conflict we didn’t hear about until after the peace treaty is signed, even though its repercussions are still affecting both space politics and individual characters years after it ends.

Warnings and caveats:

  • This is yet another episode about Men Having Feelings.
  • I mean. Guys.
  • I am deeply fond of Miles O’Brien, the Working Class Hero That Starfleet Needed, but I hate every single thing about the way his marriage is written, and also the very idea that not only can you get married to a person without ever finding out what they like for breakfast, but that it’s the twenty-forth century and humans are still eating only the foods from (twentieth century American concepts of) their native cultures.
  • Even though Marc Alaimo is instantly brilliant as the first Cardassian character — he’ll go on to play a major role in DS9 — this early iteration of the make-up is kind of gross.

Episode: “The Drumhead”

Summary: A search for a saboteur aboard the Enterprise devolves into a witch hunt.

Reasons to watch it

  • It’s one of those iconic TNG episodes where people defend the principles of freedom and decency, and Patrick Stewart gets to give a speech about same.
  • It’s also genuinely tense and interesting.
  • Jean Simmons gives an outstanding performance as a retired admiral who is seeing conspiracies everywhere.

Warnings and caveats:


Episode: “Redemption” (parts 1 and 2)

Summary: It’s time to wrap this Klingon politics arc up once and for all … by adding three new female characters? Well, if you insist.

Reasons to watch it

  • If you’ve enjoyed the Klingon politics arc at all, this is the thrilling (…okay, frequently talky) conclusion.
  • It introduces the Duras sisters, who are only about fifty times more interesting than their late brother. (It also introduces the TNG-era visual cliche of Klingon Women With Cleavage Windows, let us all give thanks that Discovery has dropped that idea.)
  • It also introduces Sela, the half-Romulan daughter of the Tasha Yar we met in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. There was time travel involved, it’s all very confusing, but the important thing is, Denise Crosby is here to chew scenery and mess with Klingon politics, and she’s all out of scenery.

Warnings and caveats:

  • The women of the regular cast are barely in this at all. There’s a real feeling of “Oh, space politics, Troi and Crusher won’t be helpful there!”
  • ALSO I have serious problems with Sela’s whole … existence, which is to say, the script doesn’t seem to realise that she’s the product of Tasha being raped? And Tasha’s whole deal was that she escaped a failed colony where sexual assault was endemic, so that’s just an extra nasty twist.
  • This really is quite talky, and there’s a whole subplot in part 2 about Data being given command over humans, and it’s fine, I guess, but ugh, men.

“Redemption Part 2” brings us into the fifth season, which will bring us new shenanigans and a new female recurring character. Come back soon for the rest of the series, and also the movies!

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