Star Trek: The New Class

Star Trek: The Next Generation

While I hadn't watched much of The Original Series, as it (and its cartoon "sequel") aired before I was born, I was alive for the debut of The Next Generation (albeit still very young). My family liked watching it, but I didn't really get into the show back when I was younger. Still, it was popular enough to end up on syndication so, whenever a random episode would pop up on TV, I'd end up watching it.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

In this way I managed to see a number of episodes of the series, all out of order and in bits-and-pieces. It didn't ever hook me the way Deep Space Nine did (a show that I watched almost the entirety of in syndication when I was in high school), but it seemed fairly watchable in its own right. Years later, I decided to try and watch through the various series on Netflix, starting with DS9. I made it through that whole series (and am looking forward to watching bits of it again for this project), and then I turned my eye towards Next Gen. And then I was stopped cold.

The first season of the show is terrible. "Encounter at Farpoint" is a fine to-part episode (it's a pilot, so we forgive growing pains for the show), and "The Naked Now" is marginally okay (although drunk, sexy Data is not something I ever want to watch again). However, then we get to "Code of Honor", a horribly racist episode, followed by "The Last Outpost" which introduced the Ferengi in a truly stupid episode. It was at this point that I just didn't have it in me to watch further, so I moved on to other things.

We're back now, and we're going to try and watch the best five episodes of the series to see what it is I might have missed by skipping out so early. The rules are pretty similar to as before: we'll go over what are generally considered the top five episodes of the run (and one bonus episode). However, along with "No Tribbles" and "No Mirror Universe", which don't really apply here since Next Gen features neither, we're also going to remove from selection all the Q episodes (Q, as a character, is more of a gimmick -- if we're going to cover Q, we'll do it in a later article), and we'll also bar all two-parters. The two-parters are generally famous, and I've seen a few of them, and I'd rather get into somewhat deeper cuts of the (potential) excellence of the series.

So, with the rules clearly established, let's see what episodes we have on offer:

Season 2, Episode 9: The Measure of a Man

While the Enterprise is docked at a starbase, Picard gets troubling news: the Federation has decided to let a cybernetics expert (and Starfleet Commander), take control of Data so he can disassemble him and study Data's inner workings. Concerned what could happen to him, his memories, and his core being if this experiment proceeds, Data attempts to refuse. However, the Federation considers Data to not only be a machine but also its property. As such, they attempt to force Data to undergo the procedure. Picard then steps in to help Data, and it all culminates in a court case to determine if Data is entitled to the rights of a sentient being or not.

I credit this episode for playing with the heady concepts Trek is known for, but doing it in fairly understated way. The concept of whether or not Data is actually a "living" being was never really up for debate, at least among viewers. He's an officer, he wears a uniform, and while he certainly didn't exhibit emotions in the way the humans did, neither did Spock on The Original Series. So to have an episode come along as say, "is he really alive?" Well, that's the kind of thing that can make a viewer think.

The episode gets so much of the story right. Picard is understandably troubled by the decision, so he becomes the protective captain, attempting to find a way to save his officer (and his friend). Stewart gets a few great moments to act with bombast, bringing out his Shakespearean abilities. And yet, for the most part, he plays the part down-low, letting the story, and the concepts carry through.

By a similar measure, Frakes gets some good moments as Riker. Trapped acting as the prosecution in the case, attempting to prove Data isn't alive, it's obvious the case is wearing on the good Commander. Frakes plays the emotions on his face, but doesn't let it come out to strongly in his voice. It's an understated performance that serves that material well and makes Riker seem like a real person, not just an actor.

Of course, Data is the real star of this episode, and Spiner plays him wonderfully here. Data is always a tough character to take for real since he has a human playing him. When he acts too emotional, are we supposed to believe he's learned an emotion or just that Spiner couldn't help himself? Data is subdued this episode, but played with a certain quiet charm. It's easy to accept the character is sentient when he's played well, but quietly, by a solid actor.

For a sci-fi show, there isn't really any "action" in this episode. It's essentially "Star Trek JAG", but that's part of why I think it's so successful. Not every episode of a sci-fi show has to be gun-blasts and space-booms. To have matters like this handled, to show there's more to space than ships and flying, shows the breadth of what Next Gen could tackle, and tackle well.

Notes:
  • Ugh, the officers play Five Card Stud? The worst poker game.
  • Wait, what are they playing for if the Federation doesn't use money?
  • And no "bet and raise" bets, Riker. That's bad table manners.
  • So, apparently, the best solution to any problem in Starfleet is to quit. Awesome!
  • Me: "I think she's talking about slavery." Picard, five seconds later: "You're talking about slavery." Well, there we go.

Season 4, Episode 2: Family

Back at Earth (after the events of "The Best of Both Worlds" and dealing with the Borg), Picard goes home to visit with his brother an family. He struggles to recover from what happened (after the Borg turned him, and then he was saved), while also dealing with animosity from his brother.

I will admit to being a little wary about watching an episode where all the characters do is sit around and hang out with family. I know I just wrote about how sci-fi shows can be about more that ships and explosions, yet on paper this seemed like it was going too in the other direction. However, actually watching the episode, I can certainly see its charms.

For starters, I can understand the need to do a quiet, more understated episode after "The Best of Both Worlds". That huge two-parter was a summer-break cliff-hanger and had a lot of propulsive action and thrills. Take a quiet beat to recover and just spend time with characters after a potentially changed status quo was a smart idea. Even for a project like this, where we didn't actually watch "The Best of Both Worlds", those story still hangs large over the events of this follow-up.

And it actually is lovely to just hang out with Picard and his family in picturesque France (by way of matte paintings). Patrick Stewart is the MVP of the series, and you can tell he relished having time to do character beats without the sci-fi action. It's not a big episode, but it is emotional, and while Trek can sometimes go to far with the sentimentality, right into schmaltz, here the episode plays it right.

Oh, and we get to meet Worf's adoptive human parents. His B-plot is also a nice little story and helps to flesh out the character further. It also gives Michael Dorn more time to play a side of Worf we don't get to see very often. Moments like this show while Worf became a favorite character for some fans.

So yes, I might have balked initially at "Family", but this episode won me over.

Notes:
  • Worf is a proud, proud man. Too proud, some might think.
  • Oh, hey. Counselor Troi. I always forget she's on this show, even after just seeing her in an episode.
  • Troi is an officer, and yet she's never in uniform. Why is she allowed to get away with that?
  • Hey, O'Brien has two pips on his collar, but is a "Chief Petty Officer". How be we tell that from his uniform?
  • And we're back to Doctor Crusher on the ship. I can't remember when the doctors switch out, back and forth. Honestly, neither of them really interested me.
  • Seriously, Guinan is a solid ship's counselor. Why do we even need Troi?
  • "This is your father. Shut up, Wesley."

Season 5, Episode 2: Darmok

In a meeting with a Tamarian ship above a neutral, uninhabited planet, the Enterprise crew has trouble communicating with the other ship. This is due to a language barrier that the universal translator is unable to accommodate for. When it seems like the language barrier is unbreachable, the aliens beam their captain, and Picard, to the planet's surface. This forces the two captains to try and communicate despite the severe language barrier. However, a beast stalks the hills, and it's up to Picard, and the other captain, to find a way to breach the language divide and communicate or they both may die.

This is strange episode, to say the least. The language barrier that's the crux of the plot isn't something that really makes much sense if you think too closely on it. The aliens, as it's discovered, speak in metaphors to describe everything. "Heroes" at "places" where they "did" things is the essential structure of every sentence of theirs, with the meaning of the words based on the history of their stories. It's a cool concept, and one that is both understandable in a way for us daft humans and yet completely foreign to our way of describing anything. And yet, if this is so foreign, how can we understand anything their saying at all? "Damok and Jalad at Tenagra" gets said a lot in the episode, but if we can't understand them enough to get any meaning, how can the universal translator even understand their version of "and" or "at"?

I quibble about this because it was the big piece of the vocabulary that stood out to me. A lot of their words have meaning for us, but we don't get the context. It's a cool puzzle and even if the clues we get may not work when you think about them too hard, it's still interesting to see the pieces come together.

But the whole episode isn't just language lessons. There's also more traditional sci-fi trappings. While Picard and the other captain are stuck planet-side, Riker and the crew try to find ways to get their captain back. This is all the techno-babble you expect, from particle arrays, to transporter issues, to broken nacelles. If you were playing "Trek Technobabble Bingo", you'd probably cleanup in this episode. And yet it's nice to have the sci-fi trappings after the two episodes we already watched. Plus, as a counter-point to the lofty ideas of language, the sci-fi ships story functions well.

While I don't think this is as good as some of the other episodes on this list, I can see why it's a favorite for some. It's Trek, with its lofty ideals. It's about finding common ground with someone so foreign you can't even understand them. And, it's a well-acted, well written bit of speculative fiction. It works well.

Notes:
  • Picard has a fabulous captain's coat.
  • "Captain's log: I've been transported to an alien planet and have been forced to make camp and wake up without any means of escape. Today, I go in search of a Starbucks."
  • "First Officer's log: My beard is itchy and no one likes it when I lean on their chair."

Season 5, Episode 3: Ensign Ro

I had to make a call here as both this episode, "Ensign Ro", and another episode later in this season, "The Inner Light", are both held up as high points for the season. I initially was going to watch "The Inner Light", if for no other reason that we just watched season 5, Episode 2 and "Ensign Ro" is the very next episode. It didn't feel like we were really diving the series if I just watched a bunch of back-to-back ones. But "The Inner Light" is yet another Picard-centric one and I feel like we've had a lot of those, so "Ro" it is.

The episode opens with the Enterprise receiving a distress signal from Solarian IV, a Federation colony. Almost immediately, a Bajoran terrorist group claims responsibility for the attack on the colony. In discussing the attack with a Federation admiral, we learn about the Bajoran plight, about how Cardassia annexed Bajor, and for the last 40 years the Bajorans have been spreading out, doing anything they can (including terror attacks), to free their planet. The goal for the Enterprise is to contact the Bajoran group and attempt to negotiate a cease-fire. To that end, the Enterprise takes on a new, Bajoran ensign, Ro Laren, an officer with a troubled past in Starfleet (let alone being Bajoran). With her assistance the Enterprise has to find a way to track down the terrorists and find out what's really going on between the Bajorans and the Cardassians.

Hey, we're finally reviewing a more traditional episode of Trek, if such a beast really exists (which I'm starting to doubt with this project). This is what I expect from a episode of the show -- diplomacy in space, with space ships and explosions. As I'm coming to realize, though, many of the trappings I expect from Next Gen just aren't there. Sure, there's a conflict with the Cardassians near the end of the episode, but it ends with very little shooting, and it all ends up being part of a larger plan. This show is really big on finding alternative solutions to problems, finding peaceful resolutions as possible.

I think this actually speaks to the difference between Picard and Kirk. Kirk, as we clearly saw in the Original Series dive, is a cheater. He loves to find alternative solutions to problems and think outside the box. His first job is to save the crew, no matter what, and if that means violating a few Federation rules in the process, well... whatever gets the job done. Picard, though, is much more by-the-book, and when he thinks of an "alternative" solution, it's more defying the expectations of his foes. He toes the line, but stays well within Federation rules at all times.

It's what makes the balance between him and new character Ensign Ro more interesting, as this is obviously a new character written to function outside the lines of Starfleet. Not only was she court-martialed as part of her backstory, but she then has a secondary agenda in this episode Picard doesn't even know about. She functions as a contrast to Picard, but it's Picard and his ideals, and not any outside force, that wins the day.

That might be part of the difference I'm really seeing between this show and the 1966 series: by having a more by-the-book officer, the threats can be more... constrained. You don't have to have hyperkinetic space cubes and weird teenage gods as a threat to the ship (barring the occasional Q appearance) just to make the stakes high enough for the captain to handle. It means we can have stories that don't feel so out there, more realistic for the setting, and then more enjoyable because of it.

Notes:
  • The episode implies the Bajorans were displaced from their planet by the Cardassians, but as we see in Deep Space Nine the Bajorans are largely enslaved by Cardassia. I assume this is something that gets retconned eventually.
  • For a race that only shows up halfway into the previous season, the Cardassians have a huge amount of story around them already.
  • "Yeah, I just called an admiral 'naive', what are you gonna do about it?"

Season 7, Episode 15: Lower Decks

The Enterprise is called to a spot near the Cardassian border for a secret mission. While her crew gets ready for whatever is going on, we delve into the lives of a group of Ensigns, many of whom could potentially be up for promotion. We watch them as they bond with officers we know, and aid them in various tasks related to the mission. It all culminates with the reveal of a Cardassian spy and a trip across the neutral zone to aid his mission.

I liked this episode a lot. To be honest, when Discovery was announced, a show like this, exploring the lives of the crew we don't normally see, was what I expected from the first season of the newer series. Of course, that wasn't the show Discovery turned out to be, but I think that's a real pity as this episode right here makes a case for focusing a series on more than just the bridge crew. There are interesting stories to tell, lower in stakes sure, but no less worthwhile.

Take the story for Sam Lavelle (Dan Gauthier). We get to follow him as he's essentially kept out of the limelight. He's a true "also ran" as his whole storyline revolves around whether or not Riker is going to give him a promotion. He doesn't get to participate in the Cardassia mission in any way, and yet by the end of the episode, when he gets his promotion, you're happy for him.

Of course, there are other stories with a bit more dramatic heft to them. Sita Jaxa (Shannon Fill), who apparently appeared in an earlier, Academy-centric episode of the series, is a Bajoran officer called upon to aid in the mission. She has to decide whether to aid a Cardassian or not, this despite what his people had done to her people. The fact that she volunteers despite the past history speaks volumes about the character. And that the missions is so dangerous (and goes so unexpectedly for her) shows what kind of person she really is. It's a story we wouldn't have really gotten had we not specifically focused on the Ensigns.

And there's also Alyssa Ogawa (Patti Yasutake). Her storyline isn't as interesting per se, as it's really whether or not she's going to stay romantically involved with another ensign we never even see in the episode. I bring her up, though, because apparently her character appears in 16 episodes of the series, and two of the movies, usually somewhere in the background. Giving her an episode where she gains a real story just shows how much potential there is for her. If we go back and watch the series again, we'll see her there and because we spent time in her life, we'll care more about her appearances, no matter how small they may be.

The real tragedy of an episode like this is that we didn't get more of them. There's a case to be made for not just focusing on Lower Deck characters all the time, sure, but maybe if a series could alternate between these kinds of stories, allows us time to meet more than just a handful of "important" characters, it could feel more lived in, more real.

Notes:
  • That is one sassy Vulcan ensign.
  • Every time I see them play poker, I have to critique. Stop call-raising, Riker!
  • Also, the use the cheapest checks. Buy the clay ones, guys. Hell, the replicator could probably make those.
  • Who designed such slow hydraulics on the shuttlecraft aft doors? In an emergency, that would be incredibly unsafe.

Season 6, Episode 4: Relics

Original Series Crossover Bonus Episode

The Enterprise, following a distress signal, finds itself just outside a Dyson sphere -- a sphere large enough to be built in the habitable zone around a star. Examining the ship, they find that it's been crashed for over 75 years, with one signal still lurking in the transporter pattern array. Beaming the person in, Commander Riker, Worf, and Geordi find themselves face to face with Captain Montgomery Scott, everyone's favorite engineer from the old series. Scott finds it hard to adjust to life in the next era, finding everything too new and different for an old man. However, when he and Geordi are down at the old ship checking her computer systems, the Enterprise gets into trouble, sucked into the Dyson sphere and unable to escape. It's then up to Scotty and Geordi to save the Enterprise and rescue the crew.

Admittedly, when I came in to do this whole project, this was the one episode I really wanted to watch. I know I'd seen bits and pieces of it, but I'd never caught the whole episode before. And while it's regularly listed as a great episode of Next Gen, it wasn't high enough on any of the lists I read to automatically qualify for review in this project. So I did it anyway.

I'm glad I did, too, because this is a fun little ep. Sure, Next Gen had already pull the nostalgia card a couple of times, with appearances by Bones and Spock, but those characters have a different perspective than Scotty. An episode with Spock is going to be all about big, sweeping ideals. You get Scotty in an ep, though, and it's going to be all tech and engineering. It's fun to watch him adjust to the new era, and then to see him bond with Geordi as they find weird technical solutions to save the day.

Sure, the danger to the ship is pretty minor, and the stakes don't feel high, but you don't always need an episode like that. This is a fun, low-key episode of Next Gen, a good hang out episode that gets the job done.

Notes:
  • It is nice seeing an old-style ship.
  • Oh, yeah, Crusher, grab the poor man's injured arm. That's terrible bedside manner.
  • "Captain's Log, we are in orbit over the Dyson sphere, directly above it's anus..."
  • "I want to know who brought us in here, and why." And if I can fu- no, wait, that was Kirk.
  • Hey, Counselor Troi, glad to finally see you in the last scene of the episode.

In Conclusion:

When I went through and watched the five best episodes (with a few caveats) of both The Original Series and The Animated Series, in each case I was left going "well, those were good, but I don't think I really need to watch much more." In the case of Next Generation, though, my initial assessment of the series before taking on the project was clearly wrong. Sure, the early episodes are rough, and I may have to skip a few of the worst ones, but if I can give the series another chance, there are clearly a lot of episodes I should really watch.

Hell, I had to skip half the "best of" list due to my own self-imposed rules. There are enough suggested episodes I could have watched to fill out at least three more of these kinds of articles. When I have time (and don't have to move on to other movies and series to get this project done in a timely manner), I will clearly need to sit down and watch through The Next Generation. This initial pass has showed me just how good the series can really be.