With Star Trek: Discovery debuting to rave reviews and a level of quality that justifies paying for CBS All Access, the Star Trek universe is back in the fannish consciousness. If you’re suffering from Trek withdrawal in the week-long breaks between new episodes – and you just shelled out for the streaming service – the classic series from the 1990s Trek renaissance could be your methadone. There’s just one problem: those ’90s Treks are wildly uneven. Whether you’re a new fan looking to catch up, or you watched years ago but can’t remember which were the good ones, here is a thumbnail guide to the top 60 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The consensus is Skip with Extreme Prejudice, and most of it is indeed terrible. There’s no reason to watch the interminable pilot episode. You can get by on the following three:
- “Datalore” (S1 E13): Brent Spiner acts his shiny metal ass off in the first of many episodes where he gets to play Data and Data’s evil twin. This is exciting and darkly funny in exactly the way that the rest of the season fails to be.
- “Skin of Evil” (S1 E23): The effects are tacky and some of the dialogue is ho-hum, but it features one of the most brutal character deaths in TV history. It’s also one of those stories that looms over the whole rest of the series.
- “Conspiracy” (S1 E25): A tight, paranoid thriller that plays with Cold War fears in a satisfying sci-fi way. One of Badass Picard’s shining moments.
Most of season 2 is not actually better than season 1, but its handful of high points are among the best of the entire series.
- “A Matter of Honor” (S2 E8): Riker goes to a Klingon ship in an officer exchange program, resulting in character development for him and worldbuilding for Klingon-kind.
- “The Measure of a Man” (S2 E9): Data’s humanity goes on trial, Picard and Riker show off some lawyering moves straight off of Law & Order, and we wind up with one of the uncontested classics of the series, a meditation on the boundaries of personhood.
- “Q Who” (S2 E16): There were two Q episodes before this, but this is the first where the character and his role in the show come into focus. Also, a creepy rough draft version of the Borg, and some of the series’ most lyrical dialogue.
- “The Emissary” (S2 E20): Come for the hot Klingon holodeck sex, stay for the well-paced political intrigue and set-up for a series-long Klingon arc.
Arguably the best season of the entire show, despite some mega-turds that we will be skipping. Everyone got new uniforms, and this show finally figured out what it wanted to be. Even the comedy episodes are solid.
- “Who Watches the Watchers” (S3 E4): An underrated gem, in which Picard has to convince a colony of early modern Vulcans that he is not God.
- “The Enemy” (S3 E7): Geordi gets stranded on a hostile planet with a Romulan. This manages to say smart things about disability as well as raising a big middle finger to Cold War prejudice.
- “The Defector” (S3 E10): A taut, quiet character piece masquerading as big Romulan political drama, with satisfying twists at each act break. Also, bonus Shakespeare.
- “Deja Q” (S3 E13): Q gets in trouble with the Continuum and is dropped, naked and terrified, on the Enterprise John de Lancie’s comic timing is so perfect that it’s infectious, but the concept is played for empathy as well as humor.
- “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (S3 E15): The Enterprise time travels into an AU dystopia, and the only way out is painful sacrifice. Saying more will ruin a near-perfect hour of Trek.
- “The Offspring” (S3 E16): Data builds an android child, and if you are not weeping at the end, you have no soul.
- “Sins of the Father” (S3 E17): Worf gets wrapped up in other Klingons’ political drama, and we get a glimpse of the underappreciated bond between Worf and Picard.
- “Captain’s Holiday” (S3 E19): This features a Ferengi in a Hawaiian shirt, a running bit with an alien sex totem, and a love interest for Picard. In spite of the above, it is a delight.
- “Hollow Pursuits” (S3 E21): There are a few off-putting moments here, and the message about addiction and gaming is an artifact of the late ’80s. But it’s key as an introduction to Barclay, and as a prescient exploration of geek culture at its exploitative and objectifying worst.
- “The Most Toys” (S3 E22): Data gets kidnapped by a rich creep who wants to “collect” him as a priceless artifact. This covers a huge amount of ethical ground in an hour and features Data at his most human.
- “Sarek” (S3 E23): A meditation on aging and dignity, with Vulcans. Once you stop crying, you will seethe with rage that Patrick Stewart was never nominated for an Emmy for this role.
- “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” (S3 E26): Imagine a pre-internet era when nobody was spoiled for the season finale, and cliffhangers were rare. Then imagine the impact of this brilliant hour of sci-fi horror.
Still peak TNG, with a greater focus on character arcs and emotional development. There’s even a good Lwaxana Troi episode.
- “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” (S4 E1): The stunning conclusion is a minor affront to principles of computer science, but it’s so tense and emotionally affecting that the Federation’s victory feels plausible and earned.
- “Family” (S4 E2): Rather than bounding along as if the events of BoBW were a distant memory, the show stops to acknowledge the lasting psychological effects of Picard’s experiences. Also, bonus unsexy mud wrestling.
- “Brothers” (S4 E3): Everyone in this episode is played by Brent Spiner. It’s another quiet, character-focused hour, and a companion piece to “Family.”
- “Remember Me” (S4 E5): Four seasons in, and one of the female leads finally gets to sink her teeth into a strong episode. Gates McFadden navigates smartly through a twist on a classic nightmare tale.
- “Reunion” (S4 E7): More Klingon intrigue, the second most brutal character death of the series, and Michael Dorn acting through his prosthetics like a true professional.
- “Future Imperfect” (S4 E8): Riker wakes up in the future with retrograde amnesia, and of course nothing is as it seems. The twists are more predictable than in some other, similar episodes, but it’s a popular one and a clever sci-fi concept.
- “The Wounded” (S4 E12): My hipster pick for best episode of the series, perhaps because it’s an O’Brien episode. Or actually because it’s a brilliant meditation on racism and the psychological toll of war.
- “First Contact” (S4 E13): Come to watch Riker get sexually assaulted by Lilith from Cheers, stay for one of the smartest “day the aliens came” narratives in TV history.
- “The Nth Degree” (S4 E19): Flowers for Algernon on the holodeck, but more than the sum of those parts.
- “The Drumhead” (S4 E21): I’m including this one because the fan consensus is that it’s a classic, which I guess is true if you like slow courtroom dramas with an extra helping of didacticism. Eh, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I do.
- “Half a Life” (S4 E22): Lwaxana Troi finally gets an awesome boyfriend, and she has to fight to keep him alive. Who knew this show had so many great episodes about aging?
- “Redemption, Part I” (S4 E26): Big, knotty, compelling Klingon drama, with cliffhanger.
This season was really uneven, but you’ll never tell from my picks, which include many of TNG’s finest moments.
- “Redemption, Part II” (S5 E1): The Klingon drama gets knottier when the Romulans show up.
- “Darmok” (S5 E2): If you ever doubt that science fiction inspires, note that this is my non-hipster favorite episode, I have a Ph.D. in Shakespeare, and I currently work in English Learner education.
- “Disaster” (S5 E5): One of TNG’s best moments of trashy fun, as the ship breaks down and everyone is thrown out of their element. As with all the best trashy fun, there’s genuine character development, especially for Picard and Troi.
- “Unification, Parts I and II” (S5 E7-8): Fun stunt makeup, bonus Spock, and a depiction of reform and revolution that both celebrates the fall of the Iron Curtain and presages Arab Spring.
- “The Outcast” (S5 E17): Some aspects of Riker’s romance with a rebel from a repressively mono-gendered species have 1992 stamped all over them, but overall, this is a remarkably sensitive exploration of transgender experience.
- “Cause and Effect” (S5 E18): Crusher gets trapped in a Groundhog Day loop, in what remains one of the most effective examples of my favorite standard genre fiction plot.
- “The Perfect Mate” (S5 E21): What could have been a self-undermining bro-feminist lament about the objectification of women is instead a complex and tender Jean Grey/Professor X AU romance.
- “I, Borg” (S5 E23): Geordi finds an orphaned teenage Borg and attempts to raise him as his own, in a very special episode of Different Strokes that never takes the easy way out of its ethical questions.
- “The Inner Light” (S5 E25): Picard experiences the life of a man from a planet destroyed in a long-ago natural disaster, in one of the simplest and most touching episodes of the series. One of TV’s great format-breaker episodes, too.
- “Time’s Arrow, Part I” (S5 E26): Data travels back to 19th-century San Francisco in search of his own severed head, and then Mark Twain shows up.
The show started showing its age at this point, but it also got deliciously weird and dark.
- “Time’s Arrow, Part II” (S6 E1): The rest of the crew goes back in time to retrieve Data, meet Guinan, improvise Shakespeare, and practically break the fourth wall begging you not to think too hard about this.
- “Schisms” (S6 E5): This eerie body horror mystery is an underrated gem with twists that swerve just as you see them coming.
- “The Quality of Life” (S6 E9): Adorable Roombas achieve sentience, and Data’s impassioned defense of their right to life is a lovely extension of his series-long character arc.
- “Chain of Command, Parts I and II” (S6 E10-11): My other other favorite episode splits its time between a harrowing torture and interrogation plot and a more mundane depiction of a dangerously horrible boss.
- “Face of the Enemy” (S6 E14): It took TNG 6.5 seasons to give us a decent Troi episode, but when they finally did, it was one of the best of the series. Troi goes undercover as a Romulan, and Marina Sirtis’ acting skills get let out of their corset, too.
- “Tapestry” (S6 E15): Q rescues Picard from the brink of death and gives him the It’s a Wonderful Life treatment, only with more stabbing and homoeroticism.
- “Starship Mine” (S6 E18): What, you’re going to skip Die Hard in space with Picard as McClane? Didn’t think so.
- “Frame of Mind” (S6 E21): Riker is trapped in an alien mental institution! Except he’s not crazy! And except this avoids most of the cliches and is maybe the scariest episode of the series!
- Second Chances (S6 E24): Because there were not enough evil twins on this show already, it turns out a transporter accident created a duplicate Riker. It’s played for angst, which surprisingly is the right move.
- Timescape (S6 E25): A trippy mind-screw of a temporal mechanics episode in which the nerds save the day.
- Descent, Part I (S6 E26): OH CRAP THE BORG ARE BACK.
This was the planned last season, and you can smell the producers scrambling to wrap up most storylines and punt the rest to DS9 and Voyager. Nonetheless, TNG finished strong.
- Descent, Part II (S7 E1): OH CRAP THE BORG BROUGHT LORE WITH THEM.
- Phantasms (S7 E6): When androids dream of electric sheep, they figure out how to save the Or, the one where Troi is a cake. (The episode itself makes approximately this much sense.)
- Attached (S7 E8): Shameless fan service for the Picard/Crusher shippers, which is fine, because you’re one of them by now. Resistance is futile.
- Inheritance (S7 E10): Data meets his mother, and the acting is terrific.
- Parallels (S7 E11): You make an episode about a character drifting from one parallel universe to another, and it’s a Worf episode? No, actually, that’s a brilliant idea, carry on.
- Lower Decks (S7 E15): As if to prove that the show still had a few format-breaking tricks up its sleeve, this episode features a quartet of young, low-ranked crew members and turns our perceptions of the main cast on their heads.
- Eye of the Beholder (S7 E18): Troi unravels a psychic murder mystery in a well-paced, emotionally intimate take on a classic ghost story plot.
- All Good Things… (S7 E25-26): A series finale so perfect that it improves everything that came before.
Watch the first two TNG feature films, Generations and First Contact; skip the others. Then, move on to Deep Space Nine (Abridged) and Voyager (Abridged).