When Star Trek was canceled by NBC in the late 1960s, it seemed like its revival was an inevitability. As early as 1972, there were discussions about a film, and by 1977, it was decided to make a revival television series starring the original cast. Another change in mind led to the Star Trek film series that kicked off in 1980 and led to Wrath of Khan and the following pictures. The popularity of the Star Trek movies led Paramount pictures to plan for a new series with creator Gene Rodenberry coming on board after seeing some disappointing early ideas. By September 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in syndication. The show would go for a longer run than its predecessor and gain a fanbase that rivaled the original series.
I can remember watching bits of the premiere when it originally aired. I was only six at the time, and it didn’t hold my interest. I watch sporadically during the 1990s and have fond memories of specific episodes, The Best of Both Worlds being my favorite. I decided I didn’t have the time to watch the whole series, but I could definitely work my way through what fans and critics consider the best of the show. Here is the first of an eleven-part series (plus the movies) as a way to build-up to the debut of Picard in January 2020.
Skin of Evil (Original airdate: April 25, 1988)
Written by Joseph Stefano and Hannah Louise Shearer
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan
Counselor Deanna Troi is returning to the Enterprise after attending a conference. The Enterprise detects a distress signal from her shuttlecraft, which has crashed on the desolate Vagra II. Commander Riker leads an away mission that discovers their path to the shuttle blocked by a sentient mass of black oil. The creature is called Armus, who is the manifestation of all the evil of an extinct race that was left behind by the other inhabitants of this rocky orb. Armus wants the Enterprise to help him escape this planet so he can seek out those who left him and kill them. This is something Captain Picard and his crew cannot do, and so the stand-off begins.
Everything about this episode feels like an installment out of the original 1966 series. There’s a clear villain with some more extensive cosmic attributes. The crew struggles to reason with the antagonist who is unwilling to see their point of view. The reason why this has ended up on lists of notable Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes is that it features the death of a regular cast member. Denise Crosby played the chief security officer Tasha Yar, and she didn’t enjoy working on the series any longer. Yar was underused by writers who were struggling to figure out exactly what The Next Generation was going to be. Crosby was killed off by Armus, and the episode concludes with a memorial service for her in the holodeck. But that wouldn’t be the last time we’d see Tasha Yar in the show…
Overall, I wasn’t impressed by this one, but I had enough foreknowledge to know the first season of TNG is the messiest one. There’s a strong sense that everyone from the writers, directors, and even costume designers didn’t really know what they were making. At the time, there was only the original series and the films as an example of what Star Trek could be. In time, TNG would carve its own path and help create a more open space for all the spin-offs to come.
Conspiracy (Original airdate: May 9, 1988)
Written by Robert Sabaroff & Tracy Tormé
Directed by Cliff Bole
My first thoughts when the credits rolled after Conspiracy were, “What the hell did I just watch?” I can’t say I ever expected to see anything like this as I went through the best and most notable TNG episodes. Once again, we have a case of creative talent not being sure what direction the show should go, so they went in an incredibly wild one. Everything starts out genuinely intriguing, Picard being covertly invited to a meeting of starship captains, one of whom has uncovered the conspiracy of an alien infiltration of Starfleet. Apparently, the very people at the top of the chain of command are under the influence of this outside presence and are slowly but surely realigning the interests of the Federation.
What we ended up with was a horror-action story inside of Star Trek, a franchise not typically associated with those two genres, especially at this point. We now know that horror elements can work (see the Borg), and so can action, with some moderation (see the JJ Abrams reboot). This has been said to be the most polarizing episode of TNG, and I can easily see why. When the Enterprise arrives in Earth orbit, and Picard meets with the heads of Starfleet, things get so weird so quickly. Our finale literally involved a person’s head exploding to reveal an alien parasite queen. It’s stunning how experimental they were willing to go with this property at the time.
Picard’s closing monologue hints that the threat of these alien parasites is still looming over their heads. However, this episode and those antagonists were never mentioned again in any of the television or film series. They do get brought back in some Deep Space Nine novels where they are creatively woven into some other bits of lore. The episode was banned in some foreign markets for graphic horror and is not one I can say I ever saw in the rotation of reruns when I was younger. I love the concept of a corrupt Starfleet being manipulated by the self-interests of nefarious parties but definitely not like this. Still, very fascinating.
Elementary, Dear Data (Original airdate: December 5, 1988)
Written by Brian Alan Lane
Directed by Rob Bowman
Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge and Commander Data have some free time which they proceed to spend on the holodeck in a recreation of the world of Sherlock Holmes. The episode is inspired by one from season one where Picard takes on his Dixon Hill persona, a classic noir detective, in the holodeck. The use of holodeck as a means to place the characters in atypical settings was a way to avoid some of the more ludicrous conceits of the original series. In the 1960s, we saw the Enterprise crew encounter a planet modeled after Prohibition-era America and be visited by space hippies. The holodeck is a safe narrative way to see our characters in unfamiliar and believable settings.
Here Data plays the role of Sherlock with Geordi as his Watson. The whole escapade is questioned by Doctor Pulaski, who believes that Data’s positronic brain and familiarity with the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle give him an unfair advantage in the simulation. Geordi does some reprogramming and basically creates the holodeck version of a roguelike, with a randomly generated scenario Data won’t have ever read. The problem comes when the Professor Moriarity A.I. gets a boost in intelligence and becomes self-aware, understanding that he exists in a simulation.
Moriarty is played by Daniel Davis, who I only knew as Niles the butler in The Nanny sitcom. He’s a fantastic actor who feels like he’d be amazing to see in a stage production. His Moriarity doesn’t feel like an insidious villain rather a person interested in an intellectual joust with a worthy opponent. He doesn’t necessarily understand what he’s dealing with, so in that way, he becomes deadly by accident.
This episode also does a lot to establish the friendship between Data and Geordi, one of the core elements that would come to define TNG. Additionally, it features a character whose presence would be erased like Poochy on the Simpsons. Doctor Pulaski was an addition made after Gates McFadden (who played Dr. Crusher) was fired by head writer Maurice Hurley. Hurley apparently bristled about McFadden’s acting style and did everything he could to get rid of her. Cue Diane Muldar as Dr. Pulaski, a replacement more in line with the grumbling McCoy archetype. Eventually, all of this would be cleared up when Hurley left after season two, allowing McFadden to return as Dr. Crusher.
The Measure of a Man (Original airdate: February 13, 1989)
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Robert Scheerer
When I was a youth, I always loved a good Data-focused episode of TNG. He’s one of my favorite characters in the whole franchise because he was used as a way to explore the complexities and inconsistencies of being a human. This episode has the Enterprise stopping at a starbase for some routine maintenance. It’s here that Captain Picard meets with cyberneticist Bruce Maddox, a commander in Starfleet. Maddox has orders to seize Data so that he can be disassembled for the purposes of mass manufacturing androids. Picard cannot comply with this as he sees Data as a member of his crew and thus like family.
Commander Riker is put in the uncomfortable position of representing Maddox in a formal hearing over what Data’s status of being is officially under Starfleet regulations. Picard argues for Data and works to come up with a defense that can prove Data is self-aware, in possession of goals and aspirations, and thus legally protected. Riker is forced to highlight the mechanistic aspects of Data, notably his off switch as a sign that the android is a complicated machine.
This is where the show really began to hit its sweet spot, delving into broader, metaphysical questions. This is an episode that has near-universal acclaim with even crew members citing it as one of their favorites. Head writer Maurice Hurley said, “That’s the kind of show you want to do […] it just worked great, everything about it.” When you look at The Measure of a Man compared to Skin of Evil, you can see the journey TNG took to come into its own. When the writers embraced the philosophy of the original series at its best and combined it with their own sensibilities, TNG shined. If was to recommend a starting point to new viewers, it would be this classic.