I think it’s safe to say that Star Trek has changed the world. What was once a utopian idea of humanity’s future that existed solely in the head of Gene Roddenberry has become a long-lasting franchise encompassing six TV series and with the upcoming release of Star Trek: Beyond, thirteen feature films. And there’s a reason it’s been able to last. There’s an optimism and a wonder to series quintessential theme of discovering the unknown for its own sake, as well as how creative worlds, aliens, and conflicts can tell us something about ourselves and the world in which we live. That’s one of the primary goals of art after all, to encourage a reflection of society, culture, our own outlooks, to help influence a better future. And that better future is seemingly the setting of Star Trek. Because of these themes as well as its ground-breaking stories and cast diversity, it’s inspired people, technology, and even politics for fifty years now.
So on this fiftieth anniversary of such a landmark pop culture phenomenon, I give you my twenty best episodes of Star Trek. Now before someone addresses the elephant in the room, there won’t be any episodes of the original Star Trek in this list, purely for the reason that I never watched that show. And because there are enough great episodes across the series’ and I haven’t the time to find the best original episodes, I’ll have to leave the inaugural incarnation of Star Trek out of this list. But I’m interested what episodes you think are the best, and hopefully will make a point to check them out. I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation Wrath of Khan is definitely the best Star Trek movie!
You also may notice there aren’t any episodes from Star Trek: Enterprise on this list. ...Moving on:
20.“Blink of an Eye” -the latter seasons of Voyager weren’t exactly known for exceptional episodes, but this story from early in season six is one such exception. Though apparently an update of sorts on an episode of the original series, it’s a really fascinating look at the development of a world that ages at an accelerated rate when Voyager becomes locked in the orbit of a planet rapidly evolving before their eyes. I love stories that explore the passage of time, the rise of civilization and technology, and here we get to see it unfold. Not only that but Voyager being trapped in orbit inadvertently shapes the planet’s mythology. The Doctor even spends a couple years there after his transportation signal is lost for a number of minutes which makes for some interesting interaction when he returns. And we actually get a decent guest performance out of Daniel Dae Kim. Of all the episodes of Voyager this is one of the ones that felt the most Star Trek in how curious its concept is and how it forces you to look objectively on evolution and folklore.
19. “Call to Arms” -perhaps the biggest power shift and one of Trek’s best cliffhangers took place at the end of Deep Space Nine’s fifth season. For years, the show had been building up the threat of an enemy anti-Federation called the Dominion. By this point they had allied themselves with the Cardassians and were building an invasion force. “Call to Arms” represents the culmination of that arc and the beginning of the Dominion War that would last until the series’ end. The majority of the episode is just preparation for the big battle: characters leaving the station, formulating plans, but you feel the tension along with everyone. Pre-battle asides from Sisko, Garak, and others establish the feeling of dread so well. The episode’s biggest wound is that it relies entirely on having seen the build-up; you have to know what’s been going on and who these characters are (and we also have to deal with Rom’s marriage). But if you have, it makes for a great end when the tables have turned. It gets you incredibly hooked on what will happen in the subsequent season. Add to that an enjoyable battle sequence and a badass final message from Sisko, and you’re treated with one of the best examples of serial storytelling.
18. “Inquisition” -admittedly most of the reasons this season six DS9 entry is so good come from the last ten minutes which features revelations that change the nature of Star Trek as we know it. The story concerns Doctor Bashir being interrogated by a persistent Internal Affairs officer called Sloan who’s convinced Bashir is either a Dominion spy or sleeper agent. By the end of the episode, *SPOILERS* Bashir discovers everything was all a holo-program and that Sloan is in fact a member of Section 31, a covert autonomous intelligence organization within Starfleet that has existed since the founding of the Federation and eliminates threats by any means necessary. The creation of Section 31 is very divisive in Trek because it goes against the fundamental ideology Gene Roddenberry set forth. It makes the Federation look deceptive that it would maintain a certain utopian philosophy but secretly condone something as unethical as Section 31. But I think the mystery of this organization as well as Sloan, played brilliantly by William Sadler, was one of the franchise’s most engaging facets and made the Federation feel more human. The episode on a whole built good suspense in the first third, but it’s the implications it left that makes it truly great.
17. “Distant Origin” -this is Star Trek retelling the story of Galileo in a futuristic setting. It follows an alien scientist called Gegen (Henry Woronicz) who’s been outcast by the elders of his society for research into a distant origin theory that suggests his people migrated across the galaxy from the planet they initially evolved from. Eventually he runs into Voyager and confirms most of his theories, but still faces opposition from his race’s political and scientific hierarchy. A lot of the ideas suggested by this episode are goofy, primarily the notion a subset of hadrosaurs evolved on Earth to the point of interstellar travel before humans came along. That’s stretching credibility even for Star Trek. But what makes it work is its principal theme. The episode sets up its circumstances very well, to the point it’s fifteen minutes in before the Voyager cast appears. It’s focus is on institutionalized intolerance to scientific discoveries if they challenge established doctrine. This of course parallels Galileo, but it’s also indicative of the many times scientific breakthroughs have challenged common belief throughout history. So the episode stands as a statement of scientific perseverance and the seeking out of knowledge for its own sake, themes essential to the philosophy of Star Trek.
16. “The Wounded” -while most of Trek’s best episodes concerning the impact of war would come from DS9, it’s easy to forget The Next Generation contributed one incredible show that touched on this theme. Following the signing of a peace treaty between the Federation and the Cardassians, one Starfleet captain refusing to let go of old wounds from the war has been destroying a number of Cardassian ships and space stations. The Enterprise is sent to stop him and keep the peace. Not only does this episode deal with the fallout of war and how some just can’t put their prejudices behind them in peacetime, it also introduces the Cardassians, one of the franchise’s most interesting races. The episode has a great guest cast with Marc Alaimo playing a Cardassian who’s basically just Gul Dukat, and Bob Gunton from The Shawshank Redemption as Captain Maxwell in one the series’ best guest performances. One of my favourite Star Trek characters, Chief O’Brien is given the spotlight too. His combat history is revealed, he shares Maxwell’s prejudice, and is really the key to resolving the conflict. It has some terrific, insightful commentary, some great Picard speeches, and a really soulful rendition of “The Minstrel Boy” by two veterans recalling their lost comrade.
15. “The Siege of AR-558” -yeah this episode opens with Rom singing “The Lady is a Tramp” just as badly as you’d imagine, but it gets a hell of a lot better after that. The Dominion War provided a lot of rich stories and allegories for DS9’s last seasons and perhaps the best of them was this episode set on the front lines. It sees Sisko, Bashir, Dax, Nog, and Quark stranded at a strategic outpost and assisting the battle-weary soldiers protecting it. The gritty war movie parallels, particularly Vietnam, are pretty apparent: from the stressed and angry commandos to one guy collecting relics of each Jem’Hadar he kills and wearing them around his neck. The lead-up to the big battle is incredibly paced and both guest stars like Patrick Kilpatrick and Bill Mumy and the main cast are great. I’m one of those who actually doesn’t mind Ezri Dax and she’s very good here; and Armin Shimerman and Aron Eisenberg deliver some of their best performances as the Ferengi observers of this deterioration of the human spirit. It’s quite a grim episode but it touches on the cost of war in a way that really sticks with you. And it ends with a message to always remember in wartime: that casualty lists are more than just names.
14.“Q Who?” -most of TNG’s first season was pretty crap so it was wonderful to have a few great entries midway through the second. The omnipotent Q reappears with a proposal to join Captain Picard’s crew and when he refuses, Q decides to prove they’re not ready for the foes that await them in the unknown. He hurls the Enterprise across the galaxy where they meet the Borg, a race of cybernetic lifeforms who exist only to assimilate individuals and information into their hive-like collective. This episode both marks the first time John de Lancie’s Q is used interestingly, and of course the first appearance of the Borg, one of the franchise’s most enduring enemies, and for good reason. The Borg have no society or political structure, they can’t be negotiated with, their only desire is to grow. In a way they represent the extreme of Star Trek’s exploratory philosophy and as such, are quite frightening. Because the ship spends a lot of the episode isolated, there’s an eerie tone throughout, and the music and lighting really give off a unique atmosphere. The one downside is the forceful new character, Ensign Sonia Gomez, a clutzy recent Starfleet grad. But it’s a small price for such an intense thrill and promises in the most foreboding of ways, that the Borg aren’t going anywhere!
13.“The Visitor” -Jake Sisko is a character who despite being in the regular cast of DS9, didn’t appear in a ton of episodes and not many of his stories were very good. Still, he was never irritating like Wesley Crusher and managed to be the focus of one of DS9’s most touching entries. Told through flashbacks by an elderly Jake, we see Captain Sisko die in an accident on the Defiant and though Jake tries to put the tragedy behind him, over the years Ben appears in random bursts seeming to be alive, but lost in some other realm. So Jake devotes his life to finding a way to bring his father back. The chemistry between Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton is as usual wonderful, and even Brooks with Tony Todd who plays the adult Jake, it’s very good. This story also imbues a very creative way to resonate important ideas. The theme to not dwell on loss, and move on in spite of it is here coupled with the lesson to not take a relationship for granted. And with one of the most emotional endings of the series, “The Visitor” proves to be a really smart and affecting love story about a father and son.
12.“Future’s End” -this two-part episode of Voyager has a lot in common with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in that both are about the central cast travelling back in time to the modern era and interacting with the twentieth century. Oh and there’s a plot to go along with it, but really it’s just an excuse to see these characters react to our society and culture. And to be the honest, that’s pretty fun. It was in Star Trek IV and it is here! Because of a time paradox, Ed Begley Jr comes across a twenty-ninth century spacecraft and uses it in his native twentieth century to advance technology and become a billionaire (there’s also a suggestion he created the internet in this universe). Voyager is flung home albeit in the wrong century, where they try to put a stop to him. Begley’s really enjoying himself and the unexpected Sarah Silverman’s surprisingly likeable! I love the dynamic between her, Paris, and Tuvok; and seeing them outside in real San Francisco rather than on a sound-stage is very refreshing. Is it corny? Absolutely. Are a couple sequences unnecessary? Definitely. But when I think of a purely entertaining and fun Star Trek episode, this is one of the first to come to mind.
11. “Time Squared” -one of the most overlooked episodes of TNG, I think is this episode from the middle of season two. It’s not ground-breaking or deep, but it is incredibly moody and mysterious. The Enterprise picks up an adrift shuttle with a second unconscious Picard inside. The crew soon discovers the captain and shuttle are from six hours into the future where in some unknown circumstance the ship was destroyed. And so with a ticking clock they need to find a way of avoiding that as well as a potential time loop. Perhaps the best part of the episode is its music. A lot of the Trek shows had generally generic music to them, but here it’s really used to build suspense and emphasize an eerie and unsettling tone. The overall concept is also really gripping as Picard tries to work out what happened, why he’s the sole survivor of this eminent tragedy; and the crew begin to double-guess themselves. Even more mysterious is the second Picard slowly regaining consciousness as they approach his time. It may meander a bit and arguably waste time, but it builds tension superbly and keeps you engaged with the action throughout. It’s a very well made episode, one of the earliest for Next Generation. Not bad for a bottle show.