10.“Tapestry” -this is a TNG episode with an important theme that’s really stuck with me over the years. When Captain Picard apparently dies on the operating table and meets Q in the “afterlife”, he is given a second chance to fix the mistakes of his past that led to his needing the artificial heart which is now killing him. It’s interesting to learn of Picard’s reckless youth and even see his younger self laughing at a stab wound through the heart. Picard regrets these actions, his former arrogance and his efforts to rectify that give the episode it’s moral. We all have made decisions in our past that we’re embarrassed of or regret, but those actions have been more important than we realize in making us who we are. Picard realizing that the changes he’s made have turned him into an ambitious but undistinguished junior officer who plays everything safe is an epiphany not only to him. The audience alongside Picard learns the importance of taking one’s past mistakes in stride, that even bad decisions have a purposeful impact, and I think that makes this one of the best episodes. That and the typically entertaining banter between Picard and Q.
9.“What You Leave Behind” -what a great way to end Deep Space Nine! Most of the arcs running throughout the series are concluded in this finale. Each primary character as well as DS9’s incredible cast of secondary characters get a moment to shine, we see the triumphant end of the Dominion War, the somewhat tragic conclusion of Damar’s rebellion, and heartfelt ends to relationships like Kira’s and Odo’s, Sisko’s and Kassidy’s, Bashir’s and O’Brien’s. And with Sisko finally fulfilling his destiny as Emissary, confronting Dukat for the last time, the whole show seems wrapped up nicely. Sure there were threads that weren’t ended perfectly, the show set such a standard of excellence it would have been impossible; the Pah-Wraiths weren’t exactly handled satisfactorily from the start, and a couple deaths deserved a little more grandeur. But the pacing, from the calm to the action to the aftermath is terrific; and it gives the characters we’ve grown to love a wonderful farewell to the tune of “The Way You Look Tonight”. It’s brilliantly acted, written, and it’s final shot does as the title suggests: reminds us of what legacy DS9 is leaving behind.
8.“Far Beyond the Stars” -you don’t get much further from typical Star Trek than by setting an entire episode in the 1950s with new period-specific characters. However, it’s exactly Star Trek to address issues like social injustice and prejudice. In this case they’ve just made it more direct. Through a Prophet vision, Sisko takes on the life of Benny Russell, a struggling writer for a sci-fi magazine in the 1950s. Already excluded from the magazine’s publicity, he faces an uphill battle trying to publish a story that’s basically DS9; while also encountering racism in other areas of his life. It’s nice to see the cast playing different characters, all of whom are out of make-up, and the amazing Brock Peters is always a great addition. The meta references also earn points. But the focus of the show is to highlight an important issue. Because of Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy, racism was never shown explicitly in Star Trek, only as a metaphor presented through aliens and other worlds. It and other prejudices are front and centre in this episode, which reminds us of one of the hurdles that needs to be crossed to make it to Roddenberry’s utopia. Russell yearns to change the world through his dreams of the future, and society is against him for it. It’s impossible not to identify with that struggle.
7.“The Drumhead” -another prejudice episode! What are the odds? An explosion on the Enterprise results in an investigation into possible sabotage headed up by retired Admiral Satie. But it soon becomes apparent the investigation is really a witch hunt against not only a visiting Klingon but other members of the crew. The great Jean Simmons guest stars as the formerly brilliant Satie -who forces an interrogation even after a confession of espionage and a determination that the explosion was an accident. She and Patrick Stewart, who has a pair of incredible speeches, make this episode! I love how the episode is done in the style of a courtroom drama -something different for Star Trek, how it references “drumhead” trials of old military campaigns, and how it’s a great allegory for McCarthyism and the sacrifice of freedom to fear. It characterizes the slippery slope of prejudice, and paranoia as Satie relentlessly pursues a conspiracy that Picard fights against. It’s one of the best acted, best written, and ironically most progressive Star Trek episodes. Though Picard is disgusted to see these actions taking place in such an enlightened time, by addressing them and how humanity can still be susceptible to its old mistakes, “The Drumhead” is pushing the envelope for Star Trek and creating better television drama as a result.
6. “Living Witness” -by far the best (certainly the most entertaining) cast member on Voyager was Robert Picardo. The Doctor’s sarcasm was often the only comic relief that worked, and Picardo could play a number of different sides of this character. In “Living Witness” he gets to do this while also working with an excellent story. Seven hundred years in the future, a bi-racial civilization has immortalized Voyager as a terrorizer of their world, responsible for starting a civil war among other heinous crimes. A curator at a Voyager museum though discovers a backup copy of the Doctor’s program, and they begin to set the record straight and uncover the real history of that encounter centuries before. Not only is this a particularly unusual episode in that it’s set further in the future than Trek’s ever gone and technically features none of the regular characters (only darker, more interesting versions), but it addresses the idea of historical revisionism, how events can be interpreted over time to the point they don’t actually represent the facts, and often with a bias. Picardo and Henry Woronicz (again!) are really exceptional; and I love how the story shows the lie is useful in keeping the peace, and that racial tensions break out all over again with the uncovering of what really happened long ago. It’s an incredibly poignant episode, easily Voyager’s best!
5.“The Best of Both Worlds” -this is both one of the most famous episodes of Star Trek and one of the most iconic cliffhangers in television. And for good reason! After discovering a series of destroyed colonies, the Enterprise concludes the Borg have finally caught up with them and as they prepare to fend off an attack, Riker faces conflict in his career as an ambitious young woman is vying for his job. But by episode’s end his hand may be forced at becoming captain when Picard is captured and assimilated. The twist of Picard being assimilated by the Borg and becoming their leader of sorts is really well executed. But more than people remember, this is also a great episode for Jonathan Frakes who does a good job playing Riker’s conflict on whether or not to accept a command post and leave the Enterprise. And I love how this personal story ties in with the Borg conflict as he’s forced to make a captain’s decision in the final moments. It builds up a kind of red herring that Riker will take over next season. It’s follow-up the succeeding season was good but not as. Those final moments, the terrific suspenseful build (particularly a fantastic scene between Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg), the character development, and the really great music by Ron Jones are just too good to live up to.
4.“Duet” -I think this was the episode that confirmed DS9 could go toe-to-toe with its predecessor. No other first season of this era had an episode near this calibre! An apparent Cardassian war criminal Marritza, is brought aboard the station, and while awaiting judgement he interacts with Kira, who’d liberated a labour camp under his tyranny, justifying his actions and cruelty. But an investigation into his past proves his motives may be more complex and less evil than he’s letting on. The best parts of this episode are the titular duets: the conversations between Kira and Marritza. Nana Visitor and Harris Yulin play these scenes amazingly, Visitor really showcasing her performance prowess while Yulin imbues a gravitas that makes him in my opinion, Trek’s best guest star. The plot is really interesting; at times it’s written like a Nuremberg case, which no doubt was the inspiration. The way it ends is wonderful -it really develops Kira’s relationship to Cardassians and is actually astonishingly emotional. It refuses to be black and white about these characters and this world, setting a standard for the duration of the series. It’s remarkable science-fiction and utterly remarkable drama. And even as impressive as DS9 would be, only one episode would be more powerful than “Duet”!
3.“In the Pale Moonlight” -This is that episode! “In the Pale Moonlight” (named after that quote from Batman) is considered by some to be the darkest episode of Star Trek because it features the series’ lead compromising his and the audience’s morals. Due to severe losses in the war, Sisko determines to bring the Romulans in on their side. But when he allies himself with Garak to do this, he finds he has to resort to deceit, forgery, and even murder to achieve this end. The episode’s told entirely through flashback as Sisko narrates a personal log facing the audience as he does so, reconciling his actions to us as well as himself. I like how his moral fibres break down one by one throughout the episode in his desperation to gain the Federation an ally (he even bribes Quark at one point). Avery Brooks and Andrew Robinson are never better than in this episode which pushes the envelope further than any other in terms of Trek’s philosophy. But it also humanizes our hero and stands as a testament to everything that made DS9 arguably the best Trek series.. It’s a classic tale of “do the ends justify the means”. Because by the end, the heroes are in a better position. And as Garak noted it may have saved the Alpha Quadrant at the relatively small expense of Sisko’s self-respect.
2.“All Good Things…” -I can’t think of a better wrap-up for a series than this 1994 curtain call for TNG.! “All Good Things…” just does everything so well. Picard finds himself jumping randomly though time between the present, seven years in the past, and 25 years into the future. As he interacts with his crew-mates in each timeline he discovers there’s a temporal anomaly appearing in all three that Q informs him is destroying humanity. “All Good Things…” is set in the past, present, and future, and celebrates all three! Bringing back Denise Crosby and Colm Meaney as well as the original uniforms and visual style really legitimises the past sequences, while the make-up in the future is pretty good at convincing you it’s a different era. Every cast member gets a chance to shine but of course the stand-outs are Patrick Stewart and John de Lancie. Their scenes together in this episode are as far as I’m concerned, television gold! The finale brings to a close a few threads from the series, acknowledges how far its come, how these characters have grown, and promises the journey will go on. The final scene is a perfect illustration of this, and it resonates with me every time. Add to that the fact that it fully embodies the spirit of Star Trek! A finale the best of series’ would envy, it’s a more fitting conclusion for this cast and this series than any of their subsequent movies. All good things must come to an end, and Star Trek: The Next Generation couldn’t ask for a better one!
1.“The Inner Light” -Once you see this episode, you’ll never forget it. This show does best what Star Trek excels at. Telling an original, intelligent, high-concept story with identifiable themes and provoking ideas. When the Enterprise encounters a probe, Picard falls unconscious, awakening on a new world where he’s informed he’s really a scientist called Kamin. After spending a while in denial, he eventually accepts this life, living for decades and having a family in this world. “The Inner Light” is just about perfect science fiction. Though it’s less than an hour long you feel for these characters and their world because Picard does. I’ve always had a soft spot for art that explores the passage of time and here it does so wonderfully, showing Picard living a full lifetime in a matter of minutes -something which he carries for the rest of the series. The guest stars, Margot Rose and Richard Riehle are great, Patrick Stewart, you must be sick of my saying, is excellent -proving why he’s one of the best actors on the planet today. The end reveal I won’t spoil, but it’s both very clever while also bittersweet. It’s an episode that makes you reflect on life and the importance of cherishing the present. The song Picard plays on his flute is beautiful and the full orchestral version is definitely worth listening to. The one flaw I think with this episode is that I’d have preferred it didn’t cut back to the Enterprise. I think the affect would have been flawless if we didn’t see the crew until the end. But as is, this is one of the most incredible and inspiring episodes of any series I’ve ever seen.
“The Inner Light” and “All Good Things…” are the only episodes of post-original series Star Trek to have won Hugo Awards and there’s very good reason for that as both represent the height of their series’ reach; and of what I’ve seen of Star Trek, the best the franchise has to offer!