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Starter Guide: Star Trek: The Next Generation

August 31, 2021

Look, we get it, scrolling through an infinite number of shows seems overwhelming; even when someone tells us, “Oh, you should check out such and such” there’s a feeling of dread because who knows if it’s worth the time or hassle. Some TV shows have countless episodes or have been running for decades and not all of those episodes are going to be good; there are going to be some clunkers.

This series is here to help you decide if a show is the right show for you by featuring a few highlights for you to check out and see if you want to watch more. These aren’t the best episodes, they’re accessible and ones you can just jump into.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), where to start?

With Picard out last year, Star Trek: TNG has had a long run. Four theatrical movies and characters becoming full time cast members on other Star Trek shows, it’s no wonder this series got a lot of attention. It was also the last series to have direct input from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Naturally, you might think to start with the first season and the opening episode “Encounter at Farpoint” and to that I’m going to use a line from Wil Wheaton (one of the main cast members) about it.

“… a lot of exposition and technobabble in place of character development” and “I’ve talked with just about everyone from the cast about that our first season, and they all told me that they didn’t think the show would last more than a year” – Wil Wheaton, Memories of the Future

Here’s where to start:

Conundrum (Season 5, Episode 14)

This is the perfect place to start and for one very good reason, it’s an amnesia episode. The crew of the Enterprise are hit with a bean from an alien ship, and it wipes all their memories about who they are. What’s genius is that they still know how to operate the ship, and the mind wipe beam doesn’t hit them until a few minutes into the episode, so we can see them shift from who they are to not knowing about themselves. But if this is your first episode, you also learn about the characters as the characters do, all while having a fun space adventure. Also, there is a huge twist in here and it is ruined if you have seen pretty much any other episode. For that reason, I’m not going to say anything more about it. This episode also won an Emmy for visual effects; the bar was a bit lower in 1991.

Disaster (Season 5, Episode 5)

The Enterprise is just zipping through space when, oh no, they hit a quantum filament (a space pothole) or some such thing that disables the ship. This happens more often than you might think, but what’s fun is that we see characters having to get out of their own little mini-disasters all over the ship. It’s also a great example of characters growing without telling us they’re growing. Picard hates kids, Worf could not give a fig about feigning excitement over an expectant mother (girl, same) and Troi is dangerously unqualified at her job. It’s a fun episode to follow up Disaster with, though it’s a similar sort of “how do we get out of this one” except the characters have functioning brains and a broken ship, not the other way around.

First Contact (Season 4, Episode 15)

Not to be confused with the Star Trek TNG movie, First Contact, this episode deals with a species that are just about to break the speed of light barrier, becoming a part of the galaxy and starting to encounter other civilizations including interstellar jellyfish (yes that’s a thing). The Federation is there to gently usher them into a galactic community, and here comes Commander Riker like a linebacker crashing through a sliding door to mess it all up. This episode deals with diplomacy, understanding and accepting different cultures, and how people would react to knowing that they suddenly are not the only intelligent beings in the universe. Their leader is also a diplomat and an equal to Picard; it’s fun to see their interactions and some leadership between two highly disparate yet similarly aligned people. Also, Riker tries to escape by using the powers of sexy. He does this a lot on the show, it’s all palm punches and making out with that guy.

The Next Phase (Season 5, Episode 24)

While helping the Romulans with an engine problem, Ensign Ro and Geordi LaForge are presumed dead. Oh no! Luckily, it’s just a wacky science mishap as those occur in space and they’re slightly out of phase, making them invisible and intangible. This is a cool episode that deals with death as the two characters in question learn what others think about them. Hey, how often do you get to go to your own funeral? It’s also got one of my favorite lines “Are you saying I’m some blind ghost with clothes?”

There is an interesting dynamic explored here too between Ro, the religious person evaluating the afterlife as she might be a ghost, and LaForge, the stalwart scientist trying to find a solution. Each grapples with this dilemma and sort of comes to a midpoint around friendship; it’s nice. Plus, since they can’t be seen, they’re just going about their wacky space adventure while people are having dinner or just hanging around. I also think this is a good one to watch early for another reason. In the first season Data is a real know it all; there is an entire episode of him pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and solving mysteries. You’d think he’d be able to figure it out here, but he’s dumb as a rock so as to not just spoil the episode and it works a lot better with Data being a bit dim.

The Best of Both Worlds Parts 1 & 2 (Season 3, Episode 26/Season 4, Episode 1)

There are some great 2-part episodes of Star Trek: TNG, and this is the big Borg one. The Borg, a cybernetic race of zombies linked together in a hive mind, invade the federation with one ship obliterating most anything in their way on their quest to assimilate the Federation and Earth into its collective hive mind. “Why do you resist, we only wish to raise the quality of life for all species” … creepy.

I remember this one from when I was a kid, and there is a cliffhanger that you had to wait like 6 months for it to resolve. I’m not going to put that spoiler in there, but it’s nice to have a villain that is an alien and a seriously formidable threat. Some good space action, nice character conflict, strong acting make it one of the best sort of “mini-movies” they did on the show.

For more Star Trek, read Chris's other starter guide here!

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