Star Trek: The Next Generation is a show which shouldn’t exist. The Original Series found a new popularity with the movies and was doing extremely well in syndication seventeen years after it ceased production. The biggest difference between the Original Series and the Next Generation is the lack of conflict between the people on the Enterprise. Where Kirk would happily engage in workplace bullying, Picard (the new captain) governs the Enterprise by roundtable. Very rarely do we see Picard make a decision without consulting whoever happens to be on the bridge.
Once again, James has helped me to craft a list of the six episodes from this series that you should watch, although this time we have no episodes in common.
Star Trek: The Original Series (James’ List)
1. The Defector
James skips the first two seasons because, frankly, they’re rubbish. There’s an expression ‘Growing the Beard’ which refers to the amount of time it takes for a series to know what it’s doing, to get the swing of its characters, and to start being awesome. The expression originates with Star Trek: The Next Generation and refers specifically to Riker’s beard.
The Defector is a pretty great episode. The Romulans — who are the militaristic counterpart to the Vulcans — are in a standoff with the (mostly human) Federation. It’s one of those episodes that grapples well with political issues and how difficult it can be to keep idealistic in times of conflict.
One of the advantages of Next Generation was a larger roster of characters who were interesting and rich. Family is a character piece that looks at the inhabitants of the Enterprise away from Space Drama. The story about Picard and his conflict with his brother is genuinely touching.
3. The Drumhead
The Federation had a systemic problem: it keeps promoting evil people to the admiralty. Justice is a recurring theme in Star Trek, and we can often get an understanding of our own assumptions about what constitutes just treatment through transporting these themes into fantastic environments. Overwhelmingly, justice in Star Trek has an American flavour which we are encouraged to normalise as an obvious standard of just treatment. At the same time, the Federation is disturbingly militaristic, with people adopting roles according to a strict hierarchy of official positions. The admiral can overrule the captain; justice is decided by Spacefleet. The episode is made all the richer by Picard appealing to these intuitions of the audience.
4. A Fistful of Datas
When the writers ran out of plots, they often made use of Enterprise’s ‘holodeck’ to have campy episodes where the main characters dress up in whatever happened to be lying around the costume department. Sometimes, it was Feudal England. Other times, it was Victorian England. On rare occasions, it wasn’t England at all. The puzzle with holodeck episodes was to make them exciting and interesting. Just as you’re not interested in watching somebody play a video game for an hour, it’s difficult to get interested in episodes where the crew plays a game on the holodeck for an hour.
In A Fistful of Datas, the writers have a crack at making ‘The Klingon and his son play in a Western holodeck simulation’ interesting by having the ship’s android malfunction and interfere with the holodeck. There’s a disturbing question at the heart of the episode: what the hell is going on in the head of the android? The malfunction causes the information from the game to corrupt his cognitive processes; similarly, his thought processes somehow infect the virtual world in which his crewmates are playing. Creepy.
5. Chain of Command
This is an amazing episode. It gave us this:
6. All Good Things
The series finale is an episode with series regular, Q, a seemingly omnipotent, multidimensional being who has taken an interest in the activities of the Enterprise. The episode does a wonderful job of summing up the character of Picard, showing how he can subordinate the mysterious, mythic cosmos around him to his rationality. This is what has made Picard such a fascinating character throughout all seven seasons: his ability to be both idealistic and logical.
1. Who Watches the Watchers?
The ‘rule’ of Star Trek is that the Federation is not allowed to interfere with ‘primitive’ societies. Technology and culture mature hand in hand, and the ability to manage higher levels of technology is associated with higher capacity for morality and civility. Of course, this doesn’t explain why there are so many violent, technologically advanced races…
This is an episode where the Federation shows just how spectacularly it can stuff things up. They’re ‘studying’ a primitive culture (without, we imagine, the consent of that culture). When there’s a malfunction, the subjects of the study become aware of the Federation’s presence and, through contact with advanced technology, one of them becomes injured. The Federation performs a medical intervention upon the injured person and then wipes their memory of the event…
When the long chain of events results in two of the crew members disguising themselves as the alien in order to convince the locals that there’s no such thing as Picard, you start to suspect that there’s something suspect about this ‘higher’ morality…
2. Face of the Enemy
In both Who Watches the Watchers? and Face of the Enemy, we see the ship’s counsellor, Troi, disguised as an alien race for some reason. It’s these episodes which bring out the best in the character. Instead of being the simpering on-again-off-again love interest of Bearded Riker, she exposes herself to danger and rises to the challenge. In Face of the Enemy, she is kidnapped by a Romulan who is trying to rebel against the Romulan Empire. When she becomes aware that she’s been kidnapped, she also discovers that she’s been disguised as a Romulan… It’s completely batshit, but so much fun.
Another lunatic episode. Star Trek relies on the assumption that the universal translator works. When different cultures — even cultures never before encountered — it would be a boring episode if they spent weeks trying to decode each other’s language. Darmok is strange in that sense: the universal translator works perfectly by giving literal translations of speech acts, but doesn’t convey cultural-specific meaning to those literal statements. Thus:
4. Chain of Command
This was the only episode that shared a place on both lists. It’s a two part episode that’s about breaking down Picard into what makes him resilient and idealistic.
5. I, Borg
The Borg are genuinely terrifying, especially in later series and the movies. In these situations, we look at the Borg as an action-movie enemy. They want to assimilate us and our heroes use weapons, trickery, and bravery to thwart their efforts. I, Borg is the complete opposite: what makes the Borg our enemy and what do we owe to individual members of the Borg Collective? The Enterprise rescues a sole Borg drone from a crash site, and they name him Hugh as they try to understand him. They work out that they could give Hugh a virus that would destroy a large section of the Borg Collective, thus opening a philosophical debate about the limits of armed conflict. It’s a fascinating episode.
6. Deja Q
God, I love Q. Here’s John de Lancie reciting The Raven:
In this episode, Q is stripped of his powers and he has to come to terms with mortal limitations. For me, this episode encapsulates the purpose of Star Trek: exploring the human condition and what it means to be feeble.