Countdown to Picard: Top 10 TNG Episodes to Re-Watch

Like many of you, I found myself jumping for joy upon seeing the new trailer for Star Trek: Picard at the recent San Diego Comic Con.

There have been plenty of rumors of problems with this production, from a burgeoning budget, to speculation that backers weren’t happy with the overall direction of the story and its links to previous shows.

Much of that has been laid to rest with this new trailer, though.
It may not be the straight-up sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation that I personally would like to see, but there’s enough of the old Trek in there, along with some interesting new characters to get me seriously hyped for this upcoming show.

Brent Spiner’s Data is back from the dead, alongside Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine. Like a fine wine, the gorgeous Jeri Ryan just seems to get better as the years pass. TNG stalwarts William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) are also set to return. Following on from his recent directorial work on Star Trek: Discovery, Frakes will also be getting behind the camera this time, too.

As was the case with many other 80s kids, it was actually The Next Generation and not the original series that first got me into Star Trek. Whereas those of my father’s generation looked up to the brash arrogance and bravery of Kirk, the compassion of Dr. McCoy, and the logic of Spock, my generation saw Captain Picard as a father figure. Will Riker was the fun-loving-yet-fiercely-dedicated first officer we all aspired to emulate, Worf, was the loyal brother-in-arms we would all be honored to fight alongside, and Data was the best friend we all wish we had. It is often said that in order to embrace the future, one must learn from the past. I don’t know if Captain Picard ever said that, but it sure sounds like something he would say.

So, in keeping with that spirit, let us look back on ten essential episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation you need to go back and re-watch to prepare yourself for Star Trek: Picard.

1) The Best of Both Worlds

Cited by many as one of their all-time favourite Star Trek episodes, this two-part cliffhanger, originally broadcast in the US over the summer of 1990 as the link between seasons three and four, was a defining moment not just for Captain Picard, but for the arch enemy that would haunt him for many years to come: The Borg.

Initially introduced the previous season, in the episode “Q Who”, The Borg are a techno-organic lifeform, hellbent on taking over the entire galaxy. Unlike the warlike Klingons or the scheming Romulans this was an enemy that Picard couldn’t outflank with clever speeches or diplomatic maneuvering. In the same vein as Terminator, or the zombies of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the Borg are soulless creatures, not bound by morality, reason or independent thought. They live only to add new lifeforms to their collective. For a time, it looked like even Picard himself wouldn’t survive this encounter, being essentially turned into a Borg himself and renamed Locutus. While the Enterprise does come out victorious in the end, it is at an unbearably high cost, which has lasting long term implications both for Picard and for the Federation itself. Picard is said to be in a dark place at the start of this new series. Best of Both Worlds is undoubtedly where that darkness has its initial roots.

2) The Measure of a Man

Something of an early gem in TNG, this season two episode is perhaps recalled by many fans as a Data-centric story. However, it is undoubtedly Picard who steps up and steals the show, with a rousing speech, the kind of which would come to define the character in the years that followed.
The idea of the courtroom drama is one that has been used quite a few times in Star Trek down the years, but this is perhaps one of its most memorable incarnations.

Commander Maddox, a scientist based at Starfleet Command, wishes to disassemble Data to see exactly how he works, and determine if his technology can be replicated. In essence, he hopes to give every starship its own Data. Considering the risks to his well-being to be too high, Data refuses to consent to the procedure. When Maddox invokes the chain of command to force the issue, Data feels he has no choice left but to resign his commission. Maddox challenges this, and declares that Data is Starfleet’s “property” and cannot resign.

Picard, in defense of not only his crewman but also his friend, vows to challenge the ruling, and a hearing is convened. In a heart-rending twist, the lack of senior officers available at the time, means that Data’s friend and commanding officer Will Riker is tasked with acting as Starfleet’s counsel in the case, meaning he has to prove that his friend is not a real person and lacks sentience. In the end, Picard manages to cut through the legalese and semantics, clearly proving Data’s worth as a real person and saving him from the literal executioner’s axe.

In a magnanimous gesture, the episode concludes with Data wishing Commander Maddox well, and pledging to keep in touch with him, and follow his research, in the hopes that someday it will be safe enough for Data to consent to the procedure. This leads us into my next choice for our TNG rewatch….

3) Data’s Day

Of course, as the comic con trailer showed, we have far more to look forward to in Picard than just the glorious return of the main man himself. My personal favourite character, Commander Data, is also set to return. So, it would make sense to get some more background on him, too.

This season 4 episode, framed as a loose sequel to the aforementioned “Measure of a Man” was one of a number of character focused episodes that TNG started to do from about season three onward, when the show really hit its creative stride. The episode is narrated by Data in a first-person perspective, through the context of a letter to his former courtroom nemesis, Commander Maddox, at Starfleet Command. As outlined at the end of the season two episode, it is implied that Data has kept in regular contact with Maddox since their initial meeting, and this is just the latest in a long line of correspondence between them.

To help Maddox better understand how Data functions, and how he lives and works amongst the crew of the Enterprise, Data offers to document a day in his life onboard the ship for Maddox’s benefit. This episode shifts between humor, as Data struggles to understand human interactions (the moment where he delivers to Chief O’Brien the “good news” that his would-be wife wants to cancel their wedding is absolutely hilarious), to drama, as Data helps the crew investigate the possible murder of a Starfleet diplomat.

All this is interspersed with genuinely touching moments of character development, as we get to see the world of Star Trek through the child-like eyes of Data, whose lack of emotions actually makes him more empathetic. Captain Kirk famously said of his friend Spock: “Of all the souls I have known, his was the most human”. Despite being an android, the same could be said of Data, as this episode so beautifully demonstrates.

4) I, Borg

Set some 18 months after his experience of being “kidnapped” by the Borg, this season five episode sees Picard juggling a huge moral dilemma. Finding an injured Borg who appears to be little more than a teenager, against Picard’s better judgement, Dr. Crusher heals the young man and the Enterprise crew attempt to communicate with him. Geordi La Forge in particular seems to bond with the Borg, coming to call him a friend and naming him “Hugh”. At the same time, Picard discusses with Starfleet Command a plan to use the young Borg as a weapon to destroy the Borg Collective from within. They plan to infect his mind with a virus, an impossible to solve equation, that will spread throughout the Borg’s hive mind, causing utter chaos and leading to the total failure of their collective within a matter of months. In essence, completely annihilating the Borg.

Despite all that they did to him, Picard is still uneasy at the prospect of committing genocide, albeit against an utterly merciless enemy.
The matter is further complicated when “Hugh” begins to show signs of individuality, coming to refer to himself as “I” rather than “we”, and accepting Picard as captain of the Enterprise and not “Locutus of Borg”. The character of Hugh, played by the same actor, Jonathan Del Arco, is set to return in the new series too, alongside fellow former Borg, Seven of Nine, from Star Trek Voyager. With both Hugh and the Borg, set to play some kind of role in season one of Star Trek Picard, now is as good a time as any to see where it all began for this young Borg.

5) Family

Set directly after the events of “The Best of Both Worlds” this season 4 episode sees an emotionally and mentally broken Picard returning home to France, to his family’s vineyard to try and seek some solace and make some sense of what has just happened. It isn’t long however before unresolved issues between he and his brother begin to resurface and tensions boil over.
After the action, the horror and the devastation of “The Best of Both Worlds”, family makes an excellent counterbalance, with a story centered very much on ordinary human emotions, familial rivalries and the same insecurities many of us carry everyday about our own mortality and our place in this world. This emotionally charged episode showed us the full extent of Patrick Stewart’s range as an actor, in a story that is firmly grounded in every sense of the word.

6) The Inner Light

Cited by many as TNG’s finest hour, and winning a number of awards, this season 5 episode is TNG’s take on a “what if” scenario. After being seemingly attacked by a mysterious alien probe, Picard is left in a coma. As the crew battle to save their captain, Picard himself wakes up on a mysterious alien world. His name is now Kamin, he has a loving wife, and a whole community of friends. What seems like mere minutes on the enterprise becomes years and decades in this new reality for Picard, as he has children, becomes a community leader and even learns to play the flute.

As time passes he sees his friends and wife grow old and slip away, all the while trying to use the limited scientific instruments at his disposal to fend off an impending natural disaster that threatens to destroy the whole planet.
Picard himself is also ageing in this reality, and as he breathes what he believes to be his final breaths, everything becomes clear. The probe that struck him was sent out by this dying world, shortly before their sun went nova, as a repository of this world’s knowledge, people and culture. In attaching itself to Picard, the probe allowed him to live the life these people had lived to know them, and understand them.

Having lived amongst them, Picard’s experience now ensures that this culture will live on in memory long after their extinction. Its mission complete, the probe shuts itself down and releases Picard, allowing him to return to his old life. Whilst around 50 years have passed for Picard in this alternate reality, for the crew of the Enterprise, it is a matter of mere minutes. Further inspection shows the probe to be around 1000 years old, having come from a long dead star system. In a final, tear-jerking moment, Picard discovers stored in the probe a flute, the very same one given to him by his wife in the simulated reality.

Muscle memory still retained from his time with the probe, the episode closes with Picard playing the same familiar lament he learned all those years ago on that distant world. The Inner Light is Star Trek at its very best: beautiful, emotional, heartbreaking and yet at the same time, hopeful. Picard seems destined never to have a family of his own, and yet, this story gave him the chance to do just that, to see what a wonderful husband and father he could have been.

7) Descent

As the curtain-raiser to TNG’s final season, Descent follows on from the events of season five’s “I, Borg” as well as giving a last hurrah to one of the series’ most vicious villains: Lore, Data’s evil twin. Despite his apparent re-assimilation back into the Borg Collective at the conclusion of “I, Borg”, Hugh retained his individuality. This individuality was assimilated into the hive mind, leading to a significant number of Borg drones developing independent thoughts the same way as Hugh had done during his time on the Enterprise.
Abandoned by their collective and lacking the experience or knowledge to use their newfound individuality, these drones seemed doomed. Ever the opportunist, Lore shows up and offers to lead them into a bold new era.
It’s not long before this new type of Borg attack a federation colony, attracting the attention of the Enterprise.

All is not well on the Enterprise either, as Data begins to show anger and other negative emotions. Unbeknownst to him, he is being fed these feelings by Lore, in an attempt to seduce Data to join his cause. Things escalate when Data sides with Lore, imprisoning Picard, Counsellor Troi and Geordi La Forge in the process. In the end, Riker and other senior officers of the Enterprise are forced to enter into an uneasy alliance with a small band of Borg insurgents, led by Hugh who seeks to rescue his friend Geordi and take down Lore once and for all.

Considering that this episode concludes with Hugh installed as the new leader of a band of independently-minded Borg, it will be interesting to see where he has ended up all these years later.

8) Chain of Command

“THERE ARE 4 LIGHTS!”

Possibly one of the series’ most memorable scenes concludes with this final retort from a beleaguered and brutalized Picard. When an undercover mission goes wrong, Picard ends up detained in a Cardassian interrogation chamber. His captor, played by the ever-brilliant David Warner, flips almost schizophrenically between sympathetic listener and psychotic torturer as he attempts to break Picard.

Meanwhile, Picard’s importance to his crew is also felt in its absence onboard the Enterprise, where his replacement Captain Jellico (played by Robocop and Beverly Hills Cop star Ronny Cox) struggles to impose a very different command structure on a crew still holding out hope for their leader’s safe return.

In this episode we see another new facet to Picard, that of the hardened combat veteran. Whilst we are more accustomed to seeing Picard duel verbally with his enemies, here he has to take a more direct approach. We also get to see Star Trek’s take on the very real life military issues of prisoners of war, the use of torture and respect for authority.

9) Tapestry

Building on previous episodes such as “The Inner Light”, “Tapestry” is another character-driven piece, with Picard once again taking center stage.
Severely wounded, Picard lies dying on an operating table when the mischievous “Q” shows up and offers to show him how he may avoid this fate.
What follows is a journey back in time to Picard’s days at Starfleet Academy, and the events leading up to the fight that led to his heart being replaced with an implant, the same implant that is responsible for his present day death.

Picard successfully avoids getting into the fight that caused his injury, but in doing so alters his future. Instead of the brave, assertive captain we know and love, this Picard, who always avoided conflict and kept within the margins has lead a somewhat unimportant career as a junior science officer. Ignored by the very same crew who had grown to love and respect him, Picard decides he would rather die as the man he was, than live as the meek, acquiescent man he has become.

Of course, Q still has a hand to play in all this, and alters events to allow Picard to live in the end. Picard himself even concedes that he may owe Q a debt of gratitude for teaching him to value what he has and appreciate who he has become. Again the theme of “what might have been” gives us another take on who Picard could have been, and like the man himself, we the viewers are also left grateful to have the heroic captain we know and love.

10) All Good Things

The series finale to The Next Generation is still to this day some 25 years later, hailed by many as one of the greatest series finales in television history.
Caught between three distinctly different time periods (the beginning of season one of TNG, the end of season 7 and a possible future 25 years later), Picard begins to doubt his own sanity, as he shifts uncontrollably between these three different points in his life. Meanwhile, an anomaly in space threatens to wipe out all life on earth, unless Picard can figure out a way to stop it.

This incredible finale not only pushes Picard to his absolute limits, it’s also a veritable tour de force of everything we loved about TNG over the seven years we spent with that crew. Past cast members such as Denise Crosby and Colm Meaney drop in for a final goodbye, as does the late, great Andreas Katsulas as Picard’s recurring Romulan rival, Tomalak. The returning cast is rounded out by that rascal we all can’t help but love, Q. The series started with a battle of wills between Q and Picard, with humankind’s fate at stake, so it’s only fitting that it ends that way too. The final scene, in which Picard finally lets his guard down and joins his officers for their weekly poker game, expressing regret that he hasn’t done so before, still brings a tear to my eye to this day.

Of course these are just my own thoughts. Which TNG episodes do you plan to rewatch before Picard hits our screens in early 2020?
What are your hopes for this show and for the future of Star Trek?
Join the conversation and tell us your thoughts.

Liam Carrigan

Scotsman living in Japan. Teacher. Blogger.

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