For a long time, I’ve wanted to write an episode-by-episode guide to every Star Trek series out there, with the exception of Discovery, because I haven’t seen that one yet. (And at this point, I don’t plan to, although that could change.) Then I read Max Temkin’s article on how to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in only 80 hours (well, 82.5 hours), and I realized that I didn’t have to cover every episode, just the ones I thought were interesting for whatever reason.
So this is not a “best of” listing or even a “worst of” listing. Some of the episodes here are great, and some are groan-worthy. Some are silly but watchable (i.e., “The Last Outpost”) and some are silly and best avoided (i.e., “Identity Crisis”). Some are here because they broke new ground, either for television in general or for Star Trek in particular.
Also, even though almost everyone acknowledges that the first two seasons suck (this is also true of DS9 and Voyager) there are still some good episodes in there. They’re not necessarily great, but they are less full of suck than the episodes that surround them.
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“Encounter at Farpoint” (Episodes 1 and 2)
As far as Star Trek pilots go, this may be the worst. The characters are wooden, the plot is silly, Q is ridiculous (the only thing that redeems this character at this point is John de Lancie’s splendid performance), Troi is an emotional trainwreck (more about that later), and there are far too many men in skirts (more about that later, as well). But you have to watch this double episode because it’s the premiere episode, and although it does a terrible job of setting up the rest of the series (unlike the DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise pilots), you may as well start at the beginning, because you can’t appreciate how great this show later became without seeing how terribly it started off.
Men in skirts: Seriously, if you want to show how far humanity as come in regard to sexual equality in the 24th century, instead of putting men in skirts,you might try putting women in costumes that aren’t form-fitting (i.e., skin tight), similar to what the men wore. Alas, this is the fate that Deanna Troi suffered throughout most of TNG’s run, and even though she later got a regular uniform, this fate would later be suffered by Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager. I mean, c’mon people.
Deanna Troi: It’s really as if the writers and producers of this show had no idea what to do with this character for the longest time. (It’s no wonder Marina Sirtis wondered early on if this character was going to be written out of the series.) In the early seasons, her accent and hair are the most ridiculous attempt to make her seem exotic, and her empathic abilities meant that she felt what some other character was feeling, rather than just knowing what they were feeling. I’m not sure how that would work out on a ship with over a thousand people on board. Troi has always been one of my favorite characters, and I was very glad when her character became a bit more fully fleshed out in later seasons—helped along with her relationship to her mother, Lwaxana (but more about that later).
“The Last Outpost” (Episode 5)
I like this episode for two reasons. First, it posits the possibility that there were civilizations far older than our own in the galaxy. And why not? Why are we so egocentric that we assume all history starts and ends with humans?
Second, this is the first time we see the Ferengi. Apparently, the actors were told to act like rapid gerbils (reference needed—if you have it, please drop it in a comment down below), and they pulled this off with aplomb. A lot of people thought they just came across as silly (and they do, at first glance), but wait—these are not humans we’re talking about. Why would they act like humans? I would expect alien races to behave in a way completely unlike humans (although not necessarily like rapid gerbils). In some ways, I find the Ferengi of “The Last Outpost” far more believable than the Ferengi we see in DS9. (A portrayal which, as many have pointed out, is somewhat problematic. But that’s for a different post.)
Finally, it’s a shame that the writers of Star Trek promptly forgot about the Ferengi whip. While I generally agree that hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good phase pistol by your side, this weapon seems appropriate to a species as rooted in tradition as the Ferengi. After all, look at what the Klingons can do with a bat’leth. (In close quarters, that is. At a distance, I’ll take a phaser rifle any day.) But it would have been interesting if the writers could have turned the Ferengi whip into an ancient weapon that is more effective at a distance than a phaser. Maybe it could distribute phaser energy over a distant location, the way that the sound of a crack spreads from the end of a whip, stunning several people at once. Now that would have been something to see.
“Hide and Q” (Episode 10)
It’s always creepy when a teenager gets turned into an adult, but still speaks in a teenager’s voice. If you need an example, just watch this episode. Ewwww.
For what it’s worth, it’s also creepy when a teenager gets turned into an adult, and looks and sounds like an adult, but still acts like a teenager. If you need an example, see the recent Shazam movie, which was completely enjoyable except for the “ew, ick, no!” factor.
Hard pass on this episode.
“Haven” (Episode 11)
Notable mostly for introducing the character of Lwaxana Troi. Most people despise her, but I’ve always loved this character and how Majel Barrett played her. You always know where you stand with Lwaxana, and that’s not something you can say about most humans.
Also, we learn that Betazoids are okay with public nudity. Humans still have a lot to learn.
“11001001” (Episode 15)
This is a silly episode, but it is watchable because the Binars are endlessly fascinating to me. They are, after all, what the Borg could have been if they had evolved to be chaotic good instead of lawful evil. It’s a terrible shame that this was their only appearance in the Star Trek franchise.
Also, this episode is notable the because the character of Minuet completely underpins a much later, and much better episode—the fourth season’s “Future Imperfect.”
“When the Bough Breaks” (Episode 17)
This episode is notable for two reasons:
First, in the 24th century, everyone takes calculus in the sixth grade. When I was in sixth grade, many of us were still eating glue, so I find this highly optimistic. (Also, it is possible to teach basic calculus concepts to very young kids. Just ask me sometime.)
Second, this episode shows what the Wesley Crusher character could have been had the writers had any clue about what to do with him. I can watch this episode solely to see Wesley’s leadership skills.
“Skin of Evil” (Episode 23)
Notable only for the death of security chief Tasha Yar, because her death was completely without meaning, which is unusual for the world of Star Trek. We really like the death of a character to be in the service of something Big and Significant. But Tasha’s wasn’t. It was on a whim.
Also, seeing what the writers did with this character—and what they failed to accomplish—it’s no wonder Denise Crosby wanted out. And the death of Tasha made for some extremely captivating episodes later on. (Yep, I’m talking about season three’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and season five’s “Unification”.)
“We’ll Always Have Paris” (Episode 24)
Michelle Phillips and Patrick Stewart are mis-matched actors playing mis-matched former lovers. A lot of ink has been spilled talking about the lack of chemistry between these two characters (Why, though? After all, they’re former lovers in this episode. Something’s gotta be not very compatible.) so I won’t go on about it here. It is what it is.
Still, this is one of my favorite episodes, and I have no idea why. Is it because the nerdy scientist guy at least has a chance with a beautiful woman? Or is it because Paris is always a good backdrop to any television episode? Or because Data views himself as expendable because he is other and Picard has to explain to him that he’s sending him on the mission because he’s the only one with any chance of success? Or is it because the time paradoxes intrigue me? Or is it, just maybe, because at one point we get three Datas at the end, and one of them finally figures out “It’s me!”? I have no idea.
Hate this episode all you want. I still enjoy it immensely.
“Conspiracy” (Episode 25)
This episode was controversial because the special effects at the end are rather graphic. To be clear, if you like watching meat explode, you’ll think it’s neato! If you don’t like watching meat explode, well, then, not so much.
This episode is notable because like “Hide and Q” is has a bit of a story arc from an earlier episode—in this case, “Coming of Age.” The Next Generation tended to be episodic, with very few episodes connecting back to previous episodes. The third season of DS9 would turn this reality completely on its head.
I like this episode because of the ending, which posits that these organisms had planned a complete takeover of the Federation. It is hard not to compare this episode to Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters and it is a shame that these creatures never made an appearance later. (“Parallels” in season 7 would have been a perfect place.) Of imagine a runabout full of these alien-human chimeras pulling Sisko’s or Janeway’s butt-cheeks out of the fire. That would have been a very different Star Trek franchise.
“The Neutral Zone” (Episode 26)
This season started off with a terrible episode and ends with a great one.
First, you have Data making command decisions without consulting anyone. “Frozen people from the 20th century? I’d better thaw them out before they get freezer burn!” The three people who get thawed out could not be more different, either:
Data is so clueless in this episode, I can barely contain myself. It’s only Brent Spiner’s delicate and nuanced portrayal that keeps this from descending into a farce.
Also, Ralph Offenhouse is a complete tool:
But he does understand the Romulans. Oh yes, he does. Better than Picard does, or even Troi.
Also, if the Romulan on the left looks and sounds familiar to you, that’s because he’s played by Marc Alaimo, who would go on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space 9.
I really do recommend reading Max Temkin’s guide to DS9 and his guide to TNG. (The former has some truly delightful illustrations from Lee Sargent.) He really does offer a lot of background to the series and some great quotes. (Although, no sources, alas!)
FWIW, I originally found out about Max’s guide to DS9 from Wil Wheaton.
Also, RIP Aron Eisenberg. You are missed.
- “Encounter at Farpoint” — Some thoughts by Den of Geek, the AV Club, and read a 30th anniversary tribute at Tor. Jerz has some interesting things to say about the characters.
- “The Last Outpost” — Neither Den of Geek nor Jerz like the Ferengi whip.
Well, that’s it for now. I’ll discuss seasons two through seven in future posts, where I also intend to discuss how these characters evolved. (And if there’s interest, I’ll also get around to DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, and possible, Discovery, as well as the movies.)
I hope I’ve made my point that even though the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was not the greatest show in general, it did have some really fine moments. Of course, you, dear readers, are free to disagree. Which episodes from season one did you like or dislike? What did I miss? Drop a comment below and let us know.