Best Episode Ever # 30: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’

TNG title

While Fred Topel fights Maquis forces on a distant planet, CraveOnline’s resident Trekkie, Witney Seibold, will be filling in duties on Best Episode Ever. Witney is using this six-week period to give the best episodes of each of the “Star Trek” series to date.

I can say with complete comfort that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (which ran for seven seasons from 1987 until 1994) is the best sci-fi series ever. Well, okay I suppose “The Twilight Zone” technically has it beat, and I’m willing to hear your case for your own personal favorites – you may posit cases for “Firefly” or “Battlestar Galactica” if you like – but I think we all know the real truth of that matter. Of all the sci-fi shows from the last 30 years, though, “ST:TNG” still looms largest in the pop culture landscape. The Enterprise –D and the stern intelligence of Captain Picard are now touchstones for all sci-fi nerds. And while it’s not as iconic as the 1966 original, “NextGen” surpassed it in many ways.

At the very least, and for what it’s worth, “Next Generation” is perhaps the most important television series in my own life, and I don’t expect to adore or to follow as closely any other TV series until my death. This was the show that defined my youth in many ways. I watched every episode as they rolled out from day one. I taped it, obsessed over it, read the novels, memorized the technical details, debated it with peers. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is my pop culture anchor. On an unrelated note, I didn’t lose my virginity until the show had left the airwaves.

So to choose a best episode is an extraordinarily difficult task for me. I can – just off the top of my head – rattle off about 25 episodes that I could easily rank amongst the best. In short: I know the show too well and love it too intimately to play favorites. But this is Best Episode Ever, and play favorites I must, so I have come to a final decision.

TNG cast

For those who are unfamiliar with the show (and there may perhaps be a few out there), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was the Gene Roddenberry-created spinoff to “Star Trek” that took place about a century after the events of the original series. The Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) was a new, larger, more advanced version of the ship we had previously known, and it was staffed by an entirely new crew of characters. The tone of the show was also less “Wagon Train” and more outright U.N. diplomacy; Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew were egalitarian peacemakers rather than bold, manly adventurers. The “Next Generation” version of “to boldly go” was perhaps a bit more timid.

But far more intellectual, far more technically savvy (“Next Generation” was the first of the Treks to so fully explore such a realistic technological angle), and far more thoughtful. The central thematic appeal of “Star Trek” has always been – as I have mentioned in previous weeks – its little philosophical conceits; what will humanity be, even once we’ve taken to the stars? What questions will we have answered, and why questions will we still be asking? What will be the state of the human condition once technology and pacifism have come to rule our lives? “Next Generation,” more than any of the shows, was the most philosophical, and handled these questions the most deftly. All amidst awesome technologies, occasional temporal rifts, and piles of nifty special phenomena.

And it’s one of the more philosophical episodes that I will ultimately select as my best. The best episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is “Tapestry” from season six, originally airing on February 15th, 1993.

TNG afterlife

“Tapestry” is all about Capt. Picard – other crew members do not play into the central story. In the episode, Picard is grievously injured off-screen right at the beginning, only to die unexpectedly on Dr. Crusher’s medical table. She was unable to help Picard, as his heart is artificial and it was unable to handle the appropriate medicines.

Picard, meanwhile, awakens in the afterlife surrounded by light, only to be greeted by Q (John de Lancie), an omnipotent alien trickster who appeared on “Next Generation” several times in the past. Picard has never trusted Q, and is unsure if his dying is a deathly vision, the actual afterlife, or an elaborate alien hoax. Q, fond of testing humanity for his own amusement, offers Picard an opportunity: He can go back in time to the event that led to his receiving his artificial heart – the 22-year-old Picard, then brash and hot-blooded, got into a vicious knife fight in a bar with an alien – and prevent it from happening, thus saving his own life.