Ten “comfort episodes” of Star Trek for difficult days

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series Season 2, The Voyage Home, The Next Generation Season 6, Deep Space Nine Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Enterprise Season 2, Short Treks, Picard Season 1, Lower Decks Season 2, and Prodigy Season 1.
Phew. That was a lot!

The world can be a crappy place, and not just because of wars and pandemics. Sometimes we all need to switch off from current events and seek out some escapism. For me, films and TV shows with very heavy themes, lots of violence, or dark narratives don’t always provide the best escape, and on days when my mental health suffers I find myself reaching for something lighter and comforting. On this occasion, I thought we could pick out a few Star Trek stories that I believe fit that description.

The Star Trek franchise has long been an escape from reality for me. In both its older and modern incarnations, I find that jumping head-first into a future that looks safer and better than anything we could imagine today feels pretty great! Star Trek has always had an underlying setting that feels optimistic and hopeful for a better tomorrow – and that’s something we all need to hear sometimes.

So with that in mind, let’s consider a few Star Trek stories that I believe make for lighter, comforting viewing. As always, this isn’t a ranked list; the episodes are listed below in the order they were first broadcast.

Number 1:
A Piece of the Action
The Original Series Season 2

Captain Kirk as you may not have seen him before!

The Original Series made very creative use of some of the limitations of its time! It wasn’t always possible to visit a brand-new planet every week that looked and felt very “alien,” so The Original Series used sets intended for other films and TV shows in different – and occasionally silly – ways. A Piece of the Action sees Captain Kirk and the crew encounter a planet whose entire population have based their society around the Chicago mob!

When A Piece of the Action was written, the 1920s were only forty years in the past – the equivalent today of the eighties! So perhaps to viewers at the time it was more relevant and less… camp. But I’ve always found A Piece of the Action to have a light, almost comedic flair simply because of its setting; the ’20s-inspired dialogue, the old fashioned suits, and the general tone of a “Golden Age of Hollywood” gangster flick all contribute to that.

Spock and Dr McCoy with Tommy guns.

The notion of going to a faraway planet in space and finding a society based on the Chicago mob is silly, but A Piece of the Action sells it in the best way it can, making the very odd juxtaposition of scenes aboard the Enterprise and scenes on Sigma Iotia II flow surprisingly well. But above all, it’s a fun story that imitates, in a very Star Trek way, classic mobster films from a generation earlier.

Apparently A Piece of the Action was going to be the basis for a Quentin Tarantino-directed Star Trek film that ultimately didn’t enter production. It seems as though I’m in a minority, based on the reactions to this news from Trekkies I’ve spoken with, but I’d have been interested to see what a director as undeniably talented as Tarantino would’ve brought to Star Trek. A new film from such a big name would surely have been a box office draw, at the very least! But maybe that should be the topic of a longer article sometime.

Number 2:
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Dr McCoy and Scotty in 1986.

Also known as “the one with the whales,” The Voyage Home is arguably the most lighthearted and fun of all the Star Trek films to date! After the very heavy stories of loss and death in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, the third and final act of this trilogy came along like a breath of fresh air. I feel that The Voyage Home is the most dated of the Star Trek films thanks to being set in what was, at the time, the modern day. But that doesn’t detract from it; the kitschy eighties flavour is all part of the appeal!

There are some fantastic moments of pure comedy in The Voyage Home. I won’t spoil them if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, but suffice to say that bringing a 23rd Century crew to the modern day and forcing them to interact with basic things like cash and computers led to some absolutely hilarious, iconic moments.

HMS Bounty makes it home.

There’s an ecological message at the heart of The Voyage Home, and the threat posed by the alien “whale probe” is definitely serious. But that theme doesn’t present as excessively weighty, and by the time Kirk and the gang are running around San Fransisco in 1986, the focus is more on the fun side of that premise.

With Star Trek: Picard Season 2 fast approaching, it could be fun to go back to The Voyage Home to see the most recent use of the “slingshot method” of travelling through time – something that may be making a return to Star Trek very soon!

Number 3:
Relics
The Next Generation Season 6

Cheers!

I wanted to put at least one crossover episode on this list, and this time it’s Relics that makes the cut! Bringing Scotty into The Next Generation was a lot of fun, and having him overcome his “fish out of water” status to eventually work alongside Geordi La Forge was absolutely fantastic, and made for a wonderful, heartwarming story.

With no evil villain to defeat nor a war to fight, Relics posed a scientific puzzle for Star Trek’s first two engineers to overcome – and in the process they were able to save the Enterprise-D from being trapped inside of a Dyson Sphere! There’s definitely a message in Relics: that older people have a lot to contribute if younger people are willing to take the time to listen.

Star Trek’s first two engineers teamed up for this adventure.

When I first saw Relics back in the ’90s, I wasn’t prepared for Scotty’s arrival. This was before the days of spoilers on social media, so I went into the episode completely unaware of what I was about to see. When Scotty materialised on the transporter pad for the first time I was absolutely blown away! The Next Generation had been my first port of call in the early ’90s, but by the time Relics came around I’d seen all of The Original Series films and quite a few episodes, so I was really excited when it turned out to be a crossover episode.

Relics is, in a lot of ways, a very fan-servicey episode. But it’s also a comforting one, and more than that it feels almost like a slice of pure Star Trek. There’s a scientific mystery that’s both interesting and exciting, there are some wonderful character moments between Scotty and Picard and Scotty and La Forge in particular, there’s more than a dash of humour, and there’s an underlying message that may just strike a chord with some folks in the real world. It’s an all-around Star Trek episode!

Number 4:
The Magnificent Ferengi
Deep Space Nine Season 6

Aren’t they magnificent?

The Magnificent Ferengi takes what should be a dark and upsetting premise but manages to put a lighthearted, comedic spin on it thanks to the inclusion of the titular Ferengi. After a less than spectacular introduction in the first season of The Next Generation, in which they were originally supposed to replace the newly-pacified Klingons and become a major antagonist, the Ferengi carved themselves a new niche in Deep Space Nine thanks in no small part to a wonderful performance by Armin Shimerman as Quark.

We came to see the Ferengi as comic relief on a number of occasions, as in The Magnificent Ferengi, but they were also a people with depth. Issues within Ferengi society surrounding the pursuit of wealth at all costs, the second-class status of women, and so on were topics that Deep Space Nine tackled, and the fact that the Ferengi can be funny didn’t detract from those attempts to use them to examine some more serious subjects. But that’s not why we’re here today!

Quark and Keevan.

At the height of the Dominion War, Quark and Rom’s mother is captured by the Dominion, and Quark leads an all-Ferengi rescue operation. With the exception of Grand Nagus Zek, this episode brings together practically every Deep Space Nine Ferengi character, and musician Iggy Pop has a guest-starring role.

The plot descends into a comedic farce – naturally, given Quark’s leadership – and if you’ve ever seen Weekend at Bernie’s… well, you know what to expect! The Magnificent Ferengi is a ton of fun, and a great episode for showcasing some of Deep Space Nine’s recurring characters.

Number 5:
Message in a Bottle
Voyager Season 4

Two Emergency Medical Holograms!

Once again we have an episode with a potentially dark premise that goes in a very different and fun direction! The Doctor is the star here, as he’s sent to the Alpha Quadrant to attempt to make contact with Starfleet for the first time since Captain Janeway and the crew became stranded 75,000 light-years from home… but he finds himself aboard a ship that has been captured by the Romulans!

Comedian Andy Dick guest-stars as a newer version of the Emergency Medical Hologram, and forms an astonishingly funny pair with the Doctor, who was often used for moments of comic relief during Voyager’s run. Seeing the two holograms working together to outsmart the Romulans in a comic story that could verge into slapstick is absolutely hilarious, and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments.

The Doctor and his fellow EMH.

I also find Message in a Bottle to be a very uplifting episode. It marks the halfway point of Voyager’s seven-season run, and the first moment that the crew are able to contact the Federation. After four years of being alone, the crew finally get to inform Starfleet that they’re okay and working their way home, and there’s something incredible about the episode’s closing moments as a result.

The Prometheus-class ship is a pretty cool inclusion, too – a brand-new class of ship which has features that even the USS Voyager or Enterprise-E couldn’t match. I always wanted to see more from this ship, but aside from a couple of background appearances, we haven’t yet!

Number 6:
Carbon Creek
Enterprise Season 2

Vulcans… in the fifties!

Carbon Creek uses a frame narrative to tell the story of the first time Vulcans came to Earth… and it wasn’t in the mid-21st Century, as Captain Archer (and us as the audience) had been led to believe! Instead, T’Pol tells the tale of her great-grandmother, and how she and a small crew came to be stranded on Earth in the 1950s during a survey mission.

Carbon Creek is fun for its fifties atmosphere, and Enterprise really manages to nail that feel through some wonderful sets, costumes, and dialogue. It’s also an episode that shows off how Vulcans can be unintentionally funny in Star Trek, particularly when confronted with different or unusual situations. In this case, T’Mir and her crew have to blend in with a town of very emotional humans.

Cheers!

There are definitely some lighthearted moments scattered through the entire episode, and the frame of T’Pol recounting the story to a stunned Archer and Tucker adds to that as well. It’s also a great example of how a prequel story doesn’t have to tread on the toes of anything established previously; nothing in Carbon Creek fundamentally changes what we already know about first contact between humans and Vulcans. In many ways it expands it – knowing that Vulcan had humanity under observation decades ahead of official first contact gives them a reason to be surveying the area during the events of First Contact!

All in all, a fun episode that steps away from many of Star Trek’s familiar elements like starships to tell a story with some interesting characters in a fun setting.

Number 7:
Ephraim and DOT
Short Treks Season 2

Ephraim and DOT.

It’s a shame that we haven’t seen more Short Treks lately; the most recent batch of episodes ended with Children of Mars shortly before Picard Season 1 kicked off in early 2020. The idea of telling one-shot short stories in the Star Trek galaxy may have been a fairly blunt and obvious way for CBS All Access (since rebranded as Paramount+) to convince Trekkies to remain subscribed in between seasons of the main Star Trek shows, but several episodes ended up being fantastic in their own right.

Ephraim and DOT was one of two animated Short Treks episodes that were broadcast in December 2019, and it’s something that we hadn’t really seen the Star Trek franchise do before. Thirty-five years after The Animated Series went off the air, this was Star Trek’s first return to animation, and where The Girl Who Made The Stars was more of a conventional story, Ephraim and DOT was framed very differently!

A well-earned hug.

Telling the story of a tardigrade named Ephraim and a DOT-type robot aboard the USS Enterprise, this Disney-inspired tale sees the unlikely duo team up to save Ephraim’s eggs. With an enthusiastic narrator who sounds like they’ve come from a National Geographic documentary, the short story is a lot of fun – and packs a surprisingly emotional punch at its climax!

Ephraim and DOT also shows off a handful of fun clips from The Original Series that have been reimagined for animation, and this “greatest hits” montage was absolutely fantastic; a blast from the past that elevated the episode.

Number 8:
Nepenthe
Picard Season 1

Picard and Riker embrace.

If you don’t have the same connection to the characters from The Next Generation that I do, maybe Nepenthe won’t be one of your “comfort episodes.” But for me, seeing Picard reunited with Riker and Troi was one of the highlights of Picard Season 1 – and Nepenthe is one of the best Star Trek episodes that I’ve seen in a long time!

After several tense and dramatic episodes in which Picard and the crew of La Sirena had to unpick the mystery of Bruce Maddox, the synths, the Zhat Vash plot, and so on, Picard was able to rescue Soji and use a spatial trajector to escape to the planet of Nepenthe – home to Riker, Troi, and their daughter Kestra.

Kestra and Soji.

There are some very sweet moments between Soji and Kestra as they bond, and while the story has some very bittersweet moments as we learn that Riker and Troi’s elder child had passed away, there are some absolutely incredible and heartwarming character moments as well. After more than eighteen years away from the 24th Century, Nepenthe felt like the homecoming I had been waiting for.

Seeing Riker and Troi enjoying a peaceful life away from Starfleet was something that I needed to see, even if I didn’t realise it beforehand! Although there were issues with the Picard Season 1 finale that meant that, realistically, taking an entire episode away from the main plot to slow down and hang out with Picard, Riker, Troi, and Soji was arguably a mistake, I just can’t find it in my heart to fault Nepenthe for the way it comes across on screen. It’s a beautiful, emotional episode, and sitting down to eat pizza with the characters after everything they’ve been through just feels right.

Number 9:
First First Contact
Lower Decks Season 2

Tendi and Dr T’Ana.

First First Contact might be my favourite episode of Lower Decks so far. It isn’t as hilarious as some of the show’s other offerings, but as an uplifting story with a real “Star Trek” feel, I don’t think it can be bettered! The episode sees the crew of the Cerritos teamed up with the fancier and more powerful USS Archimedes – under the command of one Captain Sonya Gomez, no less – to undertake their first ever mission of first contact!

But naturally, things don’t go to plan. The Cerritos is called into action to save the stricken Archimedes, and the entire crew pulls together to perform the very difficult and dangerous task of literally stripping off the ship’s outer hull! Lower Decks ditched its usual two (or three) storylines format here, and put all four ensigns and all of the ship’s senior staff in the same story – and the result was absolutely fantastic.

The USS Cerritos and the USS Archimedes.

Lower Decks goes out of its way to recreate the look of The Next Generation era, and I’ve always appreciated that. But it doesn’t hesitate to bring new things to the table, and we get our first look at Cetacean Ops in this episode – an aquatic department that had been mentioned in background dialogue in The Next Generation but never seen on screen.

All four ensigns have roles to play in the story, and after the Cerritos had to be saved at the climax of the Season 1 finale, the poetic symmetry of being the one to save a disabled Starfleet ship was absolutely beautiful, and a great way to bring the show’s successful second season to a close.

Number 10:
Kobayashi
Prodigy Season 1

Dal and Jankom Pog with a holographic Dr Crusher.

The Kobayashi Maru test seems like an odd choice for a “comfort” pick, doesn’t it? But the way Prodigy pulls it off feels like a love letter to Star Trek, bringing in classic characters from The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine in holographic form.

There’s more going on in the episode than just the Kobayashi Maru test on the holodeck, and Prodigy’s ongoing story arcs come into play in a big way throughout. But for me, the moments on the holodeck with Dal and the holographic versions of some wonderful characters from Star Trek’s past are what elevates Kobayashi and what makes it so enjoyable.

Uhura!

It’s such a shame that Prodigy remains (officially) unavailable in most of the world, because it’s been one of the most surprisingly fun Star Trek projects, and despite its kid-friendly atmosphere and intended audience, there’s so much to love for Trekkies. I hope that the rollout of Paramount+ internationally will see Prodigy grow in popularity and bring in hordes of new fans – and with episodes as strong as Kobayashi to ease them into the world of Star Trek, there’s a good chance that’ll happen!

The character choices may seem like an odd mix at first – and seeing Odo on the bridge of a Galaxy-class ship definitely felt strange! But each of them is given a moment to showcase their strengths, and what they brought to Star Trek in their original appearances. It makes the entire holodeck sequence feel so very special – and with such an eclectic mix of characters, there really isn’t anything quite like it in Star Trek’s entire official canon!

So that’s it!

The original USS Enterprise.

Those are my picks for ten “comfort episodes” – or rather, nine comfort episodes and a comfort film – from the Star Trek franchise. We don’t need to repeat why the world feels so messed up right now, because we can all see what’s going on. Certain news stories have become omnipresent, completely taking over social media and other apps. If you find yourself doomscrolling, take a break. Do anything other than wallow in the mess of the real world.

The Star Trek franchise has been my comfort place for decades, and I find myself drawn to it when the world feels too much or when my mental health suffers. A future where humanity has succeeded at conquering not only the problems of today but also many of the baser, more primitive aspects of our own nature holds an appeal that can be difficult to put into words, and I find that practically every Star Trek story – even those darker in tone – have a lot to offer.

So I hope this was a bit of fun and maybe gave you some viewing inspiration! I had a great time going back to these episodes to put this list together, and with everything going on in the world I thought it could be a good time to share something like this.

The Star Trek franchise – including all episodes and films discussed above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five planets that Star Trek probably won’t revisit any time soon!

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series Season 2, The Animated Series, The Next Generation Season 1, Voyager Season 2, Star Trek 2009, Picard Season 1, Discovery Season 3, and Lower Decks Season 2.

I wouldn’t even like to guess how many different planets (and other planetary bodies) have been visited across all 800+ episodes and films in the Star Trek franchise! It must be a lot… maybe someone has been keeping a tally, but I certainly haven’t! There are some worlds that we’ve visited more than others – Bajor, Qo’noS, and of course Earth all spring to mind. But there are some planets that, for one reason or another, are best left behind in the franchise’s past.

As Star Trek moves on to bigger and better things, some planets – and their inhabitants – seem outdated, or perhaps the concept behind the planet was never a good one to begin with. Today I thought it could be interesting to consider five examples of planets that Star Trek will almost certainly never revisit!

Planet #1:
Ekos

The USS Enterprise in orbit of Ekos (as it originally appeared).

Ekos was created for The Orignal Series Season 2 episode Patterns of Force, but you might know it better as “that Nazi planet.” There’s definitely scope for the Star Trek franchise to tackle authoritarianism, fascism, and even Nazism – and as recently as 2004, Enterprise put its own spin on the “Star Trek-versus-Nazis” concept. But there are a few deeply unsettling things about Ekos, and how its Nazi-inspired government came to power.

First of all we need a brief history lesson! In the 1960s, when Patterns of Force was created, some historians, economists, and other political scientists regarded Nazi Germany as an “efficient” state. Resting all power in a single individual, they argued, made for a powerful government that could be run very efficiently. In Patterns of Force, Federation anthropologist/historian John Gill cites this theory as the reason for introducing Nazism to the Ekosians.

Ekos is also known as “Planet of the Nazis.”

That theory was flat-out wrong, and even by the 1970s and 1980s, the flawed thinking that led to the myth of “Nazi efficiency” had been exposed and thoroughly debunked. In short, Nazi Germany was a very poorly-run government, with a handful of cronies of the führer wielding disproportionate levels of power, and micromanagement in certain departments and industries majorly hampering the state’s industrial output. How this myth ever came to be as widely believed as it was is, in some respects, a bit of a mystery. But suffice to say that the central conceit behind Patterns of Force has been exposed as a falsehood.

John Gill, the academic at the heart of the story, also represents a very distinct kind of betrayal of Federation values, taking things to perhaps the most unpleasant extreme possible. Star Trek has never shied away from showing us flawed human beings and Federation officials, but Gill is a step too far, and Patterns of Force can be an uncomfortable watch for many Trekkies.

John Gill, the Federation historian who became the Führer of Ekos.

Though it might be interesting, in some respects, to revisit Ekos in the 24th, 25th, or 32nd Centuries to see how things had progressed, in many ways it’s a planet – and a story concept – that should probably remain on the sidelines. Modern Star Trek can tell far more subtle stories about authoritarianism, racism, and the like without needing to resort to overt depictions of Federation-sponsored Nazism.

Patterns of Force is based on an outdated concept, and while it was brought to screen quite well by the standards of The Original Series, with some clever visual effects for the time and some surprisingly accurate costumes, it feels like an anachronism overall. This is one best left behind in the 1960s!

Planet #2:
Megas-Tu

The USS Enterprise near Megas-Tu.

The Animated Series had some very wacky sci-fi concepts. Taking Star Trek away from live-action meant that the franchise was no longer confined by the limitations of practical special effects, and thus it was possible to depict things like a 40-foot tall clone of Spock, an entirely underwater civilisation, or, in The Magicks of Megas-Tu, an alternate universe where magic is real and science is not.

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Magicks of Megas-Tu, and I think it’s an episode that every Trekkie should watch at least once. It’s an example of mid-century sci-fi at its wackiest, but it manages to retain a Star Trek tone throughout the very unusual adventure that Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves on.

A group of Megans departing their homeworld.

With the possible exception of Lower Decks, which has been more willing to explore some of the stranger elements of classic Star Trek, I can’t imagine Megas-Tu ever making another Star Trek appearance. How would it fit in Discovery, for example, or Picard? The tone of modern Star Trek is just too different – and even by the time of The Next Generation, Star Trek had moved away from concepts like this. Megas-Tu feels homeless, in a sense, in a franchise that has moved on.

That isn’t to say that it was a bad concept when it was first developed, but like several ideas from The Original Series and The Animated Series, magic and fantasy just seem to be a step too far for a franchise that has retained its esoteric side and sense of fun, but refocused them into more science-based stories rather than stories that use literal magic and fantasy as core elements.

Cheers!

It’s hard to see how a story about Megas-Tu could fit in with modern Star Trek. Audience expectations have shifted when it comes to science-fiction, and with the Star Trek franchise moving away from stories like The Magicks of Megas-Tu, it seems very unlikely that we’ll see anything like it in the franchise anytime soon.

There’s also the in-universe problem of travelling to the Megans’ universe, and while technobabble can always be created to explain away these things, it seems like a bit of a stretch. It’s possible we’ll get more references to The Animated SeriesPicard Season 1 made reference to the Kzinti, for example. But a full revisit to Megas-Tu is probably off the table!

Planet #3:
Ligon II

Ligon II.

The planet that inspired me to put together this list, Ligon II was visited in Code of Honor, the notorious Season 1 episode of The Next Generation that has been widely criticised for its use of racial stereotypes. The Ligonians encapsulated stereotypes of Africans and African-Americans, and Code of Honor has to be one of the worst episodes of The Next Generation as a result.

Some stories from past iterations of the franchise are open to redemption; to being revisited to right the wrongs of the past. We’ve seen this, to an extent, with certain characters in modern Star Trek who saw much-needed development or expansions of incomplete arcs. We’ve also seen Lower Decks revisit planets like Beta III to comment on Starfleet’s somewhat chaotic approach to first contact.

Code of Honor has been widely criticised for stereotyping.

But Code of Honor and the episode’s depiction of the Ligonians feels so utterly wrong that it’s irredeemable. There are some parts of Star Trek’s past that the franchise brushes under the carpet, choosing to ignore and even overwrite things rather than try to fix the unfixable. Captain Pike’s “woman on the bridge” line in The Cage is such an example – overt sexism from a character that we’re now very excited to see return. Ligon II and Code of Honor are definitely in the “let’s all just pretend that never happened” category… for the good of the franchise!

It’s amazing, when you think about it, that Code of Honor was produced as late as 1987. It would still feel outdated had it been part of The Original Series in the 1960s, but to know that it was produced for The Next Generation – within my own lifetime – is one of those things that boggles the mind.

A ritual combat arena on the surface of Ligon II.

Code of Honor is an episode that I think Trekkies need to watch. It’s worth remembering that, despite its lofty ambitions and attempts to depict a better future, the people who create Star Trek can still make mistakes. This was an episode that Gene Roddenberry had some creative input in and signed off on – he was The Next Generation’s executive producer at the time.

The episode is noteworthy for its complete lack of awareness. The people who created this story, cast it, and put it to screen were so blind to the offensive stereotypes that it depicted that they allowed it to progress and even get broadcast. Star Trek may have made strides, even in its early years, in its attempts to confront and tackle things like segregation and race hate – but it was blind, at times, to subtler, more covert forms of racism and racial stereotyping.

Planet #4:
Uninhabited Delta Quadrant world

A hyper-evolved human on the surface of this unnamed planet.

This planet doesn’t have a name… but I vote we call it “Tom Paris and Captain Janeway’s sex planet.” That’s right, it’s the planet from Threshold! After crossing the Warp 10 barrier and experiencing hyper-evolution, Tom Paris kidnapped Captain Janeway and took her to this remote, uninhabited world somewhere in the Delta Quadrant. By the time Chakotay and the crew of the USS Voyager tracked them down, both Paris and Janeway had mutated into amphibious salamander-like creatures… and mated.

Although the crew of Voyager successfully recovered Paris and Janeway and the Doctor was able to revert them back to their human forms, for some reason they left their offspring behind. That means somewhere in the Delta Quadrant, little human-salamander offspring are polluting a perfectly innocent planet that was just minding its own business. I’m pretty sure that violates the Prime Directive… in the most disgusting way possible.

This planet now belongs to the human-salamander babies.

As much as some fans (myself included) like to joke about Threshold – which is absolutely one of Voyager’s worst stories – I can’t see Star Trek ever doing anything more with this episode, this concept, or the planet visited in the final few minutes. For completely different reasons to those laid out above, this is another part of Star Trek’s past to simply ignore!

Again, the one exception could be Lower Decks, which has an irreverent take on these things. We saw mating mugatoes in the Season 2 episode Mugato, Gumato, so I wouldn’t put it past the Lower Decks team to dream up a reason to bring back the human-salamanders one day! After all, Tom Paris made an appearance in the show!

Tom Paris in Threshold.

To Threshold’s credit, it won an award for its prosthetic makeup, and while the story was undeniably ridiculous to the point of abject failure, it was at least an attempt to go into a little more detail about Warp Drive and the limits to warp speed. It never sat right with me that Warp 9.9999 was as fast as anyone could ever go… but Warp 10 was supposedly fast enough to travel anywhere in an instant.

However, as with many technobabble things in Star Trek, maybe the complexities of Warp Drive work better when they’re left ambiguous! Ambiguity and vaguery allow for the creative teams to take stories in wildly different directions, allowing for maximum storytelling potential without different writers and different shows being constrained or tripping over one another.

Planet #5:
Romulus

Romulus as it appeared in Nemesis.

What? Too soon?

Romulus was destroyed during the events of 2009’s Star Trek, and we got to learn a little more about this event and its aftermath in Star Trek: Picard Season 1. Though the Romulans survived – well, some of them did, anyway – their homeworld, as well as its sister planet of Remus, is gone. The surviving Romulans are living on a number of other worlds in and around the territory of their former Empire.

The destruction of Romulus was shown in 2009’s Star Trek.

Both Star Trek and Picard Season 1 were somewhat ambiguous on this latter point, though. We don’t know how many Romulans survived, where they went next, or even what became of their Empire. We do know that a faction called the Romulan Free State existed as of 2399, but that the Tal Shiar and Zhat Vash still existed in some form too, and were able to launch military operations on Earth, at the heart of the Federation.

Presumably Romulus’ destruction didn’t kill off either organisation, and the fact that they retained the capability to launch such powerful operations suggests that the Romulan government and its espionage operation still exist in some capacity, presumably having relocated to a different world. To what extent the Romulan Empire remains united is unclear, as is the fate of races like the Remans, who had second-class citizen status.

The Romulan capital city as it appeared in Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges.

With Star Trek: Picard Season 2 going in a different direction, I presume we won’t be in a position to learn much more about the Romulans for a while. But if there are future 24th and 25th Century stories in the years ahead, it would be nice to get some kind of closure; to fully learn what happened to the Romulans in the years and decades after the loss of their homeworld.

By the time of Discovery’s 32nd Century, at least some Romulans had relocated to Vulcan as part of a reunification project. The planet was renamed Ni’Var, and while tensions still existed between the Romulans, Vulcans, and Romulo-Vulcans, it seems that the Romulans got a happy ending of sorts – even if it took centuries to get there!

So that’s it.

The USS Enterprise in orbit of Earth.

There have been plenty of fun and interesting worlds that the Star Trek franchise has visited, with many making just one single appearance. Modern Star Trek has contained a number of references in dialogue or on-screen displays to some of these worlds, giving us tantalising teases about what became of them after we last saw them. Those references are always appreciated!

With over fifty-five years of history and more than 800 episodes at time of writing, it’s inevitable that not all of these planets (and the peoples who populated them) worked well or would be worth going back to. Fortunately it’s relatively uncommon for Star Trek to have made truly egregious missteps, but there are certainly some episodes – and the planets and factions they included – that are best left behind. I hope it was a bit of fun (or at least mildly interesting) to consider a few examples today!

The Star Trek franchise – including all films, series, episodes, and other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The classic Star Trek dilemma: Kirk or Picard?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series and its films, The Next Generation and its films, and Picard Season 1.

“The only question I ever thought was hard / Was do I like Kirk, or do I like Picard?” So sang “Weird Al” Yankovic on his 2006 parody hit White & Nerdy. In those two lines, the comedy singer encapsulated a debate that has rumbled on in the Trekkie community since The Next Generation premiered in 1987! This is a question I’ve thought about many times, and today I’m finally going to put (metaphorical) pen to paper and lay out my thoughts on this classic Trekkie debate.

Though there have been at least a further six captains or protagonists who’ve joined the Star Trek franchise over the years – or more, depending on how you count things – the classic debate has always surrounded Picard versus Kirk, and I think that’s probably because the contrasts between the two characters and their approaches to leadership are so extreme. Most Star Trek captains who have followed embody elements of both Kirk and Picard’s styles of management and leadership while remaining distinct characters, but when it comes to the franchise’s first two captains, there seems to be a major clash of personalities.

Just like “Weird Al” did, we’re going to consider this difficult question!

My first contact with the Star Trek franchise was The Next Generation in the early 1990s. It was only later that I went back to watch The Original Series and its films, encountering Captain Kirk and his crew for the first time. The Next Generation made me a Star Trek fan, and while I can appreciate what The Original Series did and how entertaining it was, I just don’t have the same connection to it – or to any other Star Trek show, frankly – as I do to The Next Generation. So that’s my own bias stated up front as we go into this discussion!

I’ve always found this debate to be fascinating, but I try not to take it too seriously. Some fans can turn genuine and heartfelt passion into toxic or even aggressive negativity sometimes, attacking others who don’t share their precise views on the nature of Star Trek (or other franchises). Fandoms shouldn’t be a place for division, negativity, or toxicity; they should be a place where we can all come together to share something we love. It’s in that spirit that I enter this discussion – and I encourage everyone to keep in mind that all of this is subjective, and it’s supposed to be light-hearted fun!

So let’s get started, shall we? For reasons both alphabetical and chronological, Captain Kirk gets to go first!

The Case For Kirk

Captain Kirk in his first appearance.

Captain Kirk will forever be Star Trek’s first captain, and thus he should be the yardstick that Trekkies use to judge the successes of any subsequent captain – Picard included. Without Kirk, there would never have even been Picard – because there would quite literally have been no Star Trek. Just look at the failure of The Cage, the first pilot shot for The Original Series, as a case in point: Star Trek only became successful when Captain Kirk was in command.

But Kirk isn’t the best just because he was first. James T. Kirk is a man of action: a tough-talking, villain-punching, decisive commander who stops at nothing to get the job done and protect his ship and crew. He’s not above a bit of rule-breaking, either; when you’re alone on a mission of exploration far beyond Federation space, what’s the point in Starfleet orders or the Prime Directive?

Captain Kirk wasn’t above getting into a proper fight.

On board his ship, Captain Kirk made friends. He didn’t see his crew as mere underlings, but as people he actually liked spending time with. He even developed Star Trek’s first ever cross-species friendship, bridging the gap between emotional humans and stoic, logical Vulcans in the best way possible. His friendship and partnership with Spock became legendary – and frankly, Picard has no friends… or at least, he has no friendships that come anywhere close to matching the closeness between Kirk and Spock. This pair literally created the genre of slash fiction!

It wasn’t until the finale of The Next Generation that Picard was prepared to sit down with Riker and play a round of poker, but Kirk had those friendships from the start. His closeness with Spock has rightly become legendary, but he was also firm friends with Dr McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and even the young Chekov. Kirk’s crew would even risk their Starfleet careers to steal the USS Enterprise and follow him on a dangerous mission to the Genesis Planet in The Search For Spock.

Captain Kirk was loved by his crew… not grudgingly respected.

As Star Trek’s first captain, Kirk made first contact with many different races and factions – including practically all of the franchise’s best-known and most famous aliens. He also introduced us as the audience to races like the Vulcans and the Klingons – two of Star Trek’s most iconic alien races. It’s through Kirk’s eyes that we first came to perceive many of the franchise’s classic factions; he gave us his perspective and allowed us as the audience to meet these aliens through his interactions with them.

Captain Kirk developed rivalries with some of Star Trek’s biggest and most notorious villains. The Romulan commander from Balance of Terror, Garth of Izar, who went on to inspire an entire fan-series, Dr Tolian Soran in Generations, and even “God” himself in The Final Frontier. Most significantly, of course, Kirk found his arch-enemy in one of the greatest villains ever put to screen in the whole of cinema: Khan. Picard’s enemies simply aren’t in the same league.

“Khaaaaaan!”

Captain Kirk recognised the dangers of space travel, and he blazed a trail that Picard and others merely followed. He knew that it wasn’t going to be possible to find a negotiated settlement to every problem, and wasn’t shy about pulling out his phaser – and his fists – to settle disputes. Do you think Captain Kirk would have been bossed around by the Sheliak, or by the Edo and their Mediators? Or would he have punched those alien menaces in the face and told them where to shove it?

In conclusion, Captain Kirk is a bona fide action hero, a man’s man, and the embodiment of the very best of Starfleet in the 23rd Century. He would consider peaceful options where they were available, but wasn’t above punching aliens in the face when he needed to. He would go above and beyond for the sake of his crew, even being reduced in rank by Starfleet for having the audacity to save Spock. He saved Earth on many occasions – and even saved the life of his rival, Captain Picard, and the entire crew of the Enterprise-D in his final act before dying a hero.

The Case For Picard

Captain Picard in Encounter at Farpoint.

Let’s calm down, leave the toxic masculinity in the ’60s where it belongs, and let a grown-up take charge. Captain Picard is the Joe Biden to Captain Kirk’s Donald Trump – he’s level-headed, diplomatic, and professional. Captain Kirk may have been the archetypal action hero of the ’60s, but by the late ’80s, things had moved on. What fans wanted to see from someone in a position of authority was not someone who was quick to pull out their phaser or punch an alien in the face, but someone who could be diplomatic, courteous, and who could resolve situations without needing to resort to such barbarity. Embodying all of those traits was Captain Picard.

A new era of Star Trek not only needed a new face, but a whole new style of leadership, and Captain Picard delivered. If the 23rd Century had been the “wild west,” where anything was allowed and rules were made to be broken, the 24th Century saw Starfleet evolve and move beyond that. Civility could finally replace cowboys like Captain Kirk.

Captain Picard is a more civilised leader perfect for a new era.

Did Captain Kirk ever pilot his own ship? In the episode Booby Trap, we saw for ourselves just how skilled Captain Picard was, and how intimately he knew his ship. Where someone like Kirk would have ordered maximum warp until the power was drained, Picard and his crew came up with a complex solution, then executed it perfectly. Picard made the Enterprise-D dance like a ballerina; Kirk could never have done anything like that.

Where is Star Trek: Kirk? Oh, that’s right: they never made that series. But they did make Star Trek: Picard, such was the overwhelming response from fans to this wonderful character. 176 episodes of The Next Generation and four films weren’t enough – fans were eager for more Captain Picard, and thus he became the first character in Star Trek’s history to get a new show named after him. More than thirty years after we first met Captain Picard, new adventures with the character are still being created, with at least two more seasons of the show in production.

Captain Picard got his own spin-off show because fans love the character so much.

While Kirk may have had fun with some villains like Khan, he never had to stare down the biggest, most devastating threat that the Federation ever faced. Captain Picard beat the Borg… and he did it twice. He even survived being assimilated and was able to push through his Borg programming to give his crew a piece of vital information that ultimately saved Earth. In First Contact, Picard brought the Enterprise-E to the Borg’s second invasion attempt, saving the day in the 24th Century and then again in the past. Forget the Klingons, the Gorn, the Romulans, and the people on that weird planet who all pretended it was Chicago in the ’20s: Captain Picard fought and defeated the most dangerous threat that the Federation has ever encountered.

Captain Picard realised that he can be on good terms with those under his command, but that as the captain he has to put the needs of the ship first. In the episode Lessons, he learned first-hand that having close relationships with subordinates is difficult for any commanding officer, and maintaining a friendly but respectful distance from his crew – even those whose advice he relied upon – was necessary to keep everyone safe and to allow him to be able to make the tough calls.

Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D.

Captain Kirk got to make many first contacts – but he did so by default because he was first. Captain Picard actually made more first contacts than Kirk did – including with some very different forms of life. Whether it’s the Microbrains, the Exocomps, or the Q Continuum, Captain Picard was prepared to treat everyone he met with courtesy and respect, staying true to Starfleet’s mission of seeking out new life. But it doesn’t end there. Captain Picard introduced us as the audience to alien races like the Bajorans, Cardassians, and of course the Borg – and these would go on to be just as important to the Star Trek franchise overall as any of the aliens we met in The Original Series.

In conclusion, Captain Picard is a calm diplomat, the level-headed manager of a large crew, and the personification of the very best of 24th Century Starfleet. He guided his crew through some incredibly difficult and dangerous missions while maintaining his composure. He learned lessons about loss and grief that Kirk never had to learn. And he saved the lives of at least two of Kirk’s crew: Spock and Scotty. He also saved Earth from the Federation’s greatest threat, and even learned to perceive time in a non-linear fashion thanks to Q.

So Who Wins?

Kirk or Picard?

You’re going to hate me for this – but they both win. Everything I said above is true (in a roundabout, tongue-in-cheek way), but that doesn’t mean that one captain is better than the other! Like all of us, Kirk and Picard have strengths and weaknesses; things they do well and areas where they need to rely on others. There isn’t a definitive answer to a question like this, because the answer will always be “it depends on the circumstances.”

There are times when Captain Kirk’s approach to leadership is needed, and times when the way Picard approached a situation would lead to the best chance of success. As we saw in Generations, there was even a time when the only way to save the day was for both men to team up. The fact that each captain has his own set of skills and his own style of leadership isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength, one which benefits Star Trek as a whole.

Kirk and Picard meeting for the first time.

I mentioned in my introduction that subsequent captains have incorporated elements from both Kirk and Picard, and that’s because both men have so many positive, upstanding qualities that Star Trek’s writers were keen to give to new characters as the franchise has continued to grow. Kirk was always ready for action, but that never came at the expense of being thoughtful and considering non-violent solutions. And Picard’s diplomatic, polite style could give way to ordering his crew to “fire at will” when the situation called for it. Both captains are adaptable, able to rise to meet the needs of all manner of incredibly difficult situations – even if that meant setting aside their usual ways of doing things.

No one can doubt Kirk or Picard were absolutely dedicated to their ships and crews, either. They may have shown that dedication in slightly different ways, and they may have expressed their appreciation and love for their friends and crewmates in different forms as well, but both of them were quite literally willing to lay down their lives and go down with the ship if necessary. Both men ultimately lost their ships – the original USS Enterprise and the Enterprise-D were both destroyed. But they both bounced back to take over new commands and go on to even greater things.

There are times when I’m in the mood for watching Captain Kirk get into a fist-fight with a Gorn or for seeing his epic stand-off against Khan. And there are moments where I want to see Picard use diplomacy to win an argument with the Sheliak or watch him wrangle with one of Q’s puzzles. But there are also times where I want to see Picard grab his phaser rifle and kick some Borg butt, and times where I can think of nothing better than seeing Kirk solve a scientific mystery like that of V’Ger. Both captains have given all of us so much enjoyment and entertainment over the years that I simply can’t crown one of them a winner and leave the other a loser. To me, they’ll always both be winners.

The Star Trek franchise – including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and every episode and film mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek: The Next Generation re-watch – Season 7, Episode 17: Masks

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This is the first in what I hope to be a weekly series over the next few months. In the wake of the Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 disaster – the series has been withheld from fans outside of North America, if you somehow missed the news – I won’t be covering the show at all. Instead I’ll be writing up re-watches of some of my favourite episodes from Star Trek’s extensive back catalogue. This week we’re visiting The Next Generation’s final season to look at the episode Masks.

First up, a brief introduction to this format. I’m not calling these articles “reviews.” It wouldn’t be fair to do so because I’ve seen Masks – and all of the other episodes we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks – more times than I care to remember! This won’t just be a recap of the plot of the episode – I will be giving my thoughts and analysis as we go. But it can’t really be an objective “review,” strictly speaking.

The episode’s title card (from the remastered version).

Masks was one of the last episodes produced for The Next Generation before production shifted to Star Trek: Generations. At this stage we’ve been with the crew of the Enterprise-D for almost seven years and we know them well – so we think we know what to expect. Season 7 tried to shake things up at various points – like in Genesis where the crew all de-evolved! And Masks is kind of in a similar vein. We’ll see the ship transformed, and Data in particular will take on several different personalities.

Masks is one of those episodes that sticks in my mind. The Enterprise-D and her crew found themselves in many wacky and unpredictable situations over the years, but there’s something about the Aztec-inspired aesthetic that really makes what’s going on in Masks feel ancient and otherworldly. It’s a story that feels at home in the Star Trek franchise; the kind of episode no other sci-fi series would even attempt.

Picard and Troi examine a D’Arsay obelisk.

The episode is also a great one for Data actor Brent Spiner, who gets a chance to show off his range as an actor. There’s always seemed to be a disconnect between the character of Data and the personality of the man who plays the role! Data is cool and logical, but Brent Spiner has an almost chaotic energy to him, full of life and with a great sense of humour. Masks isn’t the only episode of Star Trek to give him more to do – look at his roles as Lore and as various members of the Soong family for more examples – but it’s certainly an episode that gives Spiner many opportunities to shake up his regular role.

Data is such a wonderful character, and his series-long quest to become more human saw him attempt to mimic a variety of different behaviours. At the beginning of Masks we see him taking an art class, learning to sculpt and to use his imagination. Because of the largely episodic nature of The Next Generation, even in Season 7 Data is still chasing his ambition of becoming human in much the same way as he had been earlier in the show’s run. The character saw evolution across the series as a whole, but moments like these at the beginning of Masks could sometimes feel like a reset, reinforcing Data’s android nature and showing how he doesn’t fully understand some element or other of what it means to be human.

Data learning about imagination at the beginning of the episode.

I wouldn’t try to argue that Masks is an especially important episode, either for The Next Generation or Star Trek as a whole. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t groundbreaking or transformative for the franchise in the way certain stories can be – it doesn’t introduce new characters, factions, or themes that would carry over to future projects, for example, nor is it a transformative event in the lives of any of the main characters.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun episode with an interesting premise. In a way, what we have in Masks is an examination of computer viruses and the major cultural and technological differences that exist between cultures. After encountering the D’Arsay archive inside of what appears to be a comet, it transmits its information to the Enterprise-D, but that computer code plays havoc with the ship’s systems – and with Data. Though this computer virus analogy isn’t the episode’s message or primary focus, it’s not a coincidence that a story like Masks was created at this time.

There’s a timely message about rogue computer software buried in Masks.

In 1994, when the episode was initially broadcast, home computing was growing exponentially. Along with the rise of the PC came fears of computer viruses, and antivirus software was becoming a big business. Though Masks mainly considers cultural themes within the story itself, I’d argue very strongly that the premise – disruptive or even malicious software being beamed to the Enterprise-D – is a reaction to the way the home computer market was shaping up at the time.

Computer viruses continue to plague systems today, of course, but with improvements in antivirus software and better computer education, the fears most folks have of viruses has diminished. In that sense, this aspect of Masks feels like a step back in time a quarter of a century – which it is, of course! The idea of rogue computer code harming – or in this case transforming – one’s computer was certainly a relevant concern at the time, though, and although it’s one that the episode doesn’t feature prominently it’s still an interesting aspect.

Riker, Data, and Geordi tried to make sense of the mysterious symbols that began appearing on the Enterprise-D’s computer screens.

Masks also looks at how we deal with cultures very different from our own, and how we need to be careful when interpreting history. Captain Picard is at his best in episodes like Masks, getting the chance to show off one of his real passions – history. Picard is well-placed to jump into the story and find a use for his skills, and is supported at various points by Riker, Troi, and perhaps the most unusual choice – Worf. One of Worf’s lines about the sun and moon proves crucial to unlocking the mystery of the archive, and while Captain Picard definitely needed others around him in these scenes, I’m not sure I’d have chosen Worf!

The struggle that Picard and the others had of trying to interpret an unfamiliar culture is one that historians and anthropologists have long dealt with. And to me, Masks is an example of Star Trek doing what it has always done: using a sci-fi lens to examine a real-world subject. Usually the stakes aren’t so high, of course, but putting a kind of ticking clock and threat in the background gave the story an impetus it would’ve otherwise lacked; had Picard and the crew simply been trying to learn about the D’Arsay symbols and characters out of curiosity, the story wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

Picard had to draw on his knowledge of history and anthropology to solve the mystery of the D’Arsay archive.

On the technical side of things, Masks was one of the first Star Trek episodes to use computer-generated imagery (CGI), using the new technology for the comet and D’Arsay archive. The remastered version, which is what you’ll find on blu-ray and streaming – didn’t preserve the original CGI model, recreating the archive from the ground up based on the original design. The DVD version, however, and other older copies (like VHS) do still have this piece of Star Trek’s history. You can also find images of the original CGI model online, of course.

A few times across The Next Generation, sped-up shots would be used to show Data working or moving faster than a human could. Out of everything present in Masks, this short sequence (which shows Data sculpting a treble clef in his art class) is perhaps the only part that feels dated in 2021. The rest of the episode’s effects hold up remarkably well, and the remastered CGI sequences look great even on a modern 4K display.

This shot of the Enterprise-D melting a comet with its phasers is pretty darn cool.

Many times across Star Trek’s long history there have been so-called “bottle shows.” These are episodes which primarily use existing sets and often don’t bring in many new characters or guest-stars, focusing on just the main cast. Though there was a set built for Masks – the temple, which would later be re-used in Deep Space Nine – the episode is mostly a bottle show, or perhaps a semi-bottle show! It focuses on a handful of characters, mostly re-uses existing Enterprise-D sets – with a few additions and changes to reflect the transformation the ship is undergoing – and feels like a very self-contained story in that respect.

Given Data’s prominent role, Brent Spiner is the star of Masks. And while we see elements of his portrayal of Lore in one of the personas that Data assumes, for the most part he makes each of the D’Arsay characters feel unique and distinctive. For an actor who spent most of The Next Generation’s run playing a very unemotional, unreactive character, I can quite understand why Brent Spiner would describe Masks as one of his biggest acting challenges on the show. I think he rises to the occasion and shows off a range that any actor would be proud of; making each persona feel separate despite only minor costuming changes is no mean feat, and he pulled it off very well. There was a risk, perhaps, that in order to differentiate each of the D’Arsay personas in such a short runtime each would have to be exaggerated to the point of pantomime caricature, but that didn’t happen in the final episode. That alone should be testament to Brent Spiner’s talents and hard work.

Data actor Brent Spiner had to take on several different personas in Masks.

There are a few lines from Masks that resonate with me from a mental health standpoint. Though the episode isn’t intended as an examination of mental illness, Data developing an android version of “multiple personalities,” as Troi puts it, does bring up some comparisons. When Data asks Geordi what it feels like to lose one’s mind is a line that very much struck a chord with me, not least because it’s a question I’ve asked myself (and doctors) in the past.

Data’s line as the episode draws to a close about feeling “empty” following the removal of the D’Arsay personalities likewise felt very relatable. It isn’t always easy to tell where the line is between one’s own personality and aspects of oneself that might be better characterised as manifestations of mental illness, and even the removal or lessening of a mental health symptom can, in some cases, bring with it a feeling of emptiness or of feeling incomplete. That’s definitely a second thing I find relatable – and I think it shows how stories which only touch on themes of mental health can still be impactful even if mental health isn’t the focus.

Data on Masaka’s throne.

The only real criticism I have of Masks is that its ending feels a little too quick – almost abrupt, really. After a slow buildup which sees the Enterprise-D progressively transformed to resemble the D’Arsay culture, Picard has a short conversation with Masaka, and then after a quick “woosh” everything is un-transformed and back to normal. A quick epilogue with Data and Picard in the ready-room closes the episode, and the final few minutes just feel a little rushed, especially considering the deliberately slow pacing of the rest of the episode.

Despite that, I enjoy Masks. It isn’t my all-time favourite episode of The Next Generation, but it’s one of those solid standalone stories that Star Trek does far fewer of since the move to serialised story arcs and shorter seasons. Masks shows off a different kind of science fiction with its slightly wacky concept of an archive transforming the ship into stone artefacts, but at the same time it’s a story that’s grounded in real-world parallels of history and anthropology. Brent Spiner puts in one of his finest performances, taking on a variety of personas that force him to step well outside of his normal bounds as Data.

So I hope this was a bit of fun. My objective at the moment is to remain connected to Star Trek and the Star Trek fan community but without providing any support or coverage of Discovery in light of the awful decision from ViacomCBS. Later this week I hope to look at an episode from Star Trek: Enterprise, and I already have dozens of other ideas for episode re-watches as we move through the holidays and into 2022.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is out now on blu-ray and DVD, and is available to stream on Netflix outside of the United States (at least for the time being). The Star Trek franchise – including The Next Generation and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek theory: Q the saviour

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the trailers and teasers for Star Trek: Picard Season 2. Spoilers are also present for the following Star Trek productions: The Next Generation, First Contact, Voyager, and Enterprise.

Today we’re going to take a look at Q, the immortal trickster who has tangled with Captains Picard, Sisko, and Janeway – and who will soon be returning to the Star Trek franchise! Q is an unusual character in many ways. He seems to have practically unlimited knowledge of the galaxy, and may have been alive for billions of years. Yet he has an impish, almost childish sense of humour that sees him tease and mess with Starfleet – and many other people too.

I wouldn’t call Q a “villain” in any of his appearances to date. In fact, I would argue very strongly that Q sees himself as a friend, an ally, and a guide to Captains Picard and Janeway in particular, having offered his services more than once. He’s certainly selfish – forcing Starfleet officers to undergo tests and trials of his own devising – but there’s usually more to his games than meets the eye.

Q in his judge’s robe.

On several occasions – going all the way back to his first appearance – Q has presented Starfleet with puzzles to solve. These puzzles can be dangerous, and more than once Q has gotten people killed. But even so, I wouldn’t characterise him as a typical “villain” for Captain Picard or Captain Janeway to “defeat.”

The puzzles Q has presented – especially to Captain Picard – have actually proven to be deeply satisfying, and arguably helped Picard and Starfleet grow. Recognising that life can take very different forms – as Q helped Picard to see in Encounter at Farpoint – is one such puzzle he presented. He also taught Picard how to view time in a non-linear fashion – understanding that events in the future could have a causal link to events in the past in All Good Things.

All Good Things saw Q present Picard with another puzzle to solve.

Even the teasers and trailers for the upcoming second season of Star Trek: Picard may not be all they seem. Picard says he blames Q for disrupting or changing the timeline, but I think we’ll have to see that story play out before we can assign all the blame to Q. Even if Q is responsible, the question of motivation comes up. Is it really just a game; a trick to mess with Picard? Or is there something bigger going on?

That’s one of my big Picard Season 2 theories! But I’ll save the full write-up for another day. Today we’re not looking ahead to future Star Trek, we’re going to look back at past iterations of the franchise and try to answer a deceptively simple question: did Q save the Federation?

Q will soon be returning to Star Trek…

Star Trek has made a mess of the early history of Borg-Federation contact. The Raven, from Voyager’s fourth season, told us that the Borg assimilated humans and a Federation vessel in the 2350s. Regeneration, from Enterprise Season 2, showed the Borg battling against Captain Archer and his crew – and sending a message to the Delta Quadrant that would be received in the 24th Century. So the question of how the Borg first became aware of the Federation is an open one. Did they receive a message from across the galaxy? Did they first discover humanity when they assimilated Seven of Nine and her family?

Either of these explanations could account for the Borg’s interest in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants in the mid-late 24th Century. Season 1 of The Next Generation first teased the Borg’s appearance with the episode The Neutral Zone, in which both Federation and Romulan colonies had gone missing – “carried off” the surface of their planets, as Romulan commander Tebok put it. The Borg’s responsibility for these attacks would be confirmed in The Best Of Both Worlds – though the connection is easily missed, in my opinion, as it doesn’t take up much screen time.

The Borg were responsible for the destruction of several Federation colonies in the 2360s.

Regardless, one thing is certain: the Borg knew of the Federation’s existence well before the Federation knew of theirs. They had even begun to send scouting vessels relatively close to Federation space; system J-25, where the Enterprise-D first encountered a Borg Cube, was a mere two-and-a-half years away from Federation space at high warp, placing the Borg tens of thousands of light-years away from their Delta Quadrant home.

Were the Borg actively scouting for the Federation, or was it just a coincidence that one of their vessels was operating so far away from their own space? We may never know the answer to that, but someone almost certainly does: Q.

Q was responsible for this encounter.

In brief, here’s my theory: the Borg and the Federation were already on a collision course, but the Federation didn’t know it. Whether it was because of the First ContactRegeneration time travel loop, the assimilation of the USS Raven, the attacks along the Neutral Zone, or simply the Borg’s continued exploration of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, they had humanity and the Federation firmly in their sights long before Starfleet was aware that there was a problem.

Recognising this, and seeing potential in humanity thanks to his earlier run-ins with Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D, Q chose to intervene. He knew that if the Federation became aware of the threat the Borg posed, their ingenuity would lead to better defences and they’d be able to protect themselves, so he chose to deliberately introduce them to the Borg for that reason.

A Borg Cube hovering ominously over Earth. The Borg came very close to assimilating humanity’s homeworld.

The events of The Next Generation Season 2 episode Q Who can be reinterpreted through this new lens. Rather than Q trying to frighten Picard for the sake of it or to prove his own superiority, he was – in his own twisted way – helping Picard and the Federation. The events of Q Who led the Federation to begin serious preparations for a Borg incursion, and without that tactical readiness it seems likely that the Borg would have been able to cruise to victory during the events of The Best of Both Worlds.

This fits with how Q operates. In stories like Encounter at Farpoint, Tapestry, and All Good Things, as well as Voyager’s The Q and the Grey, Q never explains everything he knows. Instead he obfuscates, talks around the issue, and forces Starfleet figure out what’s going on for themselves. Sometimes he pushes Picard or Janeway in a certain direction to get things moving, or even devises a puzzle or test of his own, like he did in Hide and Q. But what he never does is simply communicate – he doesn’t just sit down with Picard and tell him about Farpoint Station or the anti-time problem. He pushes Picard to figure those things out for himself.

Q appeared in Season 1 of Lower Decks.

And so it is with the Borg – according to this theory. Rather than contacting Picard and explaining what he knows about the Borg and their intention of targetting Earth, he sends the Enterprise-D to a location where he knows a Borg vessel will be and allows the crew to discover the threat for themselves. He does so knowing that the consequences will be Starfleet ramping up their defences in preparation of a Borg attack.

In All Good Things, Q told Picard that the Q Continuum saw potential in humanity – the potential to one day understand more about the universe than they ever thought possible. From Q’s point of view, perhaps he believed that seeing the Federation attacked and humanity assimilated would be a net loss to the galaxy because that potential would never be realised.

Q has his reasons for “testing” Picard and humanity – even if he chooses not to explain himself.

Q’s motivation for putting Picard and humanity “on trial” seems to be connected to this. In Encounter at Farpoint he accused humanity of being “a dangerous, savage, child race.” Yet even by the end of the episode, Q appeared to be impressed rather than disappointed that Picard and the crew could solve his puzzle. Rather than believing humanity to be dangerous and savage, as he asserted, Q almost certainly sees humanity as something more than that – and thus would feel humanity’s assimilation by the Borg would be a loss. His desire to avoid that fate could have motivated him in Q Who.

All of this could tie into Picard Season 2. Q may feel that Picard and the Federation are ungrateful for his “assistance” over the years, and he could cite the events of Q Who as one example of how his intervention saved the Federation from assimilation. While the latter part is up for debate, I definitely believe that Q feels underappreciated by Picard in particular, and sees his interactions with the former captain of the Enterprise-D as helpful rather than antagonistic.

Q looks annoyed with Picard in the trailer for Star Trek: Picard Season 2.

So let’s recap! The Borg became aware of the existence of the Federation by the mid-24th Century. The Federation had technology and resources that the Borg considered valuable, and they began targetting outlying Federation colonies, including those near to the Romulan Neutral Zone. All the while, the Federation remained ignorant of the Borg’s existence – considering them to be little more than rumour.

Foreseeing disaster and either the total assimilation of humanity or the devastation of the Federation such that humanity could not achieve its full potential, either the Q Continuum or Q independently decided to intervene. Instead of simply contacting the Federation to share his knowledge, Q transported the Enterprise-D to the star system J-25, where they encountered the Borg. This encounter led to the Federation developing anti-Borg strategies and defences that would ultimately save them from assimilation.

Unusually, Q has never taken credit for this. However, it’s at least possible that he considered Picard and the Federation as a whole to be ungrateful for his help, and this could tie in somehow to the events of Picard Season 2 where Q will be making a return to the Star Trek franchise.

Did Q save the Federation from assimilation?

What I like about this theory is that everything feels like it fits together. This theory connects the message sent in Regeneration and the early assimilation of Seven of Nine’s family to the events of The Neutral Zone, giving the Borg a reason to be operating so far outside of their territory. It also fits in perfectly with the way Q behaves – never sharing everything he knows and presenting dangerous and often deadly puzzles to Picard and Starfleet.

Whether it’s true or not is open to interpretation! I would say that Q Who wasn’t written with any of this in mind, and a straight watch of the episode strongly suggests that Q’s motivation is simply to frighten Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D after his offer to join the crew was rejected. Q felt that Picard was arrogant in assuming that Starfleet could handle any threat the galaxy contained, and wanted to prove him wrong. While that explanation works in the context of the episode, it doesn’t preclude anything included in this theory from also being true; Q could still have been annoyed at Picard’s assertion that the Federation was prepared for anything while also intending to provide them with advance warning of the Borg.

So that’s it for this one! As with all fan theories, anything we see on screen in a future episode or film could render the whole thing invalid. But for now, I think it’s at least plausible that the events of Q Who represent Q trying – in his own unique and twisted way – to help Picard and the Federation. Q has always seen himself as a friend of Picard’s, and based on what we know of both Q and the history of Borg-Federation contact, it seems to me that everything arguably fits together!

The Star Trek franchise – including all episodes and other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Dr Pulaski – a character study

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Minor spoilers may also be present for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

For reasons that still aren’t crystal clear over thirty years later, Gates McFadden was dropped after Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dr Crusher had been a mainstay of the show’s first season, going a long way to humanising the otherwise stoic Captain Picard, as well as bringing a family dynamic to the series. Her absence in Season 2 was an obstacle for the show to overcome, and to replace her, Gene Roddenberry and the creative team introduced a new character: Dr Katherine Pulaski.

I have to hold up my hands and admit to being a fan of Dr Pulaski. There are certainly elements to her characterisation that worked less well, and we’ll look at those in a moment, but on the whole I felt her inclusion in the series took The Next Generation to different places, places it wouldn’t have been able to reach without her. That’s my own bias coming into play as we delve into her character today.

The intention behind Dr Pulaski’s introduction was to shake up The Next Generation. Across the show’s first season there hadn’t been much interpersonal drama between the main characters – something that was a marked change from The Original Series. In Star Trek’s first incarnation, the “frenemy” relationship between Dr McCoy and Spock in particular was a source of both drama and humour, and it seems clear to me that The Next Generation lacked that in Season 1, and that Dr Pulaski was created to try to bring that element back to Star Trek.

When I think about Dr Crusher, with the possible exception of her role in the two-part episode Descent, I wouldn’t use the terms “strong” or “forceful” to describe her personality. She’s a reasonably quiet, slightly soft-spoken character, clearly very compassionate but also quite agreeable, especially when pressed by Captain Picard. To call her “bland” might be unkind, but she was never meant to be the standout character among the cast of The Next Generation.

Dr Pulaski is the polar opposite. She’s opinionated, outspoken, and occasionally brash. Though she does form firm friendships with other members of the senior staff, she’s much more of a standalone, individualist character. These are all traits that she inherited from The Original Series’ Dr McCoy, and we can see a very definite McCoy influence for practically her entire run on the series.

The role of a doctor in Star Trek is naturally a limited one, and that was especially true when the franchise was primarily interested in episodic storytelling. Dr Pulaski’s scenes are largely limited to Sickbay or dealing with medical-themed stories and events, and this naturally puts constraints on what she – and other doctors in the franchise too – can do. In episodes with a strong medical storyline, I’d argue that Dr Pulaski shines, and aspects of her personality that might otherwise come across as abrasive can instead feel determined and driven. In stories without much going on in Sickbay she’s naturally of less use to the writers, and it shows.

One of the main areas of criticism when Dr Pulaski came aboard was her relationship with Data. Designed to mimic the Spock-McCoy dynamic from The Original Series, some of Dr Pulaski’s early scenes and episodes with Data did not work as intended. She came across as patronising and looking down at Data – and that’s putting the most positive spin possible on it! At worst, Dr Pulaski was actively degrading and dehumanising in the way she spoke to and about Data, and that’s something that many fans found hard to take.

Though we’re more aware in 2021 of the need to be inclusive and attentive to the needs of neurodivergent people, non-binary folks, and other marginalised groups, even in 1988 many fans were uncomfortable at seeing Data dehumanised and talked about in the abstract. Fans had had a whole year to get to know Data, and just like we balked at Dr Bruce Maddox’s treatment of him in the episode The Measure of a Man, so too fans felt Dr Pulaski was treating Data unfairly. This is legitimate criticism, and soured many fans on Dr Pulaski almost from her first moment on the series.

Though I was perhaps a little unkind in my characterisation of Dr Crusher earlier, there were many fans of The Next Generation who liked the character and wanted her back. A letter-writing campaign began almost from the moment Season 2 premiered – supposedly with some involvement from Patrick Stewart – to convince the producers to bring back Gates McFadden and dump Dr Pulaski. Though I daresay this would’ve happened regardless of how well Dr Pulaski’s character had been received, the fact that those early episodes featured a conflict with Data that certainly went too far and crossed a line didn’t help her cause.

Despite all of that, by the time Season 2 was finding its feet, Dr Pulaski had become established as a regular member of the crew of the Enterprise-D, and had settled into her role in Sickbay about as well as she could. The fact that she was a strong and decisive personality may have been divisive among fans, but in my opinion she elevated the role of the ship’s medical officer, taking what had been a secondary position with Dr Crusher in Season 1 and transforming it into a more important role, especially in medical storylines. Even when Dr Crusher returned in Season 3, this aspect of the show continued to an extent; Dr Pulaski’s legacy on the show, despite the character being dropped with little fanfare, may be that Dr Crusher found more prominent storylines.

The comparisons with Dr Crusher are inescapable, and one other aspect that viewers felt was missing after Dr Crusher departed the series was a relationship with Picard. Dr Crusher and Picard had history as well as more than a little romantic tension, whereas Dr Pulaski didn’t have that connection with Picard – or with anyone else. Though there was a storyline in the episode The Icarus Factor involving a past relationship with Commander Riker’s father, this didn’t become a major aspect of her character, and she remained romantically un-attached for the rest of her tenure.

Though the episode Unnatural Selection is perhaps the story where she was given the most to do, where I felt we saw Dr Pulaski at her best was in episodes like Time Squared, where she tended to a second Captain Picard from several hours in the future, Up The Long Ladder, in which she takes part in a traditional Klingon ceremony with Worf, and though there are two sides to her relationship with Data on display in Peak Performance, the way she consoled him after his defeat at Strategema was sweet. In these moments we see different aspects of her character – her medical expertise, her embrace of different cultures, and through her evolving relationship with Data, her ability to overcome her own prejudice.

Perhaps the fact that Dr Pulaski had anti-android prejudice to begin with made her too unpopular with fans to be redeemable. Her occasionally blunt persona didn’t help her in that regard either. But had we met Dr Pulaski in Season 1 not Season 2, I think it’s possible for her evolving relationship with Data to have provided a deeply satisfying character arc.

The problem Dr Pulaski faced was that she joined a series that already had a full season – 25 episodes – under its belt. The characters had grown together and been through some major events in Season 1, particularly the death of their friend and colleague Tasha Yar. Yar’s own deep relationship with Data, which was jump-started by the events of The Naked Now, had gone a long way to humanising him across Season 1, and there was something charming in the “android who longs to be human” story. In Encounter At Farpoint, Riker called Data “Pinocchio,” and across Season 1 that’s how viewers came to know Data. Dropping in Dr Pulaski at the beginning of Season 2 and giving her a very prejudiced way of looking at this character we’d come to know and love was a bridge too far for many viewers, and although the relationship improved dramatically over the course of the season, her early interactions with Data remained a sore spot.

Dr Pulaski was present for all but two episodes of Season 2. However, most episodes didn’t have a major medical focus, and thus she was really a secondary character much of the time. Even so, I’d argue that she brought a lot to the show, and despite the introduction of her character not really succeeding in the way the creative team intended, Dr Pulaski certainly achieved her objective of shaking up the crew. Though she was never a villain, the introduction of Dr Pulaski showed that there can still be disagreements and interpersonal drama among Starfleet officers in the 24th Century, and that not everyone has to agree all the time. The Next Generation could, at times, fall into the trap of being too idealistic in its portrayal of characters in particular, and while there were adversaries and antagonists in Season 1 – including some from the Federation – Dr Pulaski was the first main character on the show to pull in a different direction. In that sense she arguably laid the groundwork for storylines we’d see from Season 4 onwards with characters like Ro Laren, and in particular the non-Starfleet crews we’d meet in Deep Space Nine and Voyager.

The fact that Dr Pulaski was never shy and didn’t pull her punches is something I found charming and appealing about her, particularly when compared to Dr Crusher’s Season 1 persona. She could be opinionated and even pushy at times, but she always did her best to help those in her care and didn’t bat an eyelid at the wacky situations the Enterprise-D would find itself in. Not only that, but she grew as a character across her single season on the show, particularly in terms of her relationship with Data and her understanding of different kinds of life. The Next Generation set out to seek out new life, and while Dr Pulaski’s old fashioned idea of what “life” is may have held her back at first, over time she came to recognise that Data was a valuable colleague and even a friend, even if she didn’t understand everything about him.

Had she been kept around and spent more time on the show, perhaps we would have seen those themes continue to play out. There was scope for her relationship with Worf to develop, not romantically necessarily but certainly putting them in more stories that would have allowed their friendship to grow and for both characters to learn more about the other’s culture. Her relationship with Kyle Riker could have been revisited, allowing for a more complex and nuanced relationship with William Riker on the Enterprise-D. And though she could never replace Dr Crusher in terms of having a close relationship with Captain Picard, the dynamic between the two – particularly the power play between a man who’s used to being the sole commanding officer of his ship and the doctor who’s the unquestioned master of Sickbay – would have been interesting to explore. There was scope for her to occasionally push back against Picard and other main characters, asserting herself more strongly than Dr Crusher usually would.

All of that and more would have been interesting to see, and while Dr Crusher had some great stories from Season 3 onwards, I’ve always felt at least a little sad that we didn’t get more from Dr Pulaski. At the very least it would have been nice to know how she came to depart the Enterprise-D and what her next role was going to be. Did she transfer to a different starship, return to Earth, retire? We don’t know, and I think it’s highly unlikely we will ever get any kind of solid confirmation of Dr Pulaski’s post-Season 2 life.

I found Dr Pulaski an interesting character and a welcome addition to The Next Generation, even though not every aspect of her characterisation succeeded or achieved its intended objectives. She remains an interesting character in Star Trek, particularly within the 24th Century, and I’ve always been fascinated by this single-season character. Season 2 of The Next Generation marked a change and uptick in the show’s quality – whence comes the expression “growing the beard,” a reference to Commander Riker’s facial hair! Though she wasn’t front-and-centre at every moment, Dr Pulaski played a significant role in the evolving series, helping it grow and become better than it had been in its first season. We can’t argue that the introduction of her character is somehow responsible for The Next Generation’s increasing success in that era, but we can’t dismiss it as mere coincidence either.

And perhaps that’s Dr Pulaski’s real legacy. She was a part of The Next Generation at a key moment – its powerful second season. Season 2 provided much more of a blueprint for the show’s future success – and for the successful development of Deep Space Nine and other parts of the franchise – than The Original Series-inspired first season had. Dr Pulaski, though originally intended to be a throwback to Star Trek’s first series, played a role in the franchise’s evolution as a character who wasn’t afraid to shake things up, stand up to her commander, and hold her ground. We can see elements of her personality in a number of Star Trek characters who came later, even continuing to the modern day.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including all characters and properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Here’s why Shades of Gray is the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It isn’t. This “article” is just a horrible April Fool’s Day joke.

Gotcha!

I need to write something convincing here so that I can use it as an excerpt on the homepage. Let’s see what we can come up with… By expertly blending these different scenes together, Shades of Gray compiles the very best of Star Trek: The Next Generation into a single package. There, that’ll do. What can I say? I used to work in video game marketing. I can spin and bullshit about any subject I choose!

While we’re here, though, it’s worth noting a couple of things about Shades of Gray if you have the time. And yes, I’m serious this time. Pinkie promise.

Riker was injured on an away mission… setting up a clip show.

Shades of Gray is the only clip show that Star Trek ever made. With the decline of clip shows in general, and modern Star Trek shows having shorter seasons that don’t need to be padded out to fit archaic broadcast television schedules, I doubt that we’ll ever see another one. That makes it utterly unique in the Star Trek franchise. “Unique,” though, does not mean “good.”

The only reason Shades of Gray was made, as I alluded to above, was to fulfil The Next Generation’s contract of producing twenty-two episodes in its second season. Problems earlier in the season caused shoots to run longer than planned, and several episodes ended up being more expensive to produce than expected – most notably Q Who, which introduced the Borg for the first time, but also Elementary, Dear Data. This left the show in a place where it was necessary to produce an episode as cheaply as possible. It was thus little more than a money-saving measure, as clip shows almost always were.

The final scene of the episode – and of the entire second season. They were lucky a third had already been commissioned!

The poor reception to Shades of Gray meant that no other attempts were made to make clip shows, and the creative team behind The Next Generation and other Star Trek shows of the ’90s were very keen to avoid them.

It’s the only episode of The Next Generation to feature all of the show’s main cast. In addition to the main cast of Season 2, Dr Crusher and Tasha Yar returned in clip form from Season 1. So it’s got that going for it… which is nice.

Finally, and this is the most bittersweet part for me, is that Shades of Gray marked the unceremonious end of Diana Muldaur’s role as Dr Pulaski.

Captain Picard and Dr Pulaski.

I’ve yet to meet another fan of The Next Generation who likes Dr Pulaski as much as I do. Where Dr Crusher was often – and I’m sorry to say this – rather bland and uninteresting, even in episodes which gave her a significant role, Dr Pulaski has much more personality and more character. She’s headstrong and opinionated, and while some of her opinions – such as her ideas about Data being less than human – did not win her any fans, I liked that about her.

I would say that the Data issue was only really present in a couple of places across the season, and certainly by the time the season really got going she and Data had developed much more of a rapport. But her initial conflict with Data was supposed to mimic Dr McCoy’s argumentative tone with Spock in The Original Series. Indeed Dr Pulaski was intended to be a Dr McCoy-type character, designed to shake up the dynamic in what was still a new series. I do like Dr Crusher, and she had some great episodes, particularly in Seasons 5 and 6. But I would have dearly loved to have seen more of Dr Pulaski.

Perhaps we should save that for a Dr Pulaski article somewhere down the line? Remind me if I forget!

I’m not going to waste any more of your time for this silly April Fool’s Day joke. I hope it was a bit of fun!

Star Trek: The Next Generation is available to stream now on Paramount+ in the United States and other regions where the service is available. The series may also be available internationally on Netflix, and is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including The Next Generation and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ten great Star Trek episodes – Part 2: The Next Generation

Spoiler Warning: In addition to spoilers for the episodes listed below, there may be minor spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, including Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard.

Welcome back to my series of articles looking at ten great episodes from each of the Star Trek shows. We looked at The Original Series last time, so now it’s The Next Generation’s turn. This is the series which first introduced me to Star Trek in the early 1990s, and it was Capt. Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D who really hooked me in and got me invested in this fictional universe. I will always hold The Next Generation in very high regard as a result, and of all the Star Trek shows, it has a special place in my heart.

Plans for a Star Trek series which would have featured a different cast to that led by William Shatner in The Original Series had been kicking around in various forms since at least the mid-1970s. One of the earliest concepts for a new Star Trek film or series, before work on The Motion Picture had begun, was for something set at Starfleet Academy. Buoyed by the success of The Original Series in syndication and of the first three films, Gene Roddenberry began working on a Star Trek spin-off in the mid-1980s. Unlike the films, which mandated a lot of influence from Paramount Pictures, Roddenberry was keen to retain as much creative control over the new show as possible, and kept The Next Generation on a tight leash until ill health forced him to step away from day-to-day work on the show. If you’d like to know more about the creation of The Next Generation there’s a documentary on the subject titled William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge, which was made in 2014. I’ll leave the question of how unbiased and accurate it is up to you!

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran from 1987 to 1994.

While The Next Generation retained much of what had made The Original Series a success, it did change up the formula somewhat, and not all of the changes made were well-received by longstanding fans at the time. As I noted in my article looking at divisions in the fanbase, some Trekkies actively refused to watch The Next Generation when it premiered in 1987, because for them, Capt. Kirk and his crew were the irreplaceable beating heart of Star Trek. While the show was only really controversial in some small fan circles, there was wider concern about its viability. At this point in the history of television, very few series outside of incredibly popular sitcoms and soap operas had ever successfully made spin-offs, so this was uncharted territory. Sir Patrick Stewart, who of course plays Capt. Picard, has gone on record as saying he did not believe the show would be a success, even saying at one point that the only reason he agreed to take on the role was because he expected it to be a one- or two-season commitment at most!

If you didn’t tune in last time, here’s how this format works. This isn’t my all-time “Top Ten”, because a ranked list for a show like The Next Generation comes with a lot of pressure! Instead, this is simply a list of ten episodes which, for a variety of reasons, I think are great and are well worth a watch – especially if you’re finding yourself with plenty of time on your hands at the moment! I’ve picked at least one episode from each of the seven seasons – and there are so many more I wanted to pick! The Next Generation has 176 episodes, so narrowing it down to just ten was a difficult task. There may very well end up being a second round of articles in this series to accommodate some of those great episodes which I couldn’t include this time. The episodes are listed in order of release.

So let’s go ahead and jump into the list – and be aware of spoilers (though do we even need to flag up spoilers for a thirty-three year old series?)

Number 1: Home Soil (Season 1)

Home Soil saw the crew of the Enterprise-D discovery a very unusual form of life.

Gene Roddenberry’s final episode as head writer is actually one of Season 1’s most interesting. Star Trek has always sought to seek out new life – but often that new life ends up looking and sounding remarkably similar to humans! Home Soil completely changes that, showing how the life that may exist beyond Earth could be very different indeed.

I tend to feel that stories like this play very well with a small group of fans – in which I must include myself, of course – but are less well-received in the wider Star Trek fan community. When we look at stories that tried to take very different looks at the kind of “new life” that may exist in the cosmos, they tend to be much more philosophical and ethereal, looking at concepts like how we categorise and qualify “life”, as well as about bridging the huge gulf between ourselves and them and coming to an understanding. We see this in The Motion Picture – and I have an article looking at the 40th anniversary of that film which you can find by clicking or tapping here. Many of the same issues are in play in Home Soil, but on a microscopic scale – The Motion Picture looked at a life-form that was almost the size of a solar system!

Home Soil also has something to say about the environment, particularly how we as humans can be destructive to the habitats of native species. Without meaning to in some cases – or by wilfully ignoring warning signs in others – we can cause damage which could ultimately be to our own detriment. This is a message that is still relevant today! Star Trek has often sought to use its science fiction setting to parallel real-world issues, and this is another good example of that phenomenon.

Number 2: Time Squared (Season 2)

Dr Pulaski in Time Squared.

Are you familiar with the term “jumping the shark”? It refers to the moment where a television series begins to see a major drop in quality with increasingly outlandish plots, and it’s taken from an episode of Happy Days. The opposite is called “growing the beard”, where a series greatly increases in quality, usually in its second season – and that term originates with The Next Generation, taken of course from Commander Riker’s beard, which debuted in Season 2. Just a little television trivia for you!

Season 2 saw changes to The Next Generation’s cast. Dr Crusher was gone, replaced by Dr Pulaski. There were apparently issues with Gates McFadden’s contract which meant she declined to return, and instead Diana Muldaur, who had guest-starred twice in The Original Series, was brought in. Dr Pulaski was an interesting character and I liked her McCoy-esque side which brought a different perspective to things. However, after McFadden agreed to return in the third season, Dr Pulaski was unceremoniously dropped without her departure being acknowledged on screen. Muldaur herself had not particularly enjoyed working on the show, especially after struggling with wearing heavy prosthetic makeup in the episode Unnatural Selection, and it seems that Dr Pulaski had not been as well-received by viewers as the show’s producers had hoped. The second season also saw a couple of cast members shuffled around to their familiar roles. Worf became the Enterprise-D’s security chief and replaced Tasha Yar at tactical. And after a first season without a permanent chief engineer, that role was given to Geordi La Forge, largely removing him from the bridge.

I’ve stated on the blog a number of times that time-travel stories are seldom my favourites because they can be so hard to get right. Time Squared is an exception to this rule, as it sees a time-travelling Picard picked up by the Enterprise-D’s crew. This alternate Picard is from only a few hours in the future, yet is unable to communicate. What is clear, however, is that the Enterprise-D has experienced a major disaster, and this alternate Picard appears to have abandoned ship! Given everything we know about the upstanding captain even at this comparatively early stage in The Next Generation, that seems unfathomable, and the crew work hard to unravel the mystery.

Time Squared also lets us get up close and personal with one of the Enterprise-D’s shuttlecraft. These smaller vessels have been present since The Original Series, and the design used here was used in The Next Generation’s earlier seasons before a larger shuttlecraft design was incorporated. But few episodes show us a shuttecraft in this much detail inside and out, so if you’re as interested in ships and shuttles as I am it’s interesting from that point of view. The fact that the shuttle had to be designed and built in such a way that its interior and exterior could be seen at the same time is also something worth noting, and must have been a challenge for those working on the show.

Number 3: Yesterday’s Enterprise (Season 3)

Yesterday’s Enterprise told the story of what happened to the Enterprise-C.

Season 3 dropped the spandex uniforms and replaced them with the more familiar high-collar variant that would remain in use for the rest of the series. As previously mentioned, this season also saw the return of Dr Crusher and the departure of Dr Pulaski, restoring her to the cast after a one-season break. However, Yesterday’s Enterprise completely changes things up and is set in an alternate timeline, one in which the Federation and Klingons are locked in a bitter war.

Broadcast almost two years before The Undiscovered Country brought the era of The Original Series to a close, there was still a lot left unexplained about the timespan between Capt. Kirk’s adventures and those of the Enterprise-D. One good question was: “what happened to the Enterprise-B and Enterprise-C?”, and this is something that Yesterday’s Enterprise sets out to answer, as well as filling in some of the blanks from those lost years. From that point of view, Yesterday’s Enterprise goes further than almost any other episode of Star Trek to date in exploring that era, and certainly further than any story had by this point in The Next Generation’s run.

Denise Crosby reprises her role as Tasha Yar, the Enterprise-D’s original security chief who’d been killed off toward the end of the first season. I think it’s pretty clear that by this point in the show’s run (and perhaps without many other roles coming her way), Crosby was regretting her decision to leave – and it had been entirely her decision, as she felt that Tasha Yar was not being given enough to do. How she could have come to that conclusion less than halfway through the first season, and knowing that the show would be returning for at least one more is anyone’s guess, but regardless. This alternate timeline version of Tasha Yar would be referenced in future seasons, as Denise Crosby would return to play her daughter, the half-Romulan commander Sela. Sela, by the way, is the one Romulan character I was glad not to see in Star Trek: Picard earlier this year!

The Enterprise-C’s Capt. Rachel Garrett, played by guest-star Tricia O’Neil, makes a great equal for Picard as the two Enterprise captains must work together. Picard’s admission later in the episode that the Federation was on the brink of defeat convinced Capt. Garrett to return the Enterprise-C to her own time, even though she knew doing so would mean sacrificing her life for the cause. The theme of sacrifice has been present in Star Trek before, notably with Spock in The Wrath of Khan, and would be seen again on several more occasions, but the Enterprise-C is a great example of how it can play beautifully in Star Trek.

Number 4: The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2 (Seasons 3 & 4)

Commanders Shelby and Riker see the assimilated Picard for the first time in The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1.

For many fans, The Best of Both Worlds might just be their favourite episode in The Next Generation. The first part concluded the third season, leaving behind a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, and the second part was broadcast after several long months and brought the story of the Federation’s first Borg invasion to a conclusion. The events of The Best of Both Worlds would be revisited several times: in the fifth-season episode I, Borg, in Emissary, which was the premiere of Deep Space Nine, in the film First Contact, and most recently in Star Trek: Picard, particularly in the episode The Impossible Box – a review of which you can find by clicking or tapping here. Picard’s assimilation by the Borg would go on to be a defining part of his character in these stories and others, and while it didn’t fundamentally change him as a person, it did mean he would suffer from guilt and flashbacks, and when he crossed paths with the Borg again he’d find it hard to remain objective.

The writers of The Next Generation had been planning to introduce the Borg since the show’s first season. Both the neural parasite conspiracy, which took up two episodes of Season 1, and the destruction of Federation colonies near Romulan space seen in the first season finale The Neutral Zone were meant to tie into the Borg’s ultimate introduction in the second season. The neural parasite angle was (fortunately) dropped, and the Borg’s first major attack on the Federation unfolded in an incredibly dramatic fashion. The Best of Both Worlds is really two stories – Picard’s personal battle with the Borg, which includes the efforts to rescue him by the Enterprise-D’s crew, and the wider conflict between the Borg and the Federation, and both aspects are incredibly tense and exciting. The decision for Picard to be captured raised the stakes significantly; no longer was the conflict an abstract one with mostly nameless minor characters threatened, but Picard, who had been the cornerstone of The Next Generation since its premiere, was being held hostage and brainwashed. As much as we as the audience want to see the Borg stopped and Earth saved, we care even more about Picard and ensuring he can be rescued and de-assimilated.

Thanks to many subsequent appearances, particularly with the Hansen family storyline in Voyager and the Enterprise episode Regeneration, the in-universe history of Borg-Federation relations and contact is now a bit of a mess. In the run-up to Star Trek: Picard I looked at the Borg as a faction, including their history, so if you’d like to know more please check out that article by clicking or tapping here. But we have to try to remember to place The Best of Both Worlds in context – this was only the faction’s second appearance in Star Trek, and their first major attempt to attack the Federation. While in some ways the Borg and their modus operandi have become stale thanks to their repeat appearances, this is the first time many of the things we now think of as Borg tropes were seen. Even on a repeat viewing in 2020, the crew of the Enterprise-D first seeing the assimilated Picard on the viewscreen is still incredibly powerful.

The way in which the Borg were ultimately stopped – by Picard breaking through his Borg programming to give Data a message – shows, I think, just how strong Picard can be. And that the Borg could be ultimately defeated by a poorly-guarded computer algorithm definitely has a War of the Worlds vibe – the Martians in that novel were, of course, ultimately defeated by bacteria, which was something tiny and easily-overlooked. The frightening thing about the Borg – beyond their seemingly-invincible vessel that cut through an entire fleet with ease – is that every ally that our heroes lose can be assimilated and turned into another enemy to fight. The Borg are akin to zombies in that respect, and also show us a nightmarish vision of how technology could get out of our control. I wrote an article looking at the Borg as a storytelling element, and I go into much more detail about these points and others in that piece. You can find it by clicking or tapping here.

Number 5: The Wounded (Season 4)

The Wounded introduced the Cardassians, and was a big episode for Colm Meaney’s character as he prepared for his move to Deep Space Nine.

The Wounded marks the first appearance of the Cardassians, a race we’d become much more familiar with in Deep Space Nine, which had already been conceived at this point. As part of the slow buildup to Deep Space Nine, The Wounded also sees a big expansion in the role of recurring character Miles O’Brien, who had been present on the show since its premiere. Colm Meaney’s character would be transferred to Deep Space Nine when that show kicked off, and this was the second consecutive episode featuring him in a big way as part of fleshing out Chief O’Brien and preparing the character for the sideways move. Along with Data’s Day, Disaster, Power Play, and Rascals, and smaller appearances in other episodes, O’Brien would step up to become a major character in time for Deep Space Nine, and would go on to be the character with the second-highest number of appearances in Star Trek after Worf, who also appeared in both shows.

We get to see Starfleet through a more military lens than usual, as we learn some background to Federation-Cardassian relations. The two sides fought a series of wars along their shared border, which seem to have only recently come to an end. Many people, including O’Brien, still hold bitter feelings toward the Cardassians as a hangover from those war years, and Capt. Maxwell, whom the Enterprise-D is ordered to intercept, seems to be among them. Speaking as we were of The Next Generation establishing background for Deep Space Nine, the introduction of the Cardassians was another big step in that direction, as was the inclusion of border colonies – the foundations for what would become the Maquis storyline can be glimpsed here.

As a very military Star Trek episode, The Wounded is different to many that came before, and is perhaps closer in tone to The Undiscovered Country. The episode also channels the war film Apocalypse Now at points, focusing on a rogue captain heading into enemy territory, his mental health, and the need to stop him from doing too much harm. Just as that film is considered one of modern cinema’s best, so too is The Wounded one of The Next Generation’s, even though it is quite unlike many of the series’ other offerings.

I have a full write-up of The Wounded, which you can find by clicking or tapping here.

Number 6: Disaster (Season 5)

Keiko O’Brien and Worf in Disaster.

Disaster would not be a good episode to use to introduce someone new to The Next Generation, as it takes the crew of the Enterprise-D and throws each of them into unfamiliar and difficult situations. For someone familiar with the series, however, this bottle show is absolutely fantastic, giving all of the main cast – and several recurring characters – a chance to shine.

When the Enterprise-D hits a strange anomaly in space, all main power is lost (except, as always, artificial gravity!) and the crew are trapped in whatever areas of the ship they happened to be in at that moment. With none of the main crew members at their posts, and with the ship having suffered serious damage in some sections as a result of the anomaly, the various pairings and groups have to work together, and it’s a great chance for some cast members who don’t often get much time together to interact. Dr Crusher and Geordi are paired up, Counsellor Troi is left as the senior officer on the bridge with Ensign Ro and Chief O’Brien, Worf is in Ten-Forward and must deliver a baby, Riker and Data undertake a dangerous trek to engineering, and Capt. Picard is stuck in a turbolift with a group of frightened children. All of the characters are given their own challenges to overcome, and the episode doesn’t feel like it’s one which belongs to any of them; it’s a true ensemble story with everyone having a role to play.

Almost every season of every Star Trek show ended up having what came to be known as “bottle shows”; episodes which took place wholly on the ship and without bringing in any expensive guest-stars or using too many special effects. These episodes do vary in quality somewhat, but Disaster has to be one of the best. Though it does end up featuring some great special effects – which look especially good in the remastered version – it’s a self-contained story set aboard the ship.

I had previously included this episode on one of my two lists of episodes to watch leading up to the release of Star Trek: Picard, as I felt it was an episode which took the captain out of his comfort zone. Disaster happens to be one of my all-time favourites as well, which isn’t surprising considering it’s on this list!

Number 7: Unification, Parts 1 & 2 (Season 5)

Leonard Nimoy returned as Spock for Unification, a two-part episode.

When considering episodes for this list, both Unification and Relics were major contenders. Both episodes feature a returning cast member from The Original Series: Scotty would be back in Season 6’s Relics, and Unification sees the return of Spock. Both episodes are well worth a watch and I hope to talk more about Relics on another occasion. Unification, Part 1 was the first episode to be broadcast following Gene Roddenberry’s death, and carries a special title card honouring Star Trek’s creator.

Without telling anyone his intentions beforehand – perhaps fearing they’d try to stop him – Spock has travelled to Romulus. This is of course a problem for the Federation, who even fear he may be defecting, and enlist Picard’s help to find out what happened. The episode marks the final appearance of Mark Lenard as Sarek, before the character was recast for the JJverse films and Discovery, bringing to a close a role he’d played in The Original Series, The Animated Series, three films, and a previous episode of The Next Generation. Lenard’s role, while fairly short in the episode itself, was one of the highlights as he gives an amazing performance. The tension between Sarek and Spock has been ongoing since his first appearance in Journey to Babel, and I think it’s one that many audience members can relate to, so seeing his death and Spock’s reaction to it was a continuation of that.

What’s great about Unification for a Trekkie is that brings together elements from different Star Trek stories. Of course there’s the inclusion of Spock, but the episode also harkens back to prior events in The Next Generation – notably Picard’s involvement with the Klingons. It’s an episode which explores both the Romulans and their connection to the Vulcans in far more detail than anything that had come before, and that makes it fantastic to geek out to! Spock’s involvement with the Romulans in Unification also laid the foundations for his appearance in 2009’s Star Trek, and that film’s destruction of Romulus storyline – a plot thread which was later picked up in Star Trek: Picard.

Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock has always been outstanding, and as the first character from The Original Series to cross over with The Next Generation in a major way (Dr McCoy’s appearance in the premiere was little more than a cameo) it goes further than almost any other episode had previously to really tying the two shows together, and succeeds as being an episode that really feels that it was made for fans. The decision to keep The Next Generation largely separate from The Original Series in its first few seasons allowed the show to really stand on its own two feet, and that’s an incredibly positive thing; too many crossovers and callbacks would, I feel, have been to the show’s detriment. But at this point in its run, The Next Generation was on a much more secure footing as one part of a growing franchise and thus the decision to include such a major character as Spock feels justified – and it’s a great story to boot, one which allows Spock to shine.

Number 8: Realm of Fear (Season 6)

Realm of Fear showed us in much more detail what using the transporter feels like.

Lieutenant Barclay is a recurring character we haven’t got to talk about yet, and he’s one of The Next Generation’s most interesting. First introduced in the third season, Dwight Schultz’s character has cropped up a few times since, and would often end up the butt of jokes both for the Enterprise-D’s crew and for the show itself. Realm of Fear is a little different, however, as it gives Barclay agency within the story and the chance to become somewhat of a hero for once.

While investigating a ship whose crew appears to have gone missing, Barclay – who has a phobia of transporters – begins to think he’s losing his mind as he keeps seeing strange shapes inside the transporter beam. After investigating what’s happening, he’s able to save the crew of the stricken ship.

It’s a story that only Barclay could really pull off, because his unique position among the crew of the Enterprise-D as a hypochondriac and as someone with a history of fears and exaggeration lends credence to the idea that Capt. Picard and others would dismiss his report. And in that sense, the episode makes great use of the established character of Barclay – who is played in a wonderfully neurotic way by Schultz.

Realm of Fear takes a deeper look than almost any other episode at the process of using the transporter, and that’s fascinating to me as someone who loves this technology. Star Trek can, at times, fall into the trap of using things like the transporter as a macguffin to drive the plot forward, and thus its in-universe use and status isn’t always consistent. The concept of the transporter, by the way, was an invention of Gene Roddenberry to allow the crew of The Original Series to visit different alien worlds without having to land the Enterprise every time – something he was told would be costly from a special effects point of view. It was thus a cost-saving measure, and while the idea of teleportation is nothing new, Star Trek gives it a uniquely technological spin.

Number 9: The Pegasus (Season 7)

Riker is forced to confront his past – and a former commander – in The Pegasus.

The Pegasus now forms a duology of episodes with the Enterprise series finale These Are The Voyages, which was set during the events of this episode. Whatever one may think of Enterprise’s take on things – and it’s an episode which remains controversial – the original episode from The Next Generation stands on its own two feet and is a fascinating look at Riker’s past, as well as relations between the Federation and Romulans. It also features one of The Next Generation’s best performances by a guest-star, as future Lost star Terry O’Quinn takes on the role of Riker’s former commanding officer.

One valid question within Star Trek is why the Klingons and Romulans have cloaking technology but the Federation do not. It’s shown numerous times across the franchise – from the cloak’s first appearance in Balance of Terror in Season 1 of The Original Series right through to the Klingon war arc in Discovery’s first season – just how useful this technology can be, and how dangerous it can be in enemy hands. The Pegasus attempts to answer this question, by saying that the Federation has refused to develop the technology as a result of a treaty they signed with the Romulans decades before The Next Generation is set. As with other technologies in Star Trek, the cloak can be a bit confused, especially with the prequel shows establishing the existence of the technology before Capt. Kirk made Starfleet’s first encounter with it. My own personal head-canon to get around this is that there are just different types of cloak which the Federation are constantly figuring out how to scan through, and once one type is “cracked”, the Romulans and Klingons have to invent a new kind. Cloaking, despite how we usually see it presented on screen, doesn’t merely render a ship invisible, it must also conceal it from sensors and scans – something crews see on a viewscreen represented by the ship disappearing. But we’re getting off-topic, and none of that is actually canon, just my own thoughts.

In The Pegasus, Riker receives a visit from Admiral Pressman, his former commanding officer. Pressman is looking to track down his old ship, which had been presumed destroyed but had been reported to have been found by the Romulans. Aboard the ship was an experiment that would be illegal under the Federation-Romulan treaty, as under Pressman’s leadership, Starfleet had been working on its own cloaking device.

The episode presents Riker as deeply conflicted between two senior officers. His unwillingness or inability to tell Picard the full truth shows us a depth to his character that we don’t always see a lot of – Picard may be his current commanding officer, friend, and someone he respects, but he has other loyalties too. His decision at the end to tell Picard the truth about what happened aboard the Pegasus, and how he and Pressman barely escaped a mutiny, is an important moment for him and his relationship with Picard.

Number 10: All Good Things… (Season 7, finale)

All Good Things sees the return of Q, and he has a challenge for Picard.

After seven years on the air, The Next Generation finally came to an end in 1994. But All Good Things was less a finale than another instalment, as Star Trek: Generations would be released a mere six months later, kicking off the era of The Next Generation’s crew on the big screen. Indeed, a good deal of the work on Generations took place prior to and alongside All Good Things, and the film would reuse many of the familiar Enterprise-D sets. So in a lot of ways, the episode doesn’t feel like a finale. While it does bookend the series nicely, with Q returning and the action jumping back in time to the Enterprise-D’s first adventure, as the episode’s story draws to a conclusion the ship and crew warp off to their next destination, just as we might expect them to at the end of any other episode. Both of the other finales of this era – Deep Space Nine’s What You Leave Behind and Voyager’s Endgame – are very definite ends, with the story arcs for many characters within those shows wrapping up. All Good Things isn’t like that, largely because the Enterprise-D and its crew would be moving on to their next adventure in short order.

Encounter at Farpoint, the show’s 1987 premiere, introduced Q, the omnipotent quasi-villain who put Picard on trial for the supposed “crimes” of humanity. Q had promised then that his people would be observing Picard on his mission, and he cropped up on several other occasions in The Next Generation. In All Good Things, however, Q makes good on his words from right at the beginning of the series, and gives Picard a time-bending puzzle to solve – one which could result in the destruction of all humanity if he fails!

The puzzle essentially boils down to an understanding of time – is it always linear and moving in a single direction? When Picard finally learns to think outside the box and realises that, in this particular circumstance, events in the future were having an effect on events in the past rather than vice-versa, he’s able to unravel the mystery. Q compliments him on his thinking, and explains that the whole thing was a test to see how humanity was progressing.

So that’s it. Ten great episodes from The Next Generation that are well worth your time – especially if you have more time than usual for entertainment at the moment. I feel that The Next Generation is, in some ways, a series in two parts. The first part, which encompasses the first and second seasons, as well as parts of the third, is very similar to The Original Series in its format. The second part, which was certainly in place by the time of the third season finale, is much closer to modern television storytelling. As plans for Deep Space Nine stepped up a gear, Star Trek edged closer to being a serialised franchise, and with that came recurring themes, factions, characters, and story elements.

The Next Generation was my first encounter with Star Trek some time in the early 1990s. The first episodes I have solid recollections of are The Royale and Who Watches The Watchers from Seasons 2 and 3 respectively; I’m pretty sure I was an avid viewer by about midway through the show’s second season. It was also the first series I began collecting, initially on VHS but later on DVD in the 2000s. On a personal level, the series was a major part of my youth and adolescence, providing entertainment and escapism when I needed it. While I have enjoyed all of the other Star Trek shows, The Next Generation will always be special to me for that reason.

Up next in this series of articles I’ll be looking at ten great episodes from Deep Space Nine, after which I’ll move on to Voyager and then Enterprise, as well as do a “bonus” piece which picks ten episodes from The Animated Series, Discovery, and Short Treks. So I hope you’ll come back to take a look at those over the next few weeks.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The series is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including The Next Generation and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek: The Next Generation re-watch – The Measure of a Man

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for the first three episodes of Star Trek: Picard – as well as for The Measure of a Man from TNG Season 2.

When I was compiling two lists of episodes to watch prior to the release of Star Trek: Picard, I only included The Measure of a Man, from The Next Generation’s second season, as an afterthought in one of my “honourable mentions” sections. Despite having seen some androids briefly in one of the trailers, and even after having seen Mars come under attack in the Short Treks episode Children of Mars, I still wasn’t convinced this episode would be important. I wound up including it in my second list of episodes, but not because of androids or Bruce Maddox, but because of how it showed an aspect of Picard’s character – his staunch defence of the rights of different life-forms.

We now know, of course, that Maddox has a key role in Star Trek: Picard, though whether he’s actually going to appear in person or is merely a narrative force is unclear right now. And of course we’ve learnt a lot more about synthetics and the development and subsequent prohibition of synthetic life. Thus, at this point, The Measure of a Man warrants a re-watch and a closer re-examination.

Watching an episode so long after its original airdate, and after we’ve seen so much Star Trek content that was produced subsequently, it’s worth trying to stay objective and be aware of where the three characters we’ll be focusing on are at this point in the timeline. Obviously Maddox was a guest star, and aside from a reference in the fourth season, was never seen or heard about again until Picard premiered. But Data and Picard are arguably different than we might remember considering how early we are in The Next Generation’s run. This episode aired before Q Who introduced the Borg, before Picard was assimilated, and before Data had really developed a strong personality that extended beyond his original programming.

Data plays poker with his crewmates in the opening scene from The Measure of a Man.

The Next Generation operated differently to Discovery and Picard – it was much more of an ensemble show with each crewmember having their own stories and episodes, rather than focusing primarily on one character’s story. So Data and Picard, by this point in the show, still have significant parts of their backstories unexplored.

The episode opens, as many episodes of The Next Generation did, with Picard narrating his captain’s log. Nothing too exciting – the Enterprise-D is due to dock at a starbase, pick up and drop off some members of the crew, and switch out some science experiments that have presumably been running in the background. On board, we see Data, Riker, O’Brien, La Forge, and Dr Pulaski playing poker. Data seems confused by some of the “superstition” that the others apply to their playing – he can’t quite grasp the concept of “luck” in a game of chance. Again, it’s worth remembering how early we are in Data’s story! This might be the first game of poker he’s played, and just as he struggled with the others feeling lucky or unlucky, he was completely unprepared for bluffing – it’s such an illogical way of playing, after all.

In this moment, Data is still very much a machine, regarding the game as “simple”, based around mathematical probability and assuming that everyone will play logically. Having this sequence be the setup for an episode about taking him apart to find out what makes him tick is an interesting choice; we see Data at his most mechanical, but we also see in him an adaptability and a desire to learn and grow. The costuming choice to give Data a poker visor was also a great call – he’s approximating and mimicking human behaviour, but without fully understanding it.

Seeing Data easily outmanoeuvred by Riker – despite holding a better hand – emphasises how much he still has left to learn. Riker wasn’t betting on the strength of his cards, he was simply betting that Data would fold – Data thus missed a key element of playing poker. But he learns from this experience, much like a child would.

As an interesting aside, the next shot shows the Enterprise-D approaching Starbase 173. The model used for the Starbase was in fact a re-use of the Regula One station from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and is virtually unchanged in its appearance (except for, I believe, its scale in relation to the Enterprise-D). This model was itself a re-use from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. With CGI generally being so good nowadays, it’s almost hard to imagine a time when a single model would have to be re-used over and over again – and The Measure of a Man was not the last appearance of this model by any means.

Aboard the station, Picard is reunited with Phillippa Louvois, accompanied by a very romantic soundtrack. He seems very surprised to see her, and she is clearly an old flame of his – someone who he didn’t part with on good terms judging by their conversation! But the passage of time can be a great healer, and where other people may have held a grudge, Picard is amused, and maybe even happy to see her again. The credits roll, and then we’re back with Picard and Louvois, sitting down to have a longer conversation.

Louvois holds the rank of captain – putting her on equal footing with Picard – and her uniform matches his. She’s not the first woman captain featured in The Next Generation – there was at least one other in Season 1 – but she gets a significant amount of screen time here. She explains that she’s the JAG (judge advocate general – i.e. a military judge, or in this case a Starfleet judge) for this sector, and the way she talks about it makes it seem like a remote part of the Federation, far from any other Starbases. It’s the frontier!

The Enterprise-D at Starbase 173.

We find out about Louvois’ history with Picard – she was the officer responsible for his court-martial after his previous command was lost. We’ve seen the Stargazer before in The Next Generation, in the episode The Battle, and we also know that Dr Crusher’s husband was serving on the Stargazer under Picard’s command when he was killed. Louvois says that a court-martial is “standard procedure” when a ship is lost, but Picard accuses her of being overly aggressive in her prosecution of him – and says that’s why she left Starfleet for a time. There’s a very complicated history here. Louvois calls Picard out on his arrogance – which to be fair, he actually was in this scene. But the chemistry and sexual tension between them is noticeable – there’s much more to their relationship than something professional or friendly.

After the awkwardness of seeing Picard called a “damn sexy man”, an Admiral approaches and Louvois excuses herself – but not before taking the opportunity to try to embarrass Picard in front of their superior. The Admiral introduces Commander Bruce Maddox, but they don’t immediately discuss Maddox’s proposal as the Admiral wants a tour of the Enterprise while it’s visiting his new Starbase. Maddox joins the Admiral on the tour, and they visit the Enterprise’s bridge. There is some discussion of the Starbase’s location being near the Neutral Zone, but the focus is clearly on Maddox, cutting to a close-up of him staring at Data.

Maddox interrupts the small-talk about the Romulans and the legacy of past starships Enterprise, clearly impatient. The Admiral tells Picard that Maddox is here “to work on your android”, then promptly leaves the bridge. Data, Picard, and Maddox have a conversation set to a backdrop of very tense music. Clearly all is not well. Maddox, it turns out, opposed Data’s entry into Starfleet Academy some years prior, claiming Data was not a sentient being and was thus not eligible. Picard asks what Maddox plans to do and he replies calmly that he is “going to disassemble Data.”

The way Maddox has been set up thus far is of someone who is impatient and impersonal – arguably lacking in empathy. He refers to Data as “it”, a term one might use for an inanimate object. Data is, anatomically speaking, male. In the second episode of The Next Generation’s first season, The Naked Now, Data sleeps with Tasha Yar and though we don’t see it on screen it’s confirmed that he is, for all intents and purposes, male. So Maddox dehumanising Data in this way, while subtle, shows us the kind of person he is.

Maddox explains his reasoning in the next scene – seeing Data when he first applied to the Academy sparked a desire in Maddox to learn more about the work of Dr Soong, Data’s creator. His intention is to dismantle Data, learning how he functions, in order to recreate him and produce copies. Maddox believes himself to be close to a breakthrough, and Data is intrigued at the prospect, in part no doubt because he’s been essentially alone as the only one of his kind. Riker, on the other hand, seems much more concerned. Data asks Maddox a technobabble-laden question, and when Maddox replies that he hasn’t been able to get the basics of a positronic brain working, Data’s tone changes from interest to concern – and after a couple more questions from both Riker and Picard, Data pipes up and says that Maddox’s research is inadequate. Picard says he will not allow Data to undergo the procedure, but Maddox has a trump card – Data is to be reassigned under his command.

Maddox makes his case to Picard – as well as to Riker and Data – in the briefing room of the Enterprise-D.

In the next scene, Data arrives in Picard’s ready room and the two have a conversation about what to do regarding Maddox. Data says he will not undergo the procedure, but Picard is playing devil’s advocate – wondering aloud whether there is merit to Maddox’s idea. Data uses the example of La Forge’s visor, and claims that his status as a non-human is why Picard would even consider letting Maddox experiment on him. Picard dismisses him but is clearly troubled by the implications. He gets to work reading Starfleet case law regarding officer transfers.

After what must be some time, Picard visits Louvois in her office aboard the Starbase, and is clearly very angry about Data’s forced transfer. The usual calmness we associate with Picard is gone, replaced by a firey demeanour borne perhaps from a combination of frustration at the legalese he’s been trying to wade through and his previous conversation with Data. After all, Data did essentially say that Picard and Maddox are being racist (or species-ist) in their treatment of him. Louvois gives Picard a “nuclear option” for getting Data out of the procedure – his resignation. There’s no other way to stop the transfer, and as Picard doesn’t trust Maddox, this seems to be the only way. Again the complicated past between Picard and Louvois complicates their conversation, but the advice she gives him is sound. And as she’s the senior officer in the sector for legal matters, that should be it.

Back aboard the Enterprise-D, Data is packing his belongings, and pauses briefly over a hologram of Tasha Yar. Maddox enters the room while Data has his back turned, and picks up a book that Data had been reading. Barging in without ringing the door chime is another way Maddox demonstrates to the audience that he doesn’t regard Data as warranting the same rights or respect as a human or other life-form. He tries to reassure Data that his knowledge and memories will remain intact despite the procedure, but Data retorts that the facts may remain, but the feelings associated with them will be lost. He then uses the example of the poker game from earlier in the episode – that the moment-to-moment reality, the essence of his experiences, is not just a case of data and facts. Maddox, Data claims, does not have the necessary expertise to preserve Data’s memories and personality.

It’s at this moment that Data explains that he has resigned. Maddox becomes angry and tells him that one way or another he will serve under his command – and undergo the procedure. It’s clear that Maddox’s attempts at gentle persuasion were all for show; this is how he really feels. Believing Data to be a “thing”, an object not a person, he pays lip service to Data’s feelings while not understanding them or even recognising their existence. In the next scene, Picard and Maddox are in Louvois’ office, where Maddox has started a legal process to prevent Data leaving Starfleet, saying that as a non-sentient being he cannot resign of his own volition.

Maddox presents the argument that if he’s successful, every Federation starship could have its own Data on board, allowing for much greater exploration and potentially even saving lives. He’s “sick of hearing about rights” – a shocking statement in and of itself – and selfishly makes the point that this is his life’s work, and he doesn’t want it to be ruined by what he sees as the ignorance of Picard and Louvois. Data, in Maddox’s view, is “just” a machine, and because of that does not have the right to either refuse to undergo the procedure or to resign.

While Picard listens in, Maddox makes his case to Capt. Louvois.

Picard has a great line here: “Starfleet is not an organisation that ignores its own regulations when they become inconvenient.” In Remembrance, the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, this is essentially his own reasoning for leaving Starfleet. He felt that they had an obligation to help the Romulans and failed to do so – ignoring their own regulations, and a promise made, because it had become difficult in the aftermath of the attack on Mars.

Maddox manages to convince Louvois that there may be law to support the notion that Data – like the Enterprise’s computer – is not a “person” in the legal sense, but is merely the property of Starfleet. Picard urges her to use the same passion she showed at his court-martial. Though Maddox and Picard don’t interact much here, as they mostly direct their remarks to Louvois, it’s clear that they have very quickly developed a loathing for one another. Picard feels Maddox is essentially ignoring Data’s rights as a sentient being, and Maddox believes that Picard doesn’t understand the issue and is unfairly getting in the way of his work.

Back aboard the Enterprise, Data is attending a farewell party. Riker, Troi, Worf, Pulaski, and Wesley are all present in Ten-Foward, and Data receives several gifts from his friends, but La Forge is sat alone, away from the group. He’s feeling very down about the whole situation. In this moment, we see Data at his most human – La Forge is arguably his best friend among the crew, and when he says he will miss him, he really means it.

Louvois summons Riker and Picard to tell them that, according to her research and legal precedent from 300 years ago, Data is legally the property of Starfleet and not a person. Picard challenges her ruling, but the fact that the Starbase is new and she has no one working with her threatens to cause a problem. The solution is that Picard and Riker will take on the role of advocates – Picard arguing for Data and Riker against him.

This is the point in the episode which is the most questionable, I feel, as a point of plot. Riker is chosen to prosecute Maddox’s case as a senior officer, but Maddox himself is of equal rank to Riker and would be a better candidate – especially as Riker states very clearly that he can’t advocate a position he fundamentally disagrees with. I’m no expert on the law, let alone on military law, but surely there must be someone else who could have taken on the position. Or, if not, it should have been possible to send for lawyers from elsewhere – Maddox’s experiment is not time-sensitive and could have waited for the case being resolved. As it is, however, Riker and Picard agree to proceed with the case.

La Forge wishes Data good luck at his going-away party aboard the Enterprise-D.

As the scene ends, I think we see the real genius of setting up Louvois as having history with Picard. If he’d been facing off against a random, faceless judge or JAG, we would know the stakes but we’d be confident in his abilities and ultimate victory in the case. But knowing Louvois is a “hardball”, someone who prosecuted Picard aggressively in the past regarding his conduct on the Stargazer, it raises the stakes and there’s a real sense in this moment that Picard and Data could lose. Because we’ve always seen Picard to be a rule-following officer, an exemplar of Starfleet’s code of conduct, and an all-round upstanding captain and diplomat, knowing that Louvois went after him in the past makes her seem all the more aggressive in her handling of the law. We get the sense that things could end badly, that the one factor Picard has no control over in the case – the judge – is someone who will work hard against him and Data. This information, conveyed only in a few brief lines of dialogue in their earlier two encounters in the episode, has set the stage and told us all we need to know.

Data again visits Picard in his ready room, and Picard explains the ruling and the challenge he’s making to it. He offers Data the opportunity to select another officer to provide his defence, but Data declines – an important moment given the earlier conversation they had in the same room. We then see Riker studying the law in preparation for the case, feeling pretty rotten about what he has to do. He looks up Data’s technical schematics, smiling to himself as he thinks he’s found something – then his mood and the background music turn sour as he realises the implications. Riker doesn’t want, after all, to win the case. And getting caught up in it for a moment and allowing himself to feel excitement at a breakthrough ends up making him feel worse about the task.

At the hearing, Riker calls Data to take the stand. Could Data have refused, as he’s essentially being compelled to serve as both evidence and a witness for his own prosecution? I think that’s a matter of law again! And if he did refuse to take the stand, would there have had to have been another case to answer the question of whether he has the right to refuse to testify? Regardless, Data takes the stand and his commendations and decorations from Starfleet are listed by the Starbase computer (notably not the usual computer voice). Riker asks the simple question “what are you?” to which Data responds that he is an android. Riker pushes him for the definition of the word, which includes a sentence that androids “resemble” humans, but are obviously not, in fact, human. He then pushes Data on his creator, making the point that Data was artificially made.

None of this, really, seems relevant to the hearing. Data’s nature is known to all parties and his defence does not depend on proving himself to be anything other than an android. But for dramatic effect it’s important, as essentially the fact that Data was man-made is the entirety of the prosecution’s case against him. Interestingly, and completely unrelated to the events of the episode, Data states that his total memory capacity is “800 quadrillion bits”. If a 24th Century “bit” is assumed to be the same as today’s computer bits, that would put his memory at 800 petabits, or 100 petabytes as there are eight bits to one byte. While this is a lot of memory, it’s not as huge as it may sound even by today’s standards. It’s roughly an order of magnitude less than the most up-to-date estimates of the size of the data stored on the internet, for example. And that’s something which is growing all the time. It is, however, much greater than the capacity of a human brain or memory – though the comparison is an inexact one as we don’t store and process memories and information in the same form. But there are computers and servers in the world today which can store as much or more information that Data can – something which would obviously have been hard to conceive when The Measure of a Man aired in 1989, before the invention of what we know of as the internet today.

Riker looks up Data’s schematics in preparation for the hearing.

As Riker continues with his demonstrations, Maddox is seen smiling to himself – he seems to think the two of them have the case sewn up. Data is forced to bend a steel rod to demonstrate his physical prowess to the hearing, and Riker then removes his forearm and hand – apologising to Data as he does so. Riker then tries to explain that Data was made “to serve human needs”; that is his sole purpose. Of course, having already seen Data with his “brother” in the first season episode Datalore, we know this isn’t really true. Lore was a companion to the colonists on Omicron Theta, and Data was designed to be so too. Riker has also fallen into the habit of referring to Data as “it” in this moment, and as he continues his speech about Data he walks behind him – hitting a hidden “off switch”, which we’d previously seen Data show to Dr Crusher and others in the aforementioned episode Datalore.

Picard and Louvois are both shocked by this, and Riker sits back down. He clearly thinks that this is a case-winning move, and the look of shame and self-loathing on his face confirms that. Maddox smiles, smugly. Picard requests a recess and tells Guinan, back on board the Enterprise, that Riker’s words in the hearing “almost” convinced him of Data’s status.

Guinan’s response, that if Data is ruled to be merely property, it could pave the way for “whole generations of disposable people” warrants a closer look. And we have to step back and consider The Measure of a Man and its place in our own history. In 1989, we’re 25 years out from the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act which put an end to legal segregation in parts of the United States. In living memory for a significant portion of the audience was segregation – itself a hangover from the days of slavery. And this line, delivered in a very calm manner by a black woman, absolutely references slavery without her ever using the term by name. The implication for Picard is clear – if he loses the case, and androids are ruled to be property and not people, it’s the first step to the creation of a slave underclass in the Federation.

This moment changes the way Picard approaches the case. The word “property”, he believes, is merely a euphemism for slavery. And he returns to work with a renewed sense of purpose. Again, given his state of mind in the first three episodes of Star Trek: Picard, I’d direct anyone who says that Picard “would never get depressed” to look to this moment and others from The Next Generation to see how he can become defeatist and sit in self-pity. It took Guinan here to give him the kick he needed, just as it took Dahj to snap him out of how he’d been feeling in Remembrance.

During a recess in the hearing, Picard is counselled by Guinan.

Back at the hearing, Picard says that humans are simply “machines of a different type” to Data, and his mechanical status is not relevant to the case. Picard asks Data to return to the stand, and presents him with the bag he packed earlier in the episode – demonstrating that Data has a semi-emotional attachment to things like his medals and a book gifted to him from Picard. The final item from Data’s bag is the hologram of Tasha Yar, and after some gentle prompting from Picard, Data discloses he and Yar had been intimate – to the surprise of Louvois and Maddox.

Maddox then takes the stand, and Picard runs him through three tests for sentience. This is also, by the way, the first time the Daystrom Institute is named on screen. Maddox lists three criteria for sentience – intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. Picard proceeds to quiz him on why these apply to him – a human – and not to Data. Maddox is forced to concede that Data is intelligent and that he’s self-aware, as Data’s intelligence was never in question and he’s clearly aware of his place in the hearing and the potential consequences it could bring.

Maddox then talks briefly about his plans to disassemble Data – to rebuild him and thousands more like him. Picard challenges that by doing so, he will be creating a race of beings – a race that meet two of Maddox’s own criteria for sentience. If there’s even a chance that Data could meet the third, would the Federation have created a race of slaves? This is where we see Picard at the most passionate he gets, not just in the context of this episode but in almost all of his appearances in Star Trek to date. Aside from the emotional reaction he has to the Borg in First Contact, I can’t remember seeing him more energetic and involved. He cares for Data’s rights, but his conversation with Guinan shifted his whole perspective on the case, and now he has an even greater passion and reason to win. He admits to the court that he doesn’t know whether Data has consciousness, nor what that would mean if a race of Datas were created from Maddox’s work. But the implication he makes, as Guinan did earlier, is clear – they’re on a cliff-edge, with slavery at the bottom.

Picard also turns on its head the Starfleet mantra – “to seek out new life”. “There it sits,” he says as he gestures to Data. As he concludes his speech we see Riker smile for the first time since the hearing began. He’s never seen Picard so animated, and he clearly thinks the argument is a case-winner. And in short order he’s proven right. Louvois says she must allow Data the freedom to explore his life and consciousness for himself, and without explicitly ruling on his “personhood”, she rules that he is not the property of Starfleet and that he has the right to choose.

Bruce Maddox takes the stand.

Maddox and Data have a moment of semi-reconciliation at the end of the hearing, as Maddox cancels the order to have Data transferred, and Data tells him to keep working and suggests that he may be able to agree to the procedure in future when more work has been undertaken. Maddox, disappointed by the ruling no doubt, appears to have had his opinion and perspective on Data shifted at least slightly by Picard’s argument – emphasised by his use of the word “he” right at the end.

Picard invites Louvois to dinner – as they reconcile too. Back aboard the Enterprise, Riker has declined to attend a party in Data’s favour, feeling that he came too close to costing his friend his life. But Data reminds him that if he had refused to participate, the ruling would have been made against him, and the episode ends with the two of them heading to the party.

So, when considering Star Trek: Picard, what do we get from The Measure of a Man? Obviously we see Dr Maddox, some thirty-five years prior to the events of the new series. We see his attitude toward androids – he considers them to be tools, not people. But we also see his attitude shift right at the end, swayed by Picard’s argument and the time spent with Data over the course of the episode. Maddox, despite moments of smugness, isn’t a classic villain. Instead, the episode shows what is basically a difference of opinion. Maddox, having studied androids from a theoretical standpoint for years, but with no practical real-world experience in living and working with Data holds the opinion that Data cannot be sentient. But Picard, Riker, and others, despite not having the same technical background as Dr Maddox believe Data to be their friend despite his synthetic nature. The episode thus shows the difference between theory and practice – and why practice is usually better and more appropriate!

Maddox obviously continued his work, as Data encouraged him to do. In the episode Data’s Day from Season 4, he dictates a letter to Maddox, confirming this. However, by the time of Star Trek: Nemesis, which takes place around fifteen years later, Data is still believed to be the only extant android – Lore having been disassembled. The discovery of B4 – an earlier version of Data – in that film is thus presented as a big deal. However, as we now know from Short Treks and Star Trek: Picard that teams of androids – albeit rather basic ones from a personality point of view – were working on Mars only a few years after Nemesis, Maddox must have been quite far along in his work by that point. It’s also possible that the discovery and disassembly of B4 provided Maddox with some of the missing pieces of the puzzle that he’d hoped to gain by dismantling Data.

Watching The Measure of a Man divorced from all thought of Picard is difficult, especially as we’re partway through the first season of the new show. But taken as a standalone episode, it’s an interesting piece of drama, the kind Star Trek has always been good at. Without any battles, explosions, or really any action at all, the episode manages to be riveting, especially in the hearing scenes. And of course it’s a great example of Star Trek using its science fiction setting to talk about real-world issues. In this case the issue was slavery rather than artificial intelligence, but looking back on it knowing the way technology has changed since, it can absolutely be viewed through than lens too.

Maddox was, aside from his single reference a couple of years later, a one-off character who served a fairly one-dimensional purpose for most of the episode. Bringing him back in a big way for Picard is something I absolutely was not expecting, and whether we get to see him on screen or not, his influence is all over the show. The Measure of a Man is not required viewing for Picard. The new show is structured and written in such a way that the role Maddox takes in the story could be swapped out for any other name and the story would be identical. But it does provide interesting background and backstory.

The development of a “race” of androids was clearly successful in the years after Nemesis.

Having had Maddox’s name dropped multiple times across the first three episodes, I would be surprised to learn we aren’t going to see him at all. A single reference would’ve been a cute throwback to The Measure of a Man and Data’s Day; a wink to returning fans. But with him being set up as perhaps the creative force behind Soji and Dahj, and with tracking him down being the driving force for the current storyline, I think he practically has to appear – at least in some capacity, even if it’s just in recordings – before the end of the season.

The legal precedent laid down in this episode was clearly not applied throughout the Federation. In the Voyager episode Author, Author, not only does The Doctor – a sentient hologram – have to undergo a very similar legal hearing, but we learn that thousands of Emergency Medical Holograms are being used as labourers in mines and on vessels across the Federation. And of course, in Picard we see that Maddox had been somewhat successful in creating his “slave race” of android labourers. There are disturbing implications there, which I wonder if the show will touch on in later episodes.

I enjoyed going back to The Measure of a Man. I wouldn’t like to guess how many times I’ve seen it already; as with most of the rest of The Next Generation and its spin-offs I’ve watched and re-watched it on a number of occasions.

The fourth episode of Picard premieres tomorrow here in the UK – though if you’re in America you may have seen it already! I’m looking forward to seeing if Picard and his new crew stay on Maddox’s tail as they head to Freecloud.

The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Picard – are the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

What to watch to be ready for Star Trek: Picard

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for the episodes and films on this list.

It’s only a few days till Star Trek: Picard premieres. Just saying that gets me excited, as I’ve been anticipating this series since it was announced! And in a broader sense, I’ve been waiting for the Star Trek franchise to move its timeline forward again since Voyager went off the air and Nemesis was in cinemas.

If you’re new to Star Trek, or haven’t watched any of the older series for a long time, it might be worthwhile to go back and take a look at some of the classics in anticipation of Star Trek: Picard. So let’s go together and get caught up on some of the episodes which may – or may not – be relevant to Picard’s story. At any rate, they’re all worth a watch before the show kicks off.

Number 1: Endgame (Star Trek: Voyager, 2001)

Admiral Janeway and the Borg Queen in the Voyager episode Endgame.

Before The Avengers ever thought of it, Voyager had the first Endgame! And it was a heck of a ride involving a time-travelling Janeway giving her past self technology from the future in order to defeat the Borg. By changing the past, Janeway was able to get Voyager home far sooner than she had in her own timeline.

Time travel paradox aside (how could future Janeway exist if she erased her own timeline by interacting with her past self?) the episode sets up what could be an important story point regarding the Borg. As Voyager prepares to travel home, future Janeway infects the Borg Queen with a virus – one that has the potential to devastate the entire collective. Voyager is able to easily destroy many Borg vessels – and the Borg Queen’s complex – thanks to the enhancements future Janeway brought them, and the end of the episode is the last time we’ve seen the Borg in the Star Trek timeline. What happened to them after Endgame is a key question, and given that we’ve seen a Borg vessel and ex-Borg in the trailers for Star Trek: Picard, it may be one that the series will answer.

Seven of Nine, a key member of Voyager’s crew in its later seasons, is also set to feature in some form in Star Trek: Picard, and her relationship with the collective was always a point of interest. I definitely think it’s worth giving Endgame a rewatch before Picard kicks off.

Number 2: Star Trek: Nemesis (Film, 2002)

Data and Picard in this scene from Star Trek: Nemesis.

This had to be on the list, right? Nemesis is as far forward as the Star Trek timeline had gotten – prior to last week’s Short Treks episode Children of Mars. And it was a Picard-centric story, focusing on his fight against a clone of himself created by the Romulans. As a story which features Picard heavily, as well as his relationship with the Romulans, this would already be an important one to watch. But because in this film Picard sees Data sacrifice himself to save him, it becomes even more meaningful in the story of Picard’s life.

We already know from the trailers that Data’s loss weighs heavily on Picard, and may even be a significant factor in his decision to leave Starfleet a few years after the events of Nemesis. As Data’s sacrifice is such an important moment in Picard’s later life, Nemesis is definitely worthy of a viewing before Picard premieres.

Other things to note from the film would be the Romulans and their relationship with the Federation. Nemesis takes place after the Dominion War (as seen in Deep Space Nine) and the Federation and Romulans had been allies. Is that alliance still in place? Is it possible that the surviving Romulans will have a good relationship with the Federation after the destruction of their homeworld? All interesting points to consider!

Number 3: Children of Mars (Short Treks, 2020)

Picard’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance in Children of Mars.

I have a full review of Children of Mars already written and posted, which you can find by clicking or tapping here. Suffice to say that it wasn’t my favourite episode of Short Treks, but nevertheless it was created to be a prequel to Star Trek: Picard. While it’s unclear whether the two principal characters the episode features – schoolgirls named Kima and Lil – will cross over to the main series, there’s a significant event depicted which certainly will be a story point in some form.

A faction called the “rogue synths” launches a massive attack on Mars, where the Federation’s Utopia Planitia shipyards are located. Who this group are and what their aims were isn’t clear, but it seems as though this attack was designed to disrupt efforts led by Admiral Picard to assist the Romulans as they faced the supernova which would ultimately destroy their homeworld. In that sense, the attack on Mars looks set to be significant in the backstory to Star Trek: Picard.

Unfortunately if you’re outside the United States, as I am, you won’t be able to watch this episode by conventional means. Amazon Prime, despite having the rights to show Picard, don’t seem to have shown this episode of Short Treks. I suppose it’s possible that they will put up Children of Mars on their streaming platform before Picard premieres, but realistically if you want to guarantee seeing it before the main series you will have to find another way to access a copy. I can’t recommend any one website or other method, but if you know your way around a computer I daresay you’ll be able to find it.

Number 4: Disaster (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1991)

Picard and the children in the stuck turbolift in Disaster.

Disaster is one of my personal favourite episodes of The Next Generation. Perhaps I should do a list of those one day! It’s a bottle show (i.e. a show taking place entirely on board the ship – these were usually done to save money on building new sets) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t tell a very interesting story – or rather, a connected series of stories. As the Enterprise-D hits a “quantum filament”, it is left without power to most of its key systems. The main crew are split up, and are forced to play different roles than they usually would.

It’s a great example of characters working in the face of adversity, and of how the threat and danger in an episode of Star Trek doesn’t have to come from a menacing evil alien. Worf ends up delivering a baby, Counsellor Troi is the senior officer on the bridge and is forced to make significant command decisions, and most significantly for our purposes, Picard is stuck in a turbolift with a group of frightened children.

We’ve seen Picard in command countless times and we know he’s good at it – with his own crew. What Disaster does is show us how Picard can take control of any situation, even one he’s uncomfortable in as he’s never been keen on children. He’s able to get the situation under control and lead the kids to safety in the face of a difficult situation. It may not be the most significant TNG episode ever from Picard’s point of view, but it is nevertheless worth a watch.

Number 5: The Battle (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987)

Accompanied by a Ferengi Marauder, the Enterprise-D takes the USS Stargazer under tow in The Battle.

The Next Generation’s first season was all about the show finding its feet. With the Klingons having been somewhat pacified, the show was looking for a new antagonist, and the Ferengi were initially created to fill that role. Though over the course of Deep Space Nine we’ve come to see the Ferengi more as a neutral power, interested in their own finances more than in galactic events, in early TNG they were much more aggressive.

The Battle was only the Ferengi’s second appearance, though we’re not really interested in the episode for that reason. Dai’mon Bok, a Ferengi captain, has somehow acquired the USS Stargazer – a ship previously captained by Picard. Over the course of the episode, we learn Picard had been in command at an event called the “battle of Maxia”, in which he defeated a Ferengi vessel using a warp speed technique called the “Picard manoeuvre”. The story fills in some of Picard’s pre-TNG history and proved to be a great opportunity for Patrick Stewart to show off his acting abilities, as the episode takes the character through a moment of (induced) madness.

Number 6: The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1990)

Picard transformed into Locutus of Borg in The Best of Both Worlds.

I’ve kind of spoilt it in the above picture, but Picard’s assimilation by the Borg in The Best of Both Worlds was a truly shocking moment for The Next Generation to end its third season on. This was the first time we’d seen assimilation on screen, and for a character as significant as Picard to be captured was a phenomenal moment. The entire two-part episode is beautifully constructed, and the moments leading up to the reveal of the assimilated Picard are perfectly shot and edited.

In terms of Picard’s life, his experience with the Borg, and the guilt and regret he felt over the attack on Starfleet ships at Wolf 359, would stay with him for a long time. In First Contact we see how it could influence his judgement – Picard was usually level-headed, calm, and neutral, but when it came to the Borg his emotions could get the better of him leading to irrational decisions. Seeing how this came to be, and how one traumatic event can affect his character, could be very important to understanding his decision-making in Picard, especially if the Borg are involved.

Family, the second episode of Season 4 of TNG, follows on from The Best of Both Worlds and would also be worth a look-in as an epilogue of sorts to this story.

Number 7: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present)

Lorca and Saru during Discovery’s first season.

Given the significant changes to Star Trek storytelling that are present in Discovery, it would be well worth getting up to date with Star Trek’s most recent outing if you haven’t seen it already. I understand that some fans weren’t happy with the series for a number of reasons, but there are some definite high points in there which even the most hardline sceptic should be able to appreciate.

Jason Isaacs in Season 1 and Anson Mount in Season 2 both give amazing performances as two very different Starfleet captains, and Discovery tells two separate, season-long serialised stories in the style that Picard plans to adopt for its first season. If the Short Treks episode Children of Mars is any indication, the visual style of Discovery will also carry over to Picard at least in part. Whether you think this is a good thing or not is another matter, of course, but if you’ve somehow avoided Discovery this long, now could be a good time to give it a second chance.

Because of its serialised nature it’s hard to pull just one episode from Discovery and say “just watch this one”. But if I had to pick a single episode, I’d recommend An Obol for Charon from Season 2. Despite containing several ongoing story arcs, the main thrust of this episode – dealing with an ancient planet-sized lifeform – is largely a self-contained story, albeit one that would have a huge impact on the remainder of the season.

Number 8: Star Trek: Generations (Film, 1994)

Captains Kirk and Picard meet for the first time inside the Nexus in Star Trek: Generations.

“Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you, don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you’re there, you can make a difference.” Those were the words spoken to Picard by Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. And for a time, it seemed as though Picard was following the advice his predecessor gave him. We saw Janeway promoted to Admiral in Star Trek: Nemesis while Picard remained a captain, even though for the audience she was a character we’d met much later and was noticeably younger. What could it have been that caused Picard to turn his back on Kirk’s advice?

In Generations, Picard loses several members of his family to a fire. Château Picard, where it seems he’s living in retirement at the beginning of the new series, was the place where his brother and family had lived. Family had been important to Picard, but he had been content that the family line would continue thanks to his brother having a family, but that was taken away from him in Generations. It’s a film in which he suffers another loss, too – the Enterprise-D.

Though casualties were said to be light, the loss of the ship he’d called home for more than seven years and had countless adventures aboard did have an effect on Picard, not that much of it is acknowledged on screen. Mostly, though, it’s Kirk’s sacrifice which is the key point worth noting from Generations, and even though the two men didn’t know each other particularly well, Kirk’s advice seemed to be taken to heart.

Number 9: Tapestry (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1993)

Given the chance to start over by Q, Picard ends up leading a very different life in Tapestry.

As Tapestry begins, Picard has been badly wounded. His artificial heart couldn’t tolerate the injury and he dies – only to be greeted by his long-time nemesis Q, and given a rare opportunity to make a fresh start.

Picard has an artificial heart because in his youth he was brutally stabbed! By choosing to avoid that fate, Picard set his life on a different path, one which didn’t lead to the man we knew, but a more timid and less successful man who had only made it as far as a junior lieutenant in Starfleet. He realises his mistake, and pleads Q to send him back to set things right, stating: “I would rather die as the man I was… than live the life I just saw.”

It’s another story that adds some colourful background to Picard’s story, and we see him in his youth before he settled down into the man we knew. Given that there are sure to be changes in his character between the last time we saw him and how he appears in Star Trek: Picard, it’s worth remembering that people do change over the course of their lives, and the person you are at 20 isn’t the same person you are at 50 or 70 or 90.

Number 10: All Good Things… (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1994)

Q takes Picard back in time in All Good Things…

The finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a strange one, with a time-travel concept and the return of Q. Across three time periods Picard had to figure out a puzzle – a spacial anomaly which would destroy humanity, and for which he was ultimately responsible!

If you’ve seen the science fiction film Arrival, then All Good Things… uses a similar concept. By learning to perceive time differently – realising that events in the future were impacting the past, not the other way around – Picard was able to prevent disaster. “We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.” So says Q, complimenting Picard on his ability to change the way he thought and attack the situation in a different way from a completely different line of reasoning.

Bringing to a close Q’s arc in The Next Generation, the episode also shows Picard as someone who is capable of things that he even doesn’t know about himself. Q gave him the push, but it was Picard who solved the mystery and saved humanity. We also get glimpses of Picard’s personal future – including his retirement at Château Picard. There’s the mention of a degenerative disease called irumodic syndrome which Picard is said to be suffering from in his later years – whether this will come into play in Star Trek: Picard is unknown.

Honourable Mentions:

I can’t end a list without adding in a few honourable mentions!

Star Trek (Film, 2009) – This is where we first hear about the supernova that destroyed Romulus from Spock. It’s a significant plot point in the film, but not one which is covered in great detail.
What You Leave Behind (DS9, 1999) – Concluding the Dominion War arc, which brought together the Federation and Romulans as allies, this episode is the most recent in which we saw many Star Trek factions like the Cardassians and Breen.
Skin of Evil (TNG, 1988) – Picard’s first on-screen experience with losing an officer and a friend, when Tasha Yar is killed in action.
Time Squared (TNG, 1988) – Picard must contend with the idea that he abandoned ship in the middle of a crisis when a duplicate of himself from the future is discovered.
The Defector (TNG, 1990) – A Romulan Admiral defects to the Federation to try to prevent a war, and Picard must deal with the information he provides.
The Raven (VOY, 1997) – Seven of Nine experiences flashbacks and uncovers her family’s half-assimilated ship where she was first captured by the Borg.
I, Borg (TNG, 1992) – The introduction of Hugh the Borg, and Picard’s attempt to weaponise him to defeat the collective.
Human Error (VOY, 2001) – Seven of Nine begins to discover more about her human side after years away from the Borg.
In The Pale Moonlight (DS9, 1998) – Sisko lies and cheats to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War as an ally – and Garak commits murder to cover up their actions. Did the Romulans find out between the end of the war and the events of Picard?
Sarek (TNG, 1990) – Picard came to know Spock well, but also met his father. Picard helped Sarek stay in control of his emotions as he suffered a serious Vulcan illness.

So that’s it. A few episodes and films that might feed into the plot and background of Star Trek: Picard. Perhaps not everything will be relevant, especially given the scant information about the show’s plot that we actually have. I’ve made two significant assumptions based on the trailer and cast information that we’ve seen so far – firstly that the Borg will have some role to play in the story, and secondly that the Romulans will too. But it could be an elaborate misdirect and both of these factions will ultimately end up being little more than backstory. We’ll have to see.

Regardless, the episodes and films above should go some way to showing off Picard and Star Trek at their best as we prepare for the new series. It’s been a long time since I was this excited about the premiere of a new television series, and I can’t wait to tune in when Picard kicks off in just ten days’ time.

Live Long and Prosper!

The Star Trek franchise – including all films, series, and episodes listed above – is the copyright of Paramount Pictures and ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.