As Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 30 this year, this is part one of a two-part article I've done for the Agony Booth on TNG's most underrated episodes.
The first two of these spin off shows, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, matched TNG’s record in terms of the number of seasons it had (seven). However, both those series began airing in January of 1993 and 1995, respectively. TNG, on the other hand, first hit the airwaves in September 1987. With Enterprise deservedly getting the axe after just four seasons, TNG currently holds the record as the Trek series with the most episodes (176, although some say 178, because both TNG’s premiere and final episodes, “Encounter at Farpoint” and “All Good Things…”, were subsequently rerun as two-part episodes).
With that record, it may not be surprising that there are some episodes of the series that simply flew under the radar in terms of how good they are by fans. Here now is the first half of a list of ten TNG episodes that I find to be quite good, but don’t usually see on the countless lists of Top 10 episodes that fans have put together over the years.
Season 1: “Coming of Age”
I can certainly understand the disdain most fans held for Wil Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher almost immediately after TNG premiered. The idea of a whiz kid piloting the ship and who was such a genius that he could see trouble when the adults on the show could not, making them look stupid in the process, didn’t exactly help said adults inspire confidence in viewers. Looking back now though, TNG’s first season is probably the only time I actually disliked the character. This is because his super-intelligence was drilled into our skulls again and again during that season. From Season 2 on, however, I didn’t mind Wesley quite as much, because he was presented as more of a team player. I didn’t exactly cry when Wheaton left the show in the middle of Season 4, but lo and behold, Wesley actually got a bona fide great episode to his name afterwards (“The First Duty”).
Ironically, this first season episode is one that centers on Wesley, and that I don’t mind either. Wesley goes down to a planet in order to take the entrance exam to get into Starfleet Academy. This works because Wesley comes across as someone who simply wants to get into a good school while dealing with his own personal issues as well. In other words, this was one of the few times young people could actually put themselves in his shoes. The scenes in which Wesley befriends his fellow candidate Mordock (John Putch) are also good, and Robert Ito is nicely authoritative as the Starfleet officer overseeing the exams.
But the best scenes are the ones that occur on the Enterprise while Wesley is taking his test. Picard’s superior Admiral Quinn (Ward Costello) has ordered his aid Lt. Cmdr. Remmick (Robert Schenkkan) to question the crew and watch procedures like a hawk as part of an investigation into Picard’s performance in the big chair. The scenes with Remmick pissing off Picard and company are terrific, and this thread would be picked up later in the season with “Conspiracy”.
Season 2: “Pen Pals”
One of the hallmarks of TNG was that there were numerous instances where the regulars would gather in the observation lounge and thoroughly discuss the matter they were facing in the episode. This episode, which centers on Data’s discovery of a little girl on a planet that’s set to be destroyed by a natural catastrophe, has that meeting in Picard’s quarters. But this stands out because it actually focuses on the right thing to do, the Prime Directive be damned. In contrast, Voyager would become infamous for, among other things, having Janeway not blink an eye at the thought of civilizations being wiped out because of the Prime Directive.
Even the subplot of Wesley heading a science team for the first time is painless, because it ends up serving the plot of the story.
Season 3: “The Survivors”
This episode is actually a very personal drama, even though the stakes themselves are presented as epic. The Enterprise investigates the destruction of a Federation colony. Upon arriving, they discover that the title survivors are couple Kevin and Rishon Uxbridge (John Anderson and Anne Haney). The couple claim to not know why they and their home were spared, but they do not wish to leave their otherwise decimated planet. Kevin in particular wishes that Picard and his crew would leave them alone. At the same time, Troi is being slowly driven insane because of an endless musical loop that’s been put in her mind. On top of that, the Enterprise encounters an imposing warship that’s trying to get rid of them.
However, the twist comes when Picard realizes that Kevin himself is the key to all this chaos. In the moving final moments of the episode, Kevin reveals that he’s actually the lone survivor. He also explains that he’s a super-powerful being who was living a peaceful life with Rishon when the (never seen) aliens attacked. But Kevin’s guilt and despair is revealed when he tells Picard that Rishon’s death led to him using his powers to wipe out not just the invaders, but their entire race. In his final log entry for the episode, Picard states that he doesn’t know if Kevin should answer for what he’s done, but only that he should be left alone.
The episode has great acting from everyone, especially Anderson, who had a long, prolific career as a character actor, in one of his final roles.
Season 3: “The High Ground”
As far as I’m concerned, this episode is the precursor to Steven Spielberg’s great, controversial drama Munich. While the Enterprise is delivering medical supplies to a war-torn planet, Crusher is kidnapped by terrorists that the planet’s government is at war with. The terrorist leader Finn (Richard Cox) informs her that her medical skills are needed, because he and others in his faction are experiencing the fatal aftereffects of using their untraceable transporter technology. Riker convinces the planet’s police chief Devos (Kerrie Keane) to give diplomacy a try, but Finn’s skepticism leads to his attempt to blow up the Enterprise. That ends in failure, although Picard’s fistfight with Finn results in his capture as well.
What makes me compare this to the aforementioned Spielberg film is that both dramas do not make the terrorists simply mustache-twirling villains, while also making sure not to sugar-coat their horrific acts. Finn truly believes that his acts are necessary in order to rectify wrongs done to him and his followers (at one point, he reveals that his son died in police custody). But Devos is given depth as well when she reveals to Riker that the deaths of a bus full of children led to her desire to put a stop to such actions. Both sides are given a voice here, and again like Munich, there’s no tidy resolution where all is forgiven either.
Side note: Data’s throwaway line about Ireland being unified in 2024 resulted in this episode being banned for several years in the U.K.
Season 4: “Half a Life”
As with Wesley, Troi’s mother Lwaxana (Majel Barrett) rubbed many fans the wrong way. However, this episode is one of two (the other I’ll go into in part two of this article) that actually made me like her. Most of the character’s outings had her being a flamboyant, man-crazy widow. But I like this story because it presents her in a more vulnerable light.
Lwaxana is visiting her daughter and her shipmates (in a funny bit, the show opens with Picard cautiously exiting a turbolift) as the ship is arriving on planet Kaelon II. There, they pick up a quiet scientist named Timicin (David Ogden Stiers), whom the ship is assigned to assist in an experiment that may save his world from its star, which is collapsing. Lwaxana makes it a point to get to know Timicin during his time on the ship.
The experiment turns out to be a failure. However, what truly saddens Timicin is his revelation that he won’t be able to spend much more time with Lwaxana because he’s almost 60 years old and the laws of his world demand that he commit ritual suicide at that age.
Lwaxana asks Picard to intervene but he can’t, as these are the laws of another world. Eventually, she convinces Timicin that maybe he can stick around a little longer and tell his superiors that his work is on the cusp of success. An interplanetary incident almost emerges over this until Timicin’s daughter Dara (Michelle Forbes, before she became Ro Laren) personally pleads with him to follow the heritage of their people. This convinces Timicin to concede. Although understandably saddened, Lwaxana agrees to go down to Kaelon II to join Timicin’s family in bidding him farewell.
There’s great chemistry between Barrett and Stiers, and the scenes in which Lwaxana tries to convince Timicin to challenge the status quo hit the mark. I plan to say more about Star Trek’s record with love stories in Part 2, but this is definitely one that worked, and in the process, made a sometimes-irritable character actually sympathetic.