TotL – 5 Best Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes (Season 4)
It’s been 30 years since Star Trek The Next Generation first debuted on television, and to honor that pop culture changing event we’re doing an entire series of Top o’ the Lot, or TotL (pronounced “Total” by the kids) lists running down our favorite episodes from each season of this landmark show. We’re on to season 4, and, oh boy! Some of the best episodes of the entire series show up in this list, and while episodes like In Theory, The Mind’s Eye, Identity Crisis, The Host, Night Terrors, First Contact, and others spotlighted the Bridge Crew with brilliant storytelling, they weren’t the best of the season. Even the season finally leading into the Klingon Civil War weren’t quite good enough to make this list. That’s how great season 4 truly is. So, without further ado, Barclay, again, Picard, again, and just great television, period, in Outright Geekery’s Top o’ the Lot: 5 Best Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes (Season 4).
Honorable Mention: Data’s Day
Yes, this is sort of an episode that revolves around a lone member of the Bridge Crew, and I know I said I’m staying away from those in this list, but there’s way too many cool things going on in this episode to ignore it. Both Data’s cat Spot and fan-favorite Keiko O’Brien are introduced, which is enough in and of itself to put this episode in the Honorable Mention spot, but Data dances, prepares for a wedding like only an android can, and all the while is this terrific story about a Romulan spy posing as a Vulcan getting over on the Enterprise crew and Starfleet.
While the story revolves around Data, specifically a letter he’s writing to what amounts to a pen pal, Data’s Day is the quintessential Star Trek episode as it simultaneously deals with the average ins and outs of characters we’ve grown to know and love by this point, and also a dramatic and intriguing story wrapped in politics and diplomacy. Better yet, the episode was able to tie these two distinct threads together wonderfully.
Yes, I know, it’s another Bridge Crew centered episode, but I swear this is the last one. And this one is by far the best of those from season 4. The Borg have been defeated, the Enterprise is undergoing repairs, and the crew is getting some earned shore leave, so Picard makes his way back to his childhood home in France to spend some quality time with family. But through this innocent premise we see the most humanizing moments of the still mostly enigmatic Jean-Luc Picard. We see the scars left from his encounter with The Borg are still healing, him coming to terms with previous wounds left untreated, and him considering leaving Starfleet altogether.
Bringing Captain Picard down to a level where the viewers can honestly relate to the character wasn’t only needed, but it lead to so many great opportunities in future episodes, while adding another facet to the much celebrated Best of Both Worlds episodes. Leaving the character mostly untouched by his very traumatic encounter wouldn’t have been fair to an audience, and leaving this on the table would have been a disservice to the entire series.
4. The Wounded
Many of the episodes I choose for these lists are chosen solely because of what they are. They are simply great episodes of Trek. Some episodes, however, are chosen because they represent seeds that sprout stories, arcs, and even pivotal aspects of entire series. one such episode is The Wounded. While this The Wounded is indeed a great episode in its own right, it delves deep into the Cardassians, feeds the genesis of what would become Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and it was a Chief O’Brien centered episode, a character just now getting the respect he deserves.
This opened up a lot of ground in the context of Federation/Caradassian relations, setup most of the premise of the start of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and was itself a great story about honor, service, and questioning the very definition of “the right thing”. It could be argued that this was the start of The Maquis, which played a big role in Star Trek: Voyager. This single planted seed may just have created an entire forest of Trek stories.
In a perfectly executed piece of science fiction, the Enterprise stumbles upon a race of xenophobic aliens with tremendous power who would rather see the crew perish than to have their location revealed. Picard talks his way out of it by encouraging the aliens to erase the crew’s memory, but clues are left behind, leading to trouble. Only Data, unable to have his memories erased, knows the truth, but under order from this Captain works against the crew’s desire to figure out the mystery.
Easily the best WhoDoneIt sort of mystery story Trek has ever told, with a surprise twist no one saw coming. A beautifully sculpted story, weaving its way through clues until the ultimate WTF moment. Clues puts a spotlight on the human condition in a way that entertains and engages unlike most Trek episodes, and it’s a shining example of the diversity is storytelling that came out of this series.
2. The Nth Degree
Another Barclay episode, and I’ve yet to find a bad one starring the socially awkward crew member, that sees his entire character flipped on its head thanks to an alien probe that grants super-intelligence and Riker level confidence. After an awkward transition period, Barclay eventually links his mind to the Enterprise computer, becoming one with the ship, and finally taking them into some far-flung corner of the galaxy. Turns out, the alien’s who sent the probe are also seeking out new life and new civilizations, but are simply going about it altogether differently.
This episode is special for many reasons, but foremost is the super relatable character of Reginald Barclay. You really can see in this single episode why he becomes a recurring character on this series and others in the Trek franchise. he is just so many of the fans that adore this show. Plus, that premise is just really cool.
1. The Drumhead
“With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.”
Perhaps the absolute most important episode in the series, The Drumhead revolves around a simply accident on board the Enterprise, with the ensuing investigation spinning out of control into an outright witch hunt. After an explosion on the Enterprise, a special investigator is brought in who quickly overreaches in pursuit of the truth. Even after the explosion is proved to be accidental, the investigator refuses to let up, going as far as suggesting Captain Picard himself is part of some sinister conspiracy.
This episode rings so true in today’s modern political landscape, but the greatest part about Star Trek is its ability to delve into aspects of history that are forever repeating. The Red Scare of McCarthyism, Muslim intolerance in the 2000s, or current state of partisan politics rampant in society today, and reinforces the mantra that vigilance is the price humanity must constantly pay in exchange for freedom.