TotL – 5 Best Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes (Season 5)
We’re in the home stretch of our celebration of Star Trek The Next Generation in this 30th Anniversary year of one of the greatest science fiction series of all time. We’re continuing to countdown the best episodes of each of TNG’s seasons and films in separate Top o’ the Lot lists leading up to the September 27th anniversary date of the premiere. This week’s Top o’ the Lot – or TotL (pronounced “Total” by the kids) – is all about season 5 which is both one of the easiest to put together and one of the hardest to decide. While it has my all time favorite episode, as well as some concrete contenders, there’s a whole lot of quality story-telling in this season. I’m staying away from some of the most important episodes of this season, but it’s by no means on purpose. ‘Ensign Ro’ focuses on the unfairness of the ceasefire between the Cardassians and the Federation. ‘Hero Worship’ is all about dealing with loss. ‘Violations’ deals with rape. ‘Ethics’ makes obvious real-world right-to-die comparisons. ‘The Outcast’ sees Riker falling in love with an androgynous alien in a clear nod to modern-day social issues. Even ‘The Game’ tries to deal with addiction in its own odd way. Then there’s classics like ‘I, Borg’, ‘The Next Phase’, and even the Klingon political intrigue of ‘Redemption’ Part 2. There’s almost too many good episodes in this season, and this may just be where the series hits its peak. I know, there’s not much left to pick to the list, but here we go. So, without further ado, it’s the high sci-fi, the fun, and that epic Picard, in Outright Geekery’s Top o’ the Lot: 5 Best Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes (Season 5).
Honorable Mention: A Matter of Time
At the Honorable Mention spot is just a plain, old, fun episode of Trek that I simply adore. ‘A Matter of Time’ sees a time traveler from the 26th century investigating the Enterprise due to the historic nature of the current mission, but turns out he’s a poser from the past trying to get over with stolen technology. It’s a basic story-telling plot, but this episode makes the cut due to one very special guest star: Matt Frewer.
This actor’s resume reads like a geek’s must-watch list. Orphan Black, the new animated Castlevania, 12 Monkeys, The Librarians, Supernatural, and this list goes back decades. He played Max Headroom, the original techno-geek character of the modern era, and he’s simply a treat in this unforgettable episode.
5. The Perfect Mate
Guest starring later co-star of Patrick Stuart in the X-Men film franchise, Famke Janssen and Famke Janssen alone pushes this episode onto this Lot. Stuart’s acting proficiency is on brilliant display, and the story about an empathic metamorph who sync her mind to that of her partner makes the sexual tension between the two actors palpable. But it’s more than that.
Palpable may be the best word to use for this relationship, but it just doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. The emotions between Stuart and Janssen erupt off the screen in a way that’s just not seen very much. While it makes me long for the awkward yet monumental story plot that sees Professor Xavier have feelings for his much younger student, I’m going to keep this as not creepy as I can make it, and just leave it at this.
Bringing back a TOS character into the current TNG continuity could have been disastrous. Sure, they’d done it before, but mostly for shit, giggles, and nothing nearly close to as important as seeking a peace treaty between the Romulans and the Federation. But halfway through this season 5 that exactly what was done. Leonard Nimoy reprises his role, an epic adventure unfolds, and although nothing really gets done, we end with a terrific episode.
The one thing holding back this episode is the fact that nothing ever really comes out of this huge revelation that Spock is doing all these really big diplomatic missions all on his own. The episode ends up breaking down into a Romulan plot that the Enterprise crew eventually investigates into a dramatic resolution, but the potential was so ramped up for this to become a major plot thread for at least some aspect of the franchise moving forward. Oh well. It could have been more, but what it was ended up being terrific.
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra
Perhaps the most Trek of any episode from this 5th season, ‘Darmok’ has Captain Picard working together with a Tamarian Captain. The catch: Tamarians only speak in cryptic metaphors based on a history inherent to the Tamarians. It leads to a crazy series of events that sees Picard kidnapped and forced to fight with the Tamarian captain in order to, not only survive, but to learn about his new ally.
This episode takes the entire idea of seeking out new civilizations and flips it on its head in a way that truly stresses the difficulties involved in undertaking such a task. This sort of confusion caused by differences in alien cultures should be commonplace in the Trek universe. Honestly, it should not be this easy. But in order to facilitate a 45 minutes long television episode coupled with the fact that humans are so very bad at having a perspective that we can really consider alien, we don’t get it quite as much as we’d like from the series. ‘Darmok’, thankfully, is one of these special exceptions.
2. Cause and Effect
By far my favorite episode of this season that isn’t the greatest episode of Star Trek ever captured on film, ‘Cause and Effect’ is a quintessential piece of Trek science fiction. The Enterprise discovers a temporal anomaly in space, and is quickly destroyed when another vessel flies out of the anomaly, a grand collision ensuing. And that’s in the first 2 minutes of the episode! This repeats, on and on. The crew relive the same day or two before the explosion again and again, eventually realizing they are in a temporal causality loop. The time loop eventually comes to an end as the crew figure out a way to send signals to Data through time, and all’s well that ends well…sort of.
If you don’t have a Data on board your starship, what do you do to get out of a temporal causality loop? Well, obviously, you do nothing. The ship that hit the Enterprise over and over and over again was the USS Bozeman, a ship presumed lost some 90 years previous in an incident involving, you guessed it, a temporal distortion. Three weeks out of space dock and 90 years of the same few days. But the Bozeman was put right back into rotation along with, presumably, her crew after a long re-orientation process. Fun sci-fi Trek, but the Top spot in this Lot goes to some of the best sci-fi ever told on the small screen.
1. The Inner Light
Easily, without a doubt, not even a close race, my favorite episode of Star Trek in every way, shape, and form, ‘The Inner Light’ is the award winning story of Picard getting everything he never had in the most amazing and heart-wrenching ways I’ve even seen. An alien probe zaps Picard into unconsciousness, and while he snoozes in the real-world for all of about 20 minutes, he lives an entire life as a man named Kamin of an alien race long dead from a supernova. Picard begins this life apprehensively, believing it to be some evil plot, but eventually gives in and lives as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a neighbor, a friend, a scientist, and a citizen. The probe that zapped Picard was a way for this dying race to keep the history of their civilization alive. But it was so much more than that.
An amazing example of science-fiction storytelling, first and foremost, ‘The Inner Light’ sets itself apart from other episodes of Trek in very deep ways. This story is deep, emotional, and amount to more than the sum or its individual parts. But, and more importantly to me, it’s simultaneously a beautifully uplifting and crushingly heartbreaking story for Captain Picard. As a character, he regrets some of his choices that took him away from having a family, if even just a little bit. Giving him that is certainly a gift, but tearing him from that by making the entire experience tantamount to a “life” on the holodeck had to be a kick. Still, a perfect episode of the series. And a great song too.