This month marks 50 years since “Star Trek” first hit the airwaves as a television show. I’ve been devoted to the franchise, so as someone who holds strong opinions about the show and about pop culture lists, it seems appropriate to rank the 10 best “Trek” episodes ever aired on television.
And just to make things more interesting and controversial, I’ve chosen from the entire non-animated pool of “Trek” episodes: “Star Trek” (TOS), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG), “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (DS9), “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
Spoiler alert: Nothing from the last two shows listed made the top 10. And I’ll confess at the outset a likely bias toward episodes that focused on interplanetary statecraft, as it were.
In ascending order of greatness:
10. “First Contact” (TNG): The Enterprise D initiates a first-contact mission with the almost-warp-ready Malconians, but it’s complicated by the fact Riker has been injured during a covert reconnaissance mission on the planet. This episode does an excellent job of illuminating the politics of a planet undergoing significant social transformations and the reactionary blowback that could be produced by an extraterrestrial visit. Plus, there’s an awesome and very funny Bebe Neuwirth cameo.
9. “Journey to Babel” (TOS): This episode manages to weave together the tricky politics of the Federation with the tricky politics of Spock’s family. Mark Lenard does a wonderful job as Spock’s estranged father, Sarek – and the statecraft parts of the episode hold up surprisingly well.
8. “Measure of a Man” (TNG): The first season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was bad, bad, bad. This episode, from the second season, was the first time you got a whiff of the promise of this show and its cast. The show revolves around whether the android Data should be legally viewed as a sentient being or as property of Starfleet. Its centerpiece, in which Captain Picard cross-examines a computer scientist about what it means to be sentient, makes full use of Patrick Stewart’s oratorical abilities:
7. “The Doomsday Machine” (TOS): An ancient doomsday device wanders into our galaxy and shreds solar systems. Kirk and his crew must battle the machine – and an Ahab-like Starfleet captain trying to avenge his murdered crew. Nothing fancy, but watching Spock trying to prevent the blinkered captain Deckard from destroying the Enterprise is good fun. Also, a thrilling climax.
6. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (TNG): An Enterprise from a past time travels forward through time and changes the course of history. In this parallel timeline, the Enterprise D is a warship and is run rather differently than the Enterprise we are used to. It works well because the actors and director fully inhabit this world of a very martial Federation in endless war with the Klingons. Also, there’s a very amusing opening involving Worf and prune juice.
5. “Chain of Command” (TNG): A two-parter in which Picard is assigned to relinquish command of the Enterprise and lead a covert mission into Cardassian space. He gets captured and is tortured as a result, while the Enterprise finds a way to get him back. Most fans will remember the second part of this episode, with the Cardassian official torturing Picard by borrowing techniques from George Orwell’s “1984.” Stewart is very good in those scenes – but just as good is Ronny Cox as Captain Jellicoe, the martinet who replaces Picard, butts heads with Riker and unsettles almost all of the bridge crew.
4. “In the Pale Moonlight” (DS9): In some ways, the whole “best episodes” conceit biases this list against DS9. Its Dominion War arc might have produced the richest narrative in the entire “Trek” universe, even if individual episodes don’t stand out. This episode, however, in which Captain Sisko provides log entries explaining his efforts to recruit Romulan entry into the Dominion War on the side of the Federation, stands out in highlighting the messiness and moral sacrifices that are often made during great power wars. The ending might also be the least Gene Roddenberry-like plot in the entire “Trek” canon.
3. “Balance of Terror” (TOS): A submarine episode in space. The Romulans are introduced as an antagonist in this episode, and Kirk and his crew must find a way to defeat a new, high-tech ship that breaches the Neutral Zone. Of all the battle episodes in “Trek,” this one is the best, but it also has two other things going for it. The episode highlights the ways in which war contributes to prejudice and racial resentments. Most importantly, by also showing the internal deliberations of the Romulan ship, it presents both sides of the conflict. Mark Lenard plays the Romulan commander and evinces a grace note of sadness at the prospect of a successful mission leading to more war.
2. “Darmok” (TNG): The Enterprise D crew tries to establish relations with the Tamarians, but their attempts at communication are unsuccessful with a race that uses language very differently from the Federation. In an effort to bridge the gap, the Tamarian captain beams himself and Picard down to a planet so the two of them can share a common adversary. While many alien species in the “Trek” universe don’t seem all that alien, this was an exception, a truly inspired creation.
1. “Best of Both Worlds” (TNG): The Borg come to town just as Riker struggles with the question of whether he’s become too settled in the Enterprise and lacks ambition. This two-parter might have the greatest cliffhanger in television history, but that’s only a small part of what makes this the best episode in the “Trek” canon. The Borg are the greatest villain in the “Trek” universe. The capture of Picard and the possible destruction of Earth raise the stakes even further.
To be honest, however, Michael Piller’s script is what makes this show stand out. He seamlessly integrated Riker’s doubts about his career trajectory with the challenges he faces once the Borg kidnap Picard and exploit his knowledge of the Federation. The dialogue is a cut above standard “Trek” fare. And there’s a lovely scene, early in the first part, in which Picard and Guinan discuss what the Borg’s victory might mean for history, that provides some interesting interactions between Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg:
I must confess, as the 2016 election approaches, that this scene has come to mind on more than one occasion.