It's time to explore strange new shows and seek out the best Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes as we boldly go where no one has gone before. Well Ok, a few people have been here before, but that's not going to stop us.
It’s hard to imagine what a list of the top Star Trek episodes would look like without The Next Generation. It may not have been the first Trek show to grace televisions (or even the second!), but for a lot of fans, The Next Generation is Star Trek.
It only lasted seven seasons, airing from 1987 - 1994, but TNG is still a fundamental part of the current Trek universe. Paramount Plus original Star Trek: Picard just kicked off its second season and the events of Discovery regularly intersect with those referenced in TNG. It’s possible the Lower Decks would exist even without the TNG episode of the same name…but we kind of doubt it. What we're saying is, Star Trek is what it is today because of The Next Generation.
To be as fair as possible and give each franchise the respect it deserves, we’re going to examine them individually. What follows, therefore, is a list of the best Star Trek The Next Generation episodes. If you want to watch through these classic TNG episodes yourself, our Star Trek streaming guide is here to help.
Whether they offer exceptional science fiction, standout performances, or classic Trek moments, each episode on this list is worth your time — even if you’re a Trek newbie. Just keep in mind that spoilers lie within, and proceed accordingly.
If you want to see even more great Star Trek content, check out our ranking of the best Star Trek: Voyager episodes too. It's a Neelix-lite list, we promise. We've also got our guide to the Star Trek movies, ranked worst to best if you prefer your Trek on the silver screen.
10. The First Duty
- Season: 5
- Original air date: March 30, 1992
Ok, we all know that Wesley Crusher kind of sucks, but that’s exactly what makes The First Duty so good. In it, Wesley is caught between loyalty to his friends and the truth with not just his future at stake, but the respect of the most important male figure in his life, Captain Picard.
Wesley and his pals, emboldened with the hubris known to virtually everyone who’s ever been young, attempt a flight maneuver that results in a fatal accident. The squad leader pressures everyone to keep quiet and lay the blame on the dead cadet, because to do otherwise would destroy their reputations and careers. Picard figures out what’s going on, putting Wesley in the position of having to choose between backing up his friends’ lies or coming clean.
The First Duty doesn’t shy from making Wesley look like exactly what he is: a boy whose arrogance got his friend killed. The Enterprise crew is typically so virtuous they beggar belief, but Wesley’s situation is uncomfortably relatable.
9. The Game
- Season: 5
- Original air date: October 28, 1991
Take Invasion of the Body Snatchers and mix in a sprinkling of anti-video game propaganda and you have The Game, featuring a very young Ashley Judd as Ensign Robin Lefler.
A playmate on Risa introduces Riker to a video game that he later brings back with him to the ship. Wesley, visiting his mom while on break from Starfleet Academy, originally suggests to Ensign Lefler that they study the appeal of the game as a kind of ultra-nerdy date activity, which is how they stumble on the fact that it’s highly addictive and leaves the player open to suggestion.
If there’s ever an episode of the horniest Star Trek episodes, The Game will definitely be on it, not just because of the players’ gasps of orgasmic happiness when they complete a level, but also because Troi’s explanation of how to eat a hot fudge sundae.
8. The Most Toys
- Season: 3
- Original air date: May 5, 1990
A collector by the name of Kivas Fajo concocts a ruse that allows him to kidnap Data while tricking the crew of the Enterprise into believing their comrade is dead. Fajo specializes in one-of-a-kind items and quickly reveals himself to be ruthless to the point of sociopathy when it comes to getting what he wants.
The casual cruelty with which Fajo treats other living beings allows The Most Toys to explore the boundaries of Data’s humanity as he stands up to his abuser. It’s a compelling episode thanks especially to Saul Rubinek’s ice-cold turn as Fajo.
7. Cause and Effect
- Season: 5
- Original air date: March 23, 1992
As pre-credits hooks go, it’s tough to beat Cause and Effect. The episode has barely begun before Picard is ordering all hands to abandon ship, shortly before the Enterprise explodes in glorious fashion. The rest of Cause and Effect follows the crew as they slowly realize they’re reliving events over and over, eventually deducing that they’re stuck in a time loop.
After the ship explodes, the loop resets and their memories wipe. Every sci fi show worth its salt has a time loop episode of one kind or another, but Cause and Effect carries it off with cleverness. The eventual solution to the problem is a mix of technical wizardry and personal insight, a pleasant change for a show set in space. The final cameo is outstanding, too.
6. Yesterday’s Enterprise
- Season: 3
- Original air date: February 19, 1990
Consider this one “It’s a Wonderful Life: Space Edition.” The Enterprise-C traverses an anomaly, triggering an alternate timeline in which the Federation is still at war with the Klingons and Tasha Yar never ran afoul of that oil slick. The only way to put things right — or at least the way they used to be — is for the Enterprise-C to return to its own timeline, but that’s a suicide mission.
Yesterday’s Enterprise raises one of the classic sci fi questions: Who has more right to exist? Why is one possibility more true than another? In addition to exploring those questions, Yesterday’s Enterprise gives fans the opportunity to say a proper and meaningful goodbye to Tasha, whose previous exit was unsatisfying, to say the least.
5. Lower Decks
- Season: 7
- Original air date: February 7, 1994
The cartoon of the same name takes a comical look at the relationship between the bridge staff and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise, but this episode is no joke. Lower Decks provides a rare glimpse into the attitudes and ambitions of crewmembers who haven’t made it into the limelight yet. One of them, Sito, was involved in the scandal of The First Duty, and she assumes her placement on the Enterprise under Picard’s eye is some kind of punishment.
On the contrary, Picard requested her to ensure she was given a fair shake after what happened. Sito learns that people still believe in her and eagerly embraces a dangerous mission into Cardassian territory where she might prove her value. When she fails to return, we see how her death impacts the senior officers who wanted to help her realize her potential, as well as the friends she left behind. Lower Decks is a sad, intimate examination of ambition, hero worship, and self-esteem.
- Season: 5
- Original air date: September 30, 1991
Differences cannot be overcome and alliance cannot be forged until we learn to communicate with each other, a highly Star Trek concept that Darmok takes to an extreme. After the Tamarians’ attempts to communicate with the Federation fail, a Tamarian captain, Dathon, beams himself and Picard to the surface of a nearby planet. The Tamarian language is based entirely on references and metaphors; as Troi explains, the phrase “Juliet on her balcony” only makes sense if you know who Juliet was.
Virtually the entire episode is Picard trying desperately to understand Dathon, a task that becomes more urgent as the duo are attacked by a predator and Dathon is severely wounded. Some Star Trek fans deride Darmok as being too boring or repetitive, but others appreciate it for how eerily it predicted the rise of online meme culture. Bernie, his hands cold. Homer, when the bushes parted.
3. Chain of Command, pt 2
- Season: 6
- Original air date: December 21, 1992
TNG had its fair share of impressive villains, but few were as genuinely terrifying as the Cardassian inquisitor in Chain of Command. In Part 1, Captain Picard is captured during a clandestine away mission, the victim of an elaborate ruse by the Cardassians. In Part 2, he is systematically tortured by Gul Madred, played by the exceptional David Warner.
The prize Madred seeks is Starfleet’s plans for Minos Korva, and the bulk of the episode is him employing everything from sleep deprivation to humiliation to get Picard to crack. He shows the captain an array of four lights, insisting Picard agree that there are five. When he refuses, he is punished.
Chain of Command is frustrating, enraging, and frightening, but few moments in Trek history are as cathartic as Picard, weak from abuse but finally rescued, turning to face Gul Madred one last time and shouting, “There are FOUR lights!”
2. The Inner Light
- Season: 5
- Original air date: June 1, 1992
The Inner Light is a gentle, yet profound piece of science fiction storytelling. The Enterprise encounters an unknown probe that scans the ship and hits Picard with an energy beam, knocking him unconscious. When he regains consciousness, Picard is shocked to discover that he’s no longer on the Enterprise; he’s on a planet called Kataan and everyone seems to think he’s someone called Kamin. He struggles to convince Kamin’s wife and best friend that his version of reality is true, without success.
Years pass, and while he never stops hoping to one day be reunited with his ship, Picard embraces his life as “Kamin,” bringing what science he can to the low-tech society while also becoming a husband and father. As Picard, now old, reaches the end of his new life, The Inner Light reveals its secret.
Doomed by a supernova, the leaders of Kataan launched a probe containing memories of its people, hoping it would someday be able to share their story. The episode is lovely and sad, no moreso than when the probe opens to reveal the flute that Picard — as Kamin — believed he spent his life on Kataan learning to master.
1. The Best of Both Worlds, pt 1
- Season: 3
- Original air date: June 18, 1990
There were times when TNG told better or more important stories, but for sheer nail-biting drama, it’s impossible to top the cliffhanger ending of The Best of Both Worlds, part 1. To appreciate its position atop this list, cast your mind back to the time before the internet did its best to dispel all mystery surrounding characters’ fates.
The crew of the Enterprise had encountered the Borg before in Q-Who, but that simply laid the groundwork to establish how dangerous an enemy they were. A Borg cube attacks the Enterprise, abducting Picard in the process. An away team beams to the Borg ship to attempt a rescue, but only find their captain’s communicator and uniform.
This leads to the most jaw-dropping season finale the series ever managed: The Borg contact the Enterprise, and an assimilated Picard — now Locutus of Borg — assures them that resistance is futile. Riker, now in command, gives the only order he can: “Fire.” Chills.
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Susan Arendt is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in Burleson, TX. She's a huge sci-fi TV and movie buff, and will talk your Vulcan ears off about Star Trek. You can find more of her work at Wired, IGN, Polygon, or look for her on Twitter: @SusanArendt. Be prepared to see too many pictures of her dogs.