I am nearly at the end of my review of the entirely of Star Trek: The Next Generation, something I’ve been doing for several years now. Occasionally, in conversation with others about the series, the question of which season of the show (it had seven) was the best in terms of overall quality? I have decided to find out.
Now, a few things. First of all, pretty much everybody agrees that the best season is not Seasons 1, 2 or 7. I mean, this show is the literal trope-namer for “Growing the Beard” – a term that refers to when a series goes from being not good to good, symbolized by Riker being baby-faced in the first season and bearded thereafter. Season 1 has a few good installments – Heart of Glory, for one, and I like Skin of Evil and The Arsenal of Freedom, and others enjoy The Big Goodbye, but for the most part, it was pretty weak, and would not have been likely to survive if it didn’t have the Star Trek name behind it.
Season 2 was a big improvement, and had some truly great episodes (Q Who? and The Measure of a Man being the most notable, though I also liked A Matter of Honor and Pen Pals) but also a fair share of duds, including what is classically considered to be the series’ weakest episode, Shades of Gray. It was also a season that was cut short due to a writer’s strike, which may have impacted negatively on the quality.
And in Season 7, as I have been noting a lot recently, the show seemed to be running out of steam, in spite of some still quite good episodes, and a really fun finale.
So we are going to limit this analysis to Seasons 3, 4, 5 & 6, because I think it’s a safe bet to say that one of them was the series’ best season. If you disagree with that statement please feel free to comment about why, but I’m going to proceed as if it’s a given fact.
How are we going to proceed? I’m going to contrast the seasons episode by episode (in episode order). Conveniently, all 4 seasons had the same number of episodes. So I’m going to compare all the first episodes, all the second episodes, and so on, until we get to the twenty-sixth episodes. For each, I will give a two points to which ever season delivered the best episode, and a minus one point for whichever season’s was the worst.
And then, in order to acknowledge when an episode really stood out as great or terrible, I’m going to give myself the leeway of offering three bonus points, one for any three episodes that I find that I think really stand out head and shoulders above all the rest in its slot, or for any episode that wasn’t the best, but was still good enough to get some recognition. Similarly, I’ll give three penalty points for three episodes that aren’t just the worst, but are significantly more terrible than the ones its up against (or like above, are not the worse but are still terrible enough to be acknowledged as such).
Clear? Great. Now, obviously, this is all based on my subjective opinions. But I will say that I’m going into this without having thought it through before hand, and with no pre-disposition to see a certain season “win”.
So let’s begin!
Season 3 – Evolution
Season 4 – The Best of Both Worlds, part II
Season 5 – Redemption, part II
Season 6 – Time’s Arrow, part II
This is an interesting way to start off because of course every season but the first one began with the resolution to a cliff hanger. Without a doubt the most celebrated is the conclusion to the Best of Both Worlds Borg story, but the Redemption Klingon story was also worthy. Evolution is a bit dull, while Time’s Arrow, part II is a bit silly but fun. Today, silly trumps dull.
Winner: Season 4 (The Best of Both Worlds, part II)
Loser: Season 3 (Evolution)
Season 3 – The Ensigns of Command
Season 4 – Family
Season 5 – Darmok
Season 6 – Realm of Fear
This is a brutal one, because both Family and Darmok are outstanding pieces of television. Darmok would clobber most episodes in all four seasons, but it’s going to lose out to Family which was not only notable for being a a powerful drama with nary a science fiction element within it, but also essentially being Part 3 to the great Best of Both Worlds story. Patrick Stewart is great in both episodes, but Family is one of our greatest performances. Ensigns of Command is enjoyable, leaving Realm of Fear as the weakest of the lot, not a terrible episode, but a bit lame.
Winner: Season 4 (Family)
Loser: Season 6 (Realm of Fear)
Bonus Point: Season 5 (Darmok)
(This is the first bonus point I’m awarding, because Darmok just needs to be acknowledged).
Season 3 – The Survivors
Season 4 – Brothers
Season 5 – Ensign Ro
Season 6 – Man of the People
Brothers is the most memorable of these episodes, with its triple-Brent Spiner action, but I think in the end the strongest piece of work here is Ensign Ro, which is one of the most effective social issue stories that Star Trek had produced up until that point. The Survivors is a bit of a weak story, especially on repeated viewings, but it doesn’t have the embarrassment factor that we get in Man of the People with Troi becoming a darkly sexualized version of herself.
Winner: Season 5 (Ensign Ro)
Loser: Season 6 (Man of the People)
Season 3 – Who Watches the Watchers
Season 4 – Suddenly Human
Season 5 – Silicon Avatar
Season 6 – Relics
This is another tricky one, as none of the episodes strongly stick out as either brilliant or terrible. Who Watches the Watchers is well produced, and tightly told, but weakened by its clear social bias in its second half. Suddenly Human is mostly strong but has pathetically weak ending. Silicon Avatar has got some lapses of logic and continuity, but is heartfelt and emotional. And Relics is a fan-favorite with Scotty making an appearance, but not the deepest story.
In the end, I’m just going to make my picks based on general preferences from my memory.
Winner: Season 6 (Relics)
Loser: Season 4 (Suddenly Human)
Season 3 – The Bonding
Season 4 – Remember Me
Season 5 – Disaster
Season 6 – Schisms
Round Five of our little contest brings a solid lot of episodes. None of them are bad, although some are more consistent than others. Schisms is far and away my favorite, though, with one of the series’ best mixtures of creepy concept meeting effective storytelling. Disaster is fun, though not as good as it should have been, and The Bonding is surprisingly effective. Remember Me has got a very catchy concept, but it falls apart at the end by shifting the focus from Beverly to Wesley and his prodigy status.
Winner: Season 6 (Schisms)
Loser: Season 4 (Remember Me)
Season 3 – Booby Trap
Season 4 – Legacy
Season 5 – The Game
Season 6 – True Q
The only episode here that I all-out like is Legacy, the bitter-sweet story of the Enterprise crew’s encounter with Tasha Yar’s sister. It’s a nice, low-key character story with a lot of personal weight for the crew. Booby Trap and The Game are both worthy but flawed. True Q, with a lackluster story about a young woman who discovers that she’s really a Q, is the most disappointing.
Winner: Season 4 (Legacy)
Loser: Season 6 (True Q)
Season 3 – The Enemy
Season 4 – Reunion
Season 5 – Unification I
Season 6 – Rascals
Some more fierce competition. Reunion really stands out as one of the best Worf stories that we ever had (if not the best), and a great Klingon episode as well–a bit of a tour de force for Jonathan Frakes as a director. But The Enemy is also very good – a great Geordi story but with an outstanding Worf subplot, with his refusal to work to save someone from a mortal enemy race. Rascals was surprisingly good, considering it’s about Picard and others being turned into children, while Unification I was surprisingly bad considering it was supposed to be the beginning of the Spock guest appearance story.
Winner: Season 4 (Reunion)
Loser: Season 5 (Unification I)
Season 3 – The Price
Season 4 – Future Imperfect
Season 5 – Unification II
Season 6 – A Fistful of Datas
None of these episodes are bad, but many are a bit uneven. The Price is an interesting premise but is mired a bit by its Troi-romance story and some uneven pacing. Future Imperfect is a bit of a classic concept, but not really a classic story. Unification II is famous because of the Spock guest appearance, but is not really a great story. A Fistful of Datas, though is a light-hearted story but very inventive and funny, and definitely wins this round out.
Winner: Season 6 (A Fistful of Datas)
Loser: Season 3 (The Price)
Season 3 – The Vengeance Factor
Season 4 – Final Mission
Season 5 – A Matter of Time
Season 6 – The Quality of Life
Wow. Um, this is challenging. None of these episodes are what I’d describe as “good ones”, but none of them are terrible either. I’m going for The Quality of Life for the best one because of the high concepts involved, and because of the great poker scene at the beginning. Final Mission is my pick for the worst because it is the most dull.
Winner: Season 6 (The Quality of Life)
Loser: Season 4 (Final Mission)
Season 3 – The Defector
Season 4 – The Loss
Season 5 – New Ground
Season 6 – Chain of Command part I
As a point of interest, three of these episodes are all directed by the same guy, Robert Scheerer (all of them except for The Loss). Chain of Command, part I makes a good argument for being the best episode of the round, thanks mostly to good writing and performing around the character of Captain Jellico. But after consideration I’m going to have to award it to The Defector, with the compelling character drama created with Romulan Admiral Jarok. The least interesting episode here is The Loss, which is too shallow to carry the sort of drama that it’s trying to.
Winner: Season 4 (The Defector)
Loser: Season 3 (The Loss)
Season 3 – The Hunted
Season 4 – Data’s Day
Season 5 – Hero Worship
Season 6 – Chain of Command, part II
Data’s Day is a good episode – a fun story told in a new way for Star Trek. But it’s hard to look past Chain of Command, Part II. As has already been noted by many people, Patrick Stewart’s performance is truly iconic for the series, and anchors the episode in a way that no other performance has been anchored up by any other performance. Outstanding stuff. Both The Hunted and Hero Worship are okay stories, but nothing great. I’ve selected the one I found more dull as the Loser of this round.
Winner: Season 6 (Chain of Command, part II)
Loser: Season 5 (Hero Worship)
Season 3 – The High Ground
Season 4 – The Wounded
Season 5 – Violations
Season 6 – Ship in a Bottle
I’m a bit torn here between The Wounded and Ship in a Bottle. I wouldn’t call either of them all-time classics, but they are both good episodes with interesting elements. I think I’m going to have to go with The Wounded because it’s got some interesting character-work and drama throughout, while Ship in a Bottle is mostly reliant on its (very intriguing) central plot twist. The worst episode of the lot is certainly Violations, which is not very good at all.
Winner: Season 4 (The Wounded)
Loser: Season 5 (Violations)
Season 3 – Deja Q
Season 4 – Devil’s Due
Season 5 – The Masterpiece Society
Season 6 – Aquiel
Some of these are easy, some of them are challenging. This is one of the easy ones. Deja Q is a great episode, the best Q-story of the series, and filled with punchy dialogue. On the other hand, Aquiel is a blithering mess, bland and uninspiring, and forgettable (or at least, you want to forget it).
Winner: Season 3 (Deja Q)
Loser: Season 6 (Aquiel)
Penalty Point: Season 6 (Aquiel)
Season 3 – A Matter of Perspective
Season 4 – Clues
Season 5 – Conundrum
Season 6 – Face of the Enemy
Clues is a terrible episode, with a silly premise and far-worse plotting and development. On the other hand, both Conundrum and Face of the Enemy are strong and engaging episodes. Conundrum is not highly logical, but is breezy and enjoyable, while Face of the Enemy is gripping and dramatic. They are both worthy, but in the end I’ll go with Conundrum as the episode I find it more enjoyable.
Winner: Season 5 (Conundrum)
Loser: Season 4 (Clues)
Penalty Point: Season 4 (Clues)
Season 3 – Yesterday’s Enterprise
Season 4 – First Contact
Season 5 – Power Play
Season 6 – Tapestry
Okay, this is brutal. All four of these episodes are good ones, and several of them could easily have been my top choice for the round. But let’s face it, Yesterday’s Enterprise was always going to win any round it was in. Not only was the first episode of the show to really blow me away, but it’s still one of the franchise’s finest hours. But I really love Tapestry as well. Power Play gets my losing spot, as it’s a bit shallower than the others, but really it’s there just because something had to be.
Winner: Season 3 (Yesterday’s Enterprise)
Loser: Season 5 (Power Play)
Bonus Point: Season 6 (Tapestry)
Season 3 – The Offspring
Season 4 – Galaxy’s Child
Season 5 – Ethics
Season 6 – Birthright, Part I
I have a real soft spot for Ethics. I like the way it deals with Worf, and I love the role that Dr. Crusher has–it’s possibly her best episode. Yet, I have hard time looking past The Offspring. It’s a little bit derivative of the superior The Measure of a Man in terms of its themes, but only a little bit, and brings enough powerful new material to the table to make it a genuine classic, I think. Galaxy’s Child is good as well, and though Birthright, Part I is not terrible, but not memorable either, and certainly the weakest of this bunch.
Winner: Season 3 (The Offspring)
Loser: Season 6 (Birthright, Part I)
Season 3 – Sins of the Father
Season 4 – Night Terrors
Season 5 – The Outcast
Season 6 – Birthright, Part II
I have the opposite of a soft spot for The Outcast. It is one of my least favorite episodes of the whole series, with its ham-fisted sermonizing at the expense of character or logic. Really, it’s a bit of a thing that an episode could actual push Night Terrors out of the low spot, which is tedious and repetitive for its own part. The best episode of the collection is Sins of the Father, the episode that introduced Duras and pretty much all of the major Klingon storylines of Seasons 3 & 4.
Winner: Season 3 (Sins of the Father)
Loser: Season 5 (The Outcast)
Season 3 – Allegiance
Season 4 – Identity Crisis
Season 5 – Cause and Effect
Season 6 – Starship Mine
I like Identity Crisis as an interesting Geordi-centric story, but I have to say I like Cause and Effect more. It’s the sort of episode that could really have flopped, but it ends up being a fun, engaging, well-directed episode. Starship Mine, as I have said, though kind of fun, is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen. Allegiance isn’t very good either, and is certainly more boring, but Starship Mine really deserves to lose here.
Winner: Season 5 (Cause and Effect)
Loser: Season 6 (Starship Mine)
Season 3 – Captain’s Holiday
Season 4 – The Nth Degree
Season 5 – The First Duty
Season 6 – Lessons
This is generally a strong batch of stories. Lessons was one of the series’ best developed romances, and The Nth Degree is a very fun story that makes good use of Barclay. But neither of them are “top tier” stories in the way that I’d say The First Duty is. The First Duty is a powerful piece of drama that goes a long way to redeeming Wesley as a character, and gives both Patrick Stewart and Wil Wheaton good material to work with. Captain’s Holiday is my “low pick” for this round, but it’s not a bad story. It’s just one that I didn’t connect to strongly, though I know others like it.
Winner: Season 5 (The First duty)
Loser: Season 3 (Captain’s Holiday)
Season 3 – Tin Man
Season 4 – Qpid
Season 5 – Cost of Living
Season 6 – The Chase
Tin Man is a pretty good story, and The Chase is far reaching, though with a bit of a silly resolution. But Qpid is a bit of comedy gold, with lots of great moments with Worf, Data, Vash, Picard, and pretty much everyone. The worst episode here, by far, is Cost of Living. I’ve never been a particular fan of Lwaxana Troi, but this dreck is really the bottom of the barrel – not funny, heartfelt or dramatic.
Winner: Season 4 (Qpid)
Loser: Season 5 (Cost of Living)
Penalty Point: Season 5 (Cost of Living)
Season 3 – Hollow Pursuits
Season 4 – The Drumhead
Season 5 – The Perfect Mate
Season 6 – Frame of Mind
Hollow Pursuits is the funniest episode on this list, with the introduction of Barclay and his strange fantasy life aboard the holodeck. But there aren’t that many episodes that beat out Frame of Mind. It’s possibly the best story Jonathan Frakes had in his seven years on the show – a gripping psychological drama. On the negative side, The Perfect Mate is controversial and problematic, but I really can’t stand The Drumhead. It’s supposed to be one of the good ones, I think, but it’s such obvious heavy-handed and contrived social commentary, that I just can’t stand it.
Winner: Season 6 (Frame of Mind)
Loser: Season 4 (The Drumhead)
Season 3 – The Most Toys
Season 4 – Half a Life
Season 5 – Imaginary Friend
Season 6 – Suspicions
The Most Toys is pretty memorable because of Saul Rubinek’s flamboyant performance and the ambiguity of the ending. Half a Life is a very touching character drama that is a bit surprising as it is built around a recurring character (Lwaxana Troi). Imaginary Friend is okay but a bit forgettable. Suspicions is a game attempt to give Dr. Crusher an action story but falls flat because of poor structuring and an annoying use of Guinan. In the end, the most touching story gets the win, the most annoying gets the lose.
Winner: Season 4 (Half a Life)
Loser: Season 6 (Suspicions)
Season 3 – Sarek
Season 4 – The Host
Season 5 – I, Borg
Season 6 – Rightful Heir
There’s some good stuff here, especially with I, Borg – a story that has a lot of power and significance in the world of Star Trek. But I think I have to say I ultimately prefer how touching Sarek is. Two wonderful performances and some very strong direction, as well as enjoyable connections to the Original Series give it the win. The weakest story here is Rightful Heir, which like its plot, struggles to find a way for thinks to move forward with Klingon culture.
Winner: Season 3 (Sarek)
Loser: Season 6 (Rightful Heir)
Bonus Point: Season 5 (I, Borg)
Season 3 – Ménage à Troi
Season 4 – The Mind’s Eye
Season 5 – The Next Phase
Season 6 – Second Chances
These is a pretty strong lot of episodes, except for Ménage à Troi which I thought was kind of silly. Out of the others, I think my vote goes for The Next Phase, which was my favorite combination of high concept, interesting presentation, and strong characterization.
Winner: Season 5 (The Next Phase)
Loser: Season 3 (Ménage à Troi )
Season 3 – Transfigurations
Season 4 – In Theory
Season 5 – The Inner Light
Season 6 – Timescape
I really like Timescape – I think it’s a fun story with a lot of inventive concepts and development. But you can’t really compete with The Inner Light, which is one of the series’ crowning moments. On the other hand, I don’t like In Theory that much, with its awkward “Data tries dating” storyline and disconnected action plot. But it doesn’t really compare with Transfigurations, which is one of the weakest spots of the third season of the show.
Winner: Season 5 (The Inner Light)
Loser: Season 3 (Transfigurations)
Season 3 – The Best of Both Worlds
Season 4 – Redemption
Season 5 – Time’s Arrow
Season 6 – Descent
Well, here there really is no competition. Both Redemption and Descent are engaging stories in their own way, but The Best of Both Worlds is something remarkable: epic in scale but still very personal and grounded in its characterization. Time’s Arrow isn’t necessarily terrible, but it’s the weakest of the season finales by a long shot.
Winner: Season 3 (The Best of Both Worlds)
Loser: Season 5 (Time’s Arrow)
And that’s it! Interesting, that in the end, I gave all my Bonus Points out for really good episodes that just weren’t the best of the lot, but I simply couldn’t pass up without acknowledging, while all my Penalty Points went to episodes that were already in the “Loser” spot, but just deserved to be kicked while they were down.
I’ve done all this without counting up any scores as I go. So let’s see how it all shapes up:
Season 3 – 6 points total
Season 4 – 10 points total
Season 5 – 6 points total
Season 6 – 4 points total
And so there you go, Season 4 edges out the competition for a victory. Now, 4 points doesn’t look like a lot for Season 6, but it still has the same number of “Winning Episodes” as Season 3 & 5. The winning Season 4 had 8, so in actuality, they all wound up pretty close. My favorite “losing” episode was Power Play, and my least favorite winning episode was probably The Quality of Life. Les Landau directed the most “Winning Episodes,” with 8 in total (Jonathan Frakes came in second with 4). Ronald Moore was the writer most represented, credited also for 8 episodes.
So overall, I’m pretty happy with these results, although of course the “ideal” Next Generation season of 26 episodes would draw liberally from all four of these seasons (and a few from other three seasons as well).
Anyway, here is the final Breakdowns for each year. Feel free to sound off about agreements or disagreements below.
Season 3 – Deja Q, Yesterday’s Enterprise, The Offspring, Sins of the Father, Sarek & The Best of Both Worlds minus Evolution, The Price, The Loss, Captain’s Holiday, Menage a Troi & Transfigurations
Season 4 – The Best of Both Worlds Part II, Family, Legacy, Reunion, The Defector, The Wounded, Qpid & Half a Life minus Suddenly Human, Remember Me, Final Mission, Clues & The Drumhead with a penalty minus point for Clues
Season 5 – Ensign Ro, Conundrum, Cause and Effect, The First Duty, The Next Phase & The Inner Light, with bonus points for Darmok & I, Borg, minus Unification I, Hero Worship, Violations, Power Play, The Outcast, Cost of Living & Time’s Arrow, with a penalty minus point for Cost of Living.
Season 6 – Relics, Schisms, A Fistful of Datas, The Quality of Life, Chain of Command II & Frame of Mind, with a bonus point for Tapestry, minus Realm of Fear, Man of the People, True Q, Aquiel, Birthright I, Starship Mine, Suspicions & Rightful Heir, with a penalty minus point for Aquiel.
Not surprisingly, Season 4 had the most Winning episodes, with 8, as opposed to 6 each for all of the others. Season 6 had the most Losing episodes, with 8, while the others had 6, 5, and 7 respectively.