Season 1 is really, really bad. Like even the best episodes (The Big Goodbye, Heart of Glory) are basically redone better in Season 2. Most people will tell you to watch the pilot because it’s the pilot. I won’t, because to be honest I think The Next Generation is well known enough that you’ll actually understand the characters anyway (especially if you read my summaries overleaf).
Datalore – This is about the maximum exposure to hokey season 1 eightiesness you want to risk, but it tells you a lot about Data’s backstory and sets up the recurring character of Lore. Also contains lots of fun Brent Spiner acting for two.
Conspiracy – An usually dark episode about parasitic aliens trying to take over Starfleet. Contains some Thing-esque body horror which was very unusual at the time.
Season two re-runs a lot of what worked (and what didn’t work) in season one. This means there is some top garbage, but also most of the episodes listed here are basically better takes on Season 1 concepts.
Elementary Dear Data – This isn’t the first Holodeck episode, that would be The Big Goodbye in Season 1, but it basically retells the same story with different characters and better. Contains one of the rare appearances on this list of Dr Pulaski, who replaced Dr Crusher during season 2 and is awful.
A Matter of Honor – This is one of the first episodes to really shade in the Klingons (who were one note villains in The Original Series) with a story about Riker serving as an exchange officer aboard a Klingon ship.
The Measure of a Man – The first genuinely great TNG episode. The series goes maximum Asimov with a courtroom drama episode based around the debate over whether Data is a person or property. This is one of my go to examples of ‘stuff I can’t imagine any other TV show doing’.
Q Who – The first really good Q episode. Also introduces the Borg. A very pessimistic episode for TNG.
This is it folks! Riker has grown a beard, the uniforms are better, even the lighting seems more modern. We are now firmly into Mostly Good territory. This is here this list stops being “only watch this, the rest is trash” and starts being “everything is pretty decent but these are the best”.
Who Watches the Watchers – Most episodes revolving around the Prime Directive (Starfleet’s rule not to interfere with low tech species) are shit. It’s an interesting anti-colonial idea that the writers continually took too far and messed up (especially in Enterprise). Who Watches the Watchers is how to do it right, with the Enterprise having to deal with the consequences of accidentally revealing themselves to primitive aliens.
Booby Trap – This is the best Geordi episode, which unfortunately doesn’t say much as he was a horribly underdeveloped character. It’s mostly about how he’s a lonely nerd with a computer waifu. Now that I think about it a lot of Geordi stories are about him being a lonely nerd.
The Defector – This is your best introduction to the Romulans. This episode goes heavy on the cold war allegory, which will be a recurring theme in the future.
Deja Q – Q episodes are finally becoming good instead of naff as hell. In this one the omnipotent trickster is forced into human form and finally shows some depth.
Yesterday’s Enterprise – Another early ‘great’ episode. Yesterday’s Enterprise gives Tasha Yar the send off she never got when she died in a terrible Season 1 episode I told you not to watch.
The Offspring – Data creates a ‘child’, Lal, who rapidly begins to exceed him. This episode reprises a lot of what made Measure of a Man interesting but it’s still good. Also of interest is that Data creates Lal as gender neutral and then allows them to choose their gender.
Sins of the Father – The ur-Klingon episode in a lot of ways. Clarifies Worf’s backstory, introduces recurring characters Kurn and the Duras family and essentially sets up Worf’s arc for the rest of TNG and DS9, yeah that one is a slow burn.
Sarek – A crossover episode with The Original Series, but mostly worth watching for some Capital A Acting from both Patrick Stewart and guest star Mark Lenard.
The Best of Both Worlds pt 1 – The big season ending cliffhanger of which all others are merely pale imitations. The Borg are back and holy shit they are fucking terrifying. Also includes some great character work for Riker.
We’re firmly into the groove now, most episodes are good, these are the best.
Best of Both Worlds pt 2 – The second half isn’t as good as the first one, but trust me if you’ve seen the cliffhanger you don’t need me to tell you to watch the follow up.
Family – This is a cooldown episode after Best of Both worlds. Entirely character focused with almost no sci-fi elements. You get to see Worf’s comedy Jewish stereotype parents and Picards shitty, shitty family.
Brothers – Continues the Data/Lore story. This time you get to see Brent Spiner play three characters. I’m a sucker for this.
Reunion – Hugely important episode in Worf’s arc and for the Klingon arc in TNG/DS9 altogether.
Data’s Day – I like Data episodes. This is a fun, lighthearted one about him trying to fit in day to day in the Enterprise.
The Wounded – This episode is good in its own right, but it also serves to set up a lot of stuff for DS9 by introducing the Cardassians and giving Chief O’Brien his own episode.
The Drumhead – Another Cold War allegory episode, this one an incredibly obvious jab at McCarthyism. This doesn’t stop it being any less good though, featuring one of the all time great Picard speeches.
Redemption pt 1 – End of series cliffhanger. This one revolves around the Worf/Klingon story set up in Reunion.
The series is crushing it at this point with long streaks of great episodes in a row including several fan favourites.
Redemption pt 2 – Redemption largely finishes the Worf/Klingon/Duras/Gowron story for TNG, but this will be picked up and continued in DS9.
Darmok – A personal favourite of mine and one of the most popular with fans. A whole episode about language, communication and diplomacy that you really couldn’t imagine in any other show.
Ensign Ro – Introduces Ensign Ro, who’s a pretty interesting recurring character herself, and the Bajorans, who’ll become important in DS9.
Disaster – A really nice bottle episode about people being stranded in different parts of the ship.
Cause and Effect – TNG actually has a bunch of nice sci-fi mystery/time loop episodes that I’ve skipped over. That’s because this is the best one. Bonus Kelsey Grammer.
The First Duty – This is pretty much the only good Wesley episode and it’s about him being a huge fuckup. Drink it in.
I, Borg – Here’s the thing about Star Trek: it doesn’t really believe in black and white villains. This one humanises the Borg.
The Next Phase – A nice little Ro/Geordi character episode. Included mostly because good Geordi episodes are rare and Ro needs all the character she can get given her brief tenure.
The Inner Light – A Picard centric episode and one of the all time greats. To explain more would ruin it. Just enjoy.
At this point the show has been running so long that it’s starting to get a bit campy and self referential but it’s still high quality.
Chain of Command pt 1 & pt 2 – Some top tier Patrick Stewart acting here, including one of the iconic TNG moments. Also introduces more inter-Starfleet conflict with galactic arsehole Captain Jellico.
Ship in a Bottle – Four years later the show finally follows up on Elementary Dear Data. The sequel is better than the original and probably the best Holodeck episode of TNG, possibly of all Star Trek.
Face of the Enemy – Troi wakes up on a Romulan ship, surgically altered to look like a Romulan. This is the only good Troi episode, and one of only two times she is remotely competent in the entire series. Watch it just for the novelty.
Tapestry – Another all time great episode. Picard dies and is confronted by Q, who claims to be God, and offers Picard the chance to undo one of his great regrets.
The Chase – This is Picard getting to play space Indiana Jones, but with DNA? It’s weird but fun.
Descent pt 1 – Another strong season ending two parter. This one featuring The Borg and Lore.
A bittersweet season because a) the show is ending soon and b) you can see they’re starting to run low on ideas at this point.
Descent pt 2 – Brings the Data/Lore story to a close five years after it started.
Phantasms – Star Trek does David Lynch. A super weird and trippy Data episode about dreaming. This was one of the first TNG episodes I remember watching and I was left very confused.
Parallels – I’ve had to cut a lot of really fun ‘anomaly of the week’ episodes but this one is staying because it’s great (also unusually it’s Worf centric).
The Pegasus – The idea of Starfleet being perfect is thoroughly in the bin right now with a Riker centric episode about corruption, cover ups and mutinies.
Lower Decks – An incredibly daring high concept episode where the entire story is told from the point of view of several junior officers we’ve never seen before. With our regular cast recontextualised as distant and aloof authority figures.
Preemptive Strike – Ends Ensign Ro’s story and brings in the Marquis, who are important in DS9.
All Good Things… – Probably the most satisfying finale of all Star Trek series. Even if it does involve time travel.
First Contact – This is the only good Next Generation movie. It’s considerably more action focused than the show but neatly wraps up the Borg arc (which Voyager then unwraps).
I hope people liked this. If you did, let me know on twitter and I might well do Deep Space Nine (aka: the best sci-fi series ever) next.