Star Trek: The Next Generation is, undeniably, one of the greatest sci-fi shows in the history of the genre.
But it wasn’t perfect.
So when did it start to slide in quality anyway?
It didn’t start out that good — let’s be real.
Like many productions, TNG stumbled in its early seasons, regularly. As the show found itself, it began to consistently display the storytelling and endearing characters it would be known for even today…at around Season 3. Hell, the most famous episodes of the series, “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts 1 and 2, ended said season. But before that? It was hit or miss, and often the latter.
Season 1 is especially egregious, containing the worst good-to-mediocre/terrible ratio in the entire series. Yes, that is including the often (justifiably) maligned Season 7, generally the point where most shows have definitely passed their high point anyway. What set Season 1 apart from arguably more inferior seasons is the sheer volume of crap they had to crank out before they hit their stride.
No, seriously, it was pretty terrible in the beginning
“The Big Goodbye.” “Datalore.” “Conspiracy.” Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe “Skin of Evil.” Maybe.
That’s four (possibly three) episodes that could be considered great, at least by the standards of Season 1.
Out of 26.
Not off to a great start there, were they? Fans at the time certainly didn’t seem to think so, and quite frankly their opinions are justified. Season 1 has its share of stinkers, and most of them appeared right out of the gate. The second episode, “The Naked Now,” was more or less a rehash of an original series episode. After that we got what is thought to be by many, including principle cast member Jonathan Frakes, as the most embarrassing episode in the entire run– “Code of Honor.“
“Code of Honor” has the dubious, ah, honor of being the episode that put a serious dent into TNG’s fledgling reputation as a more progressive successor than even the original series. Considered by many to be dragged down with stereotypical depictions of sub-Saharan Africans (as the species of the week just so happens to coincidentally look like, as mentioned by Captain Picard), “Code of Honor” was a bad episode made worse by the director’s decision to cast all of the aliens with black actors.
When juxtaposed against a later episode, “Justice,” featuring a so-called “perfect society” made up entirely of blond-haired white people in the fewest clothes network television would allow, “Code of Honor” just looks that much worse. “Angel One,” with its ham-fisted Straw Feminist society, was little better.
“The Last Outpost” basically ruined the Ferengi until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would set about the long task of fleshing them out into a species that could at least be taken somewhat seriously. These are merely terrible episodes, though– what made Season 1 bad was something far worse.
Set phasers to “Mediocrity”
Season 1 is terrible mostly because so many of the episodes are just nothing to write home about. If this was unique to Season 1, that would be one thing, but upon further analysis it really isn’t. Season 2 would continue the trend, though it has the distinction of having some of the best episodes by far: “Where Silence Has Lease,” “Elementary, Dear Data,” “The Measure of a Man,” and “Q Who” more than make up for “Up The Long Ladder” and “The Outrageous Okona,” but they are still four episodes out of 22. Seasons 3 and 5 would have the best ratio of good-to-bad episodes, but overall you’re left with a series whose reputation for its quality is largely overblown thanks to nostalgia.
This isn’t to say that the series overall is terrible, but if you’re a fan of the show and you’ve been away from it for a while, there’s going to be two kinds of episodes. There’s the kind that tattooed themselves across the surface of your brain for being heart-wrenching, inspiring, or creepy. After that there’s the episodes that didn’t leave much of an impression at all, if any. Those are the ones that you struggle to recall while reading the description on Netflix and only remember 15 or 20 minutes into the show. Many, many episodes end up being the latter, if talking to other fans about the quality of overall seasons is any indication. Quite a few struggle to remember when the classic TNG episodes actually aired without referencing Wikipedia or Memory Alpha, myself included.
“Undeniably great,” huh?
Yes, TNG is undeniably great. Although most of the series can be forgettable, what’s memorable (aside from what’s eye-rollingly terrible) deserves the space it’s carved out in the minds of fans around the world. When used correctly, Trek’s setting can be utilized to tell some of the most inspiring tales ever imagined. I can’t think of a single show on network television today, let alone in the late 1980s and ’90s, where an episode like “The Inner Light” or “Sarek” would get the time of day.
In a time where there isn’t a single contemporary Trek show on television that isn’t in reruns, The Next Generation especially deserves the recognition it gets from critics and fans as a great sci-fi show. What makes a TV show great isn’t how many episodes were the best ever made, but the moments that stick with you. Trek has those to offer in general, but some of the most memorable can be traced directly back to TNG due to setting the tone for much of what would follow in the rest of the franchise. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which is arguably a superior show for any number of reasons, merely built upon the solid foundation laid out by The Next Generation.
…Come to an end.
“Encounter at Farpoint” was flat-out boring when Q wasn’t on screen. When “All Good Things…” aired, if you were watching along since the beginning, everything mattered. Nearly every scene was a call back to whatever they could fit into the running time about what made the series a classic over its seven-year run. Everything else was about how it possibly all go wrong in the future, but when it was finished it left you with hope for the future, both for Star Trek and humanity. If that isn’t the mark of a great show, I don’t know what is… but “great” doesn’t mean “flawless.”