On September 8th, 2016, the Star Trek franchise will officially turn 50, and what better way to celebrate than to count down the 50 greatest Star Trek stories in the canon? Deadshirt Founder and Editor Emeritus Dylan Roth pored through the 728 episodes and films to select the Top 50 Star Trek Voyages.
#20: “All Good Things”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Seven, Episodes Twenty-Five & Twenty-Six
Originally aired May 23rd, 1994
Written by Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
In the series finale of The Next Generation, Captain Picard becomes unstuck in time, moving back and forth between his perceived present, his first mission as captain of the Enterprise, and twenty-five years in his future. When the same temporal anomaly appears in all three time periods, Picard must fight against the clock (backwards!) to solve a cosmic puzzle before all of humanity can be erased from time. All the while, Picard is butting heads with the omnipotent trickster god Q (John de Lancie)—or is Q trying to help him? In order to save the day, Picard will have to coordinate the efforts of three separate versions of his crew.
Flashing back to the series premiere in the finale is a device that’s become rather common, but it’s a real crowd-pleaser, allowing viewers a nostalgic look at just how far the series has changed in seven years. The uniforms are different, the characters interact differently, and—oh yeah—Tasha Yar is still alive. Fearful of polluting the timeline, Picard keeps this version of the Enterprise crew in the dark, stretching their trust in their new captain to the limit. Mostly, these segments are nostalgic fun, with Colm Meaney and Denise Crosby returning as O’Brien and Yar, respectively, and Brent Spiner playing the naive chatterbox version of Data from the show’s early seasons.
More interesting is the portion spent in the future, revealing where each of the main characters has ended up, for better or worse. After serving as a Federation ambassador, Jean-Luc Picard has retired to his family’s vineyard while a debilitating disease akin to Alzheimer’s slowly eats away at his mind. At first, his claims of flashing back through time are dismissed, even by his closest friends, as symptoms of his illness. Sir Patrick Stewart plays future Picard as an unwell man, easily confused, quick to frustration and anger, but he’s still Jean-Luc Picard, and despite the lack of evidence, his old crew rallies behind him to go on one last, dangerous mission.
“All Good Things” gets to have its cake and eat it too by presenting future versions of each character while providing an out for these versions to be contradicted in future stories. Here, Picard is ill and Troi is dead, but these twenty-five years haven’t been awful for everyone. Beverly has become a starship captain, Geordi is married with kids, and Data is a Cambridge professor with a streak of gray dyed in his hair and a new sense of humor. Notably, nobody’s “one true pairing” works out in this future. Picard and Crusher are amicable divorcees, and neither Worf nor Riker end up with Deanna before her death, leading to a bitter grudge between them.
But, rightfully, the heart of “All Good Things” is in the present, where Picard is trying to put the pieces together as Q has resumed the trial for humanity that kicked off in the series premiere. Q puts on a grave face in front of the rest of the Continuum, but in private, Q is clearly trying to help Picard learn how to solve the puzzle. And when it’s all over, Q is finally more friend than foe, a satisfying final moment for these two old adversaries.
An underlying theme throughout “All Good Things” is best summed up by the bitter future version of Will Riker while lamenting that he and Deanna never got back together. “You think you have all the time in the world, and then…yep.” In the present, Beverly scans for evidence of the illness that Picard experiences in the future, and finds a defect that could eventually cause the disease. Suddenly, the will they/won’t they between herself and Jean-Luc has become more urgent, and they kiss for the first (and last) time in the series.
“All Good Things” is entertaining throughout, but the most powerful moment comes at the very end, when, finally, Captain Picard arrives to join the rest of the cast for their weekly poker game. It’s a direct result of his witnessing a future where they had all drifted apart, but it’s also the culmination of years of slow, subtle character development, as Jean-Luc has grown from a stern, isolated commander to the proud head of a tightly-knit family. For any fan of the series, it’s damn near impossible not to tear up as Picard deals out his first hand, “Five Card Draw, nothing wild, and the sky’s the limit.”
#19: “Improbable Cause” / “The Die is Cast”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season Three, Episodes Twenty & Twenty-One
Originally aired April 24th & May 1st 1995
Story by Robert Lederman & David R. Long (Pt. 1)
Teleplay by René Echevarria (Pt. 1)
Written by Ronald D. Moore (Pt. 2)
Directed by Avery Brooks (Pt. 1) & David Livingston (Pt. 2)
Like its predecessor The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine went through some big changes during its third season. With TNG complete, DS9 inherited some of the former show’s writing staff, and since its new sister show Voyager was taking place halfway across the galaxy, Deep Space Nine now had free reign over the established Star Trek universe. This was DS9’s moment to assert itself as the Trek franchise’s new A-show. It didn’t work, unfortunately—Deep Space Nine was still a syndicated show during the death of first-run syndication—but it absolutely, positively should have put the series on the map.
“Improbable Cause” begins with a very early-DS9 plot: someone blew up the tailor’s shop on the station’s promenade, the one belonging to Garak, who everyone knows is a disgraced Cardassian intelligence operative but who won’t admit it. Constable Odo investigates the crime, trying to figure out which of the shady characters in town may have done the deed. It’s charming, but small-scale, drama. B-show stuff. Except it actually isn’t. In the style of film noir or Seventies political thriller, Odo discovers that the seemingly isolated crime he’s investigating is part of a much, much bigger story, one that has massive implications for galactic politics. That’s Part One.
Odo finds himself betrayed, captured by a massive Cardassian/Romulan fleet that’s sneaking through the Gamma Quadrant on its way to annihilate the Dominion’s Founders—Odo’s own race—to preempt an inevitable war. And Garak, the real star of the show, is given an opportunity to regain his former place in the Obsidian Order, to mend ties with his beloved mentor/spymaster Enabran Tain (Paul Dooley), but at a personal cost. It all ramps up to a finale too tasty to give away here, but, as promised, the events of this story have a massive impact on the Star Trek universe that reverberates for years to come.
Further Viewing: The following season, DS9 produced another fantastic mid-season two-parter, “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost” that explores another angle of the Dominion Cold War. The fact that I was unable to fit it on this list is a testament to how much great Trek there is to watch.
#18: “The Devil in the Dark”
Season One, Episode Twenty-Six
Originally aired March 9th, 1967
Written by Gene L. Coon
Directed by Joseph Pevney
A garden-variety mining expedition is threatened when a creature native to the planet starts killing the miners. It’s up to Kirk and Spock to solve the mystery of the creature and put a stop to the violence.
“The Devil in the Dark” is a quintessential Original Series episode. On the surface, it’s a simple “monster hunt,” a black and white struggle between hard-working humans and an unknowable beast acting on instinct. And on any other show in 1967, that’s probably all it would be. Instead, “The Devil in the Dark” is a story of discovery and compassion, which is what Star Trek is all about.
It is, also, extremely silly. The Horta, while ostensibly a large crawling rock, is clearly a guy on his hands and knees wearing a cheap prosthetic that looks like red and yellow turtle shell. Leonard Nimoy’s performance during Spock’s mind meld with the Horta is famously hammy, as he screams “THE PAIN!” in a voice not quite his own. But even through this very of-its-time flavor, “The Devil in the Dark” remains a charming, meaningful hour of television that holds up, against all odds, half a century later.
Further Viewing: The equally iconic early episode “Arena” embodies much of the same charm and meaning as this one, with Kirk facing a monstrous alien foe who’s got just as much reason to fight as he does. It is, of course, complete with cheesy 1960s rubber suited action.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Six, Episode Fifteen
Originally aired February 13th, 1993
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Les Landau
“Tapestry” opens with Jean-Luc Picard dying on the operating table. No, really. He’s been shot in the chest with an energy weapon, and his artificial heart (introduced years later in “Samaritan Snare”), has stopped functioning. Picard slips into oblivion, and in the blinding white light of the afterlife, he meets God—and it’s Q. Yes, Q, the omnipotent extra-dimensional mischief-maker who pops in every now and then to annoy Picard and/or threaten all life as we know it. Q taunts Jean-Luc into admitting regret over a moment from his past, when a roguish Ensign Picard picked a fight with a seven-foot Nausicaan and got a sword run through his chest. Q grants him the chance to relive that moment differently. If successful, Picard will live out the rest of his life with a real heart beating in his chest and avoid the death he’s just experienced. But there may be other consequences to altering the path of his own life.
Picard is launched back in time, where he and fellow Ensigns Marta Batanides (J.C. Brady) and Cory Zweller (Ned Vaughn) are celebrating their graduation from Starfleet Academy and awaiting their first assignments. Here, we see Picard (still played by Patrick Stewart, though to the other characters he still looks young) coping with the dubious decisions of his younger self, who’s been picking fights and sleeping around. Now a seasoned adult walking around in his younger skin, his friends immediately notice that something’s different about him, but he plays it off that his new position as a Starfleet officer has changed his perspective. It infuriates fellow hellraiser Cory, but attracts platonic friend Marta, for whom Picard has always harbored feelings. Attempting to “correct” his youthful mistakes, Picard sleeps with his old flame Marta and keeps Cory from antagonizing the Nausicaans, but he ends up losing both friends in the process.
Since he successfully avoids getting stabbed, Q returns Picard to the present, but not to the life that he knows. While the rest of the universe and crew of the Enterprise is unchanged (as promised by Q), Jean-Luc Picard is now a Lieutenant Junior Grade Astrophysics Officer, an unremarkable man with no ambition and no achievements. It’s a dark twist inspired by A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Picard must accept that the mistakes of his youth made him the man that he is. He begs Q to put things back how they were, even if it means his death. Q, in a surprisingly gracious move, returns Picard both his past and his future—Picard wakes up in the original timeline, artificial heart and all, having narrowly survived the encounter that was meant to have claimed his life.
Patrick Stewart delivers an incredible performance in “Tapestry,” particularly as he suffers through the despair of becoming “a dreary man in a tedious job,” but John de Lancie absolutely steals the show as Q. Q is often asked to tread the line between comic relief villain and genuine threat, and nowhere is this achieved better than in “Tapestry.” Here, Q serves as both a devil and a guardian angel, guiding Picard through his life in order to teach him a valuable lesson, and landing gag after gag after gag along the way. On the one hand, what Q does to Picard in this episode amounts to a cruel, elaborate prank to punish the Captain for constantly deriding Q’s own jovial, flippant attitude; Q makes Picard admit that he couldn’t be the man he is unless he was once a bit more like Q himself. On the other hand, if one assumes that Picard really did flirt with death at the opening of this episode, Q interjects himself into Picard’s death for no other reason but to grant his sort-of friend a second chance at life, provided that he learns something from it. This is Q at his best, neither hero nor villain, and funny as hell.
#16: “Far Beyond the Stars”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season Six, Episode Thirteen
Originally released February 11th, 1998
Story by Marc Scott Zicree
Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler
Directed by Avery Brooks
Captain Sisko receives a vision from the Prophets in which he is Benny Russell, a science fiction author who begins writing a series of stories about Captain Sisko, commander of a space station called Deep Space 9. While the stories keep coming, Benny can’t get anyone to publish them—the year is 1953, and both Benny and his protagonist are black. As the weeks roll on, Benny suffers indignity after tragic indignity, from being told to stay home when his magazine takes a staff photo, to having his stories repeatedly dismissed, rewritten, and pulped, to eventually being brutally beaten by police after seeing them gun down one of his friends. All the while, Benny’s own visions of DS9 threaten his sanity. There can be no happy ending for Benny Russell, but for Sisko, Benny’s unwavering faith in him as an idea renews his self-confidence during a dark chapter in the Dominion War.
“Far Beyond the Stars” functions on a number of levels. For one, you could remove the scenes specifically set in the 24th Century and you’d be left with a really good Twilight Zone episode. There’s novelty value as well, as the characters in the 1950s story are all played by DS9 actors, many of whom are usually seen under heavy makeup, and many of these characters are based on real-life science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Star Trek’s own D.C. Fontana.
But, undoubtedly, the power of “Far Beyond the Stars” is in its unflinching portrayal of racial injustice that is, sadly, not getting any less poignant. Avery Brooks, who both stars in and directs this episode, maintains that you could update the costumes and set this episode in the modern day with very few changes, and it would be just as true. This sort of flips the script on the classic Star Trek formula, where a story is set in the future in order to comment on the present—watching this episode and seeing how little has changed makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Further Viewing: Benny Russell returns, briefly, in the episode “Shadows & Symbols,” this time in a malicious vision from the Prophets’ evil counterparts, the Pah-wraiths. There, Benny has been institutionalized and continues to write the saga of Deep Space 9 on the walls of his room. He almost appeared again in the series finale, which would have seen Benny finally get his happy ending as creator of a Deep Space Nine television show, but the creators decided that would be just a pinch too meta.
#15-11 This Thursday: Two movies, two movie-length stories, and a whole lot of tears.