Star Trek fans are rejoicing at the recent news that the perpetually bald, yet somehow always youthful, Patrick Stewart is reprising his role as the iconic Jean-Luc Picard. The Star Trek: The Next Generation captain was a man of philosophical, ethical pondering who always managed to cap off each episode with a monologue that burrowed right into your soul. Oh, and if you gave him lip, he would suddenly burst into action like a shiny-scalped Rambo.
With this kind of news, it’s easy to want to go back to Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episodes (as of writing this, the series is on Netflix) and find all the best Picard moments. There are seven seasons to sift through and, if you choose poorly, there are some exceptionally goofy ones thrown in there. Not to worry! Nerdbot has you covered as we break down the top ten essential Picard episodes. Essential Picard…that sounds like an album that just released on vinyl.
This top ten list is a bit different from the norm. It’s in the order you should watch it to really get the full Picard experience, and for first-time viewers, it’s the perfect way to get introduced to the series. Although, I do admit that the number one on the list is the best episode, and one of the best episodes of television period.
Oh and I totally cheated because some of these entries are multiple episodes.
Let’s make it so.
10- “Darmok” Season 5 Ep. 2
An episode so iconic that even Skyrim, notably something that has nothing to do with Star Trek, has a reference to it. The Enterprise crew encounters an alien species that has been trying to communicate with the Federation with no success. The words themselves can be understood, for the most part, but the phrases make no sense.
This is a perfect start because you get the full range of what Picard is all about. He’s a man who keeps calm, avoids violence until the last resort, and is always trying to problem solve the situation. Also, you get to be immediately introduced to the cool-guy captain jacket he wears from time to time. Perks of the job.
The episode explores how story and mythology play a part of who we are as a culture. Language itself derives out of our collective experience as a species, and it’s more important than just being able to get a sarcastic remark into a conversation at the perfect moment. Language defines the way that we think. Without communication, nothing else can take place.
It’s also great because Picard figures out how to speak enough of the language to make it work by himself down on a planet with no wifi or cell reception as he fights off an electric owl-bear. Meanwhile, the entire crew, which includes an AI officer, with all of the computer data files and technology at their disposal, can’t figure much out.
9-“Yesterday’s Enterprise” Season 3 Ep 15
It’s not a Star Trek series if time isn’t messed with multiple times. TNG does a great job of making most of those episodes work well. One of the best examples is Yesterday’s Enterprise. Not only does a fallen crew member randomly killed off in season one make her return, but we get to see the Enterprise that came before the iconic 1701-D.
The Enterprise-C, long thought to have been destroyed defending a Klingon outpost, actually gets caught in a time rift during the battle and ends up appearing directly in front of Picard’s Enterprise. This changes history as the Klingons built much of their relationship with the Federation based on the fact that a Federation vessel fought to the bitter end protecting their outpost. Without this sacrifice, things kind of went downhill from there. War broke out between the two political powers, and a whole lot of people died along the way that shouldn’t have.
Picard must navigate this revelation carefully. He puts his crew in danger to try and send the Enterprise-C back to fix the timeline. This, of course, isn’t received well by the crew of the Enterprise-C, knowing they will be sent to their deaths if they return. On the one hand, the timeline isn’t how it’s supposed to be, on the other, Picard has to send an entire ship to its doom.
The Next Generation always worked best when a moral dilemma was thrown at Picard. Not only did we get to see a character, and the crew around him, develop, but we also got to explore ethics as an audience. Weighing the greater good and noble sacrifice over your own life. Not to mention it was the goodbye fans deserved from Tasha Yar, who got a more appropriate end than being killed by a living inkblot test.
8-“Clues” Season 4 Ep 14
Much is said about humanity over the course of a Star Trek series. It’s the whole point really, let’s have a show where the cast explores the stars, but really we are exploring what it means to be human. The episode Clues is just that kind of episode, and a fairly positive one at that.
The crew gets sent through a wormhole (which is probably the equivalent of stubbing your toe at this point for the Enterprise) and think they are knocked unconscious for about 30 seconds. Then all the weird crap starts happening. Some of the plants on the ship are showing a days worth of growth, the AI is acting weird…again standard at this point, Worf’s arm has been broken and reset without any memory of it, and someone’s Netflix is asking if they are still watching, but it has supposedly only been 30 seconds!
Following clues is human nature. The entire reason humanity is out in the stars exploring is so that the mysteries of the galaxy can be revealed. Mystery is irresistible to humans who have to stick their nose in everything. There’s something so beautiful about it at the same time. Especially when Picard is saying it.
The episode hinges on these strange occurrences enticing you just enough to keep going to figure out what’s wrong. It’s Picard doing what he loves: asking a lot of questions.
7-“Starship Mine” Season 6 Ep. 18
How do you get rid of pesky baryon particles? A baryon sweep silly! What are baryon particles? Well, they are…who the hell cares? The point is a super deadly ray needs to sweep the ship for them and Picard, carrying around a saddle, is trapped. Not only that, there’s a handful of terrorists taking the opportunity to steal something technical and dangerous off the ship.
It’s essentially Die Hard as Picard has to hunt down these terrorists by setting traps and using a crossbow. Yeah, you read that right. So when you ask why this is on the list, just reference Patrick Stewart taking down space fools with only his crossbow in a v-neck.
For the most part, Picard talks his way out of any situation, making his enemies feel terrible about themselves in his wake. But sometimes, he just needs to punch someone after throwing a saddle at him. Again, perks of the job.
Even though some of the fighting is a bit stiff, the episode keeps a constant tension as the deadly techno jargon ray leaves a smaller and smaller amount of the ship accessible. What makes it something special, though, is Picard has to do what he has to do to survive and keep the Enterprise safe, but his reaction to death is compelling. Even though these are not so great people making a profit off of selling weapons to even worse people, Picard values life. Patrick Stewart acts with just his intense stare more than once in this episode. Mix that with just the right amount of chest hair popping out of his shirt, and you got yourself a classic episode.
6-“Chain of Command” Part 1+2 Season 6 Ep. 10+11
Cheating is justified because it’s a two-part episode, come on!
Star Trek can feature adorable fuzzy tribbles that bury the crew in over procreation, but Star Trek also gets super real from time to time. This is one of those times. The first of the two-parter sets up everything that’s about to happen to you. Picard is mysteriously relieved of command to go on a top-secret mission. The crew must deal with their longtime captain’s absence with a captain that has an entirely different style. It’s interesting to learn about Picard through the crew realizing what they had.
The second part gets intense as Picard is captured on his mission and tortured by the Cardassians throughout the episode. (Just as bad if it was Kardashians instead). Picard must endure multiple different torture techniques as he is asked for Federation secrets.
Once again we are left with moving words by Picard after the whole ordeal. Torture seems to be a way to get the prisoner to say anything that the captor wants. As the Cardassians continue to blind the captain with four lights and demand he says that there are five, Picard admits that he almost did see five lights. His mind just wanted the pain to stop.
Just leave Patrick Stewart alone!
5-“Tapestry” Season 6 Ep 15
TNG has some of the best episode hooks out there. Tapestry just might trump them all with Q, the eternal jackass, telling Picard that he’s dead. Whelp. Picard gets a chance to go back into his youth and fix the mistake he made that should have killed him in the first place, but because future stuff, he was saved by an artificial heart. You get one heart stabbing in the Star Trek universe, use it wisely.
We get to see a different side of good ol’ Johnny. He was once young, brash, and wooed every woman that happened to be in the vicinity. Well, that last one is a constant, but still. Q does what he does best and keeps the sass levels high while Picard tries to rewrite history for himself. Well, spoiler alert, he does, and it gives him a nice long boring life in data entry. (Which I would take at this point honestly, but I digress).
Every action we take, every decision good or bad is a part of who we are. If we take those parts of us away, it could change it all. This episode features one of the best lines of the show, the title of the episode is based on it, and I won’t spoil the delivery here. Go watch as Patrick Stewart gets you right in the feels as you think about all those times in your life you supposedly regret.
Then go get that data entry job!
4-“Inner Light” Season 5 Ep. 25
There is no list out there that doesn’t feature this episode when it comes to the Essential Picard, now on Spotify. Picard is knocked out cold when the crew discovers an alien device floating out in space. Again, standard procedure here.
Reality becomes blurred as the captain suddenly isn’t a captain anymore. His life in the stars an apparent fever dream as he navigates his new life as an inventor, husband, and father. He connects over the course of the rest of his life with his new family.
When he is left with their memory upon his return to the real world, it is something that stays with him forever, haunted by ghosts he actually never knew. The episode ends, much like Darmok, with Picard looking out the window of the Enterprise holding on to the memories of the lost.
Damn, Patrick Stewart, giving me the shivers just thinking about that acting ability.
3-The Borg Trilogy (“Best of Both Worlds” 1+2, Family) Season 3 Ep. 26 Season 4 Ep. 1+2
Yay for cheating! This is where I really lean into it.
Speaking of greatest Picard hits, this one is the one played on the radio over and over. For good reason. The Best of Both Worlds is a two-part, season finale cliffhanger that made the show what it is. The Borg are the most iconic terrifying villain from TNG as they absorb all individuality into their hive mind. Picard is assimilated and becomes the very enemy he is trying to stop. His actions aren’t his own, but he is aware the whole time.
Not only is it tortuous becoming a Borg but he has to witness a Federation fleet destroyed at his hand with the knowledge the Borg are now aware of thanks to Picard’s assimilation. So basically a particularly bad Monday at the space office.
What really completes it is the Family episode that immediately follows this two-parter. Picard returns home to his family’s vineyard in France to deal with the storm of emotions inside him after this experience, while also dealing with his strained relationship with his brother. It’s a rare moment we get to see Picard break down and become utterly human for us again. He usually has such confidence and guides his crew to greatness, but even he has his breaking points. All portrayed by the fantastic Patrick Stewart…have I mentioned how great he is yet?
2-“I, Borg” Season 5 Ep 23
Had enough of the Borg? Well, too friggin’ bad!
The Borg are the terrible collective that seems almost unstoppable, except all those times they are stopped. They are mindless drones, right? The individuals are just ordered around and can’t even think for themselves, right?
This episode explores the Borg on an individual level as the crew find an injured drone and take him on board. Suddenly, the calm and ethical Jean-Luc Picard becomes a walking bomb of hatred. His past experiences play into this episode so perfectly.
One by one, the crew connects to this individual Borg that even gets a name eventually. It showcases the range of the entire cast as all the actors seem to be firing on all cylinders. It’s one of Whoopi Goldberg’s best episodes as she deals with her past with the Borg as well. (Her homeworld having been destroyed by the geometry loving species).
Seeing Picard have to deal with the fact that he is actually wrong in wanting to use this drone as a weapon to wipe out the whole species is something of a rare spectacle. Again, a little bit of chest hair plays into the judgment here.
1-The Drumhead Season 4 Ep 21
The hyper relevancy of this episode is built into the dialogue itself. How is it that a science fiction episode released in 1991 can have so much to say about things happening right now? Picard says it himself: “We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”
The Drumhead deals with an apparent spy and sabotage on board the Enterprise. After rooting out the individual responsible, an admiral is pulled out of retirement to deal with the possible conspiracy on board. More and more of the crew are investigated, and fear begins to spread through even the most collected crew members.
What makes this something incredible is the ability to get you on board with the admiral investigator, Nora Satie, at first. She seems respectable and on to something dangerous that might risk the lives of the crew. More clues and circumstantial evidence mount, but nothing substantial. Over time, things take a turn as the supposed sabotage looks like a genuine accident. Satie will not back down however and refuses to admit she may have been pushing too far.
Things spiral out of hand when Picard himself is investigated. There has never been a better I don’t approve of any part of your being look than the one Picard gives his accusers.
The episode is an amazing, if utterly haunting, look at the role fear can take when it is spread so viciously for the sake of safety. There were more than a few times my jaw was on the ground re-watching this episode as quote after quote hit home.
That’s what makes Star Trek special, isn’t it? When you have a character like Jean-Luc Picard to embody what humanity should become, while still making his struggle a real one, you have something special. It’s timeless. So, to hear Patrick Stewart will be reprising the captain again, it’s more than just a role. It’s a legacy.