I have watched a lot of Star Trek in my day. A LOT of Star Trek. And quite a lot of it was pretty damn good! Here’s what I feel is the best of the best. (Hmm, no episodes of Voyager or Enterprise to be found on this list…!)
20. Unification Part I (ST:TNG season 5, episode 7) — A high-ranking official of the United Federation of Planets is believed to have defected to the Romulans, and Captain Picard is sent after him. The individual in question? Ambassador Spock. Having Leonard Nimoy reprise his role in this Next Gen two-parter was an astounding moment, something the fans never thought would happen. But as great as all the Spock-Picard-Data stuff is in part II, I’ve chosen part I (in which Spock only actually appears at the very end) for the brilliance of its gripping build-up in Picard’s, ahem, search for Spock. My favorite moment? The late great Mark Leonard’s show-stopping scene as Spock’s father Sarek, at death’s door and suffering from a debilitating neurological disease, who delivers a monologue that is one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating things I have ever seen on television.
19. Rocks and Shoals (ST:DS9 season 6, episode 2) — In the middle of the Dominion War arc, Sisko and his crew have commandeered an enemy Jem’Hadar warship behind enemy lines. In the exciting opening moments of the episode, they are shot down on a desolate planet. But a small group of Jem’Hadar have crashed on that planet with them. The focus of this episode isn’t on the action — it’s on a fascinating exploration of the Jem’Hadar. Phil Morris (most famous as Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld) is fantastic as the central Jem’Hadar character. (“Then we will hold this world for the Dominion. Until we die.”) But what really gets this episode onto this list is it’s cold, tragic ending.
18. Penumbra (ST:DS9 season 7, episode 17) — Deep Space Nine’s “final chapter” (the last nine episodes of the show’s final series) begins with this engaging installment, in which so many long-running character story-lines and plot developments begin to weave together for the show’s denouement. Worf is lost in the Badlands after a Klingon attack group is destroyed by the Jem’Hadar, and Ezri Dax sets off on a desperate mission to find him. The female changeling in charge of the Dominion’s forces in the Alpha Quadrant begins to succumb to the plague that has stricken the Great Link. A weary Damar sinks further into a daze of alcoholism, but is spurred into action by a visit from Gul Dukat. And Captain Sisko finally proposes to Kassidy Yates, although a warning from the Prophets states emphatically that such happiness “is not for [him] to have.” Every minute of this episode is important, right up to the heart-breaking ending. “Stay on the path, Benjamin.”
17. The Defector (ST:TNG season 3, episode 10) — One of the first scripts by Ronald Moore (the man who would go on to be a major writer for Next Gen and DS9, and the creator and show-runner of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica), this episode is a tense, taut thriller. The Enterprise rescues a high-ranking Romulan military official, who claims that he wants to defect to the Federation. Can he be trusted? What are his real motives? This twisty story is a highlight of Next Gen‘s early years, and one that has aged remarkably well.
16. The Siege of AR-558 (ST:DS9 season 7, episode eight) — One of the best things about the later seasons of DS9 was the way that the show explored the idea of a terrible WAR in the Star Trek universe, such as had never been done before. A lot of times this meant episodes about politics and strategy, and large-scale starship battles. Those were cool, no question. But one of the real stand-outs is this gripping episode about a land-based stuggle for a tiny, uninhabited planetoid valuable only for the piece of Dominion technology placed there that Starfleet has captured and the Dominion wants back. A terrific ensemble of guest-stars including Bill Mumy (Lost in Space, Babylon 5), Patrick Kilpatrick (Minority Report), and Raymond Cruz (NYPD Blue, 24, The X-Files, Clear and Present Danger, Training Day) brings to life the Starfleet “grunts” assigned to defend AR-558. The depth of their characterizations lends great power to the episode, as does the terrible injury that befalls one of the DS9 regulars. No Trek episode ever tried to tackle the horrors of war like this one.