Given that I believe there are more than five episodes that I would consider absolutely essential viewing to truly enjoy The Next Generation
in full (I could probably give you a whole season worth of episodes), I have a lot of trouble doing this. Also, the enjoyment of some episodes is furthered to its best extent by watching later episodes that continue the story--two prime examples are "Galaxy's Child" after "Booby Trap," "Family" after "Best of Both Worlds," or "Lessons" after "The Inner Light." It's hard to quote one of these episodes as a top five without mentioning the latter.
That said, here is my top five, and I'll put this in no particular order, since if I have trouble organizing them into a top five in the first place, I'll have even more trouble placing any of them over the other:
- The Best of Both Worlds
: Obvious choice, but a clear classic on so many levels. The pacing is perfect. The ominous atmosphere. I won't even bother going into detail--it's all been said many times over why this two-parter is absolutely epic, by people far more eloquent than I.
I can't in good conscience mention the previous entry without giving a seat to "Family." "Family" is possibly the most un-Trek of any episode. There's no sci-fi plot. This is all character driven, and it becomes one of the strongest episodes by script and performance alone. It's absolutely essential viewing after "The Best of Both Worlds" because it completes the arc. It completes Picard's Borg story. It shows how much it hurt him, and how much he needed his family at that particular moment. There are also lots of good Worf scenes with his family, as well as a rather touching Wesley moment, even if it's semi-dwarfed by the Picard scenes. Picard's moment when he breaks down and cries in his brother's arms is so gut-wrenchingly touching, it's probably his best piece of acting in the entire show, save for maybe the next episode I'm going to mention--
Chain of Command:
I'm grouping the two-parters together because I do believe they count as singular statements. "Chain of Command" has of course the infamous torture scenes between Picard and the Cardassian, played by the always wonderful David Warner (hilariously reading off cuecards as he refused to memorize his lines). The scenes overshadow the Enterprise story which is gripping in of itself--the conflict between Riker and Jellico is always fun to watch. And I love the lengths they went to establish Jellico as different than Picard, right down to his own signature line: "get it done" instead of "make it so." Great stuff.
: Great piece of drama. The actor playing the Romulan is incredible, and he really embodies a man broken down by a system that betrayed him and having no more home left to go to--no more friends. A cunning piece of sci-fi writing.
The Inner Light:
These are all cliched choices, I just realized. Still, there's a reason why people say "The Inner Light" is one of the best episodes of all of Trek. It was the only episode of any of the series' to win a Peabody. That's pretty amazing. The idea of living a lifetime in fifteen minutes blows me away. I always cry at the end. That's what drama is all about.
But again, so many episodes would make my list. "Remember Me," "Time's Arrow," "Yesterday's Enterprise,""Final Mission," and the list goes on. I could keep going.