I am not a big watcher of TV these days, to put it mildly. Whenever TV comes up in conversation I tend to sit and listen and nod and smile politely at what seem like appropriate moments, and I always give the half-joking response, if asked, that all I watch is Match of the Day and University Challenge. The truth is, I haven't really watched either of them in years either. Basically, what I watch on TV (including streaming services) is a bit of football, a bit of cricket, a bit of rugby, a bit of boxing, some kids' TV, and the occasional indulgence like Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! or Cable Girls or the old Pride and Prejudice BBC series on Netflix. (My wife's choices.)
The exception is Star Trek: TNG. There is something ineffably comforting for me about Next Gen, mostly because it has such associations with a very comforting era in my life. Whenever I watch it, it seems like I go through some sort of TECHING THE TECH device which allows me to imbibe the original milieu in which I first encountered it across space and time: when I watch Next Gen, I am for those 42 minutes an 11 year old boy again, and it's a hazy summer evening on a Wednesday, and I am sitting in front of the little black-and-white TV we used to have in the sitting room, and dinner will soon be on the table, and Deanna Troi's cleavage is doing strange and wonderful things to me, and I am wishing I could one day be a tenth of the man Captain Picard is. And also, let's face it, it's partly because the whole thing was televisual comfort food to begin with - who wouldn't want to live on the Enterprise?
But it's not just that - watching Next Gen today isn't merely an exercise in bleary-eyed nostalgia. For the fact of the matter is that, for the most part, and for all of its (many) flaws, it is simply bloody good telly: taut, funny (often unintentionally) and packed with narrative - each episode like a coiled spring, quivering with elastic potential energy of plot. Yes, for every Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes or Brent Spiner there is a Michael Dorn, Rosalind Chao or Will Wheaton. Yes, for every "Inner Light" there is yet another episode in which Worf struggles to reconcile his Klingon heritage and human upbringing/Data gets taken over and goes berserk/Riker shags somebody he shouldn't have/Troi has weird dreams and uncomfortable feelings/Something goes wrong on the holodeck/the Enterprise is trapped in a mysterious energy field and can't escape. Yes, for every good idea there are three ridiculous ones. (A species who can only communicate in metaphor? A "best of" clip show when there have only been two seasons? Code of Fucking Honor?) Nobody could call it perfect. But even at its worst it is somehow compellingly watchable.
This watchability stems in no small part from the cast. Casting chemistry is highly underrated, probably because it is so difficult to analyse or describe. However you do analyse it, though, the Next Gen cast had it in spades. They actually look and behave like what they are supposed to be: a crew of professionals who have been working and living together for years. And this gives them an understated bonhomie which is precisely what you'd expect in similar circumstances in the real world. There is no forced melodrama, no shouted confrontations, no childish whooping and cheering when something goes right and no tears and emotion when things go wrong, which seems to be the general approach in modern TV drama. The Next Gen team actually come across like a real team should be (which must surely stem from a great working relationship off-camera as much as from the writing and direction).
With that in mind, rather than come up with a Top 10 List of episodes for TNG, I thought I'd list my favourite episodes for each member of the cast, together with some honourable mentions. You might disagree how much a given episode is mostly "about" the character I've chosen; it's just a personal list.
Picard: The toughest one, because there are probably more "Picard-centric" episodes than for any other character, but it really has to be "The Inner Light". It might be too much of an obvious choice, but sometimes obvious choices are obvious for good reason. It's a fabulous episode. Honourable mentions go to: "Tapestry", "The Drumhead", "Family", "Starship Mine", and "The Perfect Mate" (although my judgement about the latter may be clouded slightly by his co-star in that one).
Riker: The temptation with Riker is to go for episodes which feature him shagging somebody he shouldn't have, especially if that person is a hermaphrodite. But I think the one I enjoy most is "Schisms", which is a nicely creepy SF horror chamber piece that rarely gets mentioned in "best of" lists. Honourable mentions for "Second Chances", "First Contact" and - although this may be a stretch to call it Riker-centric - "Lower Decks".
Data: Similarly, there is an "on the nose" option for picking Data episodes, which is to go for the ones in which he meets/builds other former family members or experiments with being human. I much prefer the slightly melancholic yearning-to-be-human Data to the actually-human Data, and so I tend to like the episodes in which he is simply himself, so to speak. Again, I have to go with the obvious choice, which is "Data's Day" (this may be my absolute favourite episode of Next Gen), but "The Most Toys" - another brilliant episode which rarely gets mentioned in the "best of" lists - runs it very close. Other honourable mentions include "Elementary, Dear Data" and, naturally, "The Measure of a Man".
Crusher: Without a doubt it's "Remember Me", which is beautifully creepy and suspenseful. Is it a coincidence that so many of my favourite episodes lean towards the (admittedly mild) horror tonal palette? The series, as a general rule, did that kind of episode exceptionally well - a tough ask for something that always remained staunchly for the family. Honourable mentions: "Attached", "Suspicions", and "The Host".
Troi: Troi is hard, primarily because of all the characters she has consistently the least to do, and the ones which centre on her character are generally bland at best ("The Loss", for example). I am tempted to go for "Night Terrors", but to avoid choosing yet another horror episode, I'll try instead for "Dark Page" which - if you set aside everything that is bad about it - does at least give Marina Sirtis the chance to do some proper acting. If I was stretching the definition of a Troi-centric episode, I might also include "Timescape".
Geordi: Geordi is often a bit part, playing second fiddle to Data (to mix my metaphors slightly). I have a real soft spot for "Identity Crisis", particularly for the stunningly effective set piece scene on the holodeck with the unidentified shadow; I found it utterly riveting as a kid. But "The Enemy" is clearly superior. Honourable mentions (again, possibly stretching the definition of Geordi-centric): "Galaxy's Child", "Force of Nature", and "The Next Phase".
Worf: The Worf-centric episodes all tend to blur together because they are all so similar and so dreary (what is it about Klingons that makes people actually interested in them enough to learn Klingon?). That said, I always really enjoyed "Heart of Glory", if only for the hilarious escape scene and the way Worf's character arc in it goes from loyal Starfleet officer to potential renegade and traitor in the course of what must surely be less than 24 hours. But then again, what am I saying? Of course, it can only be "Qpid".
Wesley Crusher: Much as I resent the existence of the little prick, there are some good Crusher-centric episodes in the early seasons - I assume because he was the character the adolescent male audience was supposed to identify with. Hands down, the best of these is "The Game", with an honourable mention for "Final Mission" (which almost makes you feel like you'll miss him).
Natasha Yar: "Skin of Evil". 'Nuff said. I hated Yar's character, and especially Denise Crosby's acting, so to have her disposed of in such inglorious fashion (basically giving a minor villain a chance to show off its powers) was exceedingly gratifying.
I can't think of a Pulaski one; most of the time I can barely remember she existed. I can't believe they thought that having a female version of Bones would work out better than good old Gates McFadden.