It’s nearly as hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since Jean-Luc Picard’s signal last beamed onto our small screens (and 18 years since his last big-screen appearance, in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis) as it is to believe that he’s making his return to television this very week, but here we are. Picard, which drops Thursday on CBS All Access, picks up 20 years after the events of Nemesis, and while showrunners have been cagey about exactly what will go down, trailers and interviews seem to suggest that the now-retired Admiral Picard will be called back to space for one last adventure.
Writer/producer Akiva Goldsman cautions that the new series isn't a direct sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation so much as a new stage and setting for the character. Still, there’s some utility in revisiting TNG for a quick refresher on who Picard is and where he comes from. Since there’s no time to rewatch all 178 episodes (and the four movies), here are ten definitive episodes of TNG that provide the most insight into Jean-Luc Picard.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was still finding its footing in Season 1, but it knew its captain was a very different person from James T. Kirk. The Battle marks the first true deep dive into Picard’s character and the first look at his pre-Enterprise life. Patrick Stewart gives a tour de force performance here, running the gamut of emotions as he revisits a complicated decision he made to destroy a Ferengi ship while commanding the USS Stargazer. As Picard confronts memories (some fabricated, some not), we get to know his capacity for both brilliance and self-doubt. This episode also contains the first mention of the Picard Maneuver, a legendary battle tactic that will be referenced frequently throughout the series.
Although this episode would more accurately be described as Data-centric, the role Picard assumes as Data defends his personhood to a Starfleet panel is an excellent encapsulation of the relationship the two will have throughout the series. Plus, based on whispers, hints, and a few familiar faces that are returning for Picard, it’s more than likely that the themes explored in this episode — specifically, the nature of humanity and whether artificial beings count as people — will have echoes in the upcoming series.
Without a doubt the most important episode for Picard’s evolution over the course of TNG was this two-parter, which bridged the Season 3 finale and Season 4 premiere and saw the crew of the Enterprise at their darkest moment to date: Picard, now calling himself Locutus of Borg, has been captured and assimilated by the most formidable enemy the series (and perhaps the entire Star Trek universe) ever saw. In one of the best television cliffhangers of all time, the Season 3 finale ended with Riker, commanding the ship in Picard’s absence, giving the order to fire on Picard — now Locutus — and the Borg ship. Though Picard eventually returns to his post and identity, his time as Locutus informs every decision he makes thereafter, and it’s a virtual guarantee that this will be explored in Picard.
Once free of the Borg, the Enterprise requires extensive repairs, allowing the crew to take a little shore leave. Jean-Luc, still recovering from his time with the Borg, takes the opportunity to return to his native France and reconnect with his estranged brother Robert, whose life running the family vineyard could not be more different from that of a Starfleet captain. While viewers knew Picard as a captain fairly well by this point, “Family” was the first real taste we got of Picard’s life outside of Starfleet, as well as the first time the series allowed a character to spend time reckoning with and recovering from the events of a prior episode.
Fans and critics alike frequently cite Darmok as a favorite TNG episode, so its inclusion on any best-of list is no surprise. But what’s often overlooked in this highly quotable episode is how well it showcases Picard’s diplomatic skills. Stranded with an alien who can only speak in metaphor, Picard has to rely on his own wits to find a way to bridge the gap between their two species in order to fight a mysterious beast. His eventual solution invokes the Epic of Gilgamesh, reminding us of the power of storytelling and the values that make us human.
Another fan favorite, The Inner Light functions mainly as a character piece for Picard. Though there are occasional cuts to the action on board the Enterprise, we’re mostly immersed in Picard’s storyline as he struggles to understand why this town full of strangers is insisting he’s a farmer named Kamin. As years pass, he embraces his new identity, and when the reasons for the shift are made clear and he returns to his old life, the reveal is truly heartbreaking.
Another piece of the puzzle that is Picard’s pre-Enterprise life clicks into place when he suffers a near-death experience and finds himself in an afterlife designed by Q, who allows him the opportunity to relive a significant moment from his days as a Starfleet Cadet and change it if he chooses. Instead of leaping impulsively into a bar fight, he opts to avoid confrontation and finds himself in an alternate timeline where he’ll never see a command post because he just doesn’t take risks. The moral of the story: reckless mistakes from Picard’s youth helped him learn when to take the safe route and when to confront danger, and those were the moments that made him captain material.
Frequently described as “Die Hard in space,” “Starship Mine” gives Picard a chance to play the role of action hero. Like most action films, it’s light on plot and heavy on explosions, but as Captain Picard crawls through Jeffries tubes and outmaneuvers the terrorist gang that’s trying to rob the Enterprise, it’s hard not to feel invested in his plan.
When it comes to series finales, the Star Trek franchise has a mixed track record, but most critics agree that producers knocked it out of the park with this one, which finds Captain Picard’s consciousness jumping between past, present and future as he struggles to solve a weird cosmic puzzle posed to him by Q.
Apart from the fact that the new series also shows us a future in which a much-older Jean-Luc Picard tends the family vineyard, Picard’s showrunners have warned us that the universe we encounter in the future visions imparted in “All Good Things” probably won't resemble the universe we're getting in the spinoff (and, indeed, the films have already shown that this was only a possible future). But at the bare minimum, we can all be astounded by how much better Patrick Stewart looks in 2020 than he did in old-age makeup in 1994.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.