The Two Best Star Trek Episodes Are About Captains Who Give Up

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The two best Star Trek episodes–TNG’s “Inner Light” and DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight”–feature captains who, one way or the other, give up.

By Michileen Martin
| Published

Whether they’re lost in space for decades or facing increasingly unbeatable foes like the Borg or the Dominion, Star Trek captains are never supposed to give up, but in the two best episodes in the franchise–both according to me and according to IMDb’s user ratings–that’s precisely what those heroes do. They don’t surrender to any enemies, but both nevertheless acquiesce in surprising ways.

In Star Trek’s “The Inner Light”, Picard Gives Up On Rescue

According to IMDb‘s user rating–and anyone with a working heart–the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is Season 5’s “The Inner Light” in which, after finding himself separated from the Enterprise, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) gives up on returning to his ship. Shortly after the Enterprise encounters an unidentified probe, Picard wakes up on an unfamiliar world with a woman name Eline (Margot Rose) who claims she’s his wife. At first we expect Picard to unravel the mystery and find his way back to his ship, but instead he lives the rest of his new life with Eline and soon, their children.

In reality, Picard is not on a planet, but collapsed on the bridge of the Enterprise. Picard experiences an entire lifetime in his vision, setting aside his past with Starfleet and raising his children to adulthood. While a whole life passes for him, on the deck of the Enterprise only something around 15 minutes go by.

One of the reasons you must finish “The Inner Light” concluding it’s the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is its heartbreaking ending. After Picard wakes up with only 15 minutes having passed, he’s presented with something found within the deactivated probe. Even though it’s initially off camera, you will know what it is as soon as you see the captain’s reaction, and if you don’t cry big ugly tears then you need to call a therapist.

In Star Trek’s “In the Pale Moonlight”, Sisko Gives Up On His Beliefs

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The best episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine–again, according to both IMDb‘s user ratings and plain old good taste–is one that you’ve got to imagine Gene Roddenberry, were he alive when it aired, would’ve vetoed if he could. As part of the penultimate season, “In the Pale Moonlight” is just one of DS9‘s many episodes chronicling its war against The Dominion, but it hits much harder because it shows exactly how far Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) is willing to go to end the war and save the Federation from unthinkable death and tyranny.

After posting yet another Starfleet casualty list and witnessing the grief that results, Sisko becomes committed to bringing the Romulan Empire–which has remained neutral to this point–into the war on the side of Federation and the Klingons. First, Sisko goes no further than dealing with one of the station’s more morally ambiguous inhabitants–the Cardassian exile Garak (Anthony Robinson). With the Dominion headquartered on Garak’s homeworld, Sisko hopes the exile’s contacts could succeed in finding something the DS9 commander is sure must exist: Dominion plans to invade Romulus.

When that plan fails with every one of Garak’s remaining Cardassian contacts being executed, Sisko goes down a darker path than any Star Trek series lead captain before or since. Going against everything the Federation stands for, Sisko–with Starfleet’s blessing–agrees to create a fake holographic record of the Dominion leaders planning to invade Romulus.

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Stephen McHattie as Vreenak in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “In the Pale Moonlight’ — if you know the image, you know the line.

Now it would be bad enough if Sisko convinced the Romulans to join the war with a false recording, right? After all, while we as viewers know that Sisko is almost certainly correct when he assumes the Dominion will eventually have the Romulans in their sights, the Romulans don’t know that. With the fake holo-recording, Sisko is potentially throwing billions of Romulan lives into a meat grinder under false pretenses.

But even conspiring to create the false recording barely scratches the surface of how fully Sisko gives up on the Federations ideals during the best Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode. By the time the story’s over he’s bribed Quark (Armin Shimerman) to keep a near-fatal assault under wraps, agreed to hand over potentially deadly materials to a shady third party, and become complicit in multiple murders. Most surprising of all, there’s no one around to tell him he was wrong for doing it.