For even more on the show, check out our theory about who Star Trek: Picard’s real villains might be, find out what Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine thinks of Jean-Luc Picard, and get the latest on Season 2 of Picard.
Star Trek: Picard will be debuting on CBS All Access on Jan. 23, 2020, much to the cautious delight of Trekkies the world over. Star Trek: The Next Generation was for many the idealized version of Gene Roddenberry’s idyllic future of multicultural triumph, and a revisit to that show’s iconic starship captain, Jean-Luc Picard (played by the excellent Patrick Stewart), may prove to be a welcome return to a beloved character. Stern authority figure that he is, Picard also appears approachable. He’s like the professor you had in college that you feared disappointing.
To help you prepare for Star Trek: Picard, we’ve put together the following essential viewing guide to the general arc of Jean-Luc’s character — these are the episodes of Star Trek: TNG (and more) that exemplify the character at his finest, or depict him encountering scenarios that put his talents and moxie most sharply on display. These stories also help illustrate the path his life has taken since joining Starfleet.
Here are the Star Trek adventures that will put you in the mind of Jean-Luc Picard.
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The Measure of a Man
Season 2, Episode 9
Season 2 is widely recognized by TNG fans as the one of the worst in the series. Made partly during a writer’s strike, the truncated season featured some weird ideas and an episode called “Shades of Gray,” which was a (yuck) clip show. Luckily, there were at least a few notable moments of excellent character development for Picard, including the ninth episode, “The Measure of a Man.”
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass, the episode involves a fundamental question about Data, the android. Is an artificial being, no matter how sophisticated, alive? And is he the property of Starfleet, or an independent, conscious being? There is eventually a trial where Riker and Picard have to legally argue with one another about whether or not Data is conscious, with Picard acting as Data’s defense.
Although there had already been a season and a half for Picard to establish himself and his approach to command, “Measure” shows that the captain, while given to occasional fits of anger, is a strong thinker who can make important decisions and compelling arguments, especially when it comes to Data, a crewmember he has come to trust and accept as a person. When it comes right down to it, Picard points out a basic tenet of philosophy as his argument: There is no hard scientific way to measure consciousness.
Season 2, Episode 16
On TNG, Picard’s integrity intrigued Q (John de Lancie), the impish trickster god of the Star Trek universe. Q wasn’t so interested in besting Picard in a fight — he was omnipotent, after all — so much as he was in proving Picard wrong. In a weird way, Q sought humility from Picard, a figure who projected perhaps a little too much confidence for Q’s taste.
And Picard was indeed truly humbled in “Q Who,” the episode wherein Q presents Picard with a challenge he and the Enterprise were ill-equipped to face: the Borg. Here was a half-machine species with a group mind, no conventional way of communicating, and a mission to absorb and assimilate all the life they encountered. They would self-repair all damage, adapt to any and all attacks, and never tire. Picard and his crew are innovative and resolute when faced with the Borg, but are ultimately unable to best them.
Picard has to admit to Q, openly in front of his crew, that he was unable to flee this new enemy and that he definitely needed Q’s assistance. Picard, we learn, knows he has limits and that being complacent can be a horrendous sin.
Season 3, Episode 16
This one is a Data episode rather than a Picard story, but it hits on an element that we think will be a big part of the new show. As with “The Measure of a Man,” the question of artificial intelligence and its future in the Star Trek universe came to the forefront here when Data created an android who he considered to be his daughter. Her name was Lal.
And yes, she made out with Riker once.
“The Offspring” can be a lot of fun, but it’s ultimately a sad yet uplifting tale about parenthood and the joys, fears and dangers that most important of jobs entails.
The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I and II
Season 3, Episode 26 & Season 4, Episode 1
Often cited as the best episode of TNG, and arguably one of the best season-ending cliffhangers in TV history, “The Best of Both Worlds” featured the return of the Borg, who were now in Federation space, coldly laying waste to human outposts. When the Enterprise faces off against them, the Borg reveal a new tactic: kidnap Picard, assimilate him into the Collective, give him a name (Locutus, from a Latin phrase meaning “the one who speaks”), and use his mind as a tactic against humanity.
Watch a scene from “The Best of Both Worlds” here:
The end of the first part left Riker firing the Enterprise’s weapons upon Locutus, and Trekkies the world over screaming in frustration that they would have to wait the whole summer to find out what happened.
In the second part, Picard is indeed rescued from the Borg’s influence, remembering every painful moment of it. The machines are removed from his body, and he is left staring into the void of space, pondering how tenuous his humanity really is. It was a trauma that Picard would revisit several times (it was the thematic bedrock of the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact), and one that deeply informed his character.
Season 4, Episode 2
The episode to immediately follow “The Best of Both Worlds” was a chance for both Picard and for audiences to re-establish Picard’s humanity. As such, in “Family” we see a Picard out of uniform, away from the Enterprise and back home on Earth, having conversations with his cantankerous brother Robert (Jeremy Kemp), sister in law (Samantha Eggar) and nephew René (David Birkin).
This visit not only allowed us to see Picard as something beyond just captain of the Enterprise — audiences never gave much thought to his family connections before this — but to also see that he still had personal issues to work through. It also gave Trek canon a few new interesting details. Picard’s home village and his family’s winery were now part of the character’s background, as well as a faraway notion of what Picard’s life would have been had he not become a Starfleet cadet. Which life is preferable?
Picard admits that a large part of him longs for a life like this, and that there are occasional faint pangs of regret. These notions will come into play later in Picard’s career.
The Inner Light
Season 5, Episode 25
Did you know that Picard’s brain is a good 40 years older than he is? In the penultimate episode of Season 5, Picard encounters a free-floating probe in space that zaps him in the skull and mentally transports him into the body of a faraway man named Kamin who lives on an unknown planet. As Kamin, Picard lives an entire life, fathering children, gaining grandchildren, and growing old with a beloved wife. When he returns to the Enterprise, only a few moments have passed.
Picard’s longing for domesticity is on full display in “The Inner Light” and we see, as he ages, that he becomes — perhaps for the first time in his life — truly content. In a way, Picard finally achieved that vague-yet-universal philosophical goal held by every human being: to live. “The Inner Light” is moving and grand, but also establishes that Picard now has far more life experience. Indeed, he has lived a whole life.
Chain of Command, Part II
Season 6, Episode 11
Even Picard has his limits. Even Picard can be worn down. Even Picard can suffer. Even a will as strong as Picard’s can be broken. In the two-part episode “Chain of Command,” we learn that life aboard a Starfleet vessel isn’t all holodeck trips and cozy, long-held relationships with familiar peers. We learn that Starfleet, like any major bureaucracy, can issue orders that you don’t like, send you on missions on a whim (like a dangerous stealth mission deep into Cardassian space), and even replace a starship captain with a jerk (in this case, Ronny Cox’s Captain Jellico) with unusual diplomatic tactics and absolutely no desire to get to know you as a person.
In the second part of “Chain of Command,” we see Picard, separated from his crew, stripped of his clothes, and held in a cave by a cruel Cardassian Gul named Madred (David Warner) who aims to torture Picard for little reason other than to assert his will over a Starfleet captain. Picard, locked in a room, a torture device under his skin, is worn away slowly by Madred, and Picard, although determined to maintain his humanity, is subject to many, many humiliations. The torture scenes bear an uncanny resemblance to the plight of Winston Smith in 1984.
Indeed, in 1984, Winston is implored by his torturer to admit that 2 + 2 = 5. Even if it’s untrue, it becomes true if The State says it is. In “Chain of Command,” Picard is shown four lights, and Madred asks him to admit that there are, in fact, five. Picard is offered a comfortable life in a home, safe from danger, if he only says there are five lights. Picard admits there are four… but only after he’s rescued. He’d later admit that he saw five. Picard’s will, we learn, is not unbreakable.