There are no prerequisites for watching Star Trek: Picard, the CBS All Access series that brings Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard out of retirement for a new adventure. Patrick Stewart hasn’t lost a step in his depiction of the good captain, and the series’ opening episodes have woven in references to past events in ways that don’t force viewers to pause and consult Wikipedia. Picard becomes a richer show, however, if you know the history that preceded it.
To that end, here’s a list of Star Trek: The Next Generation installments that will add depth to the Picard experience, all readily available to stream via Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and CBS.com. Some flesh out the character of Captain Picard, others contain the roots of story elements that are developed in Picard, and they double as examples of Star Trek at its finest (well, most of them, anyway).
“Encounter at Farpoint” (Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2)
Star Trek: The Next Generation got off to a famously rocky start thanks to a mostly crappy first season that included trips to planets filled with African stereotypes and half-naked women. The two-part premiere, however, remains essential viewing because it introduces viewers to the new Enterprise-D, its crew, the reality-bending adversary Q (John de Lancie), and, of course, Picard. Stewart appears to know the character from the start. In his first interaction with his android chief operations officer, Data (Brent Spiner), his face captures a range of emotions from wry humor to muted exasperation. Stewart made Picard a searching, commanding figure without losing sight of his humanity, and over the course of seven seasons and four movies, he remains stately and inspiring even after later episodes that depict his doubt and vulnerability. Stewart had already started to suggest those qualities in the TNG premiere, and that’s part of what made viewers want to stick around and power through the rough patches that followed in hopes of better things to come.
“The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Picard and Data’s relationship evolves and deepens over the series as Picard starts to regard Data as a colleague and friend rather than a mechanical enigma. But that doesn’t stop the question of Data’s true nature from coming up from time to time. “The Measure of a Man” puts Data’s independence and status as a sentient being on trial when robotics scientist Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) tries to take him apart to study what makes him work. Data’s only defense against being declared property rather than a person: the legal arguments of Captain Picard. The episode gave both Spiner and Stewart some of their best moments on the series, both in the courtroom and in quieter scenes, as when a dispirited Picard consults with Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) about what’s really at stake in Data’s trial. (Worth noting: A still-unseen character with the last name Maddox is being set up to play a central role on Picard.)
“The Defector” (Season 3, Episode 10)
Prior to the events of Picard, a supernova destroys the Romulan homeworld, scattering one of the Federation’s oldest foes across the galaxy and leading Picard to tender his resignation when the Federation abandons attempts to mount a rescue. A pair of Romulans have become two of Picard’s closest friends in the new show, but other Romulans’ drive for power and gifts for deception suggest that they will also play a major role. Those qualities are very much in evidence in “The Defector” — scripted by future Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore — in which a Romulan admiral seeks asylum aboard the Enterprise and draws the ship into a complicated web of lies and deceit. It’s just what they do, those Romulans. Bonus: The episode opens with Data performing Henry V to an approving Picard.
“The Offspring” (Season 3, Episode 16)
We don’t yet know much about Picard’s Dhaj or Soji, the identical androids who don’t even realize they’re androids. But we do know they’re modeled after a painting created by Data, titled Daughter. Whether through acting, music, or painting, Data has a yen to make art. He also has a desire to reproduce, which he attempts in “The Offspring” by creating an android based on his own design. The android becomes Data’s first daughter, Lal (Hallie Todd in a heartbreakingly vulnerable performance), who soon proves she possesses a feature that was denied to Data: the ability to feel emotion. Confusion and a “Measure of a Man”–like argument about her independence follow before mechanical trouble overwhelms her, in an episode oddly made all the more moving by Data’s inability to feel the family enveloping him.
“Captain’s Holiday” (Season 3, Episode 19)
In the Trek oral history The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years, Next Generation writer Ira Steven Behr recalls a lunch meeting in which Stewart told him, “The trouble with this show is the captain doesn’t get to fight and fuck enough.” He gets his chance in “Captain’s Holiday,” in which the overworked Picard’s trip to the pleasure planet Risa turns into an Indiana Jones–inspired adventure involving a treacherous Ferengi (Max Grodénchik) and a beautiful woman (Jennifer Hetrick). One of the series’ lightest installments, it allows Stewart to show what Picard is like when he lets his hair down (metaphorically speaking, of course). It’s not really a good episode, but it’s fun and shows viewers a side of Picard they otherwise rarely get to see.
“The Best of Both Worlds” (Season 3, Episode 26, and Season 4, Episode 1)
Even in 1990, long before spoilers could reach the public with a click of a button, it took a lot to shock TV audiences. The two-part “The Best of Both Worlds,” however, managed the feat by having Picard be absorbed into the ultrapowerful Borg collective and take on the name Locutus of Borg to threaten the Federation with assimilation. The first part ends with Riker ordering the Enterprise to fire on the Borg even if it means killing Picard. It ultimately doesn’t, of course, but the events of the casualty-filled episode would have far-ranging aftereffects for both Picard — who leaves the encounter with abnormal activity in his parietal lobe that comes back to haunt him in Picard — and for the Star Trek universe as a whole. The central battle helps set the stage for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while opening the door for the moral ambiguity, long-lingering political entanglements, and desperate situations that would define that show and soon find footing in other Trek projects.
“Family” (Season 4, Episode 2)
“The Best of Both Worlds” also helped establish that Trek stories don’t always have to be self-contained, in part because the episode that immediately followed it deals with the fallout from the Borg encounter. When the Enterprise returns to Earth, various crew members find themselves confronting family conflicts, none more directly than Picard when he returns to his family’s vineyard in France. There he considers giving up the stars, heats up a long-simmering conflict with his brother, Robert (Jeremy Kemp), and, in one of Stewart’s series-best scenes, breaks down as he sorts through the trauma of being abducted and used as a tool to slaughter his own people. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991, shortly after this episode aired, became less directly involved with the series as his health declined. With that came a relaxation of his edict that the series’ characters live in a utopian society that has eliminated the need for weakness and doubt — opening an opportunity for the writers and cast to explore depths they had previously ignored.
“I, Borg” (Season 5, Episode 23)
Star Trek has made surprisingly rich use of the Borg, despite their being a group of single-minded, personality-free drones. “I, Borg” explores what it might take for one member of the collective to break free and become an individual; it introduces a character, eventually named Hugh (Jonathan Del Arco), who is the lone survivor of a wrecked Borg scout ship. As with many of the best Trek episodes, it explores a deeper question — in this case, what it means to be an individual serving the greater good in any society. It’s a strong outing that’s particularly relevant to Picard since Hugh’s reappearance is one of the few details that have been revealed about upcoming episodes.
“The Inner Light” (Season 5, Episode 25)
An hour on anyone’s short list of the best Next Generation episodes, “The Inner Light” finds Picard knocked unconscious by the beam of a probe that is discovered during a routine mission. Unless, that is, he was never Picard at all but Kamin, an ironworker on the peaceful planet of Kataan, who has been dreaming of being a starship captain. By this point, viewers who’d seen Picard in the 124 preceding episodes thought they knew him inside and out. “The Inner Light” proves otherwise by giving the captain everything he didn’t have: a wife, a child, friendship without the burden of command, and long stretches of contemplative time. Perhaps to his surprise, Picard discovers he loves it, as seeming years stretch on and the Enterprise starts to fade into memory. A heartbreaker, the episode lets Stewart quietly upend our understanding of the captain: Without fundamentally changing the character, it sends him down a road not taken toward the bittersweet discovery that he might have found a different sort of happiness if he had never gone to the stars.
“Tapestry” (Season 6, Episode 15)
Speaking of roads not taken and aspects of Picard we’d never seen before, “Tapestry” sends a grievously wounded Picard on a journey through the past. Escorted by Q, he returns to his time as a reckless cadet shortly before a bar fight left him with an artificial heart. Given the chance to relive the moment as a more mature man, Picard makes a different choice, and his life takes a dramatic turn as a consequence. Another great Stewart showcase, the episode challenges him to shrug off six seasons of gravity and authority to play the dumb, hotheaded kid Picard used to be, deepening our understanding of the character in the process.
“Chain of Command” (Season 6, Episodes 10 and 11)
Another dramatic two-parter, “Chain of Command” sends Picard on a covert-ops campaign against the dreaded Cardassians, a brutal, power-hungry race. The first part features some unusual cloak-and-dagger action and depicts the Enterprise crew’s struggle to adjust to life under a captain with a decidedly un-Picard-like approach to command. But the second half is what makes the episode a classic, taking Picard to the brink of madness as he’s tortured by the smooth-talking Cardassian Gul Madred (David Warner). Stewart and Warner turn the confrontation into a battle of wits in which Madred has all the advantages but one: Picard’s iron will. But even iron can break.
“The Pegasus” (Season 7, Episode 12)
By contrast, “The Pegasus” pushes Commander Riker to the limit when an event from his past resurfaces. A fine episode guest-starring future Lost star Terry O’Quinn, it’s most relevant to the new show for an opening sequence in which Picard awkwardly joins a group of Enterprise schoolchildren celebrating Captain Picard Day. In Picard’s first installment, we see this old episode’s Captain Picard Day banner hanging in his archives, but it’s more than just an Easter egg. Picard’s awkwardness with children was always a running theme, and Picard finds the still-childless captain grappling with what his legacy will be in a world that has seen the Federation drift away from the principles to which he has devoted his life.
“All Good Things …” (Season 7, Episodes 25 and 26)
It’s tough to end a great show satisfyingly, as one series after another has proven. Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, went out with one of its best episodes, a two-parter that challenges Picard by zapping him from one point in time to another — including a future in which the bonds between the crew members have frayed. A clever science-fiction story that brings the series full circle via an alternate take on the events of “Encounter at Farpoint,” “All Good Things …” also explores what made the Enterprise crew so special and ends with a moment suggesting that Picard has come to realize there’s more to their friendship than he has allowed himself to feel.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
A flop that killed the Next Generation film series after a mere four outings, the draggy Nemesis is dominated by dull action scenes in which Picard confronts a Romulan-commander clone of himself named Shinzon (Tom Hardy). Picard makes many of the film’s plot points central to the series, however, particularly Data’s death and the captain’s long, fraught history with the Romulans. File under “disappointing but essential.”