In honor of Patrick Stewart’s being knighted, I’ve collected ten of the moments, scenes, episodes, and incidents that make Captain Jean-Luc Picard one of the great characters in television history. He was one of the main reasons The Next Generation rose above its nerdy sci-fi métier to become a classic series. I can only imagine what he does with roles like Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear. Congratulations, Sir Patrick, and, readers, enjoy my picks for the top ten best Picard moments:
10. Metafictional Modesty
“A Fistful of Datas,” Season Six
When Crusher asks Picard to appear in the play she’s directing, he replies, with a diffident smile, “I’m not much of an actor.” But the glint in Patrick Stewart’s eyes gives him away — he’s an awesome actor; he knows it; we know it; and he proves it here by uniting his real and fictional personas in a single classic line.
9. I Love You, Lwaxana
“Menage a Troi,” Season Three
Picard’s declaration of “love” for Lwaxana Troi is one of the funniest scenes in all TNG. He starts off awkward and halting, and then warms up to the role, hamming away while the rest of the crew cracks up. Even when the camera’s on Tog and Lwaxana, he’s audible in the background, quoting lines of British poetry. Once again, in a treat for admirers of Stewart’s acting, all three “layers” are detectable here: Steward playing Picard, who’s playing Lwaxana’s love interest.
8. The Universal Language
“Darmok,” Season Five
This episode makes use of a classic — and often hackneyed — sci-fi trope: the character who must communicate with an alien who doesn’t speak his language. Usually, this plot point is terribly annoying to the viewers (which is why most aliens conveniently speak English): we’re force to watch characters grope, gesture, and point to themselves, repeating their names until the alien finally gets them. Then the characters talk in monosyllables until the end of the episode, by which point the alien’s learned an astonishing amount of English, though not enough to make things remotely enjoyable.
But “Darmok” is able to turn this cliché into something special, due in part to Stewart’s acting and in part to the fact that Dathor does have an intelligible language, albeit one that needs a little deciphering, and so he doesn’t just speak nonsense words the writers have concocted for him. By the end of the episode, the characters have genuinely begun to care for one another, making us care for them as well.
7. Live Long And Prosper
“Sarek,” Season Three; “Unification,” Season Five
Picard mind-melds with one of the show’s most memorable guest stars (Mark Lenard, putting in a formidable performance himself), and Stewart delivers a devastating glimpse into the Vulcan’s helplessness and frustration. In the completion of the arc, Picard convinces Spock — Spock! — to forgive his estranged father. You know you’re good when you’re helping Vulcans with their family problems.
Bonus: “Sarek” is the episode where Crusher slaps Wesley “really hard!” But it wasn’t her fault, as she was being telepathically influenced by Sarek’s anger at the time. Sure she was.
Bonus 2: When K’vada implies that humans aren’t as tough as Klingons, Picard doesn’t let it get to him. “You’ll sleep Klingon style,” K’vada says. “We do not soften our bodies by putting down pads.” And Picard thumps the board that serves for a bunk, exclaiming, just a little too heartily, “Great! That’s the way I like it!”
6. The Bald Badass
“Starship Mine,” Season Six
Picard shows that he’s not just a cerebral captain by single-handedly taking back the Enterprise from a group of mercenaries. He engages in hand-to-hand combat, scours Worf’s quarters for weapons, shoots a crossbow, administers a Vulcan nerve pinch, concocts a homemade flare, and blows up the thieves’ getaway ship, all while his hapless crewmates struggle to escape from two klutsy Arkarian guards.
5. Two Roads Diverged . . .
“Tapestry,” Season Six
So much goodness here: increased insight into the events that formed Picard; a chance for Stewart to riff on his character by playing Picard as an average redshirt; Picard’s interactions with Q: “No, I am not dead. Because I refuse to believe the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed!” (This episode always makes me feel bad for the “average” crew members, though; I suspect most of us, in the Trek world, would have been the “boring” junior-grade officers and not the Rikers, Datas, or Picards.)
4. Today Is A Good Day To Kick Butt
“Sins of the Father,” Season Three
Picard shows his deep loyalty to his crew members by traveling to Kronos with Worfto help him defend his family’s honor, and later becoming his cha’Dich. He proves his mettle by cursing in Klingon and even fighting off a Klingon warrior. This is a great episode for Worf as well, who’s forced to make the difficult choice to sacrifice his father’s honor for the good of the Empire.
3. I Am Locutus of Borg
“The Best of Both Worlds,” Seasons Three and Four; “Family,” Season 4
The Locutus arc is classic TNG: Stewart is so affectless in his Borg persona that we wonder, briefly, if anything of Jean-Luc remains behind the machinery. It’s chilling to hear the Borg warnings intoned in that familiar British accent. Picard’s breakdown, complete with real tears, in “Family,” is another great acting moment on Stewart’s part.
2. The Most Precious Time
“The Inner Light,” Season Five
In what many consider the single best episode of TNG, Picard lives an alternate lifetime as a man from the dying planet Retaan. He enjoys everything his position as a Starfleet captain has denied him: a wife, children, grandchildren, life in a settled community, free time for his music. In contrast to “Tapestry,” the life Picard lives in “The Inner Light” sorely tempts him: his buried desires come to the surface in the episode’s last scenes, where he mournfully plays the Ressikan flute, meditating on what might have been.
1. There Are Four Lights!
“Chain of Command,” Season Six
Those four words alone, so powerfully delivered, drive this episode to the top of my Picard list. Patrick Stewart brings the agony of a Lear to the scenes in which Picard is tortured by the Cardassians. His heroism is underscored, not diluted, by his later admission that he was “beginning to see five lights,” but denied his own perceptions out of iron-clad principle.
“Final Mission,” Season Four
Picard survives harsh desert conditions, being injured by a rockslide, and the continual presence of Wesley Crusher. He is forced to watch Wesley be a Super!Kid!Genius!, listen to Wes blather about how he admires him, and thank the brat for saving his life. It’s a mark of Picard’s heroism that he’s able to do all this without killing Wesley — or himself.
“Hide and Q,” Season One
In this early episode, Picard shows his softer side when Tasha, upset by Q’s machinations, begins crying on the Bridge. “Don’t worry, there’s a new ship’s standing order on the Bridge,” he tells her. “When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.” Tasha will recall this tenderness in her farewell hologram in “Skin of Evil,” when she reveals that Picard was a father figure to her.
“Timescape,” Season Six
Picard’s goofy “temporal narcosis” is the best thing about this mediocre episode — who can forget the smiley face he draws in the cloud of steam? It’s funny and touching to see him act so out of character.