I know I’m not alone when I say that Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of my favorite shows of all time. I love the rich characterization, the expansive stories, the difficult questions — at least, when it comes to the men.
The women of the show, unfortunately, get the short end of the stick. People praise Gene Roddenberry’s forward thinking and describe him as a visionary, yet they often aren't aware of the fact that he was terribly sexist and misogynistic (and possibly worse). This story from Herb Wright, a co-producer during Next Gen’s first season, for example, is from the oral history of Star Trek, The Fifty-Year Mission (an incredible two-part story that I highly recommend, compiled and edited by Mark Altman and Edward Gross, who we interviewed below):
These disappointing aspects of Gene Roddenberry’s personality aren’t well known, even by a lot of the Trek fan base, but they explain a lot. Including why the women on Star Trek: The Next Generation, particularly during the first few seasons, weren’t exactly given a lot to do. (Yes, all our faves are problematic. It’s okay.)
Deanna Troi wasn’t even in multiple episodes of the first season, and Dr. Beverly Crusher disappears entirely in the second season, replaced by the (blah) Dr. Pulaski. Too often, Crusher is relegated to a “mom” role (important for sure, but her character was shoved into the background of her son Wesley’s stories instead of getting her own narratives), and Deanna is reduced to simply stating the obvious in tight, low-cut clothing (and let’s not even talk about that terrible episode where she’s impregnated against her will). But over the course of the series, as it grew and developed into a cultural phenomenon, The Next Generation explored Deanna and Beverly as people, and had some brilliant recurring cast members, too, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Michelle Forbes (best known for her role in Battlestar Galactica) and Denise Crosby.
As the series evolved, these women did get their time in the spotlight. During a recent rewatch of the show, I made note of four episodes that really highlighted the stunning actresses of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There aren’t many (and frankly, not nearly enough), but if you have a few hours, queue these up on Netflix and let the women of this lovely show shine.
Remember Me (Season 4, Episode 5)
When Dr. Beverly Crusher’s former mentor visits the Enterprise, she’s excited to reconnect with her friend. But she’s surprised to find that he disappears soon after his arrival, and what’s more, no one on the Enterprise — not even Captain Picard — remembers that he was on board. It’s a moving depiction of a woman who begins to question her own sanity, but then realizes, “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe.” Beverly singlehandedly figures out what’s going on and saves herself in this episode (with some help from Wesley, I guess). I only wish she had more opportunities like this in the series.
Face of the Enemy (Season 6, Episode 14)
Character: Deanna Troi
Deanna Troi wakes up in a dark room, unsure of where she is. She turns on the light and sees her appearance in a mirror and gasps — she’s been surgically altered to appear Romulan. This shocking hook turns into a layered story in which Troi has to convince a Romulan captain and crew that she is a member of the brutal secret police, the Tal Shiar, in order to protect a group of Romulan defectors. Sirtis’ performance here is top-notch, especially considering that we get to see a side of Deanna that we don’t normally see: hard and arrogant. She grapples with and adjusts to an unfamiliar, dangerous situation in such an elegant, Troi-like way. It's excellent.
Yesterday’s Enterprise (Season 3, Episode 15)
Characters: Guinan and Tasha Yar
It might seem strange to put this classic TNG episode on this list, but it’s brilliant for both Tasha Yar, who didn’t get enough time to shine in her short tenure on the series, and Guinan. When the Enterprise is pushed into an alternate reality, war with the Klingons isn’t going well. Tasha Yar is the chief of security of the Enterprise, but Guinan knows that something isn’t right — somehow, Tasha doesn't belong. Both women do an incredible job in this episode; viewers of the show know how much faith Picard has in Guinan, but to see it on screen is a thing of beauty.
Ensign Ro (Season 5, Episode 3)
Characters: Ro Laren and Guinan
Ensign Ro introduces the character of Ro Laren, a Bajoran who doesn’t fit in Starfleet, and Captain Picard is not happy to have her on board. She doesn’t do things by the book, and just wants to complete the mission — figuring out who was behind a Bajoran attack on a Federation colony — and get off the Enterprise. Not only did this episode sow the seeds for the premise of Deep Space Nine, but initially Forbes was offered the role as the Bajoran second-in-command of the show (so you'll see threads of Ro, and her potential, in Major Kira). She delivers an amazing, raw performance, and once again it’s Guinan who sees through the artifice. It’s not that Ro doesn’t care, it’s that she cares too much, and you believe it with this incredible performance.