In the Star Trek TV franchise, stories involving holoprograms were classic. The beginnings of the holodeck can first be seen in the episode “The Practical Joker” from Star Trek: The Animated Series. In the episode Dr. McCoy, Lieutenant Uhura and Lieutenant Sulu visit what they call the Rec Room, which creates holographic environments. It’s an idea that would be fleshed out and become the technology we’re more familiar with in The Next Generation and subsequent series.
Whether episodes took place on the holodeck of a starship or a holosuite on a space station, the concept became part of Star Trek 's DNA like episodes involving time travel or episodes about a mysterious contagion. They were perhaps overused at times, but when you saw one you knew it would nonetheless usually take you on an exciting ride! So which among these episodes outshine the rest? Here are my choices for the top 10 episodes that make the best use of the technology.
“Hollow Pursuits,” The Next Generation Season 3
The holodeck was essential in this episode that introduced us to Lieutenant Barclay. Here we see an officer having trouble interacting with the other members of the crew and trouble performing his duties on the Enterprise. Instead of agreeing to transfer Barclay however, Captain Picard asks Geordi to get to know him better and Geordi discovers that Barclay is spending a lot of time in a holoprogram featuring the likenesses of the crew. Barclay’s need to escape to the holodeck leads to him missing a meeting on the bridge and soon Riker and Troi also find out about Barclay’s holoprogram fantasy. All of this goes on as the Enterprise tries to deal with the usual life-threatening problem, which in the end Barclay helps solve.
Unlike many of the other episodes on this list, the majority of the plot doesn’t take place on the holodeck or deal with the holodeck being the direct threat to the crew. It does play a crucial role though and the way it’s used is why it earns the tenth spot on my list. Seeing how Barclay uses the holodeck offers a look at holoaddiction and how someone suffering from anxiety might use such technology. The escape the holodeck offers gives us a glimpse of what Barclay is going through and who he wants to be. The discovery of his activities forces him to open up and end up telling Geordi how hard social situations are for him and how the people in the holodeck are more real to him than those in real life. It makes his choice to delete most of his programs at the end of the episode quite powerful. Thanks to the holodeck we’re able to get a much deeper understanding of this new character making the episode and Barclay not easily forgotten.
“A Fistful of Datas,” The Next Generation Season 6
Worf spends some of his free time with his son Alexander in a western on the holodeck in this episode. While Worf goes grudgingly at first, soon he’s enjoying being the sheriff with his son as the deputy. At the same time, Data and Geordi try to see if Data can act as a backup if there is ever a ship-wide systems failure. Things start to go amiss around the ship however and they discover during the experiment certain things were replaced with elements of Data’s own programming. This causes the safeguards in the holodeck to be shut off and characters within the western holoprogram start taking on Data’s appearance. Trapped in a dangerous situation, Troi and Worf need to rescue Alexander as they face off against an enemy with Data’s abilities.
This is yet another “trapped on the holodeck” episode and it’s definitely a ridiculous one. Yet I find it hard not to enjoy seeing Worf and Troi embracing their western roles, and Worf bonding with Alexander. Plus it is funny to see Data performing such a different range of western parts. Overall, I think this is a rather enjoyable trip to the holodeck!
"Take Me Out to the Holosuite," Deep Space Nine Season 7
I always liked how Captain Sisko loved baseball, so to have an episode where the crew actually plays the game is fantastic. It all starts when Captain Solok visits the station and old rivalries stir up between the two Captains. In the end it comes to a face off between the all-Vulcan crew and the station’s team in a baseball game. They research baseball, try out, and practice hard often with hilarious results as they each take on different positions. Of course there’s also the usual lesson to be learned from the episode. Concerned with beating his rival, Sisko kicks Rom off the team when the Ferengi shows he’s not exactly the best player. As they play the game though, Sisko remembers why he loves baseball to begin with, puts Rom back in, and they finally score a run. The team still loses, but it’s not just about winning right?
“Take Me Out to the Holosuite” makes this list for being pure fun in the holosuite and for having a basic but nevertheless important message. Even if it might be a bit cheesy, it in the end makes for a heartwarming episode that is sure to make you smile.
"The Big Goodbye," The Next Generation Season 1
This time around members of the Enterprise are trapped in a 1940s San Francisco-set detective program of Captain Picard’s called Dixon Hill. When the aliens they are going to meet with scan the ship, Picard, Data, Dr. Crusher, and historian Dr. Whalen are unable to leave the program and no one can get inside. Once again safety protocols are shut off and the only non-main character inside, Whalen, is shot and dying, meaning the others have to rush quickly to find a way out to get him help. Meanwhile Wesley assists Geordi with trying to fix the problem.
The episode marked the first time an issue with the holodeck trapped crewmembers in a program beyond that initial Rec Room episode of The Animated Series. In my opinion, this episode may not have dealt with that problem in the best or most interesting way when compared to some higher on my list, but the setting made “The Big Goodbye” quite enjoyable. There are some classic lines here as the crew has to try to explain they are not actually part of the program and the hologram characters struggle to understand. While Picard feels like a perfect fit in this setting and offers a great performance, it’s Data that has some of the best lines as he tries to use his knowledge and still awkwardly fit in.
"Real Life,” Voyager Season 3
To experience what it’s like to have a family, the Doctor creates one of his own complete with a wife and two kids. Kes and Torres visit them for dinner and discover the family is unnaturally perfect. To help the Doctor experience what a real family is like, Torres makes some changes to the program and soon the Doctor discovers family life isn’t so easy. Trying to control things only seems to make matters worse, but along with the hard times the Doctor also experiences some sweet memorable moments. Unfortunately tragedy strikes and unable to deal with the fact that his daughter is dying, the Doctor ends the program. It’s only when he talks with Paris who tells him that real people can’t avoid such events that the Doctor goes back to experience the family loss.
While all of this is happening, Voyager also discovers an anomaly and investigates to try to harness the energy, getting Paris into some trouble. But the storyline of the Doctor is the important one here. Once again we’re able to delve deeper into a character due to the holodeck. We see the Doctor struggle as he once again tries to explore something the rest of the crew has experienced in their lives. It’s a heartwrenching episode that gives us further insight into the Doctor as he realizes what a “real life” with family really means.
"Worst Case Scenario," Voyager Season 3
I’ve written before about how I think this is one of the best episodes of Voyager and I think it’s one of the best holodeck episodes as well. The whole concept of the holonovel playing out the scenario of the Marquis mutiny and how fascinated the crew is to play it out is fun to see. The danger arrives when the hologram of Seska tries to kill Tuvok and he along with Paris end up trapped inside the novel. Luckily the others are able to rewrite elements in an effort to assist them. It’s both funny and a new take on the standard trapped on the holodeck scenario.
"It's Only a Paper Moon,” Deep Space Nine Season 7
After losing his leg, Nog returns to the space station with a biosynthetic replacement. While the doctors can’t find any reason why Nog would be feeling pain in the replacement, the Ferengi insists he does and relies on a cane to walk. He clashes with Jake and doesn’t want to talk to the others as he tries to adjust. This eventually brings him to the Vic Fontaine holosuite program where Nog decides to stay since he can choose his rehabilitation facility. While not everyone is comfortable with the idea, they let Nog stay in the holosuite and over time he starts to use his cane less and improve. However when everyone including Vic agrees it’s time for him to leave, Nog still refuses until he’s forced to admit and face exactly what he’s scared of.
This episode made my list because it’s once again an example of a holoprogram being used by a character for an important personal reason and it does an excellent job of helping us learn more about two usually supporting characters on the show. We see what Nog is struggling with as he forms a relationship with Vic and really becomes a part of the holoprogram’s world. Through this relationship we also learn more about Vic and what it’s like when a holoprogram is left running so long. The episode does not shy away from war, its consequences, and dealing with trauma and it uses the holosuite as a noteworthy way to do so.
"Our Man Bashir," Deep Space Nine Season 4
Any episode that teams Dr. Bashir with Garak is usually a good one, and “Our Man Bashir” is no different. Here we see Bashir living out a James Bond type fantasy in a holoprogram where he is the dashing spy. Garak, who wants to see what Bashir’s been up to, interrupts the doctor’s fun and soon he’s tagging along in the adventure. Things get complicated when a shuttlecraft explosion results in the transporter patterns of Sisko, Kira, Dax, O’Brien, and Worf being saved in the station’s systems. Their physical patterns become part of the holoprogram and, with the safety turned off in the holosuite, Bashir and Garak have to make sure none of the characters die or it would mean the end of the real people.
There are so many things to love about this episode. The whole 007-like setting is great and it’s nice to see the actors get to play around with some different roles. Sisko as the villain for example gives a fantastic performance. The dynamic between Bashir and Garak however really puts this episode over the top. The holoprogram’s spy scenario leads to many intriguing discussions between the exiled Cardassian spy and the doctor just playing the part in some great scenes. In the end Garak would obviously choose preservation over risking his life for the others, which forces things to come to a head between the two offering a thought-provoking look at the characters and their relationship.
"Bride of Chaotica!" Voyager Season 5
As much as I enjoy “Worst Case Scenario” as an episode and holodeck adventure, for a truly unforgettable use of the holodeck it’s hard to beat this episode. Is it absurd? Yes! But that’s part of what makes it stand out! It all begins with Paris and Kim in another Captain Proton adventure on the holodeck when they suddenly get trapped in the program as Voyager gets stuck in a layer of subspace. Subspace distortions open up in the program and as Kim and Paris escape, two photonic beings come through and encounter the program’s villain Chaotica. The photonic aliens believe Chaotica is real and soon a war breaks out between the two. Of course they can’t just shut off the holodeck, so the crew must enter the program and play along in order to destroy Chaotica’s death ray, save the day, and free Voyager.
This is another instance of a holoprogram being run longer than it’s supposed to but is a unique scenario with the photogenic aliens. Plus it’s clear they really went all out here with the setting and dedication to black and white. Everyone is stellar as they play along, with Captain Janeway stealing the episode with her portrayal of Arachnia. It’s funny, clever, and comes close to topping the entire list!
"Elementary, Dear Data" and “Ship in a Bottle,” The Next Generation Season 2 and Season 6
Data’s Sherlock Holmes holoprogram led to two great episodes set on the holodeck during The Next Generation and I think they have to be paired together for this number one spot since the second is a continuation of the initial story. In “Elementary, Dear Data,” Geordi gets frustrated when Data solves a Holmes mystery on the holodeck too quickly. Dr. Pulaski joins the conversation about what makes solving a mystery fun and soon Data accepts her challenge that he can’t solve a mystery he hasn’t read. The three head to the holodeck and Geordi asks the computer to create an adversary who has the ability to defeat Data. The result is Holmes’ classic foe Moriarty who discovers the arch and kidnaps Pulaski to find out more about his existence. The other two cannot shut down the holodeck, which leads to Picard entering the program and paying a visit to Moriarty. At Moriarty’s threats, Picard explains to him what he is and Moriarty tells him he wants to exist outside the holodeck. In the end, they save the program and promise Moriarty if they ever find a way for him to leave they will bring him out.
This episode was followed up with “Ship in a Bottle” in Season 6, where Barclay opens the Moriarty program and the hologram tricks Barclay, Picard, and Data into thinking he can leave the holodeck and control the Enterprise by trapping them in an elaborate holodeck program of his creation. It’s very clever in how it plays out and the episode does a good job of making the twist not easy to see coming. Picard uses the same tactic on Moriarty to save the ship, making Moriarty think they found a way both he and the love of his life can leave the holodeck and explore the real world.
It’s great to see the classic Sherlock Holmes setting in both of these episodes, but ultimately it’s Moriarty that makes them so great. He forces the discussion of what it means to be alive and as much as Moriarty is the enemy here, you can’t really fault him for wanting to leave the holodeck now that he knows what’s out there. It’s the best example of the classic plot device of a hologram realizing what the holodeck really is and it needed two episodes for the story to be properly told. Out of all the holodeck episodes, these do the most standout job of showing how the holodeck can allow Star Trek to explore important thought-provoking subject matter while being fun adventures at the same time.
Which holodeck episode was your favorite? Tell us in the comments!