Star Trek – The Next Generation (TNG) is maybe the single best television show ever. To me. I’m sure people think other shows are better, but I watch Star Trek almost every single day. It never ever gets old. I don’t know what it is about this show. My first exposure to it, i found it incredibly boring. It didn’t have the kitsch humor like the Original Series (TOS). But now, having watched it for the last 8 years or more, anywhere from once a week to 7 times a week, I sometimes think it being this sort of boring show, is part of its lasting appeal. Star Trek is a show, where nearly all of its conflicts seem to be leading inevitably to physical violence, and are almost always defused with wise words. The TNG episode “Darmok,” resembles the TOS episode “Arena”, but instead of blasting the Alien with a makeshift cannon, it is resolved when the Picard and the Alien learn to communicate.
It just has a softer approach, and one of the ways we get to see that approach is we see a lot of is what the characters on the Enterprise do for fun. It turns out, they just love putting on costumes and pretending to be other people. Some prefer the holodeck, others prefer the stage, and some are better than others at it. Here are the Best Actors at playing characters that are playing actors.
# 5. JONATHAN FRAKES as William T. Riker in Frame of Mind – “Frame of Mind” Episode 6×21
Jonathan Frakes is not a bad actor, he’s neither a great actor, he’s often a bit overlooked as a character and an actor. He’s sort of a workman. He gets the job done. He doesn’t have tremendous range like Brent Spiner, or gravitas like Patrick Stewart. His character is most like TOS Captain Kirk, but with slightly less ambition. His lack of ambition is made up for with a charming smile and a showboat personality. He loves to perform, loves to play sax, loves to raise his voice when angered, he always uses his large framed body to his advantage – both the actor and the character. The episode Frame of Mind, is also the title of the play he is performing in and then losing his mind in. It is one of Frake’s best episodes, where he gets to act like he is going crazy, but then soon discovers, that he might actually be going crazy, and then starts going crazy so that he can feel sane again. Is he an actor playing a character in a play, or is he a character who has lost his mind, or is he a character who is being manipulated by aliens to reveal classified starfleet information? Probably the last one, but still that shit has got layers, and i’ve got to give respect to the player. What makes it uninteresting, is that you can actually believe that Riker would make a not-at-all terrible off-broadway actor. Then you realize he’s playing a character who’s playing an actor, that would be one of the Baldwin brothers in real life. Frakes – best actor on TNG? No. Riker – best actor on the enterprise? Yes. But he should still stick to his day job.
# 4. BRENT SPINER as Data in EVERYTHING
Data has an unfair advantage, in that he can replicate any performance. He is a robot, who can not understand emotion (I do believe he does have emotions, but they are subtle and he doesn’t have the context to express them). But when asked to recreate artistic accomplishments, he is a flawless imitator. That is his biggest flaw. He can tell a joke, the same way, each time, every time, and it can’t make a person laugh. He can play the violin as effortlessly as a recording, and he can perform Shakespeare’s plays in the manner of history’s great actors. What is engaging to watch, is this robot’s constant striving for improvement, but not to be the best human, but to be simply a flawed human. His perfection is what distances himself from others, and Brent Spiner’s performance is a character that is always consciously performing. All of our social niceties he must recreate, even though he barely understands their function. The small facial ticks that Data frequently expresses are the only indication that there is a richer inner-life that is obscured by his own insistence that he has no emotions. Contrast those subtle expressions with Data’s bodacious Sherlock Holmes character or the tapestry of characters he plays in Masks (Episode 7×17), and you see that Brent Spiner has shown that we are all indeed actors on a stage, playing our roles. Data is the unlikely character that began his life as a stagehand, unseen and uninvolved with our emotional narratives.
# 3. GATES MCFADDEN as Beverly Crusher in Dixon Hill Novel – “The Big Goodbye” Episode 1 x 12
Beverly Crusher was known as the Dancing Doctor. Back in the day, she was known for her moves, and now, she’s known for her medical blues. She’s always been comfortable with herself, equally balancing life as a doctor, a mother, a friend, and a crew-member. In a possible future, she becomes a Captain herself. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t have too many episodes focusing on her alone, usually the go-to lady episode went to Deanna Troi, for another psychic rape scene. Really, all you gotta do is google Deanna Troi, and you’ll find numerous writers discussing the number of times she was raped on the show. Good job Star Trek Writers, so progressive. But When Beverly Crusher is on stage or holodeck, she is fan-tas-tic! As cool and sassy as a tall glass of lemonade.
The first season of Star Trek TNG really laid on thick, the sexual tension between Crusher and Picard, which tempered over the series run, but was always evident. Crusher was a fantastic character, oftentimes a more competent counselor than the counselor Troi herself. I really wish we got to see more of her.
# 2. PATRICK STEWART as Jean Luc Picard as Dixon Hill, various episodes
“She knows nuttin’ about dis, Johnny!”
This was always a bit of a genius decision. Have the actor who is easily the most skilled on the show, play a character who always shrink away from the spotlight, and considers himself a terrible actor. Oh, and he is such a terrible actor. There are only a few moments where we see how bad he is. Mostly, through his Dixon Hill holo-deck novels, where he plays a caustic American private eye. Jean Luc Picard LOVES his Dixon Hill novels, perhaps more than Jean Luc Picard loves Shakespeare. It seems to be one of the few innocent joys that the Captain partakes in, and he always uses the most terrible american accent possible. I think its impossible to believe that Patrick Stewart didn’t put on this bad-accent intentionally, and because he intentionally is acting unintentionally terrible, he is one of the best actors playing a character playing an actor. And also for this gem of a scene:
“Menage a Trois” Episode 3×24
Possibly, my favorite scene in all of Star Trek.
# 1. DWIGHT SCHULTZ as Reginald Barclay as Cyrano de Bergerac – “The Nth Degree” Episode 4 x 19
Barclay is one of the best characters in all of Star Trek canon. Everyone in Star Trek is so god damn perfect sometimes. It actually can be a bit overwhelming, and even though Barclay is at times more of a genius than any other character (he is vital to getting Voyager home), he also has crippling anxiety. In a world where each is rewarded according to their gifts, the utopian future can be pretty depressing when you’re just not this shining ball of positive human potential.
That’s why i love Barclay, and how Dwight Schultz plays him. His interactions with counselor Deanna Troi, often ring hollow, when you can really see how small and shrinking he acts compared to the barrel chested Thomas Riker and self-assured Geordi La Forge. Beverly Crusher is well intentioned, when she believes having Barclay perform in a theatre setting, rather than indulging in his perverted Holodeck fantasies, will help him get over his anxiety. It’s ironic that he ends up wearing similar costuming that he used to make buffoons of his crew-mates in his previously shown Holodeck fantasies:
But in the same episode, a once in a million probe by an Alien civilization grants Barclay unheard of talents and genius. Before he takes over the Enterprise and breaks the warp-9 barrier, he makes Deanna Troi cry, by the sheer strength of his performance. So Schultz plays Barclay as the biggest dork in the future of dorkism, the most socially inept dude who’s competition is a blind man that once had sex with a holographic representation of engine schematics, who is then given fantastic acting skills that can make a woman cry. It is a tour de force performance. It is a great showcase of the character, the actor. The short comings of the character shows the short comings of the entire society and our expectations of perfection.
Barclay is us, and we’ll never be as good as we can be. But that’s the point. He still made it all the way to the flagship Enterprise, despite an entire perfect society always reminding him that he’s just not perfect enough. In a universe of Mary-Sues, Barclay still excels. That means more than the ever-wise Captain and the genius-skilled Wesley Crusher. We need Barclay to remind us that we are all necessary in utopia, or we will all end up like…
# 0. JOHN DE LANCIE as Q as Q in everything/everywhere/every time
The Q Continuum is shown once in Star Trek Voyager, as an endless road that loops onto itself, on a desert highway, with only one pit stop along side it, where apathetic figures spend eternity doing nothing. The Q believe themselves to be the highest evolutionary form, Gods amongst men who seek to be Gods. In fact, the entire Next Generation series is framed as a ‘test’ that never ends. Man is exploring the final frontier, and in the process, elevating itself to unexplored realms – spiritual as well as physical. But should it? Does it have the right to? The question is never answered, the test is never ending. Q wears all our costumes, from the pompous high court judge to the lowly bartender, and mocks them all. In the final episode of TNG, he points to some primordial ooze, and says “Thats you” without irony. We are still mostly sacks of water and meat, and we cover ourselves not just in clothes, but in identities.
Starfleet promises a dream, that we as individuals can all reach the stars. Q only reminds us that we are only stardust, pointless and carried along solar winds, powerless. Q is pure power, but as a result, is a nihilistic vision. Star Trek as a show, rejects that premise. We can be more than Q, we can be more than Picard. We can be loving like Crusher, wise as Picard, curious as Data, strong as Riker, human as Barclay.
We can be Wesley Crusher. Young, full of promise and dreams and potential. But still told to shut-up by every one around him.