There's only one rational response to celebrating today's 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that's to sit yourself down and watch at least one episode. But where to start? The problem with ST:TNG is that the question of where to start is more than a little complicated…
Here's the terrible secret about The Next Generation: The first year is kind of terrible. At first I thought that, perhaps, I was being a little too harsh on it - I'm not the biggest fan of the series, and, I figured, perhaps there are some odd charms that I'm missing because I'm not one of the hardcore - and so I asked Twitter for some guidance, only to receive a quick affirmation of my original feeling: For those looking to make a start on the show today, you might do well to skip that first year.
(That's not to say that there aren't any good episodes that year, but they're few and far between, and even the best don't compare that well with the average episode from, say, season three or four.)
The second season, too, may be better left untouched, at least to start with, if the Twitteratti are to be believed. That's a fair assessment; although the show had improved greatly on its first outing, too many things are still falling into place to be able to convince the uninitiated. The second season makes for a fine place to back up and revisit once you've decided that you actually like this whole Next Generation in the first place, but considering everyone is still wearing their onesie costumes and there's a replacement doctor for the whole year, maybe it's not a good place to throw yourself into without some immunization.
So, the third season, then. The beginning of the show's prime period (which, I'd argue, runs through the end of the fifth season, although some have argued for much of the sixth), it's a fine place to begin in Star Trek: The Next Generation's evolution. The episodes in this season are uniformly strong in terms of writing, and often downright great (I'm a sucker for something like "Yesterday's Enterprise" or "Captain's Holiday," I admit), with the best cliffhanger of any Trek two-parter - I'll arm-wrestle anyone who says differently! - in the season finale "The Best of Both Worlds." By this point in the show's run, the actors were comfortable enough with the characters and their fellow cast to offer up performances that are assured and even a little playful at times, and the special effects have evolved to a point where, from our modern point of view, they're not embarrassing to watch.
Season three is, I'd argue, the best starting place for newcomers to the show. Thanks to the procedural nature of the show, it's not as if you're missing a lot of backstory or continuity (And what little you are missing will be recapped in the episode, for that matter, so you have little to fear), and you still have many seasons ahead of you to enjoy moving forward before you have to start wondering whether or not to go back to the dark days of the first couple of seasons.
It seems strange to have to suggest a place to start for a show that feels as big a part of the genre landscape as Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it's a show that went off the air eighteen years ago - and, therefore, hasn't really been seen in its prime for an entire generation. Even though I may prefer Deep Space Nine in terms of the best shows of the Trek franchise, I still think that The Next Generation is something that deserves to be seen, to be treasured. Just skip the first two years, and you'll understand why soon enough.