the story: Ro Laren joins the crew and butts heads with everyone.
similar to: "The Galileo Seven" (original series), "Hollow Pursuits" (Next Generation), "Emissary" (Deep Space Nine), "Caretaker" (Voyager)
my thoughts: This is about as explosive a character introduction as you can get, and the first sign that Gene Roddenberry's edict of a perfect future was not going to outlive Roddenberry himself (this episode in fact aired three days before his death). Although never taken quite as literally as the legend suggests, Star Trek's creator envisioned a time when humanity had moved on from petty differences. Except the character of Spock frequently came up against it, experiencing bigotry in such episodes as "The Galileo Seven." Next Generation had previously examined the misfit in the character of Barclay in "Hollow Pursuits," someone who doesn't get along with his fellow officers for whatever reason. And yet Ro Laren was a clear escalation of this theme, a bold departure for a series that has frequently been labeled with having the most vanilla characters in the whole franchise, everyone far too chummy chummy. Even McCoy frequently, and famously, needled Spock.
In many ways, "Ensign Ro" was the first episode of the rest of the franchise, from Deep Space Nine to Voyager and even Enterprise (a planet of xenophobes is explored in "Demons"/Terra Prime," two of its best hours). Never mind that it introduces Bajorans, too, and thus completes the Next Generation guide to Deep Space Nine (after "The Wounded," introducing Cardassians, and "The Host," introducing the Trill, and not to mention the crucial battle of Wolf 359 in "The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2" which serves as the secret origin of Sisko). Ro is the character who can break the rules, and thus introduces characters who are pointedly looking for redemption, which is what the casts of Deep Space Nine and Voyager are looking for in spades. (Never mind, too, that late in the season we get a preview of Voyager's Tom Paris in "The First Duty.")
There's a whole story around Ro, in which she's being used as a pawn by a misguided Starfleet admiral in a game of chess with the Cardassians (who in just a few episodes become more interesting than the Romulans are throughout the series, arguably), but the character herself is so compelling, it's easily worth focusing on her alone, the impact this one blazing appearance leaves behind. And yes, she makes a few other appearances, but few of them are as compelling as this one (except its companion, "Preemptive Strike").
The episode also works as a spotlight for Picard in much the same way as "Darmok" before it, and serves to further build toward Guinan's biggest moment in the forthcoming "Time's Arrow," so it's got a lot going for it. Easily to earn classic status.
criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)
Michelle Forbes (Ro Laren)
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)