Decades before the letter “Q” gained a sinister political connotation (and during a rare fallow period for the James Bond film franchise), the alphabet’s most quizzical consonant became synonymous with Star Trek. Portrayed by actor John de Lancie, the omnipotent trickster god Q debuted in the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 and developed into the show’s signature antagonist, the perfect foil for disciplined, steadfastly moral Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Q has remained one of the most popular guest characters in the Star Trek franchise, appearing across five series including the new season of Star Trek: Picard.
Q owes his longevity as a character to de Lancie’s magnetic performance and to the multiple ways he can be employed in a Star Trek story. Q is an all-powerful authority, casting judgment over humanity and enforcing the cosmic status quo of the Q Continuum, but he’s also a cartoonish agent of chaos who takes delight in befuddling straight-laced Starfleet Captains. Most of the best Q episodes find a balance between Q’s two extremes, depicting him as part bully, part teacher, and part comic relief.
In recognition of the delicate chemistry that goes into creating a good Q episode, Polygon’s scientists have developed the Q Scale, a method of measuring the ratio of Authoritative Q to Chaotic Q in a given story. Like the pH Scale, the Q Scale starts at 0 (Fully Authoritarian) and ends at 14 (Fully Chaotic), with the median 7 representing a healthy neutral between the two extremes.
Excluding his cameo in the Lower Decks episode “Veritas” (which is too slight to include here) and his recurring role in Picard’s second season (which shouldn’t be judged until it’s completed), we’ve ranked every appearance of Q based on where it sits on the Q Scale, in ascending order of chaos.
12. “Encounter at Farpoint”
The Next Generation season 1, episode 1
In the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Q forces the crew of the Enterprise to stand trial on behalf of all of humanity. He introduces himself as a representative of a godlike ruling body who has determined that our species is too savage and violent to be permitted further expansion across the galaxy. The episode contains the seeds of the flamboyant, hedonistic Q of his later appearances — namely, his love of playing dress-up — but most of what makes Q pop in “Farpoint” comes from John de Lancie’s performance rather than from the script itself. de Lancie was hand-picked by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for the role based on his ability to elevate the material, and future appearances would be written with his theatrical strengths in mind.
Q Level: 1 (Wholly authoritarian)
Q Fact: The character of Q was a late addition to the script for “Encounter at Farpoint.” Writer Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana had been instructed to write a script for a 90-minute series premiere, and when the episode was expanded to two hours, Roddenberry wrote a 30-minute “envelope” story to pad out the episode, adding the “trial for humanity” subplot. Fontana and fellow Trek writer David Gerrold later theorized that Roddenberry did this in order to deliberately pocket what would have been Fontana’s contractual bonus for writing a double-sized episode.
11. “True Q”
The Next Generation season 6, episode 6
In this Next Generation episode, young Enterprise intern Amanda Rogers (Olivia d’Abo) discovers that she’s actually a Q, born on Earth to two outcasts from the Continuum who chose to live as humans. Now that her powers are emerging, the Continuum sends our Q to retrieve her, but Captain Picard demands that she be allowed to determine her own fate. Once again, we see Q operating as an unquestioning agent of a higher authority, though this is also his sixth appearance on TNG and his familiarity and fondness for Picard has made him more amenable to compromise. Q attempts to sway Amanda by claiming that the point of being Q is to do whatever you want, but this doesn’t hold water given that he also threatens to kill her if she doesn’t cooperate with the Continuum. Notably, this is also Q at his least fun, as he spends most of the episode being a creep to a teenage girl.
Q Level: 2 (Highly authoritarian)
Q Fact: Writer René Echevarria tried to name the young Q “Samantha” after the protagonist of the 1960s sitcom Bewitched, but executive producer Rick Berman caught the reference and nixed the idea.
10. “Death Wish”
Voyager season 2, episode 18
After The Next Generation concluded, Q began guest starring on its subsequent spin-off, Star Trek: Voyager. His first Voyager episode, “Death Wish,” is undoubtedly his best, and the most successful attempt at exploring the internal politics of the Q Continuum. In “Death Wish,” Voyager encounters a second Q (who calls himself “Quinn” to avoid confusion) whose desire to become mortal has made him a political enemy of the Continuum. When Quinn applies for asylum aboard Voyager, the powers that be dispatch our old familiar Q to represent their interests in a hearing to determine Quinn’s fate. “Death Wish” is the best of the more authoritarian Q episodes, not only because it explores a complex moral dilemma in the classic Star Trek tradition, but because it interrogates the duality of Q’s character. Quinn forces Q to look at himself and realize that he’s lost his sense of mischief and sold out to The Man.
Q Level: 3 (Skeptically authoritarian)
Q Fact: John de Lancie and Kate Mulgrew (Voyager’s Captain Janeway) have been close friends since long before Star Trek, which no doubt contributed to the pair’s chemistry on screen.
Voyager season 7, episode 18
In Q’s final appearance on Voyager, we get acquainted with his son, Q (or “Junior,” played by John de Lancie’s real-life son Keegan). Since Junior is the first child born in the Continuum, the inexperienced Q ditches his unruly adolescent offspring with Captain “Aunt Kathy” Janeway in the hopes that she can teach him some discipline. The Continuum expects Junior to help maintain order in the universe and threatens him with severe punishment if he fails to shape up, but Q himself plays only a minor role in turning his son’s life around, letting the Voyager crew set the example for responsible behavior. When Q does finally participate, it’s by staging a cruel costume drama that tricks Junior into believing that he’s put his new friend Icheb’s life in danger. Q scares Junior into becoming more responsible by way of his classic hijinx, staging elaborate tests and deliberately annoying a Starfleet crew.
Q Level: 4 (Nominally authoritarian)
8. “All Good Things…”
The Next Generation season 7, episode 25
The series finale of The Next Generation resumes the trial that began in “Encounter at Farpoint,” returning Picard to the scene of his first conflict with Q as well as showing him a glimpse of a possible future. As it turns out, Q has been directed by the Continuum to put Picard through one more deadly test that will either prove humanity’s potential or destroy all organic life in the galaxy. Q follows his orders, but also obtains permission to appear to Picard and occasionally drop subtle hints as to the nature of the deadly puzzle. After seven years of observing and pestering Picard, Q is now less interested in controlling or passing judgment over humanity and more invested in seeing us grow to our full potential.
Q Level: 5 (Barely authoritarian)
Q Fact: “All Good Things…” is, to date, the fourth and final Star Trek episode to win the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Twenty-five movies and episodes have been nominated between 1966 and 2018.
The Next Generation season 6, episode 15
In “Tapestry,” arguably the best Q episode of all time, Captain Picard dies after suffering damage to his artificial heart. Q greets Picard in the supposed afterlife and offers him the chance to relive a key moment from his reckless youth, the bar fight that resulted in his cardiac replacement. Q acts as Picard’s guardian angel on a time-bending journey painted with shades of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, teaching Picard to value the wilder parts of himself, the traits that he just happens to share with Q. Q finds the exercise amusing, sure, but he seems motivated primarily by the desire to help his “pet” human learn a difficult lesson, and to save his life in the process. Picard is permitted to make his own choices throughout the entire experience, and while he does encounter a cruel twist, it’s one of his own making and Q provides a way out of it.
Q Level: 6 (Benignly authoritarian)
Q Fact: Writer Roland D. Moore considered using “Tapestry” to visit more than one pivotal moment in Picard’s life, including the never-seen death of his best friend Jack Crusher aboard the USS Stargazer.
The Next Generation season 4, episode 20
Feeling he owes Picard a debt after their previous adventure, Q insists on doing Picard a favor in return. Since Picard refuses to offer any suggestions apart from “Go away,” Q decides to interject into Picard’s love life, forcing him to confront his feelings for the rogue archeologist Vash (Jennifer Hetrick). Q traps Picard, Vash, and the rest of the Enterprise senior staff in a recreation of the legend of Robin Hood. Once in motion, the fantasy is beyond even Q’s own control, and Picard and company have mere hours to storm Nottingham Castle and rescue Vash/Maid Marian from her scheduled execution. Q devises all the rules of this deadly game, but he also abides by them, and Picard, Q, and Vash all get something out of the experience.
Q Level: 7 (Equally authoritarian and chaotic)
Q Fact: In the episode’s climactic battle, all of the male Enterprise crew members draw swords while Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi smash vases over the heads of their opponents. Ironically, Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis were the only members of the ensemble with fencing experience (save Patrick Stewart, who has been stage fighting since the 1970s).
5. “Hide and Q”
The Next Generation season 1, episode 10
In his second appearance, Q endows Commander Riker with powers identical to his own and dares him to use them, while Picard insists that he resist the temptation. While Q is still acting on the authority of the Continuum and in the interests of better understanding humanity, “Hide and Q” doubles down on John de Lancie’s whimsy, casting Q even more like a tempestuous child who plays with the fates of individuals and entire species for his amusement. Q devises a high-stakes contest for the crew that is, by his own admission, “entirely unfair.” When his attempts to woo Riker to godhood fail anyway, the Continuum forces Q to abide by the conditions of his own game and leave the Enterprise alone.
Q Level: 9 (Noticeably chaotic)
Q Fact: An earlier draft of this episode would have established that there were only three members in the entire Q species.
4. “The Q and the Grey”
Voyager season 3, episode 11
Inspired by his experience with Quinn, Q leads a revolutionary movement that launches the Continuum into a civil war. Q seeks to upset the status quo he once upheld by fathering the first new Q in eons, and he wants Captain Janeway to be its mother. (This episode ignores the existence of Amanda Rogers.) Q’s maturity level swings wildly between adulthood and adolescence throughout the episode. His goal is to strike down the old order and establish a new one that is less restrictive to individual freedoms and more receptive to new ideas, but his plan hinges on some pretty wild assumptions, namely that a half-Q, half-human baby will be greeted as a messiah and that reproducing with one of his own, like his longtime “associate” Q (Suzie Plakson), would be impossible. His buffoonish attempts to seduce Janeway are embarrassing to watch.
Q Level: 10 (Actively chaotic)
Q Fact: Prior to playing a Q, Suzie Plakson portrayed Vulcan Dr. Selar the Klingon Ambassador K’Ehleyr on The Next Generation. There are winks to both of these roles in her dialogue in “The Q and the Grey.”
3. “Q Who”
The Next Generation season 2, episode 16
On the outs with the Continuum, Q arrives on the Enterprise and offers to join the crew, even to renounce his powers if necessary. Picard declines, deciding that Q is too dangerous to trust. Q handles this rejection by shoving the Enterprise deep into unexplored space, where they encounter an enemy too powerful to confront without his help — the Borg. Q proves his point all too well, as the Enterprise makes first contact with a species that would threaten billions of lives and change the face of the Federation over the next 15 years. While there’s still plenty of “teacher Q” in this action, it’s also an impulsive, unilateral decision with massive repercussions that he barely seems to consider. So long as he’s properly shaken Picard, he’s satisfied.
Q Level: 11 (Maliciously chaotic)
Q Fact: Writer Maurice Hurley initially intended for the big bad revealed in Season Two to be a race of insects, but that idea proved too expensive. The Borg retained the hive mind of the original concept, but were portrayed as humanoid cyborgs instead.
2. “Deja Q”
The Next Generation season 3, episode 13
Embarrassed by his clownish antics and galaxy-spanning reputation for wanton cruelty, the Continuum casts Q out and drops him on Picard’s doorstep. Trapped in a human body, Q must now depend on the mercy and kindness of the Enterprise crew to survive when one of the civilizations he once tormented catches wind of his newfound mortality and comes looking for revenge. While he can’t get up to much trouble in his human form “Deja Q” is the first episode to depict Q as a liar and cheater who’s spent eternity tormenting weaker beings for sport. Much in the way that “Death Wish” makes Q second-guess his authoritarian bent, “Deja Q” challenges his desire to wreak havoc and force-feeds him some of his own medicine.
Q Level: 13 (Proudly chaotic)
Q Fact: In the teaser for this episode, the de-powered Q arrives on the bridge of the Enterprise totally naked. After director Les Landau struggled to find a way to achieve the desired effect via camera trickery, John de Lancie decided to simply perform the scene in the nude.
Deep Space Nine season 1, episode 6
Q makes a single appearance on TNG’s first spin-off, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in an episode that serves as a sequel to “Qpid.” After two years exploring the galaxy as Q’s companion, archeologist Vash catches a lift back to Federation space via the Bajoran Wormhole and arranges to spend some time aboard the show’s titular space station. Vash attempts to make a clean break from Q, but he refuses to leave her alone and spends most of the next week using his powers to harass her and any member of the DS9 crew who gets in his way. In “Q-Less,” Q has no goal beyond stalking a woman who’s rejected him, and has no involvement or interest in an existential threat to the station that rears its head during his visit. He’s purely there to goof off and make mischief. While the episode does offer one classic moment in which Sisko loses his patience and clocks him in the jaw, Q proved to be an ill fit for the setting and tone of DS9 and never returned.
Q Level: 14 (Bugs Bunny chaotic)
Q Fact: According to the Deep Space Nine Companion, John de Lancie was dissatisfied with the depiction of Q in this episode, feeling that “skirt-chasing” was a motivation unworthy of his character.