Star Trek is more than pop culture; it’s 20th century mythology with its own complicated mythos. “Beam me up” and “live long and prosper” may have invaded the cultural lexicon, but Star Trek is particularly intimidating for the uninitiated. Where to start and what to skip are up for debate even among the most hardcore Trekkies and Trekkers (the fandom can’t even decide on a name for itself). One thing is clear: It all begins with Gene Roddenberry, the visionary who created the original show in the 1960s and presided over the franchise until his death in 1991. The WWII fighter pilot turned TV writer would have turned 93 this August. He’s survived by a franchise that encompasses five live action TV shows, one animated series, and 12 films. Given that Star Trek will celebrate its 50th anniversary in just two short years, this the perfect time for new fans to jump on Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars.”
More so than spaceships and phasers, the one quality that defines Star Trek is optimism. Roddenberry imagined a 23rd century in which humanity had eliminated the hunger, war, and divisions that characterized his own 20th century. Each series—which function as independent shows and don’t need to be watched in any particular order—follows the adventures of one Starfleet crew. As the exploratory, diplomatic, and militaristic arm of an intergalactic Federation Of Planets, Starfleet’s iconic mission is to “Seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Promoting “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” Star Trek uses alien worlds, interspecies conflicts, and sci-fi premises to make real world statements about war, racism, and politics.
- Captain: James T. Kirk, The Adventurer
- Location: The Enterprise, 23rd Century
- Ran: 1966-1969
- Designation: The Essential Original
In 1966 the Vietnam War was escalating, the threat of nuclear attack loomed, and the civil rights movement was fighting a brutal battle against inequality. It was amid this turbulent world that Star Trek dared to envision a future characterized by peace, not conflict. Retroactively subtitled The Original Series or TOS, this first iteration of Star Trek centers on brash but moral Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who commands Starfleet’s flagship, the Enterprise, with a charismatic—almost flirtatious—leadership style (on full display in “The Corbomite Maneuver”). Accompanying Kirk is his half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), whose alien heritage stresses logic above emotion. The ship’s cantankerous physician, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), rounds out the central trio. Abstractly the three represent pathos, logos, and ethos, but on a more concrete level their bickering friendships serves as the emotional core of The Original Series.
Not only did Roddenberry reference equality in his world building, he reflected it in his casting choices. In addition to Scottish engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan of “beam me up” fame), the bridge crew includes black communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Japanese-American helmsmen Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), and navigator Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), a Russian character whose presence was equally progressive at the height of the Cold War. The world took notice. When Nichols met civil rights activist and Star Trek fan Martin Luther King Jr. and informed him she planned to leave the show, he told her in no uncertain terms that she had to stay. “You are changing the minds of people across the world,” she remembers him saying, “because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.” Star Trek also employed one of the few female staff writers of the era, Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, who served as the show’s script editor and wrote some of its strongest episodes, including “This Side Of Paradise.”
NBC disliked the show’s initial pilot, which featured a female first officer (Majel Barrett, who would later marry Roddenberry) and a cerebral plot. Thankfully, Lucille Ball, whose company Desilu Studios was producing the series, convinced the network to pay for a rare second pilot. Roddenberry replaced Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike with Shatner’s Kirk and changed Barrett’s role from first officer to nurse. He refused, however, to get rid of Mr. Spock, despite the network’s best efforts. NBC approved the show’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and the show premiered on Sept. 8, 1966.
On the surface, The Original Series is a campy ’60s romp complete with miniskirts, soft-focus lenses, and melodramatic acting. But if the series embraced mainstream style, its heart lay firmly with the era’s counterculture. The show depicts a peaceful future for humanity, but uses aliens and anomalies to comment on real-world events. In “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” the show (rather heavy-handedly) highlights the absurdities of racism through warring alien cultures—one with white and black faces, the other with black and white faces. The Federation’s guiding ethical principle, the Prime Directive, prohibits Starfleet from interfering with the internal affairs of other cultures. It’s easy to see that nonintervention guideline as a direct criticism of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (a war the show tackled through metaphor in “A Private Little War”). In a broader sense, the Prime Directive is an acknowledgment that cultural values aren’t absolute—a fairly advanced statement for a show about space cowboys.
Practical filming shortcuts soon became part of the Star Trek legacy. To avoid building extra models to depict ships landing on foreign worlds, Roddenberry thought up a transporter that would allow the crew to be instantly “beamed” anywhere. Bright costumes added color to the bridge, but also gave order to Starfleet. Commanders wore gold, medical and science officers wore blue, and everyone else (including most of the extras) wore red. Fans have since adopted the term “redshirt” to reference the dispensable actor sure to be killed on an away mission. Villains of the week sometimes wore elaborate prosthetics, but the show’s central aliens—logical Vulcans, cunning Romulans, and violent Klingons—required very little makeup (though the latter would get a major reboot in the subsequent films). Part of being a Star Trek fan is accepting a universe full of aliens who look curiously human.
At its best, The Original Series doesn’t strain for exact analogies, but explores questions of morality through a sci-fi lens. That includes eugenics in “Space Seed,” Cold War suspense in “Balance Of Terror,” and Vulcan culture in “Amok Time.” The scrapped first pilot was reimagined as a courtroom drama in “The Menagerie,” while Kirk’s strengths and weaknesses are explored in “The Enemy Within.” The cast’s ability to ground even the most ridiculous of premises is on display in comedic hours like “Shore Leave,” “The Trouble With Tribbles,” and the parallel universe shenanigans of “Mirror, Mirror.” The show’s best hour, “City On The Edge Of Forever,” offers time travel, humor, and ethical dilemmas in spades. Given that there’s no continuity, first time viewers can start with any episode that interests them.
Plagued by two seasons of dwindling ratings, NBC was set to cancel the show until a massive fan-led write-in campaign changed the network’s mind. Instead, NBC renewed Star Trek but moved its third season to the Friday night “death slot.” Annoyed by the change, Roddenberry largely ended his creative involvement and the quality of the third season dropped noticeably. The opener, “Spock’s Brain,” is one of the most maligned episodes in Star Trek history, although highlights of the season include one of the first inter-racial kisses on TV in “Plato’s Stepchildren.” In 1969 Star Trek quietly went off the air, but thanks to syndication the show began airing almost daily during the ’70s, where it found more and more popularity. In 1973 the series was revived as an animated TV show and in 1979 the cast reunited to make a Star Trek movie that would later inspire five follow-ups (more on those later). Roddenberry’s involvement in those films was limited, however, as his energies were focused on a different direction for his franchise.
- Captain: Jean-Luc Picard, The Philosopher
- Location: The Enterprise, 24th Century
- Ran: 1987-1994
- Designation: The Essential Reboot
Thanks to Star Trek’s growing popularity, Roddenberry and Paramount Pictures made the unprecedented decision to reboot the series as a brand new TV show. Star Trek: The Next Generation (also known as TNG or The Next Gen) debuted in 1987 and marked the beginning of almost two decades of Trek on TV. Set in the 24th century, 100 years after the original, the show followed a brand new crew aboard the Enterprise. Where TOS focused on space adventures, TNG emphasized negotiations, diplomacy, and headier storytelling. To alleviate the redshirt jokes, commanders on this Enterprise now wore red while security and engineering wore gold (doctors stayed in blue). Replacing the macho Captain Kirk was the more thoughtful, philosophical Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Stewart quickly became TNG’s secret weapon and his Shakespearean gravitas single-handedly elevated the quality of episodes like “Tapestry” and “Chain Of Command.” The often-austere Picard kept his crew at an emotional distance, yet his love of history and literature and his occasionally cheeky sense of humor gave the character a softness.
The Next Generation reimagined Enterprise as a family ship and focused as much on its characters’ personal lives as on their professional duties (a trend future shows would also incorporate). This new crew included bold First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), no-nonsense Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and her boy-genius son Wesley (Wil Wheaton, in a role generally disparaged by fans). The bridge briefly featured two women: empathetic Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Security Officer Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), although the latter became only a guest player after the show’s first season. In another important bit of representation, LeVar Burton portrayed the show’s blind engineer, Geordi La Forge. Spock’s outsider role was pushed even further with the character of Data (Brent Spiner), an android crew member with Pinocchio-like aspirations of being human. Over the past 100 years the Klingons had become Federation allies and Chief Of Security Worf (Michael Dorn) is the first Klingon in Starfleet (sporting the dramatically modified forehead ridges introduced in the Star Trek films). Whoopi Goldberg had been so inspired by Nichelle Nichols in the original that she requested a role on The Next Generation and wound up as bartender Guinan, memorable both for her solid advice and strange hats.
Initially, Roddenberry refused to let his writers create conflict among the main cast, perhaps too caught up in maintaining the first series’ beloved optimism. While he had been crucial to the show’s creation, illness largely diminished his hands-on involvement after the first season. Roddenberry died in 1991, leaving the franchise in the hands of Rick Berman, a practical executive who lacked Roddenberry’s vision. Instead it was writers like Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore (who would eventually go on to write Battlestar Galactica), Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga, and Jeri Taylor who convinced Berman to accept darker storylines and more compelling character arcs. Taylor, in particular, pushed for better stories for the show’s female characters. This pool of writers (who would go on to spearhead the rest of the Trek series) lifted The Next Generation to its greatest heights.
While there are episodes to recommend in the first few seasons—notably the Data-centric “Measure Of A Man”—The Next Generation firmly hits its stride in its third season finale, “The Best Of Both Worlds,” which ended the show on a massive cliffhanger not resolved until the start of season four. Along with the subsequent character drama, “Family,” those three hours highlight the breadth of what The Next Generation can do. This new iteration of Star Trek continued to use sci-fi as social allegory, most notably in “The Outcast,” a metaphorical exploration of the persecution of the gay community. (An interesting but imperfect hour, it’s mostly a reminder that Star Trek’s dedication to diversity never extended to an LGBT Starfleet officer.) A new invention called the holodeck—an entertainment suite that can project images— became a popular tool for themed episodes (Westerns, film noir mysteries, Sherlock Holmes stories) as well as a common source of disaster.
The show’s strongest hours are “The Inner Light” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” but those play better with a familiarity with the show’s characters and world. Potential entry points that offer satisfying, but not mold-breaking, stories include the time-travel mysteries of “Cause And Effect” and “Clues,” the action romp “Disaster,” the lighthearted “Data’s Day,” and the stellar “Darmok.” TOS fans can see DeForest Kelley in the ambitious but flawed pilot, “Encounter At Farpoint,” James Doohan in “Relics,” and Leonard Nimoy in “Unification”—a two-parter that marked the series’ 25th anniversary.
The Next Generation ran seven seasons before ending in 1994 with one of the most satisfying series finales in TV history (“All Good Things”). The Original Series and The Next Generation remain the most popular series in the franchise and the most “essential” viewing for Star Trek fans. Yet TNG’s finale wasn’t the end of Trek on TV. By 1994 another series was about to start its third season.
- Captain: Benjamin Sisko, The Father
- Location: Deep Space Nine Space Station, 24th Century
- Ran: 1993-1999
- Designation: The Darker One
Deep Space Nine (or DS9) is the first Star Trek series Roddenberry didn’t have a hand in producing. Created by Berman and Piller, it was showrunner Ira Steven Behr who enriched the show with darker storytelling and heavier serialization. The show never achieved the popularity of The Next Generation and for a long time it was considered the “red-haired stepchild” of Star Trek. However, that reputation has evolved over time. What looked dark in the mid-’90s pales in comparison to the current violent antihero craze. The show nicely balances its exploration of moral ambiguity with the sense of fun and family so crucial to any version of Star Trek.
Indeed, Deep Space Nine is the only Trek series it’s possible to recommend in its entirety without any caveats. The show premiered with remarkable confidence in 1993 and only improved with age. While the previous series followed spaceships exploring the galaxy (and seldom staying to clean up the messes they make), DS9 takes place on a space station at the edges of Federation territory. If TOS was “Wagon Train to the stars,” then DS9 was “Gunsmoke in space,” a show set on the fringes of civilization centered on officers who must occasionally bend the rules to get things done. In the excellent premiere, “Emissary,” a wormhole opens a passage to the unexplored Gamma Quadrant and turns DS9 into a crucial trading post. Built up during the first five seasons, a massive war officially kicks off in the season five finale, “Call To Arms,” leading to heavy serialization across the show’s final two seasons.
Deep Space Nine is different not just for its stationary location, but for a cast of characters that features more aliens and fewer white men than any series before. First Officer Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) is a hot-headed former resistance fighter whose Bajoran race is a stand-in for any persecuted religious minority. Both aggressive and spiritual, she’s arguably the best female character in Trek history. Odo (Rene Auberjonois) is a shape-shifting orphan who knows nothing of his background but fulfills his duties as station constable with ornery dignity. He slots into the “outsider” role previously held by Spock and Data. Science Officer Dax (Terry Farrell) is a member of a symbiotic species that changes humanoid bodies with some regularity. The Next Generation Transporter Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) becomes the station operations engineer on DS9 and later develops a friendship with upstart Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig, originally credited as Siddig El Fadil, a British actor of North African descent whose character isn’t defined by a single Arab stereotype). While TNG depicted profit-hungry, big-eared Ferengi as comic villains, DS9 tried (and only sometime succeeded) to give them depth through bartender Quark (Armin Shimerman). In the show’s fourth season premiere, “The Way Of The Warrior,” Worf joined the show where his character found the dignity he sometimes lacked on the Enterprise. While none of the individual Deep Space Nine actors rise to Patrick Stewart’s level, on the whole the show offers the strongest ensemble of any Trek franchise, highlighted in episodes like “Civil Defense.”
At the head of this makeshift family stood Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), the first black actor to play a Star Trek leading protagonist. In addition to his proud New Orleans heritage, love of cooking, and passion for baseball (a forgotten relic in the 24th century), Sisko is also the first and only captain to balance career with family. A widowed single father, Sisko’s relationship with his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) is at the heart of Deep Space Nine. Through their loving connection, the show effortlessly combats stereotypes of absent black fathers. (“The Visitor” is a heartbreaking exploration of the duo’s bond.) Sisko’s fatherly devotion carries over to his leadership style as well. If Kirk is a man of action and Picard is a man of thought, Sikso is a man of emotion. The show’s best episode, “In The Pale Moonlight,” examines the moral compromises Sisko must make in a time of war.
Deep Space Nine engaged with questions of terrorism, occupation, and religion with a more head-on approach than any other Trek series. It deserves to be watched from start to finish, as DS9’s commitment to both character and plot serialization pays off in dividends. The show was equally adept at two-person character dramas (“Duet,” “The Wire,” “Change Of Heart,”), time travel stories (“Past Tense”), and comedy (“In The Cards,” “Take Me Out To The Holosuite”). As it moved steadily into darker territory, the show explored the human sacrifices of combat in “The Siege of AR-558,” and “Nor The Battle Strong.” To celebrate Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, “Trials And Tribble-ations” cleverly edits the DS9 cast into footage from The Original Series. In one of Star Trek’s most groundbreaking episodes, “Far Beyond The Stars,” Sisko envisions himself as a science fiction writer in the 1950s struggling against the racism of the era. Directed by Avery Brooks, the episode is unique for the way it directly comments on racism without the guise of metaphor.
While Deep Space Nine has never reached the iconic level of The Original Series or The Next Generation, it easily matches its predecessors in quality. Sadly, it’s the last Trek show to earn that praise.
- Captain: Kathryn Janeway, The Scientist
- Location: Voyager, lost in unexplored space, 24th Century
- Ran: 1995-2001
- Designation: The Female-Driven One
Just two years after the start of Deep Space Nine, Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor launched yet another series, this one airing on the fledgling network UPN. Voyager started with a great “lost in space” premise but it’s mostly remembered for the ways it squandered it. Yet Voyager is not without its merits (as Ian Grey eloquently lays out); for those looking for a more explicitly feminist version of Star Trek, the series is a revelation. Outside of Kira, Trek has a habit of sidelining its ladies or saddling them with uninteresting plots. Voyager changed all that by focusing on its female characters while leaving most of its male characters with surface level storytelling (a nice inversion of the Next Gen model, though men still outnumber women two to one on Voyager). Most importantly, the show offered Trek’s first female protagonist in Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, now of Orange Is The New Black fame).
Remarkably, Janeway remains one of the only female captains to serve as the leading protagonist of any sci-fi series. First and foremost a scientist, she’s a complicated woman of juxtapositions: stubborn yet willing to compromise, diplomatic yet aggressive, analytical yet empathetic. She splits the difference between Kirk’s warmth and Picard’s austerity. Best of all, she’s allowed to be both feminine and unquestionably in charge without slipping into the tropes of “the badass woman” so overused in genre fiction. (Whether or not it’s a coincidence that the sole female captain receives the most vitriolic hatred from the fandom is up for debate.) Voyager’s commitment to female representation also extends to a budding medical student named Kes (Jennifer Lien) and a chief engineer named B’Elanna Torres (Hispanic actress Roxann Dawson; only the second woman of color in a leading Star Trek role). B’Elanna’s competency as an engineer is never once questioned, but nor is her character unrealistically idealized. Her half-Klingon heritage allows the show to explore bi-racial identities with a surprising degree of nuance (“Lineage”). Voyager routinely blasts the Bechdel test into oblivion with extended scenes in which female characters discuss science, philosophy, and morality. Episodes like “Day Of Honor” center plots and subplots on multiple female characters—truly going where no Trek had gone before.
The solid series opener, “Caretaker,” sees the titular ship stranded 75-years from home in the uncharted Delta Quadrant where Janeway must join forces with a group of Federation rebels called the Maquis. The combined crew includes her new first officer Chakotay (Robert Beltran), a Native American whose culture is unfortunately generalized; a Vulcan named Tuvok (Tim Russ whose calm, logical demeanor once again defies stereotypes of black men); pilot Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill, the only white male protagonist on the bridge); naïve ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang); friendly Delta Quadrant alien Neelix (Ethan Phillips); and a holographic medical program known only as The Doctor (Robert Picardo).
But what promised to be a darker show built around conflict quickly became a crisis-of-the-week adventure program. Voyager was never particularly interested in examining the differences between its Starfleet and Maquis crews or exploring the terror of being trapped far from home with limited supplies. If The Original Series pulled from Western tropes, Voyager is more like The Brady Bunch—a blended family whose problems will be resolved by episode’s end. As other shows of the late ’90s began experimenting with serialized storytelling, Voyager was content to reset things at the end of each episode (usually thanks to some combination of nanoprobes and mind melds).
That said, the show embraces its Pollyannish-vibe with a wonderful degree of self-awareness. The most dangerous thing “bad boy” pilot Tom Paris does is spend his spare time acting out cheesy 1930s sci-fi movies in the holodeck with his somehow even nerdier friend Harry Kim (“The Bride Of Chaotica”). Voyager is often willing to make fun of itself, as in the excellent time travel adventure “Deadlock,” when Janeway dismisses a whole host of moral concerns with a brief, “We’re Starfleet officers. Weird is part of the job.” Voyager is best enjoyed in smaller bursts, with affection for the characters helping to get viewers through the rougher patches (as it does for any Star Trek series). The show’s second season is its weakest, while seasons three through five see a notable uptick in quality.
Picardo is the actor rightly singled out for his work as a permanently active hologram struggling with the limitations of his programming in episodes like “Latent Image” and “Message In A Bottle.” Yet despite Picardo’s talents, The Doctor never fulfilled the outsider archetype as well as Spock, Data, and Odo. Instead, that role was better explored by Seven Of Nine (Jeri Ryan)—a former Borg rescued by Voyager in the third season finale “The Scorpion.” The Doctor and Janeway become her mentors in humanity, allowing Voyager to reimagine the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle from a slightly different angle (one with two female points). Ryan’s unmatched talent for finding humor and pathos in Seven’s aggressive awkwardness gave Voyager a new spark. In episodes like “The Gift,” “The Raven,” “One,” “Infinite Regress,” and “Someone To Watch Over Me,” Seven’s journey to humanity is as compelling as Voyager’s journey home. Frustratingly, while the character is always referenced in regards to her slinky catsuit, Seven Of Nine and the actor who played her have not yet claimed their rightful spots in the top of the Trek pantheon.
Given the relative lack of serialized storytelling, it’s easy to watch most Voyager episodes at random. “Night,” “Timeless,” “Equinox,” and “The Year Of Hell” explore the darker sides of being lost in space, while George Takei makes a welcome return in the 30th anniversary celebration, “Flashback.” Voyager tended to embrace its twisty sci-fi premises even more than its predecessor in episodes like “Blink Of An Eye,” “Scientific Method,” and “Waking Moments.” The WWII-themed “The Killing Game” is one of the best holodeck stories in any Trek series. For those looking to introduce their kids Star Trek, Voyager’s colorful, cheerful world is not a bad place to start.
- Captain: Jonathan Archer, The Explorer
- Location: The first Enterprise, 22nd Century
- Ran: 2001-2005
- Designation: The Frustrating Prequel
Like Voyager, Enterprise offered an engaging premise it almost immediately botched. Hoping to reboot the franchise and make Trek cool again, Berman and Braga decided to make a prequel set before the Kirk/Spock era and only 150 years into our real future. The series follows the original Enterprise, Earth’s first warp-five capable ship, on its initial exploration of the galaxy. But instead of taking advantage of its unique ability to tell origin stories, the series largely ignored its prequel premise.
And where Voyager was forward thinking in its female-driven starship, Enterprise looks embarrassing regressive in its casting. Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), Engineer Charles “Trip” Tucker III (Connor Trinneer), and Tactical Officer Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating) are all played by white men. The only two actors of color—Helmsman Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) and Communications Officer Hoshi Sato (Linda Park)—are relegated to fairly minor roles. The cheerful alien Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley) makes an enjoyable addition to the crew, but there’s only one woman predominantly featured on the show: prickly Vulcan Science Officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock). What looked progressive in 1966 felt disappointing by 2001 and certainly not in keeping with Star Trek’s original call for diversity.
Questions of casting are just one misstep of Enterprise. (Another big one: Its cheesy Rod Stewart-esque theme song.) Although well introduced in the pilot “Broken Bow,” the show moved around somewhat aimlessly in its first two seasons, vaguely driven by a temporal Cold War that no one, including the writers, seemed to understand. Enterprise reimagined Vulcans as bureaucratic antagonists, a choice that annoyed many old school fans. The show lacked its figure struggling with humanity, and Archer is the least defined Star Trek captain. Bakula imbues him with an enjoyable laid back, Midwestern charm (he’s the kind of captain who brings his dog with him on Starfleet’s first deep space mission), but the idea of an early captain making things up as he goes along could have been more fun had Bakula committed to a stronger personality for the role.
Hoping to comment on the war on terror as The Original Series had done for Vietnam, Enterprise’s third season tells one serialized story about a massive terrorist attack against Earth (seen in the excellent season two finale “The Expanse”). Still struggling to tell compelling stories after wrapping up that arc, the show brought in Trek fan Manny Coto to run its fourth season. Coto finally succeeded in making Enterprise what it always should have been: A true prequel exploring the origins of Starfleet. He told serialized stories across two to four episode chunks. “Borderland”/“Cold Station 12”/“The Augments” feature Brent Spiner playing a distant ancestor of Data’s creator; “Affliction”/“Divergence” turn the Klingon makeup change into a compelling plotline; and “Babel One”/“United”/“The Aenar” explore the origins of the Federation.
As with Voyager, Enterprise can be enjoyable Star Trek comfort food. The show is most engaging when it imbues its ensemble with the sense of friendship and fun so key to past Star Trek series. “Carbon Creek” imagines Vulcans crash landing in 1950s America, “In A Mirror, Darkly” plays with Trek’s love of parallel worlds, “The Catwalk” is a solid ensemble piece, and “Shuttlepod One” is effective black comedy. The show also succeeds when it delves more fully into darker storytelling. Archer and T’Pol get character depth in “Twilight.” One of the show’s strongest hours, “Home,” foregoes the space setting to examine PTSD and the xenophobia of a world in transition. “First Flight” hints at the show Enterprise could have been had it embraced a more NASA-ish setting. “Similitude,” “Cogenitor,” and “Dear Doctor” explore moral and ethical questions of the early days of space travel.
Relegated to the Friday night death slot in its fourth season, the show failed to find viewership despite its increased quality. Fans once again tried to save the series, but this time their efforts failed. In 2005—with the most hated series finale in Trek history (“These Are The Voyages…”)—Enterprise ended its run. It was the first time in 18 years that Star Trek hadn’t been on television, and fans worried it was the end of an era. Nine years later, it’s clear that Star Trek need not be on TV to be a crucial part of pop culture.
Star Trek is first and foremost a TV show and its ensemble based storytelling works better on the small screen than it does on a big one. That said, the films are an obvious entry point for newbies: They can work as a good introduction to the casts and their chemistry, if not the height of Star Trek storytelling. The original cast made six movies from 1979-1991. The general rule for these is that the even-numbered films are good while the odd-numbered films are bad. As such, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are poorly paced entries, easily skipped (and whatever you do, don’t make the first motion picture your introduction to the franchise as it might put you off Star Trek forever). Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is rightly considered the best Trek film. It uses an antagonist first introduced in the episode “Space Seed” and adjusts its storytelling for the big screen without losing its inherent Trek-ness. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (a.k.a. “The One With The Whales”) is an immensely ridiculous, immensely enjoyable romp about Kirk’s crew catapulting themselves around the sun in order to travel back in time to 1986 and steal two humpback whales. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country nicely balances silliness with gravitas and plays as an appropriate final adventure for the original Enterprise crew.
The Next Generation cast went on to make four films after the end of its series. The first of these, Generations, features appearances by some of the original cast yet fails to gel into a compelling story and ends up retroactively hurting Kirk’s arc. The best of the Next Gen films is First Contact, a time travel story about the origins of warp travel. Insurrection is largely forgettable, while 2002’s Nemesis is rightly considered the worst Trek film and should be avoided at all costs.
In 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted the series, recasting the original characters with brand new actors. The first film sets up an alternate timeline, thereby preserving the show’s original continuity (in a different universe) while giving his films freedom to tell new stories. While the rebooted Star Trek and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness are enjoyable films, they lack the optimistic worldview so key to Star Trek—instead focusing on decidedly Star Wars-ish space battles and individual heroism. The high production values and reboot structure make them natural entry points to the world of Star Trek, but those looking to experience the franchise at its best need to dig deeper.
In 1973 Roddenberry helped create an animated TV show—known as Star Trek: The Animated Series—that told more stories of The Original Series crew. Some of the actors returned to voice their characters, but shoddy animation and limited voice acting skills prevented the show from reaching the heights of the live-action version. There have been various debates about whether or not the show is technically canon (as of 2007 it is), but either way it has never become essential viewing.
Trek’s cultural impact also extends to its exuberant fans. The Denise Crosby-produced films Trekkies and Trekkies 2 chart the oddest members of that fandom while Trek Nation offers a wider picture of the show’s impact as explored by Roddenberry’s son, Rod Roddenberry. But perhaps no project better captures the spirit of the Star Trek fandom than Galaxy Quest, a 1999 send-up of the show that has been fully embraced by Trek fans for the way it lovingly mocks the franchise yet maintains its joyous ethos. At a 2013 convention, fans voted Galaxy Quest the seventh best Trek film of all time (out of 12 canon options), proving that in addition to their love of science and altruism, Star Trek fans have a great sense of humor.
1. The Original Series: “City On The Edge Of Forever,” “Balance Of Terror,” “Amok Time,” “The Trouble With Tribbles,” Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
Recommended Viewing Order: Start from the beginning or episode hop (there’s no serialization).
2. The Next Generation: “The Best Of Both Worlds,” “Family,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Chain Of Command,” “The Inner Light”
Recommended Viewing Order: Start from the third season finale, “The Best Of Both Worlds,” or episode hop (there’s little serialization). (The third season is a series highlight and should definitely be viewed as well, but “The Best Of Both Worlds” makes a particularly good entry point.)
3. Deep Space Nine: “Duet,” “In The Pale Moonlight,” “Far Beyond The Stars,” “Trials And Tribble-ations,” “The Visitor”
Recommended Viewing Order: Start from the beginning and watch all the way through (there’s a good amount of serialization).
4. Voyager: “Caretaker,” “Deadlock,” “One,” “Latent Image,” “Year Of Hell”
Recommended Viewing Order: Watch the pilot (“Caretaker”), then start watching from the season three finale, “Scorpion.” Alternately, episode hop (there’s light serialization).
5. Enterprise: “Broken Bow,” “First Flight,” “Home,” “Similitude,” “Demons,” “Terra Prime”
Recommended Viewing Order: Watch the pilot (“Broken Bow”) then start watching from the second episode of season four (“Home”). After developing an affection for the show’s character and world, start from the beginning or episode hop to see the best of the past seasons. (Seasons one and two are episodic, season three is fully serialized, and season four is serialized in chunks.)