Welcome to a Star Trek 101 article.
With forty years history including 31 seasons of television, thirteen film, and innumerable novels & comics, Star Trek can appear intimidating for newcomers.
This article is the fourth and final part in the series designed to serve as an introduction the world of Star Trek, with intent of making the setting less daunting. This series is being written for those interested in the roleplaying game Star Trek Adventures, potentially for those who have friends interesting in playing the game, but who have no idea what “The Star Trek” is.
In the first part of this series I discussed the history of the TV show and the universe. In the second part I discussed the galaxy itself and the technology found there. In the third part I briefly described the alien beings found in the galaxy. In this part I will discuss the various television series themselves and give a few suggested episodes to serve as a primer.
The subject of these articles is providing a baseline knowledge of the setting to enable play in the RPG (or otherwise become vaguely familiar with the franchise and its setting). And the easiest way to do so is to actually watch the show.
The suggested episodes below are deliberately limited in number, chosen to provide the maximum amount of detail on the setting with the fewest episodes (while also not being terrible). These list aren’t about being comprehensive or listing the best episodes of individual series so much as those that best encapsulate Star Trek. It’s a list of the Trekiest episodes of Star Trek.
Correct Viewing Order
The various series are loosely sorted in order of release and is not the recommended order of watching. There’s no one right way to get into Star Trek. If you want to watch a movie followed by some Next Generation and The Original Series then that’s fine.
Some people will recommend starting with the Original Series and the adventures of Captain Kirk. Others will dismiss that earlier series as “cheesy” or “dated” and recommend going right to The Next Generation. Others will point out how awkward and uneven the first two seasons of The Next Generation are and recommend jumping ahead to season two or three. But, after 30 years, even The Next Generation is showing its age, so the modern movies might be a more appealing possibility (such as 2009’s Star Trek or 2016’s Beyond), as is the new TV show Discovery. Both of these are designed to be accessible to new viewers.
Heck, it’s arguably even possible to watch things chronologically, jumping right in with Enterprise…
In the end, it’s easiest to pick the most convenient option for you.
The Original Series
Star Trek The Original Series details the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise and its crew. Captained by James T. Kirk, the Enterprise is on a five year mission to explore the galaxy.
(Note: TOS has several different episode orders, depending on the air date, production, and other factors. For simplicity, I’m using the numbering in Netflix.)
Balance of Terror
Season 1, episode 6. Aka “the Romulan episode”. This episode introduces this classic villain while providing some setting backstory along with some fun interpersonal drama. It also really emphasizes the naval feel of Star Trek ship battles.
Season 1, episode 23. Noteworthy as the first appearance of Khan, who returns in the second movie (which is pretty much the sole reason why this episode makes the cut). This episode also explores the years between the show and the present day—or rather the present at the time the show aired.
Devil in the Dark
Season 1, episode 26. A personal favourite, this episode is your standard murderous space monster story. But the captain’s response to the monster and the final resolution is what sets this episodes apart, and is a great example of what defines Star Trek.
The Trouble with Tribbles
Season 2, episode 13. A comedic episode, this story also features the Klingons while detailing some of the politics of the galaxy. But mostly it’s just fun.
Journey to Babel
Season 2, episode 15. Another political episode showing many of the different people of the Federation as well as some tension between factions in the galaxy grounded by family drama.
As mentioned above, this list is by no means comprehensive, and there’s many other good episodes, such as ones with good personal drama (The City on the Edge of Forever), ones that focus on the relationships between characters (The Tholian Web), or that just have a cool fight with a fan favorite alien monster (The Arena).
The Star Trek films of the ’80s continue the adventures of the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise as shown in the TV series. And as theatrical movies, there’s a greater focus on action and explosive climaxes, rather than the more talky problem solving of the TV series. As such, they’re only a so-so introduction to the franchise, not particularly explaining characters or world’s elements. They’re best watched as follow-ups to the TV series.
Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, and Voyage Home
Star Trek II through IV form a kind of trilogy, each leading into the other. Star Trek II is a follow-up to the first season episode Space Seed, and is often hailed as the best Star Trek film, although it’s arguably not the best example of Star Trek, lacking a deeper meaning or philosophising.
Star Trek VI. Focused around peace talks between the Klingon Empire and the Federation which is paralleled by Kirk and his hatred of Klingons. Planned in the late ’80s/early ’90s when the world was reeling following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ongoing collapse of the USSR. (The movie was released less than a month prior to the resignation of Gorbachev.) The hook of the movie is basically “what happens when The Wall falls… in space?”
Set a century after The Original Series, Star Trek The Next Generation features a new crew of a new U.S.S. Enterprise on their multi-year mission to explore the unknown. The concept of the series is identical to that of the original, so much so that it used several unproduced scripts written for the previous crew.
While initially viewed as a poor follow-up to the classic television series, after three or four years The Next Generation was seen as a worthy successor… if not the high water mark of the franchise.
The Neutral Zone
Season 1, episode 25. Three people from close to our modern day awaken in the future, allowing an opportunity for the show to explain to the newcomers (and the audience) how things are different in their time. The episode also serves as a re-introduction to the Romulans, with the captain’s dealings with them being an excellent example of how Starfleet operates.
The Measure of a Man
Season 2, episode 9. This is a legal drama in space. Deep at its core, Star Trek is about humanity and what it means to be human. This episode questions where the line is drawn between an advanced machine and a living being, and if a thinking machine is a life form or property.
Who Watches the Watchers
Season 3, episode 4. While not the best episode, this is all about the Prime Direction: Starfleet’s most important law and a defining philosophy of Star Trek. It’s an examination on why it’s important and what happens when it’s broken.
Season 3, episode 15. A good episode that highlights some history of the setting while also providing a contrasting look at Starfleet, defining what Starfleet is a by showing what it’s not (or what it could have been).
Season 5, episode 2. A story of language and communication. With a mysterious space monster.
Season 7, episode 12. Loyalty and duty clash with morality, as an officer debated whether what Starfleet stands for is worth betraying a superiour.
This is an exceedingly terse list of recommendations, eschewing personal and fan favorites for various reasons (such as too much continuity, like Best of Both Worlds, or a limited focus on the setting itself, such as Inner Light). If you want more, there are many good lists of must-watch episodes available online; here’s one.
Following The Next Generation series there were four movies with that cast. As these assume some familiarity and affection for the crew and knowledge of its villains, these are not a good particularly good introductions.
Of the four, Star Trek: Insurrection (aka Star Trek IX) requires the least foreknowledge of the series. It also has a moral center often otherwise lacking from Star Trek movies, questioning how many people have to be hurt before doing something becomes unforgivably wrong. Ironically, some of the movie’s weaknesses—it’s unremarkable new villains and smaller scope, which makes it feel more like a long TV episode more than a big budget film—work to its advantage as an introduction.
Deep Space Nine
A sequel to The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is best enjoyed following the former show. Deep Space Nine makes a previous background character into one of its leads while also building off two species introduced earlier. Unlike past series, Deep Space Nine takes place on a space station orbiting the planet of Bajor, which is recovering after fifty years of military occupation. The cast is mixed between Starfleet officers, and the residents of the station (including family, business owners, and members of the planet’s military).
It’s tricky to recommend episodes from Deep Space Nine for a couple reasons. First, it’s a much darker show than other Trek series; there are fewer examples of the optimism that pervades Star Trek making it a poorer example of the values of Starfleet. Secondly, it has a metaplot that increases over the course of the series, which makes it harder for episodes to be watched alone. Even well regarded stand-alone episodes like Duet (s1e18) or Necessary Evil (s2e19) are imperfect, having a limited focus on Starfleet.
Like The Next Generation, there are recommended viewing guides available.
Season 1, episodes 1 to 2. One of the better series pilots, this episode sets up the politics and events that drive the subsequent season and the series as a whole. However, this episode build off several episodes of The Next Generation making it awkward as a stand-alone story. But it shows how the humanitarian nature of the Federation and how it reacts to requests for assistance.
Trials and Tribble-ations
Season 5, episode 6. A sequel to The Original Series episode The Trouble with Tribbles, this was written for the 30th anniversary of Star Trek. It’s a fun and light homage to the past, and is just entertaining.
Also a sequel to The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager is set on the far side of the galaxy after the eponymous ship is stranded seventy years from home.
Voyager is the opposite of Deep Space Nine in that there’s virtually no metaplot and limited continuity, which means almost any episodes can be watched without spoilers. Howver, because Voyager is set in its own corner of the galaxy it doesn’t interact with the Federation or Starfleet, so there’s fewer examples that serve as an introduction to Star Trek.
Season 1, episodes 1 and 2. The pilot episode builds somewhat off The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, but much more able to stand on its own. It features a good example of the morals of Starfleet and doing the right thing even if it isn’t the convenient thing.
Season 5, episode 25; season 6 episode 1. A story that contrasts the steadfast morality of the captain and crew of the U.S.S Voyager with another ship in the simmilar predicament.
Season 7, episode 15. Despite being late in the series and filled with forgettable aliens-of-the-week, this episode highlights the values of Starfleet and the Federation and their importance almost more than any other episode. It simultaneously lampshades and honours the almost naive optimism of Starfleet.
A prequel series, Star Trek: Enterprise detailing the adventures of the crew of the Earth Starfleet vessel Enterprise, the first human spaceship able to truly explore the galaxy. It takes place a century prior to the adventures of Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise as seen in The Original Series. This series was purposely retro in attitude and technology, trying to get back to the exploration focused earlier series, being nostalgic without overt campiness.
As a prequel series, Enterprise is awkward for those looking for a couple quick episodes to provide background for the setting. The fourth season has several particularly noteworthy storylines, but these were three-part epics, making them harder to quickly consume.
The Andorian Incident
Season 1, episode 6. This episode sets up the political tension between the Vulcans and Andorians that drives a lot of Enterprise.
Season 1, episode 12. Another Prime Directive episode, albeit one before it existed. It’s a good example of why the rule exists, and the conflict between humanitarian activities and interfering in local affairs.
In 2009 the film franchise was rebooted with the film Star Trek. Ostensibly set during The Original Series with re-cast members of the original crew, time travel is used to create a variant reality (This is known as the Alternate Reality, Kelvin Timeline, or Abramsverse), allowing the film series to skirt around continuity.
As reboots, these films are accessible to new viewers and not nearly as campy as The Original Series. It’d be easy to start with one or all of these movies before continuing with The Next Generation or another series. Personally, I would argue that Star Trek and Star Trek Beyond are the stronger two. Beyond in particular is an interesting beast, almost working as a follow-up to The Original Series, taking place several years into Kirk’s five year mission.
Newly released, Star Trek: Discovery is set in the “Prime Reality” of the other TV series (opposed to the reboot films’ Kelvin Timeline). Like Star Trek: Enterprise, is is prequel, being set a decade prior to The Original Series.
Discovery is even more serialised than Deep Space Nine, it’s hard to recommend a single episode as a stand-alone example. For its first half, Discovery has few continuity ties to prior incarnations of Star Trek beyond Starfleet and the standard aliens (Vulcans and Klingons), and while the second half has more nods to lore, these are almost Easter eggs and have no story impact. This ostensibly makes it a good introduction if willing to watch the entire season.
However, for much of the first season, this series isn’t particularly Star Treky, eschewing most of the tropes and conventions of the franchise, which makes it an awkward for trying to learn what Star Trek feels like and is about. For much of the series, Discovery lacks the idealism and strong moral center that defines the franchise. While it ends by reintroducing and reinforcing those values, it effectively spends a full season reaching the moral place every prior series began during their pilot.