The Beginner’s Guide to “Star Trek”

With 700+ hours of storytelling in the Star Trek universe, where does a newcomer even begin? The easy answer is “start at the beginning,” watching the 76 episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek (now dubbed “The Original Series”), but today many find The Original Series campy, cheesy, and often downright ridiculous. Others opt to watch certain installations of the series while ignoring others entirely. Most Trek fans will discourage people from starting with the films, which benefit from some knowledge of the characters. If you’re not sure where to start, we have compiled a smattering of what are widely considered the “best” episodes from each series.

Few television and film franchises have a more daunting presence than Star Trek. With five live-action television series (and another on the way), an animated series, and a dozen feature films (again, with another on the way), there are more than 700 hours of future-exploring science fiction mythology to absorb and contemplate. This poses an interesting conundrum: What are the best episodes for piquing a beginner’s interest in the franchise? In which order should a newcomer watch the series and films? And if there are no Star Trek fans in one’s life to provide guidance, where does one even begin?

The Starship Enterprise

The easy answer is “start at the beginning,” watching the 76 episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek (now dubbed “The Original Series”) which aired from 1966-68, and moving forward from there. But today, 50 years later, that suggestion isn’t always the best sell. The Original Series is campy, cheesy, and often looks downright ridiculous in our modern age of expectations. Some find it easier to start with a more modern series and look backwards to TOS after they’ve adopted Star Trek love and can see beyond its datedness.

Others opt to watch certain installations of the series while ignoring others entirely. For many, this is a valid practice. Some fans identify with one series’ cast, issues, and aesthetic over others, finding it difficult to get into the ones that take a different perspective. In truth, there is nothing wrong with loving one series and having no interest in another. Each is extremely unique in identity, focus, and characters. Enjoying the franchise is, primarily, a matter of discovering which pieces of Star Trek provide the most interest to each individual.

On a related note, most Trek fans will discourage people from starting with the films: Trek movies are a minimal time investment but typically benefit from some existing knowledge of the characters and their behaviors. If you’re showing someone Trek for the first time, or going at it alone, stick to television in order to gain a proper footing and understanding of what the world has to offer.

DeForest Kelley, William Shatner, and Leonard Nimoy

With that, there is a legitimate temptation to blindly choose episodes at random and watch them to gain insight. The trouble with that approach is that each series has plenty of truly terrible material—such is a natural consequence of 700+ hours of production. Unintentionally opting for a few bad apples could accidentally sour an entire series, and that’s what we want to avoid. Star Trek is too wonderfully expansive and enthralling to let an oddly horrendous episode like The Next Generation’s (1987) “Code of Honor” ruin your taste. Fortunately, one of the of the beautiful things about procedural television is each episode gets a fresh start. If one sucks, the next one has every chance to be amazing.

As such, we have compiled a smattering of what are widely considered the “best” episodes from each series, highlighted the most loved films, and explained why each deserves the recognition. From there, endless exploration awaits. This is Star Trek, after all: an ongoing journey of discovery, education, and optimism waiting to be seen. Make it so!

Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, and Patrick Stewart (foreground)

The Television Series

These days, it seems most common for Trek newbies to start by watching The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine (1994). The Next Generation is easily the most recognizable Trek, with the likes of Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) still existing as household names despite their television show going off the air over two decades ago. Their prevalent use in internet memes has surely helped as well, but the truth is TNG is, to many viewers, the most accessible Trek. It is retro but still good enough looking for modern viewers to not be discouraged by its visuals, and its stories are exciting, exploratory, and speak to Gene Roddenberry’s grand vision of what Star Trek was to be.

Deep Space Nine is equally rewarding and may be the franchise’s most solid series overall, as it failed to match the quantity of sub-par episodes in its sister series. However, others refer to Deep Space Nine as Star Trek in name only, as it is the most detached from the others in terms of storytelling, plot lines, themes, and concept. Still others argue its uniqueness makes it the purest Trek available. Either way, it is a viable beginning for someone wanting to begin with 1990s Trek that isn’t TNG.

Avery Brooks on Deep Space Nine

As noted above, beginning with The Original Series is the most logical. But unless you are a regular to 1960s science fiction or capable of looking past its dated production flaws and absurdities, it can be a challenging place for people to start today. Meanwhile, starting with Voyager or Enterprise just feels risky, but each to his own.

If you want to watch the shows in chronological order of when they take place, the process would be Enterprise, The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager. If you want to watch them in the order they aired, follow the sequence of discussion from the paragraphs above.

No matter which series you choose, we have a beginner’s guide for you which outlines some of the series’ best and most-famous episodes.

There is also an animated Star Trek series which starred the cast of The Original Series and was set after the events of that television show. However, once TNG was greenlit and it was realized that there would be more new Star Trek stories to tell, the animated series was “decanonized” by Gene Roddenberry’s office for its inconsistencies with the TV series. Authors of novels and comics set in the Trek universe moving forward were prohibited from using any animated series stories in the works, and it now exists as an off-canon series that has little influence on the core Trek world.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The Films

Star Trek films are, in the grand scheme of things, what kept the franchise alive following the cancellation of The Original Series. Their successes led to the creation of TNG, and the rest is history. But as noted before, watching them without some established context from the television series will lessen the experience. Each draws on ideas and characters and personalities and stories from TV, so while they may be enjoyable and able to be followed without prior knowledge, something will be missing.

As such, the best approach for watching the films is to see them in order after watching their related television series. After you finish watching TOS, view its films. After you finish TNG, do the same.

The Original Series had six films with its characters, several of which during The Next Generation’s tenure on television:

1: The Motion Picture (1979) - Director Robert Wise
2: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - Director Nicholas Meyer
3: The Search for Spock (1984) - Director Leonard Nimoy
4: The Voyage Home (1986) - Director Leonard Nimoy
5: The Final Frontier (1989) - Director William Shatner
6: The Undiscovered Country (1991) - Director Nicholas Meyer

The Next Generation then had four films with its characters, all after the series finished its run on TV:

1: Generations (1994) - Director David Carson
2: First Contact (1996) - Director Jonathan Frakes
3: Insurrection (1998) - Director Jonathan Frakes
4: Nemesis (2002) - Director Stuart Baird

Finally, follow up with the newer films using The Original Series’ characters:

Star Trek (2009) - Director JJ Abrams
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - Director JJ Abrams

Covers of some Star Trek: TNG books

The Rest

Of course, if you discover you’ve become a huge Star Trek junkie after sitting through a few dozen hours of science fiction’s greatest television franchise, there are plenty of other avenues of adventure to explore. There are literally hundreds of novels, short stories, novelizations, and story collections which continue to be written, several new entries releasing every year. There are also comics, magazines, and a whole slew of games, from tabletop to role playing, and even pinball. Countless people produce podcasts and internet shows discussing the episodes and their content. In reality, the ways in which one can absorb into the Trek world are almost endless.

Live long and prosper.