Saturday, 10 September 2016

Gratuitous Lists: The Star Trek TV Series Ranked

The philosophy of the Gratuitous Lists feature was to have lists of stuff that are unranked, because frankly if you're talking about the 12th best thing of all time or the 9th best thing of all time, the differences are going to be pretty minor. In the case of the Star Trek lists, however, that's kind of pointless because there's way too few things to put on the list. So for these ones I'm ranking them and people can argue away to their heart's content. So let us proceed:

The cast of Voyager: Lt. Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), Seven-of-Nine (Jeri Ryan), the Doctor (Robert Picardo), Neelix (Ethan Phillips), Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran), Lt. B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Lt. Commander Tuvok (Tim Russ)

6. Star Trek: Voyager
Created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor Produced by Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor, Michael Piller and Brannon Braga • Aired 16 January 1995-23 May 2001 • 7 seasons 172 episodes

Timeframe: AD 2371-2377

Premise: The Intrepid-class USS Voyager is dispatched on a mission to apprehend a vessel belonging to the Maquis, a terrorist group. Both ships are inadvertently transported 70,000 light-years to the remote Delta Quadrant of the galaxy. Captain Janeway is forced into an uneasy alliance with the Maquis commander, Chakotay, so that both crews can return home to Federation space.

Assessment: When Voyager started in 1995, it had a lot of promise to it. Fans had been criticising The Next Generation (and, to a lesser extent, the original series) because it spent an awful lot of time flying between starbases rather than genuinely going "where no one had gone before". By dumping a Federation starship on the far side of the galaxy with no Federation, no Starfleet, no Klingons and no Romulans, the hope was to create a completely new set of heroes and villains, with the incredibly isolated ship in genuine danger.

None of that really happened. Voyager remained in pristine condition despite not being able to resupply or get repaired. Continuity was minimal, with the reset button being hit at the end of every episode. Its new, original races were cheesy stock races which didn't vary from the Star Trek standard, and it wasn't long before the show was (rather desperately) trying to shoehorn in Klingons, Romulans and the Ferengi. The most prevalent new enemy race, the Kazon, were soon thrown out for being dire and the show settled on The Next Generation's most memorable foe, the Borg, as their main enemy, as well as reintroducing staple TNG villain Q.

The show moderately improved in the fourth season, with the introduction of Jeri Ryan as "saved" Borg drone Seven of Nine. Seven provided an able foil for Captain Janeway, with their on-screen antagonism giving way to mutual respect fuelled by the actresses' off-screen antipathy to one another. Rapidly improving CG effects technology also resulted in some visually impressive episodes late in the show's run. However, a largely indifferent and unchallenged cast, some awful writing and a lot of pulled punches made Star Trek: Voyager excruciating most of the time and just plain dull the rest.

The show wasn't a complete wash, however, with Robert Picardo's excellent performance as the ship's holographic doctor gradually attaining sentience providing a lot of humour and, surprisingly, pathos as the show continued. However, the show's greatest success may have been annoying long-term Trek writer Ronald D. Moore so much with its unfulfilled promise that he later went off and put most of his ideas into practice on the far superior Battlestar Galactica (2003-09) reboot instead.

Check Out: Scorpion (Parts 1 & 2), Year of Hell, Message in a Bottle.

Avoid at All Costs: Threshold, Fair Haven, Endgame and, to be frank, any episode that doesn't revolve around the Doctor or Seven-of-Nine.

The cast of Enterprise: Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), Chief Engineer Charles "Trip" Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Ensign Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), T'Pol (Jolene Blalock), Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) and Lt. Malcolm Reed (Dominic Keating.

5. Star Trek: Enterprise

Created by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga Produced by Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Manny Coto • Aired 26 September 2001-13 May 2005 • 4 seasons 98 episodes

Timeframe: 16 April 2151-55 (the final episode takes place in 2161)

Premise: In 2151 Earth launches its first Warp 5-capable ship, the NX-01 Enterprise, under the command of Jonathan Archer and the watchful eye of the Vulcan "advisor" T'Pol. Earth faces rising tensions between neighbouring worlds like Tellar, Vulcan and Andora, not to mention navigating the dangerous first contact with the Klingon Empire. But the Enterprise's adventures will eventually set the scene for the birth of the United Federation of Planets itself.

Assessment: When Paramount demanded that Star Trek uber-producer Rick Berman create a new series to follow up Voyager, he was dubious. He felt that the series was suffering from "franchise fatigue" after shooting twenty-one seasons in fourteen years and recommended resting the show for a while. But Paramount wanted the new series to start immediately. Reluctantly, Berman and co-writer Brannon Braga complied.

And they did try to be original. They decided to make the new show a prequel, set a century before the original series. Their aim was to gradually build to the founding of the Federation. The decision to have a ship called Enterprise which had never been mentioned before was cheesy, but they did at least attempt to justify it. They also made clever use of ever-more-impressive effects technology and the casting was much better than Voyager's, with the actors feeling more engaged and excited by the project. But too often in the first two seasons the writers fell back on stock Star Trek ideas and situations rather than doing the premise justice.

In Season 3 they abruptly course-corrected. They brought in a talented and imaginative new writer, Manny Coto, and began engaging in more serialisation. They also dropped the ill-advised "temporal cold war" story of the first two seasons (a pointless attempt to keep touching base with the post-Voyager timeline) and focused more on interstellar politics and tensions, laying the seeds for the foundation of the Federation. This culminated in the Coto-helmed fourth season which saw a dramatic upswing in quality. Unfortunately, when the series was cancelled they decided to go out on a truly diabolical note. These Are the Voyages... is the worst Star Trek finale and one of the worst episodes in the franchise's history, and soured both fans and cast on the show. Still, there are some great episodes to be found and if Enterprise was one series too far, at least it tried to be original and ambitious.

Check Out: Demons, Terra Prime, The Forge, Babel One, The Andorian Incident.

Avoid at All Costs: These Are the Voyages..., A Night in Sickbay, Two Days and Two Nights.

The cast of The Animated Series: Lt. Nyota Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Commander Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Lt. Arex (James Doohan), Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. M'Ress (Majel Barrett), Lt. Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett)

4. Star Trek: The Animated Series
Created by Gene Roddenberry Produced by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana • Aired 8 September 1973-12 October 1974 • 2 seasons 22 episodes

Timeframe: approx. 2269-70

Premise: Continuing the five-year mission of the USS Enterprise under Captain James T. Kirk. Only in two dimensions.

Assessment: Given The Animated Series's relative obscurity (until its recent re-release) and the fact it's animated on a low budget, it's actually surprisingly decent. The writers (many returning from the live-action series) clearly revel in the fact that they can depict truly alien beings and planets and the TV show actors all return to voice their characters, which adds a lot of credibility to the show. The show has also been surprisingly well-suited to modern social media, with both Swear Trek and Starcher Trek generating a lot of laughs based on it.

Check Out: Yesteryear, The Time Trap, More Tribbles, More Troubles, The Lorelei Signal.

Avoid at All Costs: Mudd's Passion

The cast of the original series: Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Lt. Nyota Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Lt. Hikaru Sulu (George Takei)

3. Star Trek: The Original Series
Created by Gene Roddenberry Produced by Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon and Fred Freiberger • Aired 8 September 1966-3 June 1969 • 3 seasons 79 episodes

Timeframe: approx. 2265-68 (the pilot episode takes place circa 2255)

Premise: In the mid-23rd Century, Captain James T. Kirk commands the Constitution-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) on a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations and to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Assessment: For a show made in the 1960s, the original Star Trek has withstood the test of time far better than you'd expect. The regular actors are on top form throughout and some of the episodes remain genuinely inventive, powerful and surprisingly topical. Other episodes are poor, particularly most of the third season when the network replaced Gene Roddenberry with hack writer Fred Freiberger, but the seeds of Star Trek and the reason the franchise has lasted fifty years are clearly in place.

The original show probably has the strongest set of characters in terms of archetypes, but it's actually startling how little most of the characters bar Spock, McCoy and Kirk get to do. Given there's 79 episodes, you'd expect Chekov, Sulu, Uhura and Scotty to have at least a few dedicated episodes apiece but nope. They'd have to wait until the films and the reboot movies to get a bigger slice of the action.

Still, the original series still packs an impressive emotional wallop in episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever and Amok Time, whilst episodes like Space Seed and Balance of Terror are effective, tense action stories and The Trouble with Tribbles is a splendid comedy piece. This is where it all started, and it (mostly) still holds up well.

Check Out: The City on the Edge of Forever, Space Seed, Amok Time, Balance of Terror, Mirror, Mirror, The Trouble with Tribbles.

Avoid at All Costs: Spock's Brain, The Way to Eden, Turnabout Intruder.

The cast of The Next Generation: Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn)

2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Created by Gene Roddenberry Produced by Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor • Aired 28 September 1987-23 May 1994 • 7 seasons 178 episodes

Timeframe: AD 2364-71

Premise: Almost a century after Kirk's time, Captain Jean-Luc Picard commands the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) as it defends the Federation, explores new planets and undertakes cutting-edge scientific research.

Assessment: Bringing back Star Trek was an obvious move, but employing a whole new cast and set of characters and putting them on a new (and, at the time, rather weird-looking) Enterprise a hundred years further in the future? Paramount made a massive gamble with Star Trek: The Next Generation and one that at first didn't look like it had paid off. Although ratings were strong, most of the show's first two seasons were torn apart by critics. It wasn't until deep in the second season that classic episodes started appearing.

It took Gene Roddenberry's retirement and the bringing-in of hungry new writer-producer Michael Piller to really let things take off. In particular, the writers Piller brought in like Ronald D. Moore and Naren Shanker soon really began making the show work by writing to the strengths of the characters. New enemies like the Borg were introduced, old races like the Klingons and Romulans were explored in greater depth and, most importantly of all, the show employed the formidable skills of some extremely talented actors like Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner.

The Next Generation is easily the most popular incarnation of Star Trek, its ratings dwarfing that of the rest, but it's also the most important. It showed that Star Trek can still work when you move away from the Kirk-Spock dynamic and that the universe can have numerous different kinds of story in it.

However, it's not the best. TNG is somewhat inconsistent in tone, with almost half the run of the show being blighted by weak episodes. At its best with episodes like The Best of Both Worlds, TNG is absolutely untouchable, but its worst episodes are horribly-written, badly-conceived and even outright racist (Code of Honour put off future Trek writer Brannon Braga from even watching the show). In addition, although TNG does pay more attention to continuity than the original show (or even Voyager), it still hits the reset button and avoids exploring the consequences of major character moments too easily.

Check Out: The Measure of a Man, Q Who?, Sins of the Father, Yesterday's Enterprise, Deja Q, The Best of Both Worlds (Parts 1 and 2), Family, The Inner Light, Tapestry, All Good Things, most of Seasons 3-6.
Avoid at All Costs: Code of Honour, Justice, Up the Long Ladder, Genesis, Sub Rosa, most of Seasons 1, 2 and 7.

The cast of Deep Space Nine: Lt. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn), Lt. Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), Chief Engineer Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney), Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), Quark (Armin Shimmerman), Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), Security Chief Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) and Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton).

1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller Produced by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr • Aired 3 January 1993-2 June 1999 • 7 seasons 176 episodes

Timeframe: AD 2369-75

Premise: After forty years of brutal occupation, the Cardassian Union has withdrawn from the planet Bajor, leaving it exhausted and devastated. The Federation agrees to provide assistance, directing relief efforts from an abandoned Cardassian space station, Terok Nor, which they rename Deep Space Nine. When a stable wormhole linking Bajor to the remote Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy is discovered, Bajor and Deep Space Nine become the most important locations in Federation space. When a hostile alien government in the Gamma Quadrant, the Dominion, stages an invasion of Federation space, it also becomes the flashpoint for the most devastating war in the Federation's history.

Assessment: When Deep Space Nine started in 1993 it was seen as The Next Generation's slightly crazy spin-off. That hasn't entirely changed in the quarter-century since then. It's the only Star Trek series not predominantly set on a starship, it doesn't feature too much boldly going where no-one has gone before and the cast is the most eclectic, oddball collection of characters ever assembled for a Trek series. It also had a perceived rivalry with another space station-set SF show, the conceptually bolder Babylon 5, which at the time it was felt that DS9 had lost.

History, on the other hand, has been much kinder to Deep Space Nine. The fact it's set on a space station is something it turns to its advantage, gradually accumulating a very large cast of secondary and recurring characters that really makes its corner of the Federation feel like a real, lived-in place. It explores the themes and ideas of the Star Trek universe in exacting - even uncomfortable - depth. It even has a cast of recurring, brilliantly-realised villains in the last couple of seasons. It takes a long look at the ideals of Star Trek, tests them, but often finds that they are still valid. Deep Space Nine is, indeed, the "darkest" incarnation of Star Trek but it is still full of hope and optimism, even at the bloodiest heights of the Dominion War in Seasons 6 and 7.

This is also the most mature and progressive installment of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry liked to talk up a good fight, how he was going to be more inclusive and show gay people and stronger female characters in the Star Trek universe, but he always retreated from doing it. Deep Space Nine faced an uphill battle to even include two women kissing briefly, but at least it made the attempt. It also tackled issues like racism and social inequality head-on, never more powerfully in stories like Far Beyond the Stars.

No other Star Trek series matches DS9 for its organic, beautifully-played character growth across the series. There was also the attitude it took to entire races. It explored the spirituality and religion of Bajor, it made the Klingons a little scarier and more alien again and it rehabilitiated the Ferengi, whose sexism and misogyny had been played a little too much for laughs on TNG even when it got uncomfortable.

But for a show that could be the most serious Trek series it is also the most hilarious. Trials and Tribbleations (in which Forrest Gump-style technology is used to integrate the DS9 crew into footage from the original series) is hands-down the funniest episode of the entire franchise, with scenes including Worf's deadpan description of the genocidal war launched by the Klingon Empire against the tribbles, Bashir urgently trying to convince O'Brien he should sleep with a woman in case she's his own great-grandmother and he needs to ensure his own existence, and Dax throwing tribbles out of a storage compartment to hit Captain Kirk on the head. In the Cards is a more subtle episode which gently takes the mickey out of the Federation's hippy ideology ("We work to better ourselves, and all of humanity," "What does that mean, exactly?" "It means we haven't got any money!"). Little Green Men posits Quark as being the Roswell alien and somehow makes it work. Our Man Bashir has Dr. Bashir posing as a James Bond-style spy in a holosuite adventure that goes badly wrong.

Finally, Deep Space Nine has the finest space battles, some of the finest lines and some of the greatest moments in the history of Star Trek. It needed The Original Series and The Next Generation to lead the way and blaze the trail, of course, but for now Deep Space Nine remains the crowning achievement of the Star Trek franchise on screen.

Check Out: Duet, The Jem'Hadar, The Way of the Warrior, The Visitor, Little Green Men, Our Man Bashir, Trials and Tribbleations, In Purgatory's Shadow, By Inferno's Light, In the Cards, Call to Arms, Sacrifice of Angels, Far Beyond the Stars, In the Pale Moonlight, The Siege of AR-558, What You Leave Behind and most of the entire show (but especially Seasons 3-7).

Avoid at All Costs: Profit and Lace, Let He Who Is Without Sin.

The question now, of course, is where the new TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, will fit into the list.


Anonymous said...

Can you do a Babylon5 recap/rewatch?!

LeftHanded Matt said...

You've actually rated them exactly as I would. Well done! DS9 always wins.

JD Woodman said...

Pretty much spot on. Nicely done!

Anonymous said...

Exactly my rating also.
By the way, I love your Star-Trek-articles!

Silent said...

Voyager..Argh! Some of the most boring and generic characters ever to be put on the screen.

I also tried to like Enterprise, but to me Scott Bakula will always be Dr Sam Becket from Quantum Leap. I never was able to see him as any other character.