Monday 26 December 2022

Where to Start with Star Trek? (revised)

This is a revision of an article I originally wrote two and a half years ago, here.

The recent arrival of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has spurred a renewed interest in the venerable SF franchise. New viewers want to check out the older material, but the sheer amount of it is daunting. By the start of 2023, no less than 41 seasons of television will have aired in the franchise, totalling 872 episodes spread across eight separate series airing over fifty-seven years (and counting). It would take you more than 621 hours (or almost 26 days, non-stop) to watch all of that material. In addition, there are 13 feature films in the mix, as well as a plethora of video games and hundreds of novels, audio dramas and fan films. If you want to check out this mass of material where do you start?

There are several different approaches you can take and I’ll run through a few of them below. The one thing I would say first is that, with a few notable exceptions, Star Trek is mostly an episodic franchise, where each episode stands alone with its own beginning, middle and end. That starts to shift in Deep Space Nine, which introduces more serialised elements, and by the time of Discovery and Picard the series has become fully serialised, but for the most part the different series are episodic and in fact designed for each episode to be enjoyed by themselves.

Before we get into the lists, it might be worthwhile briefly brushing up on what each series is about.

Star Trek: The Original Series
Live-action: 1966-69 • 79 episodes • 3 seasons • 6 films (1979-91)
Animated: 1973-74 • 22 episodes • 2 seasons

Also called the original series, the classic series or just Star Trek, this series follows the adventures of Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Constitution-class starship USS Enterprise. They explore strange new worlds, encounter new alien life and seek to uphold the utopian values of the United Federation of Planets in the mid-23rd Century whilst dealing with recurring enemies, including the Klingons and Romulans. The story of this series continues in Star Trek: The Animated Series (which is the same, but as a cartoon) and then in the first six Star Trek feature films.

The first episode of the series, The Cage, was filmed two years before the rest of the series and features a significantly different cast of characters (who do go on to play major roles in some of the films and in Star Trek: Discovery, which revisits the same time period).

Star Trek: The Next Generation
1987-94 • 178 episodes • 7 seasons • 4 films (1994-2002)

Set in the mid-to-late 24th Century, roughly 100 years after the events of the original series, The Next Generation focuses on a brand-new, much larger and vastly more sophisticated Galaxy-class USS Enterprise under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The emphasis remains on exploring new worlds and meeting new races. Although the series mostly remains episodic, recurring and more serialised elements creep in towards its end. Most notable is the introduction of the Borg, an overwhelmingly powerful cybernetic threat which remains a key enemy through the next several series, and the Cardassians, a mid-ranking antagonistic enemy. The story of this series continues in the seventh through tenth Star Trek feature films and the sequel-series Star Trek: Picard, set thirty years later.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
1993-99 • 176 episodes • 7 seasons

To date, the only Star Trek series not set on a starship. Instead, the focus is on Deep Space Nine, a Federation outpost established on an abandoned Cardassian space station orbiting the planet Bajor. The Cardassians conquered and ruled Bajor with an iron fist for forty years before withdrawing, leaving the planet in ruins. The Federation are helping them rebuild, their efforts spearheaded by Commander Benjamin Sisko. Unlike most Star Trek series, which focuses on the Federation and Starfleet crewmembers, this series has a large number of civilian and alien recurring characters. Bajor becomes unexpectedly important when a stable wormhole leading to the remote Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy is discovered, allowing the planet to benefit from increased trade (to the fury of the Cardassians). Early seasons revolve around renewed Cardassian/Bajoran tensions before the introduction of the Dominion, the alien alliance which rules the Gamma Quadrant and is unhappy with the Federation poking around its back yard. Later seasons are more heavily serialised and see the outbreak of full-scale war between the Federation and the Dominion.

Deep Space Nine was controversial during its first airing for being perceived as a lot darker than prior Star Trek shows, but in recent years it has undergone a critical reassessment and is now often cited as the best (or at least the most critically consistent) of the Star Trek series.

Star Trek: Voyager
1995-2001 • 172 episodes • 7 seasons

This series opens when the USS Voyager is flung 75,000 light-years across the galaxy to the Delta Quadrant and has to return home, which is estimated will take over seventy years at maximum warp. Captain Kathryn Janeway and her crew seek to find faster ways home with any means at their disposal, whilst upholding Federation values in a desperate corner of space where no one even knows who the Federation are.

Star Trek: Enterprise
2001-05 • 98 episodes • 4 seasons

A prequel series taking place about a century before the events of The Original Series, this show takes place before the Federation or Starfleet even exist. Instead, it follows the adventures of the NX-01 Enterprise, Earth’s first experimental spacecraft with a Warp 5 drive. The series sees the crew trying to engage in interstellar diplomacy, exploration and commerce with much more primitive technology than even in Kirk’s time, whilst also trying to deal with problems such as a brewing conflict between the Andorians and Vulcans, and Earth’s first fumbling dealings with the Klingons and Romulans. The series is almost completely episodic for its first two years, but in its third season explores a series-long arc where Enterprise has to search for aliens who carried out a devastating sneak attack on Earth. The final season is divided into shorter arcs revolving around the formation of the Federation.

Star Trek: The Kelvin Timeline Films
2009-16 • 3 films

A series of three films (Star TrekInto DarknessBeyond) produced by J.J. Abrams, these films are set in an alternate timeline created by time travel. Spock (from the original series) is blasted back in time by his failure to stop the destruction of the Romulan homeworld, pursued by a vengeful Romulan crew. This results in alterations to the timeline, such as a younger James T. Kirk and his fellow crewmembers joining forces and taking command of the Enterprise years earlier than in the original timeline and getting into fresh, new adventures in the mid-23rd Century.

A fourth film in this series has been in development hell for several years.

Star Trek: Discovery
2017 onwards • 55 episodes • 4 seasons (to date)

Another prequel series, this time taking place ten years before the events of The Original Series. The focus is on Michael Burnham, the first officer of the USS Shenzhou who badly fumbles a confrontation with the Klingons, inadvertently leading to a massive war. A disgraced Burnham is assigned to the USS Discovery, a highly experimental starship with unusual technology and an oddball, maverick captain, where she is offered the chance to atone for her mistakes.

The show undergoes a drastic format change in its latter seasons, when the USS Discovery is shifted through time to the 32nd Century.

A fifth season will air in 2023.

Star Trek: Picard
2020 onwards • 20 episodes • 2 seasons (to date)

A sequel series set at the end of the 24th Century, Star Trek: Picard picks up story elements left dangling from the end of The Next GenerationDeep Space Nine and Voyager, as well as exploring events in the original timeline after the destruction of Romulus (in the original timeline).

A third season will air in 2023.

Star Trek: Lower Decks
2020 onwards • 30 episodes • 3 seasons (to date)

An animated series set several years after the end of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and almost a decade after the end of The Next Generation, Lower Decks is a lighter-hearted show looking at life on one of the "regular" Starfleet ships that doesn't get the high-profile, glamorous missions of other hero ships in the franchise. The show is noted for being an affectionate satire of the rest of Trek, whilst also keeping its ethos intact.

A fourth season will air in 2023.

Star Trek: Prodigy
2021 onwards • 20 episodes • 1 season (to date)

A CG-animated show set a year or so after Lower Decks, Prodigy is notable as the first show in the franchise not to focus on a regular Starfleet cast. Instead, the show features a crew of young aliens who salvage a Federation starship and use it to try to reach Federation space, fed dreams of what it is like to serve in Starfleet by the ship's advisory hologram, based on Voyager's Captain Janeway. However, various problems complicate their mission.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
2022 onwards • 10 episodes • 1 season (to date)

A spin-off of Discovery and a prequel to The Original Series, this show focuses on the adventures of the original USS Enterprise, but almost a decade before Kirk's time. The show instead expands from the original pilot The Cage by concentrating on the adventures of Captain Christopher Pike and his crew. The show deliberately bucks recent trends by consisting of episodic adventures.

The Curated Sample

This order is not exhaustive but what it does is provide a snapshot of the different series and some of the strongest stand-alone episodes which hold up well today. These episodes are stand-alones (not part of multi-episodic arcs) and are designed to showcase some of the different types of storytelling the series indulges in. A viewer can jump from these episodes into the rest of that series if they like what they see.

The Animated Series is effectively a continuation of The Original Series and it would be hard to recommend individual episodes from EnterpriseDiscovery or Picard due to their heavy serialisation (Picard is also best-watched having seen some or all of The Next Generation first).
  • Star Trek: The Original Series, The City on the Edge of Forever
  • Star Trek: The Original Series, The Trouble with Tribbles
  • Star Trek: The Original Series, Space Seed
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Measure of a Man
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, Q Who?
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Inner Light
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Visitor
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Far Beyond the Stars
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, In the Pale Moonlight*
  • Star Trek: Voyager, Eye of the Needle
  • Star Trek: Voyager, Message in a Bottle
* This may seem to be an exception to the multi-episode arc rule, as In the Pale Moonlight has references to and a big impact on the Dominion War storyline which dominates much of Deep Space Nine’s latter seasons. However, the episode itself is more about Sisko’s journey and how he and Garak bring about a major shift in political events whilst never leaving the station (the Dominion itself does not appear), which can be understood well enough without additional context.

The Pilot Sample

This approach simply has the viewer sampling the first episode of each version of the series to see what grabs their attention straight away, and from there they can choose which series to watch first:
  • Star Trek: The Original SeriesThe Cage (1964)
  • Star Trek: The Original SeriesWhere No Man Has Gone Before (1966)
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series, Beyond the Farthest Star (1973)
  • Star Trek: The Next GenerationEncounter at Farpoint (1987)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space NineThe Emissary (1993)
  • Star Trek: VoyagerCaretaker (1995)
  • Star Trek: EnterpriseBroken Bow (2001)
  • Star Trek: DiscoveryThe Vulcan Hello (2017)
  • Star Trek: Picard, Remembrance (2020)
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks, Second Contact (2020)
  • Star Trek: Prodigy, Lost and Found (2021)
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Strange New Worlds (2022)

Release Order

AKA the “completionist” approach. This may be the approach everyone ends up taking once they’ve been sucked into the material, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first run-through. This approach basically means watching the series in order of release and is the best for enjoying the series as it originally aired and was intended (just somewhat compressed).

The primary weakness of this approach is having to watch The Original Series in full before the more recent shows. The original show is certainly great from the perspective of a 1960s TV series and also has many outstanding episodes that have withstood the test of time, but it also has a lot of episodes that…have not. The series underwent an in-depth HD remastering process in 2006 which saw the film quality improved and revamped CG effects added to make the visual quality of the episodes more acceptable to modern audiences, although obviously the writing and performances were not affected.

You can tweak this order for simplicity: there’s nothing stopping you from watching all six films featuring the original cast before watching The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine and Voyager are divorced from one another almost completely, so you could watch DS9 in full before switching to VoyagerTNG and DS9 do have a few more notable crossovers in terms of characters and storylines, but it also wouldn’t be the end of the world if you finished watching TNG in full before watching DS9.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series Pilot, The Cage (made in 1964, but didn’t air until later as part of the original series)
  • Star Trek: The Original Series Season 1-3 (1966-69)
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series Season 1-2 (1973-74)
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1-2 (1987-89)
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3-4 (1989-91)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5 (1991-92)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 1 / Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 6 (1992-93)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 2 / Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 (1993-94)
  • Star Trek: Generations (1994)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 3 (1994-95) / Star Trek: Voyager Season 1 (1995)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 4 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 2 (1995-96)
  • Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 5 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 3 (1996-97)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 6 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 4 (1997-98)
  • Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 7 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 5 (1998-99)
  • Star Trek: Voyager Season 6-7 (1999-2001)
  • Star Trek: Enterprise Season 1 (2001-02)
  • Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
  • Star Trek: Enterprise Season 2-4 (2002-05)
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
  • Star Trek Beyond (2016)
  • Star Trek: Discovery Season 1-2 (2017-19)
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 / Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 1 (2020)
  • Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 (2020-21)
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 (2021)
  • Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 / Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1 (2021-22)
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 2 / Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 / Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 (2022)

Chronological Order
This order lists the series in the order of when the episodes take place in the order of events within the Star Trek universe.

This order has some strengths, as it roughly matches the historical order of events, but it also has some major weaknesses. It puts Enterprise, arguably one of the weaker Trek series overall, up first and also features a number of spoilers for later series (since the Enterprise writers couldn’t resist pulling in familiar creatures and aliens to the show from later periods, no matter how incongruous). You’re also talking about waiting a long time to get to "the good stuff."
  • Star Trek: Enterprise Seasons 1-4 (2151-55, 2161)
  • Star Trek: The Original Series Pilot, The Cage (2254)
  • Star Trek: Discovery Seasons 1-2 (2256-57)
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 (2259)
  • Star Trek: The Original Series Seasons 1-3 (2266-68)
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series Seasons 1-2 (2269-70)
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (2271)
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (2285)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (2285)
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (2286)
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (2287)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (2293)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Seasons 1-5 (2364-68)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 6 / Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 1 (2369)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 / Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 2 (2370)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 3 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 1 (2371)
  • Star Trek: Generations (2371)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 4 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 2 (2372)
  • Star Trek: First Contact (2373)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 5 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 3 (2373)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 6 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 4 (2374)
  • Star Trek: Insurrection (2375)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 7 / Star Trek: Voyager Season 5 (2375)
  • Star Trek: Voyager Season 6-7 (2376-78)
  • Star Trek: Nemesis (2379)
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks Seasons 1-3 (2380-81)
  • Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1 (2383)
  • Star Trek (2385, alternate 2258), Star Trek Into Darkness (2259), Star Trek Beyond (2263)*
  • Star Trek: Picard Seasons 1-2 (2399-2401)
  • Star Trek: Discovery Season 3-4 (3188-90)
* The chronological order of events also makes placing the Kelvin timeline movies awkward, as they rely heavily on knowledge of events after the original show and The Next Generation but are set much earlier, albeit in a parallel universe. Sticking them here is probably the best approach.

What's the best order then? I'd say order of release for those who want to experience the franchise as it was released and understand it could be a bit of a bumpy ride, otherwise one of the curated approaches might be best.

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