The premiere of Star Trek: Discovery marks the first Star Trek TV series in 12 years, and, with airings limited to CBS All Access, it faces an already sizable hurdle before considering that much of its target audience has never watched a Star Trek episode. An integral part of American science fiction and popular culture, Star Trek with all of its baggage might yet feel intimidating to newbies drawn to the starlight and swish swish beep beep by improved effects, favorite actors, and larger budgets. Sure, you could just jump right in, and why not? Star Trek infamously caters to new watchers at the expense of veteran fans, but nevertheless, starting a new series in a 50-year-old franchise can be overwhelming. As a reviewer for another show nearing 1000 episodes, Doctor Who, I am often asked questions like…
How many episodes are there? Can I start with the new series/season?
What are the most important episodes if I want to get the gist?
I don’t like aliens/time travel/dragons/doctors/sci-fi. Can I still watch?
If you’re the last person, the good news is, yes. Science fiction is often a vehicle used to explore the current or potential future human condition. Through fantastical settings, writers deliver observations and criticisms without triggering expected viewer defensiveness. Over the last half century, Star Trek has examined sexism, racism, gender identity, warfare, religion, and a host of other political and interpersonal issues. If you can overlook your initial reactions to blue skin, copious Mylar, and emotional androids, you might find that you do like sci-fi after all.
As for the other questions, although Star Trek isn’t quite as prolific as Doctor Who, there are over 700 episodes between the series. Starting as a child, I watched The Original Series (TOS) on syndication and caught The Next Generation (TNG) live. A few years later, Deep Space Nine premiered, and then the lesser Treks came and went. But you don’t have
29 40+ years to catch up, so I’ve chosen a set of highlights from each series that captures the franchise and series narrative and pointed out the most significant movies of the 13 feature films to date. Through this particular filter, the essential episodes and movies are primarily ones that affect the movements of major pieces on the board, allowing you to walk into Discovery, a post-TOS prequel to TNG, with a solid idea of past, present, and future intergalactic standings. The Bonus sections are comprised of notable, but more personally impactful, stories like bottle and solo/duet episodes, time travel, flashbacks, and alternate universes (AU). A few popular themes earned their own categories, and my personal favorites have asterisks. This list is by no means comprehensive, nor does it cover Star Trek’s meaningful social repercussions, but rather seeks to orient new viewers in the complicated tri-dimensional chess game of the Star Trek universe itself with the fewest possible episodes.
1.0 The Cage – The pilot features Captain Christopher Pike, later played by Bruce Greenwood in the JJ Abrams movies.
1.3 Where No Man Has Gone Before – Series rebooted with Captain James Kirk (William Shatner).
1.10 The Corbomite Maneuver – First regular episode filmed. Consummate Trek episode structure.
1.14 Balance of Terror – First appearance of the Romulans, actor Mark Lenard who later plays Spock’s father Sarek, and first digitally remastered episode.
1.23 Space Seed – Introduces Khan, arguably the best villain of TOS, played brilliantly by Ricardo Montalban.
1.28 City on the Edge of Forever – Joan Collins plays Kirk’s 1930’s tragic love interest Edith Keeler. Often cited as the best TOS episode, multiple award winner.
2.1 Amok Time – First use of Vulcan salute and “Live long and prosper.”
2.4 Mirror, Mirror* – First venture to the deliciously dark alternate “evil universe.”
2.10 Journey to Babel – Introduces Sarek and the aforementioned blue Andorians.
2.15 The Trouble with Tribbles* – Comical and the most marketed non-crew alien.
1.1 The Man Trap – The frequently mentioned “salt vampire” episode.
1.4 The Naked Time – First use of the Vulcan nerve pinch and the Sulu swashbuckling scene. TNG followed up with “Naked Time.”
1.25 Devil in the Dark* – Spock’s infamous “Pain! Pain!” quote.
3.10 Plato’s Stepchildren – Includes a daring (at the time) kiss between Kirk and Uhura.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – The best feature film, best soundtrack, and best villain.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – Christopher Lloyd plays a Klingon commander terrorizing the Enterprise.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – A consummate, accessible, highly quotable 80s movie.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
Technically doesn’t affect the overall universe, but it’s fun, and the soundtrack is actually quite on par with the series.
1.2 Yesteryear – Rare childhood backstory for Spock.
1.4 The Lorelei Signal – Uhura saves the day and confronts sexism in space.
1.7 The Infinite Vulcan – Walter Koenig (Chekov) wrote this hilarious cloning tale.
2.3 The Practical Joker – First appearance of a “holodeck” type room.
While it got off to a rough start, TNG evolved into potentially the best of all the series, thanks to creator Gene Roddenberry’s direct involvement, the great Patrick Stewart, and a writing team determined to get it “right.”
1.1 Encounter at Farpoint – Establishes the series-long challenge between Captain Picard and the Loki-like immortal Q.
1.23 Skin of Evil – Security officer Tasha Yar is killed.
2.16 Q Who – Q forces the first confrontation with the Borg, cybernetically-enhanced antagonists.
3.15 Yesterday’s Enterprise* – Due to a spacetime rift, Tasha Yar returns to assist the lost Enterprise C in a Pyrrhic victory against the Romulans.
3.26-4.1 The Best of Both Worlds* – The Borg cut a devastating swath through the Federation and captures Picard as its mouthpiece.
4.26-5.1 Redemption – AU Tasha Yar’s half-Romulan daughter Sela instigates Klingon civil war.
5.7-8 Unification – Spock attempts to foster a Romulan revolution. Sela returns.
7.25-26 All Good Things – The series finale uses multiple timelines through Picard to wrap up Q’s challenge and save humanity.
1.25 Conspiracy – The only episode to have a mature content warning, was originally banned in the UK. Malevolent parasites infiltrate Starfleet command.
2.9 Measure of a Man – Crystallizes Data’s lifelong struggle for humanity.
3.10 The Defector – Tragic tale of a Romulan defector requesting asylum.
3.23 Sarek – Swan song of Sarek, peak acting from Patrick Stewart.
5.2 Darmok – Consistent fan favorite featuring a metaphor-based language.
5.23 I, Borg – A single stranded Borg regains his humanity.
5.18 Cause and Effect – A time loop of collisions with a lost ship helmed by Kelsey Grammer.
5.25 The Inner Light* – Picard mentally experiences 50 years on a dying planet. Stewart’s real-life son Daniel co-stars.
6.4 Relics – James Doohan, Scotty from TOS, is recovered from transporter stasis.
6.10-11 Chain of Command – The Cardassians brutally torture Picard.
6.15 Tapestry – Q gives Picard a second chance at a near-fatal decision.
By far the most popular character of TNG, Data features in these unique tales.
2.3 Elementary, Dear Data
3.16 The Offspring
4.21 The Drumhead
6.12 Ship in a Bottle*
Quirky but Quintessential TNG:
2.12 The Royale
2.17 Samaritan Snare
3.24 Ménage à Troi
4.5 Remember Me
4.17 Night Terrors
5.6 The Game
6.2 Realm of Fear
Star Trek: First Contact – The dawn of Earth’s warp travel and the ultimate showdown with the Borg.
The only stationary series, Deep Space Nine is a dark, mature drama set in a Federation station guarding the mouth of a stable wormhole to the distant Gamma Quadrant near Bajor and Cardassia. Majestic theme song.
1.1 Emissary – Introduces the aloof godlike Prophets residing in the wormhole who reach out to Captain Benjamin Sisko.
2.26 The Jem’Hadar – First appearance of the Jem’Hadar, a Gamma Quadrant soldier race beholden to the ruling Dominion.
3.7 Civil Defense – The war-time security system traps everyone except mysterious Cardassian tailor Garak and Gul Dukat.
4.2 The Visitor – AU favorite, nominated for a Hugo Award. Captain Sisko’s now-grown son Jake sacrifices himself to save his father in the past.
4.11-12 Homefront/Paradise Lost – The Dominion attempts to infiltrate Earth with Changelings.
5.21 Soldiers of the Empire – TNG-transplant Worf and security officer Jadzia Dax tangle with Klingon command and the Jem’Hadar.
5.26 Call to Arms – The Dominion War kicks off.
6.1-6 Dominion War arc* – The Dominion-Cardassian alliance drives the crew from DS9, culminating in a massive 600-ship battle.
6.19 In the Pale Moonlight – Sisko and Garak trick the Romulans into joining the war.
7.25*-26 What You Leave Behind – The Federation-Klingon-Romulan alliance beats back the Cardassians, a Gamma Quadrant revolution builds, and Sisko confronts Dukat, ending with a rare intervention by the Prophets.
1.19 Duet* – Moral dilemmas of prosecuting war crimes.
3.20 Improbable Cause – Reveal of Garak as a former member of the Cardassian secret police.
3.22 Explorers – Sisko tries to prove the ancient Bajorans used solar wind to travel.
6.18 Inquisition – A psychological drama questioning Dr. Bashir’s loyalties.
6.26 Tears of the Prophets – When the Federation goes on the offensive, Gul Dukat, driven by the Pah’Wraiths (non-corporeal enemies of the Prophets), kills Jadzia.
7.8 The Siege of AR-558 – A crucial asset in the Dominion war is obtained.
3.11-12 Past Tense (time travel)
3.19 Through the Looking Glass (evil universe)*
5.6 Trials and Tribbleations (time travel)*
6.13 Far Beyond the Stars (alternate timeline)
Extra Credit: The Founders vs. the progenitors, are they the same? See: TNG 6.20 The Chase.
Taking place primarily in the distant Delta Quadrant, it has ultimately little impact on the universe as a whole, so technically you could skip the series for our purposes. It’s not great, but there are bright points. Voyager is manned by Starfleet and Maquis, resistance fighters from the neutral zone between the Federation and Cardassia.
1.1 Caretaker – The Caretaker, yet another all-powerful being, tosses Voyager and the Maquis 70,000 light years away, and the two ships blend crews for the 75-year return trip.
2.21 Deadlock* – A spacetime rift creates two Voyagers. Copycat Lt. Harry Kim permanently takes over after the original dies.
3.26-4.1 Scorpion – Later co-opted into the crew, Seven of Nine serves as the Borg spokesperson during a temporary alliance.
4.8-9 Year of Hell* – Voyager is inadvertently drawn into a temporal war.
5.26-6.1 Equinox – Immoral Starfleet rebels delete the holo-doctor’s ethical subroutines.
7.25-26 Endgame – Future and past Janeways conspire to destroy the Borg’s transwarp hub and get the ship home early.
3.2 Flashback – TOS veterans Sulu and Janice Rand appear in Lt. Tuvok’s past on the USS Excelsior.
3.8-9 Future’s End – A timeship accidentally sends Voyager to 1996 Earth.
3.25 Worst Case Scenario – Tuvok and Lt. Paris are trapped in a simulated Maquis insurrection.
4.18 The Killing Game – The crew are hunted for sport in a simulation of Nazi-occupied France.
4.23 Living Witness – A future museum exhibit amusingly mis-tells an encounter with Voyager.
4.26 Hope and Fear – Slipstream technology shaves 300 light years off the journey home.
5.6 Timeless – AU future where the slipstream journey caused a crash landing. The survivors are confronted by TNG-veteran Geordi La Forge.
6.12 Blink of an Eye – Voyager witnesses a pre-warp culture develop in fast-forward.
Polarizing due to Bakula over-acting and terrible theme song, Enterprise covers the early days of the Federation. The “Xindi arc” of Season 3 was solid storytelling, but the series finale is, frankly, utter trash—don’t watch it.
1.1-2 Broken Bow – 90 years after humanity’s first warp flight, the Enterprise NX-01 launches amidst Vulcan and Klingon tensions.
1.7 The Andorian Incident – Reintroduces TOS species Andorians and Commander Shran as key series elements.
2.23 Regeneration – Follow-up to First Contact and prequel to TNG episode “The Best of Both Worlds.”
3.1,2*,11,13,14, 15*,17,18,19*,20*,22*, 23,24* – The Xindi, a six-species alien race, appear to be hostile antagonists but are revealed as pawns in the epic Temporal Cold War arc.
4.15-16 Affliction/Divergence – Answers why the Klingons in TOS had no cranial ridges and mentions Section 31, a shady intelligence organization mentioned in DS9.
4.20-21 Demons/Terra Prime – Peter Weller guest stars in a confrontation of xenophobia at the birth of the United Federation of Planets.
2.2 Carbon Creek – Flashback to 1957 reveals Vulcan officer T’Pol’s grandmother crash landed on Earth and invented Velcro. Seriously.
4.1-2 Storm Front – Time travel to the alternate Nazi timeline, ends the Temporal Cold War.
4.4-6 Borderland, Cold Station 12, The Augments – Data’s creator Noonian Soongh’s origins.
4.12-14 Babel One, United, The Aenar – More on the Federation’s origins.
4.18-19 In a Mirror, Darkly – Prequel to the evil mirror universe of TOS “Mirror, Mirror.”
Star Trek (2009) – Ties back to TOS by rewriting Captain Kirk’s backstory, brings back Leonard Nimoy as older Spock, and is the best of the new movies, although the whole villain plot is pretty terrible.
What Star Trek episodes do you consider essential and/or are your favorites? Add your suggestions in the comments.