clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Star Trek, explained for non-Trekkies

Celebrate the legendary sci-fi series’ 50th anniversary with these 25 essential episodes.

There are few pop culture franchises more intimidating to the uninitiated than Star Trek. While "Beam me up, Scotty" and the Vulcan hand salute have worked their way into the mainstream lexicon, it can feel virtually impossible to find a way into the expansive franchise, which spans five live-action TV shows, one lesser-known animated series, and 13 feature films, including the three rebooted films starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.

It’s a lot to wrap your head around in writing, much less onscreen. So just in time for the TV show’s 50th anniversary, we’ve rounded up 25 possible entry points to help Star Trek newbies boldly go where many have gone before.

These aren’t necessarily the 25 best Star Trek episodes (although some definitely qualify), but they demonstrate the depth and breadth of what the iconic franchise has to offer. And, most importantly, they should play well for complete novices.

A quick overview of Star Trek’s 50-year journey through space

Dreamed up by writer and former Air Force pilot Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek began life as a humanistic science fiction TV show on September 8, 1966. Though The Original Series, as it was later dubbed, was canceled after only three seasons, it would turn out to have unprecedented cultural influence.

Thanks to Star Trek’s success in syndication during the 1970s, the original cast reunited for six feature films. The success of that film franchise then inspired four spinoff TV shows in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise each focus on a new captain and his or her loyal crew. Four movies starring The Next Generation cast round out the Star Trek canon.

Except for the recent Pine/Quinto films, which establish an alternate timeline, all of this Star Trek material is set in the same universe. That means the more you watch, the more you’ll come to understand Star Trek. But each of the TV shows and movies are (mostly) designed to function independently as well. So each one can serve as a potential entry point to the larger franchise.

Star Trek: The Original Series

James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig
The cast of Star Trek: The Original Series (L to R): James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig.
Paramount Television

The basics: Ran for three seasons (79 episodes) from 1966 to 1969

Nickname: TOS

The premise: A five-year mission of space exploration in the 23rd century

The first Star Trek series is still the most iconic in the eyes of many fans, and its characters will be familiar to anyone who has seen the rebooted Trek films. With roguish Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) in command, the crew of the starship Enterprise completes a five-year mission of scientific exploration and intergalactic diplomacy. They operate as part of a pseudo-militaristic organization called Starfleet, which itself is part of a larger diplomatic organization called the United Federation of Planets (or just "the Federation").

The Original Series establishes the two most crucial elements of the Star Trek ethos: The show is set in a utopian future in which divides based on race, gender, and nationality are a thing of the past (reflected in the unprecedented diversity of the main cast), and it uses the lens of alien cultures to comment on contemporary issues. So while humanity may have ended bigotry, the half-black, half-white aliens of the planet Cheron are still torn apart by prejudice. That allows Star Trek to both imagine a better world and comment on the harsher realities of our real one.

Though the rubber alien suits, foam rocks, and slower pacing can feel dated to modern eyes, there’s still a remarkable relevance to the boundary-pushing Original Series. (The show broadcast one of the first interracial kisses on TV.)

Best for: Those who want to watch the most iconic aspects of Star Trek; fans of older TV shows; those who enjoy the characters from the rebooted films

Recommended viewing order: There’s no serialization, so you can either start from the beginning or hop around to episodes that interest you. The first two seasons are the strongest, while the third — which Roddenberry was less involved in — features a significant drop in quality.

"The Devil in the Dark" (season one, episode 25)

Still from "The Devil In The Dark"
"The Devil in the Dark" (season one, episode 25).
Paramount TV

Star Trek could occasionally overreach in its attempts at direct political allegories, and the show was often stronger when it dealt with broader themes of tolerance instead. In this episode, the Enterprise is called to help a mining colony deal with a subterranean monster threatening its operation. But during their investigation, Kirk and his crew begin to realize the creature might not be quite as monstrous as it appears.

"The City on the Edge of Forever" (season one, episode 28)

Still from "The City On The Edge Of Forever"
"The City on the Edge of Forever" (season one, episode 28).
Paramount TV

Widely considered the best episode of The Original Series and one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time, "The City on the Edge of Forever" combines sci-fi concepts, fish-out-of-water comedy, and human drama in a standout hour of television. When Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley‎) pass through a mysterious "doorway to the past," they wind up stranded in 1930s New York City. Desperate to fix a broken timeline, they must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to return the universe to its proper order.

"Journey to Babel" (season two, episode 10)

Still from "Journey To Babel"
"Journey to Babel" (season two, episode 10).
Paramount TV

Vulcan First Officer Spock remains one of Star Trek’s most iconic characters thanks in no small part to Nimoy’s pitch-perfect performance as a logical alien devoid of emotion. Spock also established an archetype Star Trek would return to in all of its future franchises: the outsider struggling with identity. "Journey To Babel" puts Spock front and center as he receives a visit from his Vulcan father and human mother. Though the episode perhaps bites off more than it can chew — there’s also a subplot about a Federation peace conference — that makes it a good example of the breadth TOS has to offer.

"The Trouble With Tribbles" (season two, episode 15)

Captain Kirk buried in a pile of Tribbles
"The Trouble With Tribbles" (season two, episode 15).
Paramount TV

While Star Trek was never intentionally campy in the vein of Adam West’s Batman, it could still be a profoundly silly show. And "The Trouble With Tribbles" stands as one of the most successful comedic entries in Star Trek history. A tense standoff with the Klingons — a warlike enemy of the Federation — gives way to an even bigger crisis when the Enterprise is overrun by adorable fuzzy creatures known as tribbles.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The general rule of thumb for the six Original Series movies is that the odd-numbered ones are bad while the even-numbered ones are good. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (in which the crew travels back in time to the 1980s to save a couple of whales) is the most purely enjoyable film, while Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a fitting sendoff for the original crew.

But The Wrath Of Khan remains the cinematic jewel in Star Trek’s crown. Returning to a thread from a TOS episode called "Space Seed," Kirk reencounters a group of super soldiers from his past. Fans of Star Trek Into Darkness will discover plenty of familiar building blocks assembled in an even more engaging manner.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

LaVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes
The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (L to R): LaVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes.
CBS Television

The basics: Ran for seven seasons (178 episodes) from 1987 to 1994

Nickname: TNG or "Next Gen"

The set up: A continuing mission of space exploration in the 24th century

To open up new storytelling possibilities, the first Star Trek spinoff series takes place a century after Kirk’s original five-year mission. Onboard an updated version of the USS Enterprise, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) commands a brand new crew on an ongoing mission of exploration. With a more intellectual captain at its helm, The Next Generation added even more philosophical depth and cerebral storytelling to the original Star Trek model. Together, The Original Series and TNG stand as the two pillars of Star Trek and the series Trek fans are most likely to be familiar with.

Best for: Fans of smart sci-fi with a healthy dose of allegory; those who want to see the most iconic aspects of Star Trek

Recommended viewing order: The first season is virtually unwatchable, while the second is fairly uneven as well. To get the best of what TNG has to offer, watch the odd but intriguing pilot "Encounter at Farpoint," the great second season episodes "The Measure of a Man" and "Q Who," and then start with the show’s third season. There’s very little serialization, so it’s easy to jump around to whatever episodes intrigue you.

(Note: Star Trek: First Contact is the TNG feature film most worth seeking out. Generations and Insurrection are uneven but have their moments. And Nemesis is best left unseen.)

"The Measure of a Man" (season two, episode nine)

Brent Spiner as Data in "The Measure Of A Man"
"The Measure of a Man" (season two, episode nine).
CBS Television

Building on the outsider archetype established by Spock, Data (Brent Spiner) is an android who lives and works among the Enterprise crew. But when a cyberneticist expert requests permission to deconstruct and study his positronic brain, Data’s right to exist is put on trial. "The Measure of A Man" is a tense courtroom drama that raises questions about the very nature of humanity. Plus, it’s an early example of the Shakespearean gravitas Patrick Stewart regularly brought to TNG.

"The Hunted" (season three, episode 11)

Still from "The Hunted"
"The Hunted" (season three, episode 11).
CBS Television

This isn’t necessarily an iconic episode, but it’s a solid example of a TNG allegorical outing. Charged with investigating a planet requesting entry to the Federation, Picard and his crew cross paths with a highly trained escaped prisoner. The episode functions as a broad commentary on PTSD and veteran care while highlighting the thoughtful way in which the crew deals with the political problems of other cultures.

"Clues" (season four, episode 14)

"Clues" (season four, episode 14).

Proof that not every episode of Star Trek strives for philosophical depth, "Clues" is a purely enjoyable sci-fi mystery episode that utilizes the entire TNG ensemble. While investigating a mysterious isolated planet, the crew is knocked unconscious for only a few seconds. But as they start to notice oddities around them, they begin to wonder if something more insidious is at work.

"Darmok" (season five, episode two)

Still from "Darmok"
"Darmok" (season five, episode two).
CBS Television

One of the most celebrated episodes of TNG explores the role language and culture play in diplomacy. While struggling to make first contact with a new alien species, Picard is transported to a deserted planet alongside the alien captain. To survive, the two must work together despite barely being able to communicate. "Darmok" is a powerful example of TNG’s ability to use sci-fi trappings to tell humanistic stories.

"Parallels" (season seven, episode 11)

Still from "Parallels"
"Parallels" (season seven, episode 11).
CBS Television

After returning from a trip, Klingon chief of security Worf (Michael Dorn) begins to notice strange inconsistencies around him. It soon becomes clear that he’s leaping through alternate versions of his life, and to return things to normal, he must enlist the help of his crewmates — despite the fact that his relationship with them keeps shifting. Like "Clues," this is an enjoyable mystery, but it also showcases TNG’s ability to blend conceptual sci-fi storytelling with thoughtful character drama.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
The cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Paramount Television

The basics: Ran for seven seasons (176 episodes) from 1993 to 1999

Nickname: DS9

The set up: A space station on the edge of civilization in the 24th century

Rather than take place on a traveling ship, the next Star Trek spinoff series is set on a space station called Deep Space Nine, a stationary hub located on the edge of Federation space. Pragmatic Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) — the first black lead of a Star Trek series — quickly learns to bend Starfleet code in order to keep his ragtag station running, all while raising his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton).

With its racially diverse cast, strong female characters, and serialized storytelling, Deep Space Nine pushed Star Trek to greater heights than ever before. For viewers who prefer the feel and pace of contemporary genre TV, it’s by far the best Star Trek series to start with.

Best for: Fans of darker sci-fi, complicated politics, and serialized storytelling; anyone hesitant about getting into Star Trek

Recommended viewing order: Deep Space Nine is the most consistent Star Trek series, and it benefits greatly from being watched in its entirety. While the first two seasons are somewhat uneven, they help establish the show’s characters and conflicts. The show starts to find its feet in the third season, and kicks into high gear with the start of the Dominion War arc at the end of season five, at which point DS9 becomes more heavily serialized.

"Emissary" (season one, episode one)

Still from "Emissary"
"Emissary" (season one, episode one).

Star Trek isn’t known for strong pilots, but "Emissary" introduces the world of DS9 with remarkable finesse. As the only Trek series set in a static location, DS9 could tell ongoing stories about war, politics, and religion without feeling the need to wrap things up at the end of each episode. "Emissary" establishes many threads the show would follow for years to come, including the political struggles of the newly liberated planet Bajor, the emergence of an intergalactic wormhole housing godlike aliens, and Sisko's complicated relationship to Starfleet.

"Duet" (season one, episode 19)

"Duet" (season one, episode 19).

This all-time great DS9 episode centers on Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), one of the series’ strongest characters. A former Bajoran freedom fighter, Kira spent her life fighting against brutal Cardassian occupiers. This episode explores the horrors of that occupation via a small-scale character drama that puts Kira face to face with a man who may have been responsible for murdering thousands of her people.

"Civil Defense" (season three, episode seven)

Still from "Civil Defense"
"Civil Defense" (season three, episode seven).

"Civil Defense" is an entertaining disaster-movie romp that shows off the entire DS9 ensemble, including its talented supporting cast. When an old Cardassian security program is accidentally activated, Deep Space Nine goes on lockdown. What starts as a minor inconvenience quickly turns into a major threat, as the crew must scramble to stop the station from killing them.

"The Way of the Warrior"

Still from "The Way Of The Warrior"
"The Way of the Warrior" (season four, episode one).

While the cast of Deep Space Nine never made a feature film, this extra-long season four premiere basically functions as one. Thanks to a growing threat from the Dominion — an intergalactic military superpower controlled by a group of shape shifters — a massive war seems imminent. With the Klingon Empire (a 24th-century ally of the Federation) growing paranoid about Dominion spies, Sisko enlists the help of TNG’s Klingon security chief, Worf, to calm the tension.

While the full nuances of this episode’s politics will likely be lost on new viewers, it’s nevertheless a great example of the political complexities and military conflicts that would come to dominate DS9’s later seasons.

"Take Me Out to the Holosuite" (season seven, episode four)

"Take Me Out to the Holosuite" (season seven, episode four).

Deep Space Nine is by far the darkest Star Trek series, featuring the kind of interpersonal conflicts its predecessors shied away from. Some Trek fans accused the show of losing the spirit of Roddenberry’s vision, but DS9 is still recognizably Trek. Take, for instance, this joyously cheesy riff on The Bad News Bears. When an old Vulcan rival challenges Sisko to a baseball game — a defunct 21st-century sport that just happens to be his favorite — Sisko must transform his motley crew into a functioning baseball team in only two weeks.

Star Trek: Voyager

The cast of Star Trek: Voyager
The cast of Star Trek: Voyager (from left): Garrett Wang, Jeri Ryan, Robert Picardo, Ethan Phillips, Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran, Roxann Dawson, Robert Duncan McNeill, Tim Russ.
Paramount Television

The basics: Ran for seven seasons (172 episodes) from 1995 to 2001

Nickname: VOY

The set up: A lone 24th-century ship stranded 70,000 light-years from Earth

The final two Star Trek series are remembered mostly for the ways they failed to live up to their potential, and both have been blamed for "killing" the franchise. Yet if Voyager and Enterprise never quite reach the heights of their predecessors, there are still pleasures to be had in both.

Voyager kicked off with a "lost in space" concept that seemed to promise more of the complex serialized storytelling that had come to define Deep Space Nine. Instead, the show pulled from the episodic Next Generation model: A mostly amiable group of explorers spend their time meeting new alien cultures and dealing with space phenomena.

Many Trek fans dislike that the show "hits the reset button" at the end of each episode, so that the ship is never too badly damaged nor too low on supplies. But Voyager has its strengths, too, including a lighter tone and an emphasis on conceptual sci-fi storytelling. And with Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Kathryn Janeway at the helm, Voyager is by far the most explicitly woman-centric Trek series of all time (another possible reason why it’s so reviled by certain Trek fans).

Best for: Parents introducing their kids to Star Trek for the first time; those who enjoy cheesy but cerebral genre shows (think the lighter episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer); fans of woman-centric storytelling

Recommended viewing order: Voyager has little serialization in terms of plot, but some strong character arcs and relationships develop across its run. It’s never unwatchable, but for a streamlined viewing experience, watch a handful of episodes from the first three seasons for flavor, then pick up with the third season finale "Scorpion, Part 1."

"Eye of the Needle" (season one, episode seven)

Still from "Eye Of The Needle"
"Eye of the Needle" (season one, episode seven).

On its very first mission, Voyager winds up tossed 70,000 light-years from Earth into the uncharted Delta Quadrant — a distance that requires a 75-year journey home. Forced to team up with a similarly stranded group of Federation freedom fighters called the Maquis, Voyager’s newly mixed crew sets out on their long journey home.

Though the show didn’t always take advantage of its premise, "Eye of the Needle" shines a spotlight on the crew’s difficult situation when they discover a wormhole that may lead back to their Alpha Quadrant home. Meanwhile, the ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram (Robert Picardo) begins to grapple with his role on Voyager, establishing him as the show’s resident "outsider" character.

"Deadlock" (season two, episode 21)

Still from "Deadlock"
"Deadlock" (season two, episode 21).

There’s a line in "Deadlock" that perfectly sums up Voyager’s ethos. "We’re Starfleet officers," Janeway explains. "Weird is part of the job." More than any other Star Trek series, Voyager enjoyed playing around with bizarre sci-fi concepts. After traveling through a dense nebula, Voyager discovers it’s been "quantum duplicated" into two ships. The two crews — and, most importantly, the two Janeways — must figure out a way to re-merge their vessels, or at least ensure that one survives.

"Someone to Watch Over Me" (season five, episode 22)

Still from "Someone To Watch Over Me"
"Someone to Watch Over Me" (season five, episode 22).

Voyager improves dramatically from its fourth season on with the introduction of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a Borg drone turned human who reluctantly joins the crew after her connection to the Borg hive mind is severed. Though clearly styled for her sex appeal, Seven quickly developed into one of the most interesting characters in Star Trek history. Alongside the holographic Doctor, she fulfilled the show’s "outsider" role, and in "Someone to Watch Over Me," the Doctor gives Seven a crash course in dating, providing a lovely showcase for two of Voyager’s strongest performers.

"Blink of an Eye" (season six, episode 12)

"Blink of an Eye" (season six, episode 12).

Captain Janeway is first and foremost a scientist, and a palpable enthusiasm for science runs through Voyager. That’s especially true in "Blink of an Eye," which unfolds like a short story celebrating human ingenuity. Voyager finds itself trapped above a planet on which time works differently; while minutes pass for the crew, years pass on the surface. As Voyager struggles to break free, the planet’s inhabitants develop a scientific culture inspired by the "sky ship" that has long hovered above them.

"The Void" (season seven, episode 15)

Still from "The Void"
"The Void" (season seven, episode 15).

With its lighter tone, chipper banter, and action-adventure focus, the Trek series Voyager most calls to mind is The Original Series. And "The Void" is perhaps Star Trek’s greatest tribute to Roddenberry’s Federation ideals. After being sucked into an empty "void" in space, Voyager discovers a dog-eat-dog ecosystem in which trapped ships raid one another to survive. When Voyager’s own supplies are stolen, Janeway must decide whether to compromise her principles to keep her crew alive.

Star Trek: Enterprise

Anthony Montgomery, Dominic Keating, Jolene Blalock, Scot Bakula, Linda Park, John Billingsley, Connor Trinneer
Star Trek: Enterpise cast (from left): Anthony Montgomery, Dominic Keating, Jolene Blalock, Scott Bakula, Linda Park, John Billingsley, Connor Trinneer.
Paramount Television

The basics: Ran for four seasons (98 episodes) from 2001 to 2005

Nickname: ENT

The set up: A prequel set in the 22nd century

Enterprise is the second Star Trek series to squander its interesting premise. Set roughly 100 years before Kirk’s original five-year mission, this prequel takes place on the original Enterprise, Earth’s first Warp 5–capable ship. Rugged Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) leads humanity’s first major exploration outside the solar system.

Unfortunately, Enterprise struggled to establish much of a personality for itself, and was hampered by bland characters (not to mention an embarrassing lack of diversity). Yet the show earned praise for its willingness to embrace serialized storytelling and long-term consequences. Like Voyager, it’s best enjoyed with lowered expectations (particularly for its horrifically cheesy soft-rock opening theme song).

Best for: Those who enjoy action-centric sci-fi; Star Trek completists; Scott Bakula fans

Recommended viewing order: Enterprise is never unwatchable, but it starts to find its feet in the third season (which tells one season-long story) and the fourth (which is broken into two- to four-episode "mini arcs"). For those who don’t want to tackle the whole thing, watch a handful of episodes from seasons one and two for flavor, and then jump ahead to the second season finale, "The Expanse."

"Dear Doctor" (season one, episode 13)

Still from "Dear Doctor"
"Dear Doctor" (season one, episode 13).

While hardcore Trek fans have some problems with the ethics of its ending, "Dear Doctor" succeeds as an hour of drama and a great showcase for Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), one of Enterprise’s strongest and most underused players. This episode explores Phlox’s unique position as one of the only aliens serving aboard the ship. It also highlights the difficult diplomatic decisions the Enterprise crew must make long before Starfleet had the Federation to guide it.

"Detained" (season one, episode 21)

Still from "Detained"
"Detained" (season one, episode 21).

Though designed as a Star Trek origin story, Enterprise frequently became distracted by attempts to comment on the war on terror in the way The Original Series commented on Vietnam and the Cold War. That was especially true of the show’s third season, where a 9/11-esque attack on Earth kicked off a season-long arc about retaliation.

"Detained" is an early example of Enterprise’s interest in political allegory: When Archer finds himself in an internment camp for an alien race called the Suliban, he learns that the violent "Suliban Cabal" he had previously encountered don’t represent the views of the entire species.

"The Catwalk" (season two, episode 12)

Still from "The Catwalk"
"The Catwalk" (season two, episode 12).

One of the most intriguing things about Enterprise is that the crew doesn’t have access to all the technological advances that are commonplace on the other Star Trek series. Though the show didn’t always take advantage of its prequel status, "The Catwalk" is a fun look at the rough-and-tumble early days of Starfleet. Unable to travel fast enough to outrun a deadly neutronic wavefront, the crew must seal themselves in the heavily shielded catwalks in order to survive.

"Cogenitor" (season two, episode 22)

Still from "Cogenitor"
"Cogenitor" (season two, episode 22).

On the whole, Enterprise favored bland, action-heavy sequences over the kind of thoughtful sci-fi storytelling that had initially defined Star Trek. But Enterprise could be introspective when it wanted to be. In "Cogenitor," the crew befriends a sociable alien race with a similar mission of exploration. But the way in which they treat their "cogenitors" — a third gender crucial to their reproduction — raises questions about intervening in other cultures.

"Similitude" (season three, episode 10)

Still from "Similtude"
"Similitude" (season three, episode 10).

Enterprise’s third and fourth seasons are by far its strongest, but because of their serialized nature, those episodes don’t always work out of context. "Similitude," however, is a mostly standalone story that illustrates Enterprise’s growing competency. When chief engineer Charles "Trip" Tucker III (Connor Trinneer) falls into a life-threatening coma, Archer okays a controversial plan to create a fast-growing clone and harvest its organs to save Trip.

While the episode can be read as a commentary on stem cell research, cloning, and "savior siblings," it’s mostly a moving rumination of life, death, and what it means to be human.

Remember: It’s okay to just dabble in Star Trek

There’s no "right" way to get into Star Trek. Fans have fallen in love with the franchise through all sorts of different channels, and where to jump in mostly comes down to personal preference. (The one exception is Enterprise. Although it’s chronologically the "first" Star Trek series, it’s actually best enjoyed by viewers who have a working knowledge of the franchise.)

All five of the TV shows and several of the movies are currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and CBS All Access. And more so than most contemporary genre TV shows, Star Trek is designed to be watched out of order in syndication. So don’t feel the need to be a Star Trek completest — even plenty of hardcore Trekkies aren’t.

But do be sure to venture beyond just the movies. The best of what Star Trek has to offer has always existed on TV.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.