The Star Trek television world consists of eleven full and distinct television series released across the decades, going all the way back to the mid-1960s. While some of the older sets and effects are certainly dated, some of the issues the shows grappled with back in the day are as relevant now as they were almost 60 years ago.
When Star Trek debuted on September 6, 1966, it was a relatively low-budget TV series with only lukewarm network support. It took two pilot episodes before the series was picked up by NBC, only to be unceremoniously cancelled three years later. Nobody back then knew that Star Trek would create cultural touchstones and iconic characters, or that it would go on to spawn ten more TV series (so far) and thirteen movies (also, so far).
Today, Star Trek is deeply entrenched in modern mythology, with characters like James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard as familiar to us as Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo.
But not everyone is fully up to speed on all things Trek. Perhaps you’re seeing promotions for the new shows coming out this year and wonder what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you want to introduce Star Trek to a younger generation or catch up after a long hiatus.
No matter what, we’re here to help. In this guide, I’m going to take you through the TV series and help you understand what each is about, give you some hints about watching order, and share with you my subjective perspective on the shows.
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Star Trek has inspired a tremendous amount of media. Beyond the TV shows, there are movies, video games, books, comics, fan fiction and productions, collectables, and more. Because the commercial world of Star Trek fandom is so huge, I’m going to limit our discussion to just the TV shows — although there will be a few mentions of one or two movies that are requisite viewing for later series’ continuity.
How to get started
There are four Star Trek series currently in production right now. More are rumored to be on the way. And there’s even a Seth McFarland-helmed homage to Star Trek called The Orville that carries on the Trek spirit (new episodes will be broadcast on Hulu in June).
So, you could get started watching a current show, especially since the visuals and production quality are top-notch. If you feel strongly about starting with new material, I’d recommend kicking off your watching with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds on the Paramount+ streaming service. I’ll talk more about SNW (most Trek series get abbreviations) in a bit. Another choice would be the gorgeous animated series Star Trek: Prodigy. It’s intended to bring kids into the Star Trek universe, but it fires on all cylinders for adults just as well.
But I recommend you start where it all started: Star Trek, the original series (TOS) produced in the 1960s. It’s here you’ll meet Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Scotty the engineer. This is where it all began, and everything builds upon this fundamental mythology.
And with that, let’s get started!
Production Years: 1966-1969
Trek Timeline Years: 2266-2269
This is it. The series that began it all. I recently rewatched the entire run of TOS after not having seen it in years, and the thing that made the biggest impression on me was how much they got right in those early years. Roddenberry was building a mythos out of thin air, and yet many of the foundational elements that Star Trek folks know and love today were written into those early shows.
Of course, Roddenberry didn’t get it perfect right out of the gate. He did two pilots which introduced Captain Christopher Pike instead of Captain Kirk and a female “Number One” as second in command. This pilot, called “The Cage” never made it on the air but was repurposed into a two-parter late in the first season. You’ll want to remember Pike and Number One because they’re prominent in the new modern-day Trek series currently being released.
Some episodes of this very early series age well, while others are deeply cringeworthy. Because it’s 1960s entertainment (and relatively low-budget entertainment at that), it can be a bit tedious at times. And yet, it touched on some really important themes. Martin Luther King Jr. actually reached out to Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, when she was considering leaving the show. He urged her to stay on because he saw her role as a very important inspiration.
If you want to understand all the Trek lore that comes after, this is the place to start.
Must watch episodes:The City on the Edge of Forever, Space Seed, The Trouble with Tribbles
Movies: There were six movies made with the TOS cast. Of them, the best two are The Wrath of Khan (which sets up a lot of subsequent mythos) and The Voyage Home, which is probably the most fun of them all.
Production Years: 1987-1994
Trek Timeline Years: 2364-2370
Star Trek’s continuing popularity during the eighteen years after NBC cancelled the original series was unexpected. Star Trek, that weird space show with the pointy-eared alien, turned out to have legs. It took ten years of fan pressure and conventions, but in 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released. It was… not so good. But three more movies came out over the next eight years, and they were great. So the momentum was in place for a Star Trek reboot.
Rather than recasting the original characters, Roddenberry decided to move the story forward almost 100 years, create a version of the Enterprise starship whose interior decor most resembled a Marriott hotel in outer space, and give it warp nacelles and photon torpedos. This was The Next Generation, with Captain Picard, first officer William Riker, the android Data, the boy wonder Wesley Crusher, his mom, the Klingon Worf, and unlucky-in-love engineer Geordi La Forge. Roddenberry even created the role of a mental health counsellor (Deanna Troy) as a key member of its bridge crew.
While Patrick Stewart’s Picard was much more Captain Stubing than Shatner’s Captain Kirk, there’s no doubting this Shakespearean actor’s talents. Brent Spiner, as the android-who-wants-to-be-human, was another standout performer. The first two seasons were a little rocky. Remember: back then, nobody knew whether this show would last, and the actors and showrunners were still trying to come to terms with how to move beyond TOS. But subsequent years are among the best science (and societal) fiction you’ll ever see on TV.
Must watch episodes:The Measure of a Man, Yesterday’s Enterprise, The Best Of Both Worlds I and II
Movies: There were four movies made with the TNG cast. The first one, Generations, also included key members of the TOS cast. I recommend you watch First Contact because it’s a really good movie. And you might want to watch Nemesis because it sets up some details you’ll need in later series (but it’s definitely not the best movie made).
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To boldly go…
Once you’ve watched TOS and TNG, you’re pretty much ready to travel wherever you want throughout the Star Trek franchise. You’ll have a good foundational understanding of the Federation, the various alien species, the rules and regulations of Starfleet, and most of the iconic characters.
My recommendation is to wrap up the early Trek productions by taking in the two seasons of the first animated series. Then, move on to the middle period of Star Trek production, with Voyager, Deep Space 9, and Enterprise, and then jump forward to the current productions. That’s how I’m going to present the remaining series to you, but you can pretty much choose any order you want once you’ve made it this far.
Production Years: 1973-1975
Trek Timeline Years: 2269-2270
A few years after NBC canceled TOS, Roddenberry managed to convince studio heads to let him produce an animated version of the show. While it was considerably less expensive to produce than the live-action Star Trek, the animated series was the most expensive animated show airing at the time, but that was mostly because nearly all the original series actors (Walter Koenig as Chekov was missing) lent their voices to the show.
While the series was intended as a kid’s show, it hews pretty closely to classic Star Trek themes and can be considered a proper sequel to TOS. Watching it in 2022 is a bit weird because cartoons from the 1970s definitely seem a bit weird to our 2022 mindset, but TAS is a worthwhile romp, especially since it features the voice work from the core actors who first made Star Trek.
Must watch episodes:Yesteryear, The Slaver Weapon, More Tribbles, More Troubles (because…Tribbles)
Production Years: 1993-1999
Trek Timeline Years: 2369-2275
Stream on:Paramount+, Netflix
By many measures, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is as good as Star Trek (or science fiction overall, for that matter) gets. Rather than exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations, Deep Space 9 takes place mostly on the eponymous space station, Deep Space 9.
The station sits at the junction of a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant (a far off part of space) and the planet Bajor, a planet previously occupied by Cardassians’ warlike race (not to be confused with the Kardashians). DS9’s leader is played by actor Avery Brooks, who starts off with the Starfleet rank of Commander and later gets promoted to Captain. DS9 starts off slow but ends with a massive war and some of the best space battles ever put on film.
While there are a few silly episodes, most plotlines are tight, deep, and thought-provoking. Characters develop complex and compelling personalities. And the show takes some powerful swings at issues of the day, with Far Beyond the Stars an absolute standout showing issues of racism in 1950s America and yet fitting totally in with the rest of DS9. If anything can be considered must-watch TV, chock full of religious and political intrigue, it’s Star Trek: Deep Space 9.
Must watch episodes:Far Beyond the Stars, The Visitor, Trials And Tribble-Ations (because…Tribbles)
Production Years: 1995-2001
Trek Timeline Years: 2371-2378
The series starts with the crew of the Voyager chasing after a Maquis raider ship in a rough part of space. Suddenly, both ships get pulled into a spatial distortion, only to wind up far, far away from home. A super-powerful being called the Caretaker brought both ships to the Delta quadrant as part of its quest to help a species it cared for.
The plot of the pilot is a bit convoluted, but the Captain Kathryn Janeway makes a decision that strands Voyager and the crew of the Maquis ship in the Delta quadrant. The voyage home will take 75 years. Kate Mulgrew was not the franchise’s first choice for a Janeway captain. Instead, Geneviève Bujold was originally cast in the role, but she apparently crashed and burned in a day and a half. That’s fortunate because Mulgrew absolutely owns the part, turning the Janeway character into a tough, sensitive, compassionate, and absolutely kick-ass leader.
The Voyager crew becomes a blended crew with both Starfleet and Maquis. Early episodes playoff that dynamic, but the early crew conflicts tend to slip away as the series progresses and the crew coalesces. Throughout it all, the series is about how this crew survives all on its own, trying to find a way home and the adventures along the way.
Must watch episodes: Tinker, Tailor, Doctor, Spy, Year of Hell (two-parter), Timeless Worst episode in any science fiction, ever: Threshold
Production Years: 2001-2005
Trek Timeline Years: 2151-2161
Stream on: Paramount+
With Enterprise (the series debuted without the “Star Trek:” prefix), we’re starting to move around the “Prime Universe” timeline. So, okay, some definitions are in order. In 2009, J. J. Abrams did a reboot of the original Star Trek crew in a three-movie set. That reboot changed some of the Star Trek canon (its established mythology) and became known as the “Kelvin Universe”. All the Star Trek that exists in the unaltered (or mostly unaltered) mythology is called the “Prime Universe.” All of the TV shows so far (but not all the movies) are considered Prime Universe.
In the Prime Universe, series timelines span centuries. The majority of established canon takes place in the TNG era, which is 2364-2379. TOS, Discovery, and Strange New Worlds take place 100 or so years earlier than TNG, while Discovery eventually jumps to about a thousand years later. But Enterprise is a prequel to all of that, showcasing a ship just beginning to travel between the stars. It takes place starting in 2151, a century before the days of Kirk and Spock.
There are some nods to the idea that technology wasn’t as advanced in 2151 as it was in later centuries, but since Enterprise itself was made 35 years after TOS, the production value and effects made it seem somewhat more advanced. That will prove to be an ongoing problem with Trek prequels: what do you do when the real tech to produce the prequel is half a century more advanced? What do you do when the actual tech we have in our pockets seems far more advanced than the “future” tech shown in the early shows? Artistic license is used.
The NX-01 Enterprise is led by Captain Jonathan Archer (played by Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula) and his Number One is a Vulcan named T’Pol (played by Jolene Blalock). In Enterprise’s time frame, trust between Earth and the Vulcans is tenuous, and that tension plays out over the series. Unfortunately, Enterprise only lasted four seasons. It, like most other Trek, was a bit rocky in the first seasons, but by Season 4, it was producing excellent television.
My biggest question about Enterprise is about Porthos, Archer’s adorable beagle. Porthos spent most of his time in Archer’s cabin, but I’ve always been curious about how Porthos took care of business. Did they just walk him around the decks and some crewmember cleaned it up? Was there a spot of grass somewhere in an unused cabin? It keeps me up at night.
In any case, I consider Enterprise criminally underrated. It was a great show.
Must watch episodes:In a Mirror, Darkly (two-parter), Carbon Creek, Similitude, Twilight, The Breach (because…Tribbles)
Star Trek production effectively went into shutdown for about a decade after Enterprise. After the success of the reboot movies in the late 2000s, Star Trek TV experienced a resurgence in Discovery. Discovery is a hard beast to pin down, and this had the effect of turning off some of the entrenched Star Trek fanbase. That said, it’s still great TV. Discovery was the first of the modern-day Star Trek series to be available solely on streaming, via what was then CBS All Access and is now Paramount+.
Somehow (spoiler alert), Micheal Burham goes from the Federation’s first mutineer with a life sentence to a beloved starship captain. Burnham is Spock’s human sister (yeah, that was a surprise to everyone). Played by Sonequa Martin-Green, the standout feature of Discovery is some of its great performances and characterizations.
My favorites are the gangly alien Saru (played with absolute perfection by Doug Jones), the mirror universe emperor Georgiou (played with scenery-eating intensity by Michelle Yeoh), cranky under-utilized engineer Jett Reno (played by the wonderful-in-anything Tigg Notaro), and Captain Christopher Pike, reimagined from the pilot for TOS (who was played to such perfection by Anson Mount that the minute he hit the screen, everyone knew a series had to be made around him — which became Strange New Worlds).
The first season takes place ten years before the original series. Klingons don’t really look like Klingons, Burnham starts a war, Discovery travels to the mirror universe where everything is Bizarro World, and chaos ensues. The second season is back in the home universe where the crew tries to stop an AI bent on destroying all life in the universe. To avoid that fate, the crew travels 930 years into the future and…okay, let’s take a breather for a second.
Do. Not. Try. To. Make. Sense. Of. All. This. Discovery is weird enough to be pretty much the Twin Peaks of Star Trek. Just enjoy the fact that the visuals are impressive, the characters (at least most of them) are great, and the stories hold together long enough to make it through each episode as long as you don’t think about it too much. Discovery can be annoying and sappy, to be sure. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.
Must watch episodes (so far): An Obol for Charon, The Sound of Thunder, Short Trek: The Trouble with Edward (because…Tribbles)
Production Years: 2020-current
Trek Timeline Years: 2380- (so far)
Seasons: 2 (so far)
Episodes: 20 (so far)
Stream on: Paramount+
Back in 1994, there was an episode of TNG called Lower Decks. It focused on lower-ranking crew members and looked at what life onboard a starship was like for the non-hero characters of Starfleet. In 2020, Mike McMahan, previously known for his work on the animated comedy Rick and Morty, took the lower decks concept into an entire animated Star Trek series.
And it works. McMahan also addressed a lot of fan complaints about Discovery by including an almost overwhelming array of Star Trek Easter eggs as fan service in the series. If you’ve ever wondered about Cetacean Ops, for example, McMahan has an entire episode devoted to Starfleet’s underwater crew.
Overall, Lower Decks delivers fully Star Trek plots, along with a lot of genuinely funny moments. But it doesn’t sacrifice good storytelling either for laughs or nostalgia.
Must watch episodes (so far):No Small Parts, First First Contact, An Embarrassment of Dooplers
Production Years: 2021-current
Trek Timeline Years: 2383- (so far)
Seasons: 1 (so far)
Episodes: 9 (so far)
Stream on: Paramount+
Prodigy is the second animated series currently in production. It has a completely different theme and art style from Lower Decks and is most definitely its own thing.
The premise is that a bunch of enslaved tweenagers of varying non-human species in the Delta Quadrant find a dormant Federation starship. While exploring, they activate the “emergency training hologram,” which turns out to be an animated Captain Janeway (voiced by Kate Mulgrew herself). Hologram Janeway thinks the interlopers are cadets and helps them start the ship up so they can make their escape.
The series is Nickelodeon-branded and is supposed to be for kids, but the episodes are well-written and even suspenseful. The first season ended on a cliffhanger that both newbies to Star Trek and long-time fans will find compelling. And can we talk about the visuals? This series is just absolutely gorgeous. Watch it on the largest, brightest TV you can. It’s that good.
Must watch episodes (so far):Time Amok, First Con-tact, Kobayashi
Production Years: 2020-current
Trek Timeline Years: 2399- (so far)
Seasons: 2 (so far)
Episodes: 20 (so far)
The premise behind Star Trek: Picard is simple. Thirty years after TNG, Admiral Picard goes back out into space for new adventures. Picard (and Patrick Stewart) are much older, and the series addresses the challenges of ageing and how someone who was once the galaxy’s hero deals with becoming irrelevant — just as events reach out to bring the retired admiral back onto center stage once again.
Have you noticed how most of the Star Trek series have three-letter abbreviations? Star Trek: Picard’s should be WTF. There are moments in Picard that are wonderful. But a lot of Picard is just plain terrible. If you even try to think about all the plot holes and paradoxes in just the final episode of Season 2, you’ll find your brain sucked into a wormhole. As much as it’s an absolute pleasure to see Patrick Stewart in anything, Star Trek: Picard is undeniably the worst television Star Trek has yet produced.
Like all of the current-era Star Trek, it’s gorgeous. There’s fan service everywhere, and we do get to meet some of the TNG characters again. More are promised for Season 3. But something went horribly wrong in the writers’ room for the storylines in most of the episodes to be this convoluted, self-referential, internally inconsistent, and rather unbelievable (trust me, suspending disbelief often just doesn’t work here). If anything, Season 2 is even more disastrous than Season 1, and that’s saying something.
All that said, should you watch Star Trek: Picard? Of course. It’s a hoot. Plus, the episode Nepenthe (where we get to meet a gray-haired Captain Riker and his wife, Deanna Troy, along with their daughter Kestra) makes the whole series worthwhile.
Must watch episodes:Nepenthe, Stardust City Rag
Production Years: 2022-current
Trek Timeline Years: 2259- (so far)
Seasons: 1 (so far)
Episodes: 4 (so far)
Stream on: Paramount+
Strange New Worlds has been jokingly called the longest order from the pilot to series in television history, but there’s some truth to that. The very first TOS pilot back in the 1960s spotlighted the main characters of Strange New Worlds. As the legend goes, NBC didn’t like those characters, so Roddenberry retooled and the result was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
Today, however, Anson Mount is center stage, along with Ethan Peck as the third actor to play Spock, and Rebecca Romijn playing Number One. We haven’t seen too many episodes yet, but so far it’s good. Really, really good. Sure, this U.S.S. Enterprise is supposed to be from a time ten years before Kirk’s in TOS, and it’s far fancier. But that’s what you get with 2022 budgets and CGI compared to the hand-me-downs that went into the original Star Trek.
You can follow the story well enough without having seen any other Star Trek, so it makes for a good first series. But it also is so reverently referential to established canon (while blazing its own way as well) that deeply entrenched Trek fans will undoubtedly enjoy it as well.
Must watch episodes (so far): Strange New Worlds, Children of the Comet, Ghosts of Illyria, Memento Mori
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What are the worst to best Star Trek series?
This is a highly subjective list, but I know you’re going to want to know. So here it is. My call for worst series to best. You’ll be surprised.
10. Picard: I had high hopes, I love the reunions, but the plots don’t hold together if you think about it for just one minute.
9. The Original Series: Yes, it started everything. And yes, they got a lot right. But some of it is just downright hard to watch.
8. The Animated Series: Like TOS, it’s a rough ride to watch. Pacing is very late sixties.
7. Lower Decks: I’m not a huge animation fan, and the silliness is a bit annoying.
6. Prodigy:Prodigy is gorgeous, and the plots hold together well. But I’m not as into it as I could be. Perhaps with more seasons.
5. The Next Generation:TNG defines Star Trek, and while there are some great shows there, it’s getting old. I’m just not that invested anymore.
4. Discovery: I really like some of the characters and the modern visuals are spectacular. The focus on one character as a Mary Sue gets tiresome, as do the somewhat lazy resolutions for season-long mysteries.
3. Voyager: Some of the premise broke down in early years, but the overall crew survival dynamic makes for worthwhile TV. I’ve become attached to some of the characters after watching them grow into their responsibilities.
2. Enterprise: Yes, I consider Enterprise among the best Star Trek ever, even though it died an early death. From Archer’s relationship with the Andorian commander Shran (played by the wonderful Jeffrey Combs) to some really excellent standalone episodes, I miss Enterprise more than any other series.
1. Deep Space 9: Yeah, this is just about the best science fiction you’re going to find anywhere.
*Strange New Worlds: I’m not rating Strange New Worlds yet. I’ve only seen a few episodes. But from what I’ve seen, it has the potential to be among the favorites.
What about you? What’s your favorite Star Trek series? Are you Trek-curious and just getting started? Are you coming back after a long hiatus? Share with us in the comments below. Live long and prosper.
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