Star Trek is now coming up on six decades. If one counts the original pilot, not seen as a standalone episode until the 1980s, 2025 will mark sixty years. Viacom will go by its debut date in 1966, so you’ll have to wait a year. By now, only William Shatner, George Takei, and Walter Koenig remain from the original cast. And several cast members from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, from Trek’s golden age in the nineties, are in their 70s.
I’d rank the Treks, but while Trek fans aren’t nearly as adolescent and whiny as Star Wars fans (why I will never watch another Star Wars movie in a theater. It’s none of your business what I stream.), I’ve grown tired of the inevitable arguments. They’re exhausting and largely pointless. I live in a city with an NFL team and lots of college basketball, I can waste my time on that.
So let’s instead look at the series one by one. Besides, rankings are stupid. Have you seen any of my Bond lists? Every time a new movie comes out, the whole list shuffles.
(All pics CBS/Viacom)
“The Cage” – I put the pilot here by itself because, while it’s technically part of The Original Series (TOS, a tag that did not come about until the 90s when Next Generation aired), it’s different from both TOS and Strange New Worlds. We know there’s an Enterprise. We know there’s an alien science officer named Spock. But everything else is different. The story originally centered on a captain named Robert April. By shooting, the name had become Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. Already, Gene Roddenberry is messing with expectations. An alien on the bridge? The female first officer, mysteriously called Number One? The beach kid at navigator (since retrofitted as Ops.) The effects are in flux, and some moments are cringy, like Pike’s complaining about a woman on the bridge. (In Strange New Worlds, women outnumber the men on the bridge.) It’s a promising start. As SNW has shown, this cast might have done well. But test audiences found Number One annoying – and that was the housewives! Roddenberry, at studio head Lucille Ball’s urging, retooled. GR kept Spock, ditched the rest, and shot another pilot.
The Original Series – This is the Trek we know, the one that carried into two series, six movies (with a scene in the seventh), and got rebooted with the Kelvin films. Shatner replaces Jeffrey Hunter, and he once described playing Kirk as reacting rather than acting. Jim is him, a gambit Chris Pine seems to have picked up nicely. It takes a while to establish the other characters. Uhura shatters a glass ceiling already as a senior bridge officer on day one. Scotty is the crotchety Scottish chief engineer. Sulu soon becomes the cocky helmsman we all know and love. McCoy is front and center in the first aired episode, really the third in production order. It takes almost an entire season to establish that the Enterprise is part of Starfleet and Starfleet answers to the Federation. The Klingons are mildly cringy stereotypes in grease paint. The Romulans don’t get the fair shake they do in later eras (mainly because effects and makeup budgets were best described as “stipends.”) And despite the large number of black and female secondary characters (When did M’Benga develop a mild southern accent? Yes, I know. Different actor. Cool your jets.), there were still some cringy moments. The attitude toward women (though noticeably not Uhura or Nurse Chapel) is sixties paternalistic. In the final episode, Turnabout Intruder, Janice Lester complains women can’t become starship captains. Discovery and Strange New Worlds could turn this on its ear, of course. But it wouldn’t hurt to have Lester pop up on the latter show to have someone – I nominate Ortegas or Chapel – to tell Lester, “You’re not a captain because you’re batshit crazy.” Still it broke a lot of ground, created quite a few iconic moments, and spawned a lot of knock-offs. One might say it helped Lucas sell the original Star Wars (He was a fan, and Gene loved Lucas’s new universe as well.) And it gave rise to a sprawling mythos that is not even close to being tapped out.
The Animated Series – Really, season 4 of TOS. Or is it? Later Treks would refer to incidents in Spock’s past. Discovery suggested Spock got the idea from his foster sister. Sometimes the series is considered canon. Sometimes not.
Some of the technology introduced disappeared in the movies and became part of Next Generation. The Enterprise has a holodeck, and the crew uses personal forcefields to walk around in hostile environments. Most of the cast is back, with James Doohan, Majel Barrett, and Nichelle Nichols doing voices. Walter Koenig, however, was glaringly absent. It kept Trek alive, but the show’s status as part of the overall storyline keeps falling into limbo.
The Next Generation – In 1987, Paramount convinced Gene Roddenberry to create a new Star Trek. He used his abandoned Star Trek Phase II as a jumping off point, that show morphing into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Picard, like the older, wiser Kirk, is cool and intellectual. Riker is the mercurial, mischievous first officer. Our Spock archetype is the android Data, who is equal parts childlike and wise. Dr. Crusher is the ship’s surgeon, but a spiteful decision by a showrunner saw Gates McFadden fired for a season. (During contract negotiations, Patrick Stewart demanded a new showrunner and the old doctor.) And there’s a Klingon on the bridge!
The Next Generation had a rocky start. Uneven first season with Roddenberry at odds with his veteran writers, and hampered in the second by a writer’s strike. Come on, Gene. DC Fontana made you look good. Cut her some slack. Then a writers’ strike hamstrung the second season. But it took two to three years between movies. During this time, one of them was Star Trek V, which… Did I mention they put a new Star Trek on the air?
Roddenberry set out to make a Star Trek that was not the original series. Aside from a couple of references to Kirk and a cameo by DeForest Kelly as an aged McCoy, they waited four seasons to tie this new show back to the original.
Next Generation would give us some of scifi’s most iconic moments: Data “fully functional,” Locutus of Borg, and Q, the mercurial omnipotent alien. Plus it humanized the Klingons, showed the cracks in the Romulan armor, and introduced (perhaps clumsily) the Ferengi. And were it not for a guest spot by Ronny Cox as Captain Edward Jellico, the world would be denied the greatest series of dad joke memes. (Star Trek: Jellico. Google it.)
Deep Space Nine – So, instead of a starship, we get a space station. And it’s rundown. Things aren’t quite so happy as they were on the three starships Enterprise. Deep Space Nine is near Bajor, the newly freed world at the edge of Cardassian space. Some view the Federation as “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko reluctantly takes the post while having to raise his son. Sisko was widowed during the Borg incursion. By Locutus. Naturally, he’s given his orders by Jean-Luc Picard. It does not go well.
His first officer is a former Bajoran terrorist, Kira Nerys. His security is handled by a shape shifting alien named Odo. Chief O’Brien tries to keep the decrepit station from flying apart. If that’s not enough, Quark skirts both Starfleet regulations and the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition while running his bar. Sisko keeps his sanity with sage input from his oldest friend and mentor, Dax. Only Dax was a dirty old man when Sisko met him. Now he’s a twenty-eight-year-old woman. Throw in a wormhole leading to the Gamma Quadrant, and things get interesting.
Originally, Babylon 5 was pitched as a potential spin-off. Paramount turned it down, but then later decided the space station concept would work best. B5 mastermind J. Michael Starczynski said he didn’t think Deep Space Nine ripped off his show (much), but he did wish the writers had watched B5 to avoid duplication.
DS9 added Worf after Next Generation ended, which allowed Klingon storylines. Worf had become more serious, more three-dimensional. DS9, like Picard later on, was more morally ambiguous than other Treks, and darker.
Voyager – This show almost turned out differently. Originally, Genvieve Bujold signed on to play Trek’s first female captain as a regular cast member. When two days of shooting went badly, Kate Mulgrew stepped in, grabbed a cup of coffee, and injected some Irish attitude into the character. And we’re off. One fan called this a modern version of the Odyssey with survivors of a renegade crew turned Starfleet and an holographic doctor forced into existence as a fully realized being. Starting in season 4, Jeri Ryan joins the cast as Seven of Nine (aka Annika Hansen), Trek’s first regular Borg character. Ryan imbued the former automaton with humanity, had great chemistry with Robert Picardo’s Doctor, and deserves back combat pay for those ridiculous bunny suits she had to wear. (The figure got your attention. Ryan’s performance made you forget about it five minutes later.)
There were also some clunkers in the bunch: Janeway and Paris turn into lizards and have lizard babies. Tuvix’s dilemma fatally resolved in the last five minutes of the episode. But overall, it gave us a great cast of characters who are still present. Janeway, both real and holographically, is part of Prodigy while Seven is integral to Picard. Tom Paris is a presence on Lower Decks, and Chakotay is implied to return in Prodigy‘s season 2.
Enterprise – The red-headed stepchild of Trek’s golden age. Dinged for being a prequel, for bending canon, and just basically not being helmed by Picard, Sisko, or Janeway (or even Kirk), Enterprise was more a victim of franchise fatigue. It might have received a full seven-season run, but the TNG film Nemesis damn near killed the franchise and did doom Enterprise to cancellation. Scott Bakula is Jonathan Archer, more astronaut than space captain, with his southern-fried engineer Trip Tucker. Jolene Blalock squeezed into a Sevenesque bunny suit to be the NX-01’s Vulcan babysitter. Hoshi, Mayweather, and Malcolm are a bit stressed as the people who have to figure out what Starfleet looks like while it’s still an Earth-only organization. Phlox is the standout character. Not as serious as Crusher or condescending as Julian Bashir, nor as irascible as Boyce, McCoy, or the Doctor, Phlox is the Mr. Rogers of the crew.
Plus, a visit to the Mirror Universe while the Terran Empire is still ascendant shows us updated Tholians and Gorn (who are still not as scary as their young on Strange New Worlds.) Jeffrey Combs delivers the other standout addition to Trek lore: Shran the Andorian. Had season five been greenlighted, Shran would have joined the crew of this original starship Enterprise.
This Trek was underappreciated in its time, but has developed a cult following since, with its storylines showing up in the Kelvin movies, Discovery, and Strange New Worlds. Speaking of Kelvin…
The Kelvin Movies – I don’t say much about the movies here. Up until Nemesis, conventional wisdom said an odd-numbered Star Trek movie would not be as good as the evens. The Motion Picture bored post-Star Wars audiences while The Wrath of Khan is a science fiction classic. The Search for Spock has an oddball premise while The Voyage Home became comedy gold. Star Trek V? Er…. Did I mention The Undiscovered Country was a great Nick Meyer Trek movie? This sort of held out with the Next Generation movies. Generations and Insurrection were really just extended episodes while First Contact is, like The Wrath of Khan, a classic beyond just Trek. And then Nemesis shut down the series and damn near killed the franchise.
The 2009 Star Trek had to be different. Writers hate doing prequels, so JJ Abrams took the brilliant step of splitting off a timeline via a direct sequel to Nemesis. The Romulans are on the ropes, and one guy who stand to cut out the caffiene not only does not respond well, he breaks the original continuity in his rage. Kirk is not the go-getter martinette we meet in Where No Man Has Gone Before. He’s a cocky, angry juvenile delinquent who never knew his dad, all because Nero had a time-altering tantrum (and makes clear Picard’s two Enterprises could have made short work of his “humble mining vessel.”) Some whined that only Nimoy as a much-older Spock thrown back into this new timeline, showed up. One need not point out that Shatner, Takei, Nichols, and Koenig were well beyond 70 with Jimmy Doohan and Dee Kelly long since departed. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban hit all the right notes as Spock and McCoy, benefitting from Nimoy’s tutelage. John Cho is perfect fleshing out the previously under-depicted Sulu. Zoe Saldana plays a different kind of Uhura, one more on equal footing with Chris Pine’s snarky Kirk than Nichols’s version was with Shatner’s. But there’s a danger with alternate timelines. Into Darkness was a piss-poor remake of The Wrath of Khan. Benedict Cumberbatch would have made a great villain unto himself, but he did not make anyone forget Ricardo Montalban’s narcissistic, hissing Khan from 1967 and 1983. (Nick Meyer is about to set that straight.) On the other hand, Star Trek Beyond came from new Scotty Simon Pegg, like Urban, a lifelong fan. Had this been Kelvin #2, they’d still be making the movies. But any profit the movie turned was swallowed up by losses from Into Darkness. (And no, JJ, having Spock scream Khaaaaaannnn!!! most definitely did not work. At least the Strange New Worlds writers knew that Ethan Peck’s Spock has to have a damn good reason to lose his shit.) Hopefully, the Star Trek 4 situation will get resolved soon.
Discovery – I’ll come right out and say it. This is the weak sister of the bunch. It’s not for lack of trying, but it first veered so wildly from what people have come to expect from Trek. Then it had trouble finding a stable premise. The idea of the captain not anchoring the show sounded intriguing. And Jason Isaacs, who does intense better than most (as well as evil, which his Lorca turns out to be), was a great choice for playing the captain. Many complained of violations in canon. If Sarek and Amanda are Burnham’s foster parents, how come Spock hadn’t mentioned her? (Really, that’s Spock being Spock. There’s a franchise-killing Cousin Oliver somewhere on Vulcan who’s going to turn up someday.) Why do the Klingons look so different? The creators figured out quickly where they lost fans and brought in a character people had been asking about for fifty years: Captain Christopher Pike. Pike forced the crew (and therefore the writers) to broaden the focus a bit. We already knew Burnham, Saru, Stametz, Dettmer, and Culber. Beyond that, we knew nothing of the bridge crew, especially the bridge crew. Pike changed all that. But Pike made season 2 a backdoor pilot for Strange New Worlds. Ethan Peck sold us on a young Spock while Rebecca Romijn brought Number One to life. And then Discovery is shot almost millennium into the future where it can’t stomp all over canon. After spending season 3 showing us a Federation on its knees after a galaxy-wide cataclysm, it finally found its footing. Season 4, however, revealed Nu Trek’s biggest flaw: Trekkies don’t want bingeable story arcs. They’ll do story arcs (See Deep Space Nine, Voyager.) They want episodic. There can be an arc, but it needs to play out over standalone stories. Hopefully, season 5 will pick up on this.
Lower Decks – Trek hasn’t done animation since 1975. And the comedy had been missing since… Well, Star Trek Beyond. Enter Lower Decks, where there’s a dysfunctional bridge crew led by Captain Carol Freeman. But the focus, like the classic TNG episode of the same name, is on the junior, junior officers: rebellious Mariner Beckett, uptight Boimler, fish-out-of-water Rutherford, and the naive Tendi. Lower Decks brings back classic Trek characters, including Riker, Troi, Kira, and Tom Paris. Q shows up and gets blown off. Martok is licensing holographic games. Lower Decks pokes at some of Trek’s more ridiculous tropes. And the Cerritos answers the question, “Who has to clean up after Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway?” Doesn’t hurt that the show shares a brain trust with the minds behind Rick and Morty (which I would describe as Doctor Who on acid.)
Picard – You either love this one or hate it. Picard is past his prime and feeling out of sorts running the family winery. And then Data’s lost daughters show up, and things get strange. For once, all the characters are massively flawed. Not like on Deep Space Nine or Voyager. The former has everyone, even Quark in his own way, as professionals in a difficult situation. Voyager has two opposing sides (eventually three with a Borg crewmember) having to rewrite the rules on the fly. But Raffi is addicted. Seven (and so good to see Jeri Ryan back) has an identity crisis. Rios is flat out drunk. But the first season doesn’t follow the hero’s journey. The show runner was Michael Chabon, known more for his literary novels than scifi. The concept attracted Patrick Stewart back to the franchise, but it was a hard sell to the fans. At least until Riker and Troi reappear, giving the characters an end to their own story arc.
Season 2 brings back Q, reshapes the Borg, gives Seven a purpose, and gives Wesley Crusher the fate he deserves. (And it’s pretty cool.) Disjointed, it bends the series back towards TNG and sets up the third and final season: The TNG cast’s last road trip!
Prodigy – A group of aliens kids in this CG-animated series set in the Delta Quadrant, steal a starship. Which turns out to be a Federation starship, the Protostar. And a holographic avatar of Janeway guides them home. Well, to a new home. Like Discovery and Picard, it shakes up the story telling. But the return of Janeway, both as a hologram and the real Janeway, draws in the fans, as well as the humor. It’s obvious it’s geared for kids. So teenagers (or their alien equivalents) as accidental crew is the latest spin on seven people on a ship. Unlike Picard, which is a bit dark for traditional Trek fans, it uses humor deftly. And it fills in some of the blanks left after Voyager‘s end. We know what happened to Seven, and Tom Paris’s career seems to have been revived on Lower Decks, but what of Chakotay? The Holodoc? Torres and Kim? We may find out soon.
Strange New Worlds – Finally! It only took Trek 55 years to tell us all about Pike, Number One (who has a name), and the young Spock. We meet Chapel and Uhura at the dawn of their careers, M’Benga has a stint as the Enterprise‘s CMO. We also get the enigmatic La’an Noonien Singh (Yes, she’s related to that Noonien Singh. Thanks a helluva lot, Adam Soong.) My favorite character, gone too soon, is Hemmer, the Aenar chief engineer in the tradition of great blind chief engineers. Spirtual in the extreme, and probably the most chill character on Trek, he gives Spock one of the few legitimate reasons to lose his shit. And then there’s Ortegas, the cocky Enterprise helm who is the voice of the audience. Number One gets a name (Una Chin-Riley), April gets fleshed out, and Pike short-circuits the problem with prequels by discovering his mute, beeping future during Discovery. This last actually drives some of the storytelling. Not sure if Kirk will be a regular in Season 2. Paul Westley showed promise in an alternate timeline version of “Balance of Terror,” wherein future Pike may be the reason Kirk becomes captain of the Enterprise.
And Kirks brother Sam is the Guy Fleegelman of the Star Trek universe.