As a newcomer to the Star Trek series, I felt that I had to reach out elsewhere to give you proper instructions on watching the series. My Trekkie friend Joe Hohman-Andujar was more than happy to oblige. Here is his advice:
The most important thing to remember about Star Trek is often the best episodes are a direct result of the current social climate in the United States when it aired. If you find yourself watching an episode of The Original Series (TOS) where, say, there is racial segregation in an alien species, it is a direct commentary of segregation in the United States at the time. I’ll avoid adding too many spoilers, but some of the titles will give away the main plot points. Sorry.
The first two seasons are amazing. They had social commentary that inspired people and made them think. It is what made Star Trek… Star Trek. Fun fact, the first interracial kiss on television of all time was on Star Trek between Nichele Nichols (Lt. Uhura) and William Shatner (Capt. Kirk). Sadly, the third season (and last) is not up to par. The series creator, Gene Roddenberry, had basically left the show and reduced his involvement in its production greatly. Not all of Star Trek is particularly good, every work has its bad or mediocre parts.
After TOS, came the movies:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
A classic sci-fi film and truly Star Trek. The characters encounter a being of unimaginable power and purpose and struggle to comprehend it. If you forgive the 1970’s-style film pacing, it is a great comeback for the crew of the Enterprise.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
TWOK is widely considered the best of all the Star Trek movies. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say it was an omen for things to come.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Also an amazing film, with some great moments between the crew and a few tears.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
AKA “Save the whales.” Personally, I consider it the second best of the original series films. It’s funny, it has time travel (which we Trekkies LOVE), and most importantly, it has a theme rooted in social commentary that resonates with audiences even to this day.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
It’s as bad as TWOK is good. Honestly, if you’re cool with missing some knowledge about Spock’s family and Nichele Nichols’ doing a sexy fan dance, I would skip it.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The last purely TOS crew movie. It is a great send-off to the crew of ol’ 1701 (the hull number for the Enterprise). It brings in commentary about the peace process with the Klingons, who in TOS represented the Soviet Union. Definitely do not skip this one at all.
The Next Generation
During the run of the Original Series films, Gene Roddenberry came back to television in 1987 to create Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Lead by the incomparable Sir Patrick Stewart, TNG did things that resonated back to TOS. Social commentary was back. Torture, language barriers, PTSD, the proper use of force, mental illness and a very light skimming of homosexuality was all on the to-do list for TNG. It is critically acclaimed and widely loved. The first two seasons are a bit rough but necessary and enjoyable by the time you finish. Just remember, if Jonathan Frakes doesn’t have a beard yet, it gets better.
Deep Space Nine and Generations
During the last season of TNG, I would start watching Deep Space Nine (DS9) in between each episode of TNG. After you have finished both, go ahead and watch Star Trek: Generations. It’s a great send off to the old crew and a welcome to the TNG crew to the film franchise.
DS9 was the Battlestar Galactica reboot years before Battlestar aired. After the first season or so, they went to a more serial approach, where each story built on the next. Essentially, the last four seasons are one long story with the occasional one-off in-between. And, like TNG, the first two seasons are rough.
By and large, I cannot speak well enough about DS9. It was the quiet “Trek” during the 90’s. It occupied a less desirable time slot than TNG or Voyager, had a smaller budget, and therefore got away with hitting on tougher subjects.
The season seven episode “The Siege of AR-558” will speak volumes about DS9’s ability to speak to audiences: past, present and future. The show also uses an episode or two to basically break from the story entirely and talk about race inequality. They don’t even try to explain it away or hide it at all. They are in your face, “This entire episode is about race inequality in the United States, both past and present” moments.
Despite what anyone tells you, do not skip a moment of DS9. The story is the best television produced for a post-9/11 audience that was produced before 9/11.
First Contact and Insurrection
When the uniforms on DS9 change, go ahead and watch Star Trek: First Contact. First Contact is BY FAR the best film in the entire series, at least in my opinion. It’s TNG’s Wrath of Khan. After that, go back to Deep Space Nine until about the middle of Season 7, then watch Star Trek: Insurrection. Insurrection isn’t bad Star Trek, but it’s not amazing Star Trek either. It feels like a long filler episode of TNG with some really cool moments, but nothing that lives up to Generations or First Contact.
You can start watching Voyager (VOY) when it aired at the same time as DS9 season two, or wait until after. It’s pretty disconnected from the rest of the franchise. VOY had mostly good episodes, but when it had a bad episode, it was really bad.
Do yourself a favor, skip Season two, episode 15, “Threshold.” The show’s writers basically ignore it ever happened because it was so bad, and you should as well. In season three, there is a bit of a casting change that obviously was meant to appeal to its target demographic (straight males between the ages of 14-30). I won’t give too much away, but the character that was finally starting to get interesting goes away and we get a much sexier replacement.
VOY had some amazing character growth, but my particular favorite developments always came from The Doctor, Voyager’s holographic doctor.
I have to mention it, but TNG had one last movie after Insurrection. It was called Nemesis. It was just BAD. Levar Burton once said while on a panel that the director kept referring to his character as an alien. He was human, just blind with a device that allowed him to see. I watched it once, was shocked to see my favorite crew go out with such a bad send-off and have never watched it since. I would recommend skipping it at all costs. You’re not missing anything interesting.
After Star Trek Voyager ended and Nemesis tanked, Enterprise came. It’s a prequel series set about 100 years before TOS. The premise is that Earth has just launched its first Warp 5-capable ship, and they were going to explore the universe. So, basically what Trek is about, except they did a very mediocre job of accomplishing this goal.
Admittedly, the last season–season four–was pretty good and season three had a few interesting plots. However, there was this over-arching plot about a Temporal Cold War that just never sat well with most people, including myself. They really never did anything interesting with it and honestly the concept was contrived. If you find yourself not skipping it and enjoying it, the finale was just disappointing.
In the end, Enterprise went off the air in 2005, effectively killing TV Star Trek which had been on, uninterrupted, since 1987.
After all that, I would watch the JJ Abrams films. They actually fit there chronologically best. Because temporal mechanics (You’ll have learned by this point, anytime someone brings up “Temporal Mechanics” they are very much talking about time travel).
Despite the unfortunate ending to the main universe stories, Star Trek is one of the best science fiction franchises to ever be on television. Unless you come at it with a predisposition against sci-fi, you will love it. But as I said, just remember the social climate in the US when each episode aired, and you will find a deeper understanding and value of most of the episodes.
There you have it, folks. At the risk of sounding corny, life long and prosper with your newfound Trek knowledge.