Star Trek is part of the quintessential makeup of our collective pop culture. Its imagery is iconic and its (sometimes misquoted) terminology has been a part of the popular vernacular for decades. Despite this, unlike some of our other pop culture institutions – Star Wars, Marvel and DC comic book characters, or the canon of Disney animated features – it seems like more people are aware of Star Trek than have actually seen it. While it would be easy to get sidetracked on the ‘why’ of this (and I suspect the reason can be attributed to the colder, and frankly, more boring approach taken by The Next Generation and later iterations of the series), what I’m more interested in doing today is explaining what makes Star Trek worth checking out.
You’ve probably heard countless times about Star Trek‘s unique vision of the future: a future of optimism and acceptance, where mankind has learned to move past the failings that define us in the present and boldly go into a new future. All of that is true, and a crucial part of Trek, but it also, admittedly sounds deathly boring. So humanity’s gotten their act together. Sure, that’s a great ideal, but it’s terrible for the basic tenants of drama. That’s why there’s another big part of Star Trek, a part that many of its fans fail to mention. The entire appeal of Star Trek is in its characters.
The original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is made up of big personalities, each with their own flaws and foibles and egos. And while these personalities have a tendency to rub up against each other, they’re all ultimately dedicated to the same noble pursuit. There’s your drama. Even though Trek has had some terrific villains over its history, the villains were never really the heart of the conflict. It was always about an obstacle that had to be overcome by the crew reconciling their differences and working together to reach a solution. It’s about embracing every aspect of our humanity to accomplish something greater – an ideal that is personified by three men: James Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.
Spock, the ship’s half-Vulcan science officer, attempts to approach every situation from a place of pure logic. Every situation can be deconstructed and dehumanized until it’s a matter of pure calculation. Bones, on the other hand, is all about emotion. He’s passionate and rash, being quick to speak his mind and vocalize the raw emotional heart of a problem. And then there’s Kirk, captain of the Enterprise, striking the balance between them. Kirk can be rash, happy to throw out the rule book if the situation calls for it, but he’s also willing to wait, using his wits and intelligence to come up with a logical plan of action. It’s this trio of friends that defines the entire ethos of the original series of Star Trek.
The other thing that defines the original series is that it’s super-duper fun. Again, Star Trek has a reputation for being chilly and cerebral and dull, but the original series could not be farther from that. In fact, Roddenberry’s original pilot for the series was much colder, but the network rejected it, telling him to come back with something a little more fun. And so he did. Star Trek was pitched as a space western, a ‘Wagon Train to the Stars.’ The series espouses noble ideologies and flirts with high-minded concepts, but it’s also not afraid to resort to good old fashioned fisticuffs if the situation calls for it (spoiler: the situation almost always calls for it). It’s also funny! The banter between Kirk, Spock, and Bones is filled with delightful barbs and smart one-liners and the actors playing these roles really know how to sell the comedy. Having re-watched the series front-to-back recently, there are more than a few episodes that had me in stitches for a solid chunk of their 50 minute running time. None of this takes away from the humanity or the high-mindedness of the show, quite the contrary: it embraces an essential facet of the human condition. Again, you have a show whose ethos is defined by its three central characters and only one of them is cold and cerebral.
The original series of Star Trek is a joy, and even 50 years later it still feels fresh and vital (sometimes unfortunately so given the nature of the social commentary). With a new movie and TV series on the horizon, now is a great time to hop in. That being said, I realize that the idea of tackling this series spanning 50 years, 13 films, and 700 episodes of television is more than a little daunting, and just starting right at the beginning may not be the best approach. That’s why I’ve put together this handy beginner’s guide, one that will get you oriented with the flavor of Star Trek before you decide whether or not you want to jump in with both feet.
Step One: Start With The Movies
As many people will probably tell you, Star Trek is first and foremost a TV show, but for someone just starting out, it’s maybe not the best place to start. Even though I just spent a few hundred words arguing the merits of the original series, I have to admit that it takes a little bit of mental recalibration for modern audiences to acclimate to the pacing and style of 1960s television. The movies, though, generally have a much more modern feel, particularly (and obviously) the newer J.J. Abrams films. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Abrams’ first Trek film isn’t a half bad place to start. I know some in the fan community might be inclined to boil me alive for that sentiment, but I stand by it. It’s not the best place to start, but it is a fair one. My advice, though, is to do the following:
Don’t Start with The Motion Picture
Jumping into the films, it would seem natural to start with the first one. This is a bad idea. Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t necessarily a bad movie, and we can argue its merits on another day, but it is an incredibly cold movie. Every negative stereotype associated with Star Trek is reinforced by this film. It’s visually and emotionally frigid, it’s cerebral to the point for being alienating, and it moves at a snail’s pace. This film has earmed the nickname The Motionless Picture and for good reason. Eventually, it’s worth looping back around to this one, but if it’s your first experience with Trek, I doubt you’d be coming back for seconds.
Start with the Star Trek Trilogy
The way the films are numbered doesn’t make this totally obvious, but only three of the films have direct, continuous links, and those films are II, III, and IV. You can pretty much take or leave any of the other films in the series, but these three are essential.
What’s more, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an absolutely perfect film. It’s also the best possible point of entry for Star Trek. It has everything that defines the original series. It has humor, it has heart, it has incredibly satisfying action, it has big science fiction concepts, and it’s all totally rooted in a love of its characters. The Wrath of Khan is one of those movies I can’t imagine anyone not liking. It’s not only a perfect culmination to years of storytelling, but it’s also a glorious, thrilling self-contained film. Its closest peer in that regard is maybe The Avengers and Wrath of Khan, quite frankly, does it better.
Next up is Star Trek III. There’s a reductive adage that states only the even numbered Trek movies are good, but it’s not totally true. While The Motion Picture is difficult to love and Star Trek V is an unwatchable disaster, The Search for Spock gets lumped in their kind of unfairly. It’s the middle part of the trilogy, and it’s also unquestionably the weakest chapter in that story, but it’s far from a bad movie. In fact, the first hour of the movie is a blast! Spock is trapped on a distant planet, but the Enterprise is in lockdown, so the crew has to commandeer their own ship to go rescue their friend. Unfortunately, the back half of the movie starts to run out of gas, but it’s not enough to sink the film. If anything The Search for Spock is likely the closest the films got ever got to capturing the feel of an original series episode, and though it’s imperfect, there’s a lot to love.
Finally there’s Star Trek IV. This one is just unabashedly joyful. It’s light and fluffy and silly, but it’s also a rousing celebration of these characters, a love letter to the cast of Star Trek. Next to Wrath of Khan, this is the film whose iconography has bled into the mainstream most noticeably and for good reason. It’s one hell of a good time.
Note: All the other original cast films are available to stream free for Amazon Prime subscribers, except, for whatever reason, Star Trek IV. That’s ridiculous, I know, but trust me, this one’s worth a $4 rental.
Skip V and Go Straight to VI
As I mentioned before, Star Trek V is absolute garbage. Almost totally irredeemable. The good news is that it’s a totally isolated story so you’re not missing anything by avoiding it like the plague. So, if you dug the trilogy and want more, it’s best to skip V and go straight to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County.
Nicholas Meyer, the director of Wrath of Khan, returns for VI, so there’s a lot of that same flavor. It’s more militaristic and action-driven than III or IV, but in a way that doesn’t betray the humanitarian ideals of Star Trek. The film is parable about the end of the Cold War – two enemies trying to find peace and the struggle and strife that occurs along the way. It’s a murder mystery, a prison break story, and a space adventure all wrapped into one, and it serves as a beautiful send off to the original crew of the Enterprise. This one is maybe not as essential as the trilogy, but it comes highly recommended all the same.
Don’t watch Generations or the other Next Generation movies
Just trust me on this one. Not only are the Next Generation films almost unilaterally terrible, but unlike the original cast films, they’re a much worse point of entry for the TNG iteration of Star Trek than the TV series itself. Sure, Captain Kirk is technically in Generations, but it’s definitively a TNG film, and Kirk’s role in the film just make you frustrated. If you’ve really got the Trek fever, feel free to dive down the TNG rabbit hole, but it’s best to start with the original series. And on that note…
Step Two: Get A Taste Of The TV Series
So you made it through step one and you’re saying to yourself, “you know, this Star Track thing ain’t bad!” The next step is to go back to the original television series (which is currently available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime). Now, if you’re really enthusiastic, you could just start at the beginning and go through in order. For those of you who might want a little bit of a lead-in, though, there is a better way.
Like most TV series, it takes a few episodes for Star Trek to really settle into a groove, but because of the episodic nature of the series (e.g. each episode tells its own story wholly separate from the episodes that surround it), you can also jump around and get a feel for the series at its best before going back to some of those earlier episodes.
With that in mind, here are five episodes that I think give a good representation of what Star Trek has to offer. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a list of the five best episodes of the series (though one or two of these might make that list), but rather a list of great episodes that also serve as a great place to start.
The Devil in the Dark (Season 1, Episode 25)
I love, love, love this episode. The setup here is that the Enterprise is called in to check on a mining facility that is being menaced by some kind of monster that disintegrates the miners. I pick this one because, first and foremost, it’s a great Kirk, Spock, and Bones episode. You’ve got these three guys trapped underground with an unseen monster, so it’s a perfect scenario for McCoy’s emotions to react against Spock’s logic while Kirk tries to keep things on track. It’s also really, really fun with a neat central mystery and a resolution that represents the perfect Star Trek ideal.
Journey to Babel (Season 2, Episode 10)
While ‘Devil in the Dark’ is a really solid away mission episode, ‘Journey to Babel’ gives you a good feel for life onboard the Enterprise. The Enterprise is playing host to representatives from different alien worlds, and along the way, one of the dignitaries is murdered. You’ve got a whodunnit with some galactic politics and a broad swath of alien species thrown in for good measure.
Space Seed (Season 1, Episode 22)
It’s the origin of Khan! This episode retroactively benefits from its connection to the best Star Trek film, but even without that bump, it’s a pretty solid hour of television all on its own. It’s also got quite a bit of action, proving that Trek was more than happy to swash some buckles back in the original series.
A Taste of Armageddon (Season 1, Episode 23)
This one is almost certainly a Top 5 episodes contender. It’s based on a genius idea. Two planets have been at war for centuries, and since both worlds have created weapons of horrific mass destruction, they’ve agreed to carry out their conflict by simulation. Instead of launching missiles at each other, they use a computer to dictate where each world is hit and what the corresponding death toll is. Once the numbers are in, citizens are called forth to step into disintegration chambers to ‘pay off’ the balance of lives lost in the latest ‘attack.’ What’s amazing about Star Trek is that, at its peak, it was churning out ideas like this on a weekly basis. And even though the subject matter is pitch black, there’s some great humor and levity on display. If this episode doesn’t sell you on Trek, nothing will.
Amok Time (Season 2, Episode 1)
Spock’s loins are ablaze and he must return to Vulcan to perform a sacred mating ritual to get his emotions back in check. This is another great Kirk/Spock/Bones episode with the added bonus of introducing some essential Star Trek lore.
Bonus: The Trouble With Tribbles (Season 2, Episode 15)
If you made it through all five (and really, you should because those are all super watchable episodes), reward yourself with ‘The Trouble With Tribbles.’ This is The Voyage Home of Star Trek episodes. It’s silly and fluffy, but it’s also a damn good time. I can’t imagine the kind of person who would not be delighted by this episode. Enjoy some Tribbles. You’ve earned it.
Step Three: Boldy Go Where Trek Fans Have Gone Before
You’ve now watched four of the feature films and six episodes of the TV series. If you’ve made it this far, it’s safe to say you’ve fully bought in on this silly Star Trek thing. The next step is to just explore this massive universe. Go back and watch all three seasons of the original series in their entirety. Watch The Motion Picture. Don’t ever watch Star Trek V (seriously, it’s horrendous). There’s also the animated series which features the voices and many of the writers from the original series (and it’s canon!). And once you’ve exhausted all of the original cast adventures, there’s still 600 or so more Trek episodes from the other spin-off shows if you choose to go that deep. For me, none of it was ever as good as the original series and its corresponding films, but there are a lot of people out there who go bananas for The Next Generation.
The great thing is that it’s totally up to you. Now that you’ve gotten the ground work, you can pick and choose, or you can just fully immerse yourself in the world of Trek. The choice is yours. Have fun!