So you’ve just watched the latest Star Trek
movie, and you’re hooked. Now you want to dive into the almost five decades worth of Trek media. Where do you start? Let’s see if we can answer that here.
has its roots in television, and anybody who wants to experience what Trek
is really all about needs to go no further than the various television incarnations of the franchise. The original Star Trek
series debuted in 1966, and it was like nothing else on television. Though the series is often derided for its Styrofoam sets and occasional overwrought dialogue, it wasn’t very long before critics saw what the show really was: the first science fiction show made for adults, unafraid to tackle big social issues through its stories.
was revolutionary from every aspect. Back in 1966, a cast made up of such varied ethnicities was unheard of, and the presence of Lt. Uhura and Lt. Sulu was a major step towards integration in television. What’s fascinating about Star Trek
is that it never made a big deal about it at all, preaching acceptance right from the start without even talking about it. Star Trek
was also a huge step up in television special effects. Though a lot of it looks pretty hokey now, back in 1966 it was mind-blowing.
The first Star Trek
series ran for three seasons, and of the three, season two is easily the most consistent. Season one had some of the series’ best, but it was obvious that they were still trying to find their footing. Season three had the show moved to an unfavorable timeslot, and it seemed like much of the motivation behind the series was gone. Season two maintained a higher level of quality from episode to episode, making it the easiest to watch for a relative newcomer.
But the thing about the original series is that you can really jump in at any place and be captivated by a great story. Here are some of the standouts:
The City on the Edge of Forever
(Season 1, Episode 28)
Generally considered the best episode of Star Trek
-ever-, in any incarnation, The City on the Edge of Forever
finds Captain Kirk and Spock going back in time to Earth in the 1930s to find a drug-addled McCoy. The episode begins lighthearted as we watch the two trying to blend into depression era America, but soon gets serious as Kirk is faced with an impossible question: should an innocent woman die for the greater good?
(Season 1, Episode 24)
This episode introduces Khan Noonien Singh, who would later show up in the movies. Here, much of Star Trek’s
fictional history is revealed, as we learn that back in the 1990s, Earth went through its third world war, as genetically engineered ubermensch came to subjugate the Earth under their superior wills. The Enterprise runs into a ship full of these genetic supermen, and have to deal with their designs of conquest.
The Doomsday Machine
(Season 2, Episode 6)
always found time to be relevant, despite being in such an alien setting. 1966 had America in the middle of the Cold War, and The Doomsday Machine
tackles that issue head on, showing us the consequences and illogic of using weapons as deterrents for armed conflict.
(Season 2, Episode 3)
Thanks to a transporter accident, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura find themselves beamed into an alternate world where everyone is evil and Spock has a beard. The influence of this episode is staggering, and to this day, the idea of evil doubles with beards has not gone away.
The Trouble with Tribbles
(Season 2, Episode 15)
at its most fun: Enterprise gets overrun by furry little creatures called tribbles that reproduce like crazy. It’s a great example of how versatile Star Trek
really was as a series, ably doing comedy as well as political commentary and drama.
spawned four more live action television series, starting with The Next Generation
(TNG) in 1987.
TNG brought much of the same spirit as the original show, and was still helmed by Roddenberry himself. Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard was markedly different from Shatner’s Kirk, a man more focused on diplomacy than adventure, often making use of Stewart’s Shakespearean chops. This series is a mammoth to tackle with 178 episodes, but much of it is accessible thanks to the series’ focus on standalone episodes.
The next series, Deep Space Nine
(DS9) was a major departure from the rest of the franchise. Set in a space station populated by thieves, mercenaries, smugglers and con men, DS9 often explored the darker side of Star Trek
, showing us characters in tougher situations where idealism may not be the best way to survive. DS9 is commitment, with a greater focus on continuity, and it starts out really slow, but many Trek
aficionados consider it a high point of the franchise.
followed the adventures of a ship marooned on the other side of the galaxy, manned by a mixed crew of Federation officers and the rebel Maquis. The series wanted to bring the focus back to exploration and discovering new alien races. Voyager
isn’t as bad as most people say it is, but it gets pretty rough through the back end of the series, as it became obvious that network concerns became the primary driving force behind stories. It’s largely skippable.
was a prequel series, following the exploits of a crew that predated Kirk and company. The series was pretty much reviled by the Trek
fandom, and for the most part, rightly so. Hobbled with years of Trek
continuity that they couldn’t really mess with, Enterprise
felt like an exercise in wheel spinning. It did pick up in the back end of the series, but it was too little, too late. Enterprise
can easily be ignored.
The rule of thumb for years was even numbered Trek
movies are good while odd numbered movies are bad. That more of less held true until the tenth entry in the series, Nemesis
, which didn’t come close to living up to the other even-numbered entrants. For the first nine movies, though, it isn’t a bad rule to go by:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Wrath of Khan
isn’t just the best Trek
film; it’s largely considered to be just a great film all in all, often placed in lists alongside much more revered classics. The movie picks up on a thread left hanging from the original series episode Space Seed
, and crafts a powerful story about revenge and loss. The movie’s villain, Khan Noonien Singh, is consistently placed high on lists of best movie villains ever
. Ricardo Montalban plays Khan with so much magnetism and pathos that you almost want to root for him. The movie was originally designed to be the last Trek
film, and thus tries to really sum up the progress of these characters in the larger universe, showing them getting older and regretting some of their choices, living to see all the consequences of their mistakes. Star Trek
is often dismissed as lightweight drama; Wrath of Khan
proves it to be more sophisticated than most.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The Voyage Home
is the silliest entry in the Trek
movies. The premise is patently absurd: the crew of Enterprise goes back in time to retrieve a couple of sperm whales to communicate with a mysterious alien probe. It served as a respite from the two much darker movies that preceded it, and reminded people that Star Trek
can still be a lot of fun. There’s a lot of comic joy to be mined from watching the crew whinge about how primitive the eighties are.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
After the absolutely horrendous fifth movie, Star Trek
went back to its allegorical roots with The Undiscovered Country
. The impetus for the movie was the question “what if the Wall fell in the Star Trek
universe?” For years, Trek
represented the Cold War through the Federation’s conflict with the warlike Klingon race, and here we see the metaphorical Wall being torn down, as Kirk and his crew are sent to negotiate a peace treaty. Kirk, who’s lost so much from this war, is reluctant to make amends, while a rogue Klingon general played by Christopher Plummer(!) tries to sabotage the talks as well. The Undiscovered Country
was a fitting swan song for this original crew, having them finally finding peace after years of conflict.
Star Trek: First Contact
The first film to feature the Next Generation crew was Generations
, an ill-conceived attempt to have Picard and Kirk in the same picture. First Contact
was a much more successful outing for the Next Generation crew. Like Wrath of Khan
, it drew history from one of the television episodes and brought the Enterprise crew up against an old foe. The crew then goes back in time to when Earth was about first contact with an alien species, dramatizing a long-awaited piece of the Trek
puzzle, while telling a story about human triumph and achievement.
Outside of the main Star Trek
films, there are two movies that really serve as good companions to the main Trek
canon. The first is Joss Whedon’s Serenity
, the movie swan song to his own science fiction television series Firefly
. While Whedon is clearly influenced by the best parts of Trek
, his own work appears to have influenced the new Trek
film, bringing the focus to interpersonal relationships and bringing the space battles to new heights with virtual handheld camera work. The other film is 1999’s Galaxy Quest
, which parodies much of the silliness of Trek
, but also serves as a love letter to Star Trek
fans in general. In ninety, compact minutes, Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell show audiences what people love so much about Star Trek
, and ends up praising fans for their devotion.
If you’re looking to get into Trek
soon, you’re in luck. Mogwai Cinematheque
will be holding a week of Trek
-related screenings from May 18 to May 22. Here’s the schedule:
May 18 Monday – 2 Classic Star Trek Episodes: Space Seed
and City on the Edge of Forever
May 19 Tuesday – 2 Classic Star Trek Episodes: Mirror, Mirror
and The Trouble with Tribbles
May 20 Wednesday – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
May 21 Thursday – Galaxy Quest
May 22 Friday – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
There’s a lot more Trek
to dig into, if you really want to get deep in it. The franchise has spawned tons of material in various forms, so there’s practically no end for anybody who really gets into this cultural phenomenon. But even catching just a little bit of the original series or the movies is pretty rewarding by itself. In them, you can see the seeds for what makes the current film so enjoyable, the strong characters and relationships that make all the silliness so easy to watch. For all the Styrofoam rocks and goofy adversaries that Trek
has in its repertoire, there’s just no denying that it’s the characters who’ve made things so memorable, and you’re going to enjoy getting to know them.