The Easy Way to Catch Up on 50 Years of Star Trek
Star Trek is big. Like, really big. There have been six TV series totaling more than 700 episodes, 13 movies, and a whole host of companion novels, comics, and video games. Which all adds up to more Star Trek than you could hope to get through in years of hardcore binge-watching .
In spite of, or more likely because of, this ridiculously large universe, Star Trek remains a hugely important cultural icon. It has inspired dozens of other science fiction movies , some great sci-fi television shows , and countless ludicrous online debates between nerds.
If you’ve never watched Star Trek before, or have just caught some of the recent movies or old episodes in syndication, it can be hard to know where to begin. Today, in honor of Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary, let’s look at some of the ways you can get up to speed.
For the completist, there’s only one way to do Star Trek: start at the beginning and work your way through everything (except the Animated Series, even Gene Roddenberry disowned that). If you really want to get your uber-nerd membership card you’re going to need to watch every minute that’s been broadcast on TV or screened in a cinema. The best viewing order for the completist is:
- Star Trek: The Original Series (CA, UK) (TV Series)
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (CA, UK) (TV Series)
- Star Trek VII: Generations (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (CA, UK) (TV Series)
- Star Trek: Voyager (CA, UK) (TV Series)
- Star Trek VIII: First Contact (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek IX: Insurrection (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek X: Nemesis (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek: Enterprise (CA, UK) (TV Series)
- Star Trek (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek Into Darkness (CA, UK) (Movie)
- Star Trek Beyond (CA, UK) (Movie)
That IS a hell of a lot of content, but it will give you the complete Star Trek experience. It’s not in a strictly chronological order (Star Trek: Enterprise is a prequel set before The Original Series, and The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine overlapped for a while) but it’s near enough to it that you’ll see the development of the universe.
If you’re serious, go ahead and dedicate several years of your life to getting through it all! However, for most people, the completist order is a pretty bad fit. Star Trek is great, but it’s not “lose all your friends and disregard personal hygiene” great.
Thankfully there is an alternative way of plowing through 50 years of Star Trek, which we have outlined for you below.
The best way to watch Star Trek in any reasonable amount of time is to skip huge chunks of it. And by huge chunks, I’m talking complete series and runs of episodes. This viewing order might prove controversial (realistically, it will prove controversial) but let’s take a look at what parts of Star Trek are truly unmissable.
The Original Series
First off, skip The Original Series. Yes, that’s right, skip the one that started it all. No Kirk, no Spock, no Bones. It’s all skippable. I know it’s a bold claim but hear me out.
When The Original Series was being broadcast it wasn’t the cultural monster we know today; it was just another TV show competing for air time. Although Roddenberry was a visionary and had very definite views on how Utopian the future would be, the network had other ideas. He had to make compromises to get his show on TV. These compromises show.
The Original Series also doesn’t hold up very well. It’s a product of the swinging 60s and is about as cheesy as it gets. The various human-shaped-body-but-with-bad-prosthetics-stuck-to-their-faces aliens the crew encounter look ridiculous. There’s a certain nostalgia value to it, and it did kick off the Star Trek franchise, but it’s really not very good. If you must, pick a few random episodes to get a feel for The Original Series, but otherwise skip it entirely.
By throwing out The Original Series you also get to skip Star Trek I through VI. This is far from a bad thing. The movies are, at best, overlong TV episodes and at worst, time traveling capers involving whales.
Actually, while you’re at it, skip movies VII through X too, as they’re awful as well.
The Next Generation
The Next Generation is almost universally recognized as being the best Star Trek series. Patrick Stewart brought a level of acting skill to the role of Captain Picard that was sorely missing in William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Everything about the series is miles above The Original Series. Rather than having to bow to the whims of the network, Roddenberry had a lot more creative control over this series, so his vision of the future was more fully realized. It’s the show The Original Series should have been.
Produced in the late 80s and early 90s, The Next Generation holds up a lot better than The Original Series (although there are still a few too many bad prosthetics for my liking).
This isn’t to say The Next Generation is perfect. There are plenty of skippable episodes. Luckily, the wonderful Max Temkin has created a viewing list that condenses the show’s 178 hours down to just 40. This makes the whole thing manageable in just a few weekends. Star Trek: The Next Generation in 40 Hours is flat out the best way to watch the best series of Star Trek. If you’re looking to invest as little time as possible, this is the way to do it.
Deep Space Nine
While Roddenberry was fully able to realize his vision in The Next Generation, his Utopian ideals were even criticized in the writer’s room. Roddenberry banned crew members from having any conflict with each other, because a bunch of people crammed together in a tin can wouldn’t fight in the 24th Century… obviously.
After Roddenberry died, the writers who had been limited creatively on The Next Generation decided to push the boundaries and explore the limits of Star Trek‘s Utopian future. What happens when the ever-tolerant Federation comes into contact with a truly intolerable group? It makes for compelling viewing.
Deep Space Nine is set on a space station. With all the major characters confined to one main location, the writers were able to take a more continuous approach to the story rather than the episodic nature of the previous two series.
Although this is great for fans of character development, it makes it harder to skip episodes as the series works best as a whole. Still, Max Temkin had a shot with his Medium post condensing Deep Space Nine down to 82.5 hours. He wasn’t able to condense things quite as much as with The Next Generation, but it’s still a good deal shorter than the original run.
Deep Space Nine divides Star Trek fans because it strays the most from Roddenberry’s vision. This controversy is, to me, what makes it such essential viewing for Star Trek fans. It will get you right into the middle of one of the biggest Trekkie debates. Nerd cred engage!
Voyager, while either the second or third best Star Trek series depending on who you ask, isn’t essential viewing. It’s another 200 hours of a crew banging about in a spaceship. It’s a lot more serialized than The Next Generation so it does have more character development, but it also makes it much harder to drop in and out.
If, after watching The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, you’re still hungry for more Star Trek, then it’s time to dive into Voyager. You’re probably going to have to tackle the whole thing, at least until Max Temkin tackles the unenviable task of condensing Voyager down.
There’s not much to say about Enterprise than to advise you to skip it. While it’s not bad, it’s far from great. It was cut short after only four seasons, making it one for the completist rather than the casual fan.
The New Movies
The new Star Trek movies are a total reboot of the franchise. You don’t need to have seen any of the TV shows or earlier movies to watch them (although you will catch plenty of references and in-jokes if you have). They’re a lot more action driven than the rest of the Star Trek universe, so some Trekkies aren’t fans. For everyone else, these are three fun movies worth watching with friends (if you didn’t catch them in the cinema ).
Live Long and Prosper
Star Trek has a long history. It’s been a big part of pop culture for the last 50 years, and its popularity shows no sign of waning. There are new movies on the way and a new TV show too. Star Trek: Discovery looks rather promising, and it will hopefully become essential viewing for generations to come.
In this article I’ve had to make some pretty big calls about what the highlights of Star Trek are. I openly admit I could be wrong about some of them.
So, if you’re a massive Star Trek fan, feel free to let me know in the comments just how badly I’ve messed up. You should also recommend some of your favorite series, individual episodes, or movies so that everyone gets to hear more than just my take on this wonderful franchise.