Fifty years ago this month — Sept. 8, 1966, to be exact — 20th century TV viewers got their first glimpse of what life in the 23rd century might be like. Their time travel device of choice? Star Trek, a new series from producer Gene Roddenberry that he described as a “Wagon Train to the Stars,” a reference to a popular western series that depicted a caravan of settlers making their way across the post-Civil War American frontier. Roddenberry applied that premise to the so-called “final frontier” of outer space, sending the diverse crew of the Starship Enterprise to the farthest corners of the galaxy seeking out new life and new civilizations.
In the half-century since Star Trek’s debut, we’ve witnessed five more series that offer a glimpse into the franchise’s idyllic future, where space exploration is as ordinary as walking to the post office and Earth’s nations have put aside their differences to serve a common goal. And after a 10-year hiatus without a new Star Trek series, January 2017 will see the first Trek premiere since Star Trek: Enterprise launched its maiden voyage 15 years ago on Sept. 26, 2001. That’s when Bryan Fuller’s highly anticipated Star Trek: Discovery boldly goes onto CBS before moving over to the network’s streaming service, CBS All Access.
The idea of the creator of Hannibal and Pushing Daisies being handed the keys to his own Star Trek starship is exciting even if you’re not a card-carrying Trekkie. (For the record, this isn’t Fuller’s first tour with Starfleet: A lifelong Trek fan, he got his start writing scripts for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.) As we anticipate Star Trek: Discovery’s debut, we’re looking back at Trek’s previous missions by ranking all of the series premieres — all of which are available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, along with the entirety of each of the six Star Trek series — we’ve watched to date.
6. Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Encounter at Farpoint” (Original Stardate: Sept. 28, 1987)
The story of the numerous false starts and failed launches of a second Star Trek TV series could fill an entire book. (In fact, it did.) All of that baggage carried over into the development process for The Next Generation, which had the added challenge of making fans and newbies alike fall in love with a new crew rather than James T. Kirk’s band of explorers. And you can feel the uncertainty throughout “Farpoint,” a stiffly written and acted two-hour premiere that led off a largely underwhelming first season. It’s most valuable contribution is introducing one of TNG’s best villains, John de Lancie’s dimension-defying Q, who would return several times during the run of the series, most notably in its series finale “All Good Things,” which is as mind-blowingly good as “Farpoint” is mind-numbingly dull. Think of this episode as a false star that both TNG and Star Trek itself had to get out of its system before venturing onto bigger and better things.
5. Star Trek: Enterprise: “Broken Bow” (Original Stardate: Sept. 26, 2001)
The appeal of Star Trek’s divisive prequel series — which manages to be both underrated and properly rated at the same time — always lay in watching an early crew wrestling with the limits of pre-Original Series future tech. Jonathan Archer’s crew, for example, never had the benefit of streaking across the galaxy at speeds higher than Warp 5. In its best moments, “Broken Bow” taps into some of that sense of wonderment that accompanies tales of early pioneer exploration, aided immeasurably by Scott Bakula’s genuinely affecting performance as Archer. It’s just a shame that everything else about the episode feels so routine, up to and including his blandly characterized crew. And then there’s the infamous decontamination scene, where designated heartthrobs T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) and Trip (Connor Trinneer) lotion each other up in their skivvies in an embarrassingly — pardon the pun — naked attempt to engage Trekkie hormones.
4. Star Trek: The Animated Series: “Beyond the Farthest Star” (Original Stardate: Sept. 8, 1973)
The ’70s and ’80s are littered with forgettable Filmation-produced Saturday morning spinoffs of popular franchises. But Star Trek’s journey into animation retained some of the sophisticated storytelling glimpsed in its live-action counterpart. Take the premiere episode, which strands the members of Kirk’s Enterprise — this was a rare case where many of the original actors returned to voice their cartoon selves — on a dead star occupied by an alien eager to seize control of a starship and jet off to other inhabited worlds. (Funnily enough, William Shatner borrowed elements of this storyline for his entry into the Star Trek film franchise, The Final Frontier.) Look past the admittedly retro animation and you’ve got an entertaining pocket-size Star Trek story.
3. Star Trek: Voyager: “Caretaker” (Original Stardate: Jan. 16, 1995)
In a sense, Voyager’s first episode was the easiest entry of the series to make. After all, slingshotting the crew of the titular ship some 70,000 light years away from the safety of Federation-occupied space is a gripping hook. Filling that fresh patch of galaxy with equally compelling stories, though, is a challenge that Voyager regularly struggled with over its seven-season run. Taken on its own terms, the feature-length “Caretaker” is actually on par and even superior to several of the franchise’s feature-film installments. (If faced with the choice of watching “Caretaker” or Star Trek: Insurrection, for example, the smart Trekkie chooses “Caretaker” every time.) And Kate Mulgrew’s presence at the helm of Voyager as Capt. Janeway is quietly revolutionary; her authority is never challenged, and her competency is never in question. From the moment she appears onscreen, Mulgrew passes right through the Star Trek glass ceiling as if it never existed in the first place.
2. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Emissary” (Original Stardate: Jan. 3, 1993)
DS9 is considered among many discerning Trekkies to be the finest Star Trek series made to date, introducing the concept of season-long (and even series-long) serialized arcs into the franchise’s previously episodic approach, and mining interpersonal conflict for drama instead of avoiding it, as Roddenberry often preferred. The series announces its intentions in a thrilling way at the top of “Emissary,” with a lengthy sequence that depicts a Borg-possessed Picard’s attack on a starship that results in numerous deaths, including that of the wife of DS9’s hero, Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Sisko’s display of anger over her death, as well as his expressed unhappiness at being stationed at the titular space station, are rare to see in a Starfleet officer, and promises the beginning of a fascinating character arc that sticks the landing seven seasons later. “Emissary” receives bonus points for one of the headiest sequences in Trek premiere history: an extended scene where Sisko explains the theory of linear time to an alien race that has no understanding of such concepts. It’s like attending a philosophy lecture at light speed.
1. Star Trek: The Original Series: “The Man Trap” (Original Stardate: Sept. 8, 1966)
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that “The Man Trap” wasn’t supposed to be viewers’ first exposure to Star Trek. CBS shot down Roddenberry’s original Shatner-free pilot, “The Cage” (which wasn’t made publicly available until the ’80s); and the second first episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” aired as the third installment after concerns that it was too expository. Watching “The Man Trap,” viewers certainly feel as if they’ve been dropped into the middle of an ongoing mission, which is actually a benefit for the series. The characters are introduced to the viewer without the sometimes-leaden need to introduce them to each other. “The Man Trap” also offers a fun monster alien of the week in the form of a shapeshifting creature who feeds on the salt in men’s bodies, and shines an early spotlight on the chemistry that defined Trek’s Holy Trinity of Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley). If you were a young nerd who stumbled upon this episode one night in 1966 without any previous knowledge of Star Trek, it’s understandable why you’d be hooked for 50 years … and beyond.
Watch the Entire Comic-Con 2016 Star Trek 50th Anniversary Panel:
All six Star Trek series are available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Star Trek: Discovery premieres on CBS and CBS All Access in January 2017.