A Beginner's Guide to the Star Trek Universe

Image via Ships of the Line.

Image via Ships of the Line.

Last week I republished my original review of JJ Abrams's 2009 Star Trek movie. In the comments, Charleen said the reboot got her interested in Star Trek and made her want to see more of the franchise. I tried to find her a link to essential Star Trek episodes and movies, but everything I found was way too geeky for people who are new to the franchise. That's when I decided to write this article - a beginner's guide to the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek: The Original Series

Star Trek: The Original Series

What's Star Trek?

Star Trek is a science fiction TV show that was created in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry. While it only lasted three years, the show became super popular in reruns. After the success of Star Wars, Paramount Pictures wanted to create its own big budget space adventure and brought back Star Trek as a movie.

Now, the Star Trek franchise includes 5 TV shows (The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise) and 12 movies (the newest one, Star Trek Into Darkness, comes out next week).

What's it about?

Star Trek is about a group of people exploring space, meeting aliens, and "boldly going where no one has gone before." While each series has different ships and crews, the theme remains the same - what does it mean to be a human?

Why's it so popular?

Star Trek influenced generations of scientists and explorers (including me). NASA even named the first space shuttle after Captain Kirk's U.S.S. Enterprise.

Star Trek influenced generations of scientists and explorers (including me). NASA even named the first space shuttle after Captain Kirk's U.S.S. Enterprise.

Star Trek is an optimistic view of our future. It's about humans overcoming our differences, working to solving our global problems, and uniting in a mission of peaceful exploration.

That's rare in science fiction - most stories take place in distant galaxies (like Star Wars) or have a pretty bleak view of what's to come (like Planet of the Apes, Alien, The Matrix).

What do I need to know?

Humans have turned Earth into a utopia and partnered with other likeminded species to create the United Federation of Planets (think United Nations with space ships).

The Federation has an important rule called the Prime Directive, which prevents its officers from interfering with the development of alien civilizations. For example, if an alien species hasn't invented airplanes, Captain Kirk can't give them any technology or information that could help them build one.

While the Federation is on a mission of peace, other aliens have more selfish interests. The Klingons seek honor, Romulans crave power, Ferengi want to be rich, and the Borg are trying to become perfect. Some of the best Star Trek stories highlight the tension between the Federation and other aliens.  

Cool Technology, Geeky Culture

 

While the transporter is uber-cool, Star Trek's fashion is not.

While the transporter is uber-cool, Star Trek's fashion is not.

I'm just going to get this out of the way - while the technology in Star Trek is pretty cool (instant transportation, starships that travel faster than light, devices which create objects out of thin air), everything else is really geeky. The look, feel, and action isn’t as sexy as the Star Wars universe (though JJ Abrams has spruced things up). The trade-off is you get really thoughtful, existential stories.

Where do I start?

With over 500 hours of TV and movies, the Star Trek universe can feel overwhelming to newbies. Below, I've picked the best episodes and movies from the whole franchise, grouped by topic. You can stream episodes on Netflix, Amazon, or purchase them through iTunes. Each one works as standalone viewing and doesn't require knowledge of what came before.

Humanity

 

TNG's "The Measure of a Man"

TNG's "The Measure of a Man"

  • The Measure of a Man (The Next Generation, Season 2 Episode 9): Can Data, a sentient artificial life form, become the property of someone else? 
  • The Inner Light (The Next Generation, Season 5 Episode 25): Captain Picard’s consciousness is transported into another man. Considered by many to be one of Star Trek's best episodes.  
  • In The Pale Moonlight (Deep Space Nine, Season 6 Episode 19): How far would you go to prevent the loss of innocent lives?
  • Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (movie): Revenge is a dish best served cold.
  • Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country (movie): What happens to lifelong enemies when their cold war ends?

Time Travel

TOS's "The City on the Edge of Forever"

TOS's "The City on the Edge of Forever"

  • The City on the Edge of Forever (The Original Series, Season 1 Episode 28): Captain Kirk falls in love with a woman from the past and changes the course of history. Also considered to be one of Star Trek’s best.
  • Tapestry (The Next Generation, Season 6 Episode 15): What would happen if you could correct the biggest regret of your life?
  • The Visitor (Deep Space Nine, Season 4 Episode 3): After discovering that his father is traveling uncontrollably through time, a son dedicates his life to rescuing him.
  • Year of Hell (Voyager, Season 4 Episode 8 & 9): A man is obsessed with altering history in an attempt to save his dead wife.
  • Star Trek First Contact (movie): The Federation's greatest threat travels back in time to erase the most important event in Star Trek’s history – Earth’s first contact with an alien race.

Aliens

TNG's "Q Who?"

TNG's "Q Who?"

  • Balance of Terror (The Original Series, Season 1 Episode 14): Submarine warfare between two enemies who’ve never seen each other before.  
  • Darmok (The Next Generation, Season 5 Episode 2): How do you communicate with an alien species whose language is incomprehensible to humans?
  • Q Who? (The Next Generation, Season 2 Episode 16): First contact with an alien unlike anything the Federation has seen before. 

Shenanigans

DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations"

DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations"

  • The Trouble With Tribbles (The Original Series, Season 2 Episode 15): Captain Kirk must face a race of small, cute, fuzzy, quickly reproducing creatures.
  • Time's Arrow (The Next Generation, Season 5 Episode 26 & Season 6 Episode 1): The crew of the Enterprise meets Mark Twain in 1893 San Francisco, California.
  • Little Green Men (Deep Space Nine, Season 4 Episode 8): A group of Ferengi travel back in time and arrive at Area 51, Earth.
  • Trials and Tribble-ations (Deep Space Nine, Season 5 Episode 6): The crew of Deep Space Nine travel back to the events of “Trouble With Tribbles”.
  • Message in a Bottle (Voyager, Season 4 Episode 14): The ship’s emergency hologram is transported across the galaxy and meets his replacement – Andy Dick.
  • Star Trek IV The Voyage Home (movie): Captain Kirk and company travel back in time in search of 2 humpback whales. 

That's my list of essential Star Trek TV episodes and movies. What's on your list? Let me know in the comments below.