Star Trek is an enormous and complex cultural entity whose impact on politics, technology, and storytelling are undeniable. It’s also as flawed and problematic as any other massive media franchise. Lifelong Trekkie and Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief Dylan Roth attempts to make sense of it all for die-hards and outsiders alike in his new column: Infinite Diversity.
“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.”
“And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”
– Dr, Miranda Jones and Commander Spock (“Is There No Truth In Beauty” [TOS])
From the time I was a six years old all the way through college, the first thing I did when I made a new friend was introduce them to Star Trek. On one level, it a crucial “getting to know you” exercise. I considered my connection to the series such an essential part of my being that I felt I couldn’t be truly understood unless one understood Trek first. I also never felt like I had enough people with whom to talk about it, and would jump at any chance to expand that group, one new friend at a time. Mostly, I just loved to guide my friends through the enormous Star Trek universe, to curate their viewing experience, and to re-experience my favorite stories through their eyes as they enjoyed them for the first time.
I still believe this to be the best, maybe even the only way to be properly introduced to the canon of Star Trek: a personal, one-on-one experience that’s particularly catered towards you and your own interests. Without an experienced guide, Trek can seem too large and intimidating to bother with. There are 716 television episodes spread across six series, (all of which are currently streaming on Netflix) plus twelve feature films and a sizable expanded universe of novels, comics, and video games–and let’s be honest, a lot of it is terrible. Star Trek is a franchise with soaring peaks of quality that can shape or change your perspective on philosophy, sociology, on existence itself, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad, and it’s bad on all kinds of levels.
With Infinite Diversity, I hope to provide a map through the sprawling galaxy of Trek and to discuss its successes, but also to provide critical thought on where, why, and how Trek fails, and where it ought to go in the future. This will be a personal journey of discovery and thought, where everything is considered and nothing is taken for granted. We’re going to go boldly, together, into Star Trek itself.
What is Star Trek about?
This is a question that I don’t think is asked very often anymore. Even though it’s mainly the domain of a passionate fringe group, practically everyone is familiar with the basics of what Star Trek is, if not from seeing one of the popular new feature films, then from a half-century of cultural osmosis. Most people connected to American pop culture in any way can recognize characters, symbols, or artifacts from Star Trek, even if they don’t know any specifics about them. It’s also a complex question because Star Trek is more than one thing. It’s not like Batman, which constantly mutates but is always centered around the same core characters; Trek has had five different sets of characters, each with its own subtly different mission, set across three centuries and two universes. So, if you have to explain what Star Trek is about, as a whole, you have to be pretty broad about it. Here’s my attempt:
Set in a future where humanity has joined together as one to lead a community of alien planets and cultures, Star Trek is the story of the explorers, diplomats, and scientists who work to peacefully expand their knowledge and understanding of the universe, and to defend that peace against malevolent forces both within and without.
That’s not so catchy. Maybe we should go back to basics for a bit.
The original Star Trek series, which ran from 1966 to 1969, featured this famous opening monologue in each episode, which most fans and even a lot of non-fans can recite from memory:
Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Split infinitive notwithstanding, that’s some pretty compelling stuff, and it does a great job of encapsulating the spirit of Star Trek, which is, at its core, about exploration and understanding.
Each week on the original Star Trek series, the USS Enterprise, commanded by the brave, honest, and incredibly dashing Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), would visit an alien world for the sake of diplomacy, scientific exploration, or investigation into a mystery. Once there, the crew would usually face some sort of moral dilemma caused by a cultural misunderstanding, a malicious alien force, a weird spaceborne phenomena, etc. Kirk would have to suss out the solution with the help of his friends: the cold, logical science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who comes from an alien culture that has abandoned emotion in favor of logic, and the emotional, impulsive, occasionally bigoted surgeon Dr. Leonard McCoy. The solution to most problems was usually somewhere in between hard logic and pure emotion, and Kirk would usually summarize the “lesson of the week” in the final moments of each episode. Problems almost always had a solution, and stories always wrapped up nicely at the end, even if the ending was bittersweet.
This is a simplification of the show’s formula, but most stories were a variation on this structure. Star Trek episodes were short, high-concept morality plays, sometimes just being pure sci-fi fun but more often meant to comment on the issues of its time, which mostly continue to be the issues of our time: racism, xenophobia, greed, militarism, and so on. Star Trek tried to set a good example for mankind, a beacon of hope that someday, centuries from now, humanity as a species will grow beyond the petty differences that keep us apart and reach unimaginable new heights. It may seem trivial now (or when inspected in detail, a little offensive) but in the late 1960s it was a very big deal that the senior command staff of the Enterprise included a black woman (Lt. Uhura, portrayed by Nichelle Nichols), a Japanese man (Lt. Sulu, by George Takei), and a Russian (Ensign Chekov, by Walter Koenig). The original series was credited with exciting a generation with ideals of social change during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.
The series was not a massive commercial success and was canceled after three seasons, but a fanbase of unprecedented loyalty and tenacity built up around it during the seventies, where it reran frequently across the globe. The series had a brief but mostly forgettable rebirth as an animated series from 1973 to 1974, but its real new lease on life came when Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit the big screen in 1979, reuniting the original crew for six feature films and leading to a string of four spin-off television series featuring new characters that ran continuously from 1987 to 2005. The first live-action spin off, Star Trek: The Next Generation, achieved such mainstream recognition that it was followed by four feature films of its own before fizzling out around the same time that the final TV series, Star Trek: Enterprise, was bringing the franchise’s television success to a grinding halt. It looked like Star Trek might be gone for good, but in the late 2000s Paramount decided to take a chance on rebooting the franchise as a big budget motion picture. Thus, J.J. Abrams’ hit Star Trek film series was born, raking in enough millions to keep the franchise alive and in the public eye, albeit less frequently than on weekly television.
Each of the Star Trek spin-offs has tried to recapture the magic of the original by experimenting with its formulaic structure, with varying degrees of success. The Next Generation was mostly the same show, but with more complex problems and characters. Deep Space Nine had the problems come to the characters instead of the other way around, and took on a more serialized approach to examine the consequences of their actions. Voyager threw its crew across the galaxy, and visited aliens-of-the-week along their long, lonely journey home. Prequel series Enterprise showed a struggling crew of pioneers laying the groundwork for the bright future promised in The Original Series. Of course, they are still each, more or less, their own show, with their own traits and their own rules, but their attempts to honor the original keep the franchise feeling like one cohesive whole.
Where to begin?
With the exception of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, most Star Trek is episodic, and nearly any episode could be approachable as your first. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to just jump into the show at random. There’s also a temptation, in this Netflix-fueled age of binge television viewing, to just pick a show and power through it, but I’m here to warn you that, in the case of some series, this way lies madness. With the exception of The Original Series, every Star Trek series takes a while, years, even, to really get going. If you’re about to jump into Star Trek for the first time, here are a few places you might want to start.
“The Man Trap” – Star Trek: The Original Series, S1E5 (listed as S1E2 on Netflix)
As I mentioned before, TOS is the only Trek series whose first season kicks off strong. The first Star Trek episode to air (though not the first to be produced) is actually a pretty gripping hour of TV that does a good job of representing the feeling of the series. It’s got character drama, suspense, and an interesting sci-fi premise, but it’s also not the best episode the show has to offer, which I count as a plus because it means the rest of the series won’t be a disappointment. If you like “The Man Trap,” you can actually keep running through TOS for a while before you hit an intolerably bad episode. If you’re in the middle of an episode and you just can’t get through it, good news: you can turn it off and skip to the next one, no harm done. There’s really very little continuity to The Original Series. Sit back and enjoy some campy yet clever 1960s sci-fi.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The original film series is a great place to jump on board Star Trek. While the first installment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is kind of a bore, The Wrath of Khan is an exciting, intelligent, heartfelt film that’s really yet to be topped. The emotional beats land better if you’ve seen some TOS, particularly the episode “Space Seed,” to which Khan serves as a sequel, but it works just fine as a standalone film. Bonus points also if you’ve already seen 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness but haven’t seen this film before–there are a lot of callbacks (call-forwards? call-sideways?) to this movie in the new one. If you enjoy The Wrath of Khan, it actually serves as the first part of a loose trilogy with The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, neither of which are as good, but are both worth watching. You’ve heard of The Voyage Home before. It’s the one with the whales.
“Darmok” – Star Trek: The Next Generation, S5E2
If you watch one episode of Star Trek ever, make it this one. It embodies the spirit of Trek better than any other hour in the entire franchise. The pitch: the Enterprise encounters an alien culture that speaks only in metaphors and references to their own folklore, making communication practically impossible. What could be a comical misadventure becomes a tense struggle when Picard is stranded on a hostile world with the aliens’ own captain. The two must learn to understand each other if they’re going to survive. It’s a story about culture, folklore, diplomacy, and friendship. If you don’t enjoy this episode, you can quit now. Star Trek is not for you. If you enjoy it, keep on going through TNG Season Five, it’s a really solid one.
The Condensed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -> “The Way of the Warrior,” S4E1
Unlike most other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine is fairly continuity-heavy, and features a number of important running storylines that intertwine throughout the series. On the other hand, DS9 is similar to its sister series’ in that its first few seasons are really a slog. Luckily, there are only a handful of episodes you need to watch from the first three seasons before the show really kicks into high gear with Season Four’s double-sized repilot, “The Way of the Warrior.”
- “Emissary” (S1E1)
- “Duet” (S1E19) – Not plot important, but too amazing to skip.
- “In the Hands of the Prophets” (S1E20)
- “The Jem’Hadar” (S2E26)
- “The Search, Parts 1 & 2” (S3E1&2)
- “Improbable Cause” / “The Die is Cast” (S3E20&21)
- “The Adversary” (S3E26)
That should give you everything you need to start watching Season Four, which is when the show gets good enough to watch every episode. There’s still the occasional stinker, and there are a few other storylines from earlier episodes that get picked up, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble catching up with the story and riding through the show’s rough patches.
“Broken Bow” – Star Trek: Enterprise (S1E1)
*sigh* If you’re the kind of person who just has to watch everything in chronological order, then starting at the beginning of Enterprise is technically where you should begin. It’s gonna be a long road, getting from here to…anything worth watching. (By the time you get the reference I just made, you will already want to die.) I will admit though, as someone who, like most fans, watched Enterprise last, I sort of envy your ability to experience the prequel series first. It’ll paint The Original Series and everything that follows in a totally different light. You’ll have to tell me if it’s worth it. If you survive.
Infinite Diversity will return in two weeks! Follow @DeadshirtDotNet on Twitter to keep up with what’s new here on Deadshirt, and feel free to tweet @DylanRoth with suggestions for future topics for Infinite Diversity, or just to talk about Trek. He truly never gets tired of that.