The sentient heart brings conflict wherever it treads, even to the stars. That is the core of Star Trek’s premise. Even in a utopian universe, thinking beings will still create conflict. Each Star Trek TV show had its own take on the answer, and expressed it in its own way. From the perch of history, we can examine the Star Trek’s of the past and try to come up with our favorites. Here’s our list of the best Star Trek TV shows, in reverse order.
Tied for Last: Star Trek: Enterprise & Star Trek: The Animated Series
It’s too hard to pick just one!
Star Trek Enterprise
Enterprise is probably the most outright disliked Star Trek series, derided as a cheap cash in that lacked the thought of other series. It’s also credited with the long absence of Star Trek from television and the eventual cinematic revival of the franchise by J.J. Abrams. And yeah, maybe it’s not as bad as all that. But it’s far from good.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
Why does no one ever talk about this show? Because it’s only interesting as a cultural artifact and not as television.
While it might be hard to shake the feeling of Sealab 2021 from the series’ old-school animation, TAS extends the original series through years four and five of the Enterprise’s original mission. It’s also the source of one of our favorite memes, badly-feigned-surprise-Kirk:
While still available on Netflix, the series removal from canon in 1988 and stiff animation style has reduced its popularity of series. But the original cast as voice actors adds a dimension of professionalism and gravity to the show. It also added significant expense, as the Emmy-winning series was the most expensive animated program of its day.
4. Star Trek: Voyager
Voyager might have attempted to mix the depth of Enterprise with the larger cultural heritage of Deep Space Nine. Unfortunately, it comes off as a little trite. Captain Janeway’s crew is never seriously challenged, skipping from episode to episode with nary a wrinkle. Their interactions throughout the stories often have the flavor of simple morality plays.
3. Star Trek: The Original Series
The show that started it all deserves its place in history. In the context of television at the time, it was certainly a brave new world. It discussed race relations at a time when no other primetime TV show would touch the issue, and gave viewers a safe space to witness nuanced discussions of contemporary events. For a modern viewer, however, the series often doesn’t hold up. We’ve grown so used to incredible costuming and sets that TOS seems flat and dull by comparison. While the writing is still exemplary and the universe the show spawned extraordinary, it’s hard to recommend as the go-to series for viewers.
2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
As the strongest candidate for the best Star Trek for modern viewers, The Next Generation captures and updates the themes and goals of TOS. So why isn’t it in the number one slot? It’s just the tiniest bit dull sometimes. The episodes tend to center around a central conflict that’s often immaterial or moral in nature, with many scenes of shot-reverse-shot conversations. The acting is fantastic, especially Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard, the capable and morally incorruptible, yet relatable, captain of the ship. And it’s the most “Trek” of all the series. It seems like it truly captures and expresses the goals and desires of the original series, put forth in a high-quality production with performances to match. But if you find that your attention span is just a little bit short, you might prefer something a little more aggressively engaging.
1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Deep Space Nine depicts a broader society than that of any other Star Trek series. It’s from Deep Space Nine that we get the broadest sense of how society functions in the world of Star Trek, allowing us to see a functioning culture. The series was also bold enough to function as an obvious metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, strongly favoring the underdog Bajorans meant to reflect the plight of contemporary Palestinians. It’s a bold opinion to hold in the United States, but a natural one for a TV series to portray. Viewers always want to root for the underdog, especially when they’re portrayed as a peaceful people crushed under the boot heel of oppressive outsiders. While the analogy doesn’t fit perfectly—there remains a widely-recognized Bajoran homeland, with a fully intact culture and government—over time the series becomes more and more sympathetic with their plight. As series executive producer Michael Piller would say:
The Bajorans are the PLO but they’re also the Kurds, the Jews, and the American Indians. They are any racially bound group of people who have been deprived of their home by a powerful force [….]
As the first series produced after Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry’s death, it also went darker than the Star Trek universe has seen before. Death, political discord, wide-ranging discussion: any and all could be expected within a Deep Space Nine episode. Superior acting in a number of roles helped to elevate the series beyond the Star Trek universe, ranking as simply good television. Don’t at me.
What about Star Trek: Discovery?
Unmistakably martial, Star Trek: Discovery (unfortunately abbreviated STD) ditches the moral ambiguity that’s long underlaid the franchise to dive right in to J.J. Abrams Fast and Furious: Space Adventures approach. It remains to be seen what the series’ legacy will be, but it definitely represents a departure from the ideals (and production value!) of the original series.