This is going to be a long one—if you want the short version, here's the TL;DR.
A wagon train to the stars
Star Trek is my favorite media franchise of all time. It's aspirational, hopeful, heartfelt, and inspiring. It looks at the mess we're in now and imagines a future hundreds of years from now when we've outgrown petty squabbles over abundant resources, reversed our climate catastrophe, and unified into one United Earth—and further still, a United Federation of Planets.
It's also a silly show where high-ranking officers play pretend with their crew in costumes, and members of a goofy capitalist species with giant ears and pointy teeth bumble through ridiculous capers to rescue their Moogie from evil kidnappers (and earn a few strips of latinum along the way).
me pitching star trek to people https://t.co/BTBlWRdUSH— samantha (@samcaseys) April 12, 2021
It's been a long road
Star Trek is also incredibly overwhelming to start. At the time of writing, there are 850 episodes across twelve shows (42 seasons!), with five shows actively running, and three more in production. Oh, and there are 13 movies. And a pile of books. And an audio drama.
Wait, no, wait—stay with me: it's worth it and I'm going to help you…but it'll take some time, and that's okay. Before we begin, though, there's one more bit of friction we need to talk about: if you don't have access to a friend with a Plex server (👋), know where you can buy or borrow DVDs, or know your way around darker corners of the internet, you're going to need Paramount+. I know it isn't one of the first services people think of when it comes to popular shows, but you can find some good non-Trek stuff in the catalog.
I know this is a bummer, though. The service currently only offers a paltry one-week trial, and plans are between ~$4–9/month, but you can at least get through most of my top recommendations in that week, and if you find even a modicum of the joy that I have felt from this franchise, I think that's a meaningful journey to take.
In the future, when we've outgrown money and capitalism, everyone can watch (or perhaps live) Star Trek for free, but in the meantime, we'll need to make do with the limits of our pre-warp civilization.
Now let's get you out of the neutral zone and firmly into Federation territory.
Fun will now commence
Star Trek features a range of silly and lighthearted episodes, endearingly awful episodes, and groundbreaking masterpieces of drama. There are allegories of war and occupation, moral and philosophical quandaries with no clear right answer, and an episode where the chief medical officer of the Enterprise says the line, "I did fall asleep reading a particularly erotic chapter in my grandmother's journal."
Star Trek contains multitudes, and we love it for it.
So, just dip a toe in. Look, you're just scrolling around on the internet right now and you're probably not going to sign up for the free trial of Paramount+ at the end of this sentence to watch your first episode (if I'm wrong, skip to the next paragraph!)—so just watch some of goofy clips and get a feel for the world. You'll be holding back tears at episodes like The Visitor and The Inner Light soon enough; just get acclimated in the meantime.
Folks Star Trek is so fucking good I love crying about it.— Deep Space Fine (@thisismewhatevs) July 25, 2022
I have a friend who is working her way through all of Star Trek. She made the mistake of starting DS9 and now all she wants is to rewatch it instead of watching the other shows. Can’t say I blame her even though I love them all. https://t.co/BqFmgBFaiy— Arielle (@ArielleK18) May 25, 2022
hello it’s my star trek fancam debut pls be nice pic.twitter.com/fAroGuwupg— abe (@NlMOY) July 10, 2022
When you are ready to try your first episode, you're in for a treat—the new shows are incredibly approachable and do a magnificent job of letting you jump in and jump around. My recommendation is to watch the first episode of Strange New Worlds and the first two episodes of Lower Decks. Try it with a friend or partner if you can. Strange New Worlds will hit the spot if you want something earnest and aspirational, and Lower Decks is great if you're in the mood for an irreverant animated comedy. If you can't decide, my heart says Strange New Worlds, but the first episode of Lower Decks can be viewed without an account, so if you're already reading this post with furrowed brows and a slightly concerned expression, there's your slightly lower barrier-to-entry.
After sampling both, pick the show that speaks to you and keep going. As of August 2022, there are only ten episodes of Strange New Worlds and 20 of Lower Decks (season 3 starts August 25), and Lower Decks episodes are a very breezy 25 minutes.
If experiencing those shows gets you more curious about the larger world of Trek, skip around some of the best episodes of some of the other shows (I have some personal suggestions if you don't want to go googling), and then just follow your heart into one of the full shows when you're ready.
Once you've finished Strange New Worlds and/or Lower Decks, and want to go deeper into the fandom, first of all, I am so proud of you.
There's a lot still out there, and I'm so excited for all of the worlds you still have ahead of you to explore for the very first time. In the meantime, don't feel any pressure about loving everything, or even watching everything. This catalog is huge and can really feel impenetrable at times, so it's important to make this clear: if you feel like a fan, you're a fan. Don't let anyone gatekeep you out of enjoying this, and don't be shy about being a new enthusiast if you don't feel "qualified" without an encyclopedic knowledge of every series.
You deserve to be here, and we're lucky to have you and the energy you bring. Gatekeepers don't offer anything of value to a fandom, and can only detract from the spirit of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."
So what now? At this point, jump around any best-of lists to get a feel for some of the best episodes out there (I've included a list of some personal favorites below), or seek out Discovery (I'll write more about that after the list).
- The Measure of a Man (TNG) – A classic Trek courtroom drama with a philosophical exploration of what it means to be sentient.
- Balance of Terror (TOS) – Star Trek as a Cold War submarine thriller. If you've just seen Strange New Worlds, this episode might even begin to feel familiar…
- Darmok (TNG) – A fantastic sci-fi concept on collaborating and communicating with a someone you don't share a language with.
- Carbon Creek (ENT) – Vulcans vibing on Earth in the 1950s.
- Tapestry (TNG) – A meaningful exploration of the path not taken. I saw this episode at exactly the right moment in my life.
- The Visitor (DS9) – Are you a dad? Do you have a dad? This episode is tender and special, and feels like a story only Star Trek could do.
- Remember Me (TNG) – A Twilight Zone-esque isolation/psychological horror episode with an incredible performance by Gates McFadden.
- Cause And Effect (TNG) – Just a great, tightly-packed standalone episode that feels like a bottle episode done extraordinarily well.
- Far Beyond The Stars (DS9) – One of my favorite episodes of all time, with Avery Brooks giving perhaps the most emotional performance in the history of the entire franchise. I want everyone to watch this episode, but it's special because you see all the actors from the main cast without their alien prosthetics, playing different human characters in another reality set in the 1950s. The episode absolutely stands up on its own, but it feels so much more intimate once you already know and love the characters. This is one of the best episodes of Trek of all time, though, so watch it now as a standalone drama, and watch it again later with the new lens applied once you've gotten to know the DS9 crew.
- Past Tense (DS9) – Going back in time (well, to 2024) to be a revolutionary during a period of mounting wealth inequality and resulting civil unrest in the US. Fantastic two-parter.
- City on the Edge of Forever (TOS) – Another classic time-travel two-parter, and often voted the best TOS episode of all time.
- The Inner Light (TNG) – A beautiful episode about living another life.
- Children of Mars (Short Treks) – Star Trek (2009) made me cry in 11 minutes, this did it in 7. Almost no dialogue, completely beautiful.
- Lower Decks (TNG) – An episode that shifts the narrative perspective to the lower-ranking officers of the Enterprise, and the episode that inspired the show by the same name.
- Duet (DS9) – A great episode about holding officers accountable in the aftermath of an imperialist occupation.
- The Trouble With Tribbles (TOS) – A beloved comedy episode in The Original Series where a cute animal species gets out of control on the Enterprise.
- Trials and Tribble-ations (DS9) – A very well done mashup of the DS9 crew going back in time to the events of the episode listed above.
- The Magnificent Ferengi (DS9) – A slapstick rescue mission where the lovable scoundrel Quark and his gullible, heart-of-gold brother Rom put together a rag-tag band of selfish, cowardly, clumsy Ferengi misfits to seize the day and rescue their kidnapped Moogie.
- Future's End (VOY) – Another great time-travel two-parter guest-starring Sarah Silverman. This has similar vibes to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and humorously trying to blend in while in the past is one of my favorite Star Trek tropes.
- Someone To Watch Over Me (VOY) – A romantic comedy where the ship's medical hologram falls in love with the person he's trying to give dating advice to. It won't blow your mind, but it will show some of Star Trek's range.
- Fairhaven (VOY) – The Voyager crew spends time in a holodeck recreation of a classic Irish village. This one isn't really groundbreaking, but Janeway gets to let her hair down and indulge in some romantic temptation in a fun Star-Trekky way that lets a little more of Kate Mulgrew shine through.
- It's Only A Paper Moon (DS9) – A crew member becomes disabled in battle and obsessively pursues escapism in the holodeck to avoid acknowledging his trauma. This is a heavy one.
- Dear Doctor (ENT) – A great philosophical exploration of the ethics of what would become the Prime Directive. How far can an advanced civilization go when a more primitive society is asking for help?
Jump around to whatever catches your attention, and as soon as one of these shows starts feeling cozier or more interesting than the others, start at the beginning of that show and watch it through—just be aware that most pilots, apart from DS9's and SNW's, are historically not the strongest. Most of these shows take a little while to really find their footing, which is why we started with some fan favorites first.
You'll find most of the episodes are paced differently and have lower production values from the more modern shows, but that has its own charm: it's a lot easier to put on an episode for comfort viewing while you're making dinner, tidying your room, working on something monotonous, or even just when you're feeling a little lonely and want some familiar voices in the air. Plus, when you're in the middle of it all, it can feel like you'll never run out of new adventures.
The great thing about Star Trek is there is so much Star Trek that by the time you finish watching all the Star Trek you can just go rewatch because after over 800 episodes of Star Trek you have surely forgotten a lot of the Star Trek.— Deep Space Fine (@thisismewhatevs) June 22, 2022
That said, some of the episodes on this list are the best of the best, and you should give them the attention they deserve.
For an alternative path, Discovery is a good next step if you want to see another modern show. It's also the first Trek show with any meaningful LGBTQ+ representation (especially in season 3 onward), which probably sounds (rightfully) surprising—Roddenberry felt like he could only push things so far with The Original Series and he failed to fight harder for gay representation in fear of getting canceled, and Berman-era trek suffered from some homophobic (and sexist) production staff. One often-cited story is around Blood And Fire, an allegorical AIDS episode written for TNG, but never filmed because it centered on some openly gay characters, which made Berman and company uncomfortable.
Disco also features a cast with a lot more Black actors in prominent roles for the first time since Deep Space Nine in 1993, which is just delightfully refreshing and long overdue.
I dunno y'all, DISCO might be able to take the title of Blackest Trek from DS9 cuz LOOKIT ALL THESE BEAUTIFUL BLACK PEOPLE IN MY STAR TREK!!! pic.twitter.com/xGoVIaK9bJ— Kennedy @ Warp (she/her)✨ (@ThatMikeyChick) December 23, 2021
If you'd prefer a movie, try Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home for a lighthearted time-travel fish-out-of-water romp, or Star Trek (2009) (even just the first incredible 11 minutes) for something more modern and dramatic.
If you spend time with younger children, watch Star Trek: Prodigy together, an animated family Trek show made for Nickelodeon (I can confirm it's enjoyable as a grown-up too).
If you're interested in a more guided experience, there's a wealth of content to enjoy after each episode that might help you further your appreciation.
The first place to go for new Trek is The Ready Room hosted by Wil Wheaton of TNG fame (here's an episode for the Lower Decks premier). This is the official companion show for interviews, behind-the-scenes content, and reels exploring various themes or concepts from the Trek catalog.
Star Trek casts have also had a tendency to stay lifelong friends, so we're also lucky to get projects like The Delta Flyers podcast hosted by Robert Duncan McNeill and Garrett Wang (Tom Paris and Harry Kim, from the clarinet and twin mistresses clips above). The two started a rewatch of Voyager during 2020, and they talk about each episode from their show and their memories working on it (they're almost done with season 5 at the time of writing). It's a fun dynamic since Garrett is very much a Trekkie, and Robert is, well, a normal person who has seen some Star Trek.
Gates McFadden from TNG also has the incredible Gates McFadden InvestiGates show, featuring the most thoughtful and intimate interviews with other members of the TNG cast I've ever heard. The two-part episode with her "space son," Wil Wheaton, is especially touching.
There are also fan podcasts galore. Random Trek (for classic Trek) and Vulcan Hello (for Discovery onward) are shows on Jason Snell's Incomparable Network that discuss individual episodes, and there's also Women at Warp, which focuses on themes of feminism with a revolving crew of seven hosts (and some guests), usually with 3 or 4 voices each episode.
The funnest frontier?
Star Trek has a wonderful community attached, and it's worth seeking some of that out, either on Tumblr or Twitter or YouTube or with IRL friends. Being able to share little jokes and silly memes and take part in the culture will help further your enjoyment. You may want to wait until after finishing the first season of Strange New Worlds to take to Twitter to avoid certain spoilers (but The Ready Room, mentioned above, is a great companion piece to each episode if you still need a little extra), but in general, the community is a real boon to the franchise, and is very active and enthusiastic (after all, Star Trek is basically what inspired sci-fi conventions).
That said, there is still a vocal minority of people who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy complaining that new Trek is "too woke", is "poorly written," is betraying "Gene's Vision," or isn't "real Trek." It probably sounds frustratingly familiar: we've also seen the same trolls in Doctor Who and Star Wars when those franchises started including more protagonists from different backgrounds (and antagonists that are closer fill-ins for today's IRL adversaries). These critics are mostly racists and misogynists that have totally missed the point of Star Trek, and likely got into it before realizing that they were the bad guys the shows were about in the first place.
The purpose…is to enrich yourself.
For me, this franchise has gone from being the least objectionable thing to have on in a hotel room to a source of comfort, hope, and inspiration. Scotty inspired me to be a better engineering student in college (and I needed all the help I could get), Picard encouraged me to be more courageous in my early career. The Voyager and Enterprise crews felt like close friends during an isolating time in 2020, and Pike embodies the type of leadership and compassion I want to be able to extend to everyone in my own journey.
This franchise fills me with hope, inspires me to be the best version of myself, and has introduced me to a community of earnest idealists (and lots of great memes).
I hope you love it like I do.
When you love something, it's natural to want to share it. Here are some getting-started guides and recommendations I've come across from other Trek fans over the years.
In Jessie Gender's interview with Lower Decks showrunner Mike McMahan (Rick and Morty, Solar Opposites) in November 2021, Mike shares his advice for people curious about Star Trek:
Look up lists of the best-of episodes and watch two or three episodes of TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise…and just do a couple of each…If you're not curious after that, put it away for a bit. Don't force yourself into completion of it, don't think there's any right order. Just watch the best first, because once you start to love the world and the characters, there's no "bad" episode of Star Trek because you're in Star Trek for 45 minutes.
And more on why Lower Decks, specifically, is a good starting point:
Lower Decks has always been designed to be a show that you can know zero about Star Trek and it might trick you into becoming a Trekkie really fast.
It's like, I love baseball too, right? But if somebody doesn't like baseball, I'm not going to tell them, "Well, you have to watch a Braves game, then you have to watch a Cubs game…" The story is going to appeal to you or it's not. And Lower Decks is like saying…"Hey, they talk in a way that people do now. It's an animated, faster, funnier version of this thing I love, and if you like it, it might make you curious to go check out everything else. But if you don't give a fuck about Star Trek, it might just be a good show"…because at the end of the day, this stuff is supposed to make you happy, right?
(By the way, if you love baseball, there are also a few silly baseball-themed episodes of Deep Space Nine—here's a clip.)
In 2015 and 2016, Cards Against Humanity co-founder Max Temkin wrote popular viewing guides that go into much greater depth than mine: Star Trek: The Next Generation in 40 Hours and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 82.5 Hours.
Jessie Earl (AKA Jessie Gender) published "A Complete (& Unhinged) Guide to Watching Star Trek," on YouTube, which comes in at almost an hour and a half long and was released before the first season of Strange New Worlds (which I think is the best starting point today). You can check this out for a few of the other strategies for tackling the catalog (or if you just want to see someone else passionately profess love for Star Trek). Jessie is also just a great YouTuber to become familiar with along your Star Trek journey, and her Sex In Star Trek series (Part I, Part II) is especially great (though 3.5 and 5.5 hours each, respectively).
And lastly, here's an Oatmeal comic tangentially related to Trek that I enjoyed in college.
Boldly Go (TL;DR)
- Watch some silly clips to get comfortable.
- Watch the first episode of Strange New Worlds and the first two episodes of Lower Decks, starting with whichever series seems most interesting first.
- Keep watching whichever show speaks to you the most.
- Go back to the one you didn't start with and watch that.
- (Optional: After watching the first episode of Lower Decks, watch the accompanying episode of The Ready Room on YouTube. There's also a great Ready Room for the Strange New Worlds premier (you'll notice the production quality of The Ready Room has gone way up since the Lower Decks Premier episode), but since that also premiered on the same day as the Picard Season 2 finale, you might need to skip a few segments to avoid Picard spoilers. There are chapter markers in the video.)
- Skip around some of the best episodes from the classic Trek shows (TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT). Here's a handful of my personal favorites if you don't want to search for other lists.
- Pick whichever series seems most compelling (probably TNG—I get it; it's probably the best choice.) and watch through it, even if it's just while cooking or cleaning. You can use a viewing guide if you're in a hurry, but there's no rush, and some of the terrible episodes are great. You could also try Discovery if you want to start another modern-era show before going classic, or are looking for LGBTQ+ representation that is admittedly lacking in earlier shows.
- Repeat picking a new series until you run out of shows. I'd recommend doing just one at a time, but they're all wonderful, so don't think too hard about which one to start after you finish one (My recommendation might be TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT, Disco, with TOS episodes peppered throughout when you need a break)
- Check out some of the movies periodically, or treat it as a project and treat it like another series in itself. I'd recommend starting with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Star Trek (2009). And probably Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982) after that, if just for the pop-culture relevance. Then just go in order, or fill 'em in on vibes.
- Once you start getting into Discovery, don't forget to check out Short Treks, a series of shorts made in between seasons.
- Watch Picard sometime after finishing TNG.
- If you have young children in your life, watch Star Trek: Prodigy with them.
- Once you're a super fan, re-watch Lower Decks and it'll be even funnier. And maybe send me an email, because I'd be delighted to know this was useful to someone 🖖