Star Trek: An Episode Roadmap for Beginners

Have you always wanted to catch up on Star Trek: TOS but don't have the time for all 79 episodes and feature films? Then step this way...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

With six television series and twelve feature films (and counting) it’s best not to think about how many hours are required to catch up on the entire history of Star Trek. It’s also highly likely that not everyone would wish to do so, for while Star Trek is capable of intense, emotional and thought-provoking stories, it is also capable of producing some real trash.

We’re here to give you some options to make your way through the original series, without necessarily having to watch all 79 episodes…especially that dreadful third season.

This map focuses on the original cast of characters. We’ve included screen outings only (no novels, computer games or other media). We’ve included The Animated Series even though it does not form part of the official Star Trek canon, partly for the sake of completism, partly because it allows Kirk’s five-year mission actually to last five years and partly because ideas from the series have been picked up on and re-used by later incarnations of the franchise. We’ve also included the two J.J. Abrams movies, which re-set the series’ continuity entirely, because they feature (alternate universe versions of) the original cast of characters and, well, because there’s no where else to put them. We have not included the films focused on the Next Generation crew (Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis – Generations is a cross-over film, but focuses more on the Next Generation crew than the original characters).

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Watch Star Trek: The Original Series on Amazon

Phew, that was complicated. On with the routes.

Route 1: The foundations of Star Trek

There are no story arcs in Star Trek (films 2-4 excepted). However, there are threads; recurring enemies, recurring themes, stories picked up again decades later, memorable adventures that are referred to time and time again. None of the writers on the original series of Star Trek could have predicted that they were creating a nearly 50-year franchise that would be built on and built on until the whole Jenga tower collapsed under its own weight and JJ Abrams started again from the bottom, but the foundations they laid are those that lie behind all subsequent series and films. If you want to understand the origins of various elements of the later films and series in the Star Trek franchise, these are the episodes to catch up on.

Season One

The Naked Time

Dagger Of The Mind

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The Menagerie Parts 1&2

Balance Of Terror

The Return Of The Archons

Space Seed

Errand Of Mercy

Balance Of Terror and Errand Of Mercy introduce Star Trek’s most popular and enduring villains (the Romulans and the Klingons, respectively). The Naked Time is followed up by a Next Generation episode (The Naked Now) while The Menagerie and Space Seed are referenced in later films (alternate-timeline Pike also ends up wheelchair-bound in Star Trek (2009) while Space Seed is followed up in The Wrath Of KhanThe Menagerie is also the episode with the green Orion slave girl dancing in it). Dagger Of The Mind introduces the Vulcan mind meld, while The Return Of The Archons features the first appearance – and immediate disregarding of – the Prime Directive (sometimes known as the Prime Suggestion because, while the aim not to interfere with other cultures is a good one, it tends to be interpreted as meaning Starfleet is forbidden from helping pre-warp cultures even if they are dying, which seems counter-productive and is frequently ignored or the rules bent).

Season Two

Amok Time

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Mirror, Mirror

Metamorphosis

Journey To Babel

Friday’s Child

The Trouble With Tribbles

A Private Little War

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Amok Time is primarily remembered as our first glimpse of Vulcan and the introduction of the concept of Ponn Farr (the Vulcan mating ritual) but it is also the introduction of main character Ensign Chekov. Mirror, Mirror introduces the Mirror Universe returned to in Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. Journey To Babel and Metamorphosis introduce important characters who recur across the franchise, while Friday’s Child and A Private Little War start to flesh out the Klingons. The Trouble With Tribbles was returned to for Deep Space Nine’s beloved Trials and Tribble-ations, as well as throwing in more Klingons. Add Patterns Of Force for a demonstration of why the Federation tries to get its Captains to obey the Prime Directive and The Deadly Years for more Romulans.

Season Three

The Enterprise Incident

Day Of The Dove

The Tholian Web

Romulans reappear in The Enterprise Incident and Klingons in Day Of The Dove. The Tholian Web is returned to in Enterprise. Add Elaan Of Troyius for more reference to relations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

The Animated Series

Yesteryear

The Lorelai Signal

More Tribbles, More Troubles

Yesteryear is not only our first visit to Vulcan, it establishes various facts about Spock’s family and childhood, including a scene depicting him being bullied by Vulcan children that is echoed in Star Trek (2009). The Lorelai Signal features the first scenes depicting a woman in charge of a starship (not counting Turnabout Intruder, in which Janice Lester is disguised in Captain Kirk’s body – don’t ask), as Uhura takes command because all the men on the ship have been mentally affected by Space Sirens (we didn’t say it was a good episode). Add The Counter-Clock Incident for a story which seems to be the inspiration for at least two episodes of The Next Generation (Too Short A Season and Rascals) and The Magicks Of Megas-tu for some possible inspiration behind The Next Generation’s Devil’s Due, though taken in a different direction.

Films

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture offers a more detailed look at Vulcan and some of its customs. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home features the first canonical female captain in Star Trek (Saavik was in command training and was taking the Kobayashi Maru test in The Wrath Of Khan, but does not actually take command in the field. The first black starship captain not counting Uhura in The Lorelei Signal was Captain Terrell in The Wrath of Khan; the unnamed female captain here is also black). Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country fills in some gaps in the history of Federation/Klingon relations between the original series and The Next Generation, as well as featuring Worf’s ancestor and being followed up in VoyagerStar Trek (2009), of course, resets everything so the writers can begin again.

Route 2: Just what is all the fuss about, anyway? 

A simple best of – if you’d like to sample just the highlights and the very best Star Trek has to offer, these are the episodes to check out.

(There’s a lot of overlap between this list and “The Foundations of Star Trek,” for the sensible reason that later writers and producers frequently returned to the good episodes of the Original Series for ideas, and tended to avoid the bad ones as far as possible).

Season One

The Enemy Within

Balance of Terror

The Return Of The Archons

Space Seed

Errand Of Mercy

The City On The Edge Of Forever

Balance Of Terror is an absolutely brilliant, tense bit of submarine drama – just don’t be distracted by the fact the guest actor is better known for playing, equally brilliantly, an unrelated recurring character. The City On The Edge Of Forever is frequently claimed as the best Star Trek episode of all time (certainly of the original series, sometimes of the franchise as a whole). Add Arena for an episode that’s rather hokey, but has a solid concept, features the most famous and prominent use of the Vasquez Rocks, and is frequently referenced in popular culture.

Season Two

Amok Time

Mirror, Mirror

The Doomsday Machine

The Trouble With Tribbles

A Piece Of The Action

Bread And Circuses

Amok Time features one of the most joyous and satisfying moments in Star TrekMirror, Mirror introduces Evil Spock and his Goatee of Evil. The Trouble With Tribbles is a bit daft, but very entertainingly so. A Piece Of The Action and Bread And Circuses take different routes to depicting a Space Aliens version of an Earth society and are good fun.

Season Three

The Tholian Web

There was one good episode in Season Three (luckily it was really quite good). Add Let That Be Your Last Battlefield for Star Trek at its most obvious, but a decent enough episode for all that.

The Animated Series

Yesteryear

The Animated Series is full of good ideas let down by rather poor execution (and a few daft ideas) but this episode, which delves into Spock’s childhood, stands out as particularly effective.

Films

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek (2009)

Yes, there is an odd-numbered movie in there – two, in fact. The Search For Spock is seriously underrated, but even if you don’t think so much of it, it’s a necessary middle volume between the best film (Wrath Of Khan) and the funniest (The Voyage Home).

Route 3: Kirk, Spock and Bones 

The core of Star Trek was, of course, the relationship between the central trio of heart (Bones), mind (Spock) and spirit (Kirk). These three also had far more character development than the others – although Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov (and to an extent, Nurse Chapel) had reasonably well-rounded characters with likes, dislikes and clear personalities, character development was largely the preserve of the main trio. For Star Trek’s best character studies and depictions of comradeship, these are the episodes to seek out.

Season One

The Naked Time

The Galileo Seven

This Side Of Paradise

The City On The Edge Of Forever

The Galileo Seven encapsulates the tension between Spock and Bones and their different attitudes perfectly. Add Shore Leave for Kirk apparently preferring to get a backrub from Spock than from the Mini-skirted Woman Of The Week.

Season Two

Amok Time

Mirror, Mirror

Journey To Babel

Bread And Circuses

If you only have time for one of these, it has to be Amok Time – by far the best known and most satisfying Kirk/Spock episode.

Season Three

For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky

The Tholian Web

The Empath

All Our Yesterdays

For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky features one of our heroes dying and in The Tholian Web one of them appears to be dead, which is always good for showing their feelings for each other. As these episodes demonstrate, McCoy and Spock do love each other really. Well, McCoy loves Spock. Spock has appropriately Vulcan but nonetheless positive reactions to McCoy.

The Animated Series

Mudd’s Passion

The Pirates Of Orion

Mudd’s Passion features passion all around, while The Pirates Of Orion revisits the classic one-of-our-heroes-is-dying plot.

Films

All of them. They’re all, essentially, about Kirk, Spock and Bones. This is the only possible reason to watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, as it focuses on the relationship between the three of them to an even greater degree than the other films. Fans of slash fiction may particularly enjoy the first three original cast films (The Motion PictureThe Wrath Of Khan, and The Search For Spock).

Route 4: God-like aliens

Gene Roddenberry really, really loved aliens with extreme, largely inexplicable and god-like powers. Like, way more than any sane person should. Most of them had the personalities of over-grown children. Sometimes just plain children.

Season One

Charlie X

Where No Man Has Gone Before

The Corbomite Maneuver

The Squire of Gothos

Season Two

Who Mourns For Adonais?

Add Catspaw for aliens with ridiculously powerful (and bizarre) technology.

Season Three

Plato’s Stepchildren

The Animated Series

The Magicks Of Megas-tu

Granted, this one is a Devil-alien rather than a god-alien, but still.

Films

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

OK, this is the other reason to watch Star Trek V. But really, save yourself the agony – don’t watch it.

Route 5: Schadenfreude

Star Trek was as capable of producing dull, unmemorable episodes as anything else. However, the reason “Worst Episodes of Star Trek” lists are so popular is that the real low points of the series are not simply dull – they tend to be extremely colourful, mesmerizingly sexist, racist and other –ists in attempts to be egalitarian and tolerant gone wrong, and generally thoroughly ludicrous. All of which means that watching them in a group and laughing at, rather than with, them can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. If you’re in the mood to watch something so terrible as to come right out the other side into really quite good fun, grab some popcorn and give one of these a go.

Season One

Mudd’s Women

The Harry Mudd episodes are listed here largely because their depiction of their female characters goes beyond even the usual inevitable 1960s leering treatment.

Season Two

The Apple

I, Mudd

The Omega Glory

The Omega Glory features some very mis-judged patriotism, while The Apple gives us poisonous flowers shooting redshirts. Add The Changeling for Uhura having her entire memory wiped and having to be re-educated from scratch (as in from ‘See the dog run’) but being completely fine in the next episode – however, it’s not so much fun to hate-watch, as it’s really pretty dull. Add Wolf In The Fold for the alien-related truth behind Jack the Ripper, which is as silly as it sounds, while at the same time somewhat disturbing.

Season Three

Spock’s Brain

The Paradise Syndrome

And The Children Shall Lead

Plato’s Stepchildren

The Way To Eden

Turnabout Intruder

A deeply insulting depiction of Space Native Americans in The Paradise Syndrome, bizarre Space hippies in The Way To Eden, children gone wild in And The Children Shall Lead, horrifying sexism in Turnabout Intruder (including a Starfleet regulation that women cannot be Captains), the general and well-known awfulness that it Spock’s Brain – Season Three was… not Classic Trek’s finest hours. At least it’s still entertaining, in a cringe-worthy way. Plato’s Stepchildren is best known as the first interracial kiss on US network television, but the episode itself is truly, albeit hilariously, terrible. Kirk’s horse impression has to be seen to be believed (not to mention the fact that the famous kiss is not a romantic moment, but an act of sexual violence inflicted on both Kirk and Uhura, neither of whom are willing).

The Animated Series

The whole series suffers from the seriously cheap animation, despite the good ideas behind it, but The Ambergris Element, in which Kirk and Spock turn into water creatures, stands out.

Films

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

We’ve surprised ourselves with the number of appearances this film has made on these lists. But the fact remains that Star Trek III: The Search For Spock is seriously under-rated, Star Trek(2009) is excellent and Star Trek: The Motion Picture is known as ‘The Motionless Picture’ for a reason, which makes it less fun to hate-watch. So if you want to find out where the odd-numbered Star Trek films got their terrible reputation, this is the one to watch.