What is the best Star Trek pilot? We aren’t asking “what is the best Star Trek series” (at least not yet). Star Trek pilots rarely sell what the series delivers, with plenty of shows taking two or three years to evolve into the eventual classics they become, while other promising starts quickly fumble the ball.
Instead, we are looking at the pilot episodes themselves, and how they stand on their own merits. This ranking includes every pilot episode ever produced, including both pilots for The Original Series, “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (although the nerdiest among you will notice we excluded the first Star Trek episode to actually air, “The Man Trap”, because as the sixth episode produced it really stretches the definition of “pilot,” and while a case could be made that “The Corbomite Maneuver” is the first episode of the show that truly felt like Trek, by then it wasn’t in the pilot stages).
Of the twelve Star Trek pilots we have counted in this ranking, eight of them feature a ship called “Enterprise” (and half of those are the Enterprise NCC-1701), four of them feature Mr. Spock (five if you include appearances from his immediate family), and three of them feature Captain Picard. Finally, a whopping five of them feature the crew encountering an entity with mysterious God-like powers.
Now, to rank these episodes we have asked each of our Den of Geek Star Trek Brain Trust to provide their own rankings, before scientifically collating them to produce a list so accurate, so precise, so objectively correct that nobody could ever disagree with it. Don’t even bother going to the comments, all they will say is “Yes. I agree with this.”
12. Star Trek: Discovery – “The Vulcan Hello”/“Battle of the Binary Stars”
Whatever else you think of them, Star Trek: Discovery‘s “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle of the Binary Stars”, provide the most polished and well-produced pilot episodes that the franchise had seen until that point. But they also broke rules. Instead of introducing a hero ship, a crew, an obstacle for them to overcome and the promise of more adventures to follow, the plot revolved around one protagonist who was not even the Captain, and we don’t even get to see the ship.
That’s forgivable, brave even, but Trek is also a show about teams working together, so when that protagonist launches a mutiny (an act her brother is so embarrassed by that when he is asked if there has ever been a mutiny on a Federation ship, he only says there is “Absolutely no record of such an occurrence”), gets her Captain killed and ends up in jail, viewers are understandably skeptical.
11. Star Trek: The Animated Series – “Beyond the Farthest Star”
There remains controversy over whether this series is even canon, although it had the same cast and writing team as the live action series. So to save time – Lower Decks features a giant Spock skeleton and a Kzinti crewman, and a Pandronian. It counts.
Despite those common elements, Star Trek: The Animated Series was a completely different ballgame to The Original Series, with wildly imaginative settings and aliens far beyond even the current live-action series, but half the run-time and a cast with only three facial expressions and about six animated actions each.
“Beyond the Farthest Star” was the first episode of the series to air and it gives the crew of the Enterprise a mystery to solve with an epically-sized alien ship, its unknown alien crew wiped out by a mysterious threat. It has brilliant designs and writing that is unmistakably Trek. It deserves its place in the pantheon, but modern viewers will still have a challenge getting past the animation quality.
10. Star Trek: Enterprise – “Broken Bow”
These days, the idea of a Star Trek prequel feels pretty commonplace. But, in 2001, Enterprise boldly attempted the impossible: Do a soft reboot of the entire franchise, set a century before The Original Series. Because an early scene features a Klingon getting blasted with a shotgun by a farmer in a cornfield, the overall vibe of Enterprise was very clear: This show was trying to bring Star Trek back down to Earth. The attempt at casual realism in Enterprise mostly backfired. While Captain Archer’s NX-01 baseball cap was pretty fly, the rest of the tech seemed like it was a couple of decades ahead of Kirk and Spock, rather than a century behind.
That said if you think of Enterprise as the retroactive beginning of the newer canon which was continued by Discovery, and now, Strange New Worlds, it works perfectly. “Broken Bow” is also a solid Star Trek pilot episode, setting up a big idea for the entire series (the Temporal Cold War) while establishing all the characters quickly, and making us like everyone instantly. In many ways “Broken Bow,” is better than the rest of the show’s first season, but isn’t the worst introduction to the Star Trek canon as a whole.
Because Enterprise is still the furthest point in the past of the Trek canon — including the reboot movies — “Broken Bow” has become more and more foundational as time goes on. You’ve got Klingons, a ticking clock, a little ship named Enterprise, and a last-minute “beam me up” escape. What more do you want?
9. Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Encounter at Farpoint”
Oh “Farpoint,” you grand, ambitious, beautiful doofus, you. Has there ever been anything, before or since, that is more Star Trek than this episode? Yet, it is also a demonstration that Star Trek is a spirit in need of a mixer.
Let’s be honest, a lot of this episode is pretty rough, with painful dialogue and agonizing pacing. Anyone who complains about the Enterprise fly-by in Star Trek: The Motion Picture hasn’t seen Farpoint’s saucer separation sequence.
The ingredients of the Star Trek: The Next Generation we know and love are here but they have a long way to go. Patrick Stewart is still figuring Picard out, playing him as grumpy old man who just wants to give the galaxy a good telling-off. Wesley Crusher instantly earns a generation’s internet hatred. But the episode’s saving grace is John de Lancie as Q, who immediately realizes the only thing that can save this pilot is oodles of camp.
8. Lower Decks – “Second Contact”
From its first episode, Star Trek: Lower Decks proved many of the naysayers wrong. As a mosaic of every Star Trek series, ever, Lower Decks is the one series more inclined to remind you why you like Star Trek more than any other. But, its pilot, “Second Contact,” is a breezily efficient introduction to this low-stakes iteration of Trek. We’ve all heard about making first contact with aliens, but what happens after that? Who goes back and gets the aliens used to being part of the Federation?
The pilot episode of Lower Decks answers that question hilariously and brilliantly. Come for the introduction of Mariner, Boimler, Tendi, and Rutherford, but stay for the deep cuts about Gary Mitchell. If someone wanted to learn about Star Trek without watching other Star Trek, the pilot of Lower Decks is here to say, that’s just fine. And we’re gonna have a lot of fun along the way.
7. Picard – “Remembrance”
After Discovery, it didn’t seem possible that another Star Trek debut episode could stir up more controversy. And yet, somehow, the debut of Picard did just that. That said, for all you Picard haters out there, “Remembrance” is much better than some might say, and really only has one flaw: Its second part, “Maps and Legends,” should have been aired as one episode. In fact, the first three episodes of Picard, all directed by Hanelle Culpepper, feel like the true pilot for the series. Because “Remembrance” ends with the death of Dahj (Isa Briones) it feels incomplete, but if you consider “Maps and Legends” to be part of the pilot, the whole thing feels more complete.
The biggest criticism of Picard, by and large, is that fans felt that the series has been too dark to be part of the legacy of The Next Generation. But, when you consider that Picard was always poised to be the Star Trek version of Logan, “Remembrance” does exactly what the series is trying to attempt; make a grounded, more realistic sequel to TNG, in which everything is not what it seems. Plus, everyone knows the best Picard moments in TNG involved Jean-Luc losing his temper, and this episode has plenty of that. Jean-Luc might drink his Earl Grey decaf in “Remembrance,” but that’s also the point.
6. Prodigy – “Lost & Found”
Like Discovery, Prodigy’s pilot also breaks a lot of rules. Aside from a couple of fan-pleasing continuity deep cuts it doesn’t remotely feel like Star Trek. But then, what does the Star Trek universe feel like outside of the warm light of the Federation? The answer, basically, is Star Wars. It doesn’t hurt that Prodigy is beautifully animated, and is light years beyond what that other Star-franchise has managed to pull off in this format.
But that is the trick Prodigy pulls. Trek always started from the Federation and ventured outwards, but in Prodigy the Federation is the unknown, and its characters learn about that world at the same time its much younger audience does.
For everything that is different on the surface, the bones of Star Trek are here. There is something very Trek about the universal translator turning on and transforming a rock monster into a shy little girl. As the series continues, Prodigy becomes more and more obviously a Star Trek show, but this pilot shows it already understands the assignment.
5. Voyager – “Caretaker”
“Caretaker” was the third Star Trek pilot created by this production team in the space of eight years, and that is where all the episode’s strengths and flaws lie. This episode feels like a sizzle real of what you want from Star Trek, while admittedly starting to show the limitations of its ’90s form.
Encounter a bizarre alien trader in space? Check. Mysterious abduction to a place that looks oddly like historical Earth? Check. Away mission to a desert planet? Yep. Underground alien city? We got you. Super-advanced alien who has evolved into a sort of CGI jelly mold? You got it.
Yes, the Kazon are little more than rubbish-looking Klingons and the Maquis aren’t quite the loophole past Rodenberry’s “no conflict” rule that they’re supposed to be. To a certain extent it feels a bit by-the-numbers, but it hits all of those numbers with absolute confidence and polish, and only TOS and DS9 have so effectively and efficiently introduced its new cast and characters.
4. The Original Series – “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
The difference between “The Cage” and “Where No Man Goes Before” is in the opening shot. “The Cage” starts in space, and zooms in to look down on the crew in the bridge, “Where No Man Goes Before” starts in space, then pulls out to reveal it is on a monitor in the ship’s rec room.
Star Trek, proper, begins with Kirk and Spock playing 3D chess, establishing the “humanity vs. logic” conflict that is the heart of The Original Series, if not Star Trek itself. When we do see the bridge it is not from the ceiling, but through the turbo lift doors.
Sci-fi writer Charlie Jane Anders has even argued this episode is Kirk’s origin story, as he struggles to choose between the coldly logical, but unerringly practical Spock, or his more fun but douchey best friend, Gary Mitchell, before Kirk ultimately follows Spock’s advice to save the day and become the Captain he needs to be.
“The Cage” (more on that in a minute) brought proper, adult science fiction to serialized TV, but “Where No Man Goes Before” grounded it in human relationships.
3. Strange New Worlds, “Strange New Worlds”
This could have been the best pilot. Like “Encounter at Farpoint” it is a pure Star Trek story, so much so that you spend a lot of the episode feeling like you have seen this story before even though you never have. Like “Where No Man Goes Before” it understands that the show will live or die by its characters and their relationships.
It introduces the Enterprise as a familiar, lived-in ship and delivers a simple, self-contained plot that shamelessly steals from The Day the Earth Stood Still and adds some added Prime Directive-flavored frosting. It gets the wonder of exploration, the camaraderie of the crew, the way that humanity has advanced to become something better than it is and the terrible things that befell it before it was able to.
The only place it falls down is that for some reason it feels like it has to tie into Discovery, shoehorning in mentions to a convoluted, season-long arc that new viewers are unfamiliar with and old ones are well over.
But even with that, “Strange New Worlds” is a nearly perfect piece of Trek.
2. Deep Space Nine – “Emissary”
Without a doubt, a masterful series premiere, the only fault of “Emissary,” is that it slightly misrepresents what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine eventually became by its seventh season. Still, in terms of tonal consistency, DS9 is remarkable in that its pilot episode is honored throughout the show with very few plot threads left abandoned.
As a series that was essentially a spinoff/sequel to The Next Generation, “Emissary” ran the risk of being way too in-the-weeds for a casual viewer, right from the first scene. Because the very first scene began inside the most famous TNG episode ever, “The Best of Both Worlds,” DS9 demanded a degree of Trek literacy immediately. And yet, the paradox of “Emissary,” is that it’s so well written that all of these continuity barriers vanish right away.
Most of this is a credit to the brilliant casting. Avery Brooks carries the episode as Benjamin Sisko, who, as we learn, doesn’t want this job, and doesn’t care for Jean-Luc Picard, either. This choice was brilliant and set DS9 apart not just from TNG, but from the basic idea of what Trek was supposed to be. It was okay for people to disagree. It was okay for Sisko to change his mind, and everything we thought we knew about the Star Trek galaxy was blown wide open by a wormhole. From Odo to Kira to Dax, Bashir, O’Brien, and Quark, the new characters are introduced quickly, but thoughtfully. In all the Trek shows, you’re never more excited for the next episode than you are after the debut of Deep Space Nine.
1. The Original Series, “The Cage”
So here we are. Possibly the only pilot episode credited with being the pilot for two individual TV shows (Star Trek and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds) as well as launching the entire 11 TV series, 13 movie franchise.
It’s the original, but is it really the best?
“The Cage” is a strange watch today. Everything is grittier than we are used to in Star Trek, the colors are washed out, the Captain is weighed down by trauma and duty, and the biggest smile we see in the episode is probably cracked by Spock.
But from the start “The Cage” expertly sets out Star Trek’s primary mission, one the franchise has occasionally forgotten: To bring big, thoughtful, hefty science fiction ideas to a mainstream TV audience.
The other thing it captures that perhaps Trek has lost over the decades, is its sheer weirdness.
The psychedelic angles, lighting, and music are all extremely ’60s, but also unworldly and strange in a way that Star Trek should maybe strive for again.
It is telling that when we see the Talosians again in Discovery, they have lost their androgyny to become more obviously gendered, their huge veiny craniums replaced with a more Voyager-esque ridged forehead, and the weird splashes of color replaced with a very uniform-looking blue light.
With its singing plants and alien palaces, “The Cage” leaves viewers in no doubt that this is a strange and heavily-populated universe, far more so than the automated mineral processing plant on a lifeless moon we see in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
While the Enterprise crew here are perhaps a bit more sterile than we are used to, “The Cage” introduces us to a universe we immediately long to explore, which is probably why we have done so for nearly 60 years.
What are your favorite Star Trek pilots? Let us know in the comments!