We get the science fiction we need at the time we need it. When “Star Trek” premiered on Sept. 8, 1966, the United States was escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War while also reckoning with the civil rights movement — not to mention waging a cold war with the Soviet Union that seemed always on the verge of heating up.
Right along with that tumult was the beacon of scientific hope that was NASA’s space program, which in turn stoked the passion of an America obsessed with tomorrow. World’s fairs were in the business of showing us the cars, kitchens and cities of tomorrow.
Writer-producer Gene Roddenberry channeled those twin poles of the human condition — strife and hope — into “Star Trek,” the show he pitched to NBC as “ ‘Wagon Train’ to the stars.” The core of what makes his series — which ran from 1966 to 1969 — such an enduring, appealing fiction is that it takes place in a future where humanity has put its pettiness behind it.
There is an optimism coursing through the 24th century that Roddenberry envisioned, one that imagines a united Earth that, having conquered poverty and hunger and pestilence, takes to the stars as one. If that optimism played well in the ’60s, it plays just as well today, when every day brings new reports of senseless terror or fresh quotes from feckless politicians.
Despite running for only 79 episodes, “Star Trek” made household names out of characters like Capt. James T. Kirk, Cmdr. Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Lt. Uhura, Lt. Hikaru Sulu, Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott and Ensign Pavel Chekov. It also made stars out of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, James Doohan and Walter Koenig.
But a franchise achieves the kind of permanence that “Star Trek” has only if it expands beyond its origins, and original characters. “Star Trek” spun itself off into multiple TV series, movies, novels, video games, comic books… somewhere, there’s probably a puppet Kirk putting the moves on a puppet Orion slave girl.
“Star Trek” also gave birth to fandom as we know it. It was “Star Trek” fans who staged a write-in campaign to save the show from cancellation — and held conventions after those campaigns stopped succeeding. San Diego Comic-Con doesn’t exist without “Trek” fans taking to a hotel ballroom first.
While the tendrils of “Star Trek” have touched almost every aspect of our culture — there’s a reason one of the most popular cellphones ever to hit the market flipped open; NASA named one of its shuttles after the Enterprise — it all began with content on a screen. So we’re ranking them: All of the TV shows and the movies, all together.
One might say that’s like comparing apples and oranges, but we prefer to think of each of them as stars — big and small, dim and bright — each part of the constellation that makes up “Star Trek.”
1. Star Trek: The Original Series
Yes, there are episodes among the original series’ 79 episodes that will make you howl with unintended laughter, just as there are episodes that look produced with roughly the same budget as the best possible meal at Chuck E. Cheese. But here’s the thing: It was first. “Star Trek” was the first time we met Spock, Bones or Capt. Kirk — the logical brain, the beating heart and the swashbuckling synthesis of the two. For all its occasional silliness (mobster planets, anyone?), “Star Trek” did as “The Twilight Zone” did before it — it used the unique, allegorical power of science fiction to tell stories about race and class, privilege and corruption, love and loss. And it did it with warp speed, photon torpedoes and transporters.
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
We don’t usually like to see our heroes age. It only reminds us that we too are losing our fight against time. But sometimes, that’s where the great stories lie in wait, like a forgotten nemesis hiding on a dead planet. To watch Shatner’s Kirk fumble for his glasses while his beloved Enterprise is under attack from his old TV series enemy, Khan (Ricardo Montalban), is to watch a man reckoning with mortality and inevitability — in a film capped with science fiction’s most heartbreaking death (and bag-pipe-y funeral).
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Every “Star Trek” series, especially after the original, took a while to find its footing. “Deep Space Nine” was no different, but it was also the first “Trek” show created after Roddenberry died — as such, it was able to go darker than the Final Frontier had ever been allowed to be portrayed before. When “DS9” hit its stride, it became a show about the fog of war, about compromised ethics and morals, about the tortured choices one makes on the front lines of an unwinnable conflict. And in Avery Brooks’ Benjamin Sisko, “Star Trek” continued to push the social conversation boundaries by casting its first black lead.
4. Star Trek: The Next Generation
The first couple of seasons are too preoccupied with trying to catch that “Star Trek” lightning in a bottle, the final season was a lot of wheel-spinning before turning out the lights. But the balance of the seven seasons that followed Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) both lived up to the best of what “Star Trek” could be and, occasionally, redefined it. Aided immeasurably by the gravitas of Stewart (a Shakespearean veteran), “The Next Generation” explored more than the deepest reaches of space. It put its characters through the ringer while looking to define what it means to be “human” in the face of the impossible.
5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
This was the last time we’d see the classic “Star Trek” crew together, and it feels like a victory lap that hits all the beats fans might want. Klingons? Check. Kirk making out with a hot space lady? Affirmative. Space battles? Sure. Capt. Sulu? About time. And the Peter Pan coda — “second star to the right, straight on till morning” — is perfect for a band of old men gallivanting across the cosmos like kids...one last time.
6. Star Trek: Voyager
Huge bonus points for casting Kate Mulgrew as “Star Trek’s” first female captain. More huge points for making Seven of Nine — the cyborg refugee played by Jeri Ryan — more than a sexbot in a skintight suit and an actual character who evolves over the course of the show’s seven seasons. While “Voyager” did, at times, betray an exhaustion likely felt by producers trying to coming up with unexploited “Trek” ideas, it still tacked hard into what makes “Star Trek” exemplary: an unquenchable love of of exploration.
7. Star Trek
While he was in production on this reboot, director JJ Abrams said that he was a “Star Wars” fan as a kid and that he came to “Star Trek” later in life. And that shows, since Abrams all but ignores the pseudo-science that forms the spine of “Trek” and embraces the high adventure. For a while, that’s more than enough. (And Chris Pine handles the mantle of of Kirk quite well, while Zachary Quinto seems engineered in a lab to play Spock.)
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
If you ever wanted to know what a high school field trip to the Bay Area would be like if your classmates were the original “Trek” crew, look no further. Director Nimoy — doing double-duty — turns the fourth “Trek” feature into a time-travel romp/environmental crusade, stranding the Enterprise’s senior staff in 1980s San Francisco. It’s dated, to be sure, and occasionally excessively frothy — but it also has about as much fun as Sulu has while strutting through the Castro.
9. Star Trek: First Contact
For the “Next Generation” crew’s first solo mission, director (and costar) Jonathan Frakes pits Picard and Co. against the omnivorously robotic Borg — “The Next Generation’s” one great contribution to the “Trek” mythos. “First Contact” is a very contained movie — it has two locations, the Enterprise (which is being invaded by the Borg) and Earth (where the first warp drive is being built). “First Contact” is not a great movie — it’s not “about” much, in the way that “Star Trek” is about big ideas — but it is a lot of fun.
10. Star Trek Beyond
Director Justin Lin took over for Abrams with this second sequel to the 2009 reboot and turned in a movie that plays like a good episode of a good season of “Star Trek.” The villain’s objectives are a little muddled, the third act of the film is a little frenzied, but it feels like “Star Trek,” which is more than one could say of “Into Darkness.”
11. Star Trek: The Animated Series
It is “Star Trek,” after all. And though it’s a cartoon animated with all the technical savvy of a cement mixer, Kirk is voiced by Shatner, Spock is voiced by Nimoy, Scotty is voiced by Doohan, et cetera, et cetera. It was the best a fan could hope for in the dark times between the classic series’ end and “The Motion Picture’s” premiere.
12. Star Trek: Enterprise
Maybe you have a sweet spot for Scott Bakula, who plays Jonathan Archer, captain of the Enterprise that precedes Kirk’s NCC-1701. Maybe you like hot lady Vulcans; luckily, the NCC NX-01 gives you Sub-Cmdr. T’Pol (Jolene Blalock). But “Enterprise” was the rare “Star Trek” prequel, and it turns out that looking backward isn’t something “Trek” fans wanted — “Enterprise” is the rare “Trek” show to actually get canceled.
13. Star Trek: Generations
Time travel is a tricky thing when it comes to “Star Trek.” Sometimes it works wonders — “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the best episode of the classic series — and sometimes it’s a hackneyed gimmick that just lets actors from different “Trek” shows appear together on-screen. So here, we get the meeting of Kirk and Picard, who should be separated by generations (get it?), but are now thrust together to ride horses together and fight Malcolm McDowell. One of them dies, because, apparently, you can’t have two captains of the Enterprise at once.
14. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
You really have to have a hunger for loving, caressing shots of the USS Enterprise, because this film is chock full of them. And also a fair tolerance for ponderous philosophizing, because this film has quite a bit of that as well. Yes, “The Motion Picture” is all fan service, all the time, but to be fair, the fans are the reason why there is anything “Star Trek” at all. So let them have this.
15. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
It’s not that this one is bad, per se, it’s just that it has the bad luck of following the best “Star Trek” movie while also undoing a big reason of why “The Wrath of Khan” has such devastating impact: the death of Spock. Still, for the joy of watching Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon…
16. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
“Star Trek” has done pretty well with actors graduating to directors: Nimoy did a fine job with “The Voyage Home,” and Frakes acquitted himself well with “First Contact.” But this one, with Shatner at the helm of a story that pits the crew of the Enterprise against “God,” is just a dreadful bore.
17. Star Trek Into Darkness
There is some fun to be had in Abrams’ sequel, but too much of it feels like retreads from his own 2009 reboot. The big problem is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan: The chief reason why Khan worked so well as a villain in “Star Trek II” is that Kirk and Khan have a history; that Khan represented the sins of youth revisiting themselves on the old. Without that history, he’s just another bad guy.
18. Star Trek: Nemesis
This one has a young Tom Hardy playing Picard’s half-Romulan cloned son, so it has that going for it. Not much else, really.
19. Star Trek: Insurrection
Let’s say you’re trapped underneath something very heavy: While you’re waiting for help from someone very strong — if this was on television, and the remote was just out of reach, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have to watch.