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Star Trek: The Original Series was, arguably, one of the most important television shows in the history of television. It’s legacy can be felt in nearly every scifi television show that emerged in its wake. Throughout the years, Star Trek broke down important barriers, offering the first ever interracial kiss on TV, presenting diverse casts of characters, and succeeding in convincing us that a English actor could play a character with a decidedly French name. So, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek: The Original Series, I decided to rank the five live action Star Trek series, from worst to first. While I cannot claim to be an expert in all things Trek, I have watched nearly every episode of Star Trek ever created (I’ll admit to skipping several Enterprise episodes), so my rankings (which are, as with all lists, purely subjective) are based on having spent hours throughout my life watching these shows and spending time with these characters. I’ve tried to explain my reasoning for ranking the show thus, but should you disagree, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Enterprise had a great theme song. Unfortunately, that was about all the show had going for it. Now, Scott Bakula is one of my favorite actors (his recent work on the underrated HBO series Looking was some of the best of his career), but even his considerable acting chops couldn’t turn this dud into a winner. The issues with Enterprise were two fold. First, the characters just weren’t interesting. Having a Vulcan first officer at that time in the Federation’s growth was a great move. However, T’Pol was saddled with little to do, an actress who couldn’t make the character work, and, ultimately, an ill-conceived romance with Tripp that made absolutely zero sense beyond a desire to see two attractive people in scenes together. The rest of the cast didn’t fare much better, and, even a scant eleven years following the series finale, I can barely recall the characters on the show.
The other glaring problem with the series was that the adventures just weren’t all that fun. Star Trek is many things, but the sense of fun and interesting adventure is paramount to a series about exploring the reaches of the galaxy. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be drama or complex story arcs (in fact, I love a good story arc, as I will touch on later), but I didn’t get the sense that the characters really enjoyed their jobs on the ship. Now, that certainly harkens back my problem with the characters, but if the audience can’t get on board with the adventure and drama within an episode because the characters aren’t particularly engaged, that’s a problem.
4. Star Trek: Voyager
Oh, Voyager. Such a muddled mess with some great moments strewn throughout. Honestly, I could have flipped Voyager and Enterprise in my rankings, but I have fonder memories of the former, so it managed to squeak in at number four on the list. The concept for Voyager was great: a Starfleet ship is flung across the galaxy and forced to work with unfamiliar alien races to find its way home. That was an amazing set-up for a seven year journey. Add in that a number of the new crew members were former fugitives that the Starfleet crew was sent to capture, and you have the makings of a great story. I can’t help but imagine how cool the show might have been had it been created in today’s television landscape rather than that of the mid-1990s, when the darker edges of the set-up couldn’t be explored to the extent they would be now. But, despite the great initial pitch for the show, it never lived up to what it could have been. While the early seasons had some promise (battles with the interesting Delta Quadrant villains the Kazon and the Vidiians), once the series decided to make a ratings grab by making the show all about Voyager vs. the Borg, it fully lost its way.
The problem wasn’t adding the Borg into the equation (or even adding Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine in all her catsuited glory). The problem was making them the be all and end all of the show’s focus. While I know the later seasons didn’t completely revolve around the Borg as the villains, there were so many Borg episodes strewn throughout that it cheapened them as antagonists. When there’s a great villain on a show, too much of that villain makes the audience grow weary and the fear it originally imbued lessens until it simply isn’t all that scary any more (see also: The Weeping Angels over on Doctor Who). By the seventh season of Voyager, I never wanted to see another Borg again.
But the over-reliance on the Borg wasn’t the show’s only sin. As with Enterprise, the characters on Voyager left a lot to be desired. While they were a tad more memorable and multi-dimensional than those on Enterprise, the writers didn’t seem to know how to utilize many of them over the show’s seven season run. Think of poor Harry Kim, who spent most of the series relegated to a background character with little to no personal development, doomed to be Tom Paris’ wing man. Or B’Elanna Torres, who had so much potential in the show’s early years, but whose story became one dimensional throughout the later seasons of the show. Even the usually excellent Kate Mulgrew (who is absolutely killing it these days on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black) seemed lost in the shoes Captain Kathryn Janeway in the later seasons of the show. And, frankly, I wouldn’t be inspired to follow Janeway into battle.
Even when a series is episodic rather than serial (meaning that episodes are treated as stand alone stories and not necessarily part of a larger season arc) as most of the Star Trek episodes over the five series have been, there still needs to be meaningful character development. Characters can’t learn a lesson only to forget it a week later. With Voyager, there was never evidence that characters learned anything from their exploits, beyond the best way to defeat the Borg or whichever other villain was on tap for that particular week. For a series with such a great hook, Voyager never lived up to its promise.
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Deep Space Nine is an interesting case within the Star Trek television cannon. Throughout its run, Star Trek, like many other dramas over the years, utilized the episodic season structure rather than the serial model that is now the preferred form among TV’s elite dramas. For the initial years of its seven season run, DS9 operated as an episodic series. However, with the show sagging in the ratings and competing with the similarly episodic Voyager, DS9 went for broke with the Dominion War serialized story. And boy, was that a smart move.
Honestly, I was tempted to place DS9 higher on this list because the Dominion War arc was so great. The characters, the story, the darkness mingled with brief elements of hope and triumph, all made for the most compelling story ever told under the Star Trek television banner. It’s hardly surprising that one of the story’s architects, Ronald D. Moore, graduated from DS9 to create the updated Battlestar Galactica– a series that clearly owes a debt to the tone and pacing of the Dominion War arc on DS9. However, I opted to place DS9 smack dab in the middle of the list because the bookends that surrounded that spectacular arc just didn’t hold up as well as the overall work in both The Original Series and Next Generation.
There were a number of characters that, when explored outside the guise of war, just didn’t work all that well. Sure, Jadzia Dax was occasionally fun, and there were a few episodes that explored the complex nature of being a joined Trill, but man, was she a poorly drawn character (and let’s not get started on Ezri). Sisko was a strong leader, but he remained a cypher throughout the run of the series- definitely not someone to inspire troops beyond the occasional speech. Two of the show’s three best characters were imports from Next Generation (Worf, who revitalized the series when he joined the cast, and O’Brien). The third, the compelling Cardassian spy Garek, was underused throughout most of the series, although he did have some spectacular moments during the war. It can be difficult to balance a cast this size and allow for equal screen time and arcs, but this was, by far, the most rich and diverse cast of characters on a Star Trek series. There were so many toys to play with, so many species to work with, and such a deep roster of acting talent. It was a shame that the spectacular writing staff (which included Moore, Ira Steven Behr, and René Echevarria) weren’t allowed more freedom from the start to explore the characters and their relationships in more depth.
2. Star Trek: The Original Series
Now, there is a case to be made to make Star Trek: The Original Series number one on this list simply because it was the source from which all the additional series sprung. Or, because it was the catalyst for changing the face of scifi on television. But I’ve put it at the second spot on the list because, while it created iconic characters and some ripping yarns, The Original Series is lacking that special something that made Next Generation work on a different level.
The characters on TOS might be iconic, but aside from Kirk and Spock, they were all archetypal characters that didn’t grow or change throughout the series (the characters were much more complex and multi-dimensional in their film incarnations). What made TOS work wasn’t the weekly adventures, the interesting aliens of the week, or the various exclamations of Bones. It was the relationship between Kirk and Spock. The friendship and respect that developed between to very different men was what grounded the show. You can throw all the bells and whistles in the world at a show, but if the characters don’t resonate and the audience can’t see the bond between them, the show is doomed to fail. TOS might not have been a runaway success in its initial run, but the relationship between Kirk and Spock became the bedrock on which the ensuing films (including the modern reboot) have been built. When Gene Roddenberry drew up those two characters, he broke the mold. Episodes that utilized that friendship were some of the best the show had to offer (“The City on the Edge of Forever,” arguably the best Trek episode of them all, uses the Spock-Kirk friendship, with a dash of McCoy for good measure, to great aplomb).
While TOS regularly made excellent use of Kirk and Spock, the rest of the cast often were given short shrift. Uhura, while a groundbreaking depiction of an AfricanAmerican woman on television, never really grew beyond her role within the ship hierarchy. The same could be said for Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov. And while McCoy was given more to do than the rest, the character spent more time gruffly declaring himself to be a doctor in Sickbay than developing as a character.
1. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Is Star Trek: The Next Generation the perfect Star Trek series? Nope. But over its seven seasons, Next Generation was the series that best exemplified all that is great about Star Trek. While the characters might not have been the most complex on television, each had a clear course of development over the seasons (even Wesley Crusher, who was definitely the worst).
And a lot of what made Next Generation truly great comes down to its captain. I would follow Jean-Luc Picard into battle any day of the week. More cerebral than Kirk, but no slouch when it came to drawing up battle plans, Picard is the greatest Star Trek captain. And while a lot of the credit for Picard goes to Sir Patrick Stewart’s work in the role, the show’s writers managed to craft a character who didn’t always have all the answers, yet still inspired a deep trust and loyalty from both the crew and the audience.
Picard made mistakes- sometimes horrific mistakes- but he learned from them and grew as a result. While Riker never reached the heights of Spock as a first officer, the series created a number of rich supporting characters that added great depth to the show. From Worf (who would anchor DS9 in later years) to the amazingly complex Data (a performance from Brent Spiner that would almost certainly gain awards recognition if the show aired today) to the excellent work from Whoopi Goldberg in her smaller role as Guinan (a character I wish we had more time with), there were a number of characters who could successfully carry an individual episode or arc- something that wasn’t present in any of the other Trek series.
Next Generation was also responsible for introducing some of Star Trek’s best villains into the fold, most notably the Borg (and, as a result, coming up with one of the best cliffhangers in television history: “Mr. Worf, fire.”). The series also was responsible for the creation of the always entertaining Q (played by the excellent John de Lancie), who would appear on both Voyager and DS9, but who was never as good as when he was matching wits with El Capitan himself.
While Next Generation used the episodic model throughout its run, the series crafted a series finale that drew upon the entire run of the series and tied beautifully back into the pilot. From start to finish, Next Generation was a smart, layered series. Yes, there were duds within the show’s 178 episodes, but the strongest episodes within the series outshine the strongest in the other series. The characters were stronger and more complex than any within the Star Trek television universe. And, when it comes down to it, I trust a ship captained by Jean-Luc Picard over any other ship in the fleet.