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Star Trek for beginners: Where to start with the final frontier

New to Trek? Here's how to fall in love with the timeless sci-fi series.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
5 min read
Joal Ryan

The Star Trek franchise is alive and well, with Star Trek: Discovery currently streaming and more shows in production. But what if you're a newcomer to the Star Trek universe? You'll be staring down the phaser barrel of a dizzying assortment of shows, characters and even timelines. If you're Borg-curious, where in the universe should you start with Star Trek?

After a lot of katra-searching (you'll understand it later), here's my recommendation: Start at the beginning, with the Original Series. From there you can work your way through the best of what Trek has to offer. The other option would be to follow the in-universe timeline, but that's kinda messy. By dipping into the STU in release order, you'll better appreciate some of the nods and jokes and references that come later, and you'll gain both context and continuity along the way.

Fast-track to Trek

Short on time? Not even sure this Trek business is your cup of tea? There's an easy, low-commitment way to find out: Watch the Original Series episode Space Seed (S1, E22), then watch the 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. They're connected; the first gives you the flavor of the whole, er, enterprise while introducing a fantastic villain. The second is just one of the best damn sci-fi movies ever made.

But if you have more time (and who doesn't these days?), allow me to give you the building blocks of a solid Star Trek foundation. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to the franchise, just the best starter material so you can then turn loose on everything that follows.

Watch on Amazon Prime : Space Seed (original version) | Space Seed (remastered version) | Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (theatrical version)

Watch on CBS All Access : Space Seed

Watch on Netflix : Space Seed

The Original Series


Star Trek: The Original Series still holds up thanks to great storytelling and a charismatic cast.

Point to ponder: The three seasons of the original Star Trek spanned nearly 70 episodes, which would be equivalent to nearly seven seasons of many modern TV series. (Game of Thrones, in comparison, produced 73 episodes across eight seasons.)

Does this 1960s show feel a bit dated? Sure, in places, though at least it looks better than you'd expect. In 2006, CBS Television Distribution began releasing remastered, high-definition TOS episodes, with updated effects shots for things like ship exteriors and alien planets. Those remastered versions are what you'll currently find streaming on the likes of Amazon Video, CBS All Access and Netflix.

But the real appeal here has always been the charisma of the cast, the strength of the storytelling and the fun of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate -- elements that hold up beautifully some 50 years later. It may be sci-fi, but it's also relatable human drama. That's why we're still watching -- and why you should start.

Essential TOS episodes:

  • Balance of Terror (S1, E14)
  • Arena (S1, E18)
  • Space Seed (S1, E22) 
  • The Devil in the Dark (S1, E25)
  • The City on the Edge of Forever (S1, E28)
  • Amok Time (S2, E1)
  • Mirror, Mirror (S2, E4)
  • The Doomsday Machine (S2, E6)
  • The Trouble with Tribbles (S2, E15 )
  • The Tholian Web (S3, E9)

Think I missed any essentials? Name them in the comments!

Watch on Amazon Prime: Star Trek: The Original Series (original version)Star Trek: The Original Series (remastered version)

Watch on CBS All Access: Star Trek: The Original Series (remastered)

Watch on Netflix: Star Trek: The Original Series (remastered)

The Trek movie trilogy

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is not only the best Trek movie, it's also one of the all-around best sci-fi films ever.

CBS Photo Archive

Trust me when I say you can skip Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the original crew's first voyage to the big screen. It's long and dull, with few redeeming moments. But the next three movies? Pure Trek gold, starting with the aforementioned Wrath of Khan. It's a nearly perfect tale of revenge, a story about friendship and aging and sacrifice. And it fleshed out the still-nascent STU in new and exciting ways, setting the tone (and bar) for nearly everything that followed.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is widely regarded as the weak link in the trilogy, but I think it's underrated. It's all about loyalty and sacrifice and turning death into a fighting chance to live. Plus it has some very funny moments and a couple major gut-punches along the way.

Finally, there's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, otherwise known as The One with the Whales. It's as close as Trek has ever come to outright comedy, and it draws the trilogy to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. (I've never had so much love for the letter 'A.') While you may be tempted to continue on to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, consider yourself warned: It may be the single worst movie in the franchise.

Watch on Amazon Prime: Star Trek III | Star Trek V

Watch free with ads on IMDb TV:   Star Trek IV    

Watch on CBS All Access: Star Trek IV

Zip me up, Scotty: 50 years of Star Trek uniforms

See all photos

Star Trek: The Next Generation


Now that you're acquainted with the original cast, meet The Next Generation.

Paramount Television

Now you're ready to get back to TV. It took two full seasons for TNG to find its footing; a lot of the early episodes are just painfully bad. However, you'll need to slog through the pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, if only to meet the characters, and then Skin of Evil (S1, E23) so you have sufficient context for one of the all-time-great episodes coming later.

Essential episodes:

  • Conspiracy (S1, E25)
  • Measure of a Man (S2, E9)
  • Yesterday's Enterprise (S3, E15)
  • Best of Both Worlds, Pt. 1 (S3, E26)
  • Best of Both Worlds, Pt. 2 (S4, E1)
  • The Game (S5, E6)
  • Cause and Effect (S5, E18)
  • I, Borg (S5, E23)
  • The Inner Light (S5, E25)
  • All Good Things (S7, E25 and E26)

I know I'm going to hear from a few TNG devotees about this list. Tell me the key episodes I left out.

Watch on Amazon Prime: Star Trek: The Next Generation

Watch on CBS All Access: Star Trek: The Next Generation

Watch on Netflix: Star Trek: The Next Generation

The rest of Trek


Star Trek: Voyager is probably the most underrated of the Trek TV series.


The mind-meld is complete. You now know all the important origins, characters and plot points of the STU. There's plenty more to consume, believe me, but if you've made it this far, there's less risk you'll get, er, lost in space.

I'd love to dissect the rest of Trek canon for you, maybe dive into the many missteps of Star Trek: Discovery (yeah, I said it) or explain why Star Trek: Voyager is a better series than Deep Space Nine (yeah, I said that). Heck, we didn't even talk about Star Trek: The Animated Series or the best Star Trek movie that's not a Star Trek movie. (It's Galaxy Quest, of course.) But those are thoughts for another day.

Watch on Amazon Prime: Star Trek: Voyager | Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Watch on CBS All Access: Star Trek: VoyagerStar Trek: Deep Space Nine | Star Trek: DiscoveryStar Trek: The Animated Series

Watch on Netflix: Star Trek: VoyagerStar Trek: Deep Space Nine

Until then, I've never been more sincere when I say: live long and prosper.