A Beginner’s Guide to the Star Trek Universe

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Space: the final frontier. Photo: Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Star Trek is a behemoth of a franchise. Running over 50 years, it has had five live-action series, one animated series, several films, comics, novelizations, and an extremely obsessive fandom I’ve counted myself a part of since childhood. I understand how Star Trek can seem labyrinthine, too dense for new fans to find their way in. But it’s very well worth it. This guide is a window into the Star Trek franchise, meant to introduce it those who have scant knowledge of its intricacies. At its best, Star Trek is a potently political, unabashedly philosophical, powerfully diverse, empathetic, and supremely well-crafted series that uses its hard science-fiction trappings to speak to our times. With Star Trek: Discovery bringing the franchise back to television after a 12-year absence, now is the best time to see why Star Trek has endured since The Original Series first aired in 1966.

There are a few major concepts to understand before venturing into the realm of Star Trek:

1. How Star Trek imagines the future of humanity and Earth itself.
To understand the allure of Star Trek, it’s necessary to understand the ways its creator Gene Roddenberry and later writers conceived of humanity’s future. While Earth is, for all intents and purposes, a utopia during the time of the various Star Trek series, it took a long, bloody road to get there. 21st-century Earth was embroiled in many conflicts, including what would become known as World War III (2024–2053), which was sparked by a litany of issues, including anger over genetic manipulation and the Eugenics Wars. Governments fell. Major cities were destroyed. The loss of life hovered around 600 million. Ten years after the end of the war, First Contact was made with the Vulcans (a rigid, highly logical species that count fan-favorite character Spock as a member), thanks to humanity building the first warp drive that allowed for space travel faster than the speed of light (this event is dramatized in the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact). The discovery of intelligent alien races forced humanity to get its act together. After further chaos and attempts to establish order, eventually the United Earth Government was established in 2150. By the early 22nd century, humanity was able to eliminate most, if not all, of the poverty, disease, hunger, and cruelty that has plagued us since our beginnings. Racism, sexism, and even money was a thing of the past. Humanity’s drive became a philosophy of betterment and exploration.

2. The Federation
Founded in San Francisco in 2161 by four different species, including humanity and the Vulcans. To put it simply, the Federation is a republic composed of various planetary governments who have agreed to live semiautonomously under a central body that guides their primary goals: a grand sense of intellectual curiosity and peaceful exploration.

3. Starfleet
Starfleet is the defense and deep-exploration service maintained by the Federation. They ferry ambassadors, participate in away missions, protect the peace, and establish new relations with various worlds when necessary. In essence, they’re the heart and soul of the Federation. They continue, to quote Captain James T. Kirk, the “dream that became reality and spread throughout the stars.”

Now let’s get to the fun stuff!

The Original Series (1966-1969)

Where to Watch: Hulu, Netflix, CBS All Access

Premise

Beginning in the 23rd Century, Star Trek: The Original Series adeptly blends sci-fi, adventure, philosophy, and a fierce dedication to diversity in order to tell the stories of the legendary crew of the USS Enterprise. I can’t say it better than Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) does in the opening credits: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Important Cast Members

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images

Star Trek at its heart is an ensemble with several important key members. There’s, of course, the adventurous, boldly physical, ladies man Captain James T. Kirk, whose swagger often masks his sincerity. My favorite by far is First Officer/Lieutenant Comander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a half-Vulcan, half-human dedicated to logic and fond of the arts, battling his issues with being in the liminal space between two worlds. His friendship with Kirk is not only the backbone of The Original Series and its cinematic counterparts, but one of the definitive relationships of the entire franchise. There’s also the hilariously blunt Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), the congenial chief engineer Scotty (James Doohan), and the revolutionary characters Uhura (Nichelle Nichols, who could count Martin Luther King Jr. as a fan), and dashing science officer Lieutenant Sulu (George Takei).

Gateway Episodes

Season 1, Episode 3, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Despite being billed as the third episode of the series, it’s actually more of a pilot episode. (Well, technically the second pilot after the first one failed to convince execs of Star Trek’s potential.) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” follows two crew members who develop godlike psychic abilities after the Enterprise attempts a mission at the edge of the galaxy. It’s full of action and towering emotional stakes, and it capably sketches the main characters.

Season 1, Episode 15, “Balance of Terror”
Watching “Balance of Terror” demonstrates the depth and craft of Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s a taut and complex Cold War allegory that introduces the Romulans, the warlike cousins of the more scientifically minded Vulcans. After they arrive, Spock faces virulent bigotry from his peers on the Enterprise, who begin to see him as a threat. It’s a bracing and emotionally astute episode that sharpens the dynamics between its characters to create a provocative tale about the way prejudice blooms and corrupts.

Best Episodes

Season 1, Episode 22, “Space Seed”
“Space Seed” introduces the ills from humanity’s past when the Enterprise stumbles upon an ancient ship that escaped 20th-century Earth during the Eugenics War. The passengers are genetically engineered humans who have been asleep for 200 years, but they awake still assured of their own superiority. The episode is notable for introducing Khan Noonien Singh (a decadently malevolent Ricardo Montalban), one of the definitive villains from the franchise, and science-fiction history.

Season 2, Episode 4, “Mirror, Mirror”
Star Trek loves traversing to the mirror universe, where the characters turn into their darker, sometimes outright evil, counterparts. This is a gleeful, bracing episode that stands out for its use of Spock and finally giving Uhura a more active role.

Season 2, Episode 15, “The Trouble With Tribbles”
If you’re in the mood for a more comedic episode, you can do no better than this unabashedly bonkers one.

What to Skip

Season one and season two are definitely The Original Series at its best (a few episodes, like “Mudd’s Women” and “Assignment: Earth”, deserve to be skipped.) Season three saw the television series get budget cuts, which definitely shows. But even at its worst, The Original Series has something to admire, whether it be the acting or a kernel of the plot.

Legacy

TOS is a blissful, adventurous, and often exhilarating series. It broke new ground on subjects that other shows rarely ever delved into deeply — war, racism, the issues with eugenics. It’s also a beautiful portrait of the power of sci-fi when it is willing to display humanity reaching toward utopian ideals.

The Next Generation (1987–1994)

Where to Watch: Hulu, Netflix, CBS All Access

Premise

In the 24th century, nearly a century after the adventures of Kirk and Spock, a new crew boldly travels on the Enterprise, taking on even more harrowing journeys: exploring the galaxy, interacting with new cultures, and carrying out diplomatic missions that challenge their understanding of the universe and themselves. TNG also reinvents and fleshes out Klingon and Romulan culture, which provides some of the most bracing narratives of the series. Star Trek: The Next Generation is the platonic ideal of the Star Trek ethos — ensemble cast, proudly sincere, steadfastly philosophical, episodic in nature — perfecting what Roddenberry started in 1966. It’s also the best cast chemistry the franchise has ever seen, along with an excellent sense of pacing and action that is predicated on a superb use of suspense.

Important Cast Members

The minds behind TNG, including showrunner Rick Berman and Roddenberry himself, were wise not to just slightly update the archetypes that TOS created. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (a magnificent Patrick Stewart) is the ultimately European-inflected gentleman — stately, stiff posture, loving, blisteringly intelligent, concerned with the arts, steadfastly dedicated to upholding the tenets of the Federation. First Officer/Commander William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who has directed countless Star Trek episodes and even a few of the films) is dashing, wry, a bit cocky, and undoubtedly has the most intense romantic history of anyone on the crew. Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) is an android whose quest to become more human furthers Star Trek’s interest in what it means to be a human, and the nature of family. Other important characters include: Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), a half-Betazoid, half-human counselor with telepathic abilities and an obsession with chocolate; Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), the chief engineer whose friendship with Data is one of my favorite aspects of the series; and Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), the chief medical officer, who has a history with Picard and a warmth I’ve always admired. (I don’t hold it against her that she just so happens to be the mother of the most annoying character in the series.)

Gateway Episodes

Season 2, Episode 9, “The Measure of a Man”
This is one of many heartbreaking episodes that involve Data’s quest to be seen as human, despite being an android. Picard must prove Data is legally a sentient being with all the freedoms and rights that entails, otherwise Data will be disassembled for study since he is the only one of his kind that his creator made (at least as far as Starfleet knows). Making the legal proceedings all the more impactful on an emotional level is the fact that Riker is forced to work on the opposing counsel. The pleasures of this show are truly endless, and Data’s arc provides Star Trek with one of its most moving portraits of what it means to be human.

Season 4, episode 5, “Remember Me”
To best understand why TNG is the platonic ideal of Star Trek, all you have to do is experience the warmth and tenaciously protective bonds between the characters. “Remember Me” displays that superbly. This is also a great example of how TNG excelled at high-concept episodes that unfurl into something different, and stranger, as revelations come to light. This episode follows Dr. Beverly Crusher as she struggles with her fear over losing loved ones. This fear is magnified when beloved colleagues start disappearing on the ship, and only Beverly retains any memory of them.

Season 5, Episode 2, “Darmok”
If you’re looking for an entry that showcases TNG’s interest in the cerebral, look no further than “Darmok,” in which Captain Picard is stuck on a planet with an alien whose language he’s unable to discern. The chasm between them allows TNG to consider the power of language and connection.

Season 6, Episode 4, “Relics”
This may be the best episode for viewers who are dipping into TNG after falling in love with TOS. Star Trek’s canon is always in conversation with itself. Characters from older series make appearances elsewhere, shining a light on the surprising familial quality of the franchise. “Relics” is one of the best examples of this, with Scotty from TOS finding himself entangled with the crew of Picard’s Enterprise. “Relics” is a beautiful meditation on what happens to older generations when the universe has passed them by. Writer Ronald D. Moore (who has gone on to spearhead shows like Battlestar Galactica and Outlander) uses the premise of Scotty’s surprising reemergence to celebrate the heart of the series, while also charting the differences between TNG and its predecessor.

Best Episodes

Season 3, Episode 26, and Season 4, Episode 1, “Best of Both Worlds Part I and II”
I won’t say much about “Best of Both Worlds Part I and II” since the twists these episodes take are simply astounding and quite an emotional gut punch. The episode furthers the characterization of Riker, whose decision to remain first officer rather than captain his own ship gets scrutinized when a young upstart is brought aboard to aid in the Borg crisis. The Borg, introduced in TNG, become one of the definitive villains of Star Trek and they are at their best here, when their hive-mind nature and ability to assimilate other species takes on terrifying new dimensions.

Season 4, Episode 21, “The Drumhead”
Star Trek’s political intrigue is at its best when it subverts our expectations of what heroism and villainy looks like. Perhaps this is why “The Drumhead” is by far one of my favorite episodes. It follows a potential conspiracy that is uncovered on the Enterprise when a Klingon exchange officer is found to have given important schematics of the Enterprise to the warlike Romulans. What starts out as a simple investigation gives way to bigotry and paranoia when Admiral Norah Satie (played with steely grace by classic Hollywood actress Jean Simmons) is brought aboard by Starfleet top brass to investigate.

Season 4, Episode 24, “Mind’s Eye”
“Mind’s Eye” is an exhilarating tale of mind control and covert operations that develops Geordi and shows just how dastardly the Romulans can be.

Season 5, episode 25, “The Inner Light”
An iconic and beautifully rendered portrait of community and loss that requires little knowledge of the series to be moved by.

Season 7, Episode 11, “Parallels”
“Parallels” grants Worf some development and focus (finally!) in a fun episode in which he notices changes in his friends and other crew members he can’t quite explain. There are just so many great TNG episodes. Dive into it and enjoy the ride.

What to Skip

The Next Generation has a notoriously uneven first season. But don’t skip the pilot episode or episode 22, “Skin of Evil,” which has a pivotal character loss that reverberates through the rest of the series. TNG hits its stride in season three and remains consistent until the very end of its seven-season run, perfecting both its episodic structure, stand-alone episodes, and the franchise’s love of a good two-parter whose cliffhangers hit like a sucker punch. It also undoubtedly has the best series finale in the franchise, “All Good Things.”

Legacy

The Next Generation does not get the love it deserves despite being the most successful Star Trek series during its airing. It’s easy to look upon its episodic nature and lack of bold visual stylistic qualities (at least by today’s standards) and see it as a relic from a simpler time in TV. But that would be a mistake. TNG has a cast that exhibits the emotional qualities of Star Trek better than any of the other series. There’s a camaraderie between them that makes these people easy to love and admire. A 2015 Wired article explains why former president Barack Obama considers himself as a Trekkie: “As Obama sees it, approaching the unknown with resourcefulness and discipline and optimism is what made Star Trek so good.” These qualities are more true of TNG than any other series.

Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)

Where to Watch: Hulu, Netflix, CBS All Access

Premise

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is my favorite series from the franchise. It’s also the antithesis of The Next Generation. If TNG represents the glory of utopia and Starfleet’s upper class, DS9 depicts the high price of attaining peace and the fraught nature of taking an assignment no one else wants. Star Trek’s first black lead, Benjamin Sisko (an intense and commanding Avery Brooks), who becomes a captain in season three, is assigned to command DS9 and aid the Bajorans — a people who are finally free of brutal Cardassian control after a 50-year occupation — in joining the Federation. DS9, which takes place in the 24th century, during the same time period as TNG, disregards a few pivotal aspects of other series: There’s no main starship — the setting is actually a space station near a wormhole; while Roddenberry gave his blessing for the series shortly before he died, showrunners Ira Steven Behr and Michael Piller (who was on until 1995) disregarded his mandate that crew members couldn’t have long-standing conflicts. It’s also the first time Star Trek has larger arcs instead of an episodic nature.

Important Cast Members

Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko. Photo: CBS

Benjamin Sisko is a grieving widow and single father whose wife was killed in the Battle of Wolf 359, making him openly antagonistic toward Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart, whose appearance in DS9’s pilot is meant to bridge TNG with DS9) of the USS Enterprise during the only time they meet in the premiere. (For novices coming in with no knowledge of Star Trek, I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but Picard had a hand in the events that led to Sisko’s wife’s death.) It’s fascinating to chart the difference between the morally grey, bombastic, yet emotionally raw Sisko and the gentlemanly Picard. Sisko has a down-home, almost-working-class sensibility. He loves cooking (his father is a New Orleans chef) and baseball. He’s a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve and has an extremely close relationship with his crew. There’s a tenderness to Sisko, which is rendered in his relationship with his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Sisko’s closest friend is Jadzia Dax (a wondrous Terry Farrell), a science officer and member of the Trill, which means she is host to a long-living symbiont that has had seven previous lives. She is symbiotically joined with this creature, giving her the memories and experiences of these seven different lives. Next to Jadzia, one of the most important relationships Sisko has is with his first officer, the Bajoran Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor). To put it simply, Kira is a badass. Characters like Jadzia and Kira prove DS9 has the best-written female characters from the franchise.

The chief of security, Odo (René Auberjonois), is a shape-shifter who assumes the figure of a humanoid male and desperately yearns to find out about his origins. Quark (Armin Shimerman), a Ferengi bar owner, at first glance seems like merely a greedy and underhanded figure. But he shows a moral code on occasion and brings the show a lot of its humor (and moral complexity). The ever-dashing Alexander Siddig plays chief medical officer Julian Bashir. A bit tactless and self-obsessed, Julian actually proves to add a great emotional dimension to the series. TNG cast members Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) as the chief engineer officer and Worf (Michael Dorn), as strategic operations officer, join the cast as well, getting far more development than they had previously. DS9 makes great use of its supporting cast, with highlights being: Garak (a powerhouse Andrew J. Robinson) a former Cardassian spy who is on the station to avoid prosecution masquerading as a tailor; Dukat (Marc Alaimo), a brutal and seasoned Cardassian military leader whose villainy is terrifying, thanks to his treatment of the Bajorans.

Gateway Episodes

DS9 is a purely serialized show. Its arc and characters grow richer as the seasons continue. But it makes it difficult to suggest stand-alone episodes since they rely on an understanding on the interpersonal dynamics of the characters. The extended pilot episode, “Emissary Part I and Part II,” is definitely the best place to start. I’d also recommend the season-four premiere, “The Way of the Warrior.” It’s a two-part episode that introduces Worf joining the crew as Klingon antagonism accelerates. It may seem a bit too complex for those coming into the series for the first time, but Worf acts as a bridge between TNG and DS9 for those watching the series in order and looking for something to hold on to.

Best Episodes

Season 4, Episode 3, “The Visitor”
“The Visitor” centers on the relationship between Sisko and his son, Jake, in the wake of an accident that seemingly kills the captain. But Jake holds on to hope, dedicating his life to bringing his father back. With moving performances by Brooks and Tony Todd as an adult Jake, “The Visitor” cements DS9 as one of the most impactful portraits of black fatherhood in the history of TV.

Season 5, Episode 3, “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places”
This episode turns the curious pairing of Quark and Worf into a hilarious and strangely romantic episode about their separate romantic foibles.

Season 5, Episode 6, “Trials and Tribble-ations”
DS9 has a weight to it that can make it seem rather heartbreaking, but the writers weren’t afraid to have fun. The best example of this is undoubtedly “Trials and Tribble-ations,” which has the DS9 crew travel back in time to protect the timeline landing them on the Kirk-era USS Enterprise. It is a joyful ride watching DS9 go colorful and marvel at the legendary crew of TOS.

Season 5, Episode 22 “Children of Time”
This is one of the episodes I’ve watched so much, I’ve nearly memorized it. The crew is heading home when Jadzia convinces Sisko to examine curious readings on a planet. Unfortunately, the ship crashes and the crew is faced with curious people on the planet — their own descendants. The episodes reaches a heartbreaking crescendo as it develops how far Odo would go for his unrequited love, Kira. (If you find this pairing as great as I do, season four’s “Crossfire” is also stellar.)

Season 6, Episode 13, “Far Beyond Our Stars”
In this episode, Sisko has a vision from the Prophets that splits the episode in two parts — Sisko as captain on Deep Space Nine, and his visions of being a sci-fi writer in 1950s America who is writing a story about a captain on a space station named Benjamin Sisko. The pleasures of this episode are endless: getting to see the actors without their usual alien designs playing wildly different people; its exploration of race; the deftly layered narrative; and most important, the masterful acting by Avery Brooks, who also directs the hell out of the episode. It is by far one of the best episodes in all of Star Trek.

Season 6, Episode 19, “In the Pale Moonlight”
No best-of-DS9 list would be complete without “In the Pale Moonlight.” The Federation is losing its war with the Dominion. In order to convince the Romulans to join their cause, Sisko enlists Garak, leading to harrowing consequences and an intense portrayal of just how far Sisko is willing to go in order to protect the Federation and those he loves.

What to Skip

Like TNG, DS9 is an immensely consistent series once it finds its balance. The first season is definitely a bit uneven, but given that DS9 has several dense arcs introduced in its first season, don’t skip “The Emissary” (pilot episode), “Battle Lines,” and “Duet.” DS9 can be binged from seasons two through six. Its final season lacks the typically fine-tuned narrative elegance of the previous seasons, but it is definitely worth the watch with episodes like “Chimera,” “Take Me Out to the Holo-Suite,” and “Extreme Measures” being highlights.

Legacy

DS9 had an odd reputation while it aired for foregoing so much of what made Star Trek what it was. But DS9 proves how potent Star Trek can be today with its assured handling of grand arcs and stand-alone episodes, great acting and moving themes. It was a series unafraid to ask tough questions and provide tougher answers.

Voyager (1995-2001)

Where to Watch: Hulu, Netflix, CBS All Access

Premise

Star Trek: Voyager has all the makings of an amazing series that pushes the franchise in even more audacious territory in the wake of DS9, and also grants the franchise several new, radically different female characters in its most diverse outing. The USS Voyager crew, headed by the flinty-eyed Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), is flung 70,000 light years into the unexplored Delta Quadrant along with a vessel of Maquis terrorists. With 75 years of travel between them and home, and a hostile environment in which the Federation has no foothold, the Starfleet members are forced to join forces with the Maquis. Despite this stellar premise, Voyager is unfortunately weighed down by a reliance on cosmic reset buttons and poor characterization.

Important Cast Members

Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images

My greatest issue with Voyager is its characterizations. At first blush, Captain Kathryn Janeway seems to be a steely, by-the-book, scientifically minded leader. Unfortunately, she can come across as hypocritical — her characterization shifts depending on the needs of the plot. There’s her first officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran), a former Maquis member, who becomes a loyal and cherished friend. B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), a half-Klingon, half-human, who proves to be a highly capable engineer battling the warring sides of her identity. In an interesting twist, the USS Voyager’s chief medical officer, the Doctor (Robert Picardo), is a hologram after the medical staff is killed in the first episode. He’s a bit full of himself, extremely talkative, but a valued member who gains his own sense of identity as time goes on. But by far the most important character beyond the captain herself is Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a Borg drone who joins the ship in season four and slowly reclaims her humanity.

Gateway Episodes

Suggesting gateway episodes from Voyager is a bit tricky. The best episodes, while brilliant, don’t represent the series well due to its profoundly uneven writing. The best gateway into the series is its pilot, “The Caretaker,” which, despite a few nagging issues, otherwise wonderfully sets up what I believe to be one of the most fascinating beginnings in Star Trek history.

Best Episodes

Season 4, Episodes 8 and 9, “Year in Hell Part I and II”
These episodes depict the hellish, fraught, and harrowing dynamics you’d expect from Voyager’s premise, pushing its characters to the brink. The timeline is altered by a man hoping to bring his wife back to life, with people and even whole planets being wiped from existence.

Season 4, Episode 23, “Living Witness”
This episode depicts the Doctor brought back online after 700 years and looks at how the legend of USS Voyager’s crew proves to be very different than the reality we’ve come to know.

Season 5, Episode 6, “Timeless”
“Timeless” makes good use of Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), a Starfleet operations officer who typically was more of an annoyance. Harry makes a fatal miscalculation when the ship is testing out slipstream travel in hopes of getting home to Earth. With only Harry and Chakotay as survivors, they spend years trying to right this wrong.

Season 5, Episode 10, “Counterpoint”
“Counterpoint” grants Captain Janeway a worthy adversary, as the crew navigates a sector with a militaristic, xenophobic culture that hates telepaths.

What to Skip

As I noted earlier, Voyager is very uneven with smatterings of great episodes nestled between frustrating ones that rely on too many leaps of logic. Seasons three through six definitely have highlights, so I’d recommend checking out the best episodes that I listed above and deciding if you like the characters enough to binge.

Legacy

Voyager has become a beloved series thanks to its legion of female characters. But it demonstrates what happens when Star Trek skews a bit too conservative (narratively speaking), afraid to take the risks necessary to challenge our conception of its characters. Its uneven handling of tone, character, and narrative undercuts what could have been a truly bold series.

Enterprise (2001–2005)

Where to Watch: Hulu, Netflix, CBS All Access

Premise

Enterprise begins the unfortunate trend Star Trek has continued since, of looking backward instead of pushing the series forward in its timeline. It takes place roughly a century before TOS. This is the first crew of deep-space explorers on the Enterprise, headed by Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap fame), whose father designed the engine, as the narrative fleshes out corners of Starfleet’s early years.

Important Cast Members

Enterprise has three primary characters: the roguish and down-to-earth Captain Archer; Vulcan High Command science officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) who forms a close bond with Archer; and chief engineer Charles “Trip” Tucker III (Connor Trinneer), who grows more assured as the series continues.

Gateway Episodes

Season 1, Episode 1, “Broken Bow Part I and II”
This is a good entry into understanding the modus operandi of Enterprise, although it does reflect how uneven the early seasons proved to be.

Season 1, Episode 7, “The Andorian Incident”
By this point, as much as I find Vulcans fascinating, the franchise is a wee bit too obsessed with them. But “The Andorian Incident” shows how brutal and xenophobic they can be.

Best Episodes

Season 3, Episode 10, “Similitude”
Cloning is one of the themes in science fiction that can easily turn frightening and unsettling. “Similitude” questions the ethical problems with cloning as Trip nearly dies and a clone is created for the sole purpose of saving his life. The clone’s life span is only 15 days, causing an uneasiness among the crew that raises a good question: How far would you go to save a friend and colleague integral to your life?

Season 4, Episode 4, “Borderland”
“Borderland” brings back Brent Spiner (who memorably played Data) as Dr. Arik Soong (the grandfather of the man who created Data), and turns its gaze to the Eugenics Wars. The following two episodes provide one of the best arcs in Enterprise. These episodes center around the mad-scientist archetype, leaning into the pulpy nature of Star Trek and providing a worthwhile window into the Eugenics Wars from a different angle.

Season 4, Episodes 18 and 19, “In a Mirror, Darkly Part I and Part II”
These episodes hit a sweet spot for me. Exploring the mirror universe allows the writers and actors to have a lot of fun playing with the credits and canon. Enterprise twists humanity’s history in the mirror universe, revealing that we lean into our baser, more selfish instincts than create the utopian world that Star Trek represents in its main universe. So, basically the timeline we’re actually living in.

What to Skip

Enterprise takes a while to find its footing, which unfortunately doesn’t happen until its final season. I’d recommend watching the pilot and skipping to the fourth season, which is undeniably its best.

Legacy

Star Trek: Enterprise is by far the most loathed series by long-term fans. It definitely has a lot of faults, including an odd relationship to canon, sometimes relying too heavily on winking toward TOS instead of being its own thing. But I don’t think it’s as terrible as people have been led to believe. Enterprise’s failures — both narratively and in terms of gaining a foothold in the larger cultural imagination — represent not just its artistic issues, but how science fiction has changed so dramatically in recent decades. The potent philosophical and political interests of Star Trek — a series that finds pleasure in verbal dexterity and intellectual curiosity rather than the obviously beautiful, so-called cinematic trappings of modern TV’s Golden Age — means it doesn’t exactly fit into our times.

But so much can be learned from the entire Star Trek franchise. In my mind, Star Trek represents the beauty of science fiction when it asks us to better ourselves, to question our prejudices, to dream. It represents sci-fi at its most humane and powerful.

If you want further and more in-depth information this Star Trek wiki is very useful.

The Star Trek Universe: A Beginner’s Guide