Beginnings are difficult. Endings are almost impossible. But we know that, just like life, itself, even the shows we love the most must end.
But how do you tell that last story? What kind of tale will effectively look back at everything that came before but also cast an eye toward a future we may never get to see?
If Star Trek struggled with its premieres (which we've already ranked), then it struggled double with its finales. When they pay off, they're incredible, but some of them ... yikes.
And in case it needs saying -- there is no such thing as being objective, but I feel even less so talking about these swan songs. When you watch a pilot, you could take or leave the show at any time. But a finale is the last episode of a show into which you invested years of your life. There's a lot riding on a finale emotionally. I loved most of these shows (and despised one of them, too), and it's impossible for that not to impact the list.
All of which is to say that I look forward to reading your personal list when this is done.
OK? OK. Let's do this thing -- make it so!
After two mostly incredible seasons, and a mish-mash of a third, the original Star Trek ends on an anti-feminist whimper.
The never-before-met Doctor Janice Lester body swaps with Kirk and fails to control the ship she's risked everything to make her own -- because she's a woman. Sure, it was the 1960s, but it's galling to see such a progressive show ham-handedly suggest that a woman can't be captain, whether by order of Starfleet or otherwise.
Add to that the fact that it's not much of an ensemble piece. Most of the story boils down to Shatner chewing the scenery (more than usual, can you believe) while Bones, Spock, and Scotty share concerned looks. Even if Janice Lester were an interesting character (she isn't), it's still totally bizarre that the final TOS episode is, primarily, about her.
The '60s may have been a different time for television, but it's still upsetting that Star Trek's finale is no finale at all. There's no summing up of the characters, their stories, or the world they inhabit. You simply find yourself hoping the next episode will be better, but there are no more.
We close on Kirk trailing off on the topic of this woman whom we neither know nor have any reason to care about, and that's it. It is only by the best of fortunes that we got any more stories for these characters at all. And we'll come back around to that fact...later.
These Are the Voyages
What can I say about one of the most maligned episodes of any television show ever that hasn't already been said before? That the actors hated they were sandwiched into what was essentially a glorified TNG episode is widely known. That the fans felt like they were being insulted can be seen in archived forums all over the place. Even the writers have publicly admitted how deeply they regret telling this final story the way they did.
But there are a couple good reasons why "These are the Voyagers" deserves to be at least one above last place (and I considered putting it even higher).
First and foremost is the acting. Even knowing now how unhappy everyone was during the finale, you'd never guess while you're watching it. Everyone's performance is really top notch. And, you know, even though Jonathan Frakes said he was very uncomfortable being on another cast's set at the end, I think his energy really adds something.
Riker pretending to be the NX-01's chef, sharing a bit of playful banter with her crew...I've watched way worse in my years as a die-hard Trek fan. Can I be real with y'all? If they'd have just stunt cast Frakes to play the chef (instead of playing Riker playing the chef), I think it would've worked.
I know not everyone loves Shran, but I'm always happy to see Jeffrey Combs on my screen. The man is just so magnetic. And I absolutely believe that, even as he's about to potentially hang up his spurs, Archer would still be itching to go on one more dangerous and ill-thought-out adventure with Shran. That's one of the things I grew to love about Jonathan Archer.
What I don't believe, and what is the actual worst failing of "These are the Voyages" is the fate of Trip. Would Trip essentially commit suicide in order to protect Shran and his daughter? Under the circumstances? Nah, I don't think so. And not because Trip doesn't care, but because I'm pretty sure Shran could've dispatched the men that snuck on board the Enterprise to kill him. There were other options. Why blow yourself up?
Trip's death is sudden, out-of-character, and above all, it's cheap. I don't know how Rick Berman or Brannon Braga convinced themselves that Trip dying in this way (or at all, really) would make fans feel anything but furious. It was a cop-out. They were going for a Spock in Wrath of Khan vibe and they wound up with the emotion that is farthest from. Trip doesn't need to die in order to make the formation of the Federation more meaningful. You can trust your audience to still feel that bittersweet twinge without shamelessly dispatching one of Enterprise's best loved characters out of the blue.
But when I watch Archer and T'Pol embrace each other at the end (and this was the final scene they filmed), I can't help it -- I feel for them. But I also feel for the actors, who deserved far better.
Berman and Braga wanted to sum up their 18 years working on Star Trek, and in the process they accidentally gave the middle finger to the cast that was right in front of them. So, yes, while there are things I do enjoy, "These Are The Voyages" absolutely deserves to be hated, and equally deserves to be this low on this list.
What You Leave Behind
How do you sum up a show whose characters have come so far? Star Trek had never told a story so truthfully in the long-form before Deep Space Nine. For seven years, we watched the lives (and deaths, in some cases) of so many complicated people, we watched through times of peace and times of war, we watched a franchise known for hitting the reset button finally handle the challenges of a world with ongoing consequences -- how do you bring a satisfying conclusion to all that?
The answer is, you can't. "What You Leave Behind" doesn't, at any rate. And therein lies both the good and the ill of this emotional, at times uneven, finale.
It is, primarily, emotional. Whether it's Damar's valiant but fatal rebellion against the Dominion occupation of Cardassia (quite a turnabout for Cardassia), the pain of loved ones departing to fight a war they may not win, the deaths of countless millions, and Odo's peaceful, if a bit deus ex, solution. There are a lot of character beats to absorb. Garak finally being able to return home, but to a Cardassia in ruins, Miles struggling to figure out how to tell Bashir that he's leaving, Odo having to do the same with Kira -- the finale is full of goodbyes.
It's a shame that not all of them are equal.
The Pah-wraiths are among the worst inventions DS9 ever had to offer. And the obsession that Dukat and Winn share over this mysterious (yet boring) enemy of the Prophets makes both of them into paper-thin versions of their former selves. Both were such complex adversaries, both could be so relatable even at their most reprehensible, and yet in their final moments, they're cartoons. Winn's death feels utterly meaningless. And Dukat's? Where to begin?
First, we have to talk about Sisko. Remember when I talked about "Emissary" and how well it did at establishing the core conflict that would grow and enrich both Sisko and Dukat? Well, that is made into a bit of a farce. By the end of Season 7, it's hard to discern why Ben is so connected to the Prophets, still, or why Dukat has allied himself with the Pah-wraiths. What once was filled with meaning now just feels like a game of cops and robbers.
When Sisko goes down to Bajor, it makes no sense. He just has a feeling. And in the midst of all the pragmatic ways Sisko fought the Dominion, it feels cheap that his final battle with Dukat would happen for no reason other than that it's written on the page. And it ends so quickly. Dukat is trapped with the wraiths and Sisko must remain at the Celestial Temple, although for what reason, we have no idea. Cassidy gets to say goodbye to Ben, but not Jake? It just feels wrong.
And the denouement is so long it would embarrass Return of the King. It feels like everyone is getting drawn out goodbyes, and more of them drag than they ought. Kudos to Quark, though, for adding the necessary levity.
Still, those very final moments of Kira rising from behind her desk and striding along the promenade, keeping a watchful eye on the station, being the leader DS9 needs her to be, it's impossible not to feel overwhelmed. And as the wormhole springs to life, Kira wraps her arm around Jake's neck, and bittersweet though it my be, "What You Leave Behind", what WE leave behind, has ripples that will echo into eternity.
I hate Star Trek: Voyager. I hate how it squandered an intriguing premise. I hate how contrived and boring it often was. I hate how it ruined the Borg. I hate Harry and Tom, B'elanna and Chakotay. It has always been, to my mind, the worst of Star Trek.
So you know I'm being as objective as a huge Trek dweeb can be when I place "Endgame" so high on this list. I don't put it here because I like "Endgame". To the contrary, I find a lot of it absolutely infuriating. But it's the right finale for Voyager. And that means a lot.
Let's break with tradition, shall we? I usually talk about the good first, before delving into my criticisms. Since I'm sure some of you will want to skip this part, let's get all my seething but impotent rage out of the way.
Where to begin. Oh, right -- #@$% Admiral Janeway, right in the jeffries tubes. And assume every time I call Janeway an "admiral" it sounds exactly like when Khan does it with Kirk.
It's a miracle Voyager made it home at all considering all the boneheaded moves she pulls. But instead of thanking her lucky stars, instead of accepting that sometimes you don't get everything you want, she decides to alter the timeline, try and get Voyager from the past home earlier. Never mind the consequences, screw the temporal Prime Directive, every other person in every single quadrant be damned, Seven of Nine and Chakotay are dead. Oh, and Tuvok is sick. What is this life to you, Admiral? A video game? Not good enough unless you get a 100% completion rating?
What guarantee is there that going back in time will yield a better outcome for anyone? None. Zero. Admiral Janeway brings back technology that she thinks will protect Voyager from the Borg, but it could just as easily been assimilated, thus making them even more unstoppable that much sooner. What the admiral did is dumb beyond the telling. And it's selfish. She is a selfish, stupid leader, and it's only by blind luck that everything works out as well as it does.
And let's talk about those two dead crewmen, shall we? Chakotay and Seven have some of the most non-existent romantic chemistry ever put to film. That plot thread only happened because Robert Beltran complained that Chakotay didn't have anything to do. It also happened because Paramount didn't like that so many fans assumed that Seven was dating Janeway. Sure, it's the future, but lesbians?! Not on Star Trek, friend.
But if you said I was just mad that I didn't get my way on that romance part, you'd be partly right. I think the chemistry wasn't there between Beltran and Ryan regardless, but I only care so much because I didn't want it.
The real truth is, even though I loathe Admiral Janeway and everything she represents, I also absolutely believe that she would do every stupid thing she does. And I buy that Captain Janeway would do all the things she does, too. For however cripplingly stupid I find the Voyager finale to be, it is absolutely in keeping with the tone and style of the show. The characters behave exactly as you would expect them to.
So help me, "Endgame" is actually pretty exciting. There's a building tension, there's that Borg transwarp hub (which I remember reading about in a William Shatner written Star Trek story called "The Return"), and there's Kate Mulgrew acting her darn pants off. Seriously, without Kate Mulgrew, how would this show have ever survived?
Considering how much time Jeri Ryan got on screen from the moment she arrived, "Endgame" feels like comeuppance. It's like Mulgrew said, "you gave the hussy in the catsuit years of attention, but you better believe this finale is gonna be all me".
Everyone gets a solid moment. Heck, even Harry Kim grows as a person and recognizes that Voayger's journey is more important than its destination. If you loved Voyager, then "Endgame" is a pretty satisfying wrap up.
I just personally hate it. Let's pretend I never said anything complimentary about it at all and move on shall we?
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The Undiscovered Country is not the best Star Trek movie. It is not even the best TOS movie. But it is the best ending for Kirk, Spock, Bones and all the rest. There's pathos, there's betrayal, there's comedy, there's Iman as a shape-shifting alien...this movie's got it all. And that's why I'm including it, here - it's the finale that The Original Series deserved.
Somewhere between their original three season run and their six movies, the crew of the Enterprise transformed from being excited, young explorers to an almost monolothic representation of humanity's unquenchable need for adventure. Legends though they may be, however, there's never any point at which I look at these characters and find them unrelatable. Of all the souls I've encountered in my fictional treks through the stars, their's are still the most...human.
That's really what guides so much of this, the true swan song for our first Star Trek cast. Kirk's struggle with the death of his son and the burgeoning peace with the Klingons, Spock's truly embracing his half-human side, our plucky crew struggling to save each other at every turn -- it gets pretty ridiculous at times, but ain't that family?
And funny! By Roddenberry, The Undiscovered Country makes me laugh out loud every time. Whether its Chekov's ridiculous Cinderella joke, Bones sighing over how Kirk always manages to kiss an alien, Kirk fighting himself, Uhura's stunning inability to speak Klingon, or any of a host of other brilliant throw-aways, Star Trek VI is just a hoot.
But there's drama, too. Kirk really does struggle with accepting the Klingons as people, let alone people deserving of peace. That tension is refreshingly honest for Star Trek. At a time when Star Trek: The Next Generation favored a humanity capable of accepting anyone, it's nice to see Kirk and his crew really struggle with their own preconceptions. Because that's an ugliness which everyone must face in themselves all throughout their lives. And, in the end, while peace may be achieved, it doesn't erase the mistakes of the past nor the challenges that lie ahead.
Sure, Undiscovered Country has its flaws. The introduction of a new Vulcan, Valeris, makes the whole "sudden betrayal" routine seem less sudden...or betrayal-y. Roddenberry was afraid to have Saavik betray everyone, and that's a shame. Can you imagine if the one new crew member that fans had grown to love over the course of several films turned around and killed out of a false sense of justice? If Spock forced that meld with Saavik while she resolutely and blindly still considered herself to be the hero, it would've mirrored back all the bigotry and hatred that Kirk and the Enterprise crew felt in a harrowing moment that forced everyone to confront their worst selves. It would've been one of the most bold stories in the 50 year history of Star Trek. Had that happened, The Undiscovered Country would absolutely be my number one pick for finales.
That's OK, though. In the end, Star Trek VI doesn't have to blow apart every convention, it just needs to be true. And in those final moments, when Kirk and co. defy their orders to return the Enterprise for decommission, even if only for a little while longer, you can't help but feel...young.
All Good Things...
47988. That is the stardate at which this episode begins. That is the only stardate I know by heart. And "All Good Things" is the finale by which I have judged every other final episode of every show I have ever watched in the intervening two decades since it first aired.
Last time, when we talked about Star Trek pilots, I reminisced over how I watched "Encounter At Farpoint" with the wonder of a child. By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation ended, the show had seen me grow from an excitable grade school yutz to jaded adolescence. Breaking through the dense, self-obsessed fog of the teenaged mind is no easy feat, but I sat there the night "All Good Things" went out, attention fully rapt.
"All Good Things" is the perfect ending for Star Trek: The Next Generation -- you get some theoretical science, you get exploration of the nature of human existence, you get the Neutral Zone, spatial anomalies, Q, heck even Tasha Yar comes back. Tasha Yar, y'all. I'm not saying Star Trek: The Next Generation had a lot of wrapping up to do, but they basically covered everything there was to cover.
In a final season that was, let's be really real now, mostly garbage (Picard's fake son, Data wearing some masks, Geordi's ghost mom), "All Good Things" came out of nowhere. And it was an afterthought! Of all the amazing things about TNG's finale is the fact that the writers were so busy fretting over the first TNG movie, Star Trek: Generations, that they basically farted this script out over a weekend. Sometimes divine inspiration comes when you gotta hit that deadline.
"All Good Things" is sort of like A Christmas Carol, but without the Christmas part -- Picard learns an important lesson about life by looking at his past, present, and potential future. It's actually a really great structure for a TV finale because it gives the show a chance to look back on where it came from and imagine what might be while reveling in all the best of what it is now.
It's great to see the evolution between Picard and Q. By coming full circle, we're again seeing Q cast judgment on all of humanity (savage, child race), only now Picard and Q are...well, they're friends in a way. For all his bluster, Picard embraces the opportunity to prove why humanity is worthwhile and, deep down, Q wants to see Picard overcome adversity. Unlike "Encounter at Farpoint" this is no longer a god vs. man story, it's about two beings teaching other other. It's about relationships.
And that's what the whole episode is about -- the bonds formed over seven years. We can see firsthand how far Data has come in his quest for humanity, how Worf went from lonely outsider to beloved father and confidant. We get to see how friends deal with change, whether it's the death of a friend, the loss of intimacy, mental illness, and just the inevitable way that time can pull even the closest people away from each other.
But then everything circles back. It's not just that Q's trial never ends, it's that, even under remarkably difficult circumstances, the Enterprise crew will still come through for Picard, even if he might just be crazy.
Yes, Q says he was trying to teach Picard how to see the world from a different angle, showing him how to spot paradoxes and look outside humanity's narrow, linear existence, but what he really taught Picard was how important it is to rely on the people around him. It's only because Data, Riker, Beverly, Worf, and Troi all work together that the puzzle of the anti-time anomaly gets solved.
And, in the end, "All Good Things" pulls out the card you didn't expect -- the poker game. From Season 2 onward, poker was a regular fixture on the show. Sometimes, a round of poker could set up the plot, but mostly it was how the crew would unwind together. Except Picard never played with them, which makes sense because Picard is the biggest outsider of them all -- always hiding behind a shield of authority and duty.
So, when Picard walks through those doors and sits at that table for the first time, you know it's right, but you're not ready. "I should've done this a long time ago." "You were always welcome". I'm crying just typing it.
It is the perfect ending. It is such a perfect ending, in fact, that I don't even count the TNG movies. This is how I'll always remember the crew of the Enterprise D -- five card stud, nothing wild, and the sky's the limit.