With over 800 episodes of space-based adventure logged, Star Trek is the sci-fi TV franchise to beat.
For more than 50 years, whether fans have followed the voyages of the Starship Enterprise or the animated antics of the Lower Decks crew, Star Trek has proven that it is endlessly imaginative and consistently inspiring. The franchise takes its Vulcan mantra of “Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations” to heart, offering series led by an ensemble of complex and supportive characters that act as guides and companions on trips to the strange new worlds that Star Trek helps audiences escape to on a weekly basis. From Captain Kirk’s original five-year mission (which unfortunately was curtailed after just three), to Patrick Stewart's return in Picard, there’s something for everyone in the Final Frontier. In honor of Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2 recently airing the 800th episode of Trek, and the franchise’s 55th anniversary this year, we have beamed down our definitive ranking of every Trek series. So replicate yourself a cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot, and see if your favorite made (ahem) Number One.
Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1975)
Unbound by live-action TV budget limitations, Star Trek: The Animated Series makes up for its low-fi animation and sometimes stiff pacing issues with an impressive execution of big sci-fi premises. From giant Spocks to flying plant dragons, TAS features truly out there storylines that push the boundaries of what one would expect to find in Trek’s take on outer space. In the '60s. The Animated Series may not have the same respect or importance as other Trek shows, both animated and live-action, but TAS at least deserves some praise for its ambition and for trying to keep the franchise alive during its fallow period.
Featuring most of the original cast returning to voice their iconic characters, along with several key writers from The Original Series, the Enterprise's brief run of animated adventures delivers a nostalgic, kid-friendly continuation of the voyages fans fell in love with in the '60s.
(Photo credit: CBS via Getty Images)
Star Trek: Short Treks (2018 - 2020)
An inventive and (mostly) satisfying mix of live-action and animated tales, Star Trek: Short Treks acted as a bridge between releases of full seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, with side stories centered on key characters and aspects of the then-CBS All Access era of the franchise. The shorts, with run times between ten to 20 minutes, feature storylines that cater largely to Discovery fans, with appearances from fan-favorites Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) providing audiences with a peek at what happens in the periphery of the flagship series. These side missions allow the franchise to take one of its most unique and creative swings in its entire history; think Star Trek’s version of Marvel’s “One-Shot” shorts.
While not every installment feels necessary or particularly engaging — the Saru-centric “The Brightest Star” struggles to find a compelling pace that works well with its heartfelt glimpse into the alien’s homeworld — Short Treks does provide impressive visuals and interesting bits of connective tissue to make the experience of watching future Discovery episodes more whole. The highlights of this brief run of shorts include the distant future-set “Calypso,” with a teleplay by Picard Season 1 showrunner and author Michael Chabon, and the zany animated tale “Ephraim and Dot,” which director Michael Giacchino injects with a strong dose of Tom and Jerry-esque antics as his film pinballs between certain iconic events from Trek’s extensive history on both the big and small screens.
(Photo credit: Michael Gibson/CBS)
Star Trek: Picard (2020 - Present)
After a 26-year absence, Patrick Stewart and his iconic character of Jean-Luc Picard returned to the small screen in Star Trek: Picard. The highly anticipated, big-budget nostalgia play was a mixed bag of creative choices that fell somewhere between thrilling fan service and noble misfire.
Picard finds the former Enterprise-E captain struggling to enjoy life on his family vineyard after a mission to save Romulan refugees forced him into early retirement. But, when an android-human hybrid shows up at his home, hunted by ninja-like Romulan assassins, Picard must boldly go once again into space to find out who this woman is, what she has to do with the late Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), and how all of this ties together with the Federation’s work in helping former Borg drones re-enter civilian life. The elevator pitch for the first season is basically Star Trek: Blade Runner, starring one of the most beloved Trek characters in the Rick Deckard role. However, Picard doesn’t bring much new to this premise, which sci-fi has more than adequately covered by now — and that’s unfortunate, because the last thing a Star Trek show should make one feel is a near-constant sense of “been there, done that.”
As fun as it is to see Picard, Data, and Jeri Ryan’s badass Seven of Nine back in action, it comes at the cost of some baffling and frustrating character choices, namely with Picard. For the first third of the series, we see a Picard who behaves in emotionally dishonest and unlikable ways. (For example, after the former Captain has a falling out with a dear friend and fellow officer, he never once checks in with her until years later — when he needs something.) To present a formerly selfless hero as someone who is now more selfish than ever before results in a profound narrative flaw at the core of this series, which progresses to a confounding finale where Star Trek cures death and no one bothers to even think about pointing that fact out. The limited success Picard does find, outside of impressive visual spectacles, are in the brief but rewarding scenes where our hero reunites with past Next Generation crew members or revisits certain dark areas of his traumatic past with the Borg. Here’s hoping Picard Season 2 packs more resonance with fans by affording the character more to do than just travel through other sci-fi’s great story ideas in search of his own.
(Photo credit: Trae Patton/CBS)
Star Trek: Enterprise (2001 - 2005)
UPN's attempts in 2001 to use Star Trek: Enterprise as a way to revitalize the franchise and make it more appealing to non-Trek audiences was, at the time, a risk that made creative sense. One that even occasionally paid off episodically. But the arrival of this prequel series arguably did more harm than good. (Remember those ads featuring The Calling's "Wherever You Will Go?" Woof.)
By the time Enterprise premiered, executive producer Rick Berman had already created three other shows during his time as the franchise’s overseer, and his tenure with Star Trek at this point had a very “assembly line” feel to it. On paper, the idea of exploring the early days of Starfleet from the bridge of a pre-Kirk Enterprise seemed like the shot in the arm that Trek needed, one ripe with possibility. But in execution, the series struggled to find its identity or connect with audiences in the way previous shows or their significantly more compelling and likable ensemble casts did. Enterprise’s first two seasons never quite lived up to the marketing’s promise of a more rough-around-the-edges, action-packed Trek. Most of their episodes could have existed on any other Trek series, which didn’t help Enterprise stand out among its trailblazing predecessors.
The voyages of Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and his intrepid crew really hit their stride in Seasons 3 and 4, however, especially in the latter. The show’s final season finally let Enterprise embrace its Trek-ness with callbacks to Original Series canon. (Mirror Universe FTW!) But, by then, it was too late. And that’s too bad, as Bakula brought a ‘90s-esque, Harrison Ford action hero vibe to the franchise as a Captain struggling to do what’s right and best for the galaxy’s future at a time when he is a vital figure in shaping it.
While we're here, let's give a special mention to the show's most underrated asset, Chief Engineer Trip Tucker (Conner Trinneer). He's basically McCoy and Scotty rolled into one.
(Photo credit: Bettmann / Getty)
Star Trek: Discovery (2017 - Present)
Literally going where no Trek TV series has gone before, in both scale and tone, Discovery is a thematically-driven, character-first, action-packed depiction of a Starfleet charged with test driving their Utopian ideals in the middle of a war with the Klingons — all on the bleeding edge of the Final Frontier.
While hardcore fans initially bumped against the show's darker elements, crying, "This isn't Star Trek," after three seasons, those naysayers have seemingly come around to embracing Discovery’s big-budget attempt to mix the current trend of “grounded and gritty” television with what makes Trek, well, Trek. After a bumpy first season launch, Discovery eventually found how to make that mixture work with its effortlessly entertaining Season 2, which brought the U.S.S. Enterprise from Captain Pike’s day into Discovery’s prequel storyline. Combining the two crews and their histories allowed for a very entertaining season of fan-service highs, one that afforded Discovery to showcase one of Trek’s strongest suits: Great characters.
The dynamic established by Discovery’s diverse and endearing ensemble allows the series to tell stories that do what all great sci-fi does — use a future setting to hold up a mirror to our very present reality. In doing so, Discovery delivered one of the franchise’s most fully-formed and likable heroes ever, starting with Sonequa Martin-Green's conflicted Michael Burnham. (We are also big fans of Season 1’s duplicitous, and fortune cookie-loving, Captain Lorca, played by Jason Issacs.) And while the first season’s Klingon War arc comes off half-baked and under-serviced, in favor of a season-arc involving the Mirror Universe, that detour is totally worth it for a late-Season 1 phaser battle that is among the best action scenes Trek has ever produced.
(Photo credit: Russ Martin/CBS)
Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020 - Present)
This first animated Trek show since the ’70s, Lower Decks is also the first outright sitcom in Trek history.
Centered on the very junior, and very funny, crew of the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks premiered in 2020 on Paramount+ to quickly become one of the most talked-about and entertaining Trek series ever. From creator and showrunner Mike McMahan (Rick and Morty), Lower Decks is often a perfect mix of funny and Trek-level pathos. The show finds a unique and comical way to spin the mundane tasks of day-to-day life as a member of this plucky and endearing crew that embraces the best of Trek. This is a show featuring characters we laugh with but never at as they deal with the rewarding dirty work that Kirk and Picard’s crews never had time for. In doing so, Lower Decks manages to add a much-needed sense of levity by using memorable tropes and moments from Trek’s past to push the franchise and the overall story forward.
(Photo credit: CBS)
Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001)
Star Trek: Voyager made TV history by being the first Trek series with a female captain when it premiered 26 years ago. That long-overdue and inspired choice was one of the few things that held Voyager together as it, like most Trek series post-TNG, got off to a rocky start during its early seasons. Voyager arguably had one of the bumpiest of beginnings in Trek history, as the UPN series struggled from the jump to fully deliver on its great premise: Federation officers and their freedom fighter counterparts are lost in space, 70,000 light-years from Earth, struggling to get back home. What was intended to be a showcase for what happens when you have no starbases to repair battle damage or replenish supplies turned into Next Gen Lite; only a handful of episodes in the back half of the series’ run truly achieved best-of status or came close to fulfilling the series’ core concept. Most of Voyager’s run feels like each new ep is almost re-piloting the series, which makes Voyager feel like a show ironically searching for its own path just as its characters try to find theirs back to Earth.
But what makes Voyager so consistently compelling to this day, aside from some of the series’ show-stopping space battles and a very likable cast, is Kate Mulgrew’s iconic Captain Janeway. Mulgrew invested Janeway with a fierce intelligence and endearing charm as she was both captain and “mother” to this crew, someone determined to get all of them home despite how many of the Delta Quadrant’s vast network of alien threats stood in her way. (Why she would sometimes prolong this mandate with exploratory detours that would risk depleting the ship’s already-low resources is debatable.) The introduction of former Borg Seven of Nine gave Voyager the shot in the arm it sorely needed.
Seven’s addition to the cast inspired a Kirk-Spock dynamic between her and Janeway, giving the show a strong dose of conflict and humanity as the two characters butted heads just as often as they worked together to save this family from castaway status. It is too bad Voyager all but flatlined with a big, lackluster series finale that shows Voyager returning to Earth after seven seasons without giving its crew — or the fans — a dramatically satisfying homecoming. The series finale concludes with the baffling choice to relegate Voyager's arrival at Earth to the episode’s final scene, and stopping the show there. This momentous occasion plays like it were just another planet that the starship visited. Both the characters and the fans deserved a better final episode.
(Photo credit: CBS via Getty Images)
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966 - 1969)
Featuring the best first two seasons of any Star Trek series, the original adventures of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are classic television for a reason.
Aside from the uneven third season, plagued by budget cuts and behind-the-scenes creative issues, Star Trek’s original voyages succeed largely by grounding their fantastic sci-fi concepts on the backs of characters you couldn’t help but root for. The show was one of the first series to have something to say, as creator Gene Roddenberry and producer/writer Gene Coon used the Enterprise and her crew to service themes and subject matter that were especially relevant to 1960s culture. In doing so, Star Trek created icons out of Kirk and the rest of his intrepid crew. It also set the standard for telling sci-fi stories on television in relatable and resonant ways that would inspire and fuel every subsequent Trek series. The first two seasons’ worth of storylines warp out of the gate with episodes centered on eugenics, the moral fog (and ethical cost) of war, what it means to be a captain when your best friend becomes your enemy, and, of course, the Mirror Universe. Never before or since has a Trek series premiered as close to fully-formed as this one does, with the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate headlining one of the most memorable and engaging casts in television history. Star Trek broke racial barriers with Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, and it used science fiction — and the way the Enterprise crew explored the vastness of space — as a way to give its very human audiences an opportunity to look inward and find what makes such exploration still worth taking.
(Photo credit: CBS via Getty Images)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994)
Pound for pound, you won't find a more consistent or entertaining run of Star Trek episodes than The Next Generation’s third and fourth seasons. That's when this classic syndicated series found its narrative footing, after two very uneven seasons burdened with epic behind-the-scenes clashes among creatives. The show that emerged from all of that turmoil gave us Sir Patrick Stewart, the Borg, Star Trek’s first cliffhanger ("The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1"), and several stone-cold sci-fi classics such as "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Inner Light," "Cause and Effect," and the all-timer series finale "All Good Things".
While TNG petered out creatively during its last two seasons, it managed to change the genre and the franchise in a way that still resonates today. The core characters (especially the meme-friendly likes of Jonathan Frakes’ Riker and LeVar Burton’s Geordi LaForge) are arguably more popular now than they were when the series premiered in 1987. We can credit that continuing popularity to the new (pun intended) generations of fans finding the show via streaming and helping ensure the legacy of this iconic Enterprise crew.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is perfect TV comfort food at a time when we really could use it. Unlike The Original Series, TNG had the time and budget to flex its full potential and find unique opportunities for sci-fi drama that only the Final Frontier affords. In doing so, Next Gen made nothing short of TV history.
(Photo credit: Paramount Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 - 1999)
One of the first pre-Peak TV series to embrace long-form, serialized storytelling, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was and still is the bastard, rule-breaking stepchild of the Trek universe. And it is all the better for it.
DS9 never found the ratings that its predecessor The Next Generation did, but it did find a deeper and more complex vein of sci-fi storytelling to tap into — one that has allowed the series to prove even more rewarding on subsequent rewatches. Released at a time when serialized television was often frowned upon, DS9 was more concerned with telling stories worth audiences’ time than complying with the times. The epic Seasons 3 through 7 embrace the diversity and heady themes that Trek is known for, by finding inventive — and, at times, harrowing — ways to bring intergalactic action and big emotional stakes to an anchored space station instead of to a flying starship.
Prejudice, racism, PTSD, and humanity’s often tenuous grip on morality are the rich thematic tent poles that the series frequently thread its gripping characters and their addictive story arcs through — to much success. And while adding Michael Dorn’s Worf from TNG was an attempt to boost ratings in the space battle-heavy fourth season, it also brought a surprisingly effective jolt of tension and character growth to the core ensemble’s dynamic, as they faced a growing, casualty-heavy battle with The Dominion. The riveting dramatic possibilities provided by DS9’s unique mix of aliens and humans, friends and foes, helped elevate this underrated Trek installment to become the franchise's crowning achievement.
(Photo credit: Paramount Television /Courtesy Everett Collection)