Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers ahead for the episodes and films on this list.
Most people will have at least heard of Star Trek, even if they’ve never seen a single episode or film. It’s one of those franchises that is firmly embedded in popular culture. But it also has a reputation as a nerdy franchise, and despite recent attempts to shake that, it persists and can be offputting for some people. On a number of occasions I’ve been with a friend, relative, or girlfriend who was brand new to the franchise, and the question of how best to introduce them to this wonderful universe came up.
There are two huge choices: which series should be their first contact, and then which episode. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t exist, because everyone has different preferences and different things they enjoy. For someone who’s already a sci-fi fan it might be great to start with a more ethereal story, but for an action fan you might need to pick a more action-oriented episode or film, just to give two examples. And there are different eras to consider: should you go for The Original Series, the classic from the 1960s? One of the shows of The Next Generation’s era, perhaps? Or come right up-to-date with Discovery? It will depend on what you enjoy and what they enjoy.
Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I don’t like to start too strong. If you show someone an episode or film that’s so good it’s almost too good, you might set an expectation that future stories will fail to live up to, putting them off. Now that doesn’t mean put your worst foot forward and start with Spock’s Brain or Shades of Gray, but maybe you’ll want to build up to The Wrath of Khan or First Contact instead of using that as someone’s introduction. At the end of the day, you want them to come away from whatever episode or film they saw with a positive impression of the franchise. If they have preconceptions about Star Trek – that it’s full of technobabble or excessively nerdy, perhaps – finding a story that challenges those notions and shows them that there’s more to Star Trek than they realised is also a key part of the challenge.
In this list I’ve tried to collate a few stories (episodes and films) that I feel would make for potentially good ways to introduce someone to the franchise. If you’re struggling with what to choose, hopefully I can at least narrow down some possibilities for you. But hey, if you like all of them, put together a playlist and binge the lot! The list is in no particular order.
Number 1: Ephraim and Dot (Short Treks, 2019)
If you have young kids (or immature adults, I won’t judge) Ephraim and Dot is a great introduction to the world of Star Trek – as I wrote when I looked at it along with its sister episode, The Girl Who Made the Stars, last December. The story is absolutely adorable and surprisingly emotional at points, as it tells the story of a space-dwelling tardigrade’s encounter with the USS Enterprise – and a robot who almost messes things up for her!
Along with its sister episode, Ephraim and Dot is quite unlike anything else in the Star Trek canon. While I said above that could set unrealised expectations, as a point of first contact for very young kids I think it could work – and could lead them on to other adventures in the Star Trek universe.
Number 2: In the Cards (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1997)
The fifth season of Deep Space Nine doesn’t seem like it would be a good fit for an introduction, as there’s a lot of background information from the previous season’s Klingon war as well as the buildup to the Dominion War and the temporary abandonment of the station. But In the Cards spends a lot of time following Jake Sisko and Nog as they make trade after trade after trade in order to get Captain Sisko a rare baseball card. It’s hardly an original premise, but it’s one that In the Cards pulls off with a cheeky smile.
Because Jake and Nog have to trade many different items with different characters, it’s an episode which shows off a number of Star Trek’s races as well as different areas of DS9, the Defiant, and even other ships. There is a secondary plot that’s connected to the Dominion, but with a few words of explanation to a brand-new viewer I think this could be easily explained.
Number 3: The Cage (The Original Series first pilot, 1965/1988)
Some people like to start at the beginning, and there’s no episode that was produced earlier that The Cage – even though the episode wasn’t shown in full on its own until after the premiere of The Next Generation! The episode was rejected, but Star Trek was reworked into the show we know today. Most of the footage from The Cage was incorporated into The Menagerie, a two-part episode of The Original Series.
For someone who likes the 1960s aesthetic this could be a good choice, but The Cage is very different from today’s television offerings. Dated across the board from its props and special effects to the quality of most of the acting performances, it’s a piece of history and well worth watching for any Star Trek fan. I’m not convinced it would make the best starting place, but I’m sure many people will insist on starting right at the beginning.
Number 4: Breaking the Ice (Star Trek: Enterprise, 2001)
Speaking of starting at the beginning, in terms of Star Trek’s in-universe timeline the adventures of Captain Archer aboard the NX-01 Enterprise took place before everything else. Breaking the Ice depicts one of those early missions, as Archer and the crew investigate a comet.
What I like about Breaking the Ice is that it shows, in a way many later Star Trek shows really don’t, how dangerous interstellar travel and exploration can be. Starfleet’s technology is a long way behind their Vulcan allies’ – so the episode could be a great frame of reference to show how much progress had really been made by the 23rd and 24th Centuries. Enterprise as a whole definitely has the spirit of exploration that has always been at the heart of Star Trek, and this episode is one of the better examples of how well that premise worked.
Number 5: Star Trek (reboot film, 2009)
2009’s Star Trek is not my favourite film in the series, and I think its sequel – Star Trek Into Darkness – was better. But as a reboot it gets a lot of things right. JJ Abrams recast the crew of The Original Series, and this film had the difficult task of introducing those characters to a new generation of fans for the first time, while also reintroducing the rebooted versions of the characters to older fans like me. I know some people who felt it didn’t work, but that’s really just a subjective opinion. Star Trek was the highest-grossing film in the franchise by miles at the time it was released, and it brought in many new fans.
This was its goal: the franchise had been in non-stop production for almost 20 years when Enterprise was cancelled, and it needed shaking up in order to bring in new fans and remain profitable. In my opinion the film succeeded in that objective, and for someone who is a fan of high-octane action, it could be a great first contact.
Number 6: The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1990)
The Best of Both Worlds drops viewers into the action immediately, as Riker leads an away team to the surface of a planet – only to find the entire colony gone. It may be an adjustment for total newbies – I think you can expect a few “who’s that?” questions in the first few minutes! But it’s one of The Next Generation’s finest offerings; a story which sees an existential threat to Earth.
While there’s an argument to be made that newcomers might lack the connection to Picard that makes his capture and assimilation by the Borg so impactful at the end of Part I, the visual effect is still incredibly shocking and the reactions of Riker and others on the bridge is a huge part of the emotional weight of that moment. If you’re a big fan of The Next Generation, this could be a great episode to introduce someone to your favourite part of Star Trek.
Number 7: An Obol for Charon (Star Trek: Discovery, 2019)
I start to feel very old indeed when I hear someone describing something from the ’80s, ’90s, or even the 2000s as “old-fashioned”. But for plenty of people, television and films produced before the turn of the millennium are dated and less enjoyable to watch as a result. For someone who falls into that category, Star Trek: Discovery could be a way to get them started in the franchise with a show that’s familiar in terms of the way it’s produced and the way it tells stories.
Because Discovery is a wholly serialised affair, pulling a single episode out is hard. Unfortunately the series premiere, The Vulcan Hello, was pretty poor in my opinion, so I couldn’t recommend it for someone’s first contact! An Obol for Charon does have ongoing story threads from Discovery’s second season, but the main plot of the episode – which features Pike and the crew dealing with a planetoid-sized lifeform – is a fairly self-contained story, albeit one that would have a big impact on the remainder of the season. For that reason I think it’s one of the best opportunities to use Discovery to introduce someone to the franchise.
Number 8: Equinox, Parts I & II (Star Trek: Voyager, 1999)
Star Trek has many great episodes which look at morality in the 24th Century, but one of my personal favourites is this two-parter from Voyager. Using its science-fiction setting to parallel real world issues is something Star Trek has always done, and while there are many great episodes which do this, for me Equinox has to be among the best. What I love about it is that there’s nothing black-and-white. Captain Ranson – the story’s antagonist – is presented in a very sympathetic way despite what he did, and the episode challenges viewers, asking “what would you have done in his place?”
The whole main cast of Voyager have roles to play in Equinox, which I think shows off Star Trek – which has predominantly been a franchise based around ensemble casts – at its best. The story is intense at points, and while it may need a little bit of explanation to bring newbies up to speed on where the USS Voyager is and how far away from home the crew are, for the most part it’s self-explanatory.
Number 9: Trials and Tribble-ations (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1996)
Produced to mark the Star Trek franchise’s 30th anniversary, Trials and Tribble-ations took the same technology pioneered in the film Forrest Gump – which was released only a couple of years earlier – and brought it to television. The episode blends the crews of Deep Space Nine and The Original Series, and is truly an episode made for fans. Why does that make it a good starting point instead of a confusing mess? Well, Deep Space Nine didn’t assume that everyone watching the episode would know everything about The Original Series, so Trials and Tribble-ations is careful to explain much of what’s happening through the use of a frame narrative.
For someone wholly new to the franchise, Trials and Tribble-ations brings together the two “main” Star Trek eras, seamlessly blending the 23rd and 24th Centuries. I’d wager that most people, even ardent Trek-avoiders, are at least vaguely aware of Captain Kirk and the iconic scene from The Trouble With Tribbles, which is another point in this episode’s favour. Most of all, though, Trials and Tribble-ations is a story with a great sense of humour, and that’s something people don’t seem to realise is present in Star Trek.
Number 10: The Doomsday Machine (Star Trek: The Original Series, 1967)
The Doomsday Machine is simultaneously a fascinating piece of history – looking at the huge issue of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War – and a truly dramatic story that channels Moby-Dick and other classic tales of revenge. It’s one contender for my favourite episode of The Original Series, and for all of these reasons and more it could be a great way to introduce someone to Captain Kirk and the crew.
The Original Series started it all in the 1960s, but many of its episodes have aged poorly in comparison to the Star Trek shows of the ’80s and ’90s. The Doomsday Machine bucks that trend with a great acting performance from guest star William Windom, reused sets to represent the USS Constellation, and a relatively uncomplicated story that doesn’t stray too far from them mainstream of action/sci-fi.
Number 11: Doctor’s Orders (Star Trek: Enterprise, 2004)
Because the Star Trek franchise has been going so long, it’s tried dipping its toes in the waters of many different genres. Horror isn’t something I’m necessarily a big fan of, but if you have someone who loves it, Doctor’s Orders from Enterprise’s third season could be a potentially interesting first contact for them.
Space exploration is full of potential dangers, and this was one thing that Enterprise absolutely nailed in its depiction of Starfleet’s first mission. In this episode, which focuses mostly on the character of Dr Phlox, the crew have to be placed in stasis while traversing a dangerous energy cloud. With Phlox alone on the deserted ship, he begins to suspect someone – or something – is in there with him. It’s an eerie, creepy episode with at least one good jump-scare for horror aficionados!
Number 12: Empok Nor (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1997)
Sticking with the horror theme, Empok Nor is another great example of how Star Trek can do dark and scary stories well. Doctor’s Orders, discussed above, and Empok Nor both have elements of psychological horror, but Empok Nor features a wider cast of characters – several of whom are killed off in unpleasant ways. That’s not to say it’s excessively gory – this is still Star Trek, after all!
Recurring character Garak is the focus of the episode, along with Chief O’Brien, and their animosity – mostly conducted by communicator – is comparable to the dynamic between Bruce Willis’ John McClane and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard in the way it’s presented on screen.
Number 13: The Drumhead (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1991)
There are a number of episodes which show that Star Trek can do great courtroom drama and conspiracy stories, but The Drumhead is outstanding. It’s also an episode in which we get to see Captain Picard at his level-headed best. Widely regarded as one of The Next Generation’s best episodes, it could be a great way to bring in a newbie.
When the USS Enterprise appears to have been sabotaged, a retired judge comes aboard to find out what happened. Her investigation quickly spirals out of control, however, and she begins to see a vast conspiracy where none exists.
Number 14: Message in a Bottle (Star Trek: Voyager, 1998)
Star Trek has always had a great sense of humour, and many episodes feature some moments of comedy. But it’s hard to think of another episode that’s as funny as Message in a Bottle. Andy Dick guest-stars as another version of the Emergency Medical Hologram when Voyager’s Doctor is sent to the Alpha Quadrant.
Robert Picardo’s character always had comedic potential, but Message in a Bottle really lets it loose. Watching the two holograms working together was laugh-out-loud hilarious at points, and I think the episode would be enough to change anyone’s mind about Star Trek.
Number 15: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (film, 1991)
As the swansong for Captain Kirk and The Original Series’ crew, this may seem like an odd choice for someone’s first contact. But it’s a great story with elements of mystery, conspiracy, and tension, as well as some of the best ship-to-ship combat in the franchise. Gene Roddenberry, who saw the film shortly before he passed away, hated it for its militarised Starfleet and anti-Klingon racism espoused by Kirk early in the film. But those flaws in Kirk’s character give him a genuine arc.
The Undiscovered Country also shows off the complicated relationship between three of Star Trek’s major factions: the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans. It has a sense of humour at points – I’m especially thinking of the scene with the boots! And it features one of those edge-of-your-seat storylines where the focus is on whether the crew can make it in time to save the day.
So that’s it. Those are some episodes and films which I feel could be a great way to introduce someone to the Star Trek franchise for the first time. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s a topic I may well revisit in the future.
It’s worth noting a few things – and explaining a few absences – before we conclude. Firstly, I deliberately left off The Wrath of Khan, First Contact, The Trouble with Tribbles, City on the Edge of Forever, and a handful of others because I felt they were too obvious. I also excluded Far Beyond the Stars, Yesterday’s Enterprise, The Visitor, The Inner Light, and a handful of others that I feel are too unrepresentative of the franchise, seeing that they’re stories which take place well outside of the main timeline or universe. I also didn’t include a number of personal favourites, like Call to Arms, Disaster, In the Pale Moonlight, Relics, and a handful of others because I felt they needed a bit too much background knowledge to be good starting points. Finally, I excluded Star Trek: Picard. This is a fantastic show, but it’s wholly serialised and of the two episodes that can be somewhat taken as standalones – Absolute Candor and Nepenthe – both rely a little too heavily on past iterations of Star Trek, which I feel could be offputting for newcomers.
All that being said, this list is purely subjective. I understand the desire to show off how great Star Trek can be to non-Trekkies, and I tried to pick a few examples of stories which hopefully show off not only the franchise at its best, but that it can be different to the preconceived notions many people have. Star Trek is sci-fi, and sometimes – particularly in The Original Series – it leaned into the weirder side of the genre. But it can also tell some very different and unexpected stories, from tense mysteries and family drama to comedy, horror, and beyond. There’s a lot to get stuck into, and if you’re thinking about how best to introduce someone to Star Trek, there are a lot of options – 778 episodes and films at time of writing.
It’s worth pointing out (again) that Deep Space Nine and Voyager are currently only available in DVD quality, having never been remastered. This could be offputting for some newcomers, so it’s worth being aware of this silly limitation. I have written a piece calling on ViacomCBS to rectify that situation and finally bring these two awesome shows into the 2020s. You can find it by clicking or tapping here.
Elsewhere on the website you can find lists of ten great episodes from the various Star Trek series if you’re looking for more inspiration. Those lists weren’t composed with newbies in mind, but they feature a different set of episodes in case you want to check out my thoughts on what I consider to be some of Star Trek’s best stories. I’ll link the lists below:
Until next time!
The Star Trek franchise – including all films, series, and episodes mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. All are available on DVD, most are available on Blu-Ray (with the exception of Deep Space Nine and Voyager) and can be streamed on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.