One of pop culture’s most enduring franchises, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek burst onto American television screens in 1966, and it’s been evolving and growing for decades, with movies, spin-off series and an expanding roster of hundreds of characters to populate its universe. In recent years, the streaming platform Paramount+ has gotten into the Star Trek game in a big way, with a quartet of original series, including the brand-new Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Premiering May 5, the show will follow Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), who led the starship Enterprise just before James T. Kirk, and it costars Rebecca Romijn as first officer Number One and Ethan Peck (Gregory Peck’s grandson!) as a young Spock. Will it rank among the franchise’s greatest hits or its less successful editions? Check out our rankings and then decide for yourself if it boldly goes where no Star Trek has gone before — or amounts to little more than a hill of Tribbles.
11. Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020-)
The premise: In the world of Star Trek, there’s an upstairs-downstairs dynamic at play, just like in Downton Abbey. Set about a decade after the events in The Next Generation, this adult animated series follows the underdog support crew of one of the least important ships in the Starfleet, the USS Cerritos. The voice cast, including Jack Quaid (Meg Ryan’s son) as Brad Boimler, is game for silliness, but the tone skews a bit broad and snarky. If you’re used to the sincerity of the original series, you may bristle at the irreverence of what amounts to a workplace comedy, albeit one with a very cool workplace.
The best part: The series, which is set to return for its third season this year, is filled with plenty of Easter eggs to keep Trekkies happy. Case in point: High-concept Season 2 episode “wej Duj” takes a look at the lower decks of other spacecraft, including the Klingon ship Che'ta and the Vulcan cruiser Sh’Vahl.
10. Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-05)
The premise: Already a sci-fi fixture from his work on Quantum Leap, Scott Bakula, 67, stars as Captain Jonathan Archer on this uneven UPN prequel to The Original Series, set about a century before the adventures of Kirk and Spock. Along with Commander Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer, 53) and Sub-commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), Archer leads the first deep-space exploration aboard the Enterprise, which features decidedly less advanced technology than it would 100 years later — think grappler cables instead of a tractor beam. The plots can be a bit simplistic, tending toward action set pieces in later seasons, and Enterprise is generally dismissed by true Star Trek fans as a cheaply made imitation.
The best part: There are plenty of nostalgic references that will excite fans of the original series, such as early encounters between humans, Vulcans and Klingons.
9. Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-74)
The premise: After The Original Series was canceled in 1969, creator Gene Roddenberry decided to continue the exploits of the USS Enterprise in animated form in a Saturday morning cartoon. The first Star Trek series to win an Emmy, it was basically a continuation of the live-action show, with William Shatner (91), Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols (89) and George Takei (85) all reprising their roles. When it was first announced that Sulu and Uhura would be recast to keep budgets down, Nimoy refused to voice Spock until the situation was resolved, pointing out how hypocritical it was for a show that championed diversity to leave out its two actors of color.
The best part: Animation allowed the creators to indulge some of their wilder ideas when it came to alien design that wouldn’t have been possible in live-action form. Take, for instance, the long-necked, three-armed, three-legged Arex and the catlike M’Ress, both of whom were new additions to the Enterprise crew.
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8. Star Treks: Short Treks (2018-20)
The premise: Created as a companion series to Discovery, this Paramount+ show comprises stand-alone shorts, each 10 to 20 minutes long, that dive deeper into a particular character or storyline. That might mean a quick adventure following con man Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson, 56) as he gets captured by a bounty hunter, or a largely wordless animated short about a tardigrade named Ephraim and a repair drone named Dot that might remind you of Wall-E. The second season introduced the characters who would go on to lead Strange New Worlds.
The best part: One of the most moving and audacious of the shorts is “Calypso,” which traces the relationship between the USS Discovery’s sentient computer system Zora (voiced by Annabelle Wallis) and a man named Croft (Aldis Hodge), whom she rescues from an escape pod.
7. Star Trek: Picard (2020-)
The premise: When you have a character as rich as Captain Jean-Luc Picard and an actor as devastatingly talented as Sir Patrick Stewart, 81, why wouldn’t you create an intimate character study about aging? In this follow-up series to The Next Generation, Picard is living out his retirement in quiet isolation on his family’s French vineyard, Château Picard. Within a few episodes, Picard goes from sulking about the death of his friend Data and the destruction of the planet Romulus to assembling a crew and heading back into space on a new mission. You might notice that the series is more novelistic and character-driven than previous franchise entries, and that’s very much by design: In fact, the showrunner for Season 1 was none other than Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon, 58.
The best part: Picard reintroduces some heavy-hitting fan favorites from the Star Trek universe, but we won’t ruin the surprise for you.
6. Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
The premise: Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, 66) was the first female captain to anchor a Star Trek series, and she was given a doozy of a mission. It’s the 24th century, and Janeway is leading the USS Voyager on a mission to the Badlands to track down a ship that’s been commandeered by Maquis rebels. She and the Voyager crew are swept 70,000 light years away from Earth, to the far side of the Delta Quadrant. In their fight for survival, they form a tentative bond with the terrorists and begin their long, long journey home, which is estimated to take 75 years. Because the story unfolds in a previously unexplored realm of the Star Trek universe, the show’s creators were able to introduce brand-new alien races, such as the nomadic Kazon and the cybernetic Borg, who operate as a giant hive mind.
The best part: Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, 54) was one of the franchise’s most compelling characters, a human who had been assimilated by the Borg collective and was later liberated by the Voyager crew.
5. Star Trek: Prodigy (2021-)
The premise: The first Star Trek series aimed squarely at a younger audience, Star Trek: Prodigy airs on both Nickelodeon and Paramount+ and features impressive computer animation. It’s 2383, five years after the end of the Voyager series, and a crew of misfit teen aliens find themselves trapped in a prison colony, where they mine crystals. One day, the purple-skinned Dal (Brett Gray) finds an abandoned ship, the USS Protostar, buried underground, and he and a ragtag crew of youngsters steal it to explore the galaxy and escape to the Alpha Quadrant. Emmy nominee Kate Mulgrew, 66, returns as both the ship’s emergency training holographic adviser and the woman on whom the hologram was based, Janeway, who’s now a Starfleet vice admiral.
The best part: In a sweetly nostalgic twist, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols, 89), Scotty (James Doohan) and Odo (René Auberjonois) all appear as holograms using archival audio from their respective series.
4. Star Trek: Discovery (2017-)
The premise: Set 10 years before the exploits of the original series, this Emmy-winning series follows the crew of the starship Discovery, with breakout actress Sonequa Martin-Green starring as science specialist Michael Burnham, the adopted human sister of Spock. The impressive ensemble includes stand-up comedian Tig Notaro, 51; Doug Jones, 61 (Amphibian Man from The Shape of Water); Jason Isaacs, 58 (Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films); and Rent’s Anthony Rapp, 50, as chief engineer Paul Stamets, the first openly gay character in a Star Trek series. There’s plenty of audacious storytelling thanks to a mirror universe that pops up throughout the Star Trek mythology, and Michelle Yeoh, 59, steals scenes in recurring dual roles.
The best part: The show’s writers aren’t afraid to take giant dramatic risks, as when — spoiler alert! — the plot jumps forward from the 23rd to the 32nd century at the end of the second season.
3. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99)
The premise: The first Star Trek series set on a star base rather than a starship, this syndicated drama follows the crew at Deep Space Nine, a port and outpost near the mouth of a wormhole. In addition to the franchise’s first Black central character, Starfleet Commander-turned-Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks, 73), the series featured such popular characters as the Changeling chief of security Odo (René Auberjonois) and the Ferengi bar owner Quark (Armin Shimerman, 72). What truly set Deep Space Nine apart from previous iterations was its serialized storytelling; writers eschewed the episodic mission-of-the-week structure in favor of multi-episode arcs, which allowed for morally complex characters and slowly unfolding plotlines that feel more like modern prestige TV than retro Star Trek.
The best part: The complex geopolitics of the struggle between the Bajorans and their brutal occupiers, the Cardassians, makes for compelling television, but it’s the interpersonal relationships that really sing. Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastién called DS9 “one of the most impactful portraits of black fatherhood in the history of TV.”
2: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94)
The premise: For an entire generation of Trekkies, the crew of the 24th-century Enterprise-D was their entryway into Star Trek, and the syndicated series was somehow able to capture the magic of the original, with its blend of whimsy, adventure and astute political commentary. Some even argue that it bested the original series, and you could make a strong case for the undeniable chemistry of its impeccable cast, which included Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Jonathan Frakes (69) as Commander William T. Riker, LeVar Burton (65) as Geordi LaForge, Michael Dorn (69) as the Klingon officer Worf, and Brent Spiner (73) as the android second officer Data, The Next Generation’s answer to Spock. Throw in Whoopi Goldberg (66) as the starship’s bartender hostess Guinan, and this was a cast that, quite simply, you’d want to hang out with. And it bore out in the ratings: The Next Generation was the most-watched series in franchise history, with more than 30 million viewers tuning in to the 1994 series finale, and it was the only syndicated show to ever be nominated for an Emmy for best drama.
The best part: The two-part episode “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard is captured and assimilated by the Borg, appeared on TV Guide’s list of the most memorable moments in TV history and the greatest TV episodes of all time.
1: Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)
The premise: Did you really expect anything else to take the top spot? While some fans prefer the narrative complexity of DS9 or the lovable characters in TNG, nothing compares to that first series, which changed not only science fiction and pop culture but American society as a whole. Creator Gene Roddenberry invented a utopian future, set in the Milky Way in the 23rd century, in which the crew of the starship Enterprise sets out “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” He envisioned a complex web of peaceful and warring alien races, from the logical Vulcans to the warrior-minded Klingons to the rapidly reproducing Tribbles. But beyond the sci-fi trappings and the foreign worlds, it’s impossible to overstate the show’s impact. In the mid-1960s, Star Trek featured a multiracial crew that included an Asian man (Hikaru Sulu), a Black woman (Uhura) and even a Russian character (Pavel Chekov) during the height of the Cold War. The series cast women in positions of respect and included one of the first interracial kisses on American television — and certainly the one that garnered the most attention — between Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner. It also led to one of the most beloved franchises in television, movies and comic books in the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
The best part: Perhaps even more impressive than what was onscreen is the community of Trekkies the series has inspired for generations; the show counts everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama to Tom Hanks and Rihanna as diehard fans.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.