What makes the Star Trek franchise so cool is that it’s comprised of many separate shows. The storytelling seems almost infinite, as if the showrunners will never run out of ideas. 5 decades, hundreds of episodes – But which ones are the best? Which stories stand above all other adventures logged in the annals of Federation exploration?
Here, we’ll look at 10 episodes from every live action Star Trek series that could be considered the best of all worlds.
10. The Sounds of Thunder (Discovery)
Discovery is pretty amazing. Not since DS9 has Star Trek been so brutal and complex. There are enough betrayals, plot twists, and shades of gray to please any Game of Thrones fan, and it’s different enough from the source material that it brings in many new fans who never cared for the original Trek.
The best episode was The Sounds of Thunder. It focuses on First Officer Saru, a fearful Kelpien whose ingenuity allowed him to escape his dangerous homeworld and, years later, become an officer in Starfleet. Kelpiens can sense the coming of death, and they are killed by the masters of their world, the Ba’ul, when they reach a transitional period known as vahar’ai.
Saru goes back to his his homeworld and reconnects with his sister, who feels that Saru is going against tradition by not allowing himself to be livestock for the Ba’ul. But he makes some incredible discoveries on his planet, learning that Kelpiens are not nearly as weak as the Ba’ul claim.
The episode’s strongest points involve Saru’s relationship with his sister, the complex intricacies of his planet, and his strength as a person. Important themes like belief, evolution, death, and truth are fleshed out by a great story with great performances. And the Ba’ul are some of the coolest aliens Star Trek has had in a very long time.
9. Scorpion, Parts 1 & 2 (Voyager)
Star Trek: Voyager was at its best from season four onwards, partly because of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). Her amazing journey from young human to Borg to human again brought a lot of depth to the show, and the potential of this story arc was revealed early on with her introduction in Scorpion.
Here’s how Seven enters the picture. After several years stranded in the hostile Delta Quadrant, Captain Janeway decides to forge an alliance with the Borg to combat their common enemy – Species 8472. To do so, a representative is chosen from the Borg – Seven of Nine, formerly known as Annika Hansen.
Eventually, the threat is temporarily neutralized, but the Borg-Voyager alliance crumbles and Seven is severed from the Collective. From there, she begins her journey back to humanity.
This two-parter had everything you could want from Voyager – desperation, exciting battles, a great new alien species, and an intelligent story.
8. In a Mirror, Darkly (Enterprise)
In a Mirror, Darkly was the best of all the Mirror Universe episodes, and that’s saying a lot. The mirror characters from past series (DS9, TOS) were always delightful to watch, but the crew of Starfleet’s first Enterprise were downright disturbing to watch as they murdered, seduced, conspired, and fought their way to the top of the pecking order.
In this parallel universe, the characters are a lot meaner than they are in the main universe. This is especially true for Archer, who somehow remains likable even while being as villainous as they come. The mirror episodes have always been violent, but this one took it to a new level, and the performances were visceral and entertaining. This may be due to the fact that during filming, the actors learned that their show would soon to canceled.
Here’s a couple awesome things from the episode: the intro was changed from its usual warmhearted, light pop music feel to one showcasing the terrifying conquest of the Terran Empire. Also, the infamous Gorn was back, this time rendered with CGI.
7. Time’s Arrow Parts 1 & 2 (The Next Generation)
Time’s Arrow had a fantastic story arc involving one of the most enjoyable of sci-fi tropes, time travel.
The discovery of Data’s severed head in a cave on Earth presents our heroes with a mystery. Apparently, the crew were destined to be on the Earth of the past at some point, and the evidence pointed to an unknown alien race being involved as well. The Enterprise-D travels back to 19th century Earth to uncover a secret plot by these aliens, who were draining the life force from primitive humans.
The crew tries their best to blend in with 19th century society. They succeed for the most part, but the first one to arrive, Data, sticks out like a sore thumb. This leads to the episode’s greatest strength, comedy. But what’s even funnier is the fact that they’re hanging out with Mark Twain, expertly portrayed by Jerry Hardin of X-Files fame.
6. The Visitor (Deep Space Nine)
For some, The Visitor is the most emotional Star Trek episode of them all. It really showcased the fact that behind all the complex plot lines and politics, the central core of DS9 is family.
This episode is about Jake Sisko, the son of Capt. Ben Sisko. He is a teenage writer, much more mature than he was at the series pilot. He has grown close to his father after tragically losing his mother as a child, and their bond is unbreakable. But the unthinkable happens. Captain Sisko is seemingly killed in an accident aboard the USS Defiant, right before Jake’s eyes.
As it turns out, Ben has actually been displaced out of the plane of existence, and every now and then he reappears for a short time, always near Jake. It’s heartbreaking to watch the young Jake mourn his father only to have him snatched before his eyes several more times over the course of decades.
The acting by both Cirroc Lofton (Jake) and Avery Brooks (Capt. Sisko) is extremely well done, as is the acting of Tony Todd, the older version of Jake. Of course, it all works out in the end – but the final act is still bittersweet enough to make you cry.
5. The Best of Both Worlds Parts 1 & 2 (The Next Generation)
This episode set the template for all Star Trek to come, at least for the exciting episodes. The Borg mount an invasion of Earth. Starfleet ships try to stop them, starting with the Enterprise-D. But things take a turn for the worse very quickly.
Captain Picard is captured by the Borg, introducing the concept of Borg assimilation to the franchise. He is transformed into Locutus, a Borg with intimate Starfleet knowledge who acts as a liaison between the Borg and humanity. Part 1 ends with a cliffhanger, making many people think that the Picard character would be killed off. Of course, the crew of the Enterprise weren’t about to let that happen.
A daring rescue attempt and a few space battles later, everything seems back to normal – except, it’s not. Jean-Luc Picard is traumatized by the experience, and this encounter made his character even more complex than he already was.
4. Plato’s Stepchildren (Original Series)
Plato’s Stepchildren is by and large one of the weirdest episodes in Trek history, but it succeeds thanks to great acting. It features our heroes on a planet that follows Greek tradition. Most of the humanoids on this world have a powerful telekinetic ability, and they use this to dominate and humiliate the weak.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are forced to humiliate themselves with dancing, singing, and horseplay (seriously – Kirk has to crawl around like a horse with someone on his back). Spock is even forced to cry and laugh, which is a huge blow to a logical Vulcan. As usual, Starfleet’s finest find a way out of their predicament, using the villains’ own power against them.
The performances by the actors were great, especially that of Michael Dunn. He played the Platonians’ favorite punching bag, Alexander, and his sadness is very convincing.
This episode also featured one of the first interracial kisses on TV, between Uhura and Kirk. One thing people love about Star Trek is that it shows a universe where human racism no longer exists, and this episode is a great example of that.
3. The Inner Light (The Next Generation)
The Inner Light showcased the best TNG had to offer. Patrick Stewart gave his usual best when portraying Picard, and the story was emotional enough to make viewers cry.
The crew of the Enterprise discovers a strange probe made by a now extinct alien race. This species had been obliterated by their own sun, but they left this probe as a message to communicate their history. The probe latched onto Picard and forced his mind to relive the life of one of these aliens, Kamin. Though his body was down for only 25 minutes, his consciousness experienced decades of memories.
As Kamin, Picard fell in love, started a family, and longed for the stars. He even learned how to play a flute, and he carried that talent with him after coming back to his own reality. His music became very special to him, reminding him of his rich, full, and complex life as Kamin.
The saddest part is that Picard truly loved his family in these memories. The gruff captain who didn’t really care for kids got to be a father and a grandfather, and the experience greatly changed him. Sadly, this family, along with the whole race, had been dead for centuries, so the ending was bittersweet.
2. City on the Edge of Forever (Original Series)
City on the Edge of Forever is exciting from the very beginning. Dr. McCoy trips and accidentally injects himself with an overdose of cordrazine, and he basically goes insane. He ends up on a planet below the ship, and he goes through a mysterious time portal that sends him back to 1960s Earth.
Kirk and Spock enter the portal to rescue him. Their blending in with the crowd is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the episode. They steal clothes, run from police, and set up base at a flophouse. There, Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler, an idealistic woman with a heart for the stars.
The episode ends in tragedy. Though McCoy is found, Edith is hit by a car. Kirk faces a dilemma – if he had saved her, she would have changed the course of history, leading Earth into a pacifism that would keep Starfleet from ever existing. Unfortunately, Kirk couldn’t allow this to happen, and Edith was killed.
Kirk’s been with A LOT of women on the show, but there’s no doubt that Edith was the most important to him – he truly loved her. The writing of this episode was excellent, enough so for it to win Writer’s Guild and Hugo awards. It remains a favorite for many thanks to its expert use of emotion.
1. Far Beyond the Stars (Deep Space Nine)
As the most complex of all the Trek series, DS9 tackled some huge issues that other shows feared to touch. Religion and war were huge subjects, and many feel that the series was an intelligent social commentary.
But one episode stands above the others. Directed by Avery Brooks (Sisko) himself, Far Beyond the Stars is pure story gold. While stressing over the Dominion War, Captain Benjamin Sisko experiences a vision from the Prophets, otherworldly beings that guide the destinies of Deep Space Nine, Sisko, and the Bajorans.
In this vision, Sisko is taken back in time to 1950s Earth. He experiences the consciousness of Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction writer who has to keep his authorship secret due to the prevalent racism of the time. Sisko doesn’t know he’s really Sisko – he actually takes on the full identity of Russell. The characters he interacts with look exactly like Sisko’s crewmates, and he does occasionally see them as they were on the space station.
Benny Russell is harassed and abused by racist police officers (they look like the show’s villains, Weyoun and Dukat), but he maintains a strength just as powerful as Sisko’s. He comes up with a new story for the magazine – Deep Space Nine, which is of course Sisko’s actual reality. But the magazine won’t publish it because it was written by a man of color and features a captain of color. In the end, the constant abuse he suffers brings him to his knees as he cries out against an unjust world that treats him as less than human.
This performance by Brooks is probably the best in Star Trek – if it were a movie, Brooks would have won an Oscar. According to fellow actor Nana Visitor, this episode was deeply personal to Brooks, and the performance was very real to him. This episode doesn’t even seem like Star Trek – it’s a realistic drama, plain and simple.
The way the subject of racism was addressed rank this episode among the best of TV stories. And the story’s ambiguity further adds to its greatness. Is Benny Russell in Sisko’s mind? Or is it the other way around?
Which Star Trek episodes throughout the franchise stand out to you? Let Your Geek Sideshow and tell us your favorites in the comments below!