With six live-action television shows, an animated series, and countless movies, the Star Trek franchise has dominated pop culture for decades. Since the original Star Trek premiered in 1966, through the ‘90s when no less than three Star Trek series were on at one time, and finally to the emergence of Star Trek: Discovery and soon Picard, there have been over 800 episodes of the franchise.
Narrowing down a “best of” list is almost an impossible task. With the original series’ appeal to discovery and adventure, The Next Generation’s focus on moral imperative and diplomacy, Voyager’s focus on interpersonal relationships and exploration, and Deep Space Nine’s emphasis on the struggles of wartime and the darker side of Starfleet, each provides hundreds of hours of television excitement that could go on their own “best of” lists. Here’s our ranking of the 10 best episodes in Star Trek television history, but it is by no means definitive.
10 EQUINOX (VOYAGER)
In the two-part Season 6 finale, the Voyager crew find themselves faced with a glimpse at what they could become if they let their compassion, conviction, and moral principles erode from self-interest and mistrust. It begins when they decide to offer aid to a stranded ship in the same quadrant they’re traveling in.
The crew of Voyager know it’s a 75-year journey to get back to the Alpha Quadrant and Starfleet, and by this stage, they’ve accepted their fate and worked to make the most of it. The crew of the ship they encounter has succumbed to self-interest, greed, and ultimately a breakdown of morale that leads to mutiny and mistrust. Their use of subterfuge reveals to Voyager how lucky they are to have each other.
9 THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES (ORIGINAL SERIES)
Considered by Trekkies to represent the high camp of the original series as well as its endearing charm, the infamous “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode introduced the fuzzy Tribbles to the Star Trek franchise and for better or for worse, their episode remains a fan favorite. Where one Tribble appears on the Enterprise, hundreds follow as it multiplies, producing mountains of round furry teddy bear type creatures.
Soon there isn’t any room for the crew, let alone one more Tribble. They get into the sleeping quarters, the bulkheads, and the food supplies, all while Kirk is trying to resolve a Klingon crisis. In true Star Trek fashion, the episode ends in a fitting dovetail that cleverly deals with both problems (because Kirk really couldn’t handle one more Tribble shower).
8 PEAK PERFORMANCE (NEXT GENERATION)
In the second season of The Next Generation, Starfleet decides to stage the sort of war-games its ships can expect to engage in with the Borg. Picard remains captain of the USS Enterprise while Commander Riker is given command of an eighty-year-old starship named Hathaway. Leadership emerges as the dominant theme of the episode and the struggles of preparedness in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Data questions his executive functions when he cannot defeat a famous strategist. Riker questions his ability to lead and make the right decision when it counts. Even Picard isn’t prepared for a surprise Ferengi attack which cripples the Enterprise, but he delivers the memorable line, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
7 BEST OF BOTH WORLDS (NEXT GENERATION)
The Borg threat features in some of the most complex and dramatic episodes of TNG, the Star Trek series that arguably put the most focus on understanding other cultures from their perspective. The Borg represented a culture that there is no possibility of understanding, and that resistance to its embodiment of blind ignorance is futile.
The crew of the USS Enterprise perseveres against the Borg despite its best efforts to persecute Federation space and avoid mutual comprehension. They take the risk to try to understand the Borg on its own terms, and challenge the concepts of diplomatic communication that TNG is based on, even at great cost to themselves when Captain Picard is taken captive and assimilated.
6 THE VOID (VOYAGER)
Voyager gets much maligned for not having a clear direction and episodes that lack originality, but “The Void” was an episode that highlighted it at its best showcase of Star Trek themes involving optimism, compassion, and integrity. When Voyager enters an area of space where ships get trapped without the possibility of escape, the crew discover that preying on other surrounding ships in the same situation may be their only chance to survive.
With low resources and morale, the crew seriously contemplate participating in piracy themselves, until Captain Janeway reminds them of their oaths to Starfleet, and convinces them to form an alliance with other ships. By working together, they’re able to escape the void and maintain their integrity.
5 THE PALE MOONLIGHT (DEEP SPACE NINE)
Deep Space Nine allowed the Star Trek franchise to explore the darker, grittier side of Starfleet, evident in no clearer way than in this episode that features a morally bankrupt Commander Benjamin Sisko. He endeavors to bring noted Federation enemies the Romulans into an alliance to win a greater war, and in so doing has to make an ally of a Cardassian spy, a prison convict, and other duplicitous characters to accomplish his goal.
Sisko sacrifices his idealism in exchange for a shot at triumph over the Dominion. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to convince the Romulans, even if it goes against every principle of Starfleet. It is both a deep character study and a taut psychological thriller as Garak’s machinations unfold in the background.
4 MEASURE OF THE MAN (NEXT GENERATION)
Being the only android on the crew of the Enterprise, Data was part of many episodes in TNG that focused on his attempt to understand human behavior and fit in with his peers. In this episode, what makes him different is singled out when a Starfleet cyberneticist wants to disassemble him for study. Data is unwilling, preferring to resign from Starfleet instead of being dissected like an experiment.
As Starfleet views him as “property”, he isn’t allowed to do so, calling into question his rights to independence as a member of the crew versus lack of agency under Starfleet ownership. The episode becomes an emotional legal drama as Captain Picard represents Data’s interests to a panel of justice, with Commander Riker representing the cyberneticist.
3 BALANCE OF TERROR (ORIGINAL SERIES)
In a white-knuckle episode about prejudice and hatred of “the other,” Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise take on the Romulans in a monumental showdown involving strategy, cunning, and knowing your enemy. Kirk is stretched to his limit against a faceless enemy he has never encountered before.
At the end of the episode, when the Enterprise has almost lost and the Romulans finally reveal themselves, Kirk is shocked to see that they resemble their resident Vulcan, Mr. Spock, from which they share common ancestry. It forces the crew to come to terms with their own xenophobia, and admit that there are aspects of the Romulans they can respect, such as the captain of the Romulan ship.
2 CHAIN OF COMMAND (NEXT GENERATION)
Captain Picard, Worf, and Doctor Crusher are sent on a secret mission, with Captain Edward Jellico assuming command of the Enterprise in Captain Picard’s absence. The changes he makes to the infrastructure of the ship’s operations are immediately resented by the crew, and Riker suspects the lauded captain has more information on Picard’s secret mission than he lets on.
Picard is eventually captured by Cardassians, where the malevolent Gul Madred inflicts severe physiological and physical torture on him. The episode is difficult to watch as Picard is stripped of more and more dignity, but it showcases the indefatigable power of the human spirit to triumph over those that would eviscerate it. It’s also a powerhouse acting job by Patrick Stewart as Picard.
1 THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF TOMORROW (ORIGINAL SERIES)
In one of the most moving episodes in the Star Trek franchise, Kirk is faced with a dilemma that questions his moral conviction and his commitment to Starfleet. After Doc McCoy suffers an overdose of cordrazine, he travels back in time to Earth in the ‘30s and unwittingly changes the course of history.
On his rescue mission to save McCoy, Kirk encounters a woman named Edith Keeler. She will become internationally famous for a pacifist movement that prevents President Roosevelt from entering WWII, allowing Adolf Hitler to develop the atomic bomb first and use it to control the world. She is supposed to die in the correct timeline, but Kirk falls in love with her. If he lets her live, the Federation and Starfleet will never exist and millions will die.