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The Most Essential ‘Star Trek’ Episodes

Best 'Star Trek' episodes, featuring Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Captain Kirk (William Shatner), and Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks)

In 57 years, Star Trek has told a lot of stories about an organization called Starfleet, an alliance called the Federation, and people of all species exploring the universe with optimism and hope.

And sometimes conflict, terror, and corruption. But mostly optimism and hope.

In coming up with list of the 10 best Star Trek episodes, I wanted it to include most of the series (sorry, Prodigy and The Animated Series, there’s one animated frontrunner, and it’s not y’all). I also wanted to choose single episodes rather than two-parters. And while I care about general quality, I care more about choosing episodes that capture the essence of Star Trek—its ethics, values, and optimism about humanity’s future.

Here are the 10 most essential episodes of Star Trek, presented in the order in which they were released.

Star Trek, “City on the Edge of Forever”

(Season 1, episode 28 – 1967)

Image of Joan Collins as Edith Keeler and William Shatner as James Kirk in the STAR TREK Original Series episode, "City on the Edge of Forever." They stand on the street at night outside a store. Edith is a white woman with short dark hair and bangs under a white, knit tam hat. She's wearing a black autumn coat. Kirk is a white man slightly taller than her with short, brown hair and wearing a reddish-brown coat with gold buttons. They're both looking up at the sky as he points up toward something.

“City on the Edge of Forever” remains one of the best-written Star Trek episodes of all time. It’s a spotlight episode for James T. Kirk, and William Shatner gives one of his best performances. People somehow decided that Kirk “womanizes” his way all over space, but when he’s romancing alien women, it’s for a reason: either he’s getting information, or staying undercover to complete a mission.

But when Kirk is genuinely interested in a woman, it’s a woman like Edith Keeler: smart, kind women with strong ethics. Watching him love and then choose to lose Edith for the greater good is heartbreaking. But before that, Edith reminds Kirk (and us) why hope is worth holding onto:

“One day soon, man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom—energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds—in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and the cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way give each other hope and a common future. And those are the days worth living for.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Darmok”

(Season 5, episode 2 – 1991)

Image of Paul Winfield as Dathon and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in a scene from the STAR TREK: TNG episode, "Darmok." Dathon is a Tamarian, a humanoid species with reddish-brownish skin, forehead ridges, ear slits, and large, flattened nose holes. He's wearing a decorated grey vest over a greenish uniform and holding a knife out at a threat. Picard is a white man who is bald save for some white hair around the back of his head. He's wearing a grey Starfleet uniform and is also holding a knife pointed at the same threat, but he's looking to Dathon for guidance. They are outdoors.

“Darmok” is an entire episode of The Next Generation devoted to the importance of language and communication.

While the Tamarian language isn’t realistic, it doesn’t matter. What does is that both Picard and Dathon make the effort to understand each other. Their mutual curiosity, compassion, and determination to communicate allows them to become friends, and for Picard (and the Federation) to understand the Tamarians well enough to prevent a violent confrontation. One of TNG‘s best episodes, “Darmok” beautifully depicted the very Trek values of mutual understanding and respect.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Far Beyond the Stars”

(Season 6, episode 13 – 1998)

Image of Avery Brooks as Ben Sisko and the reflection of Benny Russell in a scene from the STAR TREK: DS9 episode, 'Far Beyond the Stars.' Brooks is a Black, bald man with a goatee. In the foreground, we see him from behind as he's looking out a window on the space station. He's wearing a grey Starfleet uniform with red at the collar. In the window, we see a reflection of Benny Russell (also played by Brooks) who is wearing glasses and period 1950s menswear - a blue, buttondown shirt with a wide collar under a white pullover vest and dark pants. The vision of Benny is overlaid over the stars in outer space.

As a woman of color who writes sci-fi, Deep Space Nine‘s “Far Beyond the Stars” resonates with me in a way that most episodes of Star Trek don’t.

It’s an emotional, meta story that uses the institution of sci-fi storytelling as a setting through which to examine the racism within it, and in the U.S. more broadly. Specifically, the setting is a sci-fi literary magazine, which provides a home for marginalized writers—Black, women, Jews, leftists—so long as they only write white, male heroes. It starts with Sisko considering leaving Starfleet. Through his experience as Benny Russell, he realizes that holding a command position in Starfleet matters. As the Prophets put it to him, he is “both the dreamer and the dream.”

Star Trek: Voyager, “Extreme Risk”

(Season 5, episode 3 – 1998)

Roxann Dawson as B'elanna Torres in the 'Star Trek: Voyager' episode "Extreme Risk"

Star Trek doesn’t have many portrayals of disability or chronic mental/physical illness, but the franchise makes space for people with these conditions to exist without providing easy “fixes.”

B’Elanna Torres has lost interest in things that usually bring her pleasure and begins engaging in risky behavior, like simulating dangerous situations in Voyager’s holodeck with the safety controls turned off. She’s diagnosed with depression and reveals to Chakotay that she’s having trouble processing the deaths of their Maquis friends. While B’Elanna finds her way back to herself by the end, this Voyager episode is a nuanced look at the experience of depression. It also shows what help and support can look like in a society that values people over profit.

Star Trek: Enterprise, “Carbon Creek”

(Season 2, episode 2 – 2002)

Jolene Blalock as T'Pol and J. Paul Boehmer as Mestral in the 'Star Trek: Enterprise' episode "Carbon Creek"

In this episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, T’Pol tells Trip and Archer a seemingly far-fetched story about her great-great grandmother T’Mir, who, along with two other Vulcans, crash-landed on Earth in 1957.

What makes this truly Trek is the conflict between T’Mir and her colleague, Mestral, who is far more impressed by humans than she is. While T’Mir only sees humanity’s impending doom, Mestral sees how curious and compassionate humans are and believes in their potential. Eventually, T’Mir sees this, too, and sells an important tech breakthrough (velcro) to raise the money for a promising human student to go to college. “Carbon Creek” shows two of the founding species of the Federation at their best.

Star Trek: Discovery, “That Hope is You, Part 1”

(season 3, episode 1 – 2020)**

Image of David Ajala as Book, Sonequa Martin-Green as Burnham, and Adil Hussain as Sahil in a scene from the STAR TREK: DISCOVERY episode, "That Hope is You, Part 1." It's a wide shot in a minimalist, white room. From behind a table, we see Book (a Black man in a long, black coat), Burnham (a Black woman in a grey Starfleet uniform), and Sahil (a South Asian man in a grey suit) standing respectfully as they look at a blue Federation flag.

It wasn’t until the end of this episode of Discovery that I realized I’d watched an entire episode of Star Trek without a single white main character. This episode—which is billed as “Part 1” but is not actually a two-parter—finds Michael Burnham in the far future, after an event called “The Burn” destroyed most of Starfleet. There is no longer a United Federation of Planets.

Book and Burnham arrive at a damaged Federation relay station and find Aditya Sahil, a “Federation liaison” born to a long line of Starfleet officers who’s been waiting for years, hoping for another Starfleet officer’s arrival. As the first Starfleet officer Sahil has seen in decades, when Burnham hears his story, she gives him a field commission.

When they hang the Federation flag of Sahil’s family in his office, I cried. It is one of the most pure and hopeful moments I’ve ever experienced in a Star Trek show, and I got excited about the new, better Federation they’d work to create.

Star Trek: Short Treks, “Children of Mars”

(Season 2, episode 6 – 2020)

Image of Ilamaria Ebrahim as Kima and Sadie Munroe as Lil in the SHORT TREKS episode, "Children of Mars." They are both wearing the same school uniform of a red blazer, white buttondown, and grey pants with grey shoes. Kima is an alien with bronze skin, bright blue eyes, and forehead ridges. She has long, black hair. Lil is a human white girl, and has long, red hair. They are sitting on separate benches in their school's lobby - Kima in the foreground, Lil on the bench behind her. They're sitting not facing each other.

In this eight-minute precursor to Star Trek: Picard, two tween girls of different species, Kima and Lil, engage in an intense rivalry at school, culminating in a physical brawl. However, all that gets pushed to the side when they learn that rogue synthetics have attacked Mars and its orbital facilities, where they both had parents working. Though it takes a tragedy, the girls find common ground.

This episode acknowledges that despite optimism and hope, there will always be conflict that needs to be worked through between individuals for any number of reasons. And it will always be difficult to navigate big feelings when you’re young, no matter what species you are. But it’s possible.

Star Trek: Picard, “Monsters”

(Season 2, episode 7 – 2022)

Image of Dylan Von Halle as Young Picard in the STAR TREK: PICARD episode, "Monsters." Young Picard is a white boy wearing a crown and a prince's tunic walking through what looks like it could be a castle or a house.

It’s a rare luxury to be able to track the changes that happen to a character over the course of a life. Jean-Luc Picard is the first Star Trek character we’ve followed from middle age to old age.

Picard had a painful childhood and a tumultuous Starfleet career marred by the traumatic experience of being assimilated by the Borg. Picard allows him to finally heal and get some closure at the end of his life, and this episode is a key part of that.

“Monsters” shows the importance of support while healing from trauma. No one can do it alone. Picard needed Tallinn to help him navigate his memories and perceptions of his past so he could get the closure he needed. In Star Trek, you’re only as good as the relationships you cultivate.

Star Trek: Lower Decks, “Crisis Point”

(Season 1, episode 9 – 2020)

Image of Vindicta and Beckett Mariner in a scene from the "Crisis Point" episode of the animated series, 'Star Trek: Lower Decks.' Vindicta is actually Mariner dressed in a villain costume as she interacts with a movie she created on the holodeck, and in this scene, she's fighting the holodeck's version of the real her. Mariner is a young, Black woman with bangs and her hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Crisis Point” finds Beckett Mariner processing her emotions by making herself the villain in a movie she creates on the holodeck. It ends with Beckett fighting herself as she tries to work out complicated feelings about her Starfleet captain mother and how to remain in Starfleet while staying true to her maverick nature.

Mariner and Starfleet share ethics if not methodology, but there is value in Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. This episode of Lower Decks proves that Starfleet is at its best when a variety of people devote themselves to its care.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Children of the Comet”

(Season 1, episode 2 – 2022)

Image of Celia Rose Gooding as Uhura in a scene from the "Children of the Comet" episode of 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.' Uhura is a Black woman with close-cropped hair. She's standing to the side with her head turned toward the camera and wearing a grey and black space suit. Behind her are twinkling lights.

In the Strange New Worlds episode “Children of the Comet,” a comet is on course to hit a planet and destroy all life on it. Uhura, perhaps foreshadowing her future career in Starfleet communications, discovers that the comet responds to music. Meanwhile, there’s a ship of “shepherds” escorting the comet, which they claim is M’hanit—a being who is an ancient arbiter of life.

When the Enterprise distracts the shepherds long enough for Spock to alter the comet’s path, the comet sprays water vapor over the planet, improving conditions for life there. When Uhura decodes music from the comet, however, it seems that it not only predicted interference from the Enterprise, but also knew it wouldn’t harm life on the planet. Trek constantly wrestles with the relationship between deities, magic, and science, and doing so through Uhura was a great choice.

(featured image: Paramount / The Mary Sue)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former Mary Sue assistant editor from 2015-18. Teresa's returned to play in the TMS sandbox as a freelancer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.