This week Hulu is offering free access to every episode of every series of Star Trek that’s ever aired—a true bonanza for trekkers who never quite got into Enterprise or who gave up on Voyager amidst the seven season slog through the Delta Quadrant but are intrigued by (accurate!) rumors that the later seasons are better. But the merely Trek-curious may find the sheer volume of content available daunting. Where to start?
Below are 10 excellent episodes that don’t lean heavily on long plot arcs or complicated elements of the larger Trek mythos. It’s not exactly the same as a 10 best episodes list, since some of the finest Trek ever aired—Deep Space Nine’s “In The Pale Moonlight,” for example—wouldn’t make sense to newbies who lack context. But these are all worth watching.
“The City on the Edge of Forever,” Original Series
Many of the finest Trek episodes involve the crew journeying into the past, where technobabble must be kept to a minimum and the focus is left on the human storytelling. This one has a bit of everything, from the humor of Spock’s hat to some real emotion from Kirk. All that and one of the definitive lines of dialogue from the franchise: “Edith Keeler must die.”
“Q Who,” The Next Generation
The Borg are TNG’s defining contribution to popular culture. The franchise ultimately ended up going back to the Borg well too many times, but on their first appearance they truly present a terrifying adversary—and a powerful reminder that exploration is a dangerous business.
“The Visitor,” Deep Space Nine
DS9 was always the most dramatically ambitious of the Treks, and this may be its finest standalone episode. A boy suffers the unexpected death of his father and spends a lifetime seeking reunion—a perfect use of science-fictional plot devices to explore the human condition.
“Chain of Command,” The Next Generation
This two-parter injects a relatively rare element of action into TNG and features a nice guest appearance from Ronny Cox as Edward Jellico. But the real story concerns Captain Picard in captivity. Let’s just say I wish Dick Cheney had watched this episode before approving “enhanced interrogation” methods.
“Space Seed,” Original Series
Kirk yelling “Khaaaaan” in Star Trek II may be the franchise’s best-known moment, but Khan’s original appearance on television is worth your time, too. There’s a fair amount that’s badly dated here—from the gender norms on display to the references to devastating global warfare in the 1990s—but the issues explored are alive and well.
“The Omega Directive,” Voyager
An excellent example of an episode that uses Voyager’s premise—a Federation starship is trapped decades from home—to good effect rather than as a MacGuffin. Captain Janeway has to implement some standing orders from Starfleet without any official backup or support in a way that puts her leadership to the test.
Enterprise has more good material than the average fan gives it credit for, but most of its best episodes are deeply enmeshed in the larger Star Trek lore. “Cogenitor” is an exception. A terrific ethical-dilemma-in-outer-space episode that lays the foundations for the Prime Directive without depending on any Trek expertise on the part of the viewer. Also one of the few Enterprise episodes that really captures just how strange it would probably be to serve as part of humanity’s first deep space exploration.
“First Contact,” The Next Generation
The crew is trying to lay the groundwork for its first meeting with a race of politically conflicted aliens who are on the verge of launching insterstellar space exploration; then things go awry. Anchored by a strong guest performance from Bebe Neuwirth, this episode has a great mix of suspense and allegory.
“Our Man Bashir,” Deep Space Nine
Holodeck episodes are, in general, the bane of the Trek franchise. But “Our Man Bashir” is an exception. The crew gets trapped in a James Bond simulation, which becomes the basis for some parody so dead-on that Paramount ended up in legal hot water with MGM. A great taste of the lighter side of Trek.
“Remember Me,” The Next Generation
A great character study of Dr. Beverly Crusher as she deals with a bizarre scenario that finds her increasingly alone. One by one, the crew of the Enterprise is disappearing—but she’s the only one who notices there’s anything wrong at all.