The station Deep Space Nine

I originally planned to rank Star Trek’s first episodes in one article, but there are eight of these things now. More new Trek is being produced than ever before. I don’t know if I’d call it a golden age, exactly, but it’s certainly an improvement from the post-Enterprise years. Now let’s look at the four best premieres the franchise has to offer. Are they actually good?

4. The Original Series

The salt vampire from The Man Trap

Breaking tradition, The Man Trap* doesn’t start with the heroes meeting each other for the first time. Or rather, since TOS came first, I guess every other series is breaking tradition? Whatever, the point is that we start the show with a crew that already knows each other and has been working together for a while. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are the most prominent, of course, but we also meet Sulu and Uhura, who both represented major strides in onscreen diversity in 1966. There’s also Yeoman Rand, who I’m sure will go on to have a long career on the ship and not suddenly depart under questionable circumstances.

Our first mission is a routine checkup on two married researchers who live alone on an otherwise uninhabited planet. Hmmm. Doesn’t really feel like something you’d need a big ship like the Enterprise to do, but maybe the research is really important? Fortunately, after some good if dated banter,* we find out that one of the researchers is McCoy’s old flame. Also, something weird is going on, as she looks like a different person to each member of the landing party. Now we’re getting somewhere. A wellness appointment isn’t exactly riveting TV, but a scifi mystery is much more interesting.

This is also where we run into one of the episode’s two main problems: sexism. It’s not as bad as you’d expect from an episode titled “The Man Trap,” but it’s not great. Beyond some offhand cracks about women not being suited to living on alien planets, we have a monster that appears as a hot lady to lure men to their death. Evil seductress tropes are par for the 1966 course, but that doesn’t make them any less sexist.

In fairness, the monster can also turn into a hot guy to lure in women, and it does so with Uhura. But the episode quickly abandons that attempt at equal opportunity seduction so it can get back to the evil siren alien. Plus, this conceit makes a lot of heteronormative assumptions about who is attracted to what. Hopefully we know better in the 21st century, but you can never be sure.

The other problem is the monster’s plan. It feeds on salt, and it’s clearly got human-level intelligence, based on how it makes plans and carries on long conversations with the human (and Vulcan) characters. So the obvious play is to ask for some salt, either while still pretending to be human or just by saying “hey, I’m a salt-eating alien, may I please have some salt?” Instead, the monster goes on a murder spree, draining the salt from redshirt after redshirt.*

This strategy is obviously unsustainable. Even if the salt vampire manages to kill a main character, that won’t help it avoid capture, which is theoretically what it wants. Instead of consistent behavior, we get a creature that can sometimes make rational plans while other times going berserk at the slightest whiff of salty prey.

Those issues aside, the episode is actually pretty good. The actors seem to have a strong grasp of their characters, which isn’t something you can always count on in a first episode. You immediately get a sense for who each character is, whether they have a lot of screen time or not. After watching the Enterprise Vulcans angrily seethe all over the screen, it’s a relief to see Spock dawn his logical persona, even if he does mess up and yell in one scene. This is the original Vulcan portrayal, and I shall accept no substitutes. The Enterprise crew also has some top-quality banter, indicating officers who’ve served together for some time and are easy in each other’s company.

Likewise, the salt vampire plot is pretty good if you can get past the creature’s inconsistent behavior and motivation. The viewer learns what’s going on before the characters do, but it’s still fun to watch our heroes struggle to figure it out. The alien’s true form is also surprisingly scary given the limitations of makeup and prosthetics at the time. It’s not TOS’s best episode by any stretch, but it’s a solid intro for the series. It’s also not a two-parter, which helps keep the story tight and compact. You can see why the network decided to lead with this episode rather than either of the pilots, both of which are slow and harder to get into.

3. Picard

Picard with Zhaban and Laris

Flashing forward to the current era of Star Trek, we have Remembrance, first episode of a show designed entirely to invoke TNG fans’ nostalgia. And hey, I’m putting it in third place, so I can’t say it didn’t work.

We start off strong with an older Picard retired to his vineyard, kept company by a pit bull and two Romulan caretakers. The show has a lot of backstory to get through, but it does so in a fairly efficient manner that’s not too difficult to follow. My only issue there is they use the premise of a hostile interviewer to bring out some of the backstory, and it seems weird that neither Picard nor his caretakers did any vetting to find out if this reporter was a colossal asshole. Also, when Picard launches into his first Picard Speech™, we have an older white man lecturing a young Black woman about historical injustice. Not the best look.

That brings us to the show’s premise, which is that the Federation sucks now. Far from the shining beacon of optimism we knew in the ’90s, it’s become insular and even a little xenophobic, refusing to help other species in need while also banning research into artificial intelligence. I am unbelievably tired of Star Trek stories that try to subvert the optimistic Federation. It’s been done so often now that there’s no longer anything left to subvert. At this point, going back to the original bright future would be the real subversion.

But credit where credit’s due: Picard does a better job with this premise than most other attempts. We’re at least given an inciting event for why the Federation has changed: a devastating attack on Mars by malfunctioning androids.* It also helps that when Patrick Stewart describes these events, his performance conveys a profound sense of loss.

The action part of the episode arrives with Dahj Asha, a young woman who’s just discovered that she’s secretly been an android the whole time. For some reason she’s a new kind of android that’s made of flesh and bone rather than circuits and titanium. I have no idea why anyone would want to make their androids worse by using meat-based construction, but there you go. Regardless, she’s attacked by some shadowy goons and comes to Picard for help. They investigate her background for a bit and discover she happens to look exactly like a portrait that Data painted before his death in Nemesis, a portrait he titled “Daughter.”

At this point, I assumed we were referencing Lal, Data’s short-lived daughter from The Offspring. Back then, her positronic brain suffered a catastrophic shutdown, so having someone rebuild her as a tribute would have been very interesting. But Lal is never mentioned, either in this episode or in the rest of the season. So someone decided to make Dahj look like one of Data’s paintings just because? It’s an obviously missed opportunity, and it’s not like this show is afraid of making deep-cut TNG references.

Before we can dwell on what could have been, it’s time for more action. Pew pew! Another wave of sinister goons show up, and we learn that they’re Romulan agents. The plot thickens! The fight scenes are very good, with Dahj unleashing a case of android fury on the bad guys as an aging Picard tries to keep up. I was really worried that this show would try to make a 79-year-old Picard into an action hero, but fortunately the writers knew better.

Less fortunately, this is also where the episode makes its biggest misstep: it kills Dahj after spending most of the episode getting us invested in her as a character. It also kills her in a silly yet horrifying way, as it turns out that these Romulan goons have acid blood. Set phasers to grimdark, Mr. Worf!

Since helping Dahj was Picard’s main goal, this leaves the episode feeling directionless in its final minutes. Don’t worry though: it turns out that Dahj had a twin sister, and Picard makes plans to go protect her instead. I’m sure we can just transfer all the attachment we built for Dahj to a completely different character. What could go wrong?

Even after killing Dahj, Remembrance’s biggest strength by far is its characters. Picard himself is fantastic, with Stewart portraying the best version of this character we could possibly ask for. His Romulan caretakers, Laris and Zhaban, are also great. It’s rare for Star Trek to feature Romulan characters so prominently, and these two only get more interesting when you find out that they used to be secret agents for the Romulan government, making them Picard’s ex-spy bodyguards as well as his caretakers. I cannot for the life of me understand why they aren’t more prominent in the rest of the season, but in this episode, they’re great.

2. Deep Space Nine

Sisko and Picard from Emissary

DS9’s first season has some real clunkers,* so I expected Emissary to fall pretty low on this list. But to my surprise, it holds up really well on a rewatch, and there are three reasons why.

The first reason is Sisko. A lot of commentary around DS9 claims that Avery Brooks wasn’t allowed to properly portray Sisko until later in the series, but he does a great job in this first episode. He doesn’t have the intense “I will murder you in the face” energy of later Sisko, but it wouldn’t really fit if he did. In Emissary, he’s either acting as Starfleet’s representative to Bajor, talking to his superior officer, or trying to get his ragtag crew together. None of those situations are appropriate for Sisko’s season four+ strategy of laying down the law and telling anyone who disagrees to deal with it.

Instead, we get a character with a surprising amount of depth for a Starfleet captain* on their first outing. When he talks to the Bajorans, Sisko is diplomatic and optimistic. When he talks to his crew, he encourages them to do the best job they can. But in private with a guest-starring Captain Picard, Sisko is completely blunt about the chances of successfully running a broken station in politically turbulent space. In short, he doesn’t think success is very likely.

So we have a character who doesn’t think his mission is achievable, but still does the best he can because that’s the job. Also, his portrayal of grief at losing his wife is powerful. I’m not even sure I’d call this a case of fridging, since it doesn’t really motivate Sisko’s actions; it’s just a part of who he is.

The second point in Emissary’s favor is its plot: finding the wormhole before the Cardassians do, and then keeping them from seizing control of it. The stakes of this plot change as the characters learn more about what’s going on, but they’re always clear. At first, the concern is that the Cardassians might gain control of powerful technology if they find the wormhole first. Then the characters realize that a shortcut across the galaxy would be hugely beneficial to Bajor’s political and economic future.

These stakes are clearer and more compelling than anything on the list so far. It’s also really fun to watch Kira and O’Brien try to hold off three Cardassian warships with nothing but gaul and empty torpedo tubes. The Cardassians make a good showing as well: when the good guys set up a techno-field that makes the station look heavily armed, the Cardassian commander correctly guesses there’s no way such powerful weapons could have been installed so quickly. It’s always nice to have villains who can add two and two together.

Emissary’s final strength is the way it introduces its characters. Several previous entries have made the mistake of pausing the plot so each new officer can have their own introduction. DS9 avoids that problem by sticking with Sisko for most of the episode. New characters are introduced as they become relevant to his story. Kira is his second in command, Dax gets to work on his science mystery, etc. The main exception is O’Brien, who has an unrelated farewell scene on the Enterprise. That’s not too bad though, as O’Brien is a character most viewers will already know from TNG.

None of this means Emissary is a perfect episode by any means. The biggest problem is that like Encounter at Farpoint, some of the actors haven’t quite figured out their characters yet.

  • Dax is unusually reserved, with none of the passion she’ll later exhibit.
  • Bashir is so naïve that he’s painful to watch, although that might be on purpose.
  • Kira is fine, but she seems to still be reading from a script written for Ro Laren.

We also have some plot problems. In retrospect, it’s pretty gross when Sisko threatens to keep Nog imprisoned to earn concessions from Quark. It’s also very weird that Kai Opaka won’t act to stop a Bajoran civil war until Sisko finds the wormhole. Those are unrelated events, your holiness! Fortunately, none of these problems cause any critical damage to the episode, leaving us with a premiere that primes viewers to want more… at least until they run into Move Along Home and suddenly want a lot less.

1. Lower Decks

Rutherford, Mariner, Tendi, and Boimler from Lower Decks.

After a list full of epic live-action two-parters, we finally reach first place: a 25-minute cartoon called Second Contact. I know, I’m surprised too, especially because Lower Decks is a comedy. Star Trek has been good at a lot of things over the years, but making people laugh was rarely one of them. Before this show aired, the only concept I was more skeptical of than “Star Trek comedy” was “Star Trek musical.” And yet, here we are.

Second Contact strikes a balanced approach between having the characters already know each other and having them meet for the first time. Mariner and Boimler have already worked together for at least a little while, and Rutherford is a crewmate they sometimes pass in the halls. Meanwhile, Tendi is the new recruit, only just arriving on the ship. This approach works fairly well, as it gives us a balance between characters who already know what’s going on and characters who are experiencing it for the first time.

That’s mostly window dressing though, as Second Contact’s success is almost entirely based on one thing: Star Trek in-jokes. Lots and lots of Star Trek in-jokes. This show probably doesn’t work for anyone who’s not already familiar with the franchise, but for those of us who are, it’s basically half an hour of hanging out with fellow Trekkies and making cracks about Riker’s beard. So many Trek tropes get spoofed just in this episode, including but not limited to:

  • The horny first officer
  • Bringing a deadly disease from an otherwise benign planet
  • Random monster attack for no reason
  • The monster turns out to actually be harmless
  • Characters have an emotional bonding arc, oblivious to the action plot around them
  • Ship’s doctor being a total weirdo
  • Senior staff taking credit for something the whole crew did
  • The big problem is solved by a random plot element that no one could have predicted
  • Everything is reset at the end and everyone is fine despite an obviously traumatic conflict

I could go on, but you get the idea. In a more serious show, hitting all the Trek clichés would be insufferable. In a comedy, making fun of them is the whole point. Not all the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s gratifying to watch a show that understands the Star Trek franchise so well. Second Contact also follows the Galaxy Quest tradition of spoofing Trek without being mean-spirited. By the end, our heroes are sharing a drink in the ship’s lounge, eager for another adventure.

Beyond the comedy, the characters are serviceable, if not universally amazing. Boimler makes a good straight-man foil to Mariner’s over-the-top antics, while Rutherford is a clear reference to Geordi La Forge. Tendi is still finding her footing in this episode, but she fills the role of a character who’s just amazed to be on Star Trek. That’s something a lot of Trekkies can identify with. A number of side characters are particularly strong, especially the Caitian doctor. We do see signs of how over-candied Mariner gets later in the season, but that’s not a problem yet.

Second Contact’s biggest flaw is how aggressively straight everyone is. Despite some of the characters having queer-coded traits,* the episode goes out of its way to establish only hetero attractions. We see several romantic relationships in less than half an hour, and all of them are between a woman and a man. When Mariner activates her sexy holo-program, it’s nothing but dudes. The list goes on, and the episode even seems to be pairing the main characters off along heteronormative lines.

With other Trek shows making admittedly flawed progress on queer representation, Lower Deck’s failure to follow suit is particularly disappointing. I wish I could say it’s only a problem with the premiere, but that’s sadly not the case. I still have hope for season two, though. Lower Decks is great in so many other ways, and I hope it finds the courage to improve in this area as well.

At last, we have a definitive look at how each Star Trek series got their start. Well, for now anyway. Paramount still has a cavalcade of new shows coming out, so this list will probably be outdated before the end of the year. We already know they’re making a Trek kids’ show. Also, the Section 31 show is apparently still being made despite my increasingly desperate wish that it wasn’t. You know what, just keep an eye out here, as I’ll almost certainly have to do this again soon.

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