For nearly 50 years, Star Trek has been one of the most dominant forces in pop culture. Trek’s history stretches beyond the shows themselves, because Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future has inspired generations and broken boundaries. Want to learn more before next year’s anniversary? Look no further.

Welcome back to the io9 Guide series, where we take an introductory but comprehensive look at the most important universes of science fiction and fantasy. These guides are aimed at lay-people in search of a quick refresher, as well as seasoned fans who want to debate the meaning and essential knowledge of a subject.

What Is Star Trek About?

Star Trek is a franchise that now covers five different television series, 12 movies (with another on the way), an animated cartoon and countless games, books, and comics. And it’s about the captains and crews of an interplanetary organization called the United Federation of Planets, which explores the galaxy and tries to keep the peace.

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The first series, simply called Star Trek (but later referred to as “The Original Series” or “TOS”), had an opening credits sequence that lays out the mission pretty simply: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

Even before it became an icon, Star Trek was determined to depict a universe that was more than just humans battling aliens in outer space. At a time when the world was still recovering from the Second World War and under the long shadow of the Cold War, its creator, Gene Roddenberry, wanted to depict a future that was full of hope rather than fear.

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Star Trek depicted a future where the Earth was free of the problems of the 20th and 21st centuries—a united planet with no war, no struggle for resources or money. A world where men and women of all races and nationalities were treated equally (as well as an alien in Mr. Spock, Star Trek’s first crew featured both a Black woman, Nyota Uhura, and an Japanese man, Hikaru Sulu). The Enterprise’s main mission was for exploration and to gain scientific knowledge, not to battle monsters. Roddenberry envisioned a future where humanity’s problems weren’t just gone, but a distant memory, replaced by a utopia in the stars.

After Roddenberry’s death in 1991, part of that utopian vision was gone: Deep Space Nine, the first series to be made after his passing, explored a darker side of Star Trek and showed that the Federation was far from a perfect society as it found itself in a costly war against an alien Empire called the Dominion. But even as Star Trek began to dabble in the greyer aspects of itself, it was still defined by optimism and the pursuit of a better universe for everyone, regardless of their background—along with a thirst for knowledge and the joy of exploration.

The Star Trek Ethos

Star Trek’s boundless optimism didn’t just restrict itself to the confines of the TV show. It influenced the people who worked on it, and the legions of fans who were inspired to learn about science and influenced by its lessons of co-operation, respect, and equality.

As mentioned above, Star Trek’s cast itself was very diverse for the 1960s—but diversity also happened behind the camera as well: Desilu Studios, the production company that originally made Star Trek, was run by Lucille Ball, and it was Ball who convinced NBC to pay for a second pilot episode after the first was rejected.

One of the show’s most prominent writers, script editor D.C. Fontana, who wrote some of the best stories in Star Trek’s three-year run, was a woman. Later series like Deep Space Nine and Voyager were known for putting both a black man and a woman in the lead role of Captains, respectively. Star Trek’s diversity is so important to its core, it’s even been turned into television legend: Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura’s kiss in “Plato’s Stepchildren” is often repeated as the first interracial kiss in American television history, despite being preceded by several others.

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But Star Trek didn’t just pioneer diversity, but new kinds of technology as well. Several of its most iconic gadgets were originally conceived as production cost-savers—instead of having to film shots of the characters flying down from the Enterprise to a planet, the Transporter was created, “beaming” characters to another location in an instant shimmer of light—something scientists are already working to do on a molecular scale today. There’s the classic phaser pistol, a beam of concentrated energy that could stun, kill, or disintegrate—inspiration for the foundation of the laser-based weapons technology in early stages today.

The cast and crew of Star Trek at the unveiling of the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia.

The communicator, a dazzlingly futuristic piece of technology at the time, became our mobile telephones. The tricorder, a catch-all device that could scan geographical locations, detect signals on a variety of wavelengths, and perform medical diagnoses, inspired things like Google Maps and many of the apps on our smartphones—and every few years, you see news reports declaring that scientist are working on “real tricorders”.

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Even the replicator, which could create anything you wanted with a single voice command, is being copied, with tools like 3D printers. Scientific advancement and Star Trek have gone hand-in-hand since the very beginning—from the cast of the show attending the unveiling of the NASA Shuttle Enterprise in 1976, to Nichelle Nichols observing the SOFIA telescope in space earlier this year.

A Brief History of Star Trek

Originally envisioned by Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek was a show set in the 23rd century that followed the crew of the latest ship to bear the name U.S.S. Enterprise: a highly advanced spaceship carrying hundreds of members of a peaceful organization called Starfleet on a five-year-long mission into unknown space.

When it aired in 1966, there wasn’t really a show quite like Star Trek, and for the next three years, audiences followed the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and his crew. But the series was never all that popular when it aired on NBC, and was ultimately cancelled after three seasons. The three seasons were enough, however, for the show to be syndicated, where it thrived as a new cult classic—and became monstrously popular during the 70s.

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Given the series’ newfound fame, when its producers wanted a science fiction movie franchise to capitalize on the revived interest in the genre thanks to Star Wars, they turned to Star Trek. The original cast reunited for a series of movies that were released throughout the 1980s, and the success of these films meant that by 1987 a whole new television show was on the way: Star Trek: The Next Generation, set a century after the original series.

By now, Star Trek became a truly global phenomenon: its cult status had already welcomed it into our pop-culture lexicon, but after Next Generation, its future was solidified. Still under Roddenberry’s guiding hand (until his death in 1991) Star Trek expanded with six films and seven hugely popular seasons of The Next Generation. These, in turn, led to another four films focusing on the crew of Next Generation, and two further TV series in the 1990s, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager. A fifth show called Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel that takes place 100 years before the original series, followed in 2001.

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After Enterprise came to an end in 2005, the franchise lay dormant again—until director J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise, with two movies offering an alternate origin to the crew of the very first Star Trek series. With a third movie in the new series planned for release next year in time for the 50th anniversary, Star Trek—a show that, for all intents and purposes, failed when it first aired in the 60s—remains an unstoppable force in pop culture.

Where To Start

With over 500 hours of television and movies under its belt, Star Trek is a monstrously daunting franchise to get into for the first time—but as the vast majority of it is standalone, it’s simply a matter of picking which series interests you the most and jumping in. Here’s our quick field guide to each series!

The Original Series

Seasons: 3

Captain: James T. Kirk (William Shatner)

The Gist: The U.S.S. Enterprise begins a five-year mission to explore the galaxy beyond the known space of the United Federation of Planets, in the hopes of finding new worlds, new races to negotiate with, and discover strange new forms of life. Along the way they do all that, while they also battle the sneaky Romulans and the warlike Klingons.

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Highlights: The original series has many iconic moments that went on to inform Star Trek as a whole—but aside from that, there are many spectacular episodes. Including Hugo-winning stories like “City on the Edge of Forever” or “The Menagerie.” The thrilling “Balance of Terror”, a tense episode about the Enterprise facing an invisible Romulan warship, might just be the best episode of Star Trek ever.

Lowlights: By the time of the third season rolled around, Star Trek faced many budget cuts, and much of the season is largely considered to be of a poorer standard in comparison to earlier episodes. Also, as a general warning, Star Trek is still very much a product of its time—it’s usually interesting enough to distract you from the 1960s production values, but if you’re not entirely familiar with watching older television, it can be a bit jarring. Part of that is the fun, but a word of warning just in case.

The Next Generation

Seasons: 7

Captain: Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)

The Gist: 70 years after Captain Kirk’s legendary mission, a new Enterprise and a new crew set out to explore the galaxy, and face new challenges and complications that have developed since Kirk’s time—like a tricky alliance with the Klingons, or horrifying new threats like the bio-mechanical Borg.

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Highlights: Just as iconic, if not more so, than its predecessor, The Next Generation has fantastic episodes that are powerful (such as “Darmok”, featuring Captain Picard attempting to communicate with a stranded alien incapable of speaking the same language) and epic on a grand scale (“The Best of Both Worlds”, a two part story that sees the crew face off in a battle for Earth with the Borg). It consistently improves throughout, with even its very last episodes counted among the best in the franchise.

Lowlights: Much of the first season of the show is considered skippable, as the cast and writers struggled to find their footing. The popular fan refrain for TNG usually comes into play here: if Jonathan Frakes (who plays first officer William Riker) doesn’t sport a beard—i.e, the entire first season—don’t watch.

Deep Space Nine

Seasons: 7

Captain: Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks)

The Gist: After the death of his wife in a fight against the Borg, Benjamin Sisko is named the Commanding Officer of a space station. Sisko and his part-Starfleet, part-Bajoran crew are tasked with observing the reformation of the nearby and newly-independent planet Bajor (as well as attempting to get them to join the Federation). Matters are further complicated when Sisko and his crew find themselves on the front line of a war that could destroy the Federation altogether.

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Highlights: The “Dominion War” storyline that occupies much of the series in its latter half, is Star Trek at its grimmest, as the Federation faces the reality of a war it stands to lose, and our heroes compromise their ethics for a chance to save the galaxy. It’s compelling, intense stuff, and while it’s not Star Trek at its most optimistic, it is Star Trek at its most complex.

Lowlights: Unfortunately, the early half of the show, which dealt with the local Bajorans struggling to mediate with the Federation, is nowhere near as engaging as the later Dominion storyline—but it’s worth slogging through to be familiar with the characters for later.

Voyager

Seasons: 7

Captain: Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew)

The Gist: Interference from a powerful energy wave displaces the Starship Voyager, in pursuit of an insurrectionist ship, into the Delta Quadrant—70,000 light years away from Earth. Faced with a 75 year journey back to their home, the ship teams up with the remaining Maquis subversives to not only find ways to get home, but be the first Federation ship to chart the unexplored regions of space along the way.

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Highlights: Some of Voyager’s best episodes actually rely on alternate “what ifs”—literally, such as the two-parter “Year of Hell”, which sees the stranded ship take beating after beating against a nearly overwhelming foe, or figuratively, as in “Equinox”, where the crew discovers another Federation ship stranded, but one that’s far more ethically compromised. Episodes that focus on Seven of Nine, and her struggle with accepting her Borg past, are also ones to watch out for.

Lowlights: Voyager is at best, wildly inconsistent—at its shakiest, it is home to some of the worst Star Trek ever. Although early on there are some good stories, the show gets markedly better after the arrival of Jeri Ryan as de-assimilated Borg Seven of Nine in Season 4.

Enterprise

Seasons: 4

Captain: Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula)

The Gist: 10 years before the Federation was founded, Earth creates the experimental ship Enterprise, the first human spaceship capable of Interstellar travel at speeds beyond Warp 5. With allies and mentors in the alien Vulcans, the crew sets out to explore reaches of space that no human has gone to before.

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Highlights: A show that struggled with its own identity endlessly, the series has two particular highlights: the early half of season three, telling a continuous story about a devastating terrorist attack on Earth, and much of season 4, which embraces the show’s prequel connections to the Original Series to explore the foundations of concepts and characters that appeared there.

Lowlights: Much of the first two seasons are relatively aimless, standalone episodes. A loose arc is attempted throught with a “Temporal Cold War” that sees the crew battling with forces trying to change the past, never hits its highs, leading to a bland introduction for the series.

The Movies

As well as the TV series, there are currently 12 Star Trek movies that can be roughly divided into 3 different categories: The six “Original Series” movies, starring the crew of the original Star Trek, the four “TNG” movies, featuring the crew of The Next Generation, and the two “JJverse” movies, set in an alternate 22nd century and focusing on the origins of young James Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise.

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As with the show, there are great highs—such as the perennial fan-favorite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—or great lows—the turgid Generations, or the disappointing Into Darkness. Ideally before delving into the movies it’s best to at least be familiar with the corresponding series they’re related two, as each saga is set after the events of the television shows they’re based on—but you can largely treat them as bonus chances to see more of a cast you already like, rather than essential viewing.

The two current reboot films, Star Trek (sometimes referred to as Star Trek XI) and Star Trek Into Darkness, require little to no knowledge of the series to dive into—although experience with the original series may help understand the many nods and shout-outs. More action-focused than the diplomatic and talkative TV shows, in general the two films are fun, if not outstanding, action films—but if you’re looking to experience what Star Trek is usually about beyond action, you’re better off looking to the TV shows first.