First Contact: Every Star Trek pilot, ranked

A show's pilot episode will hopefully not be the best episode a show will produce, but it does have a lot of heavy lifting that it must perform at least competently. A pilot should be engaging, but more importantly it has to introduce characters, concepts and tone. What are the rules of this universe? What are the stakes, and why should we care?

In roughly one year, there's going to be a new Star Trek series. With almost 50 years of historical baggage attached to the Star Trek franchise and the new show's risky choice to favor digital distribution over a standard network release, there's even more pressure on this new iteration's pilot than average.

But the path toward success is always rocky for Star Trek. From the original series all the way through to Enterprise, each incarnation faced enormous challenges in finding its audience and identity.

Star Trek faced those challenges with pilots that were ... well, they were a lot of things -- philosophical, experimental, boring, confounding, at times emotional, but mostly weird. Star Trek has produced some very weird pilots.

And this is our collective excuse (as if any of us needed one) for a rewatch, because I'm gonna rank the pilots from worst to best. I look forward to everyone agreeing with my assessments -- but, if you don't, keep in mind that this is just one person's opinion. And speaking of things I'm sure no one will disagree with, I'm not including the first animated series episode on this list because it is, ultimately, just a continuation of the original series. 

With that, we begin. Set a course for divisiveness, Mr. Data  -- engage!

6. Encounter at Farpoint

I was seven years old when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted, and I watched "Encounter at Farpoint" as it aired with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. Of course, I was a child and, if we're being honest, if space-aged paint drying was on TV I'd have been equally enthralled, and "Encounter at Farpoint" isn't much better than that.

Farpoint has one of the singular most lumpy plots with some of the most uneven pacing of anything I've ever seen. It's a bizarre story about a starship crew that must prove to a godlike entity that humans deserve to travel in space by figuring out the mystery of Farpoint Station and saving a space jellyfish from captivity in the process. Waaaaaa?

Where even to begin? Perhaps with what a thin job "Farpoint" does of developing its characters? Within the first half hour, all I really knew for sure was that Picard was inquisitive, Troi states the obvious (he's frozen!), Yar won't shut up, and Data's a robot or something. The writers are far more interested in reminding the viewer that the Enterprise is a galaxy class starship and, thus, is very state of the art and super fancy.

It's clear from the onset that "Farpoint" was never meant to run an hour and a half. There's such an obscene amount of time spent disconnecting and reconnecting the saucer section of the Enterprise from its star drive that it's embarrassing. And there's a lot of walking around and looking at things, too. Wow, look at that engine room, isn't it neat? Hey, this sure is an interesting underground tunnel!

It's abundantly clear that, while writing the pilot, Roddenberry thought Riker would be our leading man, yet he doesn't even show up until about a half an hour in. Even when he does, we get bizarre ways of filling in his character. Even though it hardly pertains to the plot, time is spent on revealing that Riker and Troi are "Imzadi" - a thing that is never explained beyond the assumption that they can speak telepathically and probably boned.

Then, there's Picard. Yes, he'd go on to be many a fan's favorite captain, but in the pilot, he's bizarrely moody. One second, he'll be scowling over how he hates kids and the next, he'll be all smiles. And since we know Sir Patrick Stewart is a fine actor, it can only be assumed that the director wanted Stewart to act like a complete nut for some reason.

Even Q, who would go on to be an entertaining fixture for the show, is more plot contrivance than villain. He's messing with humanity for what reason? Because they're savage? Because it was his whim?

There's a lot of lip service spent on proving that humanity has grown out of its previous ugliness, but "Farpoint" prefers to invent fake moments of war and terror from the past rather than admit to real atrocities humans have committed. It's utterly spineless storytelling and it's hard to relate with a humanity who has little rooted in the world we know.

It's an absolute miracle that TNG became the success it was. "Farpoint" is the most senselessly boring and bloated pilot Trek ever produced and fans of the original series were absolutely right in despising it when it was first broadcast.

5. The Cage

There are a lot of reasons that have been given for why NBC didn't pick up the original Star Trek pilot -- they didn't like that it had a woman first officer, it was too cerebral, it was too erotic. Honestly, I would have turned it down, too, because what it actually was is too...boring.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like on paper about "The Cage". It's a real "be careful what you wish for" Twilight-Zone-style story. You've got Christopher Pike, a man who longs for the quiet life because he can't live with the life-altering decisions has has to make as captain of the Enterprise. You've got the Talosians, aliens who can create the illusion of anything anyone would want but can't make anything real. The allegory writes itself at that point.

And yet, there's just so much flabby filler. Spock and the rest of the crew spend most of the episode failing to open a door!

"The Cage" also hasn't aged very well, and I don't mean because the sets look so cheap. For a show that was supposedly so progressive with it's female first officer, the moral of the story winds up being "it's better to be free than live in a gilded cage...unless you're a woman, of course and then artifice is all that matters". Poor Vina, the sole survivor of a starship crash, spends the entire episode relegated to the damsel in distress role only to wind up staying a prisoner on Talos IV because, if she leaves, she'll be *gasp* old and disfigured! The script even goes so far as to point out that behind Majel Barrett's First Officer's cold exterior, beats the heart of a tender lady who just wants to be loved by her captain. It's...not great.

In fairness, much of this pilot was recycled to much greater purpose in a later episode, "The Menagerie". But, on its own, "The Cage" is woefully less than the sum of its parts and best left as a mostly ignored footnote in the history of Star Trek

4. Caretaker

If you've ever wanted to witness what is arguably the most squandered 90 minutes in TV history, watch Voyager's pilot episode. To be fair, the first half hour is actually really solid, but the hour that follows is such a disaster that whatever the Federation's answer to FEMA is should've been called in.

But let's talk about the good, because there is good worth mentioning. The entire first act does a fine job of building both characters and tension. The foreshadowing of a Maquis ship disappearing from the start gives an ominous tone as Captain Janeway assembles the Voyager crew. And speaking of, Kate Mulgrew as Janeway is an absolute jewel. She wasn't the original captain cast, but I can't see how the show would've ever run without her. She injects so much energy and charisma into every scene she's in. Plus, we've got this buddy subplot with plucky Harry Kim and sarcastic rogue, Tom Paris. I came to hate both these characters as the show went on, but here their interplay is pitch perfect and, along with Janeway, they make Voyager immediately feel homey.

Then, the ship gets thrust into the Delta quadrant and everything, literally, explodes. And for a hot minute there, it's great. People die, there's a ton of pathos, the crew has to hit the ground running and try to figure out what just happened. We get the first appearence of the snarky, holographic Doctor who is immediately everything you didn't realize the show was missing so far. It's all going great.

Then the crew gets transported to an interstellar Array, and suddenly we're at a #$%ing hoedown for some reason? It's just all downhill from there. 

Here's what the pilot was trying to do -- throw the cast into an uncharted region of space, force the Maquis and the Federation to team up, and introduce new aliens, some of whom would be friends and some of whom would be enemies. That's a pretty simple and effective conceit.

How they try to accomplish those things, however, is just bizarre. 

There's a race of child-like aliens called the Ocampa being watched over by an omnipotent Caretaker which is both at fault for the Ocampa's world being a planetary sandtrap and Voyager being in the Delta quadrant at all. You see, the Caretaker is dying, and it's trying to find another species it can procreate with so the Ocampa can have a new Caretaker. So far, though, all the Caretaker has accomplished is make random people like Harry, for example, sick with a deadly disease. Why? Does the Caretaker have the space herp? The episode sure doesn't bother to explain.

There's just way too much happening at once. They get goofy scavanger alien Neelix to help out, but he causes Voyager to get into a conflict with these inept, poor-man's-Klingons called the Kazon. There's all this back and forth over Voyager and the Maquis finding their lost crew. There's so many moving pieces, but nothing gets the weight it needs to make these other aliens or events feel like they matter.

And to top it all off, Janeway destroys the Array at the end, aka their only immediate way home, in order to prevent the Kazon from controlling its technology. Because, apparently, they couldn't have used it themselves and set time bombs to explode after they got back to the Alpha Quadrant. No time bombs in the future, I guess. Universal translator? Sure. Replicator for anything you could want? Yup. Holographic sex huts for when you're feeling lonely? Federation's got you, holmes. But time bombs? Never heard of 'em.

Plot holes galore, boring diversions, irritating new aliens, incomprehensible logic leaps, you name it -- Voyager's pilot has them all. They succeed at introducing most of the main characters adequately enough, but everything else is just a jumbled mess. And considering what a cool idea Lost in Space meets Star Trek should have been, Caretaker's failings are all the more unforgivable.

The reason I rate "Caretaker" higher than Farpoint and "The Cage", though, is because it really, really tries to give the audience the moon. Michael PIllar and Jeri Taylor were willing to take a lot of big risks throughout which is admirable. It's just that most of those risks happened to fall flat.

Also, Neelix looks like he's wearing a couch.

3. Broken Bow

There are few phrases in Star Trek that fill me with more dread than "temporal cold war". We get exactly 47 minutes into Enterprise's pilot before the contrivance that would needlessly plague the show for three seasons rears its ugly head.

Thankfully, though, we're just talking about the pilot, not the problems that would come later. And, as pilots go, "Broken Bow", believe it or not, is actually really, really good. 

When it first aired, I remember being part of the sea of Trekkies hemming and hawing about how Enterprise felt so unfamiliar, so unlike the Star Trek that came before. Watching it now, though, I see how necessary that was. Gone were the safety nets of replicators, tractor beams, and an established United Federation of Planets, but in their place was this feeling that the wind was at my back, the sun on my face, and the future of space travel was truly attainable.

I've talked about this in the past, but the Enterprise NX-01 represents the first time a starship on Trek truly felt to me like it was really rattling around in space and not just chilling on a sound stage. Captain Archer isn't an assured leader of an established future, he's just a man reaching out for the stars for the first time. Almost the entirety of "Broken Bow" maintains that feeling of wonder. 

There are other things to like, too. The conflict between the Vulcans and humanity plays out very nicely. T'Pol logically arguing through every decision Archer and Trip try to make is a fresh new take on the Spock/Kirk/Bones dynamic. It's genuinely rewarding to watch these strangers seek steady footing together, discovering strengths and flaws in themselves they didn't know they had.

It's not perfect. Even if I didn't know how much time would be wasted on the temporal cold war later, I would still think the Suliban were a little out of place. In an episode that feels like real people trying to understand their place in an inifinite cosmos, the Suliban feel like mustache-twirling bad guys doing bad guy things because, duh, they're the bad guys. And, bless, Hoshi sure did pick the short straw and wound up saddled with having "afraid of every noise the ship makes" as one of her main character notes.

All-in-all, though, if there's any pilot the new Star Trek show could learn the most from, it's this most recent one. Most of the time, "Broken Bow" deftly combines the more colloquial sensibilities of modern TV storytelling with the more theatrical classic Trek dramatic architecture. And that ain't easy.

2. Where No Man Has Gone Before

It's hard to believe this is the same show that brought us "The Cage". Actually, it really isn't the same show, because other than Leonard Nimoy, we have an entirely new cast and an entirely new tone on the bridge of the Enterprise. And that is a very, very good thing.

Can a man, burdened with all his savage, human frailties, become anything but a monster when gifted with the powers of a god? Is he even the same man at all?

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a story that transcends its own sci-fi questions to become about something so much more -- friendship and love. There can be no question, James Kirk loves his friend, Gary Mitchell. But he also has an obligation to the safety of the rest of his crew. So, when Gary is suddenly struck with god-like abililties, Kirk faces an impossible decision -- does he risk the lives of everyone on board the Enterprise or does he sacrifice the life of a man he's come to see as a brother? And Kirk doesn't finally decide Gary's fate until the absolute last possible moment.

And while the Enterprise would develop a much more robust group of personalities once Bones, Uhura, and the rest of the cast became regular fixtures, the dynamic of Kirk and Spock in this pilot episode alone is just so palpable. On the one hand, you have Spock, a man governed by logic, and on the other you have Kirk, a man governed by his passions. It sounds simple, but it really works.

As a pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" may not introduce everything, but it establishes enough and it packs one hell of an emotional punch at the same time. Kirk's willingness to take chances and his charming optimism represent everything that was missing from Captain Pike. And adapting Spock from an emotional alien into the calculating, at times cold, Vulcan that we've all come to know and love provides the perfect counterpoint to Kirk.

By the end of "Where No Man Has Gone Before" you know who your main characters are, you know what it means to be part of the Enterprise crew, you care about what will happen to these people and, most important of all, you're desperate to see more.

1. Emissary

You know, even my friends who believe that Deep Space Nine is the best of all possible Star Treks often give its pilot episode a throaty 'meh'. And that is totally bananas because "Emissary" is unequivocally the best Star Trek pilot by far. Seriously. 

Despite its rocky start, by 1993 Star Trek: The Next Generation became the most popular sci-fi show on television. Deep Space Nine had big shoes to fill, so big in fact that it boldly decided to skip trying to fit the mold entirely and, instead, zig left almost every time TNG would've zagged right.

Deep Space Nine isn't interested in perfect characters gliding through space on a perfect ship, seeking out new life forms with which to put on morality plays. No, DS9 is a show about deeply flawed people trying to navigate an intergalactic ghetto that, thanks to a recently discovered stable wormhole (the only one known), suddenly finds itself being targeted by every other civlization in the universe. And "Emissary" drives that tone home throughout almost the entirety of its 90 minutes. 

Rick Berman and Michael Pillar wisely center the pilot's narrative on Avery Brooks' very capable shoulders as the single father, Commander Benjamin Sisko. There's nothing perfect about Sisko. He's a true Moses figure -- he's been chosen to lead, but he doesn't want the job. His wife was killed during the Borg skirmish at Wolf 359 and he's been living inside of that burden for three years. Is he really up to the challenge? You could make a pretty strong argument at the start that maybe he isn't.

So, when Ben arrives on Deep Space Nine, a station completely ravaged by its previous owners, the Cardassians, he is understandably overwhelmed. But he manages to put on a good face, somehow successfully dealing with Major Kira, a resistance fighter who, without her former Cardassian dictators, has become a bit of a dictator, herself, Quark, a Ferengi manipulative casino owner, and Odo, a shapeshifting constable who's used to being the law on this here station. Yes, much like with Voyager, the audience are thrust into a very alien world full of surly, complex non-heroes. But because we're seeing things primarily through Ben's very human and relatable eyes,  it's much more managable to navigate.

And that's the tone of most of the pilot. Through Sisko, we get great short hand on who everyone is -- the brilliant but bumbling Doctor Bashir, the ancient but young Trill, Jadzia Dax, and the beliguered Miles O'Brien (finally, Colm Meany gets the meaty stuff he deserved for seven seasons on TNG). 

But, perhaps most of all, we learn about conflict. In his meeting with DS9's former leader, Gul Dukat, both we and Sisko learn that this Cardassian's megalomaniacal interest in Bajor and this quadrant are far from over. And when Sisko speaks with Picard, a character basically everyone else loves, the interaction is defined by Sisko's feeling that Picard, despite being under the control of the Borg at the time, is to blame for the death of his wife, Jennifer. Ben, much like Bajor, is surrounded on all quarters by people and things he can't trust.

Even the philosophical elements, which are arguably the weakest parts of "Emissary," are relatable because they're rooted in Sisko's identity. When the alien prophets seek to understand linear, human existence, Sisko is teaching us and them about grief, loss, and how to move on even when every part of you just wants to lay down and die.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" is seminal, but it ultimately only shows us one ship and only gives us a sense of who Kirk and Spock Are. "Emissary" is about an entire quadrant full of all kinds of alien life. It gives us a solid understanding of Sisko, Kira, Dax, O'Brien, Bashir, Quark, Odo, and Dukat.

And "Emissary" leaves open as many questions as it answers. With this new worm hole, what will be the fate of Deep Space Nine and Bajor? What are these aliens? Are they truly prophets as the Bajoran faithful believe? And what is on the other side of that wormhole? 

The pilot is called "Emissary" because Sisko is representing Bajor to the world. But it's also called "Emissary" because he's guiding and representing we human beings in this alien and unfamiliar world. 

And for all those reasons that is why "Emissary" is the best pilot that Star Trek has ever produced.

More from around the web