For those of you who want to know the nitty-gritty details of how I worked out the rankings, this is the page for you!
First was to define scope. As any Trekker knows, the Star Trek universe is, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, really, really big. There’s no way I could rank all known official Trek in terms of TV, films, novels, and so on. I needed to limit scope to something manageable, yet sufficiently comprehensive.
I decided to include the TV series only. They’re canon (I’m going with the original take on the first Animated Series here). Even though there’s some episodes you want to forget –plus, what with a narrative realm spanning 50 Earth years, some retconning is inevitable– I believe it is logical to say that the TV series are the heart of Trek.
So any novels and even novelizations are out. Games and their universe-expanding text are out. All fan films and fan material are out (unless they inveigled their way into an actual episode or two). Although they are canon, the films are out, reboot or otherwise. My rationale here is that films are very different beasts than TV episodes. The storytelling goals can be radically different and there just isn’t any easy way to compare apples to blood wine. Yes, ardent fans will point out that The Wrath of Khan is the ultimate payoff of “Space Seed,” but look on the bright side: we don’t have to talk about Star Trek V any more after this.
Cataloging and Definition of Episodes
Next, I made sure I had all the episodes of every series listed in a handy-dandy spreadsheet. Then, with that checklist, I made sure I had cards for all of the different episodes
“But wait,” you say. “Is it logical to count a two-parter as one episode? You’ve listed both the episodes numbers on the one card for goodness sake!”
True. This is tricky proposition and one I did not take lightly. I finally decided to count the explicit two-parters (e.g. “The Best of Both Worlds”) and double-length episodes that were later shown in two parts for syndication (e.g. “Encounter at Farpoint”) as one episode, while I let the serial storyline episodes (e.g., the six-part series opening Deep Space Nine’s sixth season) as separate episodes.
I’m afraid any choice has some downsides, but this struck me as having the fewer downsides. For those interested, I’ll walk through it.
The premise is that the power of good standalone episodes, ones with which you could introduce someone to Star Trek, balance out with those good “payoff” episodes — ones where your repeat/serial viewing and familiarity with the plot and characters is rewarded.
I contend every Star Trek series has some of both, with the payoff of serial viewing growing in the later Star Trek series, not unlike general trends in TV series today in 2020. For traditional two-parters from “The Best of Both Worlds” to “Time’s Arrow” that cross over seasons, the “two-act story” needs a payoff. For story arcs like DS9’s six-part season six opener, “Sacrifice of Angels” needs to land expertly because of all the expectations made up to that point.
Put another way, ranking the explicit two-part stories separately would be a recipe for failure. If the second part isn’t, in some ways, better than the first part, then the payoff for the conclusion is lacking: the very premise of having the two-parter failed. If I think of the countless science fiction novels that have great premises, but disappointing endings, I rank those whole novels a bit lower. Explicit two-parters are saying, “Judge me as a whole.”
However, a serialized storyline across episodes, just like a series of novels, can have high points and low points. The high points mid-serial mean you have to have a solid ending (we’re looking at you, Game of Thrones), but the high points are still high points.
I understand how some fans may not agree with this approach, especially for the two-parters that cross from one season to the next (a Star Trek staple). Please feel free to update the files for your own use that I’ve include in the “Do Your Own Ranking” section and let me how your rankings turn out because of it.
Watching and Re-watching the Episodes
I have watched or re-watched all 700+ episodes of all the existing Star Trek TV series. Usually, I watched them in season-long runs. This took about two and a half years… and then Discovery came along and that extended things. Now with Picard and others, I may have committed to my own Never-Ending Sacrifice. But watch I did (and will).
“Watched,” you say? Yes, I actually had never seen the Animated Series apart from a few clips until this exercise. And, for esoteric reasons, I never got to see “The Empath” back in the day. They kept on replaying “Court Martial,” I suppose. Finally, I got to see the fourth season of Enterprise (by that time, Star Trek: Enterprise) which was a treat… except for that last episode.
This was a chore at times, no doubt. And one of the reasons it took several years was –besides enjoying spending time with my family– I needed to take a break from Trek every now and then. When I felt my enjoyment of Trek wane, I turned to other TV series or books or whatnot. I tried to watch the various Trek series in season-long sprints, to best capture the rhythm and goal of the season (this becomes more important with later series). As I went through each season-long cycle, I tried to do a first draft of the episode comments you see. That way I was trying to best encapsulate my impression of the episode immediately after watching it. As I finalized the rankings, I went through all the comments again and, in some cases, revised them.
One definite conclusion: do not feel the need to re-watch every blasted episode of Star Trek yourself. If these ratings do one thing, let them spare you the need to revisit any episodes you remember as awful. Yes, for those of you who wanted validation that you never need to watch “Shades of Gray” again: you’re welcome.
Pairwise Comparison Sort and Criteria
Pairwise comparison or “paired comparison” may be familiar to many people as a way to determine a preference order. I use a version of pairwise comparison for my biennial favorite films ranking, which you can read about here.
In this case, my process is very similar in using index cards to do a physical sort. In fact, besides watching or re-watching 700+ episodes of television, this was the most labor-intensive part of the project, so I’ve made the files available online [link to the do it yourself page] to save other people time.
Essentially, what you do is take your stack of data –in this case, all the episodes of a given Star Trek series– randomize the stack and pick out a card at random.
Now every subsequent card you draw will go before or after this card in ranking, like so.
Eventually, you will have two stacks and the dividing card. You keep on sorting stacks until you have the full sort.
Ah, but what are the criteria for the sorting, you ask? Unlike my favorite film project, I must do my best to make my ranking adhere to more objective definitions. In my best approximation of a duty-bound Starfleet officer, I must render a sober judgement as to which Star Trek is more worthy than others. Not being Vulcan or an android, it’s possible someone will find my rankings suspect, but these are the criteria I went by:
Visual and audio quality
Please note: 1960s sets don’t get demerits for their budgetary limitations any more than 2000 sets get a pass for having much better budgets. There’s a starship combat sequence in Voyager‘s “Equinox” that is just dang cool that they couldn’t have done in the 60s. I have to acknowledge that. At the same time, there’s inventiveness in the 1960s production design that can’t be denied — and pretty much all the series have a problem with “space clothes” at one point or another. It balances out. Good is good.
Story and writing quality
This is not only a plot that keeps you after the commercial breaks (or I suppose these days, pauses on Netflix) and quotable dialogue, but how the characters drive the plot and the plot drives the characters.
This criterion addresses the marriage of both what you see and what was written to produce that rich roux that is a rattling good episode. How well does the story touch on themes throughout the episode and how well does the production design and musical score accentuate them?
In addition, I mention “resonance” as a callback to my favorite films criteria. Some episodes exploration of concepts of integrity, honesty, and courage are timeless and what makes them excellent TV in general. Good performances help in this regard, which leads us to:
As advocates for the original Star Trek series will proudly proclaim, and as anyone who saw the improvement of The Next Generation over time will note: you come back to a TV show because of the characters: interesting, engaging characters.
And who makes those characters interesting from the main cast to the guest stars? Actors. We’re watching drama (and comedy) here, people. The performances are what makes the script come alive and inhabits those cool sets (or reacts appropriately to CGI). Actor performances are integral to any honest ranking, and yes, that often means some early episodes will suffer here.
Sorry, ladies and gentlebeings, an episode in season 3 often means an actor gives a more assured performance than the pilot: not that it’s impossible (for those of you who don’t think you can knock it out of the park with the very first episode, some fans of Firefly would like a word).
Worldbuilding and strengthening
If someone was to ask about the “Trekkiness” of the episode, this is what I would point to. In addition to overall thematic resonance, there are things the creative team and production can do to make an episode and an overall series feel like it’s part of the same world, with the same inspirations and following the same logic. You see this in all sorts of creative franchises from Star Wars to Middle Earth.
Whenever I got stuck comparing two episodes of similar quality, I would run through these criteria to break the seeming tie. One or more criteria always pushed one of the episodes ahead.
Integrating Pairwise Series Sorts with one Another
You may have guessed this, but –initially– I didn’t sort all 700+ episodes at the same time. With such a large amount of episodes to compare to one another, it made more sense to first do a sort series by series. While all the series are Star Trek, each one is arguably approaching Star Trek a different way.
I decided that to best judge each series on those different approaches, I would first determine what was the best of that series. Then, I would integrate each of the series in the chronological order they were produced, to best mimic the timeline in which they were created (no, I didn’t add any complexity for the series that had two year overlaps: TNG, DS9, and VOY). So, I ranked all of the series by themselves in order: TOS, TAS, TNG, DS9, VOY, ENT, and, now, DSC, ST, PIC. Soon, LD and who knows how many others. Then, I added TAS to TOS, TNG to the TOS-TAS stack, and so on.
In a weird way, you can feel the exhaustion with Star Trek the producers must have felt as Enterprise finally finished in 2005. But it also shows you how the different episodes tried to build on what has gone before.
So, for example, the TNG episode “Conspiracy” feels tonally out of place in the Star Trek universe with its horror-tinged violence. While we get creepiness later on in TNG (“Night Terrors,” for example), there isn’t any head-exploding “puppet master” action. Meanwhile, the violence in the Dominion War storyline in Ds9 is set up tonally by the whole series arguably showing the costs to uphold the ideals of the Federation in the face of an intractable enemy and countless shades of gray.
Putting All of this Online
An obvious step in the process, but perhaps worth pointing out, was putting all of this online in such a way that readers can look at the rankings separate from most spoilers and also find the tools to do their own ranking.
I’m hopeful that you enjoy the results — at least in making the sorting cards available as downloadable files. I am certain there will be some opprobrium, because Star Trek fans can be like Tellarites when it comes to consensus.
Nevertheless, I offer these rankings, and the ability to do your own rankings, not as a gatekeeper to Trek, but as a guide to let you re-discover (or discover) some truly great stories.