Anyone who complains about J.J. Abrams’ superb reboot of the Star Trek franchise—the latest installment of which, Star Trek: Beyond, comes to theaters July 22—should be forced to watch 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The William Shatner-directed film, now streaming on Netflix, is a fiasco—a perfect storm of shoddy writing, lackluster performances and sloppy visual effects. Shatner even threw a triple-breasted feline stripper into the mix, because hey, why not put fake tits on a cat?
Final Frontier is just one of nine Star Trek films currently on Netflix. (Ten, actually, if you count the terrific 1999 homage Galaxy Quest, which you should.) The streaming service is also offering full runs of every Trek television series: the 1966 original, the short-lived animated series (1973), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993), Star Trek: Voyager (1995) and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001). It’s an embarrassment of starship-related riches, while also being a clear example of Trek’s biggest problem as a franchise: it’s overstuffed. There’s an awful lot of unwatchable crap in there.
I consider myself a Trek fan, but not a superfan. I’ve seen perhaps a dozen episodes of Voyager, and fewer still of Enterprise. My eyes glaze over at Next Generation’s detailed explanations of imaginary technology—couldn’t care less how many gigajoules of dilithium radiation that planet-size vibrator is emitting—and I often feel weighed down by Trek’s exhaustive universe-building. Trek “canon” is maintained by a private-public partnership so large, it’s begun producing movies and shows Paramount and CBS didn’t even pay to make. (One such unofficial Trek film, the crowdfunded Axanar, is the subject of an ongoing intellectual property lawsuit.)
There’s just too much to Trek for me to consistently enjoy its storytelling, which is why I was thrilled when Abrams stripped away most of that accumulated junk for 2009’s Star Trek. That clean sweep enabled me to go back and watch the Trek shows and films I still like—the original and animated series, Next Generation, and maybe six of those 12 (soon to be 13) movies—with renewed enthusiasm for their stories. Plus, most of Trek on Netflix has been re-mastered for hi-def screens, which makes it tempting for a casual fan to cherry-pick his way back to a deeper love of Star Trek. Here’s how I might go about doing it:
Watch the original series, start to finish. It remains the gold standard (though some episodes of Next Generation equal it in quality). The good episodes are immutable sci-fi classics (“Balance of Terror,” “Space Seed” and “Amok Time,” among many others), and the bad episodes (“Spock’s Brain,” “Turnabout Intruder” … really, most of Season 3) are nonetheless fun to watch.
Watch the animated series, start to finish. The writers and actors of the animated Trek, most of whom returned from the live-action series, don’t behave like they’re making a cartoon. Its strongest episodes—most notably “Yesteryear” and “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”—stand with the best of the original show; “Serpent’s Tooth” even won a Daytime Emmy. And it even featured a sexy half-cat lady, which obviously made an impression on somebody.
Watch as much Star Trek: The Next Generation as is comfortable. I watched most of TNG’s episodes first-run, so I know which ones to skip. (At its worst, TNG played like a nighttime soap; the histrionics and hair were just as big.) But when the series struck true, as it did with “Darmok,” “Parallels,” “Remember Me,” “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Clues,” it was not only a great Trek series, but great television, period.
Watch four of those six good movies. Currently, Netflix only has Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: First Contact available for streaming, but that’s OK; there’s always Galaxy Quest to fill in the holes. The comedy even looks better than the pre-Abrams Trek movies—and not just The Final Frontier. Seriously, just try to get through The Final Frontier.