Star Trek: Discovery launches this Sunday, with the first episode premiering at 8pm ET on CBS and the network’s streaming service CBS All Access, which will the be its regular home. It’s a big deal, not least since it’s been 12 years since Star Trek was on the air, when Enterprise wrapped up its run with a notorious finale. This raises the question: Just how well did each past series’ first episode reflect where the show would go? Let’s take a look.
Star Trek, “The Man Trap” (1966)
Star Trek had a messy road to the screen; two pilots (one of which was heavily recut to be the third episode of the show), multiple recastings and revisions, budget overruns, you name it. Thanks to that, the first episode viewers saw, “The Man Trap,” was the sixth one the show shot and it was an odd way to launch a series.
The bones of the show are there, though. The setting may be science fiction, but the writing combines elements of horror and murder mystery as Kirk, Spock, and Bones hunt down a shapeshifting alien who needs our salt to live. The Enterprise visits the first of many seemingly innocuous planets, only for a redshirt to die. Hilariously, even from this moment, the show pretty much wrote its security personnel off as cannon fodder. When Darnell, one of those few named redshirts, bites it, he does so after supposedly deciding to just eat a random plant from the surface of a planet he’s never been to, and the entire crew just rolls with it until McCoy figures out it wouldn’t give him a rash.
So in some ways, it decidedly set the tone, and truthfully, among the 30 episodes fans joke are actually good, this was one of the stronger entries. That said, come on, nobody questions the redshirt just, like, eating an alien fern?!
Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter At Farpoint” (1987)
Star Trek: The Next Generation marked the return of Star Trek to TV screens after 30 years, not to mention decades of rumors about the never-launched sequel series Star Trek: Phase II, which would later evolve into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was a bold move in a number of ways: it was a syndicated series not tied to a network and a sequel to series attached to a demanding, vocal fanbase. There was a lot of money riding on this, so, well, not many risks were taken creatively at first.
“Encounter at Farpoint” is, in the end, a fairly typical Star Trek episode, thanks in part to the presence of DC Fontana and Gene Roddenberry, who co-wrote the episode. It had members from the original show on the production team and even recycled props. It also had some late-in-development shifts: Denise Crosby and Marina Sirtis, for example, swapped roles early on in production, which meant Crosby had to play an entirely new character, since nobody would buy her as Security Chief Macha Hernandez. It also features a lot of what fans had come to expect from Trek: the puckish god-like being; the O. Henryish twist; the moral dilemma.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. From the beginning, Patrick Stewart shows just how effective he is as a different sort of captain. But “Farpoint” also feels like a continuation of a series that, 20 years on, had started to feel very much of its time. (Not helping matters early in the show’s run: a writers’ strike, which forced the series to recycle several old plots from the original series.) It wasn’t until the third season that the Next Generation fans have come to know and love came into its own when Michael Piller took over as head writer and unified the staff.
Deep Space Nine, “Emissary” (1993)
Deep Space Nine was, by its very concept, a different sort of Star Trek series, a fact the show announced right from its opening, which sees Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) watch his ship explode (and his wife die) at Wolf 359, the massive space battle that anchored one of The Next Generation‘s best episodes, The Best of Both Worlds. In the aftermath, Sisko gets handed a diplomatic assignment: Help the newly freed planet Bajor, which just got rid of its Cardassian oppressors, get to its feet. In fairly short order, Sisko discovers there’s a wormhole next to his station opening the door to an unknown sector of the galaxy; that he’s been selected by an unknown force as an unwilling messiah to the Bajoran people; oh, and also that Bajor is starting to collapse under squabbles, grudges, and outright violence.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s impressive the pilot really does set the tone. DS9 had a strong start , thanks in part to Michael Piller writing the pilot, and remained, for its run, a show about how the past haunts the present, and how often there are no easy answers. It was a complicated show, surprisingly so for a syndicated drama in the ’90s, and it got even better over time. Bu what you saw in “Emissary,” was, at heart, what you got with the rest of the series.
Star Trek: Voyager, “Caretaker” (1995)
Voyager has its detractors, but credit where it’s due: It also tried something new. Voyager, the most advanced ship in the fleet, goes after a group of terrorists, only to be flung light years away into an unexplored quadrant and forced to work with both the colorful locals and the terrorists they were chasing to get home.
For both good and bad, Voyager‘s premiere defined the show. Kate Mulgrew anchored the series well as Captain Janeway, standing out from the other captains. But there were also missed opportunities; for a bunch of angry terrorists, the Maquis crew are a little too happy to throw on Federation uniforms and take orders from somebody who was going after them by any means necessary. And the alleged comedic relief of Neelix (Ethan Phillips) got old before the first part of this two-parter had even ended. Still, when the show was good, it was really good, and with Voyager, you took the good with the bad.
Star Trek: Enterprise, “Broken Bow” (2001)
Set before the original series, Enterprise follows Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) has he takes the first starship Enterprise, the first spacecraft capable of stable warp, out on its first mission: Returning the Klingon Klaang to his home world, with aliens in hot pursuit.
Enterprise was always stuck between the audience and its concept. We know who Klingons are, what the Federation will become, and what can and can’t happen during Archer’s five-year mission, but the crew doesn’t, and that made for awkward plotting. The pilot echoed much of Enterprise‘s run a little too well. It’s a perfectly serviceable adventure show but it doesn’t particularly feel like Star Trek. Intrigue, from Vulcan skullduggery to Klingon spying, replaces moral questions. That it arrived in an era when a dozen shows on basic cable and syndication, from Farscape to Stargate, felt just like didn’t help matters. Enterprise, in the end, just didn’t stand out, and, bar the season four arrival of fan favorite showrunner Manny Coto, it never managed to break through, even with fans.
Where will Discovery fall? Good question. It’s taken a long road to the screen itself. But we’ll find out soon enough, when it premieres on this Sunday.