Analysis

Star Trek Series Finales From Worst to Best

The Enterprise viewscreen showing two other Enterprises.
Endings are hard, especially endings for a long-running series. A lot of expectations get built up along the way, and how well you meet those expectations will determine whether audiences remember your story fondly or are just glad it’s over. Classic Star Trek varies wildly in this respect, so let’s look at the final episode of each series, starting with the worst and working our way to the best. Maybe if we’re lucky, CBS will take notes.

5. The Original Series

Kirk pointing a phaser at Lester from Turnabout Intruder

The first thing you notice about Turnabout Intruder is that it’s not meant as a finale. It’s an ordinary episode with a problem of the week; there’s nothing conclusive about it. The only hint that it’s the last episode is that at one point, Kirk reminds Spock of missions they’ve gone on in previous episodes, which is unusual for the Original Series (TOS). Apparently, the cast and crew found out partway through filming that Star Trek wasn’t being renewed for another season, which I can’t imagine was good for morale. Nonetheless, this is where TOS ended, so we have to look at it.

The second thing you notice about this episode is how amazingly sexist it is, even by the standards of 1960s television. The plot is that Kirk’s ex-girlfriend Janice Lester forcibly switches bodies with him so she can be captain of the Enterprise. Lester also wants to kill Kirk, who is now in her old body, to keep her secret. Of course, Lester is absolutely terrible at Kirk’s job, not lasting five minutes before launching into hysterics. When the truth is revealed, we’re told that Lester did this because of “her intense hatred of her own womanhood,” and that “her life could have been as rich as any woman’s” if she’d only accepted her place. This is also the episode where it’s explicitly stated that women aren’t allowed to be captains.

Jeez. TOS has some major sexism problems, but this is something else. Normally, the sexism is implicit, but this is like the writers turning to the camera and telling women exactly how horrible they are. Uhura isn’t in this episode, and normally that would be sad, but frankly I’m glad she didn’t have to participate in such a mess.

Other than the extreme misogyny, the episode is just boring. Lester gives the game away immediately with her erratic behavior, and it’s obvious that she’ll be found out sooner or later. The only tiny bit of tension comes from the possibility that she might kill Kirk before she’s caught, but she’s so incompetent that it never feels like a serious threat. Lester’s motivation is also a big question mark for most of the episode. Is she doing this for revenge on Kirk? Because she really wanted to be a Starfleet captain? No, it was because she hated her own womanhood. Suuuure. So in addition to being sexist, the episode also manages to be transphobic, as it portrays breaking the gender binary as a violent and destructive act.* Amazing.

The only good thing about this episode is Sandra Smith’s performance as Kirk in Lester’s body. She really captures Kirks’ professionalism and unflappable resolve in the face of danger. Unfortunately, when Shatner plays Lester in Kirk’s body, Lester goes from a cold-blooded schemer to a raving mess in no time at all.

Turnabout Intruder is an utter failure as both a finale and an episode in general. Over 50 years later, I’m still sad that this is how the Original Series said goodbye. My advice is to forget this episode ever existed and pretend that the film Star Trek VI is TOS’s real finale.

4. Enterprise

Riker in an Enterprise uniform with Mayweather.

I’ll say one thing for These Are the Voyages: it isn’t horribly sexist. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing I can say for it. This time, the people in charge clearly knew the show wasn’t getting another season, but instead of letting the current showrunner make the finale, they brought back the two guys who’d left at the end of season three. That’s too bad, because while Manny Coto’s run on Enterprise wasn’t perfect, it was at least an improvement over what came before. The original showrunners, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, had overseen some of the worst flops in Trek history, and they were about to oversee another one.

The plot of These Are the Voyages is that The Next Generation’s (TNG) William Riker and Deanna Troi are watching a holodeck recording of Enterprise’s final mission. This holodeck sequence is supposedly happening during the TNG episode The Pegasus, where Riker grapples with a difficult moral quandary. Troi recommends watching the holoprogram because she thinks it will help Riker make the right choice.

This framing device adds nothing to the story. Riker’s moral quandary is between loyalty to a former captain and doing what’s right, and there’s nothing like that in Enterprise’s final mission. Even if there were, Pegasus already did a great job showing how Riker overcame his doubts and did the right thing, so adding more is empty fluff. It’s also obvious that Riker and Troi are both too old for this to be happening during Pegasus. Even their version of TNG’s crew lounge, Ten Forward, doesn’t look right! So we waste a bunch of time with characters who aren’t part of the show we’re actually watching, and for nothing.

Looking at the Enterprise part of this episode, it’s also lackluster. It takes place after a six-year time jump, and yet everyone seems to be more or less the same. The plot is about rescuing a kid from some pirates, but  Enterprise’s heroes dealt with far more potent threats as recently as the previous episode. There’s also talk of the Federation Charter finally being signed, but that has no relevance to the plot. The big “twist” is that somehow the pirates manage to catch up with Enterprise, forcing Trip to sacrifice his life to take them out. Really? That’s how they decided to kill a major character? I don’t like Trip, but even I think he deserved better than dying to stop some low-rent pirates.

Looking behind the scenes reveals that the writers thought fans would love this episode as a crossover event. On paper, that makes sense. Enterprise was concluding not only itself, but an 18-year era of continuous Star Trek shows. A crossover would have been appropriate. The problem: These Are the Voyages isn’t actually a crossover. The characters would have to interact for that. Instead, it’s Riker and Troi watching a subpar Enterprise episode.

A real crossover episode would likely have required time travel, and while that would have been a nightmare for Enterprise’s continuity, it at least would have been something exceptional to mark the show’s end. Ideally, such an event would have had more than just two TNG characters, but even just Riker and Troi joining with the Enterprise crew would have been better than what we actually got. Maybe the story could have had something to do with the Federation Charter being signed, since they keep mentioning it.

3. Voyager

Older Janeway talking to younger Janeway

We now arrive at Endgame, which unfortunately isn’t about the Avengers traveling back in time to stop Thanos. It’s actually the final episode of Voyager, though it does involve time travel, so there’s that.

This is our first finale that actually feels like a finale. It’s a two-parter, and it features a more epic story than we’d see in a typical episode. It also resolves the series throughline: whether or not Voyager will ever get back to Earth. It meets all the basic qualifications to be a finale! That doesn’t mean it’s a good finale, but it’s a place to start.

The basic plot is that Future Janeway travels back in time to get Voyager home faster. In the process, Voyager does a lot of damage to the Borg, possibly destroying the Collective entirely. The premise creates an immediate problem: it’s too sudden. Getting home has been the main goal of Voyager for seven years by this point. Instead of spending a few episodes setting up how Voyager would finally return to the Alpha Quadrant, it feels like all the other times they randomly found a possible way home, but it works this time. This is one of many ways that Voyager’s episodic format clashes with its basic premise.

The episode is also quite low on satisfaction. At first, the protagonists are in conflict about whether they should use a Borg transwarp conduit to get home or if they should destroy it to keep others from being assimilated. But then it turns out they can do both. This problem is solved entirely by some tech knowledge that Future Janeway brought with her. The crew has to convince Future Janeway to take the riskier option, but the plan they come up with is such a sure bet that it’s not much of a conflict.

From there, the episode hinges on a fake out where it looks like Future Janeway has betrayed the characters, but actually she was just lying to trick the Borg Queen. This is probably meant as a hidden plan turning point, but it’s a weak one. We already knew that Future Janeway was up to something, so her betrayal is obviously fake. She also sacrifices herself, but this is a brand-new character and we still have Present Janeway, so that’s not super impactful. Then, there’s an even worse fake out in which it looks like Voyager has failed to get home, but actually they’re inside a Borg ship that swallowed them for unknown reasons. Then, they just blow up the Borg ship from the inside. This is supposed to be a triumphant moment, but it mostly leaves viewers scratching our heads over what just happened.

Speaking of head scratching, it’s also unclear if the Borg were entirely destroyed or not. They assimilate an anti-Borg virus that disrupts the hive mind, and then their main space-complex explodes. Does that mean the whole Collective is dead? No one knows, and that’s a weird plot thread to leave hanging after the finale. I can understand why they might not want to permanently destroy the Borg, but some dialogue about how the Borg are still out there would have been helpful.

Beyond the lack of satisfaction, the biggest problem with this finale is the lack of character balance. You’ve probably noticed how often I mentioned Future Janeway in my brief summary: that’s because she is by far the most important character. Second is Present Janeway, whose big job is being a foil to her older counterpart. Seven of Nine gets a minor romance arc with Chakotay, of all people, and the other characters are even worse off. Paris and Kim are barely in the episode, Tuvok is a minor foil for the Janeways, the Doctor is in sickbay doing background medical stuff, and Torres misses the climax because she’s having a baby.

In fairness, Kim and the Doctor do have bigger roles in the future timeline, but that ends early in the episode, and we hear no more from them. After that, it’s disconcerting to realize how much of this episode is Janeway talking to Janeway. The episode drones on about how the Voyager crew is a family, but acts like most of them are glorified extras. Admittedly, this is not a new problem. Previous episodes have focused heavily on Janeway, Seven, and the Doctor, but it’s rarely this bad. Even if the writers weren’t fond of the other characters, this is the finale. They should have put in some effort.

2. Deep Space Nine

Kira and Garak with phasers in hand.

What You Leave Behind opens with Bashir and Ezri, one of the least compelling romances in all of Star Trek, which is saying something. But don’t go – I promise it gets better! You see, this episode concludes the Dominion War, a conflict that started brewing way back in the early seasons. Unlike Voyager, Deep Space Nine (DS9) actually did build up to the completion of its main storyline, and now it’s time to finish the job: one final attack to determine the outcome of the war.

The battle is exciting and fast paced. Sisko is a major focus, of course, as he’s both the Defiant’s captain and a commander in the Federation fleet.* But just as important is Kira, who’s leading the Cardassian resistance along with Damar and Garak. In a two-pronged attack, they hit the Dominion on the ground while Sisko and his fleet strike in space. The other characters receive less screen time, but they all have something to do. Worf crews the weapons, Ezri coordinates with other ships, O’Brien fixes battle damage, etc. The battle is detailed enough that each of these roles feels important, something Star Trek often struggles with. The battle still has technobabble, but the rules feel robust enough that we can take satisfaction when Nog steers the ship away from a Dominion attack or Ezri calls in a wing of attack fighters.

Emotionally, most of the characters have something going on as well. I already mentioned the Ezri/Bashir romance, which isn’t great, but the drama between Bashir and O’Brien is much better. O’Brien is planning to leave DS9 after the war’s over, and he’s nervous about telling Bashir. It’s awkward and sweet. Meanwhile, Garak finally completes his arc of returning to Cardassia, only to find it in ruins from the Dominion. The episode even finds time for a scene with Quark and Vic to commiserate over their anxiety at staying behind while the others go off to fight. Worf is the odd character out on this one, as he doesn’t have much material other than a joke about Ezri and Bashir’s romance. That’s too bad, but the episode does incredibly well otherwise.

Finally, the war itself is resolved not with violence but with a gesture of goodwill. The Dominion’s leader, a changeling like Odo, is dying of a painful disease. She’s decided that the Dominion will fight to the last soldier, costing the good guys a horrific number of lives and ships. But then Odo offers to cure her, not in exchange for anything, but because he knows what this disease is like and doesn’t want anyone else to suffer from it. This convinces the changeling leader* that there’s a better option than fighting to the last. She surrenders and agrees to stand trial for her crimes. That last part is critical: even though Odo wins by being kind to his fellow changeling, he doesn’t let her off the hook for what she’s done. She still has to answer for that.

Afterward we transition into falling action and this great episode comes to an end… Not! This is when we get to the problems of this finale. Well into the epilogue, an entirely different conflict comes to a head: Dukat and Kai Winn are about to free the Pah-wraiths, which are the malevolent counterpart to the Prophets, time traveling aliens who are also the object of worship on Bajor. This has been established before, so it’s not out of nowhere, but it is extremely awkward.

The Pah-wraith plot is entirely separate from the Dominion War story, and it receives far less development. Even though the Pah-wraiths are technically more powerful than the Dominion, they feel like a far less urgent problem. This throws the pacing off. Less important problems should be resolved first! Instead of an exciting climax, this Pah-wraith conflict feels like it’s denying us rightfully earned satisfaction.

From a technical perspective, the Pah-wraith conflict is also a total mess. Sisko somehow realizes that he has to personally face Dukat alone. Maybe he’s supposed to have received a vision? Sisko does get those from time to time. But now Dukat has Pah-wraith superpowers, so Sisko is completely helpless against him. Maybe he should have brought some backup. Then Dukat gets distracted, and that allows Sisko to shoulder-check them both into a pit of fire. I guess Dukat’s powers don’t include fire immunity. It’s all very rushed, as though the episode is hurrying to finish a contractually obligated storyline.

Then there’s Sisko’s quasi death. Originally, as a cost of defeating Dukat, Sisko was supposed to become a Prophet and never return to his native reality. But actor Avery Brooks rightfully objected because such a plot would cast Sisko in the stereotype of the absent Black father, since his wife Kasidy was newly pregnant. The solution was for Sisko to give some vague lines about how he’ll totally be back one day, then disappear. This leaves us without the reassurance of Sisko being alive, but neither do we have the satisfaction of him dying for a worthy cause.

I understand that the writers were in a tricky spot here, but the end result is still a mark against what’s otherwise a fantastic episode. In hindsight, I think the best option would have been for the Prophets themselves to be the sacrifice. Perhaps in helping Sisko defeat the Pah-wraiths, they lose the ability to contact people in our reality. That would certainly be sad, and it wouldn’t play into any anti-Black stereotypes. While we’re at it, the Pah-wraith story should have concluded on Cardassia so it could be part of the Dominion War story. That’s a longer rewrite than we have time for today, but it’s the only way I can see the episode firing on all cylinders.

1. The Next Generation

Future Picard tending his vines.

We’ve finally reached All Good Things, which means you know my dirty secret: while I consider DS9 to easily be the best Star Trek series, The Next Generation (TNG) has the best finale. The premise is simple: Picard is shifting through three different time periods, and in each of them, a dangerous spatial anomaly is forming in the Neutral Zone. From the mischievous Q, Picard learns that the anomaly will destroy humanity, so the obvious conclusion is that the anomaly must be destroyed. But there’s also foreshadowing that Picard himself is somehow responsible for the destruction of humanity. Oh dear, what could it mean?

In a lot of ways, All Good Things is similar to Voyager’s Endgame. Both feature a time-traveling captain, a possible future that isn’t entirely rosy for our heroes, and the return of a major side character. In Endgame, it’s the villainous Borg Queen. In All Good Things, it’s Q to act as Picard’s foil. But while the two episodes are similar in setup, TNG does a much better job on execution. How, you ask? Allow me to explain.

First, All Good Things treats its non-captain characters much better. There are no scenes of Picard talking to Picard. All of his interactions are with other characters, and – get this – sometimes the other characters actually talk to each other when Picard’s not even there. The future scenes in particular focus heavily on the rest of our heroes. In that timeline, Picard is retired and beginning to suffer from senility, so he needs additional help from his old shipmates. In the present, the Enterprise crew works as the well-oiled machine we’ve come to expect, while in the past, Picard has to earn the trust of a crew that barely knows him. We also get to see Tasha Yar again, a reminder that her character could have been great with better writing.

This episode is also much stronger than its Voyager counterpart when it comes to satisfaction. Instead of hinging the entire plan on some technical knowledge from the future, Picard has to figure out that in a temporal paradox, his efforts to stop the anomaly in all three time periods are actually what created it in the first place. This is a clever deduction where Picard puts the various pieces together at just the right moment, and it’s a pleasure to watch. Once Picard figures this out, it’s time to launch the exciting conclusion: flying all three Enterprises into the anomaly to destroy it.

What follows is a tense sequence where two of the three Enterprises are destroyed. Finally, the anomaly is closed, and Q is kind enough to smooth out the timelines so our heroes can continue on their way. This could have been a deus ex machina, but instead, it’s a just reward for solving Q’s riddle and putting themselves on the line for humanity, not to mention most other life in the quadrant. From there, the episode gives us just the right amount of relaxed epilogue so we can say goodbye to the characters we’ve grown attached to over the last seven seasons. This is where All Good Things pulls ahead of What You Leave Behind: we don’t interrupt the falling action so Picard can go solve some less important problem.

None of this is to say that All Good Things is a perfect episode. It’s disappointing that Troi is dead in the future timeline, her character used primarily to create a wedge between Riker and Worf. Some of the time-travel rules aren’t 100% consistent, and there’s a weird moment where recurring antagonist Commander Tomalak appears, only to vanish without a trace. Also, it has a romance between Worf and Troi, for some reason. What is it with Star Trek finales and underdeveloped love stories?

Despite all that, this episode remains by far the best series finale that Star Trek has yet produced. It’s the perfect ending for TNG because it uses the show’s strengths to maximum effect. The love and trust our heroes have for each other is on full display, and the episode ends with a message that Picard’s triumph came from expanding his perspective so he could analyze the problem from a different angle. Even TNG’s episodic nature comes into play: since the show doesn’t have an overarching plot or goal, its finale has fewer things to resolve. The writers crafted an ending that fit their story, giving the audience both satisfaction and closure. That’s something many other stories have struggled to do, both Star Trek and otherwise, and it’s a lesson we should all take to heart.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    Turnabout Intruder is an utter failure as both a finale and an episode in general.

    I didn’t know that was the last episode! Hell’s bells, that was bad.

    Manny Coto’s run on Enterprise wasn’t perfect, it was at least an improvement over what came before.

    Mainly by virtue of focussing on the things most viewers of Enterprise had come to see. (Ok, we didn’t really need an explanation for the Klingons’ different appearance, but the founding of the Federation should have been the throughline for the entire series).

    While we’re at it, the Pah-wraith story should have concluded on Cardassia so it could be part of the Dominion War story.

    I have to disagree with this – the Prophets, and thus the Pah-wraiths, are part of the distinctive character of Bajor, so that arc should end there. I would either have gone for sequential climaxes resolved in different episodes – if the Pah-wraiths came first, Sisko holding onto his human form for long enough to face the Dominion. Or a dual climax, where both battles are happening at once – adding tension to the Dominion battle, because the team Sisko put together has be that team without him (the mentor effect?) – while Sisko has to face Winn and Dukat with the added mental burden of not knowing how the battle against the Dominion is faring. (If he does become a Prophet after it, maybe he can offer something in that form for a turning point in the battle).

  2. Jeppsson

    One more problem with the terrible Enterprise finale: Some things that take place, like a very private and heartfelt conversation between Trip and T’Pol, are such that there can’t have been any records of it. So this must be a creation of the computer program, nothing more. We don’t get to see what happens to the characters we’ve been following for so long, we just get fiction within fiction.

    I made a review (in Swedish, though) of Star Trek Enterprise after watching through the whole series again, one episode a day (Husband’s and my project of watching through all of Star Trek in in-universe chronological order), and my very HOT TAKE is that even though it’s a deeply flawed series in many ways, Enterprise is actually under-estimated and better than its reputation. (If Oren reads this, he’s gonna faint!)
    However, besides the series’ more general flaws, I listed five real stinker episodes in the review, and the finale is one of them! That’s NOT great, to make a finale that’s on the top five of the series very worst episodes.

  3. Bellis

    It was great that All Good Things ended the “throughline” of TNG – insofar it even had one – with Q. In the first episode, Q puts them on trial for humanity’s crimes and shortcomings and Picard convinces him to let them prove how humanity has become better and how they are striving to live up to their potential. If I remember correctly, Q doesn’t end the trial, he merely puts it on recess and remains sceptical.

    After seven seasons of trying to represent the best humanoid qualities, Picard finally proves his point to Q and the audience in All Good Things: That humanity has potential to be better than what we often are and that we can and will live up to it. This not only closes the (admittedly almost nonexistent) throughline of the entire show, but it does so in an especially hopeful way.

    In contrast, Enterprise’s finale lets us down here. They don’t even resolve one of the plotpoints of the episode! Or am I the only one who was super disappointed that we didn’t get to hear a single line of Archer’s speech? Not because I generally look forward to Archer’s speeches (as opposed to the other Captains, who often give great speeches), but because it was played as such a plotline how he prepared for it, and then just didn’t. On top of that, the speech could also have served as a conclusion to the series’ finale of establishing the Federation. It wouldn’t have been great for that, but understandable given the time restraints of the production. We could at least have seen Archer play a role in this historic moment.

    (tbh when I saw These Are The Voyages NOT be the first/worst entry here I was surprised. I too had totally forgotten that Turnabout Intruder was the last TOS episode. TOS doesn’t seem to have a finale at all, which kind of fits its extremely episodic nature.)

  4. Writelhd

    Can you do one of these on the season premiere, too? Then Discovery and Picard can get in on it too.

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