Star Trek’s best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG
The on-screen Star Trek universe consists of six television series and twelve movies. It’s a vast playground for writers to bring in politics, action, romance, technology, drama, and of course, characters; lots and lots of characters. Some of these characters appear on screen but are then quickly forgotten, like a commercial for a brand of snacks. However, some of these characters have worked so well or have been so well-received by fans that they’ve returned again and again despite not being a part of the main cast.
That’s right, I’m not writing about the major characters here; I’m speaking of the recurring ones. This is my list of best recurring characters in Star Trek. Before jumping right in, I’m going to explain my entirely personal and mostly arbitrary criteria for inclusion. In order to qualify for inclusion on this list, characters have to have been in at least three episodes or movies of any series. Also, characters are credited to the show which they first appeared on, so for example, Q, the Borg Queen, and Barclay (which, come to think of it, would make a great band name) are recurring Next Generation characters, not recurring Voyager characters. I’m going to divide the list by series rather than throwing them in one big list and then sorting them that way.
I should further explain what I look for in a great recurring character. The best ones had a few key things going for them. They had good performances by the guest actor or actress who played them, they brought out the best in the regular characters they interacted with, and added something interesting to the overall saga. Finally, although the animated series is a fine addition to the on-screen universe and episodes from that series with recurring characters are included in these lists, I didn’t include that series on its own. First, there are only twenty-two episodes of the entire series run, which is significantly shorter than the other series. Second, there are to my knowledge really only two recurring characters original to that show: Arex and M’Ress. With that out of the way, let me begin with…
The Original Series:
While only appearing on one TOS episode and one TAS episode, Sarek really took off as a great character during the original series movies. He gets a fairly large part in The Search for Spock, and he brings a high level of dignity and gravitas to the movie. Sarek’s success as a character owes a lot to the performance of Mark Lenard. Vulcan characters, because of their level of reserve and control in social interaction, can be tricky for actors and actresses to play without them coming across as boring or wooden. Lenard avoided that potential problem, conveying concern, discomfort, etc. with small changes of tone and expression.
Sarek was great to watch in every appearance he had, including his two on The Next Generation. Sarek also brought out a different dimension to Spock. The audience wasn’t used to seeing Spock as a rebel, but Sarek showed that he was. Sarek was the conservative, traditionalist Vulcan with the son who rejected the path of the Vulcan Science Academy and joined Starfleet instead. Come to think of it, Sybok was even more of a rebel, leaving Sarek as an ultra-traditionalist Vulcan with two rebellious sons, but The Final Frontier is probably better left out of this discussion.
She of course did not appear in the original series, but appeared first in The Wrath of Khan. I mentioned great recurring characters added something interesting to the story, and she brought many things, some of which stayed behind the scenes. It was a good idea to bring on a protégé for Spock, especially with Nimoy’s role in future Trek movies in doubt. It was also good to have her be half-Romulan, but that was a character detail that didn’t make it to the screen. We’re left with the possibility that she was more emotional than a typical Vulcan because of her age, or struggles with training.
The change in actresses between II and III as well as the change in approach to the character (Curtis played her as full Vulcan, and much more stoic) makes the backstory a little harder to make sense of, but Search for Spock adds more interesting developments for the character, mainly the notion that she helps a young Spock through pon farr, which may have resulted in a pregnancy and her staying on Vulcan during The Voyage Home. Saavik, like Sarek, brings out a different dimension in Spock, that of mentor, a natural role for him given his patient personality.
The only non-crew character in all of TOS to appear more than once, Harry Mudd appears in “Mudd’s Women”, as well as one of the funniest of all Star Trek episodes, “I, Mudd”. Mudd returns for the TAS episode “Mudd’s Passion”, which, while somewhat of a rehash of the premise of “Mudd’s Women”, is still one of the funnier and more entertaining episodes of TAS. In a show that focused on straight-laced types, Mudd was the rogue archetype, except not so much with the heart of gold. Mudd wasn’t exactly evil, of course, but he was a self-interested con man. He was a great foil for Kirk in much the same way Q would be for Picard, the trickster who’d come and shake things up, except Mudd did it without powers.
The Next Generation:
I think the story is that Lore wasn’t originally written to be an “evil twin”, but it was suggested later in the writing of “Datalore.” Boy, was it a good idea, though; the concept is wonderfully scary in both imagining and execution—take a being with the strength and intelligence of Data, but make him a complete sociopath instead. Beyond that, though, Lore is just funny. He’s like the Joker of TNG, causing mayhem and violence and tossing out one-liners and trying on Geordi’s VISOR while doing it.
He also pretty much gets the better of Data in every encounter. In “Datalore”, he tricks Data, drugs him, takes his place, and nearly destroys the Enterprise. In “Brothers”, he tricks Data, knocks him out, and steals Dr. Soong’s emotion chip. In “Descent”, he takes control of Data’s programming and turns him against his own shipmates. Lore is a powerful character, who with his cruelty and cunning brings out Data’s innocence and kindness by contrast.
It’s no surprise that Q ends up on this list, as he’s one of the most popular recurring characters in fandom. John de Lancie is great in the role, playing well off Patrick Stewart, and Q is terrific as a foil for Picard, exasperating and irritating him at every turn. In early appearances, Q is a straightforward villain, but he becomes more comedic and sympathetic, starting with “Deja Q”.
Mixed in with the confident and efficient senior staff of the Enterprise-D, it was great to see a crewmember who had some flaws and self-doubt. Dwight Schultz did well in portraying a man who likely had some kind of anxiety disorder, but who was able to overcome his personal obstacles to make a valuable contribution through his knowledge and training. There were some who thought that the fantasy-obsessed character was a sly reference to certain fans with his intro in “Hollow Pursuits”, but his retreat into fantasy was more a result of his efforts to cope with his daily problems, and the holodeck fantasy angle was largely dropped after that, anyway. Through Barclay, we also got to see Troi doing therapist work and making progress with a patient.
Like Barclay, Ensign Ro wasn’t your typical Enterprise crewmember, but was a 180-degree turn from him in terms of personality. Ro was abrasive and combative, a woman with good reason to not be 100% enthusiastic about the Federation, considering their stance of non-intervention during Bajor’s oppression by the Cardassians. She brought genuine conflict to a show that often lacked it between Starfleet characters. She didn’t get along well with Riker, for example, and clashed with Troi in “Disaster”. Her final character arc in “Preemptive Strike” also made sense, considering her personal history. Having her join the Maquis was an inspired choice by the writers, and led to a great final moment from a shocked, betrayed Picard.
One might say that Guinan was a clichéd character by concept: the wise old sage with a humble position among the crew, there to offer the needed bit of advice to the character in the spotlight for the week. She certainly did that, but she was much more than that. It’s remarkable how many great TNG episodes had Guinan in them, from “Measure of a Man” to “Yesterday’s Enterprise” to “Q Who” and “The Best of Both Worlds”. The writers kept her background largely mysterious, but offered glimpses at times, such as her relationship to Picard. The writers also established a history between her and Q, but they didn’t appear in any episodes together after “Deja Q”, which is a shame, because their scenes together in that episode and “Q Who” are great.
Next time: I look at Star Trek’s best recurring characters from the post-TNG shows: Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.