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.

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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:

1. Sarek
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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.

2. Saavik
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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.

3. Harcourt Fenton Mudd
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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:

1. Lore
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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.

2. Q
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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”.

3. Reginald Barclay
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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.

4. Ro Laren
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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.

5. Guinan
Star Trek's best recurring characters, part 1: TOS & TNG

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.

Tag: Star Trek's best recurring characters

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  • Gearóid

    Interesting characters and fun to read, look forward to the DS9 picks.

  • Roger C. Carmel deserves a tip of the hat for his great portrayal of Harry Mudd. While the character was really a barely mitigated scoundrel, Carmel made him actually sympathetic and even likeable. Good thing, too. The Federation would be a dull vanilla utopia without rapscallions like him.

    • Greenhornet

      I’m an original Trekie and can agree. Yeah, he was a crook and a liar, but DANG! he must have been fun to be around. Until he sticks you with the check, that is.

  • RockyDmoney

    DS9 wins by virtue of Garek alone….and Leeta’s huge bajublies

    • It would be hard to limit things to a Top 5. DS-9 could get a top 10 without reaching.

  • Greenhornet

    Am I the only one who HATES(!!!) “Q”? If Trelane was a “little boy”, then Q was either a teen-ager or the worst kind of “intellectual”. I shall present my case.

    The Teen-ager:
    1. When we first see Q, he pretty much reprises the Trelane character, even forcing the others into a rigged trial as Trelane did to Kirk. At the end he’s all “Pranked you!” like a junior high school bully.
    2. Watch the “Voyager” episode, but look at it this way: Q wants to get laid. THAT’S ALL HE WANTS. At first he comes on to Janeway, trying to be romantic. Then although he admits that a “Q” romance takes decades, he demands that they “get it on” soon. After that, he talks about a plan to create a “special” human/Q hybrid although there was already such a creature. Then he reveals that there is a “civil war” among his people and SOMEHOW his getting laid will solve everything. (WTF???!!!)
    Then along comes “Suzie Q”. Apparently, she’s his “girlfriend” (Or something) and her having “sex” with him makes everything better. SOMEHOW.
    What do we take away from this episode? Obviously, Q was trying to make Suzie Q jealous in order to get some. This plot is straight out of Archie Comics!
    3. Some see him as a kind of “rebel” among his kind, but it’s more like he’s a 15 year-old getting a tattoo, or smoking weed and calling that “sticking it to the man”. Under critical study, the Enterprise crew becomes the adults, trying to do their jobs while Q is the idiot teen-ager blasting “rap” from his car. He’s more annoying than rebellious.

    The intellectual:
    1. Obvious. We are “as an ameba” to him. He hangs around with “the dumb people” in order to make himself feel smart. He’s the kind of guy who will learn some bit of knowledge and think HE’S the only one who understands it. It would have been great if a scene went like this:

    “Mon capitan, I don’t think you realize how actions have consequences.”
    “Q, I learned that from experience when I was seven.”
    “But you don’t seem to understand…”
    “The ‘big picture’. Blah blah blah. I heard so much about that crap from so many sources it bores me. Almost as much as YOU do.”

    2. Q is so full of himself that he thinks everyone should bask in the glow of his brilliance. He forces his society on others regardless of their desires or needs. The problem is that he is either completely clueless to the fact that NO ONE is happy to see him, or he just doesn’t care.
    3. Like the worst kind of intellectual, he thinks that rules don’t apply to him. He will screw over folks for the sake of what HE wants or thinks he needs. We are as amoebas to him.

    Or maybe he’s just a cosmic JERK?

    • Gallen_Dugall

      Q was a justification for the new crew to stand up one at a time and tell the audience who they were. Q quickly became a Mary Sue self insert fan fic character that worked only because he was in opposition to the crew, unlike Wesley who was a Mary Sue self-insert fan fic character that was on their side.

      • Greenhornet

        Actually, that explains everything.

        • Gallen_Dugall

          The Sfdebris video on Q explains how de Lancie saved what was in fact a very badly written role. They had it far more one dimensional and over the top goofy – think Wesley with super powers. de Lancie toned the role down so much that he ended up speaking less than half the “shouting” lines they gave him (every line for Q in the scripts has multiple exclamation marks at the end) replacing these with subtle looks and expressions and then having to sell the director on them. Example of how great acting and a dedicated actor can save a bad script. That video is worth a watch if he ever gets a new hosting site for those videos following the closing of Blip.

  • Muthsarah

    No love for Lwaxana?

    I know many fans don’t like her, but, seriously, look at the episodes she was in:

    – Haven
    – Manhunt
    – Menage a Troi
    – Quality of Life (EDIT: I mean “Cost of LIving”)

    While “Menage a Troi” has some good parts (from Picard), the stuff Lwaxana is called upon to do is sometimes truly disturbing. It’s not a bad episode, but it’s hard to watch what it puts her through. The other three are just bad episodes even Q couldn’t save.

    But look at the two better eps:

    – Half a Life
    – Dark Page

    The first gives her plenty of room to strut and exclaim as usual, but also a tender, tragic love story (amidst a greater tragedy only she seems to care about, but rightly so). The latter, while a little overdone in that Season 7 way, fleshes out her character considerably and casts all her earlier-seen aggravating behavior in a new light.

    She’s overbearing. She constantly meddles. She’s pushy. She’s arrogant. She insists on being the center of attention wherever she is, and has a highly-inflated sense of herself in every respect.

    So’s Q. But fans LOVE him. And (many) HATE her.

    While Q comes off the better of the two, I think Lwaxana is seriously underappreciated, and had they put her in more good episodes (she’s never anywhere near the worst part of any of her episodes), I think she’d be a lock for this kind of list.

    She’s not supposed to be easy-to-love. You’re supposed to sympathize with Deanna when her mother’s around (and laugh at poor Jean-Luc). Not co-incidentally, these are the very few situations where the audience has any reason to sympathize with Deanna when she isn’t being mind-raped. And, in that way, she contributed a lot to Deanna as well. Remove Lwaxana, and what does Deanna have left? Besides the almost-never-mentioned Riker relationship. And mind rape.

    • Lord ShinyPants

      I agree with Lwaxana being an important addition. It looked to me like the writers had difficulty writing for Deanna Troi, and Lwaxana gave Troi more depth the same way (well, not the _same_ way) that Sarek gave depth to Spock.

    • Thomas Stockel

      You raise an excellent point in comparing her to Q. But I think the difference is Q appears in more good episodes, and the interaction between Delancy and Stewart are far more interesting and engaging than anything Majel was involved in. Also, during the course of TNG’s run Q has an effective character arc, while for the most part Deanna’s mom is largely comic relief, a man chasing cougar. Half a Life is a good ep., but I found Dark Page to be a bit melodramatic, so these attempts to give her depth were largely failures.

      • Muthsarah

        I think Lwaxana does have an arc, and “Dark Page” and later episodes complete it.

        She starts out as a stereotypical comic relief nightmare mother/mother-in-law, both a “man-eater” and the “why-aren’t-you-getting-maaaaaaaaarried-you’re-a-woman-you-should-be-getting-maaaaaaarried” type. But with “Menage a Troi”, we see how far she’s willing to go to protect her daughter, in “Half a Life” she stands up for her ideals on what parents and children owe one another (she isn’t emotionally nuts, she really believes what she says) and launches a Kirk-esque “let’s show the aliens of the week the error of their ways” crusade which puts her at odds with both Picard and the New Federation ideals, and in “Dark Page”, we learn why she’s so overly-protective/manipulative of Deanna, the only person (aside from Mr Homm) she has left in her life.

        Lwaxana is basically redeemed in this arc. She starts out a two-bit stereotype, she ends up a very forceful woman with a tragic past she’s trying to escape, and who would do anything for love of her daughter and her happiness. Her complications are softened somewhat, but more than anything else, we’re allowed to see another side of her. She’s fleshed out.

        Lwaxana appearances on DS9 (which I also love) show us a slightly-more relaxed and self-aware character. She’s a aging woman who has been in love, had a husband who adored her, then lost him. She also lost a daughter, for which she blames herself. But she never stops trying to re-gain the sense of being loved and valued. Her scenes with Odo are excellent, and you can see her softening him up a bit too.

        I don’t think Q really has an arc. He never gets fleshed out, he just gets humbled in Deja Q, and then goes back to being a trickster god. The only meaningful change is that he becomes much better-written after his first two appearances. Next to Picard, he’s probably the most consistently well-written character on TNG. But the character himself doesn’t meaningfully change at all.

        • Thomas Stockel

          If you look only at the TNG episodes I think my argument is stronger; Q is considerably different by All Good Things, while Momma Troi’s last two appearances feel a bit out of place to me. But if you look at the franchise as a whole then Troi’s appearance in DS9 provides what I think is a decent end to her character, while Q’s Voyager appearances turn him into a parody of his earlier self. I guess I was looking at the debate by TNG appearances only, based on the article.

          • Muthsarah

            Well, we don’t totally agree on any of this, I guess. I’ve always been disappointed by “All Good Things”. Sure, I guess I understand why they wanted to bookend the series by tying the finale into the (really poorly-written) pilot, but the whole “trial of humanity” thing I felt was dumb and really heavy-handed. And having the finale of arguably the best Trek series boil down to “Treknobabble problem…Treknobabble solution” with the crews just trusting Picard to undertake parallel suicidal missions by tech-teching the tech and flying into the tech field with tech shield activated, all to form the tech field to collapse the tech so that the tech doesn’t tech the tech and thus kill all of human history, because tech. It KINDA impressed me in my youth. But it has aged horribly. It feels both contrived, and utterly meaningless. Even DS9s finale comes off better, Pah-Wraiths or not.

            Well, this is about Q. Certainly by “All Good Things”, he’s a fun character. It’s really just the first two episodes where he’s written poorly (as is everyone). But, to me, from Q Who onwards, he’s just Q. Q the liar. Q the misanthrope. He’s fun. But he’s still static. Deja Q didn’t change him, so nothing would. Aside from VOY (which I would honestly prefer to ignore…in my canon-selective way). I could maybe potentially recognize an arc in how the TNG crew responds to Q….except that they don’t change either. Because of the general lack of continuity. The “Trial”, however ongoing, never factored into anything between Farpoint and All Good Things. And so, to me, it never changed Q. He was just there. Because. You liked him being around or you didn’t. I did. But he still had no major effect on the characters or the series as a whole, he was just fun because John de Lancie’s Q was well-written and well-acted and funny and fun.

            Lwaxana actually seemed to change. In that our perceptions of her changed. Not just from “Haven” to DS9. Steadily, from “Menage a Troi” onwards. She really gained that third dimension. I loved her as a character. Not just because she was portrayed by the First Lady of Trek and the Once-and-Future-Number-One (though that still means something), but that she was undoubtedly the most confident, forward female character in all of TNG. And the more we saw of her, the more we understood that that wasn’t just a shallow from-the-writers-only personality trait. She had layers. And they grew over time. The Lwaxana of DS9 wasn’t just an overbearing mother/older woman, she was a fully-developed character with desires and values, a personal history and a personality all her own. She was one of the best-defined characters in all of Trek, gender notwithstanding.

  • Ro Laren is basically: “What if we wrote Tasha Yar well?”