The term comes verbatim from Gene Roddenberry's original pitch for Star Trek: The Original Series to NBC in the middle of the 1960s, and references the early Western show Wagon Train, which was about a wagon train making its way west. The original is now less well known than the "...to the stars" phrase, making it an example of the "Weird Al" Effect.
Note that these shows need not necessarily take place in outer space. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for example, was essentially a Wagon Train to the Stars show, underwater. (So, recycled in the ocean?)
The ship is often enough, as in Wagon Train, a colonization/settlement effort that never quite gets to its destination, at least until the finale. In this case, the ship is likely to be a massive, self-sustained, multigenerational community — essentially a mobile city in space, which allows making use of tropes typical to both The Quest and The Siege basic plots as the heroes both have a goal in mind and are concerned with protecting their way of life until it can be reached.
- Super Dimension Fortress Macross (aka the first part of Robotech) features this in a way when Macross City is rescued after a "space fold" accident and housed in the titular ship; two of the subsequent Macross TV shows, Macross 7 and Macross Frontier, take place on actual, literal stellar wagon trains (complete with collapsible roofs) intended to colonize planets.
- Space Battleship Yamato, especially the "Quest For Iscandar"
- SF Saiyuki Starzinger (dubbed as "Spaceketeers" in the US), a sci fi retelling of the classic Asian story Journey to the West (Saiyuki) does this as well (the English dub, however, changes the Saiyuki references to Three Musketeers references).
- Galaxy Express 999. Bonus point for having the main characters travel in an ACTUAL space train.
- The Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye: The Lost Light sets off on a grand adventure to find the mythical Knights of Cybertron, and get them to help rebuild Cybertron after the war. Only they keep getting distracted by things, like crashing after take-off, or horrific monsters rampaging about the ship, or war-scarred veterans rampaging about the ship, or the ship's "genius" accidentally freezing everyone in time, or unstoppable supersoldiers rampaging about the ship. It doesn't help that most of the crew are a dysfunctional bunch of maniacs led by a irresponsible glory-hound, either.
- In Afu Chan and John Layman's Outer Darkness, maverick captain Joshua Rigg and the crew of the starship Charon drive toward intergalactic space to investigate the hidden truths of the outer darkness there. Every destination is severely haunted (as well as most places in between), which means that this Wagon Train to the Stars requires a large team of exorcists and mathemagicians to survive and the ship's engine is powered by a trapped, ancient god that demands sacrifice.
- The protagonists of Saga are from opposite sides of a Forever War trying to evade authorities from both sides in their Tree Vessel.
- Animorphs: The journey that Marco, Santorelli, Menderash, Jeanette, Tobias and Jake take aboard the Rachel to find the Blade ship was this, at least according to Marco. We never get the details of their adventures, though.
- Night on the Galactic Railroad
- Robert A. Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky has interstellar colonization by means of quite literal wagon trains, using artificial gateways to get to their destination planets. They're not the focus of the book, but twice we see wagon trains preparing to embark.
- Star Wars has an evil version: the Yuuzhan Vong. They're from another galaxy, and had to travel millions of light-years at slower than light speed. They came in a HUGE fleet.
- So huge, in fact, that the novels created a Retcon stating that the primary reason the Empire constructed the Death Star and its other superweapons was to use them against the Yuuzhan Vong. The fact that they could be used to enforce their rule through fear and to fight the Rebellion was merely a bonus.
- In Melanie Rawn's unfinished The Exiles trilogy, colonists from Earth find a new home in another solar system. Rawn named their spaceship after the actual wagon one of her ancestors rode out West.
- Book one in the Star Trek: New Earth series is called "Wagon Train to the Stars". The book is nothing less than LITERALLY that. A group of civilian settlers embark on a nine month journey at warp two to the Occult system to colonize the planet Belle Terre as a new colony. At the last second, Starfleet decides to get involved, giving the settlers a four ship UFP escort led by (of course) the starship Enterprise under the command of the original space cowboy, Jim Kirk. In fact, the only way that the Council, and Spock (who was in command of the Enterprise as this takes place between TMP and TWOK) would even leave Federation space was if Kirk was in command of the Enterprise. The colonists are on Conestoga-class ships (partially designed by Scotty), most of which have Western-style names (i.e. the pathfinder ship is called the Rattlesnake, the hotel/casin vessel is Uncle Jake's Pocket), and when they fell under attack just after reaching the Occult system, they 'sphered the ships' with Kirk saying (and this is a DIRECT quote from the book)"It's an old defensive tactic. Circling the wagons, only in three dimensions instead of two."
- Aniara: Unbuilt Trope. Martinsson's great epic predates even Wagon Train by at least a decade, and it has none of the hope and joy of later forays into the genre. Aniara is originally carrying colonists to Mars, but it is heavily implied that the Mars colonies are a "Hail Mary"-attempt to save anything of humanity from the polluted radioactive wasteland that is Earth. As the poem unfolds, Aniara receives a transmission indicating that Earth is gone. During Aniara's journey, she is forced off course and her engines damaged, ensuring that the ship is headed off into deep space with no hope of recovery, and that the only thing left for the colonists to do is to live out their days and then travel forever into the darkness.
- Star Trek and its spin-offs (except Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which was set on a space station) are both the Trope Maker and the Trope Codifier. The trope's name is the phrase Gene Roddenberry used to pitch the show to network executives. It's also the name of a Star Trek novel which contains pretty much this premise to the letter. For the record, DS9 was compared to another Western, The Rifleman.
- Doctor Who: An old, rather irreverent, alien travels through time and space with their companions, righting wrongs and trying to not let their past catch up with them.
- Red Dwarf: The last survivors of an accident killing off the rest of the crew head back to Earth. Unusually for this trope there aren't any aliens in the setting. Just robots, mutants and crazy people.
- Battlestar Galactica (1978) (and its 21st century Continuity Reboot of the same name) took it further by having a small 'ragtag fleet' of ships under the Galactica's protection, forming a literal Wagon Train to the Stars (well, minus the wagons anyway. And they were trying to get to Earth, from the stars, but that's not important right now).
- The second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
- Stargate SG-1 has often been this, especially in its first seasons. Technically, it doesn't take place on a spaceship, but there's not much practical difference between a base that stays inside a mountain and has a gate to a new world each week, and a ship that actually travels to a new world each week.
- Stargate Universe, however, fits this perfectly.
- Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. There is a colony ship which is traveling to another planet. Evil aliens keep attacking and damaging it, and some of the damage can't be repaired, so while they started off with 10 engines, by the end they have only one, then zero. But, they did eventually get to their destination, which was covinently the home planet of the alien team member none of them had any way of knowing it was beforehand.
- Farscape is about an astronaut who falls in with a group of alien fugitives on a Living Ship.
- Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito is a literal Wagon Train Through The Books.
- Kingdom Hearts makes this a prominent (and very convenient) aspect of gameplay.
- Super Mario Galaxy (though without the spaceship).
- The Mass Effect series:
- While the galaxy has a very effective and fast hyperspace highway network and the player never quite goes out of their way to explore new frontiers, the Normandy, her crew and the assorted adventures they have over the course of an overarching plot remain the heart and soul of the series' appeal.
- The quarian race have been living the life of space nomads for the past 300 years. While most of the spacefaring species are organized in the Citadel Council, the quarians lost their homeworld in a Robot War and have been living on spaceships ever since. They travel the stars as scavengers who salvage wrecked ships, until one day they find a way to take back their ancestral home with the protagonist's help.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda is taking this approach. Launched between 2 and 3, four Ark ships and a central Nexus hub station take 6 centuries to reach the Andromeda Galaxy (which, basically, means that we aren't told what the canon ending of 3 is, since it's too far away in space and time to matter), so the main characters explore a whole new galaxy with new dangers and wonders.
- Homeworld has a whole wagon caravan to the stars. Namely the Kushan fleet which gets continually expanded through the game, as the player fights their way through the galaxy to reclaim Hiigara, the eponymous homeworld of their people. There is also the Mothership, serving as the base of operations, and the only vessel which must stay alive through the game.
- The semi-canonical sequel Homeworld: Cataclysm has this to a lesser extent. Fed up with being marginalized on Hiigara, Kiith Somtaaw petitions the dominant kiithid for access to the Mothership. In record time, they design and build two command ships and an explorer ship, and the entire kiith heads into space to live as nomadic asteroid miners with the command ships (Faal-Corum and Kuun-Lan) serving as smaller versions of the Mothership. Unable to field large fleets of specialized ships, the Somtaaw are forced to improvise and borrow designs from elsewhere. For example, the primary fighter craft for the Somtaaw is the Acolyte heavy fighter, which can also launch missiles in addition to its mass drivers. The design is based on tech traded from the Bentusi (minus the weapon systems). Instead of having a separate corvette type, the Somtaaw have designed the Acolyte to be able to link with another Acolyte and become an Avenger ACV (Acolyte Composite Vehicle). With double the firepower (minus missiles), the Avenger also has an EMP emitter. It's this versatility that is instrumental in the Somtaaw becoming the only ones who can save the day against the game's Big Bad.
- Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go, in later seasons.