10 must-see episodes of Star Trek
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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Star Trek isn’t just a show: It’s a cult, an in-joke, a war cry, and, for the uninitiated, a prime example of all that is obsessive and bizarre in nerd culture. The original series has spawned spin-offs, movies, and more. It has transcended its cheap sets and rubber prosthetics to become a part of our modern mythology. As such, it can be assumed that new viewers would approach the episodes that started everything with a certain weight of expectation in mind. Years of tie-in novels and extensive Wikipedia pages give the impression that this is a show rich with continuity, attentive plotting, and deep, storied characters. That’s not exactly true, and it would be easy to watch an episode or two and get turned off by just how much this isn’t modern Trek. There’s barely any serialization; the themes are often laughably heavy-handed; and the effects are, at best, charmingly low-fi.
Yet for all that, Star Trek remains a legitimately great show. What it lacks in polish and subtlety, it more than makes up for in energy and charm. Creator Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars” is one of the finest examples of pulp storytelling—emotion first, logic eventually—ever brought to the small screen. From 1966 to 1969, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), chief medical officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise traveled the galaxy, “to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” They struggled against aliens of unimaginable power, stumbled over worlds whose civilizations mirrored Earth’s own troubled past, and, yes, romanced their fair share of space babes. Over the course of three seasons and 79 episodes, Star Trek ranged from suspense to comedy to tragedy, and in the end, the good guys always won, even if victory cost them a little more than they were willing to spend.
Plagued by bad time slots and low ratings, the show was slated to be canceled after its second season; a fan-driven write-in campaign convinced NBC to bring it back for a third and final year, but smaller budgets and weak scripts continued the series’ downward spiral, until it left the air for good in early June of 1969. Its legacy lives on, but anyone looking forward to the next big-screen outing of the franchise would do well to check out the source that started it all. To that end, here are 10 representative entries that demonstrate a good part of what Star Trek has to offer.
“Balance Of Terror” (season one, episode 14): While the second season of the show is more consistent, season one had the most firsts. “Balance Of Terror” has two of them: The episode marks the introduction of the Romulans to the Trek-verse, as well as the first appearance of actor Mark Lenard as the commander of the Romulan ship. Lenard is better known these days for his turn as Sarek, Spock’s distant father, but he’s terrific here as an individual of principles, forced into a conflict he doesn’t really believe in. Drawing inspiration from classic submarine movies, the episode follows the Enterprise in a battle against an unfamiliar enemy, as Kirk tries to outwit an opponent who can disappear at will. It’s tense, well-paced, and a fine example of how the show could use its limitations to its advantage; Kirk and the Romulan commander never share a set, but their battle couldn’t be more intimate.
“The Squire Of Gothos” (season one, episode 17): Trek wouldn’t be Trek without the God-Like Being, a genre of antagonist who exists primarily to torment Kirk, Spock, and the rest with powers that seem very close to magic. The possibilities of space travel leave the door open for fantasy creatures to pop into a science-fiction universe, and Trelane (William Campbell) is the ideal iteration, a foppish brat whose sense of style appears to be stuck about 10 minutes before the French Revolution. As is often the case with God-Like Beings, he’s a terrible bully who’s convinced he’s the life of the party. “The Squire Of Gothos” is funny and thrilling, and it set the template for a type of story the franchise would return to again and again: a creature with seemingly limitless abilities likes to play games with the normals and screw with their heads. (Star Trek: The Next Generation took this trope to its logical end-point with Q, an apparently omnipotent prankster with a fondness for bald Frenchmen.) Combine this with a twist ending that resolves the story with an entirely satisfying cheat, and it’s a must-watch.
“Space Seed” (season one, episode 22): The original Enterprise crew appeared in six Star Trek movies (seven for Shatner, Walter Koenig, and James Doohan), and the second, The Wrath Of Khan, is the best. The story of Khan starts in “Space Seed,” when the Enterprise discovers a dead ship drifting through space. The ship, the SS Botany Bay, is full of cryogenically frozen super men and women, castoffs from Earth’s Eugenics Wars. Their leader, the charismatic and monomaniacal Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban, giving it his all), engages in a battle of will against Kirk for control of the Enterprise, and with a small army of genetically engineered soldiers at Khan’s command, things don’t look too great for James T. The episode features a terrific performance from guest star Montalban, gives the franchise one of its greatest villains, and sets the stage for one of best science-fiction adventure movies ever made.
“The Devil In The Dark” (season one, episode 25): At the heart of Star Trek is an essential optimism, a faith in the hope that, with enough time and effort, intelligent life of every variety can find a way to live together in peace. Few episodes test this premise as thoroughly and terrifyingly as “The Devil In The Dark,” the story of a giant pizza-blob and the eggs it would kill to protect. When the men of a mining colony on Janus VI start dying at the hands of an unknown, acid-spewing assailant, the bosses call in the Enterprise to investigate the disturbance. (Throughout the series, Kirk and his team served a number of functions, from peacekeepers to explorers to ambassadors to chauffeurs.) Upon arrival, Kirk and Spock work to identify the threat, and when they find the creature, Spock’s Vulcan mind meld reveals the truth: The “monster,” a creature that calls itself the Horta, is trying to protect its silicon eggs, which the miners have been destroying without realizing their origin. The creature’s design is appropriately alien, and it makes at once an unsettling threat and a pitiable victim.
“The City On The Edge Of Forever” (season one, episode 28): In some ways, “The City On The Edge Of Forever” is an atypical episode of the show. While time travel is a standard Trek conceit, the episode spends most of its time watching Kirk and Spock kick around Depression-era New York City, building radios and working at a soup kitchen. There’s a crisis they need to solve—a drugged-up McCoy inadvertently erased everyone’s existence—but the real crux of their problem comes when Kirk meets Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), a pacifist whose beauty and charm quickly win over the routinely smitten captain. Unfortunately, a quick glimpse into the future (via a machine Spock puts together with radio tubes and baling wire) shows that Edith might not be around much longer. Often cited as the best episode of the original series, “City” has its faults: The script, a reworking of Harlan Ellison’s only contribution to the show, takes a lot of logic jumps to get where it wants to go, and Collins is miscast as the humble, peace-loving pawn of fate. But on the whole, the hour is smart, funny, and heartfelt, building to one of the most devastating climaxes in all of Trek. Sometimes doing the right thing means having to look the other way.
“Amok Time” (season two, episode one): Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was always Star Trek’s not-so-secret weapon; as the character’s half-Vulcan ancestry drove him to approach problems with a cool, detached logic, he sometimes seemed like the only adult in a house full of teenagers. But even adults have their bad days, and “Amok Time” showed Spock at his worst, driven to near-madness by the biological dictates of his blood. While “Spock loses it” was a trope the series reused a number of times, it was always shocking to see the normally calm Nimoy crack up, and the episode wastes little time in showing him transformed into a angry, lustful psychopath. It’s only by returning to his home world that Spock can hope to recover, and once there, the episode gave the first glimpses into Vulcan culture and ritual. It’s a key step in a show that had engaged with alien races before, but had never spent much time building them up as anything beyond momentary antagonists.
“Mirror, Mirror” (season two, episode four): The parallel-universe concept is old hat for genre shows these days, but when “Mirror, Mirror” sent Kirk and company through the wormhole, the idea was still a new one. The result is one of the most gleefully thrilling entries in the show’s run. When a transporter glitch opens up a hole between realities, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty (Doohan), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) are sent to a very different Enterprise from the one they usually inhabit, a ship where fear and violence are the law, and loyalty has been replaced by handheld torture devices and the infamous “agony booth.” The episode hits the perfect mix of over-the-top camp (uniforms on the evil Enterprise appear to have been designed by a dominatrix with a sash fetish), unsettling brutality, and wit. The best twist of the hour is that “evil” Spock (who has a goatee, single-handedly giving us decades of “the evil twin has the facial hair” jokes) isn’t all that different from the “good” one—he’s just a bit more pragmatic when it comes to torturing his subordinates.
“The Trouble With Tribbles” (season two, episode 15): Overtly comedic episodes on Star Trek were often a mixed bag. Given that the show operated on a level of heightened intensity in even its most somber moments, words like “zany” and “madcap” don’t offer a lot of hope. But “The Trouble With Tribbles” is an endearingly goofy entry that never overstays its welcome. Kirk faces off against pissy bureaucrats, conmen, Klingons, and the purring balls of fur called “tribbles,” and defeats them all with the aplomb fans have come to expect. The jokes mostly land, the plotting seems almost effortless, and the end is satisfying, featuring the deaths of hundreds of inoffensive, adorable aliens. This is an example of a form Trek rarely did well, done beautifully.
“Spock’s Brain” (season three, episode one): The third season of Star Trek is the weakest of the three, and out of its 24 episodes, “Spock’s Brain” is the worst. It’s likely the worst episode of the entire series, give or take an “Alternative Factor,” but it’s a key part of any attempt to understand the show for a couple of reasons. One, “Spock’s Brain” is the season première, which means that not only was it the episode to kick off the show’s final year, it was also the episode many fans felt directly responsible for: After all, this is what their letter campaign to NBC made possible. As such, the hour fits into the series’ legacy and lore, a symbol of the perpetual frustration of fandom: No matter how much you love something, it will always find some way to disappoint you. And if that sounds too metaphysical, the other reason that “Spock’s Brain” is essential is that terribleness is a part of this show. You can’t have the heights of Trekdom without the lows, and it rarely gets lower than the sight of McCoy using a remote control to direct a brainless Spock toward a cave. Make it through this, and you can understand just how meaningful the great episodes really are. (Plus, it’s pretty hilarious.)
“Spectre Of The Gun” (season three, episode six): Not every episode in the third season was terrible, and to end this survey on a high note, there’s “Spectre Of The Gun,” an eerie Western-inspired hour that finds inspiration in the show’s meager set budget. One of Star Trek’s favorite games was to throw its cast into a world inspired by a part of Earth’s history. There was the mafia planet, and the Nazi planet, and the ancient Greeks planet. These episodes had their moments, but suffered from a central implausibility and familiarity. “Spectre Of The Gun” gets around this problem by creating a place that is at once familiar and unique. The half-finished sets and sparse landscape are clearly on a studio set, but because of their stark unreality, they transcend their origins and become something distinctive and new. The plot wasn’t new—Kirk and the others are forced by some God-Like Beings to re-enact the showdown at the O.K. Corral—but it worked, and combined with the look of the thing, it makes a reasonable summation of the ongoing appeal of the show. There are a lot of awkward parts and disparate elements, but put them all together, and they become something new.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “The Naked Time,” (season one, episode four), “The Corbomite Maneuver” (season one, episode 10), “Shore Leave” (season one, episode 15), “Arena” (season one, episode 18), “This Side Of Paradise” (season one, episode 24), “Errand Of Mercy” (season one, episode 26), “The Changeling,” (season two, episode three) “The Doomsday Machine” (season two, episode six), “Journey To Babel” (season two, episode 10), “Patterns Of Force” (season two, episode 21).
Availability: All three seasons are available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as Netflix streaming.
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