Much has been written about Star Trek in its fiftieth anniversary year and I couldn’t resist adding my voice to the many celebrating this world-changing, pop culture phenomenon. Since it was the so-called Original Series that kicked things off, and since I am firmly in the TOS camp, I’ve decided to list my favorite episodes from that groundbreaking show in chronological order. Please note, I say favorite, not best. Some of my favorites might be your designated clunkers and vice-versa. Please feel free to chime in, via the comments section, and let me know your top picks. (And, yes, this list could easily have been twice as long, but I had to stop somewhere.)
“Pilot: The Cage”
It plays more like a television version of the 50’s classic Forbidden Planet, but Roddenberry’s first Trek pilot—starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike—is a challenging and, for its time, mind-bending excursion not only into the deeps of space, but the deeps of human consciousness. Spock’s on board, but there’s an emotional vacuum here only William Shatner and DeForest Kelley could fill.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Star Trek is still finding its feet in this second pilot—for one thing, there’s no McCoy, a vital ingredient to the show’s success—but Shatner and Nimoy have instant chemistry, the Kirk and Spock relationship hitting the ground running. One might say that the death of Kirk’s old friend Gary Mitchell, played by 2001’s Gary Lockwood, opened the door to the friendship that would blossom between the captain and his first officer. This episode also laid the groundwork for 1989’s much-maligned Star Trek V (a movie I’m very fond of, warts and all), with the introduction of the Great Barrier and its connection to god-like entities. It would have been something if, instead of the God-Thing the Enterprise faced in the film, Kirk had encountered a reanimated Gary Mitchell on Sha Ka Ree.
“The Enemy Within"
Written by Twilight Zone’s Richard Matheson. A transporter accident divides Kirk into two halves: one good, one evil. The science is shaky, even for Star Trek, but Shatner is having such a great time playing the dark side of Captain Kirk’s personality—and we’re having such a great time watching him—that it really doesn’t matter. “I’m Captain Kirk!!” Yes, you are.
“A Taste of Armageddon"
A prescient episode about technology’s ability to blind us to the horrors of war, this episode also features one of the great Captain Kirk speeches: “Yes, we’re killers—but we’re not going to kill today.” Once again, the Shakespearean-trained Shatner delivers the goods and, once again, Star Trek takes pulp adventure and illuminates it with Big Truths.
“The Squire of Gothos"
Trek always does well when Kirk is facing a strong antagonist and Trelane—given life by the wonderful William Campbell—is one of the best: an all-powerful cosmic brat who can bend reality to his will. Campbell returned to Trek as Klingon Captain Koloth in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” while Roddenberry would eventually evolve Trelane into The Next Generation’s Q.
“This Side of Paradise”
Written by the great D.C. Fontana, “Paradise” gives us a touching love story for Mr. Spock and the beautiful botanist Leila Kalomii (Jill Ireland), staged against the backdrop of an intriguing science-fiction mystery (“What are those mysterious spores and how do we stop them?”). And it’s all topped with a classic Kirk-Spock fight—with Shatner taunting a confused, then wildly angry, Nimoy. Star Trek always had a knack for memorable closing scenes and the closer of "Paradise," where Spock says “For the first time in my life, I was happy,” ranks with the best of them. Directed by Trek’s most lyrical director, Ralph Senensky.
“Errand of Mercy”
As both a producer and writer, Gene L. Coon was as invaluable to Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry. Coon brought humor and heart to the series—and he also brought the Klingons, who make their first appearance here (with the great John Colicos as Kor, perhaps the best Klingon baddie of them all). The story is about the futility of war, the stupidity of racial hatred, and our potential to transcend both (in the case of the Organians, the transcendence is literal, as they leave physical form behind to become beings of light). A great episode, capped by the powerful moment when Kirk and Kor both realize—to their mutual embarrassment—how passionately they’re arguing for a war that neither of them wants.
“The City on the Edge of Forever”
The most celebrated episode of Star Trek—and rightly so. The story originated with science fiction titan Harlan Ellison, then went through the typewriters of Roddenberry, Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana. The result is a powerful story of love, loss, duty and heartbreaking sacrifice. Shatner’s finest TV performance as Kirk—only matched by his movie performance in Wrath of Khan. Joan Collins totally embodies the captain's love interest, Edith Keeler—a smart, sexy visionary who’s Kirk’s equal in every way—and DeForest Kelley shines as a drugged, disoriented McCoy, lost in a past he can’t understand.
A superb performance by Leonard Nimoy anchors a story that takes us into the bubbling, boiling depths of the Vulcan’s heart and soul and also gives us our first glimpse of Spock’s homeworld. What’s wonderful about the teleplay, credited to science-fiction great Theodore Sturgeon, is that, despite being a Spock-centric story, we get an illuminating look at the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship. More than anything, this episode is about friendship—and there have rarely been three greater fictional friends than Trek’s classic triumvirate. And let's not forget that incredible fight between Kirk and Spock—and the equally-incredible musical score by Gerald Fried.
Written by Jerome Bixby. A parallel universe! Spock with a beard! The Agony Booth! One of the great things about this episode—directed by I Love Lucy’s Marc Daniels (who was behind the camera for an impressive fifteen Trek episodes)—is that it gives the entire cast a chance to shine, something that rarely happened in a series primarily focused on Kirk, Spock and McCoy. We also get to meet one of Captain Kirk’s most intriguing love interests, Lt. Marlena Moreau—played to seductive perfection by Barbara Luna. Too bad they never followed up with Moreau’s double, introduced in the show’s final scene. She would have been a fascinating addition to the cast.
The tale of Zefram Cochrane, creator of the warp drive, and the ethereal creature called The Companion is one of strangest and most beautiful love stories in all of Star Trek. Directed with grace and elegance by Ralph Senensky, from a script by Gene L. Coon, the show also features Elinor Donahue as Commissioner Nancy Hedford, who becomes the Companion’s living vessel. Since Donahue’s mother on the 50’s sitcom Father Knows Best was played by Jane Wyatt, who also played Spock’s mother in “Journey to Babel,” does that mean that Hedford and Spock are related?
“Journey to Babel"
Written by D.C. Fontana. Another Spock-centric classic, this time introducing the Vulcan’s parents—played by "Balance of Terror's" Mark Lenard and the aforementioned TV ubermom Jane Wyatt—in a storyline that gives us family dysfunction, political intrigue, a climactic space battle and also introduces the blue-skinned, antennaed Andorians.
“The Trouble with Tribbles”
Tribbles! And more Tribbles! And still more Tribbles! Need I say more? Only that this episode—one of Trek’s most popular—is further proof that Shatner is a supremely gifted comic actor. But, really, the entire cast handles the comedy with just the right balance of absurdity and gravity. This is the first Star Trek script—and the first television sale—for David Gerrold, who went on to become an award-winning novelist and was also pivotal to the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“A Piece of the Action”
“Tribbles” may be the most celebrated of Trek’s humorous episodes, but “A Piece of the Action”—which posits an entire planet modeled on Chicago mobs of the 1930’s—is my favorite. Shatner’s in his element, hamming it up (in the best possible way) as the gangsterfied (or is that gangsterized?) Kirk—and he and Nimoy have such great comedic chemistry together that they could have been spun-off into their own half-hour space sitcom.
“Return to Tomorrow”
The story about ancient aliens—reduced to glowing orbs of pure consciousness—inhabiting the bodies of Kirk, Spock (Nimoy’s clearly having a blast playing a mischievous bad guy) and recurring guest star Diana Muldaur is fun, but it’s Kirk’s unforgettable “risk is our business” soliloquy—delivered with passion and power by William Shatner—that lifts this episode into the classic. The speech, written by Gene Roddenberry, encapsulates the essence of Trek. “Risk is our business…that’s what this starship is all about…that’s why we’re aboard her.”
“Spectre of the Gun”
Written by Gene L. Coon (using the pseudonym Lee Cronin). Let’s face it: this episode could have ended up as silly as “Spock’s Brain.” (If you don’t know what that is, count yourself lucky.) Instead it plays like a Trek episode set in The Twilight Zone, as Kirk and Company find themselves in a surreal and disturbing version of the Old West, heading ineluctably toward a replay of the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. This episode proves that—despite budget cuts and other problems—Season Three of Star Trek had its share of classics to go along with the stinkers.
“Day of the Dove”
Written by Jerome Bixby. Yes, it’s all way over the top—there’s so much scenery-chewing in this episode, it’s amazing there were any sets left—but this story about the power of blind hatred, and our ability to ultimately move beyond it, still resonates. And Michael Ansara’s Kang is yet another great Klingon antagonist: his arrogance and hubris balanced by an underlying humanity.
“The Tholian Web"
Kirk’s dead. Or is he? While the captain floats around the Enterprise, trapped in other-dimensional space, Spock and McCoy are at each other’s throats, Uhura’s having visions, and one of the series’ coolest special effects wraps itself around the ship. “The Tholian Web” provides a great window into the Kirk-Spock-McCoy troika, especially in the moving scene where the doctor and first officer listen to Kirk’s “posthumous” message.
No doubt the limited sets were a result of budget-cutting, a way to make the episode as cheaply as possible, but the result—featuring nearly bare, dark stages illuminated by eerie shafts of light—is a bizarre, disturbing episode that plays like German Expressionism, by way of Orson Welles. “The Empath” is a tale of pain and, ultimately, compassion and it all hinges on Kathryn Hays’ portrayal of the mute alien named Gem. It’s a delicate, genuinely moving performance.
“Requiem For Methuselah”
James Daly is superb as the world-weary immortal Flint and Louise Sorel is heartbreaking as his android creation, Rayna. Yes, Kirk and Rayna fall in love with alarming (one might even say ridiculous) speed—a staple not just of Star Trek but of 60’s TV in general—but the emotions ring true nonetheless. The final scene, with a lost and vulnerable Kirk, a soliloquizing McCoy and a tender Spock, seeking to ease his captain’s pain, is one of the finest in the series. “Forget,” Spock whispers—but we can’t. The moment still resonates, almost fifty years later.
And, just for fun, here’s my ranking of movies with the original cast. It’s a wildly-uneven film series, but I always find something to enjoy, maybe even love, in all these movies:
6. Star Trek The Motion Picture
I’ll never forget the looks of disappointment and bewilderment on my friends’ faces as we emerged from a Manhattan movie theater in 1979. Still, we did get to see Kirk, Spock and McCoy again—even if they didn’t quite seem like their old selves. I’ve been re-editing this movie in my head since it came out. I still think there’s a far better film in there, waiting to emerge.
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
There are wonderful pieces in Leonard Nimoy’s first directorial effort, but the whole is a little too quiet, too restrained, too…Vulcan. Search for Spock also undoes Wrath of Khan’s forward momentum, resetting the status quo that TWOK so expertly blew up.
4. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
There are major problems with tone (is this a serious science-fiction film or The Three Stooges in Space?), and the finale leaves much to be desired, but The Final Frontier gives us great character moments—DeForest Kelly was never better than in the scene where McCoy relives his father’s death—and its heart is definitely in the right place. Cut down to an hour, William Shatner’s directorial debut would have made an excellent television episode.
3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Director, and co-screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer doesn’t hit the heights of his Wrath of Khan, but he does provide a thoroughly-enjoyable send-off for the original crew. And it’s great fun to see the great Christopher Plummer gobble up scenery as the Klingon General, Chang.
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Leonard Nimoy, directing from a script by Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer, gives us a goofy story about going back in time and saving the whales in order to save the future. Only thing is it doesn’t seem goofy in the least. The Voyage Home is a comedy rooted in character (the Enterprise crew has rarely been as relatable as they are when they’re wandering around 1980’s San Francisco) and perhaps the single most entertaining Trek movie.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
"Khaaaaaaann!!" More than thirty years later, Nicholas Meyer’s Wrath of Khan remains the Citizen Kane of Trek movies. An epic—yet surprisingly intimate—story about friendship, loss, aging, death and spiritual rebirth, the film gives us a Captain Kirk who has never been more more vulnerable, more three-dimensionally human (it’s one of Shatner’s greatest performances) and provides a towering antagonist in Ricardo Montalban’s Khan. Spock’s death scene showcases the incredible chemistry between Nimoy and Shatner: Gene Roddenberry clearly knew what he was doing when he put these two together back in 1966.
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis