Thursday, September 29, 2016


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.  

Season One
“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.

Season Two
“Amok Time”
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. 

“Mirror Mirror”
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.”

Season Three
“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.  

“The Empath”
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 come out. 

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 


  1. Oh, "Spock's Brain"... you magnificent exemplar of all that can go wrong with science fiction, although McCoy under the influence of hyped-up genius always makes me smile. Your movie list is the same order as mine (and, not to be a typo nerd, but you put "III" on "Voyage Home" rather than "IV") and I can't argue with any of your selections from the series. I really love "Metamorphosis," so much that I think "First Contact" got some contact love because Zeph was in it (not to say it wasn't good, but I was already predisposed to love anything with Cochrane in it). A few episodes on your list I haven't watched in years, and now I'm inspired to go back and watch them. So, thanks for sharing!

    1. I, too, am a typo nerd, Mike, so thanks for pointing that out!

      Yeah..."Spock's Brain." What's fascinating is that it was written by Gene Coon (using his third season pseudonym) with plenty of input from the TREK braintrust. Just goes to show you that sometimes even the greatest talents can go wrong!

    2. Great picks, JMD. Can't really argue with any of those.

      On Season One, I'd definitely add "Balance of Terror," which might be my favorite episode ever.

      In a lot of ways, it's the perfect complement to "Errand of Mercy." Similar thematic concerns, but with a more grounded take.

      Mark Lenard is perfect as the war-weary Romulan commander who can never forget his duty, and it features Kirk in a battle of wits that has only been matched by WRATH OF KHAN.

      The subplot is nearly flawless, right down to the way Spock is forced to choose between saving the newly wed Lt. Tomlinson or the bigoted Lt. Stiles.

      And it's got one of the strongest and most emotional closing sequences with Kirk trying to console Tomlinson's grieving widow.

      As far as Season Two goes, I think "Wolf in the Fold" has multiple problems, but it's such an interesting--and genuinely chilling--way to incorporate a horror concept into a sci-fi world.

      And with Season Three, I'd include "The Paradise Syndrome," which is an interesting complement to the admittedly superior "City on the Edge of Forever."

      Again, we've got thematically similar episodes with the "Kirk can't be happy" theme.

      But whereas "City on the Edge of Forever" appeals to the intellect, "The Paradise Syndrome" goes for the jugular. In the former, Kirk's tragedy is that he must choose, in the latter it's that he doesn't have a choice.

      I don't know, maybe there's something about "City" that offsets the tragedy because we get a cosmic view of its significance, whereas in "Paradise Syndrome" Kirk's wife dies because of jealousy, superstition and forces outside her control. There isn't anything to make you feel good about the way things turned out, it's just senseless.

      And I'm completely agreed about "Piece of the Action" being the best comedic episode of TREK. The "Fizzbin" card game sequence is hilarious "That's a Royal Hizbo!"

      I also like how you've put STIV as 'the most entertaining' of the films. I agree completely.

      I am kind of heartbroken that anyone born after 2000 will never quite get Scotty's "Hello, computer!" bit.

      "Doesn't he know its name is Siri?"


    3. Some great choices, David. And I agree that "Balance of Terror" is superb. And, yes, there's a clear line from that episode to WRATH OF KHAN.

      I think the biggest problem with "The Paradise Syndrome" is that it comes in the third season, where characters were falling in love with alarming regularity. It's not long after Kirk loses Miramanee (hope I spelled that right!) that Kirk falls for the android Rayna. And Scotty falls in love and McCoy falls in love and... In the first two seasons, Kirk had his dalliances, but the only true love he found was with Edith Keeler, which made that episode all the more poignant.

      You're so right about Scotty's "Hello, computer...?" bit. Our technology has neutered it. But it's still funny to us!

    4. I watched the episodes out of order, which is probably why I never noticed a rapid descent into love at first sight. Probably easier to take when they're sprinkled in between Season One and Two episodes.

      It's entirely possible I saw "The Paradise Syndrome" before "City on the Edge of Forever"!

      But I do agree that "City" is the better episode, and I'd probably rank it second only to "Balance of Terror."

      At least the next generation still gets 'colorful metaphors'!


    5. It's interesting that, in a world where serialized storytelling has taken over, you can watch those old TREKS in random order and, for the most part, it doesn't matter. There's something to be said for that.

    6. Definitely! I wish more shows were like that sometimes. There are ones I'll never start watching because it's just too much of a commitment.


    7. Right. You can't just watch one or two episodes because The Big Story may take months, or years, to unfold. And, with all the great TV out there right now, it IS a major commitment to add even one more show to the list.

      That said, the new STAR TREK will be serialized—and that's okay with me because I'm already in.

    8. Great overview, JMD! I did my own a few years back, as you know, and there's definitely some overlap between yours and mine. I include "Balance of Terror" and "The Paradise Syndrome" as all-time favorites, and I maintain that "The Doomsday Machine" is among the series' finest moments.

      What's most refreshing to me about your list is that you clearly still have so much love and enthusiasm for those episodes. I've read so many retrospectives and "retro-reviews" of the original Star Trek in which the writers are just so JADED and CYNICAL and CRITICAL about it now, as if they can't forgive the show for being produced 50 years ago. So you get criticisms about certain episodes being sexist or culturally insensitive or scientifically inaccurate. It's as if these writers now feel embarrassed for having once loved the show so much, so they feel like they have to tear it down now. I don't buy into that mentality, and I'm glad to see you don't, either.

      I will proudly proclaim my affection for "The Paradise Syndrome" and the Harry Mudd episodes and "The Enterprise Incident" and even "The Savage Curtain," even though it gets me raised eyebrows from the more, shall we say, elitist voices among fandom.

    9. We clearly share that love and enthusiasm, Glenn. I actually took some time yesterday to re-read your GREENSBURG'S GRUMBLINGS blog posts, where you (and your daughter) tackle every single TOS episode and movie. We agree far more than we disagree, especially where a certain starship captain is concerned

      I know what you mean about the "jaded and cynical" attitude of certain writers. It bothers me when people say STAR TREK was a low-budget show with cheesy effects, etc. In point of fact, it had a healthy budget (at least till the third year) and the effects were pretty much state of the art at the time, But these kinds of things become memes that people repeat endlessly without thinking. The other criticism is that TREK was campy. True, some of the episodes play that way, but, for the most part, they're not campy at all. Certainly no more than, say, an episode of BONANZA from the same time period. (It's kind of like the folks that always accuse Shatner of overacting. Yes, he can chew the scenery with the best of them, but even when he's giving a subtle, restrained performance, someone's going to say he's "hammy."

      I also have great affection for those episodes you mention. "The Savage Curtain" as I recall, was one of the inspirations for Marvel's original SECRET WARS mini-series!

    10. Also, for anyone out there who wants to take Glenn's tour of the TREK universe, you can start here:

    11. And that's GREENBERG'S GRUMBLINGS! Curse you, auto-correct!

  2. I can't argue with any of your choices, JM. :)

    Seems to me that the reason TOS (and a lot of other dramatic TV series from the early 1960s as well) still holds up is that it's essentially humanistic -- certainly aware of human frailty & flaw, and the horrors that can so easily steam from that; but also aware of humanity's potential to grow beyond being the helpless puppets of frailty & flaw, to face & acknowledge & accept every aspect of being human. I suspect the earnestness of that period doesn't always sit well with some viewers born into a snarkier age -- but cynicism is generally easy, while trust & vulnerability are difficult, especially these days.

    As for complaints about "dated" (how I've come to dislike that dismissive word) special effects -- some Twilight Zone episodes seem to have been made with a special effects budget of about $1.98, but the stories are just as powerful today as then. Maybe that's because they knew that quality writing, acting, and direction are always the best special effects of all? Which is why TOS stands the test of time, because at its best, it's about that vital core of storytelling, the human heart in conflict with itself.

    1. Hey, Tim! Great to hear from you, as always.

      I think one of the things that made TWILIGHT ZONE great was the fact that they often couldn't do special effects. The stories, the acting and directing had to leapfrog that challenge. Make us care passionately. And without the in-your-face effects of today, the best ZONE stories thrilled and awed and terrified us through SUGGESTION. Less, as the cliche goes, is more and in TZ's case it's very true.

      Probably true of TREK as well. Your point about "the earnestness of the period" is well taken. But—however well done the shows are—today's parade of flawed protagonists, people that can't ever seem to escape the morass of their own shortcomings, could learn a lesson from Roddenberry and Company: Yes, let's look our flaws in the face ("the human heart in conflict with itself" as you say), but let's aim higher, let's dare to move beyond our limitations and become something so much better. And, even if we can't, at least we tried our very best. Which, in itself, is a miraculous thing.

  3. There's too much to say here. Generically, you're right. Specifically, here goes:

    1) Season One: I disagree with your assessment of "Errand of Mercy". You said "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." In my opinion, you're right about Kirk but wrong about Kor. I think he did want to go to war. I could be wrong, just my opinion.

    2) Season Two: You nailed it.

    3) Season Three: You didn't mention (due to lack of space I'm sure) two of my ALL time favorite episodes across all Star Trek series': "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" & "All Our Yesterdays". Although not in the league of Kirk and Spock, Bones was right up there for me as a fantastic character. If he didn't belong on the Mount Rushmore of Star Trek characters, he didn't know. These two episodes are two of his absolute best!

    4) Movies: There is no way on Earth any human being could possibly rank Star Trek V above Star Trek III. It's not possible. If you want to put Star Trek I dead last, I understand. To me, the score Star Trek I alone puts it ahead of V...but to put V ahead of III, it must be a typo.

    1. Thanks for checking in with your TREK takes, George! I totally agree about McCoy's (and DeForest Kelley's) importance to the series. A great character and a great actor. I was never a big fan of "For The World Is Hollow...", but I do like "All Our Yesterdays," even though the Kirk part of the story lacks the punch of the Spock-McCoy adventure.

      As for my preference for STAR TREK V: There's no right or wrong here, it's all just personal opinion. As I said in the opening of the piece, some of my favorites may be your clunkers and vice-versa. Lots of folks loathe TREK V, but I have great affection for it, even as I acknowledge its many flaws.

      Live long and prosper!

    2. STAR TREK V has some great individual moments, even if the narrative never lives up to its promise. (And knowing that Roddenberry at one point wanted Kirk to punch an alien posing as Jesus Christ, you actually have to admire TREK V's restraint.)

      I think placing it above or below III has a lot to do with whether you value an interesting failure over a mediocre success.

      I tend to value ST:III more for developing Vulcan mysticism--and bringing Spock back--than the film itself. It's probably the most inoffensive and middle-of-the-road in terms of quality. There aren't any character moments that are as good or as bad as STV. It's mainly a get from Point A to Point B kind of film, and Spock is largely squandered until STIV.

      Basically, I feel like they're kind of interchangeable in the fourth or fifth spot, depending on how I'm feeling.

      I kind of wonder, if someone who never watched V in its entirety saw clips of the best moments on youtube, would they assume it was pretty good?

      And would such a film have more value in a meme-obsessed society? "Why does God need a starship?" would probably have circulated quite a bit.


    3. Interesting points, David. "What does God need with a starship?" is one of the best lines in all of TREK. And delivered perfectly! As is Kirk's "Excuse me...?" that leads into it.