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Star Trek 101: The Best of The Original Series

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, we’re holding a month full of Star Trek  related fun. We’re reviewing every episode of the show’s first season, from The Cage through to Operation — Annihilate!, one-per-day for all of May. We’re also looking at some of the various spin-offs, tie-ins and pop culture intersections, so there’s always something going on to do with Star Trek. Anyway, with the release of the new film, we thought it might be interesting to make some recommendations for fans of the new films who wanted to “dip their toes in the water” so to speak, offering a quick taste of the best that the classic 1960s original Star Trek has to offer those wanting to boldly go with Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

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Here are some of the highlights from the show’s 79- (or 80-) episode run. The original show was incredible episodic, so you can watch them in any order, and there’s no need to worry about being confused or lost be references to past events. Here’s a list of ten episodes for those looking to give classic Star Trek a rewatch.

The City on the Edge of Forever

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What it’s about: Based on an original script by Harlan Ellison, and passed through the hands of ever major writer working on the show at that point, The City on the Edge of Forever is one of those episodes which can make a legitimate claim to being the best episode the franchise ever produced. Coming at the tail end of the show’s first year, the story sees McCoy’s accidental trip to the past re-writing the history of the Second World War, and the rest of the universe to boot. Travelling back in time to stop the time line from diverging, Kirk and Spock find themselves visiting New York during the Great Depression. There, Kirk meets and falls in love with a beautiful idealistic young dreamer named Edith Keeler as Spock tries to figure out what event could have damaged history so completely.

Why it’s great: The City on the Edge of Forever is a wonderful science fiction idea, wrapped around an endearing romantic love story which juxtaposes the optimistic future of the franchise with the harsh realities of the relatively recent past. More than that, though, it’s one of the rare times in the show when Kirk’s humanity shines through. The original Star Trek was never overly fond of character development, but the script and Shatner’s performance make The City on the Edge of Forever one of the best character-driven episodes of the original television show. It helps that it is bother very clever while still connecting with the audience on an emotional level. This is the episode which makes the case for Star Trek as more than a pulpy pleasure.

Amok Time

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What it’s about: Even Spock has urges, you know. Unfortunately, those urges hit about once ever seven years and require the Vulcan to return home and mater or risk death itself. As Kirk watches his science officer’s control slowly slip away, things begin to get a little bit complicated. As in “fight to the death” complicated.

Why it’s great: Spock is a great character. He’s arguably the best representative of Star Trek. Only Kirk can really compete in terms of iconic status, and I reckon Spock is probably considerably more recognisable and popular. There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy was used as an ambassador for the franchise in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek.

Spock’s entire personality is so dedicated to reason and order that it’s fun watching him deal with problems which don’t conform to his view of the universe. Watching Spock’s sanity and control slip from him is surprising powerful and very affecting. Even outside of the fantastic work by Nimoy and the glimpse behind Spock’s Vulcan poise, Amok Time features one of the most iconic scenes in the entire franchise, complete with that delicious “fight” music and some wonderfully pulpy action.

The Trouble With Tribbles

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What it’s about: Tasked with protecting a shipment of grain destined for a distant world, Kirk and his crew find themselves a bit bored on the edge of Klingon space. As a Klingon ship stops in for some rest and relaxation, things begin to get interesting. Particularly when a local trader introduces Tribbles into the equation. Round furry purring objects, it turns out that all the Tribbles can do is eat and multiply. That said, they do it very well.

Why it’s great: Watching the original Star Trek, there was never a sense that it was taking itself too seriously. After all, producing a science-fiction show (in colour!) on a television budget with the technology of the time was never going to be completely convincing. As such, the show relied on a certain amount of charm to carry it across, with the three leads often ending an episode casually joking about their latest adventure.

The Trouble With Tribbles is an entire episode dedicated to the show not taking itself too seriously, and it works very well. It helps that the ensemble of the original Star Trek probably have the best comedic timing in the franchise, and that the show drafts in reliable supporting performer William Campbell to play a Klingon antagonist who is more of a snide jerk than a world-conquering maniac. (Well, mostly, anyway.)

Mirror, Mirror

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What it’s about: A freak transport accident (get used to those) strands Kirk in an alternate universe where everybody is evil and sexy. Well, sexier. Not only must Kirk and his companions try to blend in on this sadistic and fascist version of the familiar ship while dealing with plotting and conniving doppelgängers, they also have to figure out a way to get home. Also, Spock has a neat goatee.

Why it’s great: Spock’s goatee has become a pop culture in-joke, a shorthand way of demonstrating that a particular character stems from an evil alternate world. The idea of an evil Enterprise is inspired, and seeing our heroes turned into scheming sociopaths is also quite entertaining. Leonard Nimoy is also fantastic in his role as evil!Spock, hinting that perhaps Spock himself might be a constant across universes. This is pulpy science-fiction, but it’s a genre which the origin Star Trek executed so very well.

The Devil in the Dark

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What it’s about: A bunch of miners on a distant world are being slaughtered by a monster dwelling in the cave system. Given the richness of the materials being excavated, Kirk and the Enterprise are dispatched to help deal with the problem brewing beneath the surface of this rocky world.

Why it’s great: The Devil in the Dark executes a fairly classic science-fiction twist, but it’s a classic twist for a reason. If you want an example of Star Trek‘s humanist philosophy, and an opportunity to see the ideals of Roddenberry’s show in action, you really can’t do much better than this.

As usual, Nimoy is phenomenal as Spock, and the Horta itself stands out as one of the franchise’s most wonderfully alien (and elegantly simplistic) extraterrestrial designs. Willaim Shatner has been known to alternate between naming this or The City on the Edge of Forever as his favourite episode. Also, The Next Generation offered a passable remake in the form of Home Soil.

A Piece of the Action

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What it’s about: Kirk and Spock encounter a society that seems to run on the clichés of the crime genre. They proceed to investigate. Spock gets to wear a cool suit, and William Shatner has a wonderful time.

Why it’s great: There are stronger episodes of Star Trek. I feel a little guilty leaving Errand of Mercy or The Enterprise Incident to make room for A Piece of the Action, but A Piece of the Action is just as much a part of Star Trek as any of those shows. A Piece of the Action is just the best example of a particular type of Star Trek, the kind of story that could easily have come from a trashy fifties magazine, relying on the fairly contrived set-up of stumbling across a planet which resembles an era from our own past.

The second season was full of these sorts of stories, including TV!Romans in Bread & Circuses, space!Nazis in Patterns of Force and even the surreal America-world of The Omega Glory. It’s sobering sometimes to remember that Star Trek was occasionally a cheesy sixties television show. However, cheese is seldom as fun as it is here.

The Doomsday Machine

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What it’s about: The Enterprise finds Commodore Decker, the last survivor of one of the Enterprise’s sister ships. It turns out that his ship and crew were eaten by a giant planet-eating space monster, which would seem to be one of the risks of the job. Decker is taking this about as well as you might expect, and vows vengeance against the gigantic beast. This causes obvious problems for Kirk, given that Decker technically outranks him.

Why it’s great: Star Trek, like popular culture as a whole, has been riffing off Moby Dick for quite some time. And generally quite well, too. For every crazy “Kirk hunts a space vampire cloud” plot (Obsession), there’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Into Darkness. The Doomsday Machine does the plot well, and demonstrates why these sorts of stories are great for character drama. It helps that Norman Spinrad’s script is sharp, and that the sci-fi high concept behind the threat (the eponymous planet-killer) is interesting in its own right.

Balance of Terror

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What it’s about: Star Trek introduces the first of its long-recurring adversaries here, in the form of the Romulans. Basically evil!Vulcans, the Romulans would go on to appear in all of the spin-offs and even bookend the movie franchise, appearing as the primary antagonists of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation film (Star Trek: Nemesis) and the first of Abrams’ reboot films.

Here, Kirk is tasked with responding to Romulan aggression along the border of the “the Neutral Zone”, the empty buffer of space which has ensured peace between Romulas and Earth for quite some time. As Kirk matches wits with a Romulan commander on an invisible ship, he has to fight to prevent a new war from breaking out.

Why it’s great: The Romulans are Star Trek‘s first well-developed baddies, appearing quite a while before the Klingons first emerged. Balance of Terror works for several reasons. First, it is structured like a submarine movie in space, with all the associated tension and suspense. Although Star Trek was a product of the Cold War, this episode feels like a throwback to the Second World War. However, what really sets Balance of Terror apart is the fact that it develops Kirk’s opponents as more than just generic bad guys.

Employing Mark Lenard, one of the best actors to work on the franchise (and who’ll turn up again shortly), the Romulan commander becomes an anonymously tragic hero, a decent man forced into combat by ideals of duty and honour, not motivated by hate or fear. It’s a stunningly optimistic and compassionate view of the reality of war, with some wonderful lines that espouse Star Trek‘s philosophy almost perfectly.

Space Seed

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What it’s about: The Enterprise finds a derelict space ship and decides to investigate. Finding a bunch of humans in freezers, they thaw one of them out. His name is Khan Noonien Singh, a warlord from Earth’s past with an eye on the future.

Why it works: Khan is a great character. That’s why the franchise keeps revisiting him, and why so many of the later movies (Nemesis, First Contact) have attempted to riff on his dynamic with Kirk by providing a singular foil to the lead character. Here, Ricardo Montalban is absolutely wonderful in the role, carrying the sort of poise and sophistication from a super-man who would be king. Shatner tends to excel when he’s put opposite an actor will to compete for the audience’s attention.

Strong guest actors tend to enhance Shatner’s performances. (John Colicos does something similar in Errand of Mercy and William Campbell in The Squire of Gothos.) Space Seed also adds quite a bit of history to the Star Trek universe, exploring the franchise’s relationship to the past – even a fictional past where we apparently had some “Eugenics Wars” in the 1990s. (Remember those?) It’s a tour de force for the show, and still holds up remarkably well. It’s the episode that lead to The Wrath of Khan and was also a clear influence on Into Darkness.

Journey to Babel

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What it’s about: Spock’s mom and dad show up. The Vulcan family reunion is as chummy as you might expect. The Enterprise ferries ambassadors around. When murder and mayhem break out on the trip, Spock finds himself torn between duty and family. Actually, not so much “torn” as “mildly inconvenienced.” Which causes understandable friction to his already rocky relationship with his parents.

Why it works: As mentioned above, Star Trek was not generally a character-driven show. The characters didn’t really change between the first episode and the last. Episodes could be broadcast out of order without confusing viewers too much. Although the cast did get more character development in the movies, there were hints of it to be found in the show. Journey to Babel focuses on Spock’s family, which is a compelling hook. Half-Vulcan, half-human, Spock exists trapped between two worlds. His inability (or unwillingness) to express love or other emotions makes that dynamic all the more complicated. The opening scene is one of the best hooks of the series.

Journey to Babel works because it puts Spock in an impossible position, which he evades by pretending that there is no choice. It puts Spock in conflict with not only the viewers, but the rest of the cast as well. It also has bodies stuffed in inconvenient places around the ship, and Kirk fighting a blue-skinned man with antennae. Also, there’s Mark Lenard again, this time playing Spock’s father – a wonderful performance which suggests that (ironically) Spock may have inherited his emotional side from his dad of all things.

Want some quick Star Trek recommendations? Try our quick “best of” lists for the shows for those looking to dip their toes in the franchise water:

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4 Responses

  1. City on the Edge of Forever can make you cry even after seeing it a dozen times. Also, the neo-prog band Spock’s Beard is named after…Spock’s beard.

    • City on the Edge of Forever is probably one of the most beautiful episodes of Trek ever filmed. Only The Visitor, The Inner Light and Far Beyond the Stars come close. While I was writing my list of Deep Space Nine recommendations, I was almost tearing up thinking of Brooks’ performance in The Visitor. It’s the perfect mix of pride and heartbreak at how his son’s life turned out.

  2. Great recommendations. I watched “Balance of Terror” and (for the first time, I believe) “The Devil in the Dark” yesterday as part of my commemoration of the 50th anniversary.

    • Thanks Adam.

      Those are two pretty great choices. In particular, The Devil in the Dark is a great “Star-Trek-y” episode, epitomising a lot of what fans remember as the best about the show.

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