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Star Trek – Spock’s Brain (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

Spock’s Brain is not the worst episode of Star Trek ever produced.

Indeed, Spock’s Brain is not even the worst episode of the third season as a whole. More than that, Spock’s Brain is not even the worst episode of the third season to this point. Spock’s Brain is a pretty bad piece of television, but it seems difficult to argue that the episode is quantifiably worse than Elaan of TroyiusThe Paradise Syndrome or And the Children Shall Lead. However, the episode’s reputation looms large in the broader context of the Star Trek canon. Many would point to this as the worst episode that the show ever produced.

"Check out the big brain on Spock!"

“Check out the big brain on Spock!”

To be fair, Star Trek fandom has never been entirely consistent or even-handed when it comes to identifying the worst that the franchise has to offer. This is a fandom that decided that Star Trek Into Darkness was somehow a worse film than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek: Nemesis, and that Threshold was somehow the worst episode of Star Trek: Voyager despite sharing a season with episodes like Tattoo and Alliances. When dealing with consensus fan opinion, it is always interesting to wonder why such things matter over others.

Spock’s Brain is pretty dire. It is sexist, it is ill-judged, it looks cheap, and its underlying premise is beyond absurd. It was also the first episode of the third season to be broadcast. In a way, it seemed like the ultimate affront to fandom. After all, these fans had worked really hard to convince NBC to bring the show back for a third season. Having those same hardcore fans tune into the new time slot to catch Spock’s Brain must have seemed like the ultimate insult, a hokey sci-fi b-movie premise executed on a tiny budget from a show that normally did much better.

The brains of the operation.

The brains of the operation.

There is an element of nostalgia to this reading of Star Trek. The franchise has always had a goofy side, even beyond the necessity for science-bending budget-saving plot devices like warp drive or the transporter. The franchise has a long history of misunderstanding the concept of evolution (see GenesisThreshold or Dear Doctor) or embracing Erich von Däniken (see Return to TomorrowThe Paradise Syndrome or The Chase). Star Trek has always run on ridiculous ideas, opening with a story about how voyaging outside the universe turns a person into a god.

Indeed, goofiness is part of the joy of Star Trek, from the giant green space hand in Who Mourns for Adonais? through to the pleasures of space!Lincoln in The Savage Curtain. More than that, the goofiness can even lead to truly spectacular episodes and stories in its own right, as with the weird space!amoeba in The Immunity Syndrome or the “planet of the gangsters” in A Piece of the Action. (Similarly, the “planet of the Romans” in Bread and Circuses and “planet of the Nazis” in Patterns of Force are also underrated episodes.)

Okay, Kirk. It's not THAT painful.

Okay, Kirk. It’s not THAT painful.

It is perhaps a combination of factors that accounts for the hatred directed at Spock’s Brain. It is not just the goofy premise, because there have been goofier premises before. It is not just the sexism, because there has been more overt sexism before and there is more overt sexism to follow. It is not just the bad script, because there have been terrible scripts before. It is not just the cheapness of the episode, because the show’s ambition always outstripped its production budget.

It is a combination of these factors, culminating in the decision that Spock’s Brain should be the show to open the third season of Star Trek on television. This is the stalking horse for the disjointed and uneven third season, and it seems like it is the first show caught in the cross-hairs.

Matters come to a head.

Matters come to a head.

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