Star Trek



It’s Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, which is funny in way because it’s hard for many of us to think about a time when there wasn’t such a thing as Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s iconic 1960s series gave us a number of incredibly memorable characters and performances, led by William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock and DeForest Kelley as Bones, while also inadvertently launching what would become one of the biggest franchises in history.

Of course, Star Trek has been and ever shall be about much more than just its beloved characters. There’s also its thematic exploration of topical issues and problems facing humankind in the here and now, its application of real scientific theories extrapolated into very cool (and possible) future tech like warp drive, transporters, and more, and of course its optimistic view of humanity’s future that reassures us that, yes, it’s all gonna work out.

10. ”Arena” (Season 1)

It’s 50 years later, and Kirk fighting a guy in a green rubber suit is still awesome. “Arena,” while not exactly reinventing the wheel when it comes to one-hour drama, does create a Trek standard that would find itself adapted into every other Trek series: Human and alien get stranded on insert deadly environment here, enemies become friends, and the universe is better for it.

Previously, we had only seen Kirk save the day sitting comfortable in his chair, or with a photon torpedo or six handy. “Arena” puts Kirk in a spot where he has to earn his survival by putting his instincts to the test, using only his wits and what little his environment provides. Kirk, in combat with the Gorn, proves that he is immune to defeat, but not to compassion. He spares the Gorn’s life, satisfying the plan of the cosmic entity that pit the two against each other in the first place. Again, it’s not Shakespeare, but leave it to Trek to get significant mileage out of men, even those behind the wheel of a starship, being reminded that they don’t have the right to play God.

9. ”Amok Time” (Season 2)

Season 2 of Star Trek kicked off with our first look at Spock’s home planet, Vulcan. Leonard Nimoy’s character had been the breakout character of the show the previous year, and there was a real hunger among fans for more info on The Logical One and his mysterious people.

Not only does “Amok Time” bring us to Vulcan, but it also introduced the concept of pon farr — the Vulcan mating ritual, which overwhelms Spock and drives him to madness. (Hey, we can relate.) Kirk has no choice but to disobey orders, divert course, and get his first officer back to his planet before the fever kills him. There, we meet Spock’s betrothed, the beautiful and exotic T’Pring (Arlene Martel). But T’Pring insists that Spock fight for her affections, and the unlucky combatant she chooses to face her would-be husband is Kirk! Oh, and to quote the ancient Vulcan priestess overseeing the whole affair, “This combat is to the death.”

The episode offers an exciting glimpse of Vulcan that also allows for Nimoy to take Spock to some strange new acting worlds (for a character so in control of his emotions, he sure did emote a lot on this show). Martel and the other Vulcan guest stars bring a believability to the race that would elude many later actors to play our pointy-eared cousins (see many a TNG episode), but best of all is the strengthening of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic that takes place in “Amok Time.” When Spock requests that his “closest friends” accompany him to the planet surface for the ritual, even Bones has to let down his guard for a minute. His reply is simple and yet says so much about this trio: “I shall be honored, sir.”

8. ”The Naked Time” (Season 1)

As the fourth episode aired, “The Naked Time” served as a primer for audiences to what made the still-new characters onboard the Enterprise tick. That dramatic throughline, some great acting, and a dynamic and tense plot all made for a memorable episode that still packs a wallop today.

When the Enterprise finds a team of dead scientists on the planet Psi 2000, Kirk’s crew soon becomes contaminated with the same infection that killed that unlucky group. Those affected act strangely — almost as if they’re drunk — and many of them find their inner-selves revealed in acts of uninhibited emotion: Spock’s half-breed identity crisis, Sulu’s secret swashbuckler, Kirk’s love of his ship over all else, and so on. Meanwhile, while McCoy toils to find a vaccine for the intoxication virus, the Enterprise becomes locked in a death-spiral heading for the planet’s surface. Can the drunken crew of the Enterprise save themselves in time? Of course they can… and they invent time travel while doing it!

7. ”The Enemy Within” (Season 1)

“The Enemy Within” features a lot of firsts for Star Trek. First transporter malfunction. First duplicate Kirk. First unbridled, sweaty, mascara-laden, over-acting Shatner moment. It’s a classic!

During a geological expedition on Alpha 177, the Enterprise’s transporter ceases to function correctly after a clumsy technician beams up with some weird magnetic dust on his uniform. Unfortunately — or rather, fortunately for the viewer — Kirk also beams up shortly thereafter… twice! He’s been split in two by the accident: a “good” Kirk who’s a pokey, indecisive mess, and an “evil” Kirk who acts like a raving lunatic, running around the ship drinking Saurian brandy and trying to force himself on Yeoman Rand. (We kid you not.) The situation is aggravated by the fact that Sulu and a bunch of red-shirts are stranded on the freezing planet with no way to get back (no shuttlecrafts yet, eh?). Also, a poorly made-up alien dog is split in two as well. And dies! A thousand Trekkies weep.

The episode is amazing for the scenery chewing that Shatner pulls off, as well as the basic concept it posits that everyone has a good and dark side. Many subsequent Trek episodes and sci-fi series would rip off “The Enemy Within,” but rarely has it been topped.

6. ”Where No Man Has Gone Before” (Season 1)

Trek’s second pilot is the stuff of perfect sci-fi: Compelling action mixed with heady, effective, and at times emotional drama. It finds a perfect balance between delivering on Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” premise and the ethically challenging landscape of the morality play.

With the first (rejected) pilot’s Captain Chris Pike and company replaced by Kirk and Spock, the Enterprise’s new…ish mission gets off to a quick and violent start: The ship encounters an unknown energy barrier at the galaxy’s rim that turns Gary Mitchell, Kirk’s best friend and helmsman, into a mortal enemy. Mitchell, not a warm and friendly guy to begin with, develops ESP powers, to the point where he goes from levitating cups to reading the thoughts of the entire crew. As Mitchell becomes an increasing threat to Enterprise, Spock helps Kirk make the tough decision – exile his friend to a barren planet, and kill him, if necessary, to save the ship.

The episode introduces the Trek staple of Kirk and Spock’s relationship; the emotionally restrained Vulcan playing conscience to Kirk’s passionate cowboy diplomacy. It also introduces the rule of thumb that whenever Kirk gets into a fist fight, his tunic must be torn. For years, we thought all close quarters combat (CQC) wasn’t CQC unless we showed off some Shatner chest, too, but we digress. The Captain’s first duty is to his crew, and it often comes with the price being that of your dearest blood. “Gone Before” introduces that consequence of being the Enterprise captain, one which Kirk would suffer until the end of his career. This pilot gave birth to two icons in the making and a series that would become what it is today. Only the best science fiction can pull that off.

5. ”The Trouble with Tribbles” (Season 2)

Attention must be paid to an episode DS9 sent its characters to revisit and pay homage to. “The Trouble with Tribbles” could have crashed and burn — fuzzy, purring, Wookiee-pellet looking things on a space station full of Klingons sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, the episode earned a place as a permanent fan-favorite, and established Trek’s unique brand of light comedy that would be later explored in the likes of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

While a bogus distress call sends the Enterprise to protect a space station’s hold of quadrotriticale , a special grain worth quite a lot to the Klingons, Kirk reluctantly keeps the peace as the “born pregnant” tribbles multiply and eat everything in their sights, including the grain. An ol’ fashioned bar room brawl breaks out, a human saboteur is revealed to be a Klingon in disguise and the tribbles save the day. It’s amazing how these events, under the microscope, might make a Trekkie scratch his head, wondering how the heck this ever worked out well. But watching the episode again, and again, indicates why this is Classic Trek.

4. ”Space Seed” (Season 1)

If not for this gripping first season episode there would never have been Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, widely considered the best Trek film to date. The Enterprise comes across the derelict vessel Botany Bay adrift in space, and Kirk awakens its crew from suspended animation in order to prevent their deaths. Bad idea. It turns out they are genetically-enhanced supermen from the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s (remember them?) led by Khan Noonien Singh(the late, great Ricardo Montalban).

Boasting a bigger ego and appetite for women and military glory than his rescuer Captain Kirk, as well as a snazzier wardrobe, Khan has designs on capturing both the Enterprise and the heart of artsy redhead Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The episode features a great mano a mano brawl between Kirk and Khan, something the ship-bound Wrath of Khan didn’t, as well as plenty of clever verbal exchanges between the two foes. Kirk’s climactic decision to settle Khan, McGivers and his men on Ceti Alpha V would decades later cost his best friend Spock his life.

3. ”Mirror, Mirror” (Season 2)

Spock in a goatee! The Mirror Universe, a place of alternate realities and a lot of guys wearing sashes, was a relatively new concept when TOS explored it during its second season. Now, the Mirror Universe is a sci-fi staple traded and used across many mediums, with Trek having gone to the well a few more times too.

Arguably one of the most memorable episodes of Trek that even non die-hards can single out, “Mirror” finds Kirk and company the victims of an ion storm and sent to an alternate reality where the Federation’s tree-huggers have been replaced by the Imperial Empire’s warmongers. Kirk, Uhura, Bones and Scottyassume the roles of their doppelgangers, while their evil counterparts occupy the brig back in the regular universe until Spock can figure out how to remedy the situation. The I.S.S. Enterprise is a warship, home to a very Ming-looking Spock who is quick to figure out that a few things don’t quite gel on his ship. When Mirror Spock’s Kirk disappeared, that captain was this close to being on the receiving end of a mutiny. In the end, Mirror Spock helps Kirk restore the balance, while Kirk shows Mirror Spock that just because he is a soldier doesn’t mean he has lost his logical, ethical core.

What it would be like to find yourself in an alternate reality paved in blood and war is something Trek would revisit and expand upon on both DS9 and Enterprise. But “Mirror, Mirror” did it first, and maybe best.

2. ”Balance of Terror” (Season 1)

This TOS episode established Trek’s universal “Run Silent, Run Deep” approach to space combat. It’s also our first encounter with the Romulans, and it provided Captain Kirk with one of his earliest opportunities to show his crew that he doesn’t like to lose. The episode puts Kirk front and center in a game of cat and mouse on the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone, where the Enterprise — originally sent to investigate why the outposts there have gone silent — finds a Bird of Prey and a Romulan commander ready to remind the galaxy why it never should have turned its back on the Empire.

“Terror” builds up to a big reveal of the Romulan Commander, but it is somewhat anti-climactic with the Romulan looking like a more pissed-off Vulcan. (Mark Lenard, who appears as the Romulan here, would also play Spock’s father throughout the series and movies.) But the reveal did mark the moment in Trek canon when we learned that Vulcans and Romulans are distant cousins. While the battle scenes are tense and aplenty, the episode stands out for how it begins and ends, with a wedding that eventually leaves the newlywed a widow during the attack. This loss hangs over Kirk’s head and his bittersweet victory, and helps make this episode one of the best Trek has ever produced.

1. ”The City on the Edge of Forever” (Season 1)

This beloved first season episode, originally written by Harlan Ellison, brought Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock to Depression-era New York where they must locate and prevent a drug-addled Dr. McCoy from changing the course of history. The focal point of this mission is Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), a social worker at an inner city mission whose pacifist ideals and moving speeches will one day have such an effect on the nation that America’s entry into World War II will be delayed … a fateful change that allows the Nazis to win the war and conquer the world. McCoy had somehow prevented Edith from dying in a traffic accident as she was meant to, so Kirk is posed with the horrible decision to allow her to perish when the opportunity presents itself.

Unfortunately, Kirk being Kirk, he falls in love with Edith. Can he still go through with it in order to ensure that, someday, the Nazis will be defeated? This beautiful story poignantly establishes the maxim later explored in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Kirk’s reaction before beaming up at the end of the episode is one of William Shatner’s most moving moments in all of Trek.

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