Fifty years ago today, Gene Roddenberry’s unprecedented perseverance and belief paid off and, after intriguing the network enough to commission a second pilot, “Star Trek” took to the airwaves. A television and pop culture landmark, fifty years later there’s a legacy of five television series (with a sixth on the way) totalling 725 episodes and thirteen movies. Debate continues to rage on what the best version of “Star Trek” is (for me, it’s a tie between “The Original Series” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) but no matter what, no other crew has passed into the collective cultural consciousness the way Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura have (happy 49th anniversary to Chekov by the way).
So in celebration of the 50th Anniversary, here are my top ten favourite* episodes of “Star Trek: The Original Series”.
10. S1E23 “A Taste of Armageddon”
Such a classic combination of the key ingredients of the original “Star Trek”: a heavy dose of moral dilemma steeped in allegory, an unbearably officious Federation ambassador, a devious alien leader and Kirk, Spock and the crew caught in the middle. Like many of the season one episodes, there’s an additional comfort factor thanks to the novelisations by James Blish and this episode’s a doozy as Spock’s mystical mental powers team up with Kirk’s cowboy diplomacy to set the warring worlds to rights.
9. S302 “The Enterprise Incident”
Not the first episode to feature the Romulans, that honour belongs to the tense and claustrophobic “Balance Of Terror” but certainly the most fun, and sexy. Joanne Linville is superb as the sensuous Romulan Commander (never granted a name; the 60’s, eh? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Shatner has great fun first as a distant and driven Kirk then as a disguised Romulan but its Nimoy who gets the lion’s share of the action as he flirts with and manipulates the Romulan Commander with just enough subtlety and guile that you’re kept guessing where Spock’s loyalties really lie until quite late on.
8. S2E03 “The Changeling”
A very early placeholder for both The Borg and V’ger, the story of an Earth probe colliding with an alien probe and cobbling together a new mission statement from fragments of programming is just one of “Trek”’s great evil computer stories. It also features one of the best examples of Kirk’s innate ability to talk a computer to death. Another bottle episode, it nevertheless manages to wring quite a bit of drama out of the premise, which boils down to the crew living side by side with a ticking bomb. The bit where Uhura’s academic memories are wiped and its resolution is a bit dumb though.
7. S2E21 “Patterns of Force”
Another stalwart trope of “Star Trek” was the allegorical society, from the Yangs and Kohms of “The Omega Glory” to the faux Roman “Bread And Circuses” but for sheer push-the-metaphor-to-breaking-point entertainment value, you can’t beat “Patterns Of Force”. The idea of a sociologist deliberately evoking some elements of Nazi Germany as a force of unity and progress and unwittingly unleashing the terrible nature of the regime is a bold and shocking one but the episode barrels along with a jaunty attitude that it just about gets away with it. The Ekosians make quite “Hogan’s Heroes”-esque Nazi’s but there are still quite edgy scenes of torture. Shatner, of course, gets his shirt off but this time so does Nimoy too, no doubt to the delight of Spirk shippers everywhere.
6. S2E13 “Obsession”
This list is made of the episodes I love to watch over and over again. Sometimes that means they’re not the most intelligent or even tightest plotted. This slot could have been taken by “The Immunity Syndrome” or “Operation: Annihilate” or even the fantastically bonkers “Wolf In The Fold”. Just great sci-fi action adventures. This one has Kirk at his most fearsome and driven, a whole landing party worth of redshirts biting the dust and a tip top high concept monster in the sickly-sweet smelling sentient cloud who faces a race against a time and a cock-blocking Kirk [apologies if you’ve now got The Chemical Brothers in your head] to return to its home planet to reproduce.
5. S2E06 “The Doomsday Machine”
Another one which makes this list because it’s a great high concept sci-fi adventure and also because of its place in “Star Trek” extended lore. For one, Commodore Decker is the [potentially apocryphal] father of V’ger-botherer Will Decker from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and for the other it’s got a fantastic sequel in the Next Generation novel “Vendetta”. It’s a superb episode, chock full of great performances not just from the main cast but also guest star William Windom. It was always a thrill to see other Starfleet ships in episodes and seeing two of them face down an unstoppable alien machine. It’s thrilling stuff, all the more impressive given it’s also one of Trek’s famously frugal ‘bottle episodes’.
4. S2E04 “Mirror, Mirror”
Spock with a beard! What’s not to love? Hugely influential in Trek and beyond, the fully realised parallel universe was an established sci-fi concept already but this arguably brought it into the mainstream. The subversion of Rodenberry’s altruistic and optimistic world view is tremendous and the cast embrace the opportunity to play their polar opposites whilst also making some salient points about imperialism and violence. Ignored by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Mirror Universe was revisited several times during “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” but this original tale is still one of the best trips to this universe.
3. S1E22 “Space Seed”
Put simply, without this episode, we would never have got “The Wrath Of Khan”. Montalban is great as the genetically engineered superman who plots to take over the Enterprise and while the seduction of his wife-to-be is bogged down in Sixties sexism, it’s the power plays between Kirk and Khan which propel the episode. It may have been adorably naïve in placing the eugenics wars in 1999 but that’s just the times we live in. In the sixties, we thought everything would be possible. By the nineties, we’d settled for grunge music and nihilism. Way to go, humanity!
2. S1E25 “The Devil in the Dark”
Could this episode be any more “Star Trek”? It’s one of the few episodes which genuinely does seek out new life and a new civilisation. For a ship ostensibly on a five year mission of deep space exploration, the Enterprise spent an inordinate amount of time running errands between Federation colonies but this visit to the mining colony on Janus IV is something special. The story’s incredibly well written and Shatner, Nimoy and McCoy shine in their roles. The Horta is an adorably low-fi creature design but is also one of the few times Trek has made an effort to portray an alien race without just gluing odds and ends from the craft box to people’s faces. Its themes of fearing the unknown and the importance of understanding and empathising with your supposed enemy reach right to the heart of what makes “Star Trek” complex and compelling. Brilliant stuff.
1. S2E15 “The Trouble with Tribbles”
In amongst all the drama, thought-provoking sci-fi and courageous social commentary, the original “Star Trek” found the time to do something else really, really well: comedy. Nearly every episode had moments of fun and levity, of course, but sometimes the writers and cast threw caution to the wind and had an absolute ball. Episodes like “I, Mudd” and “A Piece Of The Action” are great comedies in their own right but nothing holds a candle to “The Trouble With Tribbles” for managing to blend the sci-fi shenanigans of “Star Trek” with the sensibilities and staging of a theatrical farce. Shatner is on sparkling form as he faces off against yet another of the Federation’s seemingly endless supply of officious nitwits while the rest of the cast embrace the fluffy, frothy fun too. So good an episode and so strong a story, it was a natural place for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (always the most affection of Trek’s children) to revisit in the 1996 30th Anniversary episode “Trials and Tribble-ations”.
*Favourite, not best – which is why you didn’t see “Arena”, “Amok Time”, “City On The Edge Of Forever”, “All Our Yesterdays”, “Journey To Babel or “Errand Of Mercy” (I could list about fifty more episodes) on the list. Either reason is why you don’t see “Spock’s Brain” on there though.
In reality, multiple episodes could have been in joint positions on this list and there are a huge number which are crowded just outside a Top 10. What are your absolute favourite episodes of the original “Star Trek” to watch? Let me know in the comments below.
Live long and prosper!