5 Favorites Redux #30: Star Trek: The Original Series Episodes

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

Last week, we looked at my number four Star Trek series of all-time, Star Trek: Voyager. This week, we’re going to look at my number three series of all-time. The original series Star Trek started everything and, to an extent, deserves to be ranked best regardless of its individual strengths. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case. While the first two seasons were solid, the final season had so many dud episodes that it makes it a slightly inferior series to the show in the number two spot. We’ll discuss that in a few weeks.

For now, the original series, which introduced us to Captain James T. Kirk and his stalwart crew, is the series we’re taking a look at this week. As my 5 Favorites series goes, I’m listing each week a different Trek series. While I want to save the best for last, I don’t think I’ll be done with Star Trek: Enterprise in time to put it down in three weeks, even though it’s already unlikely to supplant my number one series. That said, the original starred William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Keonig along with creator Gene Roddenberry’s future wife Majel Barrett and a handful of other recurring characters. It was the series that started it all and is responsible for re-aligning what science fiction on television could be.

It was followed briefly by Star Trek: The Animated Series in 1973 as an attempt to revive the series and please its growing legion of fans. Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Takei, Nichols, Doohan, and Barrett each leant the series their vocal talents with budget issues preventing the return of Koenig and requiring Doohan and Nichols to voice several other minor characters. The animated series was an inferior product on most fronts. While it enabled the show to create aliens that weren’t humanoid in shape, which was a necessity of the minimal makeup effects available at the time, it also didn’t have a lot of terrific episodes. While this series presently ranks five out of five, I’m going to mention it here because there aren’t really five episodes I could even consider including on this list.

The original series lasted only three seasons while the animated one was around for one regular season and then one short season before being pulled off the air. All of the four-star episodes come from the original series. There’s a single two-part episode in the entirety of the original’s three seasons, making for 16 total episodes that would be eligible for inclusion. That said, the original pilot, “The Cage,” wasn’t aired originally, but was re-worked into “The Menagerie, Parts 1 & 2.” As such, those three episodes will be considered in tandem, meaning selecting ten episodes out of fourteen isn’t terribly difficult. The four episodes not included are: “The Doomsday Machine,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” “The Empath,” and “Spectre of the Gun”

Balance of Terror

Although this episode fits squarely into the top five Star Trek episodes of all time, it isn’t mentioned nearly as often as a handful of others, two of which are included on this list. The episode gives us a glimpse into the lives of the lower decks crew who help keep the ship running. As the Enterprise faces off against one of its fiercest enemies, the Romulans, the lives of those who don’t spend their careers working on the bridge, is explored with astuteness and empathy.

Featuring Mark Lenard, who would later become well known as Spock’s father Sarek, the episode features a cat-and-mouse game played out between a Romulan ship and the Enterprise, which has arrived at the neutral zone to investigate the destruction of four outposts. As the tensions rise, the fate of the Enterprise crew darkens until the final victorious moments. This bittersweet episode looks at war and its casualties in ways that Trek has often excelled at and would rarely touch so effectively prior to the Dominion War featured in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s latter seasons.

Establishing just why Trek would become legendary for its time travel-based episodes, this stunner by Harlan Ellison was a brilliant, compelling, and challenging production that gave audiences a glimpse into temporal mechanics and the necessity to avoid undesired changes to the timeline. Is the future of humanity contingent upon a single decision or is a specific persona a linchpin to other events. Can you make the difficult choice to sacrifice one person’s happiness for the needs of the many. This episode answered those questions in resounding fashion.

The Menagerie, Parts 1 & 2 & The Cage

Before William Shatner came on board the USS Enterprise, producers were looking at Jeffrey Hunter in the role of Capt. Christopher Pike with Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, Majel Barrett as Number One, and John Hoyt as Dr. Boyce. The original pilot was rejected by NBC and didn’t see the light of day until a VHS release in 1986. With a re-tooled pilot in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the crew as we know it today came into being. In light of the episode’s failure to secure a series order and as a result of a budget shortfall, the unused footage was cut into the series’ only two-part episode, “The Menagerie.”

In this episode, Mr. Spock is put on trial for violating a long-held quarantine in order to deliver his former Captain, Christopher Pike, into the arms of the Talosians. The trial takes place in the second episode while the events leading up to it encompass the first part. As we look back at the events of “The Cage,” we come to understand the reasons the now badly disfigured and infirm Capt. Pike wants to return to the planet. A fascinating look at mercy, compassion, and the need to find dignity in one’s worst condition. The way the original pilot was interwoven into the plot of this episode was masterful.

A Taste of Armageddon

In this season one episode, the USS Enterprise arrives at a star system where two warring factions have been conducting battle simulations to avoid experiencing the horrors of war. The loser of each conflict must submit an appropriate number of “soldiers” to be euthanized as a result of the loss. With the crew having been deemed by the computer as having lost, the government of one of the planets insists that the crew must turn over an appropriate victim to sate the loss. Kirk works to undermine the program so that the people of the planets will have to physically participate if they wish to continue their centuries-long conflict.

Having no concept of the horrors of war, the inhabitants might find that a perpetuated war is not worth it. This anti-war episode takes the ideas expressed in numerous films on the subject and puts a futuristic spin on them, asking the audience to wonder if our own present separation from conflict helps enable and engender a lack of concern about the ramifications of endless wars. A strong rebuke of the United States government and its entry into a third war since the 1930s, the episode provides us with a fascinating exploration of the necessity of unending wars.

The Devil in the Dark

While less frequent than others, Star Trek often dipped into the alien creature well numerous times, with both good and bad consequence. In “The Devil in the Dark,” Kirk and company arrive at a remote mining colony where the deaths of 50 miners and engineers and the corrosive destruction of countless pieces of equipment necessitates the crew’s intervention. This becomes even more apparent when they discover a dangerous creature lurking in the mine shafts.

What sets this episode apart is the twist ending, an explanation for the creatures actions that force the crew to see it as a sentient creature, not just a marauding monster. Will the crew annihilate the species or preserve its ecological environment. That’s the weighty question the episode deals with. Whether or not progress can be put on hold for the safety and well being of the fauna that inhabit an area. In an era when rapid deforestation was quickly robbing the world of countless species, a production like this went a long way towards supporting the preservation of creatures great and small even when progress itself was inconvenienced.

The City on the Edge of Forever

With good reason, this episode is consistently ranked as one of the greatest episodes ever written, not just in Star Trek history, but also in television’s storied past. Kirk and Spock follow a delirious McCoy onto a planet where a gate allows him to travel into Earth’s past, setting in motion events that would entirely alter the course of the Earth’s history. As Kirk falls in love with a mission worker played by Joan Collins, an important part of past events, his love for her leads him to one of his most difficult decisions.

The Trouble with Tribbles

While this episode from the second season of the original series is often considered one of the more lighthearted episodes in the Trek canon. It told audiences that as heavy and allegorical as the series has been, there’s a lot more to it. That the episode is one of the most crafty and creative ever executed by the series makes it one of the rare comedy-infused episodes that ranks among the series’ best.

When a new species of creature called a Tribble is introduced to the starship Enterprise while it’s docked at a space station, the high metabolism and fertility rates cause the small, furry critters to duplicate at an exponential rate. At the same time, a plot begins to unravel that suggests there’s something more dangerous at work and it involves the attempted poisoning of an entire supply of grain. There aren’t any truly lofty ideas at play here, it’s just a fun and engaging experience.

Patterns of Force

In what could be considered the series’ most nakedly political episode, the Enterprise arrives at a planet where a neutral observer has gone missing. When he’s discovered running a nation modeled after Nazi Germany, the crew must find a way to stop the Ekosian plans to impose the “Final Solution” on the Zeons who live among them. Replete with Nazi iconography, the episode was banned in Germany for decades with understandable reason. The crew works behind the scenes to bring down their own diplomat and bring to a halt the machinations of those manipulating the process behind the scenes in order to enact vengeance against an “inferior” race.

Even without the Nazi symbolism, salutes, titles, and archival footage, it would be obvious what the purpose of this episode was, to discuss the inherent evils of a fascist form of government. Even the thinly-veiled name of the Zeon people brings to light the notion that the episode wants to ensure that this kind of regime is never brought to power again by depicting how insidious the ideology can be. While the episode has elements that rightly deserve to be criticized, the importance of its topic and the harsh light it shows on Hitler’s dangerous rhetoric outweigh its questionable elements.

The Ultimate Computer

Before 2001: A Space Odyssey examined the dangers of artificial intelligence, this season one episode of the original series asked audiences to question whether an AI can possess reason and conscience if its creator doesn’t infuse it with such. A pioneering intelligence has been installed aboard the USS Enterprise and the ship is sent off to a set of war games to test its response times. Scientists hope that the AI will have the ability to process permutations and decisions at speeds greater than a human crew, reducing the number of people required to operate a starship on deep space voyages.

The computer’s tactical awareness overtakes all operations of the ship and begins destroying other vessels considered threats even though the maneuvers are supposed to be only a simulations. As its creator refuses to take responsibility for the computer and shut it down, the crew must convince the AI that its morality subroutines should prohibit its actions rather than enable them. The episode cast doubt on the motives behind scientific advancement and asked the scientific community to consider the moral implications of its programming standards. Although the episode remains largely fictional, our current scientific advancements suggest an examination of the ideas presented in this episode certainly need to be at the forefront of programmers’ minds.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

One of the biggest complaints about the third and final season of Star Trek was that it either seemed to be losing steam quickly or the writers were trying to execute big ideas with incomplete results. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” while ultimately a solid example of the myriad issues with the final season, the concept as a whole was heady enough to outweigh its negative elements.

The plot revolves around a pair of beings from the planet Cheron, both black-as-ink on one side of the body and white-as-paper on the other side. Bele (Frank Gorshin) is in pursuit of Lokai (Lou Antonio), a political refugee from their home planet. As the two men are brought back home, a grim discovery calls into question their decades-long cat-and-mouse game. Looking at the delicate concept of race relations, the crew is forced to wonder why, even in the face of annihilation, two people hating one another because of the color of their skin seems particularly pointless.

All Our Yesterdays

A lot of the conventions of later sequels to the original series of Star Trek originated within the Shatner-led era. One of those concepts is that of time travel. Although “All Our Yesterdays” doesn’t tackle the concept as formulaically as one would expect, therein lies its success and it is one of the reasons the episode made it into the top ten.

The episode is set on an alien world where a vast library sits inhabited only by a lone archivist whose job it is to ensure that everyone is prepared to enter the time portals. His planet is on the brink of destruction and these tiny dimensional doors into the planet’s past enable the citizens to escape the apocalypse while finding a place they can feel at home. Kirk and company accidentally find themselves trapped in two different dimensions. Kirk in a Dickensian-style landscape and Spock and McCoy end up stuck in a prehistoric period with a woman who was sent there as punishment.

Before the archivist shuts down the portals and escapes himself, Kirk and company must find a way to return to the planet’s present before their biology integrates with the period in which they find themselves. Time travel is one of the concepts that Trek has done incredibly well throughout the years, but it’s one of the few scientific advancements that have yet to be harnessed. This episode gives us a glimpse into the chaos and hope that such technology could provide to dying worlds while intricately weaving a mesmerizing story out of its sum parts.

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