Monday, August 31, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Just One Star Trek Episode for the Ages?

A reader, David, writes:

“Here’s an Ask JKM a Question for you. 

All the entertainment in the world is being systematically destroyed and you get to save only one episode of Star Trek for future generations. 

Which episode do you save?”

Yikes! Now that’s a tough question, David. 

I’m going to narrow it down a little.  Since you didn’t specify any sub-title, I’m going to assume I can only choose an episode of the original series, not the follow-ups. (If I could pick a Next Gen episode, it would be “The Inner Light.”)

But let me walk you through my thought-process in terms of my selection.  If only one episode of Star Trek is to survive for future viewings, I must consider which episode in the canon highlights best the core elements of the series; which best represents everything Star Trek stands (or stood…) for.

Some of my favorite episodes, like “Space Seed,” or “The Trouble with Tribbles”wouldn’t necessarily make the cut.  They are great shows, but I wouldn’t want either to be my representative Trek.

I’d have to drill-down here a little and answer a key question, I suppose: what does Star Trek mean to me?

Well, it’s about friendship. (Kirk, Spock and Bones).

It’s about the idea of man going out into the unknown and taking his humanity with him.

It’s about confronting alien life.

It’s about learning to see others (aliens, etc.) in a new and different light.

It’s about resourcefulness on the frontier, on the edge of civilization, when no one is around to back you up. You have great technology, but that technology is no guarantee of survival, or victory in battle.

I’ve been poring over the episode list and I believe have one episode that hits all those hot spots. 

It’s not my favorite show, though it’s a good one. It’s not even in my top twenty favorite Treks. (Among my favorites: “This Side of Paradise,” “Amok Time,” “Metamorphosis,” “Journey to Babel,” “Charlie X,” “The Doomsday Machine,” and “The Enterprise Incident.”)

But I would choose “The Corbomite Maneuver.” 

This episode from early in the first season finds the Enterprise encountering a giant cube in space (no, not the Borg). 

Captain Kirk reluctantly orders it destroyed when it emits dangerous radiation.  Before long, a much larger alien ship -- the Fesarius -- arrives and threatens the Enterprise.  Its captain is the fearsome and very alien Balok.

Now Kirk must figure out a way to escape from the technologically-superior ship, and the merciless Balok.

I would choose this episode, first, because there’s a clear surrogate for the audience in the narrative.  We meet young Lt. Bailey (Anthony Call), who is anxious and scared, having never encountered anything alien.  He’s nervous and burdened by responsibility.

Dr. McCoy thinks Bailey was promoted (by Kirk) too soon, but Kirk sees something of himself in the green officer. He sees a man who can learn and grow.  This character -- who voices audience fears and concerns -- helps us to understand the nature of the Star Trek universe, and the nature of the choices Kirk must make. 

The episode also features some good back-and-forth in the heroic triumvirate, with McCoy needling Kirk about his weight, and Spock and Kirk discussing poker and chess.

Furthermore, “The Cormobite Maneuver” involves humanity encountering alien life, and not knowing what to expect from it.  In that vacuum, tension rises.

Man brings with him to the encounter both his inexperience (Bailey) and his experience (Kirk), which makes for a nice balance, and a nice complete picture of man as a species.

And the episode’s finale involves a reveal about the true nature of Balok, and the way that “fear” is a universal constant. Kirk, Bailey and McCoy board Balok’s ship only to find that the “alien” is a puppet, and that the real Balok is a child-like alien.  He only presented that other face because he was as fearful as Bailey was about the unknown.

But, optimistically, this means that man and alien are alike.  They feel the same things; they fear the same things. This is a basis for friendship.

Kirk is up against the wall in this episode, matched against a superior ship and superior powers.  But he uses a bluff -- from the game of poker -- to find a path to survival.  He could easily fail, but he doesn’t.  

And when he “wins,” Kirk shows mercy to his enemy, and curiosity about his enemy too.  This act shows that mankind has truly grown-up.  That given the chance, he can choose not to kill, or hurt another life form.

It was tough to make this call, but “The Corbomite Maneuver” is representative of Star Trek’s best ethos, and I think the presence of the rookie, Bailey, makes the episode easier for newbies to identify with.  

I'd love to read choices by readers of the blog...


  1. Interestigly, "The Corbomite Maneuver" was the first episode shot when the show went to series though it wasn't the first episode seen (which was "The Man Trap"). I agree that this is a perfect episode with just the right amount of humor and tension and Roddenberry's Trek philosophy.

    I also love how everyone seems to be "doing their job". The bridge crew is always engaged in the situation at hand, McCoy is concerned about the health of his crew and even Rand gets to do something (even if it is just to bring Kirk his salad). You really get the feeling that this is a ship in space with a crew of intelligent and dedicated individuals.

    I'm not a big fan of Trek's comedic turn during the second season though there are certainly great episodes there too.

    An episode I've always loved was Spectre Of The Gun from the third season. I rewatched it recently and was surprised how much I still enjoyed it while other episodes that I loved when I was younger I now find hard to sit through.

    The concept of "Spectre" is great, and the execution of the episode is thought provoking, from the minimalist sets to the gun blasts passing through the crew's bodies and into the fence behind them. It's also a very good ensemble episode, even if it doesn't feature the entire cast.

  2. John,
    Even before you answered the question, I was thinking "The Corbomite Maneuver." Not that I was rooting for you to pick this one, but I was delighted that you did. It seems to encapsulate everything that is Star Trek.
    The ambiguity of the ending, which allows us to form our own stories in our minds of Ambassador Bailey, of The First Federation and The United Federation of Planets (not yet named on the show), the exchange of ideas, technology and Tranya...Simply wonderful.
    We think much alike, you and I.