Tuesday, August 09, 2016
The Ten Best Episodes of Star Trek: Season One (1966-1967)
One (of many…) amazing qualities about Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966-1969) is that its first season is, arguably, the series’ finest.
Contrast that example with The Next Generation (1987-1994), a beloved program which took two or three full seasons to iron out the kinks. The original Trek, however, featured a first season of remarkable power and integrity: 30 hours of television that stimulate, excite, and enthrall, even after fifty years.
Gazing over that catalog of thirty hours, there is not one episode that is completely terrible, though there are two that I would term merely mediocre: “Dagger of the Mind” and “The Alternative Factor.”
And yet, amazingly, even those mediocre efforts are integral to the series canon. “Dagger” introduces the Vulcan mind-meld, for example, and “The Alternative Factor” is the series’ introduction to alternate or parallel universes. The latter show is also the first to delve into the nature of anti-matter, a key concept in the ongoing enterprise.
My point is that even the weaker episodes add something to the whole season, as a whole.
Compiling a ten best list of Star Trek’s first season is actually quite difficult, because the list could easily balloon to fifteen or twenty. There are -- without exaggeration -- that many great stories in the first season catalog.
I do not think it is quite so easy to make the same claim of the second season, or the third one, a two-year span the series feels more formulaic, despite some brilliant shows (“Mirror, Mirror,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “Amok Time,” and “The Enterprise Incident,” among them.)
So without further ado, here is my list of the top ten greatest episodes of Star Trek, Season One (1966-1967).
Again, these selections are, literally, the best of the best, and I wanted to get list this posted before I start my reviews of Season Two this afternoon with the second season premiere, "Amok Time."
My selections in the list below may buck conventional wisdom, but that’s why you read this blog, isn’t it?
No sacred cows here.
The Ten Greatest Episodes of Star Trek: Season One (1966-1967)
10. “City on the Edge of Forever.”
Indisputably a great show, this time travel story is also a wee bit overrated, if only because so many of the details are not fully-formed, or at least not-fully enunciated.
How does the Guardian judge when Spock and Kirk have completed their mission, and whisk them back to the (corrected) present?
How does it judge which reality/time-line is legitimate, and which isn’t?
Why does the Guardian possess no safeguards, so that it can’t be misused the way McCoy misuses it here?
These complaints may sound like nitpicking, but Star Trek has lived long and prospered for fifty years because its stories are generally constructed so well that they hold up after literally dozens of viewings.
The emotional component of “City on the Edge of Forever” -- the star-crossed love affair of Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) -- absolutely endures, as does Kirk’s bottled-up rage following her death (“Let’s get the Hell out of here.”) But some of the small details don’t seem well-considered, or at least thoroughly explained.
9. “Space Seed”
This is the episode, of course, that introduces Khan (Ricardo Montalban) to the franchise, and is thus the progenitor of two Star Trek movies (so far): 1982’s The Wrath of Khan and 2013’s Into Darkness.
The episode carries power because of Khan’s larger-than-life magnetism, and Montalban’s charismatic performance, but also because of the underlying theme.
What is that theme? Simply put: Diversity vs. Strong Man.
Here, we see a fully integrated team of “normal” humans (The Enterprise crew) go up against a genetically-engineered autocrat: Khan.
The team -- with members like Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu -- may not possess great physical strength or enhanced, superior “intelligence” but they nonetheless defeat the man who would seek to unite mankind under one “whip.”
The value of diversity is a key concept of Star Trek, and though “Space Seed” is a fairly typical “villain” story, it is also one that reflects the program’s belief that our differences make us strong, and that we don’t need to be “ruled” by someone who deems himself superior, literally, because of his blood.
If that’s the tale -- and I believe it is -- “Space Seed” is a powerful warning about fascism, and one which is still worth heeding today.
8. “Return of the Archons”
The greatest trick that Star Trek ever pulled was convincing viewers and scholars that this episode was an indictment of communism.
In fact, “Return of the Archons” is a clever, resounding indictment of organized religion, noting trenchantly how a theocratic state can suppress invention and knowledge in favor of blind, thoughtless worship.
Consider: the planet of Beta III saw its God, Landru, rise 6000 years earlier (the exact time many believe the Earth was created).
Consider: conversion to Landru is a process called “absorption” which (conveniently) tracks with the concept in Christianity of being “born again.” Afterwards it is the duty of the converted to profess love for their messiah.
Consider: the discussion of Landru’s infallibility in the episode, and how it tracks with the concept of the Pope’s infallibility in Catholicism.
And when Captain Kirk finally confronts the hologram of Landru -- the God of Beta II -- he calls him, memorably, “a projection, unreal.”
This description is laced with double meaning. Landru is literally a hologram; but he is also, literally a projection of religious belief, and therefore, similarly unreal.
Lest we forget, Gene Roddenberry was an avowed atheist and this highly subversive Star Trek episode expresses his world-view, and strongly-held belief that theocracy stymies human invention and evolution.
Accordingly, “Return of the Archons” is a biting satire of organized religion (though not, necessarily of spirituality, if one can discern the distinction there).
7. “Charlie X”
A brilliant “lower decks” story of the original Trek, wherein we see personal sides of the crew not often expressed or depicted.
Spock plays his Vulcan harp in the rec room, while Lt. Uhura sings. We see Janice Rand on her rounds, completing her duties. And we even see Kirk working out in the ship's gym. This is an early episode of Trek in which there actually seems to be a fully-formed crew of individuals, not just a troika of three very colorful leaders (Kirk-Spock-McCoy).
Beyond the glimpses of life on the “lower decks,” we also get what I term the Tragedy of Charles Evans here. He is a boy raised by aliens who wants nothing more than to connect to other humans.
But because of the powers the aliens gave him to survive his childhood, he can never connect with them at all. The episode’s end is particularly haunting, and revealing. As you may recall, the Thasians come back to fetch Charlie...this time permanently.
We feel sorry for Charlie, realizing he can never again be with his kind. But we also see Kirk and the others in a new light. Charlie has tortured and brutalized the crew, and yet Kirk, Rand and the others stand up, and show compassion for their tormentor.
This is a deeply affecting story, and my favorite story to feature Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney).
This is also the best of the Star Trek stories about Kirk going up against figures with the power of Gods ("Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Squire of Gothos," "Who Mourns for Adonais," etc.) I could also note that the episode makes some powerful comments on that crazy time in our lives known as adolescence.
6. “The Naked Time”
In some ways, this tale is the prototype for a dozen Star Trek stories.
"The Naked Time" involves a virus which releases the crew's inhibitions.
In other words, that virus allows us to see things in the Enterprise crew that they assiduously keep hidden.
We see Spock cry over the fact that he could never tell his mother he loves her. We see Kirk express his feelings of loneliness. As much as he is obsessed with the Enterprise and commanding her, Kirk understands that commanding the starship keeps him isolated from meaningful human relationships.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I submit, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s second episode, “The Naked Now” resurrected “The Naked Time’s” virus and story line to excavate NCC-1701-D’s dramatis personae in a similar fashion.
Deep Space Nine had a similar story, too, of its crew manifesting deeply held emotions and secrets, “If Wishes were Horses” and even the original Star Trek went back to this well. “And The Children Shall Lead,” for example, exposes the secret fears of the Enterprise bridge crew.
"The Naked Time” is also, like “Charlie X,” worthwhile for its “lower deck” approach. Supporting characters such as Sulu and Chapel are explored brilliantly in this story, and we also get to meet the unforgettable Lt. Kevin Riley (Bruce Hyde).
Lovely singing voice, that guy has, huh?
5. “The Menagerie”
Star Trek’s only two-part episode is culled from the original pilot, “The Cage,” and that fact establishes -- though perhaps not always intentionally -- that the universe of Kirk and Spock is one with a history.
Here, we meet a much younger Spock, Jeffrey Hunter's Captain Pike, and even encounter a more primitive version of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The original story deals with the concept of illusions as a kind of trap; a narcotic with addicting properties.
But with the framing device attached, the story grows more even-handed in approach, recognizing that illusions can also help one escape the physical trap of a handicap or injury.
The framing story, of Spock’s attempt to save Captain Pike, also establishes the character’s extreme loyalty. He may be unemotional on the surface, but Spock understands the demands of friendship. He risks his career and his life to bring the crippled Pike to a world where he can live “free,” despite his injuries.
Beyond any social commentary, "The Menagerie" is a beautiful story of friendship, and devotion.
4. “The Devil in the Dark”
Here’s another episode that has widely been misinterpreted by fans and scholars. Everybody writes how it was such a unique idea to have a “monster” in a Star Trek story tun out to be a mother protecting her young.
Well, even in 1966, that was an old idea (see: Gorgo )
No, “The Devil in the Dark” is such a remarkable story because it suggest two things.
First -- that we can have empathy with beings who are not, strictly, just like us. In this case, the Horta is a silicon-based life form who tunnels through rock the way we breathe air. Those differences don't make Hortas monsters. It just makes them...different.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, “The Devil in the Dark” suggests that we can make peace with beings of different beliefs, even after blood has been spilled. The Horta kills fifty human beings. The miners kill thousands of her babies (in egg form).
Yet Kirk does not succumb to blood lust, clearly the easy way out. He does not cower in fear over an enemy he doesn’t understand. Instead, he and Spock ultimately show compassion, empathy, and understanding for both sides in this war on Janus 6.
He sees that war for what it really is: a misunderstanding about motives on both sides. And with Spock’s help, Kirk brings peace and cooperation.
This is what real strength looks like.
3. “This Side of Paradise”
Okay, I admit it: this is my all-time favorite episode of Star Trek.
That last scene on the bridge brings a tear to my eye every time. You may recall the moment. Spock notes that, under the influence of mood-altering spores, he experienced happiness for the first time in his life. He says it dead-pan, and in close-up, and the moment is absolutely devastating.
Outside that moment, this episode seems a timely commentary on the Youth Movement of the 1960s.
As Star Trek seems to note, you can’t both be for structural and society change -- to be aspirational, in some sense -- and want to simultaneously tune out of life on recreational drugs. One approach confronts the world, and makes it better. The other approach is about escaping from the world. The two approaches are utterly incompatible.
Kirk is the voice in this episode for a purpose-driven life. Mankind needs to struggle, work, create, imagine…do all the hard work of making the universe a better place. He faces a mutiny, however, when his crew “tunes” out, and abandons ship. Even Spock leaves his side, urged on by his exposure to the spores and his (understandable) attraction to Leila Kalomi (Jill Ireland).
What I love so much about Star Trek is that it is always curious and open about new ideas, and yet it is never reckless in embracing them.
The drug of Omicron Ceti III -- the spores -- create the impression of a paradise. But in that paradise, nothing is accomplished, nothing is achieved. Stagnation is actually the result of exposure to the spores.
Man must “claw and scratch” and keep moving forward, and I love Kirk’s inspired musings on that subject.
2. “Balance of Terror”
This episode introduces the Romulan Empire and the cloaking device technology to the Star Trek universe. But more importantly, “Balance of Terror” is something that seems impossible, or at least paradoxical.
It is a war story that is actually vehemently anti-war.
“Balance of War” pits Captain Kirk against a war-weary Romulan commander (an excellent Mark Lenard), and is thus a submarine war story in space. The Enterprise and the Romulan Bird of Prey seek superior ground and other tactical advantages in their conflict. But even as we thrill to the tense battle scenes set in space, “Balance of Terror” reminds us that war is futile, and a failure.
As the Romulan commander points out, war only brings more war…and more death and suffering.
That is not a small or unimportant message at the very time that America was escalating its involvement in the War in Vietnam.
Similarly, “Balance of Terror” reminds us that there is no real winner in war. There is no effort to rejoice after Kirk and his crew defeats the Romulan ship, for example.
Again -- why?
Well, there are casualties aboard the Enterprise, including a young man whose wedding ceremony was interrupted the very day of the conflict.
Again, the implication is clear: there are no real winners in war. War breaks up families, and always carries a high cost in terms of blood. War destroys plans for the future.
“Balance of Terror” also notably concerns bigotry. An officer aboard the Enterprise, Stiles, is suspicious of Spock and carries a hatred for the Romulans as part of his "heritage." When he sees that Spock resembles the Romulans, he accuses Spock of being a spy.
The objects of human prejudice change all the time, but the face of it is really the same.
Stiles sees people not as individuals, but as stereotypes. Kirk tells him that there is no room for “bigotry” on the bridge of his starship, and this subplot is quite powerful, especially today.
Star Trek understood that such bigotry and prejudice could not be permitted, as far back as 1966.
1.“The Corbomite Maneuver”
So…this selection is as much a surprise to me as it is to you, no doubt.
Before I began my re-watch of Star Trek in 2016, I don’t know that I would have counted this installment even among the top fifty.
And then, screening it this time, I realized that “The Corbomite Maneuver” is the “real” Star Trek series pilot (it was produced third, after all), and, simultaneously, a perfect distillation of everything Trek represents, at its best.
As I wrote in my review of the episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver” presents the idea that the greatest enemy in space is not alien races, but fear itself. In other words, human psychology. The problem is how we respond to that which we don't fully comprehend or know.
“The greatest danger facing us is ourselves,” Kirk announces to the crew in this episode. He then discusses “an irrational fear of the unknown,” and notes that there is actually no such thing as the unknown, rather merely “things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”
This is a remarkable monologue, and one that Star Trek Beyond (2016), excerpts.
I think that fact demonstrates the episode’s value. A summer blockbuster produced 50 years after “The Corbomite Maneuver’s” first broadcast finds that the episode’s ideas are still worthwhile, still timely.
But “The Corbomite Maneuver” earns this slot for a number of reasons. First, it establishes the conceit -- continued through all of Star Trek -- for problem solution. It goes something like this: Spock makes a comment to Kirk. Kirk considers it, and then formulates a plan taking that comment into consideration.
In Wrath of Khan, Spock mentions Khan’s “two-dimensional” thinking, and Kirk responds, in terms of his battle tactics.
In “The Corbomite Maneuver,” Spock discusses the move/counter-moves of a chess game. But Kirk realizes their current situation -- if it is a game at all -- is not chess. It’s poker.
And that means he can bluff.
It’s a brilliant bit of improvisation that establishes that Kirk is an imaginative thinker, but this imagination must be sparked first by Spock’s assessment of the situation. That’s why the two men make such a great command team. Spock provides analysis, and Kirk synthesizes that analysis into meaningful, innovative action.
This episode also brilliantly establishes the Kirk/McCoy friendship in two scenes, one in sickbay and one in Kirk’s quarters.
And it demonstrates, again, that man need not be merciless, or operate from a place of fear. When faced with apparently defeated Balok, Kirk does not destroy the scout ship, as he easily could.
Instead, he takes the opportunity to learn more, and mount a rescue mission. Again, mercy is a valuable human trait in Star Trek.
“The Corbomite Maneuver” also cleverly provides us a surrogate for our 20th/21st century fears: Navigator Bailey. He reacts to Balok and the Fesarious out of fear, ignorance and inexperience -- just as we might -- and Kirk teaches him to overcome those very human, but very unfortunate qualities.
Thus “The Corbomite Maneuver” shows us that the men and women of the 23rd century and aboard the Enterprise are truly equipped to handle new frontiers, new civilizations. And what is unknown or seems different, in due time, becomes understood, explainable.
They are explorers who -- if they can conquer their own demons -- are ready to meet the universe.
So that's my list.
I would love to see readers sound off on their own lists in the comment section. Or if you write up a list of your ten best for the first season, send it to me at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, and I will post it here on the blog in the days ahead.
This was a tough assignment for me. I'm still sad that I couldn't find room on the list for "Arena," "Errand of Mercy," or "Operation: Annihilate..."