Friday, March 30, 2018

The 5 Best 'Star Trek' Original Series Episodes

In honor of what would have been Leonard Nimoy's 87th birthday last Monday, I thought it would be worth counting down the five best Star Trek Original Generation episodes. Though it only ran for 3 seasons and was hit or miss on some of the episodes, the show was a forerunner of the science fiction TV genre. It was a launching point for a series that's still going strong over 50 years later and more importantly, it taught a generation of children that they will never be as cool as gangster Spock.

"I made him an offer he logically could not refuse."
Without further ado, the 5 best original generation episodes as selected by me. Spoilers for a 52-year-old show to follow.

5. "Space Seed"
For Star Trek fans, Khan Noonien Singh is a man who needs no introduction. Survivor of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s and a genetically superior being, he is a ruthless man who is every bit Kirk's equal. Good villains are hard to write and Khan is the definition of a good villain.

He gets more fleshed out in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but his contribution to Star Trek lore starts here. And without this beginning, he never could have made William Shatner achieve meme-worthy levels of anger.

The value of the episode may lie more in its later influence, but it's still very solid overall. Khan's charisma and brutality are exceptional and the crew's initially rosy view of him from their history classes teaches an important lesson about romanticizing the past.

The Eugenics War plot-line also sets the stage for later lore that bridges the gap between Earth today and the Federation of the future, even if it didn't come to pass in the real world. I'll assume people were too busy playing Pogs in the '90s to bother with genetic manipulation.

The savior of humanity
4. "The Trouble with Tribbles"
For a show set in a galaxy alleged to be inhabited by all types of life forms, most aliens in Star Trek look like stuff from earth but with extra antennae or forehead ridges or something.

Totally not a dog
With all these not-humans running around, it's nice to see something like Tribbles that are a bit more original, even if they look like they came from a discount craft store. "Born pregnant," these adorable little guys are the stars of the show as little cooing fuzzballs that quickly reproduce and fill up a space station.

The memorability of the Tribbles is what gives the episode its staying power in the minds of Star Trek fans, but there's a lot more going on than just that. The Klingons' vying for power on a space station creates political intrigue as well as continuity from the previous Klingon episode on Organia.  The episode is also humorous in classic Trek fashion, with Scotty preaching the virtues of single malt scotch a mere 7 episodes before he saves the galaxy by drinking an alien under a table. It also features the best bar fight in Star Trek bar none (none).

Other Star Trek episodes are serious or have high-minded morals, but "The Trouble with Tribbles" is just plain fun and benefits from not taking itself too seriously. Lots of other science fiction could benefit from lightening up the mood a bit like this episode does.

3. "Balance of Terror"
While the Romulans eventually succumbed to  J. J. Abrams and awful '80s shoulder pads, at the beginning they were an enemy to be feared.

"At least we didn't invent gauges" -Romulans
"Balance of Terror" marks their first appearance in Star Trek, and the build up of tension between the Enterprise and a then-unknown enemy. The Enterprise responds to several distress signals in the neutral zone where decades earlier the Federation fought a war with the Romulan Star Empire. As the Enterprise reaches the ruined outposts they discover a cloaked vessel that may be behind the attacks.

A stand-off ensues, with each captain playing a delicate chess match while trying to control the fears of their respective crews. Airing only four years after the Cuban missile crisis, this episode reeks of the gamesmanship and posturing of the Cold War-era and probably hit very close to home upon its initial release.

It's an episode that begins with a wedding and ends at a deathbed. It explores bigotry and mistrust and the weight forced upon leaders as they make decisions with dire consequences on the line. And most importantly, in an era of jingoistic McCarthyism, it manages to fairly portray the enemy not as some other, but as relatable beings who bear the same weight as the crew of the Enterprise.

In the end, the Enterprise gains the upper hand. Rather than submit to the Federation, the Romulan commander commits suicide, lamenting "I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend."

2. "This Side of Paradise"

A more low-key pick than some of the others on this list, this episode is a personal favorite of mine and Leonard Nimoy's best work as Spock.

The Enterprise is tasked with assessing what is believed to be a dead colony after the entire planet was bombarded with deadly radiation. Much to the crew's surprise, the colonists are very much alive and living in a virtual paradise. It is revealed that the flowers on the planet produce spores that induce feelings of euphoria and protect the colonists from the radiation. The colonists then use these spores to indoctrinate the crew of the Enterprise, leaving Kirk alone to try and save the day (which he does).

The episode's strength lies not in the broader plot, but in the romance between Spock and Leila, a botanist who had a history with him back on Earth. Spock, as a half-Vulcan, could never reciprocate her love until the spores put him in a state of bliss.

After so many episodes of seeing Spock act cold and impersonal, the sudden change is a delight and Nimoy's performance tugs at the heartstrings. Spock is truly happy with Leila and by embracing his Vulcan heritage, he had to give up the emotions and desires of his human side. When freed from the spores' effect, an impassioned Leila begs him not to leave, but Spock insists he must, stating that we all have to live with the purgatories we create.

In the end, the crew leaves paradise, but not before contemplating what they left behind.

1. "The City on the Edge of Forever"

Science fiction often gets looked down upon by mainstream fiction as puerile wish fulfillment rather than serious culture, but every once in a while something in the genre far surpasses expectations and reminds us why this genre can be so compelling to us.

In this episode, written by Harlan Ellison, Kirk and Spock travel back in time in an effort to fix the original timeline after an overdosed Dr. McCoy accidentally changes history. Transported to Depression-era America, Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler, a social worker in New York with ambitions for peace.

After finding McCoy, who will save Keeler from a car accident, Kirk learns that it was by saving Keeler's life that the timeline was altered. Keeler was supposed to die in the car accident, and if she lives, she will found a peace movement that will delay the US's entry into World War II and ensure the Nazis' victory.

The episode is brilliant in its build up to the final choice of whether to let Keeler live or die and highlights the struggle between the individual and society. Keeler's idealism and ambition in another time could change the world for the better, but in this moment they hold humanity back.

Though not the first or only time Star Trek ventures into the past, it is by far the most effective. So many works that follow will try to replicate the magic, but miss the little touches that make "The City on the Edge of Forever" one of the best works of the genre.

What's your favorite Star Trek episode? Sound off in the comments below.


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