by Christopher Jones
Asking a fan to name the five best episodes of a Star Trek series is like asking Troi which chocolate dessert she likes best. There are too many good ones to choose just five, although the Spock’s Brain Sundae is one you’d be willing to pass over after most meals.
Neverthless, I’m going to set out to name five of the very best episodes from each of the series and explain why I feel they are some of the greatest examples of Star Trek. In this first installment my focus is on The Original Series.
(There’s also an audio version of this Captain’s Log available here.)
The City on the Edge of Forever
This classic time-travel tale from 1967 finds Kirk, stranded in the 1930s, facing a dilemma in which he must choose between saving someone he loves or allowing her to die in order to restore more than 300 years of lost history. The solution was best summed up some 25 years later in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Spock said that, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” When McCoy changes history by saving a pacifist social worker from being killed in a traffic accident, her later actions delay the entry of the United States into World War II—a delay that allows Germany to conquer the world. As a result of this change the future United Federation of Planets never comes to be. In reality it may not be so simple, but it makes for a great “What if?” and one of the best Treks ever.
The Trouble With Tribbles
Looking at the serious side of Star Trek is what many fans like most; but there’s nothing wrong with some good clean fun from time to time. The incident with those little furballs on Deep Space Station K-7 is one of the most entertaining Treks ever made. If there’s any deep, hidden meaning to this episode I guess it’s that you should be careful how much you feed your pet. But mainly “The Trouble With Tribbles” was one of the first episodes in which Star Trek showed with tongue in cheek that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Since then there have been some great “fun” episodes in all of the series. And while a few of those have been more clever, I always come back to this one because there’s something about those little balls of fluff that I just can’t resist.
Scientists theorize that there may be an infinite number of parallel universes. In each of those there may be a copy of you and me, doing something we would not. So what would it be like to cross that barrier and meet your doppelgänger? This famous episode shows us a United Federation of Planets gone bad, a galaxy in which the Enterprise’s five-year mission is to seek out and destroy strange new worlds, to subdue new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly conquer what no one has conquered before. Evil Spock with his pointy beard brought cold logic to the practice of evil, but was open-minded enough to listen to Kirk’s plea for change. Couched in the obvious fun of turning the table on our heroes was an important social message: dedication can pay off and one voice can make a difference.
While Star Trek has had perhaps more than its fair share of time-travel stories—in fact it seemed to have become an obsession for a while—you have to admit that they are pretty fun. The finale of TOS’s second season, “Assignment: Earth,” is a bit hard to swallow in the plausibility department, what with the Enterprise traveling to the 20th century to find out how Earth survived the nuclear arms race. (Don’t they have historical records?) But these were the good old days before the Temporal Prime Directive and Kirk was free to screw around with history all he wanted. At the heart of “Assignment: Earth” is a warning about the danger posed by the escalating arms race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that is nakedly to the point. Plus we get to see Teri Garr in her pre-Close Encounters days. All in all great fun, and it—along with “The City On the Edge of Forever”—paved the way for the complexities of the timeline that gave us episodes like “All Good Things,” “Past Tense,” “Future’s End,” and the Temporal Cold War.
Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
Now here’s an episode I didn’t really like much when I first saw it. Certainly there were more entertaining stories that caught my attention as a kid. But as I have gotten older I’ve come to realize how much “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” embodies the desire of Star Trek and SF to speak out about social issues. When the Enterprise intercepts a stolen Federation shuttle, the crew finds themselves caught in the middle of an absurd dispute between two beings from the planet Cheron. When the first alien is taken aboard, we find that his face is half black and half white, split straight down the center. Later we come to find that his pursuer looks identical, except for one small detail: the colors are reversed. This slight difference has created a great divide between the people of Cheron. Looking back, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” looks corny in its transparency, but it makes a great point nonetheless: We’re still the same people regardless of the color of our skin.
In addition to these five, here are some other episodes that I consider the best of The Original Series:
“A Taste of Armageddon”
“Balance of Terror”
“Patterns of Force”
“The Mark of Gideon”
“The Return of the Archons”
“Tomorrow Is Yesterday”
“Wink of An Eye”
So those my picks for the best of TOS. Certainly there are many others that I love and that are great examples of Star Trek. Think of this as a starting point. No doubt you’ll disagree with some of my picks, and you may even think I’m a Denebian slime devil for leaving your favorite off the list. But that passion and debate is what has allowed Star Trek to endure for 45 years. So feel free to add to the comments below and let me know which episodes are your favorites and why you love them.