A Journey Through Classic Trek

Star Trek: The Original Series

While I would consider myself a big fan of Star Trek, I have to admit that I haven't really watched much of the original series. It was, of course, out before I was born, so my first real exposure to Trek was from the movies (effectively, Star Trek II on, since the first movie is complete ass).

Trek itself is in a bit of transition period, with CBS pretty much throwing any series idea they have at a wall and seeing what sticks while the movies are in flux between whatever New Trek 4 ends up being about and the unnamed Tarantino project as well. Since it seems like there might be something for me to discuss, Trek-wise, at any given time, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to get a bit caught up on classic Trek, fill in a bit of the gaps in my fandom.

Instead of going through and watching the whole series, a prospect I was not looking forward so since so many of the later-run episodes are apparently craptactular, I elected to find a list of the best Original Series episodes to watch. Selecting five from the list (and excluding "Mirror, Mirror" and "The Trouble with Tribbles", since those were the two episodes I had seen repeatedly already), we have a collection of episodes to give me the best impression of the Original Series. So let's begin:

Season 1, Episode 10: The Corbomite Maneuver

This episode is regularly hailed for its tight pacing and interesting plotting. In is, the Enterprise encounters a giant colored space cube. The cube blocks the ship's path and whenever the ship moves, the cube moves as well. When the Enterprise tries to flee, the cube gets closer and starts emitting radiation. Under Kirk's order, the ship fires on the cube, destroying it. However, soon enough an even bigger ship (that looks like a beehive had a wild and crazy night with a gobstopper and both woke up the next morning, bleary and shame-faced) appears on the scene and threatens the Enterprise declaring that they will fire on the Enterprise in 10 minutes because, damn, humans are just, like, the worst, right?

It's here that Kirk, being Kirk, bluffs, stating that the Enterprise is filled with an unknown material, Corbomite, and if the ship fires on Kirk's vessel, the Enterprise will send back its own attack from the Corbomite of equal value, destroying both ships (a classic Starfleet "I'm rubber and you're glue" ruse). The aliens appear to buy the ruse, but then things natural escalate again. Eventually there's a space baby and other things happen, but really if you enjoy Kirk being Kirk, this is an episode to watch.

I did find the pacing tense. I certainly enjoyed the episode just as a chance to watch classic Kirk try to think his way around an opponent. And then, of course, he cheats, because Kirk always cheats. The episode works because it treats the characters like thinking beings, and we get to be in their head space for a bit as the problem is worked, suggestions are made, and the brain teaser goes on and on. It's an effective, interesting episode but one that certainly feels like classic Trek. It's hard to think of many other shows where we're pretty well on the bridge the whole time, watching the crew think through a single problem and all its permutations.

That space baby, though... Man, even thought he was played by classic B-movie actor Clint Howard (in his first role!), that space baby was stupid. This is classic Trek at its dumbest. That whole "60s utopian dream" that The Original Series always tried to sell. It's the one part of the episode that didn't age well. Still, over all this was a great hour of Trek.

  • aka, The Danger of the Amazing Technicolor Space Cube
  • Uhura is in a yellow dress. When did she switch to red?
  • Four minutes in and Kirk has already taken off his shirt.
  • "What am I, a doctor or a *mumble mumble* oh, forget it!"
  • No matter how weird it got, Kirk never flinched. Serious bad-ass mode.

Season 1, Episode 22: Space Seed

Including this episode in the list almost felt like a cheat to me since I had seen it before -- if I was skipping "Mirror, Mirror" and "Tribbles", shouldn't I also skip "The One With Kahn"? And yet, it's Kahn! Of course I had to cover this one.

While flying through space, the Enterprise comes across an old Earth vessel. Inside, the crew finds a bunch of people all kept in cryogenic sleep, awaiting some vessel (like the Enterprise) discovering them. The first of the bodies to automatically wake up is the magnificent Kahn, leader of the ship. As Bones works aiding Kahn in his recovery, more mysteries about the people on the old craft abound. Why were they floating out in space? How are they able to heal so quickly? Just what is going on with them?

Kahn slowly starts learning about the new era he's in (and seducing the women around him), while Kirk and Spock try to piece together who Kahn really is and what his intentions are. But when Kahn launches an attempt at taking over the ship, Kirk and his crew have to work fast to keep control and save the day.

Now this is Star Trek really sticking the landing. Sure, there's some goofy parts to the episode (as there will be with sci-fi from the 1960s), and the speculative fiction parts were clearly dead wrong (which we'll touch on in the notes below). But on the whole, this is just a great episode. Kahn is a worthy foe of Kirk, and the two have a great time circling each other, trying to come out on top. It's a similar dynamic the second movie would play with to great effect.

Of course, much of the credit has to go to Ricardo Maltobon. His Kahn is both an understated performance and a scenery-chewing one at the same time. He exudes intelligence, menace, and strength. It's not hard to see him as the leader of a race of genetically-created super-beings. A truly great villain.

Also, no space babies, so that's a total win in my book.

  • Now we have Uhura in red. Work it, girl.
  • Apparently we had a Eugenics War back in the mid-1990s. Anyone remember how that went?
  • And hey, by the end of the century we'd apparently built interplanetary century ships. How are our space colonies doing?
  • Wow, Kahn is an abusive lover.
  • Way obvious not-Kirk stunt-double at the 45 minute mark.
  • Okay, and if the Botany Bay, Kahn's ship, was ditched out in space never to be seen again, how could it suddenly be on Ceti Alpha V in Wrath of Kahn?

Season 1, Episode 25: The Devil in the Dark

A strange creature is killing people in the depths of a mining colony, and the Enterprise is sent out to investigate. As the crew investigates, bodies continue to fall. The beast also appears to be sabotaging equipment, potentially destroying the whole colony. Soon, Kirk and Spock have deduced that the creature is silicon-based, different from anything the crew has faced before. Now all they have to do is figure out a way to deal with it and save the colony in the process.

This episode is an oddity. The concept is certainly interesting -- that of a silicon-based lifeform -- but considering the amount of fiction that has come out since this episode aired (such as Evolution, the really dumb comedy with David Duchovny that also featured silicon-based lifeforms), the impact of the story was a bit blunted.

The story also fell apart a bit in the execution. The first half of the episode was effective enough, but around the mid-point the monster is revealed and it's just super goofy looking. From that point forward there really isn't any tension to the episode, no worry about danger (what with how silly the creature really is to look at), and the back-half just becomes a slog. It also doesn't help that the big twist of the episode (which I won't spoil here) was pretty easy to guess from the start of the episode.

The episode, then, gets an A for its concept, but only a C at best for execution.

  • Phasers apparently come in numbers, Number 1 and Number 2. Who knew?
  • There's a whole pack of red shirts at the 16 minute mark. How long will they last?
  • 1 minutes, 20 seconds for the first to eat it.
  • The monster was just a dude in a goofy rubber blanket. And he would have gotten away with it to if it wasn't for those pesky kids and their dog!
  • Obvious not-Kirk stunt-double at 27:45.
  • "To establish that level of contact, it will be necessary to touch it." Oh, how many times have we all been told that by a Vulcan in a bar on a lonely night?

Season 1, Episode 28: City on the Edge of Forever

The Enterprise is in orbit around a planet, one that actually emits waves of time. During one the shuddering blasts of time, Bones suffers a medical emergency and goes crazy. He manages to flee the ship, beaming himself down to the planet below. Kirk, Spock, and an away team are forced to go down to the planet to track the good doctor down.

Planet side, Kirk and Spock find a mysterious machine called the Guardian of Forever, a complex creation without beginning or end. The guardian acts as a gateway through time and space, showing visions of past Earth. Predictably, Bones then rushes through the portal, jumping back to Depression Era Earth. His actions back then change the timeline, wiping out all of the Federation. Kirk and Spock then have to bounce back in time to find Bones and stop whatever actions he took. Which might just mean letting someone else die...

This was another good sci-fi episode, one that really got to explore its concept without having to put in space babies or strange Technicolor cubes. Sending the three leads back in time to the 1930s certainly gave the show a different feel from many of the other episodes I watched. It was interesting to watch them try and blend in in the past, not stand out too much (which, of course, they failed at), and then find solutions to their problems via the technology of the era.

The plot really revolves around Edith Keeler, a woman who is pivotal to the time stream. If she lives, WW2 is won by the Nazis. If she died, the Federation occurs. Edith herself is an interesting character, certainly more interesting than many of the female characters they have on the show normally, but essentially resolving the choice about her life down to "her of Nazis" gives her the short shrift. No one is ever going to choose Nazis (well, no one any of us want to talk to, in any case).

Despite this flaw, though, I rather enjoyed the episode. It was funny, it was fairly thought-provoking, and it was at different from what I'd watched before. This one was a winner.

  • If you ever need to get Spock to do anything, just poke a hole in his ego. He may pretend he doesn't have an ego, but he most certainly does.

Season 2, Episode 10: Journey to Babel

The Enterprise is engaged in a ferrying mission, collecting various diplomats (including Sarek of Vulcan) from Federation colonies. Their goal: the meet at a neutral planet and discuss admitting Crodian (a largely defenseless planet rich in dilithium crystals) into the Federation. However, while en route, a strange vessel begins to shadow the Enterprise, following its every move. And then, after a heated exchange with Sarek, a Tellarite ambassador is found dead.

The murder seems to indicate Sarek committed the crime, so the question then becomes, "did he do it?" But then, when being questioned, Sarek falls ill -- he apparently has a heart defect that has to be corrected with surgery. McCoy has to save Sarek while Kirk investigates the murder and find out what's really going on, all before the diplomatic meeting happened.

There were parts of this episode I really did enjoy. The banter between Kirk, Spock, and Bones was on full display, with all three actors clearly enjoying the repartee. Spock and Sarek also got in a few good little exchanges before the end of the episode, and these too were real highlights. It was also interesting seeing an episode that so clearly influenced the Vulcan plotline in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Fascinating to see all the nods made to this episode in that movie.

That said, I didn't feel like this episode over all was as strong as it could have been. The A-plot with the murder mystery didn't really mesh all that well, energy-wise, with the B-plot about Spock's dying father. The pacing was off and what should have felt like two tense plotlines never really amounted to much for either. I probably would have preferred having one or the other plotline focused on better instead of having the attention of the episode so clearly split.

So this episode wins for Vulcan details and filing in Spock's history, but as a great episode of actually television, it's less than enticing.

  • Our first introduction to Sarek, Spock's father, and man, Sarek is kind of a dick.
  • Apparently the first episode to ever feature Andorians (the blue ones) and Tellarites (humanoid space-pigs).
  • Hey, there's Chekov, too! This feel much more natural.
  • The mysterious vessel is first glimpsed doing warp 10. You know, that warp speed no vessell should ever be able to do. And yet it does. And no one seems all that bothered by it. Oh, Star Trek and your fast and loose rules.
  • Starfleet has the most fabulous, spangly bandages

In Conclusion:

Admittedly, just doing a walk through the five best episodes of the series (seven, really, but I had to discount two), may not give me the best perspective on the whole run since I managed to avoid the real stinkers. I do think this allowed me to see some of the strengths and weaknesses of the run, while giving a pretty good cross-section.

We got some of the speculative fiction, with "Space Seed". We got to see time travel in "City on the Edge of Forever". And we got to see a space baby, one of the many really weird creations classic Trek was known for. While I didn't enjoy all the episodes I set out to watch, I do think there was merit in each of them.

What it has really shown me is that The Original Series hasn't aged all that well. When it's good, it's really really good. But due to the era it came out in (and maybe some of the people behind the scenes), it was pretty easy for even the really good episodes to go way off the rails. I don't think I'll end up going back and revisiting most of these episodes again, but I am glad I watched them at least once.