I love science fiction. I appreciate the writers who can challenge societal norms and address social conflict through stories set in other places. Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, was most excellent at doing this.
In this post, I’m listing my ten favorite original Star Trek episodes along with summaries of the episode and the ideas that were explored that are still relevant nearly 50 years later. Some will be perennial favorites, and others will just be personal favorites. There is no order other than chronology.
City on the Edge of Forever (S1, E29): This episode explores both the risks of time travel and pharmaceuticals. Dr. McCoy gets accidentally injected with a massive overdose of a legitimate drug. He goes crazy and ends up taking a trip to old Earth, saving the life of a shelter worker who goes on to kill American history by turning the government pacifist so Germany wins the war. Spock and Kirk have to go back to a brief window before McCoy’s arrival, find him and let the woman die. Finally, this episode explores the value of a single life and how individual incidents good and bad affect others.
Journey to Babel (S2, E10): This episode explores the ideas of collaboration for peace, masquerades, and the duty to blood and professional family. The Enterprise is transporting delegates to peace talks. Spock’s father Sarek is one of the delegates. There’s a murder and Sarek’s the suspect until he collapses due to heart issues; Kirk is attacked on the way to sick bay. Spock is torn between his responsibilities to the ship and his father’s need for a rare blood type only he can give; as Spock wrestles, you can see the emotion of dealing with his unique hybrid nature, the pain of isolation from purer Vulcans, and the struggle to deal with the emotions of his human half. In the end, a Romulan masquerading as an Andorian is actually the guilty party and commits suicide because he failed in his mission to eliminate the peace talks.
Trouble with Tribbles (S2, E15): This is the episode where the Klingons and Enterprise members have to share a space station near a disputed planet. Whoever can prove the best developer of the planet will get ownership. Tied into the disagreement is some hybrid grain and born-pregnant fuzzballs. One of the best things was that the fuzzballs discovered the poisoned grain and indicated it through death; I wonder how influential Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was in developing this episode.
A Piece of the Action (S2, E17): In this episode, the Enterprise is sent to look for a missing starship. When she gets to the local planet, she can tell the last visit was before the Prime Directive–the local inhabitants were trying to set up their society based on 1920s Chicago Gangland based on a book from a member of the earlier ship. Most telling is that Spock’s computer can’t find a logical solution to the problem of trying to unify the different gangs. Kirk has to step in with some human creativity to save the day. Maybe this is an early warning about over-reliance on technology?
Patterns of Force (S2, E 21): The Enterprise is sent to a dual planet sector to find a missing Federation cultural observer and walks into a scenario where something has obviously gone wrong–Nazi culture is completely replicated. As the episode progresses, it is clear that the cultural observer broke the Prime Directive; he believed that the Nazi rise to power should be emulated to unify the dual planet races. Unfortunately, he forget the end of the party was complete destruction. In the words of his character, “Even historians fail to learn from history. They repeat the same mistakes.”
Bread and Circuses (S2, E25): In this episode, there is space debris indicating destruction of the space equivalent of a merchant marine vessel. Our faithful trio–Spock, McCoy, and Kirk–beam down to investigate a culture that is a hybrid between 1960s America and ancient Rome. The missing captain, a Starfleet flunkie, has violated the Prime Directive of non-interference and risen to a position of being a Caesar. There is continual fighting between the citizens who accept the Roman pantheon and slaves who follow the sun and peace. There are two ideas that should be noted. Spock identifies that slavery seems to have been institutionalized through government-subsidized healthcare and pensions. At the close of the episode, Uhura suggests that it is not the sun being followed by the slaves, but rather the Son of God.
The Paradise Syndrome (S3, E3): The Enterprise is sent to help a culture similar to Native Americans survive an impending asteroid strike. Kirk triggers a very powerful obelisk to suck him in, and then gets zapped because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Spock and McCoy have to leave to try to deflect the asteroid. The Enterprise fails, so it has to lead the asteroid back to the planet while trying to analyze the obelisk and how to save the planet. Meanwhile, Kirk cannot remember his name but does some amazing and magical feats (based on advanced knowledge) that make him medicine man and husband of the chief’s daughter Miramanee. As the asteroid approaches, the planet goes berserk causing the people led by the former medicine man to stone Kirk and Miramanee at the obelisk because they cannot activate the obelisk; Spock and McCoy arrive to save Kirk and get the obelisk to function to zap the asteroid. However, Miramanee dies due to internal injuries. This episode explores the tension between technology and the perceived simpler life of less advanced peoples. And Kirk once again loses a woman to death…
Plato’s Stepchildren (S3, E10): In this episode, the Enterprise receives a distress call to a planet with a rare element. They are greeted by a little person Alexander who struggles with some kind of problem. They proceed to meet the people of the planet who claim to live by Plato’s ideals; the leader needs assistance. As the episode progresses, the leaders display telekinetic powers that they use to force those without powers to serve. Our trio figures out telekinetic power is achieved through biological processing of the element, and Alexander has no power because a genetic issue prevents his body from doing so. They all get injected with the element to develop the power. Meanwhile, the Platonians bring down Uhura and Nurse Chapel. Before the power develops, Uhura, Chapel, Kirk, and Spock are forced to act out various episodes, including some romantic scenes. Although the point is that absolute power corrupts absolutely, there are those that claim Kirk and Uhura have the first interracial kiss on US television; however, there were Caucasian and Asian kisses on both The Wild Wild West and I Spy in 1966, and Sammy Davis Jr kissed Nancy Sinatra on Movin’ with Nancy in 1967. More important to me as a woman were how Chapel and Uhura both expressed how the force and lack of free will made them feel–fear, shame, and guilt.
The Way to Eden (S3, E20): The Enterprise finds a bunch of miscreants who stole a space shuttle and has to transport them to a suitable location. The miscreants are futuristic impressions of hippies–how they dress and act. They are looking for a planet called Eden so they can start over without technology. Interwoven is the leader’s status as carrier of a unique bacteria that would decimate any new environment. The group takes over the Enterprise to find their Eden, only to learn the hard way that Eden isn’t an Eden due to high acidity in the soil and vegetation. Again, there is the tension between technology and primitive living. Also, there is the question of whether any utopia with human beings would ever be a utopia.
Turnabout Intruder (S3, E24): And in this episode, we have the one ex of Kirk’s that should have been killed off… Sorry. Janice Lester a former lover of Kirk’s is on a planet where it appears that an accident involving radiation has killed her team. Unbeknownst to Enterprise personnel, she activates an unusual technology that allows her to send her essence into Kirk’s body and bring his essence into her body. The rest of the story is Freaky Friday Star Trek style. Janice tries to kill Kirk and his career until the crew decides to mutiny and the stress causes her essence to return to Kirk’s body. This is a hard episode, and most fans think it is one of the worst. However, it must be considered an exploration of feminist ideals of the time: can a woman hold power? would a woman be stable holding power? are women truly denied positions of power based on gender? could they only hold power during certain times of the month or seasons of life? (sorry, went a little too far with that last one) What undoes this episode’s strength is that they portrayed Janice’s character as unstable to begin with.