Top 11 episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series
Mel Keable | On 09, Sep 2016Reading time: 10 mins
With Star Trek: Discovery almost here, we continue our #BackTrek countdown through the best bits of the sci-fi series to date.
As of this week, Star Trek is now 50 years old. Created by Gene Roddenberry, the sci-fi series about the crew of the starship Enterprise has boldly gone on to inspire 13 feature films and six more TV series – including a reboot set to arrive on Netflix UK in 2017. Before then, though, the whole of Star Trek has beamed onto the streaming service, just in time for you to binge-watch you way through all five decades of them.
Never seen Star Trek before? Don’t have time to re-watch all of it? We navigate our way through the whole of the Original Series to pick out the best episodes.
Set phasers to stream.
Season 1, Episode 3: Where No Man Has Gone Before
Where No Man has Gone Before was actually the second pilot episode to be filmed for Star Trek, after the first (The Cage) was rejected by NBC. Here, we see Gene Rodenberry attempting to show that a science fiction show could be about a lot more than just ray guns and aliens – and boy, does he deliver. This episode nicely balances the terror and mystery of classic Science Fiction, with the politics and moral struggles of a crew far from home and alone in the vast emptiness of space.
We are treated to a heady mix of tense action sequences and emotional drama – in particular, we see a defining moment for Kirk’s character, as he struggles to choose between his duty to his crew and making a difficult sacrifice. Kirk ends up in a bitter fight with one of his best friends to protect his crew. This sees the start of another beautiful trend: Kirk’s torn tunic. That little glimpse of Shatner’s bare chest helps set the tone for the ongoing ethos of Star Trek – that compassion is necessary to give meaning to mankind’s relentless quest for knowledge. A perfect example of what makes Star Trek the much loved series it is today. Did we mention Shatner’s chest?
Spock: I felt for him, too.
Kirk: I believe there’s some hope for you after all, Mister Spock.
Season 1, Episode 14: Balance of Terror
Balance of Terror marks the first appearance of the Romulan race. Kirk is front and centre in this classic combat episode, showing his strengths as a captain and his dogged determination to prevail, while the Romulan commander (Mark Lenard, who also goes on to play Spock’s father throughout the series and movies) plans to go on the rampage outside the neutral zone to remind the galaxy of the power of the Romulan empire. The space fights dominate the episode, but the episode stands out for its beginning and ending, involving newlyweds Angela and Robert.
Angela: Phaser control acknowledging. All weapons energising to full.
Robert: Happy wedding day, almost.
Angela: You won’t get off my hook this easily. I’m going to marry you, Mister, battle or phaser weapons notwithstanding.
Season 1, Episode 18: Arena
What’s not to love about a giant, green, rubber lizard wrestling with William Shatner? Of course, being Star Trek, there is a lot more to this episode than Kirk getting his shirt ripped. Kirk and a Gorn (the correct term for giant, green, rubber lizard men) find themselves stranded on a desolate alien planet and battling for survival.
Kirk: We’re a most promising species, Mister Spock, as predators go. Did you know that?
Spock: I’ve frequently had my doubts.
Season 1, Episode 22: Space Seed
Brace yourselves for the greatest villain in Star Trek history – Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh. The Enterprise comes across a derelict old Earth ship dating from the 1990s, a time of fierce eugenics wars in Earth’s history. (No, we don’t remember it either.) The crew, once awoken from suspended animation, turn out to be genetically-enhanced supermen, bent upon using the Enterprise as a stepping stone to a new empire. Despite Khan and his people representing an evolved and advanced human, Kirk shows how much the human race has changed from violence and war to the ideals at the heart of the Federation. As well as being a phenomenal episode in its own right this also serves as a gateway to so much future Trek: the phenomenal Wrath of Khan (and sequels The Search for Spock and Voyage Home), plus the newer franchise by JJ Abrams.
Kirk: You have a tendency to express ideas in military terms, Mister Khan. This is a social occasion.
Khan: It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed. Many prefer it more honest, more open.
Season 1, Episode 28: City on the Edge of Forever
This might win the title of our number one Star Trek episode. The City on the Edge of Forever changed the way time travel was dealt with on-screen. The Enterprise experiences some heavy turbulence, while travelling through ripples in time, leading to Admiral Surgeon Leonard McCoy becoming accidentally heavily drugged, and running through a portal in time. Kirk and Spoke follow, travelling back to 1930s America to stop a raving mad McCoy changing the past.
Meanwhile, Kirk meets the love of his life – Edith Keeler (Joan Collins)- but in order to stop the past from being irrevocably changed, he must stand by and watch her die. Kirk’s reaction before beaming up at the end of the episode is one of William Shatner’s most moving moments in all of Star Trek.
McCoy: You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could have saved her. Do you know what you just did?
Spock: He knows, Doctor. He knows.
Season 2, Episode 1: Amok Time
The opening episode of Season 2 aimed to give fans exactly what they were looking for: a closer look at the cool and logical Spock. We are introduced to the Vulcan world as Spock begins to feel the effects of his people’s mating ritual, Pon Farr, which overwhelms poor Spock and drives him to madness. Kirk disobeys orders, and diverts the Enterprise to save Spock.
Unfortunately, his intended, T’Pring, has fallen for another and insists that Spock fights for her affections, with none other than Kirk. This episode offers Leonard Nimoy the chance to take Spock’s character to a new level, giving him the chance to show some emotions much more freely than usual. Hearing Spock call McCoy and Kirk his closest friends even brings McCoy a moment’s pause.
Kirk: You mean the biology of Vulcans? Biology as in reproduction? Well, there’s no need to be embarrassed about it, Mister Spock. It happens to the birds and the bees.
Spock: The birds and the bees are not Vulcans, Captain.
Season 2, Episode 4: Mirror, Mirror
Mirror, Mirror sees one of the first introductions of the Mirror universe concept to sci-fi – it’s now become such a common theme it’s hard to think of how much impact this episode would’ve had at the time. Indeed, the Mirror Universe later became a staple in Star Trek, with the Mirror Universe of Deep Space 9 becoming a reoccurring plot line.
In this mirror universe, the Federation is re-imagined as the Terran Empire, a ruthless and much more Klingon-style empire. Even Spock is changed, sporting a very fetching goatee. Kirk and a handful of officers change places with their mirror universe counterparts, after the transporter beam passes through an ion storm…
Chekov (pointing a phaser at Kirk): So you die, Captain, and we all move up in rank. No one will question the assassination of a captain who has disobeyed prime orders of the Empire.
Season 2, Episode 6: Doomsday Machine
Following a series of destroyed planets, the crew of the Enterprise find the heavily damaged USS Constellation and Commodore Decker. Commodore Decker has become obsessed with the Doomsday Machine, the device that has been destroying planets. Decker tries to force the Enterprise to attack the machine to no effect – and soon, he is piloting a suicide mission in a shuttlecraft in a desperate bid to destroy it. That gives Kirk the seed of an idea – and a sign-off that is pure class.
Kirk: Gentlemen, beam me aboard.
Spock: We can’t, Captain. Transporter is out again. Mister Scott, 20 seconds to detonation. Mister Scott?
Season 2, Episode 15: Trouble with Tribbles
Another beautiful comedy episode. Cyrano Jones, a galactic smuggler, is out to make some easy money by selling some cute little purring balls of fuzz (Tribbles). These cute little fluff balls reproduce at a truly prodigious rate, and all sorts of hijinks ensue, as they take over a space station. The Klingons are also aboard and intent on causing trouble. Luckily, Tribbles hate Klingons and help to foil their plot.
This sounds crazy, but it works, and it works perfectly. This episode is classic light-hearted Trek; once you have watched it, it’s easy to see why this is a permanent fan favourite. (In case one episode of Tribbles isn’t enough for you, Deep Space 9 revisits this episode in wonderful style, carefully blending original footage into the episode for a behind-the-scenes look.)
McCoy: Does everything have to have a practical use for you? They’re nice, soft, and furry, and they make a pleasant sound.
Spock: So would an ermine violin, but I see no advantage in having one.
Season 3, Episode 2: Enterprise Incident
The Enterprise enters the Neutral Zone, seemingly under Kirk’s direction and without authorisation. The Romulans soon intercept the ship and Spock and Kirk are taken aboard for questioning. The Romulan Commander attempts to convince Spock to join her cause, citing the Federation’s refusal to give him the command of a starship as a lack of respect. It quickly transpires that the Federation is very jealous of the Romulan cloaking technology, and have assigned Kirk and Spock to infiltrate a Romulan vessel in order to steal the technology.
Here, we see a darker side to the Federation, willing to go to extreme lengths to acquire technology from other alien species. While Shatner’s very fetching eyebrows are one reason to watch this episode, Nemoy’s role is the second – a truly compelling watch.
McCoy: Well, if all the shouting’s over up there, I’d like for you to report to sickbay.
Kirk: What for?
McCoy: Well, you’re due in surgery. I’m going to bob your ears.
Spock: Captain, please go. Somehow, they do not look aesthetically agreeable on a human.
Season 1, Episode 4: The Naked Time
This may not be a widely popular choice for many Trekkies’ top 10s, but Season 1’s fourth episode deserves to be mentioned for pure comedic enjoyment – when an episode is called “The Naked Time”, you know it has some treats in store. Many science-fiction shows have dealt with ‘a sex disease’ and the lowering of inhibitions, but this does so with a fantastic sense of humour. Sulu living his dream of being D’Artagnan and swashbuckling topless around the ship is a vision which will always stay with you. Despite the humour of watching the crew give into their wilder sides, there are some very poignant emotions. For example, we really see what lies beneath Spock cool and logical exterior; just because a Vulcan believes in logic not emotions to guide actions, it doesn’t mean that they don’t feel emotions as keenly as the rest of us.
Sulu (brandishing a foil): Richelieu, beware! Stand. No, farther. No escape for you. You either leave this bloodied, or with my blood on your swords. Cowards!
Star Trek: The Original Series is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.