Growing up in the 1970s and excited by the space program, I found Star Trek to be a promise of a bright future for humanity, often advocating for nonviolence and empathy in the face of conflict, while embracing diversity. I watched the episodes so frequently that I could often name the episode by the opening shot. I loved the characters but watched uncritically.
Starting last July, after wrapping up Discovery seasons 1 and 2 and Strange New Worlds as part of my goal of re-watching Star Trek chronologically, I began re-watching TOS in production order. Episodes had been aired in a different order than they were filmed, as some required far more time-consuming special effects than other episodes. As the producers and writers were inventing key details on the fly, it’s fun to watch the development of these ideas, especially during the first season, by watching in production order instead.
For a show that was meant to be episodic, with nothing changing the status quo, it is often surprisingly inconsistent. Crew come and go, changing roles and unfirms (and sometimes names, as the same actor plays another crew member). The vocabulary ends up changing a lot; early on, there are “defense screens” instead of shields, “Earth outposts”, “Vulcanians”, etc.
- Planet of the Week: As the first planet-of-the-week show (Lost in Space was “planet of the season” it’s first two seasons), TOS was actually pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars”, about a recurring cast on a long journey.
- Monster of the Week: But there’s a strong monster theme to many episodes, especially in the first season, often with twists. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Kirk’s best friend becomes the monster, due to the activation of his ESP. In “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the powerful alien monster is something else entirely. In “Mudd’s Women”, the women are sirens, as “they” are in “The Man Trap.” “The Enemy Within” is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In “Charlie X”, the monster is a teenager. In “The Devil in the Dark”, well… And that’s just the first part of the first season.
- Romance of the Week: TOS crew fall in love bizarrely quickly, but Kirk is not the womanizer pop culture remembers him as. McCoy is more of a ladies’ man.
- Obsessed with superpowers: “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Charlie X”, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, “Blink of an Eye.”
- With aliens with godlike powers: “Arena” (the Metrons not the Gorn), “Errand of Mercy”, “Catspaw”, “Triskelion”, “The Day of the Dove”, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” (the alien is 50,000 years old and mind-controls the Enterprise).
- Obsessed with intellect over emotion: Spock, the Talosians, the Kelvins…
- Amazing odds that the crew encountered on multiple occasions the “last of its kind”: “The Man Trap” (purportedly the last salt vampire), “Devil in the Dark” (the last horta), “Who Mourns for Adonais” (the last Greek god), “The Lights of Zetar” (last of the Zetarians), and maybe “Metamorphosis” (the solitary Companion).
- Time travel is ridiculously common: “The Naked Time”, “The Alternative Factor”, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “Assignment: Earth”, “All Our Yesterdays”. (Some include “Wink of an Eye.”)
- Alternate Earths: “Miri”, “Bread and Circuses”, “Patterns of Force”, “The Omega Glory”, “A Piece of the Action”. These episodes make more sense when you realize that Twilight Zone was a key inspiration for Star Trek.
- Four of the episodes leave or try to leave the galaxy: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Return to Tomorrow”, “Is There In Truth No Beauty”, and “The Day of the Dove.”
- Deus ex machina – Sometimes, surprisingly, the crew weren’t able to save themselves: “Charlie X”, “The Squire of Gothos”, and “Shore Leave”.
- 60s sexism: a misogynistic focus on “frigid” women—“The Cage” (Number One), “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (the psychologist), “Metamorphosis” (the Commissioner); women can’t be starship captains (“The Turnabout Intruder”); weird gallantry mixed with misogyny. (But the miniskirts were a feminist choice.)
To my surprise, Gene Roddenbery’s stories aren’t great—
- His episodes were slightly worse than average: 7.15 vs 7.39 of others; average rank of 49 vs. 39 out of 79 episodes. His best episode was “The Menagerie” (8.2) and his worst was “The Omega Glory” (6.1). “Ay plegli ianectu flaggen, tupep like for stahn.”
- Gene Coon’s (including those he wrote under the pseudonym Lee Cronin): 7.45, rank of 37; his best episode was “Space Seed” (8.8) and his worst was “Spock’s Brain” (5.6).
- D.C. Fontana: 7.38, rank of 38; her best episode was “Journey to Babel” (8.5) and her worst episode was “The Way to Eden” (5.4).
It’s hard to write a classic without also writing a clunker, apparently.
Random notes on episodes:
- 1.02 – I was surprised that “Charlie X” is so poorly ranked (#58 out of #78) as I always found the core story of Charlie compelling. Robert Walker did an excellent job in that role.
- 1.11-12 — “The Menagerie” is so amazing because it gives the show a tremendous sense of history, with the flashbacks to the original pilot. It really ramps up the verisimilitude.
- 1.19 – Great article on the tropes in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”. The time travel in this episode is awful and sets a ridiculous precedent.
- 1.21 – “The Return of the Archons” was the inspiration for The Purge!
- 1.23 – “A Taste of Armageddon” was ranked #18 on IMDB, so it didn’t make the “Top ~10” episodes (I padded the list a little) my youngest watched with me. But I thought it really held up well, and wished I’d shared it with him.
- 1.24 – I also regretted not including “This Side of Paradise” in my initial personal top 10. It’s pretty important for appreciating Spock, I think.
- 2.01 – “Catspaw” introduces Chekov, “created to add Davy Jones-like appeal to the show and the Russian heritage was because Roddenberry wanted to honor the fact that the Russians were the first people in space.” Also, given the Cold War, I think it forecast rapprochement. Bonus fact: Catspaw is the only holiday episode the franchise has ever done!
- 2.05 – More than a third of the way through my re-watch of TOS and “The Apple” was the worst episode so far. A supercomputer can nearly pull the Enterprise down from orbit using a tractor beam, but needs a few dozen humanoids to feed it fruit daily, or it will run out of power? People never touch one another on the Planet of Virgins until they see Chekhov kiss a woman?! A redshirt dies in every Act?! They beam down 17 kilometers from where they want to go and then need to hike? Yet again they can’t use the shuttle to rescue people stranded on a planet?
- 3.23 – “All Our Yesterdays” as an homage to the series. (Spock’s “City on the Edge of Forever”.)
Because of re-watching TOS, one of the things I’ve decided is that Strange New Worlds needs to have an episode with comically staged fight scenes with clearly visible stunt doubles!
My favorite episodes:
- “Balance of Terror”
- “The Trouble with Tribbles”
- “The Devil in the Dark”
- “The City on the Edge of Forever”
- “All Our Yesterdays”
- “Amok Time”
- “Journey to Babel”
- “Mirror, Mirror”
- “A Piece of the Action”
- “A Taste of Armageddon”
- “This Side of Paradise”
- “The Doomsday Machine”
- “Space Seed”
- “The Naked Time”
You must be logged in to post a comment.