What can be said about Nichelle Nichols that hasn’t already been said over the last few days? Her loss is felt profoundly by the entire Star Trek fan community – a rare moment of togetherness in what can be a divided fandom at times. But beyond that, news of her passing has resonated across the world of entertainment and beyond. She was a unique person, someone whose influence and hard work may not have been centre-stage for everybody, but whose tireless commitment to the causes she supported – and to fans of Star Trek – will never be forgotten.
At a time when the United States was still in the process of outlawing racial segregation, Nichelle Nichols became an icon for the civil rights movement. The character of Uhura took her place on the bridge of the USS Enterprise not as a servant or a maid, not as a subordinate, but as an equal member of the crew; an officer with the respect of her shipmates. Such roles were incredibly rare on American television at that time, and the statement made by Uhura’s presence on Star Trek was one of racial equality and hope for the future.
There’s a frequently-cited story that it was Martin Luther King who convinced Nichelle Nichols to remain on Star Trek when she considered leaving to return to the stage after the show’s first season. Star Trek, according to King, was one of the few shows he allowed his children to watch – and Uhura’s role was the reason why.
Star Trek told morality tales and gave commentary on contemporary issues of race and civil rights across its three seasons, and Uhura was a powerful presence in many of those stories. Nichelle Nichols brought the character to life with a quiet, understated charm, and quickly became an irreplaceable part of Star Trek.
While we as Trekkies might remember Nichelle Nichols from her role as Uhura, her legacy extends far, far beyond the Star Trek franchise – and even beyond the realm of entertainment itself. Beginning in the 1970s, she worked with NASA to help drive the recruitment of new, younger astronauts from diverse backgrounds. The first African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic-Americans to travel into space joined the space programme as part of Nichelle Nichols’ initiative. She quite literally changed the face of NASA and diversified space exploration.
The documentary Woman in Motion goes into detail about Nichols’ work with NASA, and if you haven’t seen it it’s well worth a watch. I love a good documentary, and Woman in Motion presents her story in an understandable way. I have to be honest and say that I didn’t know much about her involvement with NASA prior to watching Woman in Motion, but it’s a story that absolutely should be told – and I’m glad it was able to be told before Nichelle Nichols passed away.
Over the past few days we’ve seen an outpouring of grief and remembrance from Nichelle Nichols’ Star Trek co-stars, actors and creatives in the Star Trek franchise, many others from the world of entertainment, and countless people who felt inspired by her. Many people have shared their own stories of what it meant to see Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise, how Nichelle Nichols inspired them to get started in their chosen career, or the words of advice she had from those lucky enough to have met her in person.
For one person to have such an impact and leave such a legacy is phenomenal, and the thousands upon thousands of tributes that we’ve seen are just a small fraction of the lives that Nichelle Nichols touched in one way or another. Those lives were changed not because she played a role on Star Trek, but because of what she did with that role, that fame, and the spotlight that was placed upon her. Other actors could’ve happily taken their pay and done nothing more – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all – but Nichelle Nichols went the extra mile. She recognised what her role meant to millions of people across the United States and around the world, and she did everything that she could to make it matter. That’s why it’s been so hard to know what to say, and why her loss hits so profoundly. She wasn’t just another performer – she was so much more than that to so many people.
We’ve been lucky to have Nichelle Nichols with us for as long as she was. It was only in her final couple of years that she began slowing down her activities; she attended her final Star Trek convention less than a year ago. In all of that time she offered to fans and everyone else the kind of boundless, unbridled optimism that defines Star Trek itself: always smiling, always happy to be seen with fans, co-stars, and new actors alike.
I’m going to miss Nichelle Nichols. I’ll miss hearing about her appearances at conventions and the interactions she had with fellow fans and friends of mine within the Star Trek fan community. I’ll miss the stories she could tell about working on the show and its films. And I’ll miss seeing her with the likes of Sonequa Martin-Green, Zoe Saldaña, and Celia Rose Gooding. The comfort I take is that she lived a full life, one in which she put her talents to good use both on-screen and off. She leaves behind a legacy most people could only imagine, and her impact on the worlds of Star Trek, entertainment, and even space exploration itself will outlive her, continuing long into the future.
Some images used above courtesy of Star Trek/Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: Although there are no major plot spoilers for Strange New Worlds Season 1, the inclusion of particular episodes on this list may hint at certain themes, characters, storylines, etc. There are also spoilers below for the episodes and stories on this list.
I haven’t been able to talk about Strange New Worlds as much as I would’ve liked thanks to Paramount taking an “America First” approach to the series, the Star Trek franchise, and pretty much everything else on Paramount+. However, with Paramount+ having now arrived here in the UK, I hope to slowly begin to rectify that situation and make up for lost time. On this occasion, I’ve put together a list of ten episodes that I think make great background viewing for Strange New Worlds Season 1.
You can absolutely watch these Star Trek stories before diving into the show’s first season, but if – like me – you’ve already watched Strange New Worlds Season 1, there’s still value in going back to some of them to expand on what the new show’s first season delivered. Ordinarily I’d have written a list like this before the season aired, but having already seen Strange New Worlds that’s allowed me to adapt the list and include a couple of episodes that I would have never considered!
Strange New Worlds was absolutely fantastic in its first season – and it has me lamenting the truncated ten-episode seasons of modern Star Trek as I could’ve happily enjoyed at least ten more! If you missed it, I’ve already written up my spoiler-free thoughts on the show’s first season, and you can find that piece by clicking or tapping here. At the risk of repeating myself, Strange New Worlds hit ten for ten in its first season – ten outstanding episodes that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I can’t recommend Strange New Worlds highly enough both to fans of Star Trek and to newcomers to the franchise. If you’re new, or if it’s been a while since you last saw some of these episodes, watching them will provide some additional background and backstory heading into Strange New Worlds – or will expand somewhat on some of the stories, factions, and characters if you’ve already watched Season 1. However, nothing below makes for essential or unmissable viewing; Strange New Worlds is a very accessible series that newcomers to Star Trek shouldn’t feel intimidated by!
As always, please keep in mind that all of this is just the subjective opinion of one person. I’ve chosen episodes that I generally enjoy and that I feel connect in significant ways to Strange New Worlds Season 1. If you don’t like my picks or I miss something you would’ve included, that’s okay! There’s always room in the Star Trek fan community for discussion and polite disagreement.
I’ve tried hard to avoid major plot spoilers for Strange New Worlds Season 1, but the inclusion of certain episodes here may hint at the inclusion of factions, aliens, characters, and storylines. If you don’t want to risk any of that, this is your last chance to nope out!
With all of that out of the way let’s take a look at the episodes I’ve chosen, which are listed below in no particular order.
Episode #1: The Menagerie, Parts I-II The Original Series Season 1
Technically speaking, The Menagerie was Captain Pike’s first Star Trek appearance. The episode incorporates most of the footage left over from The Original Series’ unsuccessful first pilot, The Cage, but uses a frame narrative to include Captain Kirk and Spock as they look back on the events of Captain Pike’s mission to the planet Talos IV.
After network NBC had spent a significant amount of money on The Cage, one of the conditions attached to The Original Series’ first season was that Gene Roddenberry and his team find a way to use the footage left over from the original pilot. It was either impossible or prohibitively expensive to bring back The Cage star and original Captain Pike actor Jeffrey Hunter for the role, and the recasting of the character is part of the reason for Pike’s severe disfigurement and disability.
We could do an entire article on the production history of The Cage and The Menagerie – and maybe one day we should! – but for now, the important thing to keep in mind is that this is Captain Pike’s ultimate destination. The Menagerie exists as a reminder of where Captain Pike’s arc will ultimately lead him, but it’s also an interesting episode in its own right.
The Original Series was beginning to find its feet by this point in its first season, and a two-parter like The Menagerie could’ve blown it off-course. However, the way The Cage was incorporated into the story made for a fascinating and somewhat mysterious presentation, and Spock’s characterisation and his dedication to his former captain in particular are noteworthy. It’s a fascinating episode that managed to be so much more than just a recycling of a failed pitch and that found a unique and innovative way to accomplish what could have been a difficult and annoying task.
Episode #2: Trials and Tribble-ations Deep Space Nine Season 5
Trials and Tribble-ations was created for the Star Trek’s thirtieth anniversary in 1996, and it was a fun celebration of the franchise’s roots. The crew of the USS Defiant – led by Captain Sisko – find themselves displaced in time, arriving during the events of The Original Series episode The Trouble With Tribbles.
Sisko and his crew have to preserve the timeline – a nefarious villain is attempting to use a Bajoran Orb to alter the past to his advantage. What results is a genuinely fun romp, and seeing the two crews from two different eras coming together was quite something. I’ve always held Trials and Tribble-ations in high esteem ever since I first watched it!
On the technical side of things, Trials and Tribble-ations was incredibly ambitious for its time. Using the same technology that had been used to place Tom Hanks alongside real-world historical figures for the film Forrest Gump – which had been released only a couple of years earlier – the creative team managed to seamlessly blend the Deep Space Nine characters into The Original Series. Some excellent work with costumes and sets – including a recreation of the original USS Enterprise’s bridge – really sold the illusion.
The only character from Trials and Tribble-ations to appear in Strange New Worlds is Spock, with the episode taking place after Pike’s tenure in the captain’s chair. But as a celebration of all things Star Trek, and one of the few stories to bring together the 23rd and 24th Centuries, it’s one you shouldn’t miss! There are also some interesting time travel and timeline-integrity angles to the story’s frame narrative that may just prove interesting to viewers who pay attention.
Episode #3: Q & A Short Treks Season 2
Q & A steps back in time to before the events of Strange New Worlds and Discovery Season 2 to show us Spock’s arrival aboard the USS Enterprise while still an ensign. It’s a cute short story that shows off a younger Spock while also introducing us to Una – a.k.a. Number One. Una had far less screen time than Spock or Pike in Discovery’s second season, so Q & A was one of the first stories to feature her in a big way.
There are some great shots of the internal workings of the USS Enterprise’s turbolifts – something that a geek like me is always going to be interested in! In fact, Q & A must be one of the very few episodes, along with parts of The Next Generation’s fifth season episode Disaster, to make a turbolift its primary setting. That format could feel restrictive, but Q & A makes it shine through some excellent character work and occasionally hilarious writing.
Q & A was one of three episodes of Short Treks to bring back Pike, Spock, and Una – and these short stories began to expand upon their roles and set the stage for Strange New Worlds. They were also experimental; teases to fans that also served to see whether the much-requested “Captain Pike show” was a viable concept. Short Treks did some genuinely interesting things in its second season – which is why I’ve argued that the concept should absolutely be revived!
Captain Pike is less of a presence in Q & A than he would be in Ask Not, but that’s no bad thing. We got to spend more time with Una, and seeing her in her role as first officer – in part through the eyes of a young Spock, fresh out of Starfleet Academy – was fascinating!
Episode #4: Unification, Parts I-II The Next Generation Season 5
We just talked about how interesting it was to see young Spock when he was first assigned to the Enterprise – so now let’s jump forward in time by more than a century to see a much older Spock in a completely different chapter of his life! The two-part episode Unification brought Spock into The Next Generation in a truly interesting story that built upon the Vulcan-Romulan connection that had been introduced in The Original Series.
I adore crossovers, and aside from a brief cameo in the premiere of The Next Generation, this was the first crossover involving main characters that the franchise had attempted. Its success laid the groundwork for the likes of Relics, Flashback, Defiant, Caretaker, These Are The Voyages, and many more.
Unification found a way to give Spock genuine development to reflect decades of his life that we hadn’t seen on screen. It was great to see him alongside not only Captain Picard but also Data – the two characters share many characteristics and filled similar roles in their respective series. The mystery at the heart of the episode and subsequent revelations about Spock’s work and the Romulans’ schemes made for a story that was tense, dramatic, and exciting.
Strange New Worlds isn’t all about Spock, but seeing what his life would be like decades after the events of the series is worthwhile. It puts into context not only the stories that unfold around Spock, but his own actions, behaviours, and thoughts. The Spock we meet in Unification is different from the Spock of Strange New Worlds – but not unrecognisable.
Bonus Episode #4½: Unification III Discovery Season 3
The two-parter became a three-parter when Discovery added to the legacy of Unification in its third season. Taking Spock’s work with the Romulans as a starting point, Unification III shows us how subsequent generations of Romulans and Vulcans looked to Spock as an inspiration. His legacy is all over this story – and it would carry through into future episodes of Discovery in its third and fourth seasons.
Spock would go on to be an important part of Vulcan history, remembered fondly even centuries after his death for the process that he started. Seeing Michael Burnham react to that was sweet, and knowing that Spock has a legacy within the Star Trek timeline that extends far beyond his own lifespan is something incredibly meaningful.
Episode #5: Arena The Original Series Season 1
An absoloute classic of The Original Series, Arena features Captain Kirk’s iconic battle against an unnamed Gorn captain – the first Gorn encountered in Star Trek. I might be in the minority here, but I absolutely adore the way the rubber-suited Gorn looks. There’s something menacing about its tyrannosaurus rex-like head, its silvery, almost insectoid eyes, and its sharp crocodilian teeth. But at the same time, there’s a light-hearted campiness to the way the Gorn comes across on screen thanks in part to the limitations of 1960s special effects – and perhaps also due to the bold pattern on his (or her?) costume!
There’s more to Arena than just the scuffle at Vasquez Rocks, though! There’s a more philosophical side to the story, one that shows how far humanity has come by the 23rd Century – and how far there is still to go to make progress. Despite the conflict, both Spock and Kirk demonstrate a willingness to try diplomacy and show mercy – something that impresses the highly-advanced Metrons.
The way in which Captain Kirk was able to outsmart and defeat the Gorn captain shows his ingenuity at its best – and presents a contrast between “brains” and “brawn” that made it clear how even a strong and physically imposing enemy can be defeated. There’s a great metaphor there for dealing with bullies!
Arena is one of those episodes that I believe every Trekkie – even those who aren’t fans of The Original Series – needs to see at least once. Despite the Gorn not becoming a recurring villain in The Original Series or even during The Next Generation era, the original design of these reptilian aliens has become iconic, and as a story that fully encapsulates the Star Trek franchise’s approach to science-fiction, Arena has it all.
Episode #6: Damage Enterprise Season 3
Damage comes quite late in the fully-serialised story of Enterprise’s third season, but it’s worth a watch regardless. At this point in the story, Captain Archer and his crew are running out of time to prevent the Xindi from launching a super-weapon against Earth, and Archer’s desperation to do anything to complete his mission forces him down a very dark moral path.
In essence, Captain Archer must choose between failure – which will almost certainly lead to the total annihilation of Earth itself – and his morality, leading to him basically turning to theft and piracy in order to survive in the harsh Delphic Expanse. It’s a fascinating story that features a brand-new alien race, but also one that’s an introspective character piece focusing on Archer’s decisions.
There are other story threads in play in Damage, including T’Pol’s exposure to Trellium-D – a compound toxic to Vulcans that caused her to begin to lose control over her emotions. The way in which Vulcans suppress their emotions in favour of logic is something that Enterprise explored in depth, and it’s a fascinating part of Vulcan culture that subsequent Star Trek projects have also touched upon.
Enterprise’s third season was a tense and exciting one overall – and Damage is one of the highlights for its strong character work and examination of how Starfleet’s enlightened morality can end up falling by the wayside when the going gets tough. Captain Archer is pained by the decision he makes – but that doesn’t stop him from making it.
Episode #7: Through the Valley of Shadows Discovery Season 2
Although I’d encourage you to watch Discovery Season 2 in its entirety, I felt that Through the Valley of Shadows was really the only episode that had a significant impact on Strange New Worlds. It’s here where Captain Pike has to make a decision about his fate and his future that sets him on a particular path – one that will culminate in devastating disability.
Although Pike was willing, in the moment, to make the sacrifice in order to obtain the time crystal, the decision he made has a huge impact on him. With only a couple of episodes left in Season 2, Discovery didn’t have a lot of time to address how this would affect him – but Strange New Worlds certainly does, and this is really the starting point for Pike’s season-long arc.
Discovery’s second season was a big improvement on its first, and I think it’s fair to say that bringing Captain Pike and Spock into the show in a big way was a masterstroke! Through the Valley of Shadows reframes Pike’s accident and disability in an entirely different way, and while there are sci-fi trappings of time-travel macguffins and talk of fate and destiny, what lies just under the surface is a story that I find incredibly relatable.
I’ve been Captain Pike at this moment. Sitting down with a doctor, hearing bad news about my health, knowing that things won’t get better but will get worse, that my ability to do basic things like walking will become increasingly difficult… these are all experiences that I’ve personally had and that I saw reflected in Captain Pike. Whether intentional or not, the decision to have him become aware of his future – and choose to embrace it for the greater good – kicked off a story about disability and declining health that really resonated with me. Its approach to this complex topic was sensitive, understandable, and darkly beautiful.
Episode #8: Prime Factors Voyager Season 1
Prime Factors flips Starfleet’s Prime Directive on its head. The Prime Directive is Starfleet’s most important standing order, and it states that “no starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.” We’ve seen the Prime Directive – and the principles upon which it is based – play a huge role in episodes of practically every Star Trek series, with captains having to decide whether to interfere, how to interfere, and what the consequences may be.
Prime Factors takes the opposite approach, and asks how it would feel to our heroes if they were on the other side of this kind of policy. How would Starfleet react to being denied a request for help or trade because it conflicted with an alien society’s principles? The resultant episode was absolutely fascinating.
At this relatively early point in Voyager’s run, the fact that Captain Janeway and her crew really are stranded on the far side of the galaxy with no way to get home is beginning to sink in. Prime Factors is one of several episodes that teased the crew with a potential way to complete part of that journey – before yanking it away again.
The episode is also an interesting one for Harry Kim, who we get to see at his most eager to get home, and for the relationship between Captain Janeway and Tuvok. Although Chakotay would really take over the role of “trusted advisor” as Voyager got settled, initially it was Tuvok who was being established as Captain Janeway’s closest confidante and most reliable friend.
Episode #9: Balance of Terror The Original Series Season 1
Balance of Terror is the episode that first introduced the iconic Romulans to Star Trek – as well as revealing their connection with the Vulcans that we talked about in Unification above. Inspired by war films – particularly naval war films and those set aboard submarines – from a generation earlier, there’s a really tense, claustrophobic feel to the conflict between the Enterprise and this new, terrifying threat.
Balance of Terror expertly sets up the background of Federation-Romulan relations and uses that to create tension and conflict on the bridge of the Enterprise when a surprising connection between the Romulans and Spock’s own Vulcan people is revealed. The episode also raises the stakes by giving the Romulans not one but two super-weapons: the devastating plasma torpedo and a cloaking device. This was the first on-screen appearance of a cloaking device in Star Trek.
Of particular note here is Captain Kirk’s approach to the conflict. After discovering the Romulan vessel and its technology, Kirk decides to pursue it, hoping to intercept it before it can cross back into Romulan space. Was this uncompromising approach the right call?
Balance of Terror is a fascinating episode for its tone, for its approach to bigotry and prejudice in the enlightened future Star Trek presents, and for its introduction of a faction that would go on to play a major role in the Star Trek franchise. It’s another episode of The Original Series that I consider to be a must-watch for all Trekkies.
Episode #10: Star Trek 2009 Kelvin Timeline film
Technically a film rather than an episode, 2009’s Star Trek kicked off the Kelvin timeline with a soft reboot of the franchise. It’s a textbook example of how to write a successful reboot, and after the Star Trek franchise had begun to fade and lose viewership toward the latter part of Enterprise’s run, the 2009 reboot came along and definitively proved that there was still plenty of life in it yet! We wouldn’t have Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and the rest of modern Star Trek without this film and its two sequels.
For our purposes today, though, 2009’s Star Trek shows us a different timeline with alternate versions of Captain Pike – who plays a prominent role in the story – as well as Spock and Uhura. Seeing these versions of the characters and noting their differences and similarities to their prime timeline counterparts could be worthwhile going into Strange New Worlds.
Star Trek 2009 also chronicles the next chapter of Spock’s life after the events of Unification (which we took a look at above). Spock’s relationship with the Romulans and his plan to help them avert a catastrophe are what led to him being dragged into the alternate reality, and the meeting between the older and younger versions of the character is a powerful moment.
Seeing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and others in their Starfleet Academy days was a concept that Gene Roddenberry had toyed with even as far back as The Original Series in the 1960s. 2009’s Star Trek took that concept and put a spin on it, updating the franchise for the 21st Century and introducing it to legions of new Trekkies. It’s a good film in its own right, and one whose legacy is the rejuvenated Star Trek franchise that we’re continuing to enjoy today.
So that’s it!
Those are my picks for ten episodes to watch before Strange New Worlds to prepare for what the series will bring – or afterwards, if you prefer, to lend some context to some of the character arcs and storylines.
There are at least ten more episodes and films that I could’ve chosen; it wasn’t easy to whittle down the list to the ten picks above. Having already seen Strange New Worlds Season 1, I confess that I picked several different episodes that I might not have chosen otherwise. But that’s the benefit of hindsight!
As I said in my spoiler-free review of the first season, Strange New Worlds is utterly fantastic and well worth a watch for Trekkies and newcomers to the franchise alike. I can’t praise it highly enough – and I can’t wait for Season 2!
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is available to stream now on Paramount+ in countries and territories where the service is available. New episodes are being released weekly on Paramount+ in the United Kingdom. Further international distribution has not been announced at time of writing. The Star Trek franchise – including Strange New Worlds and all other episodes, films, and shows discussed above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series Season 2, The Voyage Home, The Next Generation Season 6, Deep Space Nine Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Enterprise Season 2, Short Treks, Picard Season 1, Lower Decks Season 2, and Prodigy Season 1. Phew. That was a lot!
The world can be a crappy place, and not just because of wars and pandemics. Sometimes we all need to switch off from current events and seek out some escapism. For me, films and TV shows with very heavy themes, lots of violence, or dark narratives don’t always provide the best escape, and on days when my mental health suffers I find myself reaching for something lighter and comforting. On this occasion, I thought we could pick out a few Star Trek stories that I believe fit that description.
The Star Trek franchise has long been an escape from reality for me. In both its older and modern incarnations, I find that jumping head-first into a future that looks safer and better than anything we could imagine today feels pretty great! Star Trek has always had an underlying setting that feels optimistic and hopeful for a better tomorrow – and that’s something we all need to hear sometimes.
So with that in mind, let’s consider a few Star Trek stories that I believe make for lighter, comforting viewing. As always, this isn’t a ranked list; the episodes are listed below in the order they were first broadcast.
Number 1: A Piece of the Action The Original Series Season 2
The Original Series made very creative use of some of the limitations of its time! It wasn’t always possible to visit a brand-new planet every week that looked and felt very “alien,” so The Original Series used sets intended for other films and TV shows in different – and occasionally silly – ways. A Piece of the Action sees Captain Kirk and the crew encounter a planet whose entire population have based their society around the Chicago mob!
When A Piece of the Action was written, the 1920s were only forty years in the past – the equivalent today of the eighties! So perhaps to viewers at the time it was more relevant and less… camp. But I’ve always found A Piece of the Action to have a light, almost comedic flair simply because of its setting; the ’20s-inspired dialogue, the old fashioned suits, and the general tone of a “Golden Age of Hollywood” gangster flick all contribute to that.
The notion of going to a faraway planet in space and finding a society based on the Chicago mob is silly, but A Piece of the Action sells it in the best way it can, making the very odd juxtaposition of scenes aboard the Enterprise and scenes on Sigma Iotia II flow surprisingly well. But above all, it’s a fun story that imitates, in a very Star Trek way, classic mobster films from a generation earlier.
Apparently A Piece of the Action was going to be the basis for a Quentin Tarantino-directed Star Trek film that ultimately didn’t enter production. It seems as though I’m in a minority, based on the reactions to this news from Trekkies I’ve spoken with, but I’d have been interested to see what a director as undeniably talented as Tarantino would’ve brought to Star Trek. A new film from such a big name would surely have been a box office draw, at the very least! But maybe that should be the topic of a longer article sometime.
Number 2: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Also known as “the one with the whales,” The Voyage Home is arguably the most lighthearted and fun of all the Star Trek films to date! After the very heavy stories of loss and death in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, the third and final act of this trilogy came along like a breath of fresh air. I feel that The Voyage Home is the most dated of the Star Trek films thanks to being set in what was, at the time, the modern day. But that doesn’t detract from it; the kitschy eighties flavour is all part of the appeal!
There are some fantastic moments of pure comedy in The Voyage Home. I won’t spoil them if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, but suffice to say that bringing a 23rd Century crew to the modern day and forcing them to interact with basic things like cash and computers led to some absolutely hilarious, iconic moments.
There’s an ecological message at the heart of The Voyage Home, and the threat posed by the alien “whale probe” is definitely serious. But that theme doesn’t present as excessively weighty, and by the time Kirk and the gang are running around San Fransisco in 1986, the focus is more on the fun side of that premise.
With Star Trek: Picard Season 2 fast approaching, it could be fun to go back to The Voyage Home to see the most recent use of the “slingshot method” of travelling through time – something that may be making a return to Star Trek very soon!
Number 3: Relics The Next Generation Season 6
I wanted to put at least one crossover episode on this list, and this time it’s Relics that makes the cut! Bringing Scotty into The Next Generation was a lot of fun, and having him overcome his “fish out of water” status to eventually work alongside Geordi La Forge was absolutely fantastic, and made for a wonderful, heartwarming story.
With no evil villain to defeat nor a war to fight, Relics posed a scientific puzzle for Star Trek’s first two engineers to overcome – and in the process they were able to save the Enterprise-D from being trapped inside of a Dyson Sphere! There’s definitely a message in Relics: that older people have a lot to contribute if younger people are willing to take the time to listen.
When I first saw Relics back in the ’90s, I wasn’t prepared for Scotty’s arrival. This was before the days of spoilers on social media, so I went into the episode completely unaware of what I was about to see. When Scotty materialised on the transporter pad for the first time I was absolutely blown away! The Next Generation had been my first port of call in the early ’90s, but by the time Relics came around I’d seen all of The Original Series films and quite a few episodes, so I was really excited when it turned out to be a crossover episode.
Relics is, in a lot of ways, a very fan-servicey episode. But it’s also a comforting one, and more than that it feels almost like a slice of pure Star Trek. There’s a scientific mystery that’s both interesting and exciting, there are some wonderful character moments between Scotty and Picard and Scotty and La Forge in particular, there’s more than a dash of humour, and there’s an underlying message that may just strike a chord with some folks in the real world. It’s an all-around Star Trek episode!
Number 4: The Magnificent Ferengi Deep Space Nine Season 6
The Magnificent Ferengi takes what should be a dark and upsetting premise but manages to put a lighthearted, comedic spin on it thanks to the inclusion of the titular Ferengi. After a less than spectacular introduction in the first season of The Next Generation, in which they were originally supposed to replace the newly-pacified Klingons and become a major antagonist, the Ferengi carved themselves a new niche in Deep Space Nine thanks in no small part to a wonderful performance by Armin Shimerman as Quark.
We came to see the Ferengi as comic relief on a number of occasions, as in The Magnificent Ferengi, but they were also a people with depth. Issues within Ferengi society surrounding the pursuit of wealth at all costs, the second-class status of women, and so on were topics that Deep Space Nine tackled, and the fact that the Ferengi can be funny didn’t detract from those attempts to use them to examine some more serious subjects. But that’s not why we’re here today!
At the height of the Dominion War, Quark and Rom’s mother is captured by the Dominion, and Quark leads an all-Ferengi rescue operation. With the exception of Grand Nagus Zek, this episode brings together practically every Deep Space Nine Ferengi character, and musician Iggy Pop has a guest-starring role.
The plot descends into a comedic farce – naturally, given Quark’s leadership – and if you’ve ever seen Weekend at Bernie’s… well, you know what to expect! The Magnificent Ferengi is a ton of fun, and a great episode for showcasing some of Deep Space Nine’s recurring characters.
Number 5: Message in a Bottle Voyager Season 4
Once again we have an episode with a potentially dark premise that goes in a very different and fun direction! The Doctor is the star here, as he’s sent to the Alpha Quadrant to attempt to make contact with Starfleet for the first time since Captain Janeway and the crew became stranded 75,000 light-years from home… but he finds himself aboard a ship that has been captured by the Romulans!
Comedian Andy Dick guest-stars as a newer version of the Emergency Medical Hologram, and forms an astonishingly funny pair with the Doctor, who was often used for moments of comic relief during Voyager’s run. Seeing the two holograms working together to outsmart the Romulans in a comic story that could verge into slapstick is absolutely hilarious, and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments.
I also find Message in a Bottle to be a very uplifting episode. It marks the halfway point of Voyager’s seven-season run, and the first moment that the crew are able to contact the Federation. After four years of being alone, the crew finally get to inform Starfleet that they’re okay and working their way home, and there’s something incredible about the episode’s closing moments as a result.
The Prometheus-class ship is a pretty cool inclusion, too – a brand-new class of ship which has features that even the USS Voyager or Enterprise-E couldn’t match. I always wanted to see more from this ship, but aside from a couple of background appearances, we haven’t yet!
Number 6: Carbon Creek Enterprise Season 2
Carbon Creek uses a frame narrative to tell the story of the first time Vulcans came to Earth… and it wasn’t in the mid-21st Century, as Captain Archer (and us as the audience) had been led to believe! Instead, T’Pol tells the tale of her great-grandmother, and how she and a small crew came to be stranded on Earth in the 1950s during a survey mission.
Carbon Creek is fun for its fifties atmosphere, and Enterprise really manages to nail that feel through some wonderful sets, costumes, and dialogue. It’s also an episode that shows off how Vulcans can be unintentionally funny in Star Trek, particularly when confronted with different or unusual situations. In this case, T’Mir and her crew have to blend in with a town of very emotional humans.
There are definitely some lighthearted moments scattered through the entire episode, and the frame of T’Pol recounting the story to a stunned Archer and Tucker adds to that as well. It’s also a great example of how a prequel story doesn’t have to tread on the toes of anything established previously; nothing in Carbon Creek fundamentally changes what we already know about first contact between humans and Vulcans. In many ways it expands it – knowing that Vulcan had humanity under observation decades ahead of official first contact gives them a reason to be surveying the area during the events of First Contact!
All in all, a fun episode that steps away from many of Star Trek’s familiar elements like starships to tell a story with some interesting characters in a fun setting.
Number 7: Ephraim and DOT Short Treks Season 2
It’s a shame that we haven’t seen more Short Treks lately; the most recent batch of episodes ended with Children of Mars shortly before Picard Season 1 kicked off in early 2020. The idea of telling one-shot short stories in the Star Trek galaxy may have been a fairly blunt and obvious way for CBS All Access (since rebranded as Paramount+) to convince Trekkies to remain subscribed in between seasons of the main Star Trek shows, but several episodes ended up being fantastic in their own right.
Ephraim and DOT was one of two animated Short Treks episodes that were broadcast in December 2019, and it’s something that we hadn’t really seen the Star Trek franchise do before. Thirty-five years after The Animated Series went off the air, this was Star Trek’s first return to animation, and where The Girl Who Made The Stars was more of a conventional story, Ephraim and DOT was framed very differently!
Telling the story of a tardigrade named Ephraim and a DOT-type robot aboard the USS Enterprise, this Disney-inspired tale sees the unlikely duo team up to save Ephraim’s eggs. With an enthusiastic narrator who sounds like they’ve come from a National Geographic documentary, the short story is a lot of fun – and packs a surprisingly emotional punch at its climax!
Ephraim and DOT also shows off a handful of fun clips from The Original Series that have been reimagined for animation, and this “greatest hits” montage was absolutely fantastic; a blast from the past that elevated the episode.
Number 8: Nepenthe Picard Season 1
If you don’t have the same connection to the characters from The Next Generation that I do, maybe Nepenthe won’t be one of your “comfort episodes.” But for me, seeing Picard reunited with Riker and Troi was one of the highlights of Picard Season 1 – and Nepenthe is one of the best Star Trek episodes that I’ve seen in a long time!
After several tense and dramatic episodes in which Picard and the crew of La Sirena had to unpick the mystery of Bruce Maddox, the synths, the Zhat Vash plot, and so on, Picard was able to rescue Soji and use a spatial trajector to escape to the planet of Nepenthe – home to Riker, Troi, and their daughter Kestra.
There are some very sweet moments between Soji and Kestra as they bond, and while the story has some very bittersweet moments as we learn that Riker and Troi’s elder child had passed away, there are some absolutely incredible and heartwarming character moments as well. After more than eighteen years away from the 24th Century, Nepenthe felt like the homecoming I had been waiting for.
Seeing Riker and Troi enjoying a peaceful life away from Starfleet was something that I needed to see, even if I didn’t realise it beforehand! Although there were issues with the Picard Season 1 finale that meant that, realistically, taking an entire episode away from the main plot to slow down and hang out with Picard, Riker, Troi, and Soji was arguably a mistake, I just can’t find it in my heart to fault Nepenthe for the way it comes across on screen. It’s a beautiful, emotional episode, and sitting down to eat pizza with the characters after everything they’ve been through just feels right.
Number 9: First First Contact Lower Decks Season 2
First First Contact might be my favourite episode of Lower Decks so far. It isn’t as hilarious as some of the show’s other offerings, but as an uplifting story with a real “Star Trek” feel, I don’t think it can be bettered! The episode sees the crew of the Cerritos teamed up with the fancier and more powerful USS Archimedes – under the command of one Captain Sonya Gomez, no less – to undertake their first ever mission of first contact!
But naturally, things don’t go to plan. The Cerritos is called into action to save the stricken Archimedes, and the entire crew pulls together to perform the very difficult and dangerous task of literally stripping off the ship’s outer hull! Lower Decks ditched its usual two (or three) storylines format here, and put all four ensigns and all of the ship’s senior staff in the same story – and the result was absolutely fantastic.
Lower Decks goes out of its way to recreate the look of The Next Generation era, and I’ve always appreciated that. But it doesn’t hesitate to bring new things to the table, and we get our first look at Cetacean Ops in this episode – an aquatic department that had been mentioned in background dialogue in The Next Generation but never seen on screen.
All four ensigns have roles to play in the story, and after the Cerritos had to be saved at the climax of the Season 1 finale, the poetic symmetry of being the one to save a disabled Starfleet ship was absolutely beautiful, and a great way to bring the show’s successful second season to a close.
Number 10: Kobayashi Prodigy Season 1
The Kobayashi Maru test seems like an odd choice for a “comfort” pick, doesn’t it? But the way Prodigy pulls it off feels like a love letter to Star Trek, bringing in classic characters from The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine in holographic form.
There’s more going on in the episode than just the Kobayashi Maru test on the holodeck, and Prodigy’s ongoing story arcs come into play in a big way throughout. But for me, the moments on the holodeck with Dal and the holographic versions of some wonderful characters from Star Trek’s past are what elevates Kobayashi and what makes it so enjoyable.
It’s such a shame that Prodigy remains (officially) unavailable in most of the world, because it’s been one of the most surprisingly fun Star Trek projects, and despite its kid-friendly atmosphere and intended audience, there’s so much to love for Trekkies. I hope that the rollout of Paramount+ internationally will see Prodigy grow in popularity and bring in hordes of new fans – and with episodes as strong as Kobayashi to ease them into the world of Star Trek, there’s a good chance that’ll happen!
The character choices may seem like an odd mix at first – and seeing Odo on the bridge of a Galaxy-class ship definitely felt strange! But each of them is given a moment to showcase their strengths, and what they brought to Star Trek in their original appearances. It makes the entire holodeck sequence feel so very special – and with such an eclectic mix of characters, there really isn’t anything quite like it in Star Trek’s entire official canon!
So that’s it!
Those are my picks for ten “comfort episodes” – or rather, nine comfort episodes and a comfort film – from the Star Trek franchise. We don’t need to repeat why the world feels so messed up right now, because we can all see what’s going on. Certain news stories have become omnipresent, completely taking over social media and other apps. If you find yourself doomscrolling, take a break. Do anything other than wallow in the mess of the real world.
The Star Trek franchise has been my comfort place for decades, and I find myself drawn to it when the world feels too much or when my mental health suffers. A future where humanity has succeeded at conquering not only the problems of today but also many of the baser, more primitive aspects of our own nature holds an appeal that can be difficult to put into words, and I find that practically every Star Trek story – even those darker in tone – have a lot to offer.
So I hope this was a bit of fun and maybe gave you some viewing inspiration! I had a great time going back to these episodes to put this list together, and with everything going on in the world I thought it could be a good time to share something like this.
The Star Trek franchise – including all episodes and films discussed above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series Season 2, The Animated Series, The Next Generation Season 1, Voyager Season 2, Star Trek 2009, Picard Season 1, Discovery Season 3, and Lower Decks Season 2.
I wouldn’t even like to guess how many different planets (and other planetary bodies) have been visited across all 800+ episodes and films in the Star Trek franchise! It must be a lot… maybe someone has been keeping a tally, but I certainly haven’t! There are some worlds that we’ve visited more than others – Bajor, Qo’noS, and of course Earth all spring to mind. But there are some planets that, for one reason or another, are best left behind in the franchise’s past.
As Star Trek moves on to bigger and better things, some planets – and their inhabitants – seem outdated, or perhaps the concept behind the planet was never a good one to begin with. Today I thought it could be interesting to consider five examples of planets that Star Trek will almost certainly never revisit!
Planet #1: Ekos
Ekos was created for The Orignal Series Season 2 episode Patterns of Force, but you might know it better as “that Nazi planet.” There’s definitely scope for the Star Trek franchise to tackle authoritarianism, fascism, and even Nazism – and as recently as 2004, Enterprise put its own spin on the “Star Trek-versus-Nazis” concept. But there are a few deeply unsettling things about Ekos, and how its Nazi-inspired government came to power.
First of all we need a brief history lesson! In the 1960s, when Patterns of Force was created, some historians, economists, and other political scientists regarded Nazi Germany as an “efficient” state. Resting all power in a single individual, they argued, made for a powerful government that could be run very efficiently. In Patterns of Force, Federation anthropologist/historian John Gill cites this theory as the reason for introducing Nazism to the Ekosians.
That theory was flat-out wrong, and even by the 1970s and 1980s, the flawed thinking that led to the myth of “Nazi efficiency” had been exposed and thoroughly debunked. In short, Nazi Germany was a very poorly-run government, with a handful of cronies of the führer wielding disproportionate levels of power, and micromanagement in certain departments and industries majorly hampering the state’s industrial output. How this myth ever came to be as widely believed as it was is, in some respects, a bit of a mystery. But suffice to say that the central conceit behind Patterns of Force has been exposed as a falsehood.
John Gill, the academic at the heart of the story, also represents a very distinct kind of betrayal of Federation values, taking things to perhaps the most unpleasant extreme possible. Star Trek has never shied away from showing us flawed human beings and Federation officials, but Gill is a step too far, and Patterns of Force can be an uncomfortable watch for many Trekkies.
Though it might be interesting, in some respects, to revisit Ekos in the 24th, 25th, or 32nd Centuries to see how things had progressed, in many ways it’s a planet – and a story concept – that should probably remain on the sidelines. Modern Star Trek can tell far more subtle stories about authoritarianism, racism, and the like without needing to resort to overt depictions of Federation-sponsored Nazism.
Patterns of Force is based on an outdated concept, and while it was brought to screen quite well by the standards of The Original Series, with some clever visual effects for the time and some surprisingly accurate costumes, it feels like an anachronism overall. This is one best left behind in the 1960s!
Planet #2: Megas-Tu
The Animated Series had some very wacky sci-fi concepts. Taking Star Trek away from live-action meant that the franchise was no longer confined by the limitations of practical special effects, and thus it was possible to depict things like a 40-foot tall clone of Spock, an entirely underwater civilisation, or, in The Magicks of Megas-Tu, an alternate universe where magic is real and science is not.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Magicks of Megas-Tu, and I think it’s an episode that every Trekkie should watch at least once. It’s an example of mid-century sci-fi at its wackiest, but it manages to retain a Star Trek tone throughout the very unusual adventure that Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves on.
With the possible exception of Lower Decks, which has been more willing to explore some of the stranger elements of classic Star Trek, I can’t imagine Megas-Tu ever making another Star Trek appearance. How would it fit in Discovery, for example, or Picard? The tone of modern Star Trek is just too different – and even by the time of The Next Generation, Star Trek had moved away from concepts like this. Megas-Tu feels homeless, in a sense, in a franchise that has moved on.
That isn’t to say that it was a bad concept when it was first developed, but like several ideas from The Original Series and The Animated Series, magic and fantasy just seem to be a step too far for a franchise that has retained its esoteric side and sense of fun, but refocused them into more science-based stories rather than stories that use literal magic and fantasy as core elements.
It’s hard to see how a story about Megas-Tu could fit in with modern Star Trek. Audience expectations have shifted when it comes to science-fiction, and with the Star Trek franchise moving away from stories like The Magicks of Megas-Tu, it seems very unlikely that we’ll see anything like it in the franchise anytime soon.
There’s also the in-universe problem of travelling to the Megans’ universe, and while technobabble can always be created to explain away these things, it seems like a bit of a stretch. It’s possible we’ll get more references to The Animated Series – Picard Season 1 made reference to the Kzinti, for example. But a full revisit to Megas-Tu is probably off the table!
Planet #3: Ligon II
The planet that inspired me to put together this list, Ligon II was visited in Code of Honor, the notorious Season 1 episode of The Next Generation that has been widely criticised for its use of racial stereotypes. The Ligonians encapsulated stereotypes of Africans and African-Americans, and Code of Honor has to be one of the worst episodes of The Next Generation as a result.
Some stories from past iterations of the franchise are open to redemption; to being revisited to right the wrongs of the past. We’ve seen this, to an extent, with certain characters in modern Star Trek who saw much-needed development or expansions of incomplete arcs. We’ve also seen Lower Decks revisit planets like Beta III to comment on Starfleet’s somewhat chaotic approach to first contact.
But Code of Honor and the episode’s depiction of the Ligonians feels so utterly wrong that it’s irredeemable. There are some parts of Star Trek’s past that the franchise brushes under the carpet, choosing to ignore and even overwrite things rather than try to fix the unfixable. Captain Pike’s “woman on the bridge” line in The Cage is such an example – overt sexism from a character that we’re now very excited to see return. Ligon II and Code of Honor are definitely in the “let’s all just pretend that never happened” category… for the good of the franchise!
It’s amazing, when you think about it, that Code of Honor was produced as late as 1987. It would still feel outdated had it been part of The Original Series in the 1960s, but to know that it was produced for The Next Generation – within my own lifetime – is one of those things that boggles the mind.
Code of Honor is an episode that I think Trekkies need to watch. It’s worth remembering that, despite its lofty ambitions and attempts to depict a better future, the people who create Star Trek can still make mistakes. This was an episode that Gene Roddenberry had some creative input in and signed off on – he was The Next Generation’s executive producer at the time.
The episode is noteworthy for its complete lack of awareness. The people who created this story, cast it, and put it to screen were so blind to the offensive stereotypes that it depicted that they allowed it to progress and even get broadcast. Star Trek may have made strides, even in its early years, in its attempts to confront and tackle things like segregation and race hate – but it was blind, at times, to subtler, more covert forms of racism and racial stereotyping.
Planet #4: Uninhabited Delta Quadrant world
This planet doesn’t have a name… but I vote we call it “Tom Paris and Captain Janeway’s sex planet.” That’s right, it’s the planet from Threshold! After crossing the Warp 10 barrier and experiencing hyper-evolution, Tom Paris kidnapped Captain Janeway and took her to this remote, uninhabited world somewhere in the Delta Quadrant. By the time Chakotay and the crew of the USS Voyager tracked them down, both Paris and Janeway had mutated into amphibious salamander-like creatures… and mated.
Although the crew of Voyager successfully recovered Paris and Janeway and the Doctor was able to revert them back to their human forms, for some reason they left their offspring behind. That means somewhere in the Delta Quadrant, little human-salamander offspring are polluting a perfectly innocent planet that was just minding its own business. I’m pretty sure that violates the Prime Directive… in the most disgusting way possible.
As much as some fans (myself included) like to joke about Threshold – which is absolutely one of Voyager’s worst stories – I can’t see Star Trek ever doing anything more with this episode, this concept, or the planet visited in the final few minutes. For completely different reasons to those laid out above, this is another part of Star Trek’s past to simply ignore!
Again, the one exception could be Lower Decks, which has an irreverent take on these things. We saw mating mugatoes in the Season 2 episode Mugato, Gumato, so I wouldn’t put it past the Lower Decks team to dream up a reason to bring back the human-salamanders one day! After all, Tom Paris made an appearance in the show!
To Threshold’s credit, it won an award for its prosthetic makeup, and while the story was undeniably ridiculous to the point of abject failure, it was at least an attempt to go into a little more detail about Warp Drive and the limits to warp speed. It never sat right with me that Warp 9.9999 was as fast as anyone could ever go… but Warp 10 was supposedly fast enough to travel anywhere in an instant.
However, as with many technobabble things in Star Trek, maybe the complexities of Warp Drive work better when they’re left ambiguous! Ambiguity and vaguery allow for the creative teams to take stories in wildly different directions, allowing for maximum storytelling potential without different writers and different shows being constrained or tripping over one another.
Planet #5: Romulus
What? Too soon?
Romulus was destroyed during the events of 2009’s Star Trek, and we got to learn a little more about this event and its aftermath in Star Trek: Picard Season 1. Though the Romulans survived – well, some of them did, anyway – their homeworld, as well as its sister planet of Remus, is gone. The surviving Romulans are living on a number of other worlds in and around the territory of their former Empire.
Both Star Trek and Picard Season 1 were somewhat ambiguous on this latter point, though. We don’t know how many Romulans survived, where they went next, or even what became of their Empire. We do know that a faction called the Romulan Free State existed as of 2399, but that the Tal Shiar and Zhat Vash still existed in some form too, and were able to launch military operations on Earth, at the heart of the Federation.
Presumably Romulus’ destruction didn’t kill off either organisation, and the fact that they retained the capability to launch such powerful operations suggests that the Romulan government and its espionage operation still exist in some capacity, presumably having relocated to a different world. To what extent the Romulan Empire remains united is unclear, as is the fate of races like the Remans, who had second-class citizen status.
With Star Trek: Picard Season 2 going in a different direction, I presume we won’t be in a position to learn much more about the Romulans for a while. But if there are future 24th and 25th Century stories in the years ahead, it would be nice to get some kind of closure; to fully learn what happened to the Romulans in the years and decades after the loss of their homeworld.
By the time of Discovery’s 32nd Century, at least some Romulans had relocated to Vulcan as part of a reunification project. The planet was renamed Ni’Var, and while tensions still existed between the Romulans, Vulcans, and Romulo-Vulcans, it seems that the Romulans got a happy ending of sorts – even if it took centuries to get there!
So that’s it.
There have been plenty of fun and interesting worlds that the Star Trek franchise has visited, with many making just one single appearance. Modern Star Trek has contained a number of references in dialogue or on-screen displays to some of these worlds, giving us tantalising teases about what became of them after we last saw them. Those references are always appreciated!
With over fifty-five years of history and more than 800 episodes at time of writing, it’s inevitable that not all of these planets (and the peoples who populated them) worked well or would be worth going back to. Fortunately it’s relatively uncommon for Star Trek to have made truly egregious missteps, but there are certainly some episodes – and the planets and factions they included – that are best left behind. I hope it was a bit of fun (or at least mildly interesting) to consider a few examples today!
The Star Trek franchise – including all films, series, episodes, and other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the following Star Trek productions: The Original Series and its films, The Next Generation and its films, and Picard Season 1.
“The only question I ever thought was hard / Was do I like Kirk, or do I like Picard?” So sang “Weird Al” Yankovic on his 2006 parody hit White & Nerdy. In those two lines, the comedy singer encapsulated a debate that has rumbled on in the Trekkie community since The Next Generation premiered in 1987! This is a question I’ve thought about many times, and today I’m finally going to put (metaphorical) pen to paper and lay out my thoughts on this classic Trekkie debate.
Though there have been at least a further six captains or protagonists who’ve joined the Star Trek franchise over the years – or more, depending on how you count things – the classic debate has always surrounded Picard versus Kirk, and I think that’s probably because the contrasts between the two characters and their approaches to leadership are so extreme. Most Star Trek captains who have followed embody elements of both Kirk and Picard’s styles of management and leadership while remaining distinct characters, but when it comes to the franchise’s first two captains, there seems to be a major clash of personalities.
My first contact with the Star Trek franchise was The Next Generation in the early 1990s. It was only later that I went back to watch The Original Series and its films, encountering Captain Kirk and his crew for the first time. The Next Generation made me a Star Trek fan, and while I can appreciate what The Original Series did and how entertaining it was, I just don’t have the same connection to it – or to any other Star Trek show, frankly – as I do to The Next Generation. So that’s my own bias stated up front as we go into this discussion!
I’ve always found this debate to be fascinating, but I try not to take it too seriously. Some fans can turn genuine and heartfelt passion into toxic or even aggressive negativity sometimes, attacking others who don’t share their precise views on the nature of Star Trek (or other franchises). Fandoms shouldn’t be a place for division, negativity, or toxicity; they should be a place where we can all come together to share something we love. It’s in that spirit that I enter this discussion – and I encourage everyone to keep in mind that all of this is subjective, and it’s supposed to be light-hearted fun!
So let’s get started, shall we? For reasons both alphabetical and chronological, Captain Kirk gets to go first!
The Case For Kirk
Captain Kirk will forever be Star Trek’s first captain, and thus he should be the yardstick that Trekkies use to judge the successes of any subsequent captain – Picard included. Without Kirk, there would never have even been Picard – because there would quite literally have been no Star Trek. Just look at the failure of The Cage, the first pilot shot for The Original Series, as a case in point: Star Trek only became successful when Captain Kirk was in command.
But Kirk isn’t the best just because he was first. James T. Kirk is a man of action: a tough-talking, villain-punching, decisive commander who stops at nothing to get the job done and protect his ship and crew. He’s not above a bit of rule-breaking, either; when you’re alone on a mission of exploration far beyond Federation space, what’s the point in Starfleet orders or the Prime Directive?
On board his ship, Captain Kirk made friends. He didn’t see his crew as mere underlings, but as people he actually liked spending time with. He even developed Star Trek’s first ever cross-species friendship, bridging the gap between emotional humans and stoic, logical Vulcans in the best way possible. His friendship and partnership with Spock became legendary – and frankly, Picard has no friends… or at least, he has no friendships that come anywhere close to matching the closeness between Kirk and Spock. This pair literally created the genre of slash fiction!
It wasn’t until the finale of The Next Generation that Picard was prepared to sit down with Riker and play a round of poker, but Kirk had those friendships from the start. His closeness with Spock has rightly become legendary, but he was also firm friends with Dr McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and even the young Chekov. Kirk’s crew would even risk their Starfleet careers to steal the USS Enterprise and follow him on a dangerous mission to the Genesis Planet in The Search For Spock.
As Star Trek’s first captain, Kirk made first contact with many different races and factions – including practically all of the franchise’s best-known and most famous aliens. He also introduced us as the audience to races like the Vulcans and the Klingons – two of Star Trek’s most iconic alien races. It’s through Kirk’s eyes that we first came to perceive many of the franchise’s classic factions; he gave us his perspective and allowed us as the audience to meet these aliens through his interactions with them.
Captain Kirk developed rivalries with some of Star Trek’s biggest and most notorious villains. The Romulan commander from Balance of Terror, Garth of Izar, who went on to inspire an entire fan-series, Dr Tolian Soran in Generations, and even “God” himself in The Final Frontier. Most significantly, of course, Kirk found his arch-enemy in one of the greatest villains ever put to screen in the whole of cinema: Khan. Picard’s enemies simply aren’t in the same league.
Captain Kirk recognised the dangers of space travel, and he blazed a trail that Picard and others merely followed. He knew that it wasn’t going to be possible to find a negotiated settlement to every problem, and wasn’t shy about pulling out his phaser – and his fists – to settle disputes. Do you think Captain Kirk would have been bossed around by the Sheliak, or by the Edo and their Mediators? Or would he have punched those alien menaces in the face and told them where to shove it?
In conclusion, Captain Kirk is a bona fide action hero, a man’s man, and the embodiment of the very best of Starfleet in the 23rd Century. He would consider peaceful options where they were available, but wasn’t above punching aliens in the face when he needed to. He would go above and beyond for the sake of his crew, even being reduced in rank by Starfleet for having the audacity to save Spock. He saved Earth on many occasions – and even saved the life of his rival, Captain Picard, and the entire crew of the Enterprise-D in his final act before dying a hero.
The Case For Picard
Let’s calm down, leave the toxic masculinity in the ’60s where it belongs, and let a grown-up take charge. Captain Picard is the Joe Biden to Captain Kirk’s Donald Trump – he’s level-headed, diplomatic, and professional. Captain Kirk may have been the archetypal action hero of the ’60s, but by the late ’80s, things had moved on. What fans wanted to see from someone in a position of authority was not someone who was quick to pull out their phaser or punch an alien in the face, but someone who could be diplomatic, courteous, and who could resolve situations without needing to resort to such barbarity. Embodying all of those traits was Captain Picard.
A new era of Star Trek not only needed a new face, but a whole new style of leadership, and Captain Picard delivered. If the 23rd Century had been the “wild west,” where anything was allowed and rules were made to be broken, the 24th Century saw Starfleet evolve and move beyond that. Civility could finally replace cowboys like Captain Kirk.
Did Captain Kirk ever pilot his own ship? In the episode Booby Trap, we saw for ourselves just how skilled Captain Picard was, and how intimately he knew his ship. Where someone like Kirk would have ordered maximum warp until the power was drained, Picard and his crew came up with a complex solution, then executed it perfectly. Picard made the Enterprise-D dance like a ballerina; Kirk could never have done anything like that.
Where is Star Trek: Kirk? Oh, that’s right: they never made that series. But they did make Star Trek: Picard, such was the overwhelming response from fans to this wonderful character. 176 episodes of The Next Generation and four films weren’t enough – fans were eager for more Captain Picard, and thus he became the first character in Star Trek’s history to get a new show named after him. More than thirty years after we first met Captain Picard, new adventures with the character are still being created, with at least two more seasons of the show in production.
While Kirk may have had fun with some villains like Khan, he never had to stare down the biggest, most devastating threat that the Federation ever faced. Captain Picard beat the Borg… and he did it twice. He even survived being assimilated and was able to push through his Borg programming to give his crew a piece of vital information that ultimately saved Earth. In First Contact, Picard brought the Enterprise-E to the Borg’s second invasion attempt, saving the day in the 24th Century and then again in the past. Forget the Klingons, the Gorn, the Romulans, and the people on that weird planet who all pretended it was Chicago in the ’20s: Captain Picard fought and defeated the most dangerous threat that the Federation has ever encountered.
Captain Picard realised that he can be on good terms with those under his command, but that as the captain he has to put the needs of the ship first. In the episode Lessons, he learned first-hand that having close relationships with subordinates is difficult for any commanding officer, and maintaining a friendly but respectful distance from his crew – even those whose advice he relied upon – was necessary to keep everyone safe and to allow him to be able to make the tough calls.
Captain Kirk got to make many first contacts – but he did so by default because he was first. Captain Picard actually made more first contacts than Kirk did – including with some very different forms of life. Whether it’s the Microbrains, the Exocomps, or the Q Continuum, Captain Picard was prepared to treat everyone he met with courtesy and respect, staying true to Starfleet’s mission of seeking out new life. But it doesn’t end there. Captain Picard introduced us as the audience to alien races like the Bajorans, Cardassians, and of course the Borg – and these would go on to be just as important to the Star Trek franchise overall as any of the aliens we met in The Original Series.
In conclusion, Captain Picard is a calm diplomat, the level-headed manager of a large crew, and the personification of the very best of 24th Century Starfleet. He guided his crew through some incredibly difficult and dangerous missions while maintaining his composure. He learned lessons about loss and grief that Kirk never had to learn. And he saved the lives of at least two of Kirk’s crew: Spock and Scotty. He also saved Earth from the Federation’s greatest threat, and even learned to perceive time in a non-linear fashion thanks to Q.
So Who Wins?
You’re going to hate me for this – but they both win. Everything I said above is true (in a roundabout, tongue-in-cheek way), but that doesn’t mean that one captain is better than the other! Like all of us, Kirk and Picard have strengths and weaknesses; things they do well and areas where they need to rely on others. There isn’t a definitive answer to a question like this, because the answer will always be “it depends on the circumstances.”
There are times when Captain Kirk’s approach to leadership is needed, and times when the way Picard approached a situation would lead to the best chance of success. As we saw in Generations, there was even a time when the only way to save the day was for both men to team up. The fact that each captain has his own set of skills and his own style of leadership isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength, one which benefits Star Trek as a whole.
I mentioned in my introduction that subsequent captains have incorporated elements from both Kirk and Picard, and that’s because both men have so many positive, upstanding qualities that Star Trek’s writers were keen to give to new characters as the franchise has continued to grow. Kirk was always ready for action, but that never came at the expense of being thoughtful and considering non-violent solutions. And Picard’s diplomatic, polite style could give way to ordering his crew to “fire at will” when the situation called for it. Both captains are adaptable, able to rise to meet the needs of all manner of incredibly difficult situations – even if that meant setting aside their usual ways of doing things.
No one can doubt Kirk or Picard were absolutely dedicated to their ships and crews, either. They may have shown that dedication in slightly different ways, and they may have expressed their appreciation and love for their friends and crewmates in different forms as well, but both of them were quite literally willing to lay down their lives and go down with the ship if necessary. Both men ultimately lost their ships – the original USS Enterprise and the Enterprise-D were both destroyed. But they both bounced back to take over new commands and go on to even greater things.
There are times when I’m in the mood for watching Captain Kirk get into a fist-fight with a Gorn or for seeing his epic stand-off against Khan. And there are moments where I want to see Picard use diplomacy to win an argument with the Sheliak or watch him wrangle with one of Q’s puzzles. But there are also times where I want to see Picard grab his phaser rifle and kick some Borg butt, and times where I can think of nothing better than seeing Kirk solve a scientific mystery like that of V’Ger. Both captains have given all of us so much enjoyment and entertainment over the years that I simply can’t crown one of them a winner and leave the other a loser. To me, they’ll always both be winners.
The Star Trek franchise – including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and every episode and film mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Spoiler Warning: In addition to spoilers for the episodes listed below, there may be minor spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, including both Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard.
This is the first part of a new series of list-articles in which I’ll look at ten great episodes from each of the Star Trek shows (except for Star Trek: Picard, which only has ten episodes in total at this point!) I didn’t want to call it a “Top Ten List”; that comes with a lot of pressure to both choose my all-time favourites as well as how to rank them! Instead, this is a list of “ten great episodes”, and they’re in order of release.
Star Trek – retroactively titled The Original Series to prevent confusion – premiered on American television in 1966. It ran for two seasons, with a third being granted in 1968 following an extensive letter-writing campaign by fans who feared its perpetually low ratings would lead to cancellation. Its third season would be its last, however. It was only when the series was syndicated and rebroadcast in the 1970s that its fanbase grew, leading to both an animated series in 1973 and finally a feature film in 1979. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was actually the culmination of several years’ worth of attempts to bring the franchise back to the small screen, which seem to have kicked off around 1975.
This is the series that spawned all the others, but as the fanbase has grown over time, many self-proclaimed Trekkies aren’t as familiar with The Original Series as they are with the Star Trek shows of the 1990s. For me, The Next Generation was my first encounter with the franchise, and it wasn’t until some time later that I got to see The Original Series. While it is dated by modern standards almost across the board – acting, set design, effects, and even storytelling – it is still worth watching for anyone who wants to see where the franchise began. Given that you may find yourself with time on your hands at the moment, it could be a great time to check out this classic series.
So let’s dive into the list – and be aware that there may be spoilers. (Do spoilers for a fifty-year-old series still need to be flagged?)
Number 1: The Cage (Pilot)
Star Trek had two pilot episodes, the second of which – Where No Man Has Gone Before – was successful and got picked up for a full season. But before we got to meet William Shatner’s Capt. Kirk and the rest of the crew, Star Trek’s first pilot was rejected by television network NBC. Practically all of the footage shot for The Cage would end up recycled into a two-part episode in Star Trek’s first season, titled The Menagerie, but the episode would not be seen in full on its own until after The Next Generation premiered over twenty years later. It’s rare in television for a rejected series to get a second chance, and there have been many rumours over the years as to exactly how things went down in 1965 leading to the decision to make a second pilot, including that Lucille Ball – famous for her role in the classic 1950s series I Love Lucy, and co-owner of Star Trek’s production company Desilu – intervened on the show’s behalf.
An actor by the name of Jeffrey Hunter took the lead in The Cage as Capt. Christopher Pike – a character most recently portrayed by Anson Mount in Star Trek: Discovery. The USS Enterprise is lured to the planet Talos IV by a faked distress call, and Pike ends up captured by the Talosians – a race capable of using their minds to create illusions indistinguishable from reality.
Even in its remastered form, The Cage is janky and dated by today’s standards. With the general exception of Jeffrey Hunter, most of the performances are very much of their time – which is to say not particularly convincing. Acting has come a long way since the mid-1960s, and there’s a lot to be said for how much better, in general, the quality of acting performances are today than they were back then. Many aspects of the episode’s visual design are also not what you’d expect from a show made today. The indoor sound stage which was used to represent the surface of Talos IV is obviously artificial, as are the papier-mâché and polystyrene “rocks” and “mountains” which form the landscape of the planet. There are also some outdated references – at one point, Capt. Pike says he can’t get used to the idea of “a woman on the bridge” of his starship. But this was the reality of storytelling at the time, and for all of its flaws by today’s standards, this is where Star Trek began.
I’d argue that very few television series begin with a pilot that ends up being one of the best episodes overall. Shows take time to find their feet, for cast members to get to know each other and develop chemistry, and for writers and production staff to get into a rhythm. The Cage is our first introduction to all of the Enterprise’s crew, and with the exception of Spock, we wouldn’t see any of them return in a meaningful way until the second season of Star Trek: Discovery just last year reintroduced Capt. Pike and Number One. Those recast characters are so far removed from their origins in The Cage that they’re halfway to being new characters altogether, but we’re getting off the subject. The Cage in some ways contradicts or at least undermines some elements that would come later in Star Trek as its first season rolled out. For example, Spock behaves in an altogether different way to his usual cold and logical self. The one consistent character in both The Cage and Star Trek’s first season is actually inconsistent in his characterisation. Seeing Spock showing such emotion and behaving in a manner that is so human can be a jolt – so be prepared!
Number 2: Court Martial (Season 1)
Of all the first-season episodes which deal with Kirk, I feel none are quite so influential as Court Martial. By this point in its run, Star Trek was finding its feet. The core trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was developing, and the Enterprise had a handful of adventures under its belt that had set the tone for the show. Kirk had been established as a caring commander, someone who would bend the rules for the sake of his ship and crew, but never for himself. So when we see him accused of negligence, manslaughter, and ultimately murder, and trying to cover his tracks to save his own neck, we know enough about the Enterprise’s captain to know this can’t be true!
The Star Trek franchise has some great episodes featuring courtroom drama. There was The Measure of a Man and The Drumhead from the second and fifth seasons respectively of The Next Generation, Rules of Engagement from Deep Space Nine’s fourth season, Death Wish from Voyager’s second season, and even a sequence at the end of Battle at the Binary Stars, which was the second half of Discovery’s premiere. All of these episodes, and others not mentioned, owe a lot to Court Martial for establishing courtroom drama as one thing that Star Trek can do exceptionally well. As an aside, I recently re-watched The Measure of a Man during Star Trek: Picard’s first season, and you can see the resulting article by clicking or tapping here.
Court Martial also makes good on the original pitch of Star Trek as being a “wagon train to the stars” – i.e. a western-inspired series. Old country lawyer Samuel T. Cogley – based, undoubtedly, on famed American lawyer Clarence Darrow – steps up to defend Kirk in what seems to be an open-and-shut case against him. The roles of Cogley and Dr McCoy in Court Martial would be just as at home in one of the many westerns of the time which Star Trek was influenced by. While the concept of an old country lawyer can hardly be called unique to the Star Trek franchise, Cogley has become somewhat of a cult character, with homage and parody paid to him in shows like Futurama.
Number 3: Space Seed (Season 1)
Khan would later become far more famous – and arguably a cultural icon – from his appearance in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982. But Ricardo Montalbán’s character debuted in Space Seed during Star Trek’s first season. One of the great things about The Wrath of Khan as a story is that it doesn’t make this episode essential viewing in order to follow the plot; it was, after all, released years before home video was commonplace. However, if you’re a Wrath of Khan fan who hasn’t seen the episode, or if you simply haven’t seen it in a long time, it does provide great background to the film.
In the far future – by 1960s standards – of the 1990s, a tyrant by the name of Khan would arise on Earth. Precisely how seems to have been lost to history, but Khan and his followers were genetically engineered and considered themselves to be super-human. After a conflict known as the Eugenics Wars, Khan was defeated, but he and some of his followers secretly fled into space, where they remained in stasis… until Capt. Kirk and the Enterprise crew discovered them!
Our understanding of Khan as a villain is largely based on his second appearance in the franchise, which, as already mentioned, can be taken as a standalone story. However, many of the elements that would be developed further in The Wrath of Khan are on display here, and this is where Khan’s rivalry with Kirk began. One element from the film is that Khan had a wife – her death is part of the reason he’s so angry with Kirk. While it has never been confirmed on screen, Enterprise crewman Marla McGivers is a solid candidate for who it could be. She was set to be included in The Wrath of Khan, but sadly actress Madlyn Rhue was ill with multiple sclerosis by 1982 and her character was written out of the film and not recast.
Number 4: The Doomsday Machine (Season 2)
Season 2 is where Star Trek really hit its stride. At least in my opinion, most of the best episodes come from this season, which improved on Season 1 and came before the reduction in the series’ budget which contributed to a generally lacklustre third season. Though it can be hard to name an “all-time favourite episode”, The Doomsday Machine is definitely a contender for that title.
A thinly-veiled analogy for the issue of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War – which spills over at the end of the episode into in-your-face social commentary – The Doomsday Machine is a fascinating piece of television history, and a great example of how the Star Trek franchise can use its science-fiction setting to draw attention to real-world issues. When the episode premiered in October 1967, it was almost exactly five years to the day since the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world as close as it arguably ever came to nuclear armageddon. Thus any examination of the episode has to understand its place in time. The Cold War was still rumbling on, with the Vietnam War approaching its apex. Practically everyone watching in 1967 would have vivid memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even younger viewers would be acutely aware of the threat of nuclear war, as civil defence was taught to all schoolchildren in this period. While we may look back at it now as something rather dated, in its time, The Doomsday Machine was relevant social commentary.
But analogy and commentary alone do not make for entertaining television – and can, in some cases, detract from it. So what makes The Doomsday Machine such a standout episode is that floating atop the deeper meaning is an engrossing story. Commodore Decker is introduced as a broken officer, who had commanded the USS Constellation, a sister-ship to the Enterprise, when it encountered a plant-killing superweapon. With the ship damaged, Decker evacuated his crew to a nearby planet, only for the planet-killer to destroy it and kill them all. Devastated and clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress, Decker becomes obsessed with revenge – channelling Capt. Ahab from Moby-Dick – and tries to take down the planet-killer, even if it means putting the Enterprise in danger.
William Windom, who plays Decker, carries large parts of the episode in a way most guest stars don’t, even in more modern shows. His performance was inspired and riveting, and the raw emotion Decker is feeling at the loss of his crew plays exceptionally well against Spock’s cool, logical persona in particular.
Number 5: Journey to Babel (Season 2)
Journey to Babel introduced Sarek, who would become a recurring character in the franchise. Meeting Spock’s father, and seeing the cool, logical tension between them is, in a curious way, relatable to many of us in the audience. Mark Lenard, who took on the role, had previously played the unnamed Romulan commander in the first season episode Balance of Terror, which didn’t make this list but is itself well worth a watch as it introduces the Romulans for the first time.
The episode gives some fascinating backstory to the Federation itself, which would be built up much more in Star Trek: Enterprise in particular. We meet the other core races who founded the Federation along with humans and Vulcans: the Tellaraites and Andorians. Both species have cropped up at various points in other iterations of the franchise.
There are two story elements at play – the aforementioned family drama between Spock and his father, and a murder mystery which threatens the peace between the Federation’s races, in which Sarek is a suspect. Both stories are intertwined perfectly, making Journey to Babel tense and dramatic throughout. While father and son don’t exactly resolve their differences, the intervention of Dr McCoy using Spock’s blood to save Sarek’s life does go some way to improving things between them, at least for a time.
Number 6: The Trouble With Tribbles (Season 2)
When fans and non-fans alike think about The Original Series – and the Star Trek franchise in general – one of the episodes that often springs to mind is The Trouble With Tribbles. The episode has become synonymous with the series in our broader cultural imagination in some ways, and while many people would struggle to think of any other story from The Original Series, I bet most people could recall The Trouble With Tribbles.
The little furry creatures have themselves become an inseparable part of the franchise – up there, I would absolutely argue, with the Borg and the Klingons as something that people inherently associate with Star Trek. That’s probably helped by their cute appearance and gentle purring noise – they’re like round, faceless cats!
The Star Trek franchise has itself leaned into this cultural trope. For its 30th anniversary in 1996, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine released a groundbreaking episode – Trials and Tribble-ations – using footage from the original episode with the Deep Space Nine cast creatively worked in. This technology was pioneered in the film Forrest Gump a couple of years earlier, but it was the first time it had been used on television, and the budget for Trials and Tribble-ations was sky-high as a result. More recently, Tribbles have featured in the Short Treks episode The Trouble With Edward. If you can find a copy – Short Treks is currently unavailable outside of the United States – it’s absolutely hilarious and well worth a watch.
In The Trouble With Tribbles, Capt. Kirk and his crew visit a space station which is holding a vital shipment of grain destined for a planet that both the Federation and Klingons want to control. In the midst of it all, a rogue trader has arrived at the station with, among other things, Tribbles for sale. Several crew members are immediately taken with the cute critters, but with a mystery to unravel and Klingons to outwit, Kirk has his work cut out for him! This is Star Trek at its best, blending different genres together and with a healthy side of humour to boot. No wonder the episode has become so famous.
Number 7: The Ultimate Computer (Season 2)
The Ultimate Computer was, in many ways, a story ahead of its time. The idea of rogue artificial intelligence has become more common in sci-fi since 1968, and of course is a real-world concern too, being discussed even by the likes of (Star Trek: The Next Generation guest star) Stephen Hawking. The Star Trek franchise has used this concept to great effect with the Borg in particular – you can see my thoughts on the Borg as a story element by clicking or tapping here. It’s also been explored in great detail in Star Trek: Discovery’s second season with the Control AI, and of course in Star Trek: Picard’s first season with the rogue synths.
Star Trek: Discovery came closest to channelling The Ultimate Computer at points in its second season storyline, and the fact that the concept is just as interesting and frightening today as it was in 1968 makes this episode a great watch. Unlike some episodes of The Original Series, which can feel very dated, in that sense it is oddly timeless. Our collective fear as a species of out-of-control AI is one that is still present, arguably even more so today than when The Ultimate Computer premiered.
The episode also features one of Star Trek’s best guest performances by actor William Marshall, who took on the role of computer scientist Dr Richard Daystrom. Marshall’s role is another great example from Season 2 of Star Trek using its futuristic setting to address real-world issues – in this case, the issue of race. While Uhura had been a constant presence on the show since its second pilot, and Star Trek had already been in many ways groundbreaking in the way it dealt with black Americans in particular, Dr Richard Daystrom is yet another middle finger to the newly-desegregated Southern states, showing an incredibly intelligent engineer working in the future – who happened to be black. There was nothing in-your-face about it, no monologues to the camera or wry remarks by Kirk and the crew, simply the presence of a black man in a senior position being treated as normal and commonplace. It absolutely is those things today – or at least it should be – but in the 1960s race relations in parts of America were still very complicated.
Dr Daystrom’s legacy lives on within the Star Trek franchise, as he’s the namesake of the Daystrom Institute. This organisation was first mentioned in The Next Generation, and has recently appeared in Star Trek: Picard.
One thing that many fans don’t realise is that James Doohan was an accomplished voice actor. In The Animated Series he would often be called upon to voice guest characters, and in fact his Scottish accent was not his normal speaking voice; Doohan was Canadian. In The Ultimate Computer, he lends his voice to the M-5 Multitronic Unit.
Number 8: Spock’s Brain (Season 3)
Let’s be frank for a moment – Spoack’s Brain could well be the worst episode of The Original Series. Both in terms of its premise and the way it was executed, the third season’s premiere was poor. But amongst the wreckage of the story are some unintentionally hilarious moments, and the episode is well worth watching for that alone. In that sense, it’s akin to a classic B-movie.
If all of Star Trek had been on the level of Spock’s Brain, it would never have lasted even one season, let alone been renewed for an animated series, films, and spin-offs which now span more than half a century! But despite that, it’s worth coming back to episodes like this to see what The Original Series was beyond the familiar elements like starships and Klingons. Aside from the first couple of seasons of The Next Generation, which followed a similar format to The Original Series in many respects, episodes like Spock’s Brain aren’t made any more, and haven’t been since the dawn of the 1990s.
The episode aims to be a kind of sci-fi concept, looking at both the potential for technological dependence and how advances in medical technology could lead to things like brain transplants. But neither of these story elements landed, and it’s not without reason that the Star Trek franchise has never revisited Sigma Draconis VI.
Number 9: The Tholian Web (Season 3)
Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen The Tholian Web’s USS Defiant crop up in both Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Discovery, but I feel that The Tholian Web is one of the third season’s high points. Many stories in The Original Series are unique to this show in the sense that they wouldn’t translate well to other iterations of the franchise, but The Tholian Web absolutely would be at home in any other Star Trek show.
The Tholian Web is a space story first and foremost, and it brings to bear some elements from the claustrophobic war films of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly those set at sea and on submarines. The USS Defiant – a sister-ship to the USS Enterprise – is adrift and caught between two parallel universes, and Kirk and the crew are called to investigate. The Tholians – a race who resemble insects – intervene, trying to claim both the USS Defiant and this region of space for themselves.
Despite being inspired by war films, The Tholian Web is pure space-based science fiction in a way that many episodes of Star Trek arguably are not, especially in the third season. The drama and tension come from an extraterrestrial race and the concept of an alternate dimension, both key elements in sci-fi. In that sense, and combined with its ties to more recent iterations of the franchise, The Tholian Web could be a great introduction for someone wholly new to The Original Series but familiar with other Star Trek series. As an episode which makes extensive use of sets normally used for the USS Enterprise, The Tholian Web is one of Star Trek’s famous “bottle shows”.
Number 10: Whom Gods Destroy (Season 3)
Depictions of mental health on television have, in some ways, changed over the years. The presentation of mentally ill people as being dangerous and criminal was commonplace in the 1960s and earlier, as our understanding of mental illness was poor. The Star Trek franchise still has issues in the way it presents mental health – look at my thoughts on the Star Trek: Picard episodeThe End is the Beginning for how stereotypes and tired clichés are still present, or the portrayal of the genetically-engineered characters in the Deep Space Nine duology of episodes Statistical Probabilities and Chrysalis – but overall, audiences today have a better understanding of mental illness and thus, the way it is presented has evolved.
Whom Gods Destroy is, in some ways, a product of its time. However, what it does is introduce hope – hope that in the future, mental illnesses can be cured even in the most extreme cases. This kind of hopeful narrative is exactly what Gene Roddenberry wanted to use Star Trek to explore. His vision of the 23rd Century was one where humanity was working hard to overcome all manner of problems, and Whom Gods Destroy looks at how there may yet be hope for curing severely ill patients, which I feel is a positive message, even if the portrayal of Garth of Izar and the other Elba II inmates is very much dated.
The character of Garth of Izar is interesting, and the episode teases fans with some hints at Starfleet’s history prior to Capt. Kirk’s five-year mission. Kirk himself says that Garth’s exploits were required reading during his time as a cadet. As of 2020, Garth has yet to make another appearance, despite the era of Star Trek: Discovery potentially crossing over with the time he was an active officer in the fleet. However, a fan project titled Star Trek Axanar will take its own look at the character and the decisive Battle of Axanar when it eventually premieres. This project has been controversial in some Star Trek fan circles, but the passion of those behind it is unquestionable, and it will bring back several actors from past iterations of the franchise.
So that’s it. Ten great episodes from The Original Series that are well worth a first or second look. Many of the episodes I’ve chosen are closer to other iterations of the Star Trek franchise, but The Original Series also featured many episodes which looked at settings and concepts that future Star Trek shows would generally not touch, simply because television storytelling and science fiction in general had moved on in the intervening years.
When we consider the incredibly large and broad question of “what is Star Trek?”, for many fans The Original Series is the answer. It’s episodic television, with influences from westerns, World War II films, and other mid-century dramas. It’s also quite different, both in the way it looks and the way it’s presented, from much of what would come later. Whether that’s something you like or dislike is something personal and subjective, of course, and I’m not passing a judgement either way. These aren’t episodes which I’m saying are “objectively the best”, nor even are these my top ten favourites. To reiterate what I said at the beginning, these are simply ten great episodes that, for various reasons, are worth your time.
Stay tuned for more in this series of articles over the next few weeks. I will take a look at The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, and pick ten great episodes from each of those series as well. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we’ll hear a solid release date for the third season of Discovery, too, and when we do I’ll be taking a look at each of those episodes as they’re released. In short, there’s much more Star Trek content to come here on the blog!
Star Trek: The Original Series is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and other countries and territories. The series is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including The Original Series and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.