Half Price Books would like to take a moment to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek and look back at its long history of stories that inspired generations of fans. And for some reason, they tapped the guy with a U.S.S. Enterprise model on his desk to write it.
I’ve decided to share some of my favorite Trek episodes with you. Please keep in mind: this is not intended as a definitive top-ten list, but it is a list of all the things that make Trek great – adventure, humor, allegory and the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.
So without further ado, here are some of the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise and its spin-offs.
The Original Series (1966 – 1969)
1. Balance of Terror (1966)
“Balance of Terror” is an homage to World War II submarine thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep. The Enterprise hunts down a cloaked Romulan ship that’s committed surprise attacks against the Federation. What follows is a tense thriller as Captain Kirk and the captain of the Romulan ship attempt to outthink and outmaneuver each other. In the process of doing so, they each realize that the other is a man of duty and honor.
It’s a notion that Trek would come back to again and again: that we are all, to some degree, creatures of circumstance. And that our enemies are often our enemies because of the walls we create.
2. The Devil in the Dark (1967)
A strange, unseen monster is killing workers in a mining colony on a remote world. The Enterprise investigates, and it’s Spock who discovers that the miners have unwittingly damaged the creature’s habitat. Kirk has to find a way to prevent the miners and the creature from killing each other, which, of course, he does – because he’s James T. Kirk.
It’s a story about seeing things from a different perspective. And while certainly an allegory for environmental issues, “Devil” is most noteworthy for cementing the character dynamics between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the three characters who will probably always be the heart of Star Trek.
3. The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)
Through a series of events that could only happen on Star Trek, McCoy is accidently transported to 1930s Earth. His appearance in the past changes the future, to the point that humanity enters a new dark age.
Kirk and Spock then travel to the past to fix the timeline. They discover that McCoy will inadvertently change the future by saving the life of a social activist, Edith Keeler, in several days’ time. If Keeler lives, her pacifist movement delays America’s entrance into WWII, allowing the Nazis to build the first nuclear weapon. By the time Kirk and Spock discover this, Kirk has fallen in love with Keeler. Kirk has no choice but to let Keeler die in the accident fate had planned for her.
“City” is not only often voted as the best Trek episode of all time, it often makes the list of the best TV episodes of all time in any genre. And for good reason.
The Next Generation (1987 – 1994)
4. The Offspring (1990)
Some fans complained that the first two seasons of The Next Generation were too cerebral, lacking heart. Anyone wanting to connect with the show on an emotional level got more than they asked for with “The Offspring.”
Data, an android, creates a “child.” Captain Picard and members of Starfleet are upset that they weren’t consulted about Data’s choice to create a new life. Because Data and his child, Lal, are the only two of their kind, Starfleet demands they be separated, so Lal can be protected and studied. It soon becomes apparent that the bond between Data and Lal is that of a parent and a child. Lal develops reasoning and emotions that Data himself lacks, but this comes at a terrible price.
While this episode touches on many issues, its message is universal: nothing’s going to rock your world like becoming a parent.
5. Cause and Effect (1992)
Next Gen is a show about diplomacy, which left some fans wanting to see hammy actors punch people in rubber suits feeling disappointed. For that reason, “Cause and Effect” is an exciting breath of fresh air.
“Cause and Effect” is a bit like Groundhog Day. The Enterprise is destroyed during an encounter with an anomaly in space. This anomaly sends the crew back in time to several hours before the incident, with no memories about what occurred. Over time, the crew remembers more and more about their experiences while caught in this loop until they find a way to break the cycle.
“Cause and Effect” is one of the most thrilling episodes in Trek’s history, and it does so without firing a single shot or punching anyone in a rubber suit.
6. The Inner Light (1992)
In many ways, “The Inner Light” is a companion piece to “The City on the Edge of Forever.” The Enterprise discovers a strange probe in space. The probe sends a signal directly into Picard’s brain, rendering him unconscious for several minutes. Within that brief period of time, Picard experiences an entire lifetime of memories.
The probe is the last message from a dead civilization. It allows Picard to experience their last decades before a cataclysmic event. While Picard retains his identity during this simulated experience, he quickly forgets the life he had for one that offers him a family and stability he’s never known.
It’s Patrick Stewart’s best performance in his time with Trek, completely selling one of its most bittersweet episodes.
Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999)
7. Far Beyond the Stars (1998)
Star Trek’s most devastating story. Captain Sisko experiences the memories of Benny Russell, an African-American writer for a science fiction magazine in the 1950s. Just as Sisko is having visions of Benny, Benny is having visions of Sisko and the world of Star Trek. Benny begins to turn these visions into stories for his magazine, only to find that his world isn’t ready for the equality held within them… namely an African-American captain.
The writers didn’t pull any punches with this one. There is no happy ending for Benny. His stories are lost to time. And the episode doesn’t flinch once while tackling institutionalized racism. “Far Beyond…” is the rare episode where Trek doesn’t look ahead with hope. Instead, it looks to the past with confusion and anger, asking “Why haven’t we learned this lesson yet?”
8. Take Me Out to the Holosuite (1998)
Near the end of Deep Space’s seven-year run, when it was trying to wrap up years of serialized storytelling, it stopped to play a game of baseball. Captain Sisko, a diehard baseball fan in an era where it no longer exists, is challenged by an old rival to a game on the diamond. This old rival is Vulcan, as is his entire team. Since Vulcans are several times stronger and faster than humans, Sisko has little chance of winning.
What follows is a bit of Bad News Bears riff as Sisko tries to teach his crew about baseball. The entire cast gets a chance to shine, showing off their camaraderie and comedic chops. I won’t say whether Sisko’s team, the Niners, win the game. As the episode says, winning isn’t as important as stepping up to the plate and swinging.
Voyager (1995 – 2001)
9. Bride of Chaotica! (1999)
I picked this episode for Voyager because it was co-written by Bryan Fuller, who will be in charge of the new Star Trek TV show, Discovery, premiering in early 2017. You only need to see this episode to know that this upcoming series is in good hands.
As it often does in Star Trek, something goes wrong with the holodeck, endangering the ship. This time, it’s while the holodeck is recreating a classic 1930s movie serial, The Adventures of Captain Proton! To save the day in the real world, Captain Janeway and company have to save the day by playacting through a Captain Proton! adventure.
Filmed largely in black & white, “Bride” is a fun ode to movie serials and the joys of silly sci-fi. You can tell the cast had the time of their life playing with ray-guns and chewing the scenery.
Enterprise (2001 – 2005)
10. Demons/Terra Prime (2005)
Enterprise, set 100 years before The Original Series, was a show with an identity crisis. It wasn’t until its fourth and final season that it figured out what it should be: a show about humanity’s first steps into becoming part of a larger cosmic community.
This two-part story is a fitting end to the series. As humanity is forming its first coalition with other sentient races, a group of human supremacists attempt to stop the alliance before it can begin. In the end, of course, Captain Archer and crew save the day – but not without losses of their own. Even if this is a story Trek’s already told, its message will always be relevant: that diversity strengthens us, that trying to be who we were before won’t help us tomorrow.
We hope you share some of your favorite episodes with us. Thanks for reading.