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Friday, July 15, 2016

Week in Review - Star Trek TOS Episode Guide

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Edited by Robert Beach

A week from today we’ll be seeing the latest entry in the Star Trek franchise. Normally this wouldn’t be that big deal. After all, Star Trek hasn’t been relevant since Star Trek: First Contact. However, this is also the 50th anniversary of Star Trek as a franchise and the beginning of our movement towards a new Star Trek show in the real Star Trek continuity run by Bryan Fuller. That makes this a bigger deal, even if Star Trek Beyond only looks decent as opposed to “50th anniversary special” good. 

Then again, we’ve had a ton of big anniversaries lately, and it’s not as if the celebrations for Batman, Superman, Doctor Who, or Wonder Woman were all that much more impressive. For the next seven days, I celebrate Star Trek across its history starting with the one that started it all: the original series. Rather than a full review of the show (which wouldn’t fit the show’s format), this is an episode guide. I’ll mainly be looking at the mythos episodes; the ones that make up the core of the original series along with a recommendation on whether or not they’re worth watching.

The first episode of the show, though this wasn’t one of the two pilots shot for the series. As such, there’s not much in the way of introductions made in this episode. At the same time, if you’re looking to watch Star Trek now, 50 years later, I’m assuming you already know who Kirk, Spock, and Bones are along with their relationships.  

This is the episode that most set the tone going forward: freaky, B-movie style monster, lots of unmarried sex that indicated this was "adult business" (for the time), and the monster that can hide in plain sight to facilitate a lot of committee meetings to try and catch it. The creature, referred to affectionately as the salt monster, is one of the more iconic Star Trek monsters for its freakish design and makes for a fun first antagonist of the show. Overall, "The Man Trap" is a fun episode just to watch. 

So this is easily my favorite episode and probably one of the best episodes of the original series as a whole. After the first pilot, which didn’t feature any of the original crew, except for Spock, fell through, this was the second pilot NBC allowed Roddenberry and Coons to produce. As such, some things were still being ironed out like the uniforms; here, they’re big, yellow ugly sweaters. At this point in the show, there was the idea there might be psychic humans in the future, so there’s some weird ESP stuff that’s never brought up again in any future series. 

The plot is about the Enterprise passing through an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy, and one of the crew members becomes altered through the energy. What makes the episode great and indicative of things to come is the bad guy: Gary Mitchell.  He’s portrayed as a thuggish, manipulative, brute whose used his friendship and skill for manipulating people to rise through the ranks despite being a complete monster. Now, he’s developing the power of a god.  That idea of petulant omnipotence becomes key to the mythos of TOS and never was it better embodied than this episode. Highly recommended. 

So here’s one you probably know from the parodies of it. As the crew stumbles through space, they come with a mysterious virus that, upon infection, mimics the effects of being super drunk. As the virus spreads through the crew, the race is on to save the ship before the crew drunk kills them all.  

Everybody’s at least heard of this episode, especially the part where Sulu’s strips down to his pants and fences with the various crew members like a madman. What’s more, this is one of the few episodes that enjoyed a direct sequel in the TNG era. Even with all that weight and pop culture notoriety behind it, I still don’t recommend this episode. It’s charming in its way, but there are stronger episodes to check out.   

Here’s a fun, classic episode that fans tend to cite quite often. The episode revolves around the Enterprise encountering a strange alien craft that completely outclasses them in every conceivable manner. Using the quick wit that made him the idol of millions, Kirk lies to the alien force, claiming his ship is coated in “carbonite,” a substance that will destroy both ships if fired upon.  

From there, it’s a tense and surreal journey. The crew tries to see if they can find a peaceful solution before the alien force grows impatient with their claims and puts the carbonate to the test. If ever you wondered how or why Captain Kirk ended up as such a beloved Captain amid all the judo chops, this episode is a great example of his tactics and strategy.  Give it a watch if you’re in a more patient mood or looking to complete the whole thing; otherwise, it’s skippable. 

Here’s a weird little bit of rehashing: this episode is a two-part clip show of repackaged footage from the original unaired pilot. See, Star Trek didn’t have any of the classic crew and were led by Captain Pike. The Pike pilot didn’t gel with NBC, so the show was reworked based on their notes, but the producers still put that footage to use here, framing it as a prequel adventure to the current situation. In the original pilot, known as "The Cage," Pike and crew came to a strange planet of super mental beings who had the power to create a whole illusionary world of the mind. 

In "The Menagerie," Captain Pike suffers a paralyzing injury, and Spock kidnaps him to return him to the psychic paradise planet, explaining his motivations through a series of clip-length flashbacks to the unaired pilot. Honestly, given "The Cage" is featured in most compilations, you’re better off just watching that if you want to see this story, yet there’s no need to because the original pilot wasn’t good. Aside from the interesting novelty of a woman first officer, there’s not much to "The Cage" and even less to "The Menagerie." 

Speaking of Kirk, this is the episode that afforded him a lot more definition and back-story than most folks tend to assume. In this episode, we learn that the colony Kirk grew up in became a fascist state under the rule of its mad governor who instituted a strict eugenics program before fleeing the authorities and leaving the people behind to starve to death. In a single episode, Kirk is transformed from rogue, charming Captain to Holocaust survivor living every minute like it could be his last because he stared down death as a young man. He even worked to testify against those who turned his home into a eugenic state. What’s more, it affords Kirk a direct relation to the eugenics philosophy that later came up again under Khan. 

The episode revolves around a Shakespeare company led by someone who may, or may not, be the dictatorial governor of Kirk’s home colony. The man was never caught, though he’d be incredibly old by now. Spock and Bones doubt it’s him even though Kirk is certain. From there, it’s a dramatic mystery as Kirk works to prove his suspicions. Us, the audience, are left to wonder whether or not he’s right. "The Conscience of the King" is a dramatic, rewarding watch.  

Enter the Romulans, one of the two major Star Trek races and long-time antagonists of the Federation. The Romulans are an offshoot of the Vulcan race that swapped out the Vulcan philosophy of calm and balance for one of manipulation and cruelty. They fought a war with the Federation previously that seems to have just been both sides nuking the hell out of each other because neither group has any idea what the other looks like. Currently, there’s an uneasy peace between the two sides thanks to a massive stretch of no man’s space, but this episode might spell the end of that when an invisible Romulan vessel crosses the zone to see if they can destroy the Federation flagship.

That makes this episode a protracted submarine story as the Romulans and the Enterprise engage in a tense game of cat and mouse. Tensions increase when the crew realizes Romulans and Vulcans are related and begin to distrust Spock. It’s an excellent war story that does a lot to establish the Romulan ethos and humanize them as well.  Sadly, their make-up requirements kept them from appearing again on TOS for one episode, but this is a pretty great intro. 

Here’s a unique episode as it’s one that doesn’t have much of Kirk in it. This happened once in a while; he’s still in the story around the margins of the tale. The main plot surrounds Spock, Scotty, and McCoy along with a handful of red shirts getting stranded on a noxious planet full of giant yeti monsters. Their shuttle crash lands on the planet, and as Scotty works to repair it, the crew has to fend off the yetis under Spock’s command. 

This is a pretty great episode in that it’s a refutation of any argument you could make for Spock making a good Captain. Pretty much every tactical decision he makes is wrong, save for a last ditch effort to signal the Enterprise that only works by chance. If it were all played for comedy, that’d be one thing. Instead, it’s a deadly serious episode of death and pain as the crew turn against Spock for his failures. We see Bones defending him, cementing the strength of friendship that lurks under their arguments.  The slow pace and dark story to make it a bit of a slog to watch though. 

You know this one; everybody knows this one. The Enterprise encounters a destroyed colony on the edge of Federation space and gives chase to the ship responsible for the destruction. Unfortunately, both ships run into the realm of omnipotent space jerks that decide the captains of both ships must fight for the lives of their crew.  

Unfortunately for Kirk, the Captain he’s up against is the Gorn, a gigantic lizard creature with scaly skin and gator strength. If you’ve ever seen a Trek parody about rubber suit lizard men fought with dopey karate in the middle of the SoCal desert, you saw a parody of this episode. It’s still a fun watch, and the Gorn is a legitimately threatening bad guy. Don't go in expecting thrill-a-minute action because this is more of a struggle for survival-type situation. 

Aw yeah, "Space Seed," the episode that introduced Ricardo Montalban’s Khan along with the Eugenic Wars. The Enterprise stumbles upon an ancient Earth ship floating in deep space, the SS Botany Bay. Within, they find a whole horde of cryogenically frozen eugenics soldiers, genetically engineered Superman who took over Earth in the late ‘90s in a conflict called the Eugenics Wars. Of course, the crew chooses to wake up the unstable genetic supermen, and they almost immediately go about taking over the ship and seducing the crew.  

The real star of the episode is Ricardo Montalban, making a masterful debut as Khan, the eugenic leader. There’s a reason they thought this guy was awesome enough to bring back for a film, and a reason his Trek movie is the best of the bunch.  Unfortunately, the episode around him is pretty aimless. Aside from the Eugenics War mythos, this is honestly pretty disposable.  Only watch if you're desperate for that grounding. 

This is a weird one to bring up, but it’s still worth talking about. This episode has the ship coming to a mining operation for more dilithium. The Enterprise can’t carry extra dilithium crystals is that they generate anti-matter, and even a slight jostle could cause them to do so and blow up the ship. There’s a problem at the mine the ship has docked at, and because it’s their job, they dive in to investigate all these shenanigans. 

The main reason this episode made it onto this list is that the creature at hand, the Horta, a giant pizza blob creature, manages to commune with Spock and get him to cry.  That scene has become iconic in and of itself, but during the efforts to protect the creature, Kirk tells McCoy to wall off one of the tunnels, to which he replies “I’m a doctor, not a brick layer.” Yep, this is the episode that spawned the now infamous “I’m a doctor, not a ___” catchphrase from Bones.  However, those two novelties don’t make it worth the watch, and there are better episodes to see. 

Enter the Klingons. These are the other Star Trek race nearly everyone seems to be aware of as important. They were the spawning point for “warrior race” as a cultural concept within sci-fi and would return to menace the Federation on three occasions in the original series. 

This premiere episode is a dynamite introduction for them as it features the start of a full-on war between the Klingons and the Federation. As the episode opens, the two empires are on the verge of war when Kirk and Spock are kidnapped on a diplomatic mission to the surface of a minor planet as hostilities are declared in earnest.  From there, the episode is a battle of wits between Kirk and the Klingons as both groups via for the support of the curiously apathetic native people. I won’t spoil the incredible ending twist. Trust me; there’s a reason this episode is remembered. I strongly recommend this episode for the ending even if the middle is a bit of a slog. 

Fun fact about this episode: there’s no city in it. Well, there’s technically a city in a part of it, but it’s just New York in the ‘30s as opposed to a city on the edge of forever as was promised in the title. Apparently, the original script did feature a full-on city, but it was heavily edited for budget reasons.  Instead, the episode has the crew come upon a strange donut shaped portal in the midst of universe called The Guardian. The Guardian, which is sentient and can speak, is a portal through time that can send people anywhen in history. Unfortunately, McCoy is suffering from blood madness or something and jumps through the portal, causing the Nazis to win World War 2; I am not even kidding. 

Protected from the time change by The Guardian’s influence, Kirk and Spock jump back in time before McCoy arrives to prepare for his arrival and try to undo whatever damage he caused. This is where the episode fails as it just becomes Kirk and Spock messing around in 1930s New York and killing time for most of the episode. Despite the cool name and The Guardian being a good idea, the episode isn’t worth it. 

One of the few other things I think people are aware of from Star Trek is the weird mating stuff that goes into the Vulcan characters. If you don’t know, Vulcans only mate once every seven years and participate in arranged marriages as part of their whole “self-control” deal. In this episode, Spock returns to Vulcan because it’s time for him to get married to some Vulcan lady he’d never met before so that he can undergo the Vulcan mating ritual. Rather than let his first officer get hitched, Kirk arranges to fight Spock in the ancient art of Vulcan conflict (using weird shovel spear things) for the lady’s hand. 

It’s an incredibly goofy, also wonderful, premise heightened by the hilarious family drama of the situation and the bizarre idea that Spock is, technically, the youngest senior officer in the crew. Because Vulcans age slower than humans, he’s younger than Kirk physiologically. Having him lose control of his emotions due to the mating drive is a great idea. "Amok Time" was a fun watch. 

Another favorite from this era and series best, this episode features one of the great antagonists of TOS: Nomad. While traveling in space, the crew encounters an ancient Earth probe created by some forgotten scientist called Nomad. Nomad has ended up mashed up with some alien gadgetry that gave it movement, sentience, and a burning desire to disintegrate anything it deems imperfect (everything). The only thing that saves the ship is Nomad mistakes Kirk for its creator. You can tell that protection isn’t going to last long, and it’s only a matter of time before Nomad turns on the whole crew. 

This is a great episode and easily the best "evil computer" story the show ever put together, mainly because of how eerily menacing Nomad is. Despite having a simple bone design, there’s something about its voice and commanding shout of perfection that’s deeply evocative and memorable.  What’s more, this is the best episode in which Kirk beats a computer by feeding it contradictory statements (there were a lot like that.) Highly recommended. 

Here’s another one you probably know through parody and reference more than anything else. While transporting in the midst of an ion storm, Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, and Bones get transported latterly to a parallel universe where everyone is evil. Spock has a beard. Everyone knows this episode or at least has heard of this basic set-up: mirror universe, facial hair double, parallel realities, it’s the baseline for a lot of popular fiction now even if it was cribbing from DC comics at the time of inception. 

"Mirror, Mirror" is a great episode as the crew is forced to impersonate their mirror-verse counterparts. That makes this a case of endurance as the heroes try to fit into the violence and abuse of their new universe while limiting the destruction they do.  Also, we get a cool look at this strange alternate reality where the Federation has been replaced by the Terran Empire. This is a great one from start to finish, and I strongly recommend it. 

Here’s one I feel like people are aware of, but maybe not as much as they were in the past. The plot starts as a murder mystery as Scotty is implicated in a murder on a relaxation planet that the crew is enjoying some R&R on. However, as Scotty is cleared and things continue to escalate, it becomes apparent: there’s a lot worse going on here than a simple murder. This is one of the stranger original series episodes as it delves into more out-and-out mysticism rather than the soft science of other episodes.  

There are plenty of episodes with god-like beings, even folks claiming to be Greek Gods of myth, but there was always the understanding they were just powerful alien beings. Here, the villain seems to be an evil spirit that feeds on fear, but I’ll leave you to watch the episode to get a greater idea. Additionally, it is notable that the episode involves the entire crew getting high to defeat the monster. That’s worth watching. 

Here're the second Klingons episode and the first adventure that’s specifically a comedy.  The idea of more low-key episodes like this one was rare for the original series. In retrospect, a lot of Trek precedent was set through "Trouble with Tribbles.Future shows like Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space 9 had major sitcom elements and committed great episodes to comedic purposes. It all starts with this one. The plot is about the Federation and the Klingon Empire engaged in an uneasy peace after their previous appearance. Now let's see how Klingon and Federation forces might interact while stopping at the same space station. 

There is an actual plot revolving around grain and starving colonists, but the episode was just an excuse to show off the Tribbles, little fluffy balls of fuzz that are born pregnant. Seriously, the whole idea is that Tribbles are an aggressively invasive species that breed and devour to an insane amount. They created comedy out of their role in the station as well as the tensions with the Klingons. It’s a great episode and a pretty damn funny episode. 

Though not overtly comedic, this episode is a pretty good indicator of the more comedic and fantastical tone the show was willing to take. The plot revolves around a favorite premise for the season 2 episodes: a forgotten civilization impacted by the Federation by accident. In this case, a humanoid people have left with a Federation book about the history of gang violence in 1920s Chicago. Now, their entire society has morphed into a cartoonish recreation of that specific era in American culture.   

The entire episode is just an expansive contrivance to throw the heroes into suits and have them throw around ‘20s lingo while firing off Tommy guns. And yet, it works well, especially near the end when Kirk gets into the swing of his gangster persona. Episodes like this were the bread and butter of the original series: big, crazy excuses to do whatever they wanted and have fun with the show. Things were still serious, but there was an element of unrestrained creativity and passion for their work that was infectious. This is a fun one. 

From goofy fun to sobering seriousness, this is the Vietnam episode. Nowadays, people make a big deal of Star Trek’s political leanings, but there wasn’t a ton of overt politics in the original series when it was it was a little heavy handed. Not this episode.  The episode is the third Klingon appearance I’ll be covering here, and it’s also the episode that cemented Star Trek’s allegory with this group. See, the plot was about the Klingons arming a small faction on a pre-industrial world to turn them into a deadly fighting force that the Klingon’s could control. That move led to Kirk arming the other side of the conflict, both out of obligation and friendship with them. 

The whole thing is a metaphor for the Vietnam War, specifically and Cold War proxy wars overall. The Federation here is a stand-in for America while the Klingons are the Russians of the analogy as both sides shove their conflict in less-advanced nations to continue their wars without sacrificing their people. It was a bold statement at the time. It depicted the whole thing as a tragedy fueled by pettiness and cruelty. In fact, the only way the producers could get it passed the network was to put in a bunch of making out and sex magic to convince them this was thoroughly adult content. Also, this episode features Kirk fighting a horned, white gorilla called Mugatu. That’s pretty cool. It’s a great episode even with the sex magic and rubber monsters. 

Here’s another episode that you’ve probably seen elements of parodied. For the longest time, Star Trek was the cultural touchstone of space opera that most creators grew up with and drew from (also, TOS is much easier to mock than Star Wars.It’s another lost civilization episode: a pair of warring planets under observation by a Star Fleet historian. Upon arriving at one of the planets, the crew finds the entire planet is made up of Nazis. That’s not hyperbole either; everyone is wearing Nazi uniforms and flying Nazi banners. 

Eventually, it dawns on the crew that the historian set this all up and has become their leader for reasons unknown. From there, they rush to try and undo the damage done as the two planets prepare for devastating warfare. It’s another high-concept episode mostly remembered now for Spock dressing up as a Nazi stormtrooper and the heroes escaping their jail cell by using a hunk of crystal and metal junk to make a phaser gun. Still, this is a great action episode and a very thrilling adventure. 

This episode actual forms a neat trilogy with "Patterns of Force" and "A Piece of the Action" as they all revolve around alien planets that mirror Earth eras directly. In this case, the alien civilization apparently arrived at their vision of the present entirely independent of any Federation meddling.  This civilization is a weird take on Ancient Rome. Only in this case, the aesthetics stay the same as technology advances.  

You have Roman Centurions that wield automatic weapons and gladiator battles televised live to the masses. It’s all just so much contrivance for the big three to bop around Rome, fight centurions, and engage in gladiatorial combat. Those are all fun activities, so it’s hard to complain. The ending is a real knock out too which I won’t spoil. It takes a very weird stance on history and religion in the Star Trek mythos.

Here’s a pretty fun bit of space warfare grounded and logical than most of the stuff on this list. The Enterprise stumbles upon a fellow starship lost in “inter-phase,” a state of being out of sync with the universe. Kirk becomes trapped on the other ship, leaving Spock to command the Enterprise and try to get him back. To make matters worse, the Tholians show up demanding the Enterprise leave their space. Though we never see them, the Tholians are a cool race of bug-like aliens that weave energy webs in space that keep the Enterprise locked in. As the Tholian’s continue to encircle the ship and Kirk’s air supply grows low, the race is on to rescue the Captain and escape the Tholian web before it’s too late.

Though this episode features a lot of cool ideas, it’s shockingly dull. The Tholian Web is a cool visual concept and a dynamite idea for a more frenetic and visceral vision of space combat, but the slow nature of early Trek makes it fairly simplistic and un-engaging. What’s more, the Spock as Captain stuff was already done much better in "Galileo Seven."

One of the unique things about Star Trek season 3 is that it got a lot more overt with its political elements. This episode, for instance, is mainly notable now for featuring the first interracial kiss on television. The only way the producers could get the scene passed was to have it be forced upon the characters. Even then, there was the talk of just having them embrace until William Shatner deliberately messed up those takes, forcing them to use the kiss in the final edit. Even so, it was a major moment and a shockingly historic scene in what’s otherwise an incredibly goofy episode. 

The plot is your standard set-up for Trek: the crew come to a new planet and encounter a race of omnipotent psychic beings; they all claim to be from Earth and have developed their powers over the centuries. They use their abilities to torture the crew for a bit till the heroes discover the source of their abilities and turn the tables on them.  Unfortunately, despite the historical moments of the episode, it’s honestly pretty disappointing and meandering. Even with all the crazy stuff they make Kirk and Spock do, it’s not worth the watch. 

Another extremely heavy-handed Civil Rights episode. It’s about two lone survivors of two warring races. The “joke” of the two races is that they’re fighting because one is black on the left and white on the right while the other is black on the right and white on the left. Still, the episode is enjoyable as a thriller as both beings are incredibly powerful, and the only way Kirk can remotely control them is by threatening to detonate the Enterprise. 

From there, it’s a cat and mouse game as both men try to curry favor with the crew while Kirk keeps his finger constantly poised above the self-destruct button.  It’s all overt and goofy, but it’s a compelling watch all the same, especially for seeing how far Kirk will go to keep things in control. 

Here’s another absolute blast of a topical episode. The Enterprise ends up picking up a ton of space hippies. The "Space hippies" comprise of a cult of young folks traveling through space to a mythical planet Eden where all things will be great. This is pretty much a cheap set-up for the crew to have all kinds of whacky misadventures with these space hippies, both friendly and unfriendly.  Eventually, the space hippies take over the entire ship, using their protest music to overcome the crew in one of the best sequences of the original series. 

It’s a terrific twist on the hippie space concept, which was already a brilliant idea to its right. The big, mythos part of this one is the hippie songs that the episode repeatedly comes to a halt for them to sing or to shout “HERBERT” toward various authority figures. Look, I can’t capture the beautiful illogic of this episode in words, just check it out for yourself. 

And one final entry that you probably know from the parodies: "The Savage Curtain" is the episode with Abe Lincoln. That’s the thing most people tend to take away from it, but it’s a solid episode if you’re willing just to roll with it. In true Trek fashion, the crew encounters a mysterious rock baby creature that is interested to see whether good or evil is the stronger force in the universe. The creature summons forth from the ether representatives of both sides to measure this. 

President Abe Lincoln, Vulcan philosopher Surak, Kirk, and Spock represent team good. Colonel Green (a genocidal madman of the Eugenics Wars), Kahless (the founder of the Klingon Empire), and Genghis Khan represent team evil. This is ludicrous. Still, "The Savage Curtain" is a total blast to watch and a quintessential example of Star Trek at its most unrestrained and imaginative. Also, this is the episode where we find out that ancient Vulcans used to fight with deadly Boomerangs, also great.

For every episode I listed, that doesn't mean every other episode in TOS is not worth your time. None-mythos episodes I recommend: The Squire of Gothos, The Doomsday Machine, Catspaw, I Mudd, By Any Other Name, The Ultimate Computer, Spock’s Brain, Spectre of the Gun, Whom the Gods Destroy, Who Mourns for Adonis, and Day of the Dove.

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