DISCOVER--the twenty best episodes of Star Trek

If ever there was a series that fell into that old cliched category of "needs no introduction", it's probably this one, although I've always worked on the principle that there's always someone, somewhere, seeing these films and series for the first time. We all have to start somewhere, sometime. In terms of not accidentally starting with a stiff, these listings would be a fine place for newbies to start on the good ones. If in doubt, or doubting me, start at the beginning of the series and proceed in chronological order.

Star Trek first showed up in the 1966-'67 U.S.TV season, an extraordinarily good year for SF TV, as it also gave us The Time Tunnel and The Invaders. Sold as a sort of space-western ("Wagon Train to the stars"), it took the cornball characters and the cliches of the western and the war film and transposed them to outer space, and performed the invaluable service of introducing a mainstream audience to basic standard science-fiction concepts. It was also the first fantasy series featuring recurring characters to match the intelligence and sensitivity of the classic anthology series The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Gradually, those characters--Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty--became so popular that by the second season the cast had become more significant than the concepts. The series' beloved cliches had become more important than the ideas, which were starting to repeat themselves. This was, perhaps, inevitable. Equally surreptitiously, the emphasis had shifted almost immediately from exploration of new worlds (the so-called "five year mission") to policing existing territories of "the Federation".

Given the series' initial accessibility to everyday TV viewers who otherwise regarded sci-fi as silly kids' stuff, it's ironic and unfortunate that it has since become the iconic symbol and lazy go-to reference point to represent the weirdo and nerdy obsessive, while the wacky sci-fi shows of the same period have become the cult pleasures of the mainstream. As camp and dated as Star Trek has become, it deserves to be seen and enjoyed without the baggage it has accumulated, and its legacy understood and appreciated. It is still, first and foremost, great television.

A huge load of rubbish has been written about Star Trek over the years--so much so that it's creator, Gene Roddenberry, even started to believe some of it himself when trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time for the Next Generation. The two greatest fallacies are that everyone in the future gets on with one another (the original series was built on conflict and the personality clashes of the three leads), and that the series represents an optimistic future. Really?? Militarism, misunderstandings, death and destruction on a grand scale, and all the problems of today still present and being carried into outer space to pollute other cultures. Religion, racism, power-mongering and profiteering all present and correct. The success of Star Trek was in transposing our recognisable world to the future, like all sci-fi. As Roddenberry noted, Star Trek was positive in that it said we actually had a future, at a time when many people genuinely felt humanity didn't.

I don't think my episode choices are too controversial or contentious, and I've tried to justify them. It will probably come as no surprise to those familiar with the show that most of the episodes come from the beginning of the series. Few would argue that the quality declined as it went on. However, it was a tight squeeze, and I was sorry to leave out four or five episodes--the Archons, Armageddon, the Tribbles, all bubbling under. And I've cheated, by counting the two parts of The Menagerie as one, which they're not.
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1.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  
The flight recorder of the 200-year-old U.S.S. Valiant relays a tale of terror--a magnetic storm at the edge of the galaxy! (50 mins.)
“ The second pilot, introducing William Shatner as Captain Kirk and a mostly new crew (the first pilot's footage was incorporated into the series' only two-part episode, "The Menagerie", with the original, "The Cage", finally getting an official release in 1986 (hence its strange listing on the IMDB). Gary Lockwood and Sally Kellerman play two young crew persons accidentally granted godlike powers which they inevitably cannot handle, a recurring theme in the series. ” - jonabbott56
 
2.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Corbomite Maneuver (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.2/10 X  
After the Enterprise is forced to destroy a dangerous marker buoy, a gigantic alien ship arrives to capture and condemn the crew as trespassers. (50 mins.)
“ A nice little Twilght Zone-ish yarn that neatly sets the standards for the episodes to follow, and clearly indicates that this will not be a typical sci-fi series or indeed a typical television series. Star Trek has not aged well for several reasons, but when compared with other fantasy series of the day, one can still immediately see the difference. ” - jonabbott56
 
3.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Enemy Within (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  
A transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two halves: one meek and indecisive, the other violent and ill tempered. The remaining crew members stranded on the planet cannot be beamed up to the ship until a the problem is fixed. (50 mins.)
“ Far superior (and much less silly) than the better known and much mocked Mirror, Mirror from the second season, this has Captain Kirk divided into two individually weaker halves, one "good" and one "evil". ” - jonabbott56
 
4.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Man Trap (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  
Dr. McCoy discovers his old flame is not what she seems after crew members begin dying from a sudden lack of salt in their bodies. (50 mins.)
“ Although often looked down on as one of the series' rare "monster" episodes, the alien is better described as a creature, and the story, a good old-fashioned body-snatching yarn, is very well done. ” - jonabbott56
 
5.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Charlie X (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.2/10 X  
Captain Kirk must learn the limits to the power of a 17-year-old boy with the psychic ability to create anything and destroy anyone. (50 mins.)
“ On the surface, a sort of teenage version of Twilight Zone's It's A Good Life, and a re-tread (already) of the young man goes nuts with power theme, but in actuality, a study of the fumbling and insecurities of adolescence. ” - jonabbott56
 
6.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Balance of Terror (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.0/10 X  
The Enterprise must decide on its response when a Romulan ship makes a destructively hostile armed probe of Federation territory. (50 mins.)
“ Star Trek does The Enemy Below, but it's well done and our first meeting with the Romulans, initially a rather obvious pulp sci-fi take on the Roman Empire. ” - jonabbott56
 
7.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.6/10 X  
Nurse Chapel is reunited with her fiancé; but his new obsession leads him to make an android duplicate of Captain Kirk. (50 mins.)
“ Speaking of pulp sci- fi, this is wonderful. Interestingly, Majel Barrett gives her only decent performance in the entire series as a wronged woman, Michael Strong's camp mad scientist is a delight, and Ted Cassidy is superb as the fearsome glowering android Ruk. ” - jonabbott56
 
8.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Galileo Seven (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.8/10 X  
The Galileo, under Spock's command, crash-lands on a hostile planet. As the Enterprise races against time to find the shuttlecraft, Spock's strictly logical leadership clashes with the fear and resentment of his crew. (50 mins.)
“ Forget the limp-wristed spear-chuckers (no wires available? Really?), this is a great character piece and a real showcase for Spock. Note how Scott backs Spock to the hilt, and I love the bit at the end when Scott realises what Spock did. Never could figure out why everybody was so eager to risk further lives burying dead bodies, or why everybody teased Spock for the "emotional" flare gambit when it was clearly the most logical action to take... ” - jonabbott56
 
9.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Menagerie: Part I (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.5/10 X  
Spock kidnaps the crippled Capt. Pike, hijacks the Enterprise and then surrenders for court martial. (50 mins.)
“ The series' only two-parter, written to utilise the pilot footage, which features a different cast and several other anomalies, explained by setting the pilot story in the past. ” - jonabbott56
 
10.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Menagerie: Part II (1966)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.4/10 X  
At Spock's court martial, he explains himself with mysterious footage about when Capt. Pike was kidnapped by powerful illusion casting aliens. (50 mins.)
“ Don't you think that if you specifically type in the words The Menagerie, you should get The Menagerie first? Rather than twenty-eight other titles that are different, but sound a bit like it? Just askin'. ” - jonabbott56
 
11.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Arena (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.1/10 X  
For bringing hostility into their solar system, a superior alien race brings Captain Kirk in mortal combat against the reptilian captain of an alien ship he was pursuing. (50 mins.)
“ The one with the lizard man, filmed at Vasquez Rocks. Love it. ” - jonabbott56
 
12.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: This Side of Paradise (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.0/10 X  
The Enterprise investigates a planet whose colonists should be dead, but are not. (50 mins.)
“ Classic generic thinly-disguised Commie-bashing sci-fi of the period, featuring those plastic cereal-shooting flowers so popular in 1960s SF TV, and notable for Jill Ireland giving a rare credible performance and the scenes where Spock shows emotions. ” - jonabbott56
 
13.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Devil in the Dark (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.5/10 X  
The Enterprise is sent to a mining colony that is being terrorized by a mysterious monster. (50 mins.)
“ The brilliant Janos Prohaska, monster man extraordinaire (Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Bewitched), provides the creature for this old chestnut, thoughtfully done. He had created a similar shuffling blob creature for The Probe, an episode of The Outer Limits. ” - jonabbott56
 
14.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Errand of Mercy (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.3/10 X  
With a war with Klingons raging, Kirk and Spock attempt to resist an occupation of a planet with incomprehensibly placid natives. (50 mins.)
“ Another clever and typical first season Star Trek idea, featuring the first appearance of the original Yellow Peril Klingons. ” - jonabbott56
 
15.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.3/10 X  
When a temporarily insane Dr. McCoy accidentally changes history and destroys his time, Kirk and Spock follow him to prevent the disaster, but the price to do so is high. (50 mins.)
“ Classic time travel episode featuring the clever conceit of good coming from bad and bad coming from good, and the person with the right idea at the wrong time. Joan Collins is perfect as Edith Keeler. It's ironic she spent the rest of her career playing bitches, although her sharp tongue is in good form here. The Guardian bears a striking resemblance to the Time Tunnel. ” - jonabbott56
 
16.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Metamorphosis (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.4/10 X  
While returning to the Enterprise aboard the shuttlecraft, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a seriously ill Federation diplomat find themselves kidnapped by an energized cloud. (50 mins.)
“ Another of the sort of sensitive, thoughtful, and compassionate story you would only see on Star Trek. And Kirk has a wonderful speech on space travel. Glenn Corbett would play another marooned astronaut on a superb episode of Land of the Giants, The Weird World. ” - jonabbott56
 
17.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Who Mourns for Adonais? (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.1/10 X  
A powerful being claiming to be the Greek god Apollo appears and demands that the crew of the Enterprise disembark onto his planet to worship him. (50 mins.)
“ An interesting take on the popular conceit that ancient mythology might have origins in extraterrestrial visitations... but as Roddenberry himself once said, "Aliens didn't build the pyramids, humans did, because we're clever!". ” - jonabbott56
 
18.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: The Doomsday Machine (1967)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.8/10 X  
The USS Enterprise encounters the wrecked USS Constellation and its distraught captain who's determined to stop the giant planet-destroying robot ship that killed his crew. (50 mins.)
“ Perfect model of suspenseful tension, beautifully played by all, and sustained from start to finish. it's the sort of all-too-rare television that, if you're watching over dinner, the fork stays suspended halfway between plate and mouth. The design of the menacing Doomsday Machine is a masterpiece of simplicity. ” - jonabbott56
 
19.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Bread and Circuses (1968)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.3/10 X  
The Enterprise crew investigates the disappearance of a ship's crew on a planet that is a modern version of the Roman Empire. (50 mins.)
“ Daft as a brush, but a wonderful what-if... Not so much satire as a premonition. ” - jonabbott56
 
20.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Wink of an Eye (1968)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.4/10 X  
A group of aliens who exist in a state of incredible acceleration invade the Enterprise and abduct Capt. Kirk. (50 mins.)
“ A standard frozen-in-time yarn, enhanced by the performances. Catch the look that flashes across Kirk's face when Spock shows up. As for the sex, it was over in a second, girls... ” - jonabbott56
 
21.
Star Trek (1966 TV Series)
Episode: Turnabout Intruder (1969)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 6.9/10 X  
Captain Kirk's insane ex-lover Dr. Janice Lester forcibly switches bodies with him in order to take command of the Enterprise. (50 mins.)
“ Some knee-jerk types have called this episode sexist because it features a woman incapable of being a starship captain, but the point is surely that Lester is unhinged and dangerously incompetent, and there were plenty of male commanders like that during the series' run. Shatner is superb playing a certain kind of over-sensitive and fragile woman. Nice that the series went out on a good one.


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Obsessed with the popular culture of the 1960s and surrounding decades, Jon Abbott has been writing about film and TV for over thirty years in around two dozen different publications, trade, populist, and specialist. He is the author of several books, including

Irwin Allen Television Productions 1964-1970,
Stephen J. Cannell Television Productions: A History of All Series and Pilots,
The Elvis Films,
Cool TV of the 1960s: Three Shows That Changed the World, and Strange New World: Sex Films of the 1970s.

See his Amazon author's page, and his other lists on the IMDB, all under the pre-fix DISCOVER. ” - jonabbott56 ” - jonabbott56