Star Trek catch-up: The Original Series

What is even life without fresh Disco every week? A slog, my friends. An unbearable slog. It’s been weeks since Jason Isaacs did anything morally ambiguous on my TV. How, I ask you, is a woman meant to live like this?

But it’s not all doom and gloom, right? I know that Disco has attracted a lot of new people to the Star Trek universe, or inspired people to take another look at the various flavours of canon.

This is part one of my Star Trek newbies guide, covering episodes from every series (eventually) which range from “classics” to “not classics, but solid examples of what Star Trek can do” to “if you liked Discovery, this is similar”.

I don’t believe in gatekeeping or insisting that you must watch this episode in order to be a “real” fan. I’m thinking of these posts as jumping-off points — maybe you’ll like a series so much that you end up watching every single episode. Maybe you’ll get attached to a single character, and wind up watching a whole different set of episodes. Or maybe you’ll bounce hard off a series and not even get through one episode. It’s all fine.

But then, I would say that, because I’m not a big fan of The Original Series at all. There’s only a handful of episodes I really enjoy watching — though I’ve watched those specific episodes a lot.

Things it’s useful to know before watching TOS for the first time

  • It’s a product of its era. I know that sounds trite, and like an excuse for all of its myriad fails, but … it’s true. It’s brightly coloured, because the network wanted to take advantage of new colour television technology. It’s full of loooooooong, talky scenes and hammy acting because that was the style at the time. It anticipates handheld communications and video chat, but not email.
  • …it’s also full of sexism and racism, even though it was highly progressive for its era.
  • But at the same time, it has the most diverse extras of any Trek until Discovery, so, you know, it’s not all bad.
  • It was a work in progress. No one was setting out to create a franchise that would last for half a century and more. There are internal contradictions, science which has now been debunked, and a fast and loose approach to continuity.
  • I realised that I had a note about Aaaaacting there for every single episode. Suffice to say, between the need to interact with primitive special effects, and the apparently natural bond between science fiction and overacting, there sure are some performances.

So you’re not just depending on my taste alone, I invited suggestions for “essential” TOS episodes on various social networks.

Let’s watch some Classic Trek

Episode: “The Conscience of the King”

Summary: Twenty years ago, the young James Kirk survived a massacre on a failed Federation colony — and was one of the few people who saw the face of Kodos, the governor who killed four thousand people. One of the other witnesses believes Kodos has taken on the identity of an itinerant actor. Kirk dismisses the claim — but someone is murdering the witnesses.

Reasons to watch it:

  • This is a handy episode to have under your belt for when people claim Disco isn’t “real” Star Trek because it’s too dark.
  • Kirk doesn’t quite achieve Lorcatastic levels of shadiness, but he comes close, and it’s kind of great?
  • The Tarsus IV massacre is the setting of an upcoming Disco tie-in novel.
  • Barbara Anderson is tied with Ricardo Montalban and Joan freakin’ Collins for the most costume changes in a single TOS episode, and they’re all ah-maze-ing.
  • This is a pretty solid little thriller with a completely unnecessary musical interlude where Uhura serenades a random supporting character and it’s great.

Warnings and caveats:

  • The romance in this episode is between Kirk, who is in his thirties, and a nineteen-year-old, and there’s some sexist nonsense about women in Starfleet being “machines”.
  • If you know anything about psychosis, or mental illness, or have ever met a human woman in your life, you may find the ending deeply frustrating.
  • Imagine, if you will, a time when it was conceivable that there would be no photographic or video footage of the governor of a whole colony. (Not a content warning, just something I found distracting. And yet, I can suspend disbelief on trans-galactic travel via mushroom!)

Episode: “Balance of Terror”

Summary: The Enterprise plays cat and mouse with a cloaked Romulan ship that’s attacking Federation border outposts.

Reasons to watch it:

  • It introduces the Romulans, aka the very best aliens in the quadrant FIGHT ME.
  • The Romulans are basically Romans In Space, so if fretting about space politics and praetors and consuls is your jam, this might be the story for you.
  • Nifty worldbuilding.

Warnings and caveats:

  • This is a perfectly good episode, but on the slow side.
  • And it’s one of those episodes which manages to be barely sexist at all, but only because there are barely any women in it.
  • Except for a bit where Janice Rand needs a comforting hug from Kirk on the bridge, because she’s scared. (Saru’s like, “I need a comforting hug on the bridge every day, and do I get one? I do not.”)

Episode: “The Corbomite Maneuver”

Summary: The Enterprise goes up against a powerful enemy with nothing but bluff and strategy on its side.

Reasons to watch it:

  • People say it’s a classic example of how Star Trek does action and strategy and big ideas.
  • It features a cameo from Clint Howard, aka Ron Howard’s little brother.

Warnings and caveats:

  • It’s so boring. I tried to rewatch it so I could say more about it in this post, and couldn’t even get through the first couple of minutes.

Episode: “Space Seed”

Summary: The Enterprise comes across a ship full of genetically engineered super soldiers, frozen and drifting in space since the 21st century.

Reasons to watch it:

  • It’s a classic. There’s a reason it inspired The Wrath of Khan and then, less successfully, Into Darkness.
  • It’s just … really good? In so many ways?

Warnings and caveats:

  • Ricardo Montalban is essentially in brownface to play Khan. Like, there’s a scene where he’s wearing shorts, and you can see where the fake tan on his legs ends.
  • Like so much TOS, the gender dynamics are kind of horrible and not worth examining closely.

Episode: “The Devil in the Dark”

Summary: A mining outpost is being attacked by a monstrous alien, but nothing is what it seems.

Reasons to watch it:

  • A plot so iconic that it’s almost a cliche.
  • Some pretty great Kirk, Spock and McCoy banter.

Warnings and caveats:

  • I mean, this is a really great episode and all, but it doesn’t stand up all that well to repeated viewing unless you’re passionate about the characters.
  • It’s also the only episode of TOS with no women whatsoever.

Episode: “The City on the Edge of Forever”

Summary: A series of plot devices sees Kirk, Spock and McCoy stranded in Depression-era America, where Kirk falls in love with Joan Collins.

Reasons to watch it:

  • Joan Collins.
  • I mean. What else do you need?
  • Okay, this is said to be the ultimate Star Trek romance, which is ridiculous because no one’s secretly a Klingon or sending their partner off to face probable capture and torture. But if doomed romance is your thing, it’s quite good.

Warnings and caveats:

  • There’s a line where Kirk explains Spock’s appearance away by saying he’s Chinese, and it’s … not great.
  • If “the 1930s via the 1960s on a brightly lit backlot” isn’t your idea of a perfect aesthetic, this might be difficult to watch.
  • There is a lot of entertainment value to be had in telling horrible nerd boys that you’ve never seen this episode. It’s like when I tell people I’ve never seen Back to the Future or the first three Indiana Jones films.

Episode: “Amok Time”

Summary: Biology overcomes logic, and Spock has to return to Vulcan to mate.

Reasons to watch it:

  • There is no part of this episode that isn’t amazing.
  • (That’s a lie, see the warnings and caveats below.)
  • Combines significant worldbuilding for Vulcan and background for Spock with some truly remarkable homoeroticism.

Warnings and caveats:

  • It’s still weirdly sexist, right down to the highly illogical premise that Vulcan women can’t just ask for a divorce.
  • I mean, that would explain a lot about why Amanda sticks around even though Sarek is a truly terrible father. But. You know.
  • Is “some of these costumes look like they were made out of aluminium foil” a warning or a reason to watch it?

Episode: “Mirror Mirror”

Summary: A transporter accident sends Kirk, Uhura, McCoy and Scotty into the original Darkest Timeline.

Reasons to watch it

  • The original and best mirror universe episode.
  • I have very strict rules for alternate timelines and how to make them work. This obeys none of those rules, but it’s equal parts horrifying and campy.
  • Leonard Nimoy really rocked that goatee.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Mirror Sulu is really into the workplace sexual harassment, which it turns out is hard to watch in 2017.
  • I am not convinced that thigh high boots are really appropriate from a health and safety point of view.
  • Raises uncomfortable questions, like, the Disco uniforms already have so much bling, how will the mirror universes top that?

Episode: “The Doomsday Machine”

Summary: A machine capable of destroying entire planets also kills the crew of the Enterprise’s sister ship, and now her captain wants revenge.

Reasons to watch it:

  • A couple of times I’ve joked about Lorca and Cornwell being almost the sanest members of their generation in Starfleet. This episode is one of the reasons why.
  • I mean, Decker’s not crazy, he’s just deeply traumatised by the death of his entire crew, for which he feels responsible, and he’s making bad choices. No parallels here, nope.
  • Decker has been name-checked in Disco, which makes me suspect it’s intentional.

Warnings and caveats:

  • For some reason, Uhura isn’t in this.
  • Aside from the usual stuff about slowness, dodgy effects and Aaaaacting, that is seriously this episode’s only problem.

Episode: “Journey to Babel”

Summary: Sarek is a terrible father. Also some other things happen.

Reasons to watch it:

  • We meet the OG Sarek and Amanda and they are amazing.
  • By which I mean that Sarek is terrible but Amanda is a delightful ray of sunshine who could have done a lot better for herself, but I guess she’s happy … somehow…
  • I can only assume that Sarek is really good in bed, and that is absolutely a mental image I want you all to share.
  • Anyway, Vulcan family drama, space politics, Kirk is relegated to a supporting role, this is almost the perfect TOS episode.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Once again, it seems logical for Vulcans to be incredibly sexist. It’s almost as if they were created by people who were products of their time and culture. (It’s still hard to watch in places.)

Episode: “The Trouble with Tribbles”

Summary: Get your space pets neutered, dammit.

Reasons to watch it:

  • Trek does comedy, and it makes me laugh more than I cringe.
  • But seriously, it combines comedy, tragedy (not every tribble will survive to the end, alas) and Klingon spies disguised as humans.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Tribble death
  • Puns
  • Certain guest stars are maybe just the tiniest bit hammy, you know?
  • With every year that passes, it becomes more obvious that the TOS Klingons are just white guys in brownface and fake eyebrows, and it’s increasingly uncomfortable to look at.

Episode: “The Enterprise Incident”

Summary: Kirk disobeys orders and has the Enterprise cross the Romulan neutral zone; captured, Spock considers defecting.

Reasons to watch it:

  • This is my all-time favourite episode of TOS.
  • It’s a pure Cold War drama — literally, ripped from the headlines and then moved up in the production schedule so it would be current — in space, and done so well.
  • The Romulan Commander is a woman, ’60s-era sexism is kept to a minimum (thank you, DC Fontana!), and Spock has never been more attractive. And that’s a high bar, guys.
  • It’s tense, it’s serious, and it still finds room for Shatner to emote. Sorry, E M O T E.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Despite Fontana’s best efforts, Roddenberry still managed to get some ’60s-era sexism in.
  • The Romulan Commander doesn’t get a name, a second appearance, or a spin-off in her own right.

Episode: “The Tholian Web”

Summary: Kirk is trapped in an alternate dimension, and the Enterprise’s rescue efforts are hampered by mysterious-yet-cool aliens.

Reasons to watch it:

  • Spock outright tells Chekov that there has never been a mutiny on a Starfleet ship, so we can either pretend the entire existence of Michael Burnham is a continuity error, or we can conclude that Spock is, once again, lying about his deeply embarrassing family and hoping that Chekov won’t look it up himself.
  • Or, I guess, Michael’s record will at some point be expunged, whatever.
  • With Kirk declared dead, Spock takes command, and we get some amazing arguments between him and McCoy.
  • Seriously, Kirk’s barely around, it’s just the Spock and McCoy show.

Warnings and caveats:

  • There’s a whole thing where Uhura sees Kirks’ “ghost” and winds up restrained in sickbay. But a white dude sees him, and everyone’s all, “Hey, maybe something’s going on for realsies.”

A brief Animated Series interlude

Episode: “Yesteryear”

Summary: Everything Stephanie has ever said about time travel turns out to be true — which is to say, the best way to fix a terrible time travel mishap is … more time travel. But it’s okay, Sarek is only slightly the worst.

Reasons to watch it:

  • This is the only episode of the animated Star Trek which counts as canon.
  • The script is by Dorothy “D. C.” Fontana, the only woman who wrote for TOS, who was responsible for a lot of the really awesome stuff in the series proper.
  • Vulcan worldbuilding. Vulcan family dynamics. Spock as a tiny child.

Warnings and caveats:

  • TAS was largely (and mercifully) forgotten until it turned up on Netflix. The art and animation are pretty terrible.
  • Straight-up content warning for pet death, if that will upset you.

Movies

Now, I’m very fond of The Motion Picture, which I really think is the only movie (from any era) that really grapples with an idea. But, as tempted as I am to tell you to just order pizza and watch all the damn films, that would mean exposing you to Star Trek V, and I feel like I have a duty of care.

Movie: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Summary: Khan Noonien Singh, of “Space Seed”, is back, and he wants revenge. Also, Kirstie Alley is in it.

Reasons to watch it:

  • It’s simultaneously a bittersweet story about getting older, making room for the next generation and confronting your mistakes, and a taut space thriller.
  • Shatner is really quite good?
  • Kirstie Alley’s Saavik is dry, wry and eternally perplexed by the human idiocy around her.
  • The other significant new female character is Carol Marcus, who is a much tougher character than her reboot incarnation.
  • Spock, man. Just … Spock.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Back in the ’60s, Roddenberry deliberately cast diverse actors as Khan’s followers, figuring that there was no reason for genetically engineered super soldiers to be white. Here, they’re all blond-haired, blue-eyed types, and it’s kind of a shame.
  • Despite giving us two great new female characters, Uhura is woefully underused. (This will be the case for all of the movies. Except in V, where she does a striptease for, um, plot reasons.)
  • Some people find the aesthetic shift — darker sets, the militaristic uniforms — a hurdle they can’t get over.

Movie: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Summary: Sarek takes time out from being The Worst to drop the bombshell that Spock could potentially have survived the events of Wrath of Khan. Kirk and crew go from zero to “stealing the Enterprise and going on a road trip to find him” in sixty seconds.

Reasons to watch it:

  • It wraps up all the leftover plot threads from the end of Wrath of Khan.
  • Sarek is just … *hands*
  • Pay attention, this will all be important later.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Remember the great female characters we met just a movie ago? Well.
  • Carol should be in this, but she’s not.
  • Saavik’s around, but Kirstie Alley is replaced by Robin Curtis. And don’t get me wrong, Curtis is a perfectly good actress, but her Saavik lacks the spark of Alley’s version.
  • III is okay, but not as great as II. Sorry, odd-numbered Star Trek movies.

Movie: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Summary: Time travel and whales.

Reasons to watch it:

  • It’s amusing in parts
  • Kirk’s one-movie love interest is a marine biologist who loves her whales way more than she’s into weird men from the future.
  • Leonard Nimoy spends the whole movie wandering around in a dressing gown, the very embodiment of gravitas.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Everyone loves this movie, but so much of the humour is based on fish-out-of-water scenarios and characters not knowing how to behave that I have to spend most of it hiding.
  • Sarek appears only briefly and isn’t terrible. I mean, what is the point?

Movie: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Summary: The cold war between the Klingons and the Federation finally comes to an end.

Reasons to watch it:

  • It’s my favourite Star Trek movie that doesn’t have the Borg.
  • Look, it’s a talky political drama with some very minor action scenes and average special effects. A key scene is an awkward dinner party. It’s brilliant.
  • I’m quite certain that I’ve produced multiple blog posts about why this is the best Star Trek movie, but I can’t seem to find them.
  • Anyway, it has Christopher Plummer literally twirling in his chair as he quotes Shakespeare, and a Klingon woman calling the Federation out for humancentric language.  And also Iman.
  • Here’s a recent article on the narrative ties between Star Trek VI and Disco.

Warnings and caveats:

  • Kim Cattrall plays Spock’s latest protégée, and she’s … not very good. She’s clearly aiming for Kirstie Alley-style archness, but overshoots and ends up smirky.
  • And THEN there’s a significant mind meld between her and Spock which is deliberately played as “sexy” even though she is very much not consenting, and it’s the worst part of the whole movie.
  • Uhhhhhhhhhh you don’t need to buy the blu-ray. The DVD is fine. Turns out the sets and special effects really weren’t created with high definition in mind.

Thank you for joining me in this brief tour of TOS-era Star Trek!

If you’re new to the franchise, I hope it gave you an idea of where to start — and if you’re not new, I hope it inspires a nice, fun rewatch, and also that you don’t yell at me for leaving out your faves.

Join me in 2018 for recommendations from The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager and Enterprise. (Enterprise may take a while, given that I’ve only watched four episodes in my life.) There’s a very slim chance I might get the TNG post done before the new year, but there are, like, 30-odd recommended episodes, and I’ve only seen roughly half of them recently enough to say something sensible about them.

(“Sensible”.)

Author: Liz Barr

Words written. Opinions expressed.

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