Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Magnificent Seven: STAR TREK

I don't remember a time when I didn't know about STAR TREK. It made its debut on prime-time television a few years after I was born. By the time I was old enough to watch TV, it was there, in syndication, on KDNL-TV 30 in St. Louis. I bought and tried to make the Enterprise and Mr. Spock model kits. I had better luck with Mr. Spock (phasering a three-headed snake monster) than I did with the Enterprise. I could never get the rods to stay glued to the main body! So I guess I was a Junior Trekkie before I became a Trekker.
There isn't anything about The Original Series (as it is now called) that hasn't been said before. Suffice it to say that it was a True Original. To honor Gene Roddenberry on the anniversary of his birth, I want to present my list of list of Seven Favorite Star Trek Episodes. These are the ones I can watch over and over again. In chronological order:

This is the one that everyone mentions, and with good reason. The story is good, the actors are wonderful, and the drama is (dare I say it?) real. An accidentally drugged McCoy escapes from the Enterprise to the planet below. There he somehow escapes back into time and somehow messes things up for "the future." Kirk and Spock have to go back after him and try to correct whatever it is he did that made all of Starfleet cease to exist. This sort of time travel story was used often in STAR TREK, but never before and never as well as it was used here.
Joan Collins is excellent as Edith Keeler, the pacifist who is at the center of the diverging timelines. William Shatner, in one of Kirk's earliest "romances," plays it straight. DeForest Kelley as the accidental catalyst is effectively crazy early in the show, then is like a man comign off a terrible binge in the last act. His last cry, "Do you know what you've done?!" and Leonard Nimoy's stoic response, "He knows, doctor....he knows" sums up the pain and responsibility of being Captain better than many of the later episodes. By the way, it was years before I realized that Kirk's final, "Let's get the hell out of here" was so poignant because of its rare (for its time) usage of cursing.

The other episode on almost everyone's list of favorites. Wherease CITY deals somewhat with the Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic,  the other choices on my list feature the rest of the crew (cast). (And CITY *does* feature Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty in supporting roles, remember; the first third of the story occurs on the Enterprise.) Although AMOK TIME is centered on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio (the last act is almost wholly them on the planet of Vulcan), it also features Majel Barrett as Nurse Chapel at her best love-sick ("My name is Christine!"). It also features the first Sulu-Chekov comedy routine ("I think I am getting space sick!"). Unfortunately, Scotty is the only regular cast member not to appear.
Spock begins to act strange, but will not admit to anyone what is wrong. It eventually comes out that it is time for him to return to Vulcan to "mate." So the Enterprise changes course and heads to Spock's home-planet, the only time the series visited there.
Anyone who has seen this episode knows that arguments between Spock and McCoy in later episodes were based on true friendship, as vividly shown here.  Plus of course the reunion scene that ends the episode is a must-see for anyone who thinks Spock is all logic and *no* feeling.

This is a choice that I don't see on too many other "favorite" lists, but hear me out. There were several episodes where the transporter conks out and created "false" drama. Likewise, there are several episodes where Kirk is in danger and the crew back on the Enterprise has to rescue him. In my opinion, this episode is the best of both of these conditions. Too often STAR TREK stories were built around the trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. In this episode, Kirk is trapped on the Constellation and it's fun to watch the rest of the crew struggle to save their Captain.

The "doomsday machine" is going through the universe eating everything in its path, including the crippled Constellation and the Enterprise. Much of the drama revolves around the great William Windom as Commodore Decker. This episode would not have worked nearly as well as it does with a different actor. Windom portrays achingly painful hearbreak and pathos as he explains that his crew is dead. It's very sad to hear that this Emmy Award-winning actor just passed on. He will be missed. 

Another episode on most people's lists of favorites, this is probably my all-time favorite episode. Really, what's not to like? The Enterprise experiences a cosmic storm that tosses Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura into a parallel universe. They then try to escape back to "their" universe before it's too late. The entire cast is challenged to play different versions of their usual characters. The four leads in particular must play their characters playing their "mirror" versions. The "mirror Spock" is more ruthless and coldly logical than "our" Spock had ever been shown to be. Hats off to Leonard Nimoy, but the entire cast does an excellent job. I'm only sorry we didn't get to see a "mirror Nurse Chapel." Endlessly re-watchable.

As far as I can tell, this is one of the few episodes to actually feature the entire cast in an engaging, exciting story with something for all of them to do. Chekov was not added until the second season, when George Takei (Sulu) was off filming THE GREEN BERETS with John Wayne. The third season consisted mostly of Kirk-Spock-McCoy stories. So THE DEADLY YEARS is an especially rare gem.

A landing party arrives to investigate a space station whose members are growing old at an alarming rate. Afterwards all of the landing party except Chekov (a vibrant Walter Koenig) begins to age, too. There is absolutely wonderful old-age make-up on the principals. There is gripping drama as Commodore Stocker calls a competency hearing, stealing command of the Enterprise out from under Kirk and company, over-riding better experienced Sulu and Uhura. And the court scenes, where the young and virile staff officers have no choice but to vote Kirk senile, are painfully dramatic. Then of course there is the rousing ending to a fantastically entertaining yarn.

6. I, MUDD
This is another "comedy" episode that, unlike TRIBBLES, does not tend to make it on to too many favorites lists. The first third of this episode is done straight, asn the android "Norman" takes possession of the Enterprise and hijacks it to Mudd's planet. After the crew is marooned planet-side and the principals have to somehow escape from their velvet cage, the episode takes a turn into the ridiculous. However, that is actually the point: humans behave irrationally. Plus, every time I watch this episode and Lt. Uhura (a fantastic Nichelle Nichols) "betrays" the crew to the androids, she's so good that you *almost* believe her!
Special credit to Roger C. Carmel, who portrays Harry Mudd. He starts off vile, then becomes inept, then acts the rogue again. It's a fun performance. Also regards to Richard Natro as the lead android Norman. Amazingly, he never cracks a smile no matter how oddly the humans act.
An interesting note: Sulu starts off in the beginning of this episode, then is mysteriously absent from the last half. My guess is that George Takei got called back to THE GREEN BERETS mid-episode. I only wish we could have seen the Sulu-Chekov team take on the androids.

This is another episode on most people's lists of favorites. It is a very entertaining episode. The Enterprise goes on a mission of mercy, docking at a space station to help protect a shipment of wheat destined for a Starfleet outpost. It's a wonderful example of how the Enterprise sometimes handled  goodwill or humanitarian missions. Although humor was sometimes done much too broadly in some later episodes and movies, this episode has almost a perfect balance between drama and humor. Also, it helps that almost everyone is present and has something fun to do....except George Takei and Majel Barrett, who unfortunately do not appear. It's also fun to re-visit this episode on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE when the cast of that series inserts themselves into this episode.

There are plenty of other great STAR TREK episodes (along with a few stinkers, but we won't talk about any of those!). THE NAKED NOW is a great way to introduce the characters, and Lt. Sulu never had a better spotlight episode. However, Kirk's "I'm married to the ship" and Spock's "I'm not human" scenes were done better in other episodes. THIS SIDE OF PARADISE re-visits these themes again, actually, and, arguably, does it better. After a well-staged battle between Kirk and Spock, it is with real poignancy that Spock must say good-bye to his humanity. Leonard Nimoy really knocked it out of the park in this episode. Another problem with both of these episodes and with SHORE LEAVE is that the supporting players of Scotty, Uhura, Chapel, and Chekov do not appear. SHORE LEAVE especially suffers from coming too early in the series' run: most of the characters featured here are never featured again, which lessens the drama and the fun. It especially bothers me that Yeoman Barrows was not Lt. Uhura. Too bad the cast had not been more firmly established for these episodes; if they had come in the second season they would have been absolutely wonderful. Other classic episodes are entertaining, but are not my favorites. SPACE SEED is too much Ricardo Montalban as Khan and not enough everybody else. BALANCE OF TERROR is the best "battle" episode of STAR TREK; in fact, I've read that it was written as if it were a drama between two submarines. Unfortunately, it's too much Kirk vs the Romulan Commander (an excellent Mark Lenard) and not enough about the rest of the crew. Mark Lenard shines again as Sarek in JOURNEY TO BABEL, but I think the drama in this episode seems just a *tad* forced. Speaking of Romulan Commanders, the next one we see is played by Joanna Linville in THE ENTERPRISE INCIDENT. This is the episode where Kirk goes rogue, then alters himself into a Romulan in order to steal their cloaking device. It is an exciting drama (we don't know for sure what is going on until midway through!) and a tour de force for the entire cast. Especially memorable is Majel Barrett as the under-used Nurse Chapel.
Are you opinions different? Let's discuss!


  1. I think my first post didn't make it so I'll try again.

    Agree with your top 4, but not 5-7. De-aging never made sense to me, even as a kid. Didn't like Mudd and tribbles just looked fake. (My sister was collecting fuzzy headed troll dolls back then, and that's what they reminded me of.)

    My 5-7 would be Spock's Brain, Plato's Step-Children, and (as a "Son worshipper" myself) Bread and Circuses. (I remember balling my eyes out over the death scene in Amok Time.)

  2. Rick, I do like Plato's Step-Children; if it was less of a Kirk-Spock-McCoy story I would have liked it more, I think. Bread & Circuses is by far the best "similar to Earth" episodes. But Spock's Brain!?! Come on!! LOL!

  3. I enjoyed going through your list but The Deadly Years and I, Mudd leave me cold. (As an aside, I don't think it is Commodore Decker in Deadly Years). I think I'll include The Empath, The Immunity Syndrome, and The Ultimate Computer to the list. And Shore Leave is a delight to watch. DeForest looks absolutely wonderful in it. Perhaps top of the list would be Mirror, Mirror because the entire cast (but for Nurse Chapel) performs exceedingly well though my favourite has to be Evil Sulu (that lasvascious look of his sends shivers down my spine). And how many times I watch it, I am still zapped by Bones' devotion to his Hippocratic oath.

    1. You're right, in Deadly Years it was Commodore Stocker. I've made the change. I can't ever sit through The Empath, and the Immunity Syndrome is weirdly confusing. I would agree with The Ultimate Computer and Shore Leave, though. Both are fun and dramatic.