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Photo courtesy of CBS Television

The 20 Best Episodes of ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’

A timeless list of thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

16. “The Menagerie” – Parts I & II

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“A curious species. They have fantasies they hide even from themselves.” – The Keeper

The only two-part episode of Star Trek‘s initial run, “The Menagerie” harkens back to former star dates when the Enterprise was comprised of a crew much different from the one we know and love. Before William Shatner was cast as James T. Kirk, Star Trek shot a pilot titled “The Cage” starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike and a nearly entirely different cast, with the only exception being Spock. At its heart, “The Menagerie” is part clip-show, part Starfleet courtroom drama in which the Enterprise logs are used as evidence, allowing the entire episode of “The Cage” meaningful incorporation into a larger mythos which expands and deepens the Star Trek universe. Featuring Susan Oliver as a green-skinned dancer and the Talosians, a large-headed alien race of telepaths with the power to create illusions indistinguishable from reality, “The Cage” deserves its rightful place in the Star Trek canon.

Some years after the Talosians created the Talosian menagerie, an elaborate test with the goal to foster a servant species to repopulate Talos IV, Spock abducts his former commander, the newly injured and disabled Captain Pike, and locks on course for Talos IV, where the events of “The Cage” took place. According to Starfleet rules, the punishment for traveling to this forbidden planet is death. Spock turns himself in and presents an elaborate story in defense of his actions. “The Menagerie” solidified the role of Christopher Pike, later portrayed by Bruce Greenwood in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films. The episode successfully expands the Star Trek universe through a clever frame narrative that subverts viewer expectations.

15. “Journey to Babel”

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“Well, what do you know? I finally got the last word.” – Bones

“One of the points I wanted to make believable in ‘Babel’ was that both Spock and Sarek were right – as their own convictions applied to themselves – and wrong – as their convictions applied to each other.” – D.C. Fontana

During a journey to the planet Babel for a diplomatic conference, one of the visiting ambassadors aboard the Enterprise is murdered. The suspects? A variety of alien dignitaries including Andorian delegate Thelev (William O’Connell) and Vulcan ambassador Sarek, who also happens to be Spock’s estranged father (adeptly played by Mark Lenard, who originally played a Romulan commander in the episode “Balance of Terror”). Memorable for introducing Spock’s parents, Vulcan Sarek and human Amanda (Jane Wyatt), this episode’s philosophical intrigue more than holds up with time.

A mysterious D.C. Fontana-penned plot coupled with a procession of fascinating alien specimens, this adventurous episode is ultimately an exploration of Spock’s family dynamic and a journey into what it means to be half-human and half-Vulcan, torn between two drastically different cultures and ideological perspectives. The rift between Spock and Sarek is gracefully handled, with Amanda positioned somewhere in the middle. “Journey to Babel” masterfully handles the implications of placing Spock’s hybridity between the parental extremes of the Vulcan and human psyches while introducing a father-son relationship that became a staple of the Star Trek franchise.

14. “Shore Leave”

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“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.” – Kirk

In an episode that was largely rewritten while it was shot, the crew of the Enterprise takes much-needed shore leave on a planet resembling Earth, where figments of their imagination (and ghosts from their past) become reality. After beaming down to the planet’s surface, Kirk, McCoy, Sulu, and Yeoman Barrows (Emily Banks) witness absurd fantasies materialize into reality, including the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, an old .38 police special, Don Juan, a Japanese fighter plane, a fairytale princess, and a samurai warrior (among others). It becomes clear as the episode moves along that the crew’s thoughts, with all their pleasures and pains, are coming to life.

Eventually, the planet’s caretaker appears and confirms that his people constructed the planet as a playground where anything one can think is instantly manufactured—only for the moment. The caretaker informs Kirk that his crew is not yet ready to understand his people, but permits them to stay and enjoy their shore leave. The episode is hilarious, yet not without its tender moments. Kirk’s rekindled love for his past flame Ruth (Shirley Bonne) is a bright spot, as is his prolonged fistfight (notable for its blatant use of stunt doubles) with Finnegan (Bruce Mars), a flamboyant jokester of an Irishman who tormented Kirk during his first year at Starfleet Academy. “After all these years, I did enjoy it,” Kirk remarks after relishing an epic beatdown on Finnegan out in the planet’s desert landscape.

13. “Mirror, Mirror”

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“Jim, I think I liked him with a beard better. It gave him character. Of course, almost any change would be a distinct improvement.” – Bones

A violent ion storm rips through space, while a landing party from the Enterprise comprised of Kirk, Scotty (James Doohan), McCoy, and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) fails to earn the right to mine dilithium on the homeworld of the pacifist Halkan people. A transporter malfunction quickly sends Kirk, McCoy, Scottie, and Uhura to a parallel universe where the Federation is the evil Terran Empire, Kirk is a tyrant, and Spock is a sinister, goateed henchman dubbed “Spock Prime”.

A definitive science-fiction depiction of the implications of parallel realities, “Mirror, Mirror” is as famous for its commentary on fascism and the duality of good and evil as it is for repurposing the goatee to signify the now household “evil doppelganger” trope. The episode has endured because of the strength of its concept, its exploration into terror as necessity for upholding fascist regimes, its comic seduction scene between Uhura and Sulu, and Spock’s keen observation of his totalitarian counterparts as “…brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous; in every way splendid examples of Homo sapiens: the very flower of Humanity.” The alternate reality plot was re-explored in several episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

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