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Photo courtesy of CBS Television

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

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

4. “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

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“Do you like what you see? Absolute power corrupting absolutely?” – Kirk

After investigating what happened to the U.S.S. Valiant at the edge of our galaxy, the Enterprise encounters a magnetic space storm that grants Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) dangerous, godlike powers and extrasensory perception. Though the show’s second pilot was rejected by NBC, the episode title “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was adopted as the closing phrase of the opening credits voice-over by William Shatner and has gone on to shape both science fiction and pop culture as we know it. Featuring breathtaking action sequences and fine character acting by Lockwood and Sally Kellerman as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is a notoriously underrated episode that offers a critical glimpse into humanity’s struggle for power and the corruption it breeds.

When Mitchell, a former friend of Kirk’s from Starfleet Academy, unleashes his godlike telepathic and telekinetic powers on the crew of the Enterprise, Spock suggests that he should be killed. Kirk angrily disagrees, marooning him on a lithium-cracking facility on a remote planet. Yet Mitchell seduces Dr. Dehner and gives her similar deadly powers. The episode’s final showdown in which Kirk appeals to Dehner’s humanity anticipates a similar pivotal scene from Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi. Ultimately, Kirk’s recognition that Mitchell “didn’t ask for what happened to him” begins a tradition of sympathetic villains on Star Trek.

Fun fact: Kirk’s middle initial appears as “R” on the gravestone Mitchell creates for Kirk. Subsequent episodes use “James T. Kirk,” and eventually Kirk’s middle name is revealed to be Tiberius on Star Trek: The Animated Series.

3. “Space Seed”

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“It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” – Kirk, quoting John Milton’s Paradise Lost

“Space Seed” introduced Star Trek‘s most popular antagonist: the genetically enhanced superman from the 20th century, Khan Noonien Singh, masterfully portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán. The Enterprise comes across a long-lost Earth vessel, the Botany Bay (named after the Australian penal colony), containing a cryogenically frozen Khan and his original crew. After manipulating historian Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) into joining his crusade, Khan and his superhuman soldiers take command of the Enterprise. A classic face-off between Kirk and Khan ensues.

Khan serves as the perfect villain for Kirk to take on, a mentally and physically superior being who threatens his command and the safety of his crew. Not only that, but Khan is a complex character with an interesting backstory involving eugenics wars on Earth in the 1990s. Kirk’s undeniable admiration for Khan raises some interesting moral questions and sparks philosophical dialogue that still resonates today. Khan eventually accepts being marooned on the uninhabited planet Ceti Alpha V over a court-martial, referencing Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost in his decision.

Although “Space Seed” is Khan’s only appearance in the original series, Montalbán takes up the mantle once more in Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, considered by many to be the very best of the Star Trek films. Benedict Cumberbatch would go on to play an alternate reality version of the character in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness. Put simply, Khan is the greatest Trek villain.

2. “The City on the Edge of Forever”

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“The men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future… and those are the days worth living for.” – Edith Keeler

Penned by the late legendary author Harlan Ellison, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a perfect Star Trek episode, demonstrating elegant pathos while exploring the best of what science fiction can achieve. Suffering from an accidental overdose that brings on a frenzy, McCoy beams down to an ancient alien world where a mystical gateway dubbed “The Guardian of Forever” sends him back in time to 1930s Earth. There, he saves a woman’s life, unwittingly altering the course of time and erasing the Enterprise and the Federation from history. Trapped in the limbo of non-existence, Kirk and Spock travel back in time in a desperate attempt to rectify the disturbance and correct the course of history.

Kirk and Spock travel to 1930s New York City where they meet Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), a woman who has dedicated her life to helping those in need. While Spock works on building a computer to access information on his tricorder, Kirk and Keeler develop a romantic relationship. Then comes some devastating news: In order to fix the time alteration, Edith Keeler must die. Spock explains to Kirk that Keeler will go on to organize a pacifist movement in the U.S. that will delay U.S. involvement in World War II. Keeler must now be sacrificed to achieve the very peace she fought so hard to attain. Ellison’s writing combines with electric chemistry between Shatner and Collins to deliver a bittersweet episode of Star Trek.

1. “The Devil in the Dark”

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“There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.” – Kirk

“The Horta has a very logical mind. And after close association with Humans, I find that curiously refreshing.” – Spock

Of “The Devil in the Dark”, Leonard Nimoy once noted, “I thought it was a wonderful episode about the fear of the unknown, how we fear and even hate something that we don’t know anything about, learn who your enemy is, and it’s not, maybe then it’s no longer your enemy.”

In the episode, which features one of the most elaborate set designs of the original series, The Enterprise crew responds to a distress call from a mining colony on Janus VI where workers are being reduced to ash by a rocklike creature excreting molten lava. When Kirk and Spock arrive, there is no sign of the creature—only traces of its victims—and they begin to ponder how a carbon-based life form could exist in such a cavernous environment. This is Star Trek coming face to face with the unknown at its purest, most satisfying, most speculative level. The creature in question is the Horta—a species that we soon discover is more logical than we might first imagine.

Although silicon-based and not carbon-based, like all lifeforms, the Horta simply does what it must to survive. Spock establishes a Vulcan mind meld with the creature in a mesmerizing scene that reveals the creature’s fear and its survival instincts. It turns out that the silicon spheres the workers on the planet have been mining are Horta eggs. Kirk convinces the miners to allow the Horta to live among them and dig for mineral deposits, envisioning a world of vastly different lifeforms working towards the common goals of survival and prosperity. Although we have yet to learn from the lessons of “The Devil in the Dark”, the episode inspires hope in the form of a harmonious vision of life, conjuring deep emotions that only the finest episodes of
Star Trek can inspire.

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This article originally published on 16 July 2018.

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