Since we’ve recently wrapped up the entire run of the original series, it feels like we should be telling you what our favorite episodes were. I didn’t feel like just making a numbered list, so I tried to group my choices into categories.
It is my hope that, with Trek now available on Netflix streaming, you can use my list (and Matt’s) as a guide. Because while there is no question that Star Trek is completely deserving of its status as a classic TV series, the simple fact is that a lot of it is crap. If you’d rather just focus on the highlights, I recommend the following:
The Corbomite Maneuver, Balance of Terror, The Doomsday Machine
One of the things this series did best was channel the intensity of the Cold War into a science fiction setting. These three episodes are all essentially tense submarine stories transposed to a starship. The tension of Kirk staring down (in order) an unknown and highly advanced alien, an established enemy that can turn invisible and a monstrously destructive alien artifact is masterfully handled in every case. That this show’s best moments usually came in “bottle episodes,” where everyone stayed on the familiar (and thus cost-effective) sets aboard the Enterprise, reacting to something out there, really says something about the strength of these characters. Before Shatner pushed Kirk into camp territory in season 3, he was kind of a badass. Hopefully the next Abrams flick channels more of this Kirk and less of “Turnabout Intruder” Kirk. (Sorry, Gav.)
Journey to Babel, Amok Time, The Enterprise Incident
I’m hardly making a controversial statement when I say that Spock is the most compelling character in the original series. These episodes showcase some of the best of what Spock has to offer: “Journey to Babel” introduces us to his parents, bringing his conflicted human/Vulcan nature to the forefront. “Amok Time” gives us a look at his homeworld, their customs and a distinct physiological difference between Vulcans and humans. And “The Enterprise Incident” might also fit into the previous category (it’s a pretty intense “stare down the enemy” story), but it has the added bonus of allowing Spock to seduce the female adversary for a change.
City on the Edge of Forever, Mirror Mirror, The Trouble with Tribbles
These are all widely acknowledged classics — even people who don’t watch much Star Trek probably know something from each of these, at least via pop culture osmosis. I’m pleased to report that all three of them completely deserve their reputation. “City on the Edge” puts Kirk in a situation where he has to make a heartbreaking sacrifice for the greater good. “Mirror, Mirror” is the “evil universe” episode where Spock has a beard (thus leading to a half-century of “my evil twin has a goattee” jokes.) And “Tribbles” is the only time the show completely nailed a light-hearted comedic episode.
Star Trek did a lot of “old earth relics become twisted and return with a bloodlust” stories (most notably in The Motion Picture), but this was the first and best instance. I don’t know why TMP felt the need to improve on something that was essentially perfect already.
The original pilot — apart from Spock (who’s not exactly in character yet), there are no familiar faces. This is a fascinating glimpse at what the show might have been. Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike is fantastic, and the Forbidden Planet-style setting and story is more sophistocated (and more expensive) than what would come later. I joked on PAH that I was sick of this story (after seeing it recycled in “The Menagerie”), but I still believe that this is one of the greatest Trek stories ever told.
The Tholian Web
Easily my favorite episode of the entire series, and it’s no coincidence that Kirk’s hardly in it at all. There’s just so much going on here — a new alien threat, a weird spatial anomaly (before TNG and the rest would make this a cliché) and the apparent death of Kirk. Great character moments, incredible action… in short, everything that made this show great.