The 10 Best Star Trek: The Original Series Episodes

Now that I’ve finished reviewing Star Trek: The Original Series, I thought I’d share my opinions on which episodes deserve to be regarded as the greatest ever made. Here are my selections:

 

10) Amok Time

Driven by the deadly mating urge known as pon farr, Spock returns to the planet Vulcan in order to satisfy the most primal and compelling instinct of all. Unmoved by her would-be husband, the beautiful T’Pring (Arlene Martel) invokes an ancient rite whereby Spock must participate in mortal combat with Kirk. Fortunately, Dr. McCoy conceives a last-minute plan to save both men from the perils of koon-ut-kal-if-fee.

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A thrilling, unexpected, and visually captivating introduction to Vulcan culture, “Amok Time” earns its reputation as one of the most iconic Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. Also worth mentioning, the friendship enjoyed by Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is emphasized quite poignantly on numerous occasions, such as when the captain decides to place his Starfleet career on the line upon learning of his first officer’s grave predicament (Spock’s borderline emotional display in the final scene will likewise appeal to Star Trek fans for obvious reasons).

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9) The Devil in the Dark

Seemingly without provocation, a monster composed of silicon goes on a killing rampage in the mining tunnels of Janus VI. When called to investigate, the Enterprise captain and first officer propose two respective solutions on how to deal with the so-called intruder: Kirk, on one hand, believes the creature should be destroyed before it can cause further damage while Spock, repulsed by the human tendency to extinguish sentient life without first considering every logical alternative, attempts a risky mind meld with the alien culprit.

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It should be noted that in recent years, “The Devil in the Dark” has become a target for tremendous mockery given the Horta’s uncanny resemblance to a supreme pizza with extra sausage. Nevertheless, a chilling atmosphere works in conjunction with resonating social commentary (i.e. human arrogance and callousness with regard to the environment) to make for a thoroughly engaging, if somewhat goofy, episode.

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8) Space Seed

After awakening genetically augmented warrior Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) and his group of exiled supermen from a centuries-long suspended animation, the captain discovers only too late that the SS Botany Bay—the spacecraft on which Khan and his people were discovered—is in fact a penal ship designed with the intention of removing humanity’s most dangerous, and intelligent, criminals from 20th century Earth. Before Kirk can take appropriate measures to prevent the augments from hijacking the Enterprise, historian Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) employs her knowledge of vessel operations so that Khan may assume command of the Federation flagship.

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“Space Seed” should be commended for exemplifying the contrast between modern-day society along with the selfish, power-hungry motivations that drive it and the more enlightening pursuits which are paramount (no pun intended) to Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic vision. Of course, it should also be mentioned that without the chain of events set in motion by this episode, the most mind-blowingly awesome movie in the entire universe (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) would never have been produced, and the Star Trek film franchise that followed it would undoubtedly fail to exist.

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7) All Our Yesterdays

Traveling alongside Spock and McCoy, Captain Kirk beams down to the surface of Sarpeidon in order to warn its inhabitants about an impending supernova. Upon arrival, the Enterprise captain and crew are informed that a time-warping device called the atavachron has allowed the otherwise doomed planetary residents to escape into the distant past. When Kirk is sucked into a temporal vortex, Spock and McCoy enter the same portal only to arrive in Sarpeidon’s ice age. Affected by mental regression, Spock falls deeply in love with a political prisoner named Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley) and loses sight of his mission as a result.

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A touching episode, “All Our Yesterdays” will satisfy Star Trek fans who admire the subtle emotionality through which Leonard Nimoy often conveyed Spock’s inner conflict. McCoy’s professional and personal friendship with the Vulcan scientist is also explored from time to time, with the chief medical officer eventually prompting Spock to embrace the logical perspective that once defined his character—a unique role reversal handled with remarkable effectiveness, mainly attributable to the gravitas exuded by the original series’ primary trio of actors.

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6) The Cage

Under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), the Enterprise crew travels to Talos IV in response to a distress signal. Upon arriving on the planet’s surface, Pike and his landing party locate a group of marooned scientists and Vina (Susan Oliver)—an enchanting young woman who was still a child when the expedition went missing. Having been the victim of an elaborate ruse, Pike later discovers that a group of luminous aliens had lured him to their planet so that he and Vina, the only true survivor of the aforementioned expedition, would produce offspring capable of rebuilding the original Talosian society.

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Though initially rejected by NBC executives in favor of the more accessible “The Man Trap,” “The Cage” is a thought-provoking—if occasionally slow-moving—pilot. Notably, Gene Roddenberry’s narrative suggests that the reality perceived by humans does not necessarily exist as such, and that the fabric of the universe can be manipulated by those who possess the combined patience and intellectual maturity to do so (on a side note, science fiction fans will identify the obvious parallel between the above concepts and those which inspired The Matrix over thirty years later). In addition to its cerebral (again, no pun intended) premise, this episode marks the onscreen debut of Captain Pike, who, despite lacking the diplomatic genius of Picard and the raw charisma for which Kirk is known, demonstrates an impressive aptitude for navigating and thereby conquering unwinnable scenarios.

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5) Where No Man Has Gone Before

After crossing the galactic barrier, Enterprise helmsman Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) develops extra-sensory powers at a phenomenal rate. Believing himself to be a god and therefore not subject to the laws of man, Mitchell leaves Kirk with only two options: either the captain must annihilate Gary before his abilities increase even further (Spock’s preference) or sentence his closest friend to a life of exile on Delta Vega.

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The second Star Trek: The Original Series pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” provides a fascinating study on how absolute power can corrupt even the most noble of men. Kirk’s conflict over fulfilling his duty in accordance with Starfleet principles (marooning Gary to save his crew) while treating those under his command with dignity and compassion (sparing the life of his comrade despite recognizing the danger he presents) is likewise examined with incredible nuance, so much so that a similar theme would become the central focus of many future Star Trek offerings (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock contains the most prominent example of such, with Admiral Kirk putting his career in jeopardy when tasked with retrieving/restoring the katra of his former first officer).

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4) Mirror, Mirror

Unsuccessful in his efforts to obtain dilithium crystals from the Halkans, Captain Kirk attempts to beam back aboard the Enterprise. A complication arises, however, when a ferocious ion storm interferes with the transporter, thereby marooning Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura in a parallel universe conquered by the Terran Empire—a ruthless order whose governing principles are in direct opposition to those adopted by Starfleet.

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Similar to “The Devil in the Dark,” “Mirror, Mirror” has inspired a great deal of parodic material given the rather silly manner with which it explores a decidedly serious topic (in this case, Spock’s goatee-sporting counterpart from the mirror universe is the primary source of ridicule). That being said, this iconic episode serves to analyze and contrast the militaristic approaches to conflict resolution typical of Cold War leaders and, on the other hand, the more peaceful and mutually beneficial methods of negotiation employed by Starfleet officers. By combining thoughtful social commentary with compelling character development, “Mirror, Mirror” deserves its place among Star Trek: The Original Series’ most riveting adventures.

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3) The City on the Edge of Forever

Shaken by a time ripple, Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a high dose of cordrazine and is rendered temporarily insane as a result. After escaping restraint and beaming to a nearby planet, McCoy slips through an ancient time portal known as the Guardian of Forever and proceeds to alter history such that Germany ultimately wins World War II. With only a crude series of recorded images to guide them, Kirk and Spock pursue McCoy into the past but remain unable to locate their missing acquaintance. Having been granted living arrangements in a Depression-era homeless shelter, Kirk falls passionately in love with mission leader Edith Keeler (Joan Collins)—a relationship that proves to be most unfortunate as more information is revealed.

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What can I say about this episode that hasn’t been said a thousand times already? All the elements of a classic Star Trek offering are present: the haunting remains of an alien society; an omniscient device resulting in temporal distortion on a catastrophic scale; time travel; and, of course, a poignant but impossible romance shared by Captain Kirk and the woman of his dreams. A tragically inspiring message concerning the occasional necessity of sacrifice is also apparent; specifically, Kirk is forced to choose between pursuing a selfish life with Edith Keeler—a decision that would inevitably lead to world domination by Nazis—and restoring the timeline to its original state by allowing his love to die a horrific but essential death. For Star Trek enthusiasts and casual fans alike, “The City on the Edge of Forever” should be requisite viewing.

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2) Balance of Terror

Following an unauthorized crossing of the Neutral Zone, a Romulan Bird-of-Prey equipped with a cloaking mechanism viciously attacks and destroys four defenseless outposts. Hoping to avert another full-scale war between the Romulan Star Empire and the Federation, Captain Kirk decides he must pursue the enemy vessel before its commander (Mark Lenard) interprets a failure to show authority as a display of weakness.

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The quintessential Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “Balance of Terror” employs the narrative structure of a World War II submarine film while maintaining a strong emphasis on rousing space battles. Also fascinating are the obvious parallels between the Enterprise captain and his Romulan antagonist, whose unconventional tactics provide Kirk with perhaps the most formidable challenge of his career.

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1) The Doomsday Machine

After passing through the ruins of planetary systems L-370 and L-374, Captain Kirk and his crew encounter the heavily damaged USS Constellation—the Enterprise’s sister ship commanded by Commodore Matt Decker (William Windom). Now in a state of post-traumatic shock, Decker informs Kirk that a doomsday machine has utilized an antiproton beam to annihilate any obstacles that have stood in its path thus far. Spock later determines that if allowed to continue on its current trajectory, the colloquially named planet killer will soon arrive in the most densely populated region of the galaxy.

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An outstanding social commentary on mutual assured destruction, “The Doomsday Machine” combines the literary undertones of Moby Dick with a chilling Cold War theme. In addition to its remarkably tense action sequences, this episode benefits from William Windom’s convincing portrayal of a man driven to insanity by suffering, personal loss, and an insatiable desire for vengeance—all concepts that would factor into the narratives of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek: First Contact, both of which are considered by many to be among the most exceptional installments in the entire Star Trek film series. When taking the above factors into account, one can easily understand why “The Doomsday Machine” is almost universally regarded as the greatest Star Trek episode of all time.

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Check back soon for my upcoming list of The 10 Most Underrated Star Trek: The Original Series Episodes.

 

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One thought on “The 10 Best Star Trek: The Original Series Episodes

  1. Good choices, Jon. I am surprised by very few. I am not nearly as familiar with this series as I am with LOST IN SPACE, but I usually see these on any top episode list. I guess the only one that really surprises me is your Season Three entry, “All Our Yesterdays.” I, personally, have always considered Season One’s “The City On The Edge Of Forever” to be my favorite. I know these are all solid choices. Your top list proves once again that Season One and Season Two is definitely superior to Season Three. More later..