In my recent list of The 10 Best Star Trek: The Original Series Episodes, I indicated that a compilation of the ten most underrated Star Trek offerings would soon follow. As promised, below are my selections.
10) Spock’s Brain
When Kara (Marj Dusay)—leader of the Eymorgs—teleports aboard the Enterprise and surgically removes Spock’s brain, Captain Kirk and his officers begin their search by exploring the ostensibly pre-industrial planet of Sigma Draconis VI. Upon arrival, the crew discovers a group of Morgs—the Eymorgs’ male counterparts—ruled by the Controller, a mechanism who means to replace his failing brain with that of Spock.
Despite its reputation as the worst Star Trek episode ever made, “Spock’s Brain” can best be summarized as a fun, campy homage to those B-grade movies that once characterized the science fiction genre. In addition to resembling a 1950s cheese fest, this bizarre installment tackles subject matter of a cerebral (no pun intended) nature; namely, Spock’s temporary disembodiment and subsequent joining with the Controller suggests that pure intellect can, at least hypothetically, exist separate from a corporeal entity—a premise that will undoubtedly appeal to Star Trek: The Original Series fans with even a passing interest in transhumanism.
Confronted with the posthumous warning of a deceased crewman, Kirk travels with Spock and McCoy to the phantasmagoric world of Pyris VII. Once there, the captain and his officers encounter a host of macabre spectacles, including witches who appear in ghostly form; a haunted castle containing dungeons, skeletons, and iron maidens; alien wizards in possession of illusory powers; and, of course, a cat with ominously black fur.
Along with the aforementioned “Spock’s Brain,” “Catspaw” is widely regarded as the most (unintentionally) dreadful Star Trek: The Original Series episode. Though admittedly devoid of the penetrating social commentary for which Star Trek is famous, this unique contribution from Psycho author Robert Bloch should nonetheless be commended for employing an assortment of eerie, if somewhat dated, devices while establishing the ideal atmosphere for a spooky holiday special. For audiences in search of some good, clean Halloween fun, “Catspaw” is a must.
8) The Man Trap
Upon arriving at the planet M-113 to provide Robert Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife Nancy (Jeanne Bal and Francine Pyne) with supplies and medical examinations, Kirk and McCoy discover that a member of their landing party has fallen prey to the predatory allure of a sodium-extracting alien. Before long, the “salt vampire” sneaks aboard the Enterprise and assumes any shape necessary to please and deceive her intended victims.
The unofficial series premiere, “The Man Trap” follows a formulaic approach to storytelling and is therefore often dismissed, albeit unfairly, as a mostly generic episode lacking the substance that would define Star Trek in years to come. That being said, potential critics should consider the harrowing ethical dilemma (i.e. whether to kill the last surviving member of an alien species) that stems from George Clayton Johnson’s narrative; and how the captain’s remorse over taking part in the creature’s destruction implies a worldview that is both nuanced and highly ambiguous in its presentation—much in contrast to the typical monster-of-the-week fare with which “The Man Trap” is frequently associated.
7) The Empath
Accompanied by Spock and McCoy, Kirk transports to Minara II in the hope of evacuating all planetary residents before a nearby star goes nova. Shortly thereafter, the landing party encounters an empathic humanoid named Gem (Kathryn Hays)—the lone test subject of two Vians known as Thann (Willard Sage) and Lal (Alan Bergmann). The Vians soon decide to include Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in their vile experiments, thus prompting one of the above men to make the ultimate sacrifice so that the other two may continue living.
Though a tad melodramatic at times, this tragically underrated episode embodies the spirit of Kirk’s iconic friendship with Spock and McCoy in its most essential form. Notably, “The Empath” draws attention away from any obvious budgetary limitations by highlighting themes of undying camaraderie and self-sacrifice—both of which serve to reinforce the everlasting bond shared by Star Trek: The Original Series’ trio of main characters.
While transporting passengers Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the gravely ill Commissioner Nancy Hedford (Elinor Donahue), the Galileo shuttlecraft is forced to land on the planetoid Gamma Canaris N. To the crew’s amazement, warp drive inventor Zephram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett) of Alpha Centauri has survived the past hundred and fifty years due to the rejuvenating efforts of a cloud-like entity known simply as “The Companion.”
A slow-moving tale of one man’s romantic chemistry with a disembodied alien, “Metamorphosis” can hardly be described as the most exciting entry in season two’s lineup of action-packed episodes. Gene L. Coon’s languid manner of narrative progression notwithstanding, this gentle classic offers a poignant perspective on how true love can transcend physical and cultural barriers alike. It should also be noted that Glenn Corbett’s delicate portrayal of Cochrane exemplifies all the dignity, humility, and gracefulness that one would expect of a revered historical figure; the same unfortunately cannot be said of James Cromwell’s embarrassing performance in Star Trek: First Contact, which forever solidified fan perceptions of Cochrane as a raving, perpetually inebriated fool.
5) What Are Little Girls Made Of?
The Enterprise travels to Exo III in order to investigate the disappearance of Roger Korby (Michael Strong), a renowned scientist and former love interest of Nurse Christine Chapel. Despite his success in locating Korby, Captain Kirk becomes a pawn in the good doctor’s diabolical scheme to replace intelligent lifeforms with identical android copies. Fortunately for Kirk, Korby’s plan fails to compensate for one critical flaw: every duplicate has carried over a human susceptibility to emotional manipulation, thereby allowing the captain to prey upon the insecurities of androids Ruk (Ted Cassidy) and Andrea (Sherry Jackson).
Similar to “Spock’s Brain,” “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” raises the profound question of whether one’s essence can survive transference from an organic body to a computerized home. Accentuating the above topic with a suitable form of atmosphere, Bloch’s narrative contains all the tropes commonly associated with the Frankenstein legend: a once noble scientist driven mad by his perceived power to “improve” the human condition, a hulking “monster” played by Lurch himself, and a philosophical lesson on the dangers of emulating God without first acknowledging the potential consequences of doing so. When taking such factors into account, Star Trek: The Original Series fans would be wise to regard “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” alongside episodes of a more iconic status.
4) The Corbomite Maneuver
While charting a region of space previously unexplored by the Federation, the Enterprise is confronted by a multi-colored object of ambiguous origin. After destroying the obtrusive territory marker, Kirk and his crew are met with a series of accusations and intimidating gestures from the belligerent Commander Balok (Clint Howard). In response to Balok’s arrogant demands, the Enterprise captain employs a “poker bluff” that, if successful, will lead the alien commander to believe in the fictitious corbomite device and the destructive force contained therein.
A commentary on the Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction, “The Corbomite Maneuver” generates an absorbing layer of tension that few Star Trek offerings have since managed to parallel. In addition to its subtle method of building and maintaining suspense, this episode is also relevant for establishing Kirk’s ability to handle existential threats (e.g. Balok) while addressing secondary issues occurring inside his own ship (e.g. Lieutenant Bailey’s interference with bridge operations). Sadly, “The Corbomite Maneuver” has become little more than a target for mockery in recent years given the “childish” manner with which Balok finally reveals his true self—a sorry reputation for one of the most thrilling and politically insightful Star Trek: The Original Series adventures of all time.
After a Federation outpost on Cestus III is savagely attacked by a reptilian species called the Gorn, Captain Kirk orders his crew to retaliate against those responsible. Hoping to prevent unnecessary casualties, the Metrons—a race of godlike beings—teleport Kirk and the Gorn commander to an asteroid surface, thus allowing both captains to settle their differences without sacrificing a single crew member.
“Arena” is known to casual Star Trek viewers primarily for its ridiculous alien costumes and awkwardly choreographed fight sequences, wherein Kirk unsuccessfully attempts to overpower his Gorn opponent with raw strength alone (the 2011 sci-fi comedy Paul contains an amusing parody of such). In spite of some notoriously bad special effects, this guilty pleasure introduces a uniquely pragmatic approach to conflict resolution that will no doubt intrigue science fiction fans of an intellectual disposition. Also worth mentioning is director Joseph Pevney’s emphasis on Kirk’s aptitude for problem-solving under pressure, a trope that would later come into play on more than one occasion.
2) The Ultimate Computer
Having developed a multitronic unit capable of making tactical decisions more effectively than a starship captain ever could, Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) installs his M-5 computer on the Enterprise. Upon passing a routine battle simulation, Daystrom’s invention proceeds to engage starships Lexington and Excalibur without further provocation.
Arguably the most acclaimed episode on this list, “The Ultimate Computer” has occasionally been criticized for ending on a somewhat tasteless note; specifically, Kirk’s last-minute banter with Spock and McCoy makes for an inappropriate conclusion to a story in which hundreds of Starfleet officers are slaughtered, albeit off-screen, by a computer whose ethical inhibitions are overridden by a faulty instinct for self-preservation. Any minor inconsistencies in tone are nonetheless overshadowed by the core thesis underlying D.C. Fontana’s narrative, i.e. that automation could never fully replace the human element involved in exploration on a galactic scale.
1) Spectre of the Gun
When caught trespassing in Melkotian space, Captain Kirk along with Chekov, Scotty, Spock, and McCoy must reenact the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral; but with a clever twist: instead of siding with Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers, Kirk and company are mistaken for ill-fated outlaws Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury. Initially powerless to avert their doomed outcome, the crew members eventually take advantage of an apparent glitch in the Melkotians’ replica of a Terran ghost town.
By utilizing a shoestring budget to craft a surreal and nightmarishly captivating atmosphere, “Spectre of the Gun” adds credibility to an otherwise outlandish conflict (Kirk’s continual efforts to reason with the illusory Tombstone residents do, in rare instances, border on the absurd; however, a now iconic showdown in the climactic scene compensates for any prior flaws in characterization). For providing a nuanced examination of the premise first employed in Gene Roddenberry’s “The Cage,” “Spectre of the Gun” deserves a place among Star Trek: The Original Series’ most exceptional episodes.
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