“Star Trek” was there for me when I really needed it.
I think that’s true for a lot of fans of the classic science fiction series. “Star Trek” helped generations of geeks and misanthropes grapple with the difficulties of school, bullying and alienation before life on the Internet.
I was dealing with the difficult transition from high school to college in the summer of 2013. I didn’t have a job, my friends were busy, I wasn’t excited about starting college and I was alone in my dad’s apartment for most of the summer.
With time to kill, I set about marathoning every episode of classic “Star Trek” over the course of two months. During that time, the adventures of Kirk, Spock and the starship Enterprise became my focus. Being able to escape into the fantastical world of the 23rd century offered considerable comfort.
It’s not hard to figure out why.
“Star Trek” is a deeply optimistic and high-minded show. It’s genuinely joyful to watch in all its replete, colorful glory. It’s the kind of show that people should really be seeking out now.
Just as society was in the mid-1960s, the world is dealing with its own very serious time of uncertainty. We’ve all been collectively stressing out about the election for months before every economy on the planet was ground to a halt by the Coronavirus pandemic.
As I’ve been sitting at home most days, I find myself rewatching a number of classic “Star Trek” episodes on Netflix. It’s been a needed shot of hope and escapism.
For that reason, I’d like to offer a beginner’s guide to “Star Trek” aimed at casual viewers. As an episodic series, I highly recommend seeking these episodes out first instead of watching all three seasons chronologically as I did.
“Star Trek” famously varies in quality, and some of the series’ weakest and cheesiest episodes appear right at the start of Season 1. The series pilot “The Cage” is an interesting story, but it’s also a great deal slower and cheaper than the series that would follow it.
You don’t get anything out of the experience you wouldn’t get watching “The Menagerie” Parts 1 and 2, which retells the events of the pilot in a more compelling fashion.
There are plenty of great episodes I’m not including in this list, but these are the ones I always think of and regularly seek out when I want to rewatch some classic “Star Trek.”
I’m also listing them chronologically for ease of the viewer sorting through Netflix/CBS All Access.
S1E15 – Balance of Terror
Starting out the list, I picked one of the entire series’ best dramatic episodes. The story includes one of the only appearances of the Romulan Star Empire on TOS (the original series) as their costuming proved too extensive for regular use on the show. The story is a classic battle of wits and technological prowess as the USS Enterprise is faced with a powerful and mysterious foe armed with a cloaking device.
It‘s one of the few episodes that center around direct ship-to-ship combat instead of diplomacy and problem-solving. It’s a good episode to get a taste of “Star Trek’s” dramatic style and tone.
S1E19 – Arena
Probably the single most iconic episode of “Star Trek,” this episode features the famous one-on-one battle between Captain Kirk and the Gorn. Of course, the setup is what’s most important. We find a human world has been attacked by an unknown spaceship. When the Enterprise attempts to chase the ship down, both ships are intercepted by a mysterious, all-powerful alien race who kidnaps the captains, places them on a planet and threatens to destroy the ship of whichever of the two beings fails to survive armed combat.
It’s a solid bit of dramatic storytelling and problem solving with a core moral lesson about how transcending conflict and raise human dignity. In that, it captures the core of Star Trek perfectly.
S1E23 – Space Seed
This episode isn’t necessarily admired for its dramatic prose so much as its significance for “Star Trek” lore. The series most important villain, featured in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” makes his first appearance in this episode. We learn his origin, his motivation and see him interact with the crew of the USS Enterprise before the events showcased in the film.
Khan Noonien Singh (Richardo Montalban) proves to be every bit the egotistical great man and genius tactician here as he later proves to be in his film.
S1E29 – City on the Edge of Forever
There are a handful of solid time travel stories in the show’s canon. Usually, when the series does these episodes, the crew of the Enterprise travels back to then-modern times (circa the late-1960s).
This one is different, and it’s one of the most beloved episodes in the series. The leads travel back to the 1930s for a story line that faces the crew of the Enterprise with an impossible moral dilemma that could change history. It remains one of the fan-favorite episodes and finds interesting and emotional ways to test its characters.
S2E1 – Amok Time
The episode approaches the topic of Spock’s sexuality in a unique and fascinating way. As we find out, emotionless Vulcans like Spock don’t just suppress their feelings to avoid impeding their logic. They also repress their sex drives.
Once in their lifetime, a Vulcan must take a mate or they’ll be killed by an excess of repressed chemicals within their bodies. The episode features one the show’s most powerful moral dilemmas and a series of unexpected twists and duels. A lot of “Star Trek’s” signature music cues and visuals come from this episode.
S2E4 – Mirror, Mirror
This episode is another iconic episode if only for some of the immensely silly visuals it’s gifted us. The crew of the Enterprise finds themselves in an alternate dimension where they’re faced with their evil Barbarian/pirate doppelgängers. They must use their wits to survive and get back to their original universe.
While the over-the-top look of their evil twins is silly, the concept has been alluded to numerous times in canon since, namely in some of the better episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery.”
S2E6 – Doomsday Machine
This was actually the first-ever episode of “Star Trek” I watched back in the day as a Junior High school student. I was channel flipping to MeTV and this episode appeared.
The “Doomsday Machine” was famously one of the series most expensive episodes. It features a powerful alien superweapon that the crew discovers. While their ship can runs circles around it, the ship is nigh unstoppable and capable of destroying worlds. This represents one of the best visual spectacle episodes in TOS.
S2E15 – The Trouble With Tribbles
The famous Tribbles episode is one of the most lighthearted and funny “Star Trek” stories and a personal favorite.
It’s a problem comedy where simple misunderstandings and consequences start spiraling out of control to the point where Captain Kirk nearly loses his nerve and patience. While we do find out there is a villain and a conspiracy afoot, in the end, it’s not who you’d think and the issue is resolved before anyone is hurt. It’s a great farce that manages to be engaging, hilarious and memorable.
S3E15 – Let This Be Your Last Battlefield
Season 3 of TOS is famously where the series started to lose its steam. With series creator Gene Roddenberry no longer in the driver’s seat, CBS scribes began throwing ideas at the wall and the results were mostly mediocre. There were a handful of watchable episodes, though.
This episode, in particular, is famous for its immensely on the nose parable for the absurdity of racial divisions. It’s still a solid dramatic episode with memorable alien designs. Considering how bad some of the other episodes this season get, this ends up being all the more impressive.
S3E22 – The Savage Curtain
Closing out season 3 and the original series, I offer one of the silliest episodes of the show. We’re introduced to a recreation of Abraham Lincoln as well as Vulcan’s most significant spiritual leaders who are brought to the Enterprise as part of a challenge to face off against four villains of history.
It’s a frivolous episode, but it’s eye-catching and adds some nice details to the series’ alien mythologies.
“Star Trek” is criticized for its cheesiness and hamfisted stories, but these installments show it often worked because of its sense of commitment. “Star Trek” wants you to believe in a positive future. and that means making you think outside of the box.
That kind of optimism is exactly what we need right now as we collectively struggle with rebuilding the economy and social trust in the aftermath of the COVID-19 epidemic. We need to believe things can get better. We can’t just fall in line as civil liberties are violated and huge swaths of the economy and human life are written off as “non-essential.”
We need to believe in, and fight for, the world beyond this crisis as something where people can be free and prosperous. Such a vision needs to start with an ounce of optimism.
In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism. “Star Trek” is good for that and more!