A lot of really cool Star Trek stuff has been happening in celebration of its 50th birthday– a new show is coming into production, there have been events all across the US, a couple of documentaries have been released/announced, and the new movie is the best one since Galaxy Quest.
Star Trek is a cultural phenomenon, just as much as its counterpart Star Wars. Spanning 5 (technically 6) television series, 13 movies, and countless books and comics and video games, Star Trek has influenced countless science fiction stories and real life technologies and advancements. But it also has a complex series of influences within itself, an interweaving continuity with branches and parallel universes and all the temporal distortions that you could ask for. These “most important” episodes are important for internal canon and implications within the universe, but the Original Series was doing important things every day that it aired, possibly more than any other title associated with the franchise. But these episode gave ideas that allowed the series to exist beyond a cult show from the late 60’s. Ideas that kept the series alive.
10. “The Menagerie, Parts I & II”
Technically a two-parter, but it’s based on a single episode. “The Cage” was the original pilot for the show. There was no Kirk, no McCoy, no Scotty. Majel Barrett was a brunette and a gold shirt. The only thing that really held over was the half-alien science officer, Mr. Spock.
Oh, also there was this captain named Christopher Pike?
Yep, same guy. I was almost disappointed when they only gave him a cane in Into Darkness, but then I was actually disappointed when they killed him. Didn’t want to miss their chance, did they? And it’s actually a really good episode– aside from the repackaging of the original pilot, it does a lot to explore Spock’s character and the nature of Vulcan relationships and feelings of loyalty. Plus the original conflict of “The Cage” (to what extent should you let a fantasy control your life, or is it a kindness to allow someone to do so if their circumstances are dire enough?) is layered even further with Pike’s near-catatonic condition and his repeated “cry” of “No.” I’m glad that they brought back Pike for the new movies, but they could have done much more with him.
9. “The Changeling”
So the Enterprise comes across this space probe that was sent from Earth, but has grown into an artificial intelligence that has strayed from its original programming. It’s going on a rampage, destroying much of what is in its path, and communicates through an alien member of the Enterprise crew.
“The Changeling” or The Motionless Picture?
To be fair, I didn’t mind the first Star Trek movie. To me, it was a bit 2001, and I like 2001. I understand why other people don’t though. But those long sequences when really not much of anything was happening were most of what was “new” in that movie, and the rest was a moderate-to-average Star Trek episode. Apparently it was supposed to kick off a new series. It didn’t quite do that, but it made enough money that the sequel was made, which is more than enough to thank it for.
8. “The Tholian Web”/”Mirror, Mirror”
A bit of a cheat, I know, but they both influenced one very important episode of Enterprise. Yes, important episodes of Enterprise exist. In “The Tholian Web”, the Enterprise encounters the Tholians– a race of very territorial aliens– in an attempt to recover the Defiant, which had gone missing. In “Mirror, Mirror”, we are introduced to the iconic Mirror Universe, a universe where everything is the opposite of what it is normally. These two episodes come together in a fantastic two part episode of the final series (and the only series still in canon, though that makes this a whole lot more complicated…)
“In a Mirror, Darkly” is widely regarded as one of the best episodes of Enterprise. In the Mirror Universe, the Terran Empire’s Enterprise encounters the 23rd-century Defiant from the normal universe. After they board the ship, the Tholians create a web to try and prevent them from escaping with the advanced technology. There’s backstabbing and midriffs and just about everything you’d expect from a Mirror Universe episode. What’s interesting now, in the Kelvin Timeline, is that the Defiant shouldn’t exist in the past, not like that. It’s a bit more wibbly than that, but it’s a bit funny looking back.
Ah, temporal distortions.
7. “The Squire of Gothos”
This episode is just plain fun. I’m watching “Charlie X” on BBC America as I type this, and the two episodes are quite similar– an omnipotent creature takes control of the Enterprise and her crew to “play” around with them until being reprimanded and taken by an even higher power. But whereas “Charlie X” is about an actual human that simply has these abilities, Trelane of “The Squire of Gothos” is an alien who is basically culturally appropriating human culture from the Enlightenment and 19th century (he mentions the Hamilton-Burr duel, idolizes Napoleon, and at one point plays Strauss). He’s also a delight, almost always cheery, and his actor is just a bit more charismatic. Sorry, Charlie.
He also always seemed familiar to me though. Like I’d seen him somewhere before. At one point he puts Kirk on trial for treason, now I know I’ve seen that–
There’s nothing official that says Trelane was a direct inspiration for Q, but according the Memory Beta, I’m not the only one that noticed: Q-Squared is an officially liscensed Star Trek novel which has Q as Trelane’s godfather.
6. “Journey to Babel”
I love Sarek. The evolution of his relationship with his son, starting in this episode, developing through the movies, and culminating in The Next Generation is a through line connecting the series even through to the new movies, where it’s put into a different context after the destruction of Vulcan. One of the best lines of any of the movies is Sarek’s request for fal-tor-pan: “Forgive me, T’layr. My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned.” When Sarek begins to lose his logic in The Next Generation, he mind melds with Picard in order to do one last negotiation as an ambassador.
Picard shares this with Spock at the end of his visit to Romulus, completing the journey to a closer, more human relationship between father and son.
5. “Balance of Terror”
Speaking of Romulus and Sarek, look familiar? The actor who played Sarek also played the first Romulan ever seen by a Federation contingency. The Romulans are classic Star Trek villains, though they are featured more in Next Gen than in TOS. And perhaps the casting choice was to cement the common ancestry of Vulcans and Romulans– I would say if “Balance of Terror” hadn’t been filmed and aired a season before “Journey to Babel”. Still, this could have been the motivation that Spock drew upon when he decided to become a lobby for Vulcan-Romulan unification. The Romulans are great villains, with even better shoulder pads, and this episode laid the foundation for everything with them that came after.
In this episode, we are introduced to one of the greatest scientists that is yet to live– Zephram Cochrane. Much like River Song from Doctor Who, we experience Cochrane’s life in reverse. In this episode, he is at the end of his life, having been missing and presumed dead for centuries. Cochrane was the first human to achieve warp travel, as shown in Star Trek: First Contact, one of the last movies made until JJ Abrams’ movies. Really, he was testing a new engine and crashed on a seemingly abandoned asteroid. Really, a being made of energy called The Companion was able to save him and restore his youth, so long as he stayed with it. In the end, The Companion loses most of its powers, but Cochrane decides to remain with it for the remainder of his life. He is presumed to have died there, though the Kelvin timeline might bring him back again.
3. “Errand of Mercy”
Ah, the Klingons. Not quite as, erm, nuanced? as they get depicted as in Next Gen and the rest of the franchise, but they’re almost as iconic a villain as the Gorn from “Arena”. In this episode, the Klingons and the Federation are on the brink of war, when the denizens of Organia force the two entities into a peace treaty that ends up lasting for a few decades. The tense relationship doesn’t go away, as seen in episodes like “The Trouble With Tribbles” or in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I’m sure there were many people that were surprised when Worf showed up on the bridge of Enterprise-D. In Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, we learn how that happened– the Klingons and the Federation ended their conflicts with a stronger treaty of alliance. Worf even proved popular– staying on for Deep Space Nine after the end of Next Gen.
2. “The Naked Time”
Yes, that one. The one where George Takei went shirtless learned how to fence over a weekend because he didn’t want Sulu to be running around with a stereotypical katana. The one where the cast threatened to quit en masse if they ever let him have a sword on set again. The one where that Irish lieutenant takes over the intercom and poorly sings that awful Irish folk song. Well, Takei actually found he enjoyed fencing, and kept it up for years later, but that’s not why this episode is important.
At the end of the episode, the planet is collapsing and with the engine turned off by the aforementioned Irish lieutenant, they basically have to reboot the whole thing, including the matter-antimatter injectors. What happens stretches science about as far as it can go before it snaps, and then…
Well, time moves backwards.
This is the first time it ever happens, but it is certainly not the last. At least three other episodes of TOS, two movies, and I can’t even begin to tell you about Next Gen, DS9, or Voyager. This is where they learn how. In this silly episode where Sulu runs around shirtless and with a sword.
1. “Space Seed”
There wouldn’t be a franchise without Khan, and there wouldn’t be Khan without “Space Seed”. More than that, no less than four movies deal with Khan and how he effects the crew of the Enterprise. More than that, we start to see the universe of Star Trek take shape here with the introduction of the Eugenics Wars of the 90’s. #Only90sKidsRememberthe90s. They’re further explored in Enterprise— especially the episodes with Dr. Arik Soong, which explains why the Klingons look differently in TOS than in everything else. They’re also an unconscious factor in First Contact, which took place just a few decades later. They come up in DS9 through Dr Bashir’s background in genetic engineering, an outlawed science in the future. It is implied that without the Eugenics Wars, and the decades after, the Federation would not exist as we know it.
Plus, you know, Khan.
Any episode I missed? Episodes you’d argue against? Let me know in the comments.
Live long and prosper.