There is absolutely no need for me to introduce Star Trek to you. Instead, I will share my connection with the series. I have never been anywhere close to a Trekkie, but I grew up appreciating many nerdy things as a nerdy guy. I regularly watched reruns of the original series that aired on our local Fox affiliate in Tennessee in the late 1980s/early 1990s. They were part of that late afternoon/early evening block of old shows. I loved the movies featuring the original crew, with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock being my favorite for some reason that eludes me. I’ve rewatched it in the last few years, and it does not hold up. In late 2019, Ariana and I watched the thirty highest-rated episodes on IMDb of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was a lot of fun and her first time ever watching any of the series. In the same way, this was her first time watching the original Star Trek, and part of my enjoyment was seeing her reactions to things I knew were coming. So starting this Sunday and continuing through every Sunday in March, I will share my reviews of the episodes we watched.
The Naked Time (S01E04)
Original airdate: September 29, 1966
Written by: John D.F. Black
Directed by: Marc Daniels
The crew of the Enterprise arrives at the dying planet Psi 2000, where they are to retrieve a research team stationed there and observe the planet’s destruction. When the station doesn’t respond to communications, an away team is dispatched and discovers the entire collection of researchers is dead in a Pompeii-like fashion. Some of them were in the middle of doing mundane tasks and simply died. Once back on the Enterprise, one away team member begins behaving erratically, becoming quick to violence. This is where we get the iconic image of a shirtless George Takei as Sulu wielding a fencing rapier.
The most interesting moments come when Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) becomes infected with the virus brought onto the ship. A man typically in control of his emotions has a profound struggle with them as his body tries to fight the illness off. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly) eventually studies enough samples from the research station and the Enterprise crew to synthesize a serum and ultimately cures them. However, due to some shenanigans, the warp engines have shut down, and so a special maneuver is attempted that sends the Enterprise back 71 hours in time, restoring everything to normal.
This was a decent reintroduction to the series, and I noted some things I had forgotten entirely or didn’t initially know. I didn’t realize Chekov (Walter Koenig) wasn’t in season one. I also read that this was originally envisioned as a two-parter, with the second part being the Enterprise sent into the past. That makes sense, as the sudden dropping of time travel into our laps at the end felt odd and out of place with the rest of the story. Takei had to learn the basics of fencing for this episode and apparently was poking people on set so much during his downtime that Roddenberry was forced to take the sword away. I can’t say this was one of my favorite episodes, and in season one, it is easy to see how the production crew is figuring out what this show should look & feel like.
The Enemy Within (S01E05)
Original airdate: October 6, 1966
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Leo Penn
The Enterprise is wrapping up a geological exploration of a planet when a transporter malfunction is caused by magnetic dust on some ore samples. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is brought back on board, but moments later, a second Kirk transports in with a very over-the-top evil expression (the Shatner school of acting on full display). This dust has somehow caused Kirk’s psyche to split into two separate physical manifestations. One represents his intellect and is, of course, a really weak pussy (*eyeroll*), and the other represents his emotions & desires and is a savage. At first, it’s a real mixed identity scenario as no one knows there are two Kirks and keeps blaming one for the other’s actions. However, once revealed, the episode shifts into more philosophical territory about the nature of a person’s identity & behaviors.
It didn’t surprise me when I saw this was written by Richard Matheson. I typically think of the Twilight Zone when I see his name, and this premise feels more like that show than a Star Trek episode. The science here is really loosey-goosey and mainly an excuse to have Kirk fight an evil version of himself. The ideas are very much the philosophical musings & questions I’d expect from a Twilight Zone episode. That doesn’t mean The Enemy Within is terrible; it is just a kind of Star Trek episode that did not stick around. Instead, when characters undergo dramatic transformations like this in later spin-offs, the writers would attempt to ground it in a real-world scientific concept. Here you can feel Matheson just throwing in some weird space dust so he can write the story he wants to.
Apparently, Roddenberry and the staff writers added in the subplot of the crew stranded on the planet while the transporter problem was worked out. Matheson said he disliked B-plots in shows and always wanted to focus the script on the central concept. This episode was also our introduction to the Vulcan nerve pinch, which was introduced when the script called on Spock to just punch the evil Kirk. Leonard Nimoy thought that was too dull and devised the nerve pinch idea, which was a great call. It adds more to both the character of Spock and the culture of Vulcan as being quite different from the bluntness of Earthlings.
The Corbomite Maneuver (S01E10)
Original airdate: November 10, 1966
Written by: Jerry Sohl
Directed by: Joseph Sargent
While not the first episode to air, this was the first episode produced once NBC ordered an entire season. The opening scene on the bridge of the Enterprise makes that very clear. Something about the blocking of the whole episode feels like a style other than what we often remember Star Trek as looking like. While mapping stars, the Enterprise encounters a giant spinning multi-colored cube. When the ship pulls away from the object, it pursues them and emits bursts of harmful radiation. Kirk orders it to be destroyed but regrets being unable to determine what it was.
A gigantic ship appears a short time later in the same sector commanded by Commander Balok. Balok explains that this was a border marker, and by destroying it, the Enterprise has trespassed into the territory of the “First Federation.” Balok says he will destroy the vessel in ten minutes, and Kirk has to devise a way to bluff the Enterprise out of this situation. He claims they carry an element called corbomite that automatically destroys any attacker. Because of Balok’s unfamiliarity with Starfleet, the captain can pretend they are violent and do not care about Balok or his crew. There’s some back and forth, but we finally get to the big reveal at the end. Balok is actually a childlike alien entity that can manipulate reality. He’s also played by Clint Howard, Ron’s brother.
Many people rate this episode reasonably high, but I have never cared for it. It’s not poorly written, but the production aspects feel very rough around the edges. Knowing this was the first full production episode makes more sense that things would be less honed. The premise isn’t very intriguing, personally. The reveal of Balok’s true nature also plays as silly, but that may be because the moment has been parodied heavily in pop culture ever since. The first thing I thought of was a Mr. Show sketch parodying the kid. Regarding Trek stories, I understand how this one created a template; it has been improved since then.
The Menagerie (S01E11 & 12)
Original airdates: November 17 & 24, 1966
Written by: Gene Roddenberry
Directed by: Marc Daniels and Robert Butler
The original concept Gene Roddenberry had for Star Trek was NBC didn’t like it. The show’s creator filmed a pilot titled “The Cage” the studio execs responded that it was “too cerebral,” “intellectual,” “slow,” and there was “not enough action.” So Roddenberry scrapped many ideas and started with a new pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” That seemed to please NBC, and thus Star Trek was born. Now, if you are a Star Trek fan, you know that they are currently taking the framework of The Cage and using it for Strange New Worlds on Paramount+. I have given up on this iteration of Star Trek because the people in charge seem dead set on making Star Trek tonally off from what our expectations of Star Trek should be. I love the diversity, but I hate the fucking writing.
The Menagerie was a clever cost-cutting way to repurpose the unused pilot and create two full episodes out of a week’s worth of filming. The Enterprise arrives at Starbase 11 after responding to a subspace call detected by Spock from the former captain of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike. Pike is permanently disabled after an accident while saving lives and cannot speak. He is fully paralyzed, using the lights on his specialized mobility device to respond to yes or no questions. We eventually find Spock has been lying to the Enterprise crew and commandeers the ship, heading for Talos IV, the one planet in Federation space where all vessels are forbidden from visiting.
Spock is eventually court-martialed after locking the ship into a course to Talos IV. During the trial, strange transmissions from Talos IV are shown as testimony to what happened to Captain Pike when the planet was visited years prior. After watching this, one of the biggest takeaways is how good the production values and acting were on the original pilot. Watching the performances, I got very Next Generation vibes; they were far more nuanced and complex than what we often got on Star Trek TOS. For example, the exchange between Pike and the Enterprise’s original doctor Boyce felt like adults talking. There are also notably more women and BIPOC present in the pilot. Roddenberry would eventually provide a far more diverse background cast of crew members in Star Trek’s run, but season one is dominated by white faces, likely because of studio demands.
Now, yes, I could watch Strange New Worlds to see stories with this crew, but that would mean watching modern Trek again, and I would rather not. No matter how many reviews I see from people saying it’s pretty good…I just know that I won’t like it. I think there is something about Star Trek that the modern way of making television & films is incapable of recapturing. There’s a need to infuse it with the Marvel movie style of quipping and self-awareness that I think undercuts the earnest nature of Trek. My favorite parts about the show are when it gets “boring,” and big ideas related to science or philosophy are integral to the story. Unfortunately, modern Trek seems terrified of doing “boring” things and instead gives us stories that always end up with space fights. I also have zero interest in shows that pander to fans by dropping references to other, better-made episodes in the franchise. Well, no worries; plenty more of these old episodes to go.