Balance of Terror (S1E14)
Original air date: December 15, 1966
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Vincent McEveety
Balance of Terror marks the first appearance of the Romulans and surprised me in many ways. This is not one of my favorites, but it is a solid standard Star Trek episode with exciting twists. The first is that no Federation member has ever seen a Romulan. I’m not big on detailed Star Trek lore, so this was my first time learning about the brutal nuclear conflict between these powers, which happened without either side ever seeing someone from the other. This is even more surprising because the Romulans look nearly identical to the Vulcans. I had been under the impression the Vulcan-Romulan connection was something known for centuries, but it’s within the context of Star Trek that it is even discovered.
The thing I liked the most was the exploration of trauma, primarily due to war. The Federation and even the Romulans have made sure successive generations know how bad the war was, so each side is (mostly) thinking about what it would mean to spark that again. Of course, the Romulans end up being portrayed as the ultimate villains, but I liked the overall nuance of the conflict. The title makes sense; these two starships exist in a precarious balance, which would mean the eruption of a potentially even more devastating armageddon if lost.
Mark Lenard enters the ST Universe as the Romulan captain. He’d appear later in the series as Sarek, Spock’s father, in the first Star Trek film as a Klingon captain in the opening, and then reprise his role as Sarek for one of the best episodes of The Next Generation. So you can see why the production people chose to bring him back; he’s an excellent actor; Lenard takes it all very seriously and creates genuine pathos in someone we only get to spend a brief time with. I also liked the opening where Kirk is officiating a wedding. Those day-to-day family life moments make me like TNG so much, and it’s nice to know they were attempting the same thing in 1966.
The Galileo Seven (S1E15)
Original air date: January 5, 1967
Written by Oliver Crawford & S. Bar David
Directed by Robert Gist
Spock leads a team of six officers on an observation mission of a quasar formation using the shuttle Galileo. An accident happens, and the vessel has to make an emergency landing on a rocky, fog-shrouded world. While Scotty works on repairing the shuttle, Spock and the other four go about surveying this planet for any signs of life. Unfortunately, there is apparently an aggressive & primitive native species that kills one of them. Spock adheres to calm and logic over the matter, while his colleagues want to fight back and find the Vulcan’s neutral tone infuriating, especially Dr. McCoy.
What I liked about this episode was that it gave some credence to the emotional reactions of the crew but was very much about logic being what wins out. He makes a desperate move at the very end, which the crew roasts him about later on the deck of the Enterprise, but Spock showcases how logic is the correct choice, especially in heated moments.
Growing up, I always thought Spock was the best character on TOS and Data was the best in TNG. I wasn’t alone, but it wasn’t a universal sentiment. When I encountered someone who liked another character more, that made no sense to me. How could anyone prefer Kirk to Spock? Or Riker to Data? I realize this was likely my autism doing a lot of thinking because Spock & Data are just pitch-perfect characters to appeal to neurodivergent people. They don’t fully comprehend human behavior but make attempts at it. Spock is the coolest character to come out of the entire franchise, and that every show and movie since has been chasing that with new characters and has failed to recreate just shows how cool he was.
The Squire of Gothos (S1E17)
Original air date: January 12, 1967
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Don McDougall
Continuing this series’ love of omnipotent superbeings, we have the Enterprise being hijacked by Trelane. A planet appears on the sensors, seemingly from nowhere. A message greeting them comes across subspace channels, and an away team beams down. They discover a world fashioned after 19th-century France created by a being named Trelane. He’s been monitoring Earth’s culture from afar but is many centuries behind. This becomes a battle of wits, with Kirk and crew trying to outwit a mighty but flaky entity. The twist where Trelane’s true nature is revealed is definitely meant to be played for laughs, but it also reminds me of some of the lighter Twilight Zone episodes.
Trelane as an antagonist is incredibly fun to watch. He was played by William Campbell, a character actor who never had a particularly prestigious career but steadily worked in film throughout the 1950s and 60s. His television career continued into the late 1990s. In the original series, he played the role of Klingon Captain Koloth in “The Trouble With Tribbles” and was reprised in the role in the Deep Space Nine sequel episode “Blood Oath,” looking much different per the Klingon redesign in the 1980s. Campbell seemed to enjoy his work on Star Trek, with his last public appearance being at a Trek convention in 2006.
Obviously, this episode would influence the introduction of Q in TNG, and non-canon media definitely built on that idea. My favorite part of this episode is Spock’s comment to Trelane about why he doesn’t react to the alien’s hijinks. Spock calmly states, “I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.” Honestly, it could apply to so many people in power in America today.
Space Seed (S1E22)
Original air date: February 16, 1967
Written by Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber
Directed by Marc Daniels
This is the only episode of the original series to ever get a direct sequel in the form of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Enterprise discovers the derelict Botany Bay vessel floating through space. On board, there are over 80 people, 72 still alive in their cryo-sleep. Lt. Marla McGivers, a Starfleet historian traveling with the Enterprise, identifies the ship as 200 years old and from a period of Earth’s history with tremendous violence and war. McGivers identifies the leader and he is transferred to the Enterprise to be woken up. His name is Khan (Ricardo Montalban), and he quickly reveals himself as believing he’s superior to these future people. More of the Botany Bay crew are awakened, and Khan manages to commandeer the Enterprise. Of course, Kirk outwits the villain but gives Khan a compromise. They have found a planet, Ceti Alpha V, where Khan and his gene-engineered people can settle and live. I am sure nothing will ever go wrong.
I’d never seen Space Seed and have seen Star Trek II multiple times, so it was interesting to see the origin point for Khan. Montalban is a charismatic actor, so he immediately commands the audience’s attention when he begins speaking. It isn’t a stretch to say that he steals the show. While Kirk and Spock manage to stop Khan, I wonder if many people remember much about their actions. The memorable parts are the scenes between Khan and McGivers as she becomes enchanted by him and his air of power. I also liked the exposition about Earth in the 1990s. The talk of global war scorching the planet and almost everyone living under dictatorships feels like something that isn’t out of the realm of possibility for us now.
Star Trek rarely ever had villains but more situations with conflict. This is one of the few where Kirk has a foe, so it makes sense they wanted to revisit that for the second Star Trek film. Of all the TOS episodes, this was the first to be released on home video when VHS became popular. There is, of course, the presence of Khan in the second Abrams Star Trek movie, my least favorite Star Trek movie ever. I fucking hated the way that film just leaned on ‘member berries without earning it. I’m also not a massive fan of Cumberbatch, and he’s a bore compared to Montalban.
A Taste of Armageddon (S1E23)
Original air date: February 23, 1967
Written by Gene L. Coon and Robert Hamner
Directed by Joseph Pevny
I really loved this one, and it’s classic Trek. The crew encounters a culture with a belief so wildly different from their own, and they try to make sense of it. Of course, we’re not supposed to think they are correct, but one of the ethical challenges Trek presents is allowing societies to be autonomous if they violate human rights and force things on people without consent. The Enterprise encounters a pair of worlds where they receive a warning from one to stay away. A Federation ambassador traveling onboard tells Kirk to defy that and beam down a party. They do and find a society that has taken an intense approach to the threat of interplanetary war.
Eminiar VII runs a constant computer simulation centered around a potential war with their neighbor Vendikar. According to their simulation, the Enterprise has been destroyed by coming this close, though it hasn’t in material reality. However, the simulation says it has, so the leaders of Eminiar demand that they destroy the ship. When the simulation tells them the war has wiped out cities, they do this with their own people. But why? That’s the big question Kirk is trying to answer. None of this makes sense.
The solution to this one is absolutely brilliant. Kirk realizes that this war has been allowed to continue because neither world has been forced to reckon with the more considerable cost of war. They are efficiently killing their own people to preserve their society and infrastructure. The simulation gets destroyed, and the two civilizations are faced with a choice: continue the war but in a way that comes with the true devastation or finds a way to successfully negotiate peace. It’s not the fanciest episode ever, but damn, is it the sort of thing I sit down to watch a Trek show for.
The City on the Edge of Forever (S1E28)
Original air date: April 6, 1967
Written by Harlan Ellison (uncredited: D. C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon)
Directed by Joseph Pevney
I can’t say with certainty if I saw this episode as a kid because I don’t remember it. It wouldn’t have made an impression on me then that it did now. Right off the bat, you have Harlan Ellison writing the initial premise. The cold open of this episode is undoubtedly the best cold open ever in Star Trek, in media res, shot with a level of expertise the show had never had before. The stakes are quickly established, and then we build on them. The crew pursues Dr. McCoy, who accidentally overdosed on a stimulant/hallucinogen, and then beams himself down to the mysterious planet below, creating time distortions. Kirk, Spock, and more beam down and find a structure that calls itself The Guardian of Forever, both artificial intelligence & portal through time. Something McCoy does causes the Enterprise to fade out of existence while the crew on the planet are protected by the anomaly. Spock and Kirk leap through to a bit before McCoy will appear and find themselves in 1930s New York City during the Great Depression.
The core story of the episode begins here as our two protagonists must live under assumed identities, helping out Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), the proprietress of a homeless mission. Kirk falls for Edith due to her empathy and compassion for her fellow man, especially her belief that humanity will take to the stars one day. Spock meanwhile focuses on constructing equipment using primitive technology to try and detect when the drugged doctor arrives. This ends up being one of those fantastic time travel stories that tie into the idea of Schrodinger’s Cat. Edith has two fates that exist simultaneously, and it is not until Kirk chooses to do or not do something that it collapses into a singularity, and her future is set.
I loved every second of The City on the Edge of Forever. It is everything that people love about Star Trek, and like many of these other episodes, writers have been trying to emulate it. The TNG two-parter with Data going back to 19th century San Francisco is clearly an homage to this one. I would argue that this is the best episode of Star Trek ever made, including all the spin-offs. It’s such a perfect one-and-done story whose themes are still relevant. Nothing about the episode feels poorly aged, and the tears hit just as strong as I’m sure they did in the first airing.