10 Most Entertaining Episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series
Welcome to the first list in a 4-item list of lists that my wife and I are writing as a cultural output resulting from the cultural input of watching every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. This, our first list, will be the most banal list, but will still serve as an exceptional point of entry into the show in the event that you haven’t watched it and need to know what’s worth seeing.
The best science fiction is thought-provoking, so in a few weeks, I’ll be posting a list of the most thought-provoking episodes of the show. But this is not that list. While some of these episodes may intrigue you, they were selected for their sheer entertainment value, and not necessarily for their insightfulness or ability to intellectually stimulate their audience. If you’re looking for episodes you can watch for pure enjoyment and share with someone who couldn’t care less about science fiction, then this is the list of episodes for you.
Quick note: you might notice that The Trouble with Tribbles (Season 2, Episode 15) is not on this list, despite being a great episode. I suspect this episode didn’t leap to mind when we were brainstorming our favorite episodes not because it’s undeserving of our accolades, but because it’s the first episode of the show Casey ever watched, so when we last saw it, we hadn’t yet developed parasocial relationships with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is kind of ironic, since tribbles were the catalyst to get us to watch the show in the first place, but here we are. I just wanted to point this out before we get into the list. That said, here we go!
By Any Other Name (Season 2, Episode 22)
Cody — It’s just so good. Aliens take over the Enterprise for like, the hundredth time, and the everyone in the crew is turned into rocks… other than Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty. They learn the aliens have weak senses and emotions, basically meaning they’re bad at being humans. Each crew member then does the most HILARIOUSLY CHARACTER-APPROPRIATE THING POSSIBLE to give the aliens “sensory overload.” Think of the most generic, caricature-like way each crew member could do this, and there’s your episode. Kirk literally seduces one of them. Spock demonstrates supreme logic in a game of 3-D Chess. McCoy does something forgettable, because he’s annoying. And Scotty… oh, Scotty. I have so much to say about Scotty. But Scotty gets the alien drunk. They polish off a bottle of Saurian brandy. It’s the most Scotty thing that has ever happened on the show, and possibly my favorite moment from the entire series. Nothing beats Scotty out-drinking an alien. Nothing.
Casey — One of the great themes of Star Trek is the role of humanity in a totally technologized, computerized environment. Sure, human error is a thing. Hysterical behavior, after all, poses a lot of danger when zipping through the uncharted depths of space at Warp 9. Spock is better than McCoy. These are all facts. Yet our humanity, Star Trek insists, is a greater asset to us than our technology. It will get us out of a pickle when all those nifty handheld gadgets are rendered useless or taken away from us by Superior Life Forms. Of which, it turns out, there are many.
Now, the celebration of an idyllic, abstract and frankly naif humanity might sounds like the kind of “argument” that McCoy likes to spitefully throw in Spock’s “pointy-eared” face. This episode is great because it makes a case for our humanity without idealizing it, instead playing up the simple or absurd side of what it means to be a human–awkward pubescent flirtations, winning a board game, outdrinking someone. The crew’s understanding of their own human foibles allows them to defeat their opponents. And as a narrative the episode is super fun to watch because it resolves the conflict by appealing to the distinct personalities of the main cast. Scotty’s wide-eyed astonishment at the alien’s alcohol tolerance, his agony, his reluctance, and finally his noble sacrifice of his best bottle of Scotch are silly, but they are also just so very Scotty. As Jorge Luis Borges has observed, a great storyteller knows how to make a single moment the cypher of an entire life. In no other episode are Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty (especially Scotty) more fully themselves.
Amok Time (Season 2, Episode 1)
Cody — Apparently Vulcans find themselves “in heat” once in a while, and they have to have sex or die. The opening episode of the show’s second season puts Spock in some serious heat, and you get to see a Vulcan mating ritual. At some point during this, Kirk actually has to fight Spock, which honestly makes pretty much no sense, but the episode somehow makes it work because McCoy actually does something cool for possibly the only time ever at the battle. Spock also delivers a sick burn to his Vulcan bro-bro who steals his would-be mistress: “you’ll find that often, having is not as pleasing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” DAAAAYUM
Casey — This episode, which should have been called “Mate or Die,” addresses a very important question, viz.: Where do baby Vulcans come from? That is to say, given that sex is Nature’s way of tricking us into the uncomfortable and expensive task of bearing, birthing and raising children, how (and why) would totally rational humanoids with no desires or impulses ever end up procreating?
The fact that it even touches on these issues, and that they go to Vulcan, makes this episode one of the most enjoyable to watch. However, as Cody points out, they play fast and lose with narrative coherence. For example, if Vulcans only feel sexual desire during these preordained regulated cycles of lust, why does Spock’s chosen mate T’Pring already have a man picked out? Is everyone on the same lust cycle or do they occur individually and randomly? And how is it that Spock can substitute the would-be mating act, supposedly necessary to his life and moreover only available to him like once a decade, with a sword fight with Kirk (who in turn gets an injection from McCoy)? What does that say about their relationship?
I also very much enjoyed that the title of supreme leader of Vulcan, the Universe’s Most Rational Civilization, is held by the imposing matriarch T’Pau. She is “the only person to turn down a seat at the Federation Council” and thus anti-establishment and thus cool. Kirk’s admiration for her reifies his Maverick status and sets him apart from the soldier follows orders, which is another important element of this episode since he is disobeying orders by going to Vulcan at all. There is lots to say about gender and sexuality in Star Trek, but basically, as a 60s TV show, it tends to reflect contemporary anxieties about changing gender roles by idealizing the female sex slave, casting the working woman as an irrational nuisance unless her job is to tend to the immediate needs of a man, or, Yoko Ono style, as a threat to the camaraderie of the band of brothers. T’Pau is a refreshing exception.
Bread and Circuses (Season 2, Episode 25)
Cody — What would happen if, at the height of the Roman Empire, television had been around? This is that episode. You get a mashup of gladiatorial combat and reality television, and it’s done ridiculously well. This episode could go into our list of top thought-provoking episodes because it’s such a cool concept. But just watching the fight scenes is fun. And THE ENDING. OMG THE ENDING. Let’s just say the planet finds salvation by finding Jesus. I’m not even kidding. It comes basically out of nowhere, and in the form of one of Uhura’s four-ish relevant lines of dialogue in the entire series. Apparently monotheism was pretty popular in the 1960s. Thanks, television history!
Casey — They don’t worship the Sun…they worship the Son! Get it?
If you don’t, don’t feel bad, because only Lt. Uhura did.
Even though this episode opens and closes with the idea that religions evolve through a complex process of puns, the story somehow works. By allowing television and Ancient Rome to coexist, it asks the viewer to reflect on the idea of uneven modernizations — a reality in many parts of our world — as well as on our Society of the Spectacle.
Or the viewer can disregard all of that and just enjoy Spock and Co. resolving everything while Kirk passes the last night before his execution with his ideal woman, a platinum blonde submissive — “This evening I was told I was your slave. Command me” — because these are Kirk’s problems and also because sword fights aren’t the only kinds of fantasies people like to live through the screen now that they’re not quite so acceptable in real life.
I for one enjoy anything that suggests parallels between the U.S. and the late Roman Empire, whether it be overstepping its boundaries, corruption through the lavish excesses of the upper classes, the rise of insane leaders, a politics based entirely upon spectacle, or American Gladiators.
Journey to Babel (Season 2, Episode 10)
Cody — This might be Casey’s favorite episode. You meet Spock’s parents. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? On top of that, the episode is basically a murder mystery dinner, only with ridiculously stupid looking aliens and Vulcans saying funny things with a humor that’s so dry, you think you’ve wandered into the Sahara Desert with cottonmouth from a hangover. The last scene in the episode is literally a room full of men guffawing about how women are illogical, so if that’s not your jam, then you might want to cut out early. But otherwise it’s all-around gold.
Casey — This is absolutely my favorite episode. Spock’s Vulcan father, his human mother, their relationship with their son Spock, and their relationship with each other unfold and develop against a background of a Psychedelic Agatha Christie whodunit populated by high maintenance foreign officials that vaguely resemble Teletubbies. So many great 1960s alien costumes. So many.
The episode also features one of the series’s more subtle and artfully crafted character scenes: Spock and McCoy await in full dress uniform to receive the Vulcan Ambassador. McCoy tries the Vulcan hand salute thing and of course he can’t do it and so he bitches about it. Meanwhile Kirk strides ahead and greets the ambassador as he descends from the space pod thing and of course he (Kirk) is super cordial and smooth and adept at playing the diplomat and he doesn’t even try the Vulcan hand salute, so we don’t know whether or not he can do it and he probably can’t and that’s probably why he didn’t but he still pulls off a regular greeting without being rude because he is suave and charming and cordial but not a sycophant; because, in short, he is Kirk. The Vulcan Ambassador ignores Spock. He introduces “She who is my wife,” a smiley human wearing a bonnet. The Ambassador asks to be escorted to his quarters by someone who is not Spock. Kirk and McCoy are taken aback. They are perplexed. Nonplussed. Kirk then asks if Spock wants to go down to Vulcan to visit his parents. And Spock informs that the Ambassador and his wife are his parents!
Will Spock’s family ever be reconciled? Will the killer be found and brought to justice? What is it like for a human woman being married to an emotionless Vulcan man? Find out the easy way by watching this episode.
The Naked Time (Season 1, Episode 5)
Cody — I like this episode because it sets up one of the most interesting recurring character interactions in the series. This is one of those “everyone in the cast goes crazy” episodes that you find in other TV shows (or at least in the follow-up episode The Naked Now from Star Trek: The Next Generation), but in this one, Nurse Chapel tells Spock that she has feelings for him. And amazingly, this is referenced in future episodes. Not normal for the series. Kirk literally finds out his brother died in the opening scene of another episode, and it’s never mentioned again, including at any other point IN THAT EPISODE. Continuity is not a strong point of the series. So aside from seeing everybody basically drunk and getting to watch Sulu swashbuckling with a sword, it’s actually an episode that kind of “matters” in the series, which is cool.
Casey — This is one of Star Trek’s many forays into the realm of the crew’s unconscious. For the show’s main cast, breaking character is part of playing the character. Episodes like this shed light on all the naughty desires that seethe beneath those chartreuse, ruby and baby blue uniforms. Star Trek is no Hitchcock film, but for a TV show it is very good at delivering an action-packed narrative while also tapping into the murkier dimensions of the human psyche. I think this is part of what makes this show still so watchable and enjoyable today: sure, they are wholesome characters, their integrity and loyalty to their mission is unquestionable, but because you get regular enough glimpses of all their repressed fantasies, they manage to stay believable, or at least sympathetic.
The Corbomite Maneuver (Season 1, Episode 11)
Cody — Overall, after watching this series, I was a little disappointed in how few clever or interesting ways the crew came up with to get out of trouble/danger. A lot of times they would do something generic like shoot a phaser at something, or aliens would do something inexplicable and you’d just kind of shrug and go “okay, cool, I guess they didn’t blow up after all?” or something. In this episode, however, Kirk does something cool to outsmart the aliens. I found that satisfying enough. But then. THEN. THEN you see the alien. They beam over, and oh my God. What is happening. Surrealism goes from zero to sixty in about three seconds. The ending is super weird and super unexpected and you’re just like “SOMEONE PASS ME MY VAPE PEN” or whatever so you can rewind the episode 15 minutes and watch it again. My notes on this episode read “Sultan baby, good tactics.” Enough said.
Casey — Enough said. Pass me back the vape pen.
A Piece of the Action (Season 2, Episode 17)
Cody — You know how I said there weren’t enough clever tricks in this series? This episode has another one. Kirk explaining Fizzbin is one of the best scenes in the series. But I should probably back up and explain that the entire premise of the episode is that Kirk and Spock land on a planet with a super advanced race of aliens who somehow decide to copy every aspect of 1920s gangster culture. Casey had a running theory that Star Trek was so low budget when they shot it, the premise of most of the episodes was determined entirely by which TV set was “next door” that they could use for an episode. Apparently in this case, Star Trek was shooting next door to a gangster movie, so here we are. There are some BAD accents in this. I live in Chicago, and I’ve heard some bad/unrealistic Chicago accents, but this was brutal. That made it all the more entertaining, though. It’s just stupid entertainment, but definitely good enough to be enjoyable.
Casey — Just when you start to suspect that Captain James T. Kirk is an oily womanizer whose primary function is to constantly be rescued by his crew, this episode reminds you why Kirk is (as Cody tells me) TV’s most iconic hero.
If Star Trek is something of an Odyssey story — a ship sailing from island to island, confronting monsters and perils of a natural and supernatural order — then nowhere does Kirk show himself more of a “deep, devious, subtle, and many-sided Odysseus” (Homer’s adjectives, not mine) than he does in the Fizzbin scene. Even Spock barely keeps up, though his dry bemusement at the Captain’s lies — something Vulcans can’t do — contributes significantly to the scene’s comic effect. The Fizzbin scene is to Kirk what the Cyclops chapter is to Odysseus.
Mirror, Mirror (Season 2, Episode 4)
Cody — We’re not sure if this was a 1960s thing or a Star Trek trope, but a lot of episodes in the original series express some sort of anxiety about evil twins or evil doubles or alternate parallel versions of ourselves. Maybe it was some Cold War thing, or maybe not. But this was the most entertaining episode to actually watch play out. You get an evil but still totally logical Spock, and you get a believable romance with Kirk for possibly the only time ever, and it all just really works. Good Enterprise, meet evil Enterprise, and you’re off to the races. Nothing particularly insightful to say about it other than that it’s much better done than a lot of the other episodes that play with a duality theme.
Casey — The trope of the double, whether as replica, mirror image, or evil twin, taps into a lot of fears and goes way, way back: rivals must be roughly equal or there is no rivalry. In a lot of Romantic literature (Poe, Hoffman, early Dostoevsky, etc.), seeing your own double is never a good thing. In fact it usually means you are going to die. More generally, fakes and forgeries — the double that hides or supplants the authentic original — express our concern about being tricked, mislead or manipulated. I imagine that during the Cold War era in which the series first aired, propaganda images of a Communist Double of America with communist versions of everything and everyone you knew put a pretty scary spin on the double trope for a lot of people.
However, in this episode, the Double is more of an Exotic Other. It is Orientalized, in the Edward Said sense of the term, expressing a centuries-old colonialist “We the Civilized West” versus “Them the Barbaric Far East” thing. Perhaps Star Trek gravitates more to those kinds of cultural fantasies than it does to Cold War fears because they are more comfortable. They are certainly more erotic: the “Captain’s Woman,” whom I would consider the prettiest actress ever to appear on Star Trek, is straight out of an Arabian Nights harem, and other-Uhura’s belly-baring belly-dancer red uniform sure out sexifies Red Army uniforms and icons of Lenin and Stalin.
On a narrative level, this episode is interesting because it shows you what an evil Kirk or Spock would be like and they’re actually not that different; they’re just evil. This means that goodness is not their characters’ defining trait, it means they have qualities that transcend the rather flat categories of good versus evil , and so basically, once again, it speaks again to the particularity of these characters. They can be so many alternative versions of themselves and yet still, somehow, in each variant they are still so totally them.
All Our Yesterdays (Season 3, Episode 23)
Cody — This is higher on my list than it is on Casey’s list, possibly in part because I really bought into the Spock romance angle. Something about this episode just kinda worked for me, though. On an alien world, Spock and McCoy are hurled back in time to an ice age, and Kirk is pitched back to the middle of some weird religious inquisition. The intriguing and entertaining part is definitely all Spock here, even if the premise literally makes zero sense (he “de-evolves” to a primitive Vulcan because of the time period they arrive in, which is stupid and, dare I say, illogical). But his romance is well-written and well-directed (and well-performed, obviously). This isn’t a magical episode of television by any means, but I was into it.
Casey — By “bought into the Spock romance angle,” Cody means he thought Spock’s love interest was really hot. [Note from Cody: she’s not wrong.]
In this episode, Borges’s “Library of Babel” meets time travel meets state-sponsored terror meets leather bikinis. Kirk, Spock and McCoy arrive to planet that is about to be engulfed by a supernova. The planet has a library which contains a vast archive of videos that are actually portals to the past. The archive is cared for by a single, aged, homicidal librarian and his identical replicas, all of whom are remarkably strong and agile and homicidal for their age. Much as contemporaneous dictatorships were doing, this librarian has made certain people “disappear,” not by killing them and hiding their bodies but by exiling them to remote place in time from which they can never return.
I, Mudd (Season 2, Episode 8)
Cody — Full disclosure: we added this to our list of best episodes before we’d even seen it. I mean, Harry Mudd is a fun character. His first appearance is entertaining but pretty generic, but this one is so over the top, you can’t help but enjoy it even more. Mudd’s personal hell is — are you ready for some progressive television? — his nagging wife, so of course that’s a recurring theme in the episode. The rest of the episode plays with notions of utopia, which is another very common theme in the series. What I like about this approach, though, is that it delves into reactance, which I think isn’t explored nearly enough as it should be. Not to mention this episode includes the unforgettably amazing scene where the senior officers of the Enterprise basically do bad improv to confuse robots. Yes, that’s as awesome as it sounds.
Casey — There could be a whole separate category devoted to Star Trek episodes about replicas. In this one, Mudd somehow becomes the leader/captive of an extremely intelligent (?) Android race and immediately proceeds to commission a series of Barbie Doll replicas whose function is to pour him wine in the pink cave that serves him as a throne room and that includes an aquarium for the replica or taxidermied body (?) of his wife, whom he now can turn on and off at will, to his infinite delight.
All of this is but an elaborate and ultimately unnecessary frame for the Enterprise crew’s victory via some impromptu Theatre of the Absurd, suggesting that avant-garde art is capable of dethroning tyrants, baffling technocrats, short-circuiting basic bitches, and dismantling an oppressive hegemonic system. This is my fantasy too, Star Trek. This is my fantasy too.