10 Worst Episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series
I didn’t watch every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series with my wife just so I could write a bunch of lists about it. We watched the show for fun. We’d watch an episode to decompress and relax after a stressful day dealing with work or healthcare or family or whatever.
We found that this was not always a good idea.
There’s bad television, and then there’s awful television. Unwatchable television. Television that makes you wonder: how did this get made? How is the writer of this episode still employed? Why hasn’t anyone burned/obliterated every existing copy of this in order to save the human race from it?
If you’re watching Star Trek to relax, then skip these episodes. After reading this list, please feel free to cleanse your palate with my previous list of the 10 Most Entertaining Episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. Whatever you do, DO NOT watch the episodes on this list if you’re looking for “good” Star Trek. You’ve been warned.
Catspaw (Season 2, Episode 7)
Cody — This episode bridges the gap between the lists of best and worst episodes because it firmly belongs in the “it’s so bad, it’s good” category. You know in cheesy black and white sci-fi movies, you can tell they literally put someone’s pet gerbil on a low-budget model of a city with cardboard buildings? Think Plan 9 from Outer Space. That’s this episode.
It is actually a Halloween special. I’m not kidding.
This is the only holiday special of any kind in the history of any Star Trek series. In it, the crew beams down to a planet for no discernible reason, immediately encounters three witches extremely reminiscent of the ones in Macbeth, and ends up in a castle with a giant black cat walking around the hallways. And by “giant cat,” I mean “literally a regular black cat walking around a low-budget set made to look like the catacombs of a castle.” This episode belongs in the “bad” category because it makes absolutely no sense. But this, THIS is campiness in all its glory. There are few, if any, episodes with a more ridiculous premise. But this episode delivers on several other outrageous elements, such as highlights from the series’ usual casual racism against Vulcans (when a perplexed Spock asks, “’Trick or treat,’ captain?” Kirk replies with a dry “Yes, Mister Spock. You’d be a natural.” Because in the future, it’s hilarious to infer that non-humans with pointy ears are Satan! LOL!), some great puns among great quotes, and witches who speak in rhymes. If you take anything in the Star Trek universe seriously, then you will hate this episode. But it’s worth checking out if you want to experience 60s Halloween television in its purest form.
Casey — If there were a book titled Surprising Mistakes that can be Made in the Depths of Uncharted Space, that book should include the following:
KIRK: They tried to tap our conscious mind.
SPOCK: And they missed. They reached basically only the subconscious.
So as I mentioned in a previous post, Star Trek really digs the Freudian stuff—psychoanalysis was actually pretty big in the 60s—and a lot of episodes involve somehow projecting or materializing the characters’ unconscious (or “subconscious”) desires and fears, most of them pretty generic mass culture tropes. This episode constitutes the clunkiest iteration of the your-deepest-darkest-fantasies-made-real plotline. The mystery—which, for the crew as for the audience, is “what the F$%# is going on?!”—is solved when Spock realizes, after narrowly escaping from a fluffy black Mancoon, that the deepest of all unconscious fears, the really primordial terror inscribed into human DNA for millennia, is the fear of… cats.
KIRK: Why a cat?
SPOCK: Racial memories. The cat is the most ruthless, most terrifying of animals, as far back as the saber-toothed tiger.
In addition to the dubious psychoanalytic-racial theory worthy of McCoy and thus subpar at best for Spock, this episode offers three really unforgettable images. As in, you try to forget them and just can’t.
The first is the aforementioned regular-sized black cat filmed in close-up against what is very obviously a gothic dollhouse. One hopes they spent the money they saved filming this sequence on something useful, like dental work for Scotty, or fixing Chekov’s hair.
The second is the woman (SURPRISE! The black cat was actually a catty dark-haired woman disguised as a cat!) who repeatedly transforms, in an I Dream of Genie poof of pink glitter and xylophone arpeggios, into… the same woman with different clothes and hair. Here is how the scriptwriters describe this transformation:
SYLVIA: You find me beautiful? But I can be many women. (now she’s blonde teen jail-bait) You like what you see. (a platinum blonde in a loose cat-suit) or do you prefer me as I was?
KIRK: You have a knack for giving me difficult choices.
Wince. However, the most cringingly awkward moment, the moment when you’re really just embarrassed for the studio, the actors, and everyone involved, is not the revelation that Kirk has a “blonde teen jail-bait” fantasy (in all fairness to the Captain, the actress continues to look about 38 years old), but rather the moment of truth when the real appearance of the villains is revealed. Bereft of their poorly functioning, misfiring fantasy-stealing-and-projecting devices, bereft of their magic orbs and amulets (a little out of place in a sci-fi series), the assailants assume at last their true form: fuzzy blue beaded bird muppet lobsters.
One can only wonder what this image was expected to evoke or recall in the minds of its TV audience.
But it would be the ultimate couples costume.
The Omega Glory (Season 2, Episode 23)
Cody — There’s a scene in The Godfather Part II where Al Pacino’s character learns about an abortion, and you can see rage building up inside him as if he’s about to murder literally everyone in the world. Just by looking at him, you can feel the raw fury, as powerful as a nuclear explosion, inside him. This is basically how The Omega Glory made me feel. Every time I didn’t think this episode could get any worse, it did. There is so much going on in this episode, it’s almost impossible to completely explain.
First, the good: I will say in this episode’s defense that, at the very least, a lot of time is spent emphasizing the Federation’s Prime Directive of non-interference. Decent world-building there. Moreover, the overall plot involves a somewhat interesting Federation officer they encounter whose motives are clear and whose story arc is scientifically coherent enough to pass as decent science fiction.
But the bad outweighs the good. Let’s start with the premise. Two factions on this planet are feuding: Kohms and Yangs. Yangs are barbarians. Yangs are also all Asian. And they’re named YANGS. I get that the 60s was a different time, but are you telling me there’s no way Star Trek could have been LESS subtly racist than by giving a generic name to a tribe of Asian barbarians? Oh, but it gets worse. There’s a stupid scene in which Captain Kirk is captured and locked away in a cell with a Yang. They agree to a truce after a fight scene, after which Kirk is almost immediately double-crossed, proving that none of the stupid locals on that primitive planet can be trusted! But then. THEN. The ending happens.
Stop reading now if you want to experience the ending yourself, because it is so utterly incomprehensible that I could barely believe it was actually happening. My jaw actually dropped for the duration of the last 10 minutes of this episode. I don’t believe I’ve witnessed a television moment so startlingly incongruent and forced in any show I have ever seen. It truly is the icing on the American Imperialism Cake that this episode turns into. Somehow, for some reason, hundreds of years in the future, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise literally recites the Pledge of Allegiance. You also discover that the inhabitants of this planet literally worship the United States Constitution. I am screaming as I write this. I have broken three keyboards just trying to finish this paragraph. Casey needs to take over before this episode completely dominates this entire blog post, or somehow results in a house fire. I LITERALLY CAN’T EVEN, as the kids say. This is the Star Wars Holiday Special of all of Star Trek. Nothing in any series of this franchise comes close to how insultingly bad this was. And I’ve read that it was nearly the pilot episode of the series. That’s all I have to say, because my fist is bleeding from punching a wall. Talk to you soon.
Casey — Yeah, it was not a great episode. The religious treatment of the Constitution = highly problematic, as the news reminds us pretty much every other week. However, my memory of it mostly consists of watching Cody hyperventilate on the couch.
The Deadly Years (Season 2, Episode 12)
Cody — This episode is literally hard to look at. The senior officers of the Enterprise contract a disease that makes them age rapidly, which means they also contract several layers of makeup that God never intended to be seen in high definition. Honestly, Casey hid her eyes for a good portion of this episode. It’s absolutely hideous. There’s nothing else to say about it other than that we both hated it. As he “ages,” Doctor McCoy also speaks with an increasingly southern accent. Because as we all know, a primary symptom of getting older is that you inexplicably develop a southern accent for no reason. This episode is just the worst.
Casey — If David Lynch were to have directed an episode of Star Trek, it would be this one. It’s like Eraserhead if it were just the lizard baby, without the darkly funny parody of bourgeois courtship or the nightmare existence of an eternal and banal domesticity. Or if Dune were just the Baron’s pustules. (Which it basically is.) So disgusting. There are no plots or mysteries or side stories or even Spock quips. Just disgustingness. In HD.
Also, no one could have predicted that as Kirk aged he would also grow quite fat??? Really? Even in Shatner’s heyday one notes the nascent little paunch.
I for one am hashtag grateful that Boston Legal’s Denny Crane looks nothing like the old Kirk of “The Deadly Years.”
Operation: Annihilate! (Season 1, Episode 30)
Cody — Before the opening credits of this episode, Kirk beams down to a planet and learns that his brother and his wife had both died of a mysterious illness. This is barely referenced at any point in the rest of the episode. Do you understand how bad that is?! There never been any indication at any point in the entire series up to this point that Kirk even had a brother. Suddenly he has one, who gets killed, to ??? effect. The rest of the plot is so forgettable that I don’t even remember what happens. I do know that Kirk’s nephew is introduced, but he spends the entire episode comatose in sick bay, and is never seen again in the rest of the series. I understand continuity wasn’t a strong point for TV shows back in the 60s, but this was egregious. At no point does Kirk care, or are we made to care, about anyone in his family. Missed opportunity.
Casey — Reactions in real time: “Wait Kirk has a brother?! Wait, now he doesn’t anymore?! Oh.” Then 56 minutes of silence.
Court Martial (Season 1, Episode 21)
Cody — This is the episode that never ends… and it goes on and on, my friends… this is the episode that never ends… and it goes on and on, my friends…
I’ll spare you from my overwhelming urge to copy and paste that 8 more times, and instead get down to it: this episode is just too long. The premise is interesting enough to keep you engaged: is Kirk’s memory flawed, or is the ship’s perfect computer system experiencing a problem? Even the finale is somewhat interesting. But most of the episode consists of a court cross-examining Kirk, then going to a commercial, then doing it again, ad nauseam until you would give pretty much anything to watch a few hours of Judge Judy.
I should note that after watching every episode of the show, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed that Star Trek: The Original Series did a good job of never really dragging. The show’s producers and writers did a remarkably good job of keeping each episode relatively interesting for full 50-minute spans… for the most part. But this episode failed where others succeeded. It might have worked as a 22-minute episode, but not as one this long. It was excruciating for Casey.
Casey — It was excruciating for me. And it had potential: a man versus technology dilemma; the officers all get to wear their medals and decorations and fancy dress uniforms (costumes are at least 38% of why one should watch the series); the viewers are given insight into the tedious lackluster bureaucracy of The Federation, thereby helping us to understand why Kirk loves his ship so much and also why so many young men of promise enlist as redshirts, doomed to be zapped away in some fuschia colored rock garden; an unusually sympathetic and smart female character guest stars as the lawyer; and who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?
Yet few things are worse than a bad courtroom drama, and I mean a really undramatic courtroom drama, like for example a cross-examination that is essentially “Uh uh!” “Nuh uh!” repeated over and over again in various overlit courtrooms. Longest hour of 1967 and 2018.
Assignment: Earth (Season 2, Episode 26)
Cody — Oh, did you want to watch Star Trek? I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a generic 60s detective/cop drama. Seriously, you barely see anyone from the Enterprise in most of the episode. They introduce so many random characters and plotlines and sets that at one point I honestly had to check to make sure we weren’t watching Get Smart or Miami Vice. I distinctly remember about 20 minutes into the episode, I looked at Casey, threw up my arms, and asked “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?” The plot involves time travel that goes mostly unexplained, and although the moral quandary in the episode is an interesting thought experiment in science fiction, it doesn’t justify an hour-long noir spy thriller that has basically nothing to do with Star Trek. Totally confusing. But it does get bonus points since one of the main characters has a cat named Isis. That made me laugh. (I’m a simple man. Don’t judge.)
Casey — I have literally no memory whatsoever of this episode.
The Mark of Gideon (Season 3, Episode 16)
Cody and Casey — Nothing about this episode makes ANY sense. Gideon is a utopian planet where nobody gets sick, and nobody seems to ever die in a germ-free world. The problem is that Gideon has become so overpopulated, there’s literally no space or privacy for anyone. We see entire shots of people packed into tight spaces just walking in circles aimlessly to illustrate this. And life is “sacred” to the people of Gideon, so they refuse to entertain the idea of using contraceptives or asking the Federation to help them develop programs to slow down their proliferation of life.
So how does the head of Gideon’s government deal with overpopulation? In the stupidest way ever conceived. He concocts a plan to abduct Captain Kirk, thus risking Gideon’s relationship with the Federation, to steal his blood because he’s a carrier for a virus he overcame in his youth. Then the head of the Gideon Council wants to inject his daughter with this virus so she can spread a plague around her planet, killing millions (or billions). Apparently condoms are bad, but the Black Death doesn’t raise any moral red flags. Also: why wouldn’t they just obtain a vial of germs from somewhere else, or just ASK Captain Kirk if they can have his blood, or find some other random sick person who might be willing to help them, or do literally anything other than kidnap a starship captain, to obtain the virus?
Here’s the other kicker: despite the planet being so overpopulated, the femme fatale of the episode has never been alone in a physical environment in her lifetime, Kirk is abducted and placed on an EMPTY replica of the USS Enterprise that exists on the planet’s surface. So this entire elaborate ruse to get his blood required a massive amount of space, on the surface of a world where vacant space pretty much doesn’t even exist. Every step of this episode is a logical contradiction. It’s like the writers each drafted a page and then passed it to the next person to continue. There is no continuity at all. It is a stupid plot. I will say that Spock has some hilarious lines making fun of politicians in this episode, but other than that, nothing makes a lick of sense.
Plato’s Stepchildren (Season 3, Episode 10)
Cody — “Court Martial” was an episode with never-ending court scenes, and “Plato’s Stepchildren” is an episode with never-ending torture scenes. It’s basically Kirk and company getting shock collared and abused for an hour. It’s a hard episode to watch, because it’s basically just an hour of seeing characters you’ve grown to love humiliate themselves and suffer with no recourse, and it’s just not fun at all.
Now, I should note that this is the episode that many claim to include the first interracial kiss on broadcast television, which sounds great on paper as a progressive moment in TV history. But this was actually the first kiss between a fictional white male and a fictional black female to air on American network television. You can read into the history of the kiss if you want, but long story short, the historical import of this “television moment” is greatly exaggerated. Even if you wanted to believe this was the first televised interracial kiss, though, you’ll be disappointed, because the bad guys in this episode force Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will, the camera angle is obscured significantly so you can’t really see anything, and the camera CERTAINLY doesn’t linger on the moment. I’d been looking forward to seeing this “historic” TV moment when we started watching the series, but ultimately, it was nothing to write home about, unfortunately. I’m still glad they DID IT, obviously, but don’t get too excited if you decide to see it for yourself, because it’s not as magical as you might have thought. Far from the bold, brave statement you may have been led to believe.
Casey — According to Wikipedia, the BBC did not originally air this episode on the grounds that there was too much torture and sadism in it. Even for the BBC.
It is definitely the most sadistic society the series portrays. The ancient Greek-ish denizens of the unnamed planet are tall, thin, blond, blue-eyed, so intelligent they can move things with their minds, virtually immortal, and have no empathy whatsoever. They are also quite bored—the downside to immortality, I guess. And despite their great mental prowess, they can come up with nothing better to do with their time than torture smaller and weaker beings, usually in the form of cruel little games and spectacles. Within this framework, forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss as part of one of their malicious little after-dinner spectacles hardly represents any sort of progressive moment in the history of TV; on the contrary, in this context, the interracial kiss is made to appear as some sort of horrific crime against human nature. Both Kirk and Uhura are unwilling to do it. They suffer doing it. Their interracial kiss is framed as a kind of mutual sexual abuse. Really twisted.
Also, is the idea that intelligence and kindness are inversely proportional a sci-fi trope? Or a post-WWII legacy thing? Or what? Because something similar appears, for example, in the movie Gattaca, which also imagines a future of perfected or ideal humans with every quality but empathy and kindness, and whose genetic superiority narrowly ascribes to an obviously Aryan standard of beauty and comportment that is basically nazi in that it rationalizes, on economic, cultural, and “scientific” grounds, the systematic exclusion or mistreatment of “aberrant” beings.
Honestly, this episode isn’t really that bad, or at least, it isn’t bad in the same way that “Catspaw” or “The Mark of Gideon” are bad. It is a little hard to watch, but it is coherent. It raises some interesting points. They travel back in time, kind of. The problem with it is that its flatlined narrative just shows us the twisted logic of a dystopian place like this, over and over, but has no response or profound critique or solution beyond “maybe someone will kill the king and then let’s get the F$%& back to the ship.”
The Savage Curtain (Season 3, Episode 22)
Cody — Here’s what I wrote as my note for this episode: “Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan walk into a bar.” It’s pretty much true. You know how Super Smash Bros. is a super-popular video game franchise, because you get to see popular characters from various unrelated properties you know and love fight each other to see who would win? You know how all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are insanely popular because they’re constantly crossing over, and The Avengers are always fun to watch because you get to see different superheroes interact? Now imagine that happened in Star Trek, only instead of seeing characters you know or have ever heard of, you “get to see” Kirk and Spock teleported onto a planet along with Abraham Lincoln and a geriatric Vulcan you’ve never heard of so they can fight in a 4-on-4 battle against Genghis Khan, a disgraced Starfleet captain you’ve never heard of, a woman who gets zero lines in the entire episode, and Kahless, the savage father of the Klingon empire who inexplicably takes orders from the Starfleet captain. Why Abraham Lincoln? Why any of this? Why is this happening? What drugs were the writers doing when they came up with this? WHY??
Casey — The only thing more surprising than looking out the window (or whatever it is) of the Enterprise and seeing a giant image of Abraham Lincoln floating in the middle of outer space is looking at this episode’s page on IMDB and learning that it has a 6.8/10. If that does not convey the deeply arbitrary status of aggregate review scores, I don’t know what will.
And The Children Shall Lead (Season 3, Episode 4)
Cody — Kids make masturbatory hand gestures and then cry about their dead parents. It’s just annoying. There are a handful of episodes that attempt to feature children as the centerpiece of the plot, which I feel like was kind of a “thing” television shows did in the 60s and 70s, perhaps to attract a wider audience of 9-year-olds for some reason. In virtually every attempt at this strange child-pandering approach, Star Trek performed very poorly, but this episode was probably the worst offender. There seriously is nothing to say other than the first sentence of this paragraph, preferably followed by a stiff drink. I suggest whatever Scotty found in his quarters that one time.
Casey — This episode reminds us, along with most horror movies and occasionally Butters from South Park, that few things are creepier than a creepy child. Perhaps its major contribution to TV history is that there is literally no difference between watching this episode and watching a gif of a child lurking in a corner and making masturbatory gestures.