#TrekWithUs is a group that my friend Josh and I started on Facebook dedicated to re-watching every Star Trek television series and film in order, one episode/film per week. One of the things we were hoping to do as a result of this re-watch was to generate some quality posts about our favorite episodes and important issues in Star Trek history. Josh completed his first review much earlier than I did, but I figured better late than never.
Here’s my highlight reel from the first season of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS).
NOTE: If you’re new to TOS, there are a couple of things that you might want to know before doing your own re-watch. The first is that Star Trek was originally envisioned to be a discontinuous series like The Twilight Zone but with a continuous crew. As such, stories do not build from episode to episode and characters do not have a clear arc of growth. The second thing you should know is that there are big differences between the production order and the order in which the episodes aired. For example, two episodes (“The Man Trap” and “Charlie X”) aired before either of the series’ two pilots (more on that later) saw the light of day. If you do end up doing your own re-watch, you want to make sure everyone is clear about which order you are using and whether or not you are including the original pilot. With #TrekWithUs, we viewed the episodes in the original airing order (with the addition of “The Cage”) but I have reviewed the episodes in the production order.
The original pilot for TOS was an episode called “The Cage,” and it featured Captain Christopher Pike as the commander of the USS Enterprise. Because of a surprising turn of events on a planet overcome by political unrest, Captain Pike lost many of his crew members, and the experience scarred him. When me meet him, Pike is a tragic figure, an officer who probably ought to retire but who cannot seem to escape his duty. After this episode, we will not see Pike again until “The Menagerie: Part I” and “II,” where the captain is confined to a machine that is half-iron lung and half-wheelchair. Pike has been crippled in a terrible accident, and a devoted first officer Mr. Spock puts his neck on the line to abduct his former commander and bring him to Talos IV, where a group of cone-headed telepaths can grant him hallucinatory escape.
“The Cage” is one of a couple TOS episodes that gives us an idea of what has happened in the years between the narrative setting and the setting of the current viewer. A picture is painted of a utopian Earth where even the Mohave desert has been terraformed into a new-age Eden. Presumably, all differences of race, class, and gender have been overcome, though the writing often doesn’t reflect the latter. But in space, the rules that keep the peace on Earth don’t necessarily hold true. At one point Pike and the ship’s doctor Phillip Boyce discuss alien slave trade as a legitimate retirement source of income. It makes you wonder if there are any laws in space or if it is a free-for-all for anyone bold enough to travel outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
The most interesting part about “The Cage” might be the story behind it. When Gene Roddenberry first presented the pilot to NBC they rejected it, essentially cancelling Star Trek before it ever begun. However, Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy,The Lucy Show) took notice of this fledgling series and became its biggest supporter. The network would not air “The Cage,” but Ball used her influence to get Roddenberry an airing for his second pilot, something that is basically unheard of in the industry. The episode he presented featured a brand new crew (save for Mr. Spock alone) and sported the title “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The rest, as they say, is history.
WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” is the first episode to feature James Tiberius Kirk as the Captain of the Enterprise. From the beginning, Kirk is a well of courage, and he is going to need every ounce of it for what lies ahead of him. His good friend Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell has accidentally contracted godhood and its sudden onset has transformed him into a dangerous enemy. Kirk has just been introduced, and already an impossible sacrifice has been demanded of him: he must take the life of someone dear to him, the deity who was once Gary Mitchell.
This second pilot is a gut-wrenching descent into the heart of darkness where Kirk is forced to face his own mortality.
In later episodes, stories like this might end with a smile and an off-color joke, but the second pilot doesn’t pull any punches. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” proves that TOS is unafraid of leaving you vulnerable at the end of an episode. The ensuing discomfort stimulates your imagination, and it apparently saved Star Trek from TV oblivion to boot.
THE CORBOMITE MANEUVER
In “The Corbomite Maneuver,” we witness the best that early Trek has to offer: first officer Spock, whose immaculate logic makes him the clear brains of the operation; Dr. Leonard McCoy with his bleeding heart for moral issues; and James T. Kirk, the only one with the guts to keep this diverse crew alive. Kirk himself has gotten a bad name in the years since these original episodes first aired, but I think this is unfair. I’ve heard him described as a reckless womanizer who would make a terrible commanding officer, and yet his devotion to the Enterprise, her crew, and her mission are never more clear than in this episode. There is no better captain than Jim Kirk, and no better crew than the people who follow him every week into the unknown.
Years later, the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan will introduce Star Trek audiences to a training test known as the Kobayashi Maru which trains Starfleet Academy cadets to deal with the lose-lose situation. “The Corbomite Maneuver” features an early precursor to this concept, as an invincible alien ship counts down the moments until the Enterprise’s total destruction. Just as he reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru so he could win, Captain Kirk saves the day in this episode by changing the paradigm. In other words: “Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker.”
THE NAKED TIME
It doesn’t get much more fun than Hikaru Sulu swashbuckling with his shirt off, but “The Naked Time” is more than just an hour long giggle fest. While every other character is busy transforming into a caricature, Lieutenant Joe Tormolen is busy having a paranoid breakdown. For Tormolen, the Federation’s outreach mission is overreach, hypocrisy even. His rants speak more clearly than any synopsis: “We bring pain and trouble with us, leave men and women stuck out on freezing planets until they die. What are we doing out here in space? Good? What good? We’re polluting it, destroying it. We’ve got no business being out here. No business.” This rings true with the situation in “The Cage.” If the Earth has been rid of its sins, then those same sins have been banished into space. There is an active slave trade, unsupervised would-be-Mengele’s, and debris from discarded colonies and destroyed vessels. Tormolen’s questions trouble the waters. We glorify discovery, but is it always worth the price? Why did we leave Earth in the first place? Was it due to overpopulation issues or were we just too curious for our own good? Was it the necessary end result of science and technology? Was somebody looking to expand the sphere of human influence? Tormolen’s fears give us a metric for judging the moral content of future Star Trek episodes — was the crew of the Enterprise doing a good deed or were they overstepping their boundaries? What were the consequences?
There are few things more perilous than dealing with a god who is going through puberty. Do you remember what it was like when your hormones were surging and your body was transforming and your emotions were out of control? Try throwing the limitless power to create and destroy into the mix, and you can imagine the threat posed in “Charlie X.” We have seen how far Kirk will go to defeat a god who threatens his crew in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but in this episode Kirk takes a more nurturing pose. The role of father seems strangely natural for the Enterprise’s Captain, and it feels as if Kirk’s influence might be enough to stabilize Charlie and turn him into a force for good. This is where the episode takes a turn for the worse. Against his will, Charlie is taken from his new human family by the very alien force that granted him his powers in the first place. Earlier in the episode we might view this as a foreign power taking responsibility and diffusing a nuclear weapon, but by this point it feels much more like kidnapping an innocent child from his own people. The crew becomes one with the at home audience. Charlie X is abducted against his will, and we are all forced to watch.
BALANCE OF TERROR
In this Cold War allegory, the Romulans are revealed as the Federation’s intergalactic rival much like the Russians were understood as the enemies of the United States for the original viewing audience. Years of blind battle between Federation and Romulan ships reminds us of underwater battle between nuclear submarines. Though the civilizations involved in this ongoing war are in the dark, the audience gets a rare glimpse into both sides of the conflict. On one side is Captain James T. Kirk, an amazing force for good in the universe, and on the other side is the unnamed Romulan Commander, perhaps the most noble opponent Kirk has ever faced. Working together, these men could bring peace to the entire universe, but they were born into civilizations at war and their efforts will always be adversarial. The Romulan Commander is like Hector of Homer’s Iliad, perhaps the kindest soul and greatest leader involved in the Trojan War. Like Hector, this Romulan’s only fault is that he is on the wrong side of history.
“Balance of Terror” also presents one of the most unambiguous criticisms of racism in the science fiction canon. When the Romulan Commander is first revealed, he has pointy ears and bushy eyebrows much like the Enterprise’s own first officer Mr. Spock. The resemblance goes even further for die-hard fans of Trek who know that the same actor (Mark Lenard) plays both the Romulan Commander (“Balance of Terror”) and Spock’s father (“Journey to Babel,” et. al.).
This similarity is too much for Lieutenant Stiles, a crewman who lost family in the Earth-Romulan War, but Kirk is fast and firm with his support for the Vulcan science officer.
While it might seem offensive that a white male (Leonard Nimoy) becomes a figurehead for racial justice, it is important to understand this in the context of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. The diverse crew of the Enterprise is the result of a utopian Earth where people of different backgrounds have finally overcome their backgrounds. Despite the fact that we might be impressed by the inclusion of Uhura (a black woman) and Sulu (a Japanese American) on the Enterprise’s bridge, nobody else on the bridge bats an eye. This has been the norm for over 100 years. TOS tackles the next frontier of social justice, the issue of how one welcomes a neighbor from another planet.
THE ALTERNATIVE FACTOR
Between the enigmatic Lazarus with his costume beard, the psychedelic color inversions during the reality quakes, and Lazarus’s Jetsons-style vessel, “The Alternative Factor” is one of the campiest episodes in TOS. This should not mask the fact that it has some of the best science fiction of the first season, delving into the frontier of inter-dimensional travel. I honestly didn’t know whether I loved or hated this episode until the very end, but it certainly holds a special place in my heart.
What “Space Seed” lacks in terms of a strong story and gender equality, it makes up for with the sheer power of Ricardo Montalban’s portrayal of Khan Noonien Singh. The writers did manage to deliver a compelling story behind the story. Khan is one of a handful of tyrants who carved up the Earth into territories during the third World War of the 1990s. He and his crew are super-soldiers in an ancient ship with primitive technologies of propulsion and suspended animation (from Kirk and company’s POV). It is interesting that Roddenberry and crew had such generous expectations for our future technology. If I’m not mistaken, the most heralded technologies of the 1990s were flip phones, SMS, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not hybernacula and interstellar flight.
“Space Seed” might just be the most important episode of TOS. This is because it serves as a prequel to the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which might just be the greatest moment in Star Trek history. My wife will attest to the fact that I cannot even discuss the last act of this film without welling up with tears, much less listen to “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes or drive by a vehicle with one of those photon torpedo-esque car top carriers on it.
THE CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER
In the 1930s there was a woman named Edith Keeler who started a peace movement so powerful that the United States committed to never warring again. As a result, the United States stayed out of World War II and Hitler’s Third Reich conquered the entire planet. The utopian Earth we’ve been talking about — that never happened. Neither did the United Federation of Planets, and without the Federation there is no USS Enterprise. There is just a handful of starship officers from a reality that no longer exists stranded on a far off planet with talking stone arches. To get back everything they’ve ever known, peace activist Edith Keeler must die. I’m just going to leave you with that one.
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#TrekWithUs has come a long way in just over a year. A couple of weeks ago, we started the third and final season of Star Trek: The Original Series. If you’re interested in joining our re-watch, just let me know and I can add you to the group. I don’t know exactly how to do so if we’re not already Facebook friends, but I’d be willing to give it some research. It can’t be too difficult. Also, I expect to roll out a Season Two Highlight Reel shortly, so keep your eyes open friends of the Federation.