This is not an episode guide. There are plenty of those.
This is not a concordance. There's a really good one of those.
This is a critique.
I discovered Star Trek in the very early 1970s after school on our black and white TV. (I'll never forget the first time I saw it in color at a friend's house and found out that the shirts were in different colors!) I was hooked just about instantly, and through the 70s I became a faithful follower of the Enterprise and her crew. I'm sure I saw every episode many, many times (with a couple of notable exceptions: "The Cloudminders" and "Friday's Child"). I bought books, magazines, models, toys, and of course I was there on opening day for The Motion Picture. If a "trekker" is a serious fan, I was always a "trekkie" -- the kid who loved a cool TV show.
But two of the books I bought had a different impact on me. Though I bought them because I was a Trekkie, Stephen Whitfield's "The Making of Star Trek" and David Gerrold's "The Trouble With Tribbles" were all about the show behind the show. They went into how the show and one of its classic episodes had been conceived, sold, written, produced, and assembled. They were about the mechanics of making TV, rather than the fictional world which had been created (which was covered well by other beloved texts such as, "The Star Fleet Technical Manual," and Bjo Trimble's "The Star Trek Concordance."). As a result, I never had any misconceptions about Star Trek being anything but a TV show, and I became fascinated with the process by which it was put together. I puzzled about the special effects (the transporter effect especially), and noticed the props, costumes, sets, lighting and various guest stars much more than I noticed anything about, for example, fictional Vulcan anatomy.
The first direct result was that I became a credit-watcher, sitting all the way to the end of movies long after the theater was empty. I still do this, and it drives my friends crazy (my wife understands and politely stays with me). The second effect was that I wanted to write scripts for TV and the movies. To be more specific, I wanted to write science fiction, and only for Star Trek (or, if that wasn't possible, "Planet of the Apes"). I cannot count how many scripts I wrote for Star Trek movies -- long before there was any twinkling that a studio might produce one.
I was in college by the time "Wrath of Khan" came out, and my interest had waned somewhat (though I still saw it very early in its run). But I was out of college when "Next Generation" debuted, and just enough time had passed that I was hooked on TNG from the beginning, and have the greatest respect for its cast and crew. It wasn't the original series, of course, but it had some of the same optimism, and some of the same very fine writing and production values. The same can be said for "Deep Space Nine," which I also watched from start to finish. When "Voyager" came along, I was not nearly as interested, but watched anyway -- mostly out of habit. The writing deteriorated to the point where the show became nearly unwatchable, and this trend continued into "Enterprise," which I simply stopped watching because it was so bad (I think I was not alone in this assessment, though I now realize that franchise fatigue had certainly set in).
It became hard to remember what had attracted me to the series in the first place. And I realized that somewhere along the way I had stopped watching the original series in favor of its very pale descendants. In fact, when I got the DVD sets for TOS early in 2005, I realized I hadn't watched many of these episodes for 20 years! And as I watched Kirk and Spock and McCoy again in their original voyages, now with the benefit of a liberal arts education, lots of personal experience in the arts, some tangential experience in TV (with DS9, no less), and a lot of recent bad Trek having left a sour taste in my mouth, I saw more than just a cool TV show. I saw some very fine examples of writing, acting, storytelling, cinematography, and a general sense of wonder which had been gradually lost as Star Trek went from TV Show to Franchise.
Enjoying these episodes so much, I simply had to write about them. So this review archive is an attempt to distill what has made the original Trek so memorable and enduring to me, what set it apart from the television of its era, and what continues to set it apart today.
But this isn't to be taken too seriously. It's easy to take Star Trek too seriously, though I can't quite explain why. It was just a TV show, and not always a very good one at that. But when it was good, it was memorably so. Some episodes were purely junk TV. Some were sloppy sci-fi. But some were genuinely fine art, and extremely well-crafted.
These reviews are not concerned with scientific principles, or sci-fi plausibility (for the most part), and they care not one whit about the so-called "Star Trek Canon." Nor are they concerned with continuity, special effects or arcana. I am concerned with characters and character development in a science fiction context. To get at that, I've tried to consider writing and acting first, followed by other technical aspects such as direction, staging, pacing, details and such. Far down the list are concerns about whether phaser blasts look like photon blasts, or Romulan ships look like Klingon ships. I simply don't care about such things because they do not relate to character development.
Character development in the context of a TV series happens across multiple episodes. As such, it's not enough to examine how a character is affected by any one story, but how the character has successfully incorporated all of what has happened to him or her, and synthesized that into a reaction to what is happening now. For the most part, you will not find me lamenting that in episode such-and-such Kirk says this, and in episode so-and-so Kirk says that, unless these are irreconcilable differences in character motivation introduced out of laziness or sloppiness. In general, they are not meaningful to the discussion. More meaningful are the ways in which the writers solved dramatic problems and structured stories, and used what they (and we) know about the characters. As such, you may find some of the rankings here to be surprising, and different from those found in other episode guides (for example, "The City on the Edge of Forever" may contain one of the series' most memorable moments, but it is not necessarily the best all-around episode, which, for me, may actually be "The Conscience of the King").
So the criteria may seem disorienting at first. Well-structured stories will always be ranked highest, and of those, the ones relying on character motivations to propel the action will bubble up to the very top. Acting skill is allowed to raise an episode's rating, while "gosh isn't that cool" stuff -- unless it avoids being a distraction -- will weigh episodes down. Original plots will always win over their remakes, even if the latter is more entertaining.
The review scale has seven categories related to where in the spectrum of overall quality the episode lies: Very Top, Top, Upper Middle, Middle, Lower Middle, Bottom, Very Bottom. I've chosen to include two pieces of information which get at something of the nature of each show: quantity and type of red shirts (anonymous crewmembers killed to advance the plot) and "weird things" about the production. Categories are designed to group episodes for comparison (for example, some episodes take place primarily on the ship, others on planets, some with Klingons or Romulans, etc.). Episodes are reviewed in production order as it gets at the growth and development of the creative team.
There are no plot summaries or guest star lists found here. These are readily available elsewhere. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the episode being reviewed, the back story, the plots, and the characters. I do not possess encyclopedic knowledge of series details, so this is not a requirement for the reader. But I do assume general knowledge of the film-making process, the roles played by various members of the creative team, and basic concepts of drama, character, and story structure. Knowledge of these concepts is essential to understanding why the series has endured for so long. The only reference material here is one chart which includes production information (producer, writer, director, composer) along with the cliche log (red shirts, "He's dead, Jim," "Beam me up," emotional outbursts by Vulcans, Prime Directive mentions, categories, Vulcan neck pinches, Live Long and Prospers, "I'm a Doctor, not a...", one-punch/karate chops, etc.).
I think that Star Trek is memorable for its characters and storytelling. While it certainly represents more than that to some, that may be pushing it a bit too far on the serious scale. I try to always remember that the people who made this show are just that: people. In many cases, they were the very best at what they were doing. They were always under tremendous pressures in trying to tell interesting stories while on limited budgets and with extremely limited production time. On many occasions, these pressures led to excellence. These are the episodes we remember. On other occasions, shortcuts were taken, tired artists got sloppy, or the creative process got hopelessly sidetracked. These instances are every bit as interesting, because we can be led to realize the unexpected: that the Horta did much more for the longevity of the series than the Prime Directive (read on to find out why this is).
To be enduring, art has to touch something universal and recognizable. Though there are many approaches to this task, the most direct is to create characters which are memorable, believable, and recognizable, then put them into situations which are memorable, believable and recognizable. This is exactly what Star Trek did, using a science fiction context to provide just enough distance to allow discussions of issues not found in television to that point.