Fifty years ago, Gene Roddenberry’s first “wagon train to the stars” began airing on NBC. Star Trek featured a cast of many nationalities, had people of color in important roles, it commented on the social problems of the day disguised in science fiction, and it was the first time we’d seen humanity out in the stars in a ship meant to not only get us to them, but to explore. It was a show about hope for the future, a future that we continue to ape from today with our cellphones, video conferencing communications, and even equipment you can carry around that will tell you the current and future weather conditions.
Was Star Trek perfect? No. Between all the series that they put out from the ’60s, to the reintroduction of the show again with Next Generation in the ’80s, and up through Star Trek Enterprise, there were some episodes that didn’t work, weren’t necessarily poignant, and some that were just not good sci-fi. I’ve seen a number of articles out there listing the great episodes. There are several guides on how to get through the shows as quickly as possible so you get the most for your streaming buck. These guides don’t necessarily go into much detail, though. They list them, but they don’t rate them or give you much info on them. Star Trek Essentials aims to be a little different. I’m going to go over two episodes each week, review them, and talk about what makes them special.
This week we get a really great episode that focuses a bit on Janice Rand. and another that not only introduces the Romulans, but also gives us the Star Trek version of a battleship hunting a submarine. As a note, I’m not going with broadcast order on these, but rather production order, although for simplicity’s sake I’ve got the episode number as they appear on Netflix for those that want to watch these.
Charlie X (Season 1, Episode 2)
The Enterprise has a rendezvous with a small cargo ship, the Antares, which is carrying a 17-year-old passenger, a boy named Charlie Evans who spent fourteen years alone on a deserted planet, and is longing to be with other people, but is having some obvious social issues having been alone for fourteen years. He takes an instant liking to Yeoman Rand, as he’s never actually met a real woman before, and tries to get her to like him with gifts and tricks. Things take a very dark turn when the Antares tries to contact the Enterprise to warn them about something, but it explodes, and Charlie seems to know something about it. Strange things keep happening around Charlie, and it appears he has powers and is going to get what he wants, no matter what.
This episode is kind of interesting as it’s one of the few to really showcase Rand, a character who disappears in the middle of the first season because the producers decided she wouldn’t work as a love interest for Kirk instead of developing her as a regular character. Rand won’t make another appearance after she’s cut until Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Rand and Kirk are the only two to really get Charlie to do what they need at first before it all goes terribly bad for people on the ship, and there are some great make-up effects at play in the episode. While it’s not the first “humans corrupted by godlike powers” episode, it is the better one that deals with a young adult getting these abilities, and it plays out really well.
Balance of Terror (Season 1, Episode 14)
The Enterprise is in the vicinity of the Romulan Neutral Zone, a no go zone established almost a hundred years prior, after a war between the Romulans and Earth. No ship is supposed to cross it, but when outposts that border the neutral zone begin going dark, Kirk orders the ship to investigate as they find a mysterious ship that can cloak itself is using an amazingly powerful weapon to obliterate the outposts. Kirk then begins a cat and mouse game with the Romulan commander, hunting the cloaked ship before it can slip through the Neutral Zone and back into Romulan territory and spark another war.
This is obviously a Star Trek homage to The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep, and it works amazingly well, making for one of the better episodes of Star Trek‘s run. We get the introduction of the Romulans, who I would argue make far better adversaries in the original Star Trek than the Klingons ever did, despite what the feature films would later show. Mark Lenard would get his Trek debut here as the Romulan commander, and would later come back to play Spock’s father, but the Romulan commander is a far more compelling and interesting character. There’s a lot to love in this episode, and it’s easily in my top ten of all the Star Trek episodes.