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 twice a week, review them, and talk about what makes them special.
We close out the strongest first season of any Star Trek series this week. All of the spinoffs that would come after would come out stumbling, and wouldn’t gain ground until the third season, while the original Trek series was at its strongest in its first season and declined quite a bit into the third. We finish out the season pretty strong with a longtime fan favorite, often referred to as the best of the series, that didn’t sit as well with me this time featuring a time travel device and the Second World War along with an alien species that uses mind control that drives people insane.
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.
The City on the Edge of Forever (Season 1, Episode 28)
The Enterprise is investigating ripples in time emanating from a planet, when an accidental overdose of a drug sends McCoy into a state of mad paranoia where he beams himself down to the planet. They discover a gate that can communicate with them and can show them the past as it is a Guardian of Forever. McCoy jumps through the portal and alters history so that the Enterprise never existed, stranding the landing party. Kirk and Spock jump through after McCoy to undo whatever he’d done and find themselves in 1930s New York trying to figure out what McCoy could have changed. They meet Edith Keeler, a woman who runs a local mission and Kirk becomes rather fond of her even as Spock figures out a hard truth about what they may have to do to restore the timeline.
The episode and plot was initially conceived by Harlan Ellison, but was extensively re-written by the new series writer, D.C. Fontana, partially due to budget, but also because Roddenberry didn’t like how Ellison was handling things with the crew and events. A lot of his original plot is still within the episode and it’s pretty good. In fact this hits number one for a lot of Trek fans as their favorite episode, but watching it this time something didn’t quite sit right with me, and I realized I just wasn’t seeing anything between Kirk and Edith. They were telling us, sure, but they just didn’t seem like they were involved other than hanging out and helping each other. There was no spark. Other than that, though, it’s a great script that works really well and introduces the Guardian, which would show up again in the Animated Series and in a number of novels written over the years.
Operation: Annihilate! (Season 1, Episode 29)
The Enterprise approaches Deneva, a gorgeous human colony world that helped supply the Federation with materials. They arrive to find the colonists behaving strangely and violently, Kirk’s nephew and his brother’s wife infected with whatever had hit the colony, and his brother, Sam, dead. Figuring out that a neural parasite was responsible, they set out looking for a way to cure it when Spock also gets infected. McCoy is at a loss with what to do with the infection and can’t find a way to kill the parasites without killing the host which leaves Kirk facing not only the death of his brother, but the possible death of a million colonists on the planet below.
The season finale of Star Trek’s first season doesn’t end in a cliffhanger like nearly every season of the spinoff shows, but it is an episode with a lot of emotional impact. While Kirk has to be in charge of his ship, you can really see the turmoil he’s going through with his nephew, his brother, and Sam’s wife, and what he’s going through. When Spock gets infected he truly looks just about completely broken and still manages to come through all of this. They do some neat things with this and use their heads to find a weakness for the parasites as well. The effects are a bit shaky but the parasites do look incredibly creepy in a lot of the shots they’re in. A good concept and some convincing acting helps keep this one on track, but the results end up a bit mixed. As a season finale goes, it hits a lot of the right notes to amp up the tension.