Fifty years ago, Gene Roddenberry created some of pop culture’s most rabid fans when he introduced Star Trek to the world. Captain Kirk’s voyages of exploration captured the minds and hearts of an audience who, through sheer willpower (and enough letters to drown a small town), brought the show from the brink of cancellation when studio execs balked at dwindling ratings in the show’s second season.
The three seasons of The Original Series were followed up by an animated series, six feature films, a spin-off series which was followed by four more feature films of its own, as well as three more spin-off series and THEN a new trilogy of films which reboots the whole timeline over for a new generation.
Everybody got that?
That’s six television shows (totaling thirty seasons) and thirteen films spanning fifty years. The franchise has enjoyed some high points (Wrath of Khan, amirite?) and some low points (*quietly shoves The Final Frontier and Nemesis under a sofa*), but its fans have remained devoted to the last, and as we all celebrate Star Trek’s fiftieth anniversary and await the latest entry, Star Trek Beyond (which hits theaters in America on July 21st), let’s look back on ten of the franchise’s best episodes and films.
1. “Balance of Terror” (1966)
This gripping cat-and-mouse story from The Original Series features the (official) first contact with the Romulans. Playing off Cold War paranoia, the episode pits Captain Kirk against a brilliant and ruthless Romulan commander. As the two captains glare at each other across the borders, maneuvering and outmaneuvering each other, they develop an understanding of, and respect for, each other’s tactical prowess, even though their respective governments are ideologically opposed. Brilliantly written and acted.
2. “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967)
This one is one of the franchise’s all time best stories. When Kirk and Spock chase a delusional McCoy into the past through a mysterious time portal, Kirk meets a lovely activist (because of course he does) and is faced with a heartrending decision to either repair the timeline or save her life. This is one of those iconic Star Trek episodes that one should always share with newcomers. High production values and a brilliant script from the mind of sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison earned this one a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation.
3. The Wrath of Khan (1982)
A sci-fi classic in its own right, this film pits Kirk (now an admiral) against the genetically enhanced Khan who has obtained a terrifying new terraforming technology which can create living planets. After failing to take over the Enterprise in theTOS episode “Space Seed,” Khan was left to his own devices on a doomed planet, but now Khan has returned, seeking vengeance. Featuring a number of fantastic performances including that of film legend Ricardo Montalban, the film also boasts an insightful script and a number of iconic moments including its tragic finale.
4. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (1990)
Moving on to The Next Generation which is set over a half century after Kirk’s time, this fantastic episode has a ghost from the past showing up through a temporal anomaly, leading to a dystopian alternate timeline in which the Federation is on the losing side of a brutal war with the Klingons. Featuring the return of Tasha Yar, who was killed in the series’ first season, it’s a twisty time-travel story with a great script that would have more far-reaching consequences later on in the series.
5. “The Inner Light” (1992)
This one is The Next Generation’s most highly praised episode, winning the franchise another Hugo Award for its beautiful writing and acting. It has Captain Picard getting struck with an energy pulse from a mysterious probe, causing him to experience a full lifetime of memories with a long-dead race in a matter of minutes in real time. It’s a tragic saga of family life amid impending death, and should be included in the “Watch this first, it’s so good!” list for any new fan.
6. “Past Tense” (1995)
Now we move on to Deep Space Nine, one of the underappreciated gems of the Star Trek franchise. I don’t see this two-part episode on many greatest-of lists, but its terrifying themes have proven to be so prescient that it’s sure to resonate with contemporary viewers. It features Commander Sisko being sent back in time to the 21st century (8 years into the future from our point of view) and getting caught up in a series of watershed riots that led to drastic social change in American history after the government decided to combat a failing economy, mounting homelessness, and scarcity of resources by shipping underprivileged and troublesome individuals to “sanctuary districts” where they could be kept out of sight. It’s a Margaret-Atwood-style dystopia that’s so plausible it’s scary
7. First Contact (1996)
This film brings back the Next Generation crew for the ultimate showdown with the Borg, one of the Federation’s most dangerous enemies. Fighting to keep the Borg from altering history and assimilating Earth, Captain Picard faces off against the Borg Queen, one of Star Trek’s most iconic villains, while Commander Riker has to make sure that Earth’s first warp flight occurs when it was supposed to, even though the man responsible isn’t quite the saintly visionary history made him out to be. It’s an action-packed film with a wonderful array of guest stars and fabulous performances.
8. “Year of Hell” (1997)
Now we move on to Voyager, a series which features a Federation starship getting sent clear across the galaxy. Along the way, Captain Janeway encounters the Krenim, an unassuming race which inexplicably becomes a terrifying galactic power when an energy wave sweeps through the sector. Trapped deep inside Krenim territory, Janeway struggles to keep her ship together and her crew alive as two of her captured crewmen discover the Captain-Nemo-esque Annorax, a grief-stricken temporal scientist who has been manipulating history in order to restore his dead family to life, not caring about the effects his manipulations have had on the civilizations he’s destroyed. A brutal two-part episode, it really pushes Janeway (and her ship) to her absolute limit, and we get a sense of just how deeply her crew cares about one another. Although it does resort to a big giant reset button at the end, it gives us some heartrending performances from the whole cast, and is one of the highlights of the series.
9. “Far Beyond the Stars” (1998)
One of Deep Space Nine’s most powerful episodes, it features Sisko (now a captain) ready to give up as the Federation crumbles under the onslaught of the Dominion War (one of the franchise’s best arcs) when he receives a vision from the Prophets (a race of non-linear entities who have a special connection to Sisko) in which he’s a science fiction writer in the 1940’s. He gets an idea of a black man in command of a station and tries to pitch the idea to his editor who insists that no one would ever want to read a story like that. Crushed by societal prejudice and ignorance, Sisko’s avatar, Benny Russell, clings to his story as the only beacon of hope in a world that insists people like him don’t matter. It’s a tragic character drama, but it’s also a heartfelt love letter to the sci-fi writers whose work inspired those who created Star Trek in the first place (especially female writers and writers of color whose identities were hidden because they “weren’t marketable”). Notably, the episode also features the full cast out of makeup, playing entirely different characters.
10. “Similitude” (2003)
I debated including this, but I wanted Enterprise to get its due. Even though it was cancelled early, the series, set a century before Kirk’s 5-year mission, had a lot of potential once it found its footing. This episode has the chief engineer Trip Tucker suffering a fatal head wound. The only thing that can save him is a donation of neural tissue, a procedure that would be fatal to the donor. When Doctor Phlox suggests growing a clone to use as a donor, Captain Archer is faced with an impossible ethical dilemma that can only lead to tragedy, especially once the clone begins to grow up and form friendships with the crew. The performances of the cast really sell this episode, and its soul-crushing finale is one of the best of the series’ four-year run.
This list could have easily been thirty entries long, so here’s some more of Star Trek’s best stories that you should definitely check out:
Films: The Motion Picture (though it has to be the Director’s Cut), The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek (the 2009 reboot).
The Original Series: “Errand of Mercy,” The Trouble with Tribbles,” and “The Doomsday Machine.”
The Next Generation: “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Tapestry,” and “Frame of Mind.”
Deep Space Nine: “Duet,” “In the Pale Moonlight,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Voyager: “Tuvix,” “Scorpion,” and “Dark Frontier.”
Enterprise: “Broken Bow,” “Twilight” and “In a Mirror Darkly.”
What are your favorite voyages? Let me know in the comments below!
Writer, blogger, nerd, pie aficionado. On Twitter as @mr_sosotris