The 10 Best Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation Because I Am an Expert Now

When I covered the only three seasons of Star Trek, what we now call The Original Series, it was mainly out of historical interest. It was an important show that I’d — for the most part — never seen. I wanted to experience it, enjoy it, poke a li’l fun at it, and move along.

I ended up liking it quite a lot, though. I knew I’d be able to appreciate it, but I didn’t expect to come away from it as a genuine fan. The fact that I did was a nice surprise. Then I watched the films, and they were — for the most part — pretty good. Some I loved, but mostly they felt like slightly longer episodes of more-or-less average quality. I’m sure that was enough for fans who didn’t have BluRays and DVDs to turn to at the time, but for me it was just another six adventures that weren’t as good as the show usually was. I wish I had something more insightful to say about them, but I’ll cover them another day, probably.

Point is, I’d finished with The Original Cast. I really wanted to see Deep Space 9. But something stood between them: The Next Generation.

I could have skipped it, at least for the time being, but I figured, hey, why not check it out? I’d heard good things, and I know a few folks were curious to hear my thoughts about it. Unlike The Original Series, I had never seen a full episode of The Next Generation. I remember it airing regularly in syndication, so I’m sure I caught a few minutes here and there after Batman: The Animated Series, but it never grabbed me and, in fairness, I never let it. I didn’t have any interest. I had friends who adored it, but I didn’t really care to check it out.

That means that I went into this show even fresher than I went into The Original Series, and I had no idea whether or not I’d like it, nor did I know whether or not I’d want to cover it. Committing to a full seven series-in-review posts would have been a bit much, and I’m glad I didn’t make that commitment, because I sure as hell would have run out of things to say. I will say this, though: I think it’s a better show than The Original Series…even though I didn’t like it as much.

That’s just a matter of personal preference, of course. The cast was fantastic. It had great characters and ideas, even in most of its worst episodes. It also had a much higher number of great episodes, but since it had a much higher number of episodes overall, maybe that’s not a fair point.

I ended up in a sort of strange position: I liked it, but didn’t have enough to say to justify a whole series of posts. And I didn’t want to ignore it, because I thought it was worth documenting — in some way — the things that resonated with me.

I’ve settled on doing a top 10. This is by no means definitive. When I rewatch the series, this will change, without question. Maybe not the top spot, but everything else will jiggle around, at least a little bit. This is me as a first-time viewer, bringing all of my own baggage to the show and engaging with it on my terms rather than its own. It’s not fair, but it’s honest.

For other newcomers to the show, this might serve as a nice sampler of episodes; I was a newcomer, and these are the ones that I loved most. If you want to start somewhere, maybe one of these will interest you. For longtime fans of The Next Generation, these 10 little windows into my experience with the show should give you a pretty good idea of what I enjoyed, what I didn’t enjoy, and the reasons for each. In that way, I hope that folks can get something out of my unexpectedly enjoyable journey through a piece of TV history that I missed completely.

If you want some idea of the episodes that didn’t quite make my top 10 but were in firm consideration, here are another 10. Consider them either honorable mentions or the rest of a top 20 that I was too tired to finish. Either works! “A Matter of Honor” (season 2, episode 8), “Who Watches the Watchers” (season 3, episode 4), “The Defector” (season 3, episode 10), “Captain’s Holiday” (season 3, episode 19), “Devil’s Due” (season 4, episode 13), “Half a Life” (season 4, episode 22), “Conundrum” (season 5, episode 14), “I, Borg” (season 5, episode 23), “The Inner Light” (season 5, episode 25), “Lower Decks” (season 7, episode 15)

As you can see, season one was a big pile of crap.

Anyway, on to the top 10, and let me know what your favorites were. It’s interesting for me to see (already, as a newcomer) which much-loved episodes did nothing for me, and which much-hated episodes I liked, so keep it coming!

#10: “Attached” (season 7, episode 8)

I absolutely loved “Attached,” which is something I can say about any of the episodes on this list, but I want to emphasize it here, because it’s love alone that elevates it for me. (How appropriate!) There are better episodes. Smarter episodes. Funnier episodes. More memorable episodes. You get the idea. “Attached” isn’t quite a guilty pleasure — I think it’s genuinely good — but it would be dishonest for me to say that it’s really one of the 10 best things The Next Generation ever did. Instead, it’s just one of my 10 favorites.

The central premise is interesting: A planet wishes to join the Federation, but not the entire planet. The population is split into two factions, basically, and only one has any interest in joining. Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher beam down to chat with the leaders of the interested faction…but the two never arrive. They end up, instead, in what I’ll simply call enemy territory. In The Original Series’ “The Mark of Gideon,” Captain Kirk beamed down to a planet but never arrived, and there are a million interesting things that that episode could have done with that premise. “The Mark of Gideon” didn’t do any of them, but this episode makes up for it.

That’s just context, though. “Attached” is really about Picard and Crusher. They are prisoners, tethered together mentally by implants, sort of like psychic handcuffs. If they get too far away from each other, they are overwhelmed by nausea and unable to keep moving. But the longer they stay together, the more easily they are able to read each other’s thoughts.

Does any of that make sense? Who cares? It’s an excuse to get the two characters into each other’s minds, which ends up being not just fun and interesting, but important and moving. Coming near the end of the show’s run, “Attached” automatically taps into our own long history with these characters. We know that they care about each other. We know that they are attracted to each other. We know that they have a complicated relationship.

We also know what they can’t say to each other. Previous episodes are littered with loaded pauses, unfinished sentences, and tactical half-truths. I don’t think it’s fair to say that The Next Generation tried to position Picard and Crusher as a “will they or won’t they?” couple, but it did remind us — repeatedly — that they had feelings for each other.

“Attached” has them unintentionally revealing those feelings in the form of pure, shared emotion. Now they can no longer pretend that they don’t know. They can’t dance around it. They can’t clear their throats and wish each other a good night. Now they each know that the other knows how they feel.

Episodes of many shows benefit from unlikely pairings, exploring relationships that usually go unexplored on a weekly basis. Here, though, The Next Generation benefits from shining a brighter light on a very likely pairing. We’ve seen Picard and Crusher together often, sometimes for plot reasons, and sometimes because they simply enjoy each other’s company. They even dine together regularly, and one of this episode’s loveliest moments is a tiny reveal: Crusher makes elaborate meals instead of simple ones because she wants to make Picard happy…but Picard doesn’t like the elaborate meals and prefers simplicity. They were both too polite to say how they really felt.

But, of course, that’s just one revelation, and it foreshadows a much larger, more significant one: They now know exactly how much the other wants to be with them, and the fact that they are learning about and dealing with that as they are escaping an enemy prison is a great way of keeping the episode interesting outside of its (admittedly very good) character moments.

Once they each know how the other feels, there’s no going back. There’s no room for personal diplomacy or feigned ignorance. They’ve been forced into the next stage of their relationship; they just need to decide what that stage will be. Many answers could have worked, but I love the maturity of the answer that “Attached” provides: They know how they feel, yes, but that doesn’t mean that they are obligated to act upon it. They are both adults. Professionals. Friends. They’d enjoy spending the night together, but are they prepared for what the morning would bring?

And so they decide to not be together, and the fact that they actively make that decision means that the relationship has advanced. It’s not a reset button. It’s not a return to awkward social maneuverings and hesitations. It’s a decision reached by two adults who have now shared and discussed the facts at hand. It’s a beautiful and impressively heartfelt conclusion that doesn’t artificially keep the two apart, but rather reinforces the value of the relationship they already have. It’s absolutely lovely.

#9: “The First Duty” (season 5, episode 19)

"The First Duty"
Unlike his mother, Wesley Crusher is a terrible fucking character. It’s tough enough to have a “whiz kid” on your show without it getting annoying, but the number of times Wesley saved the day when the more-experienced leaders around him failed to do so was frustrating. If The Next Generation were about a crew of morons bumbling their way through space, fine. Instead, it’s supposed to be a crew of hyper-competent spacefarers, which is good, because I like that idea. But the fucking little boy always has to be even more hyper-competent, in spite of his lack of training, experience, or acting talent. Far too often, The Next Generation became The Wesley Show, by sheer volume of the problems that he alone solved.

It was “The First Duty” that redeemed him for me, even though it’s far from a redemption story for Wesley. In fact, it ends up marking the moment at which his entire Starfleet career begins to crumble. But it makes him an actual character, which was a concept puzzlingly absent from most of his appearances on the show. What’s more, it does so in a very recognizable way. What happens when whiz kids go to college? Well…they do some things that aren’t too bright. In Wesley’s case, he participates in a dangerous stunt that gets one of his classmates killed.

That would be enough to kick off a moment of important reflection, but it doesn’t stop there; Wesley also, with the aid of his friends, covers it up, lying to Starfleet and placing the blame on his dead classmate. Why not, right? That kid’s dead; his career is already ruined. What’s the sense in ruining ours, too?

“The First Duty” is excellent because it seems to be aware of a weakness that was built into Wesley’s character from the start. Of course he was an overachieving goody-goody; he was on a ship full of paragons. It’s easy to be a good guy when you are surrounded, exclusively and incessantly, by good guys. But plop him into college, where he will be surrounded by others who are imperfect, still learning, figuring out who they are, and he might latch onto the wrong people. Sure enough, he does. The first time he’s pressured by his peers, he caves in, resulting in the death of a friend. This further snowballs into Wesley lying to his school, his superiors, and his family, which only increases the severity of the repercussions he was trying to avoid.

And, well, good. Wesley should have to pay for this, and he pays dearly. He should have to learn to be a more responsible human being, because he’s clearly never learned it before. And he should cause others to wonder if their faith in him were misplaced. They confused intelligence for virtue, and the fallout is excellently drawn and explored. Picard eviscerating the kid for playing dumb is absolutely brutal, and just as necessary.

There’s no happy ending here. The happy ending was forfeit the moment Wesley and chums put their friend’s life in danger. Now there is only consequence, and consequence is something Wesley never had to face before. Kicked out of the nest, Wesley plummets, and it’s the most realistic thing the kid ever did. The very first time he’s given room to show who he is, he fucks up his entire life. Without a safety net, he pisses away everything he’s ever had.

And I’m not only speaking metaphorically; as punishment, the Academy strips him of the credits he had earned from serving on the Enterprise. He’s wiped his own accomplishments away, because he never learned how to not be a stupid fucking kid. It’s great. It’s meaningful. And it matters. This is Wesley in his truest form. What he does when nobody’s looking is who he really is. He’s not beyond redemption, of course, but he is actively in need of it…which finally makes him feel real.

“The First Duty” is a slap in the face of an established character, which usually doesn’t sit well. But, here, it’s not a character being put through the wringer because the writers ran out of ideas; it’s a character finally being tested…and coming up wanting. It was only easy for Wesley to be chivalrous when he was surrounded by chivalry. That’s an important realization for both him and us.

Allow me also to recommend “Lower Decks,” which serves as a partial sequel to this story. Another of the students involved in the coverup here — Sito — ends up serving on the Enterprise after graduation. Her relationships with Picard and Worf are shaped by the events of this episode, and they’re just as fascinating to explore.

“The First Duty” feels like it matters, which it should, and which is something we can never take for granted in an episodic TV show. Major kudos to The Next Generation for understanding and respecting the gravity of the story it told here.

#8: “A Matter of Time” (season 5, episode 9)

"A Matter of Time"
The Next Generation has plenty of episodes that focus on one-off guest characters, but this better than most of them by far, not least because Matt Frewer is a fantastic, funny guest in a fantastic, funny story. Both series of Star Trek I’ve seen have had a sort of spotty relationship with comedy episodes, but “A Matter of Time” succeeds simply because of how great that comedy is. It never becomes wacky to the point that it strains the show’s reality; instead, it revels in the weirdness that exists within the show’s reality.

In this case, the immediately bizarre Professor Rasmussen arrives in a time machine and explains that he is a historian from the future, here to observe the Enterprise crew on their current mission. Sure enough, the mission is an important one; the crew is providing assistance to a planet on the brink of cataclysm. The first-hand knowledge that Rasmussen obtains will help those in the future to better understand what happened. Only…it’s Frewer. The guy is clearly not what he claims to be, but there’s also no way for the crew to disprove those claims. And — thanks to the weirdness already within the show’s reality — who’s to say that a future historian wouldn’t travel back in time to silently study them? Isn’t that one of the least outlandish things that’s ever happened to these people? Something is wrong, but they can’t quite put their fingers on what.

The danger, of course, is that Rasmussen will alter the past, but he stays out of interfering. There’s even a fantastic scene between him and Picard, in which the latter implores him to share his knowledge of how things turn out, but Rasmussen refuses to help. The most he does is question the crew on various topics of historical interest, but even if he’s some sort of spy, he’s not asking about anything that’s classified; all of his questions are about things the crew understands to be common knowledge. Something must be wrong, but whatever it is doesn’t seem like it could be too dangerous…

Ultimately, they learn that Rasmussen really is a time traveler…only he’s not a historian from the future; he’s a thief from the past. His perfectly innocuous questions were meant to help him return to the past — where that knowledge is less common — and profit handsomely. (All that portable tech he crammed into his pockets won’t hurt, either.) But that’s just the broadest outline of the episode, fun as the concept is. Frewer elevates it to brilliance, with his strange demeanor and schoolboy fascination making him feel as much like a quirky scientist from the future as he does a flim-flam man out of time. The fact that his behavior is so far out of place among the Enterprise staff makes it even more difficult for them to read him; the guy comes across like a Looney Tunes character, and his interactions with them are always brilliantly off balance.

The Next Generation isn’t a comedy, but “A Matter of Time” made me laugh out loud more than most actual comedies do. There’s a big joke at the center of the episode, but the rest is just genuinely excellent comic business, kept afloat by a fun mystery and a lovable, eccentric guest. Frewer is a gifted humorist, and he takes a very good script and manages to wring every drop of comedy out of it for us to enjoy. Even in his simplest moments and most direct conversations, he finds some degree of humor in everything from his character’s posture to inflection to expression. He inhabits Rasmussen rather than plays him as a role, and every step in the character’s journey is a delight.

Rasmussen manages to fool the crew without making the crew look like idiots — they know he’s lying, they just don’t know what the lie is — and he manages to be both goofy and thoroughly believable as a con artist attempting to keep everyone else on the back foot. A show that traffics in comedy regularly should be able to pull this off, but a show that dabbles in it only rarely shouldn’t. Surprisingly, and wonderfully, “A Matter of Time” works on every level.

#7: “Frame of Mind” (season 6, episode 21)

"Frame of Mind"
The Next Generation dipped its toe into horror a good number of times, and an almost equal number of times, the episodes were big piles of horse crap. A chocolate pudding monster kills a main character. Everyone becomes monkeys and lizards. Stop-motion bugs take over the Federation. It’s awful. Absolute garbage, and rarely the fun kind of garbage. It’s boring garbage, and whenever an episode took on a spooky tone, it didn’t unnerve or worry me; it indicated to me that it wasn’t going to be one I remembered fondly.

Then there was “Frame of Mind,” which took the most difficult kind of horror — psychological horror — and handled it with aplomb. Not only was it effective, but it was so effective that I genuinely don’t know if I want to watch it again. It was legitimately frightening, and if I had seen this when I were a kid, I am positive that it would have given me nightmares. This isn’t a dipped toe; this is complete submersion, and it’s so well done that I get chills just remembering it.

It works as well as it does, I think, because Riker is very much a “normal” person. Most members of the ship’s crew have quirks that prevent them from being easy “everyman” characters, but Riker is just a guy. Tall, handsome, charming, competent…but still just a guy. This has led to a large number of pretty boring episodes about him, but in “Frame of Mind,” that normalcy is weaponized. Riker is so normal, so easy to identify with, that it’s not easy to maintain distance. If this is happening to him, it’s easy to imagine it happening to us.

The story unfolds in such a way that it’s never clear what is really happening and what is in Riker’s head. Sometimes he’s in Dr. Crusher’s play, as a man who is committed to an asylum against his will…and sometimes he is in that asylum, pleading for someone to recognize his sanity. Sometimes he’s preparing for a dangerous undercover mission, and sometimes he’s being told about how poorly that mission went, and that he murdered several people when it went wrong.

At no point can we believe that Riker actually snapped and murdered anyone, no, but that’s not his problem. His problem is that he’s locked away in an institution without a handle on what’s real, on what happened, or even on who he is. We know that his flashes to life on the Enterprise are at least rooted in the truth, but he doesn’t know that, and the doctors are working to convince him his memories are figments of a diseased imagination…something he gradually comes around to accepting, fighting against the incursion of visions that we, in the audience, know to be true.

It’s horrifying stuff, and Riker’s loosening grip on reality is played marvelously by Jonathan Frakes. Frakes is always good and sometimes great, but in “Frame of Mind” he is masterful, and the episode toys with reality to a degree that very few shows manage to do successfully. As someone who struggles with mental health issues, I’m always on edge when a show tries to do a “losing one’s mind” episode. It’s usually insulting, however well-intentioned, but Riker’s struggle with madness is not played for shock; it’s played for sympathy. The guy is hurting. The guy is scared. The guy is lost. It’s scary because it’s handled with total sincerity. This isn’t happening because the show wants to frighten us; it’s just happening. And that frightens us.

The play, too, could have just been a nice echo of the episode’s themes, but it is instead woven through Riker’s hallucinations so effortlessly that it becomes worrying in itself, with the man breaking down during performances, seeing the set around him turn real, watching characters bleed from one reality into another.

The ending is one of my favorites in the entire show. I won’t give it away, but I will say that the closure Riker achieves just before the credits roll felt like closure to me as well. I never want to revisit this one, and I mean that as an enormous compliment, because it was a near-perfect journey through Hell. It was horrifying and off-putting, and that’s exactly what this story needed to be.

#6: “Family” (season 4, episode 2)

I already knew going in that “The Best of Both Worlds” — the big bad beetle Borg episode — was held in very high regard. I’d never seen it before, but 30+ years of hype didn’t do it any disservice. It was still, clearly, very good. It doesn’t make my list, but that’s because, in my opinion, plenty of other episodes outdo it. One of those episodes is its immediate followup, “Family.”

This was by far the more interesting story to me, and I certainly realize that many of you will disagree. That’s okay. “The Best of Both Worlds” was about a man being kidnapped, modified, and essentially reprogrammed by a race of hostile robot aliens. Scary stuff, well executed. But “Family” is about what happens after that. It explores the mindset of a man who barely escaped death, who must now carry the lingering trauma of that experience, whose career is going to force him to face that precise adversary — and many others — again and again and again. The Next Generation didn’t have to tell this story. It could have just let the audience assume that Picard decided to continue living as a starship captain. Because, well, of course he did. And it’s not as though “Family” gives us a different answer. Patrick Stewart didn’t quit the show; end of mystery.

“Family” gives us an obvious answer, yes, but it also explores that answer. The crew returns to Earth for some much-needed post-Borg downtime, and Picard takes the opportunity to return home to the family vineyard, where life is simpler. Quieter. Easier. Safer. All things that a few episodes ago might not have mattered much to him, but which must seem incredibly appealing right now, after being forcibly modified by space aliens and barely brought home alive.

Picard’s question here is never even spoken, at least not that I remember. Nobody says, “You poor dear; why don’t you stay? We’ll fix up the guest room.” We just watch him go home, and we experience the question through the ways in which he interacts with his estranged brother, with his caring sister-in-law, with his wide-eyed nephew, and with an old friend who offers him a job on Earth, where the space monsters aren’t. It’s a story about Picard’s relationship with his family, and it’s also a story about Picard’s relationship with himself, with the direction he chose in life, and with what really matters to him.

All of that is great enough on its own, but it’s not the only thing that makes “Family” work. True to its title, other characters reconnect with their families as well. My favorite bits are the brief moments between Worf and his adopted human parents. In fact, those moments are fucking incredibly sweet and genuine. He’s embarrassed of them, in theory, but when they actually beam aboard, there is so much love between the three of them that it’s utterly disarming. Worf isn’t the best at showing that love in ways we’d expect from other characters, but it’s there, and it’s sincere. Everything involving the three of them — the genuine care and fondness that they have as a family — is incredibly moving, and it makes it so much easier to picture what Worf’s childhood must have been like. (Easier and a thousand times more amusing.)

Then there’s the bit with Dr. Crusher discovering a holographic message recorded by her late husband for Wesley. In one of the best moments for the character overall, and certainly his best moment before departing for Starfleet Academy, Wesley “meets” his father. The scene is long, well written, and perfectly acted. Father and son are finally face to face, but the communication can only go one way. Wesley gets to spend a little bit of time with the father he never had, but he can’t share anything with his father in return. He finally gets to hear a voice from the past, and then it’s cut off forever.

All of “Family” is well done, to the point that any of it could have been slipped into another episode as the B-plot, and it would have elevated that episode without question. Instead, we get all of it at once, in a sad, funny, thoughtful portrait of what these characters mean to each other.

This is like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel that takes place entirely during the week following the horror, focusing on what happened next to the lone survivor, and that’s fucking brilliant. Space robots are cool and all, but this is the story that will stick with me.

#5: “Birthright” (season 6, episodes 16 and 17)

Going in, the two-part episodes I’d heard about were “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Chain of Command,” and I’d heard very good things about each of them. They were indeed pretty great, but the two-parter that hit me hardest and impressed me most was “Birthright.” Maybe that’s at least partially because I had no idea what to expect. Maybe reading about it will take away from the journey for you. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s one of my favorite episodes (or two of my favorite episodes, I guess), and I’m going to talk about it, so if you are allergic to spoilers, you shouldn’t have read this far anyway.

Early in the series, we gradually learned Worf’s backstory. As a child, his Klingon colony was attacked by Romulans, who massacred the residents. Worf survived, though his parents did not. He was adopted and raised by a human couple. Much later, the lie that his biological parents were Romulan sympathizers and responsible for the attack became accepted truth among his people, leading to Worf’s banishment from Klingon society. That’s a lot, but it’s parceled out in small enough chunks that it helps us nicely to understand Worf better. His history isn’t just “stuff that happened and elicits sympathy;” it informs his attitude toward humans, Romulans, other Klingons, friends, colleagues, family members, and so many others. Moreso than any other character, Worf’s history has molded him into who he is, and he is a profoundly compelling character as a result.

All of that is backstory, but it’s necessary for understanding “Birthright.” Here, he is approached by a clearly slimy (and I mean that only somewhat metaphorically) figure who claims that Worf’s parents are still alive, imprisoned by Romulans. Worf doesn’t believe it outright — dude has some fucking well-deserved trust issues — but he also knows that he must find out for himself. He sets out for the Romulan prison colony and does find survivors of the Klingon massacre…but his parents are not among them. That would be that, except that things at the colony are far more complicated than he expected.

The place is indeed a prison, but only in the loosest sense. It’s a secret and insular community in which Klingons and Romulans live not just side by side, but together. In the decades since the massacre, a genuine peace has sprung up between what were once captors and captives. Now they are neighbors. In the vaster reaches of space, the two species are still at each other’s throats, but here, what was once a detention camp is now a town.

Worf is understandably skeptical, but the residents seem sincere in their contentment, and the Romulan elder works closely and relies upon the Klingon elder to ensure something very close to true equity. Eventually, Worf discovers that the Klingons — many of whom were not yet born at the time of the massacre — are forbidden from learning their history, and therefore have no understanding of their own culture.

It’s a sharp ethical dilemma for Worf. Is peace enough? It’s a good thing, yes, but is it worth letting their culture die? The people may survive, but without their history, does it matter? There’s not an easy answer here, and “Birthright” explores both sides of the issue without firmly declaring either side to be correct. Take any two warring countries here on Earth and establish peace, and that’s impressive. But force one side to literally erase its history, its culture, its art, its heroes, its legends, its honor…and did you really establish peace between them? Or did you strip from one side everything that made it worth fighting for? And if you did strip it from them, didn’t you actually conquer them?

More than anything, though, “Birthright” establishes firmly that Michael Dorn is fucking fantastic. He is great beyond my capacity to praise him through words alone. Worf contains multitudes, and we see nearly all of them here, brilliantly realized, with honest pain and anguish, as he sees with his own eyes a vision of peace for his people, which comes at the cost of everything he values about his people.

It’s a fantastic, smart, thought-provoking episode that explores a very difficult question, with both sides making excellent points and neither side having a fix that works for everyone. It’s also an incredible reinforcement of who Worf really is, what he cares about, and what he’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of his heritage…even though that very heritage was quick enough to disown him. It’s incredible stuff, perfectly acted, and a hugely important experience for the character.

#4: “The Measure of a Man” (season 2, episode 9)

"The Measure of a Man"
There were good episodes prior to “The Measure of a Man,” but this was the first great one. It’s entirely about one single question, and the episode does not look away from it. In fact, it makes sure you pay attention to it, because it’s an important one: Is Data property or an individual?

The Next Generation had its share of clunky social commentary, but this episode — obvious though the parallel is — is elegantly handled, not least because the deck isn’t loaded in favor of an “of course he’s an individual” outcome. Data was built. Data was designed. Data was assembled and activated. All of those things point toward him being an object. A profoundly sophisticated machine, sure, but a machine. The debate is kicked off when a visiting researcher, Bruce Maddox, wishes to study Data, who is far beyond the types of robots anyone else is able to build. (There’s a whole story about Data’s creator that I won’t get into now — and which isn’t revealed in this episode — but allow me to simplify it by saying this: Someone built Data, but that person is gone and nobody knows how he did it.)

Data does not object to being studied in a general sense, but since Maddox’s methods will require him to be disassembled by people who are not guaranteed to know how to put him back together again, it would — in a sense — put his life at risk. Data therefore objects to this particular request, which Maddox finds absurd. How could a machine have the right to object to being studied? It’s elevated to the point of an official Starfleet hearing. A human being of course can’t be ordered to be torn apart for the benefit of medical science, but machines don’t have — and don’t need — any such rights.

Data is artificial life. Which of those two words is the more important one?

In a sense, everyone involved is too close to the problem. Maddox, understandably, sees only the fact that an opportunity to study advanced technology is closed off to him and everybody else in his field. But Picard — who serves with Data on a daily basis, who relies on him as a valued member of the crew, who seeks his counsel — sees only the “person” that Data is. And Riker, who is closer to considering Data a friend, is tasked with arguing against the android’s personhood. As the trial progresses, they discuss Data-specific things. He had a close, reciprocated relationship with a colleague, which suggests humanity. But he can literally be switched off and on at will, which suggests machinery. The trial explores both sides…but Picard — with some outside help — comes to realize that the ultimate judgment won’t be about Data; it will be about the fate of all machines like him.

Turn Data over to Maddox, and that could be tragic for one specific android. But set the precedent for doing so, and all sentient machines will be turned over to those who wish to do as they please, poke around in their workings, experiment on them, and dispose of them. And that’s probably the best-case scenario; Picard quickly comes to realize that the moment you strip personhood from this class of individuals is the moment at which they will start being treated inhumanely. Armies of them will be manufactured to labor in mines, to do work too dangerous for “real” people, to be created and destroyed solely to benefit others. It’s monstrous, and Picard realizes that he is occupying the precise point from which a hideous future could spring. If we bestow our machines with sentience, then it is our obligation to treat them humanely.

The moment it clicks for Picard is affecting and effective, as he realizes that he isn’t just arguing for the rights of an individual, but for the right to individuality for others to come. He is arguing for humanity to take responsibility and have respect for what it creates. The focus stays on one question, but the shift in perspective expands the discussion, the debate, and the decision.

In The Original Series, there was never any doubt for me as to who my favorite character was. It was Bones. It will always be Bones. But in The Next Generation, it’s a tight, tight race between Data and Worf, with Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn doing impeccable work on a weekly basis with characters who felt rich, meaningful, and unique. In a way, I feel bad for both of them; on any other show, they’d be the runaway highlight. Here, they’re together, and they’ll have to settle for being “also great.” (I’m sure that that just breaks their hearts.)

Overall, though, I think Data’s character led to better episodes, and “The Measure of a Man” was just the first of those. It was also the first time, I’d argue, that The Next Generation realized what it could be.

#3: “Tapestry” (season 6, episode 15)

What a truly lovely episode “Tapestry” is. In fact, it’s so good, that I genuinely suspect that I will have nothing to say. Nevertheless, here I go!

The episode opens with Picard dying on the operating table, due to complications with his artificial heart, which he has had since he was in Starfleet Academy. After he passes, he finds his longtime frenemy Q waiting for him. Q is…well, the character is great, and John de Lancie is amazing, but for the purposes of brevity, let’s just say he’s a supernatural being and leave it at that. There’s a little bit of classical Batman villain about the guy — at least in terms of the sheer delight he takes in toying with Picard — but here, at least, his intentions are noble: He’s willing to send Picard back in time, allowing him to make different decisions in his youth and avoid the altercation that led to his needing a replacement heart.

“Tapestry,” then, is what all of us dream of doing: going back in time with the knowledge and experience we’ve gained over the years to do things differently. And, just like all of us would do, Picard fucks everything up.

See, Picard’s artificial heart was established by previous episodes, as was the bar fight that left Picard needing it. The man regrets his actions as a brash and impulsive youth. He was a different person then, as were we all, and he’s embarrassed by that. He’s embarrassed by who he was and what he did and, in at least one case, what he didn’t do.

And so Patrick Stewart — the present-day Picard we know — goes back in time to take over for his younger self, doing things right for a change. We see that young Picard was a womanizer, was quick to violence, was prone to thoughtlessness. He changes those things by virtue of being more mature and measured in his dealings…which causes his friends to see him as disloyal, weak, and full of himself. He also takes the opportunity to make good on decades-old feelings for a female friend of his, but after they spend the night together, she regrets it. His regret has become hers, and it destroys their friendship. At the very least, however, he avoids the fight that cost him his heart…

And we flash forward in this new timeline to see what else it cost him. His milquetoast academy days resulted in him being just another cog in the wheel. He’s not commanding the Enterprise; he’s a nobody, serving under people who don’t know his name and can’t even be bothered to half-ass a compliment when he positively begs for one.

The lesson isn’t “it’s good to be an asshole.” The lesson isn’t “it’s bad to think twice before getting stabbed through a vital organ.” The lesson is, basically, you were a shithead. You, reading this. Too bad. Get over it. It made you what you are. You can spend your entire life regretting your bad decisions, or you can move forward and make something of yourself. Q’s gift to Picard here is a chance to undo his regret not once but twice: first in a very literal way, and second by helping Picard to accept the mistakes of his past and make peace with them.

Yeah, Picard screwed up big time, but that’s a stitch in the grand tapestry of his life, and if he rips it out, what is he left with? It’s a really sweet episode that, ultimately, is left hazy. Did Picard die? I don’t think so; I think he drifted into unconsciousness and Q took the opportunity to do him a big favor. But, being Q, he had to dress it up like some kind of life-or-death test, lest Picard end up suspecting that Q likes him, or something.

The timeline doesn’t really change. Picard still had that fight in the bar. Picard still suffers complications from his artificial heart. But now he’s able to accept the fact that he wasn’t always perfect, wasn’t always a hero, and wasn’t always a role model. It makes him appreciate what he’s accomplished since, rather than dwell on what he failed to accomplish earlier. It’s a masterpiece. And it’s still only my third-favorite episode.

#2: “The Offspring” (season 3, episode 16)

"The Offspring"
“The Offspring” is a sequel to “The Measure of a Man” in only a very general sense, and yet it feels like a perfect and necessary followup. It was also surprisingly good, considering how easily it could have gone off the rails. “Data’s humanity is on trial” is a setup that would require truly terrible writers to bungle, but “Data builds his own robot and treats her as his daughter” is one that very few great writers could get right. It’s a premise that feels ripe for catastrophe, and I’m still impressed, months after watching it, that it wasn’t one.

Data, again, is a unique android. (Simplifying once more out of necessity, so bear with me.) Nobody knows quite how he works, himself included. But he attends a cybernetics conference and something snaps into place for him, causing him to believe that he might be able to create another android. He does so, and successfully. This upsets Picard, to put it lightly. Building a machine is one thing, but imbuing it with intelligence and personality is creating life. What gives Data the right? Well, as Data suggests in return, the same thing that gives other crewmembers the right. The process is different, but why are only they allowed to create life?

Data’s not being a dick; he genuinely doesn’t understand the difference, which in turn causes Picard to wonder as well what the difference is, to the point that, ultimately, he ends up on Data’s side when Starfleet wants to take the new android away. Their argument is that watching an android learn, develop, and evolve as an individual would provide invaluable insight into A.I. They’re right. Picard’s argument is that they’d be taking a child away from her parent, which is abhorrent. He’s right, too.

So far, so “The Measure of a Man.” However, whereas that episode was ultimately about ideas and debate and philosophy, “The Offspring” is about a very specific character. Data’s daughter, Lal, isn’t a concept; she’s a person, and her struggles to understand who she is, why she’s being argued about, and why she’s being treated like an object, are heartbreaking. Much of “The Measure of a Man” was about future impacts to others. Yes, Data was at the heart of the discussion, but Data is also calm, mature, and not prone to emotional response. Lal is none of those things. Lal is a child, brought to life as the only one of her kind, without any experience or understanding of what’s happening around her or what’s being decided for her. She develops and experiences emotions more rapidly than Data ever could, and they are overpowering. At the same time she’s learning what life is, she’s learning how quickly others will restrict it for her and decide how she must live it.

That’s all heavy, heavy stuff, but “The Offspring” isn’t just that. It’s also funny, as a child who looks like an adult is still learning to interact with others. It’s sweet, as Data sincerely wishes to be a good father to her, without understanding what fatherhood is. And it’s marvelously acted, as Hallie Todd sells Lal’s fear and anguish as well as she sells her naivete and desire to learn. Brent Spiner does incredible work frequently as Data, and if the guest star playing his daughter failed to measure up to that man, well, so be it. Instead, Todd rises right to the occasion, hitting every note perfectly, in a way that never feels artificial or rushed, despite the fact that this particular story could have unfolded over several episodes.

Instead, in a single hour, we follow Lal’s entire life, from her birth, through her education, through her highs and lows, through her eventual demise. We share her entire journey, and it’s fucking devastating. The opening scene led me to believe we were in for a trainwreck, but by the end I started tearing up. And then, as the episode drew to a close, I didn’t cry, dear reader; I wept.

“The Offspring” hits hard, but it’s not manipulative. It’s just a story. It’s just a tiny little window into something that happened. But it’s a great one, and it’s an episode I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

#1: “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2)

Boy, things just don’t get better than “Darmok,” do they? Watching this, I had the same sort of response I had to “Balance of Terror” when I watched The Original Series. I was riveted. I didn’t just want to find out what would happen, and I wasn’t just enjoying the show; I was completely and thoroughly invested. And though the episodes are fundamentally different in so many ways, there’s a similarity in that they are both about thinking. For Captain Kirk, it was outthinking. For Captain Picard, it was understanding someone else’s way of thinking. In either case, they would have ended up dead if their wits weren’t sharp enough, though the circumstances themselves couldn’t be more different.

In “Darmok,” Picard and friends meet up with an alien race. They aren’t the first; encounters with this race have been fruitless in the past. The aliens aren’t antagonistic, but they’re impossible to understand, so discussions go nowhere. Picard meets them, and, once again, they make no progress. The aliens don’t understand him, and their own speech — full of proper nouns that are meaningless to our heroes — doesn’t make it clear what they want, either.

Then the alien captain beams Picard down to a planet, and the two meet in person. Nobody on the Enterprise knows what the hell is going on, and Picard assumes he’s been brought there to duel. To his great credit, he refuses. The alien captain tries to give him a blade, and Picard tosses it away. Both of them are trying to explain what they want, and neither of them are understanding the other. Aboard the Enterprise, Riker is having no better luck understanding the rest of the aliens, and every minute that drags by without Picard is a minute of torment for him; all he wants to do is blow up the alien ship and beam the captain back aboard, diplomacy be damned.

It’s a nightmare, basically, and the fact that the alien captain continues to not attack Picard only confuses things more. In fact, he helps Picard get a fire going during the night when the latter can’t do it himself. If the alien is a villain, he’s one in ways that Picard still can’t understand.

It all comes down, ultimately, to the fact that the aliens communicate by metaphor. And because we humans have no concept of the aliens’ histories and myths, their metaphors — referring to individuals and locations and events and situations — mean nothing to us, the same way our metaphors would mean nothing to them. The aliens repeat the same phrases, statements, and instructions, growing despondent as though they are speaking to a child who isn’t paying attention to what he’s told, and as the episode progresses, we don’t just learn what they mean; we figure out what they mean. The Rosetta Stone in this case is a shift in our understanding of language and of communication…not a translation, but an ability to visualize what they are speaking about.

The central repeated phrase, usually by the alien captain, is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Which means nothing at fuckin’ all to people who don’t know who Darmok or Jalad are, or where Tanagra is, or what any of those things represent. What it refers to is a historical — possibly mythical — touchpoint for the aliens: two individuals named Darmok and Jalad came together at a place called Tanagra to defeat a powerful beast together, sealing their alliance. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” as said to Picard, is a suggestion for the two to bond by defeating a tough foe, forging an alliance as legendarily strong.

By way of a more recognizable example, we could describe two antagonistic brothers here on Earth as “Cain and Abel.” It would be immediately clear to us which one was meant to be Cain and which one Abel, because that comparison says a hell of a lot to us, but it would say precisely nothing to somebody from another planet. Or “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” which all of us would understand even if we’d never heard it before, but to someone who doesn’t know if Rome is a city, a car, a food, a university, a concept, a statue, or a tasty tropical drink, it would mean very little. In fact, if they assume that “Rome” is something simple — something that should easily have been built within a day — they might conclude that the overall meaning of the phrase is the opposite of what we intend to convey.

Or consider something as offhandedly simple as “sour grapes.” We understand that phrase, but to an outsider, what’s a grape? Are they meant to be sour? Are they not usually sour? Are they valuable when they’re sour? Are they deadly? Does “sour” refer to the taste, the color, the age, the region in which they are grown? Do people avoid or reach for sour grapes? Assuming we eat them, is it preferable when they’re sour or is that to be avoided? We like some sour things; why wouldn’t we like grapes that are sour? What is the significance? It’s a phrase that says everything to someone who understands it, and nothing to anyone who doesn’t, and that’s fascinating. “Darmok” had me and still has me thinking about how I use language, let alone how space aliens might.

It’s impossible to discuss “Darmok” and give it its due, because it’s a long, brilliantly handled linguistic detective story. (And, don’t worry, I didn’t give it all away.) The episode introduces a puzzle and parcels out clues. Picard puts together enough that you’ll arrive at the same conclusion, but there are plenty of pieces left for you to assemble yourself, as you gradually come to understand what the aliens are saying, without translation, without Picard confirming anything, without somebody feeding you the answers. You hear the same alien language at the beginning of the episode as you hear at the end, but by the end you know what it means.

I remember watching this episode and, afterward, just sitting and thinking. Just exploring my own mind for a while, my own understanding of language and communication, and feeling more and more impressed by what “Darmok” accomplished. Then I spoke with a friend about something completely different and, without thinking (of course), used the phrase, “It’s the tip of the iceberg.” Almost immediately, my mind flashed right back to “Darmok,” and how a phrase that simple could so thoroughly confound somebody who didn’t understand what they were meant to visualize, why visualizing it would be significant, and what — precisely — about a bit of some ice in the sea was important to our conversation.

“Darmok” cheats in the sense that, no, the language isn’t realistic. But it’s not meant to be realistic; it’s meant to be just barely unrecognizable so that when we shift our perspective and realize how they actually convey meaning to each other, we not only understand their language, but understand ours a little better as well. We had more in common than we thought, something illustrated by what might be my favorite Star Trek scene so far, when Picard — in return for the alien captain sharing some of his own people’s legends — shares with him the tales of Gilgamesh.

The two connect and bond over the significance of stories in their cultures — the importance of mythology and common understanding — as the fire dies slowly at their sides, and it’s one of the most moving depictions of personal connection I’ve seen on television.

Understanding somebody with such wildly different experiences isn’t easy, but that scene made the effort feel important. “Darmok” is, without question, my new favorite episode of Star Trek, and it all came down to two men, working hard to understand each other, finally breaking through by sharing tall tales in cold moonlight.

And with that, I come to the end of The Next Generation. Now I can finally move on to the series I’ve been most interested in from the start: William Shatner’s TekWar.

Note: Credit to Saga of the Jasonite for the images. Couldn’t find a way to contact him and ask permission, but here’s hoping the credit is sufficient.

What the hell, I’ll stop watching Star Trek

Well, sort of!

My time with Star Trek has come to an end for now. I’ve made it to the end of The Original Series, but I do intend to watch the films at some point in the near-ish future. After that? I’ll almost certainly get around to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and maybe some other things as well. I’m open to suggestions, but those are all stories for another time.

Right now, I’m taking a look back at season three of The Original Series. I was interested in this season for extremely selfish and thoroughly disrespectful reasons. Or, reason: “Spock’s Brain.”

For decades I had been hearing about how terrible this episode was. It wasn’t just the worst episode of The Original Series; it was among the worst episodes of television, full stop. How could I not want to watch it? That, as Van once put it, was honey to the bee.

We can learn a lot from the way things fall apart. Sometimes it’s our only real chance to get a peek inside something we love. When a piece of media works — truly, thoroughly works — it’s like watching a magician. We see only what we’re supposed to see; everything else is concealed or (to be more accurate) distracted from. We get caught up in the illusion, with the narrative or characterization or dialogue or filmmaking keeping us so engaged that everything else remains unseen. And, therefore, might as well not exist.

When a piece of media doesn’t work, when you see its guts spilling out all over the place, though, it’s brilliantly fascinating.

Something that is supposed to make us weep is making us laugh. Something that is supposed to move us is amusing us. Something that is supposed to form a coherent whole instead unspools as we watch it.

That’s thrilling to me. I love it. As a writer, I am able to learn from it. As a member of the audience, I am able to revel in it. I don’t hope for movies or television shows to be lousy. Ideally, I’d love everything I watch to be perfect forever. But if something is lousy, I want to see it. I want to know exactly how it went wrong. I want it to educate and entertain me in its failure, because it’s ironically difficult to learn from the things that get everything right.

And so I wanted to watch “Spock’s Brain.” I could have done so easily, at any point. Star Trek isn’t difficult to find legally, and I’m sure if I were willing to do illegal things it would be even easier. All I needed to do, basically, was set aside an hour of my time.

But I didn’t want to do that. Not on its own. I had a feeling that watching “Spock’s Brain” in isolation wouldn’t give me the full scope of just how awful it was. And that’s mainly because I knew Star Trek was beloved for a reason.

Television shows, by and large, are slick productions. There are great episodes and terrible episodes, of course, but terrible episodes don’t usually feature boom mics dipping into frame, sets falling apart, actors forgetting their lines, or other such superficial indications of awfulness as we often get in bad films.

The reason for this is simple: Television shows offer regular employment. The production staff has often been with the show for long periods, and has been working in the industry for even longer. No matter what a particular episode consists of — from brilliance on down to nonsense — they know how to shoot it, how to edit it, how to package it into a tidy little product for the audience to consume.

The writing may stink, the story may be idiotic, and narrative logic may be absent, but in terms of production, these people know what they are doing. A crappy filmmaker will assemble an incompetent crew and give us something that fails by every metric, but in television this simply doesn’t happen. Individual episodes don’t have individual crews. Specific members of that crew come and go, but never all at once and for the duration of a single episode. Production competence is the background hum.

On top of that, Star Trek in itself was a well-made show. People loved it because suspending disbelief was easy. Walls can wobble and makeup can look ridiculous, but it’s not difficult to look past those things and see, at its very sturdy core, that the show was projecting a universe we could understand. I can say that with confidence now, as I just watched most of it for the first time 50 years later, and I had no personal or nostalgic attachment to it at all. If I thought the show worked, it’s because I really did think — as an adult with more or less fully developed critical faculties — the show worked.

Which means “Spock’s Brain” must have been bad for other reasons. Reasons a non-fan probably wouldn’t understand. And so I didn’t think it was fair of me to watch “Spock’s Brain” before having a baseline understanding of what Star Trek offered on a weekly basis. That would only be fair to the show, and it would help me to better appreciate the precise way in which the wheels of “Spock’s Brain” came so fascinatingly off.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say that…

Okay, yes, it’s bad. It is a bad episode of a show that had been, in large part, quite good.

But it’s not that bad.

We’ll get to this in greater detail but, for now, let me say that I’d heard almost nothing but negative things about season three. In fact, as uniformly as people claimed season two was by far the best, they claimed that season three was by far the worst. As you know from my previous Star Trek post, I didn’t think season two was all that far above season one. Overall, yeah, it was better, but not by enough to matter.

And so I figured that season three might not be as bad as its reputation suggested. Maybe it would indeed be the worst of the three, but — again — not by enough to matter. Perhaps it came in third place only because something had to come in third place. Maybe the disappointment of “Spock’s Brain” — which was a frankly idiotic choice for season premiere — tarnished opinions in a way it wouldn’t have if it had come much later, after a string of better episodes.

I had convinced myself that this must have been the case. Then I actually started watching season three, and became immediately more confident in my assumption.

We’ll come back to “Spock’s Brain,” which indeed sucks on toast, but after that episode, we were in really good hands again.

“The Enterprise Incident” was a fun and engaging heist story, with our heroes infiltrating a Romulan vessel and stealing some dangerous technology. It had an excellent guest star in the form of the Romulan commander, who is toyed with and manipulated emotionally by Spock. She gets her feelings hurt, understandably, and Spock ends up feeling no better, surprisingly. It was a nice, compact little adventure with great twists and a bit of sad characterization as well. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorite Star Trek episodes, but certainly it belongs on the list of good ones.

And the good episodes kept coming.

“The Paradise Syndrome” saw Captain Kirk dreaming openly about settling down one day on a peaceful planet, only for an unfortunate accident to wipe his memory and leave him doing exactly that. “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” was a smart episode about perception and preconception, with another fantastic guest character and some impressive meditations on the nature of love. “Spectre of the Gun” was an amusing, surreal episode about the Enterprise crew being forced to participate in a reenactment of the Showdown at the O.K. Corral.

Have I skipped over anything? Oh, right, “And the Children Shall Lead,” which…wasn’t great. It had a decently haunting premise (the crew arrives at a colony in which all of the adults are dead, and they learn quickly that they were killed by their own children) and an excellent scene with Nurse Chapel interacting with the kids, but it falls apart when it’s revealed that it’s all the work of a glowing evil fat guy.

Just about any other direction this episode could have taken would have been better, but that’s okay. This is just one stumble along a very strong stretch.

Then we had “Day of the Dove,” which is just fantastic. At its heart it’s about a creature that feeds on negative emotions, but the actual story is smarter and more interesting than that. It’s really about the conflict between the Enterprise crew and the Klingons.

While the creature indeed manipulates them into mutual aggression, it’s more of a gentle nudge than an outright push. The crew and the Klingons already think so poorly of each other and are so suspicious of each other that they immediately assume the worst. They punish each other and take action against each other before they know if there’s a reason to do so, because they assume that of course there is a reason to do so.

It’s a graceful evolution of the idea introduced in season one’s excellent “Errand of Mercy,” which established that Kirk and the Klingon commander weren’t all that different. One may ultimately want peace a bit more than the other, but the more indistinguishable their methods turn out to be, the less convincing the “peace” argument becomes. It’s a great episode with some excellent insight.

Then there’s “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” which sees my precious Dr. McCoy finding out that he doesn’t have long to live. On its own that could be a great story, but it’s layered atop another story, about a race that doesn’t realize it’s not on a planet; it’s on a multi-generational spaceship that is on a collision course and will be destroyed if it isn’t diverted.

Two visions of a looming end, explored differently but in ways that overlap thematically as well as narratively. McCoy behaves in ways he would not behave in other episodes, but here it makes sense. We aren’t seeing the Bones we know and love; we’re seeing a desperate Bones trying to come to grips with the fact that he has no future, aside from whatever he chooses to do right here and now. It’s a flawed but wonderful episode.

I assume I’ve made my point by now. The first stretch of season three had a pair of stinkers, but it was otherwise composed of episodes that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best stuff the show had done prior.

I was vindicated. Season three wasn’t bad; season three got off on an unforgivable foot with “Spock’s Brain” and fans found it difficult to take the season seriously after that. It squandered more good will, fairly or unfairly, than the rest of the season was able to win back. What a relief.

Then, friends…my lovely, wonderful friends…the season really did take a nosedive.

Roughly the first half of season three compares favorably enough to what came before, but the second half of season three is a genuine shambles. Where I could see moments of weakness in the first stretch of episodes, I was celebrating any moments of decency in the final stretch.

My first indication that something was wrong came with the abysmal “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which seems to trip over itself trying to become as stupid as possible as quickly as possible. At one point I was watching a little person ride William Shatner like a pony while the latter neighed with delight. (That little person had by far the most dignified role in the entire mess.)

A couple of episodes later we got the miserable “The Empath,” which saw the crew being slowly tortured within an inch of their lives. What fun we have on this space adventure! There was “That Which Survives,” which was about a computer or something. There was “The Savage Curtain,” during which Kirk meets Abraham Lincoln and a rock monster. The season even ended on an extraordinarily low note with “Turnabout Intruder,” in which Kirk is possessed by — gasp — a woman!

When people tease Star Trek for its writing, for its acting, for its corniness, these must be the episodes they are referring to. Watching the first two seasons — and much of season three, at first — the criticism struck me as overblown. As though people were remembering and responding to an exaggerated echo of Star Trek rather than what Star Trek actually was. As though they were judging the show based on jokes about it and parodies of it, rather than anything it actually did or failed to do on its own.

But shit lord did season three really hit rock bottom.

Which means I should have been in heaven, right? If I love watching the wheels come off, a previously great show now falling apart on a weekly schedule should be one hell of a lucky break for me!

The problem, though, is that the episodes I just listed are not interesting failures. They’re boring. They’re repetitive. They’re superficial.

I’m not watching a show that stretched too far and couldn’t say what it wanted to say; I’m watching a show floundering for anything to say. I’m seeing finally, for the first time, some actors showing up and putting on costumes and saying the lines they need to say before they can cash their paychecks. Star Trek, surprisingly quickly, became a joke, and not an especially good one.

Do you want to know what was an interesting failure, though? “Spock’s Brain.”

I can’t imagine watching all of Star Trek or even all of season three and concluding that “Spock’s Brain” is as bad as it gets, because “Spock’s Brain” is entertaining. It’s so dumb that it becomes riveting.

It’s about a colony that needs a brain to operate its supercomputer, and so they steal Spock’s Brain — right out of Spock’s Head — without anyone noticing. When the crew shows up on the planet to track it down, they bring a literally mindless remote-controlled Leonard Nimoy with them. When they find Spock’s Brain, Dr. McCoy has difficulty putting it back into Spock’s Skull, until Spock’s Mouth talks him through the process.

And these are just the broadest strokes; “Spock’s Brain” is masterfully imbecilic.

The idea of a society needing an organic brain to keep itself operational is fine. There are better premises, certainly, but you could kick off a good story with that one. What we get, though, is almost miraculously terrible, and the episode keeps finding new ways to get stupider.

In the other examples I mentioned, the episodes find only one way to get stupid, and it’s typically the easiest, laziest way. Nothing is interesting about a plot that doesn’t go anywhere.

“Spock’s Brain,” by contrast, goes everywhere.

In many cases, even season three’s disappointing episodes do have something to recommend them. It’s difficult to entirely squash the charm, especially when the charm comes from as many different directions as it does in Star Trek.

“The Tholian Web” didn’t do much for me, but the special effect of the titular web being weaved was fucking incredible, particularly when taking into account the era and the budget of a weekly TV show. (They saved money on the awful Translucent Ghost Kirk floating around the ship, I guess.) “The Mark of Gideon” opened with a hell of a great mystery — Kirk beams down to a planet but never arrives, and we cut to him aboard a completely empty Enterprise — but ended up being about something far less interesting. “The Way to Eden” is about hippies who burn their feet because they don’t wear shoes and Spock sits in for a jam session.

“Requiem for Methuselah” was great until Kirk went mad over wanting to fuck somebody’s robot. “Whom Gods Destroy” had a great scene in which Spock has to figure out which of two Kirks is an imposter, and it had Yvonne Craig, who is hotter than the sun. Actually, we had Julie Newmar last season and Frank Gorshin this season, so the fact that Adam and Burt never showed up is criminal.

Speaking of Gorshin, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was obvious and heavy handed, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t been thinking about it regularly in the weeks since I’ve watched it. Unlike “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory,” I think the message here actually does benefit from being simple and direct. It’s preachy, but deservedly so.

The writing is a bit flat and the episode suffers from an extended foot chase through the ship’s corridors, but the actual substance of the ending — which, like most of the premise, I won’t spoil — was unquestionably the perfect conclusion to this particular story. It stumbles a bit in the execution, but not at all in its intention. Gorshin is fucking marvelous, and the makeup — while also simple and direct — was impressive. It can’t be that easy to get such a perfect division on a human face.

You know, just thinking again about “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” makes it grow in my estimation. I wouldn’t rank it among the best in the series, but it’s guileless and sincere in a way that honestly impresses me more than its flaws disappoint me. And I’ll be fucked if its message didn’t hit home in 2021, after the few years we’ve just had.

So season three, to be clear, wasn’t a total write off. It was just frustrating, and frequently so.

There was an interesting (possibly unintentional) theme that I enjoyed, too. Season one felt like a series of what-if scenarios; The Twilight Zone in space, basically. Season two, as we discussed, felt like a longform examination of Kirk, who he is, how far he can be pushed, and what he could become if he isn’t careful. Season three seemed to focus more on other cultures and how they operate.

That is certainly something we explored in the first two seasons, but it was usually in relation to how the Enterprise crew affected or was affected by those cultures. That made complete sense; we have recurring characters for a reason. Here, though, a lot of what the Enterprise crew does boils down to observing, secretly aiding, or attempting to avoid. They often do interfere — what Prime Directive? — but, even then, the story seems to be more about what these cultures are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.

“The Paradise Syndrome” is about a largely peaceful group of natives who have no idea how close they’ve come to extinction. We learn about who they are, their history, and their customs through Kirk, who becomes a member of the tribe. “Wink of an Eye” is about a group of aliens who move too quickly to be seen by humans, and we explore both the advantages and drawbacks of that kind of existence. “Elaan of Troyius” is entirely about a political alliance that is about to be sealed by a marriage, with the Enterprise acting as little more than a ferry between nations.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is about a massive civil war that we never see, though we hear about its past and we see what it’s done to two characters caught in its midst. The central conflict in “The Lights of Zetar” revolves around the universe’s invaluable memory banks, records of histories beyond number. (It also, incidentally, features history’s single cutest librarian.) “The Cloud Minders” is about a specific — and quite literal — struggle between a lower and upper class.

So much of season three feels effectively alien, and I love it.

“The Lights of Zetar,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and “The Tholian Web” all feature major appearances from creatures beyond the understanding of our limited human minds. And we get the inverse as well; there’s a genuinely sad, moving moment in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” during which an alien possesses a willing Spock, only to be overcome with sorrow for how brief and limited a human life is.

All of this stuff is good, and that’s just a small portion of it. Just about every episode explores a problem faced by a culture that’s going to continue dealing with the fallout of its own decisions long after the Enterprise moves along to its next adventure.

Each episode is like a window into a different show entirely, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s one of season three’s most impressive feats, even if the windows are not created equal.

I have a feeling that folks who have seen season three have noticed that I haven’t mentioned one particular episode at all.

So…let’s mention it.

When I started this proper journey through The Original Series, I’d already seen a handful of episodes. Those included “Balance of Terror” from season one and “Mirror, Mirror” from season two, which ended up being my favorites from those seasons. I can’t say that I was disappointed by that outcome (they are fantastic episodes of television), but it would have been nice if some other episode I hadn’t seen managed to surprise me instead.

I hadn’t seen a single episode from season three, though, so I had no idea what to expect, what I liked, or what I didn’t like.

No matter what, some episode would become my favorite of the batch. That could just mean it was the least objectionable one rather than anything that approached the greatness of my favorites from the first two seasons. In fact, I honestly doubted anything would come near those heights, especially as the season wore on and puttered along without steam.

Then, the second-to-last episode of this season (and The Original Series as a whole) hit me like a brick.

“All Our Yesterdays” is one of my favorite episodes and my biggest surprise during my little journey. It’s right up there with my two other favorites. It’s not only the best of the season; it’s one of Star Trek’s most magnificent achievements.

Probably coincidentally, each of our three leads this season is faced at some point with the question of where they will end up. Sure, they’re out there zipping around space and flirting with sexy aliens today, but where will they be tomorrow? Everybody ends up somewhere. Where will it be for our heroes?

Kirk raises this question and then ends up trying an answer on for size in “The Paradise Syndrome.” Bones is forced to confront this question in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” when he needs to decide if he’s going to spend his final days patching up wounds or enjoying some sort of brief, quiet retirement.

Then we have Spock, who must address the question in “All Our Yesterdays,” and it’s fucking devastating.

The episode sees the Enterprise crew heading over to a planet that is on the brink of destruction. They’re there to help, but nobody is around to be helped. The residents of the planet have all evacuated…into the past. Everybody chose a destination, and they escaped tomorrow by heading into yesterday. It’s a neat little sci-fi idea. Our landing party doesn’t quite understand the situation, however, and they end up popping into the planet’s past themselves. First Kirk into one time period, then Bones and Spock into another.

For Kirk, his problem is straightforward. He needs to figure out how to return to the present and reconnect with the rest of his team before the planet goes kaboom.

For Bones and Spock, stranded much farther into the past, it’s a different story. They’re stuck in frozen tundra without heat or shelter. Kirk has the relative luxury of being able to think about a solution; Bones and Spock are minutes from death.

The whole “people escaping into the past” premise can go a thousand different ways. This is already one very good way.

Then it gets better.

In fact, it gets so good that it hurts.

Bones and Spock are rescued by a woman who never expected to see another person for the rest of her life. She did not evacuate into this time period; she was sent here as punishment for a crime of civil disobedience. It was, essentially, a death sentence.

The more time we spend with her, the easier it is to believe that the punishment was unfair. She’s a good person. She’s a kind soul. She’s caring and friendly. Stranding her in this icy hell was a cruel injustice. She wasn’t sent here to keep her follow citizens safe; she was sent here to silence her.

She’s been stranded here for years with no hope of returning. In fact, everybody who has left for the past has undergone a process that will kill them if they return. For some of them, it’s to keep them from returning to the impending death of their planet. For others, it’s to keep them caged where they are. This is her life; scrounging for food in a world unfit for human habitation, alone, living in misery and dying slowly.

Until she finds Bones and Spock. She rescued them, yes, but their presence has also rescued her. She is no longer alone. She has companions who can help. Friends. Maybe, in Spock, a lover. Someone to care about and to be cared about by.

This actor, Mariette Hartley, is so gentle, and has such kind eyes, and is so clearly stuck here unfairly, that it’s impossible not to feel strongly for her character. For her predicament. For her very real damnation at the hands of a society that has not thought about her since the moment she was banished forever.

And Spock, unable to find any way back to his captain, or even out of the past, begins to consider a life here. With her. Helping her grow crops and stay safe. Speaking with her. Exchanging stories of completely different worlds and histories. The episode gives his Vulcan impulses a reason to regress, but I don’t believe they’re necessary; Spock feels love, he feels fear, he feels happiness, he feels sorrow, as much as he wished he didn’t. Realizing that he’s stuck in a hopeless world, he’s going to experience a lot of emotions, and they are not going to be pleasant. Realizing further that he’s at least stuck with…well…Mariette Hartley, he’s going to experience even more emotions.

The man’s internal conflict ramps up over the course of the hour to the point that it seems like he is losing his mind. It’s real and it’s sad and it’s even a little scary.

When Kirk manages to find a way to reunite the trio, Spock is faced with the very real dilemma of having to choose between two futures. Does he return to his captain and live that life, or does he stay here and live this one? His choice is soon taken from him, in an even sadder swing of the hammer; since he and Bones slipped into the past together, they can only escape it together. If he stays here, he’s robbing the good doctor of his future. As such, he is obligated to return. A choice between two futures has suddenly become one entire future snatched away before his eyes.

And poor Mariette Hartley, who against all possibility found companionship in the wasteland — with intelligent, friendly people — is left alone again. How much more must it sting, to have to adjust a second time to being alone. How much pain must now follow that brief window of relief. How much sorrow must she feel, knowing that she had what she could not keep.

It’s — again — fucking devastating, and the episode plays it perfectly. In “The City on the Edge of Forever” we similarly met a doomed love interest, but that love interest was always doomed. Joan Collins died in the timeline in which she didn’t meet Kirk, and she died in the timeline in which she did. Nothing really changed except for the fact that Kirk (and we) got to know her. That’s why it hurt. She wasn’t a name in the obituaries; she was a person. In all truth, she was no worse off for the experience, however sad and upsetting her end might have been to us.

Mariette Hartley is worse off. She had adjusted, she had her adjustment shattered, and she was left alone to adjust again. Only this time in more pain, more hopeless, with memories of another, more recent loss.

I love “All Our Yesterdays.” And if Star Trek had ended just one episode sooner than it had, this would have been the final chapter of The Original Series. What a perfect way to go out. Instead we got “Turnabout Intruder,” and the nicest thing I can say about that episode is that watching it didn’t make all of my teeth fall out.

And so that’s it for season three, and for The Original Series. Without question, I enjoyed it. But I expected that. I expected highlights and lowlights. I expected to laugh with the show and at the show at different times. I expected that there would be moments and episodes that impressed me.

But it was also a journey full of surprises, and none of those was bigger or more appreciated than “All Our Yesterdays,” which ripped my heart out and stomped on it in a way that impressed the hell out of me.

Season three was rough going much of the time, but there were still moments that reminded me of why Star Trek was adored in the first place. And there was one episode that would have justified an entire season of “Spock’s Brain.”

Speaking of which, here is every “Spock’s Brain” ranked from worst to best. And please, let me know your favorites from this or the previous seasons. Discussing the show here has been great fun, and I thank you for joining me on this long-overdue trip.

24) Plato’s Stepchildren
23) The Empath
22) The Way to Eden
21) The Savage Curtain
20) Spock’s Brain
19) Turnabout Intruder
18) Whom Gods Destroy
17) And the Children Shall Lead
16) The Mark of Gideon
15) Requiem for Methuselah
14) The Cloud Minders
13) That Which Survives
12) Wink of an Eye
11) The Tholian Web
10) Elaan of Troyius
9) Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
8) The Lights of Zetar
7) The Paradise Syndrome
6) Spectre of the Gun
5) The Enterprise Incident
4) For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky
3) Day of the Dove
2) Is There in Truth No Beauty?
1) All Our Yesterdays

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

What the hell, I’ll keep watching Star Trek

I’m going to open my discussion of Star Trek: The Original series season two with some unexpected disappointment. Why not, eh?

My journey through Star Trek has taken place almost entirely offline. You got my summary post of season one, and I’ve exchanged messages with a few friends, but nearly all of my discussion about the show has occurred in reality, with the friends and coworkers I interact with normally.

They’ve been very — impressively, even — good at allowing me to come to my own conclusions. Very, very rarely do they tell me ahead of time of a development to come or how an episode is overall received by fans. When it does happen, it’s been stuff that’s pretty obvious. (Chekov joining the cast for the second season, “The City on the Edge of Forever” being rightly beloved, etc.) Beyond that, they’ve volunteered very little that I didn’t bring up — or question — myself in the course of conversation.

And yet — and yet! — there is one thing I heard many times over: Season two is a huge improvement over season one.

This made so much sense to me that I didn’t really think twice. Honest question: Can you name many successful series in which the second season did not represent a notable improvement over the first?

In a collaborative medium — such as television, of course — there’s a lot to learn. No matter how well you plan ahead of time, you’ll face a deluge of curveballs once things are underway.

Actors will bring with them their own talents and limitations. Costumes and sets will be limited by a budget, which itself is likely to fluctuate. Continuity (correctly, in my opinion) goes out the window as the writers discover better, more fruitful ideas as the series progresses. Tight deadlines prevent you from producing a show as strong as you might like. Injury or illness takes people out of the rotation when you need them most.

And that’s just a small sampling of very superficial considerations. My point is that you can’t predict or account for every obstacle you will face, and that’s especially the case in season one of whatever show you’re making.

By season two, you’ve necessarily had to adjust and account for those things at least once. New obstacles will certainly present themselves, but you’ve at least got a handle on the old ones. The pool of “unknowns” has shrunk. You are in a position now to create something that is more in line with the vision in your head.

So of course season two of The Original Series would be a huge step forward. I could have guessed that on my own, but it was nice to have it confirmed by long-time fans. It meant that I had something to look forward to.

Then I watched season two, and…man, I am not sure that I agree.

I do believe it’s better. Full stop. But I don’t think it’s better to any degree that is worth mentioning.

The great episodes don’t really stand above the great episodes from season one. The lousy episodes are no better than their earlier equivalents, either. And I’m not sure that there are a larger number of great episodes or a smaller number of lousy ones.

I think I can say that the baseline level of competence has risen, but not enough that it has any measurable difference on the quality of the season as a whole.

Of course, I ended up liking season one — quite a lot — so this is a relative disappointment only. I was prepared for season two to blow the previous season away, and it really, truly did not. I’d love to know what folks believe sets season two so high above season one, because as a newcomer I’m kind of baffled.

What I can say for sure is that the pacing is, on the whole, much better this time around.

Better pacing doesn’t turn a bad story into a good one (nor does poor pacing turn a good story into a bad one), but the journey is much more enjoyable for it. Rarely did I feel that an episode dragged (“The Immunity Syndrome” aside, as it was clearly intended to drag and is just as clearly fucking unwatchable), whereas the majority of episodes in season one had at least one dreary stretch that had me checking my watch.

But that’s about the only real improvement I can cite. I’m genuinely curious to know what other folks think.

The most obvious change is the addition to the cast of Chekov, played by the fucking adorable Walter Koenig. I love Chekov, but I can’t imagine that his debut is the reason people rate season two so highly.

Regardless, he’s an excellent addition. Everybody on the Enterprise has their lighter moments, but young Chekov has a far higher percentage of them, which means that nearly all of his scenes are pleasant and entertaining.

His youth also allows him to illustrate something we saw very little of in season one: a lack of discipline. Chekov is intelligent and accomplished (is there a greater intellectual honor than filling in for Spock whenever necessary?), but he lacks the gravity and authority of his older comrades.

In season one we definitely met some flawed crewmen, but Chekov registers more as someone who just hasn’t had enough time to iron out his flaws. He’s competent and capable, but needs a bit of polish. It’s an interesting kind of character to have as a fixture on the bridge.

In my season one post, I spilled a lot of ink wondering why it took until season two for anyone to think to fill the navigator’s chair with a single, recurring character. Ultimately, I let the issue drop because I knew this would happen with Chekov in season two.

…and yet, now that I’m here, I’m not even sure that that’s the case.

Chekov’s arrival coincides with Sulu’s absence. George Takei was unavailable for many episodes because he was off filming a movie, apparently. So I wonder, was Chekov introduced — as I’d assumed — because it was wasteful to invent / cast a different navigator for every episode? Or was he introduced because Sulu, the only other recurring character on that part of the bridge, would be absent for much of the season?

The amount of puzzlement the navigator’s chair has brought me is beyond measure, and I won’t belabor the point any further, but good lord, what a strange situation.

This is a case in which the BluRay running order is clearly much different from production. Surely Takei would have been absent for one long stretch of recording, but in my experience watching season two, Sulu is there one week, Chekov is there the next, then Sulu, then Chekov. Rarely are they both in the same episode; one really does feel like a replacement for the other.

That’s a bit disappointing, because some of my favorite material ended up being the rare interactions between the two.

Chekov and Sulu have this natural, recognizable sort of default camaraderie that comes from sitting next to each other every day. They don’t necessarily know each other very well, but they share little quips and commiserations out of proximity alone. They are coworkers who don’t dislike each other but who also — almost certainly — spend no time together after the shift ends.

That, to me, is so much more interesting than two lifelong chums would be. And it’s probably more believable, as well.

Surprisingly, Nurse Chapel becomes a semi-regular character in season two. She existed in season one, but only barely, appearing in just one or two episodes (if I remember correctly), and those were early in the season.

I was glad to see that a character who seemed forgotten ended up playing a larger role this time around. I’d be lying if I said she got all that much to do, but her presence meant that we could get scenes in sickbay whenever Bones was out gallivanting with the landing team.

Speaking of Bones, the only other casting change that I noticed was the overdue promotion of DeForest Kelley to the main credits. He appears in every episode now, which is very welcome as far as I’m concerned. The guy is still my pick for MVP from both an acting and characterization standpoint. There’s never a scene with Bones that is not elevated for his presence.

And since I’m destined to gush about Kelley / Bones all over again, I might as well tie it into my favorite thing about the season: its willingness to explore character.

We had plenty of opportunity to discover who these people were in season one, and I’d argue that just about all of the characterization was effective and well handled. Season two, though, gets to take it a step further. Since we already know who these people are, we are able to delve into what makes them that way.

Perhaps because Bones was already damned well realized in the first season, we don’t get too much that centers around him here. His “big” episode is “Friday’s Child,” which I quite liked in spite of its obvious flaws.

The crew journeys to a planet that Dr. McCoy has visited in the past, where he attempted to bring medical knowledge to the civilization there. His experience of this culture — his understanding of their nature and their customs — proves invaluable in a way that I thought was great. He even gets to do some excellent work with guest star Julie Newmar, seeing him pinched between his obligations as a doctor and his obligations as a visitor on behalf of Starfleet.

Overall, though, Bones shines mainly in support roles. I’m hoping we get at least another episode dedicated to him in season three, because I really do think the character can carry more than he’s been given, but the guy is so great as a sidekick that I can’t complain.

He’s insightful and hilarious by turns. The hardest I’ve laughed in a while came in “Bread and Circuses,” when he is tossed into a gladiatorial fight to the death. His opponent — who is a friend — goes easy on him, but tells Bones to at least defend himself. “I am defending myself!” he responds, and Kelley’s delivery is absolutely perfect. There’s surprise, frustration, and fear behind it, and yet it’s still comical.

In fact, “Bread and Circuses” might be one of his best episodes, even if his presence there is no larger than in most others.

There’s a lovely scene in which he and Spock are imprisoned together, and he’s worried to the point that he lets his gruff demeanor fall just enough that he’s able to speak to Spock like a friend, with genuine warmth. Spock responds…well, like Spock. Cold and detached, same as ever. “I’m trying to thank you, you pointed-eared hobgoblin,” McCoy says, and it’s funny and emotional at the same time.

I’ll give the writing its due credit here, but Kelley absolutely elevates this stuff, giving it resonance that works far beyond the words typed onto a script. (However good those words might be.)

Spock gets a pair of important episodes about who he is, and they’re both among the season’s best. Each of them focuses on the struggle between his Vulcan half and human half, and each of them tips the balance in a different direction.

“Amok Time” is by far the more famous one, showing his Vulcan urges completely overtake his humanity to the point that he finds himself in a fight to the death with his best friend. (McCoy is the hero of this one, settling matters in a way that’s both entirely out of left field and completely appropriate to the situation. Just need to toss my man Bones another high five.)

It ends with Spock asserting his human side, in spite of the fact that he knows his fellow Vulcans won’t understand. Having lost his betrothed to another man, he congratulates him, but then adds, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

It’s a pained and painful acceptance of the part of himself he works hardest to keep hidden, and it’s executed brilliantly.

The other one, “Journey to Babel,” approaches things from the other direction. Here, it is Spock’s humanity that is tested to the point of agony.

His father falls ill and is in need of a transfusion, which only Spock can provide. Easy enough, except that with Kirk indisposed, Spock is in command of the Enterprise. No Vulcan would shirk his duty for the sake of something as sentimental as saving a loved one. Spock’s father is one person, after all; there are hundreds aboard the Enterprise. Clearly the logical thing is to fulfill your obligation to them. No Vulcan would disagree. In fact, Spock’s father won’t even disagree as he finds himself at death’s door.

But that human side of Spock — personified in this episode by his human mother — won’t let the matter remain settled. He ultimately gives into this side, but bonds with his father afterward by picking on her (in a genuinely good-natured way) for her tendency to put emotion over logic. After an episode of human struggle, he snaps back to being a Vulcan.

Each episode raises the question of Spock’s nature, and each one provides a different answer. It’s interesting, and though I far prefer “Journey to Babel,” they’re both handled extremely well, with a level of care and intelligence I wouldn’t have expected.

Even Scotty — who I have to assume was an unexpected breakout character last season — is explored in a pair of episodes. In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” we see him fall in love with a woman who doesn’t quite feel the same way toward him, and he’s willing to sacrifice himself to keep her safe. In “Wolf in the Fold,” we see him work through some off-screen trauma, though it does land him in a different kind of hot water, which ends up being even worse.

Then there’s “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which sees him calm and clear-headed as a rowdy group of Klingons insults their captain…but he throws a punch the moment they insult his beloved ship.

His runaway highlight of the season though is his attempt to outdrink an alien visitor in “By Any Other Name.” The drunk acting between the two characters is a fucking delight. It’s played for obvious comedy, but there’s something genuine and identifiable about the way they go from being distant to being pally to seeming like they’re about to fight before they both pass out.

Absolutely wonderful stuff.

Kirk, understandably, gets the most attention as a character, and the criticism of Shatner’s acting that I’ve been hearing for years seems even further divorced from reality.

I’ll put it right out there: I love Kirk. He seems to have been written in a way that positions him as a role model, but also, crucially, as an achievable one.

He’s not infallible; he is a human being as flawed as any other, but he works through his flaws. He earns every ounce of respect and admirability he commands. Kirk doesn’t coast on his good looks or his charm, and he doesn’t take his success for granted.

All of which is very interesting, because season two explores him mainly through other characters. Characters in positions similar to Kirk, but who have let their flaws take over, or who have thought too much of themselves, or who have taken something for granted with disastrous results.

We encounter a number of other members of Starfleet who Kirk remembers fondly, and then we see just what could happen if Kirk were to fail to think through the results of his actions, or let himself take the easy way out at any point.

In “Bread and Circuses,” Captain Merik turns his crew over to a brutal world because he doesn’t have the integrity to fight back…and though he finds himself rewarded for doing so, it’s hollow, and feels like no kind of victory to him.

In “Patterns of Force,” a historian attempts to provide a framework for order to a chaotic society, without quite thinking far enough ahead to realize that Nazi Germany might not be the best example.

In “The Omega Glory,” Captain Tracey has manipulated a civilization into a state of eternal conflict simply to keep himself safe after being stranded among them.

All of these examples suggest alternate paths that Kirk could follow. He won’t, but he could. What’s more, each of these men could be said (to varying degrees) to have been doing what they felt was right, given their difficult situations. Kirk follows his gut on a weekly basis. Surely it’s just a matter of time before that gut leads him to the wrong decision…

In each of these cases, things have spiraled out of control. In each of these cases, the men in question probably got to enjoy a good, long stretch of believing everything has worked out correctly. In each of these cases, we meet them after they can no longer convince themselves that that’s the case. They’re lost, and the best they can do is try endlessly to justify to themselves what they’ve done, because nobody else is around to listen.

But these are all hypothetical paths for some alternate version of Kirk to take. There’s another alternate Kirk we meet this season, and it’s far less hypothetical.

In “The Doomsday Machine,” we meet Commodore Decker, who has lost his entire crew and his ship to a creature of unknowable power. He made the decision to beam them down to a planet, in the hopes that he could save them. He could not; when Kirk finds him, he is the lone survivor of the attack.

Decker made the best decision he could possibly have made at the time, but that didn’t matter. It was a no-win situation, and he lost. The experience broke him. It’s a tragic performance that does excellent work selling just how busted up this man is, just how much he’s lost, just how tormented he feels about outliving the crew that was entrusted to him.

He’s beamed over to the Enterprise for bed rest while Kirk attempts to get the disabled ship up and running. While there, the Enterprise spots the beast…and Decker, out of his fucking mind, assumes command.

He outranks everybody else on the ship. There’s nothing they can do aside from follow his orders. He single-mindedly pursues the monster that could — and certainly will — eat the Enterprise for lunch. The desperate glances between crewmen who reluctantly carry out the orders that will bring them to their deaths are chilling.

They are marching, step by step, into their graves, and there is nothing they can do.

In the end, surprise surprise, Kirk comes back and takes over. The entire crew is understandably relieved to have someone sane in the captain’s chair again.

They all mop their brows and say, “Whew!” A close call, but they will never serve under Decker again. Roll credits.

Then, many episodes later, we have “Obsession.”

Here, Kirk encounters a beast that killed his crewmates early in his Starfleet career. He always believed he made the wrong decision, though he was found to have not been at fault for the disaster. Regardless, Kirk unexpectedly crosses paths with it again, and is determined to destroy the thing this time. He orders the ship onward, toward the unstoppable beast, against all reason, against the counsel of his most trusted friends, against the protestations of his crew…

And suddenly they are serving under Decker again. But it’s Kirk. Which means they can’t sit around waiting for Kirk to beam over and get the crazy man out of the chair. Nobody else is coming.

Kirk meets many alternate versions of himself — versions with different appearances, ranks, histories, but versions of himself nonetheless — and gets to end each episode thankful that he’d never make the decisions that would get him to that point.

Except in the case of Decker, because he makes exactly the same decisions, endangers his own crew in exactly the same way, failing to learn one of the most important lessons this season tried to teach him.

In my rankings below, I honestly wasn’t sure whether to place “The Doomsday Machine” or “Obsession” higher. They chart similar ground and they each do so excellently. You can swap those two around if you like; I won’t mind.

Ultimately it came down either to giving the nod to a truly fantastic guest character, or to the horror of seeing Kirk drift so easily and naturally into the status of “cautionary tale” for whatever captain would happen to come along next. I went with the latter. I’d be no less satisfied with the former.

We get some other confirmations of flaws in Kirk along the way, though they aren’t given nearly as much time as we get in “Obsession.”

In “The Deadly Years” we see him clinging to command of the Enterprise well after he’s lost his faculties and mental acuity. In “The Ultimate Computer” we see him fret about losing his job to a machine, with McCoy both comforting and chiding him: “We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.” (Guys, McCoy is fucking great.)

Possibly not coincidentally, that episode also gives us an alternate Kirk: Dr. Daystrom, another hotshot who showed promise young, and then became desperate to avoid falling into irrelevance.

All of which sounds like this season was pretty excellent, right?

Well…yeah! Kind of. For the most part. At times.

Not all of the episodes I’ve highlighted above are actually good…it’s just that, as with season one, even the worst episodes have something to recommend them.

Also like season one, but which I didn’t discuss there, the episodes have a strange tendency to take a hard left turn at various points, becoming something else entirely.

“The Omega Glory” is a particularly egregious example; it begins promisingly, with the Enterprise finding a derelict ship full of crystalized crewmen. What happened? It’s a good mystery and, as cheap as it certainly was, a nice visual. Then we take a hard left turn to a planet on which Americans and Communists both sprouted up independently of Earth and Kirk explains their — also identical — U.S. Constitution to them in what I hope to Christ is the most embarrassing thing Star Trek ever does.

“Wolf in the Fold” is a strange one, too. It starts with a decently effective whodunit, at the heart of which is poor, baffled Scotty. He’s the only suspect in a series of grisly murders. We know he didn’t do it, of course, but we can still have some fun learning how, exactly, he was framed. Well, the joke’s on us because after a hard left turn the episode is about the ghost of Jack the Ripper who now haunts the Enterprise‘s computers.

It’s not always a bad thing. I really liked “By Any Other Name,” but I don’t know if I’m impressed or confused by how easily it swings from being an episode with a genuine threat to being overtly comic. Both halves work well on their own, but it really feels as though everyone involved with the first half of the episode died suddenly in their sleep and a completely different set of folks were brought in to finish it.

That about does it for anything I can really say with any thought behind it, but I do have a few other, scattered thoughts.

Firstly, Harry Mudd got robbed. Roger C. Carmel is an absolute riot in the role, but “I, Mudd” and last season’s “Mudd’s Women” are abysmal pieces of television. I’m told he doesn’t appear in season three, and that’s unfortunate because if any character needs an episode good enough to redeem him, it’s poor old Mudd. The guy should have been the show’s Sideshow Bob, but it feels like the writers just sort of shrugged and figured Carmel could carry his episodes on charisma alone. I can’t blame them — dude is amazing — but come on.

Secondly, I had somehow gotten it into my mind that “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was the episode with television’s first interracial kiss. I was wrong — that must happen in season three at some point — but I do sort of wish it had happened in this episode. It would have been one of the only redeemable things about that fucking mess.

Thirdly, “Mirror, Mirror” is a god-damned masterpiece. I think I still prefer season one’s “Balance of Terror,” but I was genuinely impressed by every last one of the choices made in “Mirror, Mirror.” It’s not surprising to me at all that the concepts of mirror universes and evil versions of characters became so common after this. Many Star Trek episodes have solid concepts, but this one nails the execution as well anything possibly could. It’s as brilliant as “Catspaw” is dumb. And “Catspaw” is really, deeply, profoundly dumb.

Fourthly, I prefer the theme tune without vocals. No idea how much sacrilege I’m practicing here but, well, there ya go.

Finally, I’m sorry, I almost touched upon this in my season one review but I can’t keep it inside anymore: Everyone on this show is hot as fuuuuuuuuck.

Shatner is gorgeous, and he’s gorgeous in a way that doesn’t lock him into “1960s heartthrob” status. He is just a genuinely great looking human being. Spock isn’t my cup of tea, but his beard in “Mirror, Mirror” absolutely had me swooning. Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov are all adorable in such very different ways. Uhura is quite possibly perfect; if there is a straight man out there who isn’t attracted to her, I’d have to ask what it is they find attractive about women; she certainly seems to satisfy every possible answer to that question. And Bones is probably the least conventionally attractive character on the show but let me be very, very clear about the fact that I would make out with him and I’d do it proudly.

Whew. Okay. Anyway, point is, season two was pretty great, but season one wasn’t much less great. If season two’s quality was inflated, I’m glad to hear it; all I’ve heard about season three is how much of a step down it is, so maybe that will turn out to be an exaggeration as well.

I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. I’ll be diving into that next. And I can finally reveal that, in all honesty, I only started watching Star Trek so I could eventually see the legendary “Spock’s Brain.”

Anyway, everything above is just my opinion and you are more than welcome to disagree. In fact, please do! I’d like to end on some indisputable fact, though, so here is every season two episode of Star Trek: The Original Series ranked from worst to best.

26) Catspaw
25) Who Mourns for Adonais?
24) The Immunity Syndrome
23) The Changeling
22) The Gamesters of Triskelion
21) The Omega Glory
20) A Private Little War
19) The Apple
18) Assignment: Earth
17) Return to Tomorrow
16) A Piece of the Action
15) I, Mudd
14) Wolf in the Fold
13) Patterns of Force
12) Metamorphosis
11) Friday’s Child
10) Bread and Circuses
9) The Deadly Years
8) Amok Time
7) The Trouble with Tribbles
6) By Any Other Name
5) The Ultimate Computer
4) The Doomsday Machine
3) Obsession
2) Journey to Babel
1) Mirror, Mirror

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

What the hell, I’ll watch Star Trek

What did you accomplish during the deadliest year any of us have experienced? If you’re like me, you’ve accomplished the square root of jack squat. But you’ve probably consumed a lot of entertainment, perhaps even stuff you’d never gotten around to experiencing before. For me, my big “late discovery” was Star Trek.

I’m a nerd. (DID YOU KNOW?) For whatever reason, though, Star Trek never appealed to me enough to sit down and watch it properly. I had an interest in it from a historical standpoint — it’s an important part of television history, before we even consider whether or not it was any good — but that was about it. I figured I’d get to it eventually, but there was certainly no rush.

Then 2020 happened, and nearly all of my time was spent alone, indoors. If not under those circumstances, when?

Let me say one thing up front: I will not be reviewing each episode of Star Trek. A friend of the website — and all around ace human being — has done that already. She’s done it better and more thoroughly than I possibly could. Go read those. If you’d like to pretend I wrote them, just imagine they contain a lot more spelling errors. Instead, I think I’m just going to record some loose and disconnected thoughts as I go. Lucky you!

Anyway, Star Trek. It was the first iteration of the show — what we now call The Original Series, the Kirk ‘n’ Spock one — that interested me. I had and have no doubt that the later series are worth watching. People adore The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine sounds like it’s right up my alley. It’s The Original Series that I figured I should start with, though. Even if it were terrible, I at least knew I could enjoy its importance.

It’s taken me a few months to get through the first season. That’s because…well, I have to be honest here: Much of Star Trek is rough going.

Prior to starting this proper watch through, my experience of The Original Series was limited to a few bits caught on TV here and there, some hand-selected episodes that were officially posted to YouTube around a decade ago, and The Motion Picture. When I tell people that, they say, “But that’s the worst movie!” Maybe that’s true, but I liked it; it didn’t sour me in any way toward whatever the show would or wouldn’t offer.

That was the entirety of my first-hand experience. I don’t remember why those episodes were posted to YouTube, but I imagine it was to celebrate some kind of anniversary. William Shatner provided some intro clips, but I don’t remember if I watched those. Some of the episodes I enjoyed. Some of them I did not enjoy. Nothing, apparently, encouraged me to sit down and watch the show from beginning to end.

Starting The Original Series in mid-2020, I wasn’t convinced I’d get much out of it. The season is very slow to start, and it’s clearly finding its footing. I mean that in every regard, by the way. The writing isn’t great. The actors don’t get much to work with. Characters change roles a number of times before they settle into their actual stations. (Or get ejected without comment.) The pacing is slow to the point that genuine boredom set in many times.

All of which…well…it’s a new show doing new things. It’s going Where No Man Has Gone Before. There’s bound to be some teething trouble. I’d find those things easier to excuse if there were interesting ideas behind them. Basically, I’d go easier on the execution if I recognized a strong vision or if it had compelling stories to tell. Maybe the show didn’t quite know how to tell its stories, but if they were worth telling, I’d sympathize with the difficulty it has in getting them out.

Instead, though, a long run of episodes in the first stretch can be boiled down to “something weird got on the ship.” It feels almost daringly uncreative. I realize that fans reading that sentence will think I’m being dismissive of the show, and I understand that perspective. Instead, though, I’m really just trying to convey my bafflement. The show isn’t uncreative, and yet it takes many, many episodes before it demonstrates its creativity in any narratively notable way.

Sitting down and setting an hour of my time aside to watch yet another installment in which Kirk and Spock try to identify and stop whatever weird something got onto the ship this time was not compelling to me. Each of those episodes, to some degree, had interesting ideas scattered around, but it felt so dull and repetitive that I’d have to make myself watch the show.

I’m glad I did, however, because around halfway through the season, something unpredictable happened: The show got very good, and reliably so.

I’ll mention here that I’m going entirely by the running order on my BluRay box set. I understand that the episodes may have aired in another sequence, and they were certainly produced in another sequence, but around the rough midpoint of the season as I experienced it, things actually started to click. The stories got more creative. The characters started interacting more believably. I wanted to know what weird something would get onto the ship next because I could count on it being entertaining.

At the beginning of season one, I wasn’t quite sure why I was bothering. Now that I’ve hit the end, I’m excited about the prospect of season two.

All of which is to say that season one of The Original Series retroactively became a fascinating study of a show finding its footing. Of course, we’ve all seen shows struggle a bit at the start, but The Original Series finds its footing so slowly — with so many false starts and dead ends and lessons stubbornly unlearned — that it’s ripe for autopsy. Whereas most shows make the bulk of their mistakes off camera, The Original Series seems to be making every last one of them in public. I’m sure that’s incorrect, but compared to most shows it feels correct.

My intention here isn’t to beat up on Star Trek. Its accomplishments are genuine and rightly celebrated, but I will say that there are clear examples of the show not quite understanding itself.

Sometimes it’s superficial. Spock’s Vulcan makeup gets less extreme (perhaps just better applied) as the season progresses. Also, he’s sometimes referred to as Vulcan and sometimes Vulcanian.

Even when terminology is consistent, the cast doesn’t always agree on how to pronounce it; it’s both Klingon and clingin’. Costumes change. The ship has a crusty old doctor with no personality until it gets McCoy, though the sequence of the episodes makes it feel like McCoy was the first doctor and was temporarily replaced. Yeoman Rand is an important recurring character until she vanishes and is replaced by rotating yeomen who are neither important nor recurring. Sulu was on the medical staff before he was suddenly, without explanation, the helmsman.

Then there’s The Guy Next to Sulu, the navigator, which is the most puzzling thing of all. I know Chekov shows up in season two, filling that role permanently, but how in the heck did that position survive all of season one without a regular actor?

This might take a bit of explanation, but bear with me, because it both irritated and fascinated me.

There are many miscellaneous crew members who dot the background, even on the bridge. That’s okay. I’d wager most of them only appeared in a single episode, but I can’t know that for sure because they’re rarely the focus of any given shot (and never the focus of any given scene). They come and go as extras do.

The navigator is another story. In every episode, a different person is in that seat, which is notable because that seat is near the center of the frame any time we get a good shot of the bridge. The navigator — whomever he is during any given week — is at the focus of many shots. What’s more, he’s sometimes even important to the plot. He gets lines. Kirk issues commands; he replies. He interacts with the others. He’s always a different person but he’s often involved with the larger goings-on.

Which means that — for each episode — they had to go through the trouble of finding somebody. Of auditioning him to make sure he could act. Of fitting him for a uniform and tailoring it to him. Of rehearsing with him. Of reshooting scenes when he inevitably botches his lines. It was a process to keep recasting that position. Surely at some point somebody would have said, “It would be easier to just cast one actor and keep him around.” Right? Well, maybe they did say that between season one and season two, but good lord, how did nobody say it sooner?

It’s strange. The easier solution — creating a character — was also the better one. They made it more difficult on themselves for no true benefit to the show, themselves, or the audience. Many positions on the ship had rotating crewmen, but this one was front and center in every episode. It’s bizarre.

Of course, the lack of a recurring character means you could do stories in which that character has a memorable disappearance. I’m thinking of Bailey in “The Corbomite Maneuver” or — more notably — Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” In neither case, though, did that character have to be the navigator. One just had to be kind of shitty at his job and the other only had to be on the bridge at an unfortunate moment. Those could be any position on the ship. And even if you disagree and feel that both characters had to be navigators for whatever reason, quietly rotating cast members for 29 episodes only so it could be important to two episodes is a monumentally lousy idea.

Again, though, I’m not intending to nitpick; as a study of television production and the creative decisions behind it, though, the omni-navigator is so odd and interesting to me. I can’t figure out the reasoning behind it, and I can even less understand the reason they didn’t cast someone the moment they realized the position might be an important one. There’s even precedent for it; as I mentioned, McCoy wasn’t originally the doctor, and Scotty and Sulu are both examples of permanent characters taking over previously rotating roles.

Ah well. Overall, once the series hit its groove at about the midway point, it got genuinely good. Okay, I admit not all of them were genuinely good, but they at least stayed interesting, and the characters were finally strong enough that it was worth spending time with them, even if you couldn’t care less about what any of them were actually doing.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise to me was DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, who is easily the best actor of the bunch. (Which I don’t say lightly. Read on.)

That was another puzzling thing to me; I’ve always heard people talk about Kirk and Spock in regards to The Original Series. Those were the two characters who took up the bulk of the discussion around the show. Every so often, to varying degrees, I’d also hear about Sulu, about Uhura, about Scotty. And that’s all fine and good, but why did I never hear much about Bones?

Sweet lord, McCoy is far and away the best part of the show. He’s the most consistently human and interestingly characterized person on the ship, at least so far. He’s competent but not infallible. He’s intellectual but able to fight back. He’s stern but fucking hilarious.

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy also get a nice range of material to work with, but with Kelley, I rarely feel as if he’s acting. When he’s invested in his work as a doctor, I believe he knows what he’s doing. When he pushes back against his superiors because he disagrees with them on moral grounds, I believe in his convictions. When he deadpans a killer punchline, I believe that he knows exactly how funny he is but isn’t impressed with himself. There’s so much going on nearly every time Bones is on the screen, and I was always disappointed when he didn’t show up at all in an episode. This is the guy I would have liked to spend time with.

As I said, The Original Series stumbles with some of its characterizations. For the most part, though, those are confined to the season’s earliest episodes. By the midpoint, they’ve settled into who they are. By the end, they seem to be fully formed. Bones, weirdly, had the opposite trajectory. He arrived fully formed, then, at the very end of the season, the show wasn’t quite sure who he should be.

He goes from being reliably (and crucially) competent to being a fucking boob and getting dangerously close to being a shitty doctor. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” he accidentally jabs himself with a needle, something no sober doctor has ever done in the whole of human history. In “Operation — Annihilate!” he blinds Spock as part of a medical experiment, learning a matter of seconds later that there was no need to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a bad day at work. But when it’s a doctor — and when that doctor’s bad days involve blinding crewmates and rewriting history so that the Nazis win the war — you really can’t write these things off as moments of inattention. He goes from being the crew’s prize asset to being its biggest liability.

That is, of course, a problem with the writing rather than the acting, and please allow me to say that the criticism I’ve been hearing for decades about terrible acting on The Original Series has been completely overblown. Nearly always, the moments of bad acting — which do exist — go hand in hand with bad writing. In short, nobody could deliver some of that dialogue effectively, and it’s wrong to blame the actors in those cases. When the writing is good, the actors inevitably rise to meet it.

This is especially true of Shatner as Kirk, which surprises me because he’s usually the one singled out for ridicule. Shatner does excellent work most of the time, and serviceable work in nearly all other cases.

People like to poke fun at how stilted his line delivery can be, and his seemingly unnatural pauses, but in context there’s nearly always a reason. Sometimes it’s because he’s shifting between demeanors, moving from a personally emotional response to a professional response of leadership. His pauses indicate an internal effort to move from one “voice” to another. Out of context, it sounds like an actor struggling to deliver a line. In context, it’s a character sectioning off parts of himself and opening up others.

I’ve noticed also that the “unnatural pauses” come when Kirk is thinking on his feet, buying himself time. When he’s on the spot — and potentially in danger — he chooses his words carefully. He starts a thought not knowing where it will end up because he has to say something. A lesser actor would communicate this by saying “ummm…” or “well…” or stammering, but Kirk has enough control that he’s instead able to parcel out silence as he navigates his conversational way forward. Again, out of context it seems like the guy forgot his line. In context, it can be riveting, as we discover Kirk’s next bluff or linguistic feint right along with him.

And since I’ve spoken about both McCoy and Kirk I might as well share my thoughts on Spock, which aren’t entirely solid at this point. I like Nimoy and I like the character, to be clear. What I like most, however, is how wonderfully his lack of emotion turns out to be bullshit.

One other thing I did during 2020 was work my way through the Witcher books. (I’ve finished all aside from one stand-alone novel.) In those books, Witchers — like Vulcans — are said to be without emotion. Yet, it’s not true. Geralt, our Witcher protagonist, falls in love. He fondly raises a young girl entrusted to him. He cares about his mentor. He regrets many of his decisions. He frequently helps others not for coin or through obligation but because it’s the right thing to do.

And yet characters in that world meet him, assume he feels no emotion, and treat him as such. He doesn’t correct any of them. Some folks see through him, yes, but Geralt himself allows them to believe this. He even, I think it’s fair to say, does his best to believe it himself.

Why? Because it is a very useful fiction. If Witchers don’t feel emotion, people won’t try to appeal to it. They won’t try to guilt him into certain actions. They won’t attempt to manipulate him, at least not in that way. They will deal with him on a more superficial level meaning he can deal with them the same way, and maintain a kind of distance from the reality of his situation.

Watching The Original Series, I see a lot of that in Spock. It’s a similarly useful fiction. Do Vulcans really lack emotion? They might! I haven’t seen enough of the show to know for sure, but I do know that half-Vulcan Spock does not lack them.

Instead, on some level he knows that if he allows others to believe that he lacks them — and if he convinces himself that he lacks them — he is able to maintain a kind of distance from others that both protects him from emotional pain and reinforces his value to the crew. Spock is often consulted when they need a strictly logical perspective. Anyone can provide a logical perspective, but Spock has made logic His Thing. Just as they might as well have Dr. McCoy patch up every wound, even though anyone can learn basic first aid. That’s why he’s there.

We see Spock demonstrate fondness. Playfulness. Selflessness. The only two-parter of the season, “The Menagerie,” is about his willingness to sacrifice his own career to give his disabled former captain a second chance at happiness.

I’m willing to believe Witchers have a reduced emotional capacity, but I’m not sure I do believe it. Similarly, I’m willing to believe Spock being only half-human means he doesn’t experience the full range of emotion, but I can’t say for sure.

At the end of “This Side of Paradise” he says he’d never been truly happy before. I believe him when he says that, but the fact that he’s never been truly happy doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being happy. That’s what he meant, yes, but I don’t know that that’s the truth. Certainly having to consciously stamp down your own emotions is an unpleasant experience; being freed of that obligation for the duration of the episode…well, of course that would be the first time he experienced happiness. He let himself experience it.

I’ll be interested to see what they do with this, but I love that they didn’t wait several seasons to peel back the “lack of emotion” aspect of the character and reveal the truth. Instead, they more or less immediately cast doubt on it, and continued casting doubt on it throughout the season. The lack of emotion is a coping mechanism for Spock, not an inborn limitation. What could have been a one-dimensional character trait is immediately revealed to be deeper. It’s good characterization and it leaves so much room for exploration.

One thing I knew I’d enjoy was seeing high-minded concepts collide with weekly television budgets. And, sure enough, you have aliens who are just people painted another color. You have parasites that I’m pretty sure are made of novelty rubber vomit. In one episode, you have Kirk and Spock fighting a giant Meat-Lover’s Pizza.

What I didn’t expect is how often the series is able to move beyond its cheapness and engage you in ways that are not bogged down by cost limitations. What I mean to say is that The Original Series has so far produced some truly compelling villains — however you’d like to define villains — and it’s done so while offering up visuals that dare you to take them seriously.

The best episodes let you understand what drives the force opposing Kirk & co. that week. A Godzilla Halloween costume in “Arena” ends up being in the right. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” a race fighting a centuries-long virtual war makes a damned good case for their horrifying reality. The pilot in “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is understandably mortified by the crew’s reluctance to return him home now that he’s seen a glimpse of the future. Our heroes are rarely revealed to be The Bad Guys, but they’re often shown to have their perspectives challenged, shaken, and broken.

That’s something else I ended up enjoying a lot. I expected all-American spaceman Jim Kirk to be the perfect hero. Several times throughout the season, though, he was shown to have an awful lot in common with his enemies.

The best example is the episode-length game of cat and mouse that was “Balance of Terror,” but there are a few other great ones as well. In “Errand of Mercy,” he has a similar mindset to the conquering Klingons about how to deal with a neutral planet. Different methods, sure, but ultimately both sides end up in frustrated alignment in a way that’s downright chilling. In “Space Seed” he even expresses his admiration for conquerors like Khan. It’s important writing; the difference between Kirk and his adversaries isn’t that one is Good and one is Evil. The difference is far smaller than it might seem, and that balance could always tip the other way.

In fact, in “The Enemy Within,” Kirk is split into positive and negative versions of himself in a transporter accident, allowing us to see exactly how much shittiness he carries within him. And the fact that the positive Kirk is almost completely worthless at addressing the situation shows us that it’s not “perfection” that makes the character who he is.

Don’t worry; we do get Perfect Kirk at various points. “Court Martial” is the worst offender, because it begins with a great concept — what if Kirk, under duress, made a bad decision that got someone killed? — and ends by painstakingly dismantling that concept so that we don’t have to question our hero after all. Even so, as of right now, “Court Martial” feels like the exception; Kirk often does make the right decision, but damned if we don’t see him suffer through the process of making it. He’s not perfect; he’s working hard, constantly, to get things right.

There’s not much I can say about the show that hasn’t been said elsewhere and better. But for such an important piece of TV history, I wanted to at least share that I’ve been watching it and get a few of my thoughts down in writing. All of them could be wrong. I might write up another one after season two and completely change my opinion.

For now, though, it’s been an interesting experience. Season one of The Original Series started as one of the most frustrating things I’ve watched and ended as one of the most intriguing. It’s given me bad television to pick apart and great television to savor. Honestly, that’s everything I could have hoped.

On to season two.

Oh, and, as your reward for being good, here is every season one episode of Star Trek: The Original Series ranked from worst to best. Come at me.

28) The Naked Time
27) The Man Trap
26) Charlie X
25) Shore Leave
24) The Squire of Gothos
23) Miri
22) Mudd’s Women
21) Where No Man Has Gone Before
20) The Menagerie
19) What Are Little Girls Made Of?
18) The Alternative Factor
17) Operation — Annihilate!
16) Arena
15) Court Martial
14) Return of the Archons
13) This Side of Paradise
12) Dagger of the Mind
11) The Corbomite Maneuver
10) The Enemy Within
9) Tomorrow is Yesterday
8) The Conscience of the King
7) The Devil in the Dark
6) The Gallileo Seven
5) Errand of Mercy
4) Space Seed
3) A Taste of Armageddon
2) The City on the Edge of Forever
1) Balance of Terror

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.