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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — Part One!

May 4th, 2020
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Welcome to the most important blog post I might ever write!

I love Star Trek.  

I think that, of all of the series/franchises/stories/universes that I love, whether they be in movies, TV shows, novels, comic-books, or whatever the media, Star Trek will always be my favorite.

I love Star Trek for its optimistic, utopian vision of the future.  I love Star Trek for its strong focus on humanistic values and moral messages.  I love Star Trek for its respect for science.  I love Star Trek for its many beloved characters.  I love Star Trek for its complex continuity, for its world-building, for the feeling that all of these different stories, told over more than fifty years, matter and fit together into a cohesive universe.  I love Star Trek for its heady intellectual ideas and also for its kick-ass space action/adventure.  And that’s just a start; I love Star Trek for so many more reasons.

Over the years, I have frequently talked with fellow lovers of movies, TV shows, novels, comic books, etc., who weren’t big Trek fans like me.  For many of them, they were potentially interested in Trek, but they didn’t know where to begin.  At this point, there have been thirteen Star Trek movies and eight different TV series (Star Trek, Star Trek the Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, and Picard).  Not to mention a wealth of spin-off materials in other media like novels and comic-books.  Where should someone begin when trying to discover Star Trek?  It can feel overwhelming.

Rest easy, friends!  I am here to give you my expert guidance on how to start watching (and fall in love with) Star Trek!

I strongly suspect that, if you are a reader of this site but you don’t yet consider yourself a Star Trek fan, if you gave it a try, you will like (and probably love!) Star Trek.  

With my guidance, I can show you how to dip your toes into this vast ocean.  There is a whole universe of amazing story-telling out there, just waiting to be discovered!!

Several times in the past few years, I have tried variations on the approach that I will outline here.  It has not failed yet!  That statement is not about tooting my own horn, but rather as evidence of how great Star Trek is — even (or maybe I should say, ESPECIALLY) the Original Series, which is now more than fifty years old.

OK, so where to begin?

Part One: Star Trek: The Original Series

I suggest that, to begin your journey into Star Trek, that you start by watching between about 15 episodes of the Original Series.

It’s astonishing how great the original Star Trek was, and how well the show holds up, more than a half-century later.  Is there any other show from the sixties that plays as well today?  (Perhaps I Love Lucy, but I think that’s it.)  There were 79 episodes of the original series, which was cancelled by NBC in 1969 after three seasons.  The hit-to-miss ratio was very strong.  I’d say there are about twenty spectacular episodes, and about another thirty-to-forty good-to-great ones.  There are plenty of clunkers, of course!  But even most of the clunkers have moments to enjoy.  However, rather than watching the series all the way through, to dip your toe into this universe, I suggest you watch the 15 episodes I have listed below.

These episodes are pretty much completely stand-alone, meaning that you can watch them in any order you wish.  I would suggest watching them in the order I listed, as I think that order has a nice flow.  But the order is not essential.

Which version to watch?  I suggest watching the version of these episodes with the redone CGI outer-space effects, rather than the original effects.  (In the early aughts, CBS Digital recreated new CGI effects for the Original Series.)  I tend to be a purist about such things, but this is an exception to my general rule.  I think they did an amazing job with these new effects, and they really do transform the episodes in my opinion, making them much more watchable and enjoyable.  The Big E looks as beautiful as she should, and the new effects often help with the storytelling as they better depict the action of the episode, beyond what the original effects could do (hugely groundbreaking for the time though they were).  ( Of the episodes listed above, “The Doomsday Machine” is best elevated by the new effects.)  Especially for a newbie, for whom the original effects might be an of-putting stumbling block, I think the redone versions are the way to go.

An important note about context: Star Trek was groundbreaking for it’s time in so many ways, from its sets and costumes and visual effects to its storytelling.  The series pushes the boundaries of what was allowed to be done on TV at the time, over and over again.  There are so many examples, but certainly the presence of Uhura as a command officer on the bridge — not just a woman, but an African-American woman — was extraordinary and worthy of praise.  You will see this positive, forward-thinking attitude in so many of these episodes.  It’s a key to why Star Trek has endured.  But there are also times when these episodes from the sixties can feel dated.  I think it’s important to acknowledge that.  (Example: Space Seed is a great episode with one of the series’ best-ever villains.  It’s on my to-watch list below.  But that episode has a terribly dated, sexist approach to its depiction of a female Enterprise officer, Marla McGivers.)  I don’t condemn the show for areas where it fell short fifty years ago; I don’t think these failings undermine the many ways in which Trek was incredibly positive and boundary-pushing, or dilute my enjoyment of the show.  But they do pop up here and there, so this is just a heads up to newbies.  I think the episodes I’ve selected hold up extremely well, but it is important, I think, to keep the context in which these shows were made in the back of your mind as you watch.

OK, here we go — here are the episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series that I suggest you watch:

The Doomsday Machine — A dark action-adventure, this is one of the most epic and action-packed Original Series episodes.  I think it’s a great place to begin.

The Devil in the Dark — This classic Star Trek morality play introduces a wonderfully weird, iconic new alien species.

Balance of Terror — An early episode that introduces the Romulans, classic Trek villains, with some great submarine-movie-style drama.

The City on the Edge of Forever — The time-travel mechanics might come off as a little undercooked, but this is probably the most emotionally rich episode of the entire series, with one of the greatest endings of a TV show ever.

Errand of Mercy – This early episode introduces the Klingons.  They’re very different than what they’d eventually become, but Kor is a classic Trek villain and this episode introduces a lot of important Trek concepts… such as Kirk & co.’s habit of tangling with super-powered non-corporeal alien entities.

Amok Time — The series’ first visit to Vulcan, this episode is fun and dramatic and set the tone for 50 years of future Vulcan stories.  And that final scene is just fantastic.

The Trouble with Tribbles — The series’ funniest installment, brilliantly written.  Most Star Trek episodes are more serious than this silly romp, so in that sense it’s not exactly a good representation of original Trek.  But it’s so joyful that I think it’s a great early entry-point.  This might be my single favorite Original Series episode.

Space Seed — This episode introduces Khan, one of the series’ best villains.  (Its weakness is, as I noted above, an unfortunately sexist portrayal of an Enterprise crew-woman.)

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield – One of the series’ most famous morality plays.  It’s on the nose, yes, but justly famous for its strong moral message.

Journey to Babel – A cool episode that begins to flesh out some of the different alien races who make up the Federation.  It also introduces Spock’s parents! (And yes, that is Mark Leonard playing Spock’s dad Sarek – he also played the main Romulan in “Balance of Terror”!)

Arena – Kirk fighting the Gorn is one of the most famous Trek images.  That slow fight with the Gorn is a bit goofy when seen today, and the episode is a little too talky, but this is classically, iconically Trek.

Mirror, Mirror — “Evil duplicates” is a cliche now, but this episode started all that and it’s still pretty great fun as Kirk and co. beam into an alternate universe filled with their evil counterparts.  Plus, Kirk’s speech to Mirror-Spock at the end is a classic!!

The Immunity Syndrome – Kirk & co. vs a giant space amoeba.  Oh yes.

The Ultimate Computer — A prescient story about technology putting people out of work is also a fantastic action/adventure in which a super-computer seizes control of the Enterprise and leads the ship in a deadly assault against a group of other Starfleet vessels.

Day of the Dove – This is one of the definitive Klingon episodes, and it’s got a terrific Trek moral ending.

After watching that initial batch of episodes, you’re ready to jump into the first batch of Star Trek movies.  I adore the movies.  Star Trek II, III, IV, and VI are, for my money, the best Star Trek ever made.  (Please come back tomorrow, where I’ll discuss how to watch the movies in greater depth!)

An alternative path: If you enjoyed that first batch of Original Series episodes, you might want to continue and watch more, before moving on to the movies.

Here is another batch of great Original Series episodes:

The Corbomite Maneuver — A classic early episode that set the tone for what Trek would become.

A Piece of the Action – A very funny romp in which Kirk & co. find themselves on a planet of imitative aliens who have transformed their entire culture to mimic 20th century Chicago gangsters.

Assignment: Earth — This episode features a fun time travel adventure with two fantastic guest stars: Robert Lansing and Teri Garr.  It’s definitely worth checking out.  It’s a sillier adventure than “The City on the Edge of Forever”, but it’s still a great story and a fun episode.

All our Yesterdays – The central conceit (that Spock will lose his logic if he travels back in time to before Vulcans found logic) is nonsensical, but if you can overlook that, it’s a great story and a high point in Trek’s shaky third season.

A Taste of Armageddon – a classic Trek concept that I won’t spoil for you.

Where No Man Has Gone Before – This was the series’ second pilot episode (made after the first was rejected by NBC).  It’s rough around the edges, and not all of the important elements of the show were yet in place, but it’s still a great story.

The Menagerie – The Original Series’ only two-parter makes very clever use of the series’ never-aired first pilot, telling a dual story of Spock’s mutiny in present-day and an adventure of the Enterprise’s previous captain, Christopher Pike.

The Squire of Gothos – a superpowered alien taunts Kirk and the crew. There are several very famous moments in this fun episode.

By Any Other Name – Holy cow did this episode creep me out as a kid!!!  I won’t spoil how or why but you’ll know it when you see it.

The Apple – a classic Trek set-up on a “primitive” world (and Kirk makes a famous and very debatable choice at the end).

The Naked Time – the crew gets a virus that makes them act drunk.  Ridiculous but still enjoyable, with some nice character moments.

The Galileo Seven – a great Spock showcase and an early episode that started developing Spock-McCoys’s hate/love relationship.

Obsession – Interesting development of Kirk’s backstory.

Operation: Annihilate! – There are some very shaky bits in this episode, but I have strong memories of this one for the weird alien menace and some interesting moments that flesh out Kirk’s family history a bit.

Who Mourns for Adonais? — Kirk and co meet the Greek God Apollo.  Yes, it’s as bizarre a concept as it sounds, and while this episode represents the more ridiculous aspects of Original Series storytelling, it all sort of works somehow.

The Gamesters of Triskellion – A mediocre episode justly famous for the first interracial kiss between Kirk & Uhura (forced by aliens).

Shore Leave – The crew takes shore leave and it doesn’t go well.  There’s a giant bunny.

The Paradise Syndrome – Kirk gets amnesia and falls in love with an alien woman dressed as an American Indian.  Ditto to what I wrote above about “Who Mourns for Adonais”.  It’s a famous episode.  Sort of silly/ridiculous.  But worth a watch.

For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky – The episode with one of the series’ best titles is a mediocre installment but a lovely spotlight on McCoy.

The Tholian Web — The plot doesn’t completely work, but the Tholians are one of the series’ most memorable alien races!

 

Click below to discover my complete blog series, describing how best to start watching (and fall in love with) Star Trek!

Part Two: The Movies

Part Three: The Next Generation

Part Four: Deep Space Nine

Part Five: Where to Go Next

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