MY 50 TOP TREKS – Duncan Barrett (co-author, Star Trek: The Human Frontier)

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To celebrate Star Trek’s fiftieth anniversary this year, I’ve been working my way through all 729 episodes and films – the binge-watch to end all binge-watches.  Assuming you don’t have the time to embark on such an epic voyage, here are 50 of my favourites, grouped into three categories.

Essential Trek represents those episodes which best capture the essence of their respective series – if you only have time for one of each, make it these unmissable instalments. The Sky’s The Limit celebrates those episodes that went where no Trek had gone before, pushing the envelope with stories that were far from conventional.  And then there are my personal Guilty Pleasures – not necessarily the best of Trek, but the ones I can’t help loving anyway.

 

The Original Series (1966-1969)

Essential Trek

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The Corbomite Maneuver – The first Star Trek episode shot after the show was commissioned, and boy did they hit the nail on the head. An unbearably tense standoff between the Enterprise and an alien ship, which brings the personalities of the crew into sharp focus. Kirk’s confident command style – including a nail-biting last-minute bluff – coupled with his deep compassion towards his enemy make this the quintessential Original Series episode.

Honourable mentions

Balance of Terror – Inspired by the 1957 submarine movie The Enemy Below, this encounter between the Enterprise and a Romulan ship scores not only in its gripping depiction of battle, but the surprising humanity with which it imbues the enemy commander.

Devil in the Dark – A ‘monster-of-the-week’ storyline with a twist:  the real monster is not the rock-guzzling beast making short work of a group of miners, but the humans who’ve been killing its young.

The Sky’s The Limit

The City on the Edge of Forever – Frequently listed as the series’ best episode, and it’s easy to see why. Thrown back into the 1930s, Kirk falls in love with a young woman called Edith Keeler – beautifully played by Joan Collins – only to learn that if he saves her from a senseless road accident the Allies will lose the Second World War. An intelligent, bold and heart-breaking story from Science Fiction master Harlan Ellison.

Honourable mentions

Mirror, Mirror – Kirk and his landing party materialise in a parallel universe, where they find evil versions of the regular Enterprise crew – and women in even skimpier uniforms than usual.

A Piece of the Action – Kirk and Spock make surprisingly good gangsters in this distinctly silly caper, one of Star Trek’s first out-and-out comedies.

Guilty Pleasure

Return to Tomorrow – Perhaps not the most polished Original Series episode, but undoubtedly one of the most ‘Star-Trekky’. Kirk, Spock and a young female scientist are possessed by ancient alien consciousness, leading to some amazing performances from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Also features Captain Kirk’s iconic ‘Risk is our Business’ speech, which probably deserves to be in a better episode.

 

The Animated Series (1973-1974)

Essential Trek

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Yesteryear – The jewel in the crown of the Animated Series, written by original Trek scribe Dorothy Fontana, who oversaw the series as a whole. Spock travels back in time and encounters his childhood self, who he helps to grow up in the desert of Vulcan.  A thoughtful, touching story that proves the Trek cartoons aren’t just for kids.

The Sky’s The Limit

The Lorelei Signal – The cartoon medium allowed Star Trek to go where even The Original Series had never gone before, featuring a three-armed navigator, a cat-like communications officer, and an underwater episode set among a species of mer-people. But perhaps most impressively, here it puts Lieutenant Uhura in temporary command of the Enterprise, as an all-female landing party beams down to save the male crew from a group of sirens.

Honourable mentions

The Infinite Vulcan – Penned by Walter Koenig, whose character Chekhov failed to appear in the Animated Series, this bizarre story features a species of plant-people and a giant clone of Spock.

The Counter-Clock Incident – In a ‘negative universe’ in which time goes backwards, only the Enterprise’s former captain – the septuagenarian Robert April – and his wife can save the ship before everyone turns into children.

Guilty Pleasure

The Magicks of Megas-Tu – A wacky, psychedelic encounter with a group of aliens who live at the centre of the galaxy, among them a very amiable Lucifer – Spock even draws a pentagram on the floor of the Enterprise!

 

The Next Generation (1987-1994)

Essential Trek

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Darmok – The quintessential Next Gen story, offering an optimistic, diplomatic spin on the action-packed Original Series episode ‘Arena’, in which Kirk fought the reptilian Gorn.  This time, Picard and an alien captain must cooperate in order to defend themselves against a terrifying monster. Since the alien’s language is based on myth and metaphor, to begin with the two men are unable to communicate – but by sharing the epic stories of their very different cultures (in Picard’s case the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh) they eventually grow to understand each other.

Honourable mentions

The Measure of a Man – Is Data, the Enterprise’s android second officer, Starfleet property or a self-determining individual? This thrilling courtroom drama was written by a former lawyer, Melinda Snodgrass, and is bolstered by stellar performances from Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg.

The Best of Both Worlds (Parts I and II) – After ‘Who Shot J.R.?’, this was the ultimate TV cliff-hanger, and a story that reverberated through the rest of the Next Gen series and into the films. Captain Picard is assimilated by the Borg Collective – if his crew can’t get him back, will they be willing to destroy him?

Chain of Command (Parts I and II) – The normally family-friendly Next Gen suddenly goes very dark indeed, when Captain Picard is tortured by a Cardassian interrogator determined to break his will.  A phenomenal performance from Patrick Stewart, who consulted with Amnesty International while preparing for the role.

The Sky’s The Limit

Yesterday’s Enterprise – This should never have worked: a complex story bashed out in three days to make the most of Whoopi Goldberg’s shooting schedule. And yet somehow the team of five writers, each handling one act of the script, produced what many fans regard as Next Gen’s finest episode: a grim, heroic tale set in a parallel universe in which the Federation is losing a decades-long war with the Klingons, and the only way to restore the original timeline is for another Enterprise and her crew to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Honourable mentions

The Inner Light – Captain Picard lives out the life of a simple iron-weaver on a doomed planet in this powerful, very human story.

Tapestry – A recently deceased Picard is offered the chance to change the mistakes of his youth in an inspired reworking of A Christmas Carol. The best of Next Gen’s many episodes featuring the trickster god Q.

Lower Decks – A brilliant deconstruction of classic Trek’s ‘redshirts’, those junior crewmembers who are always introduced just in time to meet a sticky end. In this sharp and engaging episode, the story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the ship’s young subordinates.

Guilty Pleasure

A Fistful of Datas – A Holodeck malfunction sees Worf, his son Alexander and Counsellor Troi attempt to rid their Wild West program of an infestation of Datas.

 

Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)

Essential Trek

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In the Pale Moonlight – The Dominion War storyline that dominated the latter part of Deep Space Nine took the Star Trek franchise into hitherto uncharted territory, deep into the abyss of moral ambiguity and cynicism. This instalment, from the show’s penultimate season, sees Captain Sisko recording a tortured personal log as he struggles to come to terms with his involvement in a series of deeply questionable actions, from bribery to cold-blooded murder. The ends may justify the means, but can the captain learn to live with what he’s done? Like so many of Deep Space Nine’s central questions, this one is never fully answered.

Honourable mentions

Duet – Major Kira sees her former Cardassian enemies in a new light when she encounters a man who, having been powerless to stop an atrocity committed against her people, has been driven to shocking extremes by his overwhelming feelings of guilt.

Past Tense (Parts I and II) ­– Star Trek goes full on dystopian with this shocking – and prescient – glimpse into a twenty-first-century United States in which the poor and unemployed are ghettoised in so called ‘sanctuary districts’.

The Siege of AR-558 – One of the grimmest instalments in the long Dominion War arc – a gritty, uncompromising look at life and death on the front lines.

The Sky’s The Limit

Far Beyond the Stars ­– The Deep Space Nine cast are reimagined as the staff of a 1950s Science Fiction magazine, where Captain Sisko’s alter ego Benny Russell essentially dreams up Star Trek – only to see his progressive story of a ‘Negro captain’ out in deep space pulped by the magazine’s conservative proprietor. A powerful look at a dark moment in American history, featuring a stellar performance from Avery Brooks, who also directs.

Honourable mentions

The Visitor – After Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan, this is probably Star Trek’s biggest tearjerker – a heartbreaking story about the lengths an ageing Jake Sisko will go to in order to save his father from subspace oblivion.

It’s Only a Paper Moon – Only Deep Space Nine’s writers would have dared dream up a story which barely features any of the show’s regular cast, but this episode – in which the young Ferengi Nog, having lost a leg in battle, seeks solace in holographic crooner Vic Fontaine’s Las Vegas casino – developed into one of the series’ most powerful instalments.

Guilty Pleasure

Trials and Tribbleations – Deep Space Nine’s loving homage to The Original Series, broadcast to mark Star Trek’s thirtieth anniversary in 1996, sees the crew of the space station suit up for a trip back in time to Kirk’s Enterprise, and arrive bang in the middle of fan-favourite episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’. Nifty Forest Gump style special effects – state of the art at the time – ensure you can barely see the joins between scenes old and new.

 

Voyager (1995-2001)

Essential Trek

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Year of Hell (Parts I and II) – Perhaps not so much the quintessential Voyager episode as a glimpse at what the show might have been. Over the course of a year of devastating alien attacks, Janeway and her crew are brought to breaking point. Finally, the determined captain gives the order to abandon ship, piloting Voyager alone on a suicide mission to reset the timeline. Kate Mulgrew is at her steely best in this gripping, unusually dark double-episode.

Honourable mentions

Eye of the Needle – This early episode makes good on the show’s ‘lost in space’ premise, when fleeting communication with a Romulan ship in the Alpha Quadrant offers the possibility of finding a way home.

Deadlock – Two Janeways prove better than one when Voyager is split into a pair of identical copies, forcing the duplicate captains to work together to ensure that at least one of their ships survives.

Scorpion (Parts I and II) – A thrilling encounter with the Borg leaves Voyager with a new crewmember, the angry former drone Seven of Nine. For better or worse, from this point on the show will never be the same.

The Sky’s The Limit

Living Witness – This intriguing story penned by Bryan Fuller – showrunner of the new Star Trek series Discovery, which debuts in May next year – takes place 700 years in the future, when a backup copy of the ship’s holographic doctor is activated in an alien museum, only to discover that the Voyager crew have been misrepresented as brutal warmongers.  An intelligent look at the subject of revisionist history, with some great performances from the regular cast acting out their sinister alter egos.

Honourable mentions

Bride of Chaotica! – Janeway must take on the role of ‘Queen Arachnia’ in Tom Paris’ schlock sci-fi holoprogram. A supremely silly episode, also written by Fuller, and shot largely in retro black and white.

The Killing Game (Parts I and II) – Captain Janeway as a French Resistance leader, Seven of Nine as a nightclub chanteuse: what’s not to love in this WW2 holodeck romp?

Blink of an Eye – As Voyager orbits an unusual planet, millennia pass down below, and the ‘star of the day, star of the night’ becomes an integral part of the developing alien culture.

Guilty Pleasure

Future’s End (Parts I and II) – The Voyager crew turn up on present-day earth in this fish-out-of-water comedy. Sarah Silverman guest stars as a quirky astronomer.

 

Enterprise (2001-2005)

Essential Trek

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Similitude – For many fans, Enterprise only started to get interesting in its dark, 9/11-inflected third season, and this story – in which Captain Archer orders a clone of his mortally wounded chief engineer, only to send it to its death so that its neural tissue can be harvested – is among the darkest and best.  An intelligent, sensitive look at both the nature of human identity and the ethics of war.

Honourable mentions

Demons / Terra Prime – A xenophobic hate group demands all aliens leave the solar system, jeopardising the formation of the nascent Coalition of Planets.  A rare example of Enterprise really delivering on its prequel potential.

Dear Doctor – A tough moral dilemma for Captain Archer, who has no Prime Directive to guide him: offer medical help to a species in need, or do nothing and allow a natural evolutionary process to take its course.

The Sky’s The Limit

Carbon Creek – Vulcans monitoring Sputnik crash land in small-town 1950s Pensylvania in this undeniably charming episode. The show’s regular characters are entirely absent, aside from brief framing scenes in which T’Pol narrates the story of her ancestor T’mir – who is played, of course, by the same actress. An oddity, but one much beloved of Enterprise fans.

Honourable Mentions

The Expanse – The product of desperation on the part of Enterprise’s showrunners, who knew that cancellation loomed if they didn’t shake up the show. Their response – a shocking 9/11-style attack on earth which spawned a gritty, year-long serialised arc – was quite a departure for Star Trek, and took Enterprise in a bold new direction.

Twilight – Possibly the best cold open in Trek history as earth is destroyed by the Xindi weapon the crew have spent all season trying to prevent.  Twelve years later, an amnesiac Captain Archer must reset history.

Guilty Pleasure

Observer Effect – This ought to be a no-brainer, since the wildly popular In A Mirror Darkly (Parts I and II), set entirely within the mirror universe, is the cheesiest slice of fan-service in all of Star Trek, even offering the cast a chance to play dress-up on a sister ship of Kirk’s original Enterprise.  Personally, though, I take little pleasure from this undoubtedly ‘guilty’ two-parter, so I’m plumping instead for Observer Effect, a dark and gruesome little story of possessed crewmembers (something of a Star Trek cliché) that hits all the right continuity buttons without resorting to camp.

 

The Movies (1979-2016)

Essential Trek

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Not only the best Star Trek movie by a long shot, but one of the best science-fiction films ever committed to celluloid. This sequel to the Original Series episode ‘Space Seed’ sees a weary and cynical Admiral Kirk pitted against a truly worth foe: the genetically engineered superman Khan (Ricardo Montalban, at his scenery-chewing best), who has nursed a grudge against him for fifteen years. Unbearably tense battle scenes, a probing, deeply human script, and an ending that couldn’t fail to bring a tear to even the most stone-hearted Vulcan.

Honourable mentions

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – A gripping political thriller paralleling the contemporary collapse of the Soviet Union. When the Klingons sue for peace following a Chernobyl-type industrial disaster, will Captain Kirk be able to put his prejudice aside and complete one last diplomatic mission?

Star Trek: First Contact – The Borg travel back in time to assimilate earth on the eve of first contact with the Vulcans. Equal parts zombies-in-space action and grand Shakespearean drama – Patrick Stewart puts in his best cinematic performance as a revenge-obsessed Picard – this is the cream of the crop of the Next Gen movies.

The Sky’s The Limit

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ­– Bizarrely, the most successful of Star Trek’s cinematic offerings (at least until the all-action reboot of 2009) was this gentle comedy in which the crew of the Enterprise – including a very confused, recently resurrected Spock – stagger around 1980s San Francisco in search of a pair of humpback whales. Utterly silly, yet irresistibly charming, it remains the go-to film to introduce non-fans to Star Trek.

Guilty Pleasure

Star Trek Beyond – Personally, I can’t stand the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek, but even I was charmed by this entertaining action spectacular. With a genuinely scary villain, thrilling set-pieces and a deft sense of humour, it kept me enthralled from beginning to end. And unlike the other two films in what fans derisively call the ‘JJ-verse’, Beyond made me fall in love with the Enterprise crew once again.

Duncan Barrett

 

Star Trek: The Human Frontier,  by Michele and Duncan Barrett, is published by Routledge (£24.99). 

 

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