The impact of Star Trek, a television series that altered the world’s expectations and put an indelible mark on many cultures around the world, is often underestimated until you realise who it had an impact on and what they went on to achieve.
If you only ever watch 25 episodes or, rather, stories from the original(ish) run of Star Trek, these are they, at least in my opinion. The only rules in place being that this selection is drawn only from the series that just called themselves Star Trek (so that’s what we now call Star Trek: The Original Series, or TOS and Star Trek: The Animated Series, or TAS), and two-part episodes count as one story… The more Trek-astute of you may realise that sorts out one placement in the 25 immediately.
Oh and this is rather spoiler-rich… that is if you can spoil TV episodes that are approaching 50 years old.
If you are able, I would recommend watching episodes of the original series in remastered form on Blu-ray, as you have the option to use the angle button on your remote to switch between the original special effects shots and new CG ones created for high-definition. As with most episodes of Star Trek TV shows, the live-action footage was captured on 35mm film, and thus with the restoration work done on the negatives, looks fantastic in HD.
The animated series is only available in standard definition, but a complete boxed set is available at very low cost. Although Gene Roddenberry requested that The Animated Series be thought of as “non-canon” in the late 1980s, multiple references back to the series that, among other things, gave James Kirk the middle name Tiberius, have appeared in many Star Trek productions since, slamming the series right back into “canon.”
This list is presented in a suggested viewing order, primarily that of production, rather than a rank order, as they flow better that way.
Balance Of Terror (TOS, season 1)
Spock’s Dad is in command of a Romulan Bird Of Prey prior to going undercover in the Klingon Empire… and manages to die properly on three separate occasions.
Actually, it’s the late, great, Mark Lenard playing the Romulan commander in Balance Of Terror, prior to winning the role of Spock’s father in Journey To Babel (good job Lt. Stiles wasn’t around for that, he’d have really thrown his toys out the pram!) The actor also went on to play the captain of the Klingon vessel, Amar, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
This episode is essentially a submarine flick (well, a submarine equipped with a cloaking device) with battle tactics as the focus, and the aforementioned Lt. Stiles throwing bigotry around the place following the first ever visual of a Romulan, revealing that they are more than a little Vulcan-like, prompting perhaps the highest Spock eyebrow in history.
Spock also suggests attacking first is the best option, which in itself is enough to get McCoy’s ire up. This is often the first episode I pop on when introducing someone to original Trek.
The Corbomite Maneuver (TOS, season 1)
Captain Kirk bluffs his way through an encounter with the flagship of the First Federation, the Fesarius, and its captain, Balok by pretending to have a very explosive substance called corbomite in the hull of the Enterprise which would reflect back the energy of any attack made on the ship and destroy the attacker.
A young Clint Howard played the “real” form of the character Balok in this episode with Walker Edmiston providing his voice, while a puppet of Balok is possibly one of the most well-known images from the series, having being in the closing credits for all of season 2. Ted Cassidy provided the voice of the puppet version of Balok.
With the “What am I, a doctor, or a moon-shuttle conductor?”, statement, DeForest Kelley started the doctor version of this trope, which appears to have actually started in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea with “I’m a hunter, not a butcher.”
The Man Trap (TOS, season 1)
On the 8th September 1966, Star Trek was first aired in the USA, and this was the first episode shown, even though it was the 5th episode made (6th if you include the first unsold pilot, The Cage.) An old flame of Doctor McCoy’s and her husband are performing research on a remote planet and it’s time for their medicals. However upon beaming down a crewman is killed (and he’s not even wearing red!)
As it’s out of order with the prior four episodes made for the season, it’s a bit weird that everyone seems quite at home in their roles already. If viewed in original airing order, this one was followed by episode 7 (Charlie X), and then episode 1 (Where No Man Has Gone Before) where an awful lot is quite different!
The Naked Time (TOS, season 1)
After discovering a research outpost where the team were all dead and life support had been switched off after someone had a shower fully clothed, an infection, passed on by touch, gains a foothold on the Enterprise. Cue some dark hilarity as the infection acts on the crew like a heavy night of drinking and all inhibitions go out the airlock.
The story is often mentioned by George Takei as his favourite (Sulu runs around with a sword as he has been trained to fence) and is referenced in the Next Generation remake, The Naked Now.
Court Martial (TOS, season 1)
We learn a lot about Captain James T. Kirk in this episode, where he is put on trial for negligence following the death of Lt. Commander Ben Finney during an ion storm. The Captain is court-martialled by Commodore Stone of Starbase 11, their stop-off point for repairs after the storm, who suggests Kirk steps down to ground work. Unwilling to give up, Kirk demands the full hearing to prove his innocence. He’s defended by a man who doesn’t trust computers in a trial that basically becomes Captain Kirk Vs the Enterprise’s computer.
Like to a few other episodes, this story again makes it clear that even in the future the human element should always be held above that of the computer.
The Menagerie, Parts I & II (TOS, season 1)
Made up of the majority of the original 1964/5 Star Trek pilot The Cage with a wrapper around it to give continuity with the final form of the original series, with Captain Kirk, The Menagerie is the only two-part story produced for the original series. Though not complete the storyline of the first pilot is still clear to see (and is excellent), while the secondary story involving Spock’s court-martial is engrossing in itself. It seems when it came to Captain Pike, Spock wasn’t all that logical in either universe, really.
With The Cage looking like it would go to waste at the time, and with budgets and time-frames being stretched on the first season of Star Trek, the creation of this story was well-timed genius recycling.
Plus, it has a mildly devious Spock, which it’s worth watching for alone.
The Squire Of Gothos (TOS, Season 1)
Q… is that you? Trelane and Q would actually meet in the “non-canon” novel Q-Squared which reveals that the Squire, Trelane, is indeed a member of the Q Continuum (Gene Roddenberry is believed to have based John DeLancie’s Q on Trelane). A mischievous mix of light-hearted merriment and dark themes, the irrepressible William Campbell brings Trelane to flamboyant life and revels in the role of this incredibly powerful but petulant being, in the season before he put on a Klingon uniform.
It’s campy, it’s equal parts brilliant and ridiculous, and puts a flintlock in Kirk’s hand for duelling purposes.
Arena (TOS, season 1)
Vasquez rocks make arguably their most memorable appearance on film or TV as Captain Kirk and a Gorn captain are pitched against each other. The Enterprise visits a planet where a Federation colony has been destroyed and pursues a vessel they believe is responsible. A race called the Metrons intercept and set up a trial by combat between the two ships’ captains.
Possibly one of the best known sets of imagery from Star Trek, partially due to Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, the battle between the lumbering Gorn captain, who gained the ability to blink in the HD remaster of the series, and Captain Kirk, with the triumph of ingenuity over brute strength, is often a favourite of fans.
Space Seed (TOS, season 1)
KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN! Okay, so in today’s world the casting looks a bit… well strange, but Ricardo Montalbán’s performance in this episode is outstanding, and he completely owns the role. Khan Noonien Singh, a name that roughly means “King with an extravagant ambitious nature and desire for power that is a lion/warrior” seems rather appropriate, even though the name was based on Kim Noonien Singh, a pilot that Gene Roddenberry served with.
Eugenics, a spot of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and an overarching statement that power corrupts underlines this episode’s theme. Oh, and Chekov must be in the lower decks somewhere, prior to his first on-screen appearance in season 2, allegedly delaying Khan’s bathroom break for an uncomfortable length of time (ask Walter Koenig…) Khan remembers, even if we are unaware. The themes and indeed backstory of this episode would be revisited in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, various Deep Space Nine episodes, once Doctor Bashir is revealed to be an “augment”, just as Khan was, and in Enterprise‘s 3-part story consisting of Borderland, Cold Station 12 and The Augments.
A definite must-watch, ideally before Wrath Of Khan, if only to watch Doctor McCoy explain to Khan the best way of cutting his throat.
A Taste Of Armageddon (TOS, season 1)
The Enterprise comes across a planet where the population walk voluntarily into suicide booths just because a computer system linked to an enemy computer says they have been killed in a virtual attack. With the horrors of war having being civilized, the war between Eminar and Vendikar has being ongoing, in its sanitised state for over five hundred years.
When the Enterprise is declared a casualty of war, Kirk refuses to allow his crew to be slaughtered, and comes into conflict with the planet’s government. Bizarrely this episode is the first appearance of Klingon disruptors, Klingon communicators and the material that made up the Klingon vests, all, of course, modified before Errand Of Mercy, and this is also the first time the United Federation of Planets is referred to by its full title.
The Devil In The Dark (TOS, season 1)
Doctor McCoy discovers that being a bricklayer can, indeed, be the same as being a doctor when he has to tend to a silicon-based life form as his patient, which Spock has already mind-melded to. In a tale that examines how you can’t judge a book by its cover, a mining operation is put at risk by a “monster” – only for it to transpire that the true monsters are the humans mining, and unwittingly killing the unborn children of the planet’s native life form.
According to the actors, the closing scene was one of Leonard Nimoy’s favourite to perform. The episode is also special to William Shatner as his father died during its filming, a bereavement that the cast and crew, Leonard Nimoy especially, supported him through emotionally.
Of this episode, Arthur C. Clarke remarked in 1995, “It impressed me because it presented the idea, unusual in science-fiction then and now, that something weird, and even dangerous, need not be malevolent. That is a lesson that many of today’s politicians have yet to learn.” Still true today.
Errand Of Mercy (TOS, season 1)
An epic example of John Colicos’ scenery chewing, the actor who would go on to be Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica originated the first Klingon commander we see in the form of Kor, leading a 500 strong force of Klingons to occupy Organia. This episode lays the foundation of the Klingons as we would see them prior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and indeed lays the groundwork for every Klingon appearance ever since, but with particular influence on the further appearances of Kor in The Animated Series and appearances in Deep Space Nine.
It is in this episode that the Organians predict that the Klingon Empire and the Federation would eventually be allies, which can be seen no better than in the friendship between Commander Worf and Kor during the Dominion War.
The City On the Edge Of Forever (TOS, season 1)
Or ‘The One Where Joan Collins Gets Kissed By Captain Kirk’, as Collins herself calls it. A crazed Dr McCoy beams down to the planet of The Guardian Of Forever and ends up back on Earth in the 1940s… except he’s altered history to such a degree that Nazi Germany won the Second World War and the landing party who chased the good Doctor to the planet now find themselves without a ship to beam back up to. Kirk and Spock time their entry into the Guardian to try and put right what has gone wrong. Oh boy.
The main triumvirate are in fine form in an excellent episode that more often than not gets voted the best episode of the entire three seasons of the original series. However it is not the most comfortable story to watch, great though it is, thanks to its themes and subject matter.
Amok Time (TOS, season 2)
Aired as the first episode of the second season, but actually the fifth in production, this is the first episode in which we see any Vulcans other than Spock… and the production team puts some of them in the Romulan helmets from Balance Of Terror (cue more toys being thrown out of the pram by Stiles…)
As well as being a great story, brilliantly performed, the episode fills in a huge amount of Vulcan backstory that Star Trek III and Star Trek: Enterprise, especially build upon. The Vulcan matriarch, T’Pau is introduced, played by Celia Lovsky, whose presence on-screen allows T’Pau to emanate authority and bring the role to life.
Pon Farr gets its first explanation, as Spock is supposed to marry, and ends up in a fight to the death with Kirk – cue a very memorable, and brilliantly performed scene at the very end with Spock.
The Doomsday Machine (TOS, season 2)
The Enterprise discovers a wrecked AMT model kit of itself after responding to a ship’s disaster beacon.
With the budget not being able to stretch to creating a second model like the Enterprise to depict a heavily damaged vessel, a newly released AMT licensed model kit of Star Trek‘s Starship Enterprise was actually used in this episode (in its original form) as the mangled mess of the USS Constellation, NCC-1017 (so that they could use the model kit decals for the registry number, completely screwing up the registry number system for that class of vessel!)
The ship’s commander, Commodore Matt Decker is the only soul aboard and has been driven over the edge with survivor guilt after a “planet killer” disabled his vessel and destroyed the third planet in the solar system the episode takes place in… after he evacuated his crew there. With elements of Moby Dick (get used to that…) the story is far from original but the episode is well written and produced. The team working on the remastered high-definition version had a complete field day too, as they recreated most of the episode’s effects in CG, including a fantastic Constitution class Constellation, revealing a huge amount exposed interior detail. Matt Decker’s son, Will Decker, turns up in Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the Enterprise’s Captain and then Executive Officer after Admiral Kirk takes the centre seat.
Mirror, Mirror (TOS, season 2)
The one that started a few things off, not the least of which was the evil-twin goatee beard thing as a trope (though facial hair had been used to denote the “evil one” it was Spock’s mirror universe counterpart that specifically kicked off the goatee as a sign of villainy, ironically, as mirror Spock is perhaps the least evil character on the I.S.S. Enterprise.)
Of course we’d visit the mirror universe again in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as well as later and earlier, in Star Trek: Enterprise‘s fourth and final season. How’s that temporal physics headache coming on? Well, this episode was the second to pointedly deal with a parallel universe, with many more to come, along with alternative timelines, which depending on your acceptance of current theoretical physics, may or may not be the same thing as alternative parallel universes. Watch Parallels too (TNG). Expect a multi-verse migraine.
The Trouble With Tribbles (TOS, season 2)
Summoned by an emergency call on a priority channel, Kirk is rather miffed that the jewel of Starfleet has been summoned to look after a few silos of grain… and even has to educate a stuffy Federation bureaucrat on the fact that twelve Klingons doesn’t constitute a swarm. Scotty starts a fight in a bar… last red shirt standing and all that, and the Squire himself, William Campbell, turns up in fine form as the Klingon Captain Koloth, another Klingon officer some up with many ways to berate Kirk and the Enterprise, all while a space trader by the name of Cyrano Jones introduces an ecological menace that reacts badly to Klingons. All in a few pressurised bulkheads. What could go wrong?
The episode is actually huge fun, so much so that it got a sequel in the animated episode, More Tribbles, More Troubles and literally got revisited in Deep Space Nine for the 30th Anniversary in the form of Trials and Tribble-ations. There was even a special Laserdisc release of this episode with the animated and Deep Space Nine stories included which has now been translated in a form as the season 2 Blu-ray set of The Original Series has disc 4 dedicated to the furry things with all three episodes and a bunch of extra features.
Journey To Babel (TOS, season 2)
Spock’s parents come aboard the Enterprise as part of a number of ambassadorial parties on the way to Babel, a neutral location for the Federation council of ambassadors to debate the entry of a new planet, rich in mineral resources yet underpopulated, into the United Federation Of Planets. However there is a a plot afoot… and Sarek, Spock’s father, is the prime suspect of murder… until he collapses with heart failure.
We learn about Spock’s background and meet some of the other Federation races during this story. After originating the character in this episode, Mark Lenard went on to reprise the role of Sarek in Star Trek: The Animated Series, and in live action in several Star Trek films and two Next Generation episodes… and he owns every single scene.
The Ultimate Computer (TOS, season 2)
The Enterprise is summoned without explanation to a space station and essentially commandeered by Commodore Bob Wesley to test a new computer created by Richard Daystrom. With all but a skeleton crew evacuated from the Enterprise, the ship under the control of the M-5 Multi-tronic unit is pitched in war games against the Constitution class ships; USS Lexington, USS Excalibur, USS Hood and USS Potemkin… except that the M-5 doesn’t quite grasp the concept and decides to defend itself with all the power of the Enterprise’s weaponry.
The battle does not go well for the humans aboard the other four ships, and the well-written and brilliantly performed story serves to underline the reasons why weapons of mass destruction probably shouldn’t be purely under computer control.
The Enterprise Incident (TOS, season 3)
Though this episode is distinctly infected with some serious issues especially when it comes to the scenes between Spock and the Romulan Commander (surely a senior Romulan officer wouldn’t have been quite so naïve?) as a whole, it works, and importantly, sets up the whole question of Romulan/Klingon co-operation which would echo throughout following Star Trek productions, including the mere existence of the Klingon Bird Of Prey, and the story threads of Worf’s family and that of the Duras. It is stated in later series bibles and the Next Gen Technical Manual that the Klingon Empire gained cloaking devices from the Romulans in exchange for Klingon D-7 Battlecruisers. The bizarre reality is that due to cost constraints and episodes originally being aired out of order, in their original form, this is the first time the audience actually saw a D-7 Battlecruiser, even though it was designed as a Klingon vessel. The remastered HD series had the CG D-7 inserted into the earlier Klingon episodes.
The apparently unhinged Captain Kirk and Spock are acting under orders from Starfleet that the other Enterprise crew members are unaware of, and we learn more about the cloaking device first featured in Balance Of Terror, as well as the Romulans in general, making it an important episode, if not a great one.
The Tholian Web (TOS, season 3)
The USS Defiant (NCC-1764, another Constitution class starship, like the Enterprise) is missing and the Enterprise is looking for any trace of the vessel. Suffice to say the Enterprise manages to locate the Defiant but all hands are lost and the Captain is stranded on it as it appears to phase out of our reality. It turns out that the Defiant had drifted into the territory of the Tholian Assembly and the Tholian vessels start to construct an energy web around the Enterprise.
Captain Kirk is believed to have died in this episode, so a memorial service and a Captain’s last orders situation unfolds. It’s also notable that the Defiant eventually ends up in an alternative reality and thrown back in time to appear in Enterprise‘s In A Mirror Darkly, so the events in this story are useful to be aware of before seeing Enterprise as a whole, along with many other original series episodes.
The Day of The Dove (TOS, season 3)
Klingons vs humans… with short swords? After an alien entity manages to pitch the Enterprise crew against the remnants of the crew of the first Klingon D-7 battle cruiser we actually get to see (at least in the original version) under the command of Commander Kang, the attitudes and behaviour of the crew leads Captain Kirk and Commander Spock to realise the real story.
The story touches on the use of propaganda as misinformation but basically starts the path to co-operation that the Organians predicted in Errand Of Mercy – and as with the other two main Klingon episodes, this one first introducing Kang is useful to watch before Deep Space Nine‘s Blood Oath and Sulu’s interactions with the Klingon Commander in Voyager‘s Flashback.
Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (TOS, season 3)
On a decontamination mission, the Enterprise detects a shuttlecraft reported stolen from Starbase 4, which they capture. The pilot, Lokai, is revived from unconsciousness to be questioned by Kirk, who decides to return him to Starbase 4 to stand trial. The man is rather unusual, with a half-black, half-white face that Dr McCoy assumes is due to a mutation. However, en route, the Enterprise comes across Commissioner Bele, who appears to be from the same planet, but has been chasing Lokai for a number of years.
The episode is something of a blunt instrument in its analogy of racial hatred with parallels specifically aimed at the USA, and you have to wonder quite how the censors didn’t pick up on it, considering the recent events of the time.
Yesteryear (TAS, season 1)
This one’s a time-travel episode that involves Spock having to save his younger self, who he first sees being bullied by three other Vulcan children who manage to elicit an emotional response.
We get to see a Sehlat for the first time after being referenced in Journey To Babel, as well as find out more about Vulcan including the Forge and the city of ShiKahr, among other things. Spock also reveals to his younger self that “logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience.”
Gene Roddenberry, even though he felt Star Trek Animated generally shouldn’t be canon, made an exception for this episode, as it provided so much backstory and information on Vulcan, and was written by DC Fontana who also wrote Journey To Babel and revised the script for Amok Time. The Vulcan based 3 part story in season 4 of Enterprise heavily references this episode and clearly Star Trek (2009) was also influenced.
The Lorelei Signal (TAS, season 1)
The men of the Enterprise fall foul of a race of women, in the “Taurean System”, with siren-like powers who then use the male landing party as batteries to recharge their own life-force. Cue Lt. Uhura taking command of the Enterprise with Nurse Chapel as her lieutenant and chief medical officer on a 1973 Saturday morning cartoon series. Let that sink in for a moment.
Acting Captain Uhura leads an all-female away team assembled by security officer Davison to rescue the Captain, and the rest of the original landing party. Fans of He-Man and The Masters Of The Universe may recognise some of the artwork, just ignore the wrongly coloured uniforms (Nurse Chapel in red for instance!)
This list is intended just to get newcomers started, as the vast majority of the first two seasons of the original series of Star Trek are worth watching, as is a good chunk of season 3 and The Animated Series, which is often totally dismissed but which sets up many things for future incarnations.