No TV show is perfect. The great Rod Serling once said about The Twilight Zone (and I’m paraphrasing) that one-third of the shows were damn good, one-third were passable and the last third were dogs. With just 79 episodes in its total run, Star Trek: The Original Series may have beaten that breakdown slightly, thanks to an excellent first season and a lot of strong second season shows. But there were some clunkers along the way, leading up to the infamous third season and its large assortment of pretty crappy episodes.
Even those bombs have their charms though, and any Trekker will tell you that we watch even the roughest Season 3 outings with a mixture of affection and stunned fascination. Some of Star Trek’s silliest stories still had a germ of an interesting idea at their core, or a decent moment here and there or a terrific performance from somebody. So it is with a certain degree of fondness that we present the 15 best worst episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series – we’ll still watch no matter how painful it gets.
15. “Requiem for Methuselah”
Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet belonging to the mysterious Flint (James Daly), a man with seemingly no past, who lives there with his beautiful young ward Rayna (Louise Sorel), of whom there is also no record. Kirk and Rayna fall in love, but she turns out to be a robot built by the immortal, shapeshifting Flint as a companion for himself. The central idea that famous figures of Earth history – Brahms, Da Vinci, others – are actually all one man is a compelling one, but the episode is ludicrous: Kirk falls so deeply in love with Rayna over the course of just four hours that he is scarred by the experience. What? This is a guy who screws alien women by the truckload – you’re telling me he’ll get emotionally wounded by an afternoon with an android?
14. “The Mark of Gideon”
Kirk falls in love – again – with a beautiful woman named Odona (Sharon Acker) whom he meets aboard a seemingly deserted Enterprise after attempting to beam down to the planet Gideon. But Spock and everyone else are still on board the real Enterprise, so where has Kirk landed? And why is Odona there? The answer will shock absolutely no one, and the whole plot hinges on the leaders of Gideon building a full-sized replica of the interior of the Enterprise just to fool Kirk. They need a specific virus to save their planet that Kirk carries in his blood, so why not just ask him for a blood sample? A laughable premise and uninspired direction combine to make sure that this weak episode leaves no mark of any kind.
13. “Assignment: Earth”
This is the infamous second season closer that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry tried to use as a backdoor pilot for a new series. The show focused on Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), a human raised by aliens and equipped by them to travel in time and space solving problems, who bumps up against the crew of the Enterprise as they just happen to be on a routine time travel mission back to the late ‘60s. It’s clear from the start that this is an awkward fit into the Trek canon, as the stars of the show are offscreen for long stretches of time, plus the story itself and Lansing’s character are simply not that interesting. “Assignment: Earth” was not picked up as a series, and it’s easy to see why.
12. “The Gamesters of Triskelion”
A lot of fans like this one, but it doesn’t hold up: plenty of elements are lifted from episodes like “Arena” and “The Cage” in this tale of an alien planet where superior intelligences known as the Providers capture other beings and use them as gladiators in games that the Providers wager on. The Providers themselves are three disembodied brains in a glass case, which lessens their impact when we finally see them (if we just don’t laugh). The slaves (or “Thralls”) are a hokey bunch, led by sexploitation actress Angelique Pettyjohn in a flimsy silver bathing suit. One of the few positives is that Uhura and Chekov, captured with Kirk, get some generous screen time and something different to do for a change.
11. “Whom Gods Destroy”
Kirk and Spock beam down to the insane asylum on the planet Elba II with a shipment of medicine, only to discover that the lunatics are literally running the place under the leadership of Garth of Izar (Steve Inhat), a former starship captain who was given the power to shapeshift by a race of aliens after he badly injured on a rescue mission. The now-mad Garth wants to use the Enterprise in his quest to make himself “Master of the Universe.” A highly formulaic episode in which Kirk and Spock are once again trapped on a planet while the Enterprise is endangered above, it does feature Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig as a sexy Orion inmate but is hampered by the stock plot and endless scenery chewing from the late Inhat.
10. “Spectre of the Gun”
There seems to be a following for this famous episode, in which Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Sulu face death at the hands of the Earp brothers in a recreation of the gunfight at the OK Corral. But if the Melkotians, who are punishing the Enterprise officers for the ship’s intrusion into Melkot space, are so powerful, why don’t they just smite our heroes where they stand? There is absolutely no need to fabricate the whole Old West scenario. Plus I can’t decide whether the half-finished nature of the town of Tombstone in this scenario is supposed to be surreal or they just ran out of money and said to hell with it. Spock mind-melding with everyone at the end is a nice touch, but this one fires mostly blanks.
9. “The Apple”
There are many memorable elements in “The Apple,” both for good and bad reasons, and it’s certainly crammed with all kinds of crazy stuff: the giant rock head of Vaal with its glowing eyes and mouth, the deadly jungle planet with its myriad traps and wild weather, and the race of childlike beings who exist to serve Vaal, have never seen humans before, but somehow speak English (a flaw inherent in a lot of episodes, to be fair). Yet the theme of a stagnant, controlled society had been done in a better way with “The Return of the Archons” in Season 1, and despite a lot of superficial excitement (four redshirts meet their doom in this one), “The Apple” goes bad pretty quickly.
8. “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”
Yet another computer controls yet another unquestioning civilization, only this time it’s the inhabitants of a generation ship who are about to be pulverized by an asteroid before reaching their destination. It’s up to the Enterprise to divert them, but first Dr. McCoy — who discovers he’s dying of an incurable disease — falls in love with the ship’s queen and wants to live out the rest of his life with her after knowing her for about an hour. A rare affliction, a doomed romance — Star Trek veered sharply into soap opera here, although some brief moments between DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner are moving. McCoy’s love affair, however, heats up far too quickly for it to have real resonance, and the rest of the script feels threadbare and — dare I say it — hollow.
7. “Turnabout Intruder”
The final original series episode to be filmed and aired is either a) an unintentionally campy and downright sexist disaster or b) a subtly ahead-of-its-time commentary on gender and the interchangeable nature of traditional sexual identities. Eh, who am I kidding…it’s the first answer all the way. A vengeful former lover of Kirk’s, the unstable Janice Lester (Sandra Smith), uses alien technology to place her consciousness in Kirk’s body and vice versa, enabling her to take over the Enterprise and enabling Shatner to go off the deep end with one of his most incredibly histrionic performances ever. Sadly, the episode seems to say that women are too emotionally high-strung to handle command, a hideous notion even for 1969 and a terrible way for the original show to go out.
6. “The Alternative Factor”
Massive rewrites (to tone down an interracial romance for a nervous NBC) and a last-minute change in the main guest star resulted in this rare Season 1 misfire, which is a shame because the central idea is so intriguing. Robert Brown (replacing John Drew Barrymore the night before shooting started) plays Lazarus, a time traveler driven insane by the existence of a duplicate Lazarus in a parallel universe made of anti-matter. If the two ever meet in either universe, they will cancel out not just each other but all of reality. The repetitive script throws a lot of wonky science at the viewer, a number of scenes feel pointless and Brown never quite finds the right tone for his two performances, making this mess of an episode implode.
5. “The Omega Glory”
Yangs and Kohms (Yankees and Communists, get it?) fight it out in this thinly disguised Cold War allegory, which finds our three heroes and a redshirt held prisoner by a rogue starship captain (Morgan Woodward) who thinks he’s found the secret of immortality on a planet scarred by ongoing war between two tribal factions. Bizarrely, this was one of three scripts that Gene Roddenberry proposed for the second Star Trek pilot, but NBC passed; good thing too, as the show might never have been picked up if this silly exercise in pointless action and half-baked civics was presented to the network. It ended up getting made deep in Season 2, and surprisingly didn’t kill the series outright.
4. “Plato’s Stepchildren”
Horrendous and embarrassing. That’s how I would describe this episode, which is nevertheless a landmark for containing the first interracial kiss in TV history (it’s just a shame that the network forced the director to shoot it from an angle that partially blocked Kirk’s lips locking with Uhura’s). While the kiss does earn a lot of goodwill, it’s not enough to salvage this tired rehash of stock plot points that had been done to death by this point, including a superior race of beings screwing around with the Enterprise and a culture that mirrored one from Earth’s past (ancient Greece, to be precise). And to top it all off, Shatner and Nimoy (under the Platonians’ control) are forced to sing and dance like a vaudeville act in one of the most cringeworthy scenes in Trek history.
3. “And the Children Shall Lead”
Responding to a distress call from an expedition on the planet Triacus, the Enterprise crew find everyone there dead – all except the children, who are in thrall to a malevolent alien presence that is using them to take control of a starship. Remembered for famous attorney Melvin Belli (atrociously) playing “Gorgan the Friendly Angel,” this is a limp disaster of an episode enlivened only by some especially hammy overacting from Shatner. The show offers almost nothing else of interest, and even the evil alien appears to be dressed in an old shower curtain. The children led this one, all right…straight off a cliff.
2. “Spock’s Brain”
The third season opener (what were they thinking…?) has developed somewhat of a following over the years, but that might be due to its sheer campiness. Spock’s brain goes missing and the Enterprise goes off to find it; turns out it’s being used to power an underground civilization of buxom but dumb women who keep a bunch of even dumber men as slaves. McCoy has to learn the ancient knowledge so he can put the brain back, with Spock directing him as he operates. An embarrassment to both Star Trek and science fiction, “Spock’s Brain” is good for a couple of laughs…but was apparently not meant to be a comedy.
1. “The Way to Eden”
As pointed out in the excellent book These Are the Voyages (Volume 3), “The Way to Eden” has some decent ideas percolating below the surface about retreating from an overly technological, perhaps overly sanitized society, along with finding the right balance between responsibility and non-conformity. It’s just too bad that everything else – from the costumes of the “space hippies” who take over (*sigh*) the Enterprise to find the mythical planet Eden, to the songs they sing, to their risible slang (“Are you One, Herbert?”) – is so absolutely awful and has aged badly. This was originally supposed to be an episode about Dr. McCoy reuniting with his long-estranged daughter Joanna, but how it mutated into this trainwreck could probably make for a good sci-fi story itself. Or not.