Sunday, August 19, 2012

10 Gateway Episodes of Star Trek

This week, the AV Club put up a list they called "10 Must-See Episodes of Star Trek." I thought it was kind of an obvious list; I predicted almost every episode that was on it before reading it. Becca asked me, well, what episodes do you think they missed? And I thought, well, I'll just blog about it and make a completely obvious list of my own, because god knows I don't spend enough time just doing nothing online already.

The problem with making a list of 10 episodes of Star Trek that someone not really familiar with the show should see, though, is that we all know which are the best, most likable, most obvious episodes to pick. But I wish some of these lists would just go in a slightly different direction. Some try, like the AV Club, to split the difference and make it basically a "most representative" list, but if you're going to show a newbie 10 episodes that represent what's great about Star Trek, why the hell would you show them "Spock's Brain"?

What I decided to do here instead is think of 10 episodes I'd show someone unfamiliar with the show in order to whet their appetite for more. Not necessarily the 10 true greats, but more of a sampling. I don't want it to all be the best of the best of the best because my imagined not-yet-a-fan should have the pleasure of discovering the well-regarded and the gems in among some of the truly crappy episodes on their own.

I'll say right now that some of the obvious choices on his list are choices I'd make, too: "Balance of Terror," "The City on the Edge of Forever," and "Amok Time" are three of the best. I particularly have to bring in "Amok Time" because that was the first episode I ever watched, and it created a lifelong fan in me. So there's three that I definitely agree with and, arguably, would make most of the 10 whatever episodes of Star Trek lists you're going to see.

The AV Club's other first season picks are "The Squire of Gothos," "Space Seed," and "The Devil in the Dark," which makes half of the list from the first season ("Amok Time," of course, being from the second). I have no problem with that; the third season is mostly tedious and mostly terrible, so there should be more drawn from the first two seasons--maybe even the whole thing. These three episodes are all great, but "The Squire of Gothos" can be hoary and creaky because of the skiffy tropes it created and/or popularized for a lot of lazy writers. I wouldn't put it in that first showing. And "The Devil in the Dark" is just kind of a safe, obvious choice. (The twist, that the alien is merely protecting its environment instead of just being a monster, has also been done so often since that it doesn't have the same impact when seen cold by someone born in the last 25 years.)

"Space Seed" I'm torn on; the AV Club admits that a big part of the reason you'd want it on the list is that it paves the way for Star Trek II. And Ricardo Montalban is very good on it, creating one of the most powerful and memorable Trek villains. But I find the gender politics on the episode so silly and outdated, placing it firmly in an older era of science fiction where the smart, willful white woman is held in thrall by the abusive, brown barbarian. This thing is The King and I with flying leg kicks. I think for that reason I'd probably just leave the episode off altogether. If you show someone 10 episodes of Star Trek and they really get into it, they'll discover it for themselves. And if they don't, is it really that big a loss on its own, or do we just think it is because it's such a piece of the best Star Trek movie?

I think I'd add "Court Martial" to the list, instead, because it's a fun procedural that expands the idea of the Federation as an organization. And it's a great Kirk episode. I'd also add "This Side of Paradise," which isn't always a popular episode, but which I think is a great Spock episode. One of those episodes where you learn a lot about the character by watching him act out of character (and in a more interesting way, to me, than "The Naked Time," which is funny but also a little too cute for my taste). And finally, I think "Errand of Mercy" is a truly fantastic episode, getting at the series' allegories for Cold War tensions in a more direct, suspenseful way than something heavy handed like "A Private Little War" or outright stupid like "The Omega Glory."

So that's six episodes for me so far.

I'm going to just outright dismiss his other two second season picks--"Mirror, Mirror" and "The Trouble with Tribbles"--for overuse. This is my list, and it's my vague, undefined, increasingly esoteric choices. I think "Mirror, Mirror" is much more thrilling when you've gotten to know the characters a lot better than a first exposure, and "The Trouble with Tribbles" I'm just kind of tired of. I think it's a bit overrated, although I think I'm probably in the minority on that opinion. (I'm not saying I think it's bad, because it's the exact opposite of bad.) Besides, if you start at the top, there's nowhere to go but down. Let them discover the bright spots between some of the tedium.

I think instead I'd throw in "Journey to Babel," itself an obvious choice but with an interesting ethical core. And I'd also go with "Obsession" because I think it's another great Kirk episode that shows the extent to which he can be driven, and the hardships of balancing his personal desire for revenge with his responsibilities as captain.

I reject the AV Club's final two choices out of hand.

You do not need to see "Spock's Brain." Ever. No one does. And the attempts the writer makes to justify the choice--it's the season the fans saved the show, it's part of the legacy, it's a reminder that what you love will disappoint you, it's representative of how terrible the show can be--are just lame and vaguely pretentious. "Spock's Brain" is not "must-see" for any reason. And, honestly, having finally gone through the whole series, it may be extremely silly and outright bad, but at least it's not dull. Or, despite the stupidity of a remote-controlled Spock, insultingly dumb. "Miri," "Turnabout Intruder," and "The Omega Glory" are all far, far stupider. (Though "Turnabout Intruder" is a goldmine of unintentional hilarity.)

His final choice, "Spectre of the Gun," is an episode I'm sick of even talking about. This is the episode a lot of fans always use to say "See? Not every episode in the third season was bad!" It always makes me think that they got stymied at "Spock's Brain," put up with the next few tedious episodes, then saw one that was kind-of-okay, then stopped there and said "Well, at least it's better than 'Spock's Brain.'" Except it actually isn't. It's actually worse. It's like one of the weakest Twilight Zone episodes. It's not even terrible, it's just really mediocre. It doesn't try and fail. It's just there.

The only two third seasons episodes I like are "Day of the Dove" and "All Our Yesterdays," but I wouldn't put them on a list like this. Who cares? The whole point of your list is 10 episodes of Star Trek that you must see (it's right there in your heading, and it's why I tried to stay away from the idea of "must-see" from a fan's point of view). No one must see the third season at all unless they're hellbent on seeing the entire Original Series, like I was.

I'd just add two more second season episodes. I think "The Immunity Syndrome" is a really good exploration of what it means to be an alien among supposedly-enlightened humanity. I admit it's kind of an outside choice, but that was the whole point of my take on the idea.

And then, for fun, I'd throw in "A Piece of the Action" because it's funny. I know I rejected "Tribbles" for the same reason, but I think it's actually funnier (and, of course, much, much sillier). And I threw a few heavy episodes on there, and this is a favorite of mine.

Well... like I said, not the best of the series, but a decent sampling that, I hope, would lead someone to look for more. I've never been the person trying to get someone into Star Trek before. I need a kid that I can hook on it like my Mom hooked me.

2 comments:

Tallulah Morehead said...

"if you're going to show a newbie 10 episodes that represent what's great about Star Trek, why the hell would you show them 'Spock's Brain'?"

Unless you are showing people "The 10 Worst Hours of TV Sci-Fi Ever Broadcast" why would you show Spock's Brain to anyone for any reason? OK, maybe as a cautionary tale, as in: When making Sci-fi DO NOT DO THIS! The only Star Trek List Spock's Brain belongs on is "The All-Time Worst Star Trek Episodes Ever," where it ranks with The Omedga Glory and Spectre of the Gun as the series's nadir.

"I find the gender politics on [SpaceSeed] so silly and outdated, placing it firmly in an older era of science fiction where the smart, willful white woman is held in thrall by the abusive, brown barbarian. This thing is The King and I with flying leg kicks."

Except that in The King and I you're supposed to admire the polygamist, slave-holding-and-whipping king, whereas in Space Seed Kahn is the villain, of the Fascist "We brought the world ORDER!" variety. Yes, the heroine still submits and surrenders to Kahn (which, we learned in STII:TWOK, got her an early, gruesome death), which is a choice some women still make, but it's still associated with the villain's wrong-headed, dated and fascistic attitudes. In essence, the episode repudiates it, albeit, without ceasing to admire the devotion of her to her Fascist man. (It's like admiring Eva Braun for her personal choices.) And Space Seed does show a new viewer what Star Trek could do with a small budget episode, where acting and ideas carried the day rather than effects. (It's real sin is that, as often happened on the series, the deciding moment is Kirk beating up the villain, in this case a villain it is not believeable he would have defeated in a fist-fight.)

"I'd also go with 'Obsession' because I think it's another great Kirk episode that shows the extent to which he can be driven, and the hardships of balancing his personal desire for revenge with his responsibilities as captain."

Plus you get to hear how William Shatner sounds when he has a bad cold but has to shoot the damn show anyway.

"His final choice, 'Spectre of the Gun,' is an episode I'm sick of even talking about. This is the episode a lot of fans always use to say 'See? Not every episode in the third season was bad!'"

WHAT fans? Spectre of the Gun is THE absolute worst Star Trek episode of any iteration. Pure, stupid shit. It should be burned, along with its writer and whoever greenlit it.

The worst Doctor Who story of all time is The Gunfighters, a third-season story (The original third season, in 1965-'66, not the Martha Jones season of the revival) in which the First Doctor ended up in Tombstone involved with Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corrall. What was it, I wondered, about the gunfight at the OK Corrall (An event that fascinated my father for reasons that still baffle me) that it should inspire the absolute rock-bottom worst episodes ever of the two greatest science fiction TV series ever?

city said...

thanks for posting.