Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Top Ten Star Trek Episodes (1966-2005)

Crafting a new list of Star Trek classics, the cream of the crop, the best of the best, has been something of a personal mission.  My ongoing progress in identifying those classics can be found here, while my ongoing progress on an outline of significance for every episode can be found here.  In a blatant effort to drum up interest for these efforts, I'm skipping ahead a little and presenting my list for the new top ten episodes of the entire franchise, including the original series (TOS), the animated series (TAS), The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), Voyager (VOY), and Enterprise (ENT).

Without further adieu:

1. "The Visitor" (DS9 4x3)
One of the most notable aspects of Deep Space Nine (aside from the fact that it's the only series not to be set aboard a starship) is its deep sense of family, highlighted by lead character Benjamin Sisko's relationship with his son Jake, and no episode better illustrates their bond than "The Visitor."  Essentially a flashback episode set several decades into the future, an older Jake (played by franchise veteran Tony Todd) receives an unexpected guest (or in other words a visitor) who's fallen in love with what little writing he's had published.  She's come to try and understand why he quit.  It all has to do with the day he lost his father.  In the present, we find out the exact circumstances that took Ben away from his son (somewhat ironically, aboard the show's ship, introduced a season earlier).  We subsequently learn that father ends up periodically popping in on son (in other words a visitor), because he's become unstuck in time.  Jake is increasingly devastated, and becomes obsessed with trying to end it by rescuing Ben from this endless loop.  Needless to say, he does, but that doesn't diminish the impact; far from it, in fact.  Like all the episodes in the top ten, you don't need to be a fan of Star Trek to love it.  The loveliest thing about "The Visitor" is that it is later echoed in the series finale, "What You Leave Behind," in incredibly subtle ways, leaving fans with the same kind of resonance that exists in the episode and between the two Sisko men who receive powerful reminders of what they mean to each other.

2. "The City on the Edge of Forever" (TOS 1x28)
This one is the classic of all Star Trek classics.  It's basically taken on a life of its own, made a lasting impact on screenwriter Harlan Ellison's career (something he's actually struggled a great deal with over the years), and is arguably the most heartbreaking romance of perennial ladies man James Kirk's life.  So what is it, exactly?  Like a lot of the episodes in the top ten, it involves time travel, specifically through the benefit of the Guardian of Forever, a sentient gateway that inadvertently allows a chemically-affected Dr. McCoy to jump into Earth's past and drastically alter the timeline.  Kirk and Spock quickly make the decision to follow, but arrive earlier, so that they're forced to wait and figure out what exactly he did.  In the meantime, Kirk runs into social worker Edith Keeler, an idealist Spock quickly identifies as having two possible destinies.  She will either die fairly soon or prevent American involvement in WWII.  Well, guess which one it is.  Kirk falls for her, naturally, and realizes at the precise moment what McCoy does, so he gets to make the decision to prevent "Bones" from saving her life.

3. "Far Beyond the Stars" (DS9 6x13)
The best of Star Trek tends to focus on social matters, and there's no more relevant social matter to Deep Space Nine than black Americans, with Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko the first black man to lead a Star Trek cast (you only have to listen to one Brooks interview to know how important this is to him).  In this episode, Sisko finds himself in the 1950s as a writer for a science fiction journal.  You don't particularly need to know that the Dominion War is going on in the background, which puts Sisko in the mood for which the Celestial Prophets send him this vision, but that's happening, too.  The majority of "Stars" is about the writer's plight to be treated with the same amount of respect as his white colleagues (there's a nod to the fact that female writers would have had much the same difficulties), which is a struggle that comes to a head when he comes up with the character of Benjamin Sisko, who runs a space station in the future (yes, it's all a little meta, and features all the cast members outside of their usual rubbery masks, for those where such masks apply).  Needless to say, the struggle has an unhappy conclusion, because that's what would have happened at the time, and Sisko is left simply trying to justify his existence.  In a weird sort of way, that's exactly what he needed.

4. "Past Tense, Parts 1 & 2" (DS9 3x11/3x12)
Set a mere twelve years from now, this is another time travel episode, in which members of the DS9 crew end up quartered in "sanctuary districts," basically dumping grounds for the homeless and underprivileged.  At the time these episodes were aired, it was alarmingly reported that some politicians had actually considered something like that.  In our own times, thanks to the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street, we've been reminded that economic inequality is an ongoing concern.  Here's Star Trek's best statement on the topic.

5. "The Inner Light" (TNG 5x25)
Frequently called The Next Generation's finest hour, it's an unusually quiet meditation even by this show's standards.  Basically our crew encounters a probe that zaps Picard and enables him to experience the final years of a long-dead planet via the life of the very man who created the probe.  At first, Picard is understandably discombobulated, but the more he warms to the world around him, the more he comes to love it and fall naturally into the role bequeathed him.  It doesn't hurt that much of it's what Picard probably would have done if his own circumstances had been the same, which makes "Inner Life" a kind of what-if episode in addition to pure poetry.  The flute he learns to play forms the basis of another episode and relationship later in the series, another touch of continuity that helps put it among the franchise elite.  And yes, Patrick Stewart's son Daniel appears as the son of the man Picard inhabits.

6. "The Measure of a Man" (TNG 2x9)
The finest example of interseries continuity ever attempted in the franchise, Data's rights as an individual are challenged when Starfleet wishes to duplicate him, which would mean disassembling the android, a prospect he and his friends among the crew don't particularly relish.  Not just an early revelation when Next Generation was still trying to find its footing, but long considered a highlight, period, "Measure" is a moment when the problem is internal rather than external, with the characters solely concerned with themselves.  As opposed to "Amok Time," this is a matter of someone's existence being threatened.  Is Data merely a machine?  Much to his dismay, Riker is forced into the role of prosecutor, and in a memorable scene shuts his friend down.  Another episode referenced in later stories, which also doesn't hurt.

7. "Twilight" (ENT 3x8)
Like "The Visitor" in a lot of ways, and also with a fair bit of "Far Beyond the Stars" running through its veins, "Twilight" is a mark that Enterprise needed to hit, especially during the tricky third season, when a thorny arc occupied the entire year, at once trying to revitalize the series and emphasize everything that it had tried to represent from the start.  Archer loses his long-term memory, which proves incredibly tricky for his crew as they're trying to save humanity from the Xindi.  This is the first time during the season where they've taken a moment to let the crisis really soak in, and "Twilight" makes the most of the potential drama.  As events unfold, things don't go so well without Archer in command.  He eventually finds himself, many years in the future, living with T'Pol, who has dedicated her life to caring for him, and painstakingly explaining everything to him, every few hours.  This is equivalent to the dedication between the Siskos, and it resonates deeper than the Xindi arc, and deeper than the series.  It's got another patented reset button waiting at the end, but again, that hardly matters.

8. "Yesterday's Enterprise" (TNG 3x15)
Almost from the start, Star Trek was a generational affair.  Between the original and second pilots, Spock served two different captains.  In this episode, Next Generation truly reaches maturity, the culmination of a season where everything finally came together for the series headed directly toward the epic "Best of Both Worlds" encounter with the Borg, and the theme of generations that was always present in the title (and the cast's first movie) is emphasized by a return appearance from Tasha Yar, the security chief killed off in the first season when Denise Crosby decided the experience wasn't for her.  In an alternate reality, she's still alive, and this is a problem because Guinan (the sage bartender played by Whoopi Goldberg) is keenly aware even in this life that something's just not right.  Another Enterprise crew has traveled from the past (featuring what should be noted as a female captain), and in order to fix things must travel back and basically sacrifice itself.  Faced with her existential crisis, Yar makes the hard choice to die again, and fill in for the crew's lightened staff, thanks in no small part to a handsome officer she doesn't mind dying with.  (There's a somewhat odd twist to these decisions in later episodes as we learn exactly what happened to her, but I won't spoil that here.)

9. "Balance of Terror" (TOS 1x14)
The Romulans, cousins of the Vulcans, would probably not still fascinate fans quite so much if their debut had not been so compelling.  This is essentially a submarine battle sequence, with Kirk squaring off against an unnamed Romulan counterpart played by the late Mark Lenard (who also memorably portrayed Spock's dad Sarek), both struggling with the ethics of their dilemma, trying desperately to avoid an unnecessary war.  It's not hard to see all this as an allegory of the Cold War, which is a little odd, since the Klingons were also routinely used at the time as surrogate Russians (guess it was just a popular gimmick among the writers), but all the same, a timeless example of what Star Trek could be, right from the beginning.

10. "Distant Origin" (VOY 3x23)
The finest hour of Voyager is also the finest example of the essential Star Trek tradition to seek out new worlds and civilizations, as our lost crew stumbles across an alien species, from whose perspective the majority of the episode is told, that is descended from Earth's own dinosaurs.  It quickly becomes another prototypical allegorical experience, tracking with Galileo's epic struggle against the Catholic Church in the interest of science over religion, since no one wants tradition to be contradicted, and certainly not to be told that they come from some other sentient species' world, many lightyears away from their home.  Some fans grumbled that Voyager ended up doing so many episodes that were similar to what Star Trek had done before, but that was part of the premise, a chance to explore the familiar from an unfamiliar perspective.  "Distant Origin" is the epitome of affirmation to that approach.

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