the story: The crew finds a colony of humans...living like they were in the Old West.
what it's all about: It should always be noted that my rating system is as much a reflection of an episode's overall worth as it is a judgment of its entertainment value, although I tend to give precedence to worth over value, knowing impatient fans need to know the former more than the latter. The particular episodic nature of the franchise for most of its run has a natural conflict with an era that values serialization above everything else. If I give an episode any stars at all (I've really omitted them for only about a dozen entries), it means it has some viewing worth, and anything beyond that is really a judgment call on my part. It's sad that an episode can't just be enjoyed for its entertainment value, but I've come across episodes that have long been my favorites that I've been shocked to give one or two stars to, based on my criteria.
"North Star" is a huge reflection on franchise lore. As such I'd like to say it's essential viewing on some score or another. Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." Wagon Train was one of many popular TV Westerns. When the original series did a Western episode ("Specter of the Gun"), it was almost entirely befitting, even if it had also done Roman Empire episodes ("Bread and Circuses"), Nazi episodes ("Patterns of Force"), gangster episodes ("A Piece of the Action"), and even several hippy episodes! And later series would do Westerns, too (Next Generation's "A Fistful of Datas"), as well as Cold War spy episodes (Deep Space Nine's "Our Man Bashir") and even old-time sci-fi serials episodes (Voyager's "Bride of Chaotica!"). "North Star" grounds its events into the same kind of thought as the original series, while holodecks invariably produced the results otherwise.
It even has something to say about the season, on a metaphorical level, another reminder, before things got really hairy, of the crew's intrinsic humanity (with apologies to T'Pol, Phlox), and how to keep it despite circumstances. But I'll keep that as an implied value. Really, it's just fun viewing at a basic Star Trek level, one of those episodes that ought to remind fans what the franchise is all about, and not just leaving them begging "for something more relevant."
- franchise - A good example of what Star Trek started out as.
series- A latent commentary on the Xindi arc. character- Maybe one of those episodes that would've been improved with just one creative alteration: focusing on, say, Phlox and Archer. Phlox makes everything better! essential- A nice throwback, but your level of enthusiasm is your own call.