You can be a Trek fan without loving TOS. But if we think tolerance and empathy are good things, it makes sense to practice tolerating and empathizing with our own past.

I was born in 1968 and grew up with reruns of TOS. I can only remember seeing a handful of episodes for the first time (and those are some of my earliest memories).

Some of the episodes are awful, and the third season is overall very weak.

You can be a Trek fan without loving TOS.

As a college English professor, I regularly teach classic works that my students struggle to understand, much less appreciate, because they’re uncomfortable confronting the values and unquestioned assumptions of past centuries and different cultures.

I remind them that we are all products of our times, and we are all of us happily basking in unquestioned assumptions that future centuries will find uncomfortable, and that if we think tolerance and empathy are good things, it makes sense to practice tolerating and empathizing with our own past, though of course that doesn’t include ignoring or excusing injustices.

Much of TOS is dated, but compare it to other science-fiction TV shows of the same decade — Judy Jetson is a housewife with a robot maid, and Maureen Robinson from Lost in Space is canonically a brilliant scientist but the scripts mostly made her a mom in space. It was a powerful statement in the 1960s for TOS to have minority officers on the bridge — even though about 55 years later it’s perfectly fair to note how little screen time these supporting characters got.

But if you do want recommendations, here are mine, in no particular order.

  • Where No Man Has Gone Before
  • The Corbomite Maneuver
  • The Enemy Within
  • Balance of Terror
  • Amok Time
  • Space Seed
  • The Trouble with Tribbles
  • The City on the Edge of Forever
  • Arena
  • The Menagerie (1 and 2)
  • The Galileo Seven

If you want fun and campy, try:

  • The Gamesters of Triskelion
  • I Mudd
  • The Way to Eden
  • A Piece of the Action
  • Assignment Earth
  • The Naked Time
  • Mirror, Mirror
  • Shore Leave
  • Wink of an Eye
  • The Trouble with Tribbles (already listed as a great episode, but definitely campy)
  • Optional (if you like “so bad it’s good”)
    • Spock’s Brain
    • That Which Survives 

If you like drama, where the writing and the performances of guest stars carry the show:

  • Whom Gods Destroy
  • The Conscience of the King
  • The Man Trap
  • The Ultimate Computer
  • The Doomsday Machine

Already recommend as great episodes, but also notable for their guest stars

  • Balance of Terror
  • Space Seed
  • City on the Edge of Forever

And you have to be aware of the weakest episodes

  • Catspaw (a Halloween episode with dungeons and a sorceress)
  • Day of the Dove (an excuse to get Klingons fighting Enterprise crew with swords)
  • The Specter of the Gun (a Western)
  • Plato’s Stepchildren (I haven’t been able to force myself to watch it since I saw it as a teenager in the 1980s, but it features a little person riding Kirk like he’s a pony…. don’t ask)
  • Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (which tries to make social commentary on racial prejudice but is a mess)
  • Turnabout Intruder (which focuses on gender dynamics — but neither breeches nor skirts its target.)

I try to get my students to be familiar enough with the cultural conventions of an artist’s time period so that they can appreciate when a particular work is notable because it masters a convention (the way “Balance of Terror” nails the “WWII Allied cruiser vs Nazi submarine movie”) and when a work of art is notable because is shatters a convention (such as this moment from that same episode, where Kirk kicks a prejudiced white guy off the bridge and Uhura takes over at his post).

One thought on “You can be a Trek fan without loving TOS. But if we think tolerance and empathy are good things, it makes sense to practice tolerating and empathizing with our own past.

  1. This essay got some very positive responses when I shared it on the Star Trek Wholesomeposting Facebook group, where I also added:

    Yes, and there’s room in Turnabout Intruder to suggest that Starfleet rejected Janice Lester because she was unfit, not because she was a woman.

    Lester says “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women. It isn’t fair,” to which Kirk responds “It isn’t.”

    She is speaking directly to Kirk, so a magnanimous reading of those lines can cling to the possibility that by “your world” she means Kirk’s personal choice not to let personal relationships with women interfere with his professional duties. Later it is Lester in the body of Kirk who says “she [Kirk in the body of Lester] would not be allowed to serve as the captain.”

    Kirk himself says “No it isn’t [fair]” (that his world of captains doesn’t admit women), and in the body of Lester it is Kirk who describes Lester’s goal as “to attain a position she doesn’t merit by temperament or training.”

    If Lester is canonically referring to a gender-based ban on female starfleet captains, then Kirk is also canonically stating that such a ban is unfair. That’s a generous reading.

    A less generous reading would suggest that when Kirk-in-Lester’s body uses the word “temperament,” it is code for “gender.”

    The episode provides no external evidence, other than Lester’s words, for a Starfleet policy banning women from being starship captains. As the episode progresses, we learn very quickly that she is not to be trusted.

    Because of some cleverly ambiguous writing, it’s not impossible to head-canon this problem away — but doing so rather problematically requires us to dismiss the messenger. (Look at how angry she is at gender discrimination — clearly she doesn’t have the temperament to run a starship.)

    Having said that, it would have been a very simple thing just to add a line to clear that point up. I’d say it appears the show-runners worked hard to keep this point ambiguous; they brought up a challenging point about gender roles, but the episode tries to be socially edgy, but ended up trying to showcase Shatner’s ability to play an ex-lover’s parody of Kirk, while the script isn’t designed to explore gender identity, and instead confirms the prevailing gender biases of the 1960s.

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