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STAR TREK: TOP 20 EPISODES
by Chris Gregory

dukatcombadgeAny list of 'best episodes' of Star Trek is bound to be controversial, and I hope this will be no exception. Obviously this is a very personal selection which represents what I feel are Star Trek's strengths - in particular I've highlighted episodes that I feel have stretched the limits of what Star Trek can do. I would argue that, in these episodes, Star Trek has expanded the possibilities of the very medium of TV itself.

Anyway, I do hope this list will prove illuminating, and thought-provoking...

You will notice that there are no feature films in my list. Well, that's quite deliberate... I'm of the belief that the essential Star Trek experience is to be found in the TV medium. In my view only the 8th movie First Contact comes anywhere close to the outstanding episodes I've nominated and the recent Insurrection was extremely disappointing, a tired and uninspired reworking of well-trodden Star Trek themes. First Contact's predecessor Generations suffered from having to include those cringe-worthy scenes in which Picard meets Kirk, and the even more embarrassing 'death of Kirk' scene featuring a dreadful, over-the-top performance by Malcolm McDowell as the villain. At least the old ham Shatner was finally written out of the saga - surely a relief to us all! His infamous attempt at directing a Trek film, The Final Frontier, was just about as cheesy and ridiculous as Star Trek could possibly get. The best bits in the films featuring the original cast were always the ones where their image was satirised - thus ST 1V The Voyage Home and ST V1 The Undiscovered Country were entertaining as comic pastiche. The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock were fairly entertaining adventure movies, whilst Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an unfortunate example of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's lack of sense or scale as a storyteller.

combadgeIt seems that adapting ST to the big screen is rarely successful in artistic terms, although in First Contact writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga (the most consistently creative writers for TV Star Trek) created a scenario which encompassed the broad sweep of ST history with considerable panache. Generally, the films suffer from problems of scale - the situations and characters of ST are created for TV, not the movies. The films suffer from the perceived neccessity of giving every member of the large ST ensemble casts some kind of role in the proceedings. Whilst over a whole series space can be found to explore the nature of characters such as Geordi, Troi and Beverly Crusher, in recent films these characters appear to be merely 'wheeled on' so as to 'make an appearance' and really play no important dramatic part in the proceedinhgs. The perceived need to please ST fans by including all these characters in every film makes the movies top-heavy. A great pity...

It's also a great pity that for many people, the films, along with a number of half-remembered episodes of the original series, form their basic knowledge of Star Trek. It's not surprising that such viewers can hardly take Star Trek seriously. Yet as the more dedicated ST fans have discovered, the reinvention of ST in the modern age has produced a number of episodes which have lifted ST into the realms of absolutely classic TV. It's my contention that a handful of ST episodes can compete with the best in the fields of literature, drama and film as late 20th century works of art. Of course, if you tune into ST at random you may be lucky to find such episodes. Any TV series, written as it is by multiple writers, is bound to be inconsistent. The factory-like' production processes of TV tend to mitigate against individual shows reaching great artistic heights. But there are undoubtedly moments during Star Trek that make the viewer gasp in a way that perhaps only the TV medium can do. But one can hardly blame the average viewer for not realising that Star Trek has, at times, produced shows that stand as lasting works of art - there are now over five hundred episodes from the various series, with a fair number of duff episodes throughout. The purpose of this guide, then, is to attempt to isolate and celebrate ST's key moments.

combadgeIn my book STAR TREK: PARALLEL NARRATIVES I've attempted to trace the various patterns of authorship and development of the various series in detail. Obviously I'm not going to get into as much detail here, and anyway I'm attempting to produce material that's complementary to the book rather than a mere reproduction of its themes ( but check out the overview of the book).

But, in brief, it's worth including here an overall perspective on how ST has developed, its high and low points. Firstly, the original series.... there's no doubt that this is a TV classic, standing out like a beacon from most 1960's TV series with their predictable and formulaic nature and their gross sexism and stereotypical view of characters. The greatest stength of the series is its characterisation, with the Kirk-McCoy-Spock triumverate an extremely effective and universal psychological model of leadership, emotion and logic. Spock in particular was a superb character, wonderfully portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. In my book I've explained how this psychological model becomes a model for the placement of character in all succeeding ST series. The original series also contains a number of excellent SF ideas, many of course not original to the programme, which have again been followed up as models by succeeding series. One example is the 'parallel universe' episode Mirror Mirror, which has inspired a whole series of rather tongue-in-cheek returns to this universe in DS9 as well as some brilliant developments of the parallel-universe theme in TNG episodes like Yesterday's Enterprise, Parallels and All Good Things. The original series also began to map out (if rather sketchily) the political structure of the galaxy which would dominate much of TNG and DS9.

combadgeHowever, despite the rosy glow of nostalgia that surrounds TOS (the original series) it has to be said that, viewed fromn today's perspective, most of it is dreadfully corny and very cliched. Its third and final season, by which time its main creative writers Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon had left the programme, descended into endless and cliched reworking of its original themes. By today's standards it's really very sexist throughout, and virtually every episode resolves itself in a very predictable way. Despite their psychological strength, the main characters never develop from episode to episode. The minor characters, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu and Chapel are rarely given any real chance to develop. In general, it also has to be said that none of the actors in the series (with the honourable exception of Nimoy) would have stood much chance of becoming so famous as to be able to publish their memoirs without them having become fortunate enough to be cast in the series. But despite all these drawbacks, a handful of episodes of the original series stand out as examples of really innovative, original and moving TV.

It's noticeable, however, that I've only included one TOS episode in my top twenty. This might upset some people but I have to insist that the greatest periods in Star Trek came many years after TOS finished. There are 10 episodes of TNG in the top twenty, and most of these occur in its final three series. Most of the other episodes are from Deep Space Nine, which in my view represents the most consistent series overall and the definite summit of Star Trek's achievement so far. There is only one episode from the most recent series Voyager in the twenty, which I think reflects the disappointing nature of much of this series. In my book I've gone into many of the reasons why Voyager seems to have 'underperformed' . I do hope, however, to influence the general view that people have of Star Trek, and throughout my book I've emphasised the key role that changes in patterns of authorship have had on the development of the series. The recreation of ST in The Next Generation was a remarkable and brave attempt to revive a classic format, largely supervised by the series' original creator Gene Roddenberry. Now I come to the point where some ST fans are going to start chucking things at me and probably violently disagreeing, but I have to say that my conclusion is after much study of ST that Gene Roddenberry's role in the whole 'enterprise; of ST has been grossly over-exaggerated and that ST's best moments have often occurred when writers have been freed from Roddenberry's influence.

combadgeWhilst today's Star Trek principals frequently pay reverent homage to Roddenberry, crediting him as the creator of ST, in fact many of the key innovations of the original series, such as the Klingons, Starfleet and the Federation were not in fact his ideas. And while Roddenberry's role in the recreation of ST in TNG was a vital one, the first two seasons of TNG, during which he maintained control, saw the series struggling in the shadow of its predecessors. Although TNG had much better actors (particularly the magnificent Patrick Stewart as Picard, Michael Dorn as Worf, Brent Spiner as Data and Jonathan Frakes as Riker) and maintained far higher standards of dialogue and psychological realism than TOS, in its first two seasons it still seems to lack the kind of magic that TOS somehow conjured up. To me the real ascent of Star Trek to greatness begins with Roddenberry (who by now was very ill) stepping back in favour of Rick Berman, his successor as the Star Trek Franchise's supreme overlord. Berman brought in a new team of young writers, headed by Michael Piller, who transformed Star Trek into being far more consistently capable of achieving the heights that TOS had only really hinted at. The first real manifestation of this occurs in the third season's stunning Yesterday's Enterprise, which propels ST into new realms of seriousness, by showing a parallel universe in which things are nothing like so cosy as they normally appear. From here on the new writing team - dominated by such talents as Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Rene Echevarria and Hans Beimler - takes TNG into fantastically imaginative realms and towards a series of dramatic triumphs. As TNG's characters develop beyond their originally sometimes rather wooden roles, the series becomes more and more like a serial. The writers prove particlarly adept at developing the characters of Riker and Worf. Meanwhile, the whole political structure of the Alpha Quadrant is outlined in detail, and races such as the Klingons are much more fully developed, being shown to have an admirable culture of their own, despite their outwardly 'barbaric' appearance.

combadgeSuch levels of consistency are maintained throughout Deep Space Nine, which features alien characters in most of its leading roles, and which revolves around a 'realpolitik' ethos which closely reflects the political turmoil of today's post-Cold War era. DS9's characterisations are also spot-on, particularly in terms of its women. Whilst in TNG the main female characters Crusher and Troi are cast in 'caring' roles, DS9's Kira and Dax are strong, even aggressive women whose characterisation is deep and complex. Ben Sisko - superbly played by Avery Brooks - is far more unpredictable than Kirk or Picard and his relationship with his son Jake is always prominent. As the non-conformist Jake, Cirric Lofton is far more believable than Wil Wheaton as TNG's teenage Wesley Crusher. The Ferengi Quark is Star Trek's outstanding comic character, an almost Dickensian creation, vile yet eminently loveable. The addition of Worf to the cast in the fourth season further strengthens the mix. DS9 breaks away from the ship-bound traditions of ST, bravely exploring the 'dark side' of the ST universe. The moral ambiguity about the role of the Federation which later seasons of TNG developed (and which Roddenberry, with his naive utopianism, would surely never have allowed) is particularly emphasised throughout. Also extremely impressive is DS9's take on religion and cultural traditions. While in TOS the humanistic and atheistic Roddenberry seemed to insist that religion was basically superstition which would eventually be replaced by scientific rationalism, and that the future 23rd Century would be one with no religion, DS9 challenges this position very strongly and presents a much more relativistic viewpoint which for the first time admits the role of spirituality into the series. DS9 also develops its galactic-politics scenario into a grand design which marks it out as basically a serial rather than a series.

combadgeVoyager is also basically a serial. Again, the prominence of female characters has to be praised, and the basic scenario of the ship lost in the Delta Quadrant is very appealing, but the scenario unfortunately means that much of the strength of cultural diversity developed in DS9 is not present here. The series' original villains, the Kazon, remain rather one-dimensional. Much of the basic characterisation of the series is also rather weak - characters like Harry Kim and Tom Paris are rather standard US TV creations, although Tuvok is an interesting take on a Vulcan and B'elanna Torres' combination of human and Klingon blood is often a volatile mixture. Captain Janeway is another strong female character, and Chakotay's Native American background again emphasises Star Trek's new relativistic position on religious and spiritual beliefs. However the 'comic' character Neelix is often excruciatingly irritating and his companion Kes far too twee and sincere to be believable. Voyager's best character is undoubtedly its holographic Doctor, around whom many of its most inventive episodes - such as Projections, the only Voyager episode in my top twenty - are based. It must be said, though, that more recent Voyager episodes have improved the situation greatly, with Kes' replacement by the ex-Borg Seven of Nine and Voyager encountering the Borg themselves on a number of occasions.

Check out my Top 20 episodes here - in reverse order. I'll be adding them a few at a time. Contact me if you agree or disagree, or if you just want to have your say!

 

COPYRIGHT CHRIS GREGORY (C) 1999-2002 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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