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The five best Star Trek episodes EVER!

Behold the five greatest Star Trek episodes ranked fifth to first.

We've shown you the worst that The Original Series has to offer. Now it's time to reverse polarity on the snark nacelles and lay out the five best entries from arguably the greatest sci-fi TV show of all time.

5. Arena

Remembered fondly (and occasionally mockingly) as the episode where Captain Kirk built a homemade diamond cannon out of rocks and sticks, "Arena" almost perfectly encapsulates the Star Trek ethos. Kirk must outwit a stronger conventional foe -- in this case, a rather ridiculously sluggish lizard-man -- to save his ship from destruction. After he wins by cobbling together gunpowder from available minerals -- proving brains over brawn -- Kirk refuses to kill his enemy, thereby earning the moralizing approval of the godlike race that set up the allegorical contest in the first place. In the abstract, it's as cheesy as a one-ton quiche, but by some strange Roddenberry-esque alchemy it comes together into an iconic hour of television.

4. The Trouble With Tribbles

The apex of Star Trek's comedic streak, which introduces the most beloved threat to human civilization in Trek history: the tribble. Furry, featureless, and so cute it's painful, you'll overlook the tribbles' ability to violate the laws of thermodynamics as they exponentially consume and multiply like a mogwai tossed in a car wash. Fortunately, the tribble does have one legitimate practical application: detecting Klingons, whose mere presence makes the fertile furballs trill with terror. Yes, this is actually a critical plot point in "Trouble." Throw in a diplomatic conspiracy, Scotty getting involved in a smack talk throwdown with a Klingon crew, the obligatory inter-species bar fight, and more snark than you can shake a phaser at, and it all adds up to perhaps the most charmingly hilarious episode in the Trek annals.

3. Balance of Terror

Setting aside the fact that this episode introduces some of the most critical aspects of the Trek canon -- the Romulans, the neutral zone, cloaking devices -- this is an old-school character study and a meditation on the pointlessness of prejudice and war. Kirk squares off with a Romulan commander on a mission of stealth destruction, using a weapon that can wipe out a starbase in a single shot, only to find the two of them are kindred spirits. Spock, meanwhile, stares down bigotry and suspicion when it's revealed Romulans and Vulcans share a common ancestry. Pack that all in with the tension of two ships on silent running, where a single misstep means certain death. Even though our heroes prevail, it is a hollow victory, as they are forced to destroy a worthy opponent that, in a just universe, they could have called "friend."

2. Mirror, Mirror

The entire notion of evil twins sporting goatees started here, and that's maybe the 10th coolest thing about this episode. Kirk, Scotty, McCoy, and Uhura are transposed with their Mirror Universe counterparts (thereby introducing the Mirror Universe) during a transporter accident, introducing us to versions of Spock, Sulu, and Chekov that serve the conquest-hungry, Gestapo-like Terran Empire. It's an extremely potent storytelling device to have the characters act as foils for themselves, highlighting the heroism and moral vagaries of our familiar Trek protagonists by showing how they could use their talents and tech for selfish ends. Both Leonard Nimoy and Spock shine here. The former for portraying two versions of his classic character with such nuance; the latter for illustrating how a dispassionate, neutral stance can do as much damage as willful destruction, as all it takes for evil to triumph is for good Vulcans to do nothing. Assassinations, crazy costumes, an evil enforcer Sulu, a love story -- and a moral, too? It doesn't get more Trek than that.

1. The City on the Edge of Forever

If all you knew is that Harlan Ellison wrote (and then later disavowed) this episode, that would be enough to give you pause. That Joan Collins plays Kirk's love interest ups the ante. That this is a rare excellent Trek time travel story -- introducing the legendary Guardian of Forever - and also the original and ultimate test of Spock's utilitarian axiom "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" should be enough to cement its status as the pinnacle of original Star Trek.

A disoriented McCoy is timewarped to 1930s America, where he saves social worker Edith Keeler (Collins) -- who then goes on to found a peace movement that prevents America from joining World War II, and thus the Axis powers conquer the world. Kirk and Spock must follow McCoy to the past and ensure that Keeler dies -- even after Kirk falls in love with the well-intentioned peacenik. It's the ultimate moral quandary, both of the dangers of time travel, and of weighing the life of one victim against the liberty of untold millions.

Kirk, once again, is caught between the compassionate aims of McCoy, who sees only an innocent life he has the power to save, and the cold logic of Spock, who sees the certain consequences of a single emotionally satisfying act. It's the one no-win scenario that Kirk failed to outwit, even if history -- to say nothing of the television audience and the Trek franchise as a whole -- ultimately won. Put simply, it's the best original series Star Trek episode ever, bar none.

Disagree with the rankings, or simply want to swap stories about the foremost five TOS episodes? Hailing frequencies are open in the comments section.

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About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

59 comments
piroflip
piroflip

Never in a million years for a dollar that's nonesense. Besides, he built a minuture TV set. Did he get that for a dollar? Don't forget, part of their money had to go on food and lodging.

piroflip
piroflip

My only gripe about this episode (which nobody else seems to have picked up on) is that Spock could afford to buy parts to build a radio receiver on the 25 cents an hour that they were earning sweeping up. In the 1930s this very new technology would have been staggeringly expensive.

benkwondo
benkwondo

Where's 'The Doomsday Machine'?

d_baron
d_baron

Yes, "City on the Edge ..."--a classic. Best of Kirk's fondness of female protagonists (and antagonists). The season pilots tended to be superior to most that followed. I cannot supply the titles but the stricken captain's return to the forbidden planet (and many similarities here, too) was good. The giant-jellyfish pair and Q, well similar to the Arena theme. Kirk's transporter accident separating the good-inclination and evil-inclination Kirks is fondly remembered by Lubavitcher Trekkies in its parallel to classic Jewish thought. I was at the Chassidic wedding of Nemoy's Chassidic cousin. I could go on. Kirk-Capone was also cute.

Kenpoman
Kenpoman

Yes, City was a great episode and I really enjoyed the others on the list but I would have added "Assignment-Earth" for just two reasons; Gary Seven is cool and has a cool name and that cat!!! Meowwww!!

firzakhan
firzakhan

thanks for your such nice sharing with us here

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

of the one that Q reminds me of.

Tyree
Tyree

I'm surprised no one mentioned that one. It is one of my favorites. Ancient aliens as gods is the premise. These gods have all the problems and personality weaknesses of humans. Adonis, the last of the gods, waiting for his children, is angry when his children see him for what he is and not for the god the ancient humans saw him as. I still remember the line, "Hera was the first. She spread herself upon the wind, thinner and thinner until nothing but the wind was left. Even for a god, there is a point of no return." I don't know why but I still get chills when I hear it. Another of my favorites was the episode about Kirk's friend, Tyree, on a backward planet. Now after 40 years, I can't remember it clearly. I keep getting it mixed up with the same characters, playing the yangs against the comms.

ronaldpace
ronaldpace

I'm surprised this one didn't make the list. Actually a two-part remake of the pilot episode called "The Cage." The Menagerie introduces us to Kirk's predecessor Christopher Pike, who we see in flashbacks as an adventurous Star Fleet captain, and in his present form as a disabled and disfigured survivor of a starship accident. A mind-bending treatise on the nature of sacrifice, and how a pleasing illusion can sometimes be better than a bitter reality. Won a Hugo award for best science fiction film that year.

metaphysician
metaphysician

I'm old enough to remember watching Star Trek in its original showing. I liked it, but I'm more of a reader. I find it amusing that I can immediately identify where big chunks of the plot came from in the favorite episodes. As I mention in another comment, Arena was basically taken from a Frederick Brown story of the same name. Despite the agreement that was later worked out, the basic properties of a Tribble are the same a Heinlein Flat Cat from the Rolling Stones. And the Horta from "The Devil in the Dark" is basically a silicony for Asimov's Mysteries "The Talking Stone." In order to succeed, only steal from the very best.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Vastly amusing poke at the senselessness of racism. My all-time favorite episode.

SpatsTriptiphan
SpatsTriptiphan

Especially if you see the one with the updated special effects.

pgit
pgit

...of course you expected that subject would surface... just doin' my job. ;) But the #1 episode ever is hands down "Bread and Circuses." Spock lays out the very real slavery under which we all labor today, verbatim, without irony or obfuscation. Seriously, check it out. It also has the most intense "human" interaction between Spock and McCoy. There's the redemption of the fallen in the aptly named captain "Mericus," suggesting America has the chance yet of removing the yolk of slavery, that which we call "social security" and related forced government pestering. I challenge anyone to watch this episode, and pause it and ponder Spock's words when he explains wage slavery... then tell me it's not the best message Roddenberry and Coon ever penned. PS I'd not include "...Tribbles" on the top 5 list, probably not even top 10...

VictorGutzler
VictorGutzler

Any episode with time travel needs to be nixed from the list, even if the guest star is a famous movie actress. City on the Edge of Forever needs to be replaced by Devil in the Dark for the number one spot for the same reasons as the previous posting. Any episode with a God-like superrace controlling everything also needs to be nixed (Q in the next generation series really annoyed me), so Arena should be replaced with Journey to Babel, which reinforces a legitimate mission of Star Fleet, reveals Spock's inner struggles from being a child of a mixed marriage, and the recurring motif of self-sacrifice and conflict in loyalties between friends, family, and profession. A Piece of the Action has funnier dialogue than Tribbles, especially at the end when McCoy accidently leaves his communicator with the aliens, and Kirk exclaims that they will inevitably demand a piece of their (Federation's) action. I was particularly impacted in my youth by many of the cultural and historical commentary episodes in the original series, like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (racism), Bread and Circuses (slavery), Patterns of Force (pros and cons of National Socialism), and The Empath (Love and Self-sacrifice).

mmoran
mmoran

It's the basis for the DS9 episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" which, IMO, should certainly be counted as one of the best, not just of DS9 but of all Trek.

markov
markov

Diamond Cannon - "Busted" - as per Mythbusters! D&^%!!!

carbondog
carbondog

Requiem for Methuselah - depth of Spock's friendship for Kirk Devil in the Dark - overcoming fear of the unknown, discovering new species

DMambo
DMambo

Sorry for hollering, but to me this mash-up of Star Trek/Get Smart/The Godfather was the most enjoyable ever. If any role played to Shatner's kitschy strengths, this was it. Just awesome!

sboverie
sboverie

I saw the original series on TV in the late 60's. It was a fun series to watch and the costumes for the actresses were interesting and wild fashion. The best appeal of Star Trek was that it takes place in a future where Earth has survived the nuclear tensions and is a big proponent of a peaceful Star Fleet with a mandate to explore and find new civilizations and a strong ethical code to not interfere in other cultures (except for a few episodes). The TV series was very popular but the network tried to stop the series. That caused a massive write in campaign that changed their minds and produce another season. The cartoon series had some interesting stories including a version of David Niven's short story about a weapon made by an ancient race in a galactic civil war.

Tater Salad
Tater Salad

Although, I'd put "The Enterprise Incident" somewhere in there.

sauerbach
sauerbach

Devil in the Dark is the episode I used to introduce my kids to Star Trek: It has everything.. truly original alien (silicone based life form; looks like cross between a boulder and throw rug craels through solid rock making tunnesl like we walk though air; much better then the usual actor in rubber suit or mask); moral theme of environmentalism and misunderstanidng (miners destroying silicone nodules they think are just an unusual mineral, and then are being killed by the monster -> nodules are her eggs, she is last of her Horta kind in unusual species lifecycle; she was just protecting her thousands of children and the existence of her species). Mob violence and vigilantism (the miners going after the creature); Kirk and Spock figure it out and protect alien from their own people; Vulcan mind meld to make communication; work out treaty that allows mining and Horta to co-exist for mutual benefit. McCoy says I'm a doctor not a bricklayer" before trouling in cement to heal wound in creature. It has everything! Certainly better than Arena!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

You could buy the parts for a crystal radio set for less than a dollar. And millions did.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Assignment: Earth" is worthwhile if for no other reason than Teri Garr in that '60s miniskirt, decades before anyone coined the slang term, 'adorkable'. As a pilot for another series, it obviously failed. As Trek, its story centered on non-series characters.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is that it is what it is - an attempt to get an airable episode out of pilot footage; a 'mashup' long before the term was coined. It makes no attempt to explain the inconsistencies between the original pilot and the later 'Star Trek as we know it' trial setting wrapped around it. The 'grinning Spock' scene is only the most glaring of these. Fortunately, through the wonder of DVD and the Internet, the original 'Cage' has long been available for viewing as Gene originally shot it. For those of you who think 'The Matrix' was an original idea, here's another of its many predecessors.

VictorGutzler
VictorGutzler

Being a teacher, one of my worst (or best) traits is stealing from the very best. But as long as the originator of the content is cited, education is well served (of course, the originator only gets fame, no fortune). And isn't this one of the basic reasons for having a free internet (it should be considered a utility, not a business)?

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...but a bit heavy handed, which for Trek is saying something.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

(and William Windom taking Shatner to scene-gnawing school), I think "Balance" sets a higher level of suspense. Anyone who supports updated effects probably believes Han shot second. :D

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

But City is one of the rare good ones.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

(Not tribbles). I always thought the symbolism in 'Battlefield' was way too heavy handed. I realize this was the late '60s, but c'mon; they're half black and half white, we get it. "B&C" isn't bad, but at the end it tosses out a previously unplayed Christianity card. This was something never seen in the show before, or since. "Empath" kinda drags, like it was originally written as a 30-minute 'Twilight Zone' episode, then padded out for an hour-long series.

mbrown
mbrown

Eliminating an episode because you don't like the technology employed as a story telling device would eliminate all episodes. City on the Edge of Forever was the best...period!

metaphysician
metaphysician

In the original Frederick Brown short story our hero discovered that an unconscious life form could go through the screen. The villian alien sadistically mangled a lizard and threw it through the screen. The hero knocked himself out for a few seconds and killed the villian. No diamond cannon.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

and I Have Touched the Sky~~~archaic religious taboos against truth and its discovery.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...but I find the comedy episodes weaker, on the whole, than the rest of Trek. Tribbles stands out, but to me it's the only one that rates "greatest" listing.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Along with 'I, Mudd', another lighter episode that gave Shatner an opportunity to chew up some scenery.

JeffDeWitt
JeffDeWitt

Maybe not The Godfather, that came out later. However I agree, while it's a rather dumb eposide it's a lot of fun, and it doesn't insult the characters. I especially like Kirk's driving and Spock's comments about it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You've got the hots for the Romulan commander! It's those ears, isn't it? :D

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I could accept it replacing 'City', and would definitely drop 'Arena' for it. For weeks, whenever a car's headlights flashed through my bedroom window onto the wall, my eight-year-old self was convinced the horta was coming through the wall after me. "By golly, Jim; I'm beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!"

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I believe some ST:NG fans have retconned Trelane into the Q Continuum.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Like, someone recently pointed out to me that Frank Miller's only good book, Ronin, had strong references to Don Quixote. Would it make sense to like Ronin less for that? Hell no. A cunning theft is at once a great tribute and a way to make transcendental art. Art history classes tend to spend a lot of time on learning to spot and appreciate the theft.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...the ending always seemed very provincial to me.

VictorGutzler
VictorGutzler

Now that you mention it, The Empath definately wasn't one of those shoot em up episodes that we like in Star Trek. But it was like a stage play (very low budget on props and scenery), where the content allowed some time for the audience to consider what they might do in a similar circumstance; do I love this stranger enough to risk dying for them? It helped me understand the meaning of love (the fear of vulnerability vs self-sacrifice) at a time when I only knew how to lust.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've always felt 'City' was a bit overrated; top 10, but not top 5. Sure, it's great science fiction, but it's weak 'Trek'. It completely removes the 'Big Three' from Federation setting. After that, it could have been an episode of "Twilight Zone", "Time Tunnel", or "Voyage". Except for the 'rice picker' joke, any cast of characters could have been used.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Definitely one of my favorites, as was Devil in the Dark.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

A listing for each genre is the only way to do them justice, so how many are there? Comtrek, Timetrek, Twilightrek, what else?

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...retcons Trelane into the Q continuum. It drags in a lot of alt-timeline stuff and even hints at the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before" at the end. Personally, I prefer David's novel Vendetta, which pits the weapon from "Doomsday Machine" against the Borg.

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