The first season ramps up, moving into some truly classic territory now, where the timeless nature of the message overruns some of the “state of the art” visuals of its era. So much love for this. There was always potential from the beginning. Now we can really see it unfold. It’s a pity that they weren’t able to do multi-episode story arcs (beyond “The Menagerie”) to tap that potential even more. It’s a hallmark to the cast and crew, and especially to the writers, that they were able to do so much in such a short time. Maybe we didn’t get the story arc “novels” like with Deep Space Nine or Enterprise. Maybe we didn’t get the character growth to the level of The Next Generation. But for short stories, the original series is built on some solid foundations that allowed the rest of it to thrive.
S01E06 – “The Naked Time”
The Enterprise orbits a planet in order to study its imminent collapse. But the contagion that killed the science team on the surface now threatens the ship as her crew seemingly goes insane.
Of course patient zero is the one crewman aboard who shouldn’t be there. Repressed, insecure, has trouble with authority… Dammit, Jim, I’d never make it in Starfleet either! But this is still such a fun episode. Who doesn’t love to see Sulu chasing people down with a foil? For me, this episode stands out as a defense of Kirk. The thing that breaks the contagion’s hold on him, that helps him to save the crew, is his love for the ship. No woman comes before the Enterprise. Kind of puts things into perspective for Star Trek III, doesn’t it?
We start seeing Spock at the peak of his control, most notably so that Nimoy can let those controls drop for his dramatic breakdown. This is our first appearance of Nurse Chapel. Through her, a large percentage of the female viewership would fall for Spock. “Shipping” was a thing even back then, published in “fanzines.” Sure, it’s easy to laugh now, but those shippers helped to flood the letter writing campaign that ensured Spock got more fan mail than anyone, and ensured that the series stayed on the air another year. This is what made the network take notice they had a hit on their hands… which they still tried to kill because it was too expensive.
One of the little nitpicks about this episode that bothers me is the time dilation at the very end. We know that “warp factor” is short for “timewarp factor.” The ship warps space-time with the nacelles, then proceeds at normal, sublight speeds via the impulse engine through the time-warp bubble. That’s how warp speed works. How a collapsing planet interferes with that bubble to move the ship backwards in time three days is beyond me. I think the planet’s core was filled with plot-onium. This won’t be the last time they use time travel, but it’s the one that makes the least amount of sense to me.
S01E07 – “Charlie X”
A teenage boy has survived alone since a young age. Now his raging hormones and his supernatural abilities place the ship under his direct control.
Geeky tidbit up front: notice that Charlie is wearing one of the tan uniforms with the thicker collars left over from the pilot episodes, and likewise with the captain and first officer of the ship that drops him off at the beginning.
This is one of those episodes that I barely tolerated as a kid. The older I get, the more profound it is. And… look! Another episode that demonstrates Kirk at his absolute best: an authority figure at the top of his game, respected by all of his crew, and protective of them. More than that, he actually has to teach Charlie how to — and how not to — treat a woman. Doesn’t exactly line up to the serial womanizer pop culture makes him out to be, does it? And props to Yeoman Rand for being firm with Charlie when he just wouldn’t take no for an answer. You act like a kid, you get treated like one.
The answer, of course, is that the writer on this series is D.C. Fontana, arguably the strongest female voice in the writers room that classic Trek (and early TNG) ever had. Sometimes it takes a woman’s touch to add those subtleties, you know?
I can’t help but notice Spock smiling as he plays his lyre, and he’s keeping his disgust under control while Uhura mocks him with her song. Professional or not, you have to admire the strength of camaraderie that allows these people to have this level of relationship. Someone crossed their eyes and saw this going too far for the Kelvin timeline movies. That’s just shipping gone wrong. It may have saved the series, but it should be saved for fan level shenanigans. This episode… this is how you do it. And might I just say, Uhura’s got some pipes. It’s criminal we didn’t get to hear her sing more often. I’m glad she recorded an album. Nichols was the classic triple threat: acting, singing, and dancing. You go, girl!
S01E08 – “Balance of Terror”
100 years after the Earth-Romulan war, Earth outposts along the Neutral Zone are being destroyed by an invisible attacker. Kirk must match wits with his Romulan counterpart and prevent another great war.
Everyone loves a wedding, don’t they? Apparently not Romulans. They’re here to give everyone a bad day. And that leads to some uncomfortable issues of racism on the bridge when the face of the enemy is revealed to be similar to the Vulcans. It says a lot that Spock is willing to agree with Stiles, that they should attack first. Is it that he’s trying to save face to all of his crew to prove he’s not a spy (where did they even get this idea?), or is that he legitimately understands and fears what savagery Vulcan history records before they found logic and the teachings of Surak? While he didn’t talk Surak (yet), this is our first hint of Vulcan’s violent past, “savage even by Earth standards.”
The idea of old style submarine combat works very well in fiction when it comes to minimizing sets and maximizing dramatic tension. This episode is the very best in the series to utilize that idea. It’s equal will not be seen again until Star Trek II. The Romulans, and especially their commander portrayed by Mark Lenard, are an Ancient Roman analog in how they’re written, and the delivery is very nearly Shakespearean. Lenard, of course, would go ultimately play three of the major Star Trek races: a Romulan here, the Klingon commander in the opening sequence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and most famously Sarek of Vulcan. He will debut this role in season 2’s “Journey to Babel,” reprise it in Star Trek III, IV, and VI, and make some memorable appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s a magnificent character actor. It says something for the strength of his performance when you realize that after this point, the Romulans have minimal appearances: one more classic episode, a couple of animated episodes, and ambassadors appearing in Star Trek V and VI. They finally get their due in TNG as befitting a “classic baddie,” beginning in the season 1 finale (which is probably why they were remembered for inclusion at all in Trek V and VI).
When Stiles is discussing his family history and the Romulan War of a century past, this becomes backstory I always wanted to see: no ship-to-ship comm visuals and primitive, old style nuclear warheads. When Enterprise debuted, the promise was there (and I always wondered how they’d pull that off since it’s pretty clear the NX-01 was more advanced than what this episode suggested), but it sadly got cancelled before most of the promises could be kept. There are a series of novels that pick up where the episodes left off, and in those pages, they tackle the Romulan War. It took a lot of years to get there. Totally worth the wait, though I thought they could have gone bigger if they’d wanted to. I’m grateful for what I got. No, I’m not going to spoil it for you.
Another point about Stiles and family history. There’s a great line that resonates me when Kirk points out: “Their war, Mr. Stiles. Not yours. Don’t forget it.” If more people thought that way about the American Civil War, we might be able to put racism and bigotry behind us too. It means as much now as it did when the episode first aired.
S01E09 – “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
When the Enterprise is sent to assess and potentially rescue a prominent scientist and his team, Kirk is duplicated in the form of an android.
In terms of airdate, this was Nurse Chapel’s first appearance, though we already know from the beginning of this post that production order is different. Oddly, this is one of the few times where airdate order makes more sense as she makes the decision to stay on the ship at the end of the episode.
This episode was written by Robert Bloch, most famous for his book Psycho, which in turn was given the film treatment by Alfred Hitchcock. For my money, it remains one of the most thought-provoking episodes in the series, the means by which the androids are created notwithstanding. Some things are just too goofy for words. I love it.
There is a lot to parse out in this episode. Seriously, one could write an entire dissertation on everything that’s packed into this one, a true testament to the power of a short story if ever there was one. We’ve already seen Kirk champion the human condition against godlike beings. Now we get into another popular theme of the age: Kirk vs. the computer. For all of the negative flaws of humanity, the argument is the positives win out, through discipline, through courage, through understanding in ways that no computer could comprehend. That last point plays through emotional intelligence, and it’s interesting to see that flipped on its ear as well, since ultimately the androids are beaten through emotion that interrupts their cold logic and plays to a humanity that a machine might not be expected to know. It’s a theme that we’ll see play out time and again in the original series, and it’s one that will play heavily in the forms of Data and his brother Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ethics, advances, and limitations of artificial intelligence remain part of the scientific landscape today That’s not going away anytime soon. Just as Siri, Alexa, or Cortana… or Skynet. There are some touches in this that are eerily similar to what we’ll see in The Terminator films, both positive and negative.
What’s most notable, I think, is that when Kirk understands the ramifications of what’s about to happen, he uses bigotry and hate as a coded message to Spock, to undermine the perfection of the duplication process. As a friend who knows his captain so well, Spock knows beyond doubt where Kirk’s understanding lies. With the engram of racism being coded into the duplicate, it gave Spock an inescapable means through which he knew something was wrong. He might have called attention to it on the spot, and he would have even been “right” to make a huge deal about it. But that’s not Spock. He chose to follow through on the rescue plan that would set things to right at the fundamental levels. It’s worth thinking about those parallels with how we do things in our social and political world today. Could we find a way to do things better that would have more power in the long run to heal? What’s even better about this is in the final scene, when Spock calls it out. Both he and Kirk knew it was wrong, they knew why it was used, and both professionalism and friendship offer silent acknowledgment that it would never happen under any other circumstance. Actions speak louder than words. Friendships like that can understand unfortunates used as tactics to protect ship and crew. 50+ years later, we could all learn a thing or two about not melting down about every little thing. One could make the argument this is what happens when identity politics is overcome by focus on the bigger picture. Everyone plays, everyone wins. Hearts and minds can be won simply through normalizing difference. It’s why Spock is on that ship. And Uhura. And Sulu. And so on down the line throughout every incarnation of Star Trek.