My Journey Through the Beautiful, Ambitious, Ridiculous Mess of Star Trek TOS

Or, how to survive season three of Star Trek: The Original Series because the actual TV show sure didn’t.

I have been watching a truly wild amount of Star Trek here in quarantine. I’m currently nearing the end of my rewatch of Star Trek: The Original Series (or TOS). This comes after my (3rd?) full rewatch of all of Voyager (which I love unapologetically), then my first time through Enterprise (which I loved, despite it being the most dipshit Trek of all), and my full run through of Discovery (love it, still think it has issues).

While I’ve seen a LOT of TOS, beginning in my childhood (my parents’ nickname for me before I was born was V’ger), this is my first time all the way through, from start to finish, with no skipping. 

It’s been very educational! TOS is both an appreciably progressive and hideously regressive show, sometimes in the same episode. At times it is beautiful, philosophical, deeply caring about the human condition and the future of all people. But in weaker episodes, characterizations get muddled, occasionally to the point of comedy — and laziness, and cruelty. At its (warp) core, It’s a series about a wonderful post-capitalist society of explorers who believe all humans, of any gender or race, should have equal opportunity for success, and they fly around exploring, building bridges between alien civilizations, offering aid, and sometimes fighting Klingons. It’s a bold, beautiful vision, it was boundary breaking TV for its time, and it set up the universe of shows that I’d love for my whole life. 

star trek kirk spock mccoy

But it serves no one to pretend that the whole boldly going thing applied equally. Women could be doctors and lawyers and high ranking officers in this world, but they also needed to be very sexy and usually subservient to the men. Folks of color could also be important officers, but they were more often relegated to background roles (aside from Uhura and Sulu). And, truly, the most annoying white guy in the universe solves every problem by being the most white guy to ever white guy.

Kirk’s whole thing… has not aged well.

kirk screaming

He can explain everything away, talk a computer to death, fuck the problem away, beat it to death. Whatever the situation calls for, Kirk’s brain, or dick — or both — or his sheer cishetwhitedude-tivity is always enough and up to the challenge.

There’s also a bizarre, racist element, where folks will equate a person’s species with… every element of personality. McCoy is constantly, infuriatingly racist towards Spock, and that’s honestly ugly as all hell. Don’t even begin to get me started on the obscenely racist and unfathomingly stupid episode about… a commander who loses his mind on a planet where white people and asian people are at war, but also, there’s no disease, and fucking somehow, the white people are really into the American Flag and the pledge of allegiance even though this is a planet very far away from earth, how the living fuck did this episode get made and how did Mr Roddenberry think it was award-worthy material, sweet tap dancing fuck.

star trek omega glory emmy
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Yet, again, this is a show that made sure to put, for example, a woman of color at the controls to the ship, in a leadership position, which infamously inspired Whoopi Goldberg to want to be involved in The Next Generation later on. There was another person of color at the literal helm. And perhaps Roddenberry and company can get a little credit for trying to pilot the show with a woman in the second-in-command chair, (which didn’t sit well with sexist assholes at the network at the time. Aside from the regulars, there were recurring characters, like Doctor M’Benga, who becomes the CMO when McCoy is out, who is a brilliant doctor on the ship, and other folks who aren’t just white guys, which, for the time, was something.

Certainly not everything. But it was something.star trek spock uhura mccoy

And while many characters just don’t read well in 2021 — chiefly McCoy being fucking awful and Kirk being a white privilege demon come to life — Spock remains wonderful. A gentle soul, he is a true humanist, and only the shittiest episodes with the worst off-character writing portray him as anything but a deeply warm and kind person. Spock got me through this series when no one else did.

The visuals did too, to an extent. It was also often visually inventive, with gorgeous, colorful sets and costumes and creature designs, and… also some less-impressive (but still iconic!) pieces as well. The unicorn dog here, for example, is a thing of beauty. I could look at this show all day.

Now, to the subject of… quality. In the first two seasons, I’d generously say there’s a good (occasionally great!) episode for every stinker. Maybe even two good (or decent with a fun extra, like wild set or costume design) outings for every clunker. There are the all-time classics, like Amok Time, Devil in the Dark, Journey to Babel, The City on the Edge of Forever (not a personal fave, but a solid classic). There are campy outings like Arena (that Gorn fight!), Catspaw, The Trouble With Tribbles, and the very early, semi-hilarious Charlie X (which, at the very least, features the Enterprise’s extremely cool Judo gym!) There are plenty of good, hard sci-fi ideas turned trippy in technicolor, like Return to Tomorrow and The Ultimate Computer (co-starring William Marshall!). There’s an appreciable anti-war sentiment, at least when the writers weren’t very confused about what the federation was supposed to be (which, to be fair, happens more than it should).

Throughout, if you can get around some of the dumbass 60s TV tropes, there are plenty of fun, weird adventures, many of which I enjoyed as a kid, or set up the world I’d spend so much of my life enjoying. 

Season three though… hooooooooo boy, season three. It feels like even the good episodes come with massive caveats. The dogshit episodes just pile up and pile up, and I’m sorry to say, there’s really only about one hour of TV worth watching for every two or three on offer. From what I’ve read, there was quite an exodus of talent on the series, combined with budget cuts and a number of other challenges, so it’s not exactly surprising, but the pickings are slim. 

Worse, the whole series ends on an obscenely misogynist, sexist note, with The Turnabout Intruder, where a spurned lover of Kirk’s takes over his body because she is (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a psychotic, power hungry woman. But of course, she turns out to be too emotional for the job. Watching this episode as a feminist who was genuinely inspired by many woman Trek characters over the years kind of feels like finding out your beloved friend is secretly an alt-right troll or something. It sucks.

But there are a few season three episodes that bear watching. There’s an especially trippy quality to some of the best of these that was appealing, and a campiness that I’ll always enjoy. This, of course, is just my opinion, and I’m sure I’ll be screamed at by an internet man for this, but here they are, the episodes of TOS’ dismal final season are fit for consumption.

Watch These

Spock’s Brain – Oh yes. Oh yes, yes, yes. This is one of the flat out goofiest things Trek ever did to this point, and no, it did not bode well for the new season. But it is also an extremely fun — and it should be said — at the very least — unpredictable caper. A hot space lady steals Spock’s brain, and that sets us off in the running to go… find his brain in a weird, atrophied space-society. 

star trek spocks brain

The Enterprise Incident – This is actually kind of a fun spy story, and features a woman Romulan Commander who has the hots for Spock. There’s a lot of intrigue here, and some great sets and costumes to look at. There’s also a sequence where Kirk goes undercover as a Romulan that isn’t nearly as terrible as I thought it’d be.

The Empath – This episode was actually censored for a time in the UK (along with fellow list-maker, Plato’s Stepchildren) “because they all dealt most unpleasantly with the already unpleasant subjects of madness, torture, sadism and disease,” but the show actually does some justice to the grim subject matter. It’s a dark sci-fi plot set in an alien lab, and actually offers both some of Spock’s most tender moments (checking on an ailing McCoy, the doctor genuinely compliments Spock’s gracious bedside manner) and some of the most arresting set design on the series. I find it haunting and effective.

Plato’s Stepchildren – Famous for featuring the first interracial kiss on scripted TV! It’s also a trippy Trek that plays around with a bunch of ancient greek bullshit and mind control. 

star trek TOS Platos stepchildren

A couple of Maybes

These episodes aren’t fantastic, but they do have some redeeming qualities.

Wink of an Eye – This episode isn’t great, but there are a lot of fun acceleration shenanigans (some characters get sped up so much everyone else appears frozen, and that’s fun!) and the costumes are just really incredible.

Tholian Web: Kirk floats around in a spacesuit in this one, and McCoy and Spock (thinking he’s super dead) get to listen to his last orders to them, which is kind of fun.

Day of the Dove:  [Content warning here for sexual assault] This is a goofy trip with a LOT of sword fighting and Klingon fun, with an overall sweet, pacifist message. But there is a really awful and nasty scene of a semi-mind-controlled Chekov attempting to assault a woman that threw this right out of contention for the main list.

The Lights of Zetar: worth mentioning only because I think this is the only time Scotty has a love interest beyond thinking a sexy lady is hot, and there are some trippy 60s-ass effects on this that might be fun to watch if you are high or have a fever or something.

The Cloud Minders: You can at least kind of see what the writers were going for here. It almost certainly wasn’t this, but, this is an episode set on a cloud city of intellectuals living over a subterranean cave system (where the workers, here called troglytes) toil in misery, exposed to toxic gasses that stunt their capacity. There are some clear ideas about haves and have-nots, and who pays for everything in fucked up societies… and if only asshole Kirk didn’t have the solution to every problem, it could’ve been an effective piece of commentary.

star trek galileo seven

My five year (really, maybe three month?) journey hasn’t fully come to an end yet. I’ve just started watching the 70s continuation: Star Trek: The Animated Series, which saw most of the cast reprised as voice talent, and many of the writers and producers and creative talent back in a new format. It’s been, much like TOS, an incredible journey so far.

Who knows! Maybe I’ll do a watch list for that as well. For now, I’m signing off, wishing you peace and long life.

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