When “Star Trek” premiered 50 years ago today, its reception was colder than the weather outside the Klingon penal colony on Rura Penthe.
“And away we go to another planet for the sci-fi buffs to lick the plate clean,” Variety‘s Sept. 8, 1966 review of the premiere episode, “The Man Trap,” declared. “But there had better be a hefty cargo of them or the Nielsen samplers may come up short.” Predicting doom, it continued, “The opener won’t open up many new frequencies after this sampler.” So not exactly boffo.
The review was typical of the initial response to Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction drama. After a troubled development that saw the initial pilot scrapped and a new one with mostly new characters — the only holdover being Leonard Nimoy’s Spock — created from scratch, “Star Trek” hung on for a short while, renewed for a second, then a third season before being cancelled.
The run was just long enough to create a library that would catch fire years later in syndication, finding a popularity it never achieved in its first window. A TV show that had at best been a moderate success for NBC would spawn four live-action spinoff series — soon to be five with the addition of CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery” — 13 movies, one animated series, comic books, postage stamps, documentaries, tell-all books, conventions and untold units of prosthetic ears sold. When Nimoy died last year, the White House issued a lengthy statement from President Obama in which he wrote, “I loved Spock.”
The “Star Trek” universe extends far beyond the 79 episodes that aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969. But that series’ impact is still being felt today. For its 50th anniversary, Variety asked several of the stars, writers and fans of “Star Trek” and its offshoots to name their favorite episodes of the original series.
“As a kid, I was blown away by an episode called ‘The Changeling.’ Nomad was a human-launched space probe that had become a psychopathic android intelligence bent on sterilizing everything that it considers imperfect. So cool and scary! The scene where Kirk makes Nomad realize that it is itself imperfect introduced me to the concept of a paradox (in this case, a Liar’s Paradox), and I’ve been attracted to mind-bending stories ever since.”
— Brannon Braga, executive producer, “24” and “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”; “Star Trek” writer and executive producer
“My favorite episode is ‘Spock’s Brain.’ Not because it was good — quite the contrary; but because it is a shining example of what actors do best — turn s–t into Shinola. The cast made this script work by sheer force of will and, in the process, made me proud to be a member of the acting profession. Every time I see it I smile.”
— John de Lancie, Q, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
“I have two favorite episodes. The first is ‘The Trouble with Tribbles.’ I don’t think anyone died in that episode. It was playful, clever and left you smiling long after, yet it was a story that could have only happened in space, where highly fertile, small, furry alien creatures warmed your hearts simply by petting them. These, of course, were the Tribbles themselves.
“My other favorite is ‘The City on the Edge of Forever.’ Based on a short story by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, this episode explored the ethics of allowing someone to die, who you could have saved, but saving them would have delayed the entry of the United States in the Second World War, allowing Hitler to have created the bomb first. That episode explored world history and the morality that time travelers would face, wondering if changing the past will improve or destroy the future they came from.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson, host, “Star Talk” and “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey”; executive director, Hayden Planetarium
“The vision of Frank Gorshin with half ‘white face’ and half ‘black face’ in ‘Star Trek: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’ is burned into my memory as a classic example of Roddenberry’s brilliant social commentary.
— Jonathan Frakes, William T. Riker, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
“’The Paradise Syndrome’: I vaguely remember enjoying this when it first aired, but it became my favorite when I realized how many of its tropes found their way via my subconscious, a quarter century later, into ‘The Inner Light’: a new life with wife and family; a vague memory of the Enterprise; a civilization facing death. Wow!”
— Morgan Gendel, co-executive producer, “The 100”; writer, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
“In elementary school, my friend’s dad built satellites for JPL and introduced us to ‘Trek.’ His endorsement made it all feel possible. ‘Amok Time’ was my launch episode, and like the great ones it taught universal truths: muzzled emotions will erupt, friendship is the best medicine, and Vulcans are spectacularly horny.”
— Alex Kurtzman, co-creator and executive producer, “Star Trek: Discovery”
“Being in comedy, I should lean ‘Tribbles,’ or the silliness of ‘A Piece of the Action’ (a Royal Fizzbin!), but, ‘No kill I’ for this, my go-to is always ‘The Devil in the Dark.’ Packed with tension, multiple murders, lessons of tolerance and environmentalism, a great twist, a Vulcan mind-meld, McCoy’s first ‘I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer,’ and yes, even humor: the Horta admires Spock’s ears. What’s not to like? For me, only the number of miners that get killed!”
— David Miner, executive producer, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Master of None” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
“‘The Conscience of the King’: ‘Trek’ often has Shakespearian overtones and here they’re made literal in the text and in the subtext as Kirk wrestles with the idea that one of the actors could actually be a war criminal. It’s an unusual character piece with very little science fiction added on top.”
— Ronald D. Moore, executive producer and showrunner, “Battlestar Galactica” and “Outlander”; “Star Trek” writer and executive producer
“One of my favorite episodes from 1966 was ‘Charlie X,’ because I got to sing, which is my first love. It was a song about Spock. Now, in 2016, I recorded ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ available on iTunes as a 50th anniversary love song to my devoted fans.”
— Nichelle Nichols, Nyota Uhura, “Star Trek”
“My favorite episode from the original series is ‘The Devil in the Dark’. It’s the first time I realized how much could be done with storytelling. The Enterprise is called in to save the day from what you think is an evil rock monster attacking the planet’s miners. However when they arrive, Spock is able to communicate with the being – it’s really just a mother protecting its young. The crystals that the humans have been mining are its children, its eggs. And so the big question comes in: Who really is the devil in the dark?”
— Rod Roddenberry, son of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment
“‘The Trouble With Tribbles’: In all honesty, I only ever saw a few episodes of the original series. But how could anyone not love Tribbles? The furry little buggers were exactly what little-girl-me wanted to have, let alone watch on TV.”
— Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine, “Star Trek: Voyager”
“My favorite original ‘Star Trek’ episode is ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.’ Star Trek’s most significant worth is to use science fiction to ask meaningful questions about social ills. This episode is still a superb fable on how arbitrary and senseless discrimination by skin color is. It changed my outlook on discrimination forever.”
— Armin Shimerman, Quark, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”
“When I was a little kid in the ’70s, ‘Star Trek’ was pure adventure and escapism. My favorite episodes were ‘Arena,’ ‘Balance of Terror,’ and ‘Amok Time.’ But as I grew older and became more aware of the world around me, I began to see the metaphor, allegory, and commentary behind the action.
“Picking a single episode as my favorite is incredibly difficult, so I’m going to cheat and choose two: ‘The Doomsday Machine,’ and ‘A Taste of Armageddon.’ Both of these episodes show us the dangers and futility of unchecked, sanitized, endless war. They are, sadly, just as relevant in 2016 as they were fifty years ago.”
— Wil Wheaton, Wesley Crusher, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”