We went through all 79 episodes of this iconic show (the original, of course) and ranked the best 30. From worst to best, here’s the Star Trek episodes from the original series that made our cut!
30. “Bread and Circuses” — The USS Enterprise encounters wreckage of the SS Beagle, a merchant ship missing for six years. The crew get captured on the planet, which resembles ancient Roman times with 20th century technology. This isn’t the first time they’d be forced to fight in gladiatorial games. We rank this last because it reminds us of how frequently the creators of The Original Series tend to repeat themselves.
29. “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” — This episode has a good plot, but never really figured out what it wanted to say. It features an ambassador named Kollos from an alien species “so ugly as to drive a man mad.” A Twilight Zone-style concept that could have been great, but just didn’t make a thought-provoking jump to the 23rd century.
28. “Whom Gods Destroy” — The captain of a former starship, Garth, has gone insane and takes Kirk and Spock prisoner. He subsequently uses his abilities – despite being human – to change his physical form and masquerade as Kirk, planning to take Kirk’s place as the Enterprise captain. It’s a bit too corny and overdone, and the monomaniacal Garth gets off way too easy.
27. “The Cage” — This was the first pilot, and never made it to air. Watching it, you can feel vaguely impressed at the way it was made, considering that it was filmed in the 60s. However, all the things you know and love from Star Trek are missing – the set, the acting, the ship. Also, Kirk’s first officer wasn’t Spock, but an actual female, Majel Barrett’s “Number One” (something that would have been very unique at the time.) Roddenberry rewrote the concept to fit more comfortably into the general sexism of the era, with Barrett playing Nurse Chapel instead.
26. “The Squire of Gothos” — The god-like being Trelane, who fancied himself an English gentleman from the 1800s, has complete control over the minds and matter of the Enterprise crew. Technically it’s a cool concept, but it feels a bit overdone as this has happened so often in Star Trek. All of these petty gods are building toward The Next Generation’s Q.
25. “The Empath” — Attempting to determine the whereabouts of a missing colony, Spock, Kirk, and McCoy find themselves playing pawns in a deadly alien experiment. “The Empath” turns into a test of humanity, as we discover that the landing party is captive and subject to life-threatening injuries as a way of testing the self-sacrifice abilities of Gem, a mute alien woman who can cure others injuries by absorbing them into herself. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy each show a selflessness that is respectable, and the two aliens hope Gem will, also.
24. “A Private Little War” — Peaceful, primitive peoples get caught up in the struggle between superpowers, with Kirk unhappily trying to restore the balance of power disrupted by the Klingons. While not the wildest episode of Star Trek around, it’s still really fun to see the Captain tangle with “those Klingon bastards.”
23. “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” — Aside from the amazing title, this episode deals with asteroids, aliens unaware of the world around them, and an illness. Upon beaming to the spaceship to investigate, Kirk, Spock, and Bones discover that the aliens are at the mercy of an apparently computerized oracle that dictates thought and speech—certain words are forbidden. Speak them and it kills you. It’s a great concept that could have been more fleshed out, and we wish the writers would have tapped into the full potential of this plot.
22. “Day of the Dove” — An alien life form that feeds off anger has lured both humans and Klingons to their planet. Tensions between Klingons and Kirk’s crew are growing, until they catch on and turn against their common enemy. This is one of the better episodes of the less impressive third season, and gives us a taste of the eventual peace between the Klingons and Federation.
21. “Shore Leave” — This trippy episode shows the Enterprise crew taking a bit of “shore leave”, or a vacation, only to end up on a planet where their imaginations become reality. White rabbits, samurais, and rabbit-fur bikinis are all present.
20. “Spectre of the Gun” — The crew is warned to not approach by the Melkot. After ignoring their warnings, the Enterprise is beamed down to a planet where Kirk and his men are forced into a surreal recreation of the American Old West. It’s a challenging examination of the nature of monstrosity and whether it’s something that’s fated or learned.
19. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” — This pilot episode is where we meet William Shatner as Kirk, and where producer Gene Roddenberry established the idealistic tone of the series – that is, the exploration of the universe as an exploration of the self. We are faced with the query: do you use your knowledge for self-improvement and wisdom? Or do you use it to chase power, like Gary Mitchell? As always, this is the choice that could determine humanity’s destiny.
18. “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” —Nurse Chapel is reunited with her fiancé Dr. Roger Korby, a brilliant scientist who has “perfected” the ability to create a “robot” copy of a human being. In a somewhat idealist way, he hopes to replace humanity with these superior, emotionless androids, as he feels that many emotions can be dangerous to society. But the plot is a side point – the real star of this episode is the dialog concerning the nature of existence.
17. “By Any Other Name” — The Enterprise‘s crew must outsmart an invasion by aliens from a different galaxy who wish to conquer this one. They try to modify the Enterprise for a long journey our of the Milky Way, but get caught up in human pleasures, jealousies, and general life. Shows how, even on The Original Series, Roddenberry and his writers understood the vastness of the universe and the pull of human life.
16. “Who Mourns for Adonais?” — A being claiming to be the Greek god Apollo invites Kirk to come down to his planet. I guess all the Greek gods from mythology class were actually omnipotent aliens. Who knew? The premise is a bit cheesy, but still thought-provoking in a way – what if the gods we were taught about were really aliens? In this story, the last remaining god is Apollo, who is struggling with his obsolescence.
15. “The Immunity Syndrome” —A giant, energy sucking amoeba! This 11,000 foot single-celled organism is trying to suck the Enterprise into the protoplasm, a fate the crew members would like to avoid. While that sounds wild enough, the struggle between Spock and McCoy who both want to study the amoeba in hopes of understanding how to destroy it is my favorite part.
14. “The Changeling” — A 20th century NASA space probe called Nomad with murderous tendencies decides that Kirk is its creator, giving him enough authority to try to prevent it from destroying the Enterprise. Spock mind melds with Nomad, Kirk outsmarts the computer, and Urfa’s mind gets erased (but we see her the next week as if nothing happened.)
13. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” —This episode discusses racism in thinly veiled terms – we encounter a race of white-and-black aliens that shun certain members of their species depending on which is black and which is white. Back when it aired – in 1969 – this was revolutionary, and it is always good to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go.
12. “The Conscience of the King” — Kirk discovers that an actor named Anton Karidian may really be the believed-dead “Kodos the Executioner,” who executed 4,000 people at one point. In hopes of learning more, he manipulates Karidian’s daughter Lenore into coming aboard the Enterprise, but finds himself beginning to fall for her. The episode featured the fun aspects of a Shakespearean tragedy, but the somewhat weak ending left us wanting more.
11. “Wink of an Eye” — The Enterprise beams down to help a planet in distress, but when one of Kirk’s men vanishes in front of McCoy, a search for the reason for people disappearing becomes the new focus of the mission. The crew are then pulled up into another plane of existence, where time moves at a hyper-accelerated rate. The breed, called Scalosians, need Kirk and his men to help them repopulate. While the plot is good enough on its own, we like this for the innovative techniques, such as the slow-motion technique, which was radical at the time.
10. “Assignment: Earth” — The crew head to Earth, 1968, to try to stop a time-traveler named Gary Seven from altering history. Kirk must decide whether his presence is actually part of history or an alien threat. The episode deals with nuclear capacities, time travel, and is also notable for featuring one of the earliest appearances of a young Teri Garr.
9. “The Enemy Within” — An accident causes Kirk to be divided in two – into his good and evil selves. The “good self” is pleasant but indecisive. The “evil self” is hostile and maybe even murderous. However, they cannot function alone and are both necessary for Kirk to be a functioning individual. The supposedly “evil” Kirk is strong, commanding, and decisive – all qualities that a caption on such a risky mission must be, along with the compassion and gentleness found in his “good self.” This episode is a great exploration of the different sides of our personalities that are in everyone.
8. “The Apple” — Whether you think this episode is about fighting organized religion or a discussion about Trekkian philosophy (is the Federation a benevolent government that seeks to unite like-minded souls in safety and fellowship? Or is it a collective into which individual cultures are absorbed and dissolved?), it’s undeniable that this episode is iconic.
The question at the heart of “The Apple,” where Kirk defiantly violates the Prime Directive to “impose freedom” on a primal people who definitely don’t want freedom. They seem to be ruled by what appears to be a miniature-golf obstacle, a being named Vaal, and Kirk won’t have it. He’ll see to it that they think for themselves no matter what. But the question is, can you ever force freedom on someone?
7. “The Naked Time” — The crew contract a virus that causes them to lose their inhibitions. It also leads to Lt. Riley locking himself in the engine room and shutting down the engines, causing the Enterprise to spiral down out of planetary orbit. Our favorite part though is when Sulu goes shirtless, grabs a foil and starts challenging everybody on-board to a duel. That’s because, as Spock puts it, Sulu is at heart “a swashbuckler out of your 18th century.”
6. “Charlie X” — A 17 year old with psychic powers hitches a ride on the Enterprise. The kid, Charlie, is unaccustomed to life among humans, and he feels forced to throw people upon the mercy of his own abilities—including making people “go away,” vanishing into apparent oblivion. He causes one Enterprise crewman to lose her face, causes chess pieces to melt, and has a weird passive-aggressive workout with a shirtless Kirk.
5. “The Corbomite Maneuver” —When the crew of the Enterprise is blocked by a giant spaceship and told that the Federation is expanding too quickly, it looks like the mission could be off. However, Kirk bluffs and pretends he is in possession of a weapon called the “corbomite deflector” which will rebound all weapons fire directed to the Enterprise back to the firer. Kirk & Co. are welcomed aboard only to find it’s a crew of one: Balok, a fun-loving man-child played by Clint Howard, who resides in riotously drunken surroundings and spends his days drinking tranya.
4. “The Doomsday Machine” — After the USS Constelation, sister ship to the Enterprise, is nearly destroyed by an ancient weapon that can devour whole planets, the sole survivor, Commodore Matthew Decker joins Kirk in his quest to find, and destroy the weapon. The final moments of “The Doomsday Machine,” as Kirk is about to be swallowed by the monster and keeps telling his crew “Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard,” are probably some of the best of the entire series.
3. “Space Seed” — This is the episode that introduced Khan Noonien Singh, a 20th century warlord with superhuman strength and intellect, all genetically engineered. He had the potential to transcend the trivial motivations and struggles for control of Earth in that time, but went the other way, caring more about power, prestige, and riches, rather than self-improvement and enlightenment. It reminds us of what humanity can be when we don’t strive for anything greater than what we already are.
2. “Mirror, Mirror” — In this episode, the crew get beamed into a parallel universe where Starfleet is a barbaric organization in which murder is a common way of advancing in the ranks. This episode is a perfect combination of excellent plot, entertainment value, and attention to detail. Plus, everyone’s wonderfully evil sides are super fun to watch! Also, if you wear a goatee, you’re probably a doppelganger from a mirror universe.
1. “The City on the Edge of Forever” — This has long been considered the greatest episode of Star Trek, and set the bar for storytellers to use time-travel as a way to examine history and why we do the things we do. Kirk and Spock travel back to Earth, circa 1930, to find a drugged, psychotic McCoy. They meet an activist, Edith Keeler, who Kirk falls in love with.
A 23rd century soul who dreams of a brighter future, she is doomed to die in a car crash within days. Kirk knows that and must let her die, or else she’ll lead a pacifist movement that will prevent the United States from stopping World War II, which would allow the Nazis to conquer the world. This episode touches on many things – the consequences of our actions, the reason why bad things can happen to good people, and also gets pretty emotional.
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