On September 8th, 2016, the Star Trek franchise will officially turn 50, and what better way to celebrate than to count down the 50 greatest Star Trek stories in the canon? Deadshirt Founder and Editor Emeritus Dylan Roth pored through the 728 episodes and films to select the Top 50 Star Trek Voyages.
#50: “Dark Frontier”
Star Trek: Voyager
Season Five, Episodes Fifteen & Sixteen
Originally aired February 17th, 1999
Written by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
Directed by Cliff Bole (pt. 1) & Terry Windell (pt. 2)
In the Fourth Season premiere “Scorpion, Pt. 2,” Voyager introduced a new regular cast member in Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a Borg drone separated from the collective and forced to rediscover her lost humanity. Seven instantly became the focal character of the show, and understandably so—Seven is a very compelling character, and the rest of the crew, well, they mostly suck, so the more Seven, the better. But as she develops from a cold, confused outsider to an accepted member of the crew, the question always lingers: what will happen when she encounters the Borg again?
Voyager manages to delay that payoff for a year and a half, after Seven has had enough time to finally feel at home among her new family. Here, Captain Janeway concocts a daring scheme to steal a transwarp coil from a Borg ship, which would cut years off of the crew’s journey back to Federation space. But Seven is conflicted about being face to face with the Borg again, particularly when the Borg Queen (Susanna Thompson) begins invading her dreams. And during the mission, Seven cracks and chooses to stay behind. It’s a betrayal not only of her crew on Voyager, but of all the progress she’s made recovering from her life as a slave to the collective.
The second half of the story features a chilling look at the Borg’s routine—traveling from planet to planet and dispassionately ending civilizations. Seven (who is allowed to keep her individuality due to plot contrivance) is ordered to assist in an assimilation, and the audience is, like Seven, forced to watch as drones shepherd terrified innocents to their grisly fates as cybernetic zombies. She has another change of heart, but even so she can only save a handful out of millions.
Split up throughout the two-parter is Seven of Nine’s origin story, in which an ambitious pair of scientists ventures deep into the Delta Quadrant to study the Borg, then only the subject of myth, dragging along their young daughter Annika. Though well-intentioned, their hubris costs Annika her freedom, her very soul. Through this lens, “Dark Frontier” becomes the story of Seven’s three families: the one that failed her, the one that used her, and the one that saved her. The episode ends with Seven facing both her abuser—personified in the Borg Queen—and her new foster mother Janeway, and choosing herself.
Star Trek Enterprise
Season Three, Episode Eight
Originally aired November 5th, 2003
Written by Michael Sussman
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
Having struggled to produce anything worth watching in its first two seasons, Enterprise devoted its third year to one ongoing storyline, during which the titular starship traverses a dangerous region of space known as the Delphic Expanse in search of the malevolent Xindi, who plan to destroy Earth. While still nowhere near as engaging as Deep Space Nine’s war plot, the Xindi arc injected Enterprise with some much-needed adrenaline and drama, forcing heretofore paper-thin characters to face impossible odds and dilemmas. But while the stakes of their new mission are high, the viewers at home know that the Enterprise crew is going to pull it off, since this is a prequel, after all, and Earth is doing just fine deep into the 24th Century. The only way for the audience to truly fathom the gravity of Enterprise’s task is to see what would happen if they fail.
“Twilight” is essentially a “What If?” story, revealing an alternate future in which Captain Archer is incapacitated and T’Pol, Tucker, and company are unable to stop the Xindi from destroying the Earth and wiping out most of humanity. Archer has suffered a bizarre injury that prevents him from forming new long term memories, which means that he wakes up every morning to the news that the world has ended. But after decades of research, Doctor Phlox has finally found a method of curing his condition, which may actually be the key to preventing this dark timeline from ever being born.
For a series that constantly struggles to root its characters in anything resembling real human emotions, “Twilight” is a surprisingly affecting story, equal parts Battlestar Galactica, Memento, and The Notebook. While ostensibly a story about Archer, the real star of the show is T’Pol, who has taken on the grim and tedious responsibility of caring for him, first out of a sense of guilt over what’s happened to him and his world, and eventually out of a love that she knows can never truly be returned. And like any reset button episode, the only thing that’s predictable is that none of it will still have happened by the end of the hour, allowing for shocking twists that would simply never happen in an ordinary episode.
#48: “Cause and Effect”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Five, Episode Eighteen
Originally aired March 23rd, 1992
Written by Brannon Braga
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
“Cause and Effect” begins with the Enterprise flying apart in a fiery explosion. Then, after we return from the credits, the ship is fine and Picard is recording a very casual Captain’s Log. There’s no title reading “12 Hours Earlier” or any such clue to what’s going on, and that’s because this isn’t a flashback. The ship blew up, and now it’s back. Then, before the next commercial break, the ship blows up again. After the break, we’re right back where we began the previous act, with the same scenes, the same Captain’s Log, the same dialogue, just slightly different. Before the next break, everything goes BOOM again. And it all happens again and again until the crew can figure out how to break the cycle. The Enterprise explodes a total of four times in this forty minute episode.
When actor/director Jonathan Frakes first saw the script for this episode, he thought it was a prank. So did the cast. This was a year before Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day hit theaters, and this kind of story—in which the same events are played out over and over with slight variations—had never been done before on television. Writer Brannon Braga challenged himself to write a new kind of time travel story, and succeeded with aplomb. Since the 1992 premiere of “Cause and Effect,” the broken record episode has become something of a staple: see The X-Files’ “Monday,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Life Serial,” and Community’s brilliant twist on the concept, “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
While the success of “Cause and Effect” rests mainly on its clever sci-fi concept, it also features some shining character beats, particularly for Dr. Beverly Crusher. Dr. Crusher doesn’t get a lot of stories to herself, and this one doesn’t really belong to her, either, but she serves as the audience’s main viewpoint into the mystery of the weird temporal causality loop that the viewer understands only a little more than the characters. Beverly is the first member of the crew to recognize that something feels wrong aboard the Enterprise, that this deja vu she’s been feeling may be more than it seems to be. While the choice to focus on her may have been somewhat arbitrary (the TNG writers room occasionally assigned stories to characters based on “who hasn’t gotten one in a while?”), it’s also fitting. Beverly is among the most intuitive members of the crew, and probably the most likely to trust her instincts over her senses. The use of the senior staff poker game as a story device in this episode brilliantly illustrates the way each character subtly catches on that they’ve played these exact hands before, but subconsciously, Beverly starts to pick up on it before even the audience knows what’s going on.
Star Trek: Voyager
Season Five, Episode Twenty-Six, & Season Six, Episode One
Originally aired May 26th & September 22nd, 1999
Story by Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, & Joe Menosky
Teleplay by Brannon Braga & Joe Menosky
Directed by David Livingston
One of the most common complaints about Star Trek: Voyager is that the show does very little with the concept of a ship being far from home, without the support of the Federation and its resources. Nearly every episode of Voyager opens with the titular craft in perfect working order, in defiance of all story logic. Only a handful of episodes depict Voyager as desperate for repairs or supplies, and most of them are time travel or AU stories that are undone by the end credits.
After five years of chickening out on giving Voyager any canonical hardships, Berman, Braga, and Menosky concocted a story that could tap into those themes without requiring any long-term consequences or character development, by introducing a second Federation ship that had also been hurled across the galaxy, the USS Equinox. Equinox’s journey begins from the same point as Voyager’s, but this crew has had nothing but rotten luck. The ship is falling apart, half the crew is dead, and the rest have fought tooth and nail just to keep themselves fed. The tale of Captain Rudy Ransom (John Savage) and his tightly knit crew is easily a more realistic depiction of a Starfleet crew getting stranded in the Delta Quadrant, and certainly a more interesting one. But there’s a reason we haven’t been watching Star Trek: Equinox for the past five years—Ransom and company are not heroes.
Voyager first encounters Equinox under attack by a group of interdimensional aliens, who Ransom claims have been pursuing them without cause for weeks. As it turns out, Ransom and his crew have been capturing these creatures, killing them, and using their decaying bodies as fuel. This is an unspeakable action for a Starfleet officer, but the storytellers are bold enough not to cast Ransom as a complete villain. Ransom isn’t a madman, he’s just desperate, and when Janeway spits venom at him for what he’s done, Ransom’s reply is downright cutting: “It’s easy to hold to your principles when you’re standing on a ship with its bulkheads intact, manned by a crew that isn’t starving.” And when Janeway bites back without blinking that it’s “never easy,” even the audience has to scream “Fuck you!” because of just how good she’s had it.
The story only gets more interesting in Part Two (a rarity for Trek cliffhangers), in which Ransom has captured Seven of Nine and reprogrammed Voyager’s holographic Doctor—her best friend and mentor—to perform an unwelcome brain surgery on her. While initially thinking nothing of the choice to disable the Doctor’s ethical subroutines, Ransom seems to find the unhinged program more and more revolting each time he checks on his progress. The idea that something once staunchly dedicated to doing good could be so easily perverted into an amoral monster hits a little too close to home, and eventually Ransom sees the light, and sacrifices himself to save both his own crew and Voyager’s.
“Equinox” could have represented something of a sea change for Voyager; they’ve now seen their darkest selves, and nearly lost their own way in order to defeat them. Janeway and Chakotay are diametrically opposed throughout the story, to the point that Janeway actually relieves her first officer of duty when he opposes her increasingly mad quest for vengeance against Ransom. Seven of Nine has been through hell at the hands of the person she trusts most, and while the Doctor is restored to his old self, he still has the memories of gleefully dissecting his friend. There’s even an influx of new crew members, survivors from the Equinox who may not be trustworthy, but who Janeway won’t leave behind on principle. Everything here points to a new era for the series.
But, of course, this is still Voyager, the series where great ideas go to die. None of this is ever mentioned again, a fact that frustrated Writer/Producer Ronald D. Moore (who had just joined the staff after the end of Deep Space Nine) so much that he ragequit Star Trek and ended a decade-long friendship with writing partner Brannon Braga. Its lack of consequences is disappointing, but judging the episode on its own merits, “Equinox” is a cool isolated slice of Star Trek.
Further Viewing: After learning the story behind this episode, it’s hard to watch Ron Moore’s 2003 Battlestar Galactica series without hearing his voice in the background screaming “FUCK YOU, BRANNON,” and for that reason alone it’s a natural recommendation. But within the canon of Star Trek, the third season of Braga’s Enterprise (which also began in 2003) could be interpreted as a yearlong apology for Voyager’s reset button.
#46: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Originally released November 26th, 1986
Story by Harve Bennett & Leonard Nimoy
Screenplay by Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes and Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer
Directed by Leonard Nimoy
Star Trek IV is an odd duck. In The Voyage Home, Kirk and his crew are fugitives after stealing (and later destroying) the USS Enterprise in order to save their friend Spock, but when they arrive on Earth to turn themselves in, they discover that the planet is in crisis, and that the only thing that can save it is a humpback whale. Trouble is, they’re all extinct, so Kirk and company take their captured Klingon Bird of Prey back to 1986 to retrieve some whales.
While the 23rd Century bookends are similar in tone to its predecessor, the fairly stiff Search for Spock (also directed by Leonard Nimoy), the “Present Day” meat of the film is a silly fish-out-of-water comedy. The crew of the Enterprise comes from a utopian future where there’s no money, most people are truthful, and nobody swears, so dropping them in the middle of an American city in the mid-eighties is naturally fodder for comedy. The film is well known for cheap but effective gags like Scotty trying to speak into a computer mouse or Chekov asking where he can find “nuclear wessels.” But it’s the odd couple interplay between Kirk and Spock that earns the best laughs, as they attempt to secure a pair of whales that are about to be released from a San Francisco aquatic institute. Kirk adjusts to the ’80s fairly quickly (though not as well as he thinks), but Spock hasn’t fully recovered from his recent case of being actually dead, and is basically a humorless robot who constantly blows their cover. Shatner and Nimoy are never funnier together than they are in this film.
While at first glance The Voyage Home seems like a hard sell to audiences, it was actually a massive hit at the box office. It held the title of most financially successful Star Trek film until 2009, and remains a favorite among die hard Trekkies and casual fans alike. It is, easily, the least “Star Trek” Star Trek movie to date, and yet it holds true to the core of what makes the series work: optimism, friendship, and social awareness.
#45-41 Coming This Thursday: Are you ready for gangsters, shape-shifters, and Klingon politics? Bleep once for yes and twice for no.