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.
#35: Star Trek Beyond
Originally released July 22nd, 2016
Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung
Directed by Justin Lin
Cards on the table: were this list compiled six months from now, it’s possible that Star Trek Beyond would appear lower on this list. After all, the film is, as of this writing, less than a month old, and the excitement of seeing this in theaters hasn’t quite worn off on me. But, while Beyond‘s placement at #35 may be influenced by being so fresh, its presence on the list is earned by just being a damn good Star Trek movie. After two divisive, intense action movies from J.J. Abrams, director Justin Lin delivers a fun adventure film that somehow captures the essence of its immediate predecessors and the classic source material in a way that can satisfy each generation of fans.
I reviewed this film in full just a few weeks ago, check it out if you wish.
#34: “The Siege of AR-558”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season Seven, Episode Eight
Originally aired November 18th, 1998
Written by Ira Steven Behr & Hans Biemler
Directed by Winrich Holbe
Star Trek is beloved for its idealism, for presenting a future when humanity has triumphed over our compulsions towards violence, jealousy, and greed. Early TNG is packed with speeches about how far humanity has come. But simply saying “we’re better now” without challenging your characters to prove it does not make for great storytelling. For that, you have to go to late Deep Space Nine, when the Federation is facing annihilation at the hands of the Dominion. Diplomacy has already failed. Countless lives have been lost. If their way of life is going to survive, humanity will have to remember what it was like to be violent.
AR-558 is an asteroid base that Starfleet has captured from the Dominion, and has been struggling to hold for months. It’s the site of a transmission relay, and cracking the relay’s encryption could give the Federation a much-needed advantage in this sector. When the Defiant arrives to deliver some supplies to AR-558, they find that the regiment stationed there has been reduced to a handful of tired, traumatized officers who were supposed to be rotated off the front lines months ago. Rather than go back home to the comfort and relative safety of Deep Space 9, Captain Sisko and his crew elect to stay and reinforce AR-558.
War has taken a toll on the regular cast of DS9, who have lost friends and been forced to make some terrible choices, but at the end of most weeks, they’ve gotten to go home to their families, their replicators, and their holosuites. They’ve gotten to hang on to the luxuries that make the Star Trek future sustainable. The soldiers on AR-558 haven’t had a full meal or a shower in weeks, they’ve lived with the constant threat of sudden death, and because they were born into a peaceful, civilized future, they’re arguably less prepared for it than your average person is today.
Speaking of your average person, the viewpoint character for this episode is the young Ferengi Ensign Nog. While the humans of Star Trek usually stand in for what the viewers should aspire to be, the Ferengi are often a reflection of our current society’s flaws—greed, bigotry, misogyny, and so on. For Nog, the flaw in question tends to be jingoism, the romanticism of war and soldiering. Nog is an idealistic kid who’s getting his first taste of infantry warfare. He admires the fortitude of the weary troops on AR-558, but is blind to the extent to which this conflict has damaged each of them, and he’s thoroughly unprepared for the toll it’s about to take on him.
There are some who might feel that a story this dark has no place in Star Trek, that it’s a betrayal of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. It probably is. But if the future humanity he imagined is never tested, never challenged, then eventually it stops being science fiction and becomes a wild, impossible fantasy.
#33: “Lower Decks”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Seven, Episode Fifteen
Originally aired February 7th, 1994
Story by Ron Wilkerson & Jean Louise Matthias
Teleplay by René Echevarria
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont
The Enterprise receives secret orders from Starfleet command. Captain Picard summons his first officer from the into his ready room to discuss it, but instead of following him inside, the audience stays on the bridge with the junior officers. We’re not treated to the details, because this week, the story’s not about Picard, or Riker, or any of the regular cast. This episode belongs to the nobodies.
There are thousands of people living aboard the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D. Officers, civilians, families. Star Trek: The Next Generation focuses almost exclusively on fewer than a dozen of them, week after week, because they’re in charge—they’re the ones making the big decisions, determining the fate of planets, saving the galaxy. But what is everyone else doing the whole time? It’s a question that fans of film, television, comics, and novels ask themselves often, and it’s the subject of an enormous amount of fan works. In recent years, more and more professional content has been made focusing on minor or background-type characters, from The Other Guys to The Venture Bros. to the upcoming NBC sitcom Powerless, as a way to deconstruct genre tropes and tell fresh stories. In its final season, The Next Generation became one of the first shows to devote an episode to those characters you see every week but never get to know.
“Lower Decks” centers around a tight-knit group of junior officers—some new, some familiar—who serve aboard the Enterprise but don’t have the cool jobs. There’s Nurse Alyssa Ogawa, who’s been a minor supporting player for years as a foil to Doctor Beverly Crusher; Ensigns Lavelle and Taurik, bunkmates who each want to impress their superior officers; Ben, a civilian waiter at Ten Forward who’s not even in Starfleet and is just happy to be here. And finally, there’s Ensign Sito Jaxa (Shannon Fill), who astute fans would recognize as one of the dishonored Starfleet cadets from Season Five’s “The First Duty,” now a promising young officer who’s trying to redeem the mistakes of her past. While each of these characters has a role in the story, “Lower Decks” belongs to Sito, a woman who had a bit part in an episode two years earlier but now becomes one of the more memorable guest characters in the series.
Through the eyes of each of the young characters, the audience is challenged to solve the mystery of “What is this episode about?” or rather, what would it be about if it were a normal episode? While the typical TNG A-story develops, we get a glimpse of the everyday concerns of the regular folks—working the night shift, trying to earn that promotion, and shooting the breeze over a poker game, just like the main cast does. But what it really comes down to is Sito Jaxa’s quest for confidence, as she’s thrust into the center of a dangerous mission. The result is eye-opening and heartbreaking, one of the best stories of TNG’s final year.
#32: “The Corbomite Maneuver”
Season One, Episode Two
Originally aired November 10th, 1966
Written by Jerry Sohl
Directed by Joseph Sergeant
Why do audiences love Captain James T. Kirk? He’s not as wise as Picard, nor as tough as Sisko. He doesn’t face the same kind of adversity as Janeway. His 20th Century ladies’ man behavior sometimes reads as uncomfortable to modern viewers. But Kirk is still the man, the ideal space hero to many. It’s not just because he’s the original, prototypical starship captain, it’s because he’s crafty as hell. Kirk can get out of anything, best any opponent, win any contest, by sheer guile. And while this trait is front and center in a number of Trek stories, “The Corbomite Maneuver”—the first episode produced after Star Trek went to series—is the purest example.
“The Corbomite Maneuver” puts Kirk’s Enterprise against a gargantuan, seemingly unstoppable starship commanded by the ominous alien Balok. The Enterprise is clearly outmatched, and as Spock points out, there comes a point in every game of chess when one player simply has no moves left and must admit defeat. But Kirk doesn’t like to lose, so he decides that if he can’t win with what he has, he’ll have to pretend he’s got something he doesn’t. So Kirk, flying on the seat of his pants, invents the entirely imaginary Corbomite, a device that automatically reflects all attacks made against the Enterprise back at the attacker. There is absolutely no evidence that this device exists and plain common sense dictates that it’s a fiction, but Kirk sells the idea with enough confidence that Balok delays the killing blow, buying the Enterprise time to escape his grasp and disable the alien craft. The kicker: Balok is also bluffing, he’s just a goofy little guy played by seven-year-old Clint Howard, and they all end up being pals in the end.
Kirk’s cool and cleverness under fire is contrasted against the hot-headed Lt. Bailey (Anthony Call), who totally loses it on the bridge the way an ordinary person might in the face of almost certain death. There’s even a bit of comedy to be found in Bailey’s freakout, but it also sets up an arc for this one-shot guest character, who learns to face death on his feet. And after all the strategy and threats are over, the story ends with a message of friendship, in true Star Trek fashion.
#31: “Starship Mine”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Six, Episode Eighteen
Originally aired March 29th, 1993
Written by Morgan Gendel
Directed by Cliff Bole
It’s reductive to call “Starship Mine” “Die Hard in space,” but it’s also accurate. The Enterprise is docked in orbit of Arkaria Base, where it will undergo a routine baryon sweep, a routine procedure that cleans off particles built up while at warp but also vaporizes anything alive left on board. The crew evacuates to the surface, where they’re expected to enjoy a reception hosted by the insufferable chatterbox Commander Calvin “Call Me ‘Hutch’” Hutchinson (David Spielberg). But the party turns into a hostage situation while a gang of criminals try to steal a dangerous compound from the Enterprise, and the only one who can stop them is Picard, who improvises traps, explosives, and poison arrows to take them down and escape before the Sweep can kill them all.
Picard is John McClane, alone and unarmed and forced to use his wits to outmaneuver the terrorists who actually aren’t terrorists, just clever thieves trying to make a profit. He uses a fake name (that of Mot, the barber) to throw off the bad guys, and he communicates with their leader Kelsey (Marie Marshall) almost entirely on a hand-held communicator. The baryon sweep forces Picard and his foes inevitably toward the very front of the Enterprise, much in the way that the action of Die Hard climbs higher and higher up Nakatomi Tower. Meanwhile, Riker and the crew play the role of John’s wife Holly and her co-workers, hostages at a party gone south, trying to learn about their captors and also not to get themselves killed.
But what really seals “Starship Mine” as both a send-up to Die Hard and solid Star Trek episode is its sense of humor. “Starship Mine” has the best running gag in all of The Next Generation, a show that regularly struggles in the humor department. In “Starship Mine,” Data reveals that he has written a “small talk subroutine” into his program, which will allow him to socialize through inane conversation. True to Data, the subroutine works a little too well, and he reaches new levels of annoying. But rather than just put up with it, the crew sics Data on chatterbox party host Hutchinson, who Data begins imitating to a “t.” The crew, now free of them both, becomes obsessed with watching the two of them bullshit back and forth.
“It has a sort of strange fascination,” says Will Riker. “How long can two people talk about nothing?” It’s gratifying just watching the TNG crew have a laugh, up until the point that the hostage situation begins and the comedy is finished.
“Starship Mine” is one of only two episodes credited to writer Morgan Gendel, and both are on this countdown. While this episode is among the best action-driven stories in the series, the other holds up as one of the most heartfelt, emotional experiences in all of Star Trek. Don’t worry, you’ll be seeing it high on this list.
#30-26 Next Monday: Gods, war crimes, and the only appearance of the NX-01 on the list.