Today, the Star Trek franchise officially turns 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.
#5: “The Inner Light”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Five, Episode Twenty-Five
Originally aired June 1st, 1992
Story by Morgan Gendel
Teleplay by Morgan Gendel & Peter Allan Fields
Directed by Peter Lauritson
Jean-Luc Picard is a private man with few attachments. He cares for his ship and his crew, but he doesn’t actively pursue romance or friendship. Up to this point in The Next Generation, one can easily imagine that this is the way it has always been for Jean-Luc. His family life growing up was fairly cold, and he’s always been introverted and career-minded. Jean-Luc isn’t lonely, but it’s hard to miss something you’ve never had. “The Inner Light” gives Jean-Luc Picard everything he’s never known he’s always wanted, and then takes it away.
The Enterprise encounters a strange probe that, in a flash of light, incapacitates the Captain. Captain Picard wakes up in a quiet, comfortable house, with a woman he’s never met watching over him. She is Eline (Margot Rose), and she tells Picard that his name is Kamin, that he’s been very sick for a week, and that she—his wife—has been taking care of him. This is the town of Ressik on the planet Kataan, his home. Picard rejects this at first, trying to get back to his ship. But as the years (yes, years) pass, Jean-Luc slowly lets go of the memories of his old life and begins to lay down roots in Ressik, even starting a family with Eline. He truly does become Kamin, a new man with children and a deep investment in his homeworld, which is suffering a long, devastating drought.
Picard does not disappear into Kamin, he’s not playing a role, he’s continuing out his life in a new place. Which past is real, the life here on Kataan that he can’t remember or the one in space that seemed so real but that he can’t prove exists, becomes less and less important as his bond with his new community grows deeper. The things that make Jean-Luc Picard the man that he is are still there: scientific curiosity and thirst for truth, an appreciation for art and culture, patience and compassion. But they’re simply being viewed in a new context. Watching Picard change and grow old is a stunningly effortless process. We see his life in chunks separated by years, as he and Eline grow closer, his children grow older, and he gets better and better at playing the Ressikan flute.
At the same time, we’re also watching the drought on Kataan get worse and worse, as local plants wither and die bit by bit in each time period. Soon, there’s no question: Kataan is dying, and at this pre-warp stage in their development, there’s nothing they can do about it. Kamin sees his children grow up, meets his grandson, burdened with the knowledge that it’s unlikely that any of them will live a full life. He encourages them to make the most of the life that they have, in a way that Picard never really has.
While his relationship with Eline is initially awkward, Picard eventually falls truly in love with her, and as they grow old together, it’s as if they’ve never not been husband and wife. And when she eventually dies of old age, it doesn’t feel like the death of a one-off character that we’ve just met. Somehow, “The Inner Light” paces itself so well that each relationship Picard builds feels full, essential to his being.
Finally, Kamin’s family (including his dead wife and best friend, now as young as the day Picard first met them), appear to reveal to Picard the truth: that they have been dead for a thousand years, and that the only way they had to preserve their culture was to send a probe out into space and show someone what their world was like, so that someone, down through the ages, could tell others about them. Remember them. Mourn them. This probe eventually found Captain Jean-Luc Picard, granting him this glimpse as life as it once was on a dead, world, now no longer forgotten.
“The Inner Light” never attempts to fool the audience into thinking that half a century has really passed during this episode; all the while, the crew attempts to treat the unconscious Captain on the bridge of the Enterprise, while the probe drills into his mind. But when Picard wakes up again and Riker tells him that he’s been unconscious for twenty-five minutes, it’s nevertheless a stirring moment. What’s just as astonishing is that this episode has been running for only forty minutes, and yet made such an emotional connection with the audience. Not only will Picard mourn this small town of Ressik, but so will we all.
The performances of both Sir Patrick Stewart and the guest cast are primarily responsible for giving life to the people of Kataan, but it would be criminal not to mention composer Jay Chattaway’s contribution to “The Inner Light,” composing a beautiful and simple piece of music that recurs throughout the episode, as Kamin learns to play the Ressikan flute. This culminates in a heartbreaking final moment aboard the Enterprise when Picard clutches the flute, found aboard the probe, raises it to his lips, and plays this song, the one he played for his lost son, and remembers his family.
#4: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Originally released December 6th, 1991
Story by Leonard Nimoy and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal
Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
The brainchild of Leonard Nimoy and Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer, The Undiscovered Country was famously pitched as “what if the Wall came down in space?” The Next Generation had already set the precedent that the Federation and the Klingons would eventually make peace, becoming uneasy allies instead of cold warriors. The Undiscovered Country tells the story of how that transition began, and the effect that it has on the classic crew, their careers, and their legacy.
The allegory in TUC is more one-to-one direct than most Star Trek stories. The Klingons, who were the Russians to the Federation’s United States during the original Star Trek, suffer a Chernobyl-style catastrophe that will leave them unable to sustain their military. Instead, our Spock and their Chancellor Gorkon (the film’s Gorbachev analog, played by David Warner) arrange for a peace conference, to which Kirk’s Enterprise is assigned to escort him. Kirk and company have spent half their lives in conflict with the Klingons and are suspicious of the peace to the point of downright racism. (More on this later.)
In no time, Kirk finds himself framed for Gorkon’s assassination, and he and alleged accomplice McCoy are shipped off to a prison planet while Spock, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, and new crew member Valeris (Kim Cattrall) go rogue to seek out the real killer. With the help of now-Captain Hikaru Sulu of the USS Excelsior, the classic Enterprise crew puts it all on the line to save the galaxy one last time, combating a hostile conspiracy, a cloaked Bird of Prey, and their own prejudices.
The mystery plot of The Undiscovered Country is engaging despite the true villain being blatantly obvious from the get-go; was there ever any chance that Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare-quoting General Chang—you know, the guy with the eyepatch bolted to his head—wasn’t behind it all? The foregone conclusion doesn’t detract at all from the experience of watching Spock channel his “ancient ancestor” Sherlock Holmes, or Kirk flirting with a Iman as a convicted femme fatale who’s clearly up to no good in order to bust out of prison. The action excites, the jokes land, and the dark themes provide the perfect background upon which the grand hopeful projection of the future can shine.
The biggest sticking point for some (including Gene Roddenberry himself) is the simmering hatred that the Enterprise crew exhibit for the Klingons throughout the first half of the film. Roddenberry’s vision is that, by the 23rd century, human beings will have evolved past bigotry. That’s a beautiful sentiment, but it makes it difficult to tell a story about the Federation—who represent the audience—having to learn, grow, and change. What makes The Undiscovered Country so excellent is that, like in The Wrath of Khan, it’s Kirk, not some guest alien of the week, that has to learn something. He has to acknowledge that he has something in his heart that he shouldn’t, something that history and circumstance have enabled him to carry but has no place in the future. And now, like all aging, rigid personalities, Kirk must learn to either let go of his hate or endanger his civilization, or, at least, his place in it.
Every generation has faced this challenge. When we fail, we get immigration bans, bathroom laws, walls on our borders.
When we succeed, we get Star Trek.
#3: “The Measure of a Man”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Two, Episode Nine
Originally aired February 13th, 1989
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Robert Scheerer
Lt. Commander Data is a machine. He was built by a human in his own image, discovered and reassembled by a Starfleet crew, educated by Starfleet, and eventually made second officer on their flagship. For a year and a half, the audience has shared in Data’s adventures and witnessed his growth. In the mind of the viewer, there’s no question that Data is a person. But one Starfleet researcher doesn’t see it that way, and finds law to back it up—Data is the property of Starfleet, a piece of equipment claimed in a salvage operation, and thus cannot refuse to take part in a dangerous experiment to create more Datas. Captain Picard challenges this ruling, and the stakes couldn’t be higher: Data’s legal personhood, his life, and the very soul of the Federation.
There have been a number of courtroom dramas in the history of Star Trek, but this one is truly special. Written by attorney-turned-screenwriter Melinda M. Snodgrass (who was quickly hired as Story Editor), “The Measure of a Man” is in many ways the platonic ideal of a Trek episode: it begins with a premise that few other shows could use and explores it from a number of well-considered angles, but at the same time informs and challenges the lead characters, and leaves the audience with a message of compassion and friendship.
It’s remarkable how many characters get moments to shine in “The Measure of a Man.” Among the principal cast: the episode revolves around Data, Picard gets to deliver one of his most rousing speeches, and Riker has his own emotional arc. The rest of the regulars also get moments of their own, thanks to the first appearance of the Officers’ Poker Game. Guest star Amanda McBroom steals nearly all her scenes as the wisecracking Captain Phillipa Louvois, Picard’s old flame who, as the JAG officer in the sector, must determine Data’s fate. But the real winner is Whoopi Goldberg, making her third appearance as Enterprise bartender Guinan, doing what she does best: using wit and reverse psychology to teach one of our leads what the episode is really about. This is a scene that, with a less nuanced actress, could be a real groaner, but instead, it’s the beating heart of one of Star Trek’s finest hours.
Indeed, “The Measure of a Man” is often pointed out as the moment that The Next Generation first demonstrated that it could be a great television show, that it could beat The Original Series at its own game. The issue of personhood for mechanical life forms or artificial intelligence isn’t just a fun thought experiment, it’s a dilemma that we as a society are likely to face in real life before the end of this century. And when we do, we won’t have to start the conversation from scratch; we’ll have stories like this one, characters like Data, around which to frame our arguments. And if synthetic life ever does become a reality, this Star Trek episode might even save one.
#2: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Originally released June 4th, 1982
Story by Harve Bennett & Jack B. Sowards
Screenplay by Jack B. Sowards
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
The Wrath of Khan is a cheap sequel to a bloated big-budget film based on a canceled TV show. That’s really all it ever should have been. The screenplay is a composite of a half-dozen very different drafts by different writing teams, and was finished at the last possible second by the only director in Hollywood who would take the gig. The franchise’s own creator tried to sabotage the film by leaking plot details to angry fan groups. (Read The 50 Year Mission by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman for more on all of this.) Even during shooting, the cast wasn’t sure the movie was going to come together.
And yet, here we are, decades later, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains one of the most enduring and celebrated science fiction movies of all time. People who have never watched Star Trek love this film. People who don’t care for sci-fi love it. And just as importantly, it’s still cherished by the die-hard fans who came before and after. How in the hell did this even happen?
While producer Harve Bennett deserves a lot of credit for making Khan and its sequels a success, it’s director Nicholas Meyer, who also performed an uncredited page-one rewrite on the script, who made the film what it is. Meyer cobbled together the story from drafts that more closely resembled a B-movie—which would feature Spock as a Kenobi-style ghost or give Khan illusion-casting mind powers—into a down-to-Earth naval adventure in space. The final product has more in common with Run Silent, Run Deep than Forbidden Planet, with the science fiction elements subtly blended in. Khan is a genetically engineered superman, but that’s really only important in that it fuels his hubris. The Genesis Device is a cool sci-fi McGuffin, but more than that, it’s a symbol of the film’s theme, that of death, rebirth, “life from lifelessness.”
Khan is rooted in character, allowing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and even Chekov opportunities to grow beyond their television portrayals. While the age of the actors was ignored in The Motion Picture, here it’s essential to the story. Kirk begins The Wrath of Khan a spent shell of his former self, allowing himself to become an old man behind a desk, which is contrary to his nature. Retaking command of the Enterprise puts some spring back in his step, but he’s only truly reborn after feeling the affect of his best friend’s sacrifice for him. In the face of death, Kirk’s life becomes meaningful again.
While it’s often fodder for parody, William Shatner’s performance in The Wrath of Khan is the most memorable of his career, as he squares off against his true equal, Ricardo Montalbán. Despite never actually being on screen or on set together, Shatner and Montalbán bounce off each other in perfect hammy harmony. Leonard Nimoy, too, delivers one of his best takes on Spock (topped only by The Undiscovered Country), rediscovering his love for the role he’d planned to walk away from. Spock’s death scene with Kirk is intensely moving, and has proven one of the most iconic moments in the franchise. Bibi Besch shines in the thankless role of Kirk’s ex and mother of their son David (Merritt Butrick), while Kirstie Alley makes a memorable film debut as Spock protegé Saavik. Paul Winfield doesn’t get much screen time as Captain Terrell of the Reliant, but still manages to make a big impact on the audience.
So many little pieces come together to make the film work. The new red uniforms introduced in Khan are among Starfleet’s best. James Horner, hired for his low asking price, composed an original score that rivals any of Jerry Goldsmith’s compositions. The space battles, made for a fraction of the cost of The Motion Picture‘s effects, are gorgeously choreographed and exciting. Every corner that was cut in the production of The Wrath of Khan actually made the film better rather than worse. It should have been a disaster, the final nail in Star Trek‘s coffin. Instead, it set Star Trek on a grand new voyage that continues on to this day.
Life, from lifelessness.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season Five, Episode Two
Originally aired September 30th, 1991
Story by Joe Menosky & Phillip LaZebnik
Teleplay by Joe Menosky
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
There’s no single episode that exemplifies what Star Trek is all about better than “Darmok.” It’s a story about compassion, communication, and sacrifice in the cause of peace. It’s not an epic, action-packed event, but it’s a compelling adventure about two men who both value the cause of friendship above their own lives.
The Enterprise is dispatched to meet with the Children of Tamar (or Tamarians), an alien culture with whom the Federation has failed to establish formal relations. Picard, a skilled and experienced diplomat, is confident that with a little patience he’ll find some common ground with the Tamarians, but he’s surprised to discover that, even with the Universal Translator, the aliens are completely incomprehensible. The Children of Tamar speak entirely in specific references to their own mythology, impenetrable to outsiders. The Tamarian Captain Dathon (Paul Winfield, again) also recognizes the problem, and without warning (how could he explain if he wanted) beams both himself and Picard down to the surface of a nearby planet. Dathon’s ship prevents either crew from retrieving their captain, and while Commander Riker searches for a way to rescue him, Picard and Dathon must learn to cooperate before they both fall victim to a deadly, half-invisible predator.
While the script is excellent on paper, the episode may have fallen flat if not for the poised performance of guest star Paul Winfield. Winfield spends much of the episode spouting nonsense words, but he does so with such quiet dignity. So many one-off Trek characters feel as if they poofed into existence when the episode began and vanish when the story ends, but Dathon is an old soul whose every laugh or sigh implies a life and career as rich as Picard’s. Picard and Dathon have so much in common and so much to teach each other, and that, ultimately, is what they’re fighting for—the promise that the next time a human and a Tamarian meet, they won’t have to struggle so hard to understand each other.
Determining which of the many deserving stories would claim the top spot on this countdown was a true challenge; no section of the list fluctuated more than the Top 5, which continued to swap around until past midnight the night before publication. But while it may not be as emotionally compelling as “The Inner Light,” or as prophetic as “The Measure of a Man,” or have the crossover appeal of The Wrath of Khan. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty typical Star Trek episode. To me, that’s what’s so incredible about it. Without any pomp or gravity, “Darmok” is simply the finest example of what Star Trek sets out to be. It embodies the mission, “to seek out new life and new civilizations,” better than any other of the hundreds of hours that came before or after, and it does so without even making a big deal out of it.
You can put on The Wrath of Khan or “The Best of Both Worlds” for someone who’s never seen Star Trek, and they might enjoy it but still not have much interest in the rest of the franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that. But “Darmok” is the perfect barometer for whether or not you are a potential Star Trek fan. If your first experience with the Star Trek universe is “Darmok,” and you love it, you love Star Trek. This, all of this, is for you. Not just the big ones, the two-parters and Hugo Award-winners. All of it. What could be better than that?