Editor's note: With "Star Trek: Discovery" coming this Sunday on CBS All Access, we wanted to ask the people around the office which Star Trek episodes from any of the series were their favorites. (And btw, full disclosure: CNET is owned by CBS.)
I have to go with "The City on the Edge of Forever" (1967). It has it all. There's a compelling and richly drawn story, there's time travel, and I loved the concept of history being changed so much that Spock says the away team had "no future, no past." There's also a vulnerable and ultimately broken Kirk who knowingly lets someone he believes is his soul mate (played exquisitely by Joan Collins) get killed in order to restore history. Who can't help but love this episode and the way it deals with the intricacies of time travel? If you ever get a chance to read Harlan Ellison's original teleplay (available at Amazon) it's worth it.
It's also interesting to note that Ellison wrote only this one episode for Star Trek because he was none too pleased with how they translated his teleplay to the screen. Ellison had a fit over how they portrayed the time portal in the episode ("cheaping out" was how he put it), and he also was stunned by the producer's idea that there couldn't be even one evil character on the Enterprise. As a compromise, instead of a drug dealing crew member (as Ellison wrote it), the rewrite cast Dr. McCoy in the role of the "history-altering" random element. Still angry with the alteration to his teleplay, Ellison eventually sued Paramount over the rewrite and won. Still, it's one of my favorite episodes.
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Spock's got a goatee, Mr Sulu's got a nasty looking scar, and everyone's wearing gold lamé. "Mirror, Mirror" (1967) may not be subtle, but it's a joy to watch. A transporter malfunction sends the crew to an alternate Enterprise where the Federation is replaced by an evil Empire, corporal punishment is doled out for minor infractions, and people are determined to murder their way up the ranks. It's a fantastic ensemble episode with great moments for everyone in the cast. Most importantly, it was the origin of Star Trek's mirror universe, a fun concept that would return in tie-in novels, games and multiple episodes of "Deep Space 9." (Apparently it shows up in "Enterprise" too. But "Enterprise" doesn't exist in my own personal mirror universe, so I have nothing to say about that.)
"Spectre of the Gun" (1968) doesn't usually crop up on lists of the best Star Trek episodes, but this third-season entry is my favorite for mostly nostalgic reasons. When I graduated from eighth grade, I got this episode on VHS as part of my graduation present from my parents. I had been a Trekkie in earnest for about a year or so at that point (and had already met Scotty), and I ended up watching the hell out of this episode since (in those pre-CBS All Access or Hulu days) I otherwise would've had to wait for some random episode once a day on the local independent TV station. Sure, it's no "City on the Edge of Forever," but it's also no "Spock's Brain."
I'm a big fan of the android character Data, and the fact that he feels the need to procreate in "The Offspring" (1990) was a really interesting concept to explore. He named his "child" Lal, letting her choose her gender and appearance. The only problem was Starfleet Research wanted to take her away and keep her in a controlled environment to help her integrate with society. Picard heroically takes a stand to keep Data and Lal together on the Enterprise.
I loved the episode because Data provided very convincing arguments to defend his initiative to procreate without asking permission, arguing that -- even as a nonhuman -- he has rights. Watching Lal struggle to integrate with the crew is also very touching, and it made me emotional to see her fear of losing her father. For me, the episode is a very interesting dive into what it means to be human and live as part of a society.
The "Ship in a Bottle" episode of "Star Trek: TNG" is definitely one of my favorites. It starts out innocently enough as one of those "Holodeck episodes," where we get to see the crew do something in dress-up in the world of Sherlock Holmes. But it quickly goes off the rails and becomes a fascinating discussion about intelligence, how we define life, and what happens when the machine gets the better of us. Not to mention, the moment when Data realizes they're still on the holodeck is one of the hands-down best moments in Star Trek. Also, it helped inspire one of my favorite fan theories about "The Matrix: Reloaded": that the "real world" was in fact a secondary simulation. Sadly, we know how that played out.
My favorite episode is when the crew of the Enterprise of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" comes into contact with the Borg for the first time. "Q Who" (1989) has all my favorite TNG elements. We see the return of personal favorite guest stars -- Q, the omnipotent entity (played brilliantly by John de Lancie) and Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg). Guinan is there to help advise Capt. Picard as the crew witnesses the emergence of my favorite Federation enemy: the Borg.
It's all about the way it plays out. Q, who loves experimenting with humanity, tells the Enterprise crew that as humans they're ill-prepared for their ongoing mission to explore the universe. To prove it, with a snap of his fingers he sends the ship several million light years away, where returning home is near impossible. There they see the Borg for the first time and come to understand that theirs is a race of millions who share a single mind with one objective: the assimilation of all other life forms.
Q eventually saves the Enterprise at the last second and brings the crew back close to home, but not before the lesson is learned: Humanity is not all powerful. I love how the episode is a chilling introduction of what's to come in the series and shows that we as humans shouldn't be so smug in our ability to handle anything the universe might throw at us.
If there's anything as goofy as tribbles in any of the series from the Star Trek franchise, it's time travel. And in "Trials and Tribble-ations" (1996), from "Deep Space Nine," you get a double helping of both. The episode sees Sisko and company travel back to the classic "The Trouble With Tribbles" episode from the original series, and through the magic of editing and green screens, viewers get to see a legendary episode in a new light, with actors from both series playing side by side. It's silly, it's filled with nostalgia, and it's quintessentially Star Trek.
"In The Pale Moon Light" (1998) is one of my favorite episodes because it totally turns the world of Star Trek on its head with an immoral decision that ends up working to the Federation's advantage.
The whole episode is told through Capt. Benjamin Sisko's personal log. Sisko explains that, with the Dominion war going badly, the Federation needed to find a way to get the Romulans on its side. The Romulans are neutral at this point, and so Sisko devises a plan with Garak the Cardassian tailor to trick the Romulan's most ardent Dominion backer to switch to the Federation. The plan goes awry but not before his ship mysteriously explodes. The evidence of the explosion points to the Dominion, and soon the Romulans join the war allied with the Federation. But Capt. Sisko suspects it was Garak and violently confronts him. Garak admits his guilt, but tells Sisko it was a necessary evil to get the Romulans to join the Federation's fight.
Sisko, in the final moments of the episode, is back to recording in his captain's log about how blowing up the ship was wrong but how he agrees with Garak's assessment.
In a break from what we'd usually expect a Star Trek captain to think, Sisko admits he'd do it all over again. What makes the moment particularly great is that he then deletes the log, so nobody will ever really know how things unfolded.
I grew up on reruns of the original series, but I can't say that I have a favorite episode. As an adult, my love for the Enterprise crew was revived thanks to Trek in the Park in Portland, Oregon. Everyone knows Shakespeare in the Park. (We have that too.) But Portland being Portland, it one-upped the Bard and took us to space for five summers, starting in 2009. The Atomic Arts theater group put on free, outdoor performances of some of the most beloved episodes of the original series. Look at this list: "Amok Time," "Space Seed," "Mirror, Mirror" and "Journey to Babel." For its final year, the company performed "The Trouble with Tribbles" and the episode's writer, David Gerrold, made a surprise appearance. Now all we need is a Trek in the Park revival.