J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

The best of Star Trek.

With a new Star Trek movie coming out this weekend, I felt like this would be a good time for me to think on the series as a whole.

Yes, I am that big of a nerd. Most geeks on the internet draw a line in the sand between Star Trek and Star Wars, and imply that you have to choose a side. And inevitably insist that you’re either shallow if you like Star Wars, or an outright dork if you prefer Star Trek.

Me? I straddle that line, and dare every to say that I’m just a shallow dork. I like Star Wars because it’s fun, and does whatever it wants in the name of being fun, no matter how outrageous. Laser swords, weird looking aliens, magic explained with pseudo-science technobabble? Sure, why not?

But one thing that Star Wars has never given us is the chance to see characters deal with adversity and grow over the long term, while letting us watch every step of the way. A movie only lets you see so much, while a TV show allows for much more gradual growth, and a deeper exploration of character. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s really just personal preference on my part.

Rather than go the simpler route and simply list my favorite Trek movies here, in honor of the new one coming out, I figured I’d reflect my own preference for longer narratives. And by that, I mean I’ll list out my favorite episode from each Trek series. Besides, you could always just follow the basic rule that most any even numbered Trek movie is good, and odd numbered is bad. Even though that’s not really true anymore, it works for the first ten movies or so.

Star Trek: Space Seed (S01E23)

Most Trek fans will often cite Trouble with Tribbles, or City on the Edge of Forever as their favorite episodes, but I had to go with this one. Why? A few reasons, really.

  • It pretty much serves as a prequel for one of the best Trek movies (Wrath of Khan, of course). Not only did it prove that Trek movies could be good (The Motion Picture was really, really stiff in comparison), it also spawned a book. I like books.
  • It expands the Star Trek universe in a variety of ways, and makes it much more distinct than it was before. It creates more of a timeline, even if that timeline looks more than a little silly now, what with them talking about humanity altering themselves on the genetic level in the 1990s, or that Khan almost took over the world in 1996 during World War 3. Just ignore all that, and appreciate what the writers were trying to do here. It creates a nice contrast to the overarching idea that humanity has gotten over all their problems, and now seek to explore the universe and make it a better place. So much of the dialogue goes out of its way to mention and acknowledge mankind’s barbaric past, but the crew just chuckles it off, like it’s ancient history that has been buried forever. What better way to prove them wrong than to take that metaphor one step further, unearth Khan and his followers, and suddenly be faced with a threat that is completely human? It sure beats another episode about Klingons, or weird aliens on another random planet. This episodes makes the crew, and the Federation as a whole, look in the mirror and realize that maybe they haven’t even figured themselves out yet, let alone anyone else out in the galaxy.
  • It’s really fun to listen to Ricardo Montalban talk. For extra fun, check out his appearances on Freakazoid! during the 90s. The writers of that show seemed to amuse themselves a lot making him say silly things. But don’t get me wrong, he was a great actor, and an excellent villain. He was definitely a viable threat for Captain Kirk. He can go from charming to menacing at the drop of a hat, and really makes you think that maybe he is a genetic superman.

Sure, it wasn’t an episode without its problems. But it was a really ambitious episode on a lot of levels, and it hit enough on the ideas that it wanted to present to… well… spawn a movie later. I’d call that pretty successful.

Star Trek: The Next Generation : Tapestry (S06E15)

Let me get this out of the way right now. I do adore The Best of Both Worlds. I love the Borg, I love the cliffhanger, I love how the plot unfolds, and the very real feel that the entire galaxy is facing a threat it’s not sure it will survive.

But to me, Next Generation was defined by its characters, chiefly Captain Picard himself. And this was my favorite Picard-centric episode.

Why is that? Because it gives us a rare look at what Picard was like in his younger days, before he was the super strict captain whose ideal vacation is going to a sex-themed planet and reading a book. The Picard that took charge of the bridge of the Stargazer, and invented his own tactical maneuver. The Picard who picked fights, and hit on women openly.

The Picard who, as we find out, picks fights with aliens at bars, and gets stabbed in the heart. His is a story about being bold, taking risks, getting lucky, and learning from your experiences to gain wisdom once your youth is gone. We’re often shown Picard the diplomat, Picard the voice of reason, Picard the steady hand. Amid all that, it’s easy to forget that under that calm, stern exterior, the man has a passion for his job the likes of which has rarely been matched. And that passion is what makes him strong, and makes him such a compelling character. His conversation with Q (Another bonus to this episode, as I love the character) close to the end of the episode defines him in a nutshell:

Picard: Having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?
Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?
Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion and imagination! That is not who I am!
Q: Au contraire, he is the person you wanted to be — one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who is less like me? The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaans, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face-to-face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is, or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career. No plan or agenda. Going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Millica 3 to save the ambassador, or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe. And he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.
Picard: You’re right, Q. You gave me the chance to change, and I took the opportunity. But I admit now, it was a mistake.
Q: Are you asking me for something, Jean-Luc?
Picard: Give me a chance to put things back the way they were before.
Q: Before. You died in sickbay. Is that what you want?
Picard: I would rather die as the man I was, than live the life I just saw.

That last line is so good. This whole episode plays out like It’s a Wonderful Life: Star Trek edition. And it’s superb for it.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine : The Visitor (S04E03)

I gotta be honest. This is my favorite Star Trek series, hands down. That’s probably because it’s so different from the others. It shrugs off exploration, in favor of more political and religious themes. It does more to widen the Trek Universe than any of the other series. It introduces Section 34, the spies of the Federation, and makes the organization feel much more flawed and interesting. It takes away a lot of the idea that humans are pretty much perfect in the future, and makes them feel much more… real. Like they’re just people, except their problems happen in spaceships rather than planets.

I have a lot of episodes that I love, like Empok Nor and In the Pale Moonlight. But when I think of the episode that just made me sit there in silence after it was over, and just mouth “Wow”, I always come back to this one.

The gist of it is simple: Captain Sisko gets captured in an energy pocket outside of time and space in a freak engineering accident, and only appears in our time once at specific times, and only around the person who was present when it happened: his son Jake. Jake goes his entire life without his father, only seeing him once every couple of decades for a few minutes, before Sisko is torn away again into his energy pocket. Jake becomes more and more consumed with finding a way to free his father, to the point that it wrecks his marriage, and puts his writing career that he always wanted on the backburner. It becomes his lifelong obsession.

Finally, at the end, he realizes the one way he can free his father, but it comes at a heavy price. The fact that only Sisko himself comes away from the episode with any knowledge of what happened in this episode, is also poignant. This isn’t just good Trek; this is brilliant writing. It was actually nominated for a Hugo award. Whenever I can convince someone to watch an episode of DS9 with me, this is on my short list of episodes to show them.

Star Trek: Voyager : Year of Hell (S04E08)

I liked Voyager a lot more than many Trek fans did. I watched almost every single episode, no matter how bad. And trust me, there were some duds, just like every other series. But there was a lot to like about Voyager. The Doctor was amazing and hilarious. Tuvok was a nice look at what a Vulcan could be if they were more militant than peaceful. Paris was an actually interesting character at the helm of the ship. And Kes was hot, in a Legend of Zelda kind of way. Even Captain Janeway was interesting, even if she was written in an extremely bipolar way through the series.

But even I was bothered by one big problem with the series. If they really were stranded in the middle of nowhere, how in the world did the ship stay in top shape? How did they keep order? How did they keep their uniforms clean? Attrition, lowered morale, and certainly lowered living conditions would all be very real concerns, if this series took its main concept more seriously. When I think of what Voyager would’ve been like if the show had taken more chances, I just think of Magellan’s voyage around the world back in the 1500s… he left with advanced ships for the time, a well trained crew, and plenty of provisions. By the time they returned, only one ship remained, and almost his entire crew had died in the voyage.

Well, with these two episodes, Voyager finally decided to play with the concept of what life in a galaxy alone would REALLY be like. At the beginning of the first episode, they get critically damaged. Janeway quickly loses control of several decks of the ship, and has many of the crew leave in escape pods. Tuvok goes blind from an explosion. Crewmen drop like flies, and Voyager slowly crumbles from damage, neglect, and the crew’s inability to find parts to repair it. They face a villain that uses weapons that phase through time, and their shields cannot block them.

The last scene is incredibly striking, with Captain Janeway looking at a gaping hole in the bridge where her viewscreen used to be, and ramming her enemy full speed in a suicide run to fix time. I love that visual so much.

Add to that that Kurtwood Smith, aka the dad from That 70s Show, aka the bad guy from Robocop, is the villain, and you have an awesome two part episode. Dude is really an underrated actor.

…and, that’s about it. Sorry to say, but I never really watched much Enterprise. I hope to fix that soon. But man, I would love to see another Star Trek TV show. If nothing else, I’d like the movies do well, just to maybe get another one.

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