The O.G. (Original Geekdom) of the Star Trek universe remains beloved by many Trek fans over and above any other series and –although I had seen most of these episodes countless times before– in watching them again for this ranking, I understood the love.
Underneath the thriftily constructed sets and bright uniforms designed to highlight this new thing called “color TV,” underneath 60s tropes and the dictates of network television, something’s afoot. It’s something stealthily subversive in its very DNA pushing back at those constraints. Not unlike The Twilight Zone, it wants to say something about the human condition. It wants to say something about today that may well have been true yesterday and may well be true tomorrow.
In short, in dozens of episodes, it’s aged remarkably well.
So, if you haven’t watched this series, or watched it recently, take a look at some of the episodes, especially in the top tier. They’re still a product of their time, but I’m sure you’ll see why this series is the one that launched what may eventually be a thousand starships.
Note: Everything below may contain spoilers and definitely contains some snark.
Scratch through the 60s leading man bombast and you find a consummate leader who contains multitudes. He’s a relatively young starship captain thanks to his ambition and his ability — including knowing how to motivate people to do their best. Underneath the brashness and penchant for flying leg kicks is a wonky tactical genius who is willing to pursue peace at almost any price. Though unconventional in execution, his reverence for Federation ideals is second-to-none. He remains the ur-captain of Star Trek.
An eternal icon of Geeky Cool and the first example of a Vulcan that pops into countless people’s heads… yet this half-human-yet-green-blooded devotee of logic is anything but a typical Vulcan. Ironically (yet not illogically) that’s what makes him so Vulcan. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, baby!
Leonard “Bones” McCoy
Karl Urban’s subsequent portrayal and some of Deforest Kelley’s interviews hint at the truth: Bones is sick of your bull. Say what you mean and get him what he needs to heal this patient. He’s not a miracle worker, a bricklayer, or any of a dozen other things. He is, however, the poster physician for the irascible healer with the heart of gold.
Almost always calm, capable, and collected, he’s nevertheless a space cowboy who speaks to the swashbuckler in all of us.
Another quiet role model who was seen handling the various bridge stations when the need arose, albeit not enough in the series proper.
Montgomery “Scotty” Scott
The original miracle-working engineer casts a long shadow, but would probably just as soon sit down with you to enjoy a glass of whisky… or perhaps something green. Just don’t ask him to stop using colorful metaphors or the haggis is in the fire for sure.
Hey, hey, it’s a Russian! And people say he’s Russian around!
Okay, nobody says that, but for the few of you who started humming along, it was worth it. Did you know that “The Monkees” were invented by Chekov’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in Minsk? True story…
78) “Turnabout Intruder”
Season 3, Episode 24
There are worse episodes of Trek overall, but until Enterprise, this was sourest of sour notes to end a Star Trek series on. And remember: for those of us who first watched Star Trek in syndication before Picard and his crew appeared, this was The End of TV Trek (sorry, TAS). Because Janice Lester in the hands of an enterprising writer could have been a nuanced villain, unfairly denied a Starfleet commission. Instead, it’s dated, sexist claptrap.
77) “And the Children Shall Lead”
Season 3, Episode 4
With a premise that could arguably be the most horrifying and dark as anything Trek has seen, we instead get glacially-paced menace from a game show host in a feathered mumu.
76) “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”
Season 3, Episode 15
Boring when I first saw it and no different now. There are pluses in the introduction of the Enterprise’s self-destruct sequence and the incomparable Frank Gorshin, but the crew seems to alternate between dancing around the fact that the Allegorical Aliens before them are obnoxiously simplistic and generally padding for time until the episode ends. Don’t wait. Skip it.
75) “The Empath”
Season 3, Episode 12
A ponderous, budget-conscious episode set in a very 60s black box theater with a performance artist. Our main antagonists are Talosian wannabes, one of whom can’t figure out you should fire your weapon when someone’s attacking you (and all the weapon does is force you to move in unconvincing slow motion). Not the worst episode of the original series, but by no means good.
74) “The Mark of Gideon”
Season 3, Episode 16
If every alien culture has machinations this boring, we should never put to space. Allegorical, but ludicrous.
73) “The Way to Eden”
Season 3, Episode 20
The fact that Skip Homeier plays both a Nazi (in “Patterns of Force”) and a space hippie is amusing. This episode is not. Damn hippies.
72) “The Lights of Zetar”
Season 3, Episode 18
Look, far be it for me to nix an episode with a cute librarian, but this episode is a ponderous mess.
71) “The Alternative Factor”
Season 1, Episode 27
After ever-increasingly good episodes in Trek’s first season, we’re given this plodding bore — even though the fate of the universe may be at stake. Robert Brown acquits himself well enough as Lazarus and Lazarus — and hey, is that Janet MacLachlan as Lt. Masters? Still, the episode never seems to really catch fire.
70) “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”
Season 3, Episode 5
I will concede there may be truth in beauty if we all move on from this episode which is both fitful and forced.
69) “Spock’s Brain”
Season 3, Episode 1
While this episode isn’t the worst of the original series, it earnestly competes for the title. Really not worth re-watching without adult beverages.
Season 1, Episode 8
As with so many of less-than-stellar Trek episodes, this benefits greatly from playing things straight — to say nothing of the performances from Kim Darby and Michael J. Pollard. Definite demerits for the pointless “identical Earth.”
67) “The Savage Curtain”
Season 3, Episode 22
Abraham Lincoln appears floating in space and things go downhill from there. Demerits for making the conqueror of the largest land empire the world has ever known (Genghis Khan) a thuggish Asian stereotype.
66) “Spectre of the Gun”
Season 3, Episode 6
One of those episodes from the original series that isn’t bad, but it sure ain’t good. The staging is clearly an attempt to minimize the episode budget and the story feels like it’s going back to the same well of powerful aliens testing the Enterprise crew, et cetera, et cetera.
65) “The Gamesters of Triskelion”
Season 2, Episode 16
I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying that, If I’m being honest, I would not wager too many quatloos on this episode.
64) “The Omega Glory”
Season 2, Episode 23
The strange fate of the Exeter is almost entirely overshadowed by an identical Earth suspension of disbelief that require warp engines to power.
63) “Wink of an Eye”
Season 3, Episode 11
Those technologically advanced aliens are after our women AND men for mating! Because, you know, they couldn’t try and use their technical acumen to handle their reproductive issues and don’t understand how two different species mating won’t produce viable offspring.
62) “Assignment: Earth”
Season 2, Episode 26
In retrospect, the episode isn’t out and out awful, but it’s such an egregious attempt at a backdoor pilot, it sidelines the Enterprise crew in an unwelcome fashion.
61) “Mudd’s Women”
Season 1, Episode 6
Roger Carmel does great as con man Mudd, but the episode seems slow and unengaging by modern standards.
60) “The Deadly Years”
Season 2, Episode 12
It’s not an awful episode, but what with re-using the corbomite ruse and having the key to people’s survival be Chekov, there’s a limit to how excited we can get.
Season 2, Episode 7
An intriguing, but ultimately unfulfilling episode that plays with the time-old Trek trope of magic in a rational universe.
58) “Shore Leave”
Season 1, Episode 15
Look, I’m not saying this episode is bad. Any episode with samurai, tigers, and Alice from Wonderland can’t be entirely awful. I am saying that the endless fight scene with Finnegan exemplifies the episode’s inability to get on with it.
57) “The Naked Time”
Season 1, Episode 4
While seeing the crew of the Enterprise get space drunk is not without its charms — both King Riley and swashbuckling Sulu are fun — it’s not an outstanding episode. Bonus points for the time-travel tease at the end, but demerits for not actually connecting it to “Tomorrow is Yesterday” as originally intended.
56) “Plato’s Stepchildren”
Season 3, Episode 10
Yes, we get the first inter-racial kiss on American television. Yes, Michael Dunn is great as Alexander. But is it a banner episode? No, it is not.
55) “All Our Yesterdays”
Season 3, Episode 23
The penultimate entry of the original series is marred by slow pacing, but aided by some of the introspective character study.
54) “The Corbomite Maneuver”
Season 1, Episode 10
An entirely Trek tale of first contact that gives you a good taste of the original series characters, but, sadly due to the limitations of television, no taste of tranya.
53) “Charlie X”
Season 1, Episode 2
You will be forgiven for thinking this might be the Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life” transposed to the Enterprise. Not bad, but nothing special. Uhura’s singing will either be a plus or a minus for you.
52) “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
Season 1, Episode 7
In light of TV since this aired, from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica to the more recent incarnation of Westworld, a lot of this will come across as quaint — and the plotting is a tad repetitive. Still, decent performances and bonus points for the Lovecraft reference.
51) “The Paradise Syndrome”
Season 3, Episode 3
Because O’Brien hasn’t been born yet, Kirk gets to suffer horrendous heartbreak.
50) “This Side of Paradise”
Season 1, Episode 24
Spock rediscovers his emotional side thanks to hippie spores and Jill Ireland. It plays better than you’d expect, even if it gives outsize validity to umbrage and anger as problem solving tools.
49) “Elaan of Troyius”
Season 3, Episode 13
Shakespearean in concept, but not in execution, this would-be Trek Taming of the Shrew has some interesting twists, but nothing to make it shine.
48) “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”
Season 1, Episode 19
A straightforward, but nevertheless engaging time-travel tale, with requisite moments of cleverness in the treatment of time travel tropes.
47) “The Apple”
Season 2, Episode 5
An okay episode that helps establish Kirk’s attitude towards the Prime Directive as well as the series’ ideas about expendable crewman (beam down all the ones you need!). Vaal seems to have a 70s horror movie attitude against intimacy.
46) “Requiem for Methuselah”
Season 3, Episode 19
Another Shakespearean episode: this time, we touch on The Tempest and, by extension, Forbidden Planet. Not bad, but strangely uninvolving.
45) “Operation: Annihilate!”
Season 1, Episode 29
At first glance, you might discount these the plastic vomit creatures, but I’d say they rank pretty high on the freaky/insidious villain scale, what with destroying multiple planets, and having a hive mind with which to threaten <echo> THE GALAXY </echo>. Bonus points for showing the crew using trial and error to defeat the little buggers and blinding Spock, later realizing only ultraviolet light is needed. Definite demerits for throwing in some of Kirk’s family simply to kill them off. The inner eyelid is both cool and a deux ex biologie — though since they build on its evolutionary purpose in later Trek, I guess it’s cool.
44) “Whom Gods Destroy”
Season 3, Episode 14
This episode seems to exist for three reasons. First, to prove that not all episodes of the third season suck. Second, to demonstrate how enterprising the producers were at re-using props and costumes from previous seasons. And third: to stage a scenery chewing competition between Garth, Marta, and Kirk. This last part is easy because it’s set at an insane asylum and the first two characters are flamboyantly cray-cray. Next to Khan, Steve Ihnat’s Garth is one of the standout villains from the original series. He is crazy, but absolutely dangerous between his ability to shape-shift and his penchant for blowing things up. I would totally have the character suffer a relapse just to bring him back. Bonus points for Batgirl’s poetry readings — and really: where can we buy Garth’s boots?
Season 2, Episode 9
A decent enough entry in the series, right in line with other episodes that explore alien motivations. However, it does seem to suffer from a bit of a slow pace.
42) “Dagger of the Mind”
Season 1, Episode 9
Come for Morgan Woodward’s crazed Dr. Van Gelder. Stay for Spock’s mind meld. The stuff on the surface with Cpt. Kirk and Lt. Noel? Not so much.
41) “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”
Season 3, Episode 8
A surprisingly packed and touching episode including notions of generation ships, a love story, and blind faith and dogma. It’s just marred a bit by pacing and execution.
40) “The Return of the Archons”
Season 1, Episode 21
With this episode, you get a good sense of mystery (with hooded, inquisitorial enforcers!), Star Trek doing its version of The Purge (albeit 60s style), and –most importantly– quality Kirk-talks-computer-to-death. You’re sure to enjoy it whether or not you’re of the Body.
39) “The Man Trap”
Season 1, Episode 1
The first episode broadcast isn’t all that bad in a thoughtful, monster-of-the-week kind of way — and I’m given to understand the monster in question still gives some people nightmares.
Season 2, Episode 13
A solid episode expanding Kirk’s character and motivations with an alien creature that is totally not a benign Calvin Klein fragrance. Redshirts beware!
37) “By Any Other Name”
Season 2, Episode 22
A decent episode which quietly underscores how important peaceful coexistence is for Kirk and the Federation in general. Bonus points for Scotty’s tactical drinking game.
36) “Patterns of Force”
Season 2, Episode 21
The egregiously bad premise historian John Gill makes in not only violating the Prime Directive, but installing a fascist government on another world is greatly tempered by the Enterprise crew fighting and defeating Nazis.
35) “The Enemy Within”
Season 1, Episode 5
Shatner gives a bravura performance in this Star Trekyl and Hyde episode. Bonus points for using the phaser to heat rocks and the adorable space dog.
34) “I, Mudd”
Season 2, Episode 8
Probably the closest Star Trek gets to going full Monty Python with the crew’s “Confuse-a-Cat” performance at the end, which I admit, delights me every time. Let’s face it: logic is a wreath of pretty flowers which smell bad.
33) “Bread and Circuses”
Season 2, Episode 25
Okay, I’ll accept we’re just going to drive the “alternate Earths” into the ground with the original series — and this bit of modern Rome is fun, with some great villains showing that they don’t need to have all the latest technology to be devious and cunning. However, your mileage may vary with the final twist.
32) “The Changeling”
Season 2, Episode 3
A goofy episode that some people might like if they’re in the mood for a high redshirt bodycount or want a low-budget version of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture in one third of the time. Just be warned that you need to deal with Spock mind-melding with a machine and Uhura apparently being okay the following week even though her entire memory gets erased.
31) “The Squire of Gothos”
Season 1, Episode 17
It is medically impossible for one to be as delighted with this episode as much as General Trelane (retired) is delighted with himself. Nevertheless, we are forced to enjoy William Campbell’s all-in performance as the proto-Q he so totally is.
30) “The Cloud Minders”
Season 3, Episode 21
A look at class and racism that has some action and nuance enough so it holds up as a classic Trek treatment of the ideas. Also, Spock almost gets his groove on.
29) “The Ultimate Computer”
Season 2, Episode 24
A solid adventure that explores automation and, let’s be clear, some exciting space combat (even more so with the special edition VFX which I did not include in the ranking). Bonus points for William Marshall as Daystrom.
28) “Court Martial”
Season 1, Episode 20
Prepubescent viewers will enjoy this about as much as Casablanca, but if you give this a view as an adult, you’ll get a hint of the façade that is the “perfect” Federation we see explored further in Deep Space Nine. You’ll also be treated to good (if 60s dramatic) performances by pretty much the whole supporting cast including Percy Rodriguez, Joan Marshall, and Elisha Cook Jr.
27) “The Menagerie” (Parts I & II)
Season 1, Episodes 11 & 12
This two-parter represents quintessential Trek, in all the good and bad ways that implies. But really, the majority of that is good, with thoughtful sci-fi, some classic twists in trying to out-think the Talosians (and be out-thought by them), as well as revealing a huge side of Spock’s personality and his sense of loyalty.
26) “The Galileo Seven”
Season 1, Episode 16
A tense episode, not because you think any of the main characters will die (this is 60s TV), but worthwhile to see Spock in this unique command situation.
25) “A Piece of the Action”
Season 2, Episode 17
If you’re going to keep having imitation Earths, you might as well have some fun with them. The conceit of an entire planet modeled after Chicago mobs of the 20th Century is ridiculous, but pursued with such conviction, you have to go along for the ride (but don’t let Kirk drive). Shatner bluffing his way through the game of Royal Fizzbin is such a comic highlight that Nimoy almost starts laughing.
24) “The Immunity Syndrome”
Season 2, Episode 18
Settling once and for all whether Earthlings or Vulcans will fare better against giant space amoebae, this reasonably action-packed episode gives you some classic Kirk-Spock-McCoy interactions.
23) “The Tholian Web”
Season 3, Episode 9
There’s a lot going on in this episode from dimensional rifts to mutiny — and a lot of people love this one because of Tholians and their titular web, but the pacing saps the episode’s energy, much like the Enterprise’s warp engines.
22) “That Which Survives”
Season 3, Episode 17
Call me a sucker for a visual effect that’s been around for over a century (seriously, I’ve seen it used in a pre-WWI Russian short), but Losira’s freaky transfer effect combined with the quiet menace portrayed by Lee Meriwether make this a memorable episode. Bonus points for Scotty’s Macgyvering.
21) “Return to Tomorrow”
Season 2, Episode 20
Another Trek tale that deals with godlike beings — and the story unfolds like a sort of myth in terms of power, love, and betrayal. Good stuff.
20) “Who Mourns for Adonais?”
Season 2, Episode 2
It’s hard not to like this uneven episode, probably because it grabs us from the beginning with a giant green space hand. Nevertheless, it mines meditative ground where Trek often explores in the future of gods and belief, technology and magic.
19) “The Enterprise Incident”
Season 3, Episode 2
A reasonably exciting episode that keeps you on your toes, albeit with some suspension of disbelief for the hijinks. Demerits for having a “Klingon-Romulan alliance” just so Romulan ship designs didn’t have to be scared up.
18) “Errand of Mercy”
Season 1, Episode 26
An ambitious episode that introduces the Klingons, the whole cold war atmosphere between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, and the Organian Peace Treaty that casts a shadow across the rest of the original series. The constraints of a single 60s TV episode, even with the VFX additions of the special edition, creaks under the weight of extensive world-building. Nevertheless, the main story is still solidly entertaining, with John Colicos stealing just about every scene he’s in, setting the tone for Klingons to this day.
17) “Wolf in the Fold”
Season 2, Episode 14
An inventive story that, let’s be honest, has misogynist elements that really haven’t aged well. However, the mystery moves along briskly with a fun sci-fi twist and good performances all around.
16) “The Conscience of the King”
Season 1, Episode 13
While it doesn’t top its inspirations (both Shakespeare and classic Greek tragedies), this episode is amazingly engaging even today, with great performances by the regular cast and some great turns by Arnold Moss as Karidian and Barbara Anderson as the seemingly ingénue, but really insane daughter. We get great McCoy-Spock scenes, good Kirk-McCoy scenes, and a lot more hinted at Kirk’s background.
Season 1, Episode 18
When I finally got to read the Fredric Brown short story upon which this is based, it’s kind of hard to go back to this less-nuanced version, but to harp on that would be unfair. Television rarely gets to get into the inner life of its characters like literature and this is first-class Trek all-around. you just need to embrace the cheesy reptile costume and papier mache rocks. Do that, and you get a master class in Kirk Fu, including Kirk’s underlying humanity.
14) “A Taste of Armageddon”
Season 1, Episode 23
A great allegorical tale from the age of Mutually Assured Destruction where Kirk gets to show off what a clever barbarian he is and you learn that you do not mess with Scotty. You bring a knife, he’ll bring a starship ready to obliterate the inhabited surface of your planet. It’s the Aberdeen way.
13) “A Private Little War”
Season 2, Episode 19
A satisfying downer of an allegorical episode whose story DNA can be found later in many a DS9 tale.
12) “Day of the Dove”
Season 3, Episode 7
An exciting if wacky episode of an alien that feeds off aggression. The plot moves briskly, Michael Ansara is wonderful as Kang, but the overall execution doesn’t take it over the top.
11) “Friday’s Child”
Season 2, Episode 11
A great entry in the “cold war encounters” with the Klingons giving us an interesting culture in the Capellans, a good guest turn from Catwoman -er- Julie Newmar, plus McCoy in the spotlight.
10) “The Trouble with Tribbles”
Season 2, Episode 15
Not only is this one of the best episodes of the original series and all Trek, it serves as a bellwether for people. You may want to re-examine your friendship with anyone who outright hates this episode or at least recommend they get more fiber in their diet. It is absolutely delightful, balancing a chock full of plot with great humor.
9) “The Doomsday Machine”
Season 2, Episode 6
First-class space opera episode absolutely buoyed by a great performance by William Windom as Commodore Decker and Sol Kaplan’s intense score. A winner all around.
8) “Amok Time”
Season 2, Episode 1
Personal and general Vulcan worldbuilding with the always interesting Spock? Absolutely!
7) “Space Seed”
Season 1, Episode 22
This episode casts a huge shadow across the Trekverse for both establishing and confounding continuity, but it’s perfectly fine to watch on its own merits — due in no small part to a commanding performance by Ricardo Montalban.
6) “Balance of Terror”
Season 1, Episode 14
An exceptional sci-fi treatment of The Enemy Below and a must-see episode of the original series, this installment packs in a lot of origin along with introducing the Romulans to Trek mythology. Gold stars to Mark Lenard, William Shatner, writer Paul Schneider, and director Vincent McEveety.
5) “Journey to Babel”
Season 2, Episode 10
This adventure goes to eleven as we get diplomatic intrigue, attempted assassinations, and family drama aboard the Enterprise. Writer D.C. Fontana gives us a little bit of everything, including giving McCoy the last word.
4) “The Devil in the Dark”
Season 1, Episode 25
One of the most quintessential episodes of the original series which really captures that Trek attitude towards peaceful exploration. There’s great turns especially by Kirk, Spock, and the apprentice bricklayer, McCoy. Mad props to actor and stunt performer Janos Prohaska for making the Horta more than just a weird pizza carpet.
3) “Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Season 1, Episode 3
Now we’re cooking with stellar gas! The second pilot of the original series is an indulgent slice of space opera, containing all the delights that a spiritual heir to the likes of Forbidden Planet should. If you go in with that in mind, you can get past any awkwardness or velour.
2) “Mirror, Mirror”
Season 2, Episode 4
Jerome Bixby’s inventive and action-packed story makes for an episode of Trek so iconic, you know it the instant I mention, “Spock’s beard.”
1) “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Season 1, Episode 28
Look: you knew this was going to be at the top. Everyone cites it. Yes, the 60s melodrama of it all has diminished its impact over the past 50-odd years. Yes, you get better banter between the Enterprise crew in other episodes. However, upon watching it again, it’s still a damn fine single dose of sci-fi that excites audience imaginations full of what-if scenarios to this day.