Thursday, September 8, 2016

The 10 Essential Star Trek Experiences! (Happy Star Trek 50th Anniversary!)

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The Basics: The Star Trek franchise is massive and if one were to try to distill the incredible franchise into ten works, these are the pieces everyone ought to experience!

Happy 50th Anniversary Of Star Trek! Fifty years ago today, Star Trek made its debut on NBC with the episode "The Man Trap" (reviewed here!) and that led to the creation of a massive franchise set in a common fictional universe's 22nd, 23rd, and (most significantly) 24th Centuries. To celebrate the Star Trek franchise, I thought it was the perfect time to explore just why so many people have fallen in love with the Star Trek universe. I have been a Trekker for more than twenty-five years and celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek is a pretty big holiday in my household.

In celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, I decided to contemplate the entire franchise and all of the varied experiences I have had with watching, reading and otherwise studying the Star Trek franchise. I got to thinking about what was essential in the Star Trek franchise and I thought I'd give the answer the classic "desert island" question. In trying to winnow down the massive Star Trek franchise down to only ten items, I had to make some very difficult cuts. The incredible Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Hard Time" (reviewed here!) was a tough cut to make, as was the brilliant two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes "Chain Of Command" (reviewed here!) and "Chain Of Command, Part II" (reviewed here!) had an insular subplot that non-fans would just not appreciate, despite its absolutely essential anti-torture message.

After all of the cuts and contemplation, after fifty years of all things Star Trek, the ten absolute essential Star Trek experiences are:

10. "The Measure Of A Man" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? An early second season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Measure Of A Man" finds the Enterprise docking at a starbase on the frontier where a scientist comes aboard to take custody of the ship's android officer, Data. Dr. Bruce Maddox wants to experiment upon Data and when the incredibly intelligent android doubts the scientist's methods and balks at the proposed experiments, Data attempts to assert his bodily autonomy. Maddox presses the issue and Data resigns from StarFleet in order to protect his life, which leads Maddox to assert that as a sentient machine, Data is property, not a person. What follows is a court case where Data's right to self-determination is decided.

Why Is It Essential? "The Measure Of A Man" is a strong ethical argument that holds up incredibly well. There is a lot of Star Trek that did not age well and "The Measure Of A Man" has moments of melodrama between Captain Picard and the officer representing the Judge Advocate General that play poorly, but they are not enough to rob the episode of its vitality. Instead, "The Measure Of A Man" has great character conflict and an ethical dilemma that successfully explores the ramifications of having ethics. The struggle between Data and Maddox is not about resolving a simple conflict; it leads to an argument about what comes next, what the ramifications are of devaluing life.

9. "The Survivors" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? An early episode of the third season of Star Trek The Next Generation, "The Survivors" has the Enterprise arriving at a colony world that was attacked and the entire world's population was wiped out. While investigating the destruction, the Enterprise discovers one family and their property have survived entirely unscathed. The mystery of how and why they survived perplexes the Enterprise crew and the mystery is intensified by a psychic attack upon Counselor Troi. As Captain Picard investigates the loving couple who survived a planetary genocide, he uncovers a horrific truth.

Why Is It Essential? No one else would probably find "The Survivors" essential, but it is truly an immaculate work of what Star Trek stands for. "The Survivors" explores the nature of guilt and consequence, it is a profound statement on love and the grief that plays out exceptionally well, time after time. "The Survivors" puts Picard at the mercy of someone he does not understand and his final statement to Kevin Uxbridge is a simple, eloquent moment where Patrick Stewart adds an entirely new dimension to Captain Picard with his delivery. After so many episodes of Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation where StarFleet seems virtually invincible and the sole occupant of the moral high ground, "The Survivors" redefines StarFleet's jurisdiction and there is a brilliance to the episode's simplicity and it's contrasting moral sophistication.

8. "Mirror, Mirror" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? In the second season of Star Trek, four members of the Enterprise crew teleport through an ion storm and end up in an alternate universe. There, they find that they are part of a warship that is set to wipe out an entire planet's population to eliminate the roadblock to strip mining the planet. With the ion storm dissipating, which will prevent the crewmembers from returning to their native universe, Captain Kirk risks his life to take a moral stand to prevent the genocide of the Halkan people. With assassins threatening Kirk and the others, Captain Kirk allies with his counterpart's partner to use reason and an alien weapon to delay the destruction he has been ordered to carry out.

Why Is It Essential? Star Trek managed to take a basic science fiction premise like multiverse theory and do something more than just give Spock a goatee (though it does that, too!). "Mirror, Mirror" is an episode that seems like a simple gimmick episode, but it is both character-driven and portrays a higher sense of ethics. "Mirror, Mirror" is pretty much the gold standard for multiverse episodes not only for the way it spends time with Captain Kirk and his team in the Mirror Universe, but for Spock's explanation for why their counterparts absolutely failed to integrate when they were beamed up to the Enterprise. There are not a lot of episodes of the original Star Trek that manage to use the entire ensemble cast (despite the mythology, only Star Trek only had three stars in the opening credits and the episodes were very heavily biased toward Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock); "Mirror, Mirror" is, arguably, the best to showcase the acting talents of the entire cast.

7. "Frame Of Mind" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? In the sixth season of Star Trek The Next Generation, Commander Will Riker is sent on a mission to a planet where he is wounded and ends up in an insane asylum. Prior to the mission, Riker had been involved in performing in a play that was set in an asylum and his sense of reality rapidly begins to break down. As Riker transitions between the play rehearsals and the alien asylum, he struggles with his sense of reality. With his apparent mental breakdown progressing, Riker must choose which reality is real, potentially risking his entire brain and life!

Why Is It Essential? Long before Brannon Braga absolutely gutted the Star Trek franchise, he wrote some masterful episodes of science fiction television. "Frame Of Mind" was his creative peak and Jonathan Frakes used it as an opportunity to act the hell out of it. Not at all about the reversal at the end, "Frame Of Mind" is incredible for the process, the thrill of discovery. And Jonathan Frakes dominates on the acting front. Sure, there is more to a great hour of television than an amazing performance, but seriously, Jonathan Frakes is that good as Riker transitioning between the two very different realities and making those transitions have an effect on his character.

6. Imzadi By Peter David (reviewed here!) - What Is It? Opening in the future, Admiral Riker is a miserable old man, crushed by the weight of losing one true love, Deanna Troi. Set in the future, the past when a young Will Riker met Deanna Troi, and the present when the U.S.S. Enterprise is on a mission that costs Troi her life, Imzadi becomes a time travel adventure as Admiral Riker decides to violate all of the rules of time travel by going back to save Troi's life. Pursued by authorities from his own time, Admiral Riker risks everything to change reality out of his sense of loss and love.

Why Is It Essential? No one writing Star Trek novels before Peter David looked at the episodic, unrelated, episodes in the franchise and managed to tie them together with plots, references and asides like Peter David. Imzadi is funny and tragic and clever in a way that endures as only great literature can. Intricate and character-driven, Imzadi effectively explores the depths of love and loss in a time-travel adventure that transcends pulp fiction. Indeed, when the greatest flaw a book possesses is that it gets a character's middle name wrong (Riker says his middle name is "Tiberius;" when Peter David wrote the novel, Riker had been referred to in the show as William T. Riker, it wasn't until years after the book was published that an episode defined the "T" as "Thomas"), you have a bona fide masterpiece. Imzadi is the gold standard for what a writer can do when not bound by a television budget for sets, make-up, special effects, and guest actors. Peter David writes a work that is appropriately complex and clever, with a narrative voice that entertains even as it drives the reader to empathize.

5. "A Piece Of The Action" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? Late in the second season of Star Trek, the U.S.S. Enterprise visited the planet Iotia. Iotia was once visited by another starship and now, years later, the Enterprise crew is horrified to learn that the entire planet has modeled itself off of Chicago Mobs of the 1920s. When Kirk and Spock are taken hostage, a caper ensues with their escape, rescue, and capture by rival gangs. In trying to stay alive, Captain Kirk has to try to put the societal evolution of the planet back on its natural course.

Why Is It Essential? Science fiction can work amazingly well when it utilizes humor and "A Piece Of The Action" is an excellent example of that. After a season and a half of Captain Kirk and his crew spouting the Federation's non-interference directive (the Prime Directive), the viewer is treated to seeing why the Prime Directive is important. The result of interfering with the natural evolution of a society is presented with humor and menace and "A Piece Of The Action" manages to find the right balance of it. Like "Mirror, Mirror," it utilizes the ensemble cast well and it is an episode that allowed William Shatner to go wild with his performance of Captain Kirk and have the occassional over-the-top nature of his acting not at all detract from the episode.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan / Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (reviewed here! and here!) - What Is It? The two movies, viewed together, open with an aging Admiral Kirk feeling unsatisfied with life, wondering what his purpose in life is after being promoted out of being a starship Captain. Admiral Kirk accompanies Captain Spock and the Enterprise, crewed by cadets, on a training mission. While on the mission, a research outpost contacts the Enterprise with a crisis; a starship they work with is coming to take a potentially dangerous scientific device without authorization. The Enterprise rushes to help only to discover that the U.S.S. Reliant has been hijacked by one of Kirk's old enemies. In trying to stop a man who is smarter, stronger, and more dangerous than the Enterprise crew, Captain Kirk finds his sense of purpose, but loses his closest friend. In the aftermath of tragedy, Captain Kirk and his friends struggle to save Dr. McCoy and Spock's lives, risking their careers and lives against a new, vicious adversary.

Why Is It Essential? Technically, it is a cheat as they are two movies, but they actually hold up much better playing off one another to make one solid narrative. Plus, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock was Leonard Nimoy's directorial debut and Christopher Lloyd never gets enough credit for his portrayal of Klingon Commander Kruge. Aging and obsession are masterfully presented with a strong character-driven narrative and the full cast illustrates the depths of their character in a powerful story about loyalty. There is a reason Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is considered a classic . . . and it's not just Ricardo Montalban's bare chest. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock find the absolute right balance between action, character complexities, and ethical dilemmas.

3. "The Inner Light" (reviewed here!)- What Is It? At the end of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise encounters an alien probe that knocks Captain Picard unconscious. While his body lies unconscious on the Bridge, fed a stream of data from the probe, Captain Picard wakes up on an alien planet. He is told his name is Kamin by his wife and that he lives on the planet Kataan. After years of rejecting what appears to be the truth, Kamin accepts that the time he recalled aboard the Enterprise as Picard was a fever delusion and he starts a family and studies the environment to discover that Kataan is on the verge of a devastating climate change.

Why Is It Essential? It takes a lot to make a story that is insular to a character that is also incredible to viewers who are not invested in that character; "The Inner Light" finds that perfect spot. Fans of Star Trek The Next Generation were used to Captain Picard as a somewhat emotionally-withheld character who disliked children and was never in a successful romantic relationship. "The Inner Light" completely redefines the character and is a brilliant exploration of "the road not taken." "The Inner Light" effectively explores how, given a chance, a person can completely redefine themselves and create a life that is unexpectedly satisfying. "The Inner Light" is a Patrick Stewart performance that absolutely captivates the viewer and the guest cast that surrounds Stewart is surprisingly impressive, rising to his caliber. "The Inner Light" uses a minimal science fiction concept to explore real character drama.

2. "The Visitor" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shifted immediately from its burgeoning war story arc to a powerful character-driven piece with "The Visitor," which focused on Jake Sisko. Opening in the distant future, Jake Sisko is a writer living in seclusion when he is sought out by an aspiring writer. Jake tells the story of how he became a writer and why he stopped writing; he lost his father. But when Benjamin Sisko was lost, so many years ago, he did not simply die. As the grieving Jake Sisko tried to move on with his life, his father would appear periodically, apparently trapped in another dimension. Guided by grief, Jake gives up his promising career to study subspace physics in a desperate search to find a way to recover his father . . . a pursuit that takes him his entire adult life.

Why Is It Essential? This is the ultimate Star Trek franchise tearjerker. "The Visitor" is a love story and it is a profound statement on the importance of having a loving parent. "The Visitor" is a great example of a powerful character study that has a universal message that makes incredible use of a minor science fiction conceit to reveal something deep and true. More could be said about "The Visitor," but it might be the greatest Star Trek experience worth experiencing rather than analyzing.

1. "Duet" (reviewed here!) - What Is It? The penultimate episode of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine finds an alien ship visiting the station with a Cardassian who requires medication. The need for the medication instantly draws the attention of First Officer Kira Nerys, who claims that for the Cardassian to need the medication he must have been at the site of one of the most horrific examples of genocide during the Cardassian Occupation. Kira imprisons the Cardassian and as tensions arise outside the station about the legality of the Cardassian's detainment, the crew works to confirm the Cardassian's identity. Kira has either imprisoned an innocent Cardassian filing clerk . . . or one of the greatest war criminals of the Occupation.

Why Is It Essential? It is virtually impossible to make a compelling hour of television where the bulk of it is two people simply talking to one another. The idea of creating an episode of Star Trek where the plot action is a prisoner identification seems like a recipe for boredom and disaster. Star Trek Deep Space Nine not only makes it work, but it creates a truly brilliant episode. Nana Visitor and Harris Yulin play off one another immaculately and their banter is a writer's dream. "Duet" is essentially an allegory episode that explores (in metaphorical terms) the effects of the Holocaust and the idea of national culpability. And, on the opposite side, "Duet" is a knock-out episode that defines Kira Nerys; a woman who has been fueled by racism and anger who is forced to look at a man she perceives as an enemy in an entirely different way. The emotional journey is intense, viewing after viewing. Like all of the best moments in the Star Trek franchise, "Duet" is smart, well-performed, character-driven and blends social commentary with a statement that reveals something profoundly important and human.

For other Star Trek articles, please visit:
The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek
The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek The Next Generation
The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek Deep Space Nine
The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek Voyager
The Top Ten Episodes Of Star Trek Enterprise

For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my Star Trek Review Index Page!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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