Still from “Balance of Terror”
By Kevin Brettauer
From September 8, 1966 to May 13, 2005, the once humble, now-colossal "Star Trek" franchise produced six different television programs, with a sum total of 725 episodes, many of which are considered some of the best drama ever created for network television. Such classics as “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Tapestry”, “Chain of Command”, “Space Seed”, “The Sacrifice of Angels” and others often make “best episode” lists of many kinds, alongside the most-revered segments of "The Simpsons," "MASH," "The Twilight Zone," "I Love Lucy," "All in the Family," "Lost" and "The Wire." While any top ten list is difficult, choosing ten exemplary hours from 725 episodes is nearly an impossible task.
But Impossible is my middle name (Well, actually, it’s not, but, you know, whatever. It’s not Tiberius either. Let’s get on with this.).
Still from "Darmok"
10. “Darmok” ("The Next Generation" season 5, episode 2)
Nothing is more powerful than a story. In fact, Mike Carey, who currently writes such comic books as "The Unwritten" and "Suicide Risk," has claimed that “stories are the only thing worth dying for.” They are how we communicate, how we relate to people, how we understand mysterious aspects of our own lives, how we get through the hard times. “Darmok” takes this to a literal level when Jean-Luc Picard is trapped on an alien planet with the captain of another ship whose species speaks only in complex narratives and metaphors. Stalking them, in a way predicting the philosophy of Tolian Soran, the villain of "Star Trek: Generations," is a quasi-invisible beast who will not rest until the two are dead. “Darmok” is one of the more powerful episodes of the franchise, and many lines of dialogue have become common vernacular in certain pop culture circles. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Darmok and Jalad, Picard and Dathon. Stories are vital to our survival, and this episode proves it. Even if someone doesn’t get out alive, their story will live forever.
9. “The Inner Light” ("The Next Generation" season 5, episode 25)
If there’s an episode of "Star Trek" that comes closest, structurally speaking, to "Upstream Color," my early vote for best film of 2013, it’s this late installment of "Next Generation," critically lauded and adored by fans and casual viewers alike. We all know the story: a probe from a long-dead civilization induces a catatonic state in Picard, forcing him to relive the life of the scientist who invented the probe itself. Like Ishmael or Superman, Picard walks away from the episode the only survivor of a tremendous catastrophe, even if he himself was not in actuality a part of it. The beauty of “The Inner Light” is how it deals with the fragility of life and love, and how the most unexpected experiences can leave amazingly profound experiences on us. The show’s must triumphant hour.
8. “Obsession” ("The Original Series" season 2, episode 13)
"Star Trek" has always had a deep fascination with classical literature: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle – and those are just the tip of the iceberg. “Obsession” was the first in a still-continuing sequence of Trek installments that attempts to recreate Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick. A tragedy from Captain Kirk’s past forces him to mount what could easily be a suicide mission to avenge fallen comrades, driving him temporarily insane and stripping him of his reason and logic, epitomized by his inability to listen to McCoy and Spock as he usually does. In "The Wrath of Khan," the second film in the movie series and also a take on Melville’s novel, Kirk comments that he’s “cheated death [and] patted [him]self on the back for his own ingenuity.” Being, as he is in Khan, on the other side of the “Obsession” equation, one must wonder if he wasn’t reflecting on one of Kirk’s early moments of fury, no doubt seen here.
Still from “Far Beyond the Stars”
7. “Far Beyond the Stars” ("Deep Space Nine" season 6, episode 13)
Not only were the lines drawn between reality and fantasy in this fantastic episode directed by series star Avery Brooks, but so too were the lines between past and present, and I’m not even speaking entirely in the fictional sense. As a side-effect from prophetic visions he had received earlier in the series, Captain Sisko begins to hallucinate life as a writer for a science fiction magazine in the 1950s. Never wavering in his attempts to bring the saga of a “negro captain” to the printed page, Benny Russell, Sisko’s victimized alter-ego, is faced with racism, pressure and fear on almost all sides. The realism with which Benny’s eventual breakdown is conveyed can only be compared to certain arcs on Deadwood, made all the more believable by Brooks’ fantastic direction and his understanding of the importance of the material. “Far Beyond the Stars” is a historical document not just for the past and the present, but it should remain one well into the 24th century. We need to remember to take care of each other and love one another, and this episode proves it.
6. “The Ascent” ("Deep Space Nine" season 5, episode 9)
Security chief Odo and bartender Quark were always the odd couple of "DS9," and not even the two of them were sure where their resentment for one another ended and the respect began. Never was their relationship more perfectly depicted than here, the best episode of "Deep Space Nine’s" finest season, as the two crash on a snowy planet and have to work their way to the top of an impossibly tall mountain to even have the chance of setting off a distress beacon. Odo, without the shapeshifting abilities that had been stripped from him in the fourth season, and Quark, not behind his familiar bar, are both out of their element as tensions rise. They not only prove to be what Peter Morgan would no doubt call “worthy adversaries”, but they keep each other alive long enough to be rescued. The help one another save each other, even through the direct threats and angry rants, and then the next day they can go right back to their Oscar and Felix banter. Tense, tightly-written and well-acted, “The Ascent” stands out as an underrated gem of the Trek canon.
Still from “The Wire”
5. “The Wire” ("Deep Space Nine" season 2, episode 22)
Elim Garak, easily one of the most complicated of all "Trek "supporting characters, finally gets the spotlight in this much-beloved episode where Dr. Bashir uncovers secrets of the Cardassian tailor’s past, and brings the viewers along with him for the journey. A stunning addiction parable, “The Wire” is simply unforgettable television. Andrew Robinson, Dirty Harry’s Scorpio Killer, steals the show – and not for the last time – as Garak, and Paul Dooley’s first appearance on the show, in cameo as spy leader Enabran Tain, is as remarkably stunning as it is perfectly written.
4. “The Visitor” ("Deep Space Nine"season 4, episode 3)
Earlier in the list, I mentioned "Star Trek’s" affinity for classic literature. If “Obsession” is their definitive take on "Moby-Dick," then perhaps “The Visitor” is the franchise’s Hamlet. After Captain Sisko’s untimely death, he appears to his son Jake over the years, not unlike the Bard’s regal ghost, leading the young writer to put aside his burgeoning career just to give himself and his father “a second chance”. As an older Jake, frequent Trek guest star Tony Todd makes you forget how much he terrified you in "Candyman" as he makes you weep during the episode’s climax. Avery Brooks is no slouch either, as the episode’s final scene will leave even the most thick-skinned individual reaching for the tissue box as Sisko realizes the gift that he has been given at a tremendous cost.
Still from “In the Pale Moonlight”
3. “In the Pale Moonlight” "(Deep Space Nine" season 6, episode 19)
On shows like "Deadwood," "The Shield," "Justified" or "Breaking Bad," themoral issues found at the heart of the brilliant “In the Pale Moonlight” are a matter of course. The moral grey areas of those shows allow for a certain kind of character to commit certain acts and have it be seen as terrible by the audience, but also a common occurrence for both them and the characters themselves. What makes “In the Pale Moonlight” work is that it’s happening in Gene Roddenberry’s humanist utopia, a world where right is right, wrong is wrong, there is good, there is evil, and the answer is always clear-cut. But by the time the Dominion War rolled around, there was no way around it: Captain Sisko was a wartime leader, and the decisions he made reflected that. To coax the Romulans into the war effort, Sisko and Garak falsify evidence that the Dominion are plotting to attack and subjugate the Romulan Star Empire. Along the way, Sisko is forced to commit crimes he never would have imagined himself doing before it began to look like the Federation and its allies were going to lose and lose horribly. The worst part, of course, is that he “think[s he] can live with it”, forcing both Sisko and the audience who have grown to respect and admire him to examine what war can really do to a man, and if the deaths of a handful and a few crimes are worth the lives of countless innocents. A true shocker that would make Raylan Givens and John Constantine blush.
2. “Balance of Terror” ("The Original Series" season 1, episode 14)
Amidst the Cold War paranoia that had birthed "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Dr. Strangelove" and would later create "Colossus: The Forbin Project" came this little gem, the greatest episode in the first series’ entire pantheon. Featuring Starfleet’s first encounter with the Romulans since an epic war decades earlier (a key part of "Trek" history completely ignored by the prequel series Enterprise), this episode features the first time any of our heroes ever saw a Romulan face-to-face, and lo and behold, they look a lot like Vulcans, including our resident first officer, Spock. Revealed to be a cousin species, this does nothing to unify the crew, in fact raising tensions to the point where Spock is made to feel unwelcome on his own ship. A brilliant meditation on paranoia, racism, fearmongering and leadership, and featuring a brilliant performance from Mark Lenard (who would later play Spock’s father Sarek) as the unnamed Romulan Commander, the episode still works in the twenty-teens as well as it did in the nineteen-sixties. In fact, it’s become so influential that artists as varied as filmmaker Jonathan Mostow and comics creator John Byrne have both drawn from it multiuple times over the years.
Still from “Duet”
1. “Duet” ("Deep Space Nine" season 1, episode 19)
It may as well have been called "The Man in the Glass Booth in Outer Space." Taking pages from Robert Shaw and Kurt Vonnegut, the finest hour in "Star Trek" history tells the story of one Cardassian man (guest star Harris Yulin in a haunting, timelessly evocative performance) awaiting execution for crimes he may or may not have committed against the Bajoran people. As former resistance fighter Major Kira Nerys investigates the man’s claims – that he is Gal Darhe’el, the infamous “Butcher of Gallitep” during Cardassia’s occupation of Bajor – she finds shocking evidence that makes her question her deepest-held beliefs – and her darkest prejudices. Entire television shows spend seasons, or perhaps the whole series, focusing on similarly drastic, rippling changes. With “Duet”, Deep Space Nine did it in under an hour, and Kira’s changes affected the rest of the series in unimaginable ways. “Duet” raises moral questions similar to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen but twisting and subverting them into something television has never seen before or since and ultimately reveals that the dying “Darhe’el” is nothing more than the real Butcher’s file clerk, Aamin Marritza. Marritza, a “coward” in his own words who witnessed atrocities regularly and yet was too afraid to stop them, wants to die as Darhe’el to soothe the minds of those who survived. Not only setting a new precedent for quality in the franchise, “Duet” showed exactly why Deep Space Nine was going to be an entirely different animal than its predecessors, even though many familiar faces had passed through the station and would continue to. As Aamin Marritza died, bleeding out on the Promenade following an assassin’s stabbing, Deep Space Nine had officially arrived.