This “Best Of” List Kind of Matters

Many of us (myself included) spend way too much time figuring out what we like and why. I guess it’s part of being in a commercial, consumer culture. What I’ve noticed though is that many people, when telling others what they like, are just parroting what has been said by their perceived peers (or betters) over and over until it becomes “fact”- not through truth and evidence, but through repetition.

Alot of this desire to decide and disseminate what we like translates into “best of” lists. But does it really matter what we think the best beer is, or what the best clothes are? Does it make alot of sense to defend your preference for low riders when 70 years ago it was high waist-lines and 20 years from now it could be again?

Well, I think some “best of” lists do matter- when they affect and/or reflect our personal or cultural morality. This leads me to another interest of mine that began in childhood, but persisted into adulthood (unlike reading comic books). This interest is Star Trek. I was watching the original series in syndication back in the early seventies. My values were strongly shaped by that show and by other things during that era of unabashed talk about love, peace and brotherhood. I was certainly affected by all the talk from Gene Roddenberry that Star Trek was supposed to be intelligent, adult science fiction.

Since the lion share of Star Trek episodes (both old and new series) deal with the human condition and it’s struggles, values and ethics- I think which stories are considered the best does matter. It speaks to what we value for ourselves and others. It’s a conversation about how we should live and what world we should strive to make. So my “best ofs” when it comes to Star Trek are the episodes that are about some larger topic.

If you have no interest in Star Trek you can stop reading right now.

First, a few thoughts on the Star Trek movies. The best and purest movie version of Star Trek is Star Trek the Motion Picture (ST-TMP). It jettisons the styrofoam boulders and garishness of the original series and is about big, intellectually expansive ideas. The Star Trek film that’s premise is the least intellectually expansive is…Wrath of Khan. And Khan went from being a sort of anti-hero in the series to being a clichéd, scenery-chewing villain in the 1982 film. The original series had no comic book-type arch-enemies and that made the series more mature than the films. Maybe the idealistic 60s saw more grays in life than the superficial 80s did…

Star Trek The Motion Picture is smart sci-fi, it’s anti-Star Wars, and anti-childish- in a way that Wrath of Khan’s black-hatted villain and adolescent comic book silliness was not. Not that black-hatted villains, comic book silliness (or childishness) are always bad, but they aren’t very useful methods of telling Star trek stories. Besides, thanks to the influence of the aforementioned Star Wars, we have always had more than enough of that in science fiction. And don’t get me started on the recent (derivative, Star Wars-copy) film reboot of the original series crew.

Just an aside, it always amazed me how people forgot that, before Wrath of Khan was made, Khan was a minor character in the Star Trek universe and Space Seed was a solid but forgettable episode that was never paid any mind or mention.

I’m well aware the parroting chorus says ST-TMP stinks because it isn’t all soap opera-y and has no action in it. But liking Star Trek because of the action scenes is absurd! Star Trek has always been pretty crappy at action scenes. If that’s what someone is looking for there are way better shows & movies out there in that regard. As Gene Roddenberry once said, “People want me to do battles all the time, well screw them that’s not what Star Trek is about.” I couldn’t agree more. Solely escapist, adolescent wish-fulfillment sci-fi is a waste of time and talent on the part of us all (and I would venture to say that much of the Star Trek movies are just that).

Actually, the Star Trek movie series (both original cast and Next Gen.) prove that the television shows were way better than the films. This seems to be because film has to play to the lowest common denominator so they are all about action and quips and soap opera. The only Star Trek film that isn’t like this is the first one. At least that one, as well as Voyage Home and Undiscovered Country, were about some big ideas (although the humor in Voyage Home is the typical, lame humor that you always get from the original series- except in the first season and in Star Trek The Motion Picture).

So let’s talk about the best of Star Trek television. Here’s a simple question that would help everyone rank Star Trek episodes: “Is Shakespeare better than the TV show Friends?”

If you answered yes then you might understand that just because something is newer, or currently in vogue, doesn’t necessarily make it better. This means you shouldn’t rank DS9 higher than it deserves merely because it “broke the mold”- which is really code for “followed the mold- begun in the late 90s, of TV by being serialized, focusing on war and justifying the killing of innocents (things very, very much in vogue still)”.

Another thing that makes Shakespeare better is that his works are about deep and/or big ideas and truths. Star Trek is also better when it’s about these things. But I’m unusual I suppose, I find things the most entertaining when they’re about such things.

I have not seen many episodes of DS9 beyond season four and I haven’t seen more than two or three Enterprise episodes. So my knowledge is incomplete. But I have little interest in seeing the all-war-all-the-time version of DS9 or the all-war-all-the-time/Vulcans-suck Enterprise. This is not Star Trek to me.

My least favorite series (after Enterprise-which I don’t even count) is DS9. For most of it’s first 4 seasons it’s really great Star Trek- it’s a shame it lost it’s potential in war, soap opera and a concerted effort to deny the morals of the very franchise it was supposed to be part of. The other three shows are pretty equal in my eyes- although the Next Gen characters are distinctly lacking in passion compared to the characters in all the other series.

My favorite show might actually be Voyager. It’s just as inconsistent as the original series- more so; but unlike DS9, which eventually said that morality doesn’t work when the going gets tough, Voyager says that morality is the most important thing to hold onto when the going gets tough.

While Voyager’s time-travel episodes often promote selfishness, most of their Borg episodes are absurd and on occasion Janeway loses her compassionate, egalitarian manner and acts like an authoritarian crazy person (especially in seasons 3-5) –  Voyager’s average episodes still promote the best that Star Trek has to offer and to teach: Do the right thing for the common good, regardless of reward or punishment. Don’t compromise your most important principals, be creative enough to find solutions that are in line with those principles. If they can be compromised, if they need to be compromised, then maybe they aren’t good principals in the first place. There are always conflicting principles that we have to choose amongst. But our highest principals should never be selfish (like winning at all costs for example)

I’m not much interested in listing the worst episodes. Although I will mention that I feel some of the original shows all-comedy episodes number among the worst (only the 24th century shows could do all-out comedy and make it believable). The shows that don’t have the courage of Star Trek’s moral convictions are definitely among the worst (DS9’s “In The Pale Moonlight” for example).

On the other hand, I feel that some of the surreal episodes from the third year of the original series like “The Empath”, “Savage Curtain” “Plato’s Stepchildren” and “Spectre of the Gun” are actually very good (you just have to accept they’re very-purposeful Twilight Zone-ness). Anyway, for the heck of it, below are my proposed top 32 Star Trek episodes. This allows for 8 episodes per series (not counting Enterprise)

By the way, I do not include “City on the Edge of Forever” as one of the top episodes- despite the fact that the drama (and the message about sacrifice) is top notch. I just can’t place a story near the top that is based on shaky premises or says that war is the best solution. As long as Hitler attacked Russia he, like Napoleon, probably would never have won, with or without US intervention.

Also, who’s to say what a national pacifist movement (as opposed to the national non-interventionist movement that really did exist) in the early 30s might have brought about? Maybe the US would have been able to get involved in international relations sooner and made alliances to stop the Nazis and keep them from remilitarizing- which would certainly be a key pacifist concern. The German’s didn’t begin their heavy-water experiments until the war had already begun anyways.

Why didn’t Kirk just tell Edith the truth about where he and Spock were from and why? Maybe she didn’t have to die, she could just change her path. Einstein (and many others!) promoted pacifism until the war started but didn’t cause it to be lost.

I know, the writers skewed the historical facts to create the dilemma- but when it comes to war and peace, the historical facts often get skewed, which allows further war to happen. Star Trek is supposed to be about solutions and truth, not promoting dangerous myths. They should have, and could have, chosen something besides pacifism as the “wrong-headed but well-meaning” idea behind the dilemma. It’s still a great episode about sacrifice, but it doesn’t make my top 32.

Below are, in chronological order, what I feel are the stories that best promote the core Star Trek values of Truth, Justice (especially social), Freedom, Responsibility, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Peace and the Common Good. Stories that are antithetical to these values (and they can be found in all the series) cannot be considered for the top anything.

TOS

Enemy Within
Return of the Archons
Taste of Armageddon
Mirror, Mirror
Metamorphosis
Ultimate Computer
Day of the Dove
For The World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky

TNG

Arsenal of Freedom
Hollow Pursuits
The Wounded
First Contact
The Outcast
First Duty
I,Borg
Journey’s End

DS9

Duet
In the Hands of the Prophets
Past Tense Part II
Shakaar
Paradise Lost
Our Man Bashir
Bar Association
Hard Time

VOY

Jetrel
The Meld
False Profits
Omega Directive
Night
Memorial
Critical Care
The Void

All right, now let’s get off the couch and get back to real life.

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