A good friend of mine (in real life and on Facebook) made an interesting and provocative assertion, namely, that every incarnation of "Star Trek" has been worse than the previous series. I responded that I didn't think the original series (TOS) could be compared to the others, because its production values, tone, and acting were so different; and that I agreed with the assertion as to the offspring except that I believed that "Deep Space Nine" (DS9) was superior to its predecessor. Naturally, this being Facebook, a time-sucking argument ensued.
I didn't want to attack TOS, but when push came to shove, I resorted to pointing out all the dreck from the third season - episodes like Spock's Brain, The Mark of Gideon, and The Cloud Miners, among others. My friend defended even these atrocities, noting that they were memorable. Apart from the general awfulness, I remembered not very much about Spock's Brain - and it turned out that the line that I thought I remembered wasn't even in the shooting script! That episode was so bad, I was inventing better dialogue for it....
Anyway, my friend then asserted that the best episodes of TOS were better than the best episodes of the other series. "Best" is going to be subjective, of course, but I decided to come up with my list of the five best episodes from each of the series.
The Trouble with Tribbles - This episode has it all: Klingons, stuffy Starfleet bureaucrats, adorable tribbles, and nice Kirk/Spock/McCoy interaction. I'll admit to having a soft spot for sillier episodes, at least, ones that are done well.
A Piece of the Action - Another goofy episode that gifts us the thespian wonder of William Shatner hamming it up as Captain Kirk, who is hamming it up as a gangster to deal effectively with the locals on a gangster planet.
Arena - See, this is what I mean by it's being hard to measure TOS against the offspring. Arena is an episode that is both captivating and laughable at the same time. As a kid, watching it in reruns, I loved it. I still love it, but seeing Kirk fight it out with a human sized T-rex that moves like it's in molasses is too funny. It did spawn this hilarious video game commercial....
A Taste of Armageddon - Kirk gets caught up in an interplanetary war fought by computers, which calculated theoretical attacks; the "casualties" are then required to report to disintegration chambers. Kirk fixes things in the way only he can. I love the line where the planet's shocked leader asks, "What kind of man are you [to unleash real war]?," and Kirk throws back the leader's earlier insult, "You said it yourself, I'm a barbarian."
The Changeling - I especially like the episodes where Kirk talks a supercomputer into self-destructing. It's happened a number of times, but none better than this one. Nomad, the computer, starts quivering and its voice rises several octaves under Kirk's relentless verbal assault. Genius!
Popular episodes I didn't pick: I'm guessing that purists will object that I left out "The City on the Edge of Forever," in which Kirk has to keep McCoy from saving Joan Collins in the past or the present as they know it won't exist; or "Space Seed," which introduced "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan"'s eponymous antagonist; or "Mirror, Mirror," with the evil Enterprise crew. All good episodes, but I don't think they hold up as well today as the ones I picked.
Yesterday's Enterprise - Not your usual time-travel episode, and one with a pervasive, doomed military atmosphere. Plus, you get to see Riker (and a whole lot of others) get killed!
Tapestry - The only Next Gen episode featuring the omnipotent Q without "Q" in the title, this variation on "It's a Wonderful Life" showed Picard what he would have been like if he hadn't been a hothead as a young man. It's a neat build off a MacGuffin (Picard's artificial heart) from an earlier episode.
Starship Mine - It's "Die Hard" on the Enterprise-D! Parts of this episode are intentionally funny, with Brent Spiner (Data) showing his talent at mimicry, and the rest are tense and exciting. I think this was one of the most violent episodes, not in total body count, but actual melee combat. It's Picard channeling Kirk!
The Best of Both Worlds (2 parts) - The first true season finale cliffhanger ended with a Borg-assimilated Picard telling the Enterprise that it was futile to resist, and Riker giving the order to fire on the Borg cube with Picard in it. I'm only counting this as one episode, but if I had to choose, the first one was stronger than the second one.
Sins of the Father - Picard and Worf end up in the middle of a Klingon political cover-up. I like this episode because it hinted at a grander arc beyond a single episode, and indeed, the repercussions of this episode show up later in the Klingon civil war mini-arc.
Popular episodes I didn't pick: For some reason, "The Inner Light" often shows up as one of the best episodes of Next Gen. Personally, I've always found it quite boring. "Chain of Command" is another frequent selection, with Picard's triumphant declaration - in the face of horrible torture - that "there are four lights!" I admit that it's up there, in large part because Ronnie Cox's character, who takes temporary command of the Enterprise, tells Troi to put on a real uniform.
Deep Space Nine
Our Man Bashir - Dr. Bashir as James Bond! Now, this is how the holodeck should be used, as fantasy wish fulfillment.
Trials and Tribble-ations - The technical feat of seamlessly inserting the DS9 crew back into the original footage of "The Trouble With Tribbles" makes this the best time travel episode ever of the entire franchise. The best scene is in the bar, when the bartender (from the original timeline) mentions Klingons, causing Bashir and O'Brien to look around in vain, as TOS-era Klingons didn't look anything like Next Gen/DS9/Voyager-era ones. "Those are Klingons," Worf confirmed. When pressed to explain what happened to change their appearance, Worf refused to answer, saying only that it was a long story, not spoken of to outsiders. Clever way to finesse the retcon!
In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light - An amazing two-part sequence where Bashir and Worf find themselves captured and imprisoned aboard a Dominion space station while a changeling is impersonating Bashir on DS9. I think the directors really captured the claustrophobic hopelessness and despair that our protagonists should have felt - and yet they remained resolute and plotted their own sci-fi version of The Great Escape.
The Magnificent Ferengi - Quark's moogie (his mother) gets kidnapped by the Dominion, and he has to ransom her back. No need for Federation help - he assembles a ragtag team of Ferengi. Iggy Pop guest stars as a Vorta! Strangely, the writers of this episode weren't thinking of the Magnificent Seven.
What You Leave Behind (2 parts) - This is how you end a series.
I thought Voyager sucked so much that it's hard for me to think of even one good episode, much less five. But I guess if I had to pick one, it would be "Scorpion," which introduced Species 8472, which scares even the Borg. But even that nifty idea ended up fizzling out without much payoff during the series run.
I only watched four episodes....