Star Trek will be celebrating its 45th anniversary in a few weeks: an impressive run that includes five TV shows, a dozen movies, an animated cartoon, a theme ride in Vegas, and hundreds of novels, comics and Kirk/Spock slash fiction pieces. That’s a pretty unparalleled legacy in the annals of sci-fi… and Trek shows no signs of slowing down. In honor of the event, we’d like to present our ten favorite moments from the entire franchise: not necessarily episodes or movies, but those brief sequences within them that help give the franchise its soul.
Patrick Stewart’s primary love remains Shakespeare, and he savored the chance to deliver big meaty Trek speeches in that vein. One of his best came in “The Measure of a Man,” in which he argued for the inalienable rights of his android officer Data. “Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well there it sits!” he thunders with all the relish of Lear raging against the storm. The sequence also dares to grapple with a significant philosophical issue: something Trek does both well and badly, but always with unparalleled enthusiasm.
How can someone be so creepy and so sexy as the same time? That’s the question Alice Krige’s Borg Queen poses as she comes sliding out of those pipes and conduits in First Contact. Fans and onlookers alike tend to edge around the show’s sexual aspects: cracking jokes about Kirk’s boner and the poor girls in silver bikinis he chased around Styrofoam rocks. Krige brought a maturity and grace to that equation. The soft sigh she emits as her upper torso connects to her body is almost pornographic… but also gives one of Trek’s greatest villains a unique (and uniquely grown-up) seductiveness.
Bones was right: he really does look cooler with the goatee.
Trek’s Achilles’ heel was always an inability to poke fun at itself: those periods when it grew po-faced and self-important, and refused to snicker at its own ridiculousness. “The Trouble With Tribbles” served as an instant tonic to that: a knowingly goofy episode that put Captain Kirk himself in a giant pile of purring fluffballs. It was such a hoot that Deep Space Nine took a second crack at it… reminding us that fun was still the purpose of the exercise.
Deep Space Nine earned just praise for “The Visitor,” with a soulful performance from Tony Todd that breaks the heart. But for me, the show’s greatest episode was “In the Pale Moonlight,” in which Andrew Robinson’s eternally sneaky Garak tricks Sisko into helping him bring the Romulans into war. The scheme entails murder, espionage and indefensible moral compromise… and in the end, it probably saves the Federation. DS9 promised a darker, grittier take on Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future… and with Garak’s final line here, found the ideal means of delivery.
By the time J.J. Abrams took the helm of the Star Trek reboot in 2009, the franchise had become fatally calcified. Too many details, too much continuity, too much kow-towing to precedent instead of focusing on good stories. In order to save it, Abrams needed to cut that Gordian knot… and did so in spectacular fashion. The destruction of Vulcan announced that all bets were off. Now they could kill beloved figures, leave the bad guys victorious, and even blow up the home world of the galaxy’s biggest know-it-alls without so much as an “I’m sorry.” That frisson brought a newfound danger and excitement to the franchise: one it had been missing for a long time.
Much has been made about screenwriter Harlan Ellison’s dissatisfaction with this episode (though Ellison’s self-aggrandizement often blunted the potency of his arguments). In any case, the controversy overlooks just what a terrific episode it was. The weightier debate of letting a good woman die to prevent a catastrophe lingers over every shot, punctuated by marvelous moments both large (Spock’s “rice picker” lie) and small (Kirk’s allusion to a future writer who pens a beautiful phrase). It comes together perfectly, and remains the best episode the original series ever produced.
It seems so silly now: the fuss made over Kirk and Uhura exchanging a forced kiss at the hands of hostile alien controllers. Zoe Saldana and Zachary Quinto got a lot hotter and heavier in 2009, and no one batted an eyelash. But back in the 1960s, a white man kissing a black woman was a big deal: so big, in fact, that the studio executives tried to cut the shot and reshoot it. William Shatner saved the day by crossing his eyes during the key moment, forcing the studio to go with the first televised interracial kiss. Despite their fears, the world didn’t end, and in fact might have become just a little bit better as a result.
The Next Generation truly came of age with “The Best of Both Worlds,” a chilling story about the Borgs’ first full-scale invasion of the Federation. They seem unstoppable… to the point of assimilating Captain Picard himself at the end of the first half. The terror at seeing his blank, zombie-like face stands in complete contrast to Riker’s grim-faced order to open fire on the Borg ship. Best cliffhanger ever? Beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Every story needs an ending and Trek is no different. The climax to The Wrath of Khan delivered one, full of poignancy, friendship, and sacrifice for something greater than yourself. Yes, they brought Spock back to life, and Trek has continued on its merry way ever since. But his resurrection failed to diminish the power of this sequence: still packing a wallop, and as fitting an emotional coda as the franchise will ever produce.