For many of us, Star Trek is our comfort food. We love the dependability of it, the consistency. But every once in a while, there came moments in Star Trek that wowed us. Ones that justified our devotion, our obsession. These are the moments that make Star Trek the best.
10. The Horta Is Actually a Mother, Original Series (1967)
In the original series episode “Devil in the Dark,” Kirk and Spock go looking for a monster killing miners on a distant planet. When they finally meet the creature, The Horta, they are startled to learn that rather than being a murderous animal, it is a sentient creature that has been killing onto to protect its nest of eggs, a mother desperately trying to preserve her young. In one key sequence, Spock melds with the Horta and feels her pain and anguish, giving voice to Star Trek’s supreme ethos: that of tolerance, understanding, diversity, and compassion.
9. David Dies /The Enterprise Is Destroyed, The Search For Spock (1984)
By the time of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the movie series was no stranger to sudden, shocking events (see further down the list for more details). But Search for Spock perfects a one-two punch of surprising plot turns. During a battle against a Klingon bird of prey, where the crew is hopelessly overpowered, James T. Kirk listens over a com channel as his son is brutally murdered by Klingon renegades in order to force a surrender. Kirk grieves (in one of Shatner’s best acting moments), and then turns the table on the Klingons by escaping, tricking the Klingons into beaming aboard the Enterprise…and then blowing the ship up! It is arguable that in every Star Trek series, the ship is as much a character as much as anyone else, and Search for Spock sends that character to its grave in an agonizing self-destruct sequence, as Kirk watches from the planet below as his ship burns to ashes. It takes guts to destroy an icon, and Search for Spock did it, teasing the possibility that the series may never be the same.
8. The Changelings Are Everywhere…Oh, Wait. They Don’t Have To Be, Deep Space Nine (1996)
The Deep Space Nine villains were the Dominion, ruled by shapeshifters who tried manipulated the various powers of Trek into mutual destruction. In an unsettling two-parter, Sisko and crew return to Earth to investigate a Changeling attack, only to uncover a plot by an admiral to turn Earth into a police state via a false flag operation. By the end, Federation officers are firing on each other, all because of the fears of an all-too-human antagonist. In an eerie scene, a sole Changeling appears to Sisko under the guise of Chief Miles O’Brien and informs him that they don’t need to destroy humanity; with just a little push, humans can do it themselves. The constant price of Roddenberry’s utopia has never been more clearly paid.
7. Kirk Lets Edith Keeler Die, Original Series (1967)
In one of Star Trek’s first-ever time-travel stories, a drug-addled McCoy travels through an archaeological artifact called The Guardian of Forever and changes history. Following him, Kirk and Spock arrive in 1930’s New York, where Kirk falls in love with a social worker named Edith Keeler, who through the whims of the butterfly effect, must die in order to save the human race from Nazi domination. In one of the series’ most emotionally fraught climaxes, Kirk must restrain the doctor from rescuing Edith from an oncoming truck. As Edith perishes, McCoy, not understanding, hurls accusations at an emotionally crushed Kirk, while Spock quiets the doctor, never more in touch with another’s keenly-felt agony. This dark climax is the stuff of Star Trek legend.
6. The Xindi attack Earth, Enterprise (2003)
Enterprise’s second season concludes with a devastating attack on Earth by a mysterious force, the Xindi, which leaves many dead (including Trip’s sister). The event, with obvious parallels to 9/11, leads into a season-long quest by the crew to find the Xindi, one that forces them to make tough choices as they venture further into an uncharted territory called “The Expanse.” Here, survival is paramount and morals are slippery, and after a point the NX-01 crew must conceivably become the thing they’re trying to fight. The third season of Enterprise, possessing a preoccupation with terrorism, fanaticism and moral equivalency, is a line of relatively gutsy storytelling, bestowing social relevance and renewed vigor for a floundering series.
5. Captain Benajmin Sisko Brings the Romulans Into The War, Deep Space Nine (1998)
With the Dominion bearing down on the Federation in full force, Deep Space Nine transformed into a gritty war drama with near-insurmountable odds and grim prospects. In the series’ darkest installment, “In The Pale Moonlight,” Sisko devises a desperate plan to bring the neutral Romulans into the war. He teams up with Cardassian spymaster Garak to fabricate evidence that would sway Romulan interests against the Dominion, betraying his principles one by one in the name of the greater good. And then the plan fails, leaving Garak to carry out an assassination that ultimately triggers Romulan involvement. Success, except it comes at the price, Sisko feels, of his very soul…a concern that Garak chillingly dismisses, and Sisko makes a show of doing as well. The burdens of command have never felt so desolate, or been so compelling.
4. The Strange Deaths of Tasha Yar, The Next Generation (1988-1991)
Tasha Yar, played by Denise Crosby, was a permanent fixture on the Enterprise bridge during season 1 of Next Generation. And a fixture she remained, causing Crosby such dissatisfaction that she decided to leave the series. She met a grisly fate in the first season episode “Skin of Evil,” where she was murdered senselessly by a vindictive ooze monster. But then The Next Generation turned into a really good show, and Crosby wanted back in, any way as possible.
And so it was that in season 3’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” an alternate timeline was created where Tasha Yar did not die, and where in the interests of saving the future (and, indeed, the universe) she accompanied another crew into the past, to meet certain death, but this time with a purpose.
But she still didn’t die. Instead, we learned in season 5 that she was rescued by a Romulan general and executed, but not before giving birth to a daughter, one that, full grown in the “present day” of Next Generation, looks exactly like Tasha Yar, and is a proud Romulan commander, Sela. Sela, after causing Picard and crew much consternation, was last seen engineering a botched invasion of Vulcan and skulking away in disgrace, meaning that, somewhere in Star Trek-land, a clone of Tasha Yar is still off having crazy adventures.
3. A Brand New Timeline, Star Trek (2009)
For forty years, Star Trek existed as a continuous, ever-evolving universe. But by 2005, things had gotten stale and stagnant. The solution? Reboot everything, but do it in a way that honored what had come before. And so J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek posits a parallel timeline to the “traditional” universe, an alternate existence where James T. Kirk and his crew live again in brand new adventures, informed by the presence of a time-traveling Spock. In comics terms, the J.J. universe is Star Trek’s “Ultimate” line, a refreshed continuity that can respect the past but follow its own course (bye bye, Vulcan!), updating the storytelling for and bolstering the timelessness of the concept. In one fell swoop, Star Trek had become relevant and rejuvenated.
2. Picard is turned into a Borg, The Next Generation (1990)
The third season cliffhanger of The Next Generation brought back the villainous Borg, a half-humanoid, half-machine race bent on technological conquest headed straight for the heart of the Federation. But that wasn’t scary enough for the producers of Next Generation, who put an extra dollop of menace in this stunning adventure by transforming Captain Jean-Luc Picard into a Borg himself, and in the background telling a pensive Riker story that climaxes with an order to fire on the Borg ship and effectively write Patrick Stewart out of the series forever. As Star Trek is sometimes a show that is bound to formula and status quo, it is telling that Next Generation’s signature moment is one that let its audience that anything—anything—could happen.
1. Spock Dies, The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The single greatest plot twist in all of Star Trek was brought on by, of all things, a reluctant actor. Leonard Nimoy had grown fitfully resentful of his Spock persona, and only after much arm twisting did he even bother to return for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy’s demands were simple: Spock must die. And die he did, at the end of a terrific film that ultimately came down to an ethical challenge for Mr. Spock that only a Vulcan would solve the way he did. Spock sacrifices himself to save his shipmates and bids farewell to Kirk in a heartbreaking moment that left Trekkies grabbing for their hankies. Of course, you can’t keep a good Vulcan down, and so Spock returned, and Nimoy learned that being Spock isn’t such a bad thing. He just had to die in order to learn that.