Every few years, someone asks me for recommendations of a few episodes of the original Star Trek series to watch.
The truth is that the original isn’t as consistent a product as the future entries in the franchise. Some episodes are just plain bad; this is particularly true in the third season, when the budget was slashed, and many key writers and production staff left the show.
In addition, the original Trek was produced in an anthology format. It is exceedingly rare that there is a reference to the events of a previous episode. In large part, Trek was green lit because of the success of anthology shows such as The Twilight Zone, which had been hugely successful during syndication. Therefore Star Trek was designed to make sense out of order or incomplete.
Finally, many elements of the original Star Trek were dropped entirely from the spinoffs. Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development held that there were not only many planets that evolved humans, but also held that those planets would have recognizable human cultures. That is gone entirely in The Next Generation. Further, in the original series, there are androids aplenty; in TNG, they make a big deal about how unique Data is as an artificial life form. Finally, in Turnabout Intruder, Janice Lester bemoans that she was excluded as a starship captain because of her gender. However, four films later we see Madge Sinclair playing the Captain of the Saratoga; and in Enterprise, we see Erika Hernandez as the Captain of the Columbia, almost a century before Kirk’s adventures.
So the breakdown of episodes and the order to watch them accomplish the following: they remove the episodes that are just hard to watch. They maintain as much consistency with the franchise as a whole as is possible. And it distinguishes between the fun non-Jesse-canon episodes, and the episodes that should just be thrown out.
These are the essentials. I regard them as canon, and enjoy them immensely. Note: the first four episodes listed should be watched in production order, not in air date order, as presented on Netflix.
Season 1 The Cage Where No Man Has Gone Before The Corbomite Maneuver The Man Trap The Naked Time Balance of Terror The Conscience of the King The Galileo Seven Court Martial Arena A Taste of Armageddon Space Seed The Devil in the Dark Errand of Mercy The City on the Edge of Forever
Season 2 Amok Time Metamorphosis The Doomsday Machine Mirror, Mirror The Trouble with Tribbles Journey to Babel A Private Little War The Gamesters of Triskelion Obsession The Ultimate Computer
Season 3 Elaan of Troyius The Enterprise Incident The Empath The Tholian Web Day of the Dove Wink of an Eye Whom Gods Destroy
These episodes are as fun as a Tribble in a Klingon engine room. They are exactly what people think of when they talk about how “campy” the Original Series is. I don’t consider them canon, but on a Friday night they go great with the psychoactive compound of your choice.
Shore Leave – The amusement park planet! The Squire of Gothos – Q Senior! Who Mourns for Adonais? - Kirk vs. a Greek God Wolf in the Fold – Scotty vs. Jack the Ripper Bread and Circuses – The Roman planet! A Piece of the Action – The Al Capone planet! Patterns of Force – The Nazi planet! Spectre of the Gun – The Wild West planet! The Savage Curtain – Abe Lincoln vs. Klingons
This is the middle ground. They aren’t great episodes, and there might be a small problem including them in canon. But, if you’re enjoying the original series a whole lot, these can be easily slotted in.
Season 1: What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Dagger of the Mind, The Menagerie, Parts 1 & 2, This Side of Paradise, Operation – Annihilate!
Season 2: Friday’s Child, The Apple, The Deadly Years, The Immunity Syndrome, Return to Tomorrow
Season 3: Is There in Truth No Beauty?, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, The Mark of Gideon
I could go the rest of my life without watching these episodes. I neither consider them canon, nor enjoy them very much.
Season 1: The Enemy Within, Mudd’s Women, Charlie X, Miri, The Alternative Factor, Tomorrow is Yesterday, The Return of the Archons
Season 2: Catspaw, The Changeling, I Mudd, By Any Other Name, The Omega Glory, Assignment Earth
Season 3: The Paradise Syndrome, And the Children Shall Lead, Spock’s Brain, Plato’s Stepchildren, That Which Survives, The Lights of Zetar, The Cloud Minders, The Way to Eden, Requiem for Methuselah, All Our Yesterdays, Turnabout Intruder
However you chose to watch Star Trek, remember this: no one gets to tell you how to relate to the text. Any text. You can watch anything backwards, sideways, out of order. This is all just a distillation of my opinions on episode quality and canon. A very gentle suggestion. Just go out and watch some Trek.