TOS S01E01 The Man Trap (4 out of 5 stars) gives rise to one of my favourite stories about television production. The plot revolves around a creature that craves salt and thus the Enterprise crew needed to be seen salting their food. What is easy to overlook watching these early episodes is they had to invent everything. Consider the problem of imagining the 23rd century from the vantage point of the mid-1960s. What would doors look like? What would shoes look like? What – crucially for this episode – would salt shakers look like?

A gallant props man scoured local flea markets and exotic boutiques and came back with an assortment of peculiar objects, all of which he was assured could be used to season food. They all looked suitably weird and futuristic but none of them looked like salt shakers. Using them in the scene would thus require some dreadfully clunky dialogue to be written. “Could you pass the salt please?” “Why, yes, here it is in this salt shaker – see?” And so eventually they fell back on just using regular 1960s salt shakers. But the bizarre articles rejected for this purpose were immediately put to good use as Dr McCoy’s operating instruments, enhanced with suitable sound effects.

Watching this episode, of which I have scant memories, what’s amazing is how much they got right first time. All right, not quite first time. This was the first episode transmitted, but the fourth after the two pilots to go before the cameras. (There is an argument to be made for watching these in production order, the better to track the evolution of the series, but, oh well.) The second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, transmitted third after a quick re-edit, looks a bit shakier. We’ll have to wait till next week for The Corbomite Maneuver, the first regular episode to be shot.

In any case, here we have the vital Captain’s Log – missing from The Cage – the familiar triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the notion of “beaming down” to the planet (which must have a lot of suns judging by all the shadows cast on that very smooth ground), and the uniforms we’re all used to.

Almost immediately Kirk is teasing McCoy about his old girlfriend. This is the crucial difference between Kirk and Pike, between Shatner and Hunter. Kirk loves being captain of the Enterprise and Shatner loves being Kirk. His joy at being able to play space hero for a living radiates out of him. He’s fantastic. As with Dr No (another iconic series which got an awful lot right first time) we’re plunged into the middle of the story. There’s no set-up, no origin story, no first meeting. Here’s the ship, here’s the crew, here’s the mission. We don’t even get the “series sell” until after the teaser – which wastes no time in setting up the key mystery for the beginning of the story. It’s amazingly clear, bold, confident stuff. And it’s fun. And clever, building to a really complicated suspenseful situation in which the fate of our antagonist is being unwittingly discussed in front of them.

We also get our first “red shirt” death, although Crewman Darnell is wearing blue (science/medicine). And the shock and dismay which Uhura feels on learning this news is effectively used to create a contrast with Spock’s cold, calculating nature – avoiding the earnest, business-as-usual teamwork of Pike’s dour, characterless crew. Before long, Sturgeon and Green have bitten the dust as well, further thinning out the Enterprise’s bustling corridors.

This episode marks the debut of Yeoman Janice Rand, who gets to use the salt shaker (and who should definitely report some of the men aboard the Enterprise to HR) but no sign of Scotty. Sulu gets to say “May the great bird of the galaxy bless your planet” – which gave rise to a fond, or sometimes not-so-fond, nickname for Gene Roddenberry. And of course, in the climax, Star Trek’s signature humanity and compassion shines through, although it doesn’t, this time, carry the day.

TOS S01E02 Charlie X (3 out of 5 stars) gives us our first look at the transporter room and Kirk’s tummy-flattening wraparound green tunic (Shatner also takes his shirt off for the first time). The transporter room is a bit of a funny one. Having invented the transporter as a budget-saving measure, the writers had to struggle not to make it a magical get-out-of-jail-free card. Having a special room which is necessary to effect transportation helps, but the need will get ignored from time-to-time as point-to-point transportation becomes a thing.

Again, the teaser is super-punchy and effective, setting up the key mystery of the episode. And this is our first look at that most indefatigable of Star Trek clichés – the child-like alien with godlike powers. This was hardly new to TV – science-fiction fans would remember it from The Twilight Zone if nothing else – but it becomes a Trek staple, probably because it feels huge and yet is cheap to film – the destruction of the Antares happens off-screen and most of Charlie’s special abilities are achieved with simple editing.

This kind of story also plays into the philosophical aspects of the show as well as the jeopardy. Robert Walker does everything the script requires of him and Charlie Evans is a fine enough example of the type, but the device will get old fast, and the first incarnation isn’t necessarily the best. It also feels needlessly repetitive to have the first two stories both revolve around a human-looking intruder on the ship who has terrifying powers that the crew don’t even suspect are there. Surely it won’t be this same story every week? It’s also an entirely ship-bound episode which feels like a lack of ambition this early on, although some strikingly non-naturalistic lighting partly makes up for it.

Charlie’s minders have uniforms from the second pilot, but with different insignias. The familiar Star Trek “delta” insignia was thought of as the symbol of the Enterprise at this stage. Yeoman Rand exists only to be lusted after again. White Charlie can’t be seen to be lusting over Uhura – that would be offensive. Likewise, a playful slap on the rear is fine between two men, but inappropriate when Charlie does it to Rand. Poor old sixties Trek struggles nobly for progression but falters as often as it succeeds.

Off-duty officers strum alien harps, play with familiar-looking decks of cards and improvise torch songs, sometimes all at the same time. Kirk beats Spock at chess, even though his mind isn’t on the game. Spock is a lousy chess teacher, taking 30 seconds to beat Charlie and then ending the lesson. Kirk if anything is even worse, but at least his judo lesson reveals Charlie’s true nature.

What’s fascinating (Captain) is that, even discounting the repetition of format from last week, this feels less engaging than the excellent The Man Trap even though the threat is far greater. The salt creature slowly picked the crew off one at a time, whereas Charlie could melt everyone on board with a single glance. But The Man Trap was about McCoy’s emotional crisis and Charlie X is about Kirk solving a problem, which feels less engaging – although we do connect more with Charlie than we did with Salty McSuckface.

No Sulu and still no Scotty. The regular cast of this show is Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and Rand – which makes her apparent death at Charlie’s hands (eyes?) the most shocking part of the episode. The final act feels apocalyptic – Charlie makes force fields vanish, ages up young girls who reject his advances, magics away people’s faces to stop them from laughing. It’s a nightmare for the Enterprise, except that those bustling corridors make it feel like business as usual. In a rather drab ending, Charlie’s powers are overcome not by Kirk’s ingenuity but by his parents coming to take him away. The use of this reset switch also means that technically the ship suffered no personnel losses this episode. Interesting to recall that this is DC Fontana’s first episode for the show – is Charlie her attack on the adolescent man-babies whose advances she had to fend off even into adulthood?

TOS S01E03 Where No Man Has Gone Before (3.5 out of 5 stars) as noted, is the re-edited second pilot. This is the footage which convinced NBC to commission a series. The early, oft-excerpted dialogue between Kirk and Spock is a primer for those unfamiliar with the show and as such is somewhat over-written – Spock would never say “one of your Earth emotions”. As S01E01 showed us, we don’t actually need anything like this to understand how the show works. But maybe NBC in 1966 needed reassurance in the opening minutes that this wouldn’t be The Cage Redux.

Spock’s silly haircut, fluffy eyebrows and sallow makeup from The Cage are all back, as are the costumes with ribbed collars (which oddly echo the Wrath of Khan costumes which will debut 16 years later). James Doohan finally appears, in a strange oatmeal jersey, operating the transporter. That same colour is worn by other crewmembers including – hey it’s Gary Lockwood from 2001. And in blue (with trousers) it’s Hotlips from MASH. They’re kind of the Decker and Ilia of this episode – two senior officers we’ve never met before who have their own relationship arc and are then written-out.

Compared to episodes one and two, the teaser is a bit feeble – the old box transmitting data isn’t anything like as interesting as freaky Charlie or three-faced Nancy. We’re initially ship-bound again, but the sparking consoles, shaking camera and general sense of Das Boot claustrophobia (even Spock is barking orders) does much to mitigate this. Sadly, this is the third episode in a row in which the corridors of the Enterprise are stalked by one or more seeming humans with deadly powers – in this case “Espers” who sound like they are going to be a big feature of the Star Trek universe, but which I don’t believe are ever mentioned again. In fact, Mitchell has exactly the same patter as Charlie – insisting that people be friendly to him and threatening dire consequences if they aren’t. It does seem at this stage as if this most imaginative of series can only tell a single story.

Lockwood and Kellerman’s silver contact lenses are very effective, far more so than Robert Walker rolling his eyes back in his head. Mitchell’s tales of their time together at the “Academy” does much to build this world and these characters in a few lines. Note that neither Star Fleet nor the Federation have been mentioned so far, only “Earth bases”. Kirk’s “gravestone” gives him the middle initial “R” instead of “T”.

Instead of McCoy we have an older and crustier Dr Piper who doesn’t make much of an impression and nor does Sulu who pretty much just stands mute in the background. Shatner is the one holding the whole thing together. His narration about the crippled ship strikes the perfect balance of crisis and competence. We want him to succeed and that’s what makes the episode work as well as it does. It would work even better for a room full of network suits who hadn’t just watched The Man Trap and Charlie X.

But when Spock suggests murdering Mitchell while they still can, it not only jars, it cries out for McCoy to put the other side of the debate. Mitchell’s personal relationship with Kirk adds what The Man Trap had and Charlie X lacked, and this has a better ending than last week, but this still isn’t quite as good as that fantastic first episode with its perfect blend of heartbreak, high concept and jeopardy.

TOS S01E04 The Naked Time (4.5 out of 5 stars) presents an odd approach to character development for a brand new show: let’s really get to know our regular cast by having them act totally out of character. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does, because the crew are in the position of having to be professional (and shh, don’t let Gene hear you) military, which means when they do show some personality (such as when Uhura baits Spock on the bridge) it can seem rather unbelievable. By stripping off some of that professional façade we can see a bit more of who these people really are. It worked so well here, it was repurposed as an early episode of TNG too. And yes, this is another uh-oh, something snuck on board the ship when we weren’t looking story but it plays very differently than the first three.

It’s distressing in these times of COVID to see that the Enterprise is in danger because a redshirt didn’t keep his mask on properly, but the crew have to be numbskulls from time to time or there would never be any good stories.

McCoy is back so we have our core trio in full effect, although the good doctor fails to take any of notice Crewman COVID’s distress even when he’s pawing anxiously at his own flesh (to be fair, neither does Kirk, but there’s clearly something medically wrong with the crewman, which really should have shown up on McCoy’s examination). When he stabs himself, he seems to bleed purple blood. We’re also still reporting back to “Earth Science” not the Federation. And – gloriously – here’s Scotty proudly talking up “his” engines, and complaining that he can’t change the laws of physics, not to mention it’s the first appearance of Nurse Chapel (in a weird silver wig).

George Takei was pitched this episode and told he would be wielding a samurai sword. “I see what you’re getting at,” he responded, “But I’m a Japanese American. I grew up watching Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. Why can’t I have a fencing foil?” The writing team agreed and Takei immediately booked himself some fencing lessons in preparation for his shirtless cavorting. Then in quick succession we get our first Vulcan Nerve Pinch followed by an early appearance of Sarcastic Spock – “Take D’Artagnan here to sickbay,” he quips over the body of the fallen Sulu.

1960s sexism alert: “That’s what I like! Let the women work! Universal suffrage!” chortles Crewman MacIrish as Uhura takes over his station, before later dictating female crewmembers’ hair and make-up choices as the infection further addles his brain.

This is fantastic stuff – the ship in deadly danger, the antics of O’Reilly and the others is blackly comic, Shatner and Nimoy are on top form (Spock’s breakdown in his quarters is exceptional, as is Kirk trying to snap him out of it) and it’s a good vehicle for Scotty, Uhura and of course Sulu. And absolutely no-one fucks an android. I’d like the ship to feel more imperilled as the countdown continues, and I desperately wanted Uhura and Scotty to go nuts as well so we’d have the full set, but these are minor quibbles. This is the show firing on all cylinders. And then they discover time travel. Wow.

Key takeaways from these first four episodes

  • These are really good, well-told, science-fiction adventure stories that still hold up today. Which is lucky, as otherwise, this would be a long three months.
  • Some of the things we take for granted aren’t here yet – no Federation, no Star Fleet, no Klingons, no photon torpedoes, no Chekov.
  • The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is key but although Nimoy is the best actor, Shatner is the series’ MVP. His charisma is undeniable and he holds the whole show together.
  • There’s more stuff on board the ship than I remember – those standing sets were cheaper, which means the temptation to keep telling the ship-has-a-hidden-menace-on-board story is a significant one, but I’m hopeful that the series will spread its wings more fully as more episodes unfold.