TOS S01E09 Dagger of the Mind (4 out of 5 stars). Another day, another intruder on the Enterprise. This time it’s penal colony (more like a resort colony, according to Lock ’em Up Kirk) escapee Simon van Gelder. The Enterprise crew is well practiced now in tracking down intruders who aren’t what they appear to be and so van Gelder is overpowered fairly rapidly – particularly when he marches on to the bridge and announces himself.

Kirk asks McCoy to send a qualified member of the medical staff to accompany him and McCoy despatches one of Kirk’s previous conquests. Hilariously, Kirk reacts as if he didn’t even know she was on board. Compared to many of the sweaty liars we’ve beamed down to meet, Dr Adams is warmly convincing, which helps to keep us guessing. Morgan Woodward constantly looks is if he’s going to dislocate his jaw or pop out an eyeball and is the first human to experience a Vulcan mind meld. Here it is portrayed as nearer to hypnosis than a touch-based psychic connection.

Meanwhile Kirk is undergoing a brainwashing which makes The Manchurian Candidate look like a vague suggestion. He’s remarkably helpless in his captor’s grip – more shades of The Prisoner. Again, TNG would have had the Captain’s brainwashing as a reveal but it works perfectly well when we know what’s happening from the off, trading mystery for dramatic irony. It’s also surprising that Dr Sexy Pout isn’t immediately written out, having concluded her arc (but nor will we ever see her again I suspect). Even the red shirts make it back alive, but Kirk looks genuinely disturbed by what he’s experienced.

TOS S01E10 The Corbomite Maneuver (4.5 out of 5 stars) is a bit of Trek history – the first regular episode to be filmed after the two pilots (but as you can see, transmitted tenth). A few things are a bit wobbly. Neither Nimoy’s hair nor makeup are quite right (but no fluffy eyebrows), Uhura is in gold, McCoy looks like he hasn’t shaved and it’s a Kirk-less teaser which is highly unusual (not even a Captain’s log). It’s also one of those episodes of which I have no memory whatsoever.

McCoy asks “What am I – a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?” which is one of the more absurdist variations on this theme. Spock thinks that adrenal glands sound inconvenient and ponders whether they could be removed. This is used to burn poor Mister Bailey who is roasted by Kirk moments later and pretty soon is given a dressing-down around the conference table (where a mute Uhura is included under the term “gentlemen”).

There’s some striking camerawork here – a big crane move at the beginning and some handheld shots when Kirk enters the bridge. They know that we’re going to be on this same set a lot this week and they’re determined to shoot it as flashily as they can. The lighting is nuts here as well (in a good way).

Compared to some of the more exotic menaces the crew has been up against recently, this colourful space cube doesn’t seem all that exciting, but its implacable omnipresence become increasingly arresting as the story unfolds. Interesting too that Kirk waits and waits and waits before opening fire on the thing – desperate to avoid destroying it before he’s solved the mystery. A far cry from the shoot first, ask questions later gunslinger which he’s sometimes portrayed as when comparing him to Picard. He repeatedly emphasises the importance of preserving life – all life – to his crew. And this episode is an interesting study in tactics, leadership and personnel management. Should Kirk be pushing Bailey harder and harder, or cutting him some slack so as not to burn him out?

Kirk and McCoy’s relationship is solid right from the off, but Kirk’s attitude to Yeoman Rand betrays the shuffling of episodes – she’s presented here as new in the role, but we’ve seen her and Kirk go through a lot together, particularly in Miri. Don’t get too comfy Janice…

We’re apparently on board the “United Earth Ship” Enterprise and the enemy appears to inhabit “a planet of the first federation”. Eventually, it turns out that the geometric solids are the work of – ho hum – a childlike alien with god-level powers. All right, at this stage, it’s still a pretty nifty reveal. As with The Cage, a disorienting effect is created by having one performer on camera and another behind the mic. On camera is Ron Howard’s little brother Clint. The initial vision of Balok is one of those indelible Star Trek images, a Mekon-like blue head issuing dire threats from the view screen.

This episode forms a well-spring of ideas that will be returned to again, and again, especially when Roddenberry has his way. The probing of the Enterprise by Balok feels a lot like Star Trek The Motion Picture, the sense of hopelessness recalls early encounters with the Borg, and the there’s a clear line connecting Balok to Q (via the Squire of Gothos and various others). The ship is caught by a tractor beam, which I believe is another one of those things which we imagine was always part of science-fiction storytelling but which was in fact invented out of whole cloth by Star Trek writers.

What makes this episode sing, as usual with TOS at its best, is the interplay of the characters. Kirk, Spock and McCoy all take different approaches to Bailey, ship operations and the threat of Balok, but mutual respect is at the heart of their interactions. The desperate improvisation which Kirk engages in is uniquely his, however, and a brilliant piece of scriptwriting. This may also be the first mention of poker in the series, which becomes a big feature of TNG in years to come.

For a series that only got on the air by promising action and adventure, the warmly optimistic ending is revelatory – closure for poor old Bailey, for Kirk and we hope for Balok. This has got it all.

TOS S01E11 The Menagerie Part I (3 out of 5 stars). Our first glimpse of a bigger organisation behind the Enterprise starts here. Spock claims to have orders from Star Fleet, we’re on Star Base XI, there’s a commodore waiting to see the Captain – even though “Space” sent no message summoning them. Nor did rangy, angular Captain Pike who is now a mute version of Davros – 23rd century space science lags behind what Stephen Hawking got in the 1980s. Spock having served with him – for eleven years! – also begins to add richness to the backstory, not just of these characters but to the “world” of Star Trek.

This of course is the emergency manoeuvre which enabled the writing team to create two episodes of Trek out of about two-thirds of an episode’s worth of scripting and filming. So we get an episode of Star Trek in which our regular characters sit around and watch an episode of Star Trek, in which episode a bunch of aliens sit around and watch an episode of Star Trek. It doesn’t play quite as meta as that sounds. It does however require some production-created continuity issues to be hastily swept under the carpet, and not for the last time – you try asking Worf about TOS-era Klingons.

It takes a while for the pilot episode to get on-screen – longer than I remembered (this is one I definitely saw on BBC2 in the 1980s). To begin with this is fairly standard Trek intrigue, albeit with a fascinatingly duplicitous Spock at its centre. Part I is half over before the hearing starts and Spock begins showing the old footage, everyone having put on their dress uniforms, all Christmassy gold braid and colourful insignias.

For some stupid reason (possibly to do with managing clearances for the use of the old footage) the voice actor for the Talosians is in the framing story is Commodore Mendez, which required further treatment on the Talosian voices to conceal the doubling-up. He also has to remind Spock that he in a “court of space law” which is a pretty dreadful line.

How much you enjoy this episode depends greatly on what you think of The Cage. The framing story grinds to a halt once Spock starts his home movie show, so if you’re in the “Star Trek’s original pilot was a misunderstood work of genius” camp you may love this, but if, like me, you think that the original pilot got a lot of things wrong and they needed another go, then seeing those mistakes all over again isn’t terribly interesting. Under the extraordinary circumstances though, this works well enough to fill two weeks and avoid NBC having to show fifty minutes of test card.

TOS S01E12 The Menagerie Part II (3 out of 5 stars). Part II is almost all The Cage so I don’t have a lot more to add. Although watching Kirk be compassionate, thoughtful and measured week after week (if often highly libidinous) makes the more aggressive Pike seem even less suitable to be the lead of this show. Even the Talosians make fun of his pugilistic instincts and he escapes captivity mainly because of his restless human nature, not because of any stratagem or insight specific to him.

The resolution of the framing plot when it finally comes is neat enough and just about makes sense of Spock’s insane-seeming actions (as well as giving the Talosians a happier ending than they got in The Cage) so it’s unlikely first-time viewers would be too frustrated. The death penalty for visiting (or even talking about) Talos IV is a bit hard to swallow, but Shatner and Nimoy are as committed as ever and pretty much make me believe it. More egregious clip shows will follow (or at least one will) meanwhile this should be celebrated primarily for keeping the show on the air in any form at all.

TOS S01E13 The Conscience of the King (2.5 out of 5 stars). By now the series is devoted to demonstrating that it can do anything, tell stories in any genre. This is essentially a murder mystery in space with a dose of Shakespeare for added class (nice to see that arts subsidies are still going strong). Talk of a new synthetic food which would end famine is odd given we’ve already had talk of replicated meatloaf. Plastic surgery seems to have made little progress in 250-odd years too, as Tom Leighton is forced to wear a Phantom of the Opera-style half mask to conceal his disfigurement. And genetic fingerprinting (or even regular fingerprinting) appears not to exist in this world either.

William Shatner wears Kirk like a glove by now. The leer he gives the chief suspect’s 19-year-old daughter on first seeing her is simultaneously delightful and grim. Sexual politics is the big blind spot of this series. Talk of Shatner’s absurd acting style is greatly exaggerated. Talk of Kirk’s demented libido is not, but we haven’t really had anything like a love story since The Man Trap and that was with McCoy. It’s all just been teenage ogling so far. When Kirk strands her acting troupe on the planet, Lenore negotiates for a lift on the actual Enterprise bridge, which looks like flagrant cost-cutting – surely they had a Captain’s ready room set still standing?

Although Kirk seems to be thinking with his groin, his actual agenda is to try and unmask an infamous mass-murderer. So why does he never take Spock into his confidence? Is it revenge for Spock pulling a similar trick on Kirk last time? I also think that’s Majel Barrett as the computer – for the first time? And speaking of familiar faces, Lt MacIrish from The Naked Time is back.

I appreciate the shift in tone, but this feels like a hangover from a more exciting story we only get to hear about. We also don’t get enough face-time with the supposed villain, and the plot relies on characters wilfully concealing information from trusted friends and colleagues and suffering hysterical blindness on occasion. A Columbo-style trap which definitively exposed the truth would have added considerably, but as it is, Kirk just keeps putting himself in harm’s way until everyone confesses. No sign of Sulu or Scotty, but Uhura continues her song writing career in the rec room.

TOS S01E14 Balance of Terror (5 out of 5 stars) opens with Kirk having to split his time between investigating Earth outposts and officiating an onboard wedding – the old softie. The Neutral Zone (between planets Romulus and Remus) makes its first appearance as do the Romulans. Unlike many aspects of the series – phasers, transporters, Vulcans, communicators, much else besides – the appearance and culture of the Romulans is unknown to the crew as well as to the viewer. The backstory needed to set up both the existence of a treaty and the cultural amnesia about Earth’s long-ago foes stretches credulity a bit (22nd century spaceships didn’t have Zoom, nobody took any prisoners) but the human drama works wonderfully well. Kirk again is compassionate, thoughtful, telling a crewman that this was not his war despite his family history (compare this to Kirk’s “Let them die” regarding the Klingons in Star Trek VI). Kirk reports back to “our nearest command base”.

Romulan ships are said to look like birds of prey and have cloaking technology. Later episodes will tend to overlap Klingon and Romulan technology and terminology for reasons I’m not sure are deliberate. But the big overlap here is between Romulan and Vulcan physiognomy which is an amazing way of ramping up the internal tensions between the crew.

In fact, compared to last week’s rather relaxed encounter, the tension throughout this story is incredible. It’s a shame that the Romulan war backstory is given to an interchangeable right hand console crew member rather than be used to flesh out one of our regulars, but that does give them more leeway to put narrow-minded views in the mouth of that character – which dissenting views Kirk calmly solicits in order that his conference table receives a full range of options. And of course, that’s Mark Leonard as the Romulan commander – later to be immortalised as Sarek, father of Spock. The mutual respect between the two ship’s captains is fascinating.

Much of the Romulan iconography established here would survive to TNG and beyond, save for the bird-like helmets worn by junior officers, which resemble Flash Gordon more than anything else. The glimpses of life on board the Romulan vessel are fascinating too – there are two sides to this story as well as this conflict. And in the debate which Kirk moderates, it’s Spock who offers the logical reasons for striking first – to McCoy’s horror. In a fascinating reprise of the Pike/Boyce “I’m tired” scene from The Cage, Kirk and Bones have a heart-to-heart before the final battle. Coming half-way through the first season, it means so much more. And that final battle isn’t without cost, it transpires.

Uhura takes over the navigator’s station at one point, but all she gets to say is “hailing frequencies open, Captain.” And thanks for your service, Yeoman Rand. We’ll see you in The Motion Picture.

Key observations

  • This is where the series starts spreading its wings. It can be a conspiracy thriller one week, a murder mystery the next, tackle hard SF themes, even do broad comedy. What it isn’t doing is making much use of the regular cast – this is the Jim Kirk show, with able support from Spock and McCoy. All the other “regulars” drift in and out, missing whole episodes and rarely contributing more than a scene or two.
  • Gradually, the world of Star Trek begins to emerge. Wisely, the creative team spent most of their time on the ship and its people. The organisation behind them and its history could wait and so it was assembled piecemeal without much forethought.
  • Roddenberry’s obsession with eliminating conflict between the crew has yet to appear. The passionate debates between Kirk, Spock and McCoy are the lifeblood of this show, and Kirk is consistently presented as more compassionate, thoughtful and reasonable than some of his bridge crew. It’s impossible for me to watch these episodes and recognise swaggering, bratty Chris Pine as playing anything remotely like the same character.