A Star Trek Primer

After following some internet speculation on the eleventh Star Trek film and reading the prequel comics, Star Trek: Countdown #s 1-3 (issue 4 is still forthcoming), I think I have a pretty good grasp of the important elements and how they tie into existing canon. Some or all of the following are almost certainly present: time travel, Romulans, old Spock, backstory on the Kirk-era crew, space sex, and a tribble. I thought it might be handy to create a guide for casual fans of the show to reacquaint themselves with continuity before J.J. Abrams blows it out the airlock, and for non-fans to prepare themselves for a confusing two hours. Below I have listed the ten episodes and one movie I suspect will be most relevant to the story of the upcoming film.

All episodes of Star Trek the Original Series (TOS) are available on DVD and HD-DVD in classic and digitally remastered editions (coming soon to Blu-ray), and also via free streaming online at cbs.com. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is available on DVD.

Star Trek: The Original Series

1. “Balance of Terror”
Written by Paul Schneider
Directed by Vincent McEveety

Stardate 1709.2

This episode marks the first appearance of Romulans in the Star Trek universe. At this point in the series even Captain Kirk and his crew have never seen a Romulan before! The episode introduces many key elements of Romulan culture and their troubled interactions with the United Federation of Planets: the Neutral Zone, cloaking devices, and Romulus’s relationship with Vulcan. “Balance of Terror” is also notable as the late Mark Lenard’s first appearance in Star Trek, as the unnamed Romulan commander who engages in a tense strategic battle with Kirk and Enterprise. Lenard would later return to the show in a recurring role as Ambassador Sarek, Spock’s daddy.

2. “The Menagerie, Parts I and II”
Written by Gene Roddenberry
Directed by Marc Daniels

Stardate 3012.4

This episode incorporates footage from the original pilot for Star Trek, “The Cage,” which was deemed “too cerebral” by NBC (apparently network executives haven’t changed much since the 1960s). The frame story concerns Spock’s attempt to take over the Enterprise in order to bring his crippled former captain, Christopher Pike, to the quarantined planet Talos IV. During Spock’s court martial for his actions, we effectively watch “The Cage” along with Kirk and learn much about Pike, the first captain of the Enterprise* This episode features Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike and Sean Kenney as the chair-bound Pike who can communicate only through beeping lights. Bruce Greenwood assumes the role in the new Star Trek film.

“The Cage” and “The Menagerie” are worth a watch if only to see a distinctly different take on the series, with a largely unfamiliar crew—including Majel Barret as the first female second-in-command, called only “Number One.” She was later demoted to nurse in the series, but serving as the voice of the computer (as she does in the new movie, in her final role) isn’t a bad consolation.

*Depending on who you ask. As with most Trek lore, this is disputed and Robert T. April is often cited as the first captain of the Enterprise.

3. “Amok Time”
Written by Theodore Sturgeon
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Stardate: 3372.7

“Amok Time” establishes the foundation of Vulcan culture. It’s the first appearance of the planet of Spock’s birth and introduced viewers to Vulcan mating rituals—namely, ponn far, the blood fever. Every seven years, Vulcan males must return to their homeworld to get their groove on, or suffer violent mood swings and ultimately die. The impact of this episode is felt most in the second and third films, and presumably we will see some of Spock’s childhood and maybe some Vulcan sex (mostly some excited finger-stroking) in the new movie, if we’re lucky.

4. “Journey to Babel”
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by Joseph Pevney

Stardate 3842.3

Following on “Amok Time,” we actually meet Spock’s parents, the Vulcan ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard) and his human wife, Amanda (Jane Wyatt). Spock and his father have been estranged for twenty years, ever since Spock joined Starfleet against Sarek’s wishes. When the Tellarite ambassador is killed, Sarek is the prime suspect. Sarek then falls ill and requires an immediate blood transfusion, which his son refuses to offer. The main action surrounds the murder mystery and the tension of an unidentified ship tailing Enterprise, but the emotional core is about Spock facing his childhood, controlling his emotions, and reconciling with his father—a relationship that is revisited several times over the course of Star Trek‘s history.

5. “The Enterprise Incident”
Written by D.C. Fontana
Directed by John Meredyth Lucas

Stardate 5031.3

We get to see more of the workings of the Romulan military, when Kirk and Spock lead a dangerous spy mission to infiltrate a Romulan ship and steal its cloaking device. Like “Balance of Terror,” this episode has a nice Cold War feel to it, and is the first time we see a female Romulan commander, played by Joanne Linville. Check out Spock’s “Vulcan death grip;” TOS often made use of bluffs to trick opponents, especially fooling them into thinking Kirk is dead. We also learn that the belief that Vulcans do not lie is, in fact, false. They just need a good reason.


Star Trek: The Animated Series

6. “Yesteryear”
Written by D.C. Fontana

Stardate 5373.4

Some people may be blissfully unaware of this short-lived animated follow-up to the Original Series. Also broadcast on NBC, in the 1973-74 season, the barely animated Filmation show featured voice work from most of the main cast, and solid scripts from numerous alums of the live action series.

“Yesteryear” demonstrates the dangers of time travel and their impact on the present, a key conceit of the new film. In this episode, a visit to Harlan Ellison’s™ Guardian of Forever (previously seen in the highly recommended Original Series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”), results in Spock being written out of history. In the altered timeline, young Spock was killed at the age of seven, and it falls to Spock to travel back into his own past through the Guardian to save himself. This is the second glimpse we have of the planet Vulcan (before Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and we’re likely to revisit Spock’s childhood again this May.

Rumors persist even today that Harlan Ellison’s™ Guardian of Forever will be used in the new film, but Ellison and the filmmakers have denied this, and the comic prequel series suggests another means of time travel. This is Star Trek, after all.


Star Trek: The Next Generation

7. “The Neutral Zone”
Teleplay by Maurice Hurley from a story by Deborah McIntyre & Mona Glee
Directed by James L. Conway

Stardate 41986.0

This was the finale to the uneven first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although this episode sets up a lot of important continuity and reintroduces Romulans to the Trek universe, it’s unfortunately a crap episode. So, the highlights: this is the first appearance of Romulans in the Neutral Zone in fifty-three years, and they have some new toys, most strikingly a shiny green Romulan Warbird which replaces the Bird-of-Prey seen in TOS but still makes good use of cloaking technology. This episode also establishes that the current year is 2364. Just pay no attention to the three annoying humans the Enterprise finds cryogenically frozen in a space capsule.

8. “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler, Ronald D. Moore, and Michael Piller (uncredited) from a story by Trent Christopher Ganino and Eric A. Stillwell

Stardate: 43625.2

Though not directly related to the Romulan and Vulcan storyline, an early version of this episode originally included both Sarek and Harlan Ellison’s™ Guardian of Forever and the Romulans instead of the Klingons. Nonetheless, the final product is arguably one of the best episodes of the series, and would later introduce a surprising bit of continuity that does involve the Romulans. It’s also another episode that serves as a warm up to the monkeying in time expected in the next film.

When the Enterprise-C pops out of a temporal rift, missing its scheduled destruction, it creates an alternate timeline in which the Federation is at war with the Klingon Empire. Like the famed “mirror universe” episodes of Star Trek, there are some noticeably dark changes in the Enterprise-D and its crew. This episode guest stars Whoopi Goldberg in her recurring role as Guinan, an El-Aurian bartender (see Star Trek Generations) who realizes something is wrong, and the return of Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar, the original security chief who was suffered a “senseless death” back in the first season. She doesn’t do much better this time around.

9. “Sarek”
Written by Peter S. Beagle
Directed by Les Landau

Stardate: 43917.4

Spoiler! In “Sarek,” Mark Lenard reprises his role as…Sarek, the Vulcan ambassador (Spock’s father, remember). Now quite old, and married to another human woman named Perrin (obviously some kind of fetish), Sarek suffers from Bendii syndrome, a mental disorder that breaks down his control over his emotions (clearly, Sarek was not gifted with particularly good genes). This is a major step in Trek history, neatly tying the continuity of TNG with its forbear, and setting the stage for the appearance of another famous Vulcan.

10. “Unification”
Part I:
Teleplay by Jeri Taylor from a story by Rick Berman and Michael Piller
Directed by Les Landau
Part II:
Teleplay by Michael Piller from a story by Rick Berman and Michael Piller
Directed by Cliff Bole

Stardate: 45236.4

The mantle passes from TOS to TNG with this episode, which brought Leonard Nimoy back in his legendary role as Spock, who is on a secret mission on Romulus working to reunite the long-estranged Vulcans and Romulans. At first he finds himself at odds with Captain Picard and his crew, before they find common ground and work to prevent a Romulan invasion of the Vulcan homeworld. Mark Lenard takes his final bow as Sarek, who dies early in Part I without ever reconciling with his son. Denise Crosby also makes an appearance as the Romulan commander Sela (see TNG episodes “Redemption” parts I and II), the offspring of Tasha Yar and a Romulan as a result of the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey events of “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” This episode likely prefigures the events of the new film, which also feature Leonard Nimoy as Spock (as you know, Bob).

11. Star Trek Nemesis
Screenplay by John Logan from a story by John Logan, Rick Berman, and Brent Spiner
Directed by Stuart Baird

I really hate to do this. I do. I don’t want to include this film in my list, but I just don’t see a way around it. If the Star Trek: Countdown prequel comics are to be believed, the new film follows directly from the continuity of the last, worst TNG film. If the Romulans can somehow erase it from the Star Trek chronology, maybe Spock should let them.

Nemesis features the first appearance of the Remans, another offshoot of the Romulans who are themselves offshoots of the Vulcans. It also features a clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and a previously unknown beta version of Lt. Commander Data, named B-4 (I’m not making this up!), which they discover near the Romulan Neutral Zone while off-roading with their Federation ATVs.

Meanwhile, back on Romulus, a young upstart Reman named Shinzon (who looks strangely human and prematurely bald) has taken over the Empire and opens peace negotiations with the Federation. The Enterprise-E (to find out what happened to old NCC-1701-D, see Star Trek Generations) is dispatched to Romulus and discovers it was all a ploy to kidnap Picard.

One thing is certain: no matter what your early impressions of J.J. Abrams’s take on Star Trek, it can’t possibly be worse than Nemesis.

Abrams has said that the new film is meant to please fans and attract people unfamiliar with Trek, but I’m not sure that time travel and intergalactic politics make for an appropriate introduction to the franchise for new viewers. What do you think? Did I miss any pivotal episodes of any Trek incarnation that a newbie should seek out? It’s hard to say what, if any background in the series will be important until we see the film on May 8, but what other episodes would you recommend for someone interested in checking out the best the series has to offer before the movie?

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