Better than I expected: the original Star Trek’s third season

When I first started watching Star Trek the show’s three seasons meant nothing to me.

While I caught one episode — the first half of The Menagerie — on British TV, I didn’t start watching regularly until my family moved to America. Star Trekwas running in syndication right about when I got home — intentional timing to hook a teenage audience, I imagine — and I was hooked. I’d never seen anything like it before and I loved it. It almost shocked me when I’d read books or reviews that criticized episodes — it was Star Trek, how dare they!Watching Monday through Friday gave me no clue how the episodes originally broke down by season; I don’t have any idea if they even aired them in original order. I think the first episode guide I ever saw was in the book Fantastic Television and that came out in 1977. In those days, having a source for that information was priceless.

Decades later, I can look at the original show and see the flaws that developed in the second season. Fan support saved it from cancellation but I’m honestly not sure it was worth it. Not that all the episodes are horrible, let alone as bad as S2’s Omega Glory. But the season as a whole skews heavily to mediocrity.

Part of that, as David Gerrold once observed, is sloppiness in the characters. Spock, Kirk and McCoy all have some great bits this season, but Spock had a huge fan base, particularly women, and that led to him playing way out of character to get some romantic scenes in The Cloud Minders, as well as The Enterprise Incident earlier in the season and the next-to-last episode, All Our Yesterdays.

More generally the writers can’t think of anything but love to raise the stakes. Scotty falls in love in the tedious Light of Zetar (as Gerrold says, you’d think he’d go for a female engineer, not just a pretty face); McCoy falls in love in For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky; Chekhov falls in love in both Way to Eden and Spectre of the Gun. Kirk falls in love in The Paradise Syndrome.

There are some dreadful episodes such as Spock’s Brain (TYG insists it’s worse than Omega Glory but she’s wrong) but far more that are just bland. Zetar and Touched the Sky. All Our Yesterdays. The Savage Curtain.  There’s an increasingly tight budget: All Our Yesterdays has no scenes on the ship, no cast but Scott, McCoy and Kirk (we get Scott’s voice over the communicator) and some time-travel adventures that I suspect let them scavenge the studio’s costume closet to save costs. Cheap worked in The Empath, in which aliens torture the three leads to see if an empath is willing to give up her life to heal them. The dark underground chambers where everything happens come off like an episode of Outer Limits. Having them on a Wild West set for Spectre of the Gun? Not so effective.

But it’s not as unwatchable as I’d anticipated. Despite the many tedious episodes, many poor ones have some redeeming feature, such as the performances in Plato’s Stepchildren. Kathie Browne, who plays Deela in Wink of an Eye, is a delight, a fun-loving tragic villain (using the Enterprise as breeding stock to save her dying race) who happily puts moves on Kirk. Mariette Hartley is incredibly charming as Zarabeth in All Our Yesterdays. While the final episode, Turnabout Intruder, is appallingly sexist, William Shatner gives an amazing performance as a Kirk possessed by an unstable woman’s mind.

I’d debated skipping this season — why watch that many bad episodes? — but as it turns out, I’m glad I didn’t.

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