Seasons of Seasons: Star Trek Season 1, “This Side of Paradise”, “The Devil in the Dark” & “Errand of Mercy”

Who has been the MVP of this first season of Star Trek? Captain Kirk is the traditional hero, the brash, handsome, fearless leader that sci-fi properties have relied upon since their inception. We’ve seen him take charge and solve a situation numerous times throughout the season, including a few times in this installment. But Spock is clearly the character that Roddenberry and the show’s writers are most fascinated by; it’s no accident that Nimoy is the one holdover from the show’s dropped pilot episode. With Spock, you have a wholly original creation, a blank slate and a black sheep amongst the Enterprise’s humans.

Though This Side of Paradise is easily the weakest of this bunch, and on the lower end of the scale of the entire season, it at least gives Leonard Nimoy room to explore a new side of Spock. I’ll never decry a sci-fi network TV show as being cheaply made, but I can’t imagine the episode cost much to produce. Kirk & Co. beam down to a planet teeming with life, despite the fact that the planet is covered in deadly radiation. The crew is puzzled at the discoveries of people living in perfect health, including a man with a perfectly working appendix after having it removed years earlier. We learn that the population is essentially under mind control from the planet’s native flowers, which Spock and everyone else succumb to. 

Nimoy makes a meal out of his spore-controlled self, suddenly infatuated with a long-lost fling and expressing real, human emotions. And it’s mostly Spock that saves the episode overall. While we’ve seen a number of episodes already that deal with some form of mind control or psychological manipulation, This Side of Paradise presents an environmental message that never won’t be prescient. That the episode looks like it was filmed on a crewman’s family farm doesn’t help, especially when compared to some of the visual inventiveness we’ve seen already.

Speaking of visual inventiveness, The Devil in the Dark is on the opposite end of the scale from This Side of Paradise, despite being confined mostly to variations on one location. And the story manages to be just as good, becoming perhaps one of the best entries so far. The Enterprise comes to the rescue of a mining colony after a series of mysterious attacks, including one of their own after they beam down. What presents itself as an intriguing, if fairly standard monster episode becomes something much more once Spock investigates. When the team realizes that the monster may be the last of its kind, Star Trek introduces a new moral element regarding the crew’s role in the universe.

That the show also manages to introduce the Vulcan Mind Meld, along with Nimoy’s committed performance, is another data point for The Devil in the Dark as an all-time great. It is disappointing that Kirk and Spock essentially survive the monster’s attack simply by wearing plot armor, when it attacked all its other victims in the blink of an eye, but it’s a forgivable moment in an otherwise fantastic episode.

Finally, Errand of Mercy would be relatively forgettable if it wasn’t for the introduction of the Klingons. I’ve praised Star Trek for introducing fully-formed worlds, and the mere mention of the Klingons shows that the show’s writers knew they had an ace up their sleeves. I almost wish the episode could have aired sooner in the season so that they could potentially come back before the end of this season. Much like Khan, the Klingons are presented as Kirk’s equals both tactically and psychologically. And, though just about every episode feels like it’s commenting in one way or another on the Vietnam War, Errand of Mercy is more of a Cold War metaphor, with both sides tip-toeing ever closer to destruction.

As we near the end of this season, it’s great to see the overarching ideas of the beginning of Star Trek, regardless of whether characters would ever return or not. Though there have been some episodes that have repeated themselves stylistically or thematically,  there are clear examples of the show transcending those tropes. Whether it’s Kirk or Spock that audiences would ultimately flock to, the show has shown it’s adept at leaning into what each one stands for, while finding new and interesting ways to develop them on an episodic basis.

This Side of Paradise Grade: B-

The Devil in the Dark Grade: A-

Errand of Mercy Grade: A-

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