Seasons of Seasons: Star Trek Season 1, “The Alternative Factor”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” & “Operation: Annihilate!”

I don’t know what I expected these final installments of the first season of the show to look like. One of the great pleasures of the show is that you never really know what you’re going to get from week to week. With no overarching narrative for Roddenberry and the writers to work through, they’ve been free to tell whatever stories they can in whatever order they choose. We’ve seen a number of characters and storylines introduced that feel like perfect setup for future episodes (Mudd, Khan, the Klingons) and some of that can be felt in these episodes. While they’re not perfect episodes – altogether, they’re rather disappointing to end on – they at least set up their concepts in a way that’s consistent with the show and contain some dynamite plot elements.

I haven’t talked enough about how visually inventive Star Trek was, and The Alternative Factor may be its most visually inventive episode yet. It’s relatively simple: the Enterprise comes upon a strange man named Lazarus (Robert Brown), who’s responsible for time and space “winking” out of existence. Unbeknownst to Kirk and the crew, he’s been fighting against himself in an alternate dimension, and the way that episode director Gerd Oswald visualizes this struggle is never not captivating. Unfortunately that’s where the praise for the episode stops, as Lazarus is one of the least compelling side characters/villains we’ve seen so far, and the danger inherent in the conflict never feels particularly dangerous.

It wasn’t too long ago that we saw Star Trek deal with time travel, and The City on the Edge of Forever takes the premise and does what we know best of the trope. The introduction of “The Guardian”, a magical portal that allows anyone to jump into a different time throughout history, is a novel way to induce time travel that the show could easily come back to again and again. And DeForest Kelley finally gets to let loose for a while as Dr. McCoy is essentially driven insane by an overdose of medicine. Dr. McCoy has been a mostly straight-laced character, but it’s great to see Kelley have some fun for an episode, just as Leonard Nimoy was able to do in last week’s installments.

Much as I want to complain about the middle third, and how it relies a little too heavily on Kirk’s love story for Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) – plus a few too many cutesy jokes – I can’t complain too much. Shatner and Collins have great chemistry together and their romance develops naturally, as opposed to a few of the other love interests throughout the season. It helps tremendously that Keeler feels like a woman with her own agency; she exists as more than someone for Kirk to save. Which makes the ending – abrupt as it is – all the more tragic. When it comes down to it, the men and women of the Enterprise, and especially its officers, are destined to be alone, and the final shot of Kirk in the past highlights it especially well.

The City on the Edge of Forever is often cited as one of the best of the original series, and the personal favorite of many of the cast and crew. Though it wouldn’t be my personal choice, there’s no denying it feels like a fully formed episode with a beginning, middle, and end, a great sci-fi conceit, and a solid amount of character development.

For as non-serialized as Star Trek has been, it feels strange for the show to introduce the very notion of Kirk’s brother and his family in the season finale when no prior allusion was ever made. What’s perhaps more bizarre is that the family matter is how non-consequential his brother and his nephew are in the grand scheme of Operation: Annihilate! It’s a new variation on the “native alien beings killing off their human hosts” that the show has done so well before, but at least they’re curiously designed (yes, they were created with fake vomit). The idea of Spock going blind could have been a great cliffhanger to end the season, and it’s set up beautifully by Spock basically sacrificing himself because it’s the logical thing to do. That it’s almost immediately undercut by a cheap new bit of Vulcan lore is only a little disappointing in the grand scheme of things.

The first season of any TV show is a learning experience, a way for the cast and crew to introduce its audience to a world and characters that they were previously unfamiliar with. Season one of Star Trek has done just that, and with a wholly original idea borne from the mind of Gene Roddenberry. While far from a perfect season of television, it’s undoubtedly shown it deserves its place in pop culture history. From its performances to its world building to its set design, it’s been a fun journey to discover for the first time what made Star Trek so endearing for its fans.

The Alternative Factor Grade: B

The City on the Edge of Forever Grade: A-

Operation: Annihilate! Grade: B

Season One Grade: B+

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