Recently I mused that the opening scene of 2009's Star Trek reboot had to rank among the best Trek moments ever, and someone asked me to do a list of the other best moments. I'm not normally a list kinda guy, but I found this concept intriguing, and so I began chipping away at just such a thing. Now here it is.
A note up front: this is original crew only, so there are no Next Generation or Voyager or Deep Space Nine things here. I'm sure someone who watched those godforsaken shows could come up with a ten best list, but I couldn't.
One more note: this list is Kirk and Spock heavy. I don't know if it's a reflection of my own feelings about the show or what, but I had a hard time coming up with much for the rest of the cast beyond bits like "Sulu does swordplay in The Naked Time," which probably would have made a longer list. Feel free to add your own best moments in the comments, especially if they're not Kirk and Spock oriented.
10. George Kirk Dies In Star Trek (2009)
The reboot of Star Trek has highs and lows, but the highest part of the movie comes right up front and doesn't include any of the original series characters. The USS Kelvin has been crippled by the Romulan ship Narada and first officer George Kirk has assumed command. As the Kelvin's crew - including his pregnant wife - evacuates, Kirk rams his ship into the invader. While the dialogue in the scene is hokey as hell - the stuff about naming the baby is straight-up fanfic - there's an incredible power in the sequence. Part of that comes from the then-barely known Chris Hemsworth, who sells George Kirk as a complete character in only a few moments.
If the rest of the movie had lived up to this scene Star Trek might have been the best of the franchise. As it stands, it's a pretty good movie with one truly transcendent sequence.
9. Captain Kirk Rams The Constellation Into The Doomsday Machine
Another starship ramming! I like having this right next to Star Trek (2009) because it almost feels like they're connected. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that writers Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman modeled the opening of their movie on this. In the episode the Enterprise discovers an entire solar system has been destroyed and the Starfleet ship USS Constellation sits disabled. Only her commander, Commodore Matt Decker, survives, driven mad by the horrors he saw when an alien doomsday weapon came through the sector.
The weapon is unstoppable, Decker kills himself trying to blow it up and finally Kirk goes on the Constellation and sends her into the maw of the device, primed to explode. Earlier in the episode Kirk very adamantly argued with Decker not to go on a suicide mission - 'Starfleet is stronger with you than without you!' - which feels like an echo of Kirk's pain over his dead dad (which it couldn't be, as Kirk's dad didn't die that way in this timeline). It establishes that Kirk is not an absolutist and that he isn't interested in dying for a cause - he believes there's always another way.
The moment I love here is the final countdown to destruction; the Constellation is flying right into the device, and Captain Kirk is the only person aboard. He's ready to beam out, but the Enterprise's transporters are on the fritz. The tension mounts as Gerald Fried and Sol Kaplan's music crescendos and director Marc Daniels does some really tight cross cutting. Sure, Breaking Bad is the modern apex of tension on TV, but this sequence would give even Walter White some agita.
More than that, the idea of crashing an enormous starship into an even more enormous alien weapon is awesome. The original Star Trek often traded in a big cosmic scale, but it was always fun to see them working on a big physical scale as well.
9. The Commander's Final Message in Balance of Terror
Balance of Terror is, hands down, one of the best hours of television science fiction ever. The episode apes submarine war movies, with the Enterprise locked in a duel to the death with a Romulan Bird of Prey. As the episode goes on the two ships attempt to outwit and outmanuever each other (at one point the Bird of Prey, eager to appear destroyed, dumps out a ton of debris and a corpse to fool the Enterprise), but in the end it's James T. Kirk who gets the upper hand.
Up against Kirk is the Romulan Commander, played by Mark Lenard (who would later play Spock's father Sarek). The Commander isn't a fanatical lunatic but is a driven military man. Instead of a one dimensional villain he's a multi-layered character. As the battle draws to an end, with his ship crippled, the Commander decides to self-destruct rather than let Romulan cloaking technology fall into the Federation's hands. Before he does, he says to Captain Kirk: "I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend."
It's not just powerful character stuff, it's powerful ideological stuff. In 1966 the United States was deep in the Cold War (it was only four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis), and the show was making a bold statement about the humanity of both sides in the conflict. It's easy to make your villains bad, but Star Trek is always best when it makes its villains human, and this is one of the greatest examples.
7. Kirk Shoots The Gorn In Arena
There's a whole generation who discovered the Kirk/Gorn fight in Arena through a YouTube video titled 'Worst Fight Scene Ever.' And yeah, the choreography and action in the scene is clunky, and the Gorn is, especially in hi-def, obviously a guy in a limited mobility suit. But COME ON! This episode in general encapsulates everything that's great about two-fisted adventure stories, and about imagination.
In the episode the Enterprise is investigating a series of attacks on outposts when they come across a new race, the lizard-like Gorn. A third race, the mysterious Metrons, teleport Kirk and the Gorn commander to the surface of a planet and has them duke it out. What follows is a series of fights that were emulated in backyards and schoolyards for years. The execution of the Gorn may be hokey in 2012, but the design remains awesome to this day. What I also love is that the Gorn doesn't talk, reducing the entire battle to a real physical match. Kirk can't talk his way out of this one.
At the climax Kirk uses his environment to win, creating gunpowder and then using diamonds as a projectile in a crude firearm. He shoots the Gorn with diamonds! It's a really cool moment, and it's one of those especially Star Trek climaxes, where the hero uses a potent combination of know-how (chemistry comes in handy!) and bravery to win the day. It's so iconic that it was perfectly skewered in Galaxy Quest ("Can you construct some kind of rudimentary lathe?").
6. Kirk and Spock Battle In Amok Time
The magic of Star Trek, for me, is that it comes right between the era of adventure action and straight up action. The fight scenes in Trek tend to be rough brawls, and they usually have lots of character moments in them. They aren't a succession of gee-whiz moves or kickass takedowns, but they're wonderfully physical and fun.
One of the very best fight scenes in Trek history happens in the episode Amok Time, and it pits Kirk against Spock to the death. Spock is suffering from Ponn Farr, a peculiar form of Vulcan horniness that makes him violent and irrational. The ship heads to Vulcan so that Spock can undergo his species' mating ritual, which has him wedding a girl to whom he was betrothed at age 7. But things don't go quite right, and Spock's bride-to-be demands a fight to the death between Spock and Captain Kirk (it's all explained well in the episode).
What follows is some rousing old fashioned fighting, using all sorts of weird Vulcan weapons. The battle gets really rough and tumble and involves Kirk getting his shirt cut wide open, exposing his manly nipples. There's a lot that's great - it's fun watching Leonard Nimoy play a Spock who is going all out, and the battle music is incredible (parodied perfectly in The Cable Guy). But what's fun is the thrill of seeing our favorite heroes pitted against each other, and wondering how they'll work it out. Spoiler: Spock kills Kirk. Seriously.
5. The Enterprise Is Destroyed In Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
You need stakes. They define not just the danger but what our heroes are willing to do to win. In Search For Spock Kirk makes a decisive move that shows how far he'll go - he self destructs the Enterprise above the Genesis planet. Watching the ship explode and the burn up in the atmosphere is, for the hardcore Trekkie, just as devastating as watching Spock die at the end of Khan. The ship is just as much a character in the show as any of the crew, and watching her go is tough.
The sequence is expertly staged. Klingons - who have previously killed Kirk's son (nobody really cares too much about that, to be honest) have boarded the Enterprise, but find it empty. They hear only a computer voice, counting down. Stupidly they don't realize that it's the self-destruct countdown. The bridge explodes, and then the saucer plate begins disintigrating. The NCC-1701 marking disappears in burns and destruction. Then the plate explodes totally, and the Enterprise, beheaded, spins into the gravity of the Genesis planet, where it turns into a strangely beautiful fireball. The crew, now stranded on the unstable planet, watch as she dies.
4. Spock Mind Melds With The Horta In Devil In The Dark
This scene is everything great and bad about Star Trek wrapped into one. The Enterprise has been called to a mining colony to deal with a strange being that has been killing miners. In the tunnels they discover the Horta, a silicone-based creature who secretes acid and moves through rock like we move through water. After injuring the Horta, Spock attempts to mind meld with the strange creature.
What follows is a scene that is both hilarious and moving in that special Star Trek original series way. The Horta is clearly a guy on all fours with a shag rug on his back, and the sequence has Leonard Nimoy all alone forced to wildly overact as Spock delves into the creature's mind. He howls and cries and moans 'PAIN! PAIN!' and it's totally silly.
But it's also completely perfect. The magic element here is conviction - there's no element of this scene played for laughs, and while the trappings are silly the emotional content is real and powerful. In true Trek fashion Spock learns the Horta is just a mother trying to protect her eggs, and before the creature scurries away it burns a message into the rock: "NO KILL I." It's great science fiction and it's cheesy TV storytelling, all smashed into one loveable, perfectly imperfect sequence.
3. The Battle In The Mutara Nebula In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek is different from Star Wars in many ways, but perhaps the biggest difference is that Trek doesn't have a ton of cool space battles. Space combat in Trek is much more naval, while it's all aerial in Star Wars - it's galleons as opposed to dogfighting. But Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan shows that you can stay true to the show's naval feel while also creating one of the all-time best space battles ever.
The Enterprise leads The Reliant into the Mutara Nebula, where all their sensors and video screens will be useless. This puts the damaged Enterprise on even footing with Khan's ship. But what it also does is give Kirk the upper hand - Khan, a land conqueror, can't adjust his strategy to the three-dimensions of space combat.
What follows is a battle that is exciting not because it's action packed but because it's a delightful display of strategy and is full of tension. Director Nicholas Meyer has the ships passing at thrillingly short distances, and his reveals of where the ships spatially are tend to be rousing and fun. There are battle scenes that are more kinetic and full of action, but the Mutara Nebula sequence is a white-knuckler that can bring audiences to cheers.
2. The Death of Spock In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
It takes decades to earn a scene like this. The friendship between Kirk and Spock is one of the great fictional partnerships of all time, and part of what makes it work are the stark differences between the men. You see where each character complements the other - they're truly soulmates.
We've already established in this list that Kirk doesn't believe in self-sacrifice, and the movie establishes that pretty well, too. Which is what makes Spock's self-sacrifice all the greater - he is doing the one thing that Kirk cannot do to save the ship. He's taking the one action that Kirk will never take.
Keeping the two of them apart, separated by the radiation chamber, is brilliant. It adds to the pain and loss. Every moment of the scene is amazing, from Spock standing and adjusting his tunic to the ragged tears in Kirk's voice. Even a bit that could play as comedy - radiation-blinded Spock bumps into the glass wall - is solemn and sad. The exchange they have is perfect:
Spock: The ship... out of danger?
Spock: Don't grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh...
Kirk: ...the needs of the few...
Spock: ...Or the one. I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?
I have been and always shall be your friend.
"I have been and always shall be your friend" is just one of the great understated lines of all time.
The scene works because, while it's undeniably emotional, it's not played for schmaltz or sentiment. The fact that Kirk can't keep his shit together is a big part of that; there's a sense of the real sharp edges of death here, not just movie death. It caps the film's themes of mortality and death with a death that is meaningful but not exploited, a sacrifice that is necessary but not quite exalted. There's nothing clean about Spock's death, and it's bittersweet - the ship is saved, but at such cost.
Even knowing what comes next in the films - even knowing that Spock not only comes back but that he's even in the new reboot universe! - this sequence is a gutpunch. It's the reality of it, the true and honest sense of loss on display. Star Trek is silly and cheesy, yes, but when it's emotionally correct it's the best there is.
1. Edith Keeler Sums Up Kirk And Spock In City On The Edge Of Forever
Today we say stuff like 'You have to wait until season three for the show to get its legs,' but Star Trek's first season is the best. It came out the gate great, and the show aired classic after classic episode that first year. And then, as if that wasn't enough, it aired one of the greatest episodes of any TV show ever - and it totally solidified its own central myth - just before the end of the first season.
That episode is City on the Edge of Forever, a heartbreaking, wonderful hour of science fiction. Kirk and Spock travel back in time searching for Dr. McCoy, who has gone mad thanks to an overdose. They end up in America in the 1930s and specifically in a soup kitchen run by a woman named Edith Keeler. As they search for McCoy, it becomes clear to Kirk that Keeler is the love of his life.
But there's a wrinkle: Keeler has to die. If she lives her saintly ways will interfere with the beginning of WWII, leading to a terrible alternate future. To save the world, Kirk must let her be run down in the street.
Before she dies, Keeler has an exchange with the two time travelers that, in just a few words, completely nails their characters and the central relationship at the heart of the show. It helps when you have a guy like Harlan Ellison writing episodes, huh?
Edith Keeler: I still have a few questions I'd to ask about you two. Oh, and don't give me that "Questions about little old us?" look. You know as well as I do how out of place you two are around here.
Spock: Interesting. Where would you estimate we belong, Miss Keeler?
Edith Keeler: You? At his side, as if you've always been there and always will.
Edith Keeler: [to Kirk] And you... you belong... in another place.
Everything that comes after in Star Trek - from the battle in Amok Time to Spock's death - is informed by this exchange with Joan Collins. It's so simple, but it sums up everything about these men, their relationship and their characters. Spock, always with Kirk and Kirk, always finding a strange new world.