What’s your favorite “bad” episode of Star Trek? There are certainly quite a number to choose from. TNG had “Skin of Evil,” a ridiculous monster-of-the-week episode saved almost accidentally by the inclusion of Yar’s death and the resulting funeral scene. Voyager, of course, has had the infamous “Threshhold,” where Janeway and Paris turn into reptiles and have babies together. But there are plenty of other options. Part of the fun of Trek is laughing at the bad ones, and with thousands of episodes there is no dearth. When you think “Star Trek: so bad it’s fun” what episode comes to mind?
Fifty years ago today, the participants of one of the most successful television letter writing campaigns in history (what equals it? Maybe Jericho?) sat down to enjoy the fruits of their labor: the premiere of the third season of Star Trek. How exciting! Season two had ended all the way back in March with the rousing and topical time-traveling boldly anti-war episode “Gary Seven.” Surely whatever the galaxy had in store for the Enterprise this year was sure to be even greater!
Behind the scenes, even though the letter writing campaign had been a success, the renewing of the series was so begrudging that it created a lot of bad blood between the network and the creatives. Gene Roddenberry was accused of orchestrating the letter-writing, and while such a tactic certainly fit his M.O. (he loved pitting fan against studio when things weren’t going his way), accusing the campaign of being essentially a fake while still acquiescing to it revealed that the higher-ups were fundamentally conflicted in how to treat the show.
This conflict and even hostility toward the show manifested itself in moving the series from the already precarious 8:30pm on Friday nights to the death sentence of 10pm on Friday nights. QUICK – what airs on television right now at ten pm on Friday nights? If you don’t know, you’re not alone. It was, and still is, a television black hole. Kids are in bed, teens and young adults are out of the house.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Roddenberry walked away from episode-by-episode production. Meanwhile, the budget on the show was slashed — and it showed. Location shots decreased dramatically in the third season. Extra crewmen around, making the ship look populated and adding atmosphere, became rare. And more than that, the new producer (Fred Freiburger) had a much less character-centric understanding of the show. According to his colleagues, Freiburger thought Star Trek was about spectacle, famously using the phrase “tits in space.” Probably not the best match for a season that had no money for spectacle.
All of which brings us to the infamous “Spock’s Brain,” the third season premiere and one of the most iconic and mocked episodes. You may be surprised to hear it was written (under a pseudonym) by Trek legend Gene L. Coon. It certainly doesn’t feel like Coon’s other seminal episodes like “Space Seed” and “Errand of Mercy.” One theory is that Coon wrote the episode as a satire of what he was afraid Trek was becoming, and in doing so created a self-fulfilling prophecy. My own theory is that much of what went wrong with “Spock’s Brain” is Roddenberry’s own doing. Roddenberry may have been out of the day to day operations but (similar to his role as TNG went on) he still read scripts, provided notes, and had off-the-record conversations with basically anyone he wanted to. The changes from Coon’s original outline to the final aired version are enlightening. Most notably, there is none of the “battle of the sexes” divided society that dominates the final version.
Even though his name is not on it, a bifurcated “amazon” society is classic Roddenberry. There is nothing that so clearly marks his presence than women who seem capable and rational but ultimately need a man. It’s a concept he returned to again in his 1974 project “Planet Earth,” an almost forgotten TV movie/pilot whose gender-divided society bears many similarities to “Spock’s Brain.” In that story, the victim of a “suspended animation accident” wakes up to find himself in a world where women are the rulers and men are drugged to keep them docile. In seeming anticipation of MRA screeds against third-wave feminism, our hero declares: “Women’s lib? Or women’s lib gone mad?!” Like so much Zapp Brannigan, the protagonist seduces his “master” and convinces her and the others that men and women should work together. Not the worst idea in the world, but the lesson is clearly that there are sensitive women and there are strong men, but the best creation in the whole universe is a strong, sensitive man.
Roddenberry had a fixation, almost fetish, with watching strong women admit they need help and the final version of “Spock’s Brain” is just too in his wheelhouse to believe he wasn’t somewhere behind the scenes. With Coon and Roddenberry both having one foot already out the door, of course, it’s not beyond possibility that they tanked the script together.
The episode is famous for being bad, but one reason it might be famous is that at least it is watchable. Twenty years later, it remained enough a part of the boomer zeitgeist that The Wonder Years used it as an allegory for how adolescent boys see strong girls.
“Plato’s Stepchildren,” on the other hand, is equally as cringey but also much more dull. “Spock’s Brain” is at least quotable and funny, even if unintentionally. So many other third season episodes (Lights of Zetar, Cloud Miners, Turnabout Intruder) plodded along without a single memorable (or meme-able) line or image.
Which brings us back to the original question: what’s your favorite “bad” episode of Star Trek? There are certainly quite a number to choose from. Part of the fun of Trek is laughing at the bad ones, and with thousands of episodes there is no dearth. When you think “Star Trek: so bad it’s fun” what episode comes to mind?
And now, a random image from Memory Alpha: