Testing the science of ‘Star Trek’ on the show’s 50th anniversary

The original Star Trek TV series ran from 1966 to 1969 starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nemoy, who died in March, as Mr. Spock, and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy.
Ten Essential Episodes The original “Star Trek” TV series ran from September 1966 to June 1969, starring Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy (shown left to right above). While tastes are subjective, here are 10 notable “Star Trek” episodes in chronological order that reflect the series’ cool technology and encounters with space science (real and imagined), its humor and literary wit, its nod to present-day pop culture and politics, as well as its hope for future humanity. Click through the gallery for a list of Ten Essential Episodes, then listen below for a chat with Andrew Fazekas, author of the new book “Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe.” (AP)
‘The Return of the Archons,’ Season 1, Episode 21 (February 9, 1967) If there was one predominant cultural ethos in 1967 America, it was nonconformity. This episode is a brilliant turn on that theme as the “Star Trek” crew lands on a planet looking for a ship that presumably landed there 150 years earlier and was never heard from again. They soon find that being “of the body” means ultimate absorption, and those who do not commit are destroyed by a looming figure known as “Landru.” Set on 19th-century Earth, the episode is a great metaphor for the times, and as always, delightfully and ham-handedly acted by William Shatner’s Kirk. (AP)
‘This Side of Paradise,’ Season 1, Episode 24 (March 2, 1967) No, this has nothing to do with the mainstreaming of psychedelic drugs in American pop culture at the time. Really. The crew of The Enterprise, led by Spock, land on what they believe to be a dead colony. Quite the opposite, they find the people there thriving — thanks in part to strange space “spores” that keep them laconically happy and healthy. The spores have a trippy effect on the crew, too, making them, let’s just say, peacefully mutinous. (AP)
‘Amok Time,’ Season 2, Episode 1 (September 15, 1967) When Spock begins to exhibit irrational behavior, Dr. McCoy discovers he is suffering from a dangerous level of hormone activity and will die if he doesn’t go back to his home planet to mate. What better setup could one ask for? This episode not only features a “fight to the death” between Spock and Kirk, but also a classic Spock line delivered to the man who just stole his ill-fated mate’s desire: “Having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting.” Ouch. We also get to see a rare moment of unguarded Spock glee when he realizes he didn’t kill his friend Kirk, after all. (AP)
‘Mirror, Mirror,’ Season 2, Episode 4 (October 6, 1967) Jerry Seinfeld would call this “bizarro world.” When our friends on The Enterprise begin beaming up from a Halkan planet during an ion storm, they appear to “switch” with their evil twins in a parallel universe. They arrive on the transporter deck of a mirror opposite “Imperial Starship” as their hard core cohorts simultaneously arrive on the unsuspecting Enterprise. What ensues is great fun, not the least of which is seeing the still-logical Bad Spock in a Van Dyke beard and Kirk playing hard-to-get with the lovely Lieutenant Marlena Moreau. (AP)
‘I, Mudd,’ Season 2, Episode 8 (November 3, 1967) This is the second series appearance of Harcourt “Harry” Fenton Mudd, an interstellar con man and boor who the crew thought was locked up in a Federation brig. Instead, he’s resurfaced on a planet of androids holding Mudd against his will. It is a most pleasant imprisonment, however, with an army of lady bots to cater to his every whim. The Androids have their own plans, though, and soon trap the whole crew on their planet — until Kirk and company figure out a way to outwit them. See Mike Myers’ 1997 homage to the lady droids with his Fembots in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” (AP)
‘The Menagerie (Part 1 & 2),’ Season 1, Episodes 11 & 12 (November 17-24, 1966) While we now know that this two-parter came out of convenience (the special effects were slowing production down so old footage of the previously unreleased pilot, “The Cage,” was used to plump this up quickly), it has become one of the series’ most memorable storylines. It involves disabled Captain Christopher Pike, under whom Dr. Spock once served, and Spock’s urgent effort to free his former captain from the physical chains that bind him. To do that, he must get Pike back to Talos IV, a forbidden planet inhabited by humanoid aliens who can cast “illusions.” Both episodes highlight Spock’s human side and, of course, a lot of alien action and cool Federation back story. (AP)
‘The Trouble with Tribbles,’ Episode 15, Season 2 (December 29, 1967) One of the most fun of the original series for a couple reasons. One, cuddly creatures multiply with ferocity, baffling the crew members who are alternately annoyed and bewitched by the Tribbles. And two, there’s an awesome barroom fight involving Scotty and Chekov against Klingons who look nothing like Worf on the ’90s “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It can’t go wrong. (AP)
‘Journey to Babel,’ Season 2, Episode 10 (November 17, 1967) It’s high interstellar intrigue as Federation ambassadors board the Enterprise to discuss dilithium-mining rights on the Coridium system and that system’s entry into the Federation. When a representative is murdered, all eyes turn to Spock’s father Sarek, who we are introduced to for the first time (Spock’s sweet human mother, too). There is a side plot that features the tension between father and son, and the pleasure of it all comes from getting to know Spock’s human side just a little more. (AP)
‘All Our Yesterdays,’ Season 3, Episode 23 (March 14, 1969) In this poignant episode, Spock reverts to ancient Vulcan and falls in love — with a woman in the past. He and McCoy fall through a planet’s portal, and Kirk is sent to a place that looks like 17th-century England, while trying to evacuate the one remaining resident of Sarpeidon, which is about to go supernova. (AP)
‘And the Children Shall Lead,’ Season 3, Episode 4 (October 11, 1968) Definitely not a fan favorite, this chapter could be memorably unsettling depending on your age when you first saw this “Lord of the Flies” meets “Village of the Damned” episode. A group of children is found alive among the bodies of their dead parents and brought onto The Enterprise, where the young ones proceed to destabilize the crew with some kind of kiddie voodoo. Turns out, they are in the service of some evil Godfather-like being called Gorgan, who dresses in a choir gown but is far from holy. It is not until the kids are shown playbacks of a happier time with their moms and dads that they are able to break the spell. (AP)
The original Star Trek TV series ran from 1966 to 1969 starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nemoy, who died in March, as Mr. Spock, and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy.
September 22, 2023 | WTOP's Kelley Vlahos chats with author Andrew Fazekas (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago, “Star Trek” beamed into living rooms for the first time, launching one of the most successful franchises in the galaxy and a decades-long love affair for pioneers across space, discovering new worlds and beings, and navigating the shoals of interstellar relationships.

While science and technology inspired the show, “Star Trek” has the unique honor of inspiring generations of engineers, astronauts and scientists who were in turn able to advance human capabilities far beyond stardate Sept. 8, 1966. That’s the date when the first episode, “The Man Trap,” launched this pioneering TV program into the collective consciousness.

Yahoo News science columnist Andrew Fazekas, who also writes the StarStruck column for NationalGeographic.com, has written a new book that puts the science of “Star Trek” in context for the modern reader. “Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe” is part textbook, part fan fun, part actionable guide to Fazekas’s favorite topic: the stars.

“I wanted to get people really excited about when they’re watching the show, by really being able to research the reality and the connection with reality, the technology concepts, the science concepts and particularly the idea of being able to go out and then look at the objects themselves — take your own cosmic adventure in your backyard,” Fazekas told WTOP.

Those “objects” invariably include planets, stars, comets, black holes, quasars, dwarfs and more, which Fazekas lays out in colorful tutorials, not only about what they are, but the roles they often play in the series and the best times to see them in the night sky.

Probably the most fun is seeing how the “Star Trek” science of the 1960s — as well as the show’s later incarnations like “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise” — measure up to modern realities.

In many cases, it holds up uncannily good, the book notes. Laser technology is advancing in the military and GPS is now the “locator” of today. Communicators are cellphones, while hypospray and FitBits are tools that up until now we’ve only seen in the starship’s sick bays. 3D printers are yet another step toward replicators, and those view screens used for intergalactic diplomacy? Now we have Skype. What’s more, virtual reality is on its way to becoming a sort of holodeck of the future.

“Look at where we are today — we have smartphones that hearken back directly to Kirk’s flip phone, or the medial tricorder that Dr. McCoy would use during their adventures on planets, being able to diagnose people on the fly,” Fazekas said. “[Today] we’ve got wristwatch bands that can tell your pulse rate and your blood pressure, and tools for diabetics to monitor sugar levels.”

“It’s playing out what ‘Star Trek’ had. I think the appeal has always been there because it always seemed like we were on the edge of fulfilling these visionary visions that ‘Star Trek’ had. And it’s true, all of these scientists and engineers have been inspired directly by it, and it’s no accident that some of these devices, the technologies today, really look like they did in the ‘Star Trek’ series.”

Listen to the full interview with author Andrew Fazekas below:

September 22, 2023 | WTOP's Kelley Vlahos chats with author Andrew Fazekas (Jason Fraley)
September 22, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Kelley Vlahos' chat with author (Jason Fraley)

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

© 2016 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.

Federal News Network Logo

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up