Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
So what’s so bad about season 3 of Star Trek?

So what’s so bad about season 3 of Star Trek?

© Paramount Pictures

It seems – at least to me – that there is a subset of Star Trek fans who really don’t like the third season of the original series (TOS). I’m basing this on comments or posts I’ve seen on various forums or pop culture blogs similar to this one over the past 10 or so years. Sometimes I’ve even seen it formulated like this: “I know [*insert episode name and/or number here*] is from season three, but it’s still pretty good.” This, frankly, mystifies me.

When I was watching Star Trek reruns as a little kid, and even later as a teen and well into my twenties, they all seemed of a piece to me. Indeed, since I never read any of the accompanying reference books or even fanzines like Starlog, I wouldn’t have even been able to tell anyone what season a given episode belonged to, except for a few that I could tell were made earlier, like The Corbomite Maneuver or Where No Man Has Gone Before. (Needless to say, I was also quite unaware of all the behind-the-scenes stuff going on at the studio, including staff shake-ups and budget cuts, that did truly distinguish the third season – at least in terms of production – from the first two.) So I only became aware of the alleged ‘suckiness’ of season three in the last decade or so, when I began to frequent pop culture sites like this one.

From here, we have nowhere to go but up (© Paramount Pictures)

But I honestly don’t get the occasional across-the-board expressions of distaste I see for season three among people who are supposedly Trek fans. Sure, it has some turkeys like the infamous Spock’s Brain, but it also has a few episodes that I consider among the best of the entire series, like The Enterprise Incident, The Tholian Web, and Day of the Dove, as well as really strong ones like Is There No Truth in Beauty?, or Requiem for Methuselah. Heck, I even like some of the ones that are often the butt of criticism for their heavy-handedness, like Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or Plato’s Stepchildren (and not just because of that famous kiss), or the butt of jokes, like The Way to Eden – I loves me some space hippies.

As Austin Powers would say: Yeah, baby! (© Paramount Pictures)

Even some of the more problematic episodes, like The Paradise Syndrome (Capt. Kirk goes native) or the notorious Turnabout Intruder (with its troubling gender politics), are still enjoyable or at least watchable, with some solid performances by the actors involved.

I should also note that arguably the worst Trek episode ever, The Alternative Factor, is from season one. And I’ve always kind of strongly disliked (can’t bring myself to say hated) season two’s Catspaw (basically, the annoying Halloween episode). Furthermore, season two has several episodes which are entertaining enough (and are indeed memorable) but which are pretty damn silly if you really think about them: A Piece of the Action (basically, the Star Trek gang visits Prohibition-era Chicago), Patterns of Force (Star Trek fights literal Nazis) and Bread and Circuses (even in space, all roads, apparently, lead to Rome).

Kirk’s invention of fizzbin, however, was epic (© Paramount Pictures)

So all in all, I really see no reason to set TOS season three aside as bad or inferior. Neither do they:

“Oh, so you don’t like season 3, eh? Mr. Sulu, load photon torpedoes…” (© Paramount Pictures)


  1. M-Wolverine

    Huh, I can’t remember if in syndication they even ran the episodes in order. So I think I would have had a hard time saying the quality was going up or down. They were just episodes. Every so often there’s one that obviously would have to come after/before another, but for the most part they were pretty stand alone.

    Season 3 obviously in had some cut backs, but I don’t think it’s one of those shows that obviously fell off a cliff or anything. Maybe the hit rate isn’t quite as high, but it’s not like the quality of it was a steep decline. I can think of a lot worse. I think it mainly gets blame because it is the season with Spock’s Brain. But at least that was memorable. I looked up The Alternative Factor and I can’t remember it at all. I thought I had pretty much memorized every beat of the OS at this point, but that’s like a blank. I’m certainly getting older, but that was not a memorable episode, which is probably a bigger indictment.

    Though I will brook no argument that A Piece of the Action is anything but classic television. 🙂

  2. I think the reason is misplaced loyalty. The narrative was that Gene Roddenberry was pushed out for the third season, so those episodes can’t possibly be as good as the ones made under his supervision, because Roddenberry was seen by the fans as “the Great Bird of the Galaxy” and the embodiment of Star Trek.

  3. M-Wolverine

    Interesting in hindsight, because didn’t Next Generation get a whole lot better after he got pushed out of that one?

    Not to discount his contributions to the original show.

  4. dalgoda7

    I used to think that the criticism of S3 was silly, until I watched the entire series in order again recently over the course of a few weeks. Aside from a few of the memorable episodes you mention (I still really enjoy Spock’s Brain and the Space Hippies, and a couple of others from the season), overall there is a noticeable decline in the watchability as opposed to the first couple of seasons (where EVERY episode is enjoyable/memorable, IMO). Writing, acting, the whole package. Some episodes are just horrible:

    And the Children Shall Lead
    The Empath
    The Lights of Zetar
    The Cloud Minders
    Turnabout Intruder

    In essence, I feel that viewing S3 as a whole in a short span of time supports the theory that it’s lesser than the first two.

  5. Le Messor

    Like dalgoda7, I rewatched the whole thing not long ago. I didn’t notice the same decline, though.

    There’s no episode of TOS that I actively dislike; though I can see the stupidity in Spock’s Brain, it’s still an entertaining episode, and not a HUGE drop in quality from others. I also like the Hallowe’en theatrics of Catspaw.
    Aren’t there at least three episodes are basically the same – the ship lands on some paradise planet, but it turns out a computer is controlling them all? (The Return Of The Archons, The Apple, and the one whose name I can never remember, but it basically has the same plot as The Purge.)

    I find The Alternative Factor unmemorable (like M-Wolverine), not terrible. Though I can kind of remember which one it is.

    Jim’s right – it’s because there was no Roddenberry that people dis the whole season.

  6. John King

    At one point I decided to work out what my favourite 10 episodes of original Star Trek
    I ended up with
    “The Enemy Within”, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “The Devil in the Dark”, “The Naked Time”, “Mirror, Mirror”, “Balance of Terror”, “By Any Other Name”, “The Conscience of the King” and “I, Mudd”
    some were fun others had deep concepts, some good stories
    not one of them was from season 3

    I enjoyed season 3 but it didn’t seem to equal the peaks of the first 2 seasons

  7. Part of it is that the people who actually worked on the show hated that season. The new producer, Fred Freiberger, really didn’t understand what he was doing and kept trying to dumb it down into an action show. Dorothy Fontana, especially, was horrified by the rewrites done on THE ENTERPRISE INCIDENT, which began as an allegory for the then-current Pueblo spy scandal in Vietnam. She actually made it a point to go and apologize to Leonard Nimoy for it. Nimoy himself was extremely angry about the lameness of not just that episode but also WHOM GODS DESTROY (which began with Spock deducing which Kirk was the fake through pure logic, no fistfight) and SPECTRE OF THE GUN (which began as the Enterprise crew simply being unaffected by the bullets in the climactic gunfight scene, no fistfight)….l think you may see a pattern emerging. “Spectre of the Gun,” incidentally, was written by Gene Coon who took his name off it because the script was butchered so badly (it’s credited to “Lee Cronin.”) This is all documented in the various books written about the show; most obviously Nimoy’s and David Gerrold’s. (Gerrold had his own disputes with Freiberger over “The Cloud Minders,” which was again subjected to many dumbing-down rewrites.)

    Jim is right about the canonization of Roddenberry helping to perpetuate the disdain, but there WERE real reasons for it. Moreover, Roddenberry disciples tend to gloss over the fact that Roddenberry himself was responsible for a lot of the shitty stuff in season three– mostly money things and budget things. It probably would horrify hardcore Trekkies to learn that the IDIC concept was inserted basically so they could sell the medallions through Lincoln Enterprises. That same Lincoln Enterprises, the fan club/merchandising service that was created largely by Bjo Trimble as part of the Save Star Trek campaign, was taken away from her and given to Roddenberry’s girlfriend (later wife) Majel Barrett as soon as it showed signs of becoming a cash cow.

    And so on. Roddenberry was really kind of a creep; a lot of people were very invested in covering up for him, either because their own careers were dependent on him or because they were trying to spare Majel, who by all accounts was a really lovely person. But now she’s gone people are much more willing to talk about this stuff.

    I have this column percolating about how Gene Roddenberry is perceived as a utopian liberal humanist and Jack Webb is thought of as being a conservative icon but in real life each was the opposite. There is a lot of America-First fascism and white supremacy/colonization ideas in the original Trek (The Apple, Return of the Archons, Bread and Circuses) and a lot of social progressiveness in Dragnet.

  8. Edo Bosnar

    I would put The Omega Glory in that latter (“America-first”) category as well. And I just checked, it was indeed written by Roddenberry.

    Anyway, like I said in the post, I know about the problems on and around the set that truly had a negative impact on the production of season 3. However, I was blissfully unaware of most of that stuff for roughly the first three or so decades of my Star Trek fandom. So for example, two of the episodes Greg mentioned that had troubled behind-the-scenes aspects, Whom Gods Destroy and The Cloud Minders, are among those I consider flawed but still pretty good.

    My point is that – strictly from the standpoint of a critical viewer – you can find episodes like that in the first two seasons. I keep coming back A Piece of the Action and Patterns of Force in particular. I don’t dislike those episodes, as generally the overall stories are good, the but basic premise of each, i.e., why things on these planets are the way they are, is so incredibly ridiculous that it almost makes me want to pull my hair out. In the former, a large, hardcover academic book (not old movies or something more plausible) leads the Iotians to adopt the culture, including the dialect, of 1920s gangland Chicago?! In the latter, a historian (!) imposes the fascist sociopolitical model on a chaotic society to help them establish order, down to the actual use of Nazi symbols? And is then taken aback when he sees how far it’s all gone? Dude, a first-year history major could have told you what to expect…

  9. Jeff Nettleton

    Since I was born the year the show premiered, I only saw it in syndication. So, I never had a sense of season, other than uniform alterations (and I didn’t see some of those first season episodes until years later, due to not having syndication access, over a long period of time). There are episodes in that season I like (Enterprise Incident, Tholian Web) and some that I don’t. The bulk of my favorites are from the first two seasons, to be sure; but, not all. I never had a problem with things like A Piece of the Action or Patterns of Force. I was always interested in history and I guess I always saw them for what they were. I was never a fan of space hippies or Kirk as a Native American or stuff like that; it rarely worked well. Just about anything with Klingons or Romulans was good, any time Harry Mudd turned up, anything that deftly mixed humor, drama and action were favorites. Day of the Dove was a particular favorite, as I loved films with fencing and sword fights in them and this had it in spades. Plus, Michael Ansara was one of the most memorable Klingons.

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