Captain Kirk’s Essential Star Trek Episodes, Ranked

Captain Kirk’s Essential Star Trek Episodes, Ranked
Happy future-birthday, Jim. (Screenshot: Paramount)

March 22 is not just the birthday of Star Trek icon William Shatner, but his fictional counterpart, Captain James T. Kirk. As we get ready to meet a younger version of the Starfleet legend in Strange New Worlds, and Chris Pine’s alt-timeline Kirk is set to return in a new Star Trek movie, we look back on the character-defining episodes of the original series to find Kirk’s very best.

10) A Piece of the Action

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One of Trek’s more goofy episodes — the Enterprise visits a planet that hasn’t technologically evolved beyond early 20th century technology, which is basically an excuse for them to visit 1920s New York without actually doing a time travel episode — “A Piece of the Action” makes up for its silly glee (and the clear relish Shatner and company have for riffing off the classic gangster story aesthetic) by having Kirk just run circles around his adversaries with some grade-A bullshitting. The scene where he creates card game Fizzbin completely out of thin air to trick his captors into freeing himself, Spock, and Doctor McCoy is just delightful.

9) Amok Time

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An all time great episode of Trek, it’s a bit lower on this list because it is, naturally, more of Spock episode than a Kirk one, as the science officer returns home to Vulcan to undergo the mating season ritual of Pon Farr. Kirk’s role as Spock’s advocate and closest friend however is vital to what makes “Amok Time” so great, as he is willing to go far enough into helping Spock work his way through the gruelling effects of Pon Farr by fighting his own friend in a seeming duel to the death — and nearly losing.

8) The Corbomite Manoeuvre

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This episode features one of the first truly weird alien encounters in all of Star Trek — the creepy Blalok of the “First Federation” who is, hilariously, revealed to be an elaborate puppet used by the actual child-like Blalok. “The Corbomite Manoeuvre” is also one of Star Trek’s earliest highlights of Kirk’s approach to commanding the Enterprise, putting him in a risky encounter with a seemingly hostile alien warship that tests both his tactical acumen and how willing he is to put his crew in danger.

7) The Changeling

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“A Piece of the Action” might have covered the more comical aspect of Kirk’s ability to charm and verbally outwit an opponent, but “The Changeling” is perhaps the inverse example, where Kirk’s quick thinking and ability to talk his way out of a dangerous scenario results in what’s become an all-time classic Star Trek trope: tricking a sinister computer into out-logic-ing itself into defeat.

6) The Trouble With Tribbles

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Original Trek’s funniest episode is, perhaps by default, Kirk’s funniest episode. He gets to be the put-upon captain surrounded by ever-growing masses of purring fuzzballs, but he also just gets to be the cocky dude that has become in many ways our de facto impression of Kirk. It’s just that this time, he turns that devil-may-care cockiness on a fellow Federation official, in the form of snooty Under-Secretary Nilz Baris (who definitely deserves it).

5) Errand of Mercy

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This classic tussle with the Klingons isn’t high on the list because it shows Kirk off in some great victory or anything, but for the exact opposite reason: it shows Kirk at a moment when he’s willing to accept that sometimes he will make the wrong judgment, and learn from that mistake as he does here by going against the Klingons. Kirk isn’t the perfect hero we often idealize him as, but a man constantly reckoning with his own humanity and failings — and that’s what makes him such a great character in the first place.

4) Mirror, Mirror

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Star Trek’s first foray into the evils of the Mirror Universe alt-reality is still arguably its finest, over a half-century later. But what makes it work is not necessarily just the sinister, moral-inversion idea of an Enterprise and Federation (now rendered the Terran Empire) that works for horrifying goals rather than idealistic ones. It’s also Kirk’s inherent struggle and horror at trying to temporarily survive in that world — not because he doesn’t think he’s capable of effectively sneaking about as his Mirror self when he’s transported to the alternate reality, but because of disgust at having to hide the good man he really is.

3) Arena

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We’ve written before about what a fantastic Kirk episode this is, so, we’ll keep it brief: this is about more than just Star Trek’s loveably dodgy fight scene between a two-fist-swinging William Shatner and a guy in a lizard-alien rubber suit. “Arena” is about Kirk and humanity at large’s constant struggle with its primal, violent self, even in the idealised future of Star Trek — and how people and societies don’t simply just become “good” and stay that way, but have to constantly reckon with, and acknowledge, those inherent struggles.

The two-fist slam is pretty goddamn great though.

2) City on the Edge of Forever

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Another all-time great Trek episode, and arguably still its definitive time-travel story. But once again, part of what makes “City on the Edge of Forever” is just how willing it is to portray the human vulnerability of Kirk. His doomed romance with Edith Keeler, and eventual willingness to sacrifice his own personal happiness to maintain the integrity of the timeline — and how hard it is for Kirk to make that decision, above all — is one of the series’ most brilliant examinations of Kirk beyond the exaggerated characterization of him we have in our heads.

1) Balance of Terror

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Much of this list covers the human side of Kirk’s adventures, but “Balance of Terror,” frequently considered one of the greatest episodes of Star Trek ever made, is absolutely about that and Kirk’s acumen as a captain. Facing off against an equally skillful Romulan Commander, poking at the Enterprise with his cloaked vessel in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, “Balance” triumphs not just on its tense battle of wills and martial skill — but because Kirk never considers his rival in the Romulan navy to simply be an enemy to be discounted, but an honorable adversary worthy of being treated with respect in conflict, right until the very end.