When Star Trek fans make their best-of lists, they usually focus on episodes that offer up superior action scenes (“The Best of Both Worlds,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise”), build on the franchise’s mythology (“Amok Time,” “Space Seed,” “Mirror, Mirror”), or are just straight-up damn good pieces of writing (“City on the Edge of Forever”, “Balance of Terror,” “The Measure of a Man”). They might even mention some dramatic episodes that hit you right in your feelings (“Duet,” “The Inner Light”, “The Visitor”). But best-of lists of the funniest Star Trek episodes? Those are a little harder to come by.
Which is a shame, because Star Trek is full of funny stuff. And I’m not talking about the things that have given hack comedians a ton of material: Shatner’s acting, Kirk’s libido, the occupational hazards of wearing a red shirt. No, I’m talking about the intentional humor — the shows where the writers put a pause on the interstellar intrigue and weighty exploration of deep ethical issues and said, “Hell with it — let’s just have some fun.”
What kind of shows am I talking about? Shows like these…
1. “The Trouble With Tribbles” (TOS)
Talk about starting out with a bang: the script for this episode was screenwriter David Gerrold’s first professional work, and it has gone on to become one of the most celebrated episodes in Trek lore. The plot is simple enough — the Enterprise is called in to protect a valuable shipment of grain, but their mission is complicated by the presence of Klingons and a fertile species of harmless fluffy critters. The comedy lies in the perfect little character moments: Mr. Spock falling under the tranquilizing effect of the tribbles, Kirk butting heads with the officious bureaucrat that dares to order him around, Kirk’s exasperated look as an avalanche of tribbles rain down on his head. But for my money, the episode MVP is Scotty, whose confession to Kirk about the insult that started his brawling with the Klingons — and Kirk’s reaction to what set Scotty off — is worth the price of admission.
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Trials and Tribble-ations,” a 1996 episode that saw the DS9 crew go back in time to the events of “The Trouble with Tribbles” to foil a time-travelling assassin. The episode ingeniously inserts the DS9 crew, Forrest Gump-style, into actual scenes from the original episode. “All right, fine! But I can’t wait to get back to Deep Space Nine and see your face when you find out that I never existed!”
2. “A Piece of the Action” (TOS)
“Are you afraid of cars?” “Not at all, Captain. It’s your driving that alarms me.” Oh, you two and your bickering. Summoned to a pre-warp planet by a radio signal the inhabitants shouldn’t know how to send, Kirk and company beam down to find themselves in a city resembling Chicago in the 1920s. As it turns out, a previous Federation ship left behind a history book about the Chicago mob wars, and the Iotians based their entire culture around (TV budget-friendly) Tommy guns and double-breasted suits. Come for the sight of seeing Kirk and Spock play dress-up in TV budget-friendly period costumes; stay for the glorious introduction of fizzbin to the world. Look out for the kronk!
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “First Contact,” the Season 4 TNG episode in which a first-contact mission to a planet on the verge of developing warp-drive technology goes awry when Riker is captured and the doctors treating him realize he’s not from their world. Screw-ups like what happened to the Iotian culture are why Starfleet officers proceed with extreme caution when dealing with pre-warp civilizations… although I don’t think “caution” is the word that nurse would use to describe how her own “first contact” with Riker went, if you know what I mean, and I know that you do.
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The first one was long and interminably slow; the second was an out-and-out classic; the third was okay, but light on action and landing entertainment-wise somewhere in the middle of the first two. The first three Star Trek movies all had their moments, but none was what you might call “rib-tickling.” And then came 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which saw Kirk and crew travel back in time to 20th-century San Francisco to find some whales that can talk to a space probe that… you know what? It doesn’t matter. Just accept the premise and enjoy watching your favorite Starfleet officers get into all kinds of wacky fish-out-of-water antics. “He’s just gonna hang around the bushes while we eat?” “A keyboard. How quaint.” “Excuse me, sir. Can you direct us to the naval base in Alameda? It’s where they keep the nuclear wessels.” This is an extremely primitive and paranoid culture.” You don’t know the half of it, Jim.
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Little Green Men,” a deliberate homage to 1950s B-movies that finds Quark, Nog and Rom accidentally travel back in time and wind up captured by the U.S. military in 1947 in a little place called Roswell, New Mexico. Spoiler alert: The Ferengi aren’t hugely impressed with the “hew-mons” they meet, though even the threat of vivisection doesn’t dull Quark’s capitalist instincts. On his introduction to tobacco: “If they’ll buy poison, they’ll buy anything!”
4. “Ménage à Troi” (TNG)
Lwaxana Troi is… let’s call her a divisive figure in Trekdom. A lot of fans don’t mind her showing up that much, while a lot more would be the first to push her out the nearest airlock if they could. I’ll just say a little of Deanna’s mother can go a long way, and a few minutes of her presence here explains Deanna’s decision to join an organization that promises warp-speed travel to all corners of the galaxy. In this episode — the third to feature Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as Lwaxana — Riker, Deanna and Lwaxana are kidnapped by a Ferengi who’s smitten with Lwaxana’s “exhilarating” personality. Honestly, most of the episode is pretty standard TNG stuff until we get to the final act, a glorious bit of theatre in which Picard starts spouting Shakespeare while pretending to be Lwaxana’s insanely jealous ex-suitor — and drops the act immediately after she’s returned to the Enterprise. “Mr. Crusher, set course for Betazed. (quietly) Warp 9.”
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Fascination,” a DS9 episode in which Lwaxana makes an appearance at a Bajoran festival in search of Odo just when she’s suffering an illness that causes her to unintentionally project her hot-to-trot impulses on everyone around her. Think A Midsummer’s Night Dream but with more aliens and technobabble.
5. “Qpid” (TNG)
“Sir, I protest. I am not a merry man!” We know, Mister Worf. We know. This episode featured the return of both Q and Vash, and it’s a toss-up which one causes Picard more grief. When Vash shows up unexpectedly, she’s angry to discover Picard has talked to no one about her or their time on Risa together, and Q — ever the peacemaker — decides to cheer Picard up by showing him the foolishness of love… which he does by zapping Vash, Picard and the Enterprise crew into a Robin Hood adventure. Honestly, almost any episode featuring our favorite omnipotent trickster is worth checking out, but this one is extra special for teaming up Q and Vash, the two characters who can fluster Picard better than anyone. And it turns out Jean-Luc can be quite the swashbuckler when he has to be. Heh. “Swashbuckler.” Such a funny word.
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Q-Less,” an early DS9 episode that brought back Q and Vash for more shenanigans, this time on board Deep Space Nine. “You hit me! Picard never hit me!” “I’m not Picard!” I get the feeling Avery Brooks specifically asked for that line, just to make sure everyone got the message.
6. “Our Man Bashir” (DS9)
“Don’t worry, Doctor, we’re going to have a wonderful time. After all, what could possibly go wrong?” Famous last words, Garak. It seems Dr. Bashir is a fan of James Bond-type spy thrillers, and so he books himself some time on a holodeck playing out one of his spy fantasies when Garak joins in the fun. At the same time, a transporter accident results in Sisko, Dax, Worf, O’Brien and Kira appearing as characters in the program, with no idea they’re playing fictional characters. Bashir and Garak have no choice but to play out the program and stall for time while the rest of the DS9 crew figure out a way to retrieve their colleagues’ physical patterns from the holodeck. In terms of groan-inducing plot contrivances, “holodeck mishap” ranks right up there with “transporter mishap,” but damn if this episode doesn’t make you want to look right past both of them happening at the same time and revel in the hilarity of Sisko on an all-scenery diet as a mad scientist, or Dax as “Professor Honey Bare.” And watching the crew take a rare chance to prance around in period costumes (as seen above) is the olive in this perfect martini (shaken, not stirred).
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Hollow Pursuits,” the TNG episode that introduces Reg Barclay (played by Dwight Schultz), the introverted lieutenant who retreats into holodeck fantasy as a way of avoiding the social pressures of the real world. No one ends up trapped in his holodeck programs, but he puts his own twist on holodeck versions of Picard, Riker and the rest of the crew, giving the cast a chance to act extremely out of character.
7. “The Magnificent Ferengi” (DS9)
One of Star Trek’s strengths is its ability to conjure up entire alien civilizations that each have their own unique look, culture and social structure: Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Borg. And then there’s the Ferengi. First introduced in TNG as a buffoonish race of “Yankee traders,” their handful of appearances as antagonists annoying Picard over something suggest the writers weren’t too interested in exploring their culture too deeply. Quark’s introduction to the DS9 cast changed that; while the Ferengi-heavy episodes suggest they were still mostly intended as comic relief, Quark and his family were given their chance to show there was more to their sniveling, self-interested nature than The Rules of Acquisition would suggest — even a dash of (dare we say it) heroism. “The Magnificent Ferengi” (a wink to The Magnificent Seven) finds Quark and several of his fellow Ferengi team up to save Quark’s mother from the Dominion. A ship with a half-dozen Ferengi taking on trained Jem’Hadar warriors? What could possibly go wrong? Also: Iggy Pop in alien makeup. ‘Nuff said. “Must’ve taken a wrong turn.” “It looks that way.” Hee.
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang,” a Season 7 DS9 episode in which Sisko joins the rest of the crew in a holosuite adventure to save their hologram friend Vic Fontaine’s Las Vegas lounge from gangsters taking over his club. It’s a caper episode in the best sense of the word. Plus: Avery Brooks sings!
8. “Author, Author” (VOY)
Truth? I think Voyager gets a bum rap. Not only does it have its fair share of action-packed nail-biters and thought-provoking episodes, it’s probably the most consistently funny series in the Trek franchise. A huge part of the credit for that has to go to Robert Picardo’s Doctor, a self-aware Emergency Medical Hologram program pressed into long-term service as the ship’s doctor — and willing to complain about it to anyone who’d listen. Like Spock, Data and Odo, the Doctor’s sense of otherness gave him a unique perspective, and episodes about him tended to focus on what it means to exist. “Author, Author” sees the Doctor complete a holo-novel that accomplishes two things: it gives us thinly veiled (and hilarious) fictional versions of the Voyager crew as tyrants, philanderers and just plain jerks who mistreat their holographic crewmate (the hero of the Doctor’s holo-novel), and it sets up a question of creator rights when the novel’s publisher insists the Doctor has no rights to his work because he is not considered a sentient being. In the end, it’s ruled he is not a person but is granted the status of an artist, so figure that one out.
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “The Measure of a Man,” an early TNG episode in which the android Data is also forced to defend his claim to personhood when a scientist who wants to reverse-engineer and mass-produce him declares he is Starfleet property. His situation is a little different from the the Doctor’s, in that Data was found by Starfleet personnel on a distant planet and wasn’t designed and programmed by Starfleet for use in Starfleet ships. Still, both episodes force us to take a look at what it means to be a sentient being with rights, and how we should treat those who don’t meet our easy definitions.
9. “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy” (VOY)
Picardo once described the filming of the episode as “the most fun I’ve had in shooting the entire series,” and who am I to disagree? Another episode with the Doctor taking centre stage, this one finds aliens attempting to spy on Voyager by tapping in to their computers, and accidentally call up the Doctor’s daydreaming subroutines. Yes, it’s another “everyone in the crew gets an excuse to act a little nutty” episode, but it works so well, from the Doctor’s opening performance as an opera tenor to Seven of Nine’s sudden interest in the Doctor’s, shall we say, bedside manner. “What I wouldn’t give for a whoopee cushion right about now.” “A what?” “Ancient technology.”
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Message in a Bottle,” another Voyager episode in which the Doctor’s holographic nature comes in handy when he’s transmitted to the Alpha Quadrant to carry a message from Voyager to Starfleet Command. The Doctor finds himself in the sickbay of an experimental starship that’s being hijacked by Romulans, and it’s up to him and that ship’s by-the-book EMH (played by a delightfully neurotic Andy Dick) to save the day. “I have even had sexual relations.” “Sex, how’s that possible? We’re not equipped.” “Let’s just say I made an addition to my program.” A rather significant addition, perhaps?
10. “Carbon Creek” (ENT)
“Every schoolkid knows that Zefram Cochrane met the Vulcans in Bozeman, Montana, on April 5th, 2063. I’ve been there. There’s a statue.” So says Trip when T’Pol suggests that wasn’t the first time Vulcans and humans interacted. As it turns out, her ancestor was part of a Vulcan crew that was stranded on Earth — specifically Carbon Creek, Penn. — in 1957. With no way to know if their distress call was transmitted, the trio attempt to blend in with the humans while they wait for help to arrive. No surprise, we get a lot of fish-out-of-water/get-a-load-of-these-crazy-humans humor, from the Vulcans’ initial low opinion of our species (“They devote what little technology they have to devising ways of killing each other”) to a gradual appreciation of our finer cultural offerings (“I need to go now. I Love Lucy is on tonight”). To quote Homer, “It’s true. We’re so lame.”
If you liked this, you’ll also like: “Assignment: Earth” is a classic Star Trek episode that finds Kirk and crew zipping back to 1968 (because apparently time travel was as easy as a stroll in the park back in the day) to engage in “historical research.” I guessing Kirk was really pissed they missed the Summer of Love by a whole year.