"The Tholian Web"
Writer: Judy Burns & Chet Richards
Director: Herb Wallerstein
Producer: Fred Freiberger
When it comes to lists of "actually good" episodes of third season Trek, "The Tholian Web" usually comes near the top of the list, usually under "The Enterprise Incident". And it does have a ton of stuff that makes it fodder for Trekkies: new alien races, new technology, alternate dimensions, a strong Kirk/Spock/McCoy focus, and even a good showcase for the "junior officers" due to Shatner's reduced screentime.
But "The Tholian Web" is also fascinating for the way in which it examplifies an odd trend of the entire third season, which is namely the change in genre focus of the entire series. Season three is significantly more pulpy than the show was previously. There's more of the kind of sensationalist content you'd expect from the lead cover stories of old sci-fi magazines, all with a kind of bizarre horror tinge. Previously, the Enterprise explored a galaxy full of challenges and moral questions, yes, but a galaxy that makes sense. But in season three, the bizarre and unknowable rears its head for stories that are more dedicated to be unnerving and strange than to posing intellectual or philisophical dilemmas.
In this case, "The Tholian Web" is above all a ghost story. While it's heart may be the dilemmas Spock faces while in command, and learning to turn to and appreciate the advice of McCoy, the "weird" that drives the story is that Captain Kirk (and the entire abandoned starship he was on at the time) has disappeared and is presumed dead, but then begins appearing in a spectral form around the ship to several crewmen, including Uhura initially.
The complications to recovering the captain prove equally memorable, with the introduction of one of the series most unique and memorable aliens, the titular Tholians. That it took almost forty years for another one to show up in a Trek production made them ever more mysterious and noted in the minds of fandom. And ultimately the episode's true heart, the scene where Spock and McCoy view Kirk's recorded "last orders", cuts right to the kind of character interaction that ultimately made the series so beloved and remembered over the years.
If the episode has an issue, it's the one that many of the episodes this season share. Namely that it doesn't have enough content to really fill it's hour, and ends up feeling slow and repetitive through a large portion of its runtime.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4