Many episodes of Star Trek have Kirk and the crew unknowingly being given a secret test of character by a superior alien race. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is one such episode.
The story begins with the crew finishing a day of star-mapping when navigator Lt. Bailey spots a strange spinning cube. (This was a very early episode. Pavel Chekov, who would normally have Bailey’s bridge position, wasn’t introduced until the second season episode “Amok Time”) Spock puts the crew on alert.
Kirk receives the alert and orders the ship to turn away, but the cube emits radiation and Kirk has no choice but to destroy it.
Later, the Enterprise encounters a glowing sphere and are hailed by an alien Balok, who tells them that the cube they destroyed was a buoy. He announces that they will be destroyed in ten minutes.
After discussion, Spock suggests that the crisis be approached like chess, keep advancing until the enemy reaches an impasse. Kirk has a better idea: approach it like a game of Poker. He threatens Balok by telling him that they do not fear death because their ship is made of “corbomite”. He tells Balok that if he tries to destroy the Enterprise, the “corbomite” will destroy his ship in the process. Balok apparently falls for the ruse, but not before asking for more details on this “corbomite”. Kirk continues his bluff and reveals noting.
A tug ship detaches from the alien vessel to tow the Enterprise with a tractor beam. Scotty manipulates the engines to gradually resist the beam, disabling the vessel and causing the Enterprise to break free. Seeing that their former enemy is now in distress, Kirk decides to board the ship to help, telling Spock to stay behind if it’s a trap.
When they board the ship, they discover the alien they’ve seen is just a prop. The real commander is child-like (played by Clint Howard, Ron Howard’s younger brother.) Balok tells them they have passed his test and offers them “tranya” to toast their new friendship.
This is truly one of the best episodes of the first season, showcasing Kirk as a brilliant strategist (which is often overlooked). It shows that even early on, the show had great potential, something you don’t often see in shows. (Often, the stronger episodes are written later, as the writers find their niche.)