The Episode opens as the Enterprise pursues the disabled Space Cruiser Aurora. They use tractor beams to grab the ship, but it overloads its engines in attempting to escape and explodes. Fortunately, Scotty is able to beam the six occupants on board just in the nick of time. The captives include Tongo Rad, the son of the Katulan ambassador and Irena, an old romantic involvement of Chekov's. The six are 'space hippies', wearing outlandish clothes and claiming that they are in search of the mythical planet Eden. When the group stage a sit-in in the transporter room, Kirk - who they dub Herbert after a minor official noted for his rigid and unoriginal patterns of thought - is unable to convince them otherwise, but Spock is soon able to reach an understanding with them.
After moving to sickbay, the group begin performing music while waiting for their physicals. Chekov arrives and talks to Irina, a former academy student who dropped out to follow a more rebellious lifestyle. She tells him she left him because he was so disapproving of her lifestyle, and urges him to behave more freely. He rejects her, and she joins her friends in a mini-riot outside sickbay. Their leader, it turns out, has a highly contagious disease that would have wiped out most of the population of a primitive planet had he settled on one. Sevrin rejects McCoy's diagnosis as the result of prejudice. Kirk confines Sevrin, much to the dismay of his followers. They continue their disruption, so Spock asks Sevrin to tell them to restrain themselves. Sevrin babbles about the problems of modern life, and Spock becomes convinced that he is insane. Nevertheless, Sevrin agrees to talk to his followers if Spock locates Eden for him.
Spock keeps up his side of the bargain, but Sevrin's supporters begin to learn about the ships systems and crew in order to stage a take-over. They hold a concert in the ships rec. room, with Spock as a guest performer. While the crew is distracted, Tongo Rad frees Sevrin and they use the auxiliary control room to seize the ship. He threatens to destroy the ship if Kirk attempts to regain control, and heads across the neutral zone and into Romulan space. He soon locates Eden, and rigs up a sonic weapon. As Kirk tries to burn through the doors Sevrin uses his weapon to incapacitate the crew, setting it to kill everybody once he has left the ship in order to prevent pursuit. Fortunately, Kirk manages to shut the device off in the nick of time.
Kirk beams down to capture Sevrin, and finds a fantastically beautiful planet. Unfortunately, all the plant life is so acidic that even touching it is instant agony. They soon find one of the group dead, poisoned by a local fruit, and the rest huddling in the shuttle suffering from terrible acid burns. Even so, Sevrin refuses to leave - instead he takes a bite out of a local fruit and is instantly killed.
Afterwards, Chekov says an emotional goodbye to Irina - each hoping that they have learned a little from the other. As the episode ends Spock urges her not to give up her struggle to find Eden, telling her that if necessary she must create it herself - a sentiment Kirk agrees with.
It's common among fans to nominate Spock's Brain as the worst Trek episode ever, but personally I have become convinced that this offering is by far the worst of the original series. For those who don't know, Trek was cancelled after the end of its second season due to poor ratings. It was revived after a huge fan campaign, but the budget was slashed and Roddenberry was forced out in favour Douglas S. Cramer. Leonard Nimoy notes in his book "I Am Spock" that Cramer thought the low ratings were due to the show having too much in the way of cerebral plot lines and too little action - echoing the response of the Network to the original pilot episode several years before.
The Way To Eden is very obviously an attempt to gather more viewers for the show - you can just see some exec somewhere saying "what we need is an episode that'll get all those drop-outs tuning in". While this may have seemed a necessary move at the time, it led to an episode that has dated more than any other in all of Trek. To anybody who missed the sixties - as I did - the whole thing just looks incredibly silly. While I can't speak for those who are old enough to remember the sixties, I imagine even they must look back on it with a certain degree of embarrassment.
The Original Series is famed for having people run around in skimpy costumes - or rather, for having women run around in skimpy costumes, the men usually do much better in this respect. But the Way to Eden goes over the top even by TOS standards. And the music - groovy baby, just groovy. As Phil Farrand notes in his "Nitpickers Guide" entry on this episode, The Next Generation handles this issue just right in concentrating on classical music - a composer who has already endured for centuries is likely to endure for a few centuries more. But the sixites-style stuff we get in this episode probably looked dated by 1970, let alone going into the next millennium!
Next we turn to the plot. This is a re-run of the classic "man in not meant to have paradise" which has been dealt with several times in Trek. But while "This Side of Paradise" and "A Private Little War" treat the subject with subtlety and skill, and even "Who Mourns for Adonis" has some redeeming features, The Way to Eden is just a mess. We're never told anything about just where these myths about Eden come from - is this supposed to be the biblical Eden, or some myth humans have created since achieving space flight, or something else altogether. Since we don't see Eden until very near the end we don't really get any sense of how wonderful it is, and so we don't feel much for it's loss. Since Sevrin and his followers are silly rather than sympathetic our response to their plight is not pity, but 'serves them right'.
Just about the only redeeming feature of this episode is the amusement which comes from watching Kirk get increasingly riled by Sevrin's group. Their insistence on yelling "Herbert" at him all the time brings a smile, and his obvious irritation that Spock is able to get on with them is amusing. But even here, I'm forced to wonder how it is that the ever logical Vulcan is the only person who can get through to a group who are virtually his diametrical opposites.
One final and fairly minor nit - the space cruiser Aurora is a Tholian ship with a couple of nacelles attached. But given the bashing I've just dished out, I'm pretty forgiving of this one - they had to have something after all, and given the budget situation in this season even a modification of an existing alien model is a significant achievement. Just look at "Let That be Your Last Battlefield", where Bele's ship is conveniently invisible in order to save money on special effects. And anyway, now that the remastered versions of these episodes are out we do get a nice new design for the ship, one which is very fitting for the TOS era.
Overall though, a stinker of an episode. Certainly the worst ever TOS episode and probably the worst of any of the four series.