Friday, May 26, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "The Tholian Web" (November 15, 1968)

"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

Next Voyage:

Friday, May 5, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "The Empath" (December 6, 1968)

"The Empath"
Writer: Joyce Muskat
Director: John Erman
Producer: Fred Freiberger

"The Empath" is a fascinating episode of Star Trek and I've been struggling with how to talk about it. Certainly it's the episode that leans the hardest into the budgetary confinements of season, producing a surreal, stage play atmosphere that might seem familiar to anyone who sat through the third season of the 1960s Batman TV show.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are trapped by aliens with a mysterious fourth prisoner, a woman Bones dubs "Gem". She can't speak, but she is empathic, to a sci-fi degree where in addition to feeling a person's emotional states she can also touch them and absorb their pain and injuries. She literally can cure people but only by hurting herself.

The aliens who've captured them have placed them underground in a seemingly endless black void with occasional props or furniture or devices scattered about, all designed to "test" their subjects, primarily by causing them pain and then seeing how Gem responds. They particularly want to know how far she'll go in harming herself to save others, and if she can be taught to sacrifice herself for the good of strangers.

In terms of the presence of aliens in silver robes with enlarged skulls testing captive humans for an unknown purpose, this episode definitely feels like a bizarre theatrical stage play reworking of the original pilot, "The Cage", updated from 1964 to 1968. But the focus is different. The pilot was about "can we trick this depressed human into being horny enough to mate a slave class for us?", this episode is about "Is a species of empaths worth saving from annihilation, if we can discover if they can use their powers for good?"

But ultimately the minimalist sets and sparse nature of the plot means the episode becomes focused in on the show's characters, particularly it's lead trio, and showing how Kirk, Spock and McCoy all react to the situation they've been placed in, and how they feel towards Gem and towards their captors. DeForrest Kelley cited this episode as his favourite of the series and maybe it's because its budgetary limitations meant the focus needed to be on the actors, their emotions and their performances, more than the trappings of gadgets, monsters and effects.

The actress playing Gem, Kathryn Hays, was trained first and foremost as a dancer. Her performance is extremely effective. It has perhaps it's broad moments, but given that her character is mute and must carry the episode and serve as its lynchpin without dialogue, her expressions and movements must be understood to be occuring in a mime/dance tradition, furthering the "modern theatre" atmosphere of the episode as a whole.

It's an abnormal episode of Trek, but its a standout entry in the beleagured third season.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Star Trek" Gold Key Comics Review, Issue #3 (December 1968)

"Invasion of the City Builders"
Writer: Dick Wood
Artist: Alberto Giolitti

The third issue of Gold Key's irregularly published Star Trek comics came midway through season three -- but the photo collage cover for this issue still uses a pre-series publicity photo of Spock paired with a still from season one's "Charlie X". The issue itself takes another tentative step towards feeling more like Trek and less like a generic pulp space adventure, and also features the debut of a new series artist. Alberto Giolitti, like his predecessor, was an Italian artist with no knowledge of the show working solely off of publicity photos. His style is very similar to Zaccara's, with very good likenesses all around, but he's not quite as good. His rendition of the Enterprise in particular isn't as gorgeous, and famously features fiery exhaust trailing behind the warp nacelles (because it's a rocket ship, right?).

In this issue, the Enterprise is journeying to planet Alpha Z-21, which is believed to be highly advanced technologically but no contact has been made with before. And I don't recall how bad it was in previous issues, but Dick Wood goes overboard on bad sci-fi terminology in this issue. Y'know the kind -- that sort of pulp sensibility of referring to money as "space dollars" and so on. In this case, a crewman tells Kirk that the ship's ETA at the planet is "two lunar hours, one galaxy minute"! What the hell is a lunar hour? Is it a 24th of a lunar day? Because just say "two days" then, man! And what the heck is a galaxy minute? If we're on lunar time (why?), why would you switch measuring scales? That's like saying I'm five feet and 12.7 centimeters tall. Why??

e's a lot of that kind of dialogue in this comic. Real haphazard half-ass stuff. Anyways whenever they manage to arrive at the planet, the Enterprise does a flyby of the planet, fiery exhaust trails and all, at an extremely low altitude. Like it's buzzing the tops of buildings. Dramatic? Yes. How the ship works on the show? Nope.

Anyways a landing party of Kirk, Spock and two nobodies beams down (still referred to as "teleporting" in this comic), and we learn what this planet's deal is -- the society became super automated with machines doing everything to the point where the machines also built the machines and those machines built the cities. Until finally the machines built more city than there were people for and now there's just a tiny bit of natural planet left and a tiny amount of inhabitants and soon the city building machines will pave over that paradise and put up a parking lot too.

Kirk & Spock meet with a local leader named Krill and pledge to help destroy the machines, teach the people agriculture, help them rebuild the planet, etc. At first Krill is skeptical, he even tries to sabotage them at one point when he feels his authority is being usurped by these newcomers, but when Spock discovers a chemical weakness in the metal the machines are made of, Krill volunteers for the risky mission to destroy them and win back his people.The comic ends with a civilization saved, quite a stark contrast to the apocalyptic ending of the previous two issues.

This is the first issue of Gold Key's Star Trek to try and do one of the series classic "social problem as sci-fi story" tales, in this case a story about over building, destruction of natural resources, and overreliance on machines. It handles it very simplistically, but then this is a comic book for children, and the fact that it tried at all raises it above the level of the previous two issues.

My question continues to be why Trek comics were coming out seemingly just once or twice a year when the show was on, and why the creative team behind the comics was only so passingly aware of what the show was like, even this far in the television run.

3 out of 4

Next Voyage: "An alien form invades the Enterprise through Spock's mind!" in The Peril of Planet Quick Change.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (October 18, 1968)

"Is There in Truth No Beauty?" 
Writer: Jean Lisette Aroeste
Director: Ralph Senensky
Producer: Fred Freiberger

This episode is always tough for me to judge, because it's got some excellent sci-fi concepts and some really nice character exploration, but the execution stumbles and falls due to writing that doesn't trust the audience to figure things out for themselves.

The premise is there is an alien race called the Medusans, who are extremely civilized, culturally advanced, intellectually gifted, etc and who take to problems of navigation like a fish to water. Unfortunately their race is a non-corporeal shapeless mass of light who's form is so alien to human comprehension the sight of them drives people mad, HP Lovecraft style.

The Medusan ambassador is brought aboard the Enterprise accompanied by a telepath, Dr Miranda Jones -- played by Diana Muldaur in a rare example of a returning guest star in a different role. It kinda irks me that the series just decides to say "Oh yeah, human telepaths are a thing" out of the blue, but I guess the second pilot established ESP was legit, so that's fine I suppose. It at least established that she had to study with the Vulcans to learn to control her abilities. Anyway, she's supposed to communicate the ambassador's wishes to the humans around -- turns out she can interact with him fine because she's blind, which is played like a big reveal way down the episode's runtime (she can "see" with the aid of a sensor net she wears as part of her ensembles).

Most of the episode is given over to a few things - one is that all the men on the ship keep remarking on how beautiful Miranda is and trying to make it with her (except Spock of course). The other is that Spock can potentially meld with the ambassador due to his mental abilities but Miranda is fiercely jealous. Basically, y'know, the super "ugly" ambassador is a real chill dude, but the super "beautiful" telepath is all jealous and bitter and full of hate. Do you get the theme? Get it?

Things get out of hand, and the climax of the episode is the Medusan ambassador entering Spock's body so as to interact with the crew to save the ship when it's lost in space due to a spell of madness having fallen on a character who saw the ambassador's true form.

The character study of Miranda Jones is very well rendered, an excellent portrayal of jealousy and bitterness and self-loathing. But the continual use of the words "beauty" and "ugly" to describe the various characters not only as rendering the episode's theme extremely obvious (why isn't this episode called "Eye of the Beholder"?), but also makes the Enterprise characters seem very crude. The Medusans are ugly? They're incomprehensible to the human psyche and madness inducing, but I don't know if that really qualifies as "ugly". Generally you need some kind of standard of beauty to compare to, don't you? The fact that the crew also find it, like, hard to believe that Miranda is kind of an awful person just because they're so attracted to her? I get that the message is all about like, surface level appearance versus inner character, but making the lead characters super shallow is a kind of shitty way to go about that. Seeing them all trip over themselves trying to get with Miranda isn't much fun.

The episode's pacing is occasionally sluggish, but it's balanced by the fact that this is a very creative episode in terms of its cinematic style. The relatively lightweight script is ably reinforced by inventive visual techniques, including the light patterns created for the Medusans, the fish-eye lens POV shots to indicate the induced madness, and various other novel experimentations from the usual Star Trek shooting style. 

Ultimately, though, this can't save the episode, which often has a meandering feeling, creating different character dilemmas to pad out its running time, because its central idea doesn't have enough depth in it to sustain the entire hour. A bit ironic in an episode about being shallow.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Spock's Brain" (September 20, 1968)

"Spock's Brain" 
Writer: Lee Cronin (Gene L. Coon)
Director: Marc Daniels
Producer: Fred Freiberger

Well, here we are. If there's an episode of Trek that's a punching bag, this is it. In truth, there are worse episodes of the show - but "Spock's Brain" gets special hate from fandom largely because of its unique history.

After the large effort Trek fandom went through to save the series from cancellation at the end of season two, this was the first episode to be broadcast in the third season. And for those loyal Trekkies who bothered to stay up and stay home for that 10pm premiere on Friday, this episode signalled that the series had been lobotimized just as Spock is.

This episode is written by the great Gene Coon, but since he was employed elsewhere during the third season, it's credited under his pseudonym, Lee Cronin. One could perhaps hope that if he had still been on staff this episode would have been polished more into something that explored its central ideas more, but...

This might be as good as time as any to discuss Star Trek's problem with gender equality. This is a television series that has received a lot of attention and praise over the years for its progressive, liberal, utopia vision of the future. And while the show does a fantastic job on issues of race & war, it stumbles and falls a lot on women's rights.

Part of this has to do with the show's creator. If you asked Gene Roddenberry if he felt women were equal to men, he'd definitely say yes. But he'd say it while he was hiding the side girl to his side girl under his desk because his wife's come to visit the office. This was a guy who was a womanizing alchoholic drug addict thief. And his attitudes translated into the "equal" women officers of the Enterprise wearing hemlines so high their underwear is frequently visible, and guest actresses wearing little more than the bare minimum of fabric to qualify getting on network television. Yes it was the Sixties and the Sexual Revolution, but Roddenberry was a womanizer: guest actresses were hired based on their potential lay factor for Gene.

At its core, Star Trek had sexism baked in, even if it didn't want it there.

So what does that have to do with "Spock's Brain"? Well, the story, such as it is, involves Spock's brain being stolen (without his hair even being disturbed!), and the Enterprise has to track it to an ice planet inhabited by a population of animalistic male cave dwellers on the surface and then an advanced society of women underground. But! The ultra-advanced society isn't actually run or maintained by the women, who are too dumb to understand how to work the technology, which is all automated. Unfortunatey their computer is broken, so they've stolen Spock's brain to put it into the computer to run their society.

The idea is supposed to be about how a gender fragmented society can't survive, the idea that we're stronger together than we are apart that's at the core of so much of Star Trek's ethos. But it's really not strongly explored at all, so what we're left with is that men without women are grunting cavemen and women without men are infantile idiots. The episode is more concerned with campy gags and plot machinations than exploring anything about the society itself.

It seems likely that the network chose the episode to air first because it ostensibly focused on Spock, the series' most popular character. But of course Spock is basically a brainless drone led around by McCoy on remote this episode -- an apt metaphor for Leonard Nimoy's own attitude to the series at this point.

However, if there's one thing to be said in the episode's favour it's this: the story is always moving forward. There isn't the feeling of tire-spinning one gets watching so many of these season three shows. Something happens, and then we're on to the next thing. The script may be ridiculous, with dialogue ripped from an Ed Wood movie, but it's paced well.

Another point in the hour's favour: without Spock, the rest of the cast -- Doohan, Nichols, Takei, Koenig -- all get ample time to shine and contribute. Indeed, season three overall has a better division of focus among the crew, an attempt to make the show more of an ensemble that perhaps may have developed more had the show lasted to a fourth season.

"Spock's Brain" is bad. It's a stupid plot based on a sexist theme. But it's fun, in a campy B-movie sort of way.

Rating: 1.5 out of 4

Next Voyage: