Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "The Doomsday Machine" (October 20, 1967)

"The Doomsday Machine"
Writer: Norman Spinrad
Director: Marc Daniels
Producer: Gene L. Coon

When I think of the most ambitious episodes of Star Trek, it's hard to think of one that perhaps bit off more than it can chew than this one. "The Doomsday Machine" could easily have been the basis for a whole Star Trek movie, and yet here it is as part of the budget conscious second season.

It's a big story. A massive autonomous robotic device, a doomsday machine if you will, is tearing through solar systems devouring planets. It's basically Star Trek's Galactus, or Unicron. Spock ascertains that it emerged from outside our galaxy, and Kirk surmises it must have been constructed as an ultimate weapon by some now destroyed society, and is now left to its own devices.

The starship Constellation ran into this thing, and when it was badly damaged it's commanding officer, Commodore Matt Decker, beamed his crew down to a nearby planet to save them. A planet then promptly destroyed by the doomsday machine. Oops. Now struck with a massive case of survivor's guilt and PTSD, Decker is beamed over to the Enterprise with McCoy, while Kirk and Scotty attempt to restore power to the Constellation.
That's when Spock determines that the next target will be the highly populated Rigel system, and Decker decides fuck it and pulls rank to take command of the Enterprise and launch an offensive against the weapon, despite Spock telling him that it's hull is too strong to be damaged by phasers and it's own weaponry will ultimately destroy the ship.

Ultimately, Spock manages to get Decker relieved from command due to psychological imbalance, but the Commodore takes a shuttle and rams it down the machine's maw in a suicide run. It does nothing to stop it, but it does do enough damage for Kirk to realize that ramming the Constellation into the machine may stop it.

While Decker is in command, the episode presents our first look (of many) at an unhinged Starfleet officer, the dangers of a captain losing objectivity and pursuing vengeance instead of the safety of his ship. In other words, it's the first of many, many times that Star Trek will riff on Moby-Dick. The remainder of the episode after his death is a race against time to destroy this thing, with damage to the Enterprise meaning that beaming Kirk back to the ship before the Constellation explodes isn't a sure thing.

It's an exciting hour, with multiple starships, a big galactic threat to intelligent life, and lots of space effects shots. Writer Norman Spinrad was apparently unhappy with the design of the planet killer, but I've always liked it since I was a kid for it's pure uniqueness. It's a very big episode and the multitude of effects must have cost a bundle.

If the show has a flaw, it's that William Windom is a *touch* over the top in his portrayal of Matt Decker's PTSD. He's great when Decker's taken command and lording it over everyone, but his grief and madness are a bit overplayed. And I'm saying that on a scale that takes William Shatner into account.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Amok Time" (September 15, 1967)

"Amok Time"
Writer: Theodore Sturgeon
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

What can I say about "Amok Time", one of the all time classics of the series? You probably already hear the music in your head. 

By the end of the show's first season, it was clear to all that Spock was the most popular character. Nimoy even managed to finangle his way into a raise, although the network had prepared the back-up of recasting the role if they couldn't reach an agreement. The biggest request from the nascent Trek fan community was to see more Vulcans, and to see the planet itself. So this episode was developed to deliver.

Most Trekkies can probably quote the plot chapter and verse. Spock's acting erratic, McCoy examines him and determine he must return to his home planet or he'll die. Spock is tightlipped about why, but it turns out it's the Vulcan mating season. This immensely logical race is driven by a biological urge to return home to mate, and while they'll covered it in rituals and ceremonies, essentially it drives them mad if they don't, and even if they do, it's a time when their logic is overpowered by their baser emotions.

Kirk violates Starfleet orders and diverts the ship to Vulcan, and Spock brings Kirk and McCoy down to the planet to stand with him at the ceremony, as "best men" of sorts. Turns out that Spock was telepathically joined to a girl named T'Pring when they were seven - "less than a marriage, more than a betrothal," - and thus this is the woman he must join with. The three men beam down to a spot seemingly in the middle of the Vulcan desert, a ceremonial place that has been in Spock's family for centuries. The wedding officiant is T'Pau, a renowned Vulcan personage who even Kirk has heard of, cementing the idea that his family is important. Curiously absent are Spock's parents, established as an ambassador and a teacher, but hey with all the guest stars and sets and make-up, this episode is expensive enough as it is.  

The twist is, T'Pring invokes an ancient Vulcan law whereby Spock must fight a challenger of her choice to win her hand. There's an obvious challenger, Stonn, a guy who's come to the "wedding" even when Spock's parents didn't, but instead she chooses Kirk. Spock's in a "blood fever" by this point, driven by instinct, so Kirk thinks he can take him -- knock him out, honor is satisfied. It's only after he agrees that T'Pau reveals it's to the death. And Spock may be in a fever, but Vulcan's are stronger than humans, and this is their home planet - the air is too thin and hot for Kirk, to whom McCoy administers a shot to compensate.

And then it's the fight, friend against friend, dun dun da da, da da, da dun dun da da! Spock appears to kill Kirk. Afterwards, he comes out of the fever, and T'Pring explains herself -- she wants Stonn, not Spock, as Spock is too renowned among Vulcans. If Kirk had won, she could have Stonn. If Spock had won, he would reject her for invoking this challenge, and she would have Stonn. And if he didn't reject her, she'd get his name and property and then he'd be off again to his Starfleet duties... and Stonn would still be there. Spock lets him have her, but delivers the smackdown with this wonderful line - "After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true."

Some fans were disappointed with this episode because all we see of Vulcan is this ceremonial area in the desert. They wanted to see the cities, the people, a real alien world of the future! The fact is, season two's budget had been slashed from season one, and it's likely such a thing wasn't really possible. But what we get is great -- from the various unique costumes for the Vulcans, the nature of the Vulcans we do meet, it's all a "fascinating" insight into the culture and people, showing us shades of variation from Spock. And of course, we get "live long and prosper" and the Vulcan salute, that curious hand gesture by which all Trekkies know each other, and which Leonard Nimoy perhaps blasphemously stole from a secret Jewish ritual wherein the hand gesture invokes the name of God - or at least the hand sign forms a Hebrew letter which stands for a word which stands for the name of God. Jews have a whole system of ways to talk about God without actually saying His name. 

Once Kirk is dead, T'Pau bids Spock to "live long and prosper." Spock says he will do neither, having killed his captain and his friend. So upon returning to the ship, it turns out Kirk isn't actually dead -- McCoy having granted that old pulp adventure standby of simulated death with his shot he administered earlier. Spock practically jumps for joy in an unforgettable outpouring of emotion from him.

"Amok Time" relies on a few old fashioned sci-fi standbys, a contrived melee fight to the death being the most standard among them, but it's importance to the overall series lies in its enriching of the character relationships between the Main Trio, the establishment of a cultural identity for the Vulcan people, and of course in giving us two amazing pieces of recurring music. I know everyone loves the fight music, but I for one will always love that amazing mysterious sounding bass line used from here on as "Spock's Theme."

Rating: 4 out of 4

Next Voyage:

What's in a Domain Name?

Nobody much reads this blog. At least, it doesn't seem that way. I mean, who's on Blogspot anymore anyway? Why don't I get a Tumblr?

My most successful post, for some reason, is a historical analysis of Ridley Scott's 1492, for whatever reason. Maybe I'm the only person who's ever done one so in-depth online. Maybe I should have kept doing that, with other historical dramas. Maybe one day I will?

This blog started in 2009 with the name "Dime a Dozen" and the domain name This was because I started out reviewing Golden Age comics, and comparing them to their Modern Age equivalents. Golden Age comics cost a dime. Get it? Either way, I eventually realized I was only really interested in reviewing Golden Age Batman comics, so I moved all the reviews over to a new blog, called "Bat to the Beginning", at That blog is marginally more successful than this one. It hits about 100 views a post on average, versus about 30 for this one. I was even interviewed about it, in its heyday. For a multitude of reasons, it doesn't update frequently anymore.

I kept this blog around for "everything" else I wanted to write about, and it became a grab bag of a variety of content I wanted to write that wasn't 70 years old and Batman. I changed the name of the blog to Rowe Rowe Fighte the Power, a play on my last name being Rowe, and the song "Libera Me From Hell" from the anime Gurren Lagann, which includes the lyric. I also changed my screename to the same. But I didn't change the domain name, I guess because I was worried about dead links.

Nowadays, this blog has seen renewed activity because I'm reviewing Original Series Star Trek episodes on it. I have very little evidence anyone is reading them, but I felt a tinge of inauthenticity every time I shared a review and it had that dimecomics domain name -- because that's not really what this blog is, right?

So I've changed the name. Dead links be damned, it's not like anyone is probably linking to here much except me anyway. But it felt like the kind of change that needed to be addressed.

So the domain name matches the blog name now.

"Star Trek" Review: "Who Mourns for Adonais?" (September 22, 1967)

"Who Mourns for Adonais?"
Writer: Gilbert Ralston
Director: Marc Daniels
Producer: Gene L. Coon

A few reviews ago, I had mentioned that if you had to show one episode to sum up what Star Trek was all about, it should be "The Devil in the Dark". I think that could equally apply to "Who Mourns for Adonais?" but for different reasons. If you want to show up the wacky campiness of Trek, and it's tendency to reduce complex sci-fi themes to occasionally goofy good vs evil confrontations, it's trope of putting women into barely there dresses, well -- let's say if you want to demonstrate the 1960s in Star Trek, this is a good episode for it.

Coming as it did in the late sixties, the episode explores the "ancient astronaut" hypothesis, which at the time was gaining traction and attention as a serious theory -- the idea that aliens had visited Earth in the distant past and imparted knowledge to ancient humans, guiding the growth of civilization and inspiring the myths of the gods. While Erik von Danniken's Chariots of the Gods had yet to be published, Carl Sagan's Intelligent Life in the Universe had already proposed the idea.

Oftentimes, I have a personal disgust at the ancient astronauts theory, as it essentially germinates from a colonial racist assumption, namely "how could these people [Nazca, Rapa Nui, Egyptian, Maya, etc] possibly achieve all this without help?" It's something that often sets me immediately against stories that use this trope. That said, "Who Mourns" manages to sidestep it by its choice of culture -- it's not the Egyptians or Maya who're learning from aliens this time, no, it's the culture of the Ancient Greeks, from which good old Western European culture claims descent. It is, for want of a better terminology, "us".

The set-up is this: a giant green hand of pure energy appears out in space and grabs hold of the Enterprise. It turns out to be the hand of "Apollo", who demands that crewmen beam down to the planet he is living on and worship him. With the ship locked in place, Kirk places Spock in command (Apollo thinks Spock too similar to Pan, and does not wish to see him), and beams down with Scotty, McCoy, Chekov, and Lt. Palamas, an expert in archeology and anthropology.

Turns out that thousands of years ago, the Greek pantheon was a group of space travelers with advanced technology who landed in Greece and stayed there for a while, content to be worshipped as Gods by the simple shepherds and primitive man. At a certain point, the Gods realized that humanity had "outgrown them" and they were no longer wanted, and they left Earth, and gradually one by one they faded away into nonexistence (or "there came a time when the old Gods died"). All except Apollo, who waited out in space, confident that one day humanity would join him.

Except Apollo has this strange notion that a humanity advanced enough to join him among the stas would then wish to return to a subserviant role as his worshippers. He offers the Enterprise crew to return to their simple life as herders and farmers, living to gather sacrifices and offerings for Apollo. Obviously, Kirk isn't into this. Humanity has no need of gods (although NBC insisted he also say "we find the One quite sufficient").

This is the other secret of how the episode manages to escape the usual "ancient astronauts" tropes -- the idea that Apollo is real and visited Earth in the past is but a science fiction construction to get us to the heart of what the episode is about, namely, the relationship between humanity and its gods. This is a theme that ended up entrancing Gene Roddenberry, and it's clear from his later career that he really wanted to explore it in a Judeo-Christian context, but for 1967 the Greek gods would have to do.

Ultimately, Kirk and the landing party reject Apollo, angering him long enough for Spock to blast his temple (source of his powers) with the ship's phasers. Apollo, drained of power, fades away like the other gods had, realizing they were right. After realizing that those gods gave the Greeks their civilization, which formed the basis for so much of his civilization, Kirk muses if perhaps they shouldn't have patronized Apollo for just a while.

However, in addition to its heady sci-fi themes, "Who Mourns" also features very over-the-top action, with Apollo and his pronouncements, and his tendency to attack people with his powers when they displease him, and his attraction to Lt. Palamas and his dressing of her in a classic William Ware Theiss dress. His relationship to her and her eventual betrayal of him is reminescent of Khan and Marla McGivers in "Space Seed", but luckily there's enough else going on that the cribbed plotline doesn't stand out too badly.

Michael Forrest's portrayal of Apollo is great. It must have been a search for the producers to find someone who could pull off haughty Shakespearean-esque dialogue, be extremely handsome, be ripped af, and be like a full head taller than William Shatner. But he pulls it all off wonderfully.

It's a good episode for the rest of the cast too. Coming down on the landing party affords Scotty and Chekov some good character bits they don't usually get. Scotty has a crush on Palamas, so he's constantly getting up in Apollo's grill, and Chekov provides wonderful comic relief with his earnestness and lack of filter -- when Apollo introduces himself, Chekov declares "and I am the Czar of all the Russias!"

In the "upstairs" plot, where Spock is trying to free the Enterprise of Apollo's grip, the mix of characters left aboardship versus on the planet means that Uhura and Sulu get a chance to really shine, and even Mr. Kyle the transporter chief gets more dialogue than usual. It goes to show that a lot of interesting oppportunities can be created simply by a choice of which characters go where and with whom in the story, as many of the "Other Four" can be highlighted if the "Main Three" are split up and not the only ones allowed on the landing party.

"Who Mourns" has moments where it devolves into campiness and melodrama, and it's not the best expression of these ideas, even in Star Trek, which would continue to explore the role of religion in people's lives as the franchise went on, but it gets points for doing it first, doing it well, and having a lot of great character moments for all the members of the main cast.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Friday's Child" (December 1, 1967)

"Friday's Child"
Writer: D.C. Fontana
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

This episode establishes a paradigm that will become familiar throughout season two in terms of the crew's interactions with Klingons and with other planets. In the wake of "Errand of Mercy", the Federation can't fight the Klingons for territory and resources, but they can compete with them. Thus several episodes, starting with this one, revolve around Kirk and his party trying to convince a native population to side with the Federation's freedoms over the Klingons' strength. And then usually breaking the fuck out of the Prime Directive in regards to that native population.

In this case, it's Capella IV, a planet rich in minerals but whose population is a tribal, warlike people with strict rituals and deadly taboo punishments. Dr. McCoy was once stationed there a few years back in a Federation attempt to provide hospitals that was rejected, and so he takes point on instructing the landing party on what to do. So Kirk, Spock, McCoy and some redshirt beam down, and said redshirt is dead before even the opening credits roll.

Turns out the Klingons are already there, manipulating one of the Capellans to stage a coup agains the "High Te'er" and seize power. Our boys end up persona non grata, on the run from the Capellans and Klingons but with an unusual companion -- the wife of the murdered Te'er, who carries his child and thus is a political target for assassination by the new regime. Fleeing into the hills, McCoy must help Ele'en to give birth to her son. Unfortunately the customs of the Capellans means she believes she must die, and her son too.

There's something in this episode about this woman going from a subserviant concubine in a society that respects her purely for her breeding purposes, to being a woman who values her own life, the life of her child, and has the wiliness to turn the tables on those who attacked her and seize power as regent. It's there but it's buried under an action adventure plot about the bad guys chasing the good guys into the hills (Vasquez Rocks makes it's fourth and final appearance on the show), and the good guys' tactics in defeating them.

There's also a subplot aboard ship about Scotty getting lured away from the planet by a false distress call, and then playing cat and mouse with a Klingon ship. It's a lot of fun because it's a chance to see Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov (the "other four") interact on their own while the "Main Three" are on the planet. Sulu's new tactical scanner gets a cool dramatic introduction, and Chekov gets to make his first "invented in Russia" joke.

Ulimately, there are a lot of good bits and moments and character interactions in "Friday's Child", but the episode as a whole is a haphazard batch of chases, tricks, double crosses, fight scenes, and wandering around outdoors. It never quite comes together into a cohesive whole to say anything about the issues it raises.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Next Voyage: 


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Metamorphosis" (November 10, 1967)

Writer: Gene L. Coon
Ralph Senensky

Producer: Gene L. Coon

This another Gene Coon written episode that expressed Star Trek's central pleas for tolerance, understanding, and diversity. It's a strong statement on the validity of "mixed" or "non-traditional" relationships most notably mixed race romances at the time this episode aired, but the central metaphor could also apply to homosexual relationships or any love deemed as "Other" by the times. It's too bad that a couple of weak story choices, some problematic language, and the unsconscious patriarchal heteronormativity of the production team serve to undercut this central message at times.

Kirk, Spock and Bones are aboard a shuttlecraft with a prominent Federation diplomat whose mission to prevent a war has been interrupted by her contracting of an extremely rare disease. They're returning her to the Enterprise for treatment when their craft is taken off course by a mysterious force and lands on an unknown planetoid. There they find Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of warp drive, lost mysteriously a century and a half earlier as an old man. He explains that he had grown tired of life and fame and had headed out into space to die, when he was found by an energy being that took him to this planet, and rejuvenated his youth, and kept him alive and young ever since. He calls it The Companion, and communicates with it telepathically. It was what brought the shuttle here, as Cochrane had expressed lonliness so the Companion, rather than releasing him has brought him other humans.

But of course, Nancy Hedford, the Federation diplomat, will die if Bones can't get her treatment. For whatever reason, the Companion won't cure her. Kirk and Spock attempt to reason with it, through Cochrane, through the universal translator, but it will not let Cochrane go, and since he's lonely, it won't let them go. And that's when they figure out the Companion is, when it comes to gender, feminine, and that she's in love with Zefram Cochrane. The episode's best scene is perhaps Cochrane's reaction to this information. He's a man who, for all his innovative genius, is 150 years behind the times compared to our heroes. He's disgusted at the idea of love with a being as utterly alien as the Companion, repulsed at how he's been "used" by her all these years, and when Kirk, Spock and Bones are utterly flabbergasted as his bigotry, as to them inter-species romance is totally ordinary, Cochrane is sickened by them too. If this is what modern morality is, he wants no part of it.

Now, isn't that a familiar stretch of words? Spock can't understand the irrationality of Cochrane's response. Of love he says "I may not understand the emotion, but it obviously exists", and argues that Cochrane has been existing as one half of a romantic couple for 150 years and it was totally fine until he realized it. It's a really apt portrayal of the irrationality of bigotry.

Too bad the episode flubs it in the final act. So Hedford is dying of the disease, and even she finds Cochrane's attitude inexcusable. She reveals that while she's always been good at her job, she's never known love, and can't understand someone who would throw it away. Meanwhile, Kirk tries to argue with the Companion that Cochrane will never love her because she isn't human, hoping it will see the uselessness of keeping them there. You see where this is going?

The Companion merges with Hedford, curing the disease but tying their life to the planetoid - they can never leave. They are both personalities merged in one body, forming a new being, and Cochrane decides this he can love, and so the elect to stay behind and live and grow old together on the planet - no longer immortal, just regular people. Cochrane makes Kirk promise not to reveal his existence.

And right about when you're asking "wait, what about the war?" Kirk handwaves it away to Spock by saying they'll just find another diplomat. Okaaaaay.

So the problem here is twofold: For one thing, Cochrane learns nothing. He's disgusted by the Companion's love when she isn't human, so she becomes humand now he's cool with it. There's no growth or arc there. Secondly, while the episode tries to go out of its way to say, y'know, Hedford was gonna die anyway, she always wished for love, she consented to the transformation, and she wasn't actually needed as a diplomat anyway, the fact is that it's very hard not to get the impression the Companion just possessed this woman who had her own life and goals before this happened, and hijacked her body to serve her own purposes. She's literally reduced to a prop in the story of two other people. So yeah, the ending, while perhaps inevitable given the way the story sets up its pieces, isn't exactly the best resolution to this story.

One other aspect of this episode I feel worth bringing up -- when the universal translator translates the Companion into an English voice, it's female. Cochrane is surprised at this, asking why it's programmed that way, and Kirk responds that "male and female are universal constants" and thus if the translator voice is female it's because the Companion is female, and this leads to the revelation that she's in love with him. I get why this line is here, I get what Gene Coon was going for with this, and I can't fault a forty-three year old heterosexual white dude in 1967 for not addressing nonbinary people (largely because I doubt Coon was even aware of the existence of such), it's still a line that reads as cringeworthy in a modern context. And even if we dismiss the socially problematic elements of that line -- why would you say that in a sci-fi story? Male and female are universal constants?? How limiting is that for a sci-fi writer? Why would you limit your universe like that??

Anyways, "Metamorphosis" is a good episode, but it's efforts to be 1967 progressive involve some stuff that feel 2016 regressive, and should be watched out for when giving it a go. I still think that it's central argument, that love should outweigh bigotry, is validly and eloquently expressed enough to buy it a lot of leeway on the stuff it stumbles on.

Rating: 3 out 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Catspaw" (October 27, 1967)

Writer: Robert Bloch
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

Star Trek got a second season by the skin of its teeth. It was expensive, and the first season hadn't done well with ratings, but NBC parent company RCA thought the show was effective at selling colour TVs, which bought the show a reprieve, granted at a reduced budget. However, even with a reduced budget, stars like Leonard Nimoy got pay raises, DeForrest Kelley got pumped up to opening credits status, Engineering got a new set, the opening credits were redone, episode credits were polished up, visual effects were recomposited in better quality and less rushed, and the series brought on a whole new regular cast member.

The PR lie was that Pavel Chekov was added to the cast to represent the Russian accomplishments in the space race, and show a future where American and Russia had worked out their differences and now worked together. The truth was that Walter Koenig was hired to be young and cute and have a Monkees style moptop to try and appeal to teens and girls and young people and draw in more viewers to Star Trek. What's funny is it took him a while to grow out the right hairstyle, so in these early appearances he's wearing just an awful, awful wig.

"Catspaw" was filmed first in the season but held back to air in October as, essentially, the show's Halloween Special. Essentially, the Enterprise explores a planet that seems to play host to witches, castles, dungeons, black cats, turns the crew into zombies (the old-fashioned kind), and is controlled by a sorcerer and sorceress. It straddles that spooky/silly line that the kids today call "spoopy" for a while until we get the answer - the seeming magicians are in fact aliens from outside our galaxy, (sent by the "Old Ones" in another Robert Bloch Cthulhu Mythos reference) using their technology to create illusions and facsimiles of these things. They probed the human mind to try and create familiar environments, but fucked up and only got the subconscious and hit on all the scary folkloric "Trick or Treat" imagery.

Conflict arises when the female of the two aliens decides she likes having a human woman's body, as on their world there are no physical sensations. She decides she likes clothing, riches, food, power, lust, greed, etc, and turns against her ally. Ultimately it's Kirk's manipulation of her greed for sensation that saves the day, destroying their tech and revealing them to be small puppets made of multi-coloured pipe cleaner (admittedly a good idea and design for something "totally alien") that die quickly.

"Catspaw" lives or dies on how fun you think seeing our characters put through a haunted house is, and how much tolerance you have for spoopy shenanigans. It's definitely fun, although it perhaps wears thin by the end. The ideas of aliens from beyond the galaxy with no knowledge of physical sensation, who grow hungry for it unexpectedly and whom Kirk can defeat basically through seduction, is interesting but basically a secondary sci-fi idea to all the faux-horror trappings going on. There's nothing really wrong with the episode, there's just not a lot here. Worth seeing, but maybe not a second time.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Star Trek" Gold Key Comics Review: Issue #1 (July, 1967)

"The Planet of No Return"
Writer: Dave Wood
Artist: Nevio Zaccara

The officially licensed Star Trek comics by Gold Key are a curious nostalgia relic. They are, by many standards, not very good, but they have a lot of interesting and unique qualities, and they also served to satiate a lot of young Trekkies in a time when reruns were less common and home video a pipe dream.

Licensed comics tended to be a cheap, ill-regarded affair in the 1960s. A TV show or movie's popularity could be relatively flash in the pan, and the lead time on making comics is long, especially then. So comics companies put them out quickly and cheaply. They were cash-ins. Gold Key might not have been the bottom of comic book publishers in the 1960s, but they were near it. They specialized in licensed titles, although they did have a few original works as well, and were firm believers in the then-standard industry idea that you had an audience for your comics for four to five years tops before the kids grew out of it, and thus could save money by reprinting old stories ad infinitum.

Their Star Trek series is remembered well almost as much for what it got wrong as what it did right. Early issues featured graphically impressive photo-collage covers made up of a combination of early publicity photos as well as stills from the series. For example, the cover to issue #1 has a post-pilot, pre-series publicity photo of Spock, and then a common still of the Enterprise orbiting a planet and a still of Kirk and Sulu, likely from "The Squire of Gothos", demonstrating the lime green colour of their uniforms -- which appeared gold once captured on film. The graphic title logo adorned many pieces of early Trek merchandise, and is fondly remembered with nostalgia today. The art inside, by Italian Nevio Zaccara, is impressive and photorealistic, despite primitive colouring processes amid other inaccuracies.

Zaccara had never seen the show and was operating solely from publicity photos provided to him. Thus the collars on the uniforms are very high, drawn almost like an undershit as in the new Star Trek movies, Spock's eyebrows are not fully pointed (NBC airbrushed his eyebrows to be less severe in early publicity so as not to alarm Christian viewers), the Enterprise tends to have rocket fire shooting out from the back of its warp nacelles, and any show elements not present in publicity photos have their appearances merely guessed at. That said, when it comes to those things whose appearance he did know, Zaccara produced fantastic likenesses, putting many later Star Trek comics artists to shame.

This first issue is scripted by Dick Wood, an experienced comic book writer, but its clear that he also had perhaps never seen the series, and was maybe working off a copy of the series bible or some other provided reference material. The Enterprise is exploring Galaxy Alpha, yes a whole other galaxy, and so far it seems devoid of life. Yep, whole galaxy. But they discover a single world, teeming with plant life, so the ship dips into the atmosphere (you heard me) to investigate.

A cloud of spores attaches to the ship, eating through the hull, and attacking Dr. McCoy's guinea pigs (literal guinea pigs in his lab), turning them into plant beings! McCoy's likeness, by the way, is good, but he's depicted in the lime-green command uniform. Spock wants to analyse the spores to determine their cause, while Kirk takes a landing party down to the planet to investigate it. The team consists of Kirk, McCoy, two "redshirts", and Janice Rand making a rare appearance in other media. Of course, this can be chalked up to the issue's inspiration in early Trek publicity materials, where Rand was featured often as she was going to be a major character. Luckily for us continuity geeks, the issue has a stardate consistent with the period in season one when she was still on the show. Amusingly, her basketweave beehive hairdo is handled by the colouring team as if it's a red bonnet she wears on her head.

Zaccara gives the landing party special outfits, backpacks, and gear similar to what was seen in "The Cage" and for all the flaws of this comic the one advantage it has over the show is the unlimited budget of visuals a comic book offers. The planet is one that's teeming with living vegetation. One of the redshirts gets hit by the spores early and transformed into a plant. Then the team is attacked by a big meat-eating plant, but are saved by a tree monster that turns out to have been the transformed crewman, who then dies.

After some investigation, it turns out there's an entire species of sentient plants who have houses and societies and all the rest. Janice gets nabbed by a big tentacle plant monster (of course) and put into a "cattle pen" with a bunch of actual mammals, who it turns out are raised as food for the sentient plants. Kirk saves her by ordering Spock to fire on the cattle pen, and then the team is beamed aboard. But Spock is worried about the dangerous transformative spores travelling through space to inhabited worlds (aren't we in a whole other galaxy? That's otherwise lifeless? Wouldn't that shit take millennia to reach our galaxy?), so Kirk orders the Enterprise to fucking strafing run the entire planet and annihilate all the life on it in a planetwide genocide. "The Devil in the Dark" this ain't.

"Planet of No Return" is all right for a disposable pulp sci-fi adventure, and perhaps serves as a window to what Star Trek might have been like if not for Gene Roddenberry's higher ambitions. The Trek ethos of pacifism, understanding, and celebration of the diversity of life are no where to be found. Besides the wonky uniforms, off terminology (people "radio-TV message" the ship, "teleport" down to the planet, and fire "laser beam destruct rays"), emotional Spock, and weird depictions of the show's technology, it's this essential missing of the very point of Star Trek that comes off the most "wrong".

But it does get points for the imaginative sci-fi adventure elements. Divorced from Trek, it's a fun comic with good artwork. The story just isn't trying for anything other than a brainless "zap the monsters!" approach. Like the series as a whole, this first issue of the Gold Key comic is a weird look into a kind of "alternative" rendition of the series as a hokey pulp adventure.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage: "Prisoners on the planet of the condemned sentence Captain Kirk to share their fate!" in The Devil's Isle of Space.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Operation -- Annihilate!" (April 13, 1967)

"Operation -- Annihilate!"
Writer: Steven W. Carabatsos
Director: Herschel Daugherty
Producer: Gene L. Coon

This is the season one finale of the original Star Trek, and the only season finale of the series that actually feels like one. "Operation -- Annihilate!" has very little to say about the human condition or science fiction ideas or social allegory, but it is very content to be an exciting adventure story for our lead characters.

A plague of madness seems to be infecting a series of worlds, and the next in line is Deneva, a Federation colony where Kirk's older brother and his family are stationed. By the time the Enterprise arrives, the colony is already infected, as it turns out, by a species of neural parasite, who's goal is to manipulate the people into building ships for them to spread, and who inflict incredible pain upon the nervous system if one tries to resist. Kirk's brother is dead, his sister-in-law dies soon after. His nephew is infected, and soon, still is Spock.

Nimoy delivers a fantastic performance as Spock struggles to retain control and assist his crewmates despite incredible pain. Kirk is desperate for a cure, but all he can do is bark at McCoy to find one, whose own helplessness to fight the parasite without killing the host is quite effectively played by DeForrest Kelley. Its a good episode for all three of the primary characters.

In the end, it's discovered that light is what kills the parasites - not heat, not radiation, but light. Spock undergoes the test treatment, but is blinded in the process. Then it turns out that McCoy could have gotten the same effect with UV rays, he didn't need to use blinding white light. It's a crushing moment, Kirk is furious, but Spock offers his thanks for the cure regardless.

The planet is freed once the solution is found, and then it turns out Spock actually has "inner eyelids" because he's a Vulcan, that he just forgot about, and he's actually 100% fine. Which is such a bullshit ending. I mean, the show pulls convenient Vulcan biology stuff out of its ass whenever it wants, but this one is perhaps the most egregious. You just forgot that you had this inner eyelid and just assumed you were blind?

"Operation -- Annihilate!" is a dramatic, fun, engaging sci-fi adventure. A taut, dynamic hour of television pulled down only by its lack of worthwhile new ideas, it's complete copout ending that undercuts the drama, oh and the fact that the neural parasites look like novelty fake puke.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The City on the Edge of Forever" (April 6, 1967)

"The City on the Edge of Forever"
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

"City" is perhaps the most beloved, critically acclaimed episode of the Original Series, widely considered worthy of "best episode" status. It also has some of the most vicious behind the scenes drama associated with it.

The Enterprise is investigating a temporal anomaly centred on an uncharted planet. When Sulu is injured on the bridge, McCoy comes up to treat him, but accidentally injects himself with an overdose of a powerful drug, driving him into a paranoid, maniacal state. He beams down to the plane, and when a landing party pursues him, he ends up jumping through a time portal on the planet, the source of the temporal disturbances. At that point, the Enterprise ceases to exist, the landing party the only survivors of McCoy changing the past in some way.

Kirk and Spock go after him, and end up in Depression-era New York. There they end up relying on the hospitality of Edith Keeler, who runs a mission, feeding the out of work men of that time. She's also a visionary, preaching of a future of peace, progress, and understanding. So of course Kirk falls in love with her. When McCoy arrives in the past, a raving lunatic, it's Edith who nurses him back to health. Then Spock discovers what happened to change history: in the proper timeline, Edith Keeler dies in a traffc accident. In the altered one, she lives and goes on to lead a peace movement that delays US entry in WWII long enough for the Nazis to develop the A-bomb first and win the war. Thus, to restore the timeline, Edith Keeler must die.

It's a set up for a perfect sci-fi tragedy, as the love between Kirk and Edith grows. This isn't just a woman he loves, but a woman who's fighting for exactly the right things -- it's just, as Spock says, at the wrong time. In the end, when the time comes for Edith to be hit by a truck and killed, McCoy runs out to try and save her, and Kirk stops him. McCoy, aghast, asks Kirk if he knows what he's done. "He knows, doctor," Spock replies, as Kirk struggles to hold himself together The timeline restored, the Trinity returns to the present, and Kirk orders a somber "Let's get the hell out of here."

It's a big contrast from Trek's usual "make a joke at Spock's expense, laugh it up on the bridge" endings, and cements this as a powerfully dramatic episode. It's also a very dense one, fitting a lot of plot, tragedy and character development into a single episode. It's also paced very well, with the central dilemma of Edith's fate being discovered late enough in the running time that it's not sitting on the table long enough to be stale. And before that, the episode develops in alternatingly tragic and comic ways, with a lot of fun being had at Kirk and Spock's attempts to "blend in".

"City" was written by reknowned sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, one of many top sci-fi writers tapped by Roddenberry to contribute to the series in its first season, but like many scripts in Trek's first season, it was heavily rewritten by Roddenberry. Ellison, ever a firebrand, did not take kindly to this, and ever since has complained about the way he was treated, about the changes made, and promoted his original script as being the superior version. Having read it, I heartily disagree -- Ellison's script involves an illicit drug smuggling ring among Starfleet officers on the Enterprise, the ringleader escaping down the planet where he finds massive ruins of an old civilization guarded by powerful guardians, flees through the time portal, which causes the Enterprise to be replaced by an evil pirate version, not unlike "Mirror, Mirror". Kirk and Spock follow, and in this rendition they're both kind of assholes -- Spock a murderous jerk and Kirk an imperialist and racist. The conflict that Edith Keeler must die is still present, but in the end Kirk tries to save her, and it's Spock who has to stop him. Ellison's version ends with Spock saying "No woman was ever offered the universe for love", rather than the finished product's terse, Hemingwayesque, "Let's get the hell out of here."

Roddenberry objected to criminals aboard ship, objected to the expense of the ruins as written and the expense of the pirate ship subplot, objected to the portrayal of the series main characters and most of all objected to the ending, arguing that Kirk being the one who ensures Edith dies was the stronger, more tragic ending, as well as ensuring that Kirk as the serie's hero was not unduly compromised for future episodes. Ellison's script is a good script, but it's not Star Trek, and that's why Roddenberry rewrote it (and had every right to). Ultimately, Ellison wanted his name taken off it, but Roddenberry refused (Ellison's name value being why he was hired in the first place). Of course, if Roddenberry had agreed, Ellison would've spent the last fifty years bitching about that too. He's just that kind of guy.

Either way, "City" is an utter classic. I've just never bought into the premise that the original version was in any way superior.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Errand of Mercy" (March 23, 1967)

"Errand of Mercy" 
Writer: Gene L. Coon
Director: John Newland
Producer: Gene L. Coon

Famously, this episode introduces the Klingons to the franchise. While the Romulans had earlier this season supplied an excellent cold war allegory villain, Gene Coon created the Klingons to fill much the same role because the Romulan's pointed ears and fancy helmets made for expensive make-up, whereas the Klingons' simple Genghis Khan look was much easier to mass replicate on a regular basis. Which is hilarious given the extreme make-up makeover the Klingons received later in the franchise.

In this episode, they're introduced as basically already being the Federation's major enemy -- there's a disputed area between the two territories that the Klingons and Federation are both willing to go to war to protect. The Enterprise is ordered to the planet Organia, as it lies in a strategic position, and defend it from Klingon takeover. Kirk and Spock beam down, and try to convince the Organians to accept their help and defense. The Organians smile placidly, utterly unconcerned. They're of course a simple almost medieval level humanoid culture, enabling the show to use old leftover sets and costumes.

But then the Klingons declare war, the ship has to warp out of orbit, leaving Kirk and Spock to watch as the Klingons easily invade and take over Organia, as the inhabitants offer no resistance. Their mission a failure, Kirk and Spock are forced to engage in clandestine sabotage ("sabatage") operations against the Klingons, while the Organians continue to stand by, repeating that they cannot stand violence of any kind.

The Klingon occupation force is led by Kor, played by John Colicos. Kor is Trek's best villain since Khan, and it's a shame that he never again appeared on the show (though future appearances were planned, scheduling with Colicos never worked out). Kor and Kirk are depicted as having a grudging respect for each other -- despite Kor seeming to be a dastardly villain and Kirk a dashing hero, the episode makes it clear that they are in many ways two sides of the same coin.

Eventually, the Organians reveal that they are in fact all powerful beings of pure energy, and that the appearance of their world and culture merely a contrivance for the sake of "lesser beings". They've evolved beyond violence and are disgusted at Kirk and Kor's attempts to kill each other. They intervene in the Federation/Klingon war and impose a peace on the two sides under punishment of Organian reprisal, thus setting up the cold war status between the two for the rest of the series. Kirk and Kor protest this interference in their affairs, to which the Organians ask Kirk if he's defending the right to make war and kill billions of people. That shuts him up.

"Errand of Mercy" sets up the Klingons well for their role on the Original Series, which is to say as vaguely dictatorial, warmongering, antagonistic villains to compete against in a US/USSR fashion, and this contrasts quite a bit if you're only familiar with their later franchise era "honourable warrior" portrayal, although the Organians do a bit of franchise future telling when they predict that in a hundred years the Federation and Klingons will be great allies.

The episode's anti-war stance and comment on the absurdity of the Cold War conflict fit in well with the Gene Coon era of Trek, and the characterizations for Kirk and Kor are great. Like "A Taste of Armageddon", this episode benefits greatly from Kirk's "defend peace through force" bold attitude. Unfortunately the episode spends a lot of time spinning its wheels, with Kirk and Kor trying to achieve their ends while the Organians sit by placidly repeating they won't allow violence and the other characters incredulous at their attitude. Like "Devil in the Dark", there's a problem with the audience figuring out the "twist" long before the characters do, but I'm unsure if that's a problem with fifty years of added genre awareness coming in to watching this. Also it feels like "more highly evolved beings lecturing mankind against its warmaking" feels like a well Star Trek has gone to a lot, even by this point.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage: