Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "The Alternative Factor" (March 30, 1967)

"The Alternative Factor"
Writer: Don Ingalls
Director: Gerd Oswald
Producer: Gene L. Coon

"The Alternative Factor" is bad. Real bad. It could arguably be called the worst episode in Star Trek's first season, although there are other contenders. Adding to it being bad, it's played very straight, almost to its detriment, so there isn't even the kind of camp kitsch enjoyment that one can get out of Trek's other bad episodes.

That being said, it's also an episode that introduces a lot of cool and significant sci-fi concepts to the world of Star Trek, notably the idea of parallel universes, and the interaction between matter and antimatter. The basic synopsis is that the Enterprise meets a man named Lazarus (a way too notable literary reference that no one brings up), and he's actually two men - one calm and rational, one violent and mad - and it turns out one's from our positive matter universe, and the other from an identical negative antimatter universe, and if ever the two should meet (outside of a "corridor" which links the two universes and serves as a safety valve), all eternity shall be destroyed.

So why is the episode bad? For one thing, all of our characters have become idiots. The plot relies on people like Kirk and McCoy to allow a mysterious, dangerous, raving lunatic to wander around the ship unsupervised for no reason. It takes 40 minutes of the runtime before they understand what's going on, while the audience has had it spelt out for them much earlier. It makes our heroes look bad. For the second thing, Lazarus is the entire focus of the episode, to the point where our regular characters are almost unnecessary to the story, and he's not a good character. His motives are extremely ill-defined, even once the mystery of "what" is happening is resolved, the "why" never really is. And also he has the worst fake beard in the history of fake beards. Very little of the episode comes off as interesting, despite the continued insistences of dialogue that this is the most important thing that's ever happened and the biggest threat ever in the history of anything. Seriously, the way Starfleet acts at the start of the episode and the way the character talk about things, this is an apocalyptic level event and of the utmost import.

But then what we actually get is basically just an endless series of scenes of Lazarus wandering around on the ship, then on the planet, then on the ship again, then back to the planet, and because the two Lazaruses can't be in the same universe at the same time, we get continual "fight scenes" of the two of them struggling in the "corridor" and replacing each other. The episode makes it hard to follow which one is which, and in order to keep things mysterious, spends more time with the "crazy" Lazarus, who's a bit insufferable to watch really.

The biggest frustration is this is a story that throws around the hugest stakes (all reality will be destroyed!) but denies us actually understanding what's going on for the majority of the running time, so those stakes come across as largely toothless. The plotting is near incoherant, seemingly content to throw around sci-fi ideas instead of a serviceable story about anything in particular.

Ultimately what the story consists of is that both Lazaruses must steal the Enterprise's dilithium crystals so they can power their identical ships (which look like George Jetson's car more than anything out of Trek) and trap each other in the corridor, to fight at each other's throats for all time to keep eternity from ending. The main characters of the series have basically nothing to do with this story other than to observe it happening.

"The Alternative Factor" is real bad, and its confusing, and its boring. And boring is probably the worst sin of them all for a piece of entertainment like this. That said, by introducing the concept of parallel universes into Star Trek's inventory of sci-fi tricks, it leads us to episodes that explore that concept better, like "Mirror, Mirror". It's not this episode's ideas that are at fault, so much as their execution. Like "Miri" it's an episode where someone had a great high concept, and then failed to think of a story to go along with it.

Rating: 1 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Arena" (January 19, 1967)

Story: Fredric Brown
Script: Gene L. Coon
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

This is one of those episodes of Star Trek
 whose pop culture echoes precede it when you see it. Kirk fighting the Gorn on Cestus III! So it can be a shock to watch it and remember that you don't see the Gorn until halfway through the show. The famous one to one duel isn't really only the second half.

Which is actually for the best, because as much as I love the Gorn suit and its craftsmanship, and I want to be engaged by this brutal battle, it's paced really poorly, and ends up being pretty boring for large portions of it.

The first half of the episode, on the other hand, is pretty engaging. The Enterprise is lured to a Federation outpost only to discover it's been destroyed by a hostile force, and the communications from it a trap. The landing party is attacked by, I guess future space mortar fire, in an action scene that gave William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy tinnitus for the rest of their lives due to the proximity of the explosions. The enemy ship attempts to escape, and the Enterprise pursues, with Kirk intending to destroy the enemy ship in retribution for Cestus III, convinced he must do this to prevent an invasion. Spock is not so sure, arguing they don't know enough of the variables to justify the taking of sentient life, but Kirk is steadfast that the aliens must die. A matter of policy, he calls it.

Ultimately, both vessels are stopped dead in their tracks by another Star Trek race of mysterious highly evolved superbeings (I think this is the third so far) called the Metron. The Metron declare the two races too dangerous and beligerant to be allowed to continue, and thus transport the two candidates to a neutral site to battle against themselves, and the winner's ship will be allowed to live.

Unfortunately, the battle itself suffers from a few things. For one, it's obviously very difficult for the stuntman in the Gorn suit, which still looks great, to move quickly, a detail written to the script that he's reptilian and thus not agile. It still makes the fight scenes slow and a bit comical looking. He's stronger than Kirk, and about as smart, as he manages to set various traps for him. But the majority of the running time is spent on Kirk running around, trying to look for raw materials to turn into a weapon, since the Metron hinted he could do so.

This means scenes of him stumbling onto sulfur, potassium nitrate, diamonds, coal, bamboo shoots, etc, all while evading the slow-moving but powerful Gorn, until he finally realizes he can make gunpowder and shoot the enemy with a makeshift cannon. Then, with the creature at his mercy, he refuses to finish him off, refuses to kill, which leads to the Metron declaring that there is hope for humanity, that one day they may evolve past their savage instincts after all, and letting both ships go.

It's a very powerful statement of the message of Star Trek, or at least the iteration of that message under Gene L. Coon -- which is that humanity is imperfect, flawed, still struggling, but ultimately, each day, by choosing to be better, we can be better.

Unfortunately, it's pretty interminable waiting for Kirk to figure out the cannon, running around Vasquez Rocks as the Gorn slowly pursues him. And ultimately the Metron are kind of huge dicks too -- like, they're so high and mighty and above violence but they pull two spaceships out of the universe to destroy because these two random ships are too beligerant? I wish their dickishness wasn't just implicit -- there's a cut line of dialogue from Coon's script where the Metron reveal it was actually the winner they were going to destroy, not the loser, as the winner would pose the bigger threat.

So "Arena" ultimately succeeds on its ideas more than it's action, but it's action takes up a larger portion of the running time. And that means it doesn't really live up to what you'd like it to be. I wish we'd gotten a Gorn/Kirk rematch.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The Squire of Gothos" (January 12, 1967)

"The Squire of Gothos"
Writer: Paul Schneider
Director: Don McDougall
Producer: Gene L. Coon

"The Squire of Gothos" can be a really frustrating episode to watch at times. While in some ways it's "innovative" in that it's really the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation's most popular guest character, it's also very redundant, in that it's the third time this season that we've seen a variation on the same story. It's also another goofy comedy episode, which makes it popular in some quarters, but suffers the same problem as "Shore Leave", perhaps moreso, of not really having enough substance to work through the whole hour.

The episode's antagonist is Trelane, basically an Original Series version of Q -- a seemingly omnipotent being who simply delights in goofing around with our cast. The conceit is that he's been viewing Earth but he's light-years away so his information is out of date: his costume, manner of speech, abode, are all patterned after a vaguely Napoleonic understanding of Earth customs. This basically means he gets to be a foppish dandy and challenge Kirk to duels and stuff.

It's mildly entertaining for a while, but the deal is that Trelane basically just wants to keep everyone in his castle on Gothos, while Kirk and co just wanna leave, so I think there are like three sequences in this episode where the crew escapes and then Trelane just uses his power to maneuver them back to Gothos? The funniest one is undoubtedly when Trelane just keeps throwing the planet itself in their path when they try to warp away. But like yeesh, it gets repetitive.

Ultimately, the point of the episode is summed up by Spock, in an awesome bit, about halfway through, when he says he objects to intellect without discipline and power without constructive purpose. And that's basically it. Eventually it's revealed that Trelane is actually just a child by his race's standards, playing with toys, and his parents show up to take him away and apologize to Kirk for the inconvenience.

In other words, the premise is "gee, wouldn't absolute power be dangerous in the hands of a child?" Which, y'know, we've already had "Charlie X" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before", which was the same premise but with a teenager and an adult, respectively. So this well has really been gone to too many times in one season, and unfortunately Trelane's foppish, arrogant, insulting, goofy attitude isn't entertaining enough on it's own to make it work. Heck, even his final moments are ripped off from "Charlie X", as his parents take him away and he fades from existence plaintively repeating his final words.

On The Next Generation, Q episodes were amusing wacky romps, yes, but they were always under the guise of teaching the crew something about their place in the universe or teaching Q something about humanity. In "The Squire of Gothos", neither the crew nor Trelane learn anything, and in the end the whole experience feels like it was more a weird inconvenience than anything. The episode has good ideas, which were improved on later Trek iterations, but on its own it doesn't really do enough with them.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4
Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Shore Leave" (December 29, 1966)

"Shore Leave"
Writer: Theodore Sturgeon
Director: Robert Sparr

Producer: Gene L. Coon

"Shore Leave" is a bit of an odd duck. A fan favourite episode, it's also perhaps the beginning of Gene Coon's attempts to add more comedic elements to the series. While previous episodes have had some comic takes, notably "Mudd's Women", under Coon's reign there would be regular "comic relief" style episodes featuring outlandish premises and a great deal of fun. "Shore Leave" isn't quite 100% comedic, there are still moments of danger and drama, and a little bit of intellect, but by the end of the hour, it's clear that it's all be in good, lighthearted, shallow fun.

These lighthearted episodes are usually fan favourites because they're a change of pace and a lot of fun, but they're also a difficult tightrope to walk, as the show does require that some level of credibility remain and not have the series devolve into full camp. The other issue can be that they don't really have enough material for a full hour, and invite a lot of filler.

That's certainly true of "Shore Leave", an episode where the ship comes across an idyllic planet, ideal for rest and relaxation, only to find that anything they happen to be thinking of is replicated -- even if it's deadly. The conflict comes because our heroes don't understand what's happening to them for the majority of the hour, instead acting in wonderment and confusion as things that can't be real keep appearing. McCoy conjures characters from Alice in Wonderland, Kirk meets old friends and enemies from his Academy days, Sulu conjures antique weapons for his collecting hobby, etc. 

Its' clear everyone had a lot of fun with this outing, and shooting it outdoors on location really brings a great sense of the wide open spaces and fresh air and idyllic setting in a way that a soundstage never could. It also opens the camera up quite a bit, and we get great tracking shots and crane shots that glide along and keep everything on the move.

However, the freedom of a planet where anything goes proves almost too much, as the episode fills itself with fleeting cameos of ideas, just to keep itself filled so the characters won't have the time to figure out what's going on. McCoy's White Rabbit is a major inciting incident, but never really appears much after. Encounters with a Black Knight are more memorable, but other elements like Sulu's gun and (ugh) samurai, Yeoman Barrow's Don Juan, and the tiger and WWII planes conjured up by utterly pointless characters Martine and Rodriguez, fill the story up with just random ideas that never really contribute much. Seriously, the two characters of Angela Martine and Esteban Rodriguez could be cut from the episode entirely, as they spend all of it apart from everyone else!

The idea that all these things are people's secret fantasies, but also the dramatic necessity that they be threatening, leads to some bad ideas too, like that Yeoman Tonia Barrows dreams up an attack on herself by Don Juan. It's mostly off screen but he clearly physically assaulted her and it all has a nasty "women just wanna get raped, don't they?" connotation to it that doesn't play well. On the other hand, the script rewrite that changed Janice Rand to Tonia Barrows apparently also changed it so she would spend most of her time flirting with McCoy rather than Kirk, and it's nice to see the good doctor get some action for a change.

The biggest sections are on Kirk's fantasies, namely an encounter with an old girlfriend named Ruth (one of many, it seems), and then a running battle with Finnegan, an upperclassman who used to torment Kirk at the Academy. The idea that Kirk can now fulfill the fantasy of beating the crap out of him is probably the best actual utilization of the story's central sci-fi idea, with everything else coming off a bit silly, but even Finnegan - a very engaging antagonist to stand in for the more esoteric threat - serves the episode as a whole lot of filler, as the fistfight at Vasquez Rocks (a place we'll be returning to often) goes on and on and on far past it's welcome!

All of which is to say, this is a fun episode. But it's also like a half hour's worth of story dragged out to an hour, and the mix of tones between the jovial and the dangerous doesn't always work. 

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "The Menagerie, Part II" (November 24, 1966)

"The Menagerie, Part II"
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Robert Butler (but also Marc Daniels)
Producer: Gene Roddenberry (but also Gene L. Coon)

The clip show continues as Spock shows footage from the unaired pilot as his legal defense in the finale of the Original Series' only two-part episode.

Part Two is comprised primarily of reused footage, as Part One had done the heavy lifting of establishing the in-series rationale for the clip show. And so we follow Captain Pike after he's captured by the Talosians, and led through a series of illusions to try and get him interested in Vina, the human woman they've also captured, so they can breed a service class to rebuild the planet and their society.

What's amusing and occasionally maddening is that the episode seems unwilling to cut to commercial directly from the reused footage, meaning that for every act break, the show finds some asinine reason for the trial to pause, reminds us the stakes (Spock's life and career), and then come back to resume the clip show. These range from "Captain Pike is tired", (semi reasonable, dude is heavily disabled) to "The Talosians have stopped transmitting for no reason at all" (the perfection of the footage is explained as it having been generated by the telepathic Talosians from Pike's memories), to "Commodore Mendez has decided to skip the rest of the testimony and have Spock declared guilty" (a hilarious attempt to "up the stakes" that is completely ignored when we come back from commercial). 

Also interesting, if one watches both this and "The Cage" is what elements from the pilot did not make it into this rendition. While a lot of it is the standard editing out of unimportant details to improve the pacing -- and the pilot did have sluggish pacing -- some of the edits include the more risque sexual referenes and inferences of the original script, elements the network had objected to the first time around. Also gone is a lot of the more embarassing sexism in the original pilot. Most of these edits and changes actually render the two-part version more watchable.

The biggest change is to the ending of the pilot, altered through tricky editing so that "The Menagerie" can have an ending of its own. In the original pilot, Vina was revealed to be horribly mutilated by the crash of her ship, and beautiful only through illusion. In the end, she chooses to stay behind on Talos so she doesn't have to live with the reality of her broken body, and has an illusory Pike to keep her company. In the revised version of this seen in this episode, the illusory Pike is not included, because the ending to this episode is that Spock's motivation for bringing the cripppled Captain Pike to the forbidden planet of Talos IV has been so that the Talosians can provide him with an illusionary healthy body and he can live happily rather than as a vegetable, and thus the excised footage is now used to show Pike and Vina together in their illusionary bodies.

As mentioned last time, "The Menagerie" is a fine episode, especially if you haven't already seen "The Cage", but I have the same problem with it that Kirk does. Once the truth is revealed, including the fact that Spock's court martial was also a sham designed by the Talosians to distract Kirk from regaining control of his ship, Kirk tells Spock he could have just asked. Spock's response is that then Kirk's career and life would have been jeopardized too, but in the end, Starfleet exonerates everyone given Captain Pike's long history of distinguished service and his unique relationship with the Talosians. So, y'know, why not just draft a proposal to Fleet Headquarters to begin with?

Oh well. It's a clip show that won a Hugo Award, who am I to argue?

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "The Menagerie, Part I" (November 17, 1966)

"The Menagerie, Part I"
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Marc Daniels (also kinda Robert Butler)
Producer: Gene L. Coon (also kinda Gene Roddenberry)

"The Menagerie" is an odd beast, an episode with a lot of asterisks attached. It's the reason there's kinda both 79 and 80 episodes of Star Trek. 79 because the pilot never aired, 80 if you include the pilot, but also still 79 because in the production schedules this two-part episode was counted as one production, the 16th. 

The deal is, that at this point in the first season of the show, production was badly behind schedule. All of the scripts were being put through the absolute wringer of being written and rewritten by their writers, by story editor John D.F. Black, and by Roddenberry himself and the end result was that the show had run out of scripts. They had nothing to shoot, and would have to shut down production, which was unacceptable for a network series at this time. 

So the idea was to salvage an episode out of "The Cage", which could never be aired as a regular episode but had still cost a boatload of money and whose footage was just lying around. The production team thought that if perhaps an "envelope" could be written using the regular characters, framing "The Cage" as a kind of flashback, it would basically mean they could shoot one episode's worth of footage and drag it out to encompass two shows, creating essentially a clip show for an episode the audience had actually never seen.
Black was originally assigned the task to write the envelope, but Roddenberry was displeased and decided to do it himself, leading to Black leaving the show and D.C. Fontana being elevated into the story editor position.

What's left is actually a really engaging two-parter, that must have been really cool and exciting for the original audience to see -- indeed, it won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1967. If you didn't know it was a money saving clip show (and why would you, since "The Cage" never aired), it comes off as a pretty epic story about Spock, Pike, and a mystery in their past, dramatizing these events with all new costumes and cast and sets and so on. 

The gist is that Captain Pike, former captain of the Enterprise, has been the victim of a debilitating accident that's left him a vegatable. By falsifying various computer records, Spock diverts the ship to the starbase he's being kept at, and then essentially kidnaps Pike and hijacks the Enterprise, with course set for Talos IV, a mysterious planet which no one is allowed to visit on punishment of death! The only death penalty on the books!

Eventually, Kirk and Commodore Mendez of the starbase wrest control back and Spock is put under court-martial, where he begins offering his defense in the form of a video record of the one ship that ever went to Talos IV -- the Enterprise under the command of Christopher Pike (in footage from "The Cage"). This makes the unaired pilot into a "flashback" from 13 years ago, explaining the different crew, uniforms and even design of the ship. The episode even addresses that the edited, multi-angle episode footage used can't possibly be from a standard ship's log and explains this in Part II. As it is, the footage goes up to the place where Pike is captured in the original episode, thus leaving on a dramatic double cliffhanger -- the fate of Spock's career, and life, and why he's risking it all for his former captain, and also the fate of Pike and the mystery of Talos IV. 

That said, the episode does have some problems, namely that like in "Court Martial", once all the answers to the mysteries of Part I are solved in Part II, a lot of the actions taken and dramatic declarations made don't really hold up in terms of motivations.

Also unfortunately for this episode, modern viewers have full access to "The Cage" on the series DVD sets, and so while Part I does retain some excitement, it wanes once the stock footage starts, and Part II is more largely comprised of stock footage and so fares worse. But it's useful to remember how exciting the show must have been for the thirty odd years or so when you couldn't see "The Cage", and the mystique it gave the unaired pilot, and Captain Pike. 

When watching Star Trek in a modern context, it does raise the question if one of the two versions is redundant. "The Menagerie" incorporates large portions of "The Cage" but not all of it. If one is watching to see how the show and Roddenberry's ideas developed, it's useful to start with "The Cage", which is excellent television in its own right. But if one is just watching Trek for entertainment or enjoyment, perhaps it's best to just watch "The Menagerie" and experience it's story in that context. 

 Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage: 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Court Martial" (February 2, 1967)

"Court Martial"
Script: Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos
Director: Marc Daniels

Producer: Gene L. Coon

I think "Court Martial" is a pretty significant episode, although it's also very flawed. 
What makes it worthwhile is the way that, like "Balance of Terror", it engages in some worldbuilding. 

After fifteen episodes of vague terminology about who exactly the Enterprise works for, we finally hear about Starfleet, Starfleet Command, and Starbases. We meet a flag officer, Commodore Stone, who commands the Starbase. And he's played by Percy Rodriguez, a dark skinned man, a full four years before a man of color would ascend to flag rank in the US Navy. We see a court-martial and thus it's attendant proceedings, and in the course of it learn a lot about some of the main characters when their service records are read out. We get a bit more backstory for Kirk. 

This is all great stuff, really helping to flesh out the series and it's world. And the central premise that Kirk is placed on court-martial after the death of one of his men is great. The prosecuting JAG being one of his ex-girlfriends is also a great idea. So it's just too bad that so much of the drama really falls short. 

First off, the central nature of the crime is never really adequately explained. The ship was in an ion storm, an officer named Finney was in a pod, and Kirk jettisoned it and he died. Now it's basically implied that Finney was in the pod to take readings on the storm and it's implied that if Kirk hadn't jettisoned the pod, the ship would somehow have been destroyed, but the mechanics aren't very clear. The issue at hand is Kirk waiting until the last possible moment to jettison, since Finney was inside the pod, which begs the question, why didn't Finney just come back inside? Anyways, Kirk said he jettisoned at red alert, but the ship's logs say it was at yellow alert, meaning no emergency condition existed, and what Kirk did was murdered. 

It's also stated that no starship captain has ever been court-martialed, and while the intent of that line is to increase the idea that starship captains are "paragons of virtue" and also emphasize the scandal Kirk faces, it's a ludicrous idea. Courts-martial happen for a variety of reasons as a matter of standard procedure, including if a captain loses a ship. And we will see going forward that starship captains who aren't in command of the Enterprise don't seem any more like paragons who never make mistakes.

It's suggested Kirk made a mistake under pressure, and if he agreed to that interpretation he'd be let off easy - that is, a ground assignment but not drummed out of the service. But Kirk won't have that, and takes it to trial. In essence, it's his word against the computer's. It looks bad, because as it turns out, Finney hated Kirk for years due to an incident between them long ago, and somehow this is Kirk's motivation to kill him.

So of course it turns out Finney is still alive and falsified the computer records to disgrace Kirk and get his revenge. Spock proves the computer's been tampered with when he wins five games of 3D chess in a row, and Kirk proves Finney's still alive through a ridiculously overdramatic sequence wherein everyone is ordered to leave the ship so that the ship's auditory sensor reveals Finney's heartbeat hiding down in engineering. 

How did Finney plan this? Did he know that they'd be entering into this ion storm? Why would he fake his own death when he had a young daughter alive and waiting for him? What was the endgame here? And while Elisha Cook Jr. gives a good enough performance as Samuel T. Cogley Attorney-at-Law, Kirk's anti-computer pro-book basically-Amish lawyer, his big impassioned speech where he argues for the rights of man over the machine is basically saying that Kirk's rights have been trampled on because he hasn't "faced his accuser" which is used as a pretense to get the trial board onto the ship to prove Finney's still alive. What?

It's an episode with a lot of drama, new information, new characters, sights and sounds. But it doesn't really hold up to any sort of logical analysis. A lot of stuff that happens is too convenient or otherwise too obviously arranged for the plot's benefit. Which isn't to say it's not a clever or entertaining episode. It is. It's just not the great legal drama it wants to be, and it's also maybe the victim of not holding up to repeat viewings fifty years later, a fate no Star Trek episode ever really expected. 

Still, it's definitely worth it as the moment in the series when a lot of the worldbuilding around Starfleet starts to settle into place, despite it's melodramatic excesses being used to pave over its plot holes.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "The Galileo Seven" (January 5, 1967)

"The Galileo Seven"
Script: Oliver Crawford and S. Bar-David
Story: Oliver Crawford
Director: Robert Gist
Producer: Gene L. Coon

This is an episode of firsts. It's the first appearance of the Enterprise's shuttle bay and shuttlecraft (after being mentioned last episode). It's the first appearance of an obnoxious galactic government bureaucrat standing over Kirk's shoulder reminding him he has other responsibilities. And it's also the first episode-long investigation of the character of Mr. Spock.

Spock was unquestionably the show's breakout character. His "fascinating" and complex character made him a favourite of writers as well as the audience, especially as Leonard Nimoy's varied and nuanced performance brought so much of the character to life.

So this episode finds Spock in command of six other crewmembers on a shuttle dispatched to investigate a notable spatial phenomena. So of course, the shuttle gets caught in the anomaly and as a result crashes on an unknown planet, which means that the first shuttle episode is also the first shuttle crash episode.

Stranded on the surface, Spock must learn to make the command decisions necessary to keep the crew alive. In addition to the standard problems of "not enough fuel to lift off", and "too much weight, we'll need to leave someone behind," there's also a primitive race of giant fur clad ape men flinging spears at the landing party.

It'd be difficult enough for anyone, but Spock approaches it with his usual irrefutable logic. It gets mixed results. When things look disastrous, he offers that there are always possibilities. But when one of the crew is endangered, he reasons the needs of the may outweigh the needs of the one, and thus doesn't wish to risk a rescue. Eventually, his insistence on logic over feeling not only earns him the ire of the officers under his command, but actually contribute to disaster at multiple turns, turning the situation more and more dire.

With Spock are McCoy and Scotty, with McCoy continuing his role as Spock's foil, and Scotty getting to demonstrate his pragmatic amazing competence (is this his first appearance since "The Naked Time"? Geez, more Scotty please!). Meanwhile the other four are two command division officers who should've been security because they both die, a rather pointless female yeoman (are all yeoman women now?), and finally Mr. Bomer, a science officer who is intelligent, passionate, and one of Trek's best one off crew members. And it's important to remember that for a 1967 audience, the fact that he was black would have been very significant as well.

Meanwhile, all the scenes aboard the Enterprise in this episode are largely pointless. They all consist of High Commissioner Asshole telling Kirk he only has so much time left to search for and rescue the Galileo shuttle crew, and Kirk getting more and more frustrated. Honestly, needing to deliver medicine to plague victims is pretty important, so the bureaucrat has a point, but the actor in the role overplays it so hard, turning this guy into just the most callous, dick-waving blowhard. And none of these scenes have really any more significant information, they just remind us that Kirk and the Enterprise exist, that they're searching for the shuttle, and that there's a time limit on the search, adding a ticking clock element on top of the already existing problems on the planet.

The climax, where Spock finally gets the shuttle crew rescued through an act of "emotional" desperation, is a fantastic moment for Spock, who gets a great examination and arc over the course of the hour. It also leads to the first of many Trek endings where the bridge crew get to laugh uproariously about Spock's alien nature.

If anything really strikes the episode down a notch - it's the aliens on the planet. I give this series a lot of leeway for its effects, special and visual, given it's unique nature at the time of production, the vintage of its production and it's limited budget. I largely think it's unfair to moan about the effects. But the Tarsus IV barbarians are, even with this leeway, utterly unconvincing. The props are bad, the costume is bad, their size and scale relative to our characters is completely inconsistent. It just doesn't work, which explains why they're largely kept offscreen. Still, it's a mark on an otherwise great episode because they always take me out of the show when they show up and start lobbing spears at people.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The Conscience of the King" (December 8, 1966)

"The Conscience of the King"
Writer: Barry Trivers
Director: Gerd Oswald
Producer: Gene L. Coon

Star Trek has a longstanding open relationship with the works of William Shakespeare, taking episode titles, lines of dialogue, themes and characters from the Bard and liberally sprinkling them all across the franchise. It starts in this episode, which also is one of the most Shakespeare centred of those that follow this trend.

It's also a bit of an odd duck in these early episodes in that there's really nothing of a sci-fi element to be found here. This entire story could, with minimal revisions, appear in any number of shows of different genres. But in a way, this oddity helps the episode to stand out and feel unique. Kirk isn't dealing with alien mind games here, but rather with the dark parts of the human experience.

This is Ronald D. Moore's favourite episode of The Original Series, and seeing as he was behind the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, it's easy to see why. Not just because this is a dark episode, willing to push the characters as far as it can. But also because it's more interested in human nature than in sci-fi ideas.

The episode revolves around a company of Shakespearean actors the Enterprise takes aboard, of whom the lead player Kirk begins to suspect may be in fact the infamous Kodos the Executioner. Twenty years earlier, Kodos had been governor of an Earth colony faced with starvation, and made the choice to execute half the colonists in order to feed the rest, choosing who lived and died based on his own theories of eugenics. Only eight or nine of the survivors actually saw Kodos, whose own body emerged too badly burned for a positive ID.

It turns out everywhere Anton Karidian's company of actors performs, one of the survivors turns up dead, and now they're on board the Enterprise and it turns out two of the crew are witnesses -- Kevin Riley (last seen in "The Naked Time"), and Captain James T. Kirk. Riley would have been a small boy at the time, and his whole family was slaughtered except him. Kirk would have been in his teens, and the show is frustratingly vague on the details of why he was there exactly, but we know from other episodes his family is still alive, so he was just a witness.

Either way, what follows is an exploration of revenge. Kirk gets close to Karidian's daughter in an attempt to get to the man himself and ascertain if is in fact Kodos. Spock notices Kirk's obsessive behaviour and becomes concerned. Someone is going around killing the witnessess of the massacre. It's all about the extremes we'll go to. It's a much darker and more intense Kirk than we're used to, and it's quite startling to see him turn on that Kirk charm for Lenore and then turn around and be intent on confronting her father.

And he does confront him, but he can't figure out what to do with him. Kill him? How is that right? And Karidian, who is indeed Kodos, seems himself haunted by the past, and desperate to escape it.

Ultimately, it turns out it was Lenore who was killing the witnesses, seeking to "protect" her father from them, and when it all comes to light she completely cracks, and ends up phasering her father accidentally, which drives her over the edge and into a rehabilitation centre, convinced her father is still alive and giving performances.

It's melodrama, with murders and revenge and the hauntings of the past. In other words, it's Shakespeare.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Miri" (October 27, 1966)

Writer: Adrian Spies
Director: Vincent McEveety

Producer: Gene L. Coon

This episode isn't good, guys. In fact, it's pretty bad.

I honestly don't know what the point is supposed to be. There's some effective elements here, in a spooky post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror mode, but it really doesn't work as Star Trek. 

The Enterprise comes across a radio distress call, coming from a planet that's an exact duplicate of Earth. They beam down and find the ruins of a 1960s era civilization that's been destroyed for 300 years (giving us a rough estimate of when the show takes place, by and by). All that's left are children, who die of a maddening disease when they reach puberty.

So our heroes, being adults of course, contract the disease when they beam down, and now must cure themselves before it kills them, all while being attacked by the feral children of the planet. In this they are aided by Miri, a young girl on the verge of adolescence with a crush on Kirk.

There are some interesting ideas here. The disease was caused when a group of scientists working on life prolongation accidentally unleashed a virus that destroyed the adult population -- but it worked on the children, who age a month every hundred years, but when they hit puberty they die. It's a haunting scenario, and maybe would have been interesting as a Twilight Zone episode seen from the POV of this civilization. 

But ultimately, what's it all about? There's maybe something in here about the 1960s generation gap conflict, but that was a conflict between disillusioned revolutionary teenagers and middle aged satisfied adults. By rendering the younger generation as unruly, dangerous, bratty children in need of adult supervision, well... it certainly doesn't display a good or even interesting understanding of the conflict.

Ultimately "Miri" contents itself with the adolescent crush on Kirk by Miri, with "creepy" scenes of unruly children, and with angry sniping between the crew as the clock ticks down. It's not enough however, to sustain the episode -- which never even bothers to answer it's central mystery: how the hell is this planet an exact duplicate of Earth?

I mean I know it's so that they can create a post-apocalyptic world of feral children using the studio backlot of regular kids in messy clothes, the same kind of budget reducing reasoning that led to Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development, Class-M worlds, humanoid species and so on that let Trek later get away with gangster planets and Nazi planets and Roman planets -- but why is it exactly Earth, same continents and everything, and not just a similar world? That the episode draws attention to it in the beginning and then never answers demonstrates just how bereft of thought the script is.

In behind the scenes news, this episode marks two transitions. For one, Gene Roddenberry has stepped back from being the primary showrunner at this point. Being so hands on with the show had burnt him out, causing problems in his personal and professional lives. At this point he steps back to the role of "executive producer", still involved with the show, but in a more supervisory capacity. Replacing him as showrunner is Gene L. Coon, a man who would shepherd Star Trek past its early stages and into a more well developed show, introducing many key elements of the world and solidifying them.

The other change is this is the last episode of the show featuring Janice Rand prominently, as Grace Lee Whitney was written off the show. Official reasons given included a desire to explore different love interests for Kirk, as well as the actresses' alcoholism, but in recent years it's come out that she was the victim of an attempted sexual assault on the part of an unnamed executive (likely Roddenberry) and this led to her dismissal. Absolutely unfortunate to Whitney as losing the job led to a definite descent in her personal life, but I can't say I'm sorry to see the character go.

Janice Rand is a character that I suppose could have had some real potential. After all, this idea of the Captain/Yeoman sexual tension seems to have been part of Roddenberry's original conception of the show. But where the two should have perhaps been portrayed more like James Bond and Moneypenny, with a level of give and take between them, instead, Janice just seemed like a poor girl destined to be assaulted, stalked, leered at and endangered by each week's problem, while in my opinion the necessary sexual chemistry between her and Kirk never materialized.

Either way, what happened to Grace Lee Whitney was shitty, and this was a pretty lousy episode to go out on.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage: