Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Patterns of Force" (February 16, 1968)

"Patterns of Force" 
Writer: John Meredyth Lucas
Director: Vincent McEveety
Producer: John Meredyth Lucas

"Your writers were so preoccupied with whether they could do a Nazi episode, they didn't stop to think if they should do a Nazi episode." - Dr. Ian Malcolm, Noted Trekkie

This is yet another "parallel Earth development/let's used leftover costumes and sets" episode. And I mean if you're going to do a "what if an alien planet, but [Earth culture]?" episode, a Nazi episode is pretty tempting. But is there any reason to do it besides "the costumes will be easy to come by"?

The problem is this episode never gets around to having anything worthwhile to say about Nazism. The premise is that an Earth historian comes to planet divided by anarchy and unites it by using Nazi ideologies, trying to use the efficiency of facism without any of its evils. It of course backfires.

There are a lot of problems with even the central premise. For one thing, while it is true that under the Nazis Germany went from being a bankrupt and defeated nation to one of the superpowers of the world, it had nothing to do with "efficiency", and everything to do with utilizing propaganda to unite the people against a common enemy in a use of racism (not something you can do "benevolently") and then just pure brute force and terror. Forcing things is not efficiency, it is violence. Of course, the scope of Nazi Germany's failures as a an actual state, the complete mess of competing bureaucracies and inadequacies, wasn't really known to the American public in the 1960s. The idea of facism as efficient, if wrong, was a popular one at the time.

But even then, the idea that Nazi imagery would unite an alien culture is nonsense. Nazi imagery worked because it was so solidly based in German and "Aryan" folk cultures. Anyone seeking to be a Nazi on an alien world would have to co-opt that culture's imagery. And if you were trying to create benevolent Nazis, why copy things like the fucking Skulls on the uniforms? But then, the fun of the episode is seeing Kirk and Spock fight Nazis (and also spend a good portion of the episode dressed as Nazis, due to infiltration tactics).

The episode is largely meant as a parable about the importance of the Prime Directive, not interfering with the affairs of others, and the way that history repeats itself if we don't learn from our past mistakes. Of course, this last point, that of forgetting how bad the Nazis are to the point where we start emulating them, wasn't exactly as big a problem in 1968 as it somehow fucking is in this year of our Lord 2017.

Ultimately, the Nazis are defeated when Kirk and Spock manage to reveal that the human historian who kicked everything off is a drugged puppet of his alien second in command, and the people turn against him. It's honestly way too easy and pat of an answer for the problem of "a human turned an entire alien world into Nazis", and the episode ends way too hopefully.

But the fun is supposed to be in seeing our future characters interact with these ideas. So ultimately, my biggest problem with the hour is that it has nothing to say about Nazism or its dangers. Oh sure, it says Nazis are bad, and that efficiency isn't worth brutality and racism, but those aren't exactly biting critiques are they?

Writer/Producer John Meredyth Lucas said he wrote this episode to explore the question of why the ordinary average citizen would accept something as clearly evil as Nazism. That is a useful, important, and again somehow fucking timely problem to explore. Unfortunately, the episode doesn't really address this. It basically seems to say that people accepted Nazism because it led to an efficient, well-ordered society. Which it didn't. Neither did communism under Stalin, or any of the 20th century dictatorships. They were garbage messes as nation-states.

So while I appreciate the "Nazis are bad" and "learn from history or else be doomed to repeat it" messages, I just wish this episode had more to it than the entertainment value of essentially dropping Kirk and Spock into a WWII spy thriller.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Return to Tomorrow" (February 9, 1968)

"Return to Tomorrow"
Writer: John Kingsbridge (aka John Dugan)
Director: Ralph Senensky
Producer: John Meredyth Lucas

It's hard to get a good reading on this episode. It shifts tone a lot, and it doesn't always seem intentional. It spans the gamut from high concept sci-fi, court intrigue, pretentious, philosophical, religious, and campy. It's got a bit of everything. And a lot of what it has is fairly likeable.

The basic premise is there are some superpowerful aliens who claim to have spread their genetic material across the galaxy eons ago and thus fathered humanoid life, and now exist solely as disembodied consciousnesses in a vault. They reach out to our heroes for help, they want to take over the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Starfleet officer babe Dr Anne Mulhall (played by probable Roddenberry mistress Diana Muldaur), and use them to build android bodies which they will then inhabit. With their ancient and advanced knowledge, they could help the Federation to a great degree.

So that moves us to the intrigue part of the episode -- the three aliens are Sargon, a righteous do-gooder, his wife Thelaysa, and his enemy Henoch. They go into Kirk, Mulhall, and Spock respectively, and one of the purest joys of the hour is seeing Leonard Nimoy finally get to put his devlish looks to use and play a real smarmy bad guy. He's so well suited to it! Henoch plans to destroy Sargon and keep his superior Vulcan body instead of transfering to the androids, in the most predictable betrayal of all time. He also corrupts Thelaysa to his side since the human bodies experience sensations the android bodies cannot.

With the aliens in our heros' bodies, their consciousnesses are stored in "receptacles." Very soon the episode gets wrapped up in the mechanics of who's mind is in what body. Sargon is presumed destroyed when Kirk's body is killed, and Spock assumed killed when Sargon destroys the receptacles to prevent Henoch from fleeing anywhere -- Sargon himself having possessed the Enterprise itself. Then through further intrigues, Henoch is forced out of Spock's body and having nowhere to go, goes into oblivion. Then Sargon and Thelaysa willingingly go into oblivion as well, revealing Spock's consciousness was in Nurse Chapel's body all along!

There's a bit too much of the back and forths, traps and counter-traps, by the end of the hour, but the episode does contain a few real joys. As mentioned before, there's Nimoy as Henoch in Spock's body. Then there's the scene in the briefing room where Kirk gives an impassioned speech in favour of the risks of progress, speaking right to the heart of what Star Trek is all about. Shatner overacts the hell out of the speech, but that doesn't mean it's not a good speech.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "By Any Other Name" (February 23, 1968)

"By Any Other Name"
Story: Jerome Bixby
Screenplay: D.C. Fontana and Jerome Bixby
Director: Marc Daniels
Producer: John Meredyth Lucas

Maybe it's just the presence of Forbidden Planet alum Warren Stevens as the lead alien, but there's something very "old school sci-fi" about this episode. It's about suuper powerful giant unemotional tentacle monster aliens from another galaxy who have come to our galaxy with the intention of conquering it, and have assumed convenient human form so they can hijack the Enterprise to achieve their mission.

What makes the episode work beyond it's fairly predictable story beats is the attention to detail, intelligent execution of the plot, use of Star Trek continuity, and character details. The episode makes multiple references to past episodes (the barrier at the edge of the galaxy from the second pilot reappears, for instance), and answers questions like "how does a small number of aliens take over a crew of 430?" (by turning them into concentrated white dodecahedrons).

Of course, how do you defeat Great Old Ones from the Intergalactic Cosmos who have taken human form? By overwhelming them with human sensations for which they are unfamiliar of course! So Scotty sets about getting one of them drunk, of course, and they go through his whole liquor cabinet but he manages to drink him under the table. McCoy gives one shots for conditions he doesnt' have to make him irritable. Spock spurs the leader into being jealous of Kirk, and Kirk of course seduces the hot blonde one by teaching her the ways of that strange human emotion called love.

It's all a bit predictable, but the intelligence and care by which the story is written grants it enjoyability. It's fun to see our people outsmart these aliens -- the Scotty plotline is particularly memorable -- and apparently most of this sense of fun and character was added by Dorothy Fontana in her rewrite. Jerome Bixby's original script was much more serious in its take on aliens taking over our galaxy. Fontana rightly recognized that such a plot was a bit too much to take, and turns it into a good character study.

And trust me, you'll never forget those weird white dodecahedrons.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Novel Review: "Mission to Horatius" (February, 1968)

"Mission to Horatius"  
Writer: Mack Reynolds
Illustrator: Sparky Moore

Licensing tie-in rights are interesting beasts. In January of 1967, Bantam Books published Star Trek by James Blish, a collection of short story adaptations of episodes 6-13 of the series. The follow-up, Star Trek 2, also by Blish, was published in February of 1968 and featured adaptations of episodes 15, 19, 21, 23-24, 28 and 29. Later, Ballantine Books published The Making of Star Trek in September of 1968, a non-fiction behind the scenes look at the series. Meanwhile, Gold Key Comics were publishing their Star Trek tie-in comic book series. That these licensing rights were spread over different publishing houses is not unusual -- clearly Ballantine had nonfiction rights, Bantam had "adult fiction" rights, and Gold Key's corporate owner, Whitman publishing, had "children's fiction" rights. 

Which brings us to Mission to Horatius, the first piece of original Star Trek prose fiction ever published. Published as it was by Whitman, this novel is strictly in the "young adult" category. I'm not quite sure how juvenile works are classified these days, but when I was a kid I think this would have been percieved as what children call a "chapter book" -- meant for kids around grades 3 to 6, with chapters and decent prose but simple stories and still containing illustrations, usually one per chapter. 

Now, I don't like to look down on books just because they are for kids. There are plenty of great examples of children's fiction that don't condescend to their readers and feature fine stories. And despite its adult pretensions, Star Trek has always been a perfect starter sci-fi franchise for kids as well. Also, by February 1968 I would expect a piece of tie-in fiction to have more information to work with about the show than that Gold Key comic I reviewed did, and after all Mack Reynolds is an established sci-fi writer as well. So I didn't want to go into this novel assuming it would be bad.

it is. Real bad. In fact, by the end of it I was pretty angry at the thing. I actually think it's worse than the Gold Key issue, because it's clear that Reynolds had access to the Writer's Guide for the show and had even seen episodes. The comic book was so different it was practically it's own thing, but the novel is close to the show while getting so many things wrong along the way.

Now, I don't know as much of the early history of Star Trek fanzines and fanfics as I probably should (pretty much all the conventions and quirks of fanfic come from Trek fanfic), but I'll say that my first impression reading Mission to Horatius is that it reads like the kind of Trek fanfic I wrote when I was say 10-15 years old. The kind where you throw in a lot of extraneous extra lore to prove you're a true fan, where you introduce character by full name, rank and position, and where everyone acts like caricatures of themselves because you're so eager to get Spock to say "Fascinating", or McCoy to say "Dammit, Jim!" or Scotty to moan about the engines in a story you wrote! 

Reynolds writes like he had a copy of the Writer's Guide beside him and couldn't wait to show off. The book contains the kind of worst sci-fi tell-not-show that the TV series often avoided -- characters explaining how warp drive works to each other for two pages kind of stuff. Things that should have just been in narration are in dialogue, as every time something happens every bridge officer gets a line of dialogue to comment on it.

And it doesn't help that between the fact that the characters are two-dimensional renditions, that Reynolds doesn't have the charm of the actors to help him, and that they are constantly talking and interrupting each other that everyone comes off as an unlikeable asshole. Kirk "snaps" at his officers constantly, Sulu and Chekov are utterly irresponsible junior officers, McCoy is in full grump mode all the time. Reynolds does a recurring bit where Kirk tries to get one of his officers to report something to him and they stall and he has to ask over and over, as if you were watching an entire Star Trek episode scripted like the end gag in "Trouble with Tribbles". It gets very aggravating.

And Spock. Oh man, Spock. If the exposition in this book was like Reynolds showing off that he had a copy of the Writer's Guide, Spock is Reynolds showing off that he got suckered into buying a home encyclopedia set. At every mention of any proper noun, Spock starts reciting rote facts and dates on the topic for at least two paragraphs each time before someone shuts him up. Maybe this was supposed to be educational?

Additionally, everyone in the book is an idiot. Kirk seems to be the only person who knows the Prime Directive, and is constantly reminded his officers about it, who are constantly violating it. Which feels like a reversal of the show, really. Characters establish information and then half a chapter later are confused or mystified by things they themselves had earlier explained.

The plot drives me mad. The jist of it is that the Enterprise has received a distress signal from the Horatius system, which has three planets, each colonized by a different group of humans who did not want to live in the Federation. They don't know which has sent the signal or why. The first one, Neolithia, Spock explains was colonized by people who rejected technology and wanted to get back to nature. Yet when the ship goes into orbit, the book spends pages and pages on the characters scanning the planet, not finding any signs of technology or civilization, being baffled, beaming down to figure out the mystery, and being attacked by nature boys doing the cave man schtick and being amazed by it all. This is what I mean when I say the characters are stupid.

Now, I know it's a kid's book, and the plot should be simple. I'm not saying these mysteries should be apparent to the kids, but it should be apparent to the characters. The story should be simplified, not their intelligence. Giving the answer to a riddle before asking it doesn't make anyone look good.

Then Sulu and Chekov decide to violate the Prime Directive by beaming one of the native kids onboard when Kirk explicitly told them not to, and once he knows he's onboard? Oh, let's give him a tour of the ship, a haircut and a uniform! Yeesh! 

The second planet is a religious colony, where of course the priests are corrupt and drugging the population into subserviance, like in "Return of the Archons". Now and again this book for children sneaks an assumed "Midcentury Western Christian Imperialist" view of other cultures that seems at odds with Star Trek's secular humanism -- for example Kirk calls Neolithia a backwards retarded culture. When the priests of the second world, Mythra, turn out to be a sham and the religion just a big power grab, Spock explains for the benefit of Chekov of all people that religions are not always as peaceful and benign as the traditions of Jesus of Nazereth -- as if Christianity is the assumed standard in the Federation to the point where other traditions are utterly unknown.  

Speaking of assumptions, Reynolds also does something throughout the book that drove me up the wall -- he refers to Earth Basic as being the language spoken. Now, this is a common sci-fi/fantasy trope, to call what is ostensibly "English" something else because English shouldn't exist in that world -- for example, English is called Basic in Star Wars, and Common in Dungeons & Dragons, Westron in Lord of the Rings, etc. But Star Trek is just our world in the future! They are speaking English!

*Ahem* Anyways, the third planet is called Bavarya, and apparently is full of political dissidents. And this is about where I lost it with this book. So everyone on the planet dresses in these militaristic uniforms and use German officer ranks to address each other and oh yeah the lower classes all look alike and are even referred to as Doppelgangers and have blonde hair and blue eyes and its a dictatorship AND IT TAKES FOREVER FOR KIRK & CO. TO REALIZE THIS A SOCIETY OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED NAZI CLONES!!! They are explicitly drawn as Nazis in the illustrations, and Spock, who has spent the whole book explaining the history of everything, doesn't even flinch at the word Doppelganger, which Kirk just assumes is this world's cultural term for second class citizens, and they all scratch their heads about them all looking the same and no one ties together the uniforms and the German words and phrases at all. Like, this crew just doesn't know what Nazis, clones, or the German language are. And again, I get that like, maybe there should be a mystery for kids reading the book to put together, but it makes the characters look like idiots not to figure this out, particularly with the way Spock has been portrayed up to this point. He can rattle off the history of who "Horatius" is in myth, but he's unfamiliar with FUCKING NAZIS??

Anyways, turns out the dictator's daughter is the one who sent out the distress signal, and that it's ludicrously easy to kill all the clones (which it's okay to do because the book spends an entire page with McCoy explaining it's impossible to clone a soul and therefore the Doppelgangers are zombies, because again Inexplicable Christian Agenda) by hitting a single button in a control room and without the clones the Nazis lose power over the people and so hooray Nazis defeated!

There's a bunch of other stupid shit in this book, like a subplot about how the ship hasn't been in for R&R or repairs for a year (what?) and this is making the whole crew go space mad from space boredom because y'know they don't have an exciting adventure every fucking week Friday nights at 8:30! And Sulu's pet rat that gets loose and apparently in the future a) rats are more or less extinct and b) everyone's forgotten about the Bubonic Plague! (Again, Spock is a huge know-it-all except when convenient).

But the main thing I wanna talk about is this: Why does this book feel like three Star Trek TV adventures stitched together? We go to a caveman planet, a religious nutjob planet, and a Nazi planet. These are all the kind of cheap, easy premises the show liked to do. In fact -- they DID a Nazi planet episode for real (and the characters in that knew what Nazis were)! In a novel, you could do things with Star Trek too expensive for television, take the premise anywhere, and yet we're left with the equivalent of cheap backlot sets, just in our imagination.

The fact that a Nazi planet is used makes me wonder when the book was written. Because Reynolds not only obviously had the Writer's Guide (since his character descriptions are so pulled from it), but he had clearly seen the show! The characters may be exaggerated, but they are still recognizable, and Reynolds mentions specific episodes, like "Trouble with Tribbles", which aired earlier in the same season as "Patterns of Force", the Nazi episode! Now, Memory Alpha (the Star Trek wiki), says the book came out in February, so after "Tribbles" aired but before "Patterns" -- but there's another wrinkle in this mystery! In one sequence, the crew has to don spacesuits. Now, spacesuits wouldn't appear on Trek until season three, so the illustrator has them wearing the spacesuits from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which wouldn't see release until April. I can only conclude publicity materials from this major film release showed the suits appearances in time for the illustrator to use them -- because otherwise why would you write a Trek novel about a Nazi planet when the show had already done it?

Mission to Horatius
isn't bad because it's for kids, or because it's a tie-in novel, or because it even gets much wrong about Star Trek in terms of lore or character. It's bad because it's poorly written, and aggravating to read at every turn. It's a curiousity, but not something I can recommend.

Rating: 1 out of 4