Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Elaan of Troyius" (December 20, 1968)

"Elaan of Troyius" 
Writer: John Meredyth Lucas
Director: John Meredyth Lucas
Producer: Fred Freiberger

"Elaan of Troyius" would be good, if it wasn't so bad. 

There's a lot going on, with engaging characters and plot twists and machinations. But the foundation of the story is a big bag of awful.

Basically, Elaan is the Dolman of Elas, a planet at war with Troyius, and the governments of the two planets have decided that she's going to be married to the ruler of Troyius to broker peace. Y'know, that old story? But while her name is clearly a play on "Helen of Troy", the plot is more Taming of the Shrew. See, Elaan is being a real bitch about this marriage, namely because she didn't want it. Also the Elasians are a warrior culture and the Troyians are prissy peaceniks. So the Enterprise has to take the trip between the two worlds real slow, so the Troyian ambassador can teach Elaan manners. And after she nearly kills him, that task falls to Kirk. On top of all this, it turns out Elas is rich with dilithium, and the Klingons are in the area to sabotage the wedding so they can ally with Elas and get the dilithium.

So there's a lot going on. There's politics and spies and sabotage and even a Klingon battle cruiser. But the focus of the story is largely on the fact that Elaan is a huge bitch, that Kirk has to cut her down to size, and that they of course fall in love (Elasian women's tears are a love potion it turns out, if they touch your skin). And while the explanation for Elaan's attitude problems are that Elasians are warriors and she is their rich spoiled queen, it is definitely hard to watch this episode without seeing a pretty clear subtext. Which is that Elaan's biggest problem is she's a woman, and women are irrational and stubborn and have to be disciplined by a man. And so the great dramatic thrust of the episode is whether Kirk can transform Elaan from a commanding, arrogant ruler to a docile, obediant wife. No points for guessing that he effects this transformation through becoming Elaan's lover himself.

The best stuff in this episode, aside from all the aliens and costumes on display, is the sabotage plot involving the Klingons. And no doubt, the coolest part about that is the debut of the Klingon D-7 battle cruiser. Throughout the second season, the show had avoided ever actually showing the oft-mentioned Klingon ship, because there just wasn't money in the budget for a new model. AMT to the rescue! The hobby model company had signed with Trek early on to make models of the Enterprise for sale and wanted to expand the line. So they hired actual series art director Matt Jefferies to design the Klingon battle cruiser as a companion product, then let the show use the master model created for the molds on the show!!

In the end, it turns out Kirk is able to resist the Elasian tears love potion because he's already in love with his duty, and Elaan learns to accept her obligations to her peoples. Again, if it wasn't for the steady strain of sexism permeating the entire episode, this would be a good one.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Friday, March 24, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Spectre of the Gun" (October 25, 1968)

"Spectre of the Gun"
Writer: Lee Cronin (Gene Coon)
Director: Vincent McEveety
Producer: Fred Freiberger

Star Trek's third season is notorious among fans for the show's dip in quality. Not that there weren't bad episodes in previous years, but in season three even the good entries tend to feel subpar, lacking the care and attention to quality that had become the show's standard.

There are a few reasons to why season three saw such a drop, as told from a few different points of view. Some see it as the network sabotaging the show so they could justify finally cancelling it, some as the makers of the show shooting themselves in the foot. Both were probably true to some degree.

After the successful fan letterwriting campaign (organized by show creator Gene Roddenberrry) that saved Trek from the chopping block, NBC scheduled the show for Monday nights at 7:30 PM. This was a premium time slot, and thinking that the network had finally recognized the value of the show, Roddenberry agreed to return as showrunner and devote the time and energy to it that he had in the early days of season 1. To network, cast, and crew, this was great news.

Problem. Laugh-In, the popular sketch comedy show, had that slot. They threw a fit. Both it and Trek attracted a valuable college age audience, but Laugh-In was more popular, less controversial, and cheaper to do. They won the time slot battle. Trek would go on at Friday nights at 10 PM -- aka when basically none of its kid, teen, or college student audience would ever see it. 

So Roddenberry gave up. Backed his bags, stole a ton of props and original footage and scripts to sell to Trekkies as mail-order merch, kept a nominal Executive Producer title and fee, and decided he was done. Most of the show's regular writers backed out at that point too -- although some have scripts early in season three due to being in development the year before. The show was handed over to Fred Freiberger as showrunner and Arthur Singer as story editor, who tried to do the best they could with a budget that had been slashed again (third season episodes were being made for about half of what season one had been shot for), a crew that was low on morale, and a cast that was on the edge of revolting.

They tried their best, but season three served as Trek's swan song -- it wasn't very good, and nobody watched it. The self-fullfilling prophecy.

But this episode isn't bad. Not great either, though.

It's premise is very simple. The Enterprise has been ordered to make diplomatic contact with the xenophobic Melkotians, despite the Melkotians making it clear they don't want it. Which is a weird mission for the "non-interference" foreign policy of Starfleet, but it's just a cheap way for the episode to force the issue.

Anyways, to throw off the landing party, the Melkotians create an illusion of Tombstone, Arizona, at the time of the OK Corral. With the landing party in the role of the Clampetts, destined to be gunned down. It must be said, this illusion is one of the best uses of Trek's anemic third season budget. Our characters all look the same, but the illusionary Earps and townsfolk see them as their historical counterparts. The buildings are nothing but facades, the sky is blood red, the entire scene is surreal. It's cost saving, but it's also effective in selling the unreality.

Unreality ends up being the point, as no genuine efforts to escape the gunfight succeed, reality re-writing itself to force the issue. Spock realizes that since the entire situation is manufactured in their minds, the bullets cannot hurt them so long as they are sure in their minds they are unreal. So the Earps fire, and nothing happens. T
urns out it was all a test by the Melkotians to see if the landing party would kill when threatened. Since they didn't, it proves humans are safe to make contact with. Holy crap! I'm not sure the Melkotians are safe, guys!

"Spectre of the Gun" is smart, eerie, atmospheric and intriguing. Unfortunately it is also extremely dull in long passages. Part of this is because we have seen ideas like this a few times before on the show, but part of it is also that there simply isn't enough story to last out a full hour. So everything is dragged out into an extremely slow pacing that ends up undoing whatever good elements the episode had going for it.

Lack of story, and pacing, will be problems moving forward, too.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "Assignment: Earth" (March 29, 1968)

"Assignment: Earth"
Story: Gene Roddenberry & Art Wallace 
Script: Art Wallace
Director: Marc Daniels
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

When is a Star Trek episode not a Star Trek episode?
When it's a backdoor pilot for a new television series idea Gene Roddenberry has because it's clear the network hates your show and it's time to have an exit strategy.

Near the end of the production of the second season, NBC was moving to cancel Star Trek. It wasn't on the schedule for the next year. The network had budgetary concerns with the show from the beginning, and now without Herb Solow and Desilu to speak for the show (the studio having been bought by Paramount towards the end of the year), it was just NBC and Roddenberry. Ever since the rejection of the first pilot Roddenberry had taken on an "us vs. them" mentality that had not ingratiated him with the network execs, and now they were looking to cut their losses and cancel. 

So Roddenberry created "Assignment: Earth" a series about an Earthman raised in secret by ultra advanced aliens and sent back to Earth to try and prevent the Cold War from going hot. Aided by his (predictably young and sexy) human secretary and his mysterious shapeshifting cat, they'd go around meddling in all kinds of things, presumably fighting off an opposing alien force favouring Earth's nuclear annihilation. In the Trek episode, our characters back in time, studying 1960s Earth for historical research when they become observers to the Assignment: Earth characters.

Funny how things turned out. Star Trek got renewed, and Assignment: Earth was never picked up - and for basically the same reason. Roddenberry had gotten in touch with Bjo Trimble, who was responsible for one of the top fanzines and fan mailing networks of the time and leaked that the show was going to be cancelled and encouraged a letter writing campaign to save it. While the amount of mail NBC got has been exaggerated into myth over the years, it was significant -- and inconvenient -- enough for the network to renew, since network policy at the time was that every letter received had to be responded to. 

But while NBC decided to save the show, they also knew who the pain in the ass was who had caused the trouble -- they weren't going to give Gene Roddenberry another show, and without Herb Solow to back for him, neither was anybody else.

But what about the episode? Is it any good? Well, I mean, Assignment: Earth might have been a good late sixties adventure show, maybe not as good as Mission: Impossible but in the same ballpark, and perhaps cheaper with its smaller cast. But I doubt it would have become the cultural juggernaut Star Trek did. Indeed, even Mission, which at the time had much higher ratings, largely faded into obscurity until Tom Cruise turned it into a vanity movie series. This episode introduces us to the Assignment: Earth characters and set up just fine.

But it's a bad episode of Star Trek, as Kirk and Spock do a lot of standing around, talking, observing other characters being interesting and remarking on how interesting it would be to see what they get up to every week. Eye roll. 

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage:


"Star Trek" Review: "The Omega Glory" March 1, 1968

"The Omega Glory" 
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Vincent McEveety
Producer: John Meredyth Lucas

"The Omega Glory" is real bad, everybody.

The script for this episode had been in development for a long time, since before a single frame of Star Trek was even shot. It was considered as a potential pilot, twice. For some reason Gene Roddenberry really thought he had a winner with this one, and there may be a kernel of something interesting in here, but it's buried under massive piles of dreck. You'd think that the four years this script had to be worked on would have improved it, but no, it was just four years of everyone telling Roddenberry not to do it, until we come to the end of the second season, where everybody with the balls to cut this thing down -- Gene Coon, Herb Solow, etc -- had left the show.

Probably the biggest problem with "The Omega Glory", other than its ideas are bad, is that it has too many of them. This episode has so little focus that it basically changes what it's about with every act break. At first we have a mystery story about finding another starship with the crew all dead (not the first time we've seen this), then a story about a starship captain who's abandoned the Prime Directive on a primitive world for his own gain (not the first time we've seen this), then a story about a world with parallel Earth development (not the first time we've seen this), that serves as an allegorical statement on Cold War hostilities (not the first time we've seen this).

Just when you think the episode has settled into an interesting track to talk about, it tends to switch into something even stupider. But it still has to balance all the previous threads, even when they're no longer the focus. The plot, such as it is, takes place on a planet where a nuclear war has resulted in a dominant race called the Comms (who look like Asians) and then a savage barbarian race called the Yangs (who look Germanic). Get it, yet? Anyways, everyone on this planet lives to be thousands of years old, so the evil starship captain thinks he can find the secret of longevity on the world and market to everyone else. Turns out its just a natural genetic result in the people who managed to survive the radiation fall-out, and all the crimes he's committed were for nothing.

If there's a reason to watch this thing, it's Morgan Woodward's unhinged portrayal of Captain Tracey. He's chewing scenary any which way he can, moving from commanding to intelligent to raving to hysterical and back again through the episode. It's a joy to watch if you like seeing these kinds of utterly unlimited performances. He makes Shatner look subdued and reasonable.

If there's a moment when "The Omega Glory" transcends bad to go for plain stupid, is when it takes the entire "parallel Earth" gag too far. Yeah, we get it, the Yangs are Yankees, but when Captain Kirk proves his inherent goodness to them by being able to clearly recite the slurred "holy words" they use - the United States' Declaration of Independance - and the Star-Spangled Banner itself gets brought out complete with anthem on the soundtrack, it just all gets a little bit overbearing in it's inappropriate patriotism.

The thing about "The Omega Glory" is everything it does that's interesting has been in done in other, better episodes. And everything unique to it is uniquely garbage.

Rating: 1 out of 4

Next Voyage:


"Star Trek" Review: "The Ultimate Computer" (March 8, 1968)

"The Ultimate Computer"
Story: Laurence N. Wolfe

Script: D.C. Fontana
Director: John Meredyth Lucas
Producer: John Meredyth Lucas

This is absolutely one of my all time favourite episodes of the entire series and I might just descend into gushing about it. The fact remains that it has one of the strongest scripts of all 79 episodes, incredibly good dialogue and character work, a strong central premise, and exciting tension and drama throughout.

At first, the anti-technology stance of the episode seems at odds with the positive futurism of the franchise. The Enterprise has been outfitted with a new supercomputer that renders all but a skeleton crew redundant, and may even put Captain Kirk out of a job. Naturally, Kirk is opposed to it and in the end human decisionmaking abilities are proven superior to the machine when it naturally runs amok.

But the story makes one absolutely brilliant decision -- it brings the computer's designer onboard too, and allows him to speak for it. And for once the justifications aren't straw man arguments or obvious fallacies, they're impassioned, understandable, human reasons. Dr. Richard Daystrom, considered the most brilliant computer mind in the Federation (and a man of color as well), is given more character insight, depth, and development in this one hour than almost any other character on Star Trek aside from Kirk and Spock. 

We learn Daystrom's backstory, his passions, his hopes, his motivations for creating this computer, all of it beautifully acted by William Marshall. How his initial computer breakthroughs happened when he was so young, that he's spent his whole life trying to live up to his early successes. How he longs for computerization to take man out of space exploration, so that "Men can live and go on to achieve greater things than fact-finding and dying for galactic space, which is neither ours to give or to take!

Of course, the computer goes haywire. It starts attacking starships, killing people, etc. But instead of being a triumphant vindication for Kirk, the episode becomes a heartwrenching tragedy for Daystrom, who can't understand what has happened. The secret to how his new system is so much more capable is that he imprinted his own thought patterns onto the computer so it could have the capacity for the invention and imagination of human thought - but in doing so it gave it all his human flaws as well, and like so many of us, he cannot see his own flaws. Ultimately this is what saves the day as well, though, as it is Daystrom's regret over the deaths the computer has caused that lead to it shutting itself down.

"The Ultimate Computer" is superbly written and directed, with multiple wonderful character moments and asides. The characterizations in the "trinity" is excellent, with McCoy serving as an excellent foil to both Kirk and Spock in revealing their reactions. Kirk gets a fantastic speech about the joy and adventure of captaining a ship that strikes to the heart of what Star Trek is all about. And Spock gets the wonderfully terse remark "computers make excellent servants, but I have no wish to serve under them."

But ultimately, what starts as a character study of Kirk becomes a successful episode when it shifts instead to a character study of Daystrom. For an episode about a computer, it is one of the most human installments in the series. I love every minute of it.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"Star Trek" Gold Key Comics Review: Issue #2 (March, 1968)

"The Devil's Isle of Space"
Writer: Dick Wood
Artist: Nevio Zaccara

I don't really know what publishing schedule Gold Key was on in 1968, but it's been eight months since their previous Star Trek release. Given that the TV series was on the constant brink of cancellation, I suppose it makes sense that the comic book publisher would be wary of devoting to many resources to a licensed comic. So this issue comes near the end of season 2, and while you'd think they might mean the creative team would have a better handle on the tone of the show, well, you'd only be half right. 

Nevio Zaccara's art continues to be gorgeous, just as much as it continues to be obvious he's working off publicity photos with no knowledge of the show. Primarily, the tricorder is consistently depicted as being a communicator, but also there's the one panel appearance of Uhura coloured as a white woman -- something that could just as easily be the team working off b&w photos as it could be a colouring error due to Gold Key's cheapness as it could also be an instance of actual whitewashing. Given that Uhura is also depicted wearing the wrong uniform colour, I am inclined to believe the error is due to working from b&w photos.

Dick Wood has a slightly better handle on the characters and their attitudes this time. Maybe he'd actually seen some episodes by this point? Better is a relative term though. Kirk goes on the landing party accompanied entirely by redshirts -- all of them heroic manly men -- while Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura are aboard ship, giving us a repeat of "Kirk does things, Spock supports" from the first issue. Which means this issue fails to tap into the most significant thing that had connected Star Trek to its fans -- not sci-fi sights and sounds but rather the relationships between the characters, primarily Kirk and Spock. Instead, Wood splits Kirk away from the others so he can be aggressively heroic, while the rest of the show's cast remain talking heads (although we do get McCoy in the command colours again, and a Scotty who looks completely different since Zaccara had no publicity photos of James Doohan to go off of!)

Anyways, the story for this issue is that once again we're way outside the Milky Way ("the outer fringe of Galaxy Nabu"!) investigating an asteroid field, when the ship is pulled in by an "electronic field" that traps the Enterprise in orbit around one of the larger planetoids. So Kirk and his boys go down to find out WTF is going on, and discover it's a prison world. This alien race shoots ships full of convicts to the various asteroids, all of which are set to detonate at any time. Thus, depending on which asteroid your ship lands on, you may have longer or shorter to live, at random. It seems like a really expensive way of carrying out a death penalty, bringing to mind Spock's line from "Space Seed" -- "a group of criminals
could have been dealt with far more efficiently than wasting one of their most advanced spaceships."

Anyway, predictably there's a thuggish leader who controls a large faction of the population and wants Kirk to take them aboard so they can capture the Enterprise and escape before their world explodes. There are of course many lies, traps, counter-traps, and turns of fortune as Spock seeks to find a way through the "electric field" that holds the ship there, and beam the Captain's party up without getting the convicts too (apparently the comic book Enterprise's transporter is always set on "wide beam"). 

So Spock finally figures out he can send a second landing party led by "Scotty" to distract the criminals so he can get them far enough away to beam up Kirk's party and then once everyone is aboard the Enterprise breaks free of the field and the asteroid explodes, killing all the convicts on it. 

Like issue #1, this is essentially a basic barebones action-adventure "sci-fi" story, with Star Trek dressing on it. Unlike that first issue, it's not far enough away from what might have been done on the show to provide much novelty value, and it's not batshit crazy enough to have the fuck WTF appeal either. Like the previous issue, we have no hints of the series' higher ambitions or ideals, and instead a basic Saturday morning cartoon plot -- when really by this point we should be able to get something a bit better. Nevio Zaccara's art is the best element of this comic by far.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Next Voyage: "Automated destroyers! Minutes to save a dying planet!" in Invasion of the City Builders.