"The Enterprise Incident"
Writer: D.C. Fontana
Director: John Meredyth Lucas
Producer: Fred Freiberger
It is not a controversial statement to suggest that "The Enterprise Incident" is easily the best episode in season three. A fan favourite in a derided season, it sticks out like a diamond in the rough. A dynamite script from DC Fontana, excellent direction from Lucas, fantastic performances from the cast, this is an episode firing on all cylinders.
Coming as a response to the "Pueblo incident", this episode engages with the heightened Cold War fears of 1968 in a very intelligent way: by using the political backdrop set up as existing in the Star Trek universe. By using the Romulans and their Neutral Zone, the episode continues to build the world and also avoid the need for exposition that creating some new enemy would require.
The Romulans haven't really been seen since their debut in season one, largely supplanted in season two by the Klingons, though their memory has been kept alive by frequent dialoge mentions and occasional stock footage apperances of their vessels. In this episode, we finally get another deep dive into their intriguing and enigmatic culture and mindset. Unfortunately, we're denied another appearance by the excellent Bird of Prey ship designed by Wah Chang -- instead the show has decided to utilize the recently built Klingon battle cruiser model to "get their money's worth" from it, prompting a line in the script that the Romulans are now using Klingon ship designs. This suggests an intriguing anti-Federation alliance, but unfortunately the episode isn't interested in exploring that.
However, the story we do get is excellent in its own right. It includes Kirk pretending to be an insane gloryhound in order to give an alibi for the Enterprise crossing into Romulan space, Spock serving as a honeypot to distract the brilliant Romulan commander - who is probably one of Trek's best female characters, Spock pretending to kill Kirk, McCoy performing cosmetic surgery on Kirk to transform him into a Romulan, and the subterfuge of Kirk sneaking back onto the Romulan ship to steal their cloaking device... and getting the Romulan commander as a captive to boot.
This episode dives into the geopolitics (astropolitics?) of the Star Trek universe in a way that the original series was very vague upon, and that in general the franchise stayed fuzzy on until The Next Generation started to really hammer things down in it's middle seasons. This alone explains a large portion of its fan favourite nature, but I think there's a lot of other things at play here.
One is the appeal of seeing our heroes as "the bad guys". Like, there are legitimate defense reasons for the Federation wanting to steal a Romulan cloaking device -- but really our guys violate the treaty, commit espionage, sabotage, steal foreign property and capture a foreign officer. They're sneaking around and doing the kind of dirty work that, y'know, comes up in a navy but which the show has kept them largely free of.
But largely I think the thing that wins this episode the most fans are the interactions between Spock and the Romulan commander. D.C. Fontana - who invented the "Spock falls in love" genre with season one's "This Side of Paradise" - gives the series it's best iteration in this episode by creating a plot and characters that allow Fontana to take advantage of the sexual magnetism of the Spock character (who it was noted by the producers had the greatest percentage of female fan mail and also was the most frequently featured in various "adventures" in the fanzines) but doing so in a way that did not require a hackneyed "Spock gains emotions/goes crazy" plot.
Instead, Spock is allowed to remain his inscrutable self, the cool and aloof Vulcan. This is brilliant because it is likely this is a large part of what fans of the show found attractive about him -- a Spock who doesn't act like Spock loses the appeal (other than the ears). And through his subtle, sexually tense interactions with the Romulan commander -- herself a being of equal emotional and intellectual complexities -- we also receive our first real tantalizing clues of what the cultural relationship between Vulcans and their distant cousins, the Romulans, is like. It's a sketch, but a sketch so skillfully drawn it led to the popular Rihannsu novels by Diane Duane later in the 1980s.
This is a really fantastic episode. For Spock, for the Romulans, for D.C. Fontana, for all involved. Miss it at your peril.
Rating: 4 out of 4