Friday, May 26, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "The Tholian Web" (November 15, 1968)

"The Tholian Web"
Writer: Judy Burns & Chet Richards
Director: Herb Wallerstein
Producer: Fred Freiberger

When it comes to lists of "actually good" episodes of third season Trek, "The Tholian Web" usually comes near the top of the list, usually under "The Enterprise Incident". And it does have a ton of stuff that makes it fodder for Trekkies: new alien races, new technology, alternate dimensions, a strong Kirk/Spock/McCoy focus, and even a good showcase for the "junior officers" due to Shatner's reduced screentime.

But "The Tholian Web" is also fascinating for the way in which it examplifies an odd trend of the entire third season, which is namely the change in genre focus of the entire series. Season three is significantly more pulpy than the show was previously. There's more of the kind of sensationalist content you'd expect from the lead cover stories of old sci-fi magazines, all with a kind of bizarre horror tinge. Previously, the Enterprise explored a galaxy full of challenges and moral questions, yes, but a galaxy that makes sense. But in season three, the bizarre and unknowable rears its head for stories that are more dedicated to be unnerving and strange than to posing intellectual or philisophical dilemmas.

In this case, "The Tholian Web" is above all a ghost story. While it's heart may be the dilemmas Spock faces while in command, and learning to turn to and appreciate the advice of McCoy, the "weird" that drives the story is that Captain Kirk (and the entire abandoned starship he was on at the time) has disappeared and is presumed dead, but then begins appearing in a spectral form around the ship to several crewmen, including Uhura initially.

The complications to recovering the captain prove equally memorable, with the introduction of one of the series most unique and memorable aliens, the titular Tholians. That it took almost forty years for another one to show up in a Trek production made them ever more mysterious and noted in the minds of fandom. And ultimately the episode's true heart, the scene where Spock and McCoy view Kirk's recorded "last orders", cuts right to the kind of character interaction that ultimately made the series so beloved and remembered over the years. 

If the episode has an issue, it's the one that many of the episodes this season share. Namely that it doesn't have enough content to really fill it's hour, and ends up feeling slow and repetitive through a large portion of its runtime.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Friday, May 5, 2017

"Star Trek" Review: "The Empath" (December 6, 1968)

"The Empath"
Writer: Joyce Muskat
Director: John Erman
Producer: Fred Freiberger

"The Empath" is a fascinating episode of Star Trek and I've been struggling with how to talk about it. Certainly it's the episode that leans the hardest into the budgetary confinements of season, producing a surreal, stage play atmosphere that might seem familiar to anyone who sat through the third season of the 1960s Batman TV show.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are trapped by aliens with a mysterious fourth prisoner, a woman Bones dubs "Gem". She can't speak, but she is empathic, to a sci-fi degree where in addition to feeling a person's emotional states she can also touch them and absorb their pain and injuries. She literally can cure people but only by hurting herself.

The aliens who've captured them have placed them underground in a seemingly endless black void with occasional props or furniture or devices scattered about, all designed to "test" their subjects, primarily by causing them pain and then seeing how Gem responds. They particularly want to know how far she'll go in harming herself to save others, and if she can be taught to sacrifice herself for the good of strangers.

In terms of the presence of aliens in silver robes with enlarged skulls testing captive humans for an unknown purpose, this episode definitely feels like a bizarre theatrical stage play reworking of the original pilot, "The Cage", updated from 1964 to 1968. But the focus is different. The pilot was about "can we trick this depressed human into being horny enough to mate a slave class for us?", this episode is about "Is a species of empaths worth saving from annihilation, if we can discover if they can use their powers for good?"

But ultimately the minimalist sets and sparse nature of the plot means the episode becomes focused in on the show's characters, particularly it's lead trio, and showing how Kirk, Spock and McCoy all react to the situation they've been placed in, and how they feel towards Gem and towards their captors. DeForrest Kelley cited this episode as his favourite of the series and maybe it's because its budgetary limitations meant the focus needed to be on the actors, their emotions and their performances, more than the trappings of gadgets, monsters and effects.

The actress playing Gem, Kathryn Hays, was trained first and foremost as a dancer. Her performance is extremely effective. It has perhaps it's broad moments, but given that her character is mute and must carry the episode and serve as its lynchpin without dialogue, her expressions and movements must be understood to be occuring in a mime/dance tradition, furthering the "modern theatre" atmosphere of the episode as a whole.

It's an abnormal episode of Trek, but its a standout entry in the beleagured third season.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage: