Episode 20- “The Return of the Archons” and this episode should have started with Roddenberry smoking a cigarette and telling me about morality and machines.

I will forever claim that “The Twilight Zone” is the single most influential television show of all time. The mix of surreal weirdness, Rod Serling’s moral posturing and an obsession with creating startling imagery that managed to fit perfectly in an self-contained mythology. Every genre pushing series that has created owes a debt to “The Twilight Zone” but none owe more than Star Trek.

“The Return of the Archons” shows this debt more prevalently than many others. We once again open not on the Enterprise, but rather with Sulu and one of the crewmembers fleeing through a turn of the century Old West city. Sulu is cornered and before he can beam to safety, he is sparked by a cloak wearing figure and when he makes it to the transporter room, the crewmen starts babbling about “The Body,” and a mysterious “Landru.”

It's go time, bitches.

 

That means it’s go time for Kirk and a really large landing party beam down to Beta III (looking suspiciously/exactly like the town from “Miri”) to take a look around on the planet, and it’s naturally all really weird. People are wondering around tipping their hats to each other and one of them believes they are “from the valley” before inviting them to the festival. It’s all suitably weird, particularly when people start talking about “the Red Hour” and as the clock strikes six, all hell breaks loose. There’s people lighting fires, running around with planks as well as dancing and kissing in the streets. Did you hear that? Just wait until John Lithgow hears about this.

Kirk and company flee into one building and are confronted with Reger, a resistance fighter, as well as a group of people who alternatively worship and fear Landru. After a night of sleep, Landru’s monks attack one member of the safehouse, try to take Kirk away, and eventually leave, but now we have a plot hook.

There’s a lot to love about “The Return of the Archons” but it’s an episode that has the same problems that similar ambitious episodes (“Shore Leave,” “The Man Trap,” “Dagger of the Mind”) where not enough explanation is given to really drive home the threat. Sure, Landru’s holgram shows up and makes the crew pass out, and yes, the scene with all the villagers picking up weapons to come after the convoy is well done, but the information that we need to know is missing. It’s never addressed why a completely controlled society would have twelve hours of chaos every once in a while. It’s not really revealed how things have gotten this bad. It’s not really revealed why Starfleet wants the Enterprise to investigate a crash that happened a fucking century ago. Without any sort of explanation to the really odd shenanigans, it is much harder to buy into the idea that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are in any real danger.

Things do pick up when the guards turn McCoy into a member of the Body. DeForest Kelley really sells the idea of being brainwashed into the kindly old man, and it is creepy enough to give the story a sense of urgency that the B-story about heat rays doesn’t really manage. It’s even effective enough to make the guard’s attempt to brainwash Kirk and Spock into a suitably tense few minutes. Also, any time people yell at a computer until it starts smoking is going to be pretty awesome.

Now talk it out, talk it out...

 

My big selling point on this episode also ends up turning into one of my biggest problems with the episode. At one point, Kirk and Spock bring up the idea of the Prime Directive. I had heard long ago about the Prime Directive by way of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and I had a vague understanding of its’ idea of noninterference in the affairs of a developing planet’s culture. Kirk and Spock argue whether they can rightfully affect a planet that has been ruled by a faux-god-like-benefactor-computer for what appears to be at least a century. It presents interesting questions that are certainly relevant to our culture as a whole, and Kirk agrees with Spock’s initial statement of noninterference, but when it comes time to go kick in the door on Landru, the good captain is willing to sacrifice all of that in what he personally believes is right for the planet as a whole. It is a pretty odd moment, mainly because they start blowing up computers and installing Enterprise crew members as leaders like 15 fucking minutes after they mention the Prime Directive.

It ends up all just being a problem of editing and rewrites. I feel like there was probably a point when “the Red Hour” was explained and there was probably more thought put into putting one random guy on a planet and hoping that he can straighten a century long mess out, but that just isn’t the way it turned out. Instead, “The Return of the Archons” all turns into a visually striking and intrinsically interesting episode of Star Trek, that has unbelievably deep plot holes riddling the whole thing.

Random Notes

More than all the other characters, Spock has the worst costume. Apparently, he’s the Alien-Nun or something. He also sleeps with his eyes open.

One of the crewmen gets hit in the head with a prop rock while running away from the Body. He keeps going. Way to go, crewmember of the week.

Sulu. That is all.

Next Up: “Space Seed which I assum…”KHAAAAN!”

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Episode 19- “Court Martial” and putting Jesus Christ on trial for murder

I love Starfleet. I really do. I like the idea of massive space governments that have to account for something as massive and unfathomable as the stars. I think that the idea of government in space might be the only redeemable thing about the Star Wars prequels. George Lucas might be one of the most incompetent story tellers for throwing half hours of diplomacy right at the climax of epics, but I think those moments are the only real interesting. I like the idea of a bureaucracy miring everyone and it might be the only scene that doesn’t have a fucking lightsaber in it (until “Revenge of the Sith” because, I don’t know, why the fuck not).

The thing is, Star Trek wants us to like Starfleet because the Enterprise is a part of it, and Kirk obstensibly serves it, but every time they show up, we inevitably have to view them as an enemy at worst, and a bureaucratic hurdle at best. It makes sense when it has to play off of Kirk, the loose cannon, but it doesn’t really give us much of a grounding as to what is normal in galactic diplomacy.

When you see this, you know it's a Starfleet episode...

This turns out to be one of my many problems with “Court Martial,” this entry into the Star Trek oeuvre. The Enterprise has weathered a fierce ion storm, and as the ship was on red alert, one crew member, former Academy teacher Finney, died when Kirk rightfully ejected an ion pod. When he presents this information at the Star Base, he is held in perjury when his word is presented against a computer record that makes Kirk’s actions look considerably more sinister.

The episode comes together around the trial of Kirk. There’s some foreplay about McCoy trying to pick up one of Kirk’s former lovers who is now a prosecutor in the captain’s case and Finney’s daughter pouting. There’s some real pacing issues here. All the conversations about books in the lawyer’s office aren’t there because they’re interesting. They’re there because this is maybe a 20 minute episode.

It doesn’t help that like “Dagger of the Mind” and “What are Little Girls Made Of?” this is a pretty much all-Kirk-all-the-time hour. He’s got no one to play off of and the few times where Spock or McCoy make an appearance, he usually doesn’t have enough time to work with them to do much of anything. Spock’s questioning at the trial is interesting enough, primarily because it’s always fun to watch the half-Vulcan outwit the more emotional humans, and I enjoy the idea that writers thought McCoy could be a womanizing badass. Now, this sort of trait would be played for laughs, but DeForest Kelley is just too goddamn suave for that shit.

I don't know why there's not more moments with the rest of the crew. Oh yeah, because we're really worried about Kirk.

In a twist that it’s impossible to not see coming, Spock realizes that the computer has been sabotaged and that someone is manipulating the memory in order to incriminate Kirk, and it once again doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that Finney is still on the Enterprise. So, it’s back to the ship for everyone and Kirk has to deal with a man who feels perpetually ruined by his captain. There’s a Shatner-esque fight, the ship is repaired, and justice is meted out. Time to jet out to another corner of the galaxy. It’s clean, but this is a series that hasn’t really left a lot of room for consequences that follow characters around.

Oh it's the computer... You really got me there.

On it’s own, “Court Martial” is merely a rote, predictable, boring hour of television, but Star Trek is capable of so much more. This is an episode that fails, mostly because the rest of the show has succeeded in a variety of different ways.

I generally read Zach Handlen’s write ups of “The Next Generation on avclub.com, and in one review, he mentioned how a mystery would have been considerably more interesting had one of the main characters not been the suspect. We have more of a reason to doubt a character that we don’t know that well or one that we don’t intrinsically like. “Court Martial” intends to have us doubt Kirk. We know it’s impossible that Kirk has committed the crime. He’s almost a Saturday morning cartoon character, physically incapable of doing anything even accidentally evil. We know someone is fucking with him from the start. When Spock says “it is impossible for Captain Kirk to act out of panic or malice. It is not his nature,” we believe him. He’s simply right, and the prosecutors are simply wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with absolutes on television about hard-and-fast ethics and morality, but in an episode about survival, doubt and trials, it’s nice to have a few shades of gray. Kirk being up for trial doesn’t allow any of that.

There’s little problems to that mostly stemmed from this episode being rewritten during filming. Finney’s daughter comes around to Kirk pretty quickly. The lawyer is crazy in one scene, a futuristic southern chicken, and an old man all in the space of a scene or two. There’s no scene of Finney saying what’s wrong with the Enterprise, just one of Kirk fixing the ship Scotty-style. It just adds to an episode that feels slapped together.

But this guy's a pretty awesome villain right? No? Fine...

All in all, “Court Martial” is a pretty shitty episode. It’s about as bad as “Mudd’s Women” but for totally different reasons. While “Mudd’s Women” is a thematic mess stuck in a mudhole of sexism, “Court Martial” sets up the simplest story, thinks that putting an invincible character in danger is dramatic, and cleans everything too perfectly for any sense of emotional connection. It’s bad in the way that whatever the Halmark Channel is showing right this moment is bad.

Random Notes

There’s a bunch of people missing here. Scotty is nowhere to be found. Sulu is missing, although he might be briefly in the video of the bridge that is shown at the trial. Mysteriously, there is a totally random Asian girl who shows up to deliver a couple lines at the trial and act like we know who she is.

“All of my friends look like doctors. All of his look like you.”

There’s a weird attempted message of being scared of your microwave/other machines, but it’s not explored in any interesting way. What a surprise.

There’s some really choppy editing in Cogley’s speech during the trial. It looks cheap as hell. In my defense, it gives me no pleasure to rip on this show like this.

Next up: “Return of the Archons” which I assume will feature the Protoss.

Episode 18- “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and a white hot, slingshotting reset button

Time travel episodes are some of the hardest for just about any series to pull off effectively. They generally involve planning, consideration for the future, and making sure not to endanger any basic rules of the series that the show works around. While some shows have always excelled at the time travel story line, namely “The Twilight Zone” and the British version of “Life on Mars,” many others fail, unable to create a conflict and solve it, without resorting to just pressing the magic reset button.

Star Trek sort of fails to create a solid time travel story, but it tries pretty goddamn hard in “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” one of the odder episodes that the series has ever done. The episode starts off with a fighter pilot chasing down a strange signal in 1960s America, as he approaches, he says that he sees a UFO, and as the camera peers out the windshield, we make out the distinct shape of the Enterprise. We then find out, via Kirk’s captain’s log that the ship has flown through a star and ended up back in time. Thinking fast, Kirk beams up the fighter pilot and now has to deal with having someone from another time learning about Star Fleet as well as knowing that his report and pictures of the Enterprise now are housed in a military installation. If the ship is going to escape back to its own time and guarantee their survival, they will have to return the captured Captain Christopher and will need to steal the solid evidence of the Enterprise’s presence.

Welcome to the FUTURE!

There’s some major conflicts at work here, but the episode rarely seems that interested in addressing them. Instead, we see several jokes about Kirk dealing with a computer that talks to him in a female voice and people from the ‘60s getting ridiculous reaction shots in front of girls, half-Vulcans and computers. Sure, I can accept that there is going to be some comedy in here, but I’d prefer it if the writers really picked one direction and went with it.

Instead, there’s surprisingly little actually going on in this episode. Spock researches the effect that Christopher disappearing from the timeline could have on the futures, McCoy is cautious, and Sulu gets to talk about things and eventually break into a building. From the time that Christopher is abducted to the Kirk and Sulu’s break in, virtually nothing happens. What makes this problem even more noticeable is just how bad the show is at beating us over the head with how the characters feel and think. I understand that Christopher wants to see his wife and wants to go home. I understand that Spock wants to do what is best to preserve the timeline. These are things I know because they are vastly surface emotions. I understand the characters, so I understand the drama.

So, it ultimately comes down to Sulu and Kirk having to steal the records from the wreckage of Christopher’s plane. It’s fun and exciting enough to watch them sneak around and start stealing evidence, and the way the deal with the MP by accidentally beaming him onto the ship is some goofy fun. Of course, it’s nothing without a Kirk brawl scene and while Sulu is rewriting the tapes, the captain goes all Gorn on a couple of officers at the base, giving Sulu enough time to rewrite the tapes and then beam out, leaving Kirk in the hand of his capturers and giving the Enterprise another complication.

Or COMPLICATION.

And that’s when the sort-of, not-really, but-I-guess-kinda hilarity really starts. You see, the pilots ask Kirk some questions, and then he tells them the truth about the future, and they totally think he’s lying. They think he’s crazy. Are you laughing yet? Yeah, neither am I, but that’s because I took out my humor flaps. I know that that kind of humor is a bit of a product of a different time, and it does work in the context of the episode, but it isn’t really a substitute for writing a good episode.

In a surprise that no one possibly could see coming, Spock, Sulu and Christopher return to the base to rescue Kirk, defeat the guards and attempt to leave, but Christopher pulls a gun and is stopped by a well placed Vulcan Neck Pinch. They haul everyone back up to the ship and prepare to embark on THE BIGGEST EPISODE RUINER SINCE “MUDD’S WOMEN.”

He miscounted the men, Liz. He miscounted the men.

Spock believes that if the Enterprise can accelerate around the sun at a certain speed and use the slingshot effect, shooting off the body’s gravity, they should be able to move backwards in time, and as they are doing that, they can time everything right so they can beam Christopher back into his fighter jet and beam the MP back into the base at the correct time so that they will believe that nothing involving the Enterprise transpired. They believe that Christopher and the MP will remember their actions, but they will have nothing to report, but if you’re moving backwards in time to a point when they wouldn’t have been able to report on seeing the Enterprise or dealing with Sulu and Kirk in the base, then why did they have to steal the film? Couldn’t they have just turned on their reflectors, waited for the warp-drive to start working again and then attempted this fucking ridiculous maneuver? They could have then avoided exposing themselves to even more people from a different time, and everything could have worked out a little better.

So unsurprisingly, it all works out. Christopher gets ready to spawn a kid that will go to Saturn, the Enterprise makes contact with Star Fleet, and the bumbling MP continues to bumble. It’s an episode with huge mistakes, but it turns them into little stories that ultimately end up doing little to help the episode.

Really, if it weren’t for the ridiculous shit with slingshotting through the sun into a time warp, I would probably like this episode a lot more. Instead, it feels like a pre-“Primer” relic, when time travel was handled poorly and giant gaps in story lines are mostly ignored.

Random Notes

Apparently, this was originally going to be part two of the story started in “The Naked Time.” Thanks, Wikipedia.

“Now you’re sounding like Spock.” “If you’re going to get nasty, I’m going to leave.”

Next Up: “Court Martial” which I’ll probably like solely on the basis of how talky it will be.