“The Spin Zone” – 12 lazy, petty, vindictive, lying pop culture media members with a motive

There’s a reason the media rarely is portrayed in popular culture. Where the government, the military, the police and criminals can all be portrayed as proactive forces, the media is very reactive. As such, they can be portrayed as easily manipulable, lazy, elitist, pretentions or just plain bothersome to those who actually have good honest work to do. This leads to the media taking a lot of flack in popular culture but, interestingly, most negative portrayals of the media end up saying far more about the creators and editors than the reporters they skewer.

1. Battlestar Galactica – “Final Cut”

“Battlestar Galactica” was a great show with a mess of storytelling problems, namely some of its more fascist tendencies. The show never had much tolerance for the pacifistic, meddling media but nowhere is this clearer than in the second season’s “Final Cut.” There, the Galactica excepts a well known journalist to make a newscast about the men and women who keep the battleship running. Of course, the reporter, Diana, turns out to be a Cylon, solely interested in collecting intel about the surviving humans. Its barely a twist and its a cruel one if you want to consider it that.

2. “Spider-Man”

J. Jonah Jameson doesn’t speak too much of anything but necessity. There was a desperate need for Peter Parker to have a villain that was able to hold a candle to the villains that Spider-Man routinely faced and the biased editor of The Daily Bugle served just that role. Jameson’s campaign against Spider-Man put Peter in a quandary and provided a solid enemy that was both untouchable and necessary.

3. NewsRadio – “The Real Deal”

NewsRadio had a lot too say about the vain, narcissistic, self-mythologizing and just plain mean men and women that made the news but it was always in service of humor. In one memorable episode, on-air columnist Bill McNeal, played by the late great Phil Hartman, has to nab a great interview to keep his show on the air. Naturally, his narcissism and inability to, y’know, talk to people, gets in the way of his interview with Jerry Seinfeld, so he gets creative in delivering his story.

4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Earshot”

By season three, Joss Whedon had ironed most of the problems out of his supernatural teen soap opera but the flaws are apparent in “Earshot.” Delayed because of the Columbine Massacre, Buffy becomes aware of someone planning a killing spree at Sunnydale High. The episode’s great red herring is the slightly goth school newspaper editor, a guy who’s writen nothing but negative, extremely pessimistic about the people and institutions of the school. Even when its revealed that he’s not behind the plot, there’s still an bitter taste left in the mouth.

5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Adam Jensen’s been dealing with the very worst of global corporations and espionage by the time he heads to Montreal to find some answers. There, he’s attacked by mercenaries and left to try to find newscaster Eliza Cassan who’s been manipulating satellites to hide several people Jensen thought dead.  In the world of “Deus Ex,” its not that the media is innately evil, more that they can be bought and sold by anyone with the credits or enough strength to take what they want.

6. Mr. Show with Bob and David – Scams and Flams

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross had done their fair share of parodies of the emptiness and shallow reporting that characterized the daily news. One of their best was the “Scams and Flams” sketch, focusing on a gullible local features reporter sent to investigate businesses that might be scams. He’s, however, bought off by a man running a wishing well/ice cream parlor. Mixing a parody of local news with one of gotcha journalism, its a dark and witty satire.

7. Blitz

Jason Statham vehicle, “Blitz” has a lot of incoherent things to say about police brutality, serial killers and stardom but its main message is one focused on serial killers wanting the fame that accompanies their killings. Its a popular belief, one that many conservatives have bought into as a way to assign a motive to shooters and the film makes the media complicit in the killer’s crimes, feeding his actions.

8.  Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

J.K. Rowling’s consistent portrayal of the Daily Prophet as a near faceless antagonist is one of the most troublesome aspects of her series. Where she turns writers such as Rita Skeeter into reporters more interested in an entertaining piece than a truthful one, she focuses most of his ire on the paper to their view on Voldemort. By “Order of the Phoenix,” the Prophet has been reduced to a mouthpiece for the Ministry of Magic. The only possible explanation for her choice was laziness. With an inability to clearly show the government’s denial of the dark lord’s return, she blamed much of the propaganda on the Prophet, even reducing them to cartoonish villains willing to run a smear campaign.

9. That Mitchell and Webb Look – What do you reckon?

As newspapers and network news gasp against user created media and online news, they’ve attempted to integrate community feedback, often to insane levels. A fantastic sketch from across the pond, Robert Mitchell and David Webb set up a news team that wants to hear whatever the viewer “reckons” about nearly anything and they’ll read it on the air just because they feel like they have to. As the sketch escalates, their boredom makes everything funnier, showing the ridiculousness of losing the professional line of separation.

10. Parks and Recreation – “The Reporter”

In the underrated first season of “Parks,” Leslie’s enthusiastic attempts to do something with the pit is thrown up against a never ending line of red tape. In “The Reporter” she faces the media as well as problems within her own team as Mark tells a reporter after sex that the pit will never be fixed. The episode affixes plenty of blame on the reporter for her unscrupulous reporting techniques and the Parks’ departments mistrust of the newspaper continues well past the episode. I mean, they still really hate the library, but they’re not in love with The Pawnee Sun.

11. Dr. Who – “The Long Game”

The problem with “The Long Game” is that the targeting of the media doesn’t quite go far enough. After Rose and the Ninth Doctor jump far into the future, they come across a media outlet that’s broadcasting programming for Earth in an attempt to keep the people of the planet complacent. Its kind of a weak plot, with a monster that isn’t intimidating enough or make enough sense making it another not quite cooked relic of the Eccleston era.

12. 24 – “9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.”

After the first season of FOX’s groundbreaking action series, viewers were left to deal with the international drama inherent in Palmer becoming president. The writers show their view of snooty, truth seeking reporters early when, after failing to bribe him, President Palmer imprisons correspondent Ron Wieland in a government facility. In the world of “24,” you either let the brave, strong, patriotic men do their work or you’re going to jail.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 – “If the cause is just and honorable, they are prepared to give their lives.”

If a show hasn’t hit a groove by the third season, it is undoubtedly in trouble. There’s been time to set a tone, develop a coherent world and have had a chance to craft characters that an audience would be able to connect with. All of this needs to be done while giving audiences a variety of plots that they’ll be willing to stick with for years to come. I’ve said before that it was occasionally a surprise that TNG made it to a third season after an atrocious first showing and a disappointing second season but there’s no mistaking why the show stayed on the air after season three. This season is what took a low-budget show about galactic politics and turned them into one of the well-loved science fiction shows ever in the span of 26 mostly great episodes.

It isn’t initially clear what makes the third season so strong. Episodes are tighter, more focused and take increasing cues from the well established Star Trek lore. Some of this could certainly be because of changes in the formerly tumultuous writer’s room. Michael Piller would take over writing duties for the show, contributing five satisfying episode, including two of the most memorable episodes. Piller was definitely a hard sci-fi writer; he’s mostly focused on explainable robotics, character motivations and the universal humanity of people forced together on a mission. This becomes increasingly clear as the season goes, as there’s less of a focus on magical races, goofy sci-fi gimmickry and hand waive explanations and more of a focus on how all races, characters and nations have clear and understandable motivations for their actions.

Piller had a tool on the staff with the appearance of a man who would go onto become a sci-fi legend, Ronald D. Moore. Moore, who would go onto father the relaunch of “Battlestar Galactica,” came onto the scene with the episode “The Bonding,” an interesting, if deeply flawed episode, but he shows his interests more clearly in the fantastic episode, “The Defector.” There, the Enterprise intercepts a Romulan deserter who claims to have information about the empire’s plans for attacking several Federation colonies. However, there are holes throughout his stories, none of his information can be proven and he fails to cooperate fully with the crew. Everyone is on edge over whether he should be trusted and what the cost of not trusting in his warning could be for the Federation. Its a great, particularly tense episode of characters being forced to make compromises and leaps of faith, where everyone has a hidden motive and a fail safe.

While Moore’s great script built off the increasing tension between the Federation and the Romulans wonderfully to examine the splintering of governments, the show would later work on improving on other well established parts of the Star Trek universe to great effect. In “The Hunted,” Picard and his crew are forced to deal with a military prisoner who escapes to break away from a government that has found it more convenient to forget about its’ soldiers. In an otherwise forgettable episode, Picard manages to show how thoroughly he is guided by the Prime Directive, memorably leaving an under siege planet to deal with its coup rather than have the Federation intervene. Its a stark difference between the way that Captain Kirk would have handled the situation and it shows us how different and more engaging of a show we’re watching.

Season three gains most of its power by drawing on these established themes and characters. After two years of the show, it becomes increasingly clear that TNG was focused on not only showing itself as a program that was separate from the Original Series but also one that could be a companion piece to that iconic show. Sarek reappears here, played again by Mark Lenard, in an episode that makes extensive reference to the first show. Ronald Moore also takes Worf’s back story, hinted at in previous episodes, and expands it dramatically in “Sins of the Father.” There, he gives the Klingon lieutenant a dramatic and tragic arc that both colors his relations with his home and sets up the troubles that the Klingon empire will face in the future. Admirably, he also draws off the way the Original Series turned a familiar race into a hostile and alien force that the human characters would have trouble understanding. The sequences where Worf and Picard face the trials as well as the decision to exile Worf are reminiscent of the way in which Kirk and McCoy are baffled by the ways that Spock interacts with other Vulcans in “Amok Time.”

As much as I’d love to do nothing but praise this season but it does have a couple of real, genuine problems. First off, there’s an enormous focus on Data episodes. Now, I don’t have a problem with this. Data’s an engaging character who has a built-in and interesting series of quirks that could make for engaging episodes but none of the attempts here doe much of anything new. Whether he’s crafting a new robotic child, being kidnapped by a person who views him as nothing more than an object to be collected or having characters mistakenly see his condition as something to be valued, the writers were never able to find anything new to say about the android here. I get it, Data may be an android but he is capable of being a human and we should view him as such. I don’t need to be told this every 5 or 6 episodes.

TNG’s still having tons of problems working with its most troublesome race, the Ferengi. Look, I know that they’re a one note race meant to examine Roddenberry’s problems with capitalism run rampant but the writers overdo everything about them. They’re not only greedy but ugly, gross, dumb, sexually forward, treated with disdain by everyone in the Federation and not trustworthy. In as show that affords ever race at least some modicum of respect, its a shame that no one is willing to make the Ferengi anything more than a punch line and an unwilling one at that.

With all that out of the way, there’s still a pair of episodes that desperately need discussing and they’re two of the most important, most well-loved episodes that the show ever did. Both written by Piller, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1” are undisputed classics of TNG, Star Trek and science fiction as a whole. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” succeeds with its premise executed expertly. Thriving on subverting expectations in one memorable way, similarly to what was done in “Mirror, Mirror,” we are able to view the sacrifices that the Federation goes through to craft a peaceful universe. Plus, it manages to give Tasha Yarr a fate that’s worthy of the character she was intended to be.

I’ve written about my great love of “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1” before. Its a damn near perfect example of slow, character driven escalation leading to a grand conclusion. Watching it free of needing to worry about the story reveals, the structure of the episode shines through. Watch as Piller pairs Riker’s control being assaulted again and again, weakening his position, with the way in which the Borg threat continues to escalate. These events are put together at virtually the same time, forcing him to make the inevitable decision by episode’s end. Its the Enterprise at its weakest point so far and it places Riker in the one position he’s ever been afraid to be in.

A few missteps can’t hold back the third season of one of the best sci-fi shows of all time. This is Star Trek at its most memorable, most intense and most thrilling, giving us characters we care about, situations that push them and a world that I have never wanted to leave.

Most Improved Character – Deanna Troi

Ok, I’m not saying she’s perfect but I didn’t think that I’d be giving Deanna this award after two seasons of her being the most disappointing part of the show. However, she just feels better here. She’s not being randomly attached to villainous aliens, raped or treated like a sex object. Sure, the costuming is still pretty bad but she feels competent. Even in “Ménage à Troi,” she and her mother, Lwaxana, are both treated like characters, not caricatures or sex objects. That’s worth a lot in this universe.

Most Disappointing Character – Data

When everything else is moving forward, it is painful to watch a character that is standing still. As I stated earlier, the writers haven’t done anything with Data for years that wasn’t already established in the first season. Now, nothing is done with him and what’s worse, there are problems with continuity, as no one acknowledges Lore’s existence.

Best Moment of Potential Ass-Kickery – Data’s got a gun, “The Most Toys”

Star Trek master recapper Zach Handlen and I agree on this one. Data drawing the gun on his captor and deciding that he must kill in order to satisfy his programming is an exhilirating and tense moment that changes our whole interpretation of what Data is capable of. In a deeply flawed episode exploring themes we’ve vastly covered, it is impressive to see that there is so much that we still don’t understand about the android.

Best Moment of Shatner-esque Scenery Chewing – Vulcans with Alzheimer’s, “Sarek”

Patrick Stewart is able to really sell the mind meld, but Lenard just can’t handle the way that Sarek breaks down as his emotions overwhelm him. We’re supposed to believe that he’s doing as much work as possible to keep his emotions in check but he’s mostly just yelling a lot. If he spaced out his words uncomfortably, it might as well be Shatner talking a computer to death.

Worst Episode: “A Matter of Perspective”

Lots of television shows are guilty of the trial episode: putting a character the audience knows is innocent in a trial situation where all evidence points to their guilt. Accusing Riker of murder and rape is a particularly embarrassing example of this phenomenon and it makes for a particularly and memorably rough episode. Runners Up: “Who Watches the Watchers” and “Captain’s Holiday”

Best Episode: “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1”

You knew it was coming. The way Piller constructs the season finale is masterful and the way the whole season feels like it is leading up to this makes everything resonate so highly that there isn’t another episode to even slightly compare to this one. Runners Up: “The Defector,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Hollow Pursuits” and “Sins of the Father.”

Super villainy is hard, let’s go shopping!: 9 questionable representations of women in “geek culture”

One thing the internet has done that is great is bringing fans of niche programming together. In years past, we’d all have to meet up at conventions, send letters or read specialty magazines for the information that is now available in seconds. The not so great thing this has led to is what I call “geek elitism.” As fans of science fiction, comics, videogames, anime and all sorts of nerdy content, we’ve now thought that we can band together in lording over anyone who can’t quote chapter and verse in nerdery.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in slut shaming and judging of women. Just because Joss Whedon put a whole bunch of powerful women in his shows, his acolytes view said content as intrinsically superior to any show that has, say, a sexual woman who appears in a clothing that flaunts her body. One of my favorite blogs, recently did an entire post based on the picture posted above and the phenomenon of geek culture celebrating itself which sums up the issue much better than I can but it got me thinking about the ways in which pop culture hasn’t always given us the greatest of role models, even in content that has been targeted at for lack of a better word, geeks. So, let’s do the exceedingly lazy list thing.

1. Seven of Nine – “Star Trek Voyager”

Voyager has a lot of problems. There’s no doubt about that. That being said, so many of those problems begin and end with Seven of Nine, a freed Borg that aids the crew in their many dealings with the Queen and her minions. The unfortunate thing about her wasn’t so much what the brought to the crew or the storytelling problems but more about he way she was viewed on screen. She was always in a skin tight jump suit, even after she wore a Starfleet uniform and was often shot to accentuate her body. Even worse, many characters on the ship seemed to value her more for her looks than anything else. I don’t blame Jeri Ryan or the character really, it’s more in how the writers portrayed her as little more than a sex object and not a particularly willing one at that.

2. Yeoman Rand – “Star Trek”

That being said, the original series had many more problems with women but none stand out as much or as significantly as the ship’s most prominent yeoman and Kirk’s implied love interest Rand. Rand was another case of being more of an object than character, often targeted by enemies interested in sexually assaulting her. When she was given lines, most of them were focused on how scared she was or how she needed protection. Blame it on the writers, blame it on the time period, whatever.

3. Molotov Cocktease – “The Venture Bros.”

Yes, Molotov is supposed to be an over the top parody of James Bond-esque female spies with a dash of Black Widow thrown in and the show goes to elaborate and hysterical lengths to make her more than a sex object. That being said, you maybe wouldn’t want to buy her action figure for your daughter.

4. Harley Quinn – “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Batman” and “Suicide Squad”

Like pretty much everyone, I adore Harley as a character. She’s gleefully evil, unbelievably focused on creating chaos and sowing discontent and is a great partner in crime with the Joker and Poison Ivy. That being said, she’s pretty much been defined by her relationship with the Joker, often to her own detriment. In the episode “Mad Love,” Quinn is routinely beaten and abused by her lover yet goes back like a kicked dog. Her inclusion in the New 52’s Suicide Squad seemed like it could be a neat place for her before the book’s release but her costume redesign wasn’t meant to showcase her character.

5-6. Silk Spectre I and Silk Spectre II – “Watchmen” and “Before Watchmen”

When Alan Moore gets up in the morning, cracks his knuckles, sits down in front of his typewriter as he eats breakfast, fires off a couple of quick letters to movie studios calling everyone a bastard and finally starts writing comics, the first thing on his mind is how he can write more rape and sexual assault into his stories. Look, I like Moore’s work but it is hard to find a female character he’s written that isn’t defined by sexual assault. Their motivations, their powers and even their strength is tied directly to the trauma they’ve suffered. In “Watchmen,” Silk Spectre is raped by The Comedian, causing her to become a paranoid and controlling mother to Silk Spectre II, who is further defined by the knowledge of her father and the evil that men do. Not helping matters, it looks like the trend is continuing in “Before Watchmen,” where the original Silk Spectre is still a wreck although her daughter is given great definition. We’ll have to wait and see if her character is defined better by mini-series end.

7. Kara Thrace – “Battlestar Galactica”

Its a shame to put Starbuck on this list. For the first two seasons of the show, she’s the epitome of a well written character. She’s personally strong, does what she wants, has a powerful moral compass and she’s an inspiration to the rest of the Galactica. That all turns around in the last two seasons of the show, where she becomes a messianic figure who used to have mommy and daddy issues. That is, only when she’s not drinking herself to death, fucking everyone she comes across for no real reason. The failing of Starbuck was simply a writer problem but its one of the most unfortunate ones of the show.

8. Wonder Woman – David E. Kelley’s “Wonder Woman”

When a Wonder Woman TV show was announced last year, I was legitimately pretty excited. Diana is my favorite character of the DC universe and I figured everything could have worked out. Then we found out it was a David E. Kelley who was turning one of the most powerful super heroines and an icon of womanhood into a corporate attorney by day while fighting crime and just looking for the perfect guy. It was such a hackneyed take on the character and the leaked script of the pilot didn’t make her into much of a character. Even after the rewrite, it still seemed like Kelley was more interested in making a superpowered “Ally McBeal” rather than writing a character that was worth of Wonder Woman’s legacy.

9. Starfire – “Teen Titans” and “Red Hood and the Outlaws”

Like Kara Thrace, having Starfire on the list is a shame. Pre-New 52, she was a sexually liberated very well developed character with motivations, love interests and a deep rich backstory that made her a fan favorite. All of that changed when she teamed up with Jason Todd in the New 52’s “Red Hood and the Outlaws.” Suddenly, she was requisitioning everyone she came across for sex and not in a way that made her a character wanting intimacy. She was strictly an object of wish fulfillment. This rightfully caused a stir amongst critics, many putting their focus on schlocky writer Scott Lobdell. Some were gentle, others were really not so much. Comics Alliance focused on how the character was little more than a surrogate girlfriend for horny nerds, Andy Hunsaker said that the character had been reduced to little more than a “highly advanced Real Doll” and Matthew Peterson said the character’s sexual appetites reduced her to a walking punch-line, hurting a book that had such a small cast. The only thing I can say is that there’s a difference between a well written character who is interested in sex and a poorly written one who is little more than a willing wish fulfillment vessel.

Episode 37- “Metamorphosis” and revenge of the energy glob sex monsters

While watching “Metamorphosis” a 4:11 a.m. I immediately was reminded of Martin Starr’s Roman from Showtime’s beloved “Party Down.” The blogger, screenwriter and hard sci-fi fanatic was known for his hatred of all things dragons, lightsabers, FTL drives and Hollywood remakes, and he would have despised this episode.

By the end of “Metamorphosis,” I realized there was room for another classification of sci-fi, something I’m calling “squishy sci-fi.” Characterized by a focus on man on alien sex, emotion based problem solving and “The Matrix” style love-conquers-all resolutions, this genre is essentially the all magic cousin of a genre that features time dilation and warp drives.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this take on the genre, it just has a different feel, a different style and it just doesn’t fit well when its mixed with its considerably more serious cousin. That’s the cardinal sin of “Metamorphosis,” written by Star Trek veteran Gene L. Coon, it tries to balance the tricky world of emotional resolutions with the needs for a very hard story hook.

As Kirk, Spock and Bones help to transport a Federation dignitary to the Enterprise to treat her for a sickness while she works out a peace agreement between two planets approaching war. As they approach the rendezvous point with the ship they’re gripped by an astral force that drags them to an asteroid. There we meet up with the man who proves to be Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive and apparently the most naive man to ever revolutionize space travel.

The episode starts to collapse pretty much immediately after he reveals himself to be the science legend. We then find out that Cochrane is around 150 years, can telepathically speak to a spectral glob of astro goo and pretty much doesn’t understand what human relationships are. As Kirk observes him interact with the Companion he immediately senses that the Companion loves Cochrane although the scientist has never possibly considered this to be a thing.

After a lot of scenery chewing (seriously, the counselor out hams Shatner in the first 10 minutes when she starts randomly screaming and crying), the sort of crux of of this episode that’s also pretty much the crux of another identical episode we just watched. Kirk and company find out that the Companion is keeping them on the planet in an attempt to keep Cochrane company because, y’know, he’s a child. Kirk has to bust out his trademark “we’re not happy unless we’re free” speech and hope for the best with the horny astral glob and then things just keep getting weirder and weirder.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the Companion is fully intent on keeping her love on the asteroid to live eternally as her reluctant lover. Kirk’s argument makes less and less sense in the context of a fair and accepting galaxy. In the modern social environment his rant feels a little racist and more than a fair bit homophobic but even without a modern perspective, its a bizarre moment in the Captain’s rhetoric.

Then things keep going off the rails.

Taking Kirk’s speech in the most literal way possible, the Companion decides to merge with the dying Councilor Hedford so that she can be in love with Cochrane. Now that the energy cloud that was obsessed with him is in a semi-foxy body, he’s fine staying on the asteroid if she and him can die on the asteroid together. The decision is solely one trying to retroactively prove Kirk’s speech true for story reasons and the resolution of the impending war between planets is swept under the rug in a single sentence from Kirk that somehow manages to put all women down.

“Metamorphosis” is weak, no doubt about it and its not even that I’m against this sort of style. I think “The Matrix Revolutions” is underrated. I kind of like the finale of Battlestar Galactica. I’ve got nothing against squishy sci-fi. I am, however, against nonsensical and repetitive speeches, poorly written established characters and a general lack of polish in an episode that feels like a retread before it even picks up.

Random Thoughts

Seriously, the women playing the Councilor is terrible.

Seriously, Kirk is super sexist in this one.

Next Up: “Journey to Babel” which I doubt will have any Biblical references, at all.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 – Boldly Going Where We’ve Already Been and building a universe you could actually stay in.

It’s 1987. Science fiction has had its heyday. “Star Wars” had become the biggest spectacle of the late ’70s and had recreated the summer movie with “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The Twilight Zone relaunch had brought surreal pseudo-science fiction to the mainstream, for an audience that didn’t care about Cylons and stormtroopers. Battlestar Galactica brought the thrill of Star Wars into a campy TV program with a microscopic budget and a host of mythology, while the 1980 remake flopped but showed a desire for more of that kind of serialized programming. British programming like The Prisoner and decades old Dr. Who serials were becoming somewhat less rare in the States.

Hard, focused science fiction wasn’t the only place that the medium was shaping the cultural landscape. Undeniably creepy robot-girl sitcom Small Wonder had just begun and was receiving critical accolades as well as pulling in crazy ratings. The early ’80s boom of raunch comedies had run its course and producers that still wanted to cash in on the genre had to branch out, leading to films like “Short Circuit” and “Zapped!”

You did not want to be watching this.

Yep, business was booming for science fiction and there was one thing to thank for it. Star Trek: The Original Series had bloomed into a full-blown phenomenon by the time it ended up on syndication after having its budget raped by CBS in the third season. The ’70s ended up being the time for Star Trek to truly bloom into a cult phenomenon, with conventions, an animated series and merchandising out the ass. The fan reaction denied the creation of Roddenberry’s beloved Star Trek: Phase 2, but lead to a few things even better, ideally 4 Star Trek movies. For fans, it was a property that kept giving, with a show that had long since stopped producing new episodes, giving new, deeper, more mature stories, dealing with their characters facing new challenge.

It also led to the second greatest sci-fi film ever.

As any fan of Star Trek would (or should) tell you, they really should have stopped with “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” but this was 1987. We still didn’t know that someone would let Shatner direct a sequel and that would include a Total Recall-esque three-boobed woman, spaceships that were actually God and, sigh, Spock’s brother.

Sure, eventually we had to get to the seventh or eighth worst sci-fi film ever.

Really, it was an issue of money. Production of additional movies were running up against a wall as Nimoy and Shatner were demanding crazy salaries from Paramount for the Star Trek films and the studio’s desire to continue cashing in on the franchise was tempered by that greed. Roddenberry, figuring the only way to continue the franchise on television was a new cast, a new Enterprise and a new final frontier. Hence, Star Trek: The Next Generation was born.

In all its '80s glory.

I’ve debated this many times, but The Next Generation might be the best iteration of Star Trek. That’s not to say it’s my favorite, as I vastly prefer The Original Series and I might even like Deep Space Nine better, but there is an unmistakable sense of quality to the whole series. It’s often whip smart with (mostly) great characters, well developed plots and a universe that was being filled in more fully after every episode. Yeah, it lacks the fun and swashbuckling of the Original Series, but it more than makes up for that with adult storylines, general intelligence and a sense of style that could never have been maintained on Shatner’s Enterprise.

Picking up about 100 years after the conclusion of the Original Series, the world of The Next Generation is vastly different than the last universe we explored. The Federation is a more established and respected force than the one we last saw and their actions are more focused on utopian ideals. Starfleet is helping colonists terraform planets, supporting scientists, solving mysteries and asking questions first before shooting much much later. The galaxy is still a dangerous place, but it’s a very known place. They know what they’re dealing with and they’ve made peace with it. Former enemies are welcomed, human colonization of the outer rim is constant and respect for everyone has now become part of the fold.

We're cool with these guys now.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the bridge of the new Enterprise. Where once, Kirk was elevated over his helmsman, while his scientists, communication experts and guests flanked him, now the captain sits in the center, flanked by his first officer and an adviser, while security and other assorted personnel stands above him on the com. It’s a place where everyone is respected, where the captain isn’t so much in charge, as a respected leader. He’s not shooting first; he’s gathering opinions, making decisions, asking for research and finally making a move. This isn’t a place for cowboys, it’s a place for the Magellan of the stars.

That's right, make Troi stand.

In other words, it’s a place for Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the new, steadfast Prime Directive following commanding officer of the brand new top of the line Enterprise. His adviser, Councilor Deanna Troi, a half-Betazoid telepath who serves as the ship’s psychiatrist, and his security chief Tasha Yar, a violent and disturbed human from a dangerous border world, joins him. His tactical officer Worf, a Klingon raised away from the Empire, advises on combat situations. Geordi, a blind human who can see with the aid of a visor that leaves him in constant pain, and Data, an android who lacks the ability to feel emotions but has an encyclopedic knowledge of the galaxy, serve as the helmsman. By the end of the first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” we’re also joined by first officer William Riker, a womanizing hotshot in the Kirk mold, Doctor Beverly Crusher, a grieving widow with some unresolved issues with Picard, and her son Wesley, a genius Mary Sue who quickly is put on the Chosen-One story arc.

It’s a large crew with considerably more characterization in the first episode than many of the background players in the Original Series ever received. One of the many nice things that the pilot of The Next Generation did immediately was treat all of these characters with a base amount of respect without paying too much attention to any of them really. It’s an ensemble show, and the first season mostly tries to give each character a chance to shine, although Tasha Yar takes the shaft a little more than the rest (more on that later).

The pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint” doesn’t do anything too special. It introduces us to the new crew, the holodeck, the fact that the ship can apparently detach the saucer and the base and Q, an extradimensional god-like being who essentially plays the role of a playful Metron, judging humanity and casting scorn upon the race’s history of barbarianism. He puts Picard and the crew on trial, forcing them to prove that they have evolved with a challenge. The challenge itself is something of a mess and the episode itself is thoroughly unremarkable. It’s nice that Deforest Kelley makes a guest appearance as an aging Dr. McCoy, which helps bridge the gap between the two series and the stuff with the trial and Q is interesting enough, if fairly familiar. There’s an innocent alien to be released and a people that have to be taught of their misdeeds. For a change, the Prime Directive is brought up right away and we’re introduced to Picard as someone who needs the rules and the organization that Starfleet can give him. He beats Q on the god’s terms and is able to save his crew. It’s a bit long, being an hour and a half, but it works well enough.

Some of it doesn't.

There’s no reason to really run through the whole first season, as interesting as it is, but it’s worth examining what makes The Next Generation different from the other series and the parts that do and don’t work. The first season of the show is generally regarded as pretty terrible and it would be pretty hard to argue with that assertion. The Next Generation had a lot of growing pains to get through before it could become something interesting, but there are a few truly great moments. It’s just that the terrible moments are a lot funnier.

One of the things that really sets the first season apart is the way that the writers almost crafted an episode around every character. Each one more or less gets a chance to further introduce themselves to us as people and it does bring a great sense of community but the flaws show up immediately with the characters that just aren’t that compelling, namely Wesley and Yar.

Wesley’s a Mary Sue of the highest order. He always somehow knows more than all the other characters, sees where their enemies are a few steps ahead and tries to show that he can save everyone despite being shut down by the grown-ups. This isn’t interesting, it’s obnoxious. Wesley’s showcase, “When the Bough Breaks,” features the wunderkind leading children in a form of passive resistance against their radioactive kidnappers and stonewalls his enemies until Picard can rescue them. It’s a moment where we could see what the character could have become, a bright, driven kid who has to do what he can to overcome the challenges he faces. Instead, he’s usually more like the character that we see in “Where No One Has Gone Before” and “Datalore,” where he notices something about a stranger and realizes the truth of what the crew has to do to escape their fate. He’s not trained in how to run or repair a star ship and we’re pretty much just told that he’s a genius and the next thing you know, he’s saving everyone’s life. It’s disappointing more than anything else.

Yar is a flawed character in an entirely different way and that has to do with Dennise Crosby than anything else. She’s not a great actress working with a character that doesn’t ever get a lot to do. She talks about the “rape-gangs” of her home planet, and the one flashback we have to see that society is too short and a little too goofy to be taken as a threat. She says “rape-gangs” a lot and it just ends up being a little funnier than it really should be. Without definition, explanation or the appropriate emotional response from Crosby or anyone around her, we can’t take her seriously. She ends up being way too emotional and flighty which aren’t great traits for a security chief to have and it often leads her into situations that we have trouble believing particularly the cringe worthy scene in “The Naked Now” when she has sex with Data. The one scene we finally have with her where we can look at her as a character is in “The Skin of Evil” when she talks to Worf about an upcoming martial arts tournament, but by that time it’s way too late. Her future on the show was already sealed (more on that again later).

"Hurry, the rape-gang's a comin'!"

The lack of tonal consistency with Tasha Yar’s backstory leads to another one of the more prominent problems with The Next Generation, a subject that The Original Series very rarely ever touched on directly, which is the subject of sex. There is so much fucking sex in the first season of The Next Generation and it is never treated with any sort of consistency. There’s the aforementioned sex scene between Data and Yar and it’s played deadly serious, but it’s such a bizarre plot point. They screw because Tasha wants to, I guess, and then the plot point just disappears. Data has very little response in the climax of “Skin of Evil” and Tasha’s message to him could never be read to accommodate a sexual subtext. The whole thing just sits with the audience while the characters pretend it didn’t exist.

In other places, we have sexed up societies that basically ask a 14 year old if he wants to screw (“Justice”), vaginal hegemonies that bring Riker in as part of a harem (“Angel One”), a world where women are bought as property controllers or can just be kidnapped (“Code of Honor”), arranged marriages and telepathic women who think everyone wants to screw them (“Haven”), flirty jazz loving hologram whores (“11001001”) and French estranged girlfriends who might want to get back together (“We’ll Always Have Paris”). It’s a little much for what is ostensibly an all ages sci-fi show and worse, it’s played in a way that doesn’t treat sex as anything special. It’s aberrant and weird in all the wrong ways. For once, I’m wishing for Kirk’s blatant macking on every woman he comes across.

It’s not all just awkward fucking and women issues though. The Next Generation introduces several new races while sort of forgetting about others. We get a brand new look at Federation/Klingon relations the resistance that the former has at losing some of their cultural history. The Vulcans are pretty much out of the picture, with just one showing up in the dinner scene of “Conspiracy.” The Romulans make a very brief appearance in “The Neutral Zone,” reasserting themselves as the foremost enemy of the Federation and peace in the Alpha Quadrant. The new races are primarily the telepathic Betazoids, who we see only a brief introduction to in “Haven” with the unbelievably obnoxious Lwaxana Troi.

We are still not cool with these guys.

We also meet the dangerous capitalists, the Ferengi, a species of grotesque traders and pirates obsessed with their bottom line and potential avenues of profit. Their two episodes, “The Last Outpost” and “The Battle” don’t treat them particularly well, essentially labeling them as incompetent moneygrubbers and cowards. In a series that has always treated alien races with some modicum of respect, it’s disappointing to be introduced to a new race that is cut down to size in both of their appearances this early in the show.

They're new, they're terrible and you will not give two shits about them.

The last big difference to mention between The Original Series and The Next Generation is the beginning of serialization. By the 1980s, even sitcoms were beginning to integrate continuing story lines and Star Trek’s newest integration was no exception. We have a continuing storyline that more or less helps to flesh out Picard as a character and as a captain, from his early obsessions (“The Big Goodbye”), applying to gain entrance into Starfleet (“Coming of Age”), to his days immediately after leaving the Academy (We’ll Always Have Paris”) to his early heroic action facing his ship (“The Battle”) and all of this finally lets us understand how Picard became the responsible and trustworthy captain that he’s become.

We get a brief serialized element late in the season about the takeover of Starfleet by a hostile outside force. In “Coming of Age,” several Starfleet personnel perform an inspection on the Enterprise, calling many of Picard’s decisions into questions and dong some investigation into the crew’s past adventures. They eventually suggest that the inspections is to see if Picard has become compromised by a part of a Federation wide conspiracy and that many members of the upper echelon may have been compromised. The threat of a takeover looms over the rest of the season and it finds completion in “Conspiracy,” when the Federation is compromised by alien neuro-parasites, featuring a beautiful worm eating climax and a head explosion/chair fusing that feels like a beautiful combination of “Scanners” and “Tokyo Gore Police”. It’s a great, tense, gory episode that is ruined a little by some strange direction and one of the weirdest fight scenes of the franchise, but it beyond deserved to be the season finale.

This action figure molded to a chair cannot express how cool this scene is.

The last thing that really needs mentioning is one of the shows most maligned episodes, “Skin of Evil,” a terrible episode, focused an a near-god-like-being bent on murder and general destruction. After the away party touches down to investigate a downed shuttle that contains Troi, they come face to face with an oily being that demands that the landing team follow orders. In a fit of rage, it hurls Yar across the sands and she just sort of dies. It’s really weird.

The crew bring her up to the ship and Crusher declares her dead. Picard eventually gets Troi off the planet and declares the world forbidden and they eventually go to a memorial service for Yar on the holodeck. She has recorded a message for each of the main crewmembers in the eevent of her death, which is creepily specific in the way that it would have had to probably be updated every couple of months. Everybody has a good cry and that’s it. Worf gets promoted and for the rest of the season, we don’t hear another word about Yar or “rape-gangs.” The whole episode accommodates Crosby’s desire to do other things after she felt like her character didn’t get enough attention on the show, but it’s a cop out. I’m not a fan of Tasha Yar as a character, but she deserved better. She deserved to die, fighting for her crew, but that’s not what we get. It’s weak storytelling designed only to deal with off screen problems and all the seams that are intrinsic in plotting of this type show.

All in all, it’s a deeply flawed first season that despite having some great moments, has no idea what its strengths are. Some of the relationships between the characters are a little overly stiff, primarily the one between Riker and Picard. After I finished the season, I actively questioned how the show lasted past one season. The flaws were so visible and so many of the plots were so visibly recycled from the Original Series that it was hard to ignore, but the moments that work end up working so well. Even better, there’s such a great sense of building a world around an established universe that it is obviously creates a universe that was able to really attract fans. This is the series that created a fan base that has lasted past the show going off the air in any iteration over six years ago.

In place of the usual Random Notes for these episodes, it’s time to give out a variety of awards and not-so awards to the season as a whole, so here we go.

Best Character: Data

Data ends up being the Spock of The Next Generation. Even more than Worf, Data is the true alien of the show. His struggle to fit in and understand human emotions is charming without being overly cloying and his struggle with Lore in “Datalore” is one of the most compelling conflicts of the season, despite its terrible ending.

Worst Character: Deanna Troi

I don’t feel like I can actually count Tasha Yar here because that would be rude. Troi’s problems are so deep. Here telepathic abilities feel like nothing more than being able to read body language and the amount of respect everyone gives her feels so unearned. The problems are only compounded when she becomes the focus in “Haven” and as her mother becomes a minor character she becomes even worse. I can’t care about her and her arranged husband just as I can’t care about her and Riker being former lovers.

Most Badass Moment: A Welcome to Klingon Valhalla – “Heart of Glory.”

One of several Klingon pirates dies on board the Enterprise and his compatriots as well as Worf howl as he passes on, giving the afterlife a warning that a Klingon warrior is entering. Badass.

Most Uncomfortable Moment: A Welcome to Klingon and Human Relations – “Justice”

While on a planet full of justice-obsessed nymphos, Worf describes how humans could not have sex with Klingon without literally destroying them with their massive Klingon penises. It’s so terrible and it ends up sounding like something Tyler the Creator would have written if Odd Future had been really into DS9.

Worst Episode: “Arsenal of Freedom”

You know what I have to say about “Arsenal of Freedom?” It’s damn near the most boring hour of television I’ve ever seen. The plot might not have been able to fill 15 minutes and the padding is so mind numbing that it’s offensive. (Runner Ups: “Angel One,” “Justice,” “Haven,” “The Naked Now”)

Best Episode: “The Big Goodbye”

Smart, fun, tense and a great look at how the writers will later remove all the excitement from the holodeck. The b-story is a little rough, but watching Picard enjoy his fantasy only to watch it all go wrong is exhilarating. (Runner Ups: “Heart of Glory,” “Conspiracy,” We’ll Always Have Paris,” “Symbiosis,” “Datalore”)

Episode 28- “Operation – Anihilate!” and coming full circle

Episode 28- “Operation – Annihilate!” and coming full circle

Since this project started almost a year ago, I’ve gotten into other corners of the science fiction universe. I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, jumped into the remake of Dr. Who, nearly finished Battlestar Galactica and continue watching and rewatching The X-Files until there is quite literally nothing new left to explore. Delving into cult shows is a thrill, it’s both exciting and difficult, having to adapt to different rhythms and figure out the voice that the showrunners are trying to portray. Many cult shows, Star Trek included, get off to a rough start and that’s what we love about them. It feels like those who persevere are the only ones that are privy to the light at the end of the tunnel.

So, it’s a little fitting that we complete the journey with “Operation – Annihilate!” If the first season of Star Trek were made today, “The City on the Edge of Forever” would have almost certainly been the season finale, but instead we get a tossed off monster of the week episode, for lack of a better word. That being said, it’s kind of fun, but to me this is an episode that demonstrates perfectly what it’s like to become a devotee to a show that I would never have cared about one year ago.

The Enterprise approaches the planet of Deneva and after failing to make contact with the planet’s inhabitants, Kirk grows concerned. His brother, Sam, and his family is on the planet but before he can start with the rash decision making he enjoys so much, Spock informs him of a rash of space insanity that has been crossing through the area and seems to have the planet in it’s path. Suddenly a ship flies by and before Kirk can intercept it, the craft flies into the sun, leaving behind only cryptic words on how it’s pilot is finally free.

Kirk decides to investigate and organizes a landing party to check out the planet. After being attacked by those who are infected with the space madness, they eventually find Kirk’s brother. Because the producer’s thought we wouldn’t apparently buy into Jim’s brother not looking exactly the same, he is played by Shatner wearing a fake moustache. I wish I were joking.

Sam’s dead and Aurelan, his wife, is in great pain. She explains to Kirk that something has been trying to get into the barricaded room and has already attacked her. She explains that these creatures are ordering everyone they sting to help them to build a space ship so they can leave the planet and continue to infect other systems with their space madness. She dies and the rest of the landing party searches the area to find the creatures, eventually locating them in an abandoned hanger. Made of what appears to be coagulated Jell-O and pancake batter, the aliens hang from the ceiling, buzz, and take extremely high amounts of phaser fire before acknowledging that they feel pain. The team collects a sample and leave, but Spock is stung by one of the creatures.

Lunch meat. Maybe lunch meat.

From here, it’s a pretty typical sci-fi story that I feel like the show has done in some manner before. McCoy figures out that the sting of the creatures implants some sort of impulse in the host, making them want to help out in the building and infecting them with RAGE. Spock breaks out of the sick bay and tries to take the ship back down to Deneva and after he is denied, he tries to procure a way down in the transporter. On Kirk’s orders, he’s stopped but when the captain shows up, Spock tells him that he is going down to collect samples. Since he’s already infected, Kirk says something along the lines of “hey, what’s the worst that could happen?”

So Spock goes back down to the planet and comes to the realization that the space goops are all essentially operating as a hive mind, all serving the greater purpose of space ship building and space madness effecting. Kirk thinks it all makes sense and so that’s just how it goes. McCoy’s efforts in the lab to kill the creatures continue to fail because no one puts two and two together with the whole ship flying into the sun thing, partially because they’ve got a whole hour to fucking kill.

Really, that’s the problem with the whole episode. We’ve got a situation that seems really odd and complicated but by just throwing all the clues together, one realizes that the sun is the key. Of course, it takes the crew a hell of a lot longer to figure that out, and by the time they test it out on Spock, they end up blinding him with ultraviolet light.

It's not a great episode, but we could have had to deal with this.

This leads to the McCoy and Spock moment you may or may not be waiting for. As the Enterprise starts putting up satellites to ray ultraviolet light on the planet and kill the rest of the aliens, Bones mourns his mistakes, saying that Spock was the best first officer that the ship could have had and wishing that he would have treated the Vulcan better, especially when he realizes that the test could have been conducted without blinding his partner.

Ultimately the creatures die, everyone stands around the bridge and Spock’s sight is cured because that’s what happens on this show. There’s some bit about Spock forgetting he had another set of eyelids or something which seems really cheap, but whatever. This has never been a show that inflicts episode-to-episode pain on its characters. They all smile, joke about how McCoy cared about Spock all along and plot a course to next season.

So, it’s a decent enough episode. The threat is pretty campy and the special effects with the monsters on strings are laughable at best, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve said before that what makes Star Trek work isn’t the monsters or even the story. It’s the earnestness with which it is delivered. No one doubts that this all looks pretty terrible or that the two emotional punches of Kirk’s nephew or Spock going blind isn’t overkill but they just go with it. At this point, you either care about the characters enough to hang on or you don’t.

For me, that’s what’s made the whole show work. There’s an infinite universe and for all the audience cares, there’s just one ship floating around it, checking out all the strangest oddities the galaxy has to offer. It’s a universe built as needed and it works. Coming into Star Trek and looking for the coherency that has built a legion of fans is folly, because it was a universe that was constantly being built in. This wasn’t a show with a bible or a built in finale, but one where the audience was discovering it as the showrunners were. It’s a rare thrill on television and it is something that still connects with a jaded television viewer like myself.

So then, this is the end of the first season. When I originally started, I figured this would be where it all came to a close. Of course, I then ended up buying the rest of the series, all the movies on Blu-Ray, and the J.J. Abrams reboot. So, well, let’s keep going. I’m going to go straight on to season 2 and maybe take a short break for The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan and try to fit the reboot in somewhere over the summer.

Episode 27- “The City on the Edge of Forever” and defining perfection

Greatness is incalculable. In a medium like television that depends so heavily on context, prejudices and taste, it is difficult to qualify any one moment as legitimately great. Mediums such as music, film and theater are more capable of being classified as great because they occupy a moment in time, a brief pass through an artistic endeavor. Television doesn’t have that luxury. Viewers become connected to different characters or situations, and as such, what one viewer may love another may claim is near blasphemous. Even some of the most critically lauded shows of all time, such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Seinfeld and M*A*S*H*, are heavily debated on what the greatest moments are due to the way viewers manufacture relationships with the characters.

It seems strange then that “The City on the Edge of Forever” is generally regarded as the greatest episode of Star Trek. Entertainment Weekly, IGN.com and IMDB all rank it as the best episode of the series. TV Guide ranks it as the #68 TV Moment of All Time. All time. Of all the episodes the series has done, of all the planets we have explored and aliens we have met, the critical consensus is that nothing compares to “The City on the Edge of Forever.” I’m not trying to say that its a bad episode. Far from it, there is a genuine sense of brilliance throughout the episode but this is a nearly singularly uncommon incident for any show, especially for a series that maintains as intense of a fan base as Star Trek does.

It’s strange to actually review “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and I choose not to quite do that. Rather, I intend to both attempt to explain why the episode has developed the reputation it has, and also try to critique the notion of vaunting an episode to such a level of prestige.

Its hard to discuss the episode itself without getting into the history of the piece. The original version of the episode was written by vaunted sci-fi author Harlan Ellison. His first script was a story about drug dealers on the Enterprise overdosing themselves back in time, with Kirk and Spock going back to chase them down and fix the effects of their influence on the timeline. Roddenberry wouldn’t have that, saying that there were no drug dealers on his Enterprise, and that the script would need to be rewritten. A couple or rewrites later and a little manipulation from the contracted writers table, and we finally have the version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” that made it to the screen. Naturally, Ellison was furious, believing that he had been screwed by everyone except Leonard Nimoy and he shuffled off.

The early writing problems pretty much set up why the cold open to this episode is so fucking terrible. That may be a bit harsh, but its just really weird. While coming in contact with some sort of time related anomaly, the Enterprise gets knocked around a bit, causing Sulu to fall unconscious. McCoy shows up with a shot of cordrazine, a sort of unexplained wonder drug, and gets Sulu back on his feet, but when the Enterprise takes another hit, Bones ends up injecting himself with the rest of the meds, sending him on a violent bender and insane bender. It looks really awkward and it seems like this was a last minute rewrite that was doing little more than trying to keep Roddenberry’s utopian dreams alive for another day. It works and it still takes the action to the same place that we were headed to but it needlessly complicates itself in an accident that could have been something that had a much deeper context.

McCoy makes his way to the transporter room and beams down to the planet that is causing the anomaly with the landing party (strangely including Scotty and Uhura) close behind. There, they come across a strange doorway and after a rhetorical “what is it,” the Guardian of Forever springs to life, demonstrating its power in riddles and putting Spock’s “primitive” scientific knowledge to shame. There’s some neat humor with Spock being put to shame, and Kirk has fun with it, but everything gets serious when the Guardian shows its ability, projecting a black and white video reel of human history. Seeing a chance to escape, drugged out McCoy leaps through the portal and back into time. Suddenly, everything changes. The Enterprise is gone, the communicators aren’t working and there is a sense that McCoy has really Butterfly-Effected everything. Kirk and Spock decide they are going to jump backwards two weeks before McCoy’s arrival in the time stream and stop him from doing whatever he does that alters the time flow.

There’s a general sense of near operatic grandness to tragedy in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Even before Kirk and Spock jump back to the nostalgic grandeur of Mayberry, the stakes are huge and slightly tragic. Everything could change, and the remains of the crew could be left on the planet with no way to escape other than projecting themselves back in time. Before we’ve even made it to the doomed pacifists, there is already a sense of dread and tragedy.

This is all reinforced when we make it into the city with Spock and Kirk. Everything they do, up to and including meeting Edith at the mission has a sense of golden age working-man grandeur. They need to steal clothes, and they get some working man flannel and coats. Spock wears a dark stocking cap. They break into a basement and immediately start working at the mission, being fed for the sweat from their brow. I don’t want to romanticize this, but its a mood that we haven’t really seen from the show, and I personally am not a huge fan of it. Generally this sort of mood is reserved for shows that do little but say “oh man, those were the days, without your cell phones and internet pornography.” Its generally used as an intellectual short hand, and I’m always a little put off by it, but it works for the episode.

What doesn’t work is Edith. The manager of a mission in this unnamed city, she’s an optimist and a pacifist that sees the most in everyone and has eerily correct hopes for a future of paunchy middle aged men fighting the Gorn. She’s a pure Harlan Ellison character, right down to her dreamy ideas of the future, but she’s awfully out of place, particularly being cast as an almost too fashion forward beauty. Seriously, she looks like a mod. I half expected we were on Brighton Beach.

So, being an impossibly beautiful woman with lofty hopes for humanity, she and Kirk fall for one another. They go out, and once again she has some wonderfully overstated moments with Kirk when he talks about future novels written on planets orbiting around Orion’s Belt, but it seems sort of romantic if you have a thing for people who babble nonsensically. Meanwhile, Spock works on a makeshift computer and comes to a startling discovery. One newspaper states that Edith will die in the near future, but after a fluctuation, it reads that she will meet with President Roosevelt about the peace movement. After concurring with Kirk, the effects of McCoy’s future meddling becomes clear: McCoy will save Edith from a car accident and her beliefs on pacifism will continue to gain traction until Roosevelt invites her to the White House. Meanwhile, Nazi Germany will have been able to continue researching the atomic bomb without the interference of the invading Americans and will develop nuclear power first, as well as the V2 rockets required to wield it efficiently. This leads the Nazis to winning World War II, preventing the development of Starfleet or the exploration of the galaxy as planned.

Its a well thought out rewrite of history, although I suppose that the peace movement would have had to have some serious clout to prevent the United States from entering the war after Pearl Harbor, but it mostly works and has a grand sense of doom to it. Kirk and Spock must prevent McCoy from interfering, but that means one thing. The woman that Kirk loves must die for history as we know it to survive.

I wrote about the struggles Kirk has to go through when making big decisions in “The Alternative Factor,” and the same vastly applies here. He knows what he has to do to preserve history, but there is a sense that he could have the other way. He could let McCoy save Edith and live the rest of his life in the newly created history. When he meets Edith on the stairwell and catches her as she almost falls, we see the pain even more accutely. Kirk is used to always being the hero, being able to save every maiden and protect his ship at every turn. This is a decision that is even more difficult than what he had to do to Lazarus. In order to pull the trigger on this one, he has to unlearn everything he ever had to learn about being a hero, he has to let someone die when he has the chance to save her. He must look the other way and for Kirk, inaction is even worse than the wrong action.

In the end, Kirk both abandons Edith to her fate, and prevents McCoy from saving her. As the three of them leap back through the Guardian of Forever, their mission complete, there is a moment of silence. Kirk looks up and whispers “lets get the hell out of here.” Its a line that’s been played for laughs, primarily by Mustordayonaise Abe Lincoln, or in testosterone fueled action movies, like every movie that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in, but Kirk sells it with nothing but remorse. The Guardian is a sign of the life that Kirk could have had, a life that he had to abandon. Its a moment where we have to wonder how comfortable Kirk really is with this. Is the Enterprise really worth the love of a woman who truly cared for him? Is the lonely life he’s chosen really worth what he has to give up? 

The answer is mostly arbitrary mainly because Star Trek is stoically episodic in nature. We’re never going to hear about Edith again and although we’ll see Kirk have to make hard decisions, there won’t be a moment when he considers what happened here and work from his actions. This is a benefit and a detriment to shows from the period, but particularly grander television, like Star Trek. It stunts our ability to associate with Kirk as a constantly growing character and it stops us from being able to see the consequences of actions from the past. However, an episodic nature allows us to have wild shifts in style and tone from episode to episode. If Star Trek played out more like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, we never would have had off kilter episodes like “Shore Leave,” “The Conscience of the King” or “The City on the Edge of Forever.” They simply don’t fit the themes and ideas of the show.

This really brings me to the primary question I have on the relative greatness of “The City on the Edge of Forever.” The episode, particularly as Ellison originally intended it, really isn’t Star Trek. Roddenberry was right in that regard, but for the entirely wrong reasons. In all regards, this episode could have been made for just about any show. This could be an episode of The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits or even a supernatural episode of just about any show you could think of. There’s no discovery, no final frontiers, no exploration; its a grand operatic play with high ambitions, but not necessarily one fitting with the established universe.

Is that a bad thing? No, but its a very strange thing. My favorite episodes of Star Trek so far could vastly be used on just about any television series with a science fiction bent, but it seems unique that the most popular and most critically beloved episode of Trek doesn’t feature phaser fire, Klingons, Vulcans, naked green women, Kirk karate chopping things, gods/godlike beings, personality shifts, new species or people not prepared for the power they hold. All the hallmarks of Star Trek are barely there. If I had to show a person an episode of Star Trek and say “this is what the show is. This is the clearest product of the mission statement of the show,” there’s no way I’d pick “The City on the Edge of Forever.” I’d probably pick “Devil in the Dark” or “Errand of Mercy,” but that’s just me. These are episodes that could only be Star Trek. They fit comfortably in the mythology and offer stories that work well within the created boundaries.

Once again, I’m not disputing that “The City on the Edge of Forever,” isn’t great. It is. But what does “The Greatest Episode” mean when it just barely fits into the shows oeurve? Is the success of “The City on the Edge of Forever” a fluke, little more than an episode that was lucky enough to be sold to Roddenberry rather than Rod Sterling?  Does it even really belong to us?

Random Thoughts

“I’m a surgeon, not a psychiatrist!”

“My friend is obviously Chinese. I see you’ve noticed the ears. They’re actually easy to explain.”

Next Up: “Operation–Annihilate!” and holy shit, its the finale.

Episode 26- “The Alternative Factor” and finally going for the junkys

One of my favorite things about the remake of Battlestar Galactica is the sense that these are people that live on a battleship. These are people stuck in the middle of space without a chance of escape or rescue. No one’s coming. No one’s going to save them.

But you still have to get drunk.

Despite the overall grimness of the series as a whole, there’s still a ton of scenes of Starbuck, Lieutenant Gaeda, Gaius Balthar, Lee Adama and a couple of random pilots sitting, playing cards, drinking and smoking. It helps set up a sense that these are people who have lives that aren’t entirely made up of jumping through the galaxy, shooting up Cylons and generally being at each other’s throats and it makes the moments where they do come into conflict even more powerful.

That’s something that Star Trek has always struggled with. I’ve made jokes before about how all the Enterprise does is jet around the galaxy solving problems because it’s mostly true. All we see is Kirk go into ass-kicking mode and Spock solve intergalactic quandaries. We don’t have much of a sense of what normal life is like there.

There’s a moment in today’s episode, “The Alternative Factor” when a few people banter over coffee and it does manage to provide this sense. Its short, but it does help reinforce the idea that not everyone on the ship is in this for the heroics. There’s guys who mess with dilithium crystals all day and there’s gals who are just there for Kirk to schlup. They didn’t sign up to get harassed by Balok or get blown up by Klingons. It really adds something to a series that mostly just boils down to cowboys pulling up to the newest mysterious town week after week.

And what a mysterious ghost town this week’s is. After a mysterious occurrence destroys gravity throughout the universe, Kirk and a landing party head down to a deserted planet to figure out what happened. There they come across Lazarus, a super-healing crazy person who babbles incoherently about a beast he must kill. They bring him up to the Enterprise where he is treated for his wounds, and Kirk and Spock try to figure out what to do.

The first thing to note is that this episode moves slow. I mean, really painfully slow. I’ve been noting recently that a lot of episodes seem to drag and could have been condensed to pretty tight half-hours, but “The Alternative Factor” isn’t one of them. The speed sets a really interesting pace, with Lazarus mentally struggling with his opponent and Kirk and Spock arguing about alternate dimensions like they’re stuck on an island with a bunch of fucking polar bears or something.

This is a good time to note the special effects that are at work on this episode. They’re a little cheesy to say the least. A pair of guys wrestle in a psychedelic smoky room while a barrage of colors reflect all over the screen. It can be a little hard to take serious, but once you understand the context of what is taking place in the interdimensional space, it makes a fair amount of sense and it is a pretty creative way to deal with the idea within the constraints of the time and technology that was present.

Kirk and Spock conclude that there are two Lazarus-es (Lazarusi?) that exist in a pair of parallel dimensions. When the two come in contact due to their travels in the time stream, it unleashes devastation on the universe. Luckily, their few conflicts have occurred in this interdimensional hallway, and the damage has been minimized, but if Lazarus 1 has his insane way, they may come in contact in the Prime Material Plane (yes, I do know that Prime Material Plane is all capitalized). The way that this scene is handled is artful. We’ve had hints that there are two different versions of Lazarus, but we’re learning this as the characters learn it, rather than our knowledge of something that occurred while the characters were not in the frame tipping us off. It makes this episode considerably more satisfying to see the characters figure it out as we do. To add to that, they do a really great job explaining something that they could have done a really horrible job at explaining, leaving it as another “I don’t know, he can just do crazy shit with space and time” moment.

Lazarus 1 claims that to defeat the beast that is causing the chaos throughout the galaxy, he’s going to need the dilithium crystals from the Enterprise. Kirk refuses and eventually, after staging a few near catastrophic accidents, Lazarus gets a hold of them and beams back down to the planet. Kirk gives chase and ends up getting transported into a transitory plane of existence, the level where Lazarus has been facing his interdimensional doppelganger and the source of the chaos. He comes out the other side and meets Lazarus 2, who proposes a rather complex way to trap Lazarus 1 in the corridor, preventing devastation from being wrecked on the universe. However, he is damning himself to an eternity of constant struggle. It’s a moving moment, and it may be the first time in the series where Kirk is faced with a moral dilemma. Ultimately, he helps trap Lazarus 1 in the corridor and re-boards the Enterprise, prepared to destroy the door that links the two dimensions.

The episode concludes on the bridge. Kirk knows that in order to protect the universe, he has to destroy Lazarus 1’s ship, permanently sealing the two beings in the intradimensional space. There’s a moment of hesitation. We can see the pain he’s going through. He seems more than just unwilling to trap two humans in a never ending hellscape, but ultimately, he pulls the trigger.

Ironically, it compares perfectly to Battlestar Galactica again. Captain (and later, Admiral) Adama is often faced with a similar question. In fact, much of the show rests on that very question. Is one life worth the lives of thousands of others? Can we fire on civilians? Should a women be allowed to have an abortion, despite the fact that humanity is going extinct? Is a cylon woman the same as a human woman? We see the effects that these questions have on Adama and we feel for him. This is the first time I’ve actually felt for Kirk. He has had to make tough decisions before, but we have never seen the pain. Usually, his actions are in the heat of the moment; a phaser blast here, an ethically difficult decision there, yelling at a computer elsewhere, etc. Now, he has to ponder his actions. He can make the other choice.

But he doesn’t. Kirk is a hero, and he knows Lazarus 2 has accepted his fate. He makes the sacrifice, and although he has made the right decision, the pain lies heavy on his face. It’s probably one of Shatner’s best acting moments on the show and it really adds to the episode.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about performances, but there I’ve really failed to mention the tone of the whole episode. I talked briefly about how the sense of pace was very deliberate in this episode and it applies here. This is an episode for established fans of the series and it may be the first one to do that yet. Previous episodes have mostly been very Twilight Zone-y romps through a space-opera-morality play. We see a character or a society act fundamentally wrong and Kirk eventually corrects them and we all learn a valuable lesson. “A Taste of Armageddon” is a prime example of this. We all learn about the price of war by seeing a society that has eliminated the price of war.

“The Alternative Factor” doesn’t do that. It’s a story that could only work in the context of Star Trek and whose value can’t be applied aptly to the real world. Some people may say that this makes the episode nothing more than pulpy sci-fi trash, but the episode is done so well and with so much dignity that it escapes that classification.

“The Alternative Factor” is one of my favorite episodes. It explores the unknown in a perfect fashion and establishes itself in a very firm and confident way in the Star Trek universe. This isn’t a show that is searching for new viewers or scrounging up ratings. It’s an episode that knows what it wants and fucking goes for it.

Random Thoughts

Spock gets a ton of really badass lines in this episode.

“I fail to comprehend your indignation, sir. I’ve simply made the logical assumption that you are a liar.”

“Sometimes pain can drive a man harder than pleasure.”

They might oversell the ending a little bit when Kirk says “But what of Lazarus? What of Lazarus?” but I blame the writing room more than Shatner for that one.

Sulu is replaced by some white dude in this one. Sucks.

Next Up: “The City on the Edge of Forever” and its going to be awesome.