Episode Distraction 1: “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and a satellite being thrown into space

The implicit message of most of Star Trek has been the value of reason against the immobile force of logic. The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy almost always allowed for a series of differing viewpoints that contrasted humanism, hubris and duty as it applied to the survival of an elite group of men and women.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture” gets a lot of shit for being really, brutally dull. It’s one of those barely justified opinions, such as people who damn “Spider-Man 3” for being “emo” or people who say that “Aliens” is better than “Alien” because there are fucking guns in it. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is a deeply flawed, incredibly dated, overly trippy near-masterpiece, one that has received more flack than it could ever possibly deserve.

“The Motion Picture” makes almost no attempt to draw in new fans but it’s almost better for it. It’s a movie that is so dramatically different from the show that came before it that giving newbies a working base is almost pointless. Characters are introduced and reintroduced all over the place, with characters such as Chekov and Sulu barely being introduced at all.

It’s a movie that’s more about atmosphere than characters or plot and it actively challenges the viewers to care about what’s going on. This is a movie that wants to be about three characters, Spock, V’ger and Decker but it becomes more about stoic logic bumping up against an unknowable universe.

The beginning of every episode of Star Trek has Kirk, and by extension the audience, standing against the unknown. We’re boldly going where no one has ever been but in a show that went as long as Star Trek in its varied incarnations, a lot of the gaps slowly get filled in. I have a pretty solid idea about almost everything that happens in the Alpha Quadrant. The Klingons and the Romulans both have understandable, even predictable goals and societies, the future is almost written. What “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” tried to do was to give audiences a look at something they hadn’t seen and couldn’t understand. It was a bold move, one the movie doesn’t entirely pull off. The big third act reveal is far too similar to “The Changeling,” the idea of a semi-sentient space cloud is a threat that has come up a few too many times and the threat of a consuming machine is one that Star Trek bumped up against far too many times.

What I’m trying to say is that the less audiences analyze “The Motion Picture,” the more fulfilling it is. Much like the film it drew from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this coasts on atmosphere. There are near 10 minute, masturbatory shots of the outside of the Enterprise, an 8 minute sequence of the ship entering the cloud paired with silent reaction shots and a series of garbled audio cues that contrast with the crisp, clean and beautiful revamped musical score and terse dialogue. As I said earlier, it’s a film about contradictions. The dissonance isn’t something that distracts from the film as much as one that helps to create a compelling product.

The dissonance is clear from the beginning. As Spock finds himself without the Enterprise, he’s embraced his Vulcan obsessions. He’s tried to fully immerse himself in logic and still struggles with what he’s taken from his time with Kirk. As he returns to his ship and friends, he’s cold, disinterested and trying to get back into who he wants to be. The further he goes, the more he has to embrace who he is, trying to mind meld with the alien ship, dealing with the inhumanity of the herald of V’ger and facing off with a challenge he hates how much he cares about. Spock’s realization of what he needs to be to help the crew is heartening and lovely, a great transformation for a character experimenting with who he wants and needs to be.

Dekker and Ilia’s relationship is possibly the weakest aspect of the film. We receive hints of a past they once had her transformation into a herald of the V’ger is a tragic moment for both. That being said, it’s hard to buy into Decker’s decision at the climax. We’re meant to believe that his love of Ilia drives him into their sacrificial bond and it’s clear that he has feelings for her even after her rebirth. It’s just a little much. When he makes it clear that he’s dreamed of being a part of a new life-form, it’s hard to believe that he’s anything other than horny.

I adore most of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” mostly for the reasons that others hate it. It’s a trippy, bizarre film, filled with a distinct lack of humanity and a focus on the unexplainable. It’s a movie rich with meaningless subtext, visual flourishes and style for its own sake. It’s dated, meandering, and reeking of an over-budget, over-blown mess. It is, however, in these moments that it shines as a piece of unadulterated, unbearably earnest piece of space age melodrama.

Next Up: We’re back to the series proper with “The Deadly Years,” which is like The Wonder Years but deadlier.

Episode 36: “I, Mudd” and Kirk shows off what he learned in Theater 101

I hate Harry Mudd. He isn’t a character that I love to hate, its not a character that I’m supposed to hate and it isn’t that I don’t get him. The fact is that Mudd is such an obnoxious relic and his previous appearance is one of the worst episodes of TOS and definitely the worst episode of the first season.

I didn’t want to watch “I, Mudd,” the scheming turd’s return to the show before his single appearance in the animated series. I knew I was in for another episode of moustasche twirling villainy, really off-putting sexual politics and what I have to assume was intended to be humor. On pretty much all parts, I was right but here, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed. Well, until the final half hour.

After an Android takes over the Enterprise in a sequence that is pretty much the writers just shrugging, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and Chekov are dragged down to a Class K planet filled with androids. There, Mudd has escaped from his imprisonment, designed a bunch of foxy female androids for dubious purposes and rules in what appears to be a total lack of authority. To make things real awkward and to foreshadow the episode’s conclusion really clearly, he’s even built an android that looks like his abandoned wife for his amusement.

Mudd’s lured Kirk down to the planet in an attempt to steal the ship and finally escape the planet but the androids have other plans. They begin to abandon Mudd on the planet and warp up on the Enterprise, planning to study humanity. Mudd, Kirk and company slowly come up with a plan to get off the planet by, you guessed it, talking the androids into realizing that their actions are illogical.

Up to here, I kind of liked “I, Mudd.” This is a really traditional episode of TOS, with lots of bright colors, really goofy set designs, girls in revealing outfits and hammy overacting. I love this sort of stuff and its what makes Kirk’s time at the helm so memorable and iconic. Sure, Mudd’s unidentifiable accent fades in and out and changes randomly at times but its all something you can ignore.

That all changes as the crew figures out how to breakout. They decide to go with the sort of disreputable idea that humans cannot be happy without being free and decide that the only way to beat out the androids is to show the power of imagination and the way that it can trump logic. It doesn’t make a ton of sense when you think about it and the frolicking and play acting they do in an attempt to overload the Norman model is so confusing, surreal and strange that its hard to figure out how it could possibly do anything.

The final act pretty much feels like watching the worst college improv troupe you can imagine. There’s hand slapping as objects are invisible objects are handed off, a terribly timed baseball routine and entirely too much ridiculous Shakespearean-meets-“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” style deaths to be anything more than the lowest of camp. Its embarrassing and downright painful to watch and what hurts the most is seeing it work in beating back the androids.

Much better is the way that Spock deals with the situation. A simple turn of phrase is all it takes to confuse a pair of androids and incapacitate them, allowing his compatriots to take down the leader. Its artful and smart and exactly what we want to see from Spock.

Much like Mudd’s first appearance, the episode tries to end with a really strong joke and once again, I don’t really know what they were going for. In “I, Mudd,” the rogue is left on the planet to be berated by his android-wives until he can escape. I understand why this is supposed to be funny and ridiculously sexist but I don’t really understand why the writers thought we would think it to be funny. Are we supposed to view Mudd as a cad and pervert who deserves to be berated? Are we supposed to think he’s cheated on his wife by fucking a couple hundred robots? Are we supposed to think its funny just because he was outsmarted by Kirk? Despite all of my complaints, Mudd has never been developed enough as a character, much less a villain, that I feel like he deserves any sort of punishment for his actions.

“I, Mudd” is a lot of what I like about the original run of Star Trek and a lot of what I can’t stand. Its rife with awkward sexual politics, poorly thought out villains and not particularly satisfying resolutions but it has all the color, design and charm that I love. By no means is it a classic, but its a fair entry in a series that always is fun to watch.

Random Thoughts

They actually used  twins for most of the duplicated robots in this episode. That’s neat.

Sulu’s here for all of 30 seconds. I guess the writers wanted more Yakov Smirnov style jokes about Russians.

Shatner does the comedy in this episode particularly well. The scene where everyone says that things aren’t looking good is a lot of fun.

Next Up: “Metamorphosis” teaches us everything we ever wanted to know but were too afraid to ask about the guy who created the warp drive.

Episode 15- “The Galileo Seven” and the big what-if we’ve been waiting for

 

I understand the love for Spock. Kirk’s desire to do the best for the crew, regardless of the danger or the cost is sort of an old-school television cliché. On a serialized show now, Kirk would have been crushed by his decisions. Spock turns out to be the one we trust more in comparison. He makes decisions based on what is good for the crew, but he makes sacrifices based on what is rational. He works because he has to justify his actions to himself. Spock can do pretty much whatever the script needs him to do, but it has to make sense to him. It seems like an out, but watching Spock work is one of the great pleasures of the series.

With that, “The Galileo Seven” is an episode that equates to little more than a what-if scenario. When Spock takes a crew to explore a mostly uncharted area, disaster quickly befalls the craft and they crash on a foreign planet, without the ability to contact the Enterprise. The Enterprise, however, is also unable to get in contact with the shuttle and has only two days to search for Spock and the remaining crewmembers before they have to make an important rendezvous.

It's the landing party, I mean the complication.

 

Unlike “Balance of Terror,” “The Conscience of the King” or “Shore Leave,” “The Galileo Seven” is more about reactions than it is about actions. The way that Spock and the rest of the crewmates end up on the planet is less important than how Spock handles the situation once he is put in command of the situation. We’re mainly watching people react to trying to survive in a situation without Kirk. The way that Spock is going to handle the situation is drastically different than they were expecting and problems quickly come about when human lives are translated into pounds of dead weight.

I’ve liked Spock since I started watching the series, and moments like this really help to drive why the character is likable. In a series that’s mostly about people exploring the universe, Spock is just about the only alien, and in no way does he really behave like a human. It seems reasonable that this sort of decision would have to come up to really distinguish Spock’s logical approach to be flawed in matters of life and death.

Some of the planet actually looks pretty good for being built on a set.

 

To me, “The Galileo Seven” is an episode that a show would do in about the third or fourth season. It’s the kind of episode that happens when a writer is saddled with an episode and wants to say something profound about a character in a different way. Darin Morgan of “The X-Files” wrote three episodes that took down Mulder in just about every way possible. This seems to be a pretty calculated way to force the viewer to confront Spock’s various failings. It’s odd that this sort of episode would come before one that would confront, say, the captain’s failings, but it seems pretty clear that Spock was rapidly becoming the breakout character of the series, but for the most part it is an interesting examination of one character’s process and failings.

That’s not to say that Spock is the only character that is really looked at. McCoy returns to put a human face on what has happened on Taurus II, and he is certainly less antagonistic than Boma, but he manages to continue to represent the ethical side of the problem and seeks alternative solutions to the deadlier ones that Spock advocates. Scotty is mostly there to do nothing but fix the gas lines as best he can and kind-of-sort-of defend Spock from the increasingly antagonistic crew.

Delightfully, Sulu also has things to do in this episode. I’ve talked about how much I sort of appreciate Sulu’s presence. He’s a very visible character on the bridge. Despite Roddenberry’s hopes for a post race starship, really the only non-Caucasians are Uhura and Sulu. Uhura hasn’t really gotten much to do since about “Charlie X” but Sulu consistently gets to at least play with some ship controls and have a line. What appeals to me about his character is that he’s very similar to Spock in his actions. Sulu has a firm grasp on what needs to be done and does his job without fail. He keeps his emotions out of the bridge, follows orders and acts without a seconds thought. He does have a brief line when Kirk calls off the search, but for the most part, Sulu is a lot like Spock, and he manages to be one of the finer characters on the Enterprise.

Anthropoid smash for equal opportunities on Enterprise!

 

One could probably say that “The Galileo Seven” is one of the weaker episodes of the series. It’s pretty static, a little dull at times and kind of goes over some of the standard Star Trek plots, but I enjoyed it immensely. It’s nice to see the writers really place one character under the microscope so much and manage a question of lives so well.

Random Notes

It’s pretty easy to tell, but there’s only one creature running around all episode. Those Styrofoam rocks eat up a lot of the budget.

I wasn’t aware seven phasers had enough fuel to launch a small space pod. More useful information that just doesn’t seem that true.

Spock gets the best lines of the episode, namely “I am not interested in the opinions of the majority, Mr. Gaetano.”

There’s some pretty terrible fake laughs after Kirk’s joke on the bridge at the end.

A joke that is approximately as bad as one of Uhura's songs.

 

Next Up: “The Squire of Gothos” and stuff like that.

Episode 6- “What are Little Girls Made of?” and Bloch’s horror hits the Enterprise

As I write this, there are a multitude of television critics debating the validity of “Mad Men” or the subtext of “True Blood,” and most of the time, this writing is shit. Television is a difficult medium to discuss, because unlike film, it is broadcast to a multitude of people. Whether a consumer watches it or not, the program is still there, and it needs to be suitable for just about anyone to consume, enjoy and understand. It needs to be watchable, but more than that, there needs to be a basic idea that a viewer can pull from the piece and understand.

The problem comes when elite critics have to discuss what is broadcast. There is always a sense that we may miss something, and with a multitude of words that need written, critics are likely to draw connections where none exist. When they read too much into a show and claim that “True Blood” is a scathing indictment on the War on Drugs or that Chelsea Handler is a poet of condom wrappers and cosmopolitan induced vomit. Television generally presents a simple theme, and then critics have to make up their own to distinguish themselves or to further theories and conjecture. In a way, many critics try to complicate and validate television at the same time, trying to make deep art out of what is often nothing more than entertainment.

That’s not to say that there aren’t shows that juggle themes and ideas. “Breaking Bad” deftly combines the idea of “how far would you go” with “what would you do if you were going to die” with “break from expectation,” to masterful results. “The Sopranos” dealt with honor, responsibility, power and money while asking much tougher questions as well, that all could really be used to examine a single dark, deadly character..

At its best, “Star Trek” would be capable of asking more questions. “What are Little Girls Made of?” is the first to do just that.

It’s kind of a silly premise. While cruising the galaxy, the Enterprise gets a message from Exo III, from Roger Korby, a scientist who has been missing for five years. He is very enthusiastic about having Kirk come down to the planet alone to check out all this cool stuff he found, but he better come without any security or it will get broken or something. However, when he finds out that his ex-fiancé, Nurse Chapel (lover of Spock, in “The Naked Time), is on board, he cordially invites her to come down to the planet as well. The crew is suspicious, but Kirk and Chapel head down anyway, along with a pair of security officers who are quickly snuffed out by a tall menacing man in the caves.

This is as good a time as any to talk about the tone. “What are Little Girls Made of?” maintains an undeniable creepiness throughout the first few minutes and refuses to let go as the truth begins to be revealed. The android, Ruk is killing Kirk’s crew effortlessly, Kolby’s assistant doesn’t recognize Chapel and declares security dead pretty early on, and there’s a sexy android.

Everything is wrong, plus there's pointy android nipples.

That actually isn’t terribly weird, but Andrea deserves mention both for being a sexy android, and having the first and perhaps only documented case of extremely stiff nipples tearing up her oddly colored pair of overalls.

What was I talking about? Well, Kolby initially just wants Kirk to see the process of making androids and after a particularly tense Kirk replicant creation process, he wants the captain to help him spread his androids around to key parts of the galaxy, but this idea is pretty half baked and pointless. It’s pretty clear that this is a small story, and it’s hard to watch it without kind-of knowing that Kolby and his creations aren’t going to make it out of there alive, but it’s ok. This is a small story with larger implications, and H.P. Lovecraft acolyte Robert Bloch was more than willing to bring these themes into the open.

There are three primary themes going on in “What are Little Girls Made of?” The first is the place of emotion, and it naturally brings depth to the episode. Kolby says that the androids are different from humans due to their inability to create emotional bonds. Having Andrea kiss and strike Kirk drives the idea that she is a controllable item, a tool for the scientist. While Chapel shows disgust for Kolby and asks if he has ever used his tool for…less professional uses, he scoffs, saying that she is just an object. All of the androids are logical and pragmatic, and only Kolby’s kiss with Chapel shows any emotion (although he may have been able to rationalize it as necessary in order to ensnare Kirk), and it really helps create a cold and detached mood that contrasts sharply with the more manic Kirk and despondent Chapel. The only way Kirk can get over the situation is by having Ruk deal with his hatred of the emotions of the Old Ones (how very Lovecraftian) and deem Kolby’s actions to be too emotionally driven. Emotion also deals heavily into Kirk’s whip smart message to Spock in the form of some out-of-character racism. Even the true finale, when Roger says “It’s still me Christine, It’s still Roger. I’m in here,” is a grand statement about how emotions define people, that is further driven home when Roger continually repeats, “I am not a computer,” trying to convince only himself.

The second is the idea of myth vs. truth. Kolby is convinced that Kirk would not believe him because the story of the Old Ones creating Androids seems so far fetched, so he has to show him the chamber where he creates androids as well as try to convince him to help get his creations into the galaxy. This theme once again crops up when Ruk explains how he killed the old ones when they started demonstrating emotions. Expectations are subverted when the characters are faced with the truth and have to face the inherent problems in their long held beliefs. This theme originally appeared in “Charlie X” with the Thasians, but this episode explores this theme much more fully.

Andrea and Ruk begin making the Kirk-droid.

The final theme is the failings of logic and the need for balance. Arguably, the whole episode focuses on the idea of characters behaving under strict logical programming, with Kirk’s brashness being used as a contrast among the androids. It vastly works, just because the androids are so pragmatic and make all their choices based on collective good as well as orders and plans. This theme crops up again in Kirk’s conversation with Ruk when the captain simply has to convince the android that killing Kolby is the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter that Kolby and Ruk have a relationship that is mostly friendly. All Kirk had to do was convince the android that murder was the only acceptable action to preserve its life. Emotions never factored into Ruk’s decision to attack Kolby or Kolby’s murder of the android.

There’s certainly more to each of these themes, but they provide as much of a groundwork as possible to what Bloch built around them. He masterfully fused his knowledge of sci-fi know-how with some of the Lovecraftian weirdness he was trained on (pink caves, strange doors, ancient master races) to make what may be the most satisfying episode yet.

That’s not to mention some of the truly standout scenes. Kolby using the machine to make an android Kirk starts off kind of goofy, but quickly gets serious, showing just what the scientist is capable of. The big reveal with Kolby is played really well, and I thought it was pretty shocking, inspiring that same sense of wanting to watch the episode over to see clues earlier (ala “Fight Club” and “The Sixth Sense”).

The machine helps Kolby turn Play Dough into Androids. Also, it's kind of great.

There are problems, of course. In an episode that’s so fully devoted to the necessity of emotion and the use of logic, it’s pretty disappointing that Spock didn’t get more to do. Without him or McCoy there for Kirk to play off of, we lose some of the ballsiness and emotional contrast we get when he is with another member of his inner circle. By the end of the episode, Andrea’s actions are pretty silly. Kirk asking for the phaser doesn’t really seem to prove anything, and her sudden realization that she loves Kolby is pretty odd. Their suicide even seems strange to me.

Either way, the episode is a roaring success. “What are Little Girls Made Of?” shows off the idea that “Star Trek” could be more than just “The Twilight Zone” with more action, and rolls themes together to create a cohesive and totally satisfying whole.

Random Notes

A lot of the cast seems to be missing from this one. There’s no Scotty, Sulu, Rand or McCoy in this episode. It’s not like these characters always have a lot to do (I mean, Jesus Christ, Uhura pretty much just swivels her chair and talks about not making contact in just about every episode), but it’s nice to have these characters just around.

The part where Chapel asks Kolby about having sex with Andrea is really well handled. Bloch gives it enough emotional depth and ambiguity, while not really dwelling on the innate weirdness of the thing. He’s frank, but not disgustingly so. There’s evens some nice squabbles about sexual roles between Chapel and Andrea that I really appreciated.

Kirk’s quote “mind your own business, Mr. Spock. I’m sick of your half-breed interference,” leads to both one of the best moments (with the android), and the best joke (at the very end) of the episode.

Next up: “Miri” which I assume is someone’s name. Hey, it’s Tuesday morning. Do you expect a witty joke out of me?