Episode 40 – “The Deadly Years” and false teeth speak false truths

the_deadly_years_072I feel like the whole, “people turn old but, like, really really fast” is a classic TV sci-fi trope. It feels like it’s been done on countless shows. I mean, hell, The Next Generation did it. We know where it’s going and we know how the status quo is going to be (hint, it’s probably going to end up ok.

“The Deadly Years” doesn’t really do a whole lot with the premise but it’s not a terrible episode. It’s a silly one. A really silly one. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Chekov and a whole bunch of totally inessential crew people beam down to Gamma Hydra IV on a routine resupply mission when our great Russian comic relief encounters a dead body and loses his shit like an elegant Victorian lady preparing to faint dead away. Next thing you know, the triumvirate is aging rapidly.

There’s a lot of poor judgement going on in “The Deadly Years.” Moments after coming across a group of rapidly aged scientists, Kirk decides to bring the whole group aboard, not really caring if this disease is going to impact the whole ship. It doesn’t impact really anyone other than Kirk, Spock, McCoy and an ensign, so I guess that worked out ok, but Kirk’s played smarter. Way back in “Miri,” Kirk stranded the rest of the group on the planet until a solution to the problem could be figured out. That’s the way to deal with a problem.

The real problem with this episode is a paper-thin villain. Commodore Stocker is the typical Starfleet employee. He’s got a place to go and Kirk’s not getting there fast enough. He starts out as a rational enough guy, asking Spock to take Kirk out of command but he rapidly spirals out of control and lands in Incompetent Town. When he inevitably takes command, it’s an utter but totally expected shit-show and it lacks tons of dramatic impact.

The_Deadly_Years_117One of the best things about the episode is the make-up. It’s gradual where it could have been gaudy, with Kirk sporting some grey hairs before the plot even announces the effects of the radiation sickness. Nimoy plays Spock’s aging subtly as well, with the Vulcan feeling cold constantly. McCoy’s get up looks a little heavy but it’s not show-stoppingly bad.

The show-stopper here is really plot based. Stocker calls a competency hearing for Kirk and Spock trots out everyone on board to repeat things we as viewers witnessed just minutes ago. It’s dull and plodding but it’s clear this was supposed to be a moment of pathos. Spock takes no satisfaction in damning his friend and partner and it shows but it’s not that fun or interesting to watch and all it does is advance us to Stocker nonsensically taking the ship through the Neutral Zone and right into a convenient climax with the Romulans.

ariane179254_StarTrek_2x12_TheDeadlyYears_0921The team figures out that Chekov, who should have been infected with the disease, was able to waive it off with a handy blast of adrenaline and inject themselves with what looks like Kool-Aid mixed with cheap schnapps and are able to save the ship just in time. It’s a fun moment, with Kirk playing off a senior moment from earlier in the episode and calling back to a maneuver that once got them out of trouble, and it ends the episode on something of a high note after a notably ho-hum hour.

Random Notes

Kirk’s love interest this time is Dr. Janet Wallace, an ex of the good captain who makes a really strange joke about being into older men. It leads to one of Kirk’s better retorts in a while.

“I’m not a magician, Spock, just an old country doctor!’

Sulu’s here. He does stuff. He’s not entirely interchangeable with Chekov.

Next Up: “Obsession” which, I don’t know, sounds like an early 2000s ABC nighttime soap.

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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.”

Episode 13- “Balance of Terror” and a battle on the sea of stars

There’s a pretty good reason why the sky-ship shows up so much in fantasy and steam punk novels; it is simply an idea that is so natural. Water and sky are very similar for thematic purposes. Both can be navigated, and moved through, and the sky can make a handy substitute when it comes to writing modern stories about dogfights or space conflicts. Towards the end of “Return of the Jedi,” the small Rebel fleet attacks the enormous armada size Star Destroyers of the Imperial fleet, in what could easily be compared to the British’s battle with the Spanish Armada. Comparisons between the two come natural, but few make it as blatant as Star Trek’s “Balance of Terror.”

Human observation points have come under attack near the neutral zone of the Federation/Romulan border. Kirk and some of the crew are concerned that a Romulan vessel is cutting through the station’s deflector shields and destroying the posts, but the crew of the Enterprise realizes the threat when they find the cloaked ship destroying posts in a blast or two. Kirk eventually decides to attack the ship before it can reach the Romulan side of the border and could deem the Enterprise’s actions an attack on their empire. It’s a race against time, with the Enterprise playing the role of the destroyer, and the Romulan bird of prey, taking the part of the submarine in this naval homage.

Yeah, it's packed with nukes and anachronisms.

 

Like “The Conscience of the King” before it, “Balance of Terror” really loses nothing for its aping of genre conventions. The episode is explosive and intriguing, and it might be the most consistently exciting yet, but there are several things that really make this one work.

Of course, there are the Romulans. I’ve talked a lot about Star Trek widening the scope, and the introduction of a sophisticated alien race that has crossed with humanity before is one of the better ways to expand the universe in a satisfying and organic way. Kirk and Spock’s exposition dump to the audience, I mean crew, draws up the history between the races a little bit awkwardly, but it is satisfying to have that information presented. It seemed a little silly that no human had ever seen a Romulan, but it makes the reveal work well and Spock’s theory about the Romulans being genetic relations to the Vulcans is another way that the mythos expands in an interesting and believable way.

Romulan Kirk talks with the Romulan Centurian, I mean McCoy.

 

The plotting itself is what initially draws people in. For the most part, combat in space is generally depicted as fast, deadly and fraught with explosions. This is a handy way to make a blockbuster, but it doesn’t work as well for television, and it certainly doesn’t work as well for Star Trek. Having the Enterprise have to search for the Romulan vessel and continuously plot on how to catch it manages to create a sense of tension, but more than that, it allows both Kirk and the Romulan captain to shine as characters and as leaders of their respective ships. Instead of turning this into a firefight, “Balance of Terror” is more akin to a contest of wills.

"Don't destroy the one named Kirk."

 

There is some subtext to the action in “Balance of Terror” and it manages to focus on two current events of the time, but still remains relevant today. The conversation in the briefing room makes clear the episode’s feelings about the nature of a preliminary strike. McCoy argues that “war is never imperative,” but he is outvoted by Spock, Stiles and Kirk, which speaks both to the Enterprise’s need to defend the Federation as well as the place of honor and revenge. Kirk makes clear that the attack is not for the reasons that the prejudiced Stiles would encourage, but the attack is necessary in the preservation of human interests and peace.

The concept of peace in the midst of diplomatic and military tension is one that is explored in an even more subtle way, but it would have been considerably more blatant at the time of the episode’s airing. The title, “Balance of Terror” is a reference to the escalating threat of nuclear war, particularly during the Cold War era, and the promise of mutual destruction that it brings. Both powers have the ability to crush one another in “Balance of Terror,” but it is not until the Romulan commander jettisons the nuke with his waste that the threat of military escalation really hits. Kirk and his opponent have passed the point of escape or submission. One of the ships will be destroyed. It is zero hour.

Someone's got to go, and it happens to be the guy in the cloth chainmail.

 

I don’t want to read too much into an episode that is mostly just a Romulan ship getting crushed by the Enterprise. There is a subtext that is mostly undeniable, but I really want to avoid rushing into an analysis of a subject that really has no implications or answers of the war. By no means is “Balance of Terror” actually “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” If there is a nuclear subtext, it is subtle and offers no answers. If anything, “Balance of Terror” shows the choices that leaders have to make when they enter combat and the lives that they find themselves responsible for.

Random Notes

You may note that I didn’t mention the wedding B-story. That’s because it’s fucking ridiculous and predictable.

Sulu is back. I am working on a theory that explains my love/appreciation for Sulu in the navigator seat, but we’ll wait until an episode where he really has something to do to unleash it.

 I like the design of the Romulan ship, but it seems strange that they would have an Earth falcon-esque bird painted on the bottom of their ship.

Spock’s talk of why he saved Stiles is more reasons to love the Vulcan. He does it because he has to. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.

Next Up: “Shore Leave” which hopefully features Sulu doing things that will allow me to break out this Sulu theory. Fuck it, it’ll probably be a shitty vacation-esque episode.