Star Trek: The Original Series Recaps Episode 41: “Obsession” and call me First Officer Spock

Kirk_and_Rizzo

There are certain plots that feel like quintessential Star Trek: powerful, near godlike aliens lack compassion, negotiating a fragile treaty with the enemy, encountering strange diseases and conditions that change the way characters see each other and, above all, those goddamn space clouds.

The gaseous entity in the depths of space is one of Star Trek’s hoariest cliches but it’s also one that can be hard to remember exactly how many times you’ve seen it. It just feels familiar, like you’ve watched it a million times. I can remember a handful of appearances of the trope in The Next Generation and the Original Series, and if I took the time, I could probably come up with another handful before I finished my drink.

“Obsession” doesn’t do a lot to differentiate itself from what comes before it but like so many of The Original Series’ less ambitious efforts, it lives and dies on the charisma and performances of its cast. In that arena, “Obsession” excels. It’s a great showcase of Will Shatner’s unique style and performances and Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley both perform ably as well.

On a routine mission, Kirk, Spock and some doomed Red-Shirts are testing some tritanium deposits before a mysterious gas makes an appearance and the captain gets paranoid. Kirk remembers a particular smell and evacuates the planet but not before all but one crew member succumbs to a deadly, semi-sentient gas.

What follows is mostly a bug hunt. Kirk wants to blow off a scheduled meeting in order to make sure the Enterprise can destroy the gas and Spock and McCoy try to gauge their captain’s sanity and whether or not they can trust him to make the right decision.

“Nemesis” is a tense but lethargic episode. A lot is made of Kirk’s first encounter with the gas cloud on his first assignment as well as his relationship with a crewman whose father died during the cloud’s previous encounter but both do little other than to expand on Kirk’s belief that he needs to redeem his former indecisiveness. The meat of the episode is in Spock and McCoy’s questioning over whether Kirk needs to be removed from command. It’s interesting stuff. Both characters vastly agree that the cloud needs to be destroyed but know that the more time spent hunting it, the more danger they put a colony in. It’s a very Star Trek moral conundrum, but not an ineffective one.

Spock_and_McCoy_Obsession

It’s easy to draw comparisons between “Obsession” and Star Trek’s marginally more memorable tale of revenge and the greater good deferred, “The Wrath of Khan” and both are playing on the same themes. Like in the film, Kirk’s desire to restore his own honor is putting thousands in jeopardy and the episode vastly acknowledges how his crew feels about the captain’s, well, obsession. They’re frightened and on edge, increasingly drawn into Kirk’s mounting hysteria in a believable way. What differentiates the two is that while “Wrath of Khan” is decidedly Kirk’s story, this is more the story of Kirk’s crew, his history as a captain and an officer, as well as the potential trauma he could inflict on the next generation of Star Fleet officers.

I don’t dislike “Obsession” by any means. It’s just Star Trek at its most rigidly formulaic and it skates by on small charms. It’s certainly not the series most memorable or distinguished episode but much like Kirk’s first impression with a certain cloud, it serves as something of a sign for greater, more important things to come.

Next up: One of the Original Series worst episodes finally rears its ugly head as we sink into the horrors of “Wolf in the Fold.”

Advertisements

Episode 38 – “Journey to Babel” and all the hobgoblins are bleeding green

“Journey to Babel” is an episode that’s considerably more interesting when looking at it as a piece of the Star Trek universe than as an individual episode in its own right. There’s some neat world building here, with hints of the Federation’s policy on accepting new planets, but the big gain is the introduction of Sarek, one of the Federation’s greatest heroes and a legend on Vulcan.

Also, he’s Spock’s dad.

The episode really blows that load a little early with an attempt at raising tension when Sarek and Amanda enter the Enterprise and we never really get much of a sense as to why Spock and his father are at odds. Sarek makes a reference to his son’s refusal to enter the Vulcan Science Academy but he’s working as an Ambassador for Vulcan and a valued member of the Federation. It doesn’t seem like he’s done too much to differentiate himself either.

In all honesty, the plot is pretty inconsequential and aimless. On a mission of diplomacy for a planet that wishes to join the Federation, one of the ambassadors is murdered and all evidence points to Sarek. Strangely, everyone pretty much forgets about this fact when the Vulcan diplomat has a really convenient heart attack and the episode suddenly becomes about a really trite situation where Spock may have to let his father die.

It all feels a bit too much like a mix between an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” and an afterschool special. We all know that Spock is going to be able to save his dad and somehow the ship will be able to defeat the Andorian ship but it just feels like we’re just waiting for Spock to go under the knife. I feel like this is the sort of episode that The Next Generation would have handled much better, milking the distrust between ambassadors for more tension than the drama between father and son.

This isn’t a bad episode but it is a dull and pretty dry one. The interesting parts are all skimmed by in order to give some overly touchy-feely exposition about Spock. If it weren’t for the host of colorful characters in the meeting room early on, this is an episode that would disappear from my memory in a week’s time.

Random Thoughts

I like that McCoy is given a lot to do in this episode. He’s operating, making sure that Kirk, Spock and Sarek all stay under his watchful eye and, what’s better, does it all with a smile. He even gets a fairly funny final joke to cap the episode off with.

Sulu’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, Chekov gets to say “wessel” several times.

In the scene where Kirk fights Teleth, he pretty clearly is stabbed in the lower back, right above the left side of his hip. Why then, does he continually touch around his nipples when indicating he is in pain? Also, the bandage is wrapped really high up on his torso.

So, Sarek’s kind of a huge dick to his wife, right?

Next Up: “Friday’s Child” draws the Enterprise into only their second meeting with the Klingons and I’ll get a song stuck in my head. Wait, which song were you thinking of?

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 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 35: “Catspaw” and horror done catastrophically wrong

One of my biggest pop culture weaknesses is sci-fi/horror. I love derelict freighters, loose killer aliens, science experiments gone wrong, unexplained phenomena, invasions, and time travel mishaps. There’s something intriguing about the way the future presents constant new situations for how the unknown is going to murder the hell out of us.

That being said, there has to be a solid foundation in realism for the premise to hold true. There’s a reason people remember the “Alien” series but not the misguided and mostly terrible “Pandorum;” one features a thoroughly realized world with a loose, near unstoppable threat that picks off people in a comforting but fresh way, while the other features a bunch of poorly explained barbarians shooting poison darts at that freshly unthawed douche bag from “Six Feet Under.”

Horror only works when there’s a solid sense of place. We have to believe in the very real so that the unreal elements have impact. The world of “Terminator” is extremely familiar to our own, but the appearance of the Terminator makes him a violent and unstoppable force that feels innately foreign and wrong. This sense of world building is what separates good horror from bad.

It’s also what separates “What Little Girls are Made of?” and “Catspaw,” the two true horror one shots we’ve had so far in The Original Series. Both penned by Lovecraft acolyte Robert Bloch, “Catspaw” fails in both the realm of horror as well as creating an intriguing story for the series.

Only one of those episodes features this.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are set to be on a rescue mission from the start, as Sulu and Scotty have gone missing on a previously charted planet. Communication is blocked, so the triumvirate is left with no choice but to beam down to the planet to hunt for their compatriots. From the landing, things are bad. Smoke seeps through the bottom of the frame, and Spock and the Enterprise are getting conflicting readings on what life forms are on the planet. There’s some conflict, but the group decides to press onto a mysterious castle in the distance, but first they have to run across a trio of what appear to be straight-out-of “Macbeth” witches who warn Kirk about a curse that’s affecting the ship.

It is all downhill from here.

The thing is, the atmosphere for all of this works pretty well. It’s a dark and shadowy opening with hints of old school horror and just the necessary expected shocks that make this kind of b-list schlock work. All of that successful atmosphere work changes when the group gets to the castle, where everything quickly turns into an interplanetary episode of Scoobie Doo.

Long story short, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are led down a trap door by a cat where they are held hostage by a space wizard named Korob who is mind controlling Sulu and Scotty and communicating psychically with his cat, who’s also a foxy shapeshifting lady demon. How much of this makes sense? Hardly any. We are told that the wizard and his familiar are recent invaders to the planet and that they are somehow projecting traditional Earth images in an attempt to frighten Kirk and McCoy, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Can they read minds? It’s hinted that they have researched Earth extensively, but their information refers to the times before star travel.

Maybe the scariest part of this episode is how odd this perspective shot is.

So, it all comes down to the ultimate writer short cut, where it all ends up being a test. Sylvia and Korob seem to have a plan of some sort and after imprisoning McCoy and Spock in the dungeon, Sylvia does what all foxy women of the Star Trek universe do and tries to seduce Kirk. There are hints of her and Korob’s service to the Old Ones (another callback to “What are Little Girls Made of?”), but the woman seems more intent on experiencing sensations, particularly love. In typical Kirk fashion, the captain manages to get her to reveal her plan, involving stealing something called the transmuter from Korob and escaping with Kirk.

In case you didn't know, this show was made in the '60s.

Knowing that Sylvia is dangerous, Korob breaks the landing party out of the prison and is immediately trampled by a giant cat. Kirk, Spock and McCoy try to escape but are stopped by the still mind controlled Sulu and Scotty. They’re stopped and once again halted by the giant cat. Kirk grabs Korob’s wand and tries to fend the animal off, when, of course, Sylvia appears. Spock warns Kirk that she wants the wand, which is probably the transmuter. Sylvia and Kirk struggle over the wand and Kirk ultimately breaks it, making the castle disappear and revealing Korob and Sylvia to be a pair of small space lobsters that quickly die in the atmosphere.

And that’s it.

Actually, I kind of liked this too.

It feels strange that Bloch was unable to pull together a horror episode for the show, particularly after how successful “What are Little Girls Made of?” was at balancing those two needs. While his first entry feels like a smart sci-fi horror story, Catspaw” would only work for Star Trek, and as such, the episode vastly begins to fall apart when the characters can’t support it. “What are Little Girls Made of?” feels universal, like it could work regardless of what show did it because the story vastly works. “Catspaw” has that sense of very specific content that when the story begins to fall apart and isn’t interesting to begin with, the whole episode suffers as a result.

Random Thoughts

So, is Sylvia also the cat? We never see the two of them together, and we know that she can shapeshift, but that just seems really silly.

“Spock, comment?” “Very bad poetry, Captain.” “A more useful comment, Mr. Spock.”

Next Up: “I, Mudd” and oh shit, he’s back.

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 34: “The Doomsday Machine” and honor, insanity and Cthulhu’s planet eating vacuum.

If Star Trek has one single theme, it’s a devotion to a ship and a crew. Every iteration of the show has focused on a group of people coming together to stay together in the face of the unknown. The captains put their crews in the face of an indifferent galaxy constantly and struggle to make sure that everyone survives to fight another day. It’s a romantic set-up that allows for any number of stories to be told. The problem that it presents is a limited number of themes that can actually be explored.

“The Doomsday Machine” is a story you’ve seen before and viewers of the show in the original run had almost certainly seen before. Kirk and the Enterprise answer a distress call to find a single survivor of a cataclysm, the mostly insane and definitely depressed Commodore Matt Decker. His ship was destroyed by the doomsday machine of the title and in a last ditch effort to save his crew, the captain beamed his crew down to a close planet, hoping that they would be able to be saved by Starfleet later. Unfortunately, the fiery toilet paper tube annihilated the planet and the crew, racking the commodore with grief. Kirk orders the survivor back up to the Enterprise while he and Scotty try to fire back up the Constellation.

More dangerous than you'd think.

I’m sure that it’s no surprise to anyone what happens from here. The apocalyptic machine shows back up and starts destroying things, targeting the Enterprise. Spock, in command of the ship, takes strategic action, realizing that they have no way to deactivate the machine without drawing attention to his ship. Naturally, Decker orders the ship to attack and elicits Starfleet bylaws to seize control of the Enterprise and pull the ship into an attack against the unstoppable device.

Spock initially denies Decker attempting to pick up the away team from the Constellation but the commodore is determined to try to destroy the planet killer before it can approach the densely populated Rigel system. Against McCoy’s protesting, Decker takes command and begins launching a fruitless phaser and photon torpedo attack on the machine. There’s a nice character beat with Sulu following orders, knowing the result of the actions will be pointless. He’s essentially a soldier but he knows the folly of the orders he’s receiving. Spock knows that he has an out if he can prove Decker is insane and he bides his time, waiting to relieve the commodore of command.

Plus, he really wanted Decker to stop fondling everything they handed him.

Kirk and crewman-of-the-week Washburn finally start getting shit done on the Constellation, firing up the viewscreen and seeing the Enterprise’s attack on the machine. Kirk tries to get on the horn to talk to his ship but can’t make it. As Decker continues to attack, ignoring Spock’s recommendation to pull away, he begins to note the ineffectiveness and follows the Vulcan’s recommendation to try to escape before they get pulled into the tractor beam. No one knocked on wood, and as Spock says that if Decker ignores orders, he’ll be able to relieve him on grounds of attempted suicide and insanity, the commodore breaks off the attack only to find the ship stuck in the machine’s gravitational pull.

It’s here where we finally have tension. The stuff on the bridge is interesting, mostly for my well documented love of space law and Cosmos C-SPAN, but this is the first great space battle episode since “Balance of Terror.” Sure, it doesn’t have that great cat and mouse game in there, but it’s a lot of fun to see the maneuvering of these crafts in combat. The only problem is still how worn out the setup is. Let’s not fool ourselves, as soon as Decker shows up as the last man, we all know he’s going to sacrifice himself in a way that will either destroy the machine or expose its weakness. We’re pretty much just waiting for this to happen so the climax of the episode can be handed back to Kirk and Spock.

Tell me what Scotty was doing!

Scotty finally activates the Constellation’s impulse engines and Kirk manually draws the ship in to try to draw the planet killer’s attention away from the Enterprise. He fires the one phaser bank that the ship has operational and draws the Galactacus thing away long enough for the Enterprise to break free, only for it to draw it’s attention onto the warp driveless ship. Decker orders that the Enterprise provide a distraction, firing on the machine and pulling away. It appears that they have escaped the device’s range, but the ship’s shields and engines will be offline for a day, while their opponent begins refilling from the debris around it. Decker wants to pull around for another pass, but they finally receive communication from the Constellation.

It’s probably the one moment of brightness to a generally dull and plodding episode to have Kirk get confused as to how Decker has taken control of the ship. He keeps trying to issue orders to Spock only to be blocked by Decker at every turn and the commodore eventually has to cede control to the ship’s first officer. It’s a telling moment for the continued relationship between Spock and Kirk. There’s a trust and a respect there that’s been here the whole series but it ends up really shining when Kirk isn’t able to lead the ship that he loves. It’s a situation where he’s truly powerless and he needs someone to lead in his place.

Decker is relieved and is escorted to sickbay before he breaks away, seizing a shuttlecraft and going for the machine himself. Both the Constellation and the Enterprise try to hail him to no avail. Decker feels like this is what he has to do for his lost crew and we see his sense of honor blend with his insanity and finally break in his moments before he is consumed by the machine. It’s something out of Lovecraftian mind-shattering horror and he manages to play it without veering too far into camp.

Kirk comments that Decker’s sacrifice was for nothing, but he realizes that the commodore may have just needed more power to make his move worth something. He and Scotty rig an explosive to the Constellation, which they plan on piloting into the machine’s tractor beam before beaming off the ship and detonating the bomb from the Enterprise’s bridge. Spock is skeptical, with the ship’s transporters not working at 100% efficiency, but Kirk hasn’t heard a suicidal plan that he didn’t like so he starts getting the ship ready for its suicide run.

This one looks pretty suicidal.

It’s all rather exciting. After Scotty beams off the ship and Kirk pilots the craft into the beam, the Enterprise can’t beam the captain back. Scotty has to make last second repairs before they can bring Kirk back and in the last second, he materializes in the transporter room. It’s a fun little finish and it’s nice to have something like this after what is such a dry and predictable hour.

The last few minutes of the episode are usually where Kirk, Spock and McCoy do some bullshit philosophy and make some jokes at Spock’s expense. This time it’s a little darker. There were really no answers as to where the device came from and all the three can do is hope that there are no more of these machines floating around the galaxy, swallowing planets and ravaging civilizations. It’s a grim ending, particularly for an episode that ends up being considerably more about cosmic horror than an encounter with alien artifacts.

Really, this episode almost serves as a counterpoint to Season 1’s “Arena.” “Arena” posits an Enterprise that can encounter a great unknown and ultimately learn to live in a galaxy with the alien. They can learn from their expansionistic action and make room in the galaxy for everyone. There’s no such out in the admittedly less successful “The Doomsday Machine.” There’s going to be unknown, uncaring, brutal things out there in the universe that don’t care about mercy or peace. They’ll mindlessly destroy until they can’t. It’s a grim episode and it does have the themes Lovecraft and his contemporaries explored when they looked up at the stars and felt only fear.

Random Thoughts

Strangely, there’s no Uhura. I guess that’s what it takes to give Sulu a mini-moment.

Robert Ryan was supposed to play Decker. You know him best as Deke Thorton, who fucked up a bunch of people’s days in “The Wild Bunch.”

Next Up: “Catspaw,” which, well, it’s written by Bloch, and is a Halloween episode, so…

Episode 29-“Amok Time,” Spock, Urkel and the ways of the world

Let’s talk about Spock, but more importantly, let’s talk about breakout characters of any kind. There’s little doubt that Spock rapidly became the breakout character of Star Trek. He’s the unknown made familiar. He’s maddeningly alien, but grounded in a way that allows viewers to connect and feel a common similarity. There’s something fans want in a character that doesn’t deliberately offer an opposing view but does it because he has to, it’s the way that he is. More or less, barring Shatner at his scenery chewing best, Spock ends up being the main character of the show. We watch him and want to see what he’ll do in any given situation.

This is the way of the breakout character. Their initial alieness ultimately gives way to becoming the driving force of the show. The most recent character to soar to these kind of heights is Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory. Initially little more than a straight man whose neurosis occasionally drives the plot, Sheldon has become the face of one of Thursday night’s most popular shows. In the more beloved but less publicly adored Community, Abed rose from a nostalgic movie quoting machine to the most interesting character simply because he surprises us.

Come on, name a worse character. I dare you.

What makes breakout characters appealing is also what makes them dangerous. Because viewers want to see more of them and writers want to put them in new and different situations, fans can be burnt out, or the characters can become overused and derivative. Probably the best two examples of the form would be Urkel from Family Matters and Fez from That ’70s Show.

Both outsiders from the traditional structure of the show’s primary characters, they end up seeming bizarrely alien. What they don’t understand or how their perspective influences their interaction ultimately draws viewers in, only to encourage the writers to put them in worse and worse situation. By Family Matters’ end, Urkel had cloned himself and gone into space. By That ’70s Show’s finale, Fez had bizarrely ended up with the show’s only real star, Jackie. Viewers remember these characters because they began iconic but ended wrong. By then end, the whole show would revolve around them to the detriment of everyone else.

There’s a danger with this happening to Spock and by today’s “Amok Time,” they had already dodged it once. Season 1’s “The Galileo Seven” has its share of flaws but it manages to create an episode putting everyone’s favorite Vulcan at the forefront without doing damage to the rest of the show’s dynamic. However, “Amok Time” has more in common with episodes like “What are Little Girls Made of?” and “Dagger of the Mind”; it’s essentially all Spock all the time.

"Excellent."

Without getting a head of myself, I’ll declare “Amok Time” one of the best episodes of the series and it does so by making a few incredibly bold moves, namely creating Spock as something damn close to the antagonist of the episode and presenting Vulcan culture as something alienating and strange. It’s weird, frightening but just familiar enough that we all have to hoe that Spock makes it through in the end.

As the episode begins, Spock is on edge. He’s not eating and people begin to notice. He’s loaded up on adrenaline, putting the ship on  a course to Vulcan despite Starfleet orders and is openly admitting his insubordination. The problem is that he’s not revealing what the problem is. McCoy has an inkling of what’s happening after seeing his adrenaline readings, but both the crew and we as an audience are watching as a friend definitely needs help, but can’t or won’t ask for it. Kirk has had enough and confronts his first lieutenant who after a fair share of embarrassment admits that it is time for pon farr, a Vulcan ritual of mating that must be completed by traveling home every 7 years.

Also, this woman gets to watch.

In a true shock to the established character we know and love, Kirk totally doesn’t follow Starfleet’s orders and brings his friend to Vulcan. Beaming down with Spock and McCoy, Kirk intends to see the ritual through. It’s a little creepy when you think about it, but it’s all too the episode’s benefit. When you explore the unknown in any creative medium you almost always have to have an audience surrogate in the mix to help the viewers out. One of the chief complaints with the Star Wars prequels was that this never happened. Everyone sits and talks about complicated laws, pacts and treaties and viewers sit, bored and wanting to have some idea of what’s happening. Compare this to A New Hope, where Luke, who has no knowledge of the Force, is slowly educated in the system, first by Obi Wan and then by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. We learn about the Force as he does and we’re never thrown in over our heads.

Somebody in the costume department liked women in silver everything.

Having Kirk and McCoy on the planet gives us this working base and it also helps to reinforce how odd Vulcan is, both in its rituals as well as its society. The planet is hot, with very thin air that its residents have to get used to. It’s nice to have characters noting the alieness all around them and its not long until things get stranger when T’Pau shows up. A matronly apparently very important Vulcan, she shows off the first appearance of the Vulcan salute before Spock’s mate T’Pring appears. The whole thing has a sense of bizarre mystique and even considering that, canny viewers will note that something’s wrong and it only gets wronger when T’Pring states that she has chosen “the challenge,” in which two people will fight for her hand. Naturally, Spock decides to fight for his bride and T’Pring decides for him to battle Kirk.

Pretty much exactly like this.

So, things aren’t looking good and the Vulcans are appearing stranger and more threatening all the time. Kirk doesn’t want to fight his friend and knows he’s at a disadvantage on the harsh planet. The adrenaline junky Spock isn’t letting down either, as the rite has become a biological imperative. McCoy and Spock know that this is a ploy on T’Pring’s part, as her doltish looking guardian seems to be her actual choice for a mate. Kirk doesn’t think Spock can take him so he agrees to enter battle, of course he doesn’t realize that the fight is to the death.

And Spock isn't shitting around.

Spock quickly takes the upper hand in the battle and McCoy knows that both of his friends are in danger. He asks T’Pau if he can administer a neuro-shot to Kirk in order to help him deal with the thin air and heat on the planet. She agrees and Kirk is injected before Spock really goes medieval on the Captain, ultimately appearing to choke him to death. His lust sated, Spock returns to T’Pring only for her to reveal her ploy, which could lead to her staying with the guardian instead of being wed to Spock, who has become something of a legend to their people. Spock leaves the planet with McCoy and the apparently dead Kirk to face his fate in front of Starfleet.

I don't know if I want to say that skipping out on Spock for this guy is woman empowerment, but sure.

Of couse, Kirk is alright, having been injected by McCoy with a sort of only-in-Shakespeare toxin that made him appear dead and allowed him to cede the fight. Spock’s spirits return to normal and everyone is able to head off on more space adventures.

I’m sick to death of writing about expanding a universe in a episodic show, but “Amok Time” ultimately is the episode to show how to do it masterfully. The unknown is alien and strange and it manages to cast our hero Spock into a strange light, even if he’s still the star of the show. This is an episode that boldly goes where we haven’t been, while showing the effects of this lingering strangeness on the characters that we care so much about.

Random Thoughts

Spock is a pretty huge dick at the beginning of the episode, particularly to Nurse Chapel. Nobody’s still making fun of Sulu for running around shirtless and almost stabbing everyone.

This is the first appearance of Chekov and in a show full of characters with bad wigs, he might be the worst.

Next Up: “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and let’s face it, it’ll probably be me.

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 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.