Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "The Enemy Within" (October 6, 1966)

Yeah, get used to this planet.
"The Enemy Within"
Writer: Richard Matheson
Director: Leo Penn
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

This episode is sort've, for me, where we leave "prototype Star Trek" and the series starts settling into its familiar finished form. The uniforms aren't looking as rough, the characters are becoming more fleshed out, Spock's hair looks right, etc.

It's a pretty simple premise from famed horror writer Richard Matheson: Jekyll & Hyde by way of transporter accident. The really brilliant part though, is that Kirk isn't strictly split into "good" and "evil" Kirks. Spock talks of them as positive and negative: Positive Kirk is intelligence, compassion, love, ethics. Negative Kirk is agression, lust, and fear. But ultimately you can't have one without the other. Without the positive, Negative Kirk is basically a babbling bag of compulsions, unable to exist with others. But without the negative, Positive Kirk is indecisive, weak willed. They need each other.

And it's this examination of human nature that provides "The Enemy Within" with its best moments. McCoy pointing out to Kirk that while the negative Kirk has strength, he's also afraid. You need reason to overcome fear. Spock pointing out that the idea of being two warring halves is no theory to him. He's at war with himself every day.

Despite being ostensibly a "Kirk" episode, "The Enemy Within" is pivotal to our understanding of Spock. So far in the series we've learned he has a "Vulcanian" father and a human mother, we've learned that "Vulcanians" can "switch off" their emotions, but the portrayal of what this means and looks like has been inconsistent. This is the episode where Leonard Nimoy really figures out what being Spock means, thanks to the dialogue that reveals his internal struggle between his emotional human half and his logical Vulcan half. "My intelligence wins out over both, makes them live together," he says, and you can feel the victory in his voice. Nimoy is brilliant in this hour. This is Spock.

The rest of the cast gets good moments too, from Shatner having a ball playing the weakened positive Kirk and the raving lunatic negative Kirk, to Sulu being just the sassiest son of a bitch trapped below on the planet freezing to death. (Seriously, Sulu is great).

Unfortunately, this episode also provides a large role for Yeoman Rand, by having her become a victim of attempted rape at the hands of the negative Kirk. It's terrifying, it's brutal, and it's real real awkward and uncomfortable. The episode kinda recovers from it (it happens early on), but makes the mistake of bringing it up again in the coda. Transporter accident or not it would probably ruin Rand and Kirk's relationship going forward in real life, even if I forgave Kirk - not his fault at all - I would still probably request a transfer to another ship.

It also kind of doesn't work, even for what it is. Rand and Kirk are supposed to have this sexual tension relationship, where she wants him to notice her but can't go too far because she's his yeoman, and he wishes he could notice her but can't allow himself to because she's his yeoman. But the series hasn't really shown a lot of that yet. It came across better in "The Cage" with Captain Pike and Yeoman Colt, really. In the main series she's been more "worrying mother figure" around him, and he's seemed more annoyed by her. So negative Kirk's attack on her doesn't quite gain the narrative goals I think it's trying for, and if anything just kind of poisons the well on any "will they, won't they" the audience might feel by going right for "raped by evil doppelganger" before the underlying sexual attraction between the two has much of a chance to get established.

However, "The Enemy Within" is still a victory. It's the first, and probably still the best, transporter accident story. It solidifies and establishes Spock's character for the better. It introduces, as well, the Vulcan Neck Pinch -- a bit of business Leonard Nimoy came up with when he decided it didn't seem in character for Spock to knock out the negative Kirk with a judo chop. And finally, most significantly of all, it stumbles onto the key foundational element of The Original Series -- the Trinity of Kirk, Spock, McCoy.

There's a scene where the weakened positive Kirk, who can't make command decisions, is seeking advice from Spock and McCoy. Spock is offering the logical, pragmatic approach and McCoy is advising a more cautious, subdued one. And Kirk must make the decision. And it's like a thunderbolt. Boom. There's Star Trek. Spock is reason, McCoy is emotion, and Kirk must arbitrate between the two. That's the format of the show.

"The Enemy Within", despite it's really uncomfortable and ill-advised rape subplot, is ultimately an essential episode of the series for being the point where so much of it clicks into place.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Mudd's Women" (October 13, 1966)

"Mudd's Women"
Script: Stephen Kandel
Story: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Harvey Hart
Producer: Gene Roddenberry.

Ugh. "Mudd's Women". For years, the Harry Mudd episodes have been fan favourites. Harry Mudd is, in fact, the only "antagonist" the original Enterprise crew encountered multiple times over the series! So clearly this episode must have struck a chord with someone at some point. But it's really hard to imagine what that chord was, because this episode is bad. 

What's all the more insane, is this concept is one of the first Gene Roddenberry came up wth for Star Trek, and was suggested as both the first pilot and second. Good thing the network said no, and for the same reason they also waited on airing this one til the series had been on a while -- it's an episode about space hookers, for cryin' out loud!!

It's an episode where it's really hard to figure out what the point is supposed to be. Now, obviously, the premise of "wiving settlers" and the crooked con artist are the kind of old Western tropes that I guess you might expect when you remember that Star Trek was pitched as a Western in space. 

But despite this episode's arguable themes of "beauty is about confidence" and "a good wive is a partner, not a trophy", it's reeeeeallly hard to see this episode as anything other than an excuse for the camera, crew, and cast to oggle some sexy 60s babes and for Roddenberry to try his luck on the "casting couch". Ugh. 

With this being only the fourth episode, it's a bad look for our cast of Starfleet officers in a utopian future without prejudice who work in a co-ed space navy to be standing around dumbfounded oggling women. The whole deal with sailors and women is supposed to be that they're girl crazy because they've been without for so long. There are women on the Enterprise! So the episode comes up with this crazy space drug the women take to be extra super hot and thus give our characters a reason to look like jackasses. But then, in the ending of the episode, it turns out the drug is Dumbo's feather and the ability to magically will make-up and good hairdoes onto your body was just a matter of believing in yourself!

It's fucking nonsense. It's also early enough in the series that things are still a bit off. Spock is still smug af, Uhura's still in a gold uniform -- she gets a bit more to do in this episode, but not much, because her even existing begs the question "what do the women Starfleet officers think of all this?" I wish the show could've gone so far as to show them affected by the super hypnosis beauty of Mudd's Women too, but alas. 

Everything's a bit weird, from Mudd's old school Pirate clothes, to the miners on Rigel who's homes look like futuristic trailers from the outside, but like fucking Fred Flintstone's house on the inside. Everyone's just a bit too comfortable talking about buying and selling people, and generally acting like the Star Trek future is much less like the utopian tomorrow it develops into, and much more like a kind of anything goes Wild West galaxy where Starfleet is like Texas Rangers or US Marshalls.

One thing I really notice watching the early episodes of the series that I do like, though, is a greater focus on the rest of the crew. The Enterprise feels alive and full of people. Sulu gets a lot of good lines and wry observations. You see this more in the early shows, more of a sense of focus on more than just Kirk and Spock, and it goes away I think largely for budgetary reasons. Sulu helping steady Navigator Farrell, who's just a bit too hypnotized by the women, is a good bit.

It's also worth pointing out that in an episode about sexy women wandering the ship in their William Ware Theiss skimpy sparkly dresses, getting the men all riled up, Captain Kirk does not engage them. He does everything he can to avoid their seductions. Why? Because he's a professional and not a fucking creep! The idea that Kirk's a total horndog is one that I think has come about as a result of exaggeration and parody over the years, and solidified in Chris Pine's portrayal of Kirk in the two JJ Abrams Trek movies as a kind of SNL caricature of a walking sexual harassment lawsuit. Kirk in the Original Series has a lot of flames, but he's not the wolf from a Tex Avery cartoon.

Ultimately, the problem is the episode has very little to say to justify its objectification of women. While the themes of the episode (confidence is attractive, wives shouldn't be trophies) are good, they're expressed through basically the worldview of a 1960s womanizer. So "confidence" means you can will yourself into being hot, and not being a trophy means staying home to cook and clean and sew. 

It's fucking weird, and really cringeworthy.

That said, the most successful element of the episode is, indeed, Harry Mudd. I'm not his biggest fan, but he works as a goofy smarmy scoundrel adversary for Kirk. Their interplay works where nothing else does. So I can see why he comes back. If I had to guess, I'd say Mudd is Stephen Kandel's addition to this story, and all the weird space hooker stuff is Roddenberry.

Rating: 1.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The Corbomite Maneuver" (November 10, 1966)

"The Corbomite Maneuver"
Writer: Jerry Sohl
Director: Joseph Sargent
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

This is the first regular production episode of Star Trek after its two pilots, and thus resembles the rest of the series to a far greater degree. The uniforms, the sets, the cinematography, it's all much more in line. However, things are still a little rough around the edges, a little inconsistent, like a third pilot almost.

You notice it a lot with Spock. The Vulcan first officer is feeling more like the character we'll come to know and love, but he still shouts orders across the bridge and comes off a bit harsh and smug. But for the first time he reacts to the face of the unknown with a cool "Fascinating", and things start to fall into place.

Reacting to the unknown is, basically, what this episode is about. The Enterprise encounters a previously unknown galactic civilization and ends up in a "test" that could prove deadly. The hour shows how our characters all react to the threat and the fear, from blind panic to resignation to fascination to, well, Kirk.

This episode ended up being aired tenth in the broadcast order, due to the significant number of optical effects required that were delivered so late the episode was delayed twice. In my opinion, in an ideal world, they should've aired this one first. Firstly, it serves to introduce our main characters quite well. Spock, Scotty, and Sulu all get good showings, with Sulu in particular showing much more personality in his new role as ship's helmsman. And then in addition, we get introduced to our three new characters who round out the cast - Dr. McCoy, Yeoman Rand, and Lt. Uhura.

Of the three newcomers, Dr. McCoy gets the best showing. DeForest Kelley nails the role of Ship's Doctor that Roddenberry had been struggling with for the two pilots. Unfortunately I don't think Yeoman Rand succeeds as well. The idea is supposed to be that her and Kirk have a sexual tension that can't be realized because of issues of professional boundaries and so on. But she just comes off like a fussy busybody and he immediately tells McCoy he's not interested. So? And then poor Nichelle Nichols -- she got the role as Uhura because she was one of Roddenberry's mistresses and while it was a hugely progressive victory and all that, she doesn't do much in her first episode but say "Hailing frequencies open, sir". Although I'm sure there was some viewers who were shocked just to see her there.

No, what "Corbomite Maneuver" does best is show off Captain Kirk and how he best embodies the premise of the show. The hour is about how we can't be afraid of the unknown (or as Kirk would rather call it "the temporarily hidden"), how we can't let fear get the best of us, how we have to stand up to bullies, and how awesome poker is. It's in this episode that we learn that if James Kirk can't win, he'll bluff and cheat to win. 

Contrasted with Kirk is Ensign David Bailey, who is a great character for one reason: he's a piece of shit. He's excited and eager but he totally falls apart under pressure and fucks up his job throughout the episode. It's said Kirk promoted him too soon. He not only serves as a contrast to Kirk, but also as a perfect example of something you see in "The Original Series" and almost never in The Next Generation (especially the early seasons) -- an imperfect Starfleet officer. Bailey shows us that the members of Starfleet aren't superhuman, that they're subject to foibles and follies like the rest of us.

If there's perhaps a criticism to be made of the episode it's perhaps that it feels a bit claustrophobic, set almost entirely on the bridge, but even that adds to the feeling of tension. Uhura having nothing to do in a story about first contact with a strange new race is aggravating (poor Nichelle Nichols seems so bored!), but ultimately the cast acquits itself well and the ship seems alive and full of people with personality. No, if anything I'd say the biggest "problem" with the hour is it's ending -- once we learn Balok and the First Federation mean us no harm and it was all a test, that's about it. Things wrap up very quickly and we're left on an ellipsis, never really learning anything about this new civilization other than they're dicks who like a drink called tranya. 

Still, despite the rough edges and the "third pilot" feel, this episode really demonstrates some of the best ideas at the heart of Star Trek as a continuing adventure series. 

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (September 22, 1966)

"Where No Man Has Gone Before"
Writer: Samuel A Peeples
Director: James Goldstone

Producer: Gene Roddenberry

The second Star Trek pilot much more strongly resembles the finished series, which makes sense as this was the one that won NBC approval. That said, it still feels like a weird halfway point in terms of cast and the look of the show between the first pilot and the eventual series, making it enough like the show that they did air it with the rest of the series' first run, but enough not like the show that it's very weird they chose to air it third in the broadcast order.

The whole cast has changed with the exception of Nimoy as Spock, who has a very severe make-up job in this episode and wears a gold uniform unlike every other entry in the series. They're still roughing out who Spock is at this point -- he still has the occasional smug grin, still shouts across the bridge, and seems rather harsh. But they've started to establish that his species "doesn't have feelings", that he's devoted to logic. They're honing in on him.

The biggest change though, is the new captain. As James Kirk, William Shatner brings an undeniable energy, vitality, a joie de vivre that really electrifies the show and wakes it up. People have ragged on his "hammy" over-the-top style for years, but the fact is that it really helps the show feel exciting and alive and also from seeming to take itself too seriously. Which is what Shatner felt the show needed after watching the first pilot. Amazingly, Kirk seems to emerge in the episode fully formed: he's courageous, heroic, daring, compassionate, competent, intelligent, strategic, philosophical, charming, in other words he's a great hero. The one thing that's missing so far is a sense of relationship with his crew -- his interactions with Spock are on a level of professional familiarity, not the best friends relationship they'll later develop, and there's no one as close to him as McCoy becomes.

Instead Kirk's friendship is with Gary Mitchell, the guest star character this episode who starts as a regular bridge crewmember who's known Kirk for years but gets blasted with space magic from the edge of the galaxy and turns into a god. Thus the themes of the episode become the use of power, its abuse, human frailty, the need for compassion, and emotion versus pragmatism. As Gary becomes more powerful he becomes more dangerous, but Kirk can't bring himself to kill his old friend despite Spock's insistence. It's a testament to the episode that with its network-mandated greater emphasis on action and excitement, it still manages to maintain a philosophic tone and a statement about the human condition, thus establishing a winning Star Trek formula.

James Doohan and George Takei join the cast as Scotty and Sulu, but they aren't given much to do. Scotty does make a bit of an impression, but Sulu here is an "astrophysicist" rather than helmsman and his one big line comes down to the Trekkian "explain the plot by way of metaphor" line. The actor playing the ship's doctor is a complete nonentity and much inferior to the first pilot. You can see why they replaced him again when it came time to go to series.

One thing that's interesting is that while nothing is stated outright, "Where No Man..." feels like it's nearer the beginning of Kirk's mission than "The Cage" did with Pike. While the Yeoman in the first pilot was new to the ship, you got the feeling that everyone else had been working under Pike for some time, and were fiercely loyal to him. In "Where No Man..." while it's clear that Kirk's been commanding this crew for a while, and has worked with Gary Mitchell for a long time, he seems to not know Spock or the other crewmembers as well. There's a bit more of a sense of being near the beginning of things, although it's still in media res as it were, without the "origin" elements that you'd see in the first episode of any modern TV show.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" isn't quite as impressive as "The Cage", and it still feels embyronic, but it's recognizably Star Trek and a much better indication of what the series would be.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The Cage" (Unaired Pilot)

"The Cage"
Writer: Gene Roddenberry
Director: Robert Butler
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

The original Star Trek series debuted fifty years ago this September, on NBC. I've been a huge fan of the show since around first or second grade, and while Deep Space Nine is undoubtably my favourite, the original incarnation has always come a close second. I've started watching the original series with my wife, who has seen many of the episodes on television reruns before, but never made a point of going through the series. We're going in production order, so we started with the original unaired pilot of the series, "The Cage".

I've written Star Trek reviews before, but they were more like short capsule reviews of a series at a time. This time I thought I'd try to go more into depth with each episode.

"The Cage" is definitely prototype Star Trek. In the 52 years since it was produced, it still ranks as one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking installments of the franchise, but it also feels weird in places. It's "the road not taken", similar enough to Star Trek as a whole, but different enough from the series that followed that it feels like it could be an episode from a different TV show.

If you watch this right after the 1956 feature film Forbidden Planet you'll immediately see the resemblance and the inspiration from that feature, to the point where this could almost be a spin-off. If you're familiar with the original series, this pilot is a bit bizarre, but undoubtably fascinating.

The whole cast is different, except Leonard Nimoy as a very young seeming Spock. And even Spock is different, shouting orders and even smiling at one point. The doctor character is like a prototype McCoy, but much older, and the other characters are sort of recognizable prototypes as well -- the yeoman who has sexual tension with the captain, the cocky young helmsman.

But the Captain and First Officer characters are totally different. Jeffrey Hunter plays Captain Christopher Pike as a much more internalized, doubt-ridden, introspective character than Captain Kirk would be. The character arc of the episode is largely an examination of his depression. Faced with the burden of command, he wishes for an escape from responsibilty, and gets his wish when captured by a race of telepathic aliens who keep placing him in illusionary fantasies for experimental purposes. The episode ultimately comes to state that hardship and difficulties, and overcoming them, are what make us human -- to ignore that means to ignore life and have a kind of living death. When I watch the episode, I can't help but think of the hardcore gaming generation, and the escape from reality into fantasy. It's amazing how much the episode still has to say about the human condition half a century later.

"Number One", who never gets a proper name, is an intelligent, analytical woman played by Gene Roddenberrry's mistress at the time, Majel Barrett. A woman second-in-command of a starship in 1964, she represents a fascinating lost opportunity. What would it have been like if Star Trek had gone to series with a character like that? She's enigmatic in the episode, clearly extremely competent, and never undermined except in a few moments by the Captain or the aliens. But never by anyone junior to her in the command structure.

The production value is very high - it's an extremely well produced episode, in many places looking better than the series itself. The overall look of the show is darker, more sedated, perhaps more "realistic" than the pop art colorful nature of the eventual series. The costumes, sets, and props have a more expensive feel than the show -- even if the design elements feel a bit more dated, like a 1950s idea of the future more than a 1960s one.

"The Cage" does have its problems. As intelligent as its script is, the network was perhaps right in judging it too "cerebral". Its very slow paced at times, often building up tension and suspense only to suddenly drop it for long, sluggish dialogue scenes. Its moments of genuine excitement are too few and far between. And because the episode focuses so intently on Pike, it's hard to get a read on the other characters and an idea of what they'd be like on a weekly basis. Heck, because the episode gives Pike an arc where for most of the episode he no longer wants to be a ship's captain, only deciding at the end of the show that it is indeed the life for him, it's hard to get a read on what the series' lead would have been like week to week! It's an impressive and thought provoking production, but it's a bad pilot.

Which is why it was rejected. NBC didn't like it -- didn't like Jeff Hunter, didn't like Roddenberry's mistress in a lead role, didn't like the lack of action. But they still liked Star Trek, and in an unprecedented move, asked for Roddenberry and the crew at Desilu to try again. This time with William Shatner in the lead, and many other overhauls in cast, look, and concept. The rest was history.

But "The Cage" remains an irresistable "what-if" for the franchise, and must-see viewing for any diehard Trekkie.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage: