Saturday, December 3, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "Operation -- Annihilate!" (April 13, 1967)

"Operation -- Annihilate!"
Writer: Steven W. Carabatsos
Director: Herschel Daugherty
Producer: Gene L. Coon

This is the season one finale of the original Star Trek, and the only season finale of the series that actually feels like one. "Operation -- Annihilate!" has very little to say about the human condition or science fiction ideas or social allegory, but it is very content to be an exciting adventure story for our lead characters.

A plague of madness seems to be infecting a series of worlds, and the next in line is Deneva, a Federation colony where Kirk's older brother and his family are stationed. By the time the Enterprise arrives, the colony is already infected, as it turns out, by a species of neural parasite, who's goal is to manipulate the people into building ships for them to spread, and who inflict incredible pain upon the nervous system if one tries to resist. Kirk's brother is dead, his sister-in-law dies soon after. His nephew is infected, and soon, still is Spock.

Nimoy delivers a fantastic performance as Spock struggles to retain control and assist his crewmates despite incredible pain. Kirk is desperate for a cure, but all he can do is bark at McCoy to find one, whose own helplessness to fight the parasite without killing the host is quite effectively played by DeForrest Kelley. Its a good episode for all three of the primary characters.

In the end, it's discovered that light is what kills the parasites - not heat, not radiation, but light. Spock undergoes the test treatment, but is blinded in the process. Then it turns out that McCoy could have gotten the same effect with UV rays, he didn't need to use blinding white light. It's a crushing moment, Kirk is furious, but Spock offers his thanks for the cure regardless.

The planet is freed once the solution is found, and then it turns out Spock actually has "inner eyelids" because he's a Vulcan, that he just forgot about, and he's actually 100% fine. Which is such a bullshit ending. I mean, the show pulls convenient Vulcan biology stuff out of its ass whenever it wants, but this one is perhaps the most egregious. You just forgot that you had this inner eyelid and just assumed you were blind?

"Operation -- Annihilate!" is a dramatic, fun, engaging sci-fi adventure. A taut, dynamic hour of television pulled down only by its lack of worthwhile new ideas, it's complete copout ending that undercuts the drama, oh and the fact that the neural parasites look like novelty fake puke.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The City on the Edge of Forever" (April 6, 1967)

"The City on the Edge of Forever"
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

"City" is perhaps the most beloved, critically acclaimed episode of the Original Series, widely considered worthy of "best episode" status. It also has some of the most vicious behind the scenes drama associated with it.

The Enterprise is investigating a temporal anomaly centred on an uncharted planet. When Sulu is injured on the bridge, McCoy comes up to treat him, but accidentally injects himself with an overdose of a powerful drug, driving him into a paranoid, maniacal state. He beams down to the plane, and when a landing party pursues him, he ends up jumping through a time portal on the planet, the source of the temporal disturbances. At that point, the Enterprise ceases to exist, the landing party the only survivors of McCoy changing the past in some way.

Kirk and Spock go after him, and end up in Depression-era New York. There they end up relying on the hospitality of Edith Keeler, who runs a mission, feeding the out of work men of that time. She's also a visionary, preaching of a future of peace, progress, and understanding. So of course Kirk falls in love with her. When McCoy arrives in the past, a raving lunatic, it's Edith who nurses him back to health. Then Spock discovers what happened to change history: in the proper timeline, Edith Keeler dies in a traffc accident. In the altered one, she lives and goes on to lead a peace movement that delays US entry in WWII long enough for the Nazis to develop the A-bomb first and win the war. Thus, to restore the timeline, Edith Keeler must die.

It's a set up for a perfect sci-fi tragedy, as the love between Kirk and Edith grows. This isn't just a woman he loves, but a woman who's fighting for exactly the right things -- it's just, as Spock says, at the wrong time. In the end, when the time comes for Edith to be hit by a truck and killed, McCoy runs out to try and save her, and Kirk stops him. McCoy, aghast, asks Kirk if he knows what he's done. "He knows, doctor," Spock replies, as Kirk struggles to hold himself together The timeline restored, the Trinity returns to the present, and Kirk orders a somber "Let's get the hell out of here."

It's a big contrast from Trek's usual "make a joke at Spock's expense, laugh it up on the bridge" endings, and cements this as a powerfully dramatic episode. It's also a very dense one, fitting a lot of plot, tragedy and character development into a single episode. It's also paced very well, with the central dilemma of Edith's fate being discovered late enough in the running time that it's not sitting on the table long enough to be stale. And before that, the episode develops in alternatingly tragic and comic ways, with a lot of fun being had at Kirk and Spock's attempts to "blend in".

"City" was written by reknowned sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, one of many top sci-fi writers tapped by Roddenberry to contribute to the series in its first season, but like many scripts in Trek's first season, it was heavily rewritten by Roddenberry. Ellison, ever a firebrand, did not take kindly to this, and ever since has complained about the way he was treated, about the changes made, and promoted his original script as being the superior version. Having read it, I heartily disagree -- Ellison's script involves an illicit drug smuggling ring among Starfleet officers on the Enterprise, the ringleader escaping down the planet where he finds massive ruins of an old civilization guarded by powerful guardians, flees through the time portal, which causes the Enterprise to be replaced by an evil pirate version, not unlike "Mirror, Mirror". Kirk and Spock follow, and in this rendition they're both kind of assholes -- Spock a murderous jerk and Kirk an imperialist and racist. The conflict that Edith Keeler must die is still present, but in the end Kirk tries to save her, and it's Spock who has to stop him. Ellison's version ends with Spock saying "No woman was ever offered the universe for love", rather than the finished product's terse, Hemingwayesque, "Let's get the hell out of here."

Roddenberry objected to criminals aboard ship, objected to the expense of the ruins as written and the expense of the pirate ship subplot, objected to the portrayal of the series main characters and most of all objected to the ending, arguing that Kirk being the one who ensures Edith dies was the stronger, more tragic ending, as well as ensuring that Kirk as the serie's hero was not unduly compromised for future episodes. Ellison's script is a good script, but it's not Star Trek, and that's why Roddenberry rewrote it (and had every right to). Ultimately, Ellison wanted his name taken off it, but Roddenberry refused (Ellison's name value being why he was hired in the first place). Of course, if Roddenberry had agreed, Ellison would've spent the last fifty years bitching about that too. He's just that kind of guy.

Either way, "City" is an utter classic. I've just never bought into the premise that the original version was in any way superior.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "Errand of Mercy" (March 23, 1967)

"Errand of Mercy" 
Writer: Gene L. Coon
Director: John Newland
Producer: Gene L. Coon

Famously, this episode introduces the Klingons to the franchise. While the Romulans had earlier this season supplied an excellent cold war allegory villain, Gene Coon created the Klingons to fill much the same role because the Romulan's pointed ears and fancy helmets made for expensive make-up, whereas the Klingons' simple Genghis Khan look was much easier to mass replicate on a regular basis. Which is hilarious given the extreme make-up makeover the Klingons received later in the franchise.

In this episode, they're introduced as basically already being the Federation's major enemy -- there's a disputed area between the two territories that the Klingons and Federation are both willing to go to war to protect. The Enterprise is ordered to the planet Organia, as it lies in a strategic position, and defend it from Klingon takeover. Kirk and Spock beam down, and try to convince the Organians to accept their help and defense. The Organians smile placidly, utterly unconcerned. They're of course a simple almost medieval level humanoid culture, enabling the show to use old leftover sets and costumes.

But then the Klingons declare war, the ship has to warp out of orbit, leaving Kirk and Spock to watch as the Klingons easily invade and take over Organia, as the inhabitants offer no resistance. Their mission a failure, Kirk and Spock are forced to engage in clandestine sabotage ("sabatage") operations against the Klingons, while the Organians continue to stand by, repeating that they cannot stand violence of any kind.

The Klingon occupation force is led by Kor, played by John Colicos. Kor is Trek's best villain since Khan, and it's a shame that he never again appeared on the show (though future appearances were planned, scheduling with Colicos never worked out). Kor and Kirk are depicted as having a grudging respect for each other -- despite Kor seeming to be a dastardly villain and Kirk a dashing hero, the episode makes it clear that they are in many ways two sides of the same coin.

Eventually, the Organians reveal that they are in fact all powerful beings of pure energy, and that the appearance of their world and culture merely a contrivance for the sake of "lesser beings". They've evolved beyond violence and are disgusted at Kirk and Kor's attempts to kill each other. They intervene in the Federation/Klingon war and impose a peace on the two sides under punishment of Organian reprisal, thus setting up the cold war status between the two for the rest of the series. Kirk and Kor protest this interference in their affairs, to which the Organians ask Kirk if he's defending the right to make war and kill billions of people. That shuts him up.

"Errand of Mercy" sets up the Klingons well for their role on the Original Series, which is to say as vaguely dictatorial, warmongering, antagonistic villains to compete against in a US/USSR fashion, and this contrasts quite a bit if you're only familiar with their later franchise era "honourable warrior" portrayal, although the Organians do a bit of franchise future telling when they predict that in a hundred years the Federation and Klingons will be great allies.

The episode's anti-war stance and comment on the absurdity of the Cold War conflict fit in well with the Gene Coon era of Trek, and the characterizations for Kirk and Kor are great. Like "A Taste of Armageddon", this episode benefits greatly from Kirk's "defend peace through force" bold attitude. Unfortunately the episode spends a lot of time spinning its wheels, with Kirk and Kor trying to achieve their ends while the Organians sit by placidly repeating they won't allow violence and the other characters incredulous at their attitude. Like "Devil in the Dark", there's a problem with the audience figuring out the "twist" long before the characters do, but I'm unsure if that's a problem with fifty years of added genre awareness coming in to watching this. Also it feels like "more highly evolved beings lecturing mankind against its warmaking" feels like a well Star Trek has gone to a lot, even by this point.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Next Voyage:

"Star Trek" Review: "The Devil in the Dark" (March 9, 1967)

"The Devil in the Dark"
Writer: Gene L. Coon
Director: Joseph Pevney
Producer: Gene L. Coon

This episode is such a classic representation of what Star Trek is all about, that I'm tempted to say that if you could only show someone one episode of the series to say what it's all about, this would be the one.

A mining outpost on a far off world has a problem -- their men are being killed by a monster that can tunnel through rock like a man moves through air, and can burn any man it comes into contact with to a cinder. They call in the Enterprise to find and exterminate it.

Many men have been killed, and the outpost is a significant installation, so Kirk is determined to find the creature. Throughout the hunt, it demonstrates a large amount of intelligence and strategy, and Spock theorizes it may not only be sentient, but the last of its kind. He argues against killing it, but Kirk overrules him, given the danger to the miners.

And then of course the confrontation -- the monster is a Horta. It's a silicon-based life-form, utterly unlike all previously encountered life. Spock mindmelds with it and discovers the miners had been destroying her eggs accidentally, and she was merely trying to defend herself. Injured in an earlier encounter, possibly dying, Kirk has McCoy beamed down to treat the Horta. "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!" Bones famously retorts. But he succeeds anyway, ("I'm beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!"), and once the miners realize what they've been doing, they make an agreement with the Horta -- her and her millions of progeny can dig the tunnels much better and safer than the miners ever could.

So, we learn that the unknown things we fear are merely things we don't understand. That's what different and strange to us is not necessarily bad. That those we make into our enemies could be our friends. That there is advantage in diversity. It's everything Star Trek is about in one episode.

The Horta is a brilliant creation, even if it looks a little hokey by our standards, I still give full marks for the fact that it's creative and utterly alien looking. The scene where Spock mindmelds with it is an excellent use of that story device, and indeed the hour provides ample exposure for all three members of the Trinity.

If "Devil in the Dark" has a flaw, it's simply this -- Spock identifies the silicon nodules that are latered revealed to be eggs really early in the hour, and seems to basically immediately formulate the theory that turns out to be the case. He regards them again and again, and each time Kirk asks him what's up and Spock says he has a theory but won't say anything until he has more facts. It's the Horta later who confirms the obvious conclusion that the nodules are eggs. Any audience paying attention will probably put 2 and 2 together the minute you see the eggs in the opening minutes, which makes Spock's insistence on not revealing his information until the dramatically appropriate moment really frustrating.

Otherwise, a classic episode.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage:

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Star Trek" Review: "This Side of Paradise" (March 2, 1967)

"This Side of Paradise"
Script: D.C. Fontana
Story: Nathan Butler and D.C. Fontana
Director: Ralph Senensky
Producer: Gene L. Coon

By this point in the production of the series, it was clear that Mr. Spock was the breakout character of the series, receiving several times the amount of fan mail. Not only that, but he was disproportionately popular with the show's female audience.

And I think that says the most of the impetus of this show, where Spock gets to fall in love. Leonard Nimoy was understandably worried about the effect that this episode would have on his character, but once he saw D.C. Fontana's script, he knew there was nothing to worry about.

The premise is that the ship has been sent to check up on a Federation agricultural colony that was placed on a world that, unbeknownst at the time, is actually subject to deadly radiation, but when the crew beams down, they find all the colonists alive and happy. In addition to that mystery, other things don't add up - like the total lack of any kind of progress when the colony was meant to be a "breadbasket". Among the colonists is a botanist, Leila Kalomi, who had fallen in love with Spock several years earlier, but whose advances were rebuffed.

The secret turns out to be a species of plantlife that shoots spores into humanoid hosts, granting them emotional peace and perfect health in exchange for basically existing solely to ensure the plant's survival and transmission to other hosts. When Spock is exposed, the emotional peace also gives him the ability to feel happiness and love, and express that love to Leila.

Eventually these leads to more Enterprise crew being exposed until they all mass mutiny and beam down to take part in the planetwide Eden. All except Kirk of course, whose sudden devotion to his duty essentially keeps him immune. He eventually discovers that strong negative emotions undoes the bond with the spores, and frees Spock by inciting him into a fistfight. When the rest of the planet is freed, the colony realizes they've accomplished nothing in all the time they've been there, and agree to move to another world.

While a big part of the episode's appeal is in seeing Leonard Nimoy get to smile and laugh and make out, and essentially tap into every fangirl's "I can change him!" fantasy, the meat is in the episode's exploration of paradise. Very much in line with the Original Series ethos, Kirk concludes that essentially paradise is bad for you. That human beings aren't meant for idyllic, peaceful edens, but need goals, challenges, and obstacles to overcome.

The episode is as much a showcase for Shatner as it is for Nimoy, giving him the chance to run a gamut from annoyance, defiance, lonliness, anger and triumph. As much as it explores Spock's hidden desires to be happy, and how unhappy his devotion to his Vulcan upbringing makes him, it also explores Kirk's devotion to his ship, his stubborn inability to accept a simple or easy life, his need for the challenge of command -- a character trait that remained embedded in the character ever since.

Also, when McCoy gets affected his Southern accent ramps up to 11 and it is delightful.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Next Voyage: