Monday, October 8, 2018

Bread and Circuses

CLAUDIUS: Which world do you prefer? 

What is the cost of peace?

The superior contents of the episode "Bread and Circuses" have woven their way into the DNA of the entire Star Trek series — from its patently archetypal character depictions and rollicking adventure to its speculative ideology and biting satirical edge.

A Starfleet dropout happens upon an Earth-like planet on which Rome never fell, defying the Prime Directive to become to become its ruler.

When the Enterprise crew comes searching for his lost crew, they discover a world that has existed without war for over four centuries. But at what cost does this peace exist? The answer, so often echoed through Earth’s own history, is freedom.

MERIK: This is an ordered world, Jim, a conservative world based on time-honored Roman strengths and virtues.

It is made clear by the new leader and his controlling consul that this stability can be "contaminated" by "dangerous ideas". Spock logically admires this systemic avoidance of the carnage humans suffered across their three world wars. McCoy naturally counters by indicating the culture’s current reliance on slavery, gladiatorial games, and despotism. When queried which of these world’s Kirk finds preferable, he offers his oath as his world. A champion of ideals over the stark dialectic of these parallel worlds, synthesizing the logic of Spock and the passion of McCoy into an active dedication to duty and service.

The previously intimated "prime directive of non-interference" is defined for the first time as the now-iconic "Prime Directive", and is detailed thus:

No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, or the fact that there are other worlds, or more advanced civilizations.

Kirk is forced into one of his signature no-win scenarios: he could use his formidably advanced firepower to free himself and his away team, but doing so would undeniably go against the Prime Directive — a principle which he refuses to compromise, despite the interloper having thoroughly broken it upon his arrival and rise to ruler. The conflict between survival of self and survival of the ideals he holds true makes for compelling drama.

The captain elects to put himself into the games rather than sacrifice his crew or the Prime Directive. The sequence of broadcast combat is imbued with just enough camp to exploit the playful fun of the core concept without compromising the drama. A perfect balance, unique to the tonal identity of Star Trek.

A throwaway piece of dialogue is elevated to modern-day precience when it is implied that the home viewing audience will “Name The Winner!”, a harbinger of interactive media that inspires more questions within the functional context of the episode than its casual flavor likely intended. (The implication of any kind of public vote regarding performance would seem to be at odds with the explicitly lethal competition.)

In the arena, Spock and McCoy are pitted against Flavius and Achilles. The situational dynamics of this confrontation, and their ensuing imprisonment, are perfectly designed to test each of Trek's Triumvirate. Spock’s Vulcan training serves him well, and he easily dispatches his opponent. McCoy struggles to compete as a comparatively evolved Earther thrust into regressive combat. Kirk, their leader, is forced to watch as his embodied yin and yang are tested against the frailties from which his species long ago escaped.

In a delightful surprise, this arena confrontation contains some of the best combat staging of the series, including judicious use of hand-held cameras. It also presents theatrical flourishes of topical media satire with the reluctant Flavious being whipped and threatened, if he "lowers network ratings," they'll, "do a special" on him.

CLAUDIUS: We believe men should fight their own battles. Only the weak will die. 

Claudius’ unique brand of Darwinism prioritizes the individual. One-on-one, strength in isolation. This continues to establish their singular despotism against the emerging ideological disruption of the Sun Brotherhood.

Prior to their scheduled execution, imprisonment gives McCoy an incisive observation of Spock:

McCOY: Do you know why you're not afraid to die, Spock? You're more afraid of living. Each day you stay alive is just one more day you might slip and let your human half peek out. That's it, isn't it? Insecurity. Why, you wouldn't know what to do with a genuine, warm, decent feeling.

The dedicated actions of the captain are proven to have taken root as the new ruler earns a last-moment redemption by calling the Enterprise to beam up Kirk and company before being stabbed by his consul. A tragic and decisive end for a man who was kicked out of Starfleet after a single moment of indecision in a psycho-simulator test.

The day is won in spectacular fashion as they beam out amid a hail of machine gun fire. True to its establish tonal spectrum, the crew’s own episode of bread and circuses culminates in a delicious bit of wordplay:

SPOCK: I wish we could have examined that belief of his more closely. It seems illogical for a sun worshiper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion. 
UHURA: I'm afraid you have it all wrong, Mister Spock, all of you. I've been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion. But he couldn't. Don't you understand? It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the Son of God. 
KIRK: Caesar and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading only now.

Regardless of the relative degree of historicity of these figures, the crew is acknowledging the ideological shift which preceded their own utopia: the shedding of tyrannical elitism in favor of universal egalitarianism.

FLAVIUS: The Message of the Sun, that all men are brothers, was kept from us. Perhaps I'm a fool to believe it. It does often seem that man must fight to live. 
KIRK: You go on believing it, Flavius. All men ARE brothers.

For the crew, it becomes a reaffirming testament to the concept of the still-shaky Prime Directive: that though the development of this parallel Earth found itself on an alternate timescale, the ideals that form the bedrock of their socialist future are inevitable developments which come into being regardless of their intervention. The ideals of the Federation are so strong, they require no proselytism.

It does not concern the specific appearance of a literal man or the vagaries of their worship, but rather the power of an idea to spread and overtake injustice. It persists, escaping the dogma of its historical expression and evolving into a secular ethos by reaching back to its reasoned source.

The distinction between seeing life as a zero-sum game, a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself arena, and seeing it as a community of “brotherhood” where everyone lifts each other up, with shared victories and shared struggle. Must we capitulate to our most barbaric tendencies, or can we join together in the dream of transcending them?

This is the ambition that lies at the heart of this Federation of interstellar travellers, and of Star Trek itself.

MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood. 
SPOCK: It will replace their imperial Rome, but it will happen in their twentieth century. 
KIRK: Wouldn't it be something to watch, to be a part of? To see it happen all over again ...

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Trouble with Tribbles

“Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn't necessarily a good thing.”

Both the Federation and the Klingon Empire lay claim to a disputed system, Sherman’s Planet. A previously-established peace treaty exists between the two, enforced by the godlike Organians introduced in Errand of Mercy. Within the diegetic terms of this agreement can be found the thematic premise of this particular story: one side or the other must prove it can develop the planet most efficiently.

“Though the Klingons are brutal and aggressive, they are most efficient.” 

As Kirk so plainly observes, the Klingon’s represent an imposed, militant efficiency. In a fundamentally opposed counter-example, the iconic Tribble creatures encountered in the course of their investigation represent a purely biological, reproductive efficiency. In classic Star Trek form -- the macro reflected in the micro character triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- our heroes must come to represent a balanced reconciliation of two extremes. In this case, those extremes are expressed through unchecked efficiency. From the mouth of the nefarious Captain Koloth himself, in direct contrast to the reproductive prowess of the Tribbles:

“We Klingons are not as luxury-minded as you Earthers. We do not equip our ships with, how shall I say it, non-essentials.” 

Punctuating his misogynistic implication with an unmistakable hour-glass gesture, Koloth’s point is clear: Klingon’s do not allow for the “luxury” of female officers as a reproductive distraction. This distinction broadens the thematic structure to allow for an interpretive exploration beyond the instigating “efficiency,” into the fertile mythological territory of base humanity versus imposed ideology.

As always, the Enterprise crew must function as a balancing force to reconcile these two pairs of opposites. Alone, each is doomed to perpetual conflict. With the intervention of our heroes, through the intersecting movements of plot and character, what thematic statement can ultimately be derived from the payoff to this setup?

"I see no practical use for them."

The answer lies in the form another question: what was it that lead to the Klingon infiltration of Starfleet’s efforts? What values were capitalized on by the enemy to assimilate into our heroes’ ranks? The eagerness to develop Sherman’s Planet, just as in the galactic prospector Cyrano Jones’ exploitation of the Tribble’s from their natural environment, casts the amusingly titled Federation Undersecretary for Agricultural Development, Nilz Baris, as an inept representative colonial bureaucracy.

It is only in through the humanist makeup of the Enterprise’s crew that these paradigms can be broken, and the truth revealed. How, exactly? Well, were it not for the loving curiosity of the decidedly female Lieutenant Uhura, the Tribbles would not have propagated to the attention of Captain Kirk, who leverages his newfound knowledge of the creatures alongside his formidable powers of observation to expose the underlying threat which faces them.

Against the Klingon’s militant efficiency and the Tribbles’ reproductive efficiency, our heroes emerge as a “luxurious” and diverse balance of integrated humanity and ideological efficiency.

The self-proclaimed conceit of the episode’s author David Gerrold is the classic “unexpected threat” personified by the Tribbles themselves, and appropriately used as a tool to expose the true antagonistic force: a Klingon double-agent. This turn of dramatic irony is satisfactorily rendered, if not thematically less ripe than the aforementioned subtext. This subtext can likely be attributed to the guiding hand of producer Gene Coon, who was responsible for the teleplay’s final revision.

Dramatically structured as a relatively light whodunnit, and popularly considered to be an example of Star Trek’s lighter fare, it is particularly impressive that this episode can sustain such nuanced exploration. It is a testament to the potential of this landmark series, which happens celebrate its 50th anniversary today.

May the next fifty continue to be just as ... untroubled.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I, Mudd

An android, disguised as a Starfleet officer, takes control of the Enterprise and reunites its crew with an old friend ... everyone's favorite space pirate, Harcourt Fenton Mudd!

In a classic tribal plot, Mudd is now the imprisoned ruler of this planet of artificial beings, whose only purpose is to serve him. Having outlived the species that created them as servants, the near-immortal androids seek knowledge of humanity so that they may better serve.  Seeking escape, Mudd has summoned Kirk and his crew to replace him.

Even a secondary explanation, such as Mudd's presence on the planet, is infused with fascinating and evocative thematic undercurrents. In this case, he was "pirating" stolen intellectual property, a subject more timely now than could ever have been in the time of its conception. Rightly so, as any modern exploration would necessitate more than a passing mention, as it is here.

Mudd proves a legitimate, succinct threat; his plan playing into both thematic substance as well as dynamic plotting. An always entertaining performance is backed by a thoroughly enjoyable structure. The setups and payoffs on every level are both textually effective and dramatically compelling. Humor and suspense cascade into each other in a seemingly effortless balance that defies standard camp.

The episode's concept is brimming with potent thematic conflicts. A "race" of beings with rigidly mechanical minds represent a causal, base logic. Connected to a central complex, they act as a passive-aggressive precursor to the ever popular Borg enemy. The themes they carry in opposition to the main crew are just as strong. They "understand to serve." Service leads to dependency, and in this way they are able to overtake worlds. They may offer eternal life, but it's still a cage. An artificial paradise of the nearly-eternal, removed from the human framework of time.    

Freedom-loving Kirk is able to ultimately defeat their threat using his patented talking-to-death technique. Unlike other uses, however, this episode finds a more dynamic approach, enlisting the entire crew to perform contradictory loops of logic. It's a nonsensical ballet, hilariously incorporating the now well-established character personaes of the imprisoned crew.

As in the best of Trek, Kirk further defines humanity in opposition to the thematic makeup of the antagonists: the androids have no concept of play. (An essentially human attribute.) Within their strictly deterministic understanding, duplicity and illogical behavior does not compute. Further, in their service they seek purpose. A purposeless act cannot be reconciled. As in the highest philosophical drama, the conflict here is choice and choicelessness. Base, purposefully dictated action vs. playfully nonsensical free will.

As to the parade of lovely female servants Mudd creates to service his every desire?

"I am not programmed to respond in that area."

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Deadly Years

An away-team discovers a station of researchers afflicted by a condition which rapidly ages them to death by natural causes. The exploration of "old age" in the external conflict of this episode acts as a spiritual precursor to the internal conflicts portrayed later in the Star Trek feature films. 

On the base level of technical execution, the limited makeup capabilities of the time are paired with varyingly convincing performances from the main cast, and an inappropriately placed romance subplot may elicit giggles. Thankfully, restrictions of time or budget do not doom this episode to the fate of the worst. 

The concept is loaded with the inherent terror of psychological deterioration. However, the broader thematic implications of the internal conflict of coming to terms the aging process are left relatively untouched. While these would be deeply explored in the cinematic realm with the Star Trek films, here it is strictly a dramatic conflict of the plot's novel conceit. 

While the experience of lesser premises might suffer from lack of deeper theme exploration, the structural execution here is thorough and sufficiently effective. In characterization, however, little of what has thus far defined these characters in the series seems to survive their afflictions, creating a sort of dramatic barrier that makes them difficult to accept as the crew we love; Kirk in particular. 

This distinct lack of connection with their un-radiated selves places the affliction more in the realm of possession or madness when performed. While still dynamic, this choice of tone seems unbefitting of the problem's core attributes. 

The only glimpse of Kirk as we know him comes when he elects to take the first dose of an experimental remedy that could kill if not heal. It's a terrific, almost reverse-werewolf, devolution back to his younger self, who storms the bridge just in time to assume command during a Romulan attack! 

It's a classically Kirk moment, showing up the top brass of Starfleet while single-handedly saving the day. It's a tight if not shallow bit of adventure plotting with a fantastical challenge-of-the-week, which falls just short of true Trek greatness. "The Deadly Years" has aged relatively well. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mirror, Mirror

In an inexplicably fan-favorite romp, the Kirk-enlightens-savages trope is turned on its head, with the savages being alternate-universe Pirate versions of the Enterprise crew.

Schlocky though the concept may be, it is introduced in as compelling a way as could be hoped for. Amidst dilithium crystal negotiations with a society dedicated to total peace, a shaky bit of sci-fi maneuvering finds the good Captain facing his barbaric shadows. The very conflict he faces ideologically is reflected back in the main conceit of the episode.

Unfortunately, any thematic ambitions are restricted to the fringes of this setup. Indeed, it can hardly be praised as an admirable framing device, as the instigating conflict of the peace-lover's negotiations are never returned to or resolved! In the purest instance of concept overshadowing content, the drama quickly devolves into barest needs of the plot. 

Arbitrary ticking-clocks abound, a conceptually disproportionate amount of screen time is dedicated to Kirk's fish-out-of-water romance with Marlena Moreau. In light of her brief payoff tag at the end of the episode, the entire relationship plays like an eleventh-hour attempt to wrap the episode up and tie the multi-universe experience together. Likewise, Uhura's seductive distraction of scarred mirror-Sulu turns only on the heels of the plot's needs: returning home.

In an episode almost entirely absent of true, earned conflict, one notable exception rises to the top: Kirk and McCoy elect to endanger themselves for the sake of making the ethical decision by saving the nefarious mirror-Spock's life. This brief moment goes a long way to deliver on the promise of this episode's setup. In the same way he would rather walk away from the negotiations than resort to violence in his own reality, Kirk would risk his escape -- to that same reality -- in order to make the right choice in this one. 

In an otherwise well-produced and solidly performed outing, the show has hit a comfortable stride. Though restricted to a limited execution, its ambitions to dramatically explore the darkness innate in every living soul resonated sufficiently with audiences to cement "Mirror, Mirror" as one of the more iconic installments in the show's run.

Just as Kirk reaches for the morally superior position at the expense of his own well being, often the lofty ambitions of Star Trek's thematic scope lie beyond its own ability to portray them. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Apple

In a story not unfamiliar to Star Trek, a superior intelligence (or in this case, unseen technology) plays god to an unsuspecting tribe of primitive humanoids. The titular "Apple" references the conceptual clothing of this society: Genesis. 

This Space-Eden uses all its biblical imagery to flesh out the aesthetic experience -- including the serpent's visage for the ruling deity -- retaining very little of the thematic substance. The parallel reference with the most dramatic promise lies in Kirk's own struggle to blindly follow his own orders, as the natives follow theirs, at the expense of his crew. This conflict, however, is relegated to two mentions in dialogue.

There is a compelling conceit hidden at this episode's heart, justifying its Biblical namesake. The primitive society in question is completely stagnate. They neither age nor progress. Nor do they love. Their freedom compromised by blind faith. They are removed from time in an artificial Eden as the mythological Adam and Eve's experience references the essential human condition in the realm of space and time. Life, love, growth, and freedom stem from the inherent pairs of opposites accepted with the bite of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Ought we offer that bite to those in an Eden of artifice, as Kirk and Co. ultimately do?

Unfortunately for the overall strength of the episode, these themes are pushed aside as set dressing when Kirk, speaking for the storytellers, brashly states:

"I think this philosophical argument can wait until our ship's out of danger."

Where stronger Star Trek might use this conceptual base to explore and further define the depths of humanity's core attributes, here it is given only the faintest connective importance to the other elements of the episode. Namely, an ultimately unexplained and thematically irrelevant threat to our hero's starship.

As artificially created as the Eden depicted, the tension of the orbiting Enterprise's imminent peril is an inappropriately executed contrivance. So too is the superficial reuse of the Amok Time musical theme to represent the "tribal" society. Both play on more effective prior use.

Aside from the canonically interesting early-mentions of the Prime Directive and Saucer-Separation, as well as several comedic moments spawning from the now well-established character types, there is little true drama or theme to be gleaned from the dull, unpolished shine of "The Apple."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Changeling

The generally perplexing decision to alter the production order of episodes for broadcast is rarely as justified as it is considering The Changeling following The Wolf in the Fold. Both episodes have central concepts so divorced from the characters that interact with them, you'd be hard pressed to find connective tissue enough to call them Star Trek

Even the most casual observer could cull more dramatic character juxtaposition than this episode does for itself. Centering on a logic-obsessed alien probe, comparison to Spock's own cold logic is played as little more than a joke.  

An offense even more startlingly similar to the prior episode comes in an unexpected blast of misogyny. Whereas "Wolf", at very least, grounded the perspective in the context of the story (however misguided), here it comes spouted full-force from the supposed beacon of logic:

"That unit is a woman."
"A mass of conflicting impulses."

What follows is a shockingly unjustified and unresolved story decision to wipe Uhura's memory, requiring her to relearn basic knowledge and function. While this was likely a tool to enhance the probe's menace and dramatic weight, it feels incredibly unearned when at the heart of its drama lies absolutely no conflict on the character level, yet the result of the conflict has immense repercussions on a main character. As such, the subplot plays entirely unbalanced.

Similarly, the device used by Kirk (yet again) to reason the robot into self-destruction is the result of a plot element seemingly inserted for the sole purpose of being used for conflict resolution. While pitting logic against itself could be the impetus of a thematic statement, it rests here on an innocuous detail, unconnected from the remainder of the episode's conflict. There is a general sense of disconnectedness and dramatic detachment that permeates the entire episode. Like an unintended compartmentalization of all its beats.

Adding insult to injury, the namesake of this episode bears only a passing connection to its content. Any depth of comparison between the evoked myth and the drama on display falls apart with head-scratching rapidity. Did a previous draft of this teleplay more solidly earn it's title? In the probe Nomad's own words:

"The creation of perfection is no error."

Perhaps, but the creation of this episode probably was.