Friday, January 30, 2009

What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Sugar and spice, and everything nice?

At the conclusion of this episode, I feel it may have bitten off more than it could chew. It ponders a variation of the question "What makes a human?" In the decades since, visual fiction has given its own insight, but looking at the version told here, of 40 years past, I see some interesting things.

Captain Kirk beams down with Nurse Chapel to meet a scientist that was presumed lost. This scientist was also Chapel's former lover. Therein lies the only disparate aspect of this episode: The emotional attachment betwixt the scientist and our Nurse Chapel seemed terribly transparent -- as if screaming out "THIS IS CHARACTER-BASED DRAMA!" Unfortunately, her relationship with him was of too little consequence to the subsequent efforts of the episode to deem them "entwined".

And just what are those efforts? What, exactly, is this episode dealing with? It's dealing with the thing it took Ridley Scott over two hours and the Wachowskis three movies to do: Define humanity. What is the function of your memory? What is the extent of your body's purpose? Tall questions for an hour-long adventure show in the 1960s, and I can't blame them for trying to throw in the romance. (Though I do love romance, when it is a natural extention of the task at hand.)

Here we meet a character who believes that the body is an imperfect device in need of perfecting. It's right there, in his rejection of mortality itself, that he loses his humanity. (In the realm of this episode, anyway.) He believes that your "consciousness" can be transferred into a more perfect, infallible vessel ... essentially granting immortality and limitless potential for power.

This is, of course, exploited by way of android attacks, and -- get this -- another excuse for DOUBLE CAPTAIN KIRKS! The sheer gimmickry of this makes me hesitate to recommend the episode. The ambitions are commendable, but, more than ever before on Trek, they are so obviously beyond the grasp of the show in its current form.

I can't say my peace about this episode without mentioning one last bit that grabbed me: Andrea the android confesses her "robot" love for her robot creator. Amidst his protest, he triggers his own pistol, disintegrating them in their embrace. It's a powerful image, that last confession. The belief of a man that he can perfect humanity, and a robot who is beginning to develop her own human qualities.

Kirk observes the conundrum, the seeming paradox and complexity of the issue at hand. Again, as before, we end on an introspective and doubtful look from Kirk. He's survived another look into the bottomless heart of humanity.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Balance of Terror


Getting our first glimpse at the Romulans, this episode explores themes of wartime prejudice, and the cost of conflict. The episode is framed beautifully, opening with a wedding ceremony taking place on the Enterprise between two crew members.

In great literary tradition, the wedding is interrupted. This immediately sets the episode off with a tense and unsettling mood. The literary precedence is matched early on with a mythological reference in the naming of the new race and its planets: Romulus and Remus. While the analogy has little immediate payoff in this episode, it gifts at least viewer confidence in the quality and ambitions of the episode to come.

We're also introduced to young navigator Mr. Stiles, whose family history in the century-old war with the Romulans acts as our window into the prejudicial issues at hand. His hot-headed advice is to preemptively attack, unsound advice that Kirk begins to take into consideration as the stakes get higher.

When the visage of the unseen Romulans is revealed to the crew for the first time, Stiles is shocked at the similarity they bear to Vulans, specifically Mr. Spock. Thoughout the epsiode, Stiles treats Spock deplorably, making him the object of unsubstantiated assumption and rudeness. Spock is, of course, unphased by this. The previously established viewer sympathies with Spock make way for a great moral, immediately pitting Stiles' attitude as not just upleasant, but wrong.

Spock suspects that the Romulans may be an offshoot of the Vulcan bloodline, and that their penchant for violence and war-mongering are a reflection of the un-evolved Vulcan mentality. This juxtaposition, of the Romulan's violence (not unlike many modern earth attitudes) against a higher or elevated mentality is the source of the "optimism" people reference when talking about Star Trek. The idea that violence and war are merely a phase in the adolescence of a culture is inspiring.

Then there's what's happening with Kirk. We open with him comfortably, and honorably, officiating a marraige ceremony. This is a classic aspect of Captaincy, and get's us ready to deal with other long-laid issues of every type of command. At the brink of war, Kirk must face his match: a command intellect equal to his own. The showdown is a sight to see, and, for the time, quite spectacular. At it's zenith, and Kirk's victory, the Romulan commander says "You and I are of a kind." It was as if Gods were dueling.

The conflict puts our Mr. Stiles in a dire situation, which Spock unflinchingly saves him from. This act of instantanious compassion, from a man he'd gone to great pains to despise, transformes him. His attitude is corrected, a nobler mindset inhabited. But this action-packed conflict also brought an unfortunate casuality: the death of the episode's groom-in-waiting.

In the final scene, Kirk consoles the mourning bride. Through his comforting words, "there was a reason ... " Kirk finds himself immobilized. Holding on a final introspective look at Kirk, we see that he struggles to believe this statement himself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Charlie X

This is a fantastic episode.
After "The Naked Time", I was really needing it.

The episode (as many, I am observing) has a radical base premise. The Enterprise encounters a boy, Charlie, who grew up completely separated from human interaction. He lacks social tact, but what's more, we discover he possesses unique paranormal abilities. These powers, in the hands of a child-like mind, lead to a great deal of havoc for the crew.

This is the expected aspect. It is pulled off well, and is anchored by a particularly convincing performance by Robert Walker Jr as Charlie. He is the adolescent and is out of place among other humans, let alone space travelers. Whether it's a lesson in butt-slapping from Captain Kirk or a fatherly chastising, it's handled with sincerity and just enough levity. However, it is always the unexpected poignancy that really makes an episode special.

Just as the other challenges Kirk has had to encounter, Charlie reveals another, more layered aspect of his character. What else could I expect, when the plot of the episode makes Kirk's fatherly position to the crew literal. Seeing him deal with the undeveloped mind is a fascinating struggle. His scenes with Charlie are sweet, yet contain an undertone of emotion that heightens the final moment when Kirk nearly looses command of his ship to this boy. These are a great set of sequences that cut right to his core.

Another pearl worth mentioning, is a much more complete version of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship that has only been hinted at in previous episodes. Here it is in full, iconic force. It isn't abrasive, but their thought processes are on display only so far as to pertain to the immediate concerns of the story. It is always a welcomed inclusion when the true nature of a character can be put on display in a fitting manner. Seeing the quibbling of Spock and McCoy rise only to be balanced by Kirk's interjection is brilliant and deservedly classic.

Another note: Uhura's previously hinted attraction to Spock makes a small appearance here in a fun rec-room sequence where she sings to to the Vulcan. Whether or not this was plotted as an intended arc for the two characters or was just an excuse for comedy, I have no idea. In this scene, Spock is seen playing the harp. It seems that this may have been included to hone in on Spock's emotional discipline. Rather than coldness, we see him as calm and reserved. An important distinction that may not have been so clear in earlier episodes.

The storytelling of this episode is tight, wastes no time, and doesn't concern itself with a great deal of fluff. For a ship-based episode to have done as much as it did with character development and suspense is impressive and ambitious.

Stay tuned tomorrow for "Balance of Terror."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Naked Time

This episode plays like a soap opera.

Some sort of virus is picked up that acts to the crew members of the Enterprise like alcohol. It lowers their inhibitions, revealing shocking new versions of our fine crew.

The ending of the episode (dealing with the Enterprise reversing time, Superman style) is as sensational as seeing Sulu hop around without his shirt off, or Spock crying.

I recommend it for the sheer interest in seeing these characters in a different light, even if the situation is admittedly not earned and offers no other merit worth mentioning.

Stay tuned tomorrow for "Charlie X."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Man Trap

As if we didn't have enough duplicated crew members last episode ...

On a desolate planet, a federation archeologist named Crater (yep), befriends a shape-shifting shalt-craving creature that takes the form of his dead wife. (who happened to Be Dr. McCoy's Ex-Girlfriend) The Enterprise shows up for a routine medical checkup when the creature quickly begins terrorizing them.

Since the creature can change its shape at will, one wonders why the backstory with McCoy was necessary, as it could change into your mom if it wanted to.

In any case, it's a very dramatic showdown as Kirk shows up to kill the creature, whom McCoy is emotionally inclined to protect. Tension mounts as the creature turns on Kirk, who drops his phaser.

It's up to McCoy to save Kirk! And if the situation wasn't clear enough, Spock runs in and says, "It's killing the Captain! Shoot it Doctor!" "I won't shoot Nancy!" McCoy Insists!

So what does Spock do? In an unbelievable -- are they actually doing this? -- moment, SPOCK BEGINS TO BRUTALLY BEAT THE WOMAN, to demonstrate that it isn't really her.

Only on Trek.

So after a brilliantly displayed turmoil from DeForrest Kelly as McCoy, he accepts that it isn't really Nancy, and shoots. Damn. Tough stuff.

The drama is played very well on all counts. The direction is as intimate as the situation warrants, and the music is a complimentary addition to McCoy's situation. In order to make the killing of the creature even more morally difficult, it was the last of a dying breed. Like killing the last Dodo. (or Buffalo,a s the episode cites.) But if the last Dodo was picking off members of my crew, I'd kill it.

This episode was a good mix of the fantastical science-fiction elements and adventure/drama. The writers may have tried a little too hard to make the drama character-based. The effort is appreciated, but other episodes were able to handle the balance a bit more naturally. The priority towards the main characters seems to be making it's shift away from Kirk and towards the whole of the crew, but it may be a bit premature to begin detecting patterns.

Great creature design solidifies the memorability of this installment, and a great bit of comic levity is thrown in early on. (On the bridge, Uhura flirts with an unreceptive Spock. Classic.)

Stay tuned tomorrow for "The Naked Time."

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Enemy Within

There are almost no words for this episode.

But that's the point of this whole endeavor, so I'll do my best to form a few.

In this episode, a transporter malfunction creates what seems to be a duplicate Captain Kirk ... an EVIL Captain Kirk. The basic premise is enough to keep anyone away, but it's what happens BEYOND the setup that makes this episode noteworthy. Because, let's be honest, that is a really corny idea for an episode. Borderline stupid.

Thankfully, the obvious extension of that idea is executed rather quickly. We're only subjected to a quick bit of the obligatory Evil-Kirk-doing-bad-things-shtick. That quick bit, by the way, is actually pretty phenomenally hilarious. "You're too beautiful to ignore ... too much woman."

Beyond this pageantry, the story actually flirts with fairly interesting dualistic ideas. You see, it's not an "evil" Kirk, we find, but that Kirk himself has be cleft in twain. The compassionate side, and the animal. The drama of this episode comes from the realization that one cannot function without the other. Who we took to be "good-Kirk" begins to falter in his command abilities. He NEEDS that elemental side, albeit in a balanced and controlled way.

This brings to mind what we've said previously about Kirk's character. As a moral exemplar, he doesn't change. The drama of his character has to be found in other ways. Many episodes pit him against opposing elements against which he can further define himself. This episode doesn't do that exactly, either. It does, however, give us a very unique and interesting look into the makeup of his character. Even if it uses a now hackneyed plot device to achieve it.

Spock is also afforded decent insight in this episode. To help Kirk (and in turn, the audience) understand his predicament, he draws a parallel to his own existence as a half-vulcan, half-human. Leonard Nimoy seems to be feeling comfortable as Spock by this point, and the character really shines here. Miraculous, as it really is seen as a Kirk-centric installment.

Worth a watch, if only for the pomp on display in evil-Kirk, and certainly for the territory the show covers beyond that. That being said, It isn't high-philosophy. It uses very elementary terms to describe what I consider a much deeper concept.

The fact that they touch on it at all is admirable indeed.

Stay tuned tomorrow for "The Man Trap."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mudd's Women

Here comes the camp.

This episode begins with the Enterprise chasing a small spaceship that continues to evade and rejects all communication attempts. After the captain of this small ship is beamed aboard the Enterprise, one can't help but wish Kirk had just let the thing go.

The bombastic visage of Harry Mudd stand's out even against our crew's brightly colored Starfleet uniforms. He's a space pimp, we find, that dresses in a puffy pirate shirt and sports a thick, curvy mustache. The minute he beams in, one may feel this episode to be a bit ... silly.

And yeah, it's silly. From the beginning, to Mudd's siren-like trio of babes strolling the corridors of the Enterprise, entrancing the male crewmembers. It's all goofy. I wish I could say it was just the aesthetic of the period. I wish I could say the sillyness applied only to how these characters look. The problem is, it touches every aspect of this show.

The plot inches along in a unmotivated, droning fashion. There are a few scene-to-scene cuts that felt completely arbitrary. Even the ending "twist" or "thematic wrap up" feels ill concieved and almost tacked on.

You see, we find that Mudd's women are not, in fact, as beautiful as they seem. They're hyped up on a space-drug that preserves their beauty. So Kirk decides to take advantage of this addiction, and put on a display of his phsycological bad-assery. He switches their pills for placebos, and the girl doesn't notice. Her demeanor changes, she becomes confident, and "beautiful" of character.

Boy did he show her! Well. I guess. I just didn't see the space-whore's lesson learned as a compelling climax. In comparison, the justice being served to the schemeing Harry Mudd seems almost thrown in.

The writing of this episode seems exploitive of it's (pretty simple) concept. It doesn't elevate itself to the high drama we know it's capable of, and the ideas themselves aren't that lofty or effectively communicated. Since the content of this episode almost entirely surrounds the specifics of this "crazy space encounter", you're not left with much else to tide you over.

Stay tuned tomorrow for "The Enemy Within", an episode with a reputation that precedes it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Corbomite Maneuver

I had a feeling going into episode 2 of this show was going to have some sort of drop-off. After such an ambitious opening show, it'd be unbelievable if there weren't.

This episode banks a lot of it's drama on the tension between a mysterious alien encounter. Almost the entire episode is ship-to-ship interactions. It was done quite well. More than adequate to sustain the viewer's attention. There's even a nice little twist at the end, as to the identity of the imposing alien force the Enterprise encounter's. (It's simple, and I simply won't ruin it if you haven't seen the episode.)

If that was all this episode had to offer, however, I would find myself disappointed. No matter how exciting the adventure elements, it needs to have a strong root in character. Thankfully, this episode marks the introduction of a brilliant (and in my opinion, necessary) character: ship's physician, Dr. Leonard McCoy. He's a snappy doc, with a fiery whit and a great deal of humanity.

He completes what is becoming the "holy trifecta" of Star Trek.

Let me explain. I have been observing over the course of this episode and the last, that Kirk himself has no character arc. He doesn't start out in one place and end in another. Sure, he's learning throughout his interactions with alien species, but his character stays largely the same. Instead, he fills the place of another character type: the moral exemplar. The drama of Kirk comes from his decision making. The balance of mind it takes to be a leader.

Now, decision making in great drama is externalized. Kirk must define himself and his choices against other external forces or characters. Initially, it appeared to be just against the cold logic of Spock. However, seeing as Kirk is in no way "anti-logic", this analysis didn't hold up. However, it is quickly becoming obvious that it is Spock's logic and McCoy's brute humanity (or impulsive compassion) that are at odds.

Through this the thesis/antithesis of Spock and McCoy, Kirk is the synthesis. He is the calm and collected medium resting in between. He must take into account the validity of both and proceed in his command. It's a fascinating triangle of a character relationship, and the first hints of it are present in this episode.

That being said, there isn't a great deal of scenes that afford opportunities for great performance, but there is a strong point found in a guest star: a hot-headed navigator named Bailey. Kirk is dealing with an interesting dilemma. He sees a great deal of himself in young Bailey, and is quickly realizing he may have promoted him too quickly. Bailey is slow under pressure, and allows himself to be distracted by the stresses of the present situation with the alien ship.

In a final moment of tension, he explodes. He can't take it! The Enterprise is moments away from destruction, death is imminent. Why isn't anyone else batting an eye!? In this way, it is interesting that his reaction may actually mimic those of the viewer. It really goes to show the impressiveness of the crew, to see an unstable "everyman" in the situation.

By the end of the episode, Kirk has to come to terms with Bailey's shortcomings, and decides upon a very different fate for the boy in light of the alien being's revealed nature. Again, it's a nice ending, decently set up. Not nearly as tight or as dire as the last episode, but certainly adequate.

The promise of greatness to come outweighs the specific concerns of this episodes plot. In that hope, I commend the ability of the shows writers to elevate even the most basic concept. It gives one a feeling that you are in good hands.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Where No Man Has Gone Before

This episode is a great introduction to the series. There are no punches pulled, that's for sure.

While the premise of a mysterious energy cloud giving certain members of the crew extra sensory abilities may seem silly out of context, it is handled with the utmost sincerity and ingenuity. The science fiction elements are always used subservient to the drama. Everything is working toward a greater whole. Even the extra sensory abilities are put to a greater concept: the corrupting nature of almost god-like power.

The writing of this episode is solid. We open with a character based scene between the ship's Captain Kirk and his alien logic-obsessed, emotion-suppressed science office Spock playing chess. Their banter is quick, plot based, and immediately establishes their characters. It is used also as a segue into the show's instigating action.

The plot structure is tight, and all the characters are woven in pretty brilliantly. One of the affected god-men, for example, was established (in a GREAT scene in the sickbay) as a former schoolmate of our good Captain Kirk. This elevates the drama of Kirk's later decision to maroon him on a deserted planet. (An already inspired concept.)

The action of the plot makes way for very natural inclusion of adventure elements. The climax, where the affected man-god and woman-god face Kirk on the deserted planet is particularly exciting. Not just for the visceral energy of the ensuing fight, but for the dramatic content of Kirk trying to pry at the last remaining bit of humanity from his former ship's psychiatrist. It's an amazing piece of performance from William Shatner.

In fact, the performances all around are pretty fantastic. The arc of the affected crew members is very well formed and believable. That coupled with how well written they are prevents it from ever becoming hammy or campy.

A cursory look at Mr. Spock's attitude toward emotions bookends this episode, and promises potential for episodes to come.

All in all, a superb opening episode. I understand that it was not the first aired in it's original run, however, I stand behind my decision to watch these episodes in production-order rather than broadcast-order. While the episodic nature of the show renders the distinction fairly meaningless, it is still the way in which they were originally conceived by all the artists involved.

Stay tuned tomorrow for "The Corbomite Maneuver."

Boldly going ...

...where literally millions have gone before.

This blog is going to be used as a log of an admittedly personal project: watching every episode, in order (intended order, not broadcast order) of the original Star Trek series. (hereafter "TOS")

When I say "personal project", don't misunderstand me. I hold myself to a great deal of scrutiny in my analysis. We will be looking at the meat and potatoes of Trek: character arcs, plot constructs, thematic content ... EVERYTHING.

This will be a great way to ramp up to the release of JJ Abram's new Star Trek film. In the interest of full disclosure, I have seen many of these epsiodes before, but not for many years. This will be a completely fresh look, as I will be writing as if through new eyes. Star Trek from the beginning. No pop culture implications or considerations.

I'll try to make this as much fun to read as I'm having watching the show!