Saturday, June 20, 2009

Errand of Mercy

This episode brings up an interesting point, which itself precludes me from a completely traditional analysis of the episode. It is a great episode of Star Trek. The drama is potent, the structure is satisfactory, and the performances enjoyable.

However, this episode heightens an aspect of Star Trek that has been detectable but not obvious in previous episodes. It is almost entirely dialogue based. This is not a complaint of any kind. Dialogue based storytelling is just as valid as any other, but my analysis thus far has been placing Star Trek up against every other form narrative storytelling. While I maintain that this approach is valid and fair, the analysis I offer is rendered fairly useless if the episode itself expounds upon its own thematic content.

While the dialogue of past episodes has touched upon theme, I've always felt enough was implied that could benefit from a dissection here on the blog. For the first time, I feel as if the episode sums itself up fairly well. Now, this does not preclude me from offering criticism of how I perceive the effectiveness of the episode, but I've always tried to keep this sort of commentary to a minimum. (And, really, my only question after watching the episode deals with the seemingly omnipotent race depicted in the episode. If they will not tolerate conflict, and have the power to stop it on a galaxy-wide scale ... how can the show continue?)

This line of thinking led me to a revelation regarding audience perception of the new Star Trek film. Always looking at Trek (the series and film) analytically, this difference alluded me. Trek fans seem to be used to perceiving the stories of Trek in a dialogue-based fashion. Their pallet has been taught, over decades of series, to derive thematic content through almost exclusively textual means. Clearly there are diversions, but on the whole, most Trek installments expound on the theme in some form of dialogue acknowledgment.

I finally understand why detractors of the new, 2009, Star Trek film claim that it doesn't deal with "issues." (The themes that are integral to Star Trek's success.) It simply doesn't deal with them in the way they are accustomed. There's very little (read: almost none) recap or blatant explanation of theme in the movie. It is a purely cinematic experience. It is visual storytelling. The character's arcs, while not mentioned outright, are implied through the actions of the characters in the face of the opposition depicted. It is the choices made by the filmmakers out of which a theme can be derived, not dialogue.

This fundamental storytelling difference is alienating certain viewers, and delighting others. It doesn't boil down to the presence of action, or the recasting of actors, because beyond all that, the "drama-and-character-that-converge-to-imply-theme" of Trek is still there.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Devil in the Dark

While this episode may not depict any monumental development or integration of character, I am happy to say it is not a regression. The forms of our crew, so well defined in the prior episodes, carry over strongly into this discovery-based adventure.

The exploratory nature of this episode is classic Trek. The crew is pitted against a life form that couldn't be more molecularity different from traditional life. This silicon based "Horta" creature is attacking workers in a mining facility that supports scores of planets with necessary minerals. The conflict is high as the Horta steals an integral piece of the facilities life support. A time-based enhancer of tension though it may be, it allows for an escalation of conflict that necessitates the intervention of our heroes. An instigating event that is the first clue on the path of discovery.

Here Kirk continues his role as moderator. Whereas the miners would be perfectly content destroying the creature they don't understand, Kirk is able to negotiate a treaty with the Horta. (With the help of a mind-melding Mr. Spock, of course.) It is this continuation of the theme of unity and reconciliation that makes the episode uniquely Trek, elevating it beyond the simple discovery of the unknown. It is the furthering of relations, communication, and understanding that take center stage. Through Kirk's uniquely arrived at conclusion, the facility is now able to produce record minerals with the cooperation of the Horta. (Which, as it turns out, was a mother protecting her children.)

Messages of tolerance of this type will not end with this episode, and become a staple of what defines Trek in the minds of so many. Thanks to such vividly drawn characters, we are able to be continually reminded of what they represent in the face of our own conflicts that often mirror the outrageous space-age adventure depicted in Star Trek.

This Side of Paradise

As if in answer to the previous episode, again Trek expounds upon the topic of ambition. Whereas then we were dealing with an opposition of unhealthy ambition, here we encounter an equally threatening lack of ambition: total contentment. It is this mature theme of moving past the duality of extremes that permeates this episode, and manages to also comment upon the main character's relationship.

The Enterprise crew comes in contact with what amounts to a commune of space druggies. The small clan of travelers are hyped-up on a spore-induced drug that grants them complete harmony, free of want and need. Thankfully, the implications of the anti-drug message are never exploited in any way beyond legitimate dramatic and thematic ends. I found myself dreading the setup, and then delighted that the obvious path was not taken.

When the crew gets subjected to the effects of the spores one-by-one, Kirk is able to observe enough to derive it's failing: Man was not meant for paradise. There is a brief allusion to Eden, a brush with biblical subtext. While the relative snub may seem like further evidence of the often postulated atheistic viewpoint of Star Trek, I rather see this as a balanced acknowledgment of the universal philosophy depicted by the tale of Adam and Eve. As this is a subject hardly exclusive to any one religion, it is not dwelled upon. Rather, it is integrated in plot and character based fashion.

Plot wise, Kirk is able to defeat the spore's extremism by canceling it out with equally extreme rage. The drama is plotted beautifully, as Kirk is forced to enrage Spock. Even beyond this, our favorite Vulcan is treated to an extra dose of attention this episode. Running into an old acquaintance with feelings for him, Spock's internal conflict is brought to the fore. While some may deride Spock's intoxicated enjoyment as silly, I find it tragically telling of his character and paramount in establishing him even further as an evolving person.

"If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them."

That being said, his position in the "holy trinity" is not compromised. In fact, this episode acts as a pivotal installment in defining how Kirk, Spock, and McCoy relate. Ambition can only be realized through moderated action. Informed by the extremes that live within us (Spock/McCoy), yes, but acting only through careful reconciliation of the two. (Kirk) What better way to illustrate this than by dramatically showing the drearily unambitious consequences of excess?

McCoy: "That's the second time man's been thrown out of paradise."
Kirk: "No, this time we walked out on our own."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Space Seed

It is my opinion that Star Trek truly hit its stride with this episode. There's a certain effortlessness about the crew's relationship. The familiarity is infectious, and the audience can't help but sense it. It is with this confidence that the episode is able to achieve an even greater balance of plot and theme integration.

The crew encounters a group of genetically enhanced men from Earth's past lead by a tyrant called Khan. The episode's central drama centers around the connection between him and the Enterprise's Historian McGivers. Her obsession with the past is exploited by Khan to take over the ship. The only perceivable failing of this episode is that there is no discernible arc for her character. While in a moment of conscience she helps save Captain Kirk, she still ultimately chooses exile with Khan at the episode's end.

In fact, no part of this episode displays any form of arc, be it character or thematically based. While the content of the theme and conflict displayed may be interesting (it IS interesting: unhealthy ambition for human advancement vs. the natural ambitions of the Enterprise Crew) there is no inherent revelation or shift of development that results in a thematic conclusion. It is simply an acknowledgment of these two party's incompatibility that resolves what's presented as the dramatic conclusion. I can't help but feel that if the resolution came through significant developments of character or theme, the payoff would have been more effective.

Nevertheless, the conflict depicted is iconic and poignant. I take no issue with this. Seeing the Enterprise pitted against such an unhealthy ambition really helps define their mission for the audience. It is always when such extreme opposition is depicted that true colors can be revealed. This episode showcases the prime essence of Trek, even if it is wrapped in an slightly underdeveloped narrative.