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. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Wolf in the Fold

The Enterprise is possessed by Jack the Ripper.

That's right. The Enterprise's computer is taken over by an advanced, non-corporeal alien being responsible for the historical murders of Jack the Ripper. Some may consider this a "spoiler", as the ultimate reveal comes as the second-act plot point launching into act three. Here I will attempt to explain that voicing the ludicrous concept at this episode's heart spoils it no more than it spoils itself.

There can be an innocent, whimsical joy about many of the less-than-serious Star Trek installments. Here, any joys to be taken are undercut either by expositionally waterlogged techo-babble or it's direct opposite: situationally inappropriate stabs at humor. It's as if the mediated approach was thrown out the window, taking itself simultaneously too seriously and not seriously enough.

With an added element of retrospective hilarity, the man first possessed by the entity (and, inexplicably, the voice of the entity post-possession) is played by the man who voiced Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. So, now, here is what the modern analyst (or even casual viewer) is left with: An exposition-heavy depiction of Jack the Ripper -- an alien that sounds like Piglet -- possessing a spaceship after framing a Scotsman for the murder of women, targeted only because it has an appetite for fear (And "women are more easily and more deeply terrified," says Spock.) causing the crew to dope themselves up with a happy hypo-spray so that there will be no fear for it to feed on.

Thus is described what is perhaps the most absurd premise for an episode yet encountered. What should have been a joyously campy romp betrays itself with an extensive and vain attempt to legitimately ground itself as a science-fiction concept. Its execution robs the modern viewer of even the sarcastic appreciation afforded with other conceits nearly as outrageously presented in Star Trek's muddled logbook.

It will surprise no one to learn that the teleplay for this episode was adapted by the author of an entirely unrelated short story published in 1943. It has received criticism for its misogynistic sexism, but this artifact of the times pales in comparison to its true crime: it is one of the worst episodes of one of the best television shows of all time. An embarrassing stain on the hull of the Enterprise. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Doomsday Machine

"They say there's no devil, Jim, but there is. 
Right out of hell, I saw it!"

The crew encounters a decimated ship, eerily similar in design to the Enterprise, floating helplessly in the wake of a planet killer. Its captain, maddened after the death of his crew, takes control of the Enterprise when Kirk is trapped on the ghost ship.

If that sounds exciting, well, that's because it is. "The Doomsday Machine" is one of the most notable entries in Star Trek's illustrious logbook, and it earns its place solely through the exemplary dramatization of its situational tension. From the tantalizing setup of a dead vessel to the frustrations of inter-military conflict as the mad commodore wrestles command from Spock, this episode is a fine-tuned machine of drama and production value.

In the way of subtextual complexity or interpretable theme, however, this episode is its own Doomsday Machine. As with many of the best of Trek, here the limits of the hour-long format are felt as the machinations of the plot consume most of the runtime. Thankfully, the story gifted is an excellent one, superbly executed in both direction as well as a virtuoso performance by the week's guest star.

In light of the relative excellence of all presented elements, the deficiencies in other areas hardly register as such. Upon reflection, however, one's mind can't help but wander to the potentially striking narrative juxtapositions that could have been made given its own feature. If any concept were deserving of the luxury of a two-parter, this would certainly be it.

Kirk's relation to Decker, their diverging approaches, the weight of responsibility, the toll of command, and the virtue of self-sacrifice; all seem to naturally imply themselves through the brilliance of the established story, but are hardly explored. Passing mentions in dialogue tease our minds and beg the question:

Will the Doomsday Machine have its day?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Amok Time

The triumvirate's relationship is tested when the unique alien biology associated with Spock's ancestry sends him spiraling into a destructive, quasi-pubescent madness lest he is reunited with his home planet.

"Returning to The Source" is a classic mythological motif representative of thematic conflicts beyond the raw science fiction conceit on display here. While biologically interesting, and precedented with a cunning display of techno-babble (salmon's natal homing), the true core of this concept is its thematic focus on the nature of Spock's (and by extent, all Vulcans') internal conflict:

The extremity of his dedication to logic and reason must come with a cost. Reproductive necessity escapses no one, though we may wish to think it does when considering those steely-exteriored, Spock-like figures in our own lives. Vulcan is an entire society extrapolated of the unbalanced attitudes present in our own.

The barbaric nature of the Vulcan rituals depicted calls to mind images of familiarly anachronistic traditions kept alive in our own society. Traditions also birthed by an imbalanced reconciliation of our base humanity. The extremes of Vulcan's ritual answers to base questions of existence mirror our own historical barbarism and presently clinging traditions.

This is dramatically presented in contrast to the comparatively balanced (read: superior) approach of the Federation. Specific note is made of the Vulcan leader's lone reputation for denying a seat on the council. On the macro, this universe-building definition of conflict appropriately reflects the micro drama of the character conflict. It's what this episode is known for: Kirk vs. Spock.

But what, exactly, does the movement of the story say in the way of theme? What is it that breaks Spock from his impassioned blood rage? The exposing of this ritual madness to that very presence of an outsider. Through the contrast, a mutual understanding is born. This is directly in line with the very core of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic: the reconciliation of opposites. Just as Kirk is Action tempered by Logic (Spock) and Passion (McCoy.)

The inherent balance of Spock's own "outsider" status on Vulcan -- as a legendary officer of the Federation -- and a particularly illogical (and therefore distinctly non-Vulcan) conclusion brings Spock to a level of understanding that allows him to transcend the conflict both internally and externally:

You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. This is not logical, but it is often true.

One can't help but feel the entire motivation for the situation's creation was to put our leads at odds. However, the exceptional dramatizing of a multi-level conflict and resolution alone justifies its existence. Its effectiveness is undeniable considering the ensuing reputation and cultural impact. (Who can forget that music?!)

On the surface, we're given a story about the experience of seeking out "new life"  and the exoticism of foreign culture. The stakes are raised by supporting universal conflict and represented theme. For that, "Amok Time" has earned its place next to the greatest episodes in Star Trek's history.