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."