Star Trek – Balance of Terror

Balance of Terror is a key Star Trek building block. The previous episodes have tended to concentrate on civilisations either long dead or dying. But today for the first time we encounter a race – the Romulans – who are a similar size to the Federation and also have an interest in space exploration.

Mind you, at this point the Federation has yet to be formally introduced (that wouldn’t occur until A Taste of Armageddon). But what Balance of Terror does so well is to dig into the Earth/Romulan conflicts of old.

At a single stroke, we learn that the Earth is not a newcomer to space exploration – indeed, having fought battles against the Romulans in the past, old resentments still linger. These attitudes are articulated by Lt. Stiles (Paul Comi) who directs his bitterness towards Mr Spock (due to the shared Vulcan/Romulan heritage).

Whilst Stiles is a character type we’ve seen before – a loose cannon aboard the Enterprise – his racist and xenophobic attacks on Mr Spock still have an impact. Not only because by now the viewer has come to embrace Spock as a key member of the crew, but also because they help to shatter the commonly held view that the Star Trek universe is one where such attitudes no longer exist.

As has been observed in the past, Balance of Terror plays out like a WW2 submarine movie. Two equally matched captains – Kirk and the unnamed Romulan Commander (played by Mark Lenard) – engage in a tense game of cat and mouse.

Lenard is, of course, excellent and it’s easy to see why the series was keen to have him back as soon as possible. Spock might describe the Romulans as warlike, cruel and treacherous but that’s a far from accurate portrait of Lenard’s Commander, who is honourable, poetic and world weary.

Unlike his junior officer Decius (Lawrence Montaigne), the Commander has no stomach for war – suggesting that unlike his superior Decius has yet to encounter a real battle. 

The Romulan Commander may not wish to fight, but he is honour bound to do so. That doesn’t mean that he has to relish the prospect though (unlike Decius). “No need to tell you what happens when we reach home with proof of the Earthmen’s weakness. And we will have proof. The Earth commander will follow. He must. When he attacks, we will destroy him. Our gift to the homeland, another war.”

It’s plain that this “gift” is something which will bring only death and destruction, not the glory that Decius seeks.

Had Star Trek gone down the more obvious route, portraying the Romulans as the bloodthirsty types Spock believes they are, then Balance of Terror would still have been a fine episode. But Mark Lenard’s multi-layered performance raises the story up several notches. One of the best – if not the best – Star Trek episodes.

Star Trek – Charlie X

Charlie Evans (Robert Walker) is a highly unusal teenager. The only survivor from a transport ship which crashed on the planet Thasus, it’s a mystery how he was able to survive all by himself for so long ….

The series might have already tackled the “human becomes god” storyline with Where No Man Has Gone Before, but it was clearly a storyline that had legs, as Charlie X refined and improved the concept (and ended up airing first as a consequence).

If Gary Mitchell was a seasoned man of the world then Charlie Evans is his exact opposite – a stumbling teenager. All of Charlie’s early scenes feel somewhat awkward (as we witness the misfit boy attempting to fit into the culture of the Enterprise)

But there’s an added wrinkle – it’s already been revealed to the audience that he has unusual powers of suggestion (although Kirk and co remain ignorant about this for the moment).

Kirk, Spock and McCoy spark off each other wonderfully in a scene where both Kirk and McCoy try to dodge the responsibility of becoming Charlie’s mentor (primarily to broach the difficult subject of the birds and the bees). Kirk, due to his rank, is able to dump this responsibility onto the less than ecstatic McCoy. Although things don’t quite work out the way Kirk hoped ….

But Charlie’s already learning, thanks to the presence of Janice Rand. From their first meeting (“are you a girl?”) he is plainly transfixed by her, although giving her backside a friendly slap doesn’t go down well!

D.C. Fontana (contributing her first script for the series) seems to have great fun with the concept of Jim Kirk as a substitute father. His stumbling explanation to Charlie as to why Yeoman Rand didn’t appreciate a slap on the behind is nicely done.

Well, um, er, there are things you can do with a lady, er, Charlie, that you, er… There’s no right way to hit a woman… I mean… man to man is one thing, but, er, man and woman, er, it’s, er… it’s, er…. well it’s, er, another thing. Do you understand?

Another highlight is the musical number shared by Uhura and Spock. It’s a lovely piece of character development – enabling us to believe that the people we see episode in and episode out are actually real people who have a life outside of tackling whatever the crisis of the week is. I also like the way that Spock’s initial irritation at Uhura’s warbling quickly gives way to amused resignation.

It’s not just a filler scene though, since it moves the plot forward (Charlie wants to chat to Janice so he casually silences Uhura with a glance). His prowess with card tricks then enchants Janice and the others, giving Charlie the adulation he craves ….

Kirk does his best to mentor the boy. At one point they tackle a gym session ( a bare-chested Shatner in red tights is quite a sight).

But things take a nasty turn shortly afterwards as Kirk finally realises just how powerful and increasingly uncontrollable Charlie is. Lawrence Dobkin’s direction is noteworthy here – focusing in on both Kirk and Charlie’s eyes whilst the rest of the frame is plunged into relative darkness.

It’s a shame that Rand is reduced, yet again, to the status of a sexual object. Sadly that seemed to be her prime function during the brief time she spent on the Enterprise.

Charlie X takes a fairly routine storyline and manages to craft a memorable episode out of it. Robert Walker is excellent as the misfit Charlie. Despite his various crimes (which include murder) it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him – at one level he’s simply a mixed up teenager, albeit one with unbelievable powers. 

The way that Charlie’s tricks and pranks become darker as the episode progresses (ageing harmless crew members or simply wiping their faces) helps to give the story a real punch. It’s not difficult to see why it was one of the first stories to air – even this early on Star Trek was really beginning to pick up strong momentum.

Star Trek – The Naked Time

Every time I watch the pre-credits sequence of The Naked Time, I have an uncontrollable urge to shout out and tell Lt. Joe Tormolen (Stewart Moss) not to take off his glove ….

Surely when beaming down to a strange planet, especially when you’re wearing protective suits, it’s maybe just a little unwise. Oh well, it’s not as if the suits sported by Tormolen and Mr Spock were especially air-tight anyway.

Tormolen has picked up a nasty infection, although it only manifests itself in earnest once he’s back on the Enterprise. Moss doesn’t have a great deal of screentime, but Tormolen’s breakdown is very effective and fairly dark. At one point, after threatening Sulu with a knife, he attempts to turn it upon himself. 

Sulu and Lt. Riley (Bruce Hyde) manage to wrestle it off him, but it’s still a tense little scene. Albeit slightly negated by the fact that several other crew members just sit around doing nothing to help!

What’s interesting about the episode is that after this flashpoint (and Tormolen’s subsequent death) we see a sudden gear change as the comedy begins to ramp up. The virus makes people lose their inhibitions – in Sulu’s case this means that he strips to the waist, oils himself up and runs around the decks with a rapier, causing havoc …

When he reaches the bridge, there’s a nice bit of comic business from William Shatner (Kirk attempts to block the sword and gets a nasty nip for his pains). Even Leonard Nimoy gets in on the act – after disabling Sulu, he instructs that “d’Artagnan” be taken away.

As for Riley, the virus turns him very Irish. Luckily for us all, Hyde doesn’t attempt an Oirish accent (although Riley’s singing is painful enough).

It’s rather unfortunate that Riley decides to take over the Enterprise (which he does so with embarrassing ease) at exactly the same time that the ship is dangerously close to a planet about to explode. This is a slightly clunky plot mechanism, but without it Riley would simply be a low-level irritant.

All the interest in the second half of the episode revolves around some well-crafted character interactions. Nurse Chapel’s passion for Mr Spock, for example (which comes a little out of the blue, since we’ve never seen her before). 

Both of them are now under the influence of the virus. For Chapel this makes her painfully honest, for Spock it’s all about having a nice cry. Nimoy takes these scenes and manages to wring every possible drop of emotion from them. Subtle they’re not, but they are strangely compelling.

The Naked Time gives us one of Star Trek‘s classic lines (Scotty’s plaintive “I can’t change the laws of physics”) so that alone makes it worth the price of admission. Kirk attempting to bring Spock back to normality by giving him several good hard slaps is also noteworthy.

Indeed, there’s so much going on that in the end the episode feels a little bitty. Dropping Riley from the story and maybe concentrating on Kirk and Spock’s breakdowns might have been one way to go. But no matter, The Naked Time is another strong early story in which all the regulars benefit from some decent character moments.

Star Trek – The Man Trap

M-113 is your average sort of Star Trek planet – it has plenty of false-looking boulders and a rather red sky. McCoy, Kirk and the short-lived Crewman Darnell have transported down to the surface in order to carry out a routine medical check on Professor Robert Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife Nancy (Jeanne Bal).

You may well wonder why Kirk has tagged along to this routine assignment ….

Is it because Nancy is an old sweetheart of McCoy? It’s about the most credible reason I can think of (certainly Jim delights in ribbing Bones about his lost love – witness how amused he is when he learns Nancy’s pet name for him!)

Straight away we establish that something is badly wrong. McCoy appears to see Nancy as she was a decade ago, Kirk sees the same woman (but older) whilst Darnell claps eyes on a totally different character – a young, hip-swiveling minx.

There’s a slight lack of logic here – why does Nancy appear to Kirk as Nancy and not someone from his past as happened with Darnell? It also seems that later on McCoy views Nancy as the same middle-aged woman initially observed by Kirk. The actual reason for this is fairly obvious (chopping and changing make-up would have been time consuming) although it’s another slight story niggle.

McCoy is delightfully bashful when he first encounters Nancy (and Kirk makes full capital  of “Plum’s” discomfort). However there’s a good gear-change when crewmen start to drop like ninepins – Kirk suddenly becomes rather snappy towards the lovesick Bones (although he has the good grace to apologise shortly after).

Alfred Ryder’s first scene is a memorable one. His line delivery is somewhat bizarre (especially since shortly afterwards he settles down and starts to act fairly normally). Jeanne Bal (a salt-sucking monster able to take any form – like Nancy – it desires) doesn’t have a great deal to do except look wistful as she lures men to their doom.

In one respect it’s easy to see why this was chosen as the series’ debut episode. Not only are the three main cast members well served, but the second tier (Uhura, Rand, Sulu) are also catered for.

Uhura’s doomed attempt to make small talk with a polite but baffled Mr Spock is an entertaining scene (at present, he charmingly refers to her as Miss Uhura) whilst Janice and Sulu (today he’s an obsessive botanist) also get a good crack of the character whip. Although it’s a little irritating that Janice continues to be rather objectified (two leering crewmen hammer this point home).

Once the creature beams aboard the Enterprise then the fun really starts. It’s able to shapeshift at will (even reproducing clothes – which is a neat trick) and causes a certain amount of mayhem in the second half of the episode. Especially when it assumes the form of McCoy.

It’s maybe a good thing that we don’t see the true form of the creature until late on as it’s not the most memorable creation the series ever attempted. Still, it does provide the episode with a late moment of goofy shock.

The moral of the story seems to be that if you’re an alien life form who dares to tangle with the Enterprise then you’re going to to die. Kirk is at his harshest and most implacable when sentencing the creature to death although Bones is the one who actually has to pull the trigger. 

The alien might be the last of its species, but that cuts no ice with Kirk (or indeed Spock and McCoy).  The Next Gen no doubt would have gone for a more conciliatory ending, but here it seems that only death will do.

Which seems slightly at odds with the show’s philosophy (or at least the version often embraced by fans). “To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations” and then calmly kill it since it doesn’t behave in a human enough way ….

The Man Trap isn’t subtle but it is a rattling good yarn with decent roles for all the participating regulars, so it gets a thumbs up from me.

Star Trek – The Enemy Within

A transporter malfunction splits Kirk into two. One half is rather like his old self (albeit increasingly indecisive and vague) whilst the other is a rampaging monster ….

Everybody loves a doppelganger story and on that score The Enemy Within works pretty well, although it’s surprising that (as we’ll call him) evil Kirk was rumbled so soon. Nobody seems to believe, even for a moment, that the Captain’s simply gone loopy, which is a shame – surely there would have been decent dramatic mileage in eeking out this part of the story a little more.

Shatner looks like he’s having fun as sweaty evil Kirk. It’s certainly a story which places the Captain front and centre.

Although at one point Kirk calls his double an imposter, that’s really not the case. As the episode title suggests, evil Kirk is an integral part of him (it’s just now all of his negative impulses have been distilled into a single entity). 

Our Jim can normally keep the beast within him under control, but now he’s been split into two it’s the worst of both worlds – his evil side rampages through the Enterprise, drinking and mauling pretty Yeomen at will, whilst the “normal” Kirk descends into a period of extreme indecision.

The only female in the story – Janice Rand – is nothing more than a helpless victim, ravished by the “evil” Kirk. It’s not much of a part, but then the original series does have issues in this area (which we’ve discussed before, and I’m sure we will again).

Indeed, Janice’s only other major role (in Charlie X) also saw her objectified by a lustful male. Do you sense a pattern emerging here? Given the reason for Grace Lee Witney’s hasty departure from the series, this is bitterly ironic.

The B plot (Sulu and a handful of others trapped on the planet’s surface) never really amounts to much, although some entertainment can be derived from George Takei’s heroic attempts to convince us that it’s very, very cold down there.

The Kirk versus Kirk face off on the bridge is nicely done and concludes an episode which has a few little niggles but always tends to hit the spot for me.

Star Trek – Mudd’s Women

Ah yes, the one about the Space Hookers.

1960’s Star Trek often struggled with its depiction of female characters – one good thing you can say about Mudd’s Women is that although it’s an early low point, from here on in surely the only way is up …

This was clearly a story close to Gene Roddenberry’s heart. It was his original idea and he was also keen for it to be the second pilot. Luckily wiser counsel prevailed on that score.  

Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) is presented to us as a loveable Oirish rogue, but the script never really acknowledges his darker side. The women may seemingly be content to be bought and sold like cattle (he pointedly refers to them as his “cargo”) but given that he has power over them (via a drug which has addictive properties) just how much free will do they actually have?

Following McCoy’s excellent characterisation in the previous episode, he isn’t called on to do much here except make googly eyes at the three lovely girls (the same goes for Scotty). Even Spock seems to be smirking at times, which since it’s still very early days doesn’t seem quite as strange as it would be later in S1.

The moral of the story? True beauty comes from within (and not from drugs) or some such flim-flam. To be honest it’s not really convincing and the (sort of) happy ending – Eve (Karen Steele) catches the eye of a bluff miner – also feels a little uncomfortable.

There are some interesting nuggets of drama in the episode (Kirk is desperate to get more Lithium for the Enterprise, but the miners don’t want to sell). This results in Kirk uttering some not very veiled threats – an early sign that the Federation can’t always afford to take the moral high ground.  

Mudd’s Women is entertaining enough but fairly dispensible.

Star Trek – The Corbomite Manoeuvre

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This is a bit more like it. Now that Dr McCoy’s in place, Star Trek feels much more like Star Trek. Although it’s slightly jarring to hear Kirk call him “McCoy” rather than “Bones” everything else about their relationship feels right. This means that this episode – the first DeForrest Kelley recorded – could be broadcast later in the series one run without it seeming too out of place (which is what happened).

I do like the sight of sweaty Kirk (following a punishing medical from McCoy) casually strolling through the corridors. Clearly he doesn’t mind showing his pecs off to the lower orders.

Although Kirk later makes it quite clear to the increasingly hysterical helmsman, Bailey (Anthony Call), that the command structure of the Enterprise isn’t a co-operative, he does actually listen to the advice of both Spock and McCoy.

But as Spock says, Kirk ultimately tends to goes his own way (“Has it occurred to you that there’s a certain inefficiency in constantly questioning me on things you’ve already made up your mind about?”). That’s a nice building-block moment which helps to define the Kirk/Spock relationship.

Kirk’s interaction with McCoy is much more sparky – at one point we observe raised voices after McCoy questions whether Bailey is fit for duty.  Indeed he threatens to make it official. “I intend to challenge your actions in my records. I’ll state that I warned you about Bailey’s condition”.

But everything works out in the end as Bailey redeems himself.  True, Anthony Call is required to go soaringly over the top several times but this doesn’t feel too unrealistic (compare and contrast to The Next Generation, where everybody tends to exhibit a Zen-like calm whatever the situation).

The Corbomite Manoeuvre is the one with Balok, the alien who sports a permanently shocked expression and spends most of the episode threatening deadly vengeance.  That Kirk manages to outwit him with nothing more than a nice spot of bluffing feels satisfying.  This episode might be a bottle show which – on the surface – appears to move very slowly, but there’s plenty of character interest throughout (Scotty pipes up with a few witty comments, for example).

The modelwork and special effects stand up very well (good as the replacement CGI often is, I always prefer to watch the originals).

The Corbomite Manoeuvre would have made an excellent opening episode, so it’s a slight pity that it was shunted down the order somewhat.  Never mind, since the episodes can now be watched in any order, going down the production order route is one that I’d recommend.

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