Star Trek – The Return of the Archons

The Return of the Archons mixes together several story ideas which even this early on feel like Star Trek archetypes (computers with ideas above their station and an alien civilisation modellIng their architecture and fashion sense on the Earth).

The show has already established that the galaxy is a vast, lonely place.  That the USS Archon (which provides us with the reason why the Enterprise has journeyed to Beta III) was reported missing nearly 100 years ago bears this out.

It seems that if you get into a scrape out here then it’s best to use your own ingenuity as no-one is going to come riding to your rescue. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Kirk feels justified in taking the law into his own hands.

Unlike Miri, which mentioned how strange it was that an alien society had aped the fashions of Earth, Archons quite wisely ignores this.  The real-world reason (it’s cheaper to use an existing backlot and costumes off the peg than it would have been to construct an alien town and create space-age fashions) is obvious, but it’s not really a problem.

In Tomorrow is Yesterday, Kirk was happy to beam down to present day Earth in his Starfleet uniform. But here the landing party makes much more of an effort (donning  appropriate period clothes).  A small touch, but it’s an indictor that this episode has a more serious tone.

The festival – a strict period of time where the usually docile inhabitants of Beta III are allowed to rape and murder at will – is a bizarre concept.  It certainly helps to give the episode a little extra spice.

There’s plenty to chew over in the script, although much is open to interpretation.  Is the mysterious and all-powerful Landru supposed to be a critique of organised religion?  The monk-like robes worn by Landru’s chosen ones, the Lawgivers, would suggest so.

But it’s also possible to read Landru as a piece of anti-communist propaganda. “Your individuality will merge into the unity of the good, and in your submergence into the common being of the body, you will find contentment and fulfilment. You will experience the absolute good”.

Nineteen Eighty Four looks to have been an inspiration as well (for the festival, see the two-minute hate – a somewhat more condensed, but similar, idea).

The way that McCoy and Sulu are brainwashed into total obedience is very jarring, especially Bones – who has always been the epitome of good-humoured common sense. Sulu – who gets the Landru treatment in the pre-credits teaser – is gifted a brief scene in which he’s required to do a spot of acting. It seems to have been quite a while since Sulu has done anything interesting.

Archons is the first episode to mention the Prime Directive, but Jim is quick to find a loophole. When Spock reminds him that the Prime Directive forbids interference in other civilisations, Kirk snaps back that the rule “refers to a living, growing culture. Do you think this one is?”.  That’s something of a fine distinction.

Kirk feels entirely justified in destroying Landru, since it means that democracy will be brought to a society which has been suffering under an autocratic ruler. But we’ve seen throughout history the problems caused when civilisations are tampered with. Sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not.

Star Trek would make several coded references to the Vietnam war throughout its three year television mission.  The series tended to be rather fluid (depending on the sensibilities of the specific scriptwriter) about whether American involvement there was a good or bad thing.  Archons is one where you feel that they’re firmly in the pro camp. 

Kirk doesn’t waste any time asking the inhabitants of Beta III whether they’d like to remain under the rule of Landru.  He’s decided their future for them and that’s that ….

Harry Townes gives a nice performance as Reger, one of the few not to follow the will of Landru. It feels rather contrived that Kirk and the others are directed to him with such alacrity – but the story needed someone like Reger to quickly fill the viewers in about how Beta III functioned. 

Return of the Archons doesn’t exactly have a watertight plot (just what is the point of the festival?) but everything is played with conviction and that helps to keep things ticking over nicely.

 

Star Trek – Tomorrow Is Yesterday

Tomorrow Is Yesterday has a wonderfully disorienting pre-credits teaser. Most episodes to date have opened with a shot of the Enterprise orbiting the planet of the week. But today we begin on twentieth century Earth, which means that for a few moments it’s possible to believe that the wrong channel has been selected and this isn’t Star Trek  after all …

Normal service is resumed after we see the Enterprise (a little wobbly, it’s true) moving through the sky. But an intriguing mystery has been established. How and why have they travelled back through time?

There’s a mundane reason for this atypical opening (the episode was originally planned as the second of a two-parter, following The Naked Time) but no matter, it still works.

The reason why the Enterprise has taken a trip back to the 1960’s won’t detain us for too long (something about the effects of tangling with a high gravity black star).  It makes little sense, but then neither does the way they return to their own time. A little more on that later.

Briefly the episode has a serious and downbeat tone. Captain John Christopher (Roger Perry) is a US pilot sent to investigate a mysterious UFO (which of course is the Enterprise). Beamed aboard, he’s aghast to be told by Kirk that they can’t return him  – he’s glimpsed the future and so could cause untold damage to the timelines if he went back.

There was scope for an interesting story to be crafted out of this dilemma – how Christopher would have adjusted to life in the future – but this wasn’t that episode. Spock quickly realises that they have to send him back (Christopher’s unborn son will become an important figure in the development of space travel) and so the romp begins.

It’s easy to see how the basic plot was recycled for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. There’s no whales, but the concept of Kirk and co carrying out a secret mission on contemporary Earth, bamboozling hapless officials as they go, feels very similar.

Kirk and Sulu beam down to the airbase, intent on removing all photographic evidence of the Enterprise’s existence. Kirk gets himself captured, but not before William Shatner has indulged in a fight with several soldiers that’s played purely for laughs. His later interrogation is pretty chuckleworthy too (especially the comment about his uniform). Shatner’s clearly having a ball in these scenes.

If it wasn’t obvious that Tomorrow Is Yesterday was the series’ most comic offering to date, then the soundtrack tends to hammer this point home at every available opportunity. For example, whenever Kirk talks to the computer (which now has a female personality and is deeply in love with him). Yes, it’s that sort of story.

If the reason for the Enterprise’s arrival in the twentieth century lacks a little logic, then that’s nothing compared to the plan cooked up by Spock and Scotty to get them back to where they belong. Best not to worry about this though, just go with the flow. The reset button solution does solve the problem of Christopher (not to mention another hapless individual who also got beamed up) but it’s also a massive contrivance.

Mind you, there are some episodes where I find plot-holes to be annoying and others (like this one) where I’m inclined to be more forgiving. Tomorrow Is Yesterday is frothy, uncomplicated fun and therefore impossible not to enjoy.

Star Trek – The Alternative Factor

Some Star Trek episode titles conjure up strong images. Mention Arena for example and visions of Kirk and the Gorn slugging it out man-o-lizard instantly comes to mind. Others like The Alternative Factor are a bit more of a mystery. That is until we’re a few minutes in and I realise that it’s the one with Lazurus (Robert Brown). Uh oh, we’ve got a bumpy ride ahead ….

To begin at the beginning. There’s a fine example of throwing yourself about acting (to simulate extreme turbulence) during the pre-credits teaser. Most science fiction series required this skill, but The Alternative Factor is an object lesson in how it should be done.

Continuing to watch the series in production order throws up some interesting storytelling quirks. This is the second episode in a row where Kirk gets very gung-ho, ordering a red alert and convincing himself that an invasion is just round the corner.

The episode also reiterates the notion that it’s a big galaxy out there. The Enterprise is required to face a mysterious phenomenon (which may be natural or could be alien-made) alone – no other ship will be able to reach them in time.

This is partly budget related of course, but it also works from a story-telling point of view. The way that Kirk and his crew are cast in the roles of pioneers, exploring uncharted terrority, raises the stakes (there’s no starbase to run to when the going gets tough).

The production was affected by John Drew Barrymore electing to leave the role of Lazarus at the last minute (during the first morning of filming in fact). Robert Brown, drafted in as a very hasty replacement, therefore had a tough task, so we should cut him some slack.

Brown’s performance is very full on (to put it mildly). But he could only work with the material he was given. The script is … not good. There’s some interesting concepts at work – Lazarus is at war with an anti-matter version of himself – but the realisation is a very muddled. After a while my attention tends to drift as Lazarus simply isn’t that engaging a character. A little of his fire and brimstone raving goes a long way with me.

There are still some incidental pleasures to be found though. I love the wonderfully blunt way Spock tells Lazarus that he’s lying. It seems rude, but Spock is able to explain this away with logic (of course).

Also noteworthy is the appearance of a black female lieutenant who isn’t Uhrua. Lt. Charlene Masters (Janet MacLachlan) doesn’t have the largest role, but at least Masters isn’t as feeble as some of the wilting Enterprise females we’ve seen so far this year.

Earlier drafts did feature her more prominently though. A romance between Lazarus and Masters might have been interesting, but that was one of many ideas which ended up getting cut (the interracial angle was a concern to the network).

Oh, and Bones referring to himself as a humble country doctor is delightful.

Overall, this isn’t very good at all, but then you can’t strike gold every week. Indeed, given the fact that the first season ran for twenty nine episodes it’s remarkable that the general quality remained very high.

Star Trek – Arena

Arena begins in a rather jolly way, but this mood doesn’t last. Jim and Bones are both licking their lips in anticipation of their visit to a colony planet called Cestus III. The Commodore (an old friend of Kirk’s) is renowned for the quality of his food and drink (Spock, of course, doesn’t join in with their banter).

This moment of levity is all the more effective for the way the episode sharply gear-changes after Kirk and co beam down and discover that Cestus III is a total ruin. By great good fortune (or plot contrivance) there’s a survivor. Kirk is keen for McCoy to keep him alive – but more because he has vital information about the attack, rather than out of any concern for his well-being.

Kirk might seem a little cold here, but it’s a good indicator of his military training kicking in (something which he hasn’t had to use too often during this first season, Balance of Terror being a notable exception). 

The tension ramps up a little more after Sulu reports that the Enterprise is under attack. Another nice Kirk character beat is shown here – he tells Sulu not to lower the shields in order to beam them back. That could leave the Enterprise vulnerable and the ship has to take precedence over individual lives. The needs of the many …

The early part of the episode, operating rather like a war film, is very atypical of the series to date. Most of the adversaries faced so far have either been singular (Charlie, the Salt Monstet, the Squire of Gothos) or abstract (the virus in The Naked Time).

The relentless barrages faced by Kirk and the others (very decent explosions, clearly this episode had a healthy budget) creates a feeling of dread as see see Kirk’s small gang getting picked off by their unseen adversaries.

Arena could have remained on Cestus III, but instead the remains of the landing party are finally able to beam back up (the alien vessel has disengaged). This feels a little pat, but no matter – the preamble is over and we’re now heading into the heart of the story.

It’s interesting the way that Kirk (based on very little evidence) is convinced that the alien’s intention has to be invasion. Spock seems to struggle with this concept for a few seconds before loyally agreeing with his captain.

Kirk decides that if they pursue and destroy the alien ship then the other aliens won’t dare to move against them in the future.  Mmm, okay. I can see a few flaws with this line of reasoning, but given the way the story plays out that was no doubt intentional

Kirk, still reeling from the destruction of the colony, appears to have vengeance on his mind. But he also tells Spock that “it’s a matter of policy”, which suggests that he’s not just acting from bloodlust (he’s also obeying standing Starfleet orders).

Kirk’s attempt to blast the alien vessel comes to naught after he and the captain of the other ship, a race we now discover are called the Gorn, are plucked from their respective vessels by the all-powerful Metrons.

The Metrons are somewhat irked to discover that their section of space has been invaded and have decided that Kirk and the Gorn should face each other in single combat. The winner’s ship will be allowed to leave, the loser’s ship destroyed …

It’s usually around this point that I have a hankering to watch the Blakes 7 episode Duel.

When Kirk disappears from the bridge, Uhura lets out a piercing scream. Not the behaviour you’d expect from a trained professional, but it fits with the series’ general treatment of females to date.

And then we meet the Gorn. He looks a bit silly doesn’t he? Maybe it’s all the grrrring and chuckling, or possibly it’s the fact his mask looks a little too much like a mask. His little tabard, which barely covers his alien modesty, is also worthy of a mention.

I have to confess that this is the point in the story where my attention starts to wander, especially since the Gorn isn’t a great conversationalist (at least to begin with). Shatner puts his all into the action scenes (surprisingly his shirt doesn’t get ripped) and also does his best to convince us that the lightweight rocks he tangles with actually weigh a ton. That’s something they can’t teach you in acting school.

Eventually Kirk and the Gorn are able to communicate. Once they do so it’s remarkable how the Gorn becomes less of a monster and more of an individual. The moral of the story then follows – aftet sparing the Gorn’s life, Kirk has proved to the Metrons that mankind might just have a future. Kirk’s refusal to allow the alien ship to be destroyed is another mark in his favour.

But Kirk is still shown to be a flawed hero. His initial desire to destroy the Gorn ship could have triggered a war. Whilst Kirk strong-arms it down on the planet, Spock and McCoy – watching events on the scanner screen – are able to discuss the nuances of their situation. Were the Gorn acting in self-defence on Cestus III? If so, their actions would be a little more understandable.

But that doesn’t explain who sent the faked messages which lured the Enterprise to the destroyed colony. The Gorn? That suggests a degree of cold-blooded calculation which doesn’t square with the Gorn’s claims that the human colonists had invaded their area of space and they only attacked them in self defence (which is a shaky enough argument anyway). Maybe this plot point got overlooked during the various rewrites.

The very silly-looking Gorn is a bit of a problem and the moral is ladled on rather thickly, but there’s still plenty of interest to be found in Arena. Generally anything with Gene L. Coon’s name on it is a sign of quality (I don’t think he should shoulder all the blame for Spock’s Brain).

I still prefer Duel though. It has Isla Blair for one thing …

Star Trek – The Squire of Gothos

We’re treading familiar territory in today’s episode – Kirk and the others facing someone with godlike powers (just like Where No Man Has Gone Before or Charlie X) – but The Squire of Gothos still engages and maintains a high level of interest from beginning to end.

A big part of this is down to William Campbell’s performance as Trelane (it’s an excellent guest turn – one of Star Trek‘s best).  Like Charlie, Trelane increasingly acts like a petulant child, which makes the final reveal (he actually is a sort of child in a man’s body) all the more satisfying.

Living in a sumptuous mansion decorated with twentieth century objet d’art (as well as some highly recognisable Star Trek memorabilia) Trelane toys with Kirk and the others in an amused, but disinterested way.  He can freeze people or alter matter at will, but these examples of his power may just be the tip of the iceberg.  We don’t learn a great deal about him – who or what he actually is – but this isn’t a problem. Indeed the fact that he’s such a nebulous character makes him all the more intriguing.

The way that Trelane places a cheery message – “greetings and felicitations” – on the Enterprise’s scanner screen is a wonderfully jolting moment.  The Enterprise in general, and the bridge in particular, always has the feeling of a safe haven – so to see it breached in such a casual way informs the viewer that today’s adversary is no run of the mill type.

Trelane is a keen student of Earth’s history, especially the wars, and expects Kirk to share his interest. “I want to learn all about your feelings on war and killing and conquest. That sort of thing”.  Of course Kirk doesn’t have a similar love of battle, but the episode doesn’t handle this in a heavy handed way (later iterations of Trek might have been a little more on the nose when discussing the way that today’s Earth people are obviously much more enlightened than the savages of the twentieth century).

Trelane and Kirk eventually fall out, seemingly because of the attention Tremane shows to Yeoman Teresa Ross (Venita Wolf). But in fact Kirk is only using Teresa as an excuse to test the limits of Trelaine’s abilities. 

This week’s fairly disposable female Yeoman, Teresa doesn’t really push forward the depiction of women in the Star Trek universe. Changed into a sumptious ball gown by Trelane, Teresa is relegated to the status of a decorative object, something which is confirmed when Trelane tells Kirk that they “fight for the attention, the admiration, the possession of women” (Teresa looks very nice but hardly says a word). 

Kirk being placed on trial by a vengeful Trelane works well. This is partly down to the enthusiastic way a be-wigged Campbell bangs his gavel, but also because of how simplistic the staging is. No doubt this was partly budget related, but the image of Kirk in the dock with a silhouette of a noose behind him is still a striking image.

Given Trelane’s unimaginable power, Kirk was never going to beat him in a fair fight. But the episode’s conclusion doesn’t feel like a cop out. In fact, the way that Trelane’s brittle bravado is pricked by his unseen parents (“stop that nonsense at once, or you’ll not be permitted to make any more planets”) is a very satisfying way to wrap things up.

Although primarily a Kirk story, Spock is also well served by Paul Schneider’s script. I especially love his confrontation with Trelane. “I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose”.

If I was one of those people who enjoyed making lists, then The Squire of Gothos would be pretty high up on my favourite episodes list.

Star Trek – Shore Leave

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Shore Leave is a highly enjoyable slab of fantasy. It’s best not to worry too much about the plot specifics, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Star Trek had ventured out of the studio a few times by this point, but mainly the location work hadn’t gone any further than the readily accessible back-lot sets. So this makes the glossy visuals of Shore Leave appear especially startling (no doubt the viewers appreciated the sunny vista just as much as the tired Enterprise crew). It’s certainly a change from the series’ more regular diet of identikit studio-bound planets.

Although Star Trek is probably fixed as a science fiction series in most people’s eyes, it wasn’t afraid of a touch of fantasy (although Shore Leave goes further than most stories in this respect). Eventually a rational explanation is given for all the weirdness (it’s the work of a highly advanced civilisation who conveniently live off-screen in a massive underground complex) but that’s a fairly cop-out resolution.  

If the network been prepared to embrace the fantasy concept it would have been interesting to have left the story resolution a little more opaque.

Very early on we’re primed to expect the unusual today. Bones’ encounter with a large bunny rabbit checking his watch is one of those magic Trek moments whilst Sulu has an entertaining tussle with a Samurai warrior. But the meeting between Yeoman Barrows (Emily Banks) and Don Juan feels much more problematic.

It’s easy to believe that Barrows’ part was originally written for the now departed Janice Rand, who was often at the mercy of predatory men.  Barrows is discovered in a dishevelled state with her clothing ripped, explaining that “it was so sort of story book walking around here, and I was thinking, all a girl needs is Don Juan”. We’re left with the uncomfortable implication that on some level Barrows had invited this assault.

Kirk needs to be cajoled by both Spock and McCoy to partake of some shore leave, even though his iron constitution is feeling the strain. There’s a gorgeous comic moment during the pre-credits sequence where we see a weary Kirk receiving a massage from (he thinks) Spock. But it was actually Barrows doing the work (which Kirk seems oddly disappointed about). There’s so much slash fiction fodder there ….

When he does beam down, Jim quickly embraces the planet whole-heartedly (casually dismissing the fears of another member of his away team). This is mainly because he runs into one of his old flames, Ruth (Shirley Bonne).

No doubt he finds that meeting up again with the cocky Finnegan (Bruce Mars), the bane of his Academy days, to be much less welcome.  Finnegan is (or more accurately, supposed to be) Irish, which means that the incidentals suddenly go into diddly-de overdrive.  This is not a good thing. But as compensation there’s a spot of classic Kirk shirt-ripping when he slugs it out, man to man, with Finnegan.

Bones is also having a fine old time, strolling through the woodland with the rather attractive Yeoman Barrows.  He seems keen to replace Don Juan in Barrows’ affections, but his advances come to an abrupt halt after he’s impaled by a lance wielding knight on horseback.  This sudden explosion of violence is very jarring – could McCoy really be dead?

Maybe he was, but the amazing restorative powers of the mysterious aliens who run this planet-sized theme park are able to patch him back together with very little fuss.  As mentioned before, you have to embrace this sort of plot contrivance in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of the episode.

McCoy seems no worse for his brush with death – squiring two lovely young ladies with a beaming grin on his face, it’s not difficult to work out what he’s going to be doing with the rest of his leave. And if not with them then maybe with the obliging Yeoman Barrows.

If you like your Star Trek grim and serious then the frivolity of Shore Leave might not appeal.  Personally, I’ve always been partial to a bit of whimsy so it’s always a pleasure to revisit this one.

It’s just a shame that William Shatner’s rash offer to wrestle a tiger (he felt it was just the sort of thing to add a little spice to the story) wasn’t taken up.  If he’d avoided being mauled to death, it would have made the episode just that little bit more special ….

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Star Trek – Court Martial

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Court Martial sounds like a winner (Kirk on trial) but sadly the finished episode is somewhat flawed. Don M. Mankiewicz’s draft script received a fairly drastic rewrite from story consultant Steven M. Carabatsos whilst post-production editing moved or cut various scenes (with the result that vital chunks of the plot feel like they’re missing).

Mankiewicz’s original premise – a cheap story confined to a single set – was opened up by Carabatsos but it’s debatable whether this actually strengthened the story or not. Although I do have a fondness for the concluding act – silly though it is ….

During an Ion storm, Kirk is forced to jettison a research pod containing Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Finney (Richard Webb).  Kirk maintains that the Enterprise was on red alert at the time, but the computer reports that the ship was only at yellow alert.  Kirk’s apparent perjury is enough to trigger a court martial.

An obvious weakness with this episode is the fact that we know everything’s going to work out in the end for Kirk, despite the evidence appearing to be completely damning.

But there are some good moments – such as the way Kirk’s old Academy pals give him the cold shoulder or the moment when Kirk angrily reacts to Commodore Stone’s attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet by asking him to resign.

As the court martial wears on, a battle plays out between Kirk and the computer. We’re told that “computers don’t lie” so it seems that Kirk must be the one who’s lying.  The conflict between man and machine crops up time and again in science fiction (just think how often Jon Pertwee’s Doctor berated the limitations of the machine mind).

This is a decent part of the episode (even the logical Spock is forced to admit that computers aren’t infallible). Indeed, the original drafts pushed this concept even further – originally the computer was shown to be sentient and had taken a strong dislike to Kirk, deciding all by itself to falsify the evidence.

Less successful is the allegation that Kirk jettisoned the pod out of a sense of malice. Evidence is brought to show that Finney’s career was seriously downgraded by Kirk, but we never believe for a moment that Jim would have acted at all incorrectly.  Indeed, Spock steps up to tell the jury that “it is impossible for Captain Kirk to act out of panic or malice. It is not his nature”.

By now you’ve probably realised the truth – an embittered Finney is alive and (sort of) well.  Having faked his own death and corrupted the computer, purely to bring shame and disgrace on Kirk, he’s now hiding in the bowels of the Enterprise.  Umm, okay.  Clearly Finney is far from the full shilling at the moment. Kirk ventures down to Engineering alone in order to face him.  Why? Because it makes for good drama I guess.

But although the logic of the story has thoroughly unravelled by this point, we can still enjoy the Kirk/Finney face-off.  The taunting Finney (“your own death would mean too little to you. But your ship .. it’s dead .. I’ve killed it”) is excellent value.  Finney – by attempting to target the Enterprise – has clearly chosen Kirk’s weak spot (and his one true love).

The inevitable fight then occurs. Whilst the pair are facing off, I like to simultaneously goggle at the obvious stunt doubles used whilst also marvelling at how easily Kirk’s shirt gets ripped. This always happened to him ….

Elisha Cook Jr. adds a touch of class to proceedings as Samuel T. Cogley,  Kirk’s defence attorney.  Although the way he abruptly vanishes before the end of the story is an illustration of messy editing fracturing the narrative flow.  As is a late voice-over from Kirk which attempts to paper over some of the other story cracks.

At one point Finney’s daughter looks to possess a vital piece of the puzzle (after talking to her, Cogley appears to have found a new line of defence) but it’s never made clear in the transmitted episode what this might be. A scene with her and Cogley returning to the Enterprise was filmed, but then cut. This is a pity (although it’s present in James Blish’s novelization).

Joan Marshall as Lt. Areel Shaw is rather watchable. An old flame of Kirk’s, she just happens to have been assigned to the court martial as its prosecutor. Starfleet (which is actually named for the first time in this episode) is clearly a small world ….

Court Martial is enjoyable enough (everybody looks very nice in their dress uniforms) but isn’t quite the finished article.  No matter, normal service will be resumed shortly.

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