Star Trek – The City on the Edge of Forever

Few Star Trek stories have generated quite the same level of debate and interest as The City on the Edge of Forever has.

It’s well known that the series often saw disgruntled writers irked at the way their scripts were reworked before they reached the screen, but no other scribe was quite as vocal about this issue as Harlan Ellison was. There’s plenty of additional reading for those interested – such as Ellison’s own book on the subject (which includes one of his draft scripts) and a graphic novel adapting his original screenplay.

Sometime, when I’ve a few days to spare, I’m going to investigate the whole saga in depth …

The television City opens with a mad McCoy on the rampage.  The way that McCoy accidentally skewers himself with a hypodermic full of Cordrazine feels a tad unsatisfactory. Cordrazine is an excellent plot contrivance drug, filling the subject with an overwhelming sense of paranoia and delusion (thereby turning the normally rational McCoy into the ideal sort of person to drive the story forwatd).

Bones beams down to a nearby planet filled with Ionic columns (for some unspecified reason) and a mysterious, if rather cheap looking, edifice who grandly proclaims himself to be the Guardian of Forever.

If a wacky, out of control McCoy is plot contrivance number one, then the Guardian’s time portal (a magic door which provides the user with a gateway to their own past) is number two. But let’s not niggle – once McCoy has jumped through the portal (and changed time in a dramatic fashion) we know that the preamble is over.

Kirk and Spock follow him through to 1930’s depression era America. Their mission? Find McCoy and ensure that time is placed back on the right track.

We’ve sort of been here a few times before (or rather alien planets which resembled this era) so it’s not quite novel. But it’s still fun to see Kirk and Spock – fishes out of water – learning to adapt to this strange new world. Stealing some clothes seems quite straightforward, until they run into a police officer ….

Shatner and Nimoy deadpan nicely as Kirk and Spock attempt to explain Spock’s strange appearance (he’s Chinese and caught his ears in a mechanical picker when he was a child). This is a bit silly (and ever so slightly racist) but there’s something appealing about the way the pair seem to be slightly more relaxed and off-duty in this new world.

The arrival of a soft focus Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), who runs the 21st Street Mission, changes the tone of the story. Immediately the soundtrack gets very string heavy and Kirk begins to pay close attention to Ms Keeler. Joan Collins! Her appearance is obviously one of the reasons why this story has retained a certain profile.

Edith turns out to be a prophet as somehow she’s able to picture a future where mighty starships explore the galaxy (Jim’s obviously impressed with this). Quite why she’s decided to share this news with the down and outs at the Mission is something I’ve never been able to work out. Presumably they view her ramblings as a reasonable price to pay for a bowl of soup and a warm fire.

Jim and Edith’s budding relationship is developed rather charmingly. The recurring musical motif of Goodnight Sweetheart is a nice touch from Fred Steiner and helps to bolster the romantic mood. 

The happy times they spend together makes the sucker punch in which Spock sees two futures for her (one where she lives, the other where she dies) all the more powerful. Even with a third of the story to go, it seems horribly likely that Edith will have to be sacrificed in order to put time back on the right lines again.

We then learn that Edith Keeler will later form the peace party and inadvertently help Hitler win WW2. Needless to say this is a tough thing to swallow (little Edith did that all by herself?) but it has to be something that substantial to explain why Kirk would be prepared to let her die.

The ending is as gut-wrenching today as it no doubt was back then. Shatner is spot on as Kirk wrestles with his dilemma – if he saves Edith then he will condemn countless unborn millions to death. We know that Kirk will do the right thing, but it’s plain that the cost will hang heavy with him. Shatner doesn’t overdo it, but still does enough to convince the audience that Kirk is a shattered man by the time the credits roll.

Few Star Trek episodes end in such a downbeat fashion as this one, but any attempt to lighten the mood just wouldn’t have worked. For all that the script was a heavily rewritten compromise, it still stands as one of the finest from all three series.

Star Trek – Errand of Mercy

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The Federation is at war with the Klingon Empire. This all seems a bit sudden (after all, we’ve never heard of the Klingons before) but that’s one of the drawbacks of episodic television ….

The Klingons are presented to us as violent, oppressive and cruel. You can take them to be either crude caricatures of the Russians or the Chinese (the original script highlighted their Oriental features).  We don’t learn a great deal about their Empire in this story (save that they love conquest) but it’s plain that they’ve been designed as the antithesis of the Federation.

Organia is the first battleground. A strategically important planet, Kirk has orders to ensure it doesn’t fall into Klingon hands (he is authorised to take any steps necessary).  As you might expect with a Gene L. Coon script, this is a pretext for a rather stinging anti-war story.

I can’t think of many other Star Trek episodes which so dismantles the character of Jim Kirk, revealing the flawed man behind the heroic image.  His bad day begins when we witness him being totally infuriated with the council of Elders, led by Ayelborne (John Abbott).  Their smiling passivity and total reluctance either to defend themselves or ally to the Federation baffles him.

Kirk attempts to paint a bleak picture about what life under the Klingons would be like (massive slave labour camps) and then counters this with a rosy vision about how they would flourish as a member of the Federation.

We can be of immense help to you. In addition to military aid, we can send you specialists, technicians. We can show you how to feed a thousand people where one was fed before. We can help you build schools, educate the young in the latest technological and scientific skills. Your public facilities are almost non-existent. We can help you remake your world, end disease, hunger, hardship. All we ask in return is that you let us help you. Now.

All this is no doubt true, but we’ve already been told that Kirk has to acquire the planet for the Federation, so his actions aren’t motivated by simple altruism.  And if the war intensifies, no doubt this planet would suffer no matter who was in charge. The way that the Organians politely decline with a tinge of sarcasm (“we thank you for your altruistic offer, Captain, but we really do not need your protection”) is delightfully done.

Errand of Mercy benefits enormously from two excellent guest performances.  Firstly, John Abbot as Ayelborne.  And secondly John Colicos, who is splendid as the Klingon commander Kor.  Shatner always worked well when put up against strong guest actors and one of the chief joys of this episode is watching Shatner and Colicos face off.  Kor is no simple-minded savage – he may be brutal (although like Kirk he’s only obeying orders) but he’s also articulate and bleakly amusing.

Kor finds Kirk to be a kindred spirit.  Once Kirk is in his power, Kor is keen for the pair of them to share a drink and have a chat about the concept of war.  And however much Kirk might protest that he’s nothing like the Klingons, everything we’ve seen so far would suggest otherwise ….

Coon delivers so many very quotable lines. As the story progresses, it’s difficult to work out who despises the Organions more – Kirk or Kor. Kor articulates his worldview. “Here we are on a planet of sheep. Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great. And there is a universe to be taken”.

The climax of the story – Kirk, Kor and their two battlefleets are rendered null and void by the Organians – is a breath-taking moment, not least for the manic way that both Kirk and Kor react.  Kirk’s beside himself that someone has dared to stop him fighting (ironic, given how often he’s meddled in the affairs of other planets).

The end of the episode reveals that the Organians are impossibly highly advanced and only took human shape in order to give the Federation and the Klingons a reference point.  This leaves a few questions dangling (indeed there are a few plot holes throughout the episode) but these minor niggles don’t really affect the story too badly.

The Klingon make-up may not look too good today, but that’s about the only negative I can find in a story which I’ve always been happy to place in the top tier.

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Star Trek – The Devil In The Dark

On the surface The Devil In The Dark seems to be little more than a pulpy melodrama. Kirk and the others have beamed down to Janus IV, a mining planet under attack from a mysterious creature.

The incidental music is ramped up, everybody’s playing it very grim, and the luckless extras continue to die – fried to a crisp by something which lurks in the dark.

But since it become clear that the theme of the episode is concerned with not judging by appearances, maybe it’s best not to be too hasty about the nature of the story ….

The pre-credits teaser is an interesting one. There’s no sign of the Enterprise crew, instead we follow the beleaguered miners as they attempt to defend themselves. Chief Engineer Vanderberg (Ken Lynch) might be bullish, but you just know that one of his hapless subordinates (left all alone in the caves) is fated to have a very short lifespan.

The caves themselves look quite good  (although maybe the lighting is a little too bright). But there’s no disguising the smooth studio floor, which is a problem also encountered in many Doctor Who cave based stories.

These early scenes seem to be setting us up for a tense story in which Kirk and co battle it out with this unseen attacker. The importance of Janus IV is made clear – its mineral wealth keeps a number of Federation planets functioning – so any interruption to the mining schedule will cause untold deaths (in addition to the many fatalities already recorded on this planet).

At this point, nobody seems to query whether the indengeous creature has a greater claim to the bountiful natural resources of Janus IV than the Federation does. The imperialist nature of the Federation is clearly laid out – here’s a planet rich with mineral resources, the Federation needs them, the Federation will take them.

William Shatner’s father died during the recording of this episode. Always the pro, he carried on and turned in a really nice performance. I especially liked the non-verbal moment when Kirk viewed the charred remains of another dead redshirt. Grief, mixed with a determination to press on, was shown on his face.

The triumvirate of Kirk/Spock/McCoy are all working well today. Bones utters, for the first time, his signature “I’m a doctor not a …” . In this case a bricklayer (when he comes face to face with the silicon based Horta).

There’s some nice tension between Kirk and Spock. Kirk is initially in something of a bloodthirsty mood – the Horta has to be killed and as quickly as possible – whilst Spock is driven by a sense of scientific curiosity. At this point the audience can choose who they want to side with – Kirk for vegence or Spock for compassion. 

Although when the Horta directly threatens Jim, Spock is quick to change his point of view (telling Kirk to destroy the creature immediately …)

There’s no getting away from the fact that the Horta looks very silly (its initial appearance is certainly one moment when the caves weren’t nearly dark enough). Spock’s mind meld with the creature is another eyebrow raising scene but all of this is worth it for the final reveal – the Horta isn’t naturally aggressive, it’s only been acting in self defence.

It’s a lovely twist, although you have to say that it’s taken a while for the series to have reached this point. For example, nobody shed any tears for the salt monster in The Man Trap, even though it was the last of its kind.

The Devil In The Dark is another quality episode from Gene L. Coon. As we’ve come to expect with his scripts, the Federation is far from the enlightened force for scientific good it would later become. Instead, it’s much more of a colonial power – ruthlessly annexing Janus IV and then preparing to beat off attacks from the natives.

There mighr be a happy ending – the miners and the Horta come to a friendly arrangement – but this doesn’t lessen the cynical nature of certain parts of the story. It’s just a shame that the design of the Horta itself means that many casual viewers will probably struggle to take the episode that seriously.

Star Trek – This Side of Paradise

The Enterprise arrives at Omicron Ceti III, a planet where it’s believed that – following a deadly bombardment of Berthold rays some years ago – the Federation colonists would have all perished. However that’s far from the case – everyone is hale and hearty and apparently living in a state of paradise.  Quickly all of the Enterprise crew, apart from Kirk, fall under the spell of some mysterious flowers and the tranquilising spores of peace and love they spurt out  ….

This Side of Paradise, a thinly veiled critique of the hippy movement, finds the series coming down firmly on the side of the establishment.  The fact that Omicron Ceti III is as close to an idyll you could hope to find cuts no ice with Kirk, who rarely has any patience with this sort of thing (see also The Apple, if you dare, in series two).

It’s interesting to note that the spores aren’t presented as controlling or evil. They need a human host to survive, but there’s no sense of malignancy. Indeed, the fact that they’ve given Sandoval (Frank Overton) a healthy appendix back to him has to be a mark in their favour.

The way that that everybody on the planet has elected to tune in and turn on seems to be the thing which most irritates Kirk (and no doubt Gene Roddenberry).  Star Trek may champion the individual, but also – especially in its first incarnation – strongly believed that the individual had an obligation towards society.  So by electing to cut themselves off from the rest of the universe, the inhabitants of Omicron Ceti III have abdicated this responsibility.

Kirk’s is later given a speech which sets out his vision of the universe. “Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums”.  The phrase “sound of drums” has an interesting warlike feel to it.

One of the key parts of This Side of Paradise is observing how Spock transforms from his usual totally buttoned-up persona into the loving companion of Leila Kalomi (Jill Ireland).  It’s – of course – a great showcase for Nimoy, especially since you realise that this could only ever be a temporary escape for Mr Spock. The series format dictates that he’ll have to be locked back into his emotional prison by the end of the episode.

In some ways Kirk finds himself cast in the role of Spock’s spurned lover, desperate to break up the relationship between his second in command and Leila. And although Kirk is aware that his master-plan to snap Spock out of his loving daydream is dangerous (due to Spock’s great strength) he still goes ahead with it. Why not target McCoy or Sulu first?

Certainly if Kirk/Spock slash is your thing then there’s plenty of interest in this episode.  Not least when the pair decide to settle their differences by getting physical ….

This Side of Paradise is an acknowledgment of the way that Spock had become something of a sex-symbol by this point.  Kirk might be the more conventional leading man, but there was clearly something about Spock which caught the imagination of a good section of the audience (no doubt to William Shatner’s irritation).

The original draft centered around Sulu – which would have given his character a much needed boost – but I think that re-writing it for Spock was the right decision.  Jill Ireland gives a nice performance as Leila, even if her first scene rather overdoses on the soft focus. 

Kirk’s master plan to destroy the spores (he realises that anger is key) is a neatly ironic twist (fighting peace with violence). And the image of Kirk alone on the Enterprise is a memorable moment. With all of his crew having mutinied and transported down to the planet in double-quick time, he briefly cuts a desolate and defeated figure.

This Side of Paradise contains plenty of interest for the Spock fan, or indeed the Kirk/Spock fan. 

Star Trek – Space Seed

The Enterprise encounters an apparently derelict late twentieth century spaceship, the SS Botany Bay. On closer inspection it’s found to contain several hundred human beings who have been held in a state of suspended animation for over two hundred years.

Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), is revived. Strangely charismatic to some, his dreams of conquest are as strong now as they were back in the 1990’s ….

Space Seed is held to be something of a classic, although it’s always been one that I’ve never really engaged with. Ricardo Montalban lights up the screen whenever he’s on, but Khan’s relationship with the hapless historian  Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) has always irritated me.

It’s nice to have a meaty guest role for a female, but a shame that McGivers is such a limp and easily manipulated character. That she’s held in mild contempt by Kirk is made clear right at the start, when he struggles to get her name correct (his tone also implies that as a historian she doesn’t fulfil any useful function aboard the Enterprise).

This seems harsh, but when they beam over to the Botany Bay you have to concede that he may have a point. The moment McGivers claps eyes on Khan she goes more than a little weak at the knees. That she suddenly falls head over heels in love with him does stretch credibility a little (although it’s later explained that she has a thing for dominant men from history).

As you’d expect, there’s oodles of soft focus shots of Rhue as Khan effortlessly seduces McGivers. He pulls out the old “your hair would look better down” line which never gets old ….

If Khan had used some form of mind control on her, rather than simply his own ripling testosterone, possibly I wouldn’t have such an issue with the story. Especially since we then have to accept that McGivers is quite happy to betray her colleagues and help Khan take control of the Enterprise.

The moral of the story seems to be that women (even ones from the future) are easily dominated and require a forceful man to keep them in line. Hnm. It’s consistent with some of the previous first season stories, but no less easy to stomach.

Elsewhere, there’s some nice background to the Eugenics wars of the 1990’s (a far off period of time back in the sixties). Mind you, given that Khan ruled a large part of the world for a number of years, it’s slightly strange that nobody recognised him to begin with, not even the historian McGivers.

Remaining in nit-pick mode, the instrumentation of the Botany Bay doesn’t look any less advanced than that of the Enterprise (given the age of the vessel this is remarkable). And given how long it took Khan to wake up, it’s amazing that he’s able to nip over to the Botany Bay and seemingly revive all his crew in a matter of minutes.

Highlights of the episode include McCoy’s face off with Khan. Khan, having just woken up, puts one hand around Bones’ throat and holds a knife there with the other. “Well either choke me or cut my throat. Make up your mind”. I love Bones.

The latter part of the episode ramps up the action as Khan takes over the Enterprise. This he does with embarrassing ease, but since he’s already been described as a superman I suppose this sort of thing comes naturally to him.

The climatic fight between Kirk and Khan is a good one, provided you can ignore the rather obvious doubles. And McGivers does eventually come good, which gives Kirk the excuse to bundle her off with Khan to the inhospitable planet Citi Alpha 5 (we’d have to wait until 1982 to find out how things worked out for them).

A story of two halves then, with the second much more engaging than the first.

Star Trek – A Taste of Armageddon

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The Enterprise has travelled to Eminiar VII. Onboard is Ambassador Robert Fox (Gene Lyons), a man desperately keen to establish diplomatic relations with this mysterious and isolated planet. Kirk and a small landing party beam down, but whilst the locals are initially polite, the situation doesn’t stay stable for long.

Eminiar VII has been at war with a neighbouring planet, Vendikar, for five hundred years. The attacks may only be virtual (plotted by computer simulation) but the casualties are horribly real. Once the lists are totalled, the victims of each pretend attack have twenty four hours to present themselves to the nearest disintegration chamber.

The Enterprise has been declared a casualty of war, which means that every man and woman onboard is effectively dead ….

A Taste of Armageddon has an intriguing science-fiction concept, the problem is that it’s difficult to imagine any civilisation actually carrying such a crackpot scheme through (and for five hundred years no less).  We’re told that three million people are sacrificed each year – multiply that figure by five hundred and it becomes even harder to believe.

I’m also mildly amused by the fact that each disintegration chamber only takes one person at a time.  This must mean there has to be tens of thousands of them dotted around the cities – which is possible, if a little odd.  Surely after five hundred years they would have come up with a more efficient way of culling their population.

Possibly if the war had only lasted twenty years or so and the casualties had run into the thousands rather than millions each year it would have been easier to stomach.  But science fiction often likes to play with big concepts (it rather comes unstuck here though).

The fact that Eminiar VII is the planet of the silly hats is another problem, as is the total absence of any representatives from Vendikar.  Apart from a number of non-speaking extras, Eminiar VII is represented by two people – the ruler Anan Five (David Opatoshu) and the rather attractive Mea 3 (Barbara Babcock).

This is obviously a bit limiting in terms of creating a picture of a rounded civilisation – Opatoshu is fine as the smoothly silky diplomat who nevertheless will do whatever it takes to keep the war on a level footing but Babcock is rather wasted in a role that doesn’t really go anywhere.

It’s not all bad though. Scotty being left in charge of the Enterprise is a real treat.  As we’ve seen before, he’s a man who’s cool in a crisis (and is easily able to hold his own against the pig-headed Fox).  Scotty’s mournful remark that “the haggis is in the fire now” after Fox threatens to send him to a penal colony for disobeying his orders is such a stupid line that I can’t help but love it.

William Shatner is a bit more staccato than usual, although Kirk does have some good scenes towards the end of the episode as he attempts to bluff Anan Five into capitulating by threatening to destroy the planet (or was he not bluffing?).  Leonard Nimoy is also the recipient of a few nice little character moments, which helps to enliven the middle part of the episode.

The three redshirts who accompany Kirk and Spock down to the planet are incredibly anonymous. Yeoman Tamura (Miko Mayama) did catch my eye, but then she was very pretty ….

As I’ve probably said before, I like my Star Trek to err on the cynical side. A Taste of Armageddon fits the bill nicely in this respect – Ambassador Fox is a man prepared to do anything in order to establish diplomatic relations with Enimiar VII.  Even if it means using force, no doubt.  This paints the Federation less as an altruistic organisation dedicated to peaceful exploration and more as a military outfit keen to grab a foothold in a strategically important area of space.

Provided you don’t think about the plot too deeply, this is an episode that flits by in a very agreeable way.  Yes, everything’s wrapped up a little too neatly – a five hundred year war sorted out by Kirk in a few minutes – but that’s the nature (and one of the drawbacks) of episodic television.

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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.