Monday, March 31, 2014

Star Trek 1x14 "Balance of Terror"

rating: ****

Memory Alpha summary

"Balance of Terror" is easily one of the most remarkable episodes of the whole series, let alone first season, and since it's the debut of the Romulans, essential to the whole franchise.  It's the first time Star Trek got everything right the first shot, too.

So yeah, it's got a lot going for it.

It seems a little wrong, somehow, that the Romulans appeared for the first time before the Klingons.  Both have a claim to representing in the series the Cold War conflict.  The Romulans, I suppose, represented the more militaristic aspects, while the Klingons the cultural competition, which is certainly odd when you think of Klingons more as warriors and Romulans more for their isolated society.  But really, it makes sense.  Neither the Klingons nor Romulans actively fought against the Federation during Kirk's time.  As presented in this episode, there was a war between the Romulan Star Empire and the Federation about a century before, but that's a long time ago by any standard, future or otherwise.

The crucial thing about the episode is that Kirk doesn't even know what Romulans look like.  The past conflict was, of course, conducted entirely aboard starships.  That's perhaps how it's easy to understand the difference between the cold warriors of the series.  Klingons being more aggressive, they would be much more likely to present a personal appearance, whereas Romulans, who possess such technology as cloaking devices, are much more liable to keep to themselves, despite inclinations that lead to inevitable conflicts with its neighbors.

Anyway.  That's nearly beside the point.  The episode itself is like a fictional version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff that could potentially lead to a conflict neither side wants.  This leaves Kirk in his most dramatic moment of command yet, which makes the events of "The Corbomite Maneuver" a few episodes earlier pale in comparison, and reveals the true strength of his character.  He is a remarkably versatile individual, a real leader.  What's surprising is that the enemy matches him in every sense.  The enemy as a nuanced individual?  That's the true genius of this episode.  It dares to make such a case in the middle of the Cold War.

There was perhaps a thaw that had settled in between the real world forces.  By the second season, there would in fact be a Russian, an instantly beloved one, serving in Kirk's crew.  So it's perhaps not completely surprising that "Balance of Terror" could happen, but it's still the most mature, daring episode of the series yet, what it looks like at its best.

There's a fair bit of melodrama inserted into the story that serves as a little bit of distraction.  One of the better aspects of this element, however, is the bigotry Spock faces when the Romulans are revealed to be closely related to his Vulcan ancestors.  Seldom enough, Spock's heritage is addressed directly, as well as how it affects his place among a crew made up seemingly entirely of humans.  He's the alien in the room, most often viewed by fans as the classic observer but more accurately described as the outsider.  A few episodes later, "The Galileo Seven" presents this more directly, but "Balance" gets there first, another reason to consider this one a classic.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Mark Lenard
Lawrence Montaigne
Grace Lee Whitney

Friday, March 28, 2014

Star Trek 1x13 "The Conscience of the King"


If this episode were redone, chances are more people would care how traumatic it probably was for Kirk.  Also, the villain's name is Kodos.  And of course there is later a Klingon named Kang.  And now you know the origins of the names for those silly green aliens on The Simpsons.

But "Conscience of the King," other than sporting another early Shakespeare reference in the title of an episode, is about a mass murderer trying to run away from his horrendous past.  I'm certain this was quite a significant topic for people in the 1960s, when Nazis were still actively being brought to justice for their crimes during WWII.  As such, I will leave it in that context, rather than in direct reference to the later Deep Space Nine classic "Duet."  But these episodes are still similar in that respect.

What does Kirk's past have to do with it?  There was a colony he spent part of his youth growing up on (famously, as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek make plain, he's from Iowa), and this colony ceased to be thanks to Kodos the Executioner.  Whose name tells you everything you need to know about him.

The problem is, he escapes justice and later becomes an actor.  Now, the direct line from the title comes from Hamlet, and evokes comparisons that are not really all that accurate.  The conscience in Hamlet has to do with one death, not genocide.  You'll remember, though, that in slightly more direct line, there's a play involved wherein said conscience is supposed to be exposed.  And so that's more or less this episode, a thin borrowing of a few elements from classic literature and real world events.

Not especially the most elegant.  I'd say the whole thing could really be improved.  And I'll basically leave it at that.

Striving for greatness and profundity.  Maybe you think this episode reached these lofty goals.  But I'd say this was a stepping stone to others that did.  But certainly not the article itself.

franchise * series * essential * character

Memory Alpha summary

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Star Trek 1x11/1x12 "The Menagerie"


"The Menagerie," in the off-chance you've actually seen "The Cage," the original pilot, probably has a ton of familiar material.  That would be because it basically is "The Cage."

It's also the first two-part episode in franchise history.  Although I will limit my thoughts to a single entry, because for all intents and purposes, there are very few distinguishing elements between the two installments.  It's basically one long episode.  Because it has one episode, stuck in the middle of another episode.

And it's probably the better for it.  Easily one of the most clever things the series ever did, sort of like "Trials and Tribble-ations" from Deep Space Nine, well before the fact, splicing disparate stories together in the most literal way possible.

This is one of those TV experiences that asks you to believe memory can look exactly, well, like a TV experience.  Mission recorders happened to capture every moment of the events from "The Cage" (calling the NSA!) so that they could later be played back at Spock's trial.

Spock's trial???  Yes.  And that's another part of the cleverness on display.  Spock is clearly in the scenes from "The Cage."  So he's our link between these stories.  So when everyone's trying to figure out what's going on with Captain Pike (memorably depicted in a catatonic state in a futuristic...boxy wheelchair device; not depicted by original actor Jeffrey Hunter, by the way), and clearly Spock has been aiding in his shenanigans, our Vulcan friend is strongly believed to have gone rogue.

There are other episodes in the franchise where characters seem to have gone rogue when they really haven't ("The Enterprise Incident" from this series, for instance, or "Clues" from The Next Generation), by the way, as well as others where a main character is put on trial ("The Drumhead" from Next Generation, "Rules of Engagement" from Deep Space Nine, "Judgment" from Enterprise, and of course Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

The last clever element I'll mention is that "Menagerie" is not just "Cage" repackaged, but also, incredibly, a sequel.  It explains how one series of events leads to another, and actually provides resolution to the earlier ones.  As such it is the earliest serialized storytelling of the franchise, although no one really knew that at the time, because "Cage" really didn't exist as far as most people were aware.

It also, besides, provides layers of history.  Spock's prior service acknowledged and even depicted.  Pike's career.

All around, good stuff, well worth acknowledging as a classic in franchise lore.

It's so good, in fact, that it won a Hugo.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Malachi Throne

Memory Alpha summary 1 & 2

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Star Trek 1x10 "The Corbomite Maneuver"


"The Corbomite Maneuver" is a title that refers to Kirk's gambit at the end of the episode.  That, I'd say, is the lasting legacy of this one.  It's basically a whole episode that explores his command style, and is highly recommended on that score.

It's also the second episode filmed after "Where No Man Has Gone Before," and as such is technically the debut for McCoy, Yeoman Rand, and Uhura (who wears a gold uniform!).  Just in case you were wondering.

As with a lot of these episodes, there are precedents to be recorded.  This is the first time a character ends up in the position of being asked to spend time with an alien who has been misbehaving because of their extreme loneliness.  Some other examples of that include Star Trek: The Motion Picture, "Alter Ego" from Voyager, and "Exile" from Enterprise.

Speaking of The Motion Picture, there's a whole one-off character in "Corbomite" who serves as a direct counterpoint to Kirk, just like Captain Commander Decker.  So that's another precedent right there.

Aside from Kirk's cleverness, his willingness to take a chance, which is one of the few direct character studies in the series and as such is essential viewing if you want to understand him as a whole, there's also the lasting image of the alien form the lonely alien takes, which was something viewers saw every week in the end credits.

So there's plenty to recommend about this episode.  Not one of the greatest ever.  But closer than a lot of the other early episodes.

And does Kirk ever reference corbomite again?  You bet!  Is it even real?  Not a chance!

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Grace Lee Whitney
Clint Howard

Memory Alpha summary

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Star Trek 1x9 "Dagger of the Mind"


"Dagger of the Mind" is another episode that sets some precedents for later stories in the franchise.  "Meld" from Voyager and "Chain of Command, Part 2" from The Next Generation come to mind.  So you know there's some good material here.

For instance, an insane individual who must be figured out.  Torture that pushes a character to their limits.  That sort of thing.  Good stuff.  (Yes, for some reason, there are numerous examples of torture in the franchise that produced some really excellent material.  Years before the War on Terror.  Star Trek addressed the War on Terror so often well before it actually started you'd think...I don't know what you'd think, but it's certainly interesting.)

Is this also the debut of the Vulcan mind meld?  Yes it is!

It's actually a pretty good episode, one that may not seem like especially essential viewing for the series, producing no real lasting effects other than that debut I just mentioned (but then, I don't think any fan particularly cares about how that occurred, per say, except that there are more notable moments with the mind meld elsewhere; most of the Star Trek concept was completely in flux in the early years, such as the terms for Starfleet and the Federation, which is taken for granted in other incarnations), no real classic moments or imagery; but perhaps one that takes on much greater significance for being a pretty good episode, generally, and its effects later in the franchise.  For that, I'd just recommend watching it, even if you're not seeking to be a completist either for this series or the whole franchise.  It's a minor standout.

Also, is the title of the episode one of an increasing number of Shakespeare references that would develop as the series and franchise continued?  Yes, yes it is.  But, on the chance that someone reading this at some point will be performing this particular play soon after, I will not mention its name.

It might also be notable that although she doesn't appear in this episode, "Dagger" is also crucial to the history of Yeoman Rand and actress Grace Lee Whitney in the franchise.  I've been noting in these episode thoughts how often Rand seemed to be so important in the earliest episodes, and how that obviously changed at some point.  Well, this is that point.  There were a number of reasons why Rand was written out of the series.  If you read the Memory Alpha summaries I always include in these things, you'll learn more about that, but in this instance you'll also want to read their biography of Whitney herself to learn even more.

franchise * series * essential * character

Memory Alpha summary

Monday, March 24, 2014

Star Trek 1x8 "Miri"


"Miri" is the template for countless episodes throughout the franchise, with so many examples I hesitate to even begin listing them.  And that template is: crew comes across planet with a population dying of a pandemic, must find a cure.

The other distinguishing factor to the episode is that it's one of many from the series that finds a way of putting the crew into vaguely contemporary surroundings for viewers.  In this instance, it's the 1960s, for some reason, on an alien planet that matches Earth in every other way, except that the population is a bunch of kids who are the only survivors because the disease killing everyone turns fatal afterward.

The title character is the leading figure of this community, by the way.

Another distinguishing characteristic/precedent is the curious community these children have formed, their own speech patterns, as later revisited in "Damok" in The Next Generation and "Nemesis" in Voyager.  At least one of those, no doubt, seems a lot less ridiculous, I'm sure, in comparison.  (Child actors were generally terrible back then.  And as such, were given terrible material.)

Is Yeoman Rand once again put in the spotlight?  Of course she is.  In these early episodes, she's practically the fourth lead, behind the familiar trio.  Is Spock, meanwhile, commenting on the advantages of his Vulcan physiology?  Is McCoy busy trying to cure the pandemic?  Is Kirk busy lusting after Rand, and taking the opportunity to freak out because that's a side-effect of the disease?  Of course of course of course!

I'm saying is, if you want an episode that probably helps people dismiss the whole franchise based on one experience, this would probably be a pretty good pick.  Later versions did the story better.  But anyone who saw this episode, and probably really only just this episode, thought the whole thing was a joke.  Which makes "Miri" a prime example of why the series really did have its challenges to overcome, well before the third season, in finding a lasting legacy.  It was certainly there, and paradoxically even in this very episode.

But this is an episode that aside from the good it helped create, is something bad you can probably completely overlook and be a better fan for it.

Scotty, Sulu, and Uhura do not appear in "Miri."

Although, one giant bonus of the whole sorry experience is Phil Morris's first appearance in the franchise.  Here he's just a kid.  His biggest spotlight would be in Voyager's "One Small Step."

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Grace Lee Whitney
Phil Morris

Memory Alpha summary

Friday, March 21, 2014

Star Trek 1x7 "What Are Little Girls Made Of?"


This is the Nurse Chapel episode, the only one that heavily revolves around her.  Still, I'm recommending it as viewing for the series itself.  Why?  Because of that curious subgenre of artificial intelligence that showed up so often but never quite laid the specific groundwork for The Next Generation's Data.

Like McCoy in "The Man Trap," the Chapel story is about a romantic figure from her past.  As in the earlier episode, this is not the means to a rekindled romance so much as horror.

By the way, Kirk falls in love this episode, with an android.  (In his defense, she's wearing perhaps the prototypical Scantily Clad Babe Suit.)

Chapel's ex has a machine capable of duplicating people in android form.  This, naturally, ends up happening to Kirk.  After "The Enemy Within," you might have thought you'd seen the last of multiple Kirks running around.  Ha!  The very last original series movie, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, of course features this element.  For some reason, one Kirk never quite seemed enough.

"Little Girls" has an excellent twist ending that helps distinguish it, one that Next Generation would later duplicate (ha!) in "Inheritance."

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry

Memory Alpha summary

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Star Trek 1x6 "Mudd's Women"


Back in the 1960s, heck even the '70s or '80s, the name "Harry Mudd" would have been one of the most famous ones in Star Trek lore.  Today, not so much.

Mudd made a handful of appearances in the series and even The Animated Series.  He is without question a classic figure in franchise lore, but his importance rapidly diminished over the years.  He certainly didn't appear in the films.  He did make it into Star Trek Into Darkness, but only as an oblique reference (the prequel comic book adds a good bit more, but then, that only counts so much).  His presence had no direct effect in any of the later series, unless you count someone like Okona or Kasidy Yates.  There!  Count both of them!

Basically, Mudd was a lovable scoundrel.  He was also a jolly fat man.  If he'd appeared in "The Trouble with Tribbles" handing the little fuzzball to Uhura, his legacy would be assured.  Instead he dealt in androids.

In androids???  You'd be surprised how often androids showed up in the original series.  That alone is a whole subgenre that helped usher in the era of Mr. Data.  Mudd's corner of this subgenre originally began as a con.  "Mudd's Women" doesn't feature androids, but his efforts to create perfect female companionship also prefigures Quark's holosuite programs (remember the one with Kira?) in Deep Space Nine.

Mudd is one of the first civilians to meddle in Kirk's affairs.  Usually in Star Trek the people who aren't in Starfleet or belong to adversarial alien species are the residents from the planet-of-the-week.  In that sense, Mudd is also a predecessor to the space station in DS9, filled with a whole society of its own.

As such, I recommend this episode as essential to the series if not directly the whole franchise.  Mudd sets a precedent, even if you don't remember or particularly care for the character yourself.  You can't watch or enjoy the original series without including Mudd in its legacy.  And now you know why.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Roger C. Carmel

Memory Alpha summary

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Star Trek 1x5 "The Enemy Within"


Kirk.  Times two.

This is the episode where the concept of transporter malfunctions becomes a Star Trek trope.  It also sets up the idea of decontamination later featured in the prequel series Enterprise.  In essence, it also sets up the idea of the Mirror Universe later featured in "Mirror, Mirror" and numerous other franchise episodes.

"The Enemy Within" is also the first character study episode in the franchise.  I don't want to rate its importance too high, however, so I list it mostly as a character episode for Kirk, in which his good and bad sides run amok, the bad side featuring his worst romantic impulses (certainly interesting for this character, and worse if you happen to be Yeoman Rand).

If your idea of a good time is William Shatner ranting for an hour, then this is your kind of episode.  (Which might also explain why the later Mirror Kirk is barely seen.)  If you want the episode that might explain why people think Star Trek features mostly bad acting, this might be the one they're thinking of.  It doesn't reflect exceptionally well on Shatner.  But I guess it doesn't particularly matter.

Please note that for the curious record, Uhura does not appear in this episode.  In fact so far Rand seems to have been more important to the series.  Of course, this trend rapidly reverses itself.  By the end of the series, Rand will have become a blip, and it's Uhura who gets the last laugh with a far more historic smooch with Kirk!

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Grace Lee Whitney

Memory Alpha summary

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Star Trek 1x4 "The Naked Time"


An episode with an image as classic as Sulu fencing has got to be considered essential viewing.

"The Naked Time" is one of the episodes from the series to receive a sequel in a later series, in this instance "The Naked Now" from The Next Generation.  Its tale of personality traits being amplified sets another franchise precedent ("Singularity" from Enterprise), meanwhile.

This is the first time in the series where the cast can be considered solidified.  After the broadcast decisions that left the second pilot aired a little later in the cycle, main characters appear and disappear seemingly at random.  In "Naked Time," however, there's Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, and even Nurse Chapel and Rand.

Sulu fencing would become an iconic image from the series and a defining trait for the character, even though this is the only time with the character being performed by George Takei that there's any indication of his knowledge of sword fighting.  In Star Trek (2009), this element is better integrated into Sulu's skillset.

A couple of recurring elements from later in the franchise also make significant debuts in the episode: Spock (or any Vulcan) struggling with remaining in control of his emotions, and the slingshot concept of time travel, famously featured both in the series ("Tomorrow Is Yesterday") and the films (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry
Grace Lee Whitney

Memory Alpha summary

Monday, March 17, 2014

Star Trek 1x3 "Where No Man Has Gone Before"


This is the second pilot of the series, and as such is technically the first appearance of James T. Kirk, as well as Sulu and Scotty.  Everyone is wearing the same style uniforms as featured in "The Cage" rather than the more familiar ones.

The plot is classic man-becomes-god (featured in "Charlie X" and numerous other franchise episodes), featuring Kirk's good friend and Starfleet Academy classmate Gary Mitchell.  The status of this episode among fans is sufficient that when it was still believed that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing someone other than Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, it's Gary Mitchell who was the leading contender.

Although the series was famously episodic, where you could miss any episode and not be missing anything when you caught the next one, many of the individual installments tended to resonate on the backstories of the characters.  This tendency was already seen in the previously broadcast "Man Trap," which featured McCoy.  Although Kirk is a classic example of someone who lives for the moment, his past continually comes back to revisit him throughout the series, in the form of old classmates surprisingly often.  Mitchell sets that precedent, certainly, as well.

It's odd to think that the famous original cast took so long to nail down.  Spock was in "The Cage" and "Where No Man," and of course Scotty and Sulu in the latter as well.  Sulu is designated an astrophysicist, rather than in his more familiar role as helmsman.  There are one-time characters in the episode who fill some of the other traditional roles, such as yeoman and ship's doctor.  If you're looking for Chekov, though, you must keep waiting until the second season!

I tend to trust Gene Roddenberry's instincts as he worked on his Star Trek pilots.  Both "Cage" and "No Man" remain some of the strongest, most distinctive episodes of the series, both of them using the captain (Pike in the first one, Kirk in the second) as a sounding board for a story that ends up much bigger than them, whereas other episodes tended to make the captain bigger than the story, thus diminishing the impact of the story (and ultimately making the series too trivial for viewers to care enough about to keep on the air for more than three seasons; fans love the characters, but if they just float from adventure to adventure, their weightlessness becomes apparent).  The network thought Gene was trying to be too cerebral, but his approach to science fiction was clearly ahead of its time.

franchise * series * essential * character

Memory Alpha summary

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