Thursday, May 29, 2014

Star Trek 2x1 "Amok Time"

rating: ****
Memory Alpha summary

The second season of the series begins on one of the most assured notes of the whole three-season run, deeply immersed in character and continuity, not just existing lore, but building, basically, Vulcan society from the ground up.  That's "Amok Time."

It's the one where Spock suffers from pon farr, the mating drive you might find in your pets.  On a level you can probably ignore, the episode is yet another of those excuses for one of the characters to act against type.  This is a rare instance where that story archetype is transcended.

This is the first time the relationship between Kirk and Spock actually means something.  For most of the series, their camaraderie, along with McCoy, is just a given, the lead characters who quip and observe together every episode, friends (and friendly rivals).  As Spock's condition worsens, they're forced to go to Vulcan itself, which eventually ends up in a fight between Kirk and Spock.  At the end of this fight, Spock believes he's killed Kirk.  The ending is an all-time classic when Spock realizes this isn't really the case.

There's also a tease of Nurse Chapel's attraction to Spock, which became Chapel's defining legacy.  For a character that hadn't really been seen since the start of the previous season, and wouldn't really make another significant appearance, this might have been ultimately forgettable.  There were a lot of minor characters who made a lot of appearances in the series.  Chapel might have been no different.  But "Amok Time" gave her depth, like it gave depth to everything else about it.

Spock's Vulcan lineage was usually, in the series, just an excuse to feature him as the token alien in Kirk's crew.  As a series, there was not a lot of thought put into most of the details about the Star Trek world.  Besides things like the mind meld and other weird abilities and physiology, being Vulcan didn't mean a whole lot.  There was no culture behind the concept, until "Amok Time."  Suddenly it was blown wide open.  We saw an alien culture in the series for the first time, not just a problem-of-the-week experience, but one that meant something to the characters, not as an aside, not as a random detail, but as a prominent element of the episode.

The way it was handled, Spock's condition, was also unusual.  Usually the condition would be drawn out until the end of the episode and then explained, and clearly the whole point was to create suspense, rather than actually explore the story and its implications.

Anyway, "Amok Time" became a part of Star Trek history, and instantly set the second season on a distinctively different course than the first one, a more confident and assured one.  It has every indication of the creators really knowing for the first time what they wanted to do with the series.  So we end up with another classic, a touchstone in every sense.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry
Lawrence Montaigne

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Star Trek 1x29 "Operation: Annihilate!"

rating: **
Memory Alpha summary

The first season of the series finally ends!  It may be worth mentioning that season finales, like a lot of things, were a lot different back in the day.  Probably before "Who Shot J.R.?" it just wasn't relevant to do cliffhangers, which were most common previously in the original movie serials that helped inspire Star Wars.  It wasn't even a thing in Star Trek until "The Best of Both Worlds" at the end of Next Generation's third season (still arguably the best and most famous such example).

So if you're looking for some kind of season-capping statement from "Operation: Annihilate!" you probably ought to look elsewhere.

No, this one (among a handful of episodes to feature an exclamation point in the title, along with "Rise!" and "Bride of Chaotica!" from Voyager, for lovers of pointless trivia; although the former is just as routinely referred to without it) is about one of those colony worlds in Star Trek that becomes infected with a plague.  That's always happening in Star Trek.  This, I guess, would be one of those precedents, although nothing too important to get worked up about.

The slightly important bit of trivia about the episode is that it features the debut of Kirk's brother Sam...and his death.  Actually, he's not really in the episode, just as a dead body, which happens to also be played by William Shatner (the acting range...!).  Sam's son Peter has better coverage.  But given that this was a series that featured large vacuums between episodes, in that it didn't really matter what was established from one episode to the next, neither Sam nor Peter amounted to anything in Kirk's greater story.  (Sam kind of appears in Star Trek, for the record.)

That's the real shame.  It's easy to become frustrated with the series, as a viewer from a different era.  That's why it always sucks to hear those original series partisans vigorously defend it as the only true option for best one in the franchise, because aside from its iconic status and the characters who helped embody it...there were so many areas where it could be improved upon, and easily were, that argument grows weaker and weaker with every passing year.  We're two years away from the fiftieth anniversary as I write this.  I'm not suggesting we retire the series.  But retire the notion that it is indisputably the best?  Absolutely.  This is the kind of episode where you can begin to see how obvious that is.

And "Operation" is also the episode with the floppy spores.  For the record.  The budget, even at its peak, could do better than that.  I'll never knock the series for its economic deficiencies.  That'd be pointless. But it's also a good argument that you write to what you have available.  Hence the long tradition of "bottle" episodes, stories contained on the existing starship sets.

A bad way to end the season, one way or another, especially directly following the breakthrough "City on the Edge of Forever."

But if anyone wanted to totally revisit the series with expansive new interpretations, this one would be a great place to start.  Kirk's family: go!

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry

Friday, May 23, 2014

Star Trek 1x28 "The City on the Edge of Forever"

rating: ****
Memory Alpha summary

I think no one will dispute this as a classic episode.  It's the classic episode, frequently cited as the best episode of the whole franchise, not just original series.  That makes it essential viewing, yes?

Simply put, "City on the Edge of Forever" legitimized the whole Star Trek concept.  It was the first time the series managed to completely transcend itself, produce a story that could be viewed and appreciated by anyone.  Its science fiction was sound.  Its social commentary was nuanced.  And it even managed to handle the main characters well.  Is there really anymore to ask from an episode?  It's the epitome of Gene Roddenberry's idealistic vision.

Somewhat perversely, that vision is explored by a guest character whose rigid definition of improving the world around her would have led to apocalypse, had it been allowed to play out.  The flipside of every time Kirk interferes with an alien culture, the very argument for the Prime Directive, is the idea that the right thing to do...isn't always the right thing to do.  It's...fascinating, as Spock might say.  "City" won a Hugo, sci-fi's Oscar.  That's how much of an immediate impact it made, just the kind of reception the series needed.  Might it be said, in fact, that "City" is responsible for the fan response that has kept it going for half a century?

Such is the love for the episode that Harlan Ellison's original version of the script is as equally treasured as the final product.  That just doesn't happen.  That's a matter of fans dedicating themselves to a single episode the way they would to a specific series in later years.

The emotional crux of "City" revolves around Kirk in his most famous romantic relationship.  He falls in love with the social worker who is prevented from dying by McCoy's trip through the Guardian of Forever's time portal.  It's one of those stories where history is changed but those who were there during the circumstances where it changed remember how things originally were.  This leads Kirk and Spock to go back in time in pursuit of McCoy, but they arrive before he does.  Half the episode is just following these developments, waiting to see how fate plays out.  When the moment arrives, Kirk realizes he has to let the woman die.  Perfect moment.

If you watch, or recommend, only one episode of the series, this one is it.  And it's a classic that ages better than any other episode of the series.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Joan Collins

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Star Trek 1x27 "The Alternative Factor"

rating: **
Memory Alpha summary

The one with the guy who battles himself.  Wait, let me clarify: the one with the guy who is not Kirk who battles himself.

The "guy" is Lazarus, who comes to Kirk seeking help.  He has awesome facial hair.  Lazarus, I mean.  Kirk was always clean-shaven (except for the stubble in The Undiscovered Country).

Most significantly about "The Alternative Factor" is the first time in franchise lore where alternate realities are featured.  There's a lot of sci-fi hooey involved in the story.  You don't have to worry too much about the details.  Bottom line is, this is an episode that is nearly completely stolen by the guest character.

And that in itself is notable.  Sometimes "Alternative Factor" is viewed as the series at its most extravagant, most preposterous.  And it basically is, really.  This is Star Trek going for broke, and in its own way is really a sight to see.  Not one of the most famous episodes, but perhaps one of the earliest of what would become known as an equally infamous streak that would help give the franchise its reputation as something hard to take seriously.  Viewers at the time, basically, probably had this one in mind, rather than the classics surrounding it, when they forced NBC to hedge on keeping the series around.

But yeah, it's also kind of awesome, an episode far easier to appreciate when you don't have to worry about the fate of the whole thing.  Just Lazarus.

franchise * series * essential * character

(Read a nearly completely different version of this episode that almost happened here.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Star Trek 1x26 "Errand of Mercy"

rating: ****
Memory Alpha summary

It's the debut of the Klingons!  Need I say more?

Well, okay.  The whole dynamic for the rest of the series is there right from the start, which is only natural, given that this is coming (finally!) near the end of the first season, so most of what Star Trek would settle into being had been established.  That means that the Klingons who show up are exactly the kind of Klingons who would show up in other episodes.

Unlike the Romulans who preceded them, the Klingons are presented with ongoing potential, which is probably why it was so much easier to explore them.  The Romulans were certainly interesting in "Balance of Terror," but their Cold War analogy was limited to the war itself, which to that point in history had become more and more remote a possibility (besides the proxy Vietnam conflict).  No, if American viewers were to see alien versions of the Russians in space, they would more likely succeed as competitors. And that's exactly what the Klingons were.

Between Starfleet and the Klingons for this episode stood the Organians, the latest in a long line of omnipotent, meddling aliens, who impose peace between the foes (it didn't stick).  That particular aspect of "Errand" has grown less significant over time, the more nuanced the Star Trek landscape has become.

But Kor stuck around.  Oh, did he!  One final counterpoint with the Romulans, whose figurehead had gone unnamed in his duel with Kirk, the first Klingon we meet is named, and three decades later becomes all the more important to franchise lore thanks to a series of appearances in Deep Space Nine (all while being portrayed by the same actor, John Colicos).

That alone makes this episode easy to revisit, even if the Organian elements have failed to age as gracefully.  The link Kor makes between eras makes "Errand of Mercy" comparable to "Space Seed."  Arguably it's far more enjoyable to see the young Kor in action than the young Khan (unless we're talking Into Darkness).  Often fans of the series claim that it managed to buck the trend of the later ones by having its greatest material in its first season (the other tended to struggle with that).  I don't think that's necessarily true (the second season is much more consistent), but "Errand" is the kind of episode you can point to, beyond "Balance" or "City on the Edge of Forever," where it's clear that no matter the growing pains this was a series that really had managed early on to find its footing, and the lasting influence of the Klingons is a testament to that.

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
John Colicos

Monday, May 12, 2014

Star Trek 1x25 "The Devil in the Dark"

rating: ****
Memory Alpha summary

One of the undisputed classic episodes of the series and franchise, regardless of whether it's one fans will have on the tip of their tongue when discussing such things (as opposed to, say, "City on the Edge of Forever"), "The Devil in the Dark" is also one of the most nuanced stories ever told by Star Trek.

The title being is one of the least-dynamic creatures physically every created.  Only in reputation is the Horta any bit scary.  But the thing is, it's wreaking all kinds of havoc on a Federation science team's efforts (in one of the earliest and most classic examples of the cave setting that would become a franchise staple).  It's apparently just something that needs to be eliminated, and there doesn't seem to be much argument against that action.

But then Spock intervenes.  There are a few iconic mind melds in Star Trek.  One is in The Voyage Home, in which he learns that Gracie is pregnant.  Another is in The Undiscovered Country, in which he learns exactly who is involved in the conspiracy.  There's the one Sarek shares with Picard in the Next Generation episode "Sarek."  And there's this one.  Arguably still the most significant, most impactful.  Turns the whole episode upside down.

Spock learns that the Horta is only acting out of self-preservation.  That it's the good guys who are the bad guys this time.  Some of this is kind of formulaic.  But it's completely transcendent at the same time.  It's an incredibly rare moment in the series where the moralizing goes the other way.

And yes, that makes it an iconic Spock moment, one that reverberates perhaps further than anything else the character had done to that point.  It's also an episode that pivots around one scene that breathes life into the rest of the story, one that you can easily, easily recommend to anyone as a gateway into Star Trek.  That's one of the definitions of being a classic.  A classic will either speak directly to existing fans, or make new ones.  My goal in these reviews is to separate the difference, and hopefully cross that divide.

franchise * series * essential * character

Friday, May 9, 2014

Star Trek 1x24 "This Side of Paradise"

rating: *
Memory Alpha summary

"This Side of Paradise" is the space hippies episode, just to make it perfectly clear from the start.

Actually, there is a fair bit more to know about it, such as this is the first time Spock (or any Vulcan in the franchise) loses his emotional control, and for that reason this is the main source of recommendation I have for the episode, for Spock himself although it could also be as a franchise signifier.  Like a few of the earliest episodes, there's a flimsy tie-in with his past that becomes ignored later (unfortunately there are plenty of episodes from other series that share this trend, too) but serves as the hook.  Basically, this is an episode that fans of the character would probably have greatly enjoyed, although there is better material elsewhere, in later episodes (such as "Amok Time," which is far more relevant to Spock's development).

The space hippies have a space spore that acts as their unintended drug of choice, which of course attacks the Enterprise crew as well.  The way out of the predicament recalls the later Klingon episode "Day of the Dove," interestingly enough (which is a better one), although to be fair to the writers (generously so), the solution is basically in reverse.  If that means much to you.

Although, all you really need to know is that this is an episode that has grown less and less significant as time has gone on.  It's kind of a lousy version of the emerging hippy culture that clearly doesn't understand it much at all, which is unfortunate.  But Spock gets to let loose a little!  Anyway...

franchise * series * essential * character

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Star Trek 1x23 "A Taste of Armageddon"

rating: **
Memory Alpha summary

This is the first of one of Star Trek's most famous recurring themes: moralizing on the nature of war.  It's a famous example, too, even if you don't realize it by the title alone.  "A Taste of Armageddon" is the one where a planet runs its wars by computer (but expecting populations to accommodate them with real sacrificial victims).

Also, it's the first instance of Starfleet patronizing the natives, assuming it can fix something because it believes it's wrong.  Something something *cough* Prime Directive *cough* maybe?  Who knows?  It happens in so many other episodes, apparently the writers never really draw a line between the distinctions of talking about war and general cultural interference.

But it's still extremely relevant, important to the series and franchise as a whole, although I will limit my viewing recommendation to only the series rather than inflate the episode's importance to something other than a strictly historical nature.  It's important to acknowledge, but you don't need to go out of your way unless you really want to be a completist.  That's to say, "Taste" is only as significance as the precedence it sets.  It doesn't have a ton of memorable value outside of that.

Still, because the notion of a society being so coldly pragmatic about the nature of war (and not, incredibly, turning out to be related to Vulcans) is so striking a concept that for a change, the story alone really might be the hook, though it's not liable in itself liable to convince someone to like Star Trek in general (that's the reservation I hold for higher rankings, at least as a working theory; fans themselves have dismissed out of hand some of my selections for new classics, but I'm not making this survey strictly for existing fans, but rather as a window for new ones).

franchise * series * essential * character

notable guest-stars:
Barbara Babcock

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