Friday, March 9, 2012

The Enemy Within

The transporter was Star Trek's great innovation. A signature of the series created from the need to get the characters into the story as quickly, and cheaply, as possible and a simple but memorable visual effect. A straightforward jump cut -a shot of the empty set and the cast suddenly standing there-would have looked comical, like something out of I Dream of Jeannie or Rentaghost. A less abrupt cross fade would be fine, it's how the BBC made the TARDIS disappear in Doctor Who, but while it's cheap and easy, it's also a little dull. What makes the transporter effect work is the addition of another stage by Darrell Anderson, who designed and filmed effects for the Star Trek pilots and series. It's backlit aluminium powder filmed against a black cloth using an upside down camera so the grains seem to rise. It's visually interesting and has the advantage of not being obviously animated like the phaser beams and photon torpedoes which gives it a how-did-they-do-that factor for the watching audience at home.

Having added the transporter to the series it's inevitable writers would want to take the concept apart and see what happens when it goes wrong. Richard Matheson's script uses the transporter failure to examine the nature of good and evil as Captain Kirk is split in two; separating all his good qualities into one person and his bad qualities into another. Written down this reads more like a fairy tale than science-fiction; the sort of stunt the Snow Queen would pull. And yet while this script pushes Star Trek as far into fantasy as it has ever gone it never feels out of step with the rest of the series.

William Shatner is the focus of the episode and moment by moment the quality hangs on his performance. Most of the time he's very good but sometimes his acting choices -and those of the director- result in things being terribly overplayed. There's no better contrast than the two scenes on either side of the opening titles. Bad Kirk's first appearance is shot, and lit from below in close-up. Combined with Shatner's twitchy eye-rolling performance it looks like something from German expressionist cinema. It's comic not dramatic and the episode is almost fatally damaged before it even starts. On the other side of the titles, as the Captain's log narration talks about a duplicate being created, Shatner does little more than slowly walk off the transporter pad, roll his shoulders, and straighten up. The lighting is subtle so the shadows shift across his face as he walks and the effect is wonderfully creepy. Overall Shatner is better as good Kirk, possibly because he has fewer scenes by himself so there are less opportunities to emote like a silent movie villain, but also because he plays good Kirk with a tiredness, as if the energy that usually drives the Captain comes more from his bad half.

Fortunately Shatner keeps his performance restrained when bad Kirk hides in Yeoman Rand's cabin. Kirk's attempted sexual assault on Rand is all the more remarkable for being filmed at a time when NBC's Standards and Practices Department would send back script notes advising against characters kissing with open mouths. Unusually this scene is filmed with a hand-held camera making it
more claustrophobic and uncomfortable to watch. More uncomfortable still is the scene where good Kirk, Spock, and McCoy interrogate Rand in the wake of her assault. Rand is questioned by three men, one of whom is her Captain and supposed attacker, and while she stays seated the three men stand and tower over her. This scene is hard to watch not because of a failure in the writing, direction, or acting (Grace Lee Whitney is very good as the shocked and embarrassed Rand) but simply because of the way it presumably reflects wider social attitudes at the time regarding the acceptable treatment and interrogation of people who have been assaulted.

Richard Matheson has said the sub-plot of crew members stuck on a freezing planet, unable to beam up until the transporter is fixed, was added by the production team against his wishes. I don't want to disagree with the writer of I Am Legend but the script benefits from their presence. The trapped crew don't distract from Kirk's problem, they define it. When Kirk talks about the men trapped on the freezing planet he becomes almost hysterical, and at one point seems on the edge of tears. His bad side doesn't just contain his decision making abilities, it restrains his compassion and his empathy. Without that restraint the qualities that make him a good man overwhelm him and become weaknesses. The trapped crew members are also essential to keep the plot moving. With them trapped there is an obvious race against time to repair the transporter and rescue them before it is too late. Without them the race against time is to repair the transporter before Kirk loses the ability to command. Interesting as a metaphysical conceit but not so easy for the audience to care about.
Enterprise crew deaths: None, another good week for the crew. Some exposure, some frostbite, but the only death is the poor space dog who doesn't survive a trip through the transporter.
Running total: 17

"If we put a little hat on him, he'll look adorable."

It's tempting to pretend the real star of this story is Mr Sulu's space dog. A sad-eyed thing, dressed in orange fur, with a tail, horn, and space antennae. The poor dog has a mournful expression which suggests it knows no matter how many sausages it has been promised for good behaviour there just aren't that many treats in the universe to compensate for this humiliation.

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