Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Corbomite Maneuver

Jerry Sohl's script for The Corbomite Maneuver has a deceptive structure. The audience's understanding of the beginning and middle are changed by information revealed at the end. This appearance of complexity makes it easy to forget the plot moves through four acts in a very straightforward way.

First a strange space cube blocks the Enterprise's path. When the cube begins emitting lethal radiation Kirk has no option but to open fire. Balok, the cube's owner, arrives in his massive spaceship and announces the Enterprise will be destroyed. After Kirk's mutually assured destruction bluff with the made-up element corbomite, Balok takes the Enterprise in tow to a planet where the crew can be interred while the corbomite device is investigated. Lastly, act four deals with Kirk's attempt to escape from the tractor beam, and the final reveal of Balok's true nature.

Balok is a big phony. The aggressive, green, dome-headed monster is a front for his true form as a much more friendly, and chatty, child-like alien. The reveal that Balok has been testing the crew to find out their true intentions, and that Kirk has been playing Balok's game all along, is what changes our understanding of the story.

When Kirk has the Enterprise wait for 18 hours while trying to find a non-violent way past the space cube; that was actually Balok patiently waiting to see what Kirk would do next. The cube emitting radiation was Balok pushing Kirk to see what it took to make him blow up the cube. Balok's acceptance of the corbomite bluff is itself a bluff to see where Kirk would go with his plan. Kirk pushes the Enterprise's engines to the edge of exploding when trying to escape from the tractor beam; Balok must have been monitoring the Enterprise to make sure the engines went right to the brink before pretending his own ship's engines had burned out first. Even Balok's final distress message is a fake to see if the Enterprise will offer help or take the chance to run.

This is a script which understands audience expectations and confounds them at every opportunity. Jerry Sohl must have known no matter how good Balok looked, and thanks to prop and creature designer Wah Chang he does look really good, the audience reaction will be “it's a puppet”. Some people will think it's a good puppet, others will hoot with laughter, but the basic reaction will always acknowledge Balok's artificiality. It's an example of willing suspension of disbelief. We see a fake alien, the characters treat it as real so, for the purpose of the story, we treat it as real. Except it isn't. It turns out nasty Balok is a real puppet, and our first reaction was the correct one.

When a script tweaks you on the nose like this it makes you question everything you've seen. Balok-puppet's first appearance on the Enterprise viewscreen is distorted by a ripple effect. The audience have seen this before in Charlie X when the Thasians appear to take Charlie away. It's a standard optical used to add a bit of mystery to what might otherwise be a simple or disappointing visual. Within the reality of the show the ripple effect must have been added by Balok to conceal his alter ego. What the Enterprise crew are seeing is a special effect added to the viewscreen by Balok for exactly the same reasons the production team used the effect. And presumably the same is also true for the slight echo added to Balok-puppet's voice. Later, when Balok-puppet says, “you have eight Earth minutes left” is he speaking like a b-movie alien because it's a silly line, or because Balok is aware of Earth b-movies? He could have scanned the Enterprise and found films like They Came from Beyond Space or It Conquered the World in the ship's library (would Spock watch This Island Earth?); he certainly had time to watch several films during the 18 hour wait for Kirk to take action against the cube. Either way it's fun to imagine Balok off camera using this clich├ęd phrase and sniggering at messing with Kirk's mind.

Sohl's script is also packed with memorable images for the director, and production team, to visualise. There's Balok-puppet in all his glory, the real Balok a child with an adult voice, the Enterprise dwarfed by Balok's massive spaceship and, at he start of the episode, the Enterprise stopped in space by Balok's cube. The Enterprise stopped by a glowing multi-coloured cube is also the first in a sub-group of teaser where the Enterprise encounters something surreal in space; a giant hand grabbing the ship in Who Mourns for Adonais?, Abraham Lincoln in The Savage Curtain, and an exact duplicate of the planet Earth in Miri (The Corbomite Maneuver was the first episode filmed after the two pilots but held back).

We also get to see why Captain Kirk earns his pay check. Essentially the guy never gives up. Giant cube? “We'll go around it” Lethal radiation? “Open fire”. Go forwards or run away? “Press on”. Hopelessly outmatched? “Bluff”. Tractor beam? “Let's try and escape”. He'll do whatever it takes to survive. If you pushed him out of an aeroplane he'd probably be thinking, “I've got 20 seconds to learn how to fly”. This ability to deal with a succession of problems and not fold like a paper napkin is contrasted with Navigator Bailey, a man described by McCoy as “promoted too fast”. Bailey is partly there to comment on events for the audience, and partly to make the audience wonder if Kirk has made a mistake by promoting a crewman who reminds Kirk of himself. Casting doubt on Kirk's decision making ability helps create tension in an episode which involves confronting him with problem after problem. Unfortunately television has to compress the maximum information into the minimum time so to make an impression Bailey can't just be a bit rubbish, he has to be the worst bridge officer ever; incompetent, overemotional, speaking out of turn, ignoring instructions, and totally and utterly freaking out. He does get the best line in the episode, “see, he's doing a countdown!” when Sulu announces they have “seven minutes and 41 seconds” left. Bailey's return to duty, and eventual request to stay on Balok's vessel, shows Kirk's judgement was, ultimately, correct. Bailey will be a fine officer once he's had some of the gung-ho knocked out of him.

More importantly, Kirk's constant hunt for a non-violent solution in the face of massive provocation from Balok, and his decision to put the damaged Enterprise in more danger by responding to Balok's distress call, are a clear demonstration of values we often saw in Star Trek: The Next Generation; tolerance, compassion, and negotiation as the preferred way to settle disputes. Star Trek tries to have a clear moral philosophy but it often gets lost under the pressure to fill 50 minutes a week with exciting action-adventure. Star Trek: The Next Generation may have displayed its values more clearly but The Corbomite Maneuver shows they were part of Star Trek's DNA from the beginning.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Balok is very careful to make sure no crew are killed.
Running total: 19

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