Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shore Leave

On the surface Shore Leave and The Naked Time don't seem to have much in common. The Naked Time is a largely ship based episode with only a few scenes set planetside while one of the strengths of Shore Leave is its' extensive location filming. The plots are not similar either. In The Naked Time the Enterprise crew succumb to space drunkenness while in Shore Leave they are baffled by a planet where dreams become real.
What unites the two episodes is that The Naked Time and Shore Leave are both concepts in search of characters. You could unplug Kirk, and Spock, and Sulu from the story of The Naked Time and slot in characters from Babylon 5, or Blake's 7. Normally this would be pretty poor writing (why are you writing a Star Trek episode if what you've written is not uniquely Star Trek?) but The Naked Time works because the emphasis is always on the characters; what they do, how they react, and what we learn about them. Shore Leave is the same, instead of Doctor McCoy seeing the white rabbit it could be Babylon 5's Doctor Franklin, and Commander Sheridan who meets an old flame and fights, “my own personal devil” from years before.

Shore Leave is great fun but it's a lesser episode than The Naked Time. The logistics of location filming mean for the most part it only features six of the Enterprise crew; Kirk, Spock, and McCoy plus three guest characters Yeoman Barrows, Angela Martine, and Lieutenant Rodriguez. The Naked Time has a larger scale. The crew and the operation of the Enterprise are all threatened. Everybody is given something to do. Kirk has to deal with losing control of the Enterprise. McCoy is searching for a cure. Scotty is trying to cut his way into Engineering to restart the engines. Spock is assisting all three, and he gets infected, as does Sulu, and Nurse Chapel, and several guest cast members.

Shore Leave the landing party spends most of the time running from one threat to another. Off screen the Enterprise's power is drained and until this is resolved the landing party are trapped. Instead of taking charge, as would normally happen, the cast are left reacting to events. Not that the script gives them anything else to do. It is very oddly paced. In the teaser McCoy talks about the planet being like, “something out of Alice in Wonderland,” sees the White Rabbit and Alice, and reacts. In act one Kirk talks about, “...the Academy. An upper classman there...” sees Finnegan, and reacts. In act two McCoy talks about how, “A princess shouldn't be afraid, not with a brave knight to protect her,” and the Black Knight appears, and so on. The various manifestations put the plot into a holding pattern for 43 minutes until the Caretaker walks out from behind a bush and explains what's happening.

Danger is added by killing first McCoy and then Martine. Unfortunately the audience knows, whether consciously or not, this is not the way a series kills off a main character. Obviously, in The Naked Time the audience also knows the Enterprise is not in any real danger, but that script can create tension by showing the characters attempting to prevent destruction, and then showing how those attempts are frustrated by the spread of the infection. In Shore Leave there's nothing the characters can do to stop McCoy dying, or bring him back, they, and the audience, just have to wait until the story restores him. Actually, one of the few directing failures of Shore Leave is the death of Martine. It looks more as if she runs into a tree and knocks herself out while taking cover from a strafing aeroplane. Rodriguez's reaction to her death can be read as concern over her being injured rather than grief. What actually happened is only made clear at the end when she reappears with McCoy.

We also learn less about the characters in Shore Leave than in The Naked Time. Spock doesn't have fantasies so the planet doesn't recognise his presence. McCoy is killed 30 minutes in. Before that all we find out is he's read Alice In Wonderland, and possibly Le Morte d'Arthur, and that he fancies Yeoman Barrows. Martine, Rodriguez, and Barrows are just there to generate other threats; Don Juan, a tiger, and a fighter plane. Which leaves Sulu and Kirk. We learn Sulu is a gun nut, which ties in nicely with his sword obsession in The Naked Time. There's a great moment when Sulu hands the gun he's found over to Kirk and is so enthusiastic he launches into an unprompted explanation of how handguns fire. More disappointingly Sulu's imagination also conjures up a Samuri. There's nothing really wrong with this and it would pass unnoticed if not for one of the best scenes in The Naked Time being Sulu's insane swordfighting. There by not giving Sulu an oriental weapon the production team took extra care to step away from the obvious and they established him as a person with interests beyond his ethnic background. In this context the Samuri scene in Shore Leave just feels obvious, and disappointing. Sulu describes the gun he found as an, "old time Police special" maybe he could have been attacked by a gangster.

The treatment of Kirk is more interesting. He gets to meet Ruth, an old flame, who obviously means a lot to him, and Kirk's school bully (for want of a better word) Finnegan from Starfleet Academy. This leads on to an epic six minute chase/fight scene which takes up the end of act three and the start of act four. As Kirk starts whaling on Finnegan there's not only the sense of a personal devil being exorcised but also that Kirk, as a thirty five year old, wants to know he's got what it takes to beat up his twenty year old nemesis. He doesn't just want a fair fight, he wants a fight slanted in the favour of his opponent. And he wants to win. There is also something very endearing about Kirk's reluctance to talk to Spock, or anyone else, about the two people he's met. He's either embarrassed about having his past come to life in such an obvious way, or feels it's not good for his image as Captain. 

Three things make Shore Leave a success. A script which is frequently funny, the location filming, and a director who makes the most of both. A nice moment comes during the first Captain's log when Kirk momentarily forgets the stardate. Plus there is Kirk and Spock's final frantic dash back to the glade when they encounter a tiger, are strafed by the fighter plane, and meet the Samurai in quick succession. There's a good moment of physical comedy as the Samurai leaps out for an attack and is body checked by Kirk in a very un-Bushido way. Obviously he doesn't always have the time or inclination for a fair fight. 

The location filming is lovely to look at. It may only be sun-parched California but everything is opened up and there's a real sense of space. Several times the director uses long tracking shots to show the characters running; something which would just not be possible in studio. It's fair to say Shore Leave wouldn't work if it had been filmed on a soundstage. Imagine the Kirk/Finnegan chase done on a planet set. It would probably have been unbearable. Equally, if location filming had been more common on Star Trek then Shore Leave wouldn't have looked so unique. 

The director uses some unusual production techniques, not just the tracking shots, but also a voice-over for Mr Spock. This shouldn't seem unusual, three or four times an episode we get a Captain's log voice-over from Kirk but these recap the story for viewers. Here a voice-over is used as part of the story telling to set up the mystery of the planet. “Scouts have detected no animals, artefacts, or force fields of any kind. Only peace, sunshine, and good air. You'll have no problems.” Mr Spock tells the Captain over a shot of the lake, followed by a zoom in to show a rock lifting up revealing the gun Sulu will find later.

It's tempting to say Shore Leave's trip out of the studio is as much a break for the cast and production team as it is for the characters. Actually the episode is full of shots which suggest the crew must have been pressed for time. In addition to the confusion over Martine's death we have; obvious continuity errors, Kirk is thrown by Finnegan and his shirt is undamaged, then torn in close-up; sound faults, when Kirk walks over to Sulu and finds McCoy's body has gone we hear footsteps on wood which appear to be caused by the cameraman stepping on boards laid down for the camera; and other glitches, a boom microphone shadow on the ground as Finnegan taunts Kirk and shouts "here I am. Run!", plus, as Kirk, Spock, and Sulu spread out after hearing the tiger roar, blue smoke puffs into the bottom left-hand side of the frame, as if someone off-camera is having a cigarette but not realising where the smoke is drifting. Mixed quality shots suggesting filming went on late into the day. After the Finnegan fight the shot of Spock asking “did you enjoy it, Captain?” is very grainy, as if the light was becoming too low to film properly. Several scenes are filmed late in the day where people have long shadows. And there are also some close-ups of Spock with a very dark blue sky in the background, which cause more continuity problems with the light levels in surrounding shots. All of which would normally be corrected in a less rushed production. It's all the more remarkable that for all the apparent strain to get this episode made the end result is something so easy going and relaxed.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. McCoy and Martine are both killed and restored by the technology of the theme park planet.
Running total: 20

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