Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Return Of The Archons

Like The Squire Of Gothos, The Return Of The Archons has a setup like a horror film. An Enterprise away team beams down to a small town where everything is quiet, and peaceful, and the locals are polite, and happy, and somehow sinister. Then, at the point in a horror film where the landing party would start disappearing one by one (as a prelude to Kirk being set on fire inside a giant wicker Gorn), the Festival begins.

The Festival scenes are well directed, and edited into short shots so the pacing is fast. The scale of the action is impressive, for Star Trek, with lots of well choreographed extras running about. It starts effectively, almost in the middle of a line of dialogue. One moment Tula is directing the landing party to her father's house with rooms to let then the clock chimes, and she is suddenly shrieking and rending her clothes. Meanwhile Bilar, a man played with the same unnerving acting style as spooky preacher Henry Kane from Poltergeist II, goes from asking “come for the festival, ayuh?” to dragging Tula away.

This is the big moment of the story. We've just seen Sulu and Lieutenant O'Neil stopped by mysterious robed figures. We've seen a strangely blissed-out Sulu beamed back up to the Enterprise, and heard him call the planet “paradise” and tell the Enterprise crew, who he only seems to half recognise, they, “are not of the body”. We've seen the oddly tranquil streets of Beta III. Where placid citizens all walk at the same slow pace and smile at each other. And then as the clock strikes six everyone seems to go insane. Unfortunately it doesn't have quite the impact it should.

First, the Festival starts too soon. We're six minutes into the episode when it begins (including the teaser and opening titles). Kirk's barely had time to explore the place. The audience hasn't really had time to register much detail about Beta III, except that the locals are odd, before suddenly being confronted with the writhing, and the moaning, and the bodily seizing of young women. Four minutes later the Festival finishes, and it feels as if the story has peaked. It's the reverse of John D. F. Black's advice to George Clayton Johnson about the script for The Man Trap. There the problem with early drafts was the salt vampire didn't get on board the Enterprise fast enough. Here, it's that we reach the Festival too soon, and there doesn't seem to be sufficient story to get through the next 38 minutes.

The other problem with the Festival is it's a strictly PG rated orgy, like a prude's vision of a decadent society. Although it was never going to be too racy with NBC's Standards and Practices Department checking over the shoulders of the production team for open-mouthed kisses. As the landing party run towards Reger's house extras race around mid-shot, and in the foreground a couple are necking furiously. It's funny rather than shocking, like a scene from from Refer Madness where the depraved end result of smoking marijuana is a man with mussed up hair frantically playing the piano and kissing a lady; at the same time! Festival also lacks any sense of danger. The locals are all suddenly armed with sticks and rocks, and windows get broken, and people are attacked but there's no consequences. No blood. No bodies lying in the streets. No sense that people are being hurt. Unlike Tula's post-Festival distress. The one time we see the unpleasant effect of the Festival on anyone taking part. The Festival scenes could be a release of telepathic control from the planet's ruler Landru. A moment when the population is let off the leash to indulge normally suppressed base desires. However, Tula's hysteria, and the way everyone starts and stops the Festival simultaneously suggests the opposite. The population is as rigidly controlled as ever, and Landru forces them to take part and dictates their actions.

The Return Of The Archons goes back to the Desilu backlot where Miri was filmed. Two shots stand out. A pair of scenes showing Kirk looking out of a window at the Festival chaos in the street. From a modern perspective the shots don't really register, or stand out as remarkable. For a series like Star Trek which had to make every penny count, and for a time when location filming was more difficult, there is a lot of ambition on display. Around 15 extras are in view. Not just the regular extras normally used to pad out a crowd scene. There are stuntmen, and women, fighting, people doing special business (performing a specific action, like the moment when Festival ends and everyone freezes), as well as period costumes, fire, and set dressing. And one of these two shots is filmed at night. To quote a Robert Justman script memo for The City On The Edge Of Forever, “plenty extras, plenty locations, plenty shooting time, plenty money, plenty night-for-night shooting, plenty screams from management.” And all for two shots which don't run for more than five seconds, but do a lot to sell the scale of Festival.

During the morning version of this scene you get some idea of the limited filming space The Return Of The Archons used. And how little time their production schedule must have allowed for moving the camera between shots. Even in a backlot, specifically designed to be an easy filming environment. Every location, except one, is in view. At the far end of the street are the teaser locations where Sulu and O'Neill meet the lawgivers, the other street scenes take place in the middle, and when the crew follow Reger out of his house they will turn left at the crossroads to enter the alley where they'll find the hypnotised Lieutenant O'Neil. It's a credit to the director that such a small space can feel like a living town. And, it's no surprise to learn the director of The Return Of The Archons is Joseph Pevney, who also directed the visually impressive Arena. Unfortunately, Pevney's eye for memorable shot composition can't do anything to save a dull script, and The Return Of The Archons becomes increasingly boring.

Kirk never has to do any serious work. He arrives on the planet and virtually the first person he talks to, Bilar, directs him to a boarding house run by Reger , a member of the anti-Landru underground. When Kirk is captured he is taken to the absorption centre where Marplon, another member of Reger's three man cell works. The same absorption centre turns out to be the place where Landru is based. All scripts rely on a certain amount of contrivance to work (in Arena the Gorn ship just happens to pass through a region of space controlled by powerful aliens whose preferred method of conflict resolution is captain on captain fighting) but here the story just grinds mechanically from A, to B, to C. The script is circular, repeating the same dialogue across all four acts. Someone will ask if the Enterprise crew are, “not of the body,” or Archons, or threaten them with absorption, or summon the lawgivers, or mention Landru. A couple of nice moments stand out. Reger and Marplon's sudden attack of cowardice when Kirk demands they take him to Landru rings some changes on the rebels fighting for their freedom plot. Also Kirk's surprisingly brutal line to a lawgiver after Landru has been destroyed. “You can get rid of those robes. If I were you, I'd start looking for another job”.

Landru turns out to be a civilisation controlling supercomputer. It has an impressive array of powers. It can locate the Enterprise crew at a distance, telepathically control entire crowds of people and make them act against their basic nature, brainwash, focus heat beams on the Enterprise, turn the empty metal tubes carried by the lawgivers into weapons, remotely project images and sounds, and disarm Kirk and Spock's phasers. Landru can also learn, and react. Naturally, Kirk talks it to death.

Crew deaths: None, surprisingly. An artificial way to up the stakes would be to have the lawgivers kill a couple of the landing party. Instead, for all its faults, the script does resist going down that easy route.
Running total: 25

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