Monday, August 6, 2012

This Side Of Paradise

Confession time. When I last watched the Star Trek DVDs I skipped episodes. Not often. Just occasionally. Only the episodes I already knew I didn't like. Miri and The Conscience Of The King both went unwatched. There were others but it's probably not wise to name them as the list includes at least one second series stone-cold fan favourite. I haven't changed my opinions on any episode so far. Miri and The Conscience Of The King still both sit pretty far down my list of favourites, and I don't hold much hope for The Alternative Factor when I get there in three episodes.

It's pretty obvious where this is going. One of the skipped episodes was This Side Of Paradise. It sat in my memory labelled as boring. The one where Spock falls in love. Bleugh. Who wants to see that? Spock's babe will be backlit and shot through a vaseline smeared lens, to make her look “beautiful”. The episode will be dubbed with that sappy lurve music. Skip it! Jump straight from A Taste Of Armageddon to The Devil In The Dark.

Fine, so I'm an idiot. But on a broader scale, This Side Of Paradise seems to be one of the more overlooked Star Trek episodes. When it was rewritten writer Jerry Sohl had his name removed because he was unhappy with the result. Director Ralph Senensky has a website where he talks about being booked to direct The Devil In The Dark and being disappointed when he was sent the script for This Side Of Paradise along with a note telling him the episodes had been switched. As he says, “THE DEVIL IN THE DARK was a strange, eerie script, totally different from anything I had directed, while THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, although it was science fiction, was not really new territory for me.” Maybe Senensky nails the problem right there. This Side Of Paradise is a love story between Spock and Leila Kalomi. Star Trek is an action-adventure science fiction series. The whole ethos of Star Trek is, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” Why is the series telling a love story? Any show can tell a love story.

Worse, it's a love story for Mr. Spock. If a writer is stuck for a story one easy solution is to break an element of the series. What happens when the transporter breaks down? What happens if the warp drive malfunctions at a critical moment? What happens if the shuttle crashes? In the case of Spock the easiest way to break the character is to force him to experience emotions. "Spock falls in love," seems like the most obvious story someone could pitch. Even worse, Spock doesn't fall in love unaided, he gets high on spores which break down his emotional barriers. So we have a science fiction show doing a story you can find in any television series, with the most obvious character, a script the original writer disliked enough to want to use a pseudonym, and it's a rip off of The Naked Time. Not the most inspiring combination.

You would think everyone would have more faith in D. C. Fontana; who rewrote Jerry Sohl's story. She has a proven track record for making stories work.
Charlie X is an intelligent, thoughtful story. Tomorrow Is Yesterday makes workable the second most obvious pitch, “hey, what if the Enterprise turned out to be one of those UFOs we keep reading about.” This Side Of Paradise is her best script so far. Spot on pacing means each of the four acts tells a different part of the story. Act one is the mystery. Why are the colonists alive when they should be dead? Act two is the complication. The bulk of Spock's love story is here, and Kirk has to deal with his command falling apart. Act three is Kirk's lowest point, stalking the empty Enterprise and being infected himself, and the turnaround when he discovers the cure. Finally act four is the resolution. Not only must the colonists be cured of the bliss giving spores, but Spock must deal with the fallout of his relationship with Leila. And if the pacing is good the structure is better. This Side Of Paradise tells two stories simultaneously; one about Spock's love story the other about Kirk dealing with the loss of his command. Although this is remembered as Spock's love story it's Kirk who keeps the plot moving forwards. It's actually a surprise to see how little romance this love story contains. This Side Of Paradise turns out to be a textbook example of how a story should be shaped around the lead actor, while also giving memorable scenes to the supporting leads.

Small moments of dialogue are used to tell us about the characters. Leila uses McCoy's communicator to call Spock, unaware that he has broken the spore's influence.  

LEILA: You are all right, aren't you?
SPOCK: Yes. Yes. I'm quite well.

There are whole worlds of meaning in Spock's simple line. His awkward attempt to recreate the easy way he spoke to Leila previously. Embarrassment at having to talk about emotion. Regret. A desire not to let Leila suspect he is no longer affected by the spores. He is also attempting not to hurt or worry her, and put off the difficult emotional confrontation he knows is coming.

These small moments alternate with bigger scenes. Most memorably Kirk's attempt to drive Spock into a fury which contains some surprisingly brutal lines.

KIRK: All right, you mutinous, disloyal, computerised, half-breed, we'll see about you deserting my ship.
SPOCK: The term half-breed is somewhat applicable, but computerised is inaccurate. A machine can be computerised, not a man.
KIRK: What makes you think you're a man? You're an overgrown jackrabbit, an elf with a hyperactive thyroid.
SPOCK: Jim, I don't understand.
KIRK: Of course you don't understand. You don't have the brains to understand. All you have is printed circuits.
SPOCK: Captain, if you'll excuse me.
KIRK: What can you expect from a simpering, devil-eared freak whose father was a computer and his mother an encyclopedia?
SPOCK: My mother was a teacher. My father an ambassador.
KIRK: Your father was a computer, like his son. An ambassador from a planet of traitors. A Vulcan never lived who had an ounce of integrity.
SPOCK: Captain, please don't
KIRK: You're a traitor from a race of traitors. Disloyal to the core, rotten like the rest of your subhuman race, and you've got the gall to make love to that girl.
SPOCK: That's enough.
KIRK: Does she know what she's getting, Spock? A carcass full of memory banks who should be squatting in a mushroom, instead of passing himself off as a man? You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship. Right next to the dog-faced boy. 

William Shatner, as you'd expect, eats up the screen during this scene. He's having a whale of a time. His best moment comes after the, “right next to the dog faced boy” line when his expression in close-up is a perfect mixture of hope and fear; hope that he's made Spock angry enough to counter the spores, and fear that he's gone too far. But it's not just Shatner who has raised his game. While William Shatner has the charisma to be a leading man Leonard Nimoy is the better actor, and teamed with Jill Ireland as Leila the result is brilliant. The work they do in the act two romance scenes makes them believable. Nimoy plays his scenes carefully, and the result is recognisably Spock in love; the same character, but different. Another actor might have just started smiling and looking all dewy-eyed. When the romance plot drops out of sight in act three it stays in the memory, allowing it to be picked up again in act four, and for Spock to end the episode by dropping the series' most devastating line, “I have little to say about it, Captain, except that for the first time in my life I was happy.”

The scene between Spock and Leila in the transporter room may be the best in the series so far. As Leila realises she has lost Spock she turns away, and begins crying, and Ralph Senensky shoots much of the scene with Leila facing away from Spock so we can see both of their faces with a minimum of cutting between camera angles. This allows the scene to play out as a single take so Nimoy and Ireland can both respond to the others performance. Wisely, Leila does not appear in the episode after this scene is finished. It would cheapen the story to see her hanging around in the background red-eyed, or to have a goodbye scene going over the same emotional territory. Also, in the transporter room scene there is something poetic about Leila being the only person to lose the spores through despair, rather than anger as everyone else does. Especially as despair is the same emotion which leads Kirk to become infected on the empty Enterprise bridge after he stops being angry at his crew's behaviour and despairs over his failure and absent crew.

The bridge scene shows the thought Jerry Finnerman, director of photography, is putting into the episode. As Kirk is infected Shatner turns towards the camera and, as the spores take effect, the lighting is subtly brightened to make Kirk's face glow. Likewise as Kirk struggles against their effect in the transporter room and becomes angry the lighting is turned down until Kirk is in silhouette; then Kirk switches on the transporter control panel illuminating his face with a harsh blue light. At the same time Ralph Senensky is telling much of the story visually. Once Kirk is free of the spores the camera swings round to show us Kirk's suitcase on the transporter pad, subtly emphasising how Kirk's anger was a result of preparing to leave. Likewise the spore spraying plants are often foregrounded in shots, most notably when Leila leads Spock to be infected and the early part of the scene is filmed through the leaves of a plant. Senensky, like Joesph Pevney, the director of Arena, is always looking for ways to make shots more interesting. As Kirk and Spock build the transmitter they are filmed through the machinery of the communications console. And as Spock takes the awkward call from Leila mentioned above, where she asks to come up and see the Enterprise, Spock is foregrounded and Kirk stands in the background listening embarrassedly. Once the call has finished the camera swings round and the conversation continues with Kirk in the foreground and Spock in the background. 

This Side Of Paradise seems to have a sense of excitement about it. As if the cast and crew all know they are dealing with a good script and all want to deliver the best work possible. With Nimoy and Ireland responding to an excellent script, Shatner raises his game. With a first time director excited to be working on Star Trek and looking for ways to make the episode interesting, Jerry Finnerman uses lighting to visualise the emotional state of the crew. And the actors respond to a production team concerned with more than just getting the episode in the can, and in turn the production team respond to the enthusiasm of the actors, and the whole episode is lifted as a result. And all this from an episode I thought I remembered as boring. Maybe there is hope for The Alternative Factor.

Enterprise crew deaths: None, again. Six episodes without anyone dying.
Running total: 25


Associate Producer Robert Justman and Assistant Film Editor Don Rode were in charge of the next episode previews. The preview for This Side Of Paradise contains a fantastically filthy innuendo. To the point I'm almost surprised it was broadcast.

Basically, Justman and Rode edit together two similar shots of Spock and Leila; one of the camera zooming in on Spock, the other on Leila. The two shots are intercut with increasing speed and followed by an abrupt cut to a plant shooting its cloud of white spores all over Spock. Disgusting. NBC's Standards and Practises department must have been distracted elsewhere.

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