Sunday, September 9, 2012

Operation - - Annihilate!

Writer Steven W. Carabatsos is something of a mystery man. He is credited as Star Trek's story editor from The Conscience Of The King to A Taste Of Armageddon, and yet unlike the story editor who followed him, D. C. Fontana, he never seems to have given any substantial interviews* and searching the internet reveals very little information. The third Star Trek story editor Arthur H. Singer is equally elusive so perhaps this just reflects the relative anonymity of a job which focuses on scripts, compared to D. C. Fontana's more significant role across Star Trek, and seems to share blurred boundaries with John D. F. Black and Robert Justman's more senior position of associate producer. Still, considering how the production side of Star Trek has been mined for anecdotes, his absence from the series history seems odd.

With Operation - - Annihilate! the first season finishes as it started, with a monster show, and provides an opportunity to compare and contrast. Star Trek is now a visibly more confident programme. At the most basic level the scale of the stories has increased. The Man Trap, the first story broadcast, was about a single monster loose on the Enterprise. Operation - - Annihilate! is about a planetary invasion. And the show is more confident about the audience's ability to fill in gaps for themselves. Operation - - Annihilate! has a handful of extras standing in for a planetary population, and location filming and a few sets representing a capital city. This might not sound like a big deal but look at the first few stories made, they either take place on the Enterprise or on planets where we see the entire population; an automated lithium cracking station, a lithium mining planet with three miners, an archaeological dig of two people, and so on. The first planet with a potentially substantial off-screen population is Dagger Of The Mind, the tenth episode filmed, where presumably there are guards and inmates in addition to the ones we see. The next episode after that is Miri where backlot location footage is justified with a line about Miri's world looking exactly like Earth, Spock even dates the city to the 1960s, and although there must be other cities and more children none are ever mentioned. Planet Q, from The Conscience Of The King, is the first world Star Trek shows us which definitely has an off-screen population, the view from the Leighton's window shows a city in the distance.

On other levels the series hasn't moved forwards at all. We're never given any explanation for what the space parasites want, in the same way we're never told why the salt vampire is unable to resist munching four Enterprise crew in the space of a few hours. Five episodes after The Devil In The Dark and we're back to monsters being bad because they are monsters. It's frustrating because the space parasites are not just spreading randomly from world to world, they are travelling in one direction, which implies a destination. And if not then it's sure nice of the things to move through three dimensional space in a straight line, an idea Futurama, joked about in The Day The Earth Stood Stupid.

HERMES: This is mighty strange. First, the civilisation Space Rome collapsed, then Don Martin 3 went caflooie and now Tweenis 12.
FRY: Looks like this planet is next in line.
LEELA: That's Earth. The planet we live on.
FRY: I'd hate to be those guys.

Something else which hasn't changed is the need to give the Enterprise crew personal involvement. In The Man Trap the salt vampire impersonated McCoy's ex Nancy Crater. Here, Kirk's brother Sam is already dead, a victim of the space parasites, Sam's wife Aurelan lasts a little longer, and Kirk's nephew Peter survives but is only ever seen unconscious; probably to comply with NBC's Standards and Practices Department, a child in excruciating pain is exactly the sort of thing they would flag as having the potential to distress viewers (Peter did appear in a deleted scene but only a photo of that exists now). There's nothing wrong with giving Kirk a personal stake in events but in Operation - - Annihilate! it seems unnecessary. Kirk already has to deal with potentially wiping out a planet of one million people to stop the space parasites spreading further. Kirk also has to deal with Spock being infected. Adding the fate of Kirk's brother and his family to the mix feels like overkill. Kirk's minimal reaction to Sam's death is one of the things which pushes the feel of the script into monster movie territory. It certainly doesn't have much effect on events beyond confusing the timeline of the story. The Enterprise landing party are brought to Sam's laboratory by Aurelan's screams. When they burst in she is trying to block the airvent. “They're here! They're here! Please keep them away!” she sobs, but Sam is already dead and both Aurelan and Peter are infected. What is she trying to keep out?

That small moment aside, Steven Carabatsos' script is pretty enjoyable. It's not too deep but it does the job. The only real disappointment is the solution to Spock's blindness. Obviously he's not going to be blind forever but playing the he's-an-alien-with-alien-biology card seems arbitrary at best. It reminds me of A Taste Of Amageddon where the solution to being locked in a room is to have Spock suddenly develop the ability to project telepathic impressions through a door.

At the start of the episode Nichelle Nichols has a nice moment when Kirk snaps at her.

UHURA: Contact broken, sir.
KIRK: Re-establish.
UHURA: Sorry, sir.
KIRK: I'm not interested in your excuses, Lieutenant. Re-establish contact with that transmitter.
UHURA: I'm afraid that's impossible at the moment, Captain. They stopped broadcasting immediately. They do not acknowledge my contact signal.

After Kirk orders her to re-establish contact she leaves a small pause before delivering her final line in a deliberately level tone. It suggests she's controlling her temper. She knows Kirk is being unreasonable but she also understands why. William Shatner plays Kirk as realising he's gone too far, without actually apologising directly. And the whole moment gains a little bit of extra life from the unspoken communication between the two.

Like the writing, Herschel Daugherty's direction is functional. He's at his best in the location scenes. Especially the sequence right after the landing party beam down where whoever dubbed the music (probably Robert Justman) uses it to great effect. It's one of those pieces of music which crops up in the series on a semi-regular basis, it turns up first in Charlie X as Charlie explores the Enterprise, but here it works really well. The score brings to life the shots of the landing party walking through the modernist architecture of the location. There's also some interesting sound mixing as the landing party are attacked by four men controlled by the space parasites. As the men run towards the landing party it sounds as if they are ranting incoherently, their dialogue overlaps and it's difficult to pick out individual lines. It's not till they get much closer that individual lines of dialogue can be heard, and it turns out the men are not raging they are yelling at the Enterprise team to leave. The space parasites themselves look plasticy, but they also have a weird greasy quality to them which leaves them looking slightly unpleasant. They also make a buzzing/farting noise which was probably fun to dub. Their reveal is very well handled. The landing party walks into an enclosed area and, as the buzzing noise gets louder, the camera pans further back under a low beam on which the parasites are stuck. When they fly it is obviously on a wire but someone has tried to make even this simple effect look different and the parasites tumble end over end. 

If someone requested to see a typical episode of Star Trek this is one I'd recommend. Hopefully describing Operation - - Annihilate! as typical doesn't sound dismissive. It's certainly not meant to be read that way. It simply reflects how far the series has come in the first 29 episodes that I can describe this story as average.

Enterprise crew deaths: None, again.
Running total: 26

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