Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Changeling

Uhura dies! The one thing everyone notices about The Changeling is the moment when Nomad wipes her brain. “The knowledge banks of this unit have been wiped clean,” as Nomad puts it. It's all very well for Spock and McCoy to talk hopefully about re-education but everything which made Uhura has gone. She's as dead as Scotty, but it's the death of her personality rather than physical death. It's the one misstep in an otherwise almost textbook example of a Star Trek script. The implication is that with a bit of futuristic medicine and a few reading lessons Uhura will be back to her normal self. Obviously McCoy and Nurse Chapel can show Uhura photographs of her parents, and Kirk, and Spock, and so on, but it's unclear how they plan to restore the emotional content of her memories. It's one thing for Uhura to recognise Captain Kirk but how to replicate the complicated jumble of memories and emotional states which accompanies the process of recognition? Simply hoping the audience will chalk up the complete restoration of Uhura's personality to future medicine seems to be pushing the boundaries of believability too far.

However, the script itself doesn't seem clear about what has happened to Uhura. When Spock says, “there has been no brain damage but only knowledge erased, she could be re-educated,” it's possible he literally means that only Uhura's learned information is gone. She doesn't know how to read, she doesn't know how to talk, for want of a better phrase she doesn't know how to think. Maybe Uhura has lost the ability to access the information inside her own head. There's an odd moment during the re-education scene where Uhura becomes frustrated at her inability to read English and talks in Swahili. It's easy to understand that McCoy and Chapel's immediate priority would be to teach Uhura to speak. If Swahili is Uhura's first language and if they wanted to replicate Uhura's original learning process then they might teach her that, followed by English. But then who taught her to default back to Swahili at times of frustration? It's certainly more pleasant to believe that Uhura is just learning how to remember to be herself, but then Chapel gets an odd line about Uhura seeming, “to have an aptitude for mathematics.” As if the re-education process is uncovering attributes of Uhura's new personality. Ultimately it remains unclear if the person who goes into a parallel universe in Mirror, Mirror is the same one trapped on the Guardian's planet while Kirk and Spock attempt to restore history in The City On The Edge Of Forever.

The re-education scene itself is quite sweet. It gives Nichelle Nichols something to do other than opening hailing frequencies, and is also a nice moment for Majel Barrett. Nurse Chapel is normally only seen when the script needs someone to worry about Spock so seeing her being competent at her job, and pleased for Uhura as she makes progress, does her character no end of good. This scene also makes The Changeling the first Star Trek episode to pass the Bechdel Test in that it's a scene featuring two women, who have a conversation about something other than a man.

Outside of the question of what happens to Uhura this is, as already said, a textbook Star Trek script. That's not to say it's the greatest script ever but it hits all the right dramatic beats, ramps up the tension, and gives most characters something to do. It's a meat and potatoes story, and on the basis of this script it's understandable why writer John Meredyth Lucas was asked to become producer when Gene L. Coon left after Bread And Circuses. Just looking at the act breaks shows how the story consistently develops, expanding its scope and developing the threat. The teaser ends with the Enterprise being pounded by energy bolts in a surprise attack. Act one with Nomad appearing on the transporter pad. Act two with the death of Scotty. And act three with the realisation that Nomad, with its confused mission to sterilise organic life, knows the location of Earth.

Act one is the superior act. As Kirk and the bridge crew try to locate and destroy their mysterious attacker, and then talk when fighting proves ineffective. Director Marc Daniels, and film editor Fabien Tordjmann, wring every drop of tension they can out of Lucas' script. There's a very good moment when the bridge crew all act like a co-ordinated unit.

KIRK: Helmsmen, I said evasive manoeuvres.
SULU: We're losing power, sir.
KIRK: Scotty?
SCOTT: I'm having to divert the warp engine power into the shields, sir, if you want the protection.
KIRK: Mister Spock, speed of those bolts.
SPOCK: Approximately warp fifteen, Captain.
KIRK: Then we can't out run them. Good, Scotty. You're doing the right thing.

The tension eases once Nomad comes aboard. The probe itself looks faintly comical although Marc Daniels does his best to make it a threat. There are some very nice hand-held camera tracking shots of Nomad moving through the ship with the bulk, such as it is, of Nomad's body filling the frame. The scene of Uhura having her mind wiped, and Scotty being killed, isn't just there to end act two on an exciting note. It demonstrates the danger Nomad poses to the crew even when it's being friendly. And it also underscores the danger of Spock's mind probe in act three as he tries to learn about Nomad's origin. Nomad's refusal to believe its creator was an imperfect biological unit carries echoes of Isaac Asimov's short story Reason in which a robot invents its own religion (1967 was a significant year for this Asimov short story, in January BBC2 adapted it as The Prophet for the series Out Of The Unknown with some fantastic music by the Radiophonic Workshop).
It's not difficult to dislike The Changeling. It's a linear story with no significant guest stars, the whole sequence with Uhura isn't thought through properly, and Kirk confuses a superior computer to death at the end. Despite this the science gone wrong threat Nomad represents is a very Star Trek concept, and the mismatch between Nomad's size and power can be seen as restating The Devil In The Dark's message of don't judge by appearances.

Enterprise crew deaths: 4 unnamed security guards. Nomad carries out its sterilisation function with relish and the result is the highest single episode body count since Where No Man Has Gone Before.
Running total: 30

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