Sunday, November 25, 2012

I, Mudd

A lot of the criticisms applied to Catspaw should also apply to I, Mudd. Another frothy undemanding episode involving familiar story elements; instead of playing hunt-the-power-source, the Enterprise crew play hunt-the-controlling-android, and at the end the superior androids are confused to death by a bunch of silly humans. There's no great secret to why I, Mudd works and Catspaw doesn't; I, Mudd is better.

The tone helps. I, Mudd is unambiguously a comedy. Not a genre Star Trek has attempted before. There's been funny lines, and funny scenes, and since Gene L. Coon arrived as producer a lot of episodes have ended with a joke but the closet Star Trek came to outright comedy was Tomorrow Is Yesterday. An episode with moments of farce as characters were unexpectedly beamed up to the Enterprise. Now suddenly, in production order, there are two comedy episodes in a row I, Mudd and The Trouble With Tribbles. Perhaps Gene Roddenberry took a couple of weeks holiday.

The lighter touch definitely helps. Catspaw is not a po-faced episode (Spock's line, “very bad poetry, Captain,” is a decent quip) but attempts to present Syliva and Korob as serious threats don't work. Suspension of disbelief is finally pushed to breaking point with the reveal of the pair's true forms. As a representation of, “a life form totally alien to our galaxy,” the cute puppets don't work. In the context of a Buffy The Vampire Slayer gag (the ending to Fear Itself where Grachnar the fear demon turns out to be tiny) they might have been more acceptable. However, comedy may cover a multitude of sins but it would still take more than a few jokes to make Catspaw work successfully as a story. Yes, I, Mudd has some laughs but at its core is a well constructed script.

Unlike Syliva and Korob the motivations of the androids are clearly laid out and easy to understand. They have decided the human race is too dangerous to have free run of the galaxy. They will take the hijacked Enterprise and use it to serve man, curbing humans most acquisitive instincts and subtly controlling them in the process. The plot puts a different spin on the androids plan by having them act out misguided good intentions. Like
The Changeling, I, Mudd shows us a threat which keeps escalating. First android Norman hijacks the Enterprise. Then Harry Mudd is revealed to be the brains behind the plan. Then Mudd explains his goal is to take over the Enterprise and fly it round the galaxy with his own android crew. And then the androids play their joker, they have their own plan and Harry Mudd is as much a prisoner as Kirk. The plot of I, Mudd is actually a little more sophisticated than The Changeling. In The Changeling the plot is a series of pull-back and reveals with each pull-back showing a little more of the bigger picture; the threat to the Enterprise is a damaged space probe called Nomad; Kirk must keep Nomad friendly; even friendly Nomad is a danger; Nomad learns the location of Earth. It's a linear plot whereas the android double-cross means I, Mudd ends on a twist. The audience are expecting the last act to be Kirk and crew against Mudd and androids, when it actually becomes Kirk, and crew, and Mudd against the androids.

If this is beginning to make I, Mudd sound like Shakespeare it shouldn't. By Star Trek's standards this remains a lightweight story, but it clearly demonstrates the care that even lightweight stories require. I, Mudd is full of moments which show the script has been carefully thought through. Most notably when Uhura pretends to betray Kirk and exposes his fake escape attempt because the androids are alert for an attempt and will relax their guard once it has been thwarted. Another script might have skipped this scene and jumped straight to the real escape. It's a character moment, and is not essential to the plot, but because it shows the Enterprise crew thinking through the implications of their captivity it adds a little fine detail to the story. Gene L. Coon's fingerprints seem to be all over this script, all of the characters get something to do (with the exception of poor Mr Sulu who only gets lines in the teaser and then disappears from the story). It's tempting to wonder if there was some anxiety about doing a straight comedy, because extra work does seem to have been done to bolster the script and it withstands scrutiny much better than Catspaw or The Alternative Factor.

Opinions about the comedy will depend on the viewer. It's often quite broad, and much of it relies on Shatner and Nimoy's deadpan reactions to Roger C. Carmel blustering (“That, sir, is an outrageous assumption!”). There's some real fun with the use of language (“Next, we take the Alices on a trip through Wonderland.”) but the highlight is Spock's use of logic to confuse two of the Alice model androids. A sequence which pulls of the difficult trick of being funny, in character for Spock, and also weirdly logical. 

ALICE 27: Mister Spock, you have a remarkably logical and analytical mind.
SPOCK: Thank you. [Spock attempts a neck pinch on Alice 210, it has no effect.]
ALICE 210: Is there some significance to this action?
SPOCK: I love you [points at Alice 27]. However, I hate you. [looks at Alice 210]
ALICE 210: But I'm identical in every way with Alice Twenty Seven.
SPOCK: Yes, of course. That is exactly why I hate you. Because you are identical.

That exchange is part of the climax of the episode. An audacious ten minute scene of Kirk, Spock, Harry Mudd, and the rest of the bridge crew confusing the androids into shutting down. It's tempting to label this sequence as indescribable but that gives the impression I watched I, Mudd babbling, “no words... should have sent a poet,” like Jodi Foster in Contact. It's a ten minute absurdist segment, like a freeform surrealist play within the episode itself. The cast play invisible violins and dance to imaginary music, 'kill' Scotty by pointing their fingers at him and whistling, and mess around with non-existent explosives. I don't like it much but have to admire the simple fact it exists and was broadcast in primetime on NBC.

I'm not keen on the sequence because it pushes the limits of believability of Star Trek. I can buy Kirk being Starfleet's greatest Captain, and irresistible to any woman in a thirty light year radius, but here he, and the rest of the bridge crew, suddenly become expert actors and improvisers. Either their flawless routine is made up on the spot or they've spent time scripting and rehearsing it; neither explanation works for me. To be fair, someone at the time must have held similar concerns because there is an attempt to have Kirk direct the action, pointing at people and cueing their lines, but this just emphasises the play acting nature of the scene and leaves me wondering why the androids get so confused. And that's probably my biggest complaint. The androids can be shut down by playing let's pretend. Derek Griffiths pretending to be a jelly on Play School would blow their minds. Presumably the original creators never let their children near the androids or their brains would be fused by the sight of a six year old gallumphing around and telling everyone she was a ballet dancing princess.

Director Marc Daniels keeps the story grounded and someone, possibly assistant director Phil Rawlins, does excellent work keeping track of the extras used for the duplicate androids. A few split screen effects, most notably when Harry Mudd introduces the Alice series, sell the idea of identical androids but for the most part the androids are achieved with one set of twins, a lot of identical costumes and some wigs. The clever use of extras is demonstrated in the scene where the androids reveal their true plan.

[A wide shot of the throne room. Harry fusses around saying goodbye to the androids. The camera pushes forwards and Kirk enters the rear of the throne room set with Spock and the other Alice twin]
KIRK: Mudd, a few questions I want to ask you.
MUDD: Afraid I won't have time to answer them. My bags are all packed. The androids will take the Enterprise out of orbit in less than twenty four hours. But it's been a real pleasure having you here, Kirk. Is there anything I can get for you?
...Skipped the bit with Stella...
MUDD: Alice Number 2, my little love. Will you have my bags transported up to the ship? [During this line the camera pulls back at an angle favouring both the twins, until we can see four Alices. The two twins and the two extras]

ANDROIDS: No, my Lord Mudd.

MUDD: What?

NORMAN: We can no longer take your orders, Harry Mudd.

MUDD: Why not?

 NORMAN: Our makers were wise. They programmed us to serve.

MUDD: Yes, but that's what I'm saying. Put my bags on the ship.

KIRK: Harry, I think they have something else in mind.
NORMAN: You are correct, Captain. Harry Mudd is flawed, even for a human being...

NORMAN:[Continues over reaction shot] We recognised this from the beginning but used his knowledge to obtain more specimens....

 NORMAN:[Continues in close-up]Your species is self-destructive...

 NORMAN:[Continues over reaction shot] You need our help.

KIRK: We prefer to help ourselves. We make mistakes, but we're human. And maybe that's the word that best explains us.

NORMAN: We will not harm you, but we will take the starship...

NORMAN:[Continues] and you will remain on this planet.
MUDD: Now, look here. You can't do that! Now, listen. To serve us, you must obey us.

ANDROIDS: No, my Lord Mudd.
MUDD: Alice number One... [still the same shot, the camera pans showing Spock and one of the Alice twins at the back of the room, Harry walks towards her] 

MUDD: [Continues] obey me. Put my bags on that ship!
[Alice 1 gives him a push. Harry goes reeling backwards]

NORMAN: We cannot allow any race as greedy and corruptible as yours...

NORMAN:[Continues over reaction shot] to have free run of the galaxy.

SPOCK: [As Spock speaks he walks forwards and the camera pans with him. One of the Alice twins follows and moves to stand behind Spock] I'm curious, Norman. Just how do you intend to stop them?

NORMAN: We shall serve them. Their kind will be eager to accept our service....

NORMAN:[Continues over reaction shot] Soon they will become completely dependent upon us.

ALICE 99: Their aggressive and acquisitive instincts will be under our control.
NORMAN: We shall take care of them.

SPOCK: Eminently practical.
KIRK: The whole galaxy controlled by your kind?
NORMAN: Yes, Captain.... 

Norman: [Continues in close-up] And we shall serve them and you will be happy, and controlled.

If that seems confusing to read, it was even more complicated to write, and I suspect it was most complicated of all to film. Kudos to whoever staged the scene for keeping track of the geography and making sure the two twins were used as effectively as possible. They are moved between shots and positioned very carefully though the sequence to make sure they give the impression of a planet full of identical androids.

Enterprise crew deaths: None, True to his word Norman is very careful not to kill anyone.
Running total: 35

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