Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Doomsday Machine

William Windom is brilliant as Commodore Matt Decker. It's probably the best performance by a guest star on a series not always notable for allowing guest stars to shine. Unless an actor is extremely good, or very lucky, they stand little chance of making an impression against Star Trek's regular cast and attendant science-fiction gubbins (winking lights, strange makeup, weird noises, bizarre creatures, etc). Pity poor Alfred Ryder credited as the guest star of The Man Trap when all the audience remembers is the salt vampire, or Robert Brown dropped at the last minute into a thankless role (technically two thankless roles) in The Alternative Factor and unable to make an impression against the special effects of that episode. There are actors who make Star Trek work for them. William Campbell, as Trelane in The Squire Of Gothos, and Ricardo Montalban, as Khan in Space Seed both take big central characters and make them their own. More impressively Mark Lenard, as the Romulan Commander with no name in Balance Of Terror, and Celia Lovsky as T'Pau in Amok Time both make very good impressions in considerably smaller roles than those given to Ricardo Montalban or William Campbell. Generally speaking though Star Trek tends to be a series which treats the guest star role as disposable. A slot which can be filled by simply giving the star something different to do (evil Kirk in The Enemy Within), or by a prop (Nomad in The Changeling), or a costume (the Gorn, Arena), or by not bothering with a guest star at all (Operation – Annihilate!).

William Windom is so good it comes as something of a disappointment to discover he thought the role, “seemed kind of silly, with the planet eater and spaceships. It's like doing a cartoon, so I acted accordingly!” As a fan, his blunt comment disappoints for two reasons. First because as a non-actor it's easy to assume an actor has to like the material to turn in a good performance (an assumption most actors would probably consider an insult to their professionalism). Secondly because The Doomsday Machine is great. It would be nice to think some of that greatness rubbed off on Windom and made him remember this job as different from the more run of the mill material. Still, it's a reasonable assessment from an actor with an amazingly long career, who seemed to regard television as the disposable portion of his work. The Doomsday Machine was one of ten jobs Windom had in 1967 (the others being parts in Run for Your Life, The Fugitive, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Hour of the Gun, The Invaders, Custer, Gentle Ben, Dundee and the Culhane, and Judd for the Defense). Imagine how the job must have appeared from his perspective. Five days schlepping across Los Angeles to a soundstage at Desilu (a company past its prime), surrounded by the aforementioned blinking lights and actors in strange makeup, and being told to look scared at something the production team will add later.

There's a surprising similarity between Commodore Decker and Finney from Court Martial. Most obviously in both cases the production team dress the character in a gold coloured top, and give them stubble; apparently the ultimate sign in the 1960s of someone losing their mind. Both actors use the same performance style for their character; letting their voice crack, bulging their eyes, and making quick transitions between emotional states. The key difference is Windom's performance works while Richard Webb's seems melodramatic and over the top. Party this is down to the way each character is introduced to the audience. Court Martial spends a great deal of its running time telling us how everyone loves Finney; he's popular in Starfleet (certainly much more popular than Kirk judging by the welcome he gets at Starbase 11), and generally together enough to assemble (and fake evidence for) an elaborate revenge plot against Captain Kirk. When Finney is finally revealed as a ranting, barely in control madman there's a mismatch between what the audience has been told, and what they are shown, and Webb's performance seems wrong. By contrast The Doomsday Machine sets up two destroyed planetary systems, and a wrecked starship. After Matt Decker is introduced in a virtually catatonic state Windom's performance seems appropriate because his character has obviously gone through hell. Also, Windom is a better actor than Webb. That's not to run down Webb's performance too much because he's fine in Court Martial, but Windom is just astonishing.

KIRK: Matt, where's your crew?
DECKER: On the third planet.
KIRK: There is no third planet.
DECKER: Don't you think I know that? There was, but not anymore. They called me. They begged me for help, four hundred of them. I couldn't. I couldn't.

Windom brings those lines to life. His red-eyed, crumpled face delivery of “don't you think I know that,” is pure melodrama but it works perfectly and sets a doom-laden tone for the rest of the episode. It's no surprise to learn he used to self-deprecatingly refer to himself as Willie the Weeper.

It's the addition of Matt Decker to The Doomsday Machine which makes Norman Spinrad's script sing. His character defines the threat to the Enterprise, acting as a warning from the future of what Kirk could become if his luck ever runs out. Decker also doubles the threat to the Enterprise crew. There's the external threat from the planet killer, and the internal one from Decker who is obsessed with taking revenge against the machine which killed his crew. Decker's presence also makes Kirk more heroic. It's not accidental that Decker as a Commodore outranks both Spock and Kirk. If Decker was a mere Captain he would still be able to take charge of the Enterprise but there would be no drama in the scene where Kirk orders Spock to relieve Decker. It would simply be one Captain taking action against another, the scene only works because Kirk has to undercut the chain of command. The script also shows why Spock is a natural second in command. He knows Decker is wrong but he plays things by the book and follows regulations. He lacks Kirk's ability to make an intuitive leap and find another solution. Essentially Spock's plan is to keep confronting Decker with the facts until he listens to reason. “You tried to destroy it once before, Commodore. The result was a wrecked ship and a dead crew.” Spock doesn't understand emotion enough to realise that saying astonishingly brutal things like that don't help; especially not to someone still grieving over the deaths of 430 crew. The scenes where Decker assumes command of the Enterprise show what an asset Leonard Nimoy is to Star Trek. When Deforest Kelly yells, “do something,” Nimoy's stone-faced stare manages to project the impression that Spock's mind is going at a million miles an hour trying to find a way to relieve Decker of command; really Nimoy was probably wondering what to have for lunch.

The presence of Commodore Decker is also what separates the threat in The Doomsday Machine from the similar one posed by Nomad three episodes ago in The Changeling. Both are apparently unstoppable machines capable of wiping out planetary systems, and both pose a massive threat to the Enterprise. Apart from the difference in size, it's only Nomad's ability to talk which separates the two. The dividing line between good and average stories is very fine and it's easy to imagine transplanting elements from The Changeling into The Doomsday Machine. Nomad could easily have sterilized the Constellation crew, leaving Decker out for revenge and shocked by the threat posed by something so small. Or, Kirk could have beamed inside the planet killer and talked the controlling computer to death with illogic. Kirk is also dealing with a considerable ramping up of threat. Over the last year and a bit he's gone from dealing with a single salt vampire on the Enterprise, to planetary outbreaks of insanity, to machines capable of destroying entire planetary systems.

Marc Daniels, a solid workmanlike director, injects some flourishes into the bridge scenes. Most notably in a lovely tracking shot which starts on Sulu, follows a yellow shirted ensign round to Kirk who then walks in front of the bridge screen and around to Spock. Daniels must have been, understandably, proud of this shot as he repeats it with Kirk and Spock at the end of the episode. Film editor Donald R. Rode also does good work intercutting Kirk and McCoy searching the Constellation with Scotty and the damage control team examining engineering. He also manages to extend the final 30 second countdown to 90 seconds. Something which he makes tense, rather than silly, by cutting frantically between the Enterprise bridge, Scotty attempting to fix the transporter, the transporter room, exterior shots, and Kirk on the Constellation, “Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard.”

Helping Donald R. Rode's cutting in the 30 second countdown is Sol Kaplan's astonishing score. As the planet killer closes on the Constellation, Kaplan gives us a pulsing rhythm which speeds up and increases the tension as the Constellation and the planet killer close on each other, and ends on cornets blaring as the planet killer is destroyed. Kaplan's music is what makes The Doomsday Machine such an outstanding Star Trek episode. It perfectly underscores big moments like Decker flying the shuttle into the planet killer's maw and small ones like the first sighting of the crippled Constellation. Just as important, Kaplan understands the value of silence. When the Enterprise is caught in the planet killer's tractor beam, and Spock threatens to relieve Decker on the grounds that his actions would amount to suicide, the whole scene plays out with no music, and instead the score is brought back on Sulu's line, “we're being pulled inside” to make the ending of act two more dramatic.

Kaplan also composes a theme for people using the transporter which leads to a great musical double-bluff as Kirk sets the timer running on Scotty's lashed up self-destruct system for the Constellation. In the build up to Kirk pressing the red button the music is playing the pulsing planet killer pursuit theme. As he presses the button a trumpet plays a little flurry which extends out into a single held note. The same note as the one which starts the already established transporter theme. As the film cuts to a shot of the transporter the music sounds as if it is making a transition between the theme for the planet killer and the one for the transporter and it tricks the audience into expecting to see Kirk beamed safely aboard. Instead the transporter gives out a puff of smoke, and the held note breaks up into a musical sting. Amusingly, Kaplan is the name of one of the unfortunate guards killed in The Apple (the 9th episode filmed, after The Doomsday Machine but shown the week before), he's the one zapped by lightning, maybe someone on the writing team was having a joke.

Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 34

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