Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dagger Of The Mind

It's glib to describe an episode about brainwashing as forgettable, but it took almost ten minutes before I realised I had confused Dagger Of The Mind with Whom Gods Destroy. The plots are similar, bad trouble in futuristic asylums, but Dagger Of The Mind is unmemorable for an episode which includes the first Vulcan mind meld, talk about what Captain Kirk got up to at the science lab Christmas party, and the baddie having his brain ironically erased by his own neural neutralizer.

The slow pace of the story doesn't help. When George Clayton Johnson was writing The Man Trap Associate Producer John D. F. Black told him the problem with the script was, “you don't get the creature aboard the ship fast enough.” Dagger Of The Mind writer S. Bar-David could have done with similar advice. In The Man Trap the creature gets on to the Enterprise in act two. In Dagger Of The Mind the story doesn't reveal Doctor Tristan Adams as the villain until the end of act three; 35 minutes into a 48 minute episode. Even then it's not a surprise. Just confirmation of something the audience has known since the insane Simon Van Gelder began babbling to Doctor McCoy almost 20 minutes earlier.

It's one of those occasions where the limitations of television work against a script. It doesn't matter if Doctor Adams is nice and cooperative. Or how pleasant the Tantalus Penal Colony appears. If Doctor McCoy has a feeling something isn't right, and Kirk beams down to investigate, then something is wrong. It has to be. Kirk and McCoy are the heroes. The episode isn't going to end with Kirk giving the colony a clean bill of health and warping out of orbit. That's not how television works; and this is something the audience knows. The script writer has to put in some extra effort. An exciting twist, or making the process of investigation itself interesting. But in Dagger Of The Mind that never happens. Instead Kirk investigates, Doctor Adams cooperates, Van Gelder babbles, and McCoy can't shake this feeling something is wrong. Until we need an conclusion to act three when Kirk decides to test the neural neutralizer on himself and Doctor Adams leaps out the of shadows and reveals himself to be the villain.

Unless I missed something, and I'm pretty sure I didn't, it's never explained why Doctor Adams is doing what he does. He's a successful psychologist with a twenty year track record of transforming prisons and the treatment of prisoners; Kirk speaks about him in glowing terms at the beginning of the episode. One morning six months ago he decided to start using his neural neutralizer on Van Gelder. He starts torturing Kirk as well, once Kirk discovers the true effectiveness of the neutralizer. It never seems to occur to him to implant a simple message of “everything's fine” in Kirk and Doctor Helen Noel's minds and send them back to the Enterprise. So in addition to being motiveless he is bad at planning.

Doctor Helen Noel is a psychologist and member of McCoy's staff. She beams down with Kirk to inspect the Tantalus Penal Colony. She and Kirk met once before at the science lab Christmas party and since then she must have carried a torch for Kirk because while testing the neutralizer she interprets Kirk's order to implant an unusual suggestion to mean she should fake a memory of their Christmas party encounter going all the way to first base. Doctor Adams, in his new role as motiveless insane sadist, builds on this to convince Kirk he is madly in love with Doctor Noel. This leads to a lovesick Kirk mooning over Noel, one of the few memorable moments of the episode, and a good joke when Kirk crawls across a bed towards Doctor Noel. It looks as if he is about to ravish her until he moves past her to an air vent he actually wants to examine for escape possibilities. At the end of the episode, when Kirk has been de-programmed, Shatner makes Kirk vulnerable in a way we've not really seen before. His subdued walk onto the bridge is the sort of small but effective moment Shatner often sneaks into episodes but which get lost among his bigger performances.

Leonard Nimoy makes the most of a scene where we see the first Vulcan mind meld. Nimoy plays it in a weirdly sensual way with Spock pressing splayed fingers to Van Gelder's head, then moving his head closer to Van Gelder's, dropping his voice at times to a hoarse whisper, and sometimes silently moving his lips to Van Gelder's dialogue. It looks private, and intimate, when another actor could have made it look clumsy and stupid.

Lastly a personal gripe, but one which for me sums up the episode as bog standard television. The neutralizer is depicted as a spinning electronic eye in the ceiling. In itself, a simple but good effect, especially when shown in close-up. The trouble is we only ever see it in cutaway shots because obviously it's not really mounted in the ceiling; that would be expensive and impractical to shoot. As a result you never see the neutralizer in the same shot as the cast, and you're never convinced it's physically there, no matter how much the cast look up on entering the neutralizer room.

Cutaway shots are a standard part of making television but each cut to the neutralizer emphasises the artificiality of a production already suffering from a script not written to provide anything interesting or new to the audience. In the past Star Trek has been really good at world building (the window across the cave in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, or the communication chatter we hear on the Enterprise bridge) but somehow this has the opposite effect; antiworldbuilding for want of a better word.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. As Van Gelder runs through the Enterprise several crewmen get bonked on the head  but they all make a full recovery.
Running total: 19

Thursday, April 19, 2012


"Captain's log, stardate 2713.5. In the distant reaches of our galaxy, we have made an astonishing discovery: Earth-type radio signals coming from a planet which apparently is an exact duplicate of the Earth. It seems impossible, but there it is."

An exact duplicate of Earth. Not just in size, atmosphere, and topography but apparently socially and also technologically; someone is even broadcasting a morse code SOS message. How could this have happened? Was someone, or something, responsible for making this world? Was an alien force guiding the planet's inhabitants to ensure every development on Earth was echoed on this distant planet? We'll never know because that's a story Miri isn't interested in telling. Instead Kirk beams down, catches a disease which kills all adults, and meets a bunch of kids gone wild. The mystery is apparently so impossible no one on the Enterprise can even be bothered to do any research and at the end of the episode the Enterprise warps out of orbit without anyone even looking back. Kirk's line, “It seems impossible, but there it is” ends up sounding more like a glib payoff than an expression of wonder. Something more suitable for pictures of cats that look like Hitler.
By the end of act two the script has given up on the 'just like Earth' opening. Which is unfortunate because the viewers are reminded of it each time the director cuts to the Enterprise in orbit, and we see the ship flying over familiar landmasses. It's not unreasonable to expect a resolution and the lack of one is baffling. It damages the episode because it's so much the focus of the teaser and the first act the viewer becomes primed for this story to be an allegory; in the same way The Doomsday Machine ends as an allegory for the cold war nuclear stand-off.

Maybe the aim of the 'just like Earth' sub-plot is to cover Star Trek's first major location work on the Desilu studio backlot. A site which once belonged to RKO pictures and passed through different owners until it was bought by Desilu who used it themselves and leased it to other television shows. It's easy to forget this is only the tenth Star Trek episode made and a lot of the decisions a modern audience takes for granted could have been a source of considerable behind the scenes debate. If you are filming in what is unmistakably a terrestrial city do you try and cover yourself with an explanation or do you just brazen it out and hope the audience won't notice or care? In this case they decided to try and cover the similarity with an explanation, by the time they film The Return of the Archons on the same lot they won't bother. Lack of explanation aside, the location filming is a real strength of Miri. It looks great and frankly it's just nice to get outside. As good as Star Trek's studio planet sets can be they are no substitute for proper location footage and act one of Miri has a scale and atmosphere you could never achieve indoors.

Once the landing party are infected by the disease, and meet the abandoned children, the story gets dull. The most memorable elements are the weird rubber scabs made by make-up artist Fred Phillips to show the progress of the disease. Coloured a lurid blue, and surrounded by red patches, it makes the disease look weird and unpleasant; a good combination. But the plot elements never gel. An episode about a mysterious double of planet Earth could work. Or a story about a landing party trapped by a disease. Or a story about Kirk having to deal with a colony of feral children. But somehow all not all three mixed together.

Miri is Spock's episode. Being immune to the virus is a simple idea which establishes his alien nature more effectively than those moments in other episodes where the plot briefly stops to allow a conversation about Spock's lack of emotions. It's also right that he's the one to quickly notice the communicators have been stolen. He also gets the best lines such as when talking about his immunity, “I am a carrier. Whatever happens I can't go back to the ship. And I do want to go back to the ship.” And with his description of McCoy's untested cure as “a beaker full of death” he's developing a nice line in melodrama.

One oddity comes towards the end of the episode when Spock and McCoy need a communicator to contact the Enterprise and verify the cure is safe. Spock says to McCoy “bickering is pointless I'll check on the captains progress” and leaves the room. Now, Spock's a logical guy, and he knows McCoy can get worked up and over-emotional. Does he deliberately leave the room knowing McCoy will decide to test the vaccine on himself? Despite what he said, Spock doesn't go and check on the Captains progress, he stands outside the room chatting to one of the security guards so he can burst in quickly when McCoy cries out in pain after taking the vaccine. Obviously it's not scripted that Spock acts in this manipulative way but for a moment it's as if we have a new character, meta-Spock, a lot more pragmatic than regular-Spock, who recognises the need to test the vaccine quickly before he is stranded on this planet for the rest of his life.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Six landing party members beam down, and six beam back up at the end.
Running total: 19

Retroweb has a fascinating section about the history of the Desilu "40 acres" backlot. A huge number of films and televison programmes used it. Gone With The Wind is probably the most famous and some of its' sets still existed when Star Trek was filmed. In the picture below, the large building at the end of the street is the Atlanta railroad depot.
Most interesting are the aerial photographs which reveal how small the site was. The junction in the picture above is, more or less, in the centre of the photo below. In the top view the building just visible behind the Atlanta railroad depot actually seems to be off the lot, one of the Desilu Culver City soundstages (not where Star Trek was filmed that was Desilu's other site on Gower Street, now part of Paramount)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Sometimes episodes just don't work. What Are Little Girls Made Of? starts well but ends a disappointing mess.

The teaser and act 1 are really very good. The Enterprise arrives at planet Exo III to find out what happened to Doctor Roger Korby's expedition, last heard from five years ago. Significantly Doctor Korby was Nurse Christine Chapel's fiancé. She gave up a research career to sign aboard a starship, hoping a deep space mission might bring her to the planet where Roger Korby went missing. When Korby makes radio contact with the Enterprise he initially wants Kirk to come down alone but extends the invitation to Chapel and the pair beam down.

Nurse Chapel is desperately in need of development. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are already well established. We've seen Uhura and Sulu off and on duty. Yeoman Rand has been important in at least two episodes (Charlie X and The Enemy Within). Scotty's had the least development but we've seen him stay focused and professional during The Enemy Within and The Naked Time, and distracted during Mudd's Women so we've got a good idea of his character. We know nothing about Nurse Chapel. She's written into The Naked Time purely to declare her love for Spock. Apart from a few shots of her passing medical instruments to McCoy we don't even get to see her unaffected by the space-drunkeness so we have no idea of what she's normally like.

The first five minutes of What Are Little Girls Made Of? do Nurse Chapel's character the world of good. While she talks to Korby two extras walk into the back of shot, listen to the conversation, and exchange a few words. Then as Christine walks off the bridge Uhura comes over and gives her a hug and a kiss. All this is done without any words but just seeing people caring about Nurse Chapel humanises her. It also gives life to the unseen Enterprise crew, we can imagine they've been gossiping about Nurse Chapel and talking about Korby's chance of survival as you'd expect from an enclosed community of 430 people.

At this point the direction is also very good. We've got the two background extras, who could have been cut to save money but weren't because they help make an important character point. Then as Kirk and Chapel beam down they appear in an icescape version of Star Trek's standard planet set. Exo III is “one hundred degree's below zero” but as the audience begin to wonder how cold Kirk and Chapel must be, Kirk turns and we see his reflection move behind him. The pair have beamed down in front of a window looking out over the icy surface. Again a tiny moment but realising Korby has sealed his caves off from the surface makes it seem more real. The cave set is also impressive. A large two level creation which allows long takes of Kirk, and Chapel exploring. Again the director and editor make good use of the set, cross fading between shots of the characters walking to give the impression of distance and passage of time.

We are introduced to Roger Korby who has found alien ruins which allow the creation of androids, and the transfer of minds into android duplicates allowing people to live forever. We are also introduced to Ruk, played by Ted Cassidy (Lurch in The Addams Family) a craggy faced android who towers over everyone and can pick Captain Kirk up and effortlessly fling him around. But, as act two begins the story grinds to a halt in a succession of boringly shot scenes which often involve little more than cutting between close-ups of people speaking. It's no surprise to find this episode went two days over schedule because the talking head shots give the impression of a director frantically trying to get material filmed as quickly and simply as possible. The episode really only comes to life again when Kirk escapes from Ruk into the cave set. A moment undermined if, like me, you have a juvenile sense of humour and notice the stalactite Kirk grabs as a weapon looks like an alarming giant rock phallus.
The ending is a mess. The script has to kill off Ruk, reveal Korby transferred himself into an android body to survive, and kill Korby, his android assistant Andrea, and a duplicate Kirk made by Korby to infiltrate the Enterprise.

Kirk talks Ruk into rebelling. Instead of an exciting fight between Korby and Ruk, Korby whips out a phaser and disintegrates him. Kirk then jumps Korby, who gets his hand stuck in a door damaging it and allowing Nurse Chapel to see the mechanism within. Meanwhile Andrea appears to have gone insane after being kissed by Kirk. She meets the duplicate Kirk, mistakes it for the real captain (apparently androids can't tell each other apart either), phasers it when it refuses to kiss her and enters the room where Korby holds Chapel and Kirk at phaserpoint. Kirk talks Korby into handing over his phaser. Andrea won't give hers up, and instead moves to kiss Korby. With the phaser between himself and Andrea, Korby grabs the trigger and fires, disintegrating them both.

You may notice Nurse Chapel does not play a great role in any of these scenes. In act three she joins Kirk for lunch and, after begging him not to force her to choose between her lover and her Captain, discovers Kirk is the android duplicate sent to test her by Korby who, despite his protestations that nothing has changed between them, no longer trusts her. This should be the point the whole episode pivots around. The moment when Chapel realises this is not the Korby she loved, and his later reveal as an android should cap this moment. Instead the lunch is used as an opportunity for debate between Kirk and Korby about the nature of humanity, and a failed escape attempt by Kirk.

This is a story about Christine Chapel meeting her fiancée, back from the dead after five years, and she doesn't need to be there. The biggest moment in her life, and she could have stayed on the Enterprise for all the effect she has on events. Even at the end as Korby points a phaser at Kirk and Chapel, and is confronted with Chapel's revulsion at what he did to himself to survive, it is Kirk who talks Korby into handing over the weapon. And Korby who takes the decision to kill himself. Ironically an episode which seemed to set out to give Nurse Christine Chapel some much needed depth reduces her to a spectator in her own life.

Enterprise crew deaths: Two. Crewmen Matthew's and Rayburn. The first time we see red-shirted security guards killed.
Running total: 19


When Kirk quizes his android double over lunch we get a mention of Kirk's brother Sam who we won't see until Operation - - Annihilate!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mudd's Women

'THE WOMEN. Duplicating a page from the “old west”; hanky-panky aboard with a cargo of women destined for a far-off colony.' After Charlie X (and possibly Where No Man Has Gone Before) Mudd's Women becomes the next episode to have its roots in Gene Roddenberry's 1964 Star Trek proposal. The document known as Star Trek is... includes the first description of the series as a “Wagon Train” concept, or “Wagon Train to the stars” as Roddenberry later refined the phrase when pitching the series. Wagon Train being a series which ran from 1957 to 1965, and a good metaphor for the Enterprises' five year mission travelling from planet to planet without ever reaching a destination.

We'll never know whether thinking of Star Trek in terms of Wagon Train, and the history of the wild west more generally, was what gave Roddenberry the idea for The Women but that one sentence outline now sounds less like a plot for hijinks in space than this exchange from The Simpsons when the family visit a western ghost town.

GUIDE: Founded by prostitutes in 1849, and serviced by prostitute express riders who could bring in a fresh prostitute from Saint Joe in three days; Bloodbath Gulch quickly became known as a place where a trail hand could spend a month's pay in three minutes.
HOMER: Three minutes! [whistles]
MARGE: I never realized history was so filthy! 
GUIDE: First on our tour is the whore house; then we'll visit the cathouse, the brothel, the bordello, and finally the old mission.
MARGE: Oh, thank heaven!
GUIDE: Lots of prostitutes in there! 

Mudd's Women is at its most grating during act 1. Particularly when Eve, Magda, and Ruth slink through the halls of the Enterprise accompanied by sexy saxophone music, talking in breathy voices, and being ogled by the crew. The trio could be a batch of Austin Powers' Fembots; sadly without smoke coming out of their jubblies. We're only six episodes in but Star Trek has already treated its' female cast badly (go-go mini skirts, Yeoman Smith from Where No Man Has Gone Before and also Dr. Dehner brushing aside Gary Mitchell 's apology for calling her a “walking freezer unit” by telling him professional women can overcompensate, Rand's interrogation in The Enemy Within) and I don't trust the series to be doing anything except presenting these scenes at face value. 

Yet over acts two and three the script undercuts this disappointing start as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy begin speculating over exactly how these three women have got the crew of the Enterprise behaving like a bunch of horny frat boys. Well Kirk and McCoy at least. The script calls for Spock mostly to just react to events around him which Leonard Nimoy does very well, smirking and raising his eyebrows to demonstrate how these Earth emotions are far beneath him. The best moment comes when Kirk and McCoy hold an impromptu conference on the bridge and try to work out whether there could be a more sinister reason for the ladies being lovely; inter cut with shots of Spock eavesdropping and, once again, smirking and raising his eyebrows as if he's already got it all figured out and is waiting for everyone else to catch up. 

KIRK: What are they Bones?
MCCOY: You mean are they alien illusions that sort of thing?
KIRK: [as if realising what he's asked is ludicrous, but still wanting an answer] I asked you first.

Things fall apart a little in the last act when Eve realises she doesn't want a millionaire, just a man to care for her. The grumpy leader of the lithium miners discovers that he wants a wife not a clothes horse. And, Eve is tricked into finding out that believing in herself has the same effect as the performance enhancing Venus pills Mudd was giving her. Still, the scripts biggest weakness may be its insistence on constantly portraying Harry Mudd as a loveable rogue. He's not. He's a bastard who appears quite happy to let 430 people die when he tries to manoeuvre Kirk into choosing between the destruction of his ship or letting Mudd go free.

Enhancing the appearance of the episode is some stylish and unusual direction from Harvey Hart. From the opening moments of the teaser with it's low angles and use of a hand held camera it's obvious Hart is thinking about the end result and putting in more effort than other directors; later there's a striking match cut between Eve holding a Venus pill and Spock holding a burned out Lithum crystal. Hart seems fond of framing shots, and moving the camera, so lines come from actors positioned around the frame rather than the normal technique of cutting between close-ups and reaction shots. Sadly this seems to have resulted in a slower shooting pace than Star Trek could allow. Hart went one day over schedule and the producers also felt the resultant footage was difficult to edit. Hart wasn't invited back to Star Trek which is a shame, I'd love to have seen what he could have done with other scripts.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Again. It's been a good couple of weeks for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 17