Sunday, May 27, 2012

Balance Of Terror

So far the aliens who have appeared in Star Trek are a motley bunch; the salt vampire from The Man Trap; the Thasians, Charlie X; Ruk, What Are Little Girls Made Of?; the children on the duplicate Earth, Miri; Balok, The Corbomite Manouver; the Talosians, The Menagerie, along with the Kalar, and Vina as the green Orion slave girl. 

The Kalar, if you don't remember them for some reason, attack Captain Pike and Vina during a flashback to Rigel VII. They are monsters, in the Doctor Who sense of the word, a mobile obstacle for our hero to defeat. The salt vampire is also a monster, more articulate than the Kalar, but monster status is confirmed by its' inability to curb it's appetite and treat the Enterprise crew as anything other than an all day buffet. Ruk is mobile scenery. He looks weird and reminds the audience they are watching a science fiction programme, but he doesn't contribute much else to his episode; green Vina is the same. The Thasians are dramatic punctuation, a full stop to the plot of Charlie X when Charlie needs to be removed from the Enterprise. Miri, and the other children of the duplicate Earth, are interesting because they have grown up without adult supervision not because they are aliens. Only the Talosians and Balok, are characters in their own right. We understand what drives them and they have recognisable motives and goals.

All of them are one episode creations. It's difficult to imagine even someone as fun as Balok coming back. What could he do for an encore? Delay the Enterprise with a hexahedron, and drink more Tranya? In itself this is not a problem, after being utterly destroyed in their first story the Daleks went on to become the major baddies in Doctor Who. Rewriting characters is easy, look at the way the Ferengi go from 'the new Klingons' to comic relief over a couple of series of Star Trek: The Next Generation but if you are going to introduce a new race of aliens it's nice to get it right on the first attempt.

Which is where the Romulans come in. Balance Of Terror is their début and the Romulans appear fully formed. A lot of this is down to writer Paul Schneider's decision to use the Roman Empire as inspiration. Broad brush stokes prime the audience with just enough information to make this connection; twin planets named Romulus and Remus, a leader referred to as the Praeter, naming one Romulan Decius, and using the rank of Centurion. The result is a culture which feels solid on the basis of very little information because the audience's knowledge fills in any gaps. It also seems to have guided the actor's performances. Both Mark Leonard, and John Warburton, play their roles in a manner reminiscent of historical epics.

The Romulans are so fully formed in fact, it came as a surprise when I looked up the names of the two leaders and found they don't have any. The relationship between the two, their history, and their place within the Romulan Empire is so well established, it seemed more likely I hadn't been paying attention. Normally a role as large as Mark Leonard's going unnamed would be the sign of a hack writer but here it seems right, even appropriate, that military propriety would stop two close friends using each others names on duty.

The Commander and Centurian are treated as guest stars, not just aliens of the week. This is established the first time the episode cuts to the Romulan ship and we see the Commander and Centurian talking. It's rare to get a scene with none of the major stars, or at least one of the established characters, present. Charlie X doesn't feature a scene with the Thasians talking among themselves about the need to bring Charlie back. The Man Trap doesn't have a scene where Crater tells Nancy she can't keep killing without making people suspicious. Korby and Andrea never get a scene alone in What Are Little Girls Made Of? The Commander and Centurion are treated like Harry Mudd in Mudd's Women when we get to see him plotting with Eve, Magda, and Ruth. The actions of the characters shape the story. Kirk thinks the Romulan Commander is going into a trap when he heads towards a comet tail, then we learn that actually the Commander is setting a trap for the Enterprise, then Kirk's actions in springing his own trap alerts the Romulan Commander, who reacts, and forces Kirk to react when things don't go the way he expected. For want of a better phrase, the Commander and Centurion are written like real people. 

Apparently the Romulans were always in Paul Schneider's script, but whether they were always an off-shoot of the Vulcan race is less clear. It was a brilliant idea, whoever thought of it, and it's what elevates the Romulans to greatness. It makes them irresistible to the production team because, unlike Balok (who required a child actor, and a puppet to be realised on-screen) or Vena as an Orion slave girl (apparently women don't paint themselves green), you have an alien race who can be realised using existing production techniques, and irresistible to the audience because they add a little mystery back to Spock

Fourteen episodes in and familiarity is beginning to blunt Spock's impact. The character is not becoming boring or silly, Nimoy is careful to make sure that doesn't happen, but the initial shock of seeing the guy with the ears, eyebrows, and hair has worn off. Despite his appearance the audience needs to be reminded of his alien nature and the series has fallen into the habit of stopping once a week for a conversation about the difference between humans and Vulcans. Individually these scenes can be good, The Conscience Of The King's conversation between McCoy and Spock about alcohol has some nice lines although it does suggest McCoy gets drunk during the day, but the cumulative effect is a lot of telling, rather than showing. Suddenly we get the scene where Spock taps into the enemy ship's viewscreen and we see the Romulans in all their glory. The first time we've seen anyone else who looks like Spock, and these are baddies. I wonder if any of the original audience though we were about to find out Spock wasn't Vulcan, or that the Vulcan's were conducting some secret war. Regardless, it's odd to get to the end of the episode and realise we have now seen more Romulans than Vulcans.

The appearance of the Romulans also fills in a chunk of backstory about the Star Trek universe. Humans have had the run of the place up to this point. Flying around in their spaceship meeting aliens. We've been going to them, rather than seeing them come to us. The Corbomite Manouver is the only exception. Not only did Balok seek out the Enterprise, but the dummy Balok bluff hinted at the existence of less friendly races. How do you suppose the Romulans reacted to his cube? The Romulans have been quiet since the end of the Human-Romulan war 100 years ago. There's a nice hint they have been expanding their Empire in other directions when the Centurian talks to the Commander and says, “we've seen a hundred campaigns together, and still I do not understand you.” Possibly this is where the invisiblity shield and plasma weapon have come from; captured from enemy ships. Both seem more advanced than the otherwise underpowered and slow Romulan ship.

It's no secret Balance Of Terror is submarine story. Paul Schneider is supposed to have not so much written Balance Of Terror as adapted the film The Enemy Below for television. For a viewer who hasn't seen The Enemy Below the submarine conflict references still come through strongly; turning off equipment to run silent, jettisoning bodies and debris, and, the core of the episode, two Captains attempting to out think each other. Written down it sounds like the sort of war film everyone has sat through on a rainy Sunday afternoon but watched as a Star Trek episode it feels amazingly fresh. Largely this is because Star Trek hasn't done starship conflict before. In fact I am struggling to recall the last time the Enterprise fired its' phasers; I think it was to destroy Balok's cube in The Corbomite Manouver; and that may have been the first time we see them used.

The whole episode is bookended by two scenes showing life on board the Enterprise. In the first a wedding is about to take place and Kirk makes a speech, “Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all shipmasters have had one happy privilege. That of uniting two people in the bonds of matrimony.” At the end of the episode, inevitably, the one death among the crew was the husband to be. Contrasting with the first scene we are also reminded that all shipmasters have one unhappy privilege; notifying families of the death of a loved one.

Enterprise crew deaths: One. The unfortunate groom to be Lieutenant Robert Tomlinson.
Running total: 20

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Conscience Of The King

This week Star Trek does Shakespeare as Kirk begins to suspect the actor Anton Karidian may in fact be the mass-murderer Kodos the Executioner, ruthless ex-governor of Tarsus IV. Twenty years ago during a famine Kodos ordered the execution of 4000 people according to his own theories of eugenics so another 4000 might live. Kirk is one of the few remaining eye-witnesses. However, it's not enough for Karidian to be a Shakespearean actor. The script writer has to show off his fancy book-larnin by cramming in references to as many Shakespeare plays as possible. So Kirk dithers like Hamlet. Kodos' daughter goes mad like Ophelia. A troop of actors perform a play which leads to a character's crimes being revealed. Extracts are performed from Macbeth and Hamlet. And, endless lines of Shakespeare are quoted. The Conscience Of The King's closest relative is an episode of Doctor Who called Timelash where H.G. Wells meets a woman called Vena, and is taken in the TARDIS, a time machine, to a planet where he sees a war of the worlds, and a character turns invisible, and there are monsters called the Morlox, and the head baddie is a hybrid of man and animal. In short, the impression is more thought has been given to the references than the script.

It's the characterisation of Kirk which really grates. Twelve episodes have established the qualities required to be a starship captain. Indecisiveness has not been one of them. The Conscience Of The King replaces the decision making machine of The Corbomite Maneuver with a Kirk who has to be absolutely certain of Kodos' identity before he will take any action. To the extent that Kirk remains unwilling to accuse Karidian of being Kodos even after an overt attempt on his life with an overloading phaser.

In isolation the addition of self-doubt and uncertainty to Kirk's character is an interesting idea. A writer should always be able to bring new elements to a character to alter or redefine their behaviour. Look at Londo Mollari going from stock jolly drunk to embittered Emperor in Babylon 5, or Dana Scully's Catholic faith in The X-Files. Unfortunately writer Barry Trivers gives us nothing to explain this sudden and fundamental change in Kirk. Nothing, at least beyond, this week Star Trek does Shakespeare and Kirk is Hamlet. We know Kirk was on Tarsus IV during the massacre but simply being there is not reason enough. What did he see? What did he do? How did he react? Whose side was he on? Even Kirk's relationship with Thomas Leighton, the man who tricks him into coming three light years out of his way and brings Karidian to his attention, is unclear. They're probably friends, at least acquaintances, because Kirk appears willing to doctor his logs to conceal Leighton's use of false information to divert a starship but whether they were childhood friends, met on Tarsus IV, or on an evacuation ship, or at the five year survivors reunion is never stated. Half of Leighton's head is covered in a black mask which makes him look like Travis, the mad Space Commander from Blake's 7. We're not even told if Leighton's experience on Tarsus IV is responsible for this. The direction leads us to assume it is, the mask is revealed when Leighton, talking about Kodos, turns full face to the camera on the line, “the bloody thing he did” but this could just be the director looking to add visual interest to a wordy scene. Meanwhile we know precisely why Lieutenant Riley (in a nice touch of continuity they reuse the actor from The Naked Time) wants to kill Karidian. It's to avenge the deaths of his parents. Something has gone badly wrong when a returning bit part character has more clearly developed motives than the lead. 

There should be one very obvious explanation for Kirk's hesitation. His growing love for Karidian's daughter Lenore. Kirk's interest starts out as a cynical attempt to get closer to Karidian but grows into something more real. The lumpen pacing of the script undercuts the believability of this relationship when Lenore disappears offscreen for 16 minutes; effectively one complete act. How well do you think Romeo and Juliet would have worked if Juliet disappeared off-stage for a quarter of the play? Twenty minutes in Lenore and Kirk go on an excruciating date (sample dialogue, “all this...and power too. Caesar of the stars. And Cleopatra to worship him.”) and then she vanishes until just after Kirk confronts Karidian, and tells him,” there's a stain of cruelty on your shining armour, captain.”

Another stain, so to speak, is the surprisingly bloody moment right at the top of the episode when we see Karidian as Macbeth murdering King Duncan. It nicely demonstrates the insane contradictions of network standards and practices at the time. The knife can be covered in blood, and Macbeth's hands covered in gore, apparently because within the context of Star Trek this is a fake death on stage. However the death of Karidian at the end of the episode must be clean and blood free because, within the context of Star Trek, this is a real death; and real deaths must not distress the audience.

The episode briefly comes to life when Lenore places an overloading phaser in Kirk's quarters. Good use of music, the rising tone of the phaser, the red alert siren, and some taut editing make this scene tense. And provides some evidence that the relationship between Kirk and Lenore went beyond the closed-mouth kiss we see at the end of their date. To hide the phaser Lenore must have been in Kirk's cabin and whatever went on may account for the slightly queasy expression on his face when Lenore goes mad after accidentally killing her father.

Unfortunately while trying to show just how mad Lenore has become there's an unbelievably cheesy extreme close-up of Lenore's face. Her eyes are wide and staring, her eyelashes immaculately brushed and curled, and two pin-points of light reflect on her pupils. It just looks silly and is not helped by the floaty, halting, high-pitched voice the actress playing Lenore uses to deliver her lines. That said, the moment immediately afterwards as Kirk moves to disarm her, and her voice drops, and she gestures with the phaser and says, “I know how to use this, captain” is surprisingly effective and makes me wonder what she could have done with a better script. 

If I'm going to complain about the generally poor and boring script then I need to praise it when it gets things right. There is a single scene where McCoy and Spock -who haven't been trusted by Kirk with his suspicions, again for some unexplained reason- confront Kirk with what they have worked out. Gene Roddenberry often talked about setting the three characters up as aspects of the same personality; Spock as logic, McCoy as emotion, and Kirk as the pragmatist balancing the two. Here that concept is demonstrated amazingly well. Spock is the logical voice telling Kirk he knows Karidian is guilty. McCoy is the nagging doubt, asking the captain if he is sure, and anyway what will he do if Karisian is Kodos; what sort of justice do 4000 victims deserve? It takes the conflict Kirk feels and verbalises it so we know how Kirk feels even if we don't know why. Three characters talking on-screen represent one person arguing with himself. The best scene in the story is one with no references to Shakespeare.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Lieutenant Riley another witness to Kodos' massacre is poisoned but he recovers.
Running total: 19

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Menagerie Part II

The Menagerie Part II opens with a brilliantly stylised tracking shot. First we see Kirk full face, looking out of the screen with the Captain's log playing in voiceover. As the camera moves Spock comes into frame, again facing the camera, with Commodore Mendez in profile. Mendez reads a list of charges against Spock who replies each time with the single word,"guilty". As part of an episode it would look unbearably hokey but here in the teaser it's a quick and effective way of bringing the viewer up to speed on events in The Menagerie Part I. Those events being the mystery of Spock kidnapping Captain Pike, and hijacking the Enterprise to the forbidden planet of Talos IV. The Menagerie Part II explains why. Sort of.

Talos IV is a sealed world. To prevent humans learning the Talosians' techniques of illusion projection Starfleet imposes General Order 7 on the planet. "No vessel under any condition, emergency or otherwise, is to visit Talos IV." The punishment for any breach of this order is death; the last remaining capital offence. The Talosians' ability to project convincing illusions means Pike will be able to effectively leave his shell of a body and live a normal life. So we now know why Spock believes Talos IV is the ideal place to take Pike but what's missing is his motivation. The risk Spock is taking goes way beyond simple loyalty, or compassion, or logic. Surely other people could also benefit from life on Talos IV? What makes Captain Pike so remarkable? Spock invites the death penalty on himself, and, apparently, gets Kirk relieved of command simply for watching images sent from Talos IV. We can never see what occurred during Spock's 11 year service with Captain Pike to form such a remarkable bond because we are limited to footage from The Cage. Unfortunately because The Cage footage is also edited to largely focus on Captain Pike we see very little interaction, or chemistry, between him and Spock. Ultimately Spock's motivation is left frustratingly vague.

The Menagerie Part II also doesn't make Talos IV seem the best place for Pike to spend the rest of his life. We see him kidnapped by the Talosians, and tortured. Fellow captive Vina describes her life on the planet. “They keep at you and at you, year after year, tricking you, punishing. And they won. They own me.” When Pike rejects, Vina, the Talosians obtain other women from the Enterprise intending to breed a slave race to rebuild their planet. Only a suicidal gesture of self-destruction persuades the Talosians that humans are unsuitable as slaves, and the Talosians tell Pike he has condemned their race to death. Still, it's all water under the bridge. The Talosian's have had 13 years to get over any bad feelings. I'm sure Pike and Vina will be very happy together.

Unfortunately The Menagerie Part II is attempting to tell a story at odds with the footage from The Cage. The Menagerie Part II wants to show us how an illusionary life can sometimes be preferable to reality. The Cage footage wants to show us how an illusionary life is a prison. This basic difference between the two, and I suspect, the sheer speed at which the envelope script was written and filmed, means it doesn't always tell a satisfactory story. For example at the end of act three the Talosian's stop broadcasting their images, leading to Commodore Mendez forcing through a court martial verdict and declaring Spock guilty. Yet when the broadcasts resume at the start of act four Kirk, Mendez, and Pike watch them again as if nothing has happened. Beyond the need for a dramatic cliffhanger to end act three there is no story need for the guilty verdict, or the transmission interruption.

The ending is one of the most effective moments of the episode. Not the 'all charges dropped General Order 7 suspended on this occasion' message from Starbase 11 which feels overly convenient but the point where Kirk realises he has been tricked. Kirk turns to speak to Mendez, who, in a nice touch of continuity, vanishes in exactly the same way as the Talosian illusions we have just been watching. A simple fade would have established his illusionary nature equally well, and been cheaper, so it's nice to see someone went the extra distance and found the money and time to recreate the original effect. Likewise it's something of a surprise when the Keeper suddenly addresses Kirk by name. Two weeks of seeing Kirk and the others unable to do anything except passively watch Talosian broadcasts makes any interaction a surprise. The brief conversation between Kirk and the Keeper is what finally ties the two plot strands together and does most to make The Menagerie Part II feel like an story in its own right, rather than an episode in which Kirk, Spock, Mendez, and Pike watch a story. Imagine my delight at discovering Malachi Throne, the actor who plays Commodore Mendez, also voiced the Keeper in The Cage and The Menagerie Part II; a clever piece of budget casting.

In the review of The Menagerie Part I, I suggested we play Gene Roddenberry for a Day and try to come up with a similar envelope story for Where No Man Has Gone Before. The best I could manage was a flashback story in which the Enterprise crew relive the events of Where No Man Has Gone Before; first as dreams and then as increasingly real memories. As the Enterprise is pulled back to Delta Vega Spock realises Gary Mitchell has returned. Kirk did not kill Mitchell, he simply put Mitchell to sleep while his powers regenerated. Kirk is now faced with killing his friend a second time. Mitchell appears on the bridge and reveals he has grown beyond humanity and revenge. Mitchell apologies to Kirk and the crew, the events they have experienced were a side effect of his powers regenerating and exceeding their previous limits.

Pretty thin stuff. Especially the bit about Mitchell outgrowing humanity. I now imagine him appearing on the Enterprise bridge as a green tinted, toga wearing demi-god, with an echoey voice and the all important ripple effect obscuring Mitchell's face; it would probably cost too much to hire Gary Lockwood again. The challenge Gene Roddenberry faced when writing The Menagerie was a considerable one, and he deserves praise for the solution he came up with. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None. It's not entirely clear what the rest of the Enterprise crew are doing while Kirk and Spock watch an old episode of Star Trek but none of them die.
Running total: 19

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Menagerie Part I

It's time to play, Gene Roddenberry for a Day. The rules are simple. Pretend Where No Man Has Gone Before was the first Star Trek pilot and think of an envelope story to wrap around the footage and pad it out to two episodes.

Why, Where No Man Has Gone Before? Only because the actual first pilot The Cage was the basis for The Menagerie. To get some idea of the difficulties Roddenberry faced it's necessary to choose an episode where we can't watch his solution. And Roddenberry's solution is inventive. Robert Justman first suggested turning the unbroadcast 78 minutes of The Cage into a two part story but it's Roddenberry, the writer, who deals with the problem of making sense out of a story featuring a different cast, set, and production style.

The Menagerie (at least the portion of the script not recycling footage from The Cage) is also the first story completely scripted and filmed since Star Trek began broadcasting on 8th September 1966. This is significant because it becomes the first story made against the background of public reaction to the series, and the public reaction was Spockmania! According to Leonard Nimoy's autobiography I Am Spock -and other cast and production people confirm this- by week five there were “laundry bags full of mail” coming in for Mr. Spock. Week five would be the week of broadcast of The Enemy Within, and according to records the Monday of that week, October 3rd, is the date on the first draft of The Menagerie. Now, Spock is the only character carried forwards from The Cage, so it is inevitable Gene Roddenberry's envelope script would be Spock heavy but The Menagerie Part I almost seems to fetishise him.

Star Trek has already established a lot of information about Vulcans. The mind meld was introduced in Dagger Of The Mind, and the nerve pinch in The Enemy Within. Miri established Spock was physiologically different to humans, and every episode seems to drive home Spock's emotionless nature. The most Spock heavy episode of the first series, The Galileo Seven, has been filmed but not yet broadcast. Despite all this I find it hard to think of anything to compare to the two scenes in The Menagerie Part I where Spock sends false orders to the Enterprise.

Spock creeps into the computer room on Starbase 11 and incapacitates one member of staff with a nerve pinch. He is finalising his fake message to the Enterprise when he is challenged by Chief Humbolt. Spock fights him off, takes several heavy blows to the head, nerve pinches Humbolt as well, and then uses faked messages from Captain Kirk to trick the Enterprise into accepting his new orders. Plus we get two scenes emphasising Spock's loyalty and Vulcan nature; one where Kirk defends Spock to Commodore Mendez's aide, the other where McCoy defends Spock to Kirk (a change from the normally antagonistic McCoy/Spock relationship). We've been told in the past that Spock is different to humans; smarter, stronger, more intelligent. The tone feels slightly changed here, as if we are just being told Spock is great.

Roddenberry could have felt these scenes were necessary to make Spock's betrayal of Kirk credible and to demonstrate he could hijack the Enterprise alone, or this might be a series creator responding to the first flashes of fan enthusiasm and grateful at least one element of his series is an undisputed hit. Whatever the explanation, after this point William Shatner will have to share the lead actor position with Leonard Nimoy. This is the beginning of the path leading to Nimoy's demand for a second series pay rise so large the producers consider replacing him, the Shatner-Nimoy feud (the seriousness of which depends on whose account you listen to), and the 1967 album Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music From Outer Space.

A modern audience will never be able to watch Star Trek in the same way the original audience did but that's especially true here. For the original audience the highlight of The Menagerie Part I must have been the first few scenes from The Cage which take up the last 15 minutes of the episode. Not knowing their source it must have looked as if the production team had hired a whole new cast, redesigned the sets, and then taken care to shoot the footage differently. I spent ages trying to work out why the old Enterprise bridge looks so dull. It's because The Cage was not lit by series director of photography Jerry Finnerman who memorably used enormous splashes of colour to light the sets. It's hard to believe The Cage was filmed in 1964. It looks ancient compared to The Menagerie footage. The script tells us the events of The Cage took place 13 years previously, and this is mostly to distance Nimoy's not quite there performance, at one point he even cracks a smile, but it really does look as if it was filmed in 1951. When blonde haired navigator José Tyler puts on a blue blazer-like top to go planetside he looks so square he only seems to be missing an “I LIKE IKE” badge.

Kirk and Mendez take a shuttle to catch up with the Enterprise, the first time we see one of these crafts on screen, but the shuttle was built for The Galileo Seven filmed two episodes previously. Once again resources spent on another episode end up making The Menagerie look more lavish. And that's the main triumph of The Menagerie Part I. Gene Roddenberry takes an unpromising brief and turns it into something entertaining. A quick, cheap, and mechanical story, with no goal beyond getting the cast into a position where they, and the audience, can watch edited highlights of The Cage, turns out to be very watchable. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Spock's takeover of the Enterprise is a bloodless coup.
Running total: 19


As well as The Menagerie, two other things helped Star Trek claw back some lost production time. The Corbomite Maneuver had been made as the first episode in regular production but held back until week ten. Then, Star Trek was preempted on Thursday 1st December for an episode of The Jack Benny Hour (which you can see here, complete with “Star Trek will not be presented tonight...” announcement, and groovy NBC “living color” logo). However time ran out on 22nd December when the series took an unscheduled break and What Are Little Girls Made Of? was repeated.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Top Ten

I'm endlessly fascinated by my own opinions. Why else would I write a blog? With this in mind, and now we've reached the tenth episode, it's time to start producing some lists. Here are the first ten episodes ranked in order of preference.

The Corbomite Manouver
The Naked Time
Charlie X
The Enemy Within
Mudd's Women
The Man Trap
Where No Man Has Gone Before
Dagger Of The Mind
What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Corbomite Maneuver

Jerry Sohl's script for The Corbomite Maneuver has a deceptive structure. The audience's understanding of the beginning and middle are changed by information revealed at the end. This appearance of complexity makes it easy to forget the plot moves through four acts in a very straightforward way.

First a strange space cube blocks the Enterprise's path. When the cube begins emitting lethal radiation Kirk has no option but to open fire. Balok, the cube's owner, arrives in his massive spaceship and announces the Enterprise will be destroyed. After Kirk's mutually assured destruction bluff with the made-up element corbomite, Balok takes the Enterprise in tow to a planet where the crew can be interred while the corbomite device is investigated. Lastly, act four deals with Kirk's attempt to escape from the tractor beam, and the final reveal of Balok's true nature.

Balok is a big phony. The aggressive, green, dome-headed monster is a front for his true form as a much more friendly, and chatty, child-like alien. The reveal that Balok has been testing the crew to find out their true intentions, and that Kirk has been playing Balok's game all along, is what changes our understanding of the story.

When Kirk has the Enterprise wait for 18 hours while trying to find a non-violent way past the space cube; that was actually Balok patiently waiting to see what Kirk would do next. The cube emitting radiation was Balok pushing Kirk to see what it took to make him blow up the cube. Balok's acceptance of the corbomite bluff is itself a bluff to see where Kirk would go with his plan. Kirk pushes the Enterprise's engines to the edge of exploding when trying to escape from the tractor beam; Balok must have been monitoring the Enterprise to make sure the engines went right to the brink before pretending his own ship's engines had burned out first. Even Balok's final distress message is a fake to see if the Enterprise will offer help or take the chance to run.

This is a script which understands audience expectations and confounds them at every opportunity. Jerry Sohl must have known no matter how good Balok looked, and thanks to prop and creature designer Wah Chang he does look really good, the audience reaction will be “it's a puppet”. Some people will think it's a good puppet, others will hoot with laughter, but the basic reaction will always acknowledge Balok's artificiality. It's an example of willing suspension of disbelief. We see a fake alien, the characters treat it as real so, for the purpose of the story, we treat it as real. Except it isn't. It turns out nasty Balok is a real puppet, and our first reaction was the correct one.

When a script tweaks you on the nose like this it makes you question everything you've seen. Balok-puppet's first appearance on the Enterprise viewscreen is distorted by a ripple effect. The audience have seen this before in Charlie X when the Thasians appear to take Charlie away. It's a standard optical used to add a bit of mystery to what might otherwise be a simple or disappointing visual. Within the reality of the show the ripple effect must have been added by Balok to conceal his alter ego. What the Enterprise crew are seeing is a special effect added to the viewscreen by Balok for exactly the same reasons the production team used the effect. And presumably the same is also true for the slight echo added to Balok-puppet's voice. Later, when Balok-puppet says, “you have eight Earth minutes left” is he speaking like a b-movie alien because it's a silly line, or because Balok is aware of Earth b-movies? He could have scanned the Enterprise and found films like They Came from Beyond Space or It Conquered the World in the ship's library (would Spock watch This Island Earth?); he certainly had time to watch several films during the 18 hour wait for Kirk to take action against the cube. Either way it's fun to imagine Balok off camera using this clichéd phrase and sniggering at messing with Kirk's mind.

Sohl's script is also packed with memorable images for the director, and production team, to visualise. There's Balok-puppet in all his glory, the real Balok a child with an adult voice, the Enterprise dwarfed by Balok's massive spaceship and, at he start of the episode, the Enterprise stopped in space by Balok's cube. The Enterprise stopped by a glowing multi-coloured cube is also the first in a sub-group of teaser where the Enterprise encounters something surreal in space; a giant hand grabbing the ship in Who Mourns for Adonais?, Abraham Lincoln in The Savage Curtain, and an exact duplicate of the planet Earth in Miri (The Corbomite Maneuver was the first episode filmed after the two pilots but held back).

We also get to see why Captain Kirk earns his pay check. Essentially the guy never gives up. Giant cube? “We'll go around it” Lethal radiation? “Open fire”. Go forwards or run away? “Press on”. Hopelessly outmatched? “Bluff”. Tractor beam? “Let's try and escape”. He'll do whatever it takes to survive. If you pushed him out of an aeroplane he'd probably be thinking, “I've got 20 seconds to learn how to fly”. This ability to deal with a succession of problems and not fold like a paper napkin is contrasted with Navigator Bailey, a man described by McCoy as “promoted too fast”. Bailey is partly there to comment on events for the audience, and partly to make the audience wonder if Kirk has made a mistake by promoting a crewman who reminds Kirk of himself. Casting doubt on Kirk's decision making ability helps create tension in an episode which involves confronting him with problem after problem. Unfortunately television has to compress the maximum information into the minimum time so to make an impression Bailey can't just be a bit rubbish, he has to be the worst bridge officer ever; incompetent, overemotional, speaking out of turn, ignoring instructions, and totally and utterly freaking out. He does get the best line in the episode, “see, he's doing a countdown!” when Sulu announces they have “seven minutes and 41 seconds” left. Bailey's return to duty, and eventual request to stay on Balok's vessel, shows Kirk's judgement was, ultimately, correct. Bailey will be a fine officer once he's had some of the gung-ho knocked out of him.

More importantly, Kirk's constant hunt for a non-violent solution in the face of massive provocation from Balok, and his decision to put the damaged Enterprise in more danger by responding to Balok's distress call, are a clear demonstration of values we often saw in Star Trek: The Next Generation; tolerance, compassion, and negotiation as the preferred way to settle disputes. Star Trek tries to have a clear moral philosophy but it often gets lost under the pressure to fill 50 minutes a week with exciting action-adventure. Star Trek: The Next Generation may have displayed its values more clearly but The Corbomite Maneuver shows they were part of Star Trek's DNA from the beginning.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Balok is very careful to make sure no crew are killed.
Running total: 19