Monday, July 30, 2012

Space Seed

What made Khan Noonien Singh so appealing to Harve Bennett when he was developing the second Star Trek film? One answer comes from listing all the obstacles (people, aliens, concepts) Kirk has overcome in the episodes aired up to Space Seed. Take out all the ones obviously unsuitable as movie baddies (space drunkeness, the children on Miri's planet, the world where imagination becomes reality, etc), and the ones who end their episode dead (salt vampire we hardly knew ye), and you are left with Charlie, Harry Mudd, Balok, the Talosians, off-screen Romulans, Trelane, the Gorn and the Metrons, and Khan. Eight individuals from the 22 episodes aired. Anyone who crosses Kirk doesn't often survive.

By the time Turnabout Intruder airs this list will be longer but a story in which Janice Lester teams up with the brains from The Gamesters of Triskelion to make Kirk, Harry Mudd, and Balok compete in a tranya drinking match is almost certainly not going to make a great film. More seriously, someone like Charlie could return but it would take a lot of care to avoid writing a script which did not simply rehash that episode. A lot of characters are one shot concepts designed to illuminate a specific theme the writer wants to discuss. Fear of the unknown in The Corbomite Maneuver, or the painfulness of adolescence in Charlie X. Take these characters out of the context of their story and they don't work, or have to be changed so much it negates the point of bringing them back. Others, like specific Klingon or Romulan officers, could come back as part of their military regime but simply going, “let's do a film with Klingons or Romulans” won't move the film development process forwards.

Harry Mudd is an exception because his character is written so broadly; effectively a prototype for what the Ferenghi will become. He could just keep coming back. All that's required is a con or caper to involve him. It's even possible to imagine slotting him into existing episodes, The Trouble With Tribbles, wouldn't be massively different if he replaced trader Cyrano Jones. However, just because it's easy to shape a story around Harry Mudd that doesn't make him a character you could use at the dramatic heart of a story.

Khan is another exception. (Trelane may be a third. The similar character Q shows the concept of a god-like alien tormenting the Enterprise D crew can support a lot of different stories. Still I'm not completely certain Trelane, as originally imagined as child god, would work. He doesn't easily fit into a story which doesn't involve him playing games with the Enterprise crew until Kirk outwits him. How many times could Kirk do this before the god-like alien starts to look ineffective?). Khan genuinely has built in sequel potential. At the most basic level his massive arrogance means his defeat by Kirk will rankle, and he'll always be looking for a chance to even the score. Plus, Kirk leaves him on a planet to build a civilisation in his own image. Spock even speculates about returning to Ceti Alpha V in 100 years to see what Khan has done. Both Khan's character, and the situation he finishes the episode in are open ended. In fact his sequel potential is so obvious I can't help wondering if one of the writers, Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber, was thinking along these lines at the time and, rather like the time travel ending of The Naked Time, was discretely setting events up for a second story which never happened.

It also helps that Khan is expertly played by Ricardo Montalban. As in Charlie X, and The Squire Of Gothos, we have an actor taking a part and running with it. Montalban brings an already well written character to life, and gives him the power, charisma, and magnetism the role needs. And the script needs Montalban's input. Not because it's bad, it isn't, but because it's incredibly wordy. One of the unusual things about Space Seed is the lack of action. A story about a genetic superman taking over the Enterprise could reasonably be expected to be very physical, full of fist fights and action sequences, but it isn't. Anyone could make the part of Khan work if it was a Darth Vader-like role involving picking people up by the neck and flinging bodies around but Montalban has to sell us on both Khan's physicality and intellect, and he does it so well it's easy to see why Harve Bennett wanted Khan for the second film.

Slightly less successful is Lieutenant Marla McGivers, who falls for Khan in a big way, and helps him in his attempt to take over the Enterprise. The problem is she's a bit of a wet fish. Her character is nicely established as someone who fantasises about strong historical figures -Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Leif Ericson- but it's harder to spot what Khan sees in her. She mainly seems to spend her time looking doe-eyed at Khan as he psychologically bullies her. Perhaps this is what Khan wants? Presumably the female genetic superwomen in his group would share Khan's arrogance so maybe he's on the lookout for someone he can dominate rather than to have children. Kirk also seems to have very little time for McGivers, and isn't worried about criticising her in front of the bridge crew, “here's a chance for that historian to do something for a change,” he says as he prepares an away team to board the SS Botany Bay. It's not clear exactly when McGiver's recognises Khan although after he storms out of a formal dinner she goes to his quarters and worries him by saying, “I know who you are,” but he's been on board for hours by this point. McGivers seems to be a pretty solid historian. She's studied great men of history. She identifies the sleeper ship, knows when it was in use, and knows how the revival process resuscitates the leader first. Either she knows who Khan is from more or less the moment she first sees him, or at least that's the point where she begins to hope this mystery man might be Khan. Put it this way, if you were a historian who discovered an 200 year old ice packed figure, wearing a bicorne hat, with his hand tucked into his jacket, frozen alive on a French Frigate called the Elba wouldn't you at least wonder if he might be Napoleon?

The first 30 minutes of the story pass quickly. It's a surprise to get to Khan's takeover of the Enterprise and realise the episode is already more than half over. The hijacking of the Enterprise is a good example of how to write an exciting sequence which contains no action. The whole scene is set on the bridge and begins with security alerting Kirk to Khan's escape. One by one Kirk's orders to the crew fail because Khan has already anticipated them; communication channels are jammed, atmospheric controls are cut off, neural gas cannot be used to knock out the hijackers, and the turbo elevators are inoperative. Kirk comes to a surprised halt as the elevator door fails to open, and it's surprising how effective this one simple visual is to an audience who have got used to doors swishing open automatically. Several things impress about this scene. Firstly we get a sense of the effectiveness of the bridge crew as they switch from relaxed routine to dealing with the emergency. Secondly, although the scene is short it sells the idea that hijacking the Enterprise is really difficult. And, thirdly, it's confirmation of everything Khan has been saying through the episode. The bridge crew are good, but he's better.

While the script is enjoyable it's not perfect. The climax particularly disappoints. Up to now the dialogue has been really good, with Kirk and Khan jabbing at each other with words, so it's more of let down when the stunt doubles run in and begin exchanging punches. Worse this fight comes after a whole episode of being told Khan is superior to regular humans, including an awesome scene in which Khan first pulls open the locked door to his quarters by hand and then knocks a stuntman flying (Montalban sells the scene where he pulls the door open, and the stuntman does a fantastic backflip as Khan catches him under the chin). The idea Kirk could go toe to toe with Khan just doesn't work. Especially not with Kirk fresh out of a decompression chamber. Still, the ending does provide a character point. Kirk wins by cheating, he clubs Khan with some sort of tool he pulls out of the engineering panel. It must grate with Khan that the superior man was beaten in an unfair fight. Two episodes ago Court Martial ended in engineering with Kirk fighting Finney in a race against time to prevent Finney's sabotage from destroying the Enterprise. Now, Space Seed ends in engineering with Kirk fighting Khan in a race against time to prevent Khan's sabotage from destroying the Enterprise. Court Martial was made as episode 14, and Space Seed as episode 24, so it's unfortunate that when aired only one episode separates two stories which end so similarly.

When Khan is revived he wants to know how long he has been asleep, “two centuries we estimate,” Kirk tells him. Along with the “I am going to lock you up for two hundred years”/ “That ought to be just about right” joke from Tomorrow Is Yesterday this pretty much confirms that, whatever the consensus now, the sixties production team thought Star Trek was set in the 22nd Century rather than the 23rd. It's also odd to hear characters talking so glibly about the terrible history of the 1990s. “A strange, violent period in your history,” Spock says. “Your Earth was on the verge of a dark ages. Whole populations were being bombed out of existence.” It's difficult to believe these dates were chosen at random. If Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilbur wanted a more futuristic feel they would either have been less specific about the years Khan ruled, 1992 to 1996 as Spock tells us, or they would probably have gone for a date after the millennium. The 1990's represent a time the Star Trek target audience could reasonably expect to see, Carey Wilbur died in 1998 aged 81. These dates have the double advantage of allowing the audience to hear the characters talk about their personal future as if it was the ancient past, and giving the audience a frisson of excitement in much the same way James Cameron gives the date of Judgement Day as August 29th 1997 in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Crew deaths: None, again. Assuming the security guard Khan hits is just knocked unconscious.
Running total: 25

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Return Of The Archons

Like The Squire Of Gothos, The Return Of The Archons has a setup like a horror film. An Enterprise away team beams down to a small town where everything is quiet, and peaceful, and the locals are polite, and happy, and somehow sinister. Then, at the point in a horror film where the landing party would start disappearing one by one (as a prelude to Kirk being set on fire inside a giant wicker Gorn), the Festival begins.

The Festival scenes are well directed, and edited into short shots so the pacing is fast. The scale of the action is impressive, for Star Trek, with lots of well choreographed extras running about. It starts effectively, almost in the middle of a line of dialogue. One moment Tula is directing the landing party to her father's house with rooms to let then the clock chimes, and she is suddenly shrieking and rending her clothes. Meanwhile Bilar, a man played with the same unnerving acting style as spooky preacher Henry Kane from Poltergeist II, goes from asking “come for the festival, ayuh?” to dragging Tula away.

This is the big moment of the story. We've just seen Sulu and Lieutenant O'Neil stopped by mysterious robed figures. We've seen a strangely blissed-out Sulu beamed back up to the Enterprise, and heard him call the planet “paradise” and tell the Enterprise crew, who he only seems to half recognise, they, “are not of the body”. We've seen the oddly tranquil streets of Beta III. Where placid citizens all walk at the same slow pace and smile at each other. And then as the clock strikes six everyone seems to go insane. Unfortunately it doesn't have quite the impact it should.

First, the Festival starts too soon. We're six minutes into the episode when it begins (including the teaser and opening titles). Kirk's barely had time to explore the place. The audience hasn't really had time to register much detail about Beta III, except that the locals are odd, before suddenly being confronted with the writhing, and the moaning, and the bodily seizing of young women. Four minutes later the Festival finishes, and it feels as if the story has peaked. It's the reverse of John D. F. Black's advice to George Clayton Johnson about the script for The Man Trap. There the problem with early drafts was the salt vampire didn't get on board the Enterprise fast enough. Here, it's that we reach the Festival too soon, and there doesn't seem to be sufficient story to get through the next 38 minutes.

The other problem with the Festival is it's a strictly PG rated orgy, like a prude's vision of a decadent society. Although it was never going to be too racy with NBC's Standards and Practices Department checking over the shoulders of the production team for open-mouthed kisses. As the landing party run towards Reger's house extras race around mid-shot, and in the foreground a couple are necking furiously. It's funny rather than shocking, like a scene from from Refer Madness where the depraved end result of smoking marijuana is a man with mussed up hair frantically playing the piano and kissing a lady; at the same time! Festival also lacks any sense of danger. The locals are all suddenly armed with sticks and rocks, and windows get broken, and people are attacked but there's no consequences. No blood. No bodies lying in the streets. No sense that people are being hurt. Unlike Tula's post-Festival distress. The one time we see the unpleasant effect of the Festival on anyone taking part. The Festival scenes could be a release of telepathic control from the planet's ruler Landru. A moment when the population is let off the leash to indulge normally suppressed base desires. However, Tula's hysteria, and the way everyone starts and stops the Festival simultaneously suggests the opposite. The population is as rigidly controlled as ever, and Landru forces them to take part and dictates their actions.

The Return Of The Archons goes back to the Desilu backlot where Miri was filmed. Two shots stand out. A pair of scenes showing Kirk looking out of a window at the Festival chaos in the street. From a modern perspective the shots don't really register, or stand out as remarkable. For a series like Star Trek which had to make every penny count, and for a time when location filming was more difficult, there is a lot of ambition on display. Around 15 extras are in view. Not just the regular extras normally used to pad out a crowd scene. There are stuntmen, and women, fighting, people doing special business (performing a specific action, like the moment when Festival ends and everyone freezes), as well as period costumes, fire, and set dressing. And one of these two shots is filmed at night. To quote a Robert Justman script memo for The City On The Edge Of Forever, “plenty extras, plenty locations, plenty shooting time, plenty money, plenty night-for-night shooting, plenty screams from management.” And all for two shots which don't run for more than five seconds, but do a lot to sell the scale of Festival.

During the morning version of this scene you get some idea of the limited filming space The Return Of The Archons used. And how little time their production schedule must have allowed for moving the camera between shots. Even in a backlot, specifically designed to be an easy filming environment. Every location, except one, is in view. At the far end of the street are the teaser locations where Sulu and O'Neill meet the lawgivers, the other street scenes take place in the middle, and when the crew follow Reger out of his house they will turn left at the crossroads to enter the alley where they'll find the hypnotised Lieutenant O'Neil. It's a credit to the director that such a small space can feel like a living town. And, it's no surprise to learn the director of The Return Of The Archons is Joseph Pevney, who also directed the visually impressive Arena. Unfortunately, Pevney's eye for memorable shot composition can't do anything to save a dull script, and The Return Of The Archons becomes increasingly boring.

Kirk never has to do any serious work. He arrives on the planet and virtually the first person he talks to, Bilar, directs him to a boarding house run by Reger , a member of the anti-Landru underground. When Kirk is captured he is taken to the absorption centre where Marplon, another member of Reger's three man cell works. The same absorption centre turns out to be the place where Landru is based. All scripts rely on a certain amount of contrivance to work (in Arena the Gorn ship just happens to pass through a region of space controlled by powerful aliens whose preferred method of conflict resolution is captain on captain fighting) but here the story just grinds mechanically from A, to B, to C. The script is circular, repeating the same dialogue across all four acts. Someone will ask if the Enterprise crew are, “not of the body,” or Archons, or threaten them with absorption, or summon the lawgivers, or mention Landru. A couple of nice moments stand out. Reger and Marplon's sudden attack of cowardice when Kirk demands they take him to Landru rings some changes on the rebels fighting for their freedom plot. Also Kirk's surprisingly brutal line to a lawgiver after Landru has been destroyed. “You can get rid of those robes. If I were you, I'd start looking for another job”.

Landru turns out to be a civilisation controlling supercomputer. It has an impressive array of powers. It can locate the Enterprise crew at a distance, telepathically control entire crowds of people and make them act against their basic nature, brainwash, focus heat beams on the Enterprise, turn the empty metal tubes carried by the lawgivers into weapons, remotely project images and sounds, and disarm Kirk and Spock's phasers. Landru can also learn, and react. Naturally, Kirk talks it to death.
 

Crew deaths: None, surprisingly. An artificial way to up the stakes would be to have the lawgivers kill a couple of the landing party. Instead, for all its faults, the script does resist going down that easy route.
Running total: 25

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Top Ten

Twenty episodes into the first series. Here's how my ranking of the top ten episodes has changed since I got to episode ten.

The Corbomite Manouver
Arena
Balance Of Terror
The Naked Time
The Galileo Seven
The Squire Of Gothos
Charlie X
Tomorrow Is Yesterday
Shore Leave
The Enemy Within

The last time I did this, the top four were The Corbomite Manouver, The Naked Time, Charlie X, and The Enemy Within. Everything else has been pushed out from that first top ten . Still languishing at the very bottom of the list is What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Court Martial


Isaac Asimov had a book published in 1968 called Asimov's Mysteries. A collection of science fiction stories which worked according to the rules of the mystery genre. Asimov wrote in his introduction to the book,

“I was told that 'by its very nature' science fiction would not play fair with the reader. In a science fiction story, the detective could say, 'But as you know, Watson, ever since 2175, when all Spaniards learned to speak French, Spanish has been a dead language. How came Juan Lopez, then, to speak those significant words in Spanish'. Or else, he could have his detective whip out an odd device and say, 'as you know, Watson, my pocket-frannistan is perfectly capable of detecting the hidden jewel in a trice.'
You don't spring new devices on the reader and solve the mystery with them. You don't take
advantage of future history to introduce ad hoc phenomena. In fact, you carefully explain all facets of the future background well in advance so the reader may have a decent chance to see the solution. The fictional detective can make use only of facts known to the reader in the present or of 'facts' of the fictional future, which will be carefully explained beforehand.”

Asimov became firm friends with Roddenberry, and a supporter of Star Trek. Would he have approved of Court Martial? The story certainly fits the criteria Asimov gives in the above quote.

Inside the trial format is a straightforward mystery. Is Kirk lying, or is the infallible computer wrong? Kirk says he followed procedure during an ion storm and went to red alert before jettisoning a research pod which was endangering the ship. Kirk admits he killed the pod's occupant Ben Finney, but he says Finney was too slow in leaving the pod after Kirk went to red alert. The computer says Kirk jettisoned the pod before going to red alert, and is therefore either lying or incompetent. The script doesn't cheat by relying on made-up devices like Asimov's fantastically named pocket-frannistan. Instead Spock makes a logical deduction from the available evidence. He programmed the computer, and now he can beat it at chess whereas previously the best he could hope for was a draw. Therefore someone has tampered with the computer to change the records it holds.

The closest the episode gets to gimmickry is the ending where the trial moves to the Enterprise bridge after the ship has been evacuated. The Enterprise's internal microphones are massively amplified allowing the people involved in the trial to hear the heartbeats of everyone on board. One by one, McCoy uses a noise cancelling microphone on the trial personnel to remove their heartbeats until only one can still be heard; Finney's. The man Kirk supposedly killed is still alive. He faked his own death, and the evidence against Kirk, and is still hiding on the Enterprise. Even here the story plays fair. Finney's presence on the Enterprise could have been presented by showing an inch by inch bow to stern search of the Enterprise, or by using the ship's sensors. The whole sequence with the microphone is simply a more visually, and audibly, interesting solution.

The major cast all put in good performances. In one short scene William Shatner is brilliant when Kirk is asked to explain in his own words what happened. Shatner plays the scene quietly with very little movement, or expression, and his voice stays clipped and level. Kirk starts out subdued and you can visibly see his confidence grow as he begins to hope he might turn this situation round. It's a performance helped by the directors decision to shoot the scene as a slow zoom into a close-up of Shatner's face, and the editor's decision to play the scene with a minimum of cutting to reaction shots. For a second it's possible to believe Kirk has won the court round by sheer force of personality before the inevitable crushing blow as Areel Shaw shows Finney's faked visual extract from the Enterprise logs.

Unfortunately the story comes with a massive side order of melodrama. Heightened emotions and situations are the order of the day. The tone is set when Finney's daughter bursts into Commodore Stone's office and hysterically accuses Kirk of killing her father. Then we get Cogley the computer hating lawyer. Kirk's old flame Areel Shaw being forced to prosecute him (“Because, Jim Kirk, my dear old love, I am the prosecution, and I have to do my very best to have you slapped down hard. Broken out of the service, in disgrace.”). Lots of courtroom action with people shouting “objection” and “sustained”. And finally poor old Ben Finney.

In the review of The Corbomite Maneuver I talked about television's need to compress maximum information into the minimum time. There we had Navigator Bailey the world's worst bridge officer. Here we have rambling Ben Finney. Cacking, paranoid, bug-eyed, unshaven Ben Finney who, talks about himself in the third person; the ultimate sign of TV madness. “Except for Finney, and his one mistake a long time ago, but they don't forget.” Finney's one mistake was to leave a circuit open to the atomic pile on the USS Republic. Ensign Kirk found and logged the mistake which could have destroyed the ship, and Finney went to the bottom of the promotion pile where he nursed a grudge against Kirk which turned into hate.

It's not that Finney's revenge plan against Kirk lacks sense, it's that Finney as he appears on screen doesn't seem to be the person to carry it out. If this was a spur of the moment idea he comes across as someone who no longer possesses the skills for the fast but detailed work we must assume is required to reprogramme a computer before records are accessed, and leave no obvious traces. Alternatively, if this is a plan which has been maturing for some time it seems unlikely no one has noticed just how mad Finney has become while he waits for the exact combination of circumstances necessary for his plan. It's ironic that in the episode where we first see the Enterprise personnel officer we also see Finney, her greatest failure. 

Bubbling away in the background of Court Martial are a couple of odd moments regarding the planet Vulcan. During the courtroom scenes Spock is referred to, and describes himself, as Vulcanian. Nothing odd about that, although it sounds a little clumsy. Except, in the opening moments of act one Kirk goes to the M11 Starbase club where he greets one of his ex-Academy classmates with the line, “I haven't seen you since the Vulcanian expedition.” Expedition in this case sounds like it is being used in the military sense of the word, which is strange, but also reminded me of this exchange from The Conscience Of The King.

SPOCK: My father's race was spared the dubious benefits of alcohol.
MCCOY: Now I know why they were conquered.

The Conscience Of The King was filmed 12th, Court Martial 14th, and in the middle was The Galileo Seven where the stranded crew display hostility to Spock which is out of keeping with their status as Starfleet Officers, if not completely inappropriate. Could these be remnants of unused backstory for Spock or the planet Vulcan? Was someone on the production team toying with the idea, or under the impression, that Vulcan had been at war with, and conquered by, Earth? These are still early days for the series.
New ideas are always being tried out, and sometimes rejected. Having set up a model for time travel in The Naked Time a different one was used in Tomorrow Is Yesterday. Or look at the way Sulu is shuffled from  astrosciences to helmsman. Even concepts like the Federation, or photon torpedoes, which today are core parts of Star Trek, didn't appear until Arena. 

Kirk also gets a couple of moments which shine an odd light on his backstory. None of the old classmates Kirk meets in the M11 Starbase club seem happy to see him again. One, Timothy, all but accuses Kirk of murdering Finney, and appears to speak for the others when he says, “Ben was a friend of ours.” This scene has a very real story purpose to get the episode off to a good dramatic start, and to contrast Kirk's casual attitude with the very real danger to his career. However it seems odd in the light of Kirk's service record. Think of all the things we've seen him do. It's easy to understand why Commodore Stone starts the investigation into Kirk's actions. He has no choice. It's harder to understand the response of the other Captains but it ties in with information from earlier episodes. In Where No Man Has Gone Before, Mitchell talks about Kirk at the Academy, “A stack of books with legs. The first thing I ever heard from upperclassmen was, Watch out for Lieutenant Kirk. In his class, you either think or sink.” Then in Shore Leave Kirk describes himself as, “absolutely grim.” Their dislike here makes it easy to imagine Kirk as a bookish little prig who was hated by his fellow students. The incident on the USS Republic probably confirmed their bad opinion of Kirk as a nasty little cheeser who wouldn't even give his friend a break.

Crew deaths: None, although if Kirk really is that disliked in Starfleet, it's funny to imagine all the other dead crewmen have faked their own deaths and are also hiding on the Enterprise hoping to get Kirk charged with murder.
Running total: 25

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tomorrow Is Yesterday

I can see it now. Whatever this is, it's big. Two cylindrical projections on top, one below. Purpose undetermined.”

Now, it seems like the most obvious idea ever. Make the Enterprise a UFO. However, to bring such a simple idea to the screen, writer D.C. Fontana has to solve a number of problems including creating a mechanism for getting the Enterprise back in time, giving the crew something to do, thinking about how they interact with 20th Century Earth, and returning them home safely. What we see now is a scriptwriter working through an idea which would become a Star Trek staple; complete with all sorts of interesting bumps resulting from this being the first time out for this concept.

One of these interesting bumps is that Tomorrow Is Yesterday is not contemporary to it's broadcast in 1967. Increasing distance from 1967 means we lose sight of this but the story is clearly set in an unnamed year which can be read as 1969.

RADIO NEWSREADER: This is the five thirty news summary. Cape Kennedy. The first manned Moon shot is scheduled for Wednesday, six am Eastern Standard Time. All three astronauts who are to make this historic [KIRK signals for transmission to be cut off]
KIRK: Manned Moon shot? That was in the late 1960s.
SPOCK: Apparently, Captain, so are we.

Fontana's predictive powers were firing on all cylinders. Apollo 11 lifted off on Wednesday 16th July, 1969; hopefully she also bought a lottery ticket the day she wrote that dialogue. Why it was felt necessary to distance the story from the present is anyone's guess. Possibly it relates to the same anxiety the production team felt about not having the Enterprise visit Earth in its' own time. A desire to avoid anything which could be seen as critical comment on contemporary America. If NBC Standards and Practices department, or anyone else, objected to something there is a fig leaf defence that the story is not intended to comment on 1967 America. Equally, Fontana may have just felt it made the story marginally more interesting to set it a few years in the future. The effect is similar to the 2005 series of Doctor Who when the Doctor takes Rose from Earth and accidentally returns her a year later. Through the rest of the series, remembering what seemed to be contemporary Earth scenes were set one year later always had a slightly disruptive effect on the viewer; although this becomes increasingly academic as 2005, let along 1967 recedes into the distance. Passage of time also makes it impossible to recreate the original intent of the story, which was about the Enterprise travelling back in time to visit the audience of late 1960s America. Now it's a story like The City On The Edge Of Forever, about the Enterprise crew travelling back into history. It's strange to remember the historical footage we see opening the episode was intended to be cutting edge contemporary.

Another bump is that the method of time travel is slightly more complicated than it will be in later episodes. According to the script accelerating towards a high gravitational body (the sun or a black star) carries you back in time and then the acceleration of snapping away carries you forwards. Presumably this means the Enterprise's initial encounter with the black star involved the ship being pulled in at tremendous speed, and travelling back in time, before the force of all engines in reverse flung the Enterprise away, and forwards in time with the endpoint of their forward journey being 1969. Likewise we also see an early outing for what becomes known as the reset button, the tendency for time travel episodes to negate their own events at the end, but again it doesn't quite work as it will later on. Somehow beaming the accidentally picked up twentieth century characters back into themselves means they have no memory of future events as those future events did not happen as the Enterprise is no longer there (if that makes sense). Quibbling over this seems pointless, why have a go at Star Trek for getting its' own made up science wrong, but it's a good example of where the boundaries of plausibility lie. Somehow everyone is happy to accept Kirk's bamboo cannon in Arena, although simply dumping sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre in a tube and mixing with a stick wouldn't make gunpowder. Similarly we accept all manner of bizarre abilities from Spock simply because he's an alien. But there's something about the resolution of Tomorrow Is Yesterday which pushes believability just a little too far.

The Naked Time's weird stub of an ending was originally supposed to lead into this story; making a two part episode. Whether that second part was to be written by John D.F. Black or D.C. Fontana is not clear but Fontana's story outline, which became this episode, is dated 3rd October 1966, not long after The Naked Time aired on 29th September. It looks as if preparation for broadcast of The Naked Time reminded someone about their plans for a time travel episode. Both versions of the story would have been based on a story idea memo sent by associate producer Robert Justman in April 1964 which broadly matches the story beats of Fontana's script. Justman's memo was dated April 12th 1966 so it's possible his inspiration was the April 5th Congressional hearing into UFOs by the House Armed Services Committee.

The tone of the whole story is light comedy; possibly the most overtly comedic story so far. So, the early scenes with Captain Christopher tend to downplay his despair at never seeing his wife and children again, and in fact the whole sub-plot of Christopher not being allowed to return is dropped with astonishing speed. Effectively it's raised at the end of act one and resolved in the opening minutes of act two. The sub-plot of the flirtatious female computer voice lasts longer. The comedic tone allows a plot which relies on everyone having an off day but means the multiplying mistakes don't undermine the characters. Kirk sets the whole story in motion by fixing a tractor beam on Christopher's aircraft, which then breaks up, so Kirk has the pilot beamed aboard. Spock forgets to take descendants into account when analysing Christopher's impact on history. And Kirk is captured twice by airbase security. The first time results in a guard being accidentally beamed up, the second in an interrogation where Kirk is told

FELLINI: I am going to lock you up for two hundred years.
KIRK: That ought to be just about right.

A punchline which suggests at this stage the production team hadn't worked out all of the background details to the series. Later series more openly state Star Trek takes place around 300 years in the future. The downside to all this comedy is the episode is not as funny as the score thinks. Events are constantly accompanied by that light-hearted quirky music which normally plays under end of episode tag scenes; where the crew laugh at some comment by Spock. Here it starts to grate. A situation not helped by the overuse of the same three or four overly cute musical stings.

While Tomorrow Is Yesterday is fun and lightweight it shouldn't be written off as disposable. Interesting moments are tucked away. As mentioned we have a series coming to terms with time travel, something which will become more common in later outings for the franchise. The teaser is unique in not featuring the regular characters, showing a degree of self-confidence from the production team. And in the very early moments of act one the audience knows what is going on when the characters don't; normally either the characters have more information than the audience, or both groups learn things at the same time. Spock's assessment of Captain Christopher's life as showing no relevant contribution to the history of the future is astonishingly brutal. And William Shatner gets a nice moment when he and Sulu beam into the base to steal Christopher's flight data. Shatner has Kirk draw Sulu's attention to something on the notice board which he, and Sulu, find amusing. You can say a lot about William Shatner's acting technique -and many have- but making Kirk seem more real through small moments is something he often does. In What Are Little Girl's Made Of? Nurse Chapel is concerned when, after beaming down, her fiancĂ© Korby has not arrived. On Kirk's line “Getting here may have taken more time than he estimated. Don't worry.” Shatner has Kirk place a reassuring arm on Chapel's shoulder as a gesture of support, then he removes it as the two security guards beam in. As if Kirk feels this degree of openness is not appropriate for the crew at large to see.

Crew deaths: None, it wouldn't really be appropriate given the light comedy tone.
Running total: 25

Friday, July 6, 2012

Arena

Does it matter if the Gorn looks silly now? It probably didn't look any more convincing in 1967. Prop and creature designer Wah Chang's creation is as good as can be expected given Star Trek's budget, the amount of time Chang probably had to make the costume, and what other series were doing at the time (have a look at Gundemar from the previous week's episode of Lost In Space, The Questing Beast).

Harping on about the Gorn may be unfair but it's one of those moments when circumstances combine to create something which nearly damages the episode. This is not a blink and you'll miss it appearance like Shore Leave's white rabbit, or Chang's earlier salt vampire from The Man Trap. The Gorn is onscreen for around 20 minutes of the episode. It occupies the story space normally taken by a guest star. While the design is good the realisation disappoints. A textured but largely immobile mask (the multifaceted crystal eyes are a nice touch), and a rubbery body with unfleshlike creases appearing as the actor inside moves. The legs are the best part of the suit and have muscles sculpted on to them, but this comes at the expense of movement which may be why it wasn't attempted on the arms; Doctor Who fans will take delight in the familiar sight of an actor with restricted vision and movement picking his way gingerly across an uneven surface.

Directorial and editing decisions compound the problem. The Gorn's first appearance is also the big climax to act two; a turn to camera and then a slow pull-back giving the audience a chance to get an eyeful of the beast. This is followed by what can only be described as the slowest fight in history. The script needs to establish Kirk has speed but the Gorn has strength and power. This is done by having Kirk dodge the Gorn's slow punches but this doesn't allow for fast editing so the result is ponderous. To be fair once the initial rock throwing is over things improve but the footage still tends to overexpose the costume, showing it full length or in medium close-up. Anyway, worse than the Gorn is the appearance of the Metron, the mysterious alien race who object to Kirk and the Gorn fighting in their space. When it appears at the end it manages to look like a parody of Star Trek's preference for toga wearing demi-gods. Actually it's the first sighting of this series staple.

Arena is another all location production and as good, and iconic, as the footage is maybe it would have been better to stage the Kirk/Gorn fight in studio. Miri and Shore Leave both used location filming for environments which could not be created indoors. A city street for Miri, and a large natural glade for Shore Leave. The Kirk/Gorn battle doesn't do anything different to the sword fight in The Squire Of Gothos and that looked okay; in as much as any of Star Trek's planet exteriors look obviously studio-bound. Away from the harsh, flat illumination of the California sun it would have been possible to control the lighting, and allow the Gorn to lurk more in shadow. There may also have been more time to shoot cutaways and protect the costume with close-ups of an eye or claw to break up the endless series of long and mid shots.

The main driving force behind filming on location was probably economic. Star Trek seems to operate with a budget that allows three different types of production. First, all studio interiors, including the construction of new planet sets (The Squire Of Gothos, or The Galileo Seven). Second, location filming on a backlot plus the construction of cheaper studio sets (like Miri with location exteriors and studio interiors). And third all location filming, with the exception of already paid for standing sets like the Enterprise bridge (Shore Leave and Arena). Once the decision was made to shoot the opening Cestus III battle on location -a sequence which does benefit from the additional scale of filming outdoors- I think it became inevitable the Kirk/Gorn fight would be filmed the same way. There probably wouldn't have been the money to also build a Taurus II style network of rocky canyons.

And Joseph Pevney the director does make use of the location. Arena is a justly remembered episode by non fans and it's not for the Cestus III sequence; good as it is. The location footage around Vasquez Rocks looks amazing. Pevney chooses some beautiful shots including one right at the start of act three where Kirk and the Gorn face each other in profile with the rocks towering over the pair. Later a sequence of Kirk scrambling up one of the angled rocks is shot from below and looks genuinely perilous. The film editor Fabian Tordjmann, and production team assemble this footage into an episode which is pacy and exciting; with the exception of the slowest fight in history. Small opportunities are taken to ring changes, this is the first episode not to show the title over a shot of the Enterprise, the Captains' log does not come straight in at the top of act one instead pace is maintained by having the crew react to events and then using the log to fill in background details a minute later, and there's an unusual cross fade between the Enterprise warping through space and a close-up shot of Sulu.

Gene Coon provides a script which manages to be thoughtful and action packed. Understandably Kirk gets the meat of the action but it's also a textbook example of how to give moments to the rest of the crew. Scotty gets to demonstrate he's as smart as Spock when it comes to the engines (while trying to break the Metron's grip on the Enterprise James Doohan has a nice smug expression when Spock suggests things Scotty has already tried), Sulu takes command in a space battle, Uhura summarises information from the rest of the ship for the bridge crew, McCoy is the voice of emotion, and Spock the voice of conscience. The script also neatly works through the implications of events. For example, once trapped in the duel Kirk needs to talk to someone. The last half of the story would be interminable if we had nothing to listen to except the Gorn gurgling. It would look silly for Kirk to start talking to himself so Coon has the Metrons give Kirk what they call “a recording-translating device” to make a record of events. Kirk uses this to record Captain's log style pieces but the Metrons have also given one of these to the Gorn, and Kirk doesn't know the device also acts as a transmitter. The Gorn hears Kirk talking but, initially at least, doesn't reply, instead listening to what Kirk says to gain tactical advantage. Suddenly, the Gorn is cunning, and what started out as a plot device to give Kirk some dialogue ends up adding depth to his opponent. In a nice touch, the line as the Gorn realises it can listen to Kirk's plans is Kirk assessing his enemy. “Fortunately, though strong, he is not agile. The agility and, I hope, the cleverness, is mine.”

Coon's script is layered enough to allow the audience to add their own interpretations to events. When Kirk rolls the boulder down on the Gorn you can mock it as a roadrunner-esque set piece. Alternatively you can notice the boulder is missing in earlier shots. Someone placed the boulder up on the peak. Was it the Gorn? It's fun to imagine it sets a complex trap. Knowing it can't catch Kirk in a flat out chase it contrives a situation where it lures Kirk in with a temptingly placed rock, which the Gorn knows is not heavy enough to do it any real damage. Once Kirk rolls the boulder the Gorn pretends to be pinned, and when Kirk approaches starts moving which panics Kirk into running into the Gorn's rock and boulder trap. It nearly works as well. No wonder the Gorn keeps sniggering as it stands waiting under the boulder pretending to carve a dagger.

Crew deaths: Two. Ensign O'Herlihy, and Lieutenant Commander Lang during the fight on Cestus III
Running total: 25