Monday, August 27, 2012

Errand Of Mercy

Here come the Klingons, finally. They've become such an integral part of the later films and television series that it's a surprise to realise they arrived after the Romulans, 26 weeks into the first season. Like the Romulans in Balance Of Terror, the Klingons have a duel purpose. They add depth and danger to the Star Trek universe. Now we know the Federation shares borders with two hostile races. Also, in the same way the Romulans acted as a mirror for Spock, the Klingons define Kirk by being everything he isn't: cruel, brutal, and vicious. “Professional villains,” as David Gerrold describes them in The World of Star Trek, “Klingons do all the things that humans pretend they don't - only Klingons are proud of it.”

Kirk, and Kor the Klingon commander, most clearly demonstrate their mirror image relationship in their attitudes to Organia. The Klingons don't offer the Organians a choice, they just arrive and take over. However Kirk isn't offering a choice either. His orders are to deny Organia to the Klingons. “ We can be of immense help to you.” Kirk tells the Organian Council of Elders. “In addition to military aid, we can send you specialists, technicians. We can show you how to feed a thousand people where one was fed before. We can help you build schools, educate the young in the latest technological and scientific skills. Your public facilities are almost non-existent. We can help you remake your world, end disease, hunger, hardship. All we ask in return is that you let us help you. Now.” It's a sincere but conscience saving offer from the Federation. The planet Organia is in a strategic location. Regardless of what the inhabitants want the planet is going to be the subject, and location, of a fight between the Klingons and Federation. Kirk's offer of assistance is little more than, “come on in, the war's lovely,” and the one response Kirk, and the Federation can't deal with is the Organians', “not today thank you.”

It's only Organian intervention which stops the war. Imagine an episode where the Organians don't turn out to be aliens with god-like powers. Just committed pacifists with blue goats whose society has never risen above the medieval level. The Klingons would fight on Organia for the sheer joy of fighting. The Federation would fight and agonise about it afterwards. As Kirk puts it, “another Armenia, Belgium... the weak innocents who always seem to be located on the natural invasion routes.” They would convince themselves that war on Organia was unwanted but inevitable. Or, as Spock says, “curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.”

On a more personal level Kor also acts as Satan to Kirk's, well let's not take this metaphor too far. He's not just interested in defeating the Federation, and Kirk, he wants to bring them down to his level in the process. He tempts Kirk. Listing the qualities they share and inviting Kirk to agree, and admit the two have more in common than either of them does with the Organians.

KOR: ...You of the Federation, you are much like us.
KIRK: We're nothing like you. We're a democratic body.
KOR: Come now. I'm not referring to minor ideological differences. I mean that we are similar as a species. Here we are on a planet of sheep. Two tigers, predators, hunters, killers, and it is precisely that which makes us great. And there is a universe to be taken.

Kor is played with considerable relish by John Colicos (appropriately for Biblical metaphors, Kirk's Satan goes on to play the Judas of humanity in Battlestar Galactica); all eyebrows and smirking. It's a textbook example of how to play a proper hissable villain. There's none of the tortured nobility Mark Lenard bought to the Romulan commander role in Balance Of Terror, but here that wouldn't be appropriate. Colicos makes Kor fun, a Klingon you love to hate, and like all good villains he can go from ordering the apparent deaths of 200 Organians to offering Kirk a drink while waiting for the inevitable clash between the Klingon and Federation fleets. At the end of the episode Kor has a lovely moment when he tries to persuade the Federation to join forces with the Klingons against the Organians. “Captain, it's a trick. We can handle them. I have an army.” He says, forgetting that seconds ago he was angrily denying Ayelborne's prophecy of Klingons and the Federation becoming friends and working together.

As Ayelborne John Abbott has a more difficult role. He has to be convincing, and consistent, as both a simple peasant and also another alien with god-like powers. He manages it very well. His line, “as I stand here, I also stand upon the home planet of the Klingon Empire, and the home planet of your Federation,” may be one of the most effective in the episode. It's delivered with a quiet conviction and leaves no room for doubt. Ayelborne is not lying, or bluffing, he really does have the power to do everything he claims, and yet he also clearly regrets interfering in the affairs of other races. If Ayelborne's, “as I stand here...” is one of the most effective lines in the episode then his, “we are terribly sorry to be forced to interfere, gentlemen,” as he walks into the scene, is one of the sweetest. Ayleborne may have god-like powers but he's unfailingly polite. Claymare, Ayleborne's associate, also makes a good impression. He's the grumpy old man of the Organians who actively scolds Kirk and Kor. “We find interference in other people's affairs most disgusting,” he says, and, “we do not wish to seem inhospitable, but gentlemen, you must leave.” It would have been easy for all the Organian actors to follow the lead of John Abbot when deciding how to play their characters, and match Abbot's tendency to underplay strong emotion. It's nice that they didn't because it makes the Organians more interesting to watch.

Depending on how you count them, this is at least the fourth set of god-like beings the crew of the Enterprise have encountered: the Metrons, Arena; Trelane and his parents, The Squire Of Gothos; Gary Mitchell and Doctor Elizabeth Dehner in Where No Man Has Gone Before; Charlie and the Thasians in Charlie X. Like the Thasians, the Organians reveal themselves largely to stop the plot before it gets out of control. Star Trek cannot be about war with the Klingons. That's not the series NBC bought. And it's probably not a series Desilu could afford to make. Anyway, Star Trek doesn't tell on-going stories, although later spin-off series will.

Writer Gene L. Coon does use the god-like alien idea to put two interesting spins on the plot. Firstly it allows him to restate one of his favourite messages about not judging by appearances. Previously used in Arena, where the Gorn are not the terrible aggressors they at first appear to be, and The Devil In The Dark. More importantly the Organians reformat the Klingons and make it possible for them to be returning foes.

Look at the Romulans. Currently they are stuck on one side of the neutral zone with the Federation on the other. To reappear one side or the other must breach the neutral zone. Any script with the Romulans must, or at least should, waste time explaining why each new trespass does not result in war. Worse, if one side or the other allows multiple breaches of the zone then they start to look weak. Why tell us that breaching the zone is considered an act of war, if that's not what's shown on screen.

Without the Organians the Klingons would be the same. The Klingons hate the Federation (and the Federation probably hates the Klingons). The Klingons are in competition with the Federation for resources. Why doesn't every encounter with the Klingons result in war? Well there's this alien race called the Organians who won't allow the Federation and Klingons to fight. Essentially what Gene Coon does is introduce the Klingons, clearly define them as top baddies, and then defang them without weakening them as characters. This is all done in full view of the audience it's really a very clever piece of writing.

Organia itself is a puzzle box planet. A mystery for the viewers to ponder while Kirk and Spock are distracted by more pressing issues. The inhabitants are clearly flagged up as unusual from the beginning. They show no interest in Kirk and Spock as they beam down from the Enterprise. Council member Trefayne is able to sense Klingon spaceships in orbit. Ayleborne simply walks in to the Klingon headquarters to free Kirk and Spock from their cell. If The Devil In The Dark was about Gene Coon trying to hide his plot twist in plain sight, it's difficult not to wonder if the opposite is true here. Is it possible Gene Coon was also aware the god-like alien plot had worn a little thin? The oddness of the Organians is laid on very thick. As if Gene Coon wanted to write a script where the reveal was the only possible solution. If Kirk wasn't so worried about the Klingons he'd have noticed something odd about Organia straight away. The Organian Council Chamber has doors which open and close by themselves. Not something anyone would expect to find in a, “primitive society making progress toward mechanisation.” Kirk's obviously got so used to the ones on the Enterprise that he doesn't register their presence here. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None. To quote Ayelborne, "No one has been killed, Captain."
Running total: 26

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Devil In The Dark

Balok is actually nice. Trelane is a child. The Gorn believe they were acting in self defence. Star Trek's three most notable plot twists so far from The Corbomite Maneuver, The Squire Of Gothos, and Arena. The Devil In The Dark can be added to the list because it has two big reveals. The first that the Horta is actually intelligent and not a rampaging monster. The second that it is a mother protecting unhatched eggs.

The plot twists of
The Corbomite Maneuver and Arena both generate surprise by coming out of nowhere. Until Kirk and the landing party beam to Balok's ship they, and the audience, have no idea Balok is not what he seems. Likewise until the Gorn captain talks to Kirk he, and by extension the audience, has no reason to see the Gorn as anything except aggressors. (Learning the Cestus III colony was built in Gorn space forces Kirk to re-evaluate his actions and is probably a major factor in leading him to spare the Gorn captain's life. It's fair to say Arena would have ended very differently if the Gorn captain had kept quiet). Pulling a twist out of thin air is not a trick The Squire Of Gothos can use. For the sake of consistent characterisation Trelane must act like a brat throughout the episode. Instead the twist is concealed by having the Enterprise crew express bewilderment at his behaviour, and encouraging the audience to think Trelane behaves the way he does as a result of having unlimited power, and also, most simply of all, by having Trelane played by a 43 year old man.

For The Devil In The Dark writer Gene L. Coon uses the same approach as The Squire Of Gothos. Obviously he would like both plot revelations, the Horta is intelligent and the Horta is a mother, to surprise the audience. However, for the sake of the plot he also needs to carefully seed information showing the Horta is more than just a mindless killing machine. Spock's decision to try a mind meld would be nonsensical without those little hints of intelligence: the sabotage of key machinery, the ability of the Horta to set traps like bringing the roof down near Kirk, and the way it is prepared to wait rather than kill Kirk immediately. Imagine Spock attempting to learn about the transporter malfunction in The Enemy Within by mind melding with Sulu's space dog, that's what The Devil In The Dark would be like. The hints of intelligence are also important for the characterisation of the Horta; and it is a character, not a monster. A script which treated the Horta like a rabid dog for 35 minutes and then suddenly went, “oh actually it's intelligent,” just wouldn't work. It would be like bolting the ending of The Squire Of Gothos on to Who Mourns For Adonais? (“he's not a god he's a very naughty boy”). The twist wouldn't just be unexpected, it would be unbelievable. Making the twists believable without blowing the surprise means Gene Coon spends 35 minutes performing the writing equivalent of close-up magic. There's a lot of misdirection going on.

There are two main lines of misdirection. The first involves borrowing the shape of a monster movie. Well not all of the a monster movie, just the bit where the army turns up to save the day. We skip over all the bits you'd find at the start of a film like The Blob or Invasion of the Body Snatchers where reports of a monster are dismissed as paranoia or mass hysteria. The teaser where Sam, Vanderberg, and the doomed Schmitter get the audience up to speed on events on Janus VI, covers the same ground as scenes of disbelieving cops complaining about crazy teenagers and their stories before dying horribly. We know there's a monster. It's killed 50 people already and the Enterprise crew are here to fight it like the US Army in Them! McCoy comes closest to expressing that doomed-cop disbelief when he refuses to even consider Spock's theory about a silicon-based lifeform. Even that can be seen as part of the misdirection. While the audience focus on another Spock/McCoy disagreement about the nature of the monster they are paying less attention to the way it behaves. Seen in this light Vanderberg's line, “we'll use clubs. We're not being chased away from here. We're staying,” is the equivalent of the scene where the townspeople join forces to fight the ants, or blob, or graboids. Using the shape of a monster movie primes the audience to expect the plot to play out in a certain way.

The second piece of misdirection involves the Horta as mother twist running interference for the Horta is intelligent twist. Gene Coon would like the reveal of both twists to be a surprise, but if one has to be sacrificed to protect the other, then the Horta as mother twist is more disposable.

The story would still work if the only twist was that the Horta was a mother. The Horta's actions could be related to a lioness protecting her cubs. However it's the reveal of intelligence which carries the real emotional weight. Suddenly the Horta isn't just an animal, it's just like us, and it's acting out of love and desperation, like we would. The reveal of intelligence also carries the very Star Trek message of not judging by appearances. And it forces the characters to rethink their actions. Kirk has to go from hunting the monster down to, effectively, negotiating peace between it and the miners. McCoy has to go from not believing in silicon-based life at all, to healing a thinking silicon lifeform. If the Horta was just an animal mother protecting eggs out of instinct then the miners could look guilty, and explain they didn't realise, and talk about how they would be more careful in the future. With the Horta being intelligent the miners have to accept that their actions, destroying the eggs which they thought were worthless silcon nodules, forced the Horta to choose to act as it did. It wasn't a killer until the miners made it a killer. However, as an intelligent being the Horta also has to accept the consequences of what it has done, and decide, if not to forgive the miners, at least to co-exist with them and give up any thoughts of revenge. Mistakes are made in ignorance and solved by communication, the second very Star Trek message of the episode.

So to conceal the Horta is intelligent plot, Gene Coon foregrounds the mystery of the silicon nodules. Spock can't keep his eyes off the one on Vanderberg's desk, and when Kirk quizes him about it the music gives us a significant sting. The script also explicitly links the monster to the nodules revealing they were first found on the newly opened level, just before the monster appeared. In effect the idea is to provide defence in depth. If the audience figure out the silicon nodules are eggs, and the Horta is their protective mother, then they will sit back and smugly think they've got the whole plot of this episode figured out. Allowing them to still be surprised when Spock realises the Horta is intelligent.

In fact the reveal of the Horta's intelligence goes a long way to explaining its actions throughout the episode. It picks off the miners one by one, until reinforcements arrive from the Enterprise. At this point the Horta must realise the enemy's numbers aren't limited, as it hoped, so instead it sabotages the reactor. How does it know to do this? It's never overtly stated but the Horta seems to be telepathic. When Spock makes initial contact the exchange of information is two way. Something the series has never showed us before. When Spock used telepathy to implant a message in the guard in A Taste Of Armageddon or interrogate Van Gelder in Dagger Of The Mind, the information exchange was all one way. Here, for the first time, we see information exchanged to both individuals. Spock learns the creature is in terrible pain. The Horta learns rudimentary English allowing it to write its brilliantly ambiguous message “NO KILL I.” So, if the Horta is telepathic, which seems like a sensible way to communicate miles underground, then it picks up that the reactor pump is crucial to the colony. Not in any detail, because humans don't have the same telepathic ability as Vulcans, but, in the same way Spock's attempt at non-contact telepathy reveals little more than the pain the Horta is in, it picks up the general concept; maybe everyone's worried the pump, the one non-replaceable piece of equipment, will fail. After stealing the pump the Horta also learns Kirk is important, so it isolates him with a cave in. We don't know what the Horta has planned because once it has Kirk alone it still can't communicate. Instead we get the wonderful scene where each time the Horta crawls forwards Kirk raises his phaser, and the creature moves away. Could the Horta have hoped to telepathically negotiate the return of the pump in exchange for the humans leaving its eggs alone? It certainly intends more than just isolating Kirk to kill him. It could have done that easily. It's already killed several armed men.

The realisation of the Horta itself is semi-successful. The Devil In The Dark is directed by Joseph Pevney, who also directed Arena. Like that story, and the Gorn, Pevney occasionally shows us too much of the Horta, particularly in the cavern scene with Kirk. Wide shots are important to show the audience the shape of the creature, but wide shots when the creature is moving clearly give away that it's a suit being moved by someone underneath; when the Horta climbs onto a rock to write its message the whole suit is visibly lifted and the shot would have benefited from being tighter. The Horta looks much better in close-up. Air bladders under the surface make the skin move and look alive. Best of all when Kirk and Spock examine the chunk they phasered off the Horta it still pulses and looks faintly disgusting. As with Arena, Pevney turns his shots into memorable images. The ending to act two is great. Looking up the Horta's tunnel we see Kirk and two guards framed in the hole as Shatner delivers the line, “We knew it was a killer. Now it's wounded, probably in pain somewhere back there. There's nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.” There's also terrific economy in the editing. At the start of the episode a planet zooms towards us, then we see a beautiful matt painting of an underground complex, and then a lone man in a tunnel with a gun. Within the space of 20 seconds, and without a line of dialogue, we've established location, a claustrophobic atmosphere, and no Enterprise. In fact this must be the least Enterprise focused episode so far. Dialogue in the teaser tells us the ship is on the way, and we see it orbiting the planet while the episode title is displayed. After that we get one more exterior shot of the ship, then a short scene of Scotty on the bridge, and that's it until the end of the episode.

Apparently The Devil In The Dark was the episode NBC used to announce Star Trek would be back for a second season. A voice-over gave the news given over the closing titles. The Devil In The Dark showcases Star Trek's quality, and values. If you wanted an episode to bring the audience back for a second series it's difficult to think of a more appropriate choice. 

Enterprise crew deaths: One. An unnamed security crewman becomes the last person killed by the Horta.
Running total: 26

Monday, August 6, 2012

This Side Of Paradise

Confession time. When I last watched the Star Trek DVDs I skipped episodes. Not often. Just occasionally. Only the episodes I already knew I didn't like. Miri and The Conscience Of The King both went unwatched. There were others but it's probably not wise to name them as the list includes at least one second series stone-cold fan favourite. I haven't changed my opinions on any episode so far. Miri and The Conscience Of The King still both sit pretty far down my list of favourites, and I don't hold much hope for The Alternative Factor when I get there in three episodes.

It's pretty obvious where this is going. One of the skipped episodes was This Side Of Paradise. It sat in my memory labelled as boring. The one where Spock falls in love. Bleugh. Who wants to see that? Spock's babe will be backlit and shot through a vaseline smeared lens, to make her look “beautiful”. The episode will be dubbed with that sappy lurve music. Skip it! Jump straight from A Taste Of Armageddon to The Devil In The Dark.

Fine, so I'm an idiot. But on a broader scale, This Side Of Paradise seems to be one of the more overlooked Star Trek episodes. When it was rewritten writer Jerry Sohl had his name removed because he was unhappy with the result. Director Ralph Senensky has a website where he talks about being booked to direct The Devil In The Dark and being disappointed when he was sent the script for This Side Of Paradise along with a note telling him the episodes had been switched. As he says, “THE DEVIL IN THE DARK was a strange, eerie script, totally different from anything I had directed, while THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, although it was science fiction, was not really new territory for me.” Maybe Senensky nails the problem right there. This Side Of Paradise is a love story between Spock and Leila Kalomi. Star Trek is an action-adventure science fiction series. The whole ethos of Star Trek is, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” Why is the series telling a love story? Any show can tell a love story.

Worse, it's a love story for Mr. Spock. If a writer is stuck for a story one easy solution is to break an element of the series. What happens when the transporter breaks down? What happens if the warp drive malfunctions at a critical moment? What happens if the shuttle crashes? In the case of Spock the easiest way to break the character is to force him to experience emotions. "Spock falls in love," seems like the most obvious story someone could pitch. Even worse, Spock doesn't fall in love unaided, he gets high on spores which break down his emotional barriers. So we have a science fiction show doing a story you can find in any television series, with the most obvious character, a script the original writer disliked enough to want to use a pseudonym, and it's a rip off of The Naked Time. Not the most inspiring combination.

You would think everyone would have more faith in D. C. Fontana; who rewrote Jerry Sohl's story. She has a proven track record for making stories work.
Charlie X is an intelligent, thoughtful story. Tomorrow Is Yesterday makes workable the second most obvious pitch, “hey, what if the Enterprise turned out to be one of those UFOs we keep reading about.” This Side Of Paradise is her best script so far. Spot on pacing means each of the four acts tells a different part of the story. Act one is the mystery. Why are the colonists alive when they should be dead? Act two is the complication. The bulk of Spock's love story is here, and Kirk has to deal with his command falling apart. Act three is Kirk's lowest point, stalking the empty Enterprise and being infected himself, and the turnaround when he discovers the cure. Finally act four is the resolution. Not only must the colonists be cured of the bliss giving spores, but Spock must deal with the fallout of his relationship with Leila. And if the pacing is good the structure is better. This Side Of Paradise tells two stories simultaneously; one about Spock's love story the other about Kirk dealing with the loss of his command. Although this is remembered as Spock's love story it's Kirk who keeps the plot moving forwards. It's actually a surprise to see how little romance this love story contains. This Side Of Paradise turns out to be a textbook example of how a story should be shaped around the lead actor, while also giving memorable scenes to the supporting leads.

Small moments of dialogue are used to tell us about the characters. Leila uses McCoy's communicator to call Spock, unaware that he has broken the spore's influence.  

LEILA: You are all right, aren't you?
SPOCK: Yes. Yes. I'm quite well.

There are whole worlds of meaning in Spock's simple line. His awkward attempt to recreate the easy way he spoke to Leila previously. Embarrassment at having to talk about emotion. Regret. A desire not to let Leila suspect he is no longer affected by the spores. He is also attempting not to hurt or worry her, and put off the difficult emotional confrontation he knows is coming.

These small moments alternate with bigger scenes. Most memorably Kirk's attempt to drive Spock into a fury which contains some surprisingly brutal lines.

KIRK: All right, you mutinous, disloyal, computerised, half-breed, we'll see about you deserting my ship.
SPOCK: The term half-breed is somewhat applicable, but computerised is inaccurate. A machine can be computerised, not a man.
KIRK: What makes you think you're a man? You're an overgrown jackrabbit, an elf with a hyperactive thyroid.
SPOCK: Jim, I don't understand.
KIRK: Of course you don't understand. You don't have the brains to understand. All you have is printed circuits.
SPOCK: Captain, if you'll excuse me.
KIRK: What can you expect from a simpering, devil-eared freak whose father was a computer and his mother an encyclopedia?
SPOCK: My mother was a teacher. My father an ambassador.
KIRK: Your father was a computer, like his son. An ambassador from a planet of traitors. A Vulcan never lived who had an ounce of integrity.
SPOCK: Captain, please don't
KIRK: You're a traitor from a race of traitors. Disloyal to the core, rotten like the rest of your subhuman race, and you've got the gall to make love to that girl.
SPOCK: That's enough.
KIRK: Does she know what she's getting, Spock? A carcass full of memory banks who should be squatting in a mushroom, instead of passing himself off as a man? You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship. Right next to the dog-faced boy. 

William Shatner, as you'd expect, eats up the screen during this scene. He's having a whale of a time. His best moment comes after the, “right next to the dog faced boy” line when his expression in close-up is a perfect mixture of hope and fear; hope that he's made Spock angry enough to counter the spores, and fear that he's gone too far. But it's not just Shatner who has raised his game. While William Shatner has the charisma to be a leading man Leonard Nimoy is the better actor, and teamed with Jill Ireland as Leila the result is brilliant. The work they do in the act two romance scenes makes them believable. Nimoy plays his scenes carefully, and the result is recognisably Spock in love; the same character, but different. Another actor might have just started smiling and looking all dewy-eyed. When the romance plot drops out of sight in act three it stays in the memory, allowing it to be picked up again in act four, and for Spock to end the episode by dropping the series' most devastating line, “I have little to say about it, Captain, except that for the first time in my life I was happy.”

The scene between Spock and Leila in the transporter room may be the best in the series so far. As Leila realises she has lost Spock she turns away, and begins crying, and Ralph Senensky shoots much of the scene with Leila facing away from Spock so we can see both of their faces with a minimum of cutting between camera angles. This allows the scene to play out as a single take so Nimoy and Ireland can both respond to the others performance. Wisely, Leila does not appear in the episode after this scene is finished. It would cheapen the story to see her hanging around in the background red-eyed, or to have a goodbye scene going over the same emotional territory. Also, in the transporter room scene there is something poetic about Leila being the only person to lose the spores through despair, rather than anger as everyone else does. Especially as despair is the same emotion which leads Kirk to become infected on the empty Enterprise bridge after he stops being angry at his crew's behaviour and despairs over his failure and absent crew.

The bridge scene shows the thought Jerry Finnerman, director of photography, is putting into the episode. As Kirk is infected Shatner turns towards the camera and, as the spores take effect, the lighting is subtly brightened to make Kirk's face glow. Likewise as Kirk struggles against their effect in the transporter room and becomes angry the lighting is turned down until Kirk is in silhouette; then Kirk switches on the transporter control panel illuminating his face with a harsh blue light. At the same time Ralph Senensky is telling much of the story visually. Once Kirk is free of the spores the camera swings round to show us Kirk's suitcase on the transporter pad, subtly emphasising how Kirk's anger was a result of preparing to leave. Likewise the spore spraying plants are often foregrounded in shots, most notably when Leila leads Spock to be infected and the early part of the scene is filmed through the leaves of a plant. Senensky, like Joesph Pevney, the director of Arena, is always looking for ways to make shots more interesting. As Kirk and Spock build the transmitter they are filmed through the machinery of the communications console. And as Spock takes the awkward call from Leila mentioned above, where she asks to come up and see the Enterprise, Spock is foregrounded and Kirk stands in the background listening embarrassedly. Once the call has finished the camera swings round and the conversation continues with Kirk in the foreground and Spock in the background. 

This Side Of Paradise seems to have a sense of excitement about it. As if the cast and crew all know they are dealing with a good script and all want to deliver the best work possible. With Nimoy and Ireland responding to an excellent script, Shatner raises his game. With a first time director excited to be working on Star Trek and looking for ways to make the episode interesting, Jerry Finnerman uses lighting to visualise the emotional state of the crew. And the actors respond to a production team concerned with more than just getting the episode in the can, and in turn the production team respond to the enthusiasm of the actors, and the whole episode is lifted as a result. And all this from an episode I thought I remembered as boring. Maybe there is hope for The Alternative Factor.

Enterprise crew deaths: None, again. Six episodes without anyone dying.
Running total: 25


Associate Producer Robert Justman and Assistant Film Editor Don Rode were in charge of the next episode previews. The preview for This Side Of Paradise contains a fantastically filthy innuendo. To the point I'm almost surprised it was broadcast.

Basically, Justman and Rode edit together two similar shots of Spock and Leila; one of the camera zooming in on Spock, the other on Leila. The two shots are intercut with increasing speed and followed by an abrupt cut to a plant shooting its cloud of white spores all over Spock. Disgusting. NBC's Standards and Practises department must have been distracted elsewhere.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Taste Of Armageddon

Passage of time stops us from seeing some stories properly. Watching Space Seed without thinking of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is like trying not to think of blue elephants. Tomorrow Is Yesterday used to be a story about the Enterprise crew travelling back in time to the near present, now it's a story about them travelling back in time to a historical period. Likewise the gap between now and the 1967 broadcast of The City On The Edge Of Forever is larger than the gap between when that story aired, and when it was set in 1930 (some of the production team probably had memories of 1930, Gene Roddenberry was born in 1921, Robert Justman and Gene L. Coon in 1926).

So, time makes fools of us all. That's fairly obvious. Unfortunately for some Star Trek episodes what it also does is remove us from the original context. Breaking the connection between
a then current event and a writer making it into a story. Maybe the reason Dagger Of The Mind feels so flat is because it refers back to some specific event or scandal in 1960s' psychiatry, and with the roots of the story forgotten by a modern audience the episode loses some of its meaning. 

A Taste Of Armageddon has been luckier. It works as a story on its own terms. You don't need to know the allegory to appreciate a story where Kirk visits a planet fighting an insane war, and decides to get both sides talking with his own personal brand of intervention. Other stories weren't so lucky (space hippies). According to David Gerrold in his book The World Of Star Trek it's an allegory of Vietnam body counts. These came about because the US was fighting to preserve the South Vietnamese government rather than invade the north. Measuring progress was difficult and so the idea was to count the number of enemy deaths. Kill enough of the enemy and the war could be won by simple attrition. Put in this context A Taste Of Armageddon snaps into focus. The relevance of computers calculating the numbers of dead on either side of the never ending war between the planets Eminiar VII and Vendikar, and the required population obediently marching into disintegration machines so reality matches the numbers, suddenly makes sense not only as a story but within a real world context.

A Taste Of Armageddon hits similar plot beats to The Return Of The Archons ; the Enterprise visits a planet to find out what happened to a vanished Federation ship; there's a computer which, in one way or another, controls the lives of the inhabitants; the Enterprise landing party is cut off from the ship when it comes under attack; Kirk destroys the computer forcing the inhabitants to take control of their lives. However, within that similar plot framework both episodes tell suitably different stories and of the two A Taste Of Armageddon is superior. Partly, this is because Kirk has to work harder in A Taste Of Armageddon. He makes decisions, and takes action, and argues his case to Anan 7, Mea 3, and the High Councillors; all of whom are quite happy to keep the 500 year status quo. Kirk's decision to destroy the war computers is more morally grey, and so more interesting, than when he confuses the Landru computer to death. Once Spock joins Kirk in the High Council chamber Kirk is in a position of strength. The landing party have reclaimed their communicators and phasers. Kirk could just leave. No one on Eminiar VII wants to go back to physical warfare. There is no underground movement like the one on Beta III. Kirk uses saving his crew as an excuse to intervene. As an outsider he can see the bigger picture. As he says, “Death, destruction, disease, horror. That's what war is all about, Anan. That's what makes it a thing to be avoided. You've made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you've had no reason to stop it.” The war has lasted 500 years, it could go on forever. But is Kirk right to give these horrors of war back to people who have clearly expressed a desire not to see them return?

Although the population of Eminiar VII is represented by the standard dozen or so extras they've being given slightly different actions to perform. When Spock nerve pinches a guard, people mill around and rubberneck. Kirk has to tell them to get out of the way before he blows up one of the disintegration machines. Later, when Spock rescues Ambassador Fox, extras run as Spock's armed party approaches. This is more than just a society of leaders and security guards and as a result it feels like the most fully realised world we've seen so far in Star Trek.

A Taste Of Armageddon gives the audience a new Federation official to roll their eyes at, Ambassador Fox. Although not quite as one dimensional as Galactic High Commissioner Ferris from The Galileo Seven, his early actions are deliberately and unfavourably contrasted with Kirk's. 

UHURA: Captain, message coming in from Eminiar Seven. Sir, it's code seven-ten.
KIRK: Are you sure?
UHURA: Positive. It repeats over and over.
FOX: Is that supposed to mean something?
KIRK: Code seven-ten means under no circumstances are we to approach that planet. No circumstances what so ever.
FOX: You will disregard that signal, Captain.
KIRK: Mister Fox, it is their planet.
FOX: Captain, in the past twenty years, thousands of lives have been lost in this quadrant. Lives that could have been saved if the Federation had a treaty port here. We mean to have that port and I'm here to get it.
KIRK: By disregarding code seven-ten, you might well involve us in an interplanetary war.
FOX: I'm quite prepared to take that risk.
KIRK: You are. I'm thinking about this ship, my crew.
FOX: I have my orders, Captain, and now you have yours. You will proceed on course. Achieve orbit status and just leave the rest to me. You're well aware that my mission gives me the power of command. I now exercise it. You will proceed on course. That's a direct order.

The audience is meant to tut at the stupidity and inflexibility of Fox, and punch the air when Scotty refuses to obey his orders and lower the Enterprise shields. Later Fox does change his mind when he discovers the extent of Anan 7's duplicity but for large parts of the story he's there just to be wrong. Surely there needs to be a better reason for creating an irritating character beyond allowing the writer to nudge the audience in the ribs and go, “check out this dunce” In the end teleplay writers Robert Hamner and Gene L. Coon are so keen to get Fox into trouble they trip themselves up. Fox beams down while the Enterprise shields are still up; something Coon has forgotten he mentioned as impossible in his own script for Arena. The cumulative effect of characters like Ferris, and Fox, is not to make the Enterprise crew look good in comparison but to make the Federation look bad.

Something else which makes the Federation look bad is General Order 24. When Anan 7 contacts the Enterprise Kirk yells, “General Order Twenty Four. Two hours! In two hours!” Subsequent dialogue fills us in on what General Order 24 involves.

KIRK: ...You heard me give General Order Twenty Four. That means in two hours the Enterprise will destroy Eminiar Seven.
ANAN: Planetary defence System, open fire on the Enterprise!
SECURITY: I'm sorry, Councilman. The target has moved out of range.
ANAN: You wouldn't do this. Hundreds of millions of people.
KIRK: I didn't start it, Councilman, but I'm liable to finish it.


SCOTT: Open a channel, Lieutenant. This is the commander of the USS Enterprise. All cities and installations on Eminiar Seven have been located, identified, and fed into our fire-control system. In one hour and forty five minutes the entire inhabited surface of your planet will be destroyed.

It's clearly not a bluff. Once Kirk has recovered his communicator he contacts the Enterprise to reiterate his instructions and, once the war computers are destroyed, takes time to contact the Enterprise to cancel implementation of the order. While the audience is never told the exact wording of General Order 24 it must be a reasonably explicit instruction to destroy a civilisation or the infrastructure of a civilisation. How else could Scotty know to respond to Kirk's brief order by targeting all cities and installations on Eminiar VII? And, given that the Federation has written instructions to make sure their crews follow the correct procedure when destroying civilisations, how often does this happen?

Crew deaths: None, again. Nobody has died since Arena which was five episodes ago.
Running total: 25