Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Apple

You'll learn to care for yourselves, with our help. And there's no trick to putting fruit on trees. You might enjoy it. You'll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves, work for yourselves, and what you create is yours. That's what we call freedom. You'll like it, a lot. And you'll learn something about men and women, the way they're supposed to be. Caring for each other, being happy with each other, being good to each other. That's what we call love. You'll like that, too, a lot. You and your children.”

Regardless of Captain Kirk's optimistic speech at the end of The Apple, all the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI are probably doomed. 

Once snake headed machine demi-god Vaal has been defeated the planet has a population of 15; literally. Normally the reality of having a handful of extras to suggest an entire population would mean making some allowance for artistic licence. The townsfolk of The Return Of The Archons make some vague references to “the valley” and although other towns are never mentioned it's safe to assume they were out there somewhere on Beta Three; full of people surprised to suddenly find the peace of Landru withdrawn. Likewise in Miri there are probably other cities and other children on the planet. In The Apple the story doesn't work if Vaal is a machine with multiple heads in other villages across the planet. Vaal's energy levels are drained first by acting against the Enterprise in orbit, and then by having to reinforce its shield against the ship's phasers. Vaal dies because it can't top up its energy when Kirk stops the villagers feeding Vaal. If there are other villages to feed the machine then its energy cannot be depleted.

So there's a single village on Gamma Trianguli VI. But could there be more than 15 villagers? Are the rest off looking for whatever it is Vaal uses as fuel (it's never clear but at feeding time it looks as if the villagers are dropping in the exploding rocks which kill one of the Enterprise landing party, that Vaal uses these as fuel makes some sort of sense). This also does not seem to be the case. “These are the people of Vaal,” says Akuta when he brings the landing party to the village. Kirk asks, “where are the others,” and Akuta replies, “there are no others.” Kirk is talking about children, but Akuta doesn't know that, he doesn't even know what children are (Vaal has forbidden love, it's that sort of snake-headed machine demi-god), so when Akuta says “there are no others,” he can only be telling the literal truth. There are no hunting parties out looking for fuel for Vaal. No one else is out gathering fruit. What you see is what you get. And what you get at feeding time are 15 people. Eight men and seven women. Even if 15 people is enough to keep the population level up there are going to be lots of cyclops running around and bumping into trees within a few generations.

Also note that number; 15. It's all very well for Kirk to go on about how the feeders of Vaal will like learning about love but simple maths suggests one unlucky man is going to be left out while the others pair up to learn about kissing. Let's hope Vaal's lesson in killing didn't stick.

Also, Gamma Trianguli VI is a deathtrap. Three security guards are killed. One by a plant that spits poison darts, another is struck by lightning, and the third treads on an exploding rock. The way the lightning targets the landing party suggests it must be under Vaal's control. But if Vaal controls the weather then it's also responsible for the remarkably mild climate (“a planet-wide average of seventy six degrees”) and with Vaal switched off the weather is going to become unpredictable; winter's coming, and the feeders of Vaal are not dressed for snow. Or maybe the plants will get them. Judging by the way the plants take pot-shots at the Enterprise crew they were some sort of Vaal controlled defence mechanism, which means they are now growing wild and removed from Vaal's controlling influence. Or maybe the unlucky feeders of Vaal will tread on one of the exploding rocks which can be found all over the surface.

None of this would matter if The Apple wasn't framed as a moral debate between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy about whether it was right to set the villagers free from Vaal's influence, and if the episode didn't conclude that setting them free was the correct course of action.

SPOCK: Captain, I'm not at all certain we did the correct thing on Gamma Trianguli Six.
MCCOY: We put those people back on a normal course of social evolution. I see nothing wrong in that.

This debate about freeing the feeders of Vaal doesn't work because that's not the decision Kirk has to make during The Apple. Kirk's decision is whether or not to destroy Vaal in order to free the Enterprise. When it becomes clear to Kirk that there is no alternative he doesn’t hesitate to save his ship; Vaal must die. Spock and McCoy's debate about whether the villagers should be freed to develop on their own terms or left as they are is just hot air. Vaal will be shut down, and as a side effect of this the villagers will be left to fend for themselves.

It's surprising to see a Star Trek episode miss its own point so badly. The focus of The Apple should be on Kirk weighing the lives of the 500 Enterprise crew against the 15 people living on the planet. The odd thing is, in the early stages of The Apple it does look like this is going to be the moral dilemma. Kirk is in an odd maudlin mood and indulges in some self-flagellation when Mallory becomes the third landing party member to be killed.

KIRK: Kaplan. Hendorff. I know Kaplan's family. Now Mallory.
MCCOY: Jim, you couldn't have stopped any of this.
KIRK: His father helped me get into the Academy.
SPOCK: Captain. In each case, this was unavoidable.
KIRK: I could've prevented all of it.
SPOCK: I don't see how.
KIRK: A walk in paradise, among the green grass and flowers. We should've beamed up at the first sign of trouble.
SPOCK: You are under orders to investigate this planet and this culture.
KIRK: I also have the option to disregard those orders if I consider them overly hazardous. This isn't that important a mission, Spock. Not worth the lives of three of my men. I drop my guard for a minute because I like the smell of growing things, and now three men are dead. And the ship's in trouble.

It's a mystery why the episode backs away from examining the decisions Kirk must make to keep the Enterprise safe and instead turns into a confused Garden of Eden allegory. Admittedly there's not a great deal of drama in asking if Kirk would let his ship and crew be destroyed (hint, no). It's also possible someone was worried about making Kirk look harsh and unheroic if he unambiguously came out and said he would always put the Enterprise first. More likely this is one of those occasions when I've got the benefit of 45 years of hindsight. It's easy for me to say The Apple is focusing on the wrong part of the story. I'm not in the middle of a crunch period with Robert Justman standing on my desk demanding the completed script now!

Whatever the reason, it quickly grates when Spock and McCoy keep harping on about the correct moral choice regarding the feeders of Vaal. Not least because no one ever thinks to ask the villagers. It's a debate conducted entirely above the villagers' heads. The lowest point comes when a fourth landing party member is killed by the feeders of Vaal (their god has ordered them to murder the landing party in a final attempt to remove the bad influence of these people who keep kissing each other). Standing over the dead body of Marple Spock smugly announces, “They've taken the first step [towards achieving their full human potential] they've learned to kill.” It's meant to be a powerful moment but it just makes Spock look like a petty point scorer. A man is dead Spock, try to show a little decorum rather than going “hey look this dead body I'm standing over proves McCoy is wrong!”

Vaal was always going to be destroyed, it has to be to save the Enterprise. There is no other option. Vaal has backed Kirk into a corner. It has disabled the ship and is trying to kill the landing party. The fate of the feeders of Vaal is an irrelevance. Ironically Kirk comes closest to nailing down the futility of the constant debate when he says, “gentlemen, I think this philosophical argument can wait until our ship's out of danger.” But it doesn't wait and the writers end up making Kirk look like a hypocrite because they give him lines like, “we owe it to them to interfere.” Kirk's speech at the end about how great it is that the feeders of Vaal can now have babies and pick their own fruit just seems stupid. He shouldn't be pretending he was doing them a favour when what he was actually doing was saving the Enterprise.

Enterprise crew deaths: Hendorf (poisoned by a dart spitting plant), Kaplan (struck by lightning and vaporised), Mallory (treads on an exploding rock), and Marple (clubbed to death).
Running total: 34

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror, like The Alternative Factor, involves parallel universes. It would be a clever, if slightly smug, critical device to compare the two and demonstrate that one story is actually the mirror image of the other. But they are not, except that Mirror, Mirror is really good and The Alternative Factor is terrible (and in Mirror, Mirror Spock has a better and more convincing beard than The Alternative Factor's Lazarus). Mirror, Mirror isn't really about parallel universes anyway. The world of the Terran Empire is just a backdrop for Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura to have an adventure in which their friends and colleagues are the baddies. This is the source for those television programmes in which characters meet different versions of themselves. That's not to say Star Trek invented the idea of parallel universes, or dopplegangers, but when most series reference either idea it will be Mirror, Mirror the writer is thinking of rather than John Wyndham's 1961 short story Random Quest, or Philip K. Dick's 1962 The Man In The High Castle, or Superman's Bizarro.

There is one crucial difference between Mirror, Mirror and the television programmes which reference it; Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura never meet their other selves. With the exception of one short scene, we are left to infer what their mirror alternates are like from looking at the universe they live in and imagining how different their characters would have to be in order to survive. In the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode Dopplegangland the script gets a huge amount of mileage from Willow meeting her alternate world double. “I’m so evil and skanky, and I think I’m kind of gay.” Even in the early versions of Mirror, Mirror this was never a story about Kirk meeting a different version of himself, possibly because The Enemy Within was still fresh in everyone's minds. The story was always about Kirk in a different world (in Jerome Bixby's first storyline the transporter malfunction shunted Kirk into a universe where the Federation was losing a war because phasers hadn't been invented). In this respect its closest relative is the 1970 Doctor Who story Inferno in which the Doctor is bumped sideways into a fascist England, a world he never visited, and must deal with different versions of his friends.

When the transporter malfunctions (sweetly the magnetic storm which causes the problem is visualised on-screen with lightning and thunder suggesting either the production team misunderstood the nature of a magnetic storm or they didn't know how to sell the idea to the viewer) it's tempting to describe the universe the landing party arrive in as evil. It isn't. Well, not completely. Because of the title it's easy to assume this new universe is a mirror image of the Star Trek one. That what's good is bad, and vice versa; so while the Terran Empire is nasty, the Romulans and Klingons, who we never see, must be nice, and so on. That's clearly not the case. In both universes the Halkans, who live on a planet rich in dilithium crystals, are deeply committed pacifists. In a true mirror universe they would presumably have been war crazy hawks. And while the Terran Empire is obviously not nice, it's not completely evil either. At best it can be described as ruthlessly pragmatic. When Kirk arrives on the mirror-Enterprise his double is returning from the Halkan homeworld. Whether he was negotiating with the Halkans, or just threatening them, is not clear but he was talking to them. If the Terran Empire was completely evil they'd just roll up and take what they wanted. For mirror-Kirk to engage with the Halkans shows the Empire recognises the need for diplomacy, or at least recognises the need for the appearance of diplomacy. Likewise, despite what the presence of mirror-Sulu might suggest, the ISS Enterprise is not just a crew of sadists in space flying around being dastardly. Lieutenant Kyle is not evil, he's just doing his job to the best of his ability. Within the Empire the acceptance of promotion by assassination seems to have resulted in a crew where the most ruthless people end up on the bridge; resulting in a ship commanded by those best equipped to survive while killing their way to the top rather than those who are actively evil.

We don't get any hint of what the mirror versions of Uhura and Scotty must be like. Mirror-McCoy's personality is suggested by a single line from McCoy. “And my Sickbay is a chamber of horrors. My assistants were betting on the tolerance of an injured man. How long it would take him to pass out from the pain.” We do see mirror-Kirk and he comes across as a thug. He shouts, he bellows, he struggles futilely, and he makes threats he is in no position to carry out. He thinks he's being really clever in offering Spock credits, and power, but actually he's being obviously manipulative. Mirror-Kirk seems too stupid to have risen to the position of Captain, until we discover later about the Tantalus field in his cabin. Mirror-Chekov is out of his league. He's smart enough to have joined the bridge crew, and smart enough to pick a good time for an attempt on Kirk's life, but he's not smart enough to realise he's already been betrayed and that one of his guards is working for Kirk; mirror-Chekov's ultimate destination is the agony booth.

As in The Naked Time George Takei is given a visually memorable role; possibly the most memorable depending on how you think Spock looks with a beard. Here he plays mirror-Sulu in a way that brings to mind Major Toht, the sinister Gestapo Officer from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Sulu is a sadist who abuses his authority but he's also smart; smarter than Chekov. He guesses the nature of Spock's orders. He also works out a plan which will allow him to eliminate Spock and Kirk at the same time and nearly gets away with it. He's also surprisingly brave. When Lieutenant Marlena Moreau uses the Tantalus field to remove his party of security guards Sulu doesn't run even though the odds suddenly shift against him. Sulu still takes on Kirk, not that he puts up much of a fight.

The character we see most is mirror-Spock. In the teaser his different appearance is the main visual used to establish that something weird has happened to the landing party. Bruce Shoengarth, the film editor gives us two big close-ups of Spock with beard, and one tracking shot from Kirk's point of view showing Spock armed with a dagger and phaser. When Spock uses the agoniser on Lieutenant Kyle it establishes that not only does this Spock look different, but he acts differently as well. The difference extends beyond Spock simply being a Vulcan who has decided it is logical to match the humans' brutality. When Spock tells Kirk, “I have found you to be an excellent officer. Our missions together have been both successful and profitable,” it's more than just simple flattery. As he says, “I do not desire the captaincy. I much prefer my scientific duties. I am frankly content to be a lesser target.” It's tempting to wonder if Spock protected mirror-Kirk, foiling assassination attempts against his commander to avoid becoming Captain himself. Interestingly one of Spock's guards is a Vulcan, suggesting the entire race is less isolationist than they appear to be in the main Star Trek universe.

So, what's the history of the Terran Empire? It's more than just a simple inversion of the Federation. There are plenty of hints it might be that parallel history regular, a world where Rome never fell. We have the Roman-esque salute. The Terran Empire's logo, a Gladius like short sword impaling the Earth. Advancement by assassination. And, most obviously, Marlena Moreau's comment, “if I'm to be the woman of a Caesar.” Also, though probably coincidentally, the costume department have armed the bridge crew in the style of Roman soldiers with a primary weapon, the phaser, and a dagger (in a nice touch the phaser is worn on the left continuing the mirror image theme).

What really pleases about Mirror, Mirror is its subtlety. That might seem an odd word to use for an episode which features the leering scarred face of Mr Sulu, or William Shatner seizing the opportunity to go over the top as he's dragged down a corridor bellowing, “I order you, Let me go! Traitors! Spock, get these men off me!” but this is a story packed with small moments among the equally enjoyable over the top scenes. Look at the disdainful way mirror-Spock drops Mr. Kyle's agoniser after use, rather than handing it back. And how agonisers are for enlisted men only, not bridge officers. And, having said the Terran Empire is not pointlessly sadistic there is something aptly unpleasant in the way the crew have to wear their own agonisers. It's not sufficient for the Empire to punish failure with extreme pain, each man has to deal with the humiliation of carrying the source of their pain as personal equipment.

Look also at how the turncoat guard phasers Chekov's men while defending Kirk. Life is cheap on the ISS Enterprise, and their phasers don't stun; or if they do it's not the default setting. In the same scene Kirk has a terrific reproachful line to his guards when they appear after the fight is over.

CHEKOV'S GUARD: Easy, Farrell. I did your job. Ask the captain.
KIRK: Yes, he did your job.

“He did your job,” if that was the real mirror-Kirk Farrell would be on the way to the agony booth himself. All through the episode the actors are taking the time to think about how their characters would react to events, and director Marc Daniels is making time to film these reactions. As a result we have lovely background bits of business like Uhura approaching Scotty in the transporter room and making a confused gesture to her changed uniform, while at the same time Scotty silently signals, “not now,” to her. Or Kirk's reaction as he realises the standard procedure he has agreed to is a phaser barrage on Halkan cities. Or the two security guards on the bridge guarding the turbo elevator doors as Uhura distracts Sulu; in the absence of senior officers one of them lounges and leers like a dime store hood while the other checks out Uhura.

To be really picky there is one scripting oddity at the end of the episode when Kirk asks Spock, “how long before the Halkan prediction of galactic revolt is realised?” and Spock responds as if this is something the pair have discussed during the course of the episode. Presumably this line refers back to something removed at the scripting, or film editing stage, and it stands out precisely because this sort of error is very unusual. Apart from that line, this is a flawless episode and it's easy to see why 45 years later Mirror, Mirror remains a touchstone for television writers.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. Deaths on the ISS Enterprise don't count (although I'm sure their loved ones miss them very much).
Running total: 30

The similarities between the Doctor Who story Inferno and Mirror, Mirror are remarkable. It's easy to assume Inferno borrows the parallel universe concept from Mirror, Mirror as Star Trek becomes an obvious influence on Doctor Who as the series moves through the early 70s. Which makes it all the more odd that the dates don't quite match. Mirror, Mirror was first shown on BBC1 on 15th June 1970. That's the Monday before the last episode of the seven part Inferno was broadcast on Saturday 20th. The first storyline for Inferno, which included the parallel universe idea suggested by producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, was requested on 27th November 1969 (while BBC1 was still showing the first series of Star Trek). Obviously the BBC must have held a copy of Mirror, Mirror by November 1969 and it's not impossible Letts and Dicks watched it, but why would they do this? It would open them up to being accused of plagiarism. It's more likely Terrance Dicks and Jerome Bixby both read The Man In The High Castle, or that Dicks saw Out Of The Unknown's adaptation of Random Quest which was broadcast on 11th February 1969.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Changeling

Uhura dies! The one thing everyone notices about The Changeling is the moment when Nomad wipes her brain. “The knowledge banks of this unit have been wiped clean,” as Nomad puts it. It's all very well for Spock and McCoy to talk hopefully about re-education but everything which made Uhura has gone. She's as dead as Scotty, but it's the death of her personality rather than physical death. It's the one misstep in an otherwise almost textbook example of a Star Trek script. The implication is that with a bit of futuristic medicine and a few reading lessons Uhura will be back to her normal self. Obviously McCoy and Nurse Chapel can show Uhura photographs of her parents, and Kirk, and Spock, and so on, but it's unclear how they plan to restore the emotional content of her memories. It's one thing for Uhura to recognise Captain Kirk but how to replicate the complicated jumble of memories and emotional states which accompanies the process of recognition? Simply hoping the audience will chalk up the complete restoration of Uhura's personality to future medicine seems to be pushing the boundaries of believability too far.

However, the script itself doesn't seem clear about what has happened to Uhura. When Spock says, “there has been no brain damage but only knowledge erased, she could be re-educated,” it's possible he literally means that only Uhura's learned information is gone. She doesn't know how to read, she doesn't know how to talk, for want of a better phrase she doesn't know how to think. Maybe Uhura has lost the ability to access the information inside her own head. There's an odd moment during the re-education scene where Uhura becomes frustrated at her inability to read English and talks in Swahili. It's easy to understand that McCoy and Chapel's immediate priority would be to teach Uhura to speak. If Swahili is Uhura's first language and if they wanted to replicate Uhura's original learning process then they might teach her that, followed by English. But then who taught her to default back to Swahili at times of frustration? It's certainly more pleasant to believe that Uhura is just learning how to remember to be herself, but then Chapel gets an odd line about Uhura seeming, “to have an aptitude for mathematics.” As if the re-education process is uncovering attributes of Uhura's new personality. Ultimately it remains unclear if the person who goes into a parallel universe in Mirror, Mirror is the same one trapped on the Guardian's planet while Kirk and Spock attempt to restore history in The City On The Edge Of Forever.

The re-education scene itself is quite sweet. It gives Nichelle Nichols something to do other than opening hailing frequencies, and is also a nice moment for Majel Barrett. Nurse Chapel is normally only seen when the script needs someone to worry about Spock so seeing her being competent at her job, and pleased for Uhura as she makes progress, does her character no end of good. This scene also makes The Changeling the first Star Trek episode to pass the Bechdel Test in that it's a scene featuring two women, who have a conversation about something other than a man.

Outside of the question of what happens to Uhura this is, as already said, a textbook Star Trek script. That's not to say it's the greatest script ever but it hits all the right dramatic beats, ramps up the tension, and gives most characters something to do. It's a meat and potatoes story, and on the basis of this script it's understandable why writer John Meredyth Lucas was asked to become producer when Gene L. Coon left after Bread And Circuses. Just looking at the act breaks shows how the story consistently develops, expanding its scope and developing the threat. The teaser ends with the Enterprise being pounded by energy bolts in a surprise attack. Act one with Nomad appearing on the transporter pad. Act two with the death of Scotty. And act three with the realisation that Nomad, with its confused mission to sterilise organic life, knows the location of Earth.

Act one is the superior act. As Kirk and the bridge crew try to locate and destroy their mysterious attacker, and then talk when fighting proves ineffective. Director Marc Daniels, and film editor Fabien Tordjmann, wring every drop of tension they can out of Lucas' script. There's a very good moment when the bridge crew all act like a co-ordinated unit.

KIRK: Helmsmen, I said evasive manoeuvres.
SULU: We're losing power, sir.
KIRK: Scotty?
SCOTT: I'm having to divert the warp engine power into the shields, sir, if you want the protection.
KIRK: Mister Spock, speed of those bolts.
SPOCK: Approximately warp fifteen, Captain.
KIRK: Then we can't out run them. Good, Scotty. You're doing the right thing.

The tension eases once Nomad comes aboard. The probe itself looks faintly comical although Marc Daniels does his best to make it a threat. There are some very nice hand-held camera tracking shots of Nomad moving through the ship with the bulk, such as it is, of Nomad's body filling the frame. The scene of Uhura having her mind wiped, and Scotty being killed, isn't just there to end act two on an exciting note. It demonstrates the danger Nomad poses to the crew even when it's being friendly. And it also underscores the danger of Spock's mind probe in act three as he tries to learn about Nomad's origin. Nomad's refusal to believe its creator was an imperfect biological unit carries echoes of Isaac Asimov's short story Reason in which a robot invents its own religion (1967 was a significant year for this Asimov short story, in January BBC2 adapted it as The Prophet for the series Out Of The Unknown with some fantastic music by the Radiophonic Workshop).
It's not difficult to dislike The Changeling. It's a linear story with no significant guest stars, the whole sequence with Uhura isn't thought through properly, and Kirk confuses a superior computer to death at the end. Despite this the science gone wrong threat Nomad represents is a very Star Trek concept, and the mismatch between Nomad's size and power can be seen as restating The Devil In The Dark's message of don't judge by appearances.

Enterprise crew deaths: 4 unnamed security guards. Nomad carries out its sterilisation function with relish and the result is the highest single episode body count since Where No Man Has Gone Before.
Running total: 30

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Who Mourns For Adonais?

Most obviously Who Mourns For Adonais? is very much of its time. At the top of the episode McCoy has a line about Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas, “one day she'll find the right man and off she'll go, out of the service.” A line which could be taken to mean married women cannot serve in Starfleet, or that once Palamas has found the right man she'll have no interest in a career. In a better episode this line might just provoke a shrug at the different values of 45 years ago but there are other problems with the script.

For starters Lieutenant Palamas doesn't have much in the way of a character. She fills the same role as Lieutenant McGivers in Space Seed; to be seduced by the guest villain until reminded of where her real loyalties lie. However McGivers had a reason to fall for Khan. She's a historian fascinated by strong men from history, she doesn't seem to fit in on board the Enterprise and her skills are under appreciated by Kirk. Palamas on the other hand doesn't have any comparable motive for falling for Apollo. At the start of the episode she's in a relationship with Scotty, then she beams down with the landing party and when Apollo starts putting his 5000 year old moves on her she's his. Passed from one member of the cast to another without any say in the matter like a football.

One minute Palamas is arguing with Apollo. “But why? What you've said so far makes no sense at all!” Then when Apollo invites her to frolic like the Greeks of old, “you will know what it is to be a goddess,” and Scotty objects and is zapped while drawing his phaser she doesn't really react. She might at least be expected to run over to Scotty and see if he's injured but Kirk does that. Next Apollo magics her into a new dress and takes her for a walk. “Come,” says Apollo and when Scotty intervenes he is thrown backwards across a table, in a well set up stunt, and knocked unconscious. Palamas isn't really that bothered, she doesn't attempt to leave Apollo's side, and goes off with him into the forest. She doesn't even ask if Scotty's all right. She saw the man she's been dating struck under the chin by a massively powerful being who claims to be the Greek god Apollo. She saw him thrown backwards with a crash of thunder to lie still on the ground. McCoy's diagnosis of Scotty as stunned doesn't occur until after Palamas has gone off with Apollo. Scotty could be dead for all Palamas knows. Now try watching her next scene which starts with Palamas' line, “oh it's lovely,” and ends with Apollo kissing her, and try to make sense of it from her perspective. This is not a complaint about 45 year old sexism. It's simply bad writing.

To be fair to Leslie Parrish, the actress who plays Palamas, she seems to be aware of this problem. She makes Palamas look afraid when all this is going on, but the end result is a character who appears to be frightened by the violence itself rather than showing any concern for Scotty. As if Apollo and Scotty were fighting over Palamas in a nightclub. That said Palamas does get to play an essential role in distracting Apollo at the end of the story, and she gets one of the script's best lines when she has to pretend to be studying Apollo to see how he copies human behaviour.

APOLLO: I am Apollo. I've chosen you.
CAROLYN: I'm sure that's very flattering, but I must get on with my work now.

Much more difficult is the scene towards the end where Apollo calls down a storm after he is angered by Palamas rejection. This can be read as a rape scene. Palamas is alone, and afraid. As the winds blow around her she clutches her dress and holds it down as if to protect herself. Apollo, semi-transparent, appears superimposed over storm clouds as if he is either riding the wind, or actually the storm itself. Then Lieutenant Palamas falls to the ground and shouts, “no,” before we see an extreme close-up of Apollo's face still superimposed over the storm, and then the image cuts to a slow zoom towards Palamas as if the audience is seeing her from Apollo's point of view. Obviously the storm could just be Apollo's anger but there is a precedent within Greek mythology, and even specific myths relating to Apollo himself, to suggest this scene could have a much darker symbolic meaning. Technically it's impressive work. Well edited and well scored, in fact the music throughout this episode is consistently excellent. It also works dramatically within the context of the story, but it's steering the programme into waters it is not really equipped to navigate. If it is intended to suggest Apollo raping Lieutenant Palamas, then it gives the ending of the episode, where the audience are invited to feel sympathy for Apollo, a completely inappropriate tone.

Scotty is subject to some very odd characterisation. He's not acting out of character because Scotty has tended to be written according to the needs of each script, and generally it's left to James Doohan to pull the disparate threads together and make Scotty seem like a person. We've seen him be quietly professional in The Naked Time and The Galileo Seven, distracted in Mudd's Women, and gung ho in A Taste Of Armageddon. In Who Mourns For Adonais? Scotty is written as a lovesick teenager. He cannot keep his eyes off Palamas. And when Apollo takes Palamas from him, his instinct is to lash out. Scotty attacks Apollo three times in the course of this episode. Each time to no effect and each time sustaining more and more damage. In Futurama's Star Trek spoof Where No Fan Has Gone Before there is a running joke about Welshy (Scotty's replacement after James Doohan declined to appear) being killed by Melllvar, and his corpse being electrocuted again and again whenever Melllvar becomes angry. Who Mourns For Adonais? could well be the source for that joke.

It's difficult not to feel that writer Gilbert Ralston is just being lazy. Scotty's madly in love with Palamas because it's simply the easiest way to jam a bit of conflict and peril into the second and third act, not because it's a story the writer wants to tell. If Ralston really wanted to write a story about Scotty in love he would have actually put some effort into making it look like Scotty and Palamas were in a relationship. As it is, it's all one way. Scotty can't keep his eyes of Palamas whereas she never really reciprocates. “Oh all right,” is her response to being invited for coffee, and while he calls her Carolyn she calls him Scotty. He fights and risks his life for a woman who never even puts her arm round him. It actually looks less like love and more like obsession; which is worrying considering Wolf In The Fold is coming up.

Ultimately this all affects suspension of disbelief. The triumph of Amok Time is it makes the audience believe Vulcan exists beyond the confines of the television screen. A strong and enjoyable script makes the audience willing to overlook the implausible elements which might otherwise remind them they are watching a story filmed on a soundstage on Gower Street in Hollywood. It's why Joseph Pevney's occasionally clumsy handling of the Gorn in Arena doesn't affect the overall episode; beyond some good natured ribbing about the quality of the costumes. Likewise it's why the obviously fake spore plants in This Side Of Paradise don't matter. If that episode had been filmed on a soundstage planet filled with equally weird looking alien vegetation they could have passed without notice. Filmed on location and contrasted with real plants and trees they might have wrecked the episode. In fact This Side Of Paradise is so confident it makes the plant's appearance the subject of a joke. “What exactly are we looking for anyway, sir?” asks Kelowitz. “Whatever doesn't look right, whatever that is,” replies Sulu (who worked in the botany department in The Man Trap) oblivious to the bizarre plant slightly to his left.

In Who Mourns For Adonais? the absence of believable reactions from Palamas and Scotty means the episode never gels. Michael Forest puts in very good work as Apollo, and makes some very wordy dialogue sound like actual speech. Walter Koenig makes the most of limited scenes as Chekov.

APOLLO: I am Apollo.
[Kirk reacts]
[McCoy reacts]
[MUSIC: dramatic chord!]
CHEKOV: And I am the tsar of all the Russias.

Not the funniest response in the world but it's an interesting way to puncture the mood by introducing a character prepared to give backchat to the antagonist. Star Trek has not really gone in for sending up the baddies before so this is an interesting direction for the series, and the new character.

Matt Jefferies works miracles on a story which requires Apollo to have his own temple. It's fun-sized in comparison to real temples but it's an impressive set element; possibly the biggest the series has used so far.

Also impressive is the shot which ends act one, Apollo tripling in size and towering over the landing party booming, “welcome to Olympus”. It may be Star Trek's most ambitious effects shot so far. The first effects shot, I think, combining two live action elements rather than using overlaid animation, like phasers, or a glass painting. It's made more complicated by being layered so Apollo stands in front of the temple, and then he himself is partially obscured by a marble table in the foreground (a process Wikipedia tells me is a called a travelling matte which means I know what it's called even if I don't really understand how it works). The contrast is a little bit wonky, and the lighting not quite right but it's impressive given the budget and time limitations Star Trek always faced. Another memorable, and bizarre, image is the shot of the hand gripping the Enterprise. In fact judged purely on the visual side, this is a strong episode. The one oddity is the editing decision which means the shot of the hand holding the Enterprise is not used to bookend the opening titles. It begins act one, but it also seems like the ideal shot to end the teaser.

Enterprise crew deaths: None, again. Apollo throws a lot of electricity around but there are no fatalities. Nobody gets Westinghoused. 
Running total: 26

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Amok Time

Amok Time is the episode which confirms Spock's position as Star Trek's breakout character. The first episode of the second series, the shop window episode, is given over to the character the viewers are most likely to recognise, the guy with the ears; a trick Star Trek would try again in a year with the much more exploitatively titled Spock's Brain. Amok Time is also the episode which creates Vulcan. Filling in acres of detail about Spock, his character, his planet, and his biology.

It's remarkable the episode got made. In 1952 CBS decided the word “pregnant” could not be used to describe the lead character in I Love Lucy, the acceptable terms were “expecting”, or “with child”. Five years later the same network refused to approve the d├ębut episode of gentle comedy Leave It To Beaver because the show's two child characters hide a baby alligator in a toilet cistern (the agreed compromise was that the toilet cistern could be shown but not the toilet itself). Nothing much had changed by 1967. Stephen E. Whitfield's The Making Of Star Trek is full of notes from NBC's Standards and Practices Department. Dagger Of The Mind: Please delete the underlined in Janice's speech, “I'm a damned attractive female.” Miri: Caution here where Janice opens her uniform to check on the progress of the disease; avoid exposure which would embarrass or offend. Space Seed: Caution on the embrace; avoid the open-mouth kiss. And yet Amok Time is an episode in which Mr. Spock must surrender to his throbbing biological urges and return home to claim his child bride; or die. "I realised that by creating a separate world, a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network." Gene Roddenberry's often used quote has never seemed more appropriate. Certainly the implication of Amok Time is that NBC was happy to talk about sex, as long as it was alien sex.

That said, there is a certain amount of coy tap dancing round the subject. The most explicit Amok Time gets is this exchange.

SPOCK: It has to do with biology.
KIRK: What?
SPOCK: Biology.
KIRK: What kind of biology?
SPOCK: Vulcan biology.
KIRK: You mean the biology of Vulcans? Biology as in reproduction? Well, there's no need to be embarrassed about it, Mister Spock. It happens to the birds and the bees.
SPOCK: The birds and the bees are not Vulcans, Captain. If they were, if any creature as proudly logical as us were to have their logic ripped from them as this time does to us. How do Vulcans choose their mates? Haven't you wondered?
KIRK: I guess the rest of us assume that it's done quite logically.
SPOCK: No. No. It is not. We shield it with ritual and customs shrouded in antiquity. You humans have no conception. It strips our minds from us. It brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilisation. It is the pon farr. The time of mating. There are precedents in nature, Captain. The giant eelbirds of Regulus Five, once each eleven years they must return to the caverns where they hatched. On your Earth, the salmon. They must return to that one stream where they were born, to spawn or die in trying.

Film editor James D. Ballas allows most of that scene to play out as a single shot which makes it a masterclass for comparing the acting styles of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Shatner seems more inclined to play the scene lightly, looking for the sort of gentle laughs a sitcom might get out of a scene where the father of the family attempts to discuss the facts of life with a son. Nimoy plays it straight but makes the interesting choice to play against the intent of the scene. Instead of being embarrassed he makes Spock visibly angry at not only being forced to discuss something so deeply personal, but at having to keep explaining points to this stupid earthman. Both actors also reverse their usual body language so the more physical Shatner stands very still, while Nimoy writhes in shame. And, of course, the shot is impeccably set-up by director Joesph Pevney who has both actors stand in the centre of the frame, facing the camera, their stances identical with their hands behind their back. Capping the whole scene is Gerald Fried's evocative score.

What's remarkable about Amok Time is how right this all feels. After 29 episodes this influx of backstory could have been a clumsy graft, like suddenly revealing Scotty was married, instead it feels entirely appropriate. Theodore Sturgeon's script puts the audience in the same shoes as Kirk and McCoy, suddenly exponentially increasing their knowledge of Spock and Vulcan. Within the Star Trek universe it makes you realise what a closed world Vulcan must be. More so even than the USSR at the time the episode was written. Almost like North Korea today. Plus, it's a terrific example of a wish backfiring. Spock is ashamed of his human half and wants to be more Vulcan then with the onset of his Pon farr he realises he is more Vulcan than he hoped. It's a lovely moment which shines a light at the heart of his character and the conflict between his Vulcan and human ancestry.

The what's-wrong-with-Spock mystery is only half the episode. At the beginning of act three Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to Vulcan where the duplicitous logic of Spock's bride T'Pring manoeuvres Kirk and Spock into fighting each other. The greatest achievement of the episode may be that Vulcan extends beyond the boundaries of the studio set. Throwaway lines give it history, “[that's] T'Pau. The only person to ever turn down a seat on the Federation Council,” and a sense of place, “It's lovely. I wish the breeze were cooler.” Even better, the series has the self confidence not to worry about making Vulcan customs look silly. The black masked Vulcan carrying an axe, the blizzard of alien words (koon-ut-kal-if-fee, kroykah, plak-tow), the constant jingling of bells all look, and sound, a little silly. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for the production team to play it safe and cut them from the script but they didn't. And Amok Time is a better episode as a result. Customs often look weird to outsiders. In the same way that Guardsmen wearing Bearskins, or Beefeaters, or Morris Dancers end up looking indistinguishable from Monty Python's Flying Circus fish-slapping dance. Being presented in all its wind-chimed, bell ringing glory, gives Vulcan more depth and the alien words benefit from being put in a context which the audience cannot grasp but is obviously there. Removing anything from the script in case the audience might laugh would leave the series looking terribly po-faced. Worse it would remove a magnificent piece of editing when Spock is “deep in the plak-tow.” The two bell ringers march round the plinth Spock and T'Pau are standing on. A sequence of rapid cuts follows; a close-up of Spock, a close-up of the bells, a dutched angle close-up of T'Pau; T'Pring; Kirk; McCoy; Stonn. All backgrounded by the bells jingling and Gerald Fried's fighting music (also known as the national anthem of Decapod 10 from Futurama). It's brilliantly bizarre, the closest Star Trek ever got to a genuine sixties freak out. And just when you think it can't get any better a thunderflash goes off sending a plume of smoke curling into the sky. All that's missing is a fisheye lens close-up of Spock (like we'd see in season three's The Tholian Web).

Amok Time is one of those episodes where everyone seems excited to be involved and has raised their game. Extra care has been taken over even small details. When William Shatner takes the lirpa he drops his arm as if the weapon is heavier than he expected. The blood effect on his wound is slightly gorier and more realistic than might normally be seen. Someone has even taken extra care over the photograph of T'Pring as a child. It's barely on screen for three seconds and yet a set has been constructed for the background. In fact, someone seems to have gone to the trouble of constructing a unique set because it's not one I recall seeing in the episode. It would have been easy, and cheap, to photograph the young T'Pring against a neutral background. That extra money was found to make even a still photo look as good as possible shows everyone concerned wanted Amok Time to look great. And the end result of the production team's pride in their work is that sense that Vulcan is a living world. Even the photograph of T'Pring raises all sorts of questions. Who took the picture, Spock's parents? Young Spock himself? Does he have other pictures of T'Pring? Or a photo album of images from Vulcan? Speculation opened up simply because someone put a more than normal effort into an image on screen for three seconds.

Star Trek is not a series which does introductions but the other notable event of Amok Time is the first appearance of Ensign Chekov. Not that you'd notice from the way he's filmed that he was any different from the other interchangeable bridge crew we saw in season one, but finally, the gang's all here. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None, again. It's been a good few weeks for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 26