Sunday, January 20, 2013


Obsession and The Doomsday Machine both tell the story of a man consumed by the need for revenge at all costs. Both are apparently based on Moby-Dick (or so the internet tells me, it's a book I haven't read) but both are very different. In Obsession the focus is on Captain Kirk and his determination to destroy the cloud vampire which 11 years ago attacked the USS Farragut killing 200 of Kirk's then shipmates including Captain Garrovick who Kirk describes as, “one of the finest men I ever knew”. In The Doomsday Machine the focus of the script is on Kirk and the Enterprise crew trying to deal with Commodore Decker and his determination to destroy the planet killer which, etc, etc.

Shifting the focus of a story from one character to another completely changes the way it plays out. Swap them over and
Obsession is about the Enterprise meeting Commodore Decker whose entire crew has been wiped out by the cloud vampire and The Doomsday Machine is about Kirk's horror as he encounters the planet killer which 11 years before destroyed the USS Farragut. It works on other stories as well. Imagine a version of The Alternative Factor in which the focus of the story is on Kirk so that it is he, rather than Lazarus, who has an insane alternate universe duplicate. Or a version of The Deadly Years where Kirk is immune to the ageing effects and must watch as his friends get older and older.

Playing around like this is fun but it shows how narrow the line can be between a great story and an average one. Some stories might be improved by shifting the focus to Kirk (the version of The Alternative Factor with Kirk A and an insane alternate universe Kirk B at least sounds like it has potential) but personalising a story for the lead character doesn't guarantee success. Operation - - Annihilate! isn't any better for including the death of Kirk's brother, that's a story point which gets lost in the episode, and a version of The Doomsday Machine with Kirk out for revenge on the planet killer immediately suffers from the loss of Commodore Decker; both as the scripted character and William Windom's performance. 

There's another example bubbling away in the background of Obsession. The Enterprise needs to collect urgently needed perishable vaccines from the USS Yorktown and take them to the colony on Theta VII. This is a just a reprise of the plot from The Galileo Seven, where the Enterprise must make a rendezvous to get vaccines to the New Paris colonies where a plague is out of control. Both sub-plots are there to put an arbitrary time limit on the main story, and explain why Kirk cannot simply hang around until the cloud vampire is killed/the missing shuttle is found. Obsession is the more successful version because it distributes this plot strand among the Enterprise crew, rather than giving it to a stroppy Federation official, High Commissioner Ferris. The deadline feels more real and urgent when the reminders are coming from Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura rather than the Federation Bureaucrat Of The Week. Even though Kirk's deadline is equally artificial in both episodes the one in Obsession is more effective.

Elsewhere in the script, making Kirk the Captain Ahab of Obsession weakens the story. Effectively Obsession asks the audience to answer the question, “will Kirk sacrifice everything for vengeance?” Of course he won't. At the most basic level the audience knows there is another episode of Star Trek next week. By contrast The Doomsday Machine is asking the question, “will Commodore Decker sacrifice everything for vengeance?” and the answer is yes, because he's a guest character and he's not shackled by the need for everything to be back to normal next week. The Doomsday Machine gets a lot of excitement out of sequences where the planet killer threatens the Enterprise but those scenes are not asking, “will the Enterprise be destroyed” (audience: “no”) but “how will Spock and McCoy deal with Commodore Decker.” A good script avoids asking the audience questions with an obvious answer. So while The Alternative Factor asks “will the universe be destroyed?” (Magic 8-Ball: “Very doubtful” ) Charlie X doesn't ask “will Charlie destroy the Enterprise?” it asks “how will Captain Kirk deal with Charlie?” (Of course a great story will ask a question as a red herring, so The Devil In The Dark starts out by asking the audience, “can Captain Kirk defeat the horrible space monster?” and then completely subverts our expectations.)

So, although Obsession sells itself as being about Captain Kirk's desire for revenge no matter the cost, the audience goes into the story knowing that Kirk will not sacrifice his career or life. This can't help but lessen the dramatic tension. The script hits this problem during a scene when the Enterprise is chasing the cloud vampire at warp eight.

SCOTT: Captain, we can't do it. If we keep this speed, we'll blow up any minute now.
[Scott looks frantic, everyone else is worried. Kirk looks as if he might burst into tears of frustration.]
KIRK; Go to warp six.

Kirk decides to slow the Enterprise even though that will let the cloud vampire escape (he doesn't know it's going to turn and attack). He decides not to be Captain Ahab, and puts the safety of the ship before anything else. In the process Kirk demonstrates why he's a better commander than Matt Decker, and why Kirk, unlike Decker, never loses his ship. It's a lovely character moment but this story is about Kirk's obsessive need to kill the cloud vampire. A scene where the captain puts safety first doesn't fit. And Kirk is soon back to being determined to kill the cloud vampire once it turns and engages the Enterprise, before fleeing again. 

Enjoyable as Obsession is this sort of confusion over details is a problem. Kirk's plan to kill the cloud vampire involves detonating an ounce of anti-matter but the episode is unclear about the power of this explosion. Spock states, “a matter-antimatter blast will rip away half the planet's atmosphere,” but once on the surface Kirk delays detonating the anti-matter until the creature is right on top of the blast, as if the explosion is suddenly much more localised. When the vampire is feasting on the haemoplasm bought as bait it is all of 40 feet away but Kirk and Garrovick react as if the plan is wrecked unless they find new bait to lure the vampire right on to the anti-matter. The anti-matter is primed and ready to blow. Why can't they just detonate and get the hell out of Dodge? Likewise when beaming Kirk and Garrovick back to the ship the episode does its best to get tension of out that old Star Trek standby a last second beam out. However what we see on screen is Kirk and Garrovick start to appear on the pad before fading, and the transporter hum sound effect also fading out. Spock raises an eyebrow and tells Scotty, “reset, energise.” Where have Kirk and Garrovick gone? The editing, and sound effects, and character reactions suggest the transporter failed to grab the pair who are still on the planet until the second attempt, after the shockwave has rocked the Enterprise, when the transporter locks on and brings them back. Somehow the episode seems to be treating the anti-matter explosion as simultaneously planet devastating, and amazingly short lived and localised.

On the positive side Nurse Chapel gets a very good scene where she brings food to Garrovick's cabin and bluffs him over Doctor McCoy's order to eat. These scenes of her being competent and professional establish her character far more effectively than ones where she has nothing to do but moon over Spock. Also, at the end of the episode is a special effects shot which must have been technically complicated at the time but unfortunately now looks unremarkable. As the cloud vampire moves to feed on Kirk and Garrovick the pair beam out, and the anti-matter detonates. In a single shot the camera must pan to allow the cloud vampire to appear to move, and then stop for the transporter effect. On top of this there are three layers, for want of a better word, of animation; the transporter effect; the cloud vampire; and the explosion. 

Ralph Senesky directed Obsession, and his work seems less inspired compared to his earlier stories This Side Of Paradise and Metamorphosis. The Enterprise work is not terrible, in Garrovick's debriefing he sits in front of a solid green background which makes for a good contrast with his red shirt, but possibly the corridors and rooms of the Enterprise offered less opportunity for shot composition than the location filming and extensive planet set of his other stories.

On his website Ralph says,

I can definitely say there was a drop in quality from THIS SIDE OF PARADISE and METAMORPHOSIS to the other episodes I directed the second season. And I ascribe the reason for this drop to the impossible expectation that episodes of STAR TREK could be filmed in five and a half days and maintain the standard of production excellence that had been established. “ 

The planet work is excellent. There's a striking overhead shot of the three dead security guards in the teaser, and after Garrovick's squad are attacked there is a hand-held camera shot to suggest a first person view as Kirk and Garrovick approach the bodies. On the cloud vampire's home world Senesky repeats a trick from Metamorphosis and has clouds, little puffs of smoke, added to the sky which brings the set to life, and also makes it look like the cloud vampire could be anywhere.

Actually Senesky repeats two tricks from
Metamorphosis. The cloud vampire is realised as an animated overlay placed on top of the picture which allows the creature to stay stationary in the frame and move with the camera. This is how the Companion was realised in Metamorphosis and Senesky's familiarity with the technique may be one of the reasons he was asked to direct this story. 

Enterprise crew deaths: 5. Two of the initial survey team are killed outright while Ensign Rizzo survives for a while before dying. Then two of Garrovick's team are attacked and one dies outright while the other is reported as being in a critical condition. When the creature gets into the air conditioning vents on the Enterprise it attacks another two crewmen, again killing one and leaving the other barely alive.The fate of the injured crew is never revealed so let's assume they made a full recovery.
Running total: 42

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