Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Deadly Years

The Deadly Years is a good example of the balancing act faced by any writer hoping to sell a script to Star Trek. You need an exciting, unique concept, and you also need a script which is actually achievable under the production limitations of the series. You can submit your idea about the Enterprise landing party being attacked by a slug 1000 feet tall but it's probably not going to get past Gene L. Coon's desk. Unless you've written the greatest 1000 feet tall slug attack script ever. A script so good that not making it actually causes the production team some distress at which point they will start looking at ways to make it practical (“what if the slug is only ten feet tall?”, “will 1000 regular sized slugs work instead?”).

By all accounts this is the process The City On The Edge Of Forever went through (with fewer slugs). A whittling down of Harlan Ellison's original script to remove expensive elements like a hike across the terrain of the Guardian's world, including shots of mountains and a distant city, while hopefully staying true to the core of the story. Even after cutting back on the scale The City On The Edge Of Forever was one of Star Trek's most demanding scripts, costing $245,316 against a first series average of $190,000, and taking seven and a half days to film rather than the standard six. The reason the production team went to all this effort can be seen in a Robert Justman memo to John D. F. Black, “without a doubt this is the best and most beautifully written screenplay we have gotten to date and possibly we'll ever get this season.” Harlan Ellison's script was one the production team felt they had to make.

The script of The Deadly Years doesn't compare to The City On The Edge Of Forever but it does have an irresistible concept. The idea that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the unfortunate Lieutenant Galway all begin rapidly ageing. It's a threat the audience can grasp instantly. Ageing the main cast has tremendous visual appeal, and it gives the actors something different to do; playing older than an actor's age is a real challenge. On the downside old age make-up is complicated, expensive, and time consuming to apply. The script doesn't just call for the actors to gain a few decades they are continually ageing so the amount of make-up required keeps increasing. Plus, the script doesn't just need one actor ageing up, but five. In the book The World Of Star Trek William Shatner recalls spending three hours in the make-up chair, so that's around nine hours of make-up for those sickbay scenes featuring aged Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

The compromise which makes the episode affordable is the competency hearing to decide if Kirk is still fit for command. For ten minutes, a fifth of the episode, the action is restricted to one set and everything is kept as simple as possible. Most of the characters stay seated so camera moves are simplified and much of the cutting is just between wide shots of the briefing room and single shots of characters. The lighting is very basic, which presumably reduces setting up times between shots. And although Scotty is present he is the only character not to get a big single close-up, the closest the camera gets to his face is when Scotty appears in a two shot with Doctor McCoy, which suggests his old age make-up has been simplified to reduce preparation time. Also the courtroom events unfold in real time which means the ageing make-up can be fixed for a significant section of the episode. 

Unfortunately the one thing everyone notices about The Deadly Years is it drags badly during the competency hearing. The bulk of act three is taken up with courtroom drama as characters rehash incidents the audience saw in act two. It would be wonderful to replace this hearing with something more dramatic, possibly a sub-plot where the infected landing party stay quarantined on Gamma Hydra IV, as in Miri, and search for a cure while the Enterprise rushes off for help from Starbase 10 and is attacked by Romulans, but that isn't possible. This is not to imply that the hearing is just ten minutes of dead air. The obvious discomfort of the Enterprise crew as they testify against Kirk is well handled. As is Kirk's constant confusion over which planet the Enterprise is currently orbiting, and Shatner's little old man chuckle as he demands the hearing ask him questions to prove he is fit to command.

Another money saving measure is the Romulan attack at the end of the episode. For budgetary reasons no actors are hired to play Romulans but this actually enhances their mystery rather than looking cheap. Writing about Errand Of Mercy I complained, “Any script with the Romulans must, or at least should, waste time explaining why each new trespass [of the neutral zone] 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.” The Deadly Years answers that complaint very nicely by establishing that Romulan's don't talk. They are not interested in diplomacy or complaining about violations of their territory. If you cross the neutral zone you will be destroyed, and then the Romulan's will go back to their mysterious business. They are made more alien by not apparently caring about breaches of the zone beyond destroying the ship responsible.

Less successful is the reason the Enterprise breaches the neutral zone in the first place. After Kirk is removed from command Commodore Stocker (for a change the Federation official of the week is nice and well meaning rather than nasty) takes over and orders the Enterprise to fly directly through the neutral zone to the superior medical facilities at Starbase 10. The Star Trek production team made a big deal about believability. Stephen E. Whitfield's The Making Of Star Trek includes an except from the Star Trek writers guide in which prospective writers are asked to find “the major Star Trek format error in the following 'teaser' from a story outline.” What follows is an outline for a scene involving the Enterprise being attacked. As the ship faces destruction Kirk puts his arms around his Yeoman and embraces her. To explain why the scene is wrong the guide suggests imagining it as taking place on the U. S. S. Detroit a Navy destroyer as it faces destruction from an enemy gunboat on a suicide mission; “would Captain E. L. Henderson... turn and hug a comely female WAVE who happened to be on the ship's bridge?” No he wouldn't, the guide concludes. Equally, following a serious accident on a military exercise in West Germany in 1967 would a US Army officer commandeer a Jeep and order it to drive in a straight line through East German territory to bring the critically injured to the superior medical facilities in West Berlin? No he wouldn't, and no matter how naive the script tries to make Commodore Stocker with lines like, “if I could talk to [the Romulans], explain to them why we violated the Neutral Zone,” this is a major believability failure.

The purpose of this scene seems to be to contrast Kirk's direct experience with Stocker's lack of ability, and to make the audience reflect on the foolishness of a system which devalues Kirk's experience just because he is old and a little confused on the fine details. In other words to comment directly on the way the elderly are treated in western society. While this is a laudable message it's undercut by the rest of the script which is about the horror of growing old and has a very unsympathetic view of the elderly. Kirk is tetchy, forgetful, irrational, paranoid, and falls asleep in his chair on the bridge. The message is also undercut by the ending. Understandably the production team wanted a newly young Kirk to leap onto the bridge and save the day but this nullifies any potential message about wisdom being as valuable as youth.

Joseph Pevney directs again, in fact in broadcast order he has now directed three episodes in a row. Although the direction in the competency hearing is largely kept simple he does throw in a few moments of visual flair. The best is when Spock questions Yeoman Atkins. The camera follows Spock around the briefing room and ends on a three shot with Spock and Atkins in the foreground, and Uhura in the background reacting. Once Atkins has been dismissed Spock walks to the front of the frame, picks up one of the electronic clipboards, and walks back to the middle of the shot and begins talking to Uhura. Outside of the competency hearing Pevney has more time to create memorable shot compositions. The best occurs right at the start when Chekov enters one of the buildings on Gamma Hydra IV. Shot from inside looking out, the frame is largely dark with just the slit of the doorway showing the surface of the planet and its lurid orange sky. As Chekov comes through the door he walks into shadow until he stands silhouetted against the exterior. Groping his way forwards in the darkness the camera pulls back, showing us a room full of dimly lit shapes, until the lights suddenly come on and we see the corpse of Alvin. This sequence looks great, but it also demonstrates how the director has to work as a problem solver and compose shots to explain story points clearly. Chekov is a young ensign, but he's seen death before, and shot more matter of factly (Chekov enters the building, sees the corpse, panics, and runs out) this could have looked silly. As it is the use of darkness, and the lights suddenly coming on, and the decision to use weird old age make-up on the body rather than just having an extra lie down, all puts the emphasis on this being a shocking moment. Chekov is scared because it's unexpected not because he's seen a dead man. 

The Deadly Years works best when it keeps the focus of the story on out of control ageing, being elderly before your time, and the mixture of pity and embarrassment the Enterprise crew feel at the degeneration of Kirk's abilities. At times it is like proto-body horror, with Kirk's ageing traitor body being a precursor to the sort of thing David Cronenberg would do infinitely more gorily in the late 1970s. Perhaps in the end it's better the story stays away from obvious messages about respecting the wisdom of our elders because that can be a trite message and combining it with scenes of Kirk as a grumpy old man would have made for a confusing mix.

Crew deaths: 1, Lieutenant Galway. 
Running total: 37 

This week one of the background pictures of the closing titles is a photograph of regular extra William Blackburn dressed as a Tellarite, from Journey To Babel, for a make-up test.

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