Friday, March 8, 2013

The Immunity Syndrome

The Changeling, The Doomsday Machine, Obsession, and The Immunity Syndrome are four second season episodes which all share a similar plot. In each the Enterprise is both the first and last line of defence against a powerful single entity which will destroy billions if left unchecked.

In two of the stories the entity is a bizarre form of life. In the other two it is a machine. In two of the stories the entity is destroyed by anti-matter. Two of the stories begin with the discovery that entire solar systems have been wiped clean of life. In two of the stories the entity is a space vampire which can suck the life right out of you. Two of the stories use Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a character template. In two of the stories the entities are huge, rendering the Enterprise insignificant in comparison. In two of the stories the creature is about to reproduce. In two of the stories the menace has come from beyond the edge of the galaxy. In two of the stories the action takes place entirely on the Enterprise (and a third uses redressed Enterprise sets as a different location).

Any series will hit on themes and repeat them because they easily lend themselves to scripts. In the case of the four stories listed above it's a basic part of the Star Trek format that the Enterprise is out there on the front line by itself. A certain level of repetition is going to be an inevitable part of the set up of an episode. It's down to the skill of the writers and the production team to make sure individual episodes are distinctive, and don't just become an endless stream of clich├ęs along the lines of David Gerrold's spoof storyline Green Priestesses Of The Cosmic Computer from his book The World Of Star Trek.
What matters is the difference between stories, not the similarities. How many times has the Enterprise run into a being with superior god-like powers? About ten, depending on how you define a being with superior god-like powers, but nobody would describe the Metrons in Arena as being the same as Charlie X. What is important about The Changeling, The Doomsday Machine, Obsession, and The Immunity Syndrome is how each episode differs from the others. So where The Changeling begins by sharing plot elements with The Doomsday Machine (after investigating a distress call Kirk must face off against an overwhelmingly powerful machine foe) the story surprisingly turns into a mechanical version of Charlie X where Kirk must act as a father figure to a massively powerful being and keep it happy until he can work out a way to neutralise the threat.

Purely in script terms The Immunity Syndrome is the weakest of these four episodes. What makes makes The Immunity Syndrome different is what its script lacks compared to the others. The Immunity Syndrome has no character like The Doomsday Machine's Commodore Decker. There is no attempt to develop a character by adding new back story, as with Kirk in Obsession. Unlike Nomad in The Changeling the space amoeba cannot talk. If the monster cannot be reasoned with, or bluffed, then the threat cannot be personified. It's a simple space monster waiting to be destroyed. The Immunity Syndrome is the story which comes closest to matching the basic plot outline given earlier; the Enterprise is both the first and last line of defence against a powerful single entity which will destroy billions if left unchecked.

However, sometimes less is more. The Immunity Syndrome is more narratively pared back than the other three stories and so there is actually less to go wrong. It's great that Nomad can talk, and come on board the Enterprise. Kirk can confront the menace rather than just staring at a view screen in awe. Unfortunately Kirk then goes on to defeat Nomad by confusing it with logic. Likewise with Obsession it's great that Kirk is given more back story and written as a man out for revenge, but midway through a weekly television series is not the best place to suddenly reformat your lead character as a watered down Captain Ahab in space. The Doomsday Machine remains practically perfect in every way.

So the script of The Immunity Syndrome is simple, and a little familiar, but fun. The Enterprise goes toe-to-toe with a giant space amoeba which can suck the life out of entire planetary systems , and is about to reproduce by binary fission. The remorselessness of mathematics means one amoeba will become two, and then four, and then eight, until the entire galaxy is as dead as the Gamma 7A system. A nice concept, and one which is well used.

Like The Changeling there is a mismatch between the being at the centre of the script, and the effect it has. The Changeling wanted the audience to be surprised at the power of Nomad being contained in such a small shell. In The Immunity Syndrome there is a mismatch between the simplicity of the amoeba and its ability to potentially wipe out all life in the galaxy. The script is able to carry this difference in size through to a nice metaphor comparing the amoeba invading our galaxy to a virus invading a body, with the Enterprise as the antibody.

Also, like The Doomsday Machine, small story telling tricks add to the believability although they are really there to make the script work. In The Doomsday Machine it is not practical for the planet killer to keep following the Enterprise. The script needs breaks in the action to move the story forwards and to give the characters a rest from being constantly chased. To get round this the planet killer is described as being programmed to ignore anything as small as a ship beyond a certain radius. This behaviour is there for solid plot reasons, but makes the planet killer seem more like a real object. It has a logic to its actions and its behaviour is predictable, like a real machine. In The Immunity Syndrome the amoeba is surrounded by a zone of darkness. The zone is really there for logistical reasons, to cut down the number of expensive and time consuming amoeba effects shots, but it also makes sense for an energy eating being to be surrounded by a zone of darkness. The thing even eats light! Although evidently it doesn't find light as nutritious as whatever energy it drains from lifeforms.

The zone of darkness also allows the slight plot to be stretched out, without making the episode seem padded. Acts one and two are about the mystery of the zone. What is it? What is the cause? Why do the laws of motion seem to be reversed? What is slowly killing the crew? The first two acts emphasise the exploration of the unknown, and the willingness of the Enterprise crew to put their lives on the line when required. Unfortunately it also makes for an episode which is less rewarding on repeat viewing. Once all the answers to the questions are known there's not much to concentrate on beyond some quality Spock/McCoy bickering, and Kirk having to decide which of his friends will be sent to their death in the shuttle.

Joseph Pevney directs and, rather like Ralph Senensky in Obsession, the Enterprise standing sets seem to mess up his ability to compose interesting shots. Generally speaking I've preferred Joseph Pevney and Ralph Senensky's direction to that of the other regular director Marc Daniels, but there's no doubt The Doomsday Machine is the better directed story when compared to Obsession or The Immunity Syndrome. The more generic approach Pevney uses here could be a result of the stricter time restrictions Senesky complained about when making Obsession; the insistence on completing shows in five and a half days. This isn't to say Pevney's direction here is completely flat. There's some nice naturalistic direction as Spock senses the destruction of the Intrepid (an odd name for a ship crewed by 400 Vulcans, does Vulcan not have its own starships?). McCoy and Kirk look as if they are about to start riffing on what it would be like to be on a ship full of Vulcans when Spock suddenly reacts with pain. McCoy is positioned to face Spock, but Kirk is looking forwards. As Spock groans Kirk's head snaps round, and he and McCoy stare at Spock as if unable to believe what they are seeing. For a fraction of a second the pair stand frozen, and then McCoy touches Kirk's arm and the two race across the bridge to Spock. Moments like this are few and far between. Film editor Donald R. Rode, who did excellent work on The Doomsday Machine, can't make much of the footage. It's a shame this was the last episode Pevney directed.

It's not possible to talk about The Immunity Syndrome without talking about the effects work on the space amoeba. It's brilliant. A high point for effects work on the series. No wonder Van Der Veer Photo effects shared an Emmy nomination for Star Trek special effects in 1969; although the series did not win. Interestingly outside of the space amoeba much of the effects work is cut to the bare minimum. This is possibly the only episode in which no one transports anywhere, and no phasers are fired. The limited resources of the show are virtually all concentrated on the amoeba. Of course the remastered versions have been able to expand the scope of the effects shots considerably, but it's very pleasing to note they largely settle for recreating what was seen in 1968.
Remastered version
Remastered version
The Immunity Syndrome also adds to the idea that outside of our galaxy is some sort of nightmare howling waste populated by hideous creatures and killer robots which are constantly seeking a point of entry. So far Star Trek has shown us the space parasites from Operation - - Annihilate!, the planet killer from The Doomsday Machine, and now a giant single celled life form capable of draining the life force from entire solar systems. No wonder Q thought mankind wasn't prepared for the unknown in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Q Who. Based on what Kirk has encountered so far Q was right.

Enterprise crew deaths: None again.
Running total: 43


Robert Justman is messing around with the closing titles again. This week he uses a test shot of William Blackburn as one of Sargon's androids from Return To Tomorrow. In the photo Billy Blackburn is rolling his eyes up into his head which accounts for the android's slightly grotesque appearance. Also in the closing titles is a shot of a smiling Spock, also from Return To Tomorrow which I don't think was used in the episode.

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