Sunday, April 7, 2013

By Any Other Name

When talking about Star Trek it's easy to get hung up on big name stories like The Trouble With Tribbles. While these episodes have come to define the series the real joy often comes from discovering (or rediscovering) the stories which don't persistently hang around in top ten lists. By Any Other Name is one of those episodes and it turns out to be a little gem. 

By Any Other Name has a script which constantly wrong foots the viewer about exactly what kind of story they should expect. The episode starts out looking as if it will be I, Mudd with aliens. The teaser, and act one, focus on the Kelvans plot to take over the Enterprise. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and two other Enterprise crew, are kept hostage to ensure the good behaviour of everyone else while the Enterprise is converted for the 300 year journey back to the Kelvan's home in the Andromeda galaxy. This episode being another addition to the list of stories suggesting the universe outside our galaxy is full of hideous monsters. Spock describes the Kelvans in their native form as, “immense beings [with] a hundred limbs which resemble tentacles."

The Kelvan's main weapon is a nifty little belt device which neutralises nerve impulses to the voluntary muscles leaving the target paralysed. All the elements are in place for this to be a generic Star Trek episode. The conversion of the Enterprise for its intergalactic voyage looks as if is there to add an arbitrary deadline to the story; forcing Kirk to save the day before the Enterprise departs. The aliens main advantage is technological, the belt paralyser, and when head alien Rojan mentions the neural field radiates from a central projector the episode looks set to turn into a game of hunt the power source; like Catspaw. It's easy to imagine how the next three acts will play out. A sequence of captures and escapes as Kirk tries to get hold of a paralysis projector, locate the central unit, and then turn the tables on the aliens by paralysing them until they have learned their lesson.

Still, even at this early stage it's clear the story is more interesting than average. There's an unusual amount of continuity. Spock's prison break technique from A Taste Of Armageddon (using the Vulcan mind meld to trick a guard into believing the Enterprise crew had escaped) is mentioned along with the energy barrier around the galaxy from Where No Man Has Gone Before. We also get to see the Kelvans take over the Enterprise, something which happened entirely off screen in I, Mudd. The takeover is a brisk little 60 second sequence of Kelvans appearing in key sections of the ship and paralysing the crew. It nicely demonstrates the Kelvan's technical superiority and ruthless efficiency. Plus, someone has found some money to give the Kelvans a signature effect. A blue twinkling visual when people are paralysed. This effect is completely unnecessary from a storytelling perspective. It's obvious when the the belt paralyser is used. There's a sound effect and everyone freezes (usually in some exaggerated “oh I can't move” pose, I particularly like Deforest Kelly's finger pointing, opened mouthed, position when McCoy is frozen while turning to say something to Spock). Still it's great that someone found the cash for the effect. It really adds visual interest to the scenes where it features, and its use is positively lavish considering Star Trek's normal frugal use of effects. Where you might see phasers fired once or twice in an episode, the Kelvan's belt paralyser is used twice in the teaser, and then another five times in act one.

The first real indication that events are not going to run as expected comes after the first escape attempt when Rojan tells Kirk, “this cannot go unpunished.” It turns out the Kelvans can reduce humans to small three dimensional objects, “the flesh and brain and what you call the personality, distilled down into these compact shapes.” People distilled down can be restored, but if the shape is crushed the person dies. Rojan demonstrates this on Lieutenant Shea and Yeoman Thompson, crushing Yeoman Thompson's distilled essence and killing her.

Yeoman Thompson's death may be the most disturbing seen on Star Trek. All we see on screen is a three dimensional shape being crushed to powder but somehow it's a weirdly graphic moment. What makes this killing so gruesome? It's hard to describe exactly but it's a combination of causes. There's the demonstration of Rojan's ruthlessness in forcing Kirk to watch a crew member being killed, and his killing of Thompson is literally more hands on than if he had shot her with a phaser, or zapped her with a bolt of lightning. There's the demonstration of Kirk's powerlessness, he cannot do anything except stand and watch. There's also an illogical attachment between Yeoman Thompson and the crushed shape. We've seen Thompson reduced, and we've been told the shape represents her very essence, so it feels as if we are watching Rojan's hand squeezing not just her body but somehow her brain and thoughts as well. On a more physical level crushing the object is not easy. Rojan squeezes once, twice, three times. Each time breaking the object into smaller chunks. Thompson's death would not seem nearly so prolonged or brutal if the shape had immediately exploded into a puff of power, or if Rojan just squeezed it once before dropping the remains on the floor. Lastly it's all too easy to start trying to imagine what the ruin of Thompson's body would look like. Rojan says Thompson cannot be restored to life, but presumably her body could be reconverted back into flesh and blood.

Yeoman Thompson's death is one of those moments which grips the imagination. As the story heads into act two it surprises again when the Enterprise warps out of orbit, and what had looked as if it would be a largely planet based story instead transfers completely to the Enterprise. It rapidly becomes clear that talk of the energy barrier around the galaxy wasn't just to set up the plot. We will actually see the ship attempt to do what it could not in Where No Man Has Gone Before, breach the barrier and head out into intergalactic space. At the same time Spock and Scotty have come up with a suicide plan. The barrier is composed of negative energy. On Kirk's order Scotty will flood the matter-anti-matter nacelles with positive energy and the ship will be destroyed. The result is a tense sequence as Kirk agonises over his decision. It's well edited by film editor James D. Ballas, and made more exciting by simple but effective use of the standard Enterprise control panel beeping noise as Scotty waits for Kirk's order, and by reusing part of Sol Kaplan's score for The Doomsday Machine. The whole sequence is capped cleverly by splitting Chekov's line, “we... made it,” around a shot of the Enterprise zooming towards Andromeda.

Obviously in the end Kirk decides not to blow up the ship, and it's a matter of personal taste as to whether you think his decision was correct or not for the character. As Kirk says in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, “I don't believe in the no-win scenario.Sacrificing the crew and ship would feel like Kirk was admitting there are no other possibilities. It solves the short term problem of what to do with this Kelvan scouting party, but for all Kirk knows there could be others. Or the failure of Rojan's group to report in could prompt the Kelvans to send another scouting party which the Federation don't know about, or worse a full scale invasion fleet. Plus at this point Kirk still has a full compliment of crew, he doesn't know Rojan plans to reduce them, so the humans outnumber the Kelvans, and the odds are in his favour. 

The scope of the story narrows in the later part of act three, and act four. With only four Enterprise crew remaining, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, the solution to the problem of defeating the Kelvans turns out to be tempting them with the pleasures of the flesh. Scotty gets Tomar drunk, Kirk seduces Kelinda, Spock expertly plays on Rojan's jealousy of Kirk and Kelinda, and McCoy starts injecting Hanar with stimulants while pretending to give vitamins to the alien. Amusingly no one seems to remember there's a fifth Kelvan on the bridge, Drea. While Tomar gets drunk, Kelinda gets snogged, Rojan gets furious, and McCoy gets Hanar hepped up on goofballs, Drea sits on the bridge patiently steering the ship on its 300 year journey towards Andromeda. She must be baffled to receive Rojan's order to reverse course. These scenes allow for some very good comedy, especially Scotty's drinking contest with Tomar, but there's something disappointing about By Any Other Name ending up as another story in which clever humans outwit superior beings. It's also not helped by repeating similar themes from Return To Tomorrow, although By Any Other Name was made first and is the superior episode of the two.

If the solution to beating the Kelvans is disappointing By Any Other Name does deserve praise for ultimately being resolved by diplomacy and an offer of assistance; admittedly after a fist fight in one of the recreation rooms. A lesser story might have ended with Kirk hoisting the Kelvans on their own petard, maybe paralysing them, or reducing them to cubes and leaving the problem for the future to deal with. One genuinely nice touch about the ending is that the much sought after neural paralysers end up being a Macguffin, and irrelevant to the resolution, to the extent that Scotty passes out just after getting hold of one. Which is probably just as well. The Enterprise corridors are littered with the shapes of the reduced crew. Imagine Scotty trying to deliver the projector while drunk. Kicking a shape here, tripping on one there, knocking off a corner, cracking another, and then probably falling over and crushing a whole load of them at once. 

Enterprise crew deaths: Just one, poor Yeoman Thompson. 
Running total: 44
Misc: More messing around with the closing credits. This time we have a still not from an episode, or a makeup test but a blooper. As William Blackburn peels the Return To Tomorrow android makeup from his head someone, possibly makeup artist Fred Phillips, says, "well, son, you wanted show business. Goddammit, you got it!" and then walks into shot and helps Blackburn pull off some of the latex."

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