Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Omega Glory

For 35 minutes The Omega Glory plods along before abruptly taking the end of act three turning to Crazy Town. This is the episode where the savage Yangs of planet Omega IV are revealed to be misunderstood Yankees who have been engaged in a war with the Kohms (Communists, do you see?). This is the episode where the Yangs recite a corrupted version of the Pledge of Allegiance, complete with hand on heart gesture. This is the episode where the Yang's leather bound Bible, with Holy Bible written on the front, contains a picture of the Devil looking uncannily like Mr. Spock. This is the episode where Captain Kirk reads aloud from the Yangs' copy of the Preamble to the United States Constitution (which also establishes that the Yangs' country was called The United States because the document is perfectly readable on screen). This is the episode where the Yangs of the United States of Omega IV have the same flag as Earth's United States of America. This is also the episode where this astonishing duplication of Earth's history and artefacts is never explained.

The split between acts one to three and act four of The Omega Glory is so extreme it's almost two different episodes. The first two thirds of the story are A Private Little War but with the focus of the storytelling shifted. A Private Little War is about Kirk attempting to find the best way to intervene in the Klingon driven conflict between the hill people and the villagers. The Omega Glory is about Kirk attempting to find the best way to deal with rogue starship captain Ron Tracey who has gone native and spent the last six months directly helping the Kohms in their war with the Yangs. A similar shifting of the story focus can be seen between Obsession and The Doomsday Machine where Obsession is about Kirk's determination to hunt down and kill the cloud vampire at all costs, and The Doomsday Machine is about Kirk dealing with Commodore Decker who is determined to hunt down and kill the planet killer at all costs.

The teaser and opening act form the strongest part of the episode. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lieutenant Galloway investigate the mystery of the abandoned USS Exeter. Subdued lighting, and a simple echo effect sells the idea that these familiar sets are actually a different starship. These sequences are atmospheric and the mystery of what has happened to the Exeter's crew is well handled. The empty crew uniforms and piles of crystals are instantly reminiscent of the previous episode By Any Other Name, and the Kelvan's ability to distil bodies down to crystal-like shapes. It would be interesting to know if any contemporary viewers jumped to the not unreasonable conclusion that aliens were responsible. After finding a message from the Exeter's medical officer the landing party make haste to the surface of the planet Omega IV where they meet the Exeter Captain Ron Tracey, and learn they are infected by a virus held in check by some unknown environmental factor. The landing party can never leave Omega IV.

Gradually the story gets less interesting. Kirk has a fist fight with Ron Tracey, then he has a fist fight with Cloud William leader of the Yangs, then he has another fist fight with Tracey. So many different plot strands are picked up and discarded it's difficult to tell what the story is about. There is the empty starship, the mystery of the vanished Exeter crew, the virus, the hunt for a cure, the rogue starship commander gone native, the post-apocalyptic battle between two tribes, the search for the fountain of youth, and the 'savage' Yangs and 'civilised' Kohms. More frustrating is the indifferent way these plots are resolved. The apparently fatal virus is contracted by beaming down to Omega IV, and then cured by hanging around on Omega VI a bit longer. The natives of Omega IV live for thousands of years and Ron Tracey's motivation is provided by his search for the environmental factor responsible. Until it's revealed there is no fountain of youth. People on Omega IV just live longer. The war between the Yangs and the Kohms ends off screen. All the story lines which run across the first three acts are resolved before act three ends which again gives the impression of two separate episodes crushed into one 48 minute slot.

It's the performances which hold the attention. Particularly Morgan Woodward as rogue captain and sole survivor of the USS Exeter, Ron Tracey. He sells the idea of the Yang Kohm war ending off screen. “They sacrificed hundreds just to draw us out in the open. And then they came, and they came. We drained four of our phasers, and they still came. We killed thousands and they still came.” In fact all three actors in this scene turn in terrific performances, Woodward, William Shatner, and Deforest Kelly; Spock is unconscious at this point so Leonard Nimoy gets to sit this one out.

MCCOY: He'll live, but I'll have to get him to better facilities than this.
TRACEY: Impossible! You can't carry the disease up to the ship with you.
MCCOY: He's fully immunised now. We all are.
KIRK: We can beam up at any time. Any of us.
TRACEY: You've isolated the serum?
KIRK: There's no serum! There are no miracles! There's no immortality here! All this is for nothing!
TRACEY: Explain it to him, Doctor.
MCCOY: Leave medicine to medical men, Captain. You found no fountain of youth here. People live longer here now because it's natural for them to.
TRACEY: Outside. Or I'll burn down both your friends now.

William Shatner's furious delivery of “there's no serum..” is perfect. Suddenly Kirk has a depth of anger we've not seen before, and Deforest Kelly is just as good on “leave medicine to medical men...” All three actors are working really well together and the performances mesh perfectly.

On the other side of the camera Jerry Finnerman's lighting also adds a lot of atmosphere. He uses shadows very well, and his best moment comes during Woodward's “ they sacrificed hundreds...” speech. Finnerman keeps Woodwards face and body in shadow but his white hair is illuminated from behind and looks like a crazed halo. Director
Vincent McEveety is also trying to keep scenes visually interesting, he's fond of using a quick zoom to add impact to a shot.

Then at the end of act three a Yang warrior carries in the United States flag, accompanied on the soundtrack by The Star-Spangled Banner. Suddenly the rest of the episode is utterly overshadowed. It doesn't matter if this is the worst Star Trek episode ever or the greatest because this is the episode in which the aliens have the United States flag and it's never explained! It's like coming home and finding the Mona Lisa on your living room wall. You're not going to stand there talking about the composition of the painting, or use of symbolism, or the enigmatic smile. You are just going to wonder how the hell the Mona Lisa ended up on your living room wall.

First season story Miri (ironically also directed by Vincent McEveety) suffers from the same problem. The episode begins with the Enterprise discovering a world exactly like Earth. An exact duplicate. As Kirk says, “not the Earth, another Earth.” The viewer sits patiently waiting for an explanation which never comes. The “another Earth” material is just there to hook the viewer. After that Miri's writer Adrian Spies is confident his plot about the landing party catching a disease and meeting kids gone wild will so grab the viewer's imagination that they will forget about the duplicate Earth. This proves not to be the case. The episode is caught in a trap of its own making. The script has established Miri's world looks like Earth so every time the episode cuts back to the Enterprise in orbit the viewers are reminded of the lack of a solution to the mystery.

Worse, not attempting even to suggest a solution, makes the Enterprise crew look like idiots with no intellectual curiosity. At the start of Miri everyone is amazed by this cosmic coincidence. By the end, because the writer doesn't want to draw attention to his lack of an explanation, no one mentions it. So apparently the Enterprise crew have forgotten about the duplicate Earth even if the audience hasn't. Kirk makes a weak joke about not dating older women, and the Enterprise warps out of orbit. Kirk says he's contacted, “Space Central,” who will send teachers and advisers to Miri's world, but not scientists. No one suggests sticking around and investigating. Why are these people even in space?

The same problem affects The Omega Glory. Once Kirk has taught Cloud William the true meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution the episode is over. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were amazed when the Yang soldier walked in carrying Old Glory, but they're over that now and they leave. The anthology nature of Star Trek means the events on Omega IV are forgotten. On Omega IV the Kohms (and presumably the Yangs) live for at least 1000 years. For Cloud William to mangle the preamble as he does (he says, “ee'dplebnista norkohn forkohn perfectunun” in place of “we, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union”) it must have been passed down through generations, so Omega IV had the flag, and the pledge, and the Constitution of the United States even before the United States existed on Earth. You can understand why no one thought any of this was worth investigating.

Another reason why act four totally overshadows the previous three acts is because the end of act three ad break is like a fault line running across the episode. Before that the story is about dealing with Captain Ron Tracey, afterwards it's about the correct way to treat the Yang's holy artefacts. The whole story is suddenly distorted. The appearance of the flag of the United States of Omega IV isn't a plot twist it's the moment the story wrenches out of shape. By Any Other Name is about the conflict between the Enterprise crew and the Kelvans. The location of the story shifts from planet, to Enterprise, to intergalactic space but the story is always about that conflict. The climax of the episode is the resolution of the conflict between the two sides. The Doomsday Machine is about Commodore Decker's obsessive need to destroy the planet killer, when Decker sacrifices himself his death provides Kirk with the information needed to destroy the planet killer at the climax of the story. The climax of The Omega Glory is Kirk reading aloud the Preamble to the United States Constitution and telling the Yangs they must also apply its principles to the Kohms, but the Yang's holy artefacts were only revealed ten minutes ago; literally in this case, since the last act of The Omega Glory appears to play out in real time.

Gene Roddenberry wants to tell a story about symbols and what happens when the symbols are valued but the philosophy and meaning behind them is misunderstood, or forgotten. That's a good starting point for a story, and tying that story on to the cultural artefacts of America is a bold move. The result is a story which warns Americans that saluting the flag, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is pointless without also allowing the principles they represent to apply to everyone. 

Unfortunately a story like that doesn't really fit the Star Trek format. It might work for The Twilight Zone where the story could be set in a post-apocalypse America but Star Trek never goes to Earth so immediately the story has to be set on an alien world. Then you have the problem of getting the Enterprise crew involved, and then somehow you have to get Kirk to remain and stay close to the heart of the action so he can be there for the denouement. Gradually the story starts to accrete round the original idea and becomes more and more cumbersome. Which is why The Omega Glory consists of so many different plot strands. Plus for the story to work as television it must be exciting and interesting on a visual level. It would make for a more sensible episode if the Yangs had their own flag and constitution. Kirk could explain how they've forgotten the true meaning of their artefacts, and the values of their ancestors, and draw the comparison with the United States. Then once the episode is done the landing party can beam back to the Enterprise and say, “Yangs and Kohms, I wonder,” and everyone can scratch their chins and look thoughtful. However having someone say, “that flag.... why it's an allegory for the United States flag,” is no match for the visual impact of actually having an alien walk in carrying the Stars and Stripes. Which is of course where we came in. 

Enterprise crew deaths: Lieutenant Galloway, vaporised by Captain Tracey.
Running total: 45

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