Friday, May 24, 2013

Spock's Brain

The weirdest thing about Spock's Brain is that anyone thought this was the ideal episode to open season three. The second weirdest thing about Spock's Brain is how close the episode comes to working.

To stick with the second point. Yes, the premise is dumb. An alien woman scoops Spock's brain out of his head and runs off with it because they need its processing ability to run their city. Still Star Trek has taken less promising ideas and turned them into workable stories before. Spock must have sex or he'll die; that's Amok Time. Or there's the incident Leonard Nimoy recalls in his memoir I Am Spock. “But that day in 1967, when [D.C. Fontana ] came onto the Star Trek soundstage and told me, “Hey I have an idea for a Spock love story,” I was taken aback. Worse than taken aback – I was frightened... the very phrase “Spock love story” seemed oxymoronic.” “Trust me,” Nimoy reports Fontana saying to him, “there's a way to pull it off properly,” and of course she was right, This Side Of Paradise was the result. 

Taken individually each element of the story feels like it could work. The goofiest idea is the women of Sigma Draconis VI exiling unneeded men to the icy surface of the world. This war of the sexes concept is one other programmes have played with but no one has ever really made it work sucessfully; there's Power the series four episode of Blake's 7, and the Doctor Who story Galaxy 4.

In isolation everything else works. The idea of a brain as the central processing unit of a complex machine can be seen echoed in films like RoboCop. The idea of a pampered civilisation cared for and surrounded by the technology of their ancestors which they no longer understand is straight out of E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (on YouTube you can find BBC2's outstanding 1966 adaptation for the series Out Of The Unknown). The idea of aliens harvesting organs for their own purposes occurs again as the basis of the Vidiians in Star Trek: Voyager.

Gene L. Coon's script (writing under the pseudonym Lee Cronin) characterises the regulars very well. McCoy gets some great lines which Deforest Kelly uses to good effect. Most notably after using The Teacher to gain the necessary surgical knowledge, “a child could do it. A child could do it.” There's the discussion on the bridge as the crew work through the problem of which of the three inhabited planets in the Sigma Draconis system is the correct one. There's also a scene which perfectly captures Kirk as the man who never gives up even in the face of insurmountable odds.

KIRK: Then we'll take him with us.
MCCOY: Take him? Take him where?
KIRK: In search of his brain, Doctor. From what you say, the moment we find it we must restore it to his body, or we lose him.
MCCOY: Jim, where are you going to look? In this whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock's brain? How are you going to find it?
KIRK: I'll find it.
MCCOY: Even if you do, I can't restore it. I don't have the medical technique.
KIRK: It was taken out. It can be put back in.
MCCOY: But I don't know how.
KIRK: The thief that took it has the knowledge. I'll force it out of her.
MCCOY: If you don't find it in twenty four hours, you'd better forget the whole thing, Jim.
KIRK: You and Scotty have Spock ready.

Scrape away the melodramatic dialogue, “in this whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock's brain?” and you'll find a perfect sketch of Kirk's “I don't believe in the no win scenario” personality. He's got two impossible problems to solve, finding Spock's brain and then getting it back inside Spock's head, and his immediate reaction is to solve them one at a time.

Yet, even though that scene captures the essence of Kirk it's next to impossible not read it and die a little inside. Somehow almost everything Gene L. Coon writes turns to ashes when realised on screen. The same is true of Marc Daniels' direction. As in The Doomsday Machine Daniels uses back projection for the bridge viewscreen, but where it was a throwaway moment in that story it's used repeatedly in Spock's Brain. It looks brilliant, and it really adds to the believability of the bridge to see the crew interacting with the images. The best moment may be a single close up of Kirk standing right in front of the screen with stars moving in the background. Unfortunately very little else of Daniels' direction works as intended. The episode has no clarity of tone. Star Trek has done silly stories before, but even in an episode like The Apple it's always clear that Vaal is a threat. Unless he's stopped he can, and will destroy the Enterprise. Here the tone is all over the place, the characters are treating the danger to Spock as real but the editorial style of the story is very arch; as if the audience are meant to be laughing at the characters for taking it so seriously.

Probably the biggest mistake of the episode is bringing the remote controlled body of Spock to Sigma Draconis VI. At various times both Marc Daniels and Robert Justman have gallantly taken responsibility for this idea. Again on paper it makes perfect sense. The episode is called Spock's Brain and Leonard Nimoy is one of the real assets of the series. Why wouldn't you want him on screen as much as possible instead of occasionally cutting back to Spock unconscious in sickbay with Nurse Chapel looking concerned? Unfortunately as with much else in the episode, it's an idea which doesn't work. Mistake one is adding a ticking effect to the remote controlled Spock which is probably meant to suggest the clicking of electrical relays but actually sounds like he is now run by clockwork. Mistake number two is having Spock's body on screen while Kirk is talking to his disembodied brain. Again in theory it's a good idea, that Spock can be physically present and also absent in the same scene, but the result is a slack-faced Nimoy who distracts from the scene precisely because he is motionless or left gazing in the wrong direction. Possibly the silliest decision comes from film editor Bill Brame who occasionally cuts to Spock for reaction shots; pointless when the whole episode is about Spock's body being incapable of reacting. 

It's easy to understand why at the planning stage this episode seemed like a good curtain raiser for the third season. Exactly the same rationale was behind choosing Amok Time to open season two. Spock is Star Trek's breakout character, probably the most identifiable character from the series. Why wouldn't you start a new season with a story based on him? However once the episode was finished it's amazing anyone still wanted to run it first. Spock's Brain was the sixth third season episode made, also available to air would have been Spectre Of The Gun (made first) and The Enterprise Incident (made fourth). Both are superior Spock heavy stories. There's some logic behind holding Spectre Of The Gun back to air near Halloween (what better night to broadcast a story in which Captain Kirk dresses up as a cowboy?) but 31st October 1968 was a Thursday so Spectre Of The Gun ended up showing over a week before on Friday 25th. Far enough away that the Halloween link was vague. The Enterprise Incident would have been a good first episode, but presumably it wasn't wanted because NBC only ever seemed to value stories set on planets and, whatever its faults, Spock's Brain is a planet story. 

It's something of a cliché to hold Spock's Brain up as an example of everything rubbish about Star Trek. Just as it's also something of a cliché to try and be all revisionist and pretend this episode is good. Boringly the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Spock's Brain has too many bad moments to be good, but too many good moments to be truly bad. In the end it fails even to be the worst episode of the third season. 

Enterprise crew deaths: The third season starts with no one dying.
Running total: 46

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