Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Enterprise Incident

On 23rd January 1968 the USS Pueblo was boarded and captured by North Korean soldiers. The ship had been monitoring Soviet Union naval activity and gathering signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea. The United States maintained the USS Pueblo had always remained in international waters while North Korea claimed the ship had violated its territory. For D.C. Fontana this was the inspiration for the story which became The Enterprise Incident. Star Trek has dealt with contemporary issues before but this is bold even by their standards. The Pueblo incident, as it has become known, bubbled away through 1968 as the script was written, filmed, and broadcast. The crew were finally released from North Korea on 23rd December 1968, some three months after The Enterprise Incident was first aired.

The main strength of The Enterprise Incident is that the plot barrels forwards at top speed. By the end of the teaser the Enterprise is surrounded by Romulan ships, then act one ends with Spock betraying Kirk, act two with Kirk being pronounced dead, and act three with Scotty in a race against time to install the stolen cloaking device on the Enterprise. There's very little slack in the script. Unlike the act one Enterprise bridge scenes in Spock's Brain where the bridge crew work through the problem of locating Spock's purloined organ; those scenes don't do anything except pad out the running time to the required length. Although it's great to see the bridge crew working as a team it's the work of the actors, and Marc Daniels inspired decision to use back projection for the bridge viewscreen, which makes those bridge scenes interesting. In The Enterprise Incident each time the viewer thinks they've got a handle on the plot something new is thrown into the mix. The most obvious example being the act three reveal that this is all a big bluff to steal the new improved Romulan cloaking device. Then Kirk is disguised as a Romulan, and the episode turns into something more like Mission: Impossible; a spy/caper story in space.

The big advantage of keeping the plot moving like this is it stops the viewer noticing how conveniently everything falls into place. Kirk and Spock are consistently insanely lucky. Under orders from the Federation to steal a cloaking device they fly into Romulan space and are intercepted by a ship which has exactly what they need. Rather than destroy the Enterprise, “standard Romulan procedure” according to Spock, the Romulans decide the ship would make a great prize and invite Kirk and Spock across to the flagship. The Romulan commander is a woman who is attracted to Spock, which gives him a chance to distract her. When Spock “kills” Kirk his body is returned to the Enterprise before Spock's nerve pinch wears off. When the theft of the cloaking device is noticed the Romulan commander delays any action for 20 minutes while she takes Spock's confession, giving Scotty time to fit the device on the Enterprise, and Chekov time to locate Spock with the sensors. There's nothing wrong with having a character saved by a moment of luck but there's only so long a script can rely on coincidence before it starts to feel contrived, and as The Enterprise Incident moves into act four it does feel as if the coincidences mount up too much.

Worse, as the coincidences pile up it makes the viewer more sceptical and less willing to allow the story the required suspension of disbelief. Essentially it encourages them to actively pick holes in the story, and there do seem to be plenty to find. It sure is lucky that the Romulan cloaking device is compatible with the Enterprise systems. Just as it sure is lucky the Romulans don't search Spock and find the hidden communicator he is carrying. Just as it sure is lucky the Romulans notice Spock's transmissions but don't notice Kirk beaming over from, and back to, the Enterprise. Just as it sure is lucky the Romulans bring Kirk and Spock onto their ship. It would have wrecked Kirk's plan if the Romulans had kept everyone on board the Enterprise. The Enterprise Incident is a good script, but there's just too much narrative cheating for it to ever be great.

Another strength of The Enterprise Incident is that it paints the Federation with a little more grey than we normally see. The Federation is prepared to use sneaky and underhand tactics to gain an advantage and by ordering the Enterprise into Romulan space on a spying mission the Federation risks the crew of the Enterprise and, more seriously, war with the Romulans. This acknowledgement that sometimes even the good guys have to use morally dubious methods is a sign of maturity not always seen in Star Trek. Standard practice is simply to not discuss the subject. It's just taken as read that the Federation is a force for good. Which is fine until something comes along which makes the Federation look bad. How many lousy Federation officials have we met? Or insane starship captains?

At its worst Star Trek will assume that anything its heroes do must be right, simply because they are the heroes and therefore incapable of doing anything wrong (and this is true of any television series not just Star Trek). Look at The Apple where Kirk's destruction of Vaal is presented as heroic because now the Feeders of Vaal can kiss and have babies; never mind that the entire planetary population is 15 people and their world is a lethal death trap. Or compare the way the Terran Empire's threatened standard procedure (“phaser barrage on Halkan cities”) is presented as evil in Mirror, Mirror but Kirk's threat to use Starfleet General Order 24 (“the entire inhabited surface of your planet will be destroyed”) is a heroic way to force Anan 7 to listen in A Taste Of Armageddon.

This pragmatic Federation feels more realistic. A return to the complexities of episodes like
Errand Of Mercy where every decision Kirk makes is for the right ethical reasons, but at the end of the story he is on the side arguing for war. What's particularly pleasing is that none of the characters are used to justify the Federation's actions. There is no The Apple style speech telling us that the Romulans are so bad that anything the Federation does against them is justified. Instead Kirk and Spock are carrying out orders they have been given as part of what seems to be routine toing and froing of secrets between the Federation and Romulans and, as Spock acknowledges at the end of the episode, he and Kirk went to all that effort and exposed themselves to danger for what was probably only a short term gain. “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all.”

Enterprise crew deaths: None again, Kirk's risky plan works perfectly.
Running total: 46

No comments:

Post a Comment