Monday, June 24, 2013

Is There In Truth No Beauty?

Each of the three core Star Trek directors had their own speciality. Marc Daniels' strength was making the most of the Enterprise sets, producing his best work on bottle shows like The Doomsday Machine, or Mirror, Mirror. Joseph Pevney was great at big set piece stories, ones with lots of location shooting like Arena, but he also had an excellent eye for composing individual shots as in Amok Time and the scene where Spock tries to explain the pon farr to Kirk (“The birds and the bees are not Vulcans, Captain”).

The Star Trek production team seem to have viewed Ralph Senensky as the actor's director and tended to give him scripts with lots of character moments; This Side Of Paradise and Metamorphosis. He also has an astonishingly good sense of cinematography. In script terms Metamorphosis is frankly dull. Like This Side Of Paradise it's a love story between two mismatched people but Cochrane and the Companion are no Spock and Leila. However regardless of the faults of the script the finished episode looks stunning and judged on its visuals alone the story would be one of Star Trek's ten best. Ralph Senensky's real strength appears to have been in inspiring the people around him to do their best work; in the case of Metamorphosis the art director Matt Jefferies, and director of photography Jerry Finnerman.

What's true for Metamorphosis is also true for Is There In Truth No Beauty? The episode looks stunning and there's a constant sense that Ralph Senensky is always looking for a more interesting angle. Most notably with his and Jerry Finnerman's use of a 9mm fish-eye lens to capture point of view insanity shots. However where Metamorphosis was dull, Is There In Truth No Beauty? is a much better paced story. Like The Enterprise Incident it is full of plot and keeps the attention of the viewer by constantly moving the story in new directions. Ultimately Is There In Truth No Beauty? is a better episode than The Enterprise Incident because the story is much neater. Where The Enterprise Incident ends up being overbalanced by the weight of too many coincidences, Is There In Truth No Beauty? carefully sets up its story. If Jean Lisette Aroeste's script has a fault it's a little predictable in places. In the opening Captain's log when the Medusians are described as, “beings who are formless, so utterly hideous that the sight of a Medusan brings total madness to any human who sees one,” it is immediately apparent that someone is going to see one and be driven insane. Likewise it's clear Ambassador Kollos' navigation skills will be required when Kirk later asks Miranda Jones, “do you feel any way may be found to employ Medusan navigators on starships? It would certainly solve many of our navigational problems.” One surprise the script sucessfully pulls off is the end of act three moment when Spock accidentally catches sight of the Medusan. Early on it is established that Miranda Jones is jealous of Spock's superior ability to mind meld with Kollos but it remains unclear if Spock/Kollos accidentally forgets to wear the visor when Kollos returns to his box or if, as Kirk later accuses Jones, she deliberately made him forget.

The cast are in fine form, and there are two excellent guest stars. Most obviously Diana Muldaur, back again after appearing in the earlier Ralph Senensky directed episode Return To Tomorrow. She makes Miranda Jones spiky and unpleasant without being irremediable. For half the episode Diana Muldaur is given the extremely difficult task of playing a blind character without giving away that her character is blind; her condition is not revealed until act three. The odd vulnerability Diana Muldaur succeeds in giving Miranda Jones is an accomplished piece of acting. More easy to overlook is David Frankham as Larry Marvick who makes the most of a smaller role. his sweaty hysteria once Marvick goes mad is really well done, especially his delivery of the oddly creepy line, “We mustn't sleep! They come in your dreams! That's the worst! They suffocate in your dreams!”
The two behind the scenes stars of the episode are film editor Fabian Tordjmann and George Duning who composed the additional music. Fabian Tordjmann's editing work on the episode is tremendous. Watch the scene where Larry Marvick is driven mad by Ambassador Kollos. In the 30 seconds between the slow zoom to Kollos' container and the shot of Miranda Jones sitting in her cabin there are something like 20 cuts, but the sequence is more than just simple rapid cutting. Everything works together to create a sense of dislocation; the lurid green light; the headache inducing animation; and cutting around within a single shot so that, for example, we see Larry Marvick twist in agony, before Fabian Tordjmann cuts back to the beginning of the shot and then suddenly to the end, so that Marvick appears to jerk around the frame as if time is out of joint. Played over the top of this is George Duning's frantic score. The discordant trumpet stabs and electric organ would sound ridiculous on any other episode, but perfectly fit the mood and pace of Is There In Truth No Beauty?

Act two encapsulates why Is There In Truth No Beauty? works as well as it does. Running at a brisk six minutes the pace never lets up and showcases the work of Ralph Senensky, Fabian Tordjmann, Jerry Finnerman, George Duning, and the cast. The act begins with a tracking shot following the now insane Larry Marvick as he runs from the Medusan Ambassador's quarters to a turbo elevator, and then cuts between Marvick heading to engineering with, first, Miranda Jones investigating the Ambassador's cabin, and then Kirk, Spock, McCoy and two security guards walking down the same corridor with the camera tracking backwards. There is no dialogue for the first minute of the act, but the mood is captured by the camera movement in the shots used, Duning's score, and the body language of the actors; David Frankham, distressed and disoriented; Diana Muldaur hesitant and unsure; and Kirk and the security team purposeful.

At this point I'm going to have to politely disagree with Ralph Senensky. Over on his blog he describes when he first saw the episode on television, “I was appalled. Who had ordered the horror film flickering green light and the comic strip animation?” I can understand why he feels they are an unnecessary addition to his director's cut. His opinion is that they represent a “vulgarizing technique [that] had never intruded into STAR TREK before." The green light and animation are b-movie techniques but I don't think Star Trek should be above using these techniques, and I also think they are an important part of why the episode works. The green light and animation give the audience a sense of something incomprehensible in the Ambassador's container. This is not just some rubber suited monster but literally something indescribable which the human mind cannot cope with, and it's important to have this conveyed with a visual cue.

Enterprise crew deaths: None this week. Although recurring extra Billy Blackburn does get punched in the face by the insane Larry Marvick.
Running total: 48.

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