Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Paradise Syndrome

Location filming is always guaranteed to make an episode look lavish, and that's certainly the case with The Paradise Syndrome. The opening 30 second pan across a lake, with tree covered hills in the background and Gerald Fried's specially composed score, could come straight from a nature documentary. With that said, it's surprising the immediate opening shot looks so terrible; a blank white washed out sky and murky contrast making the trees nearly indistinguishable. This must have been a tricky shot to capture because the light levels need to be correct for the end of the pan when the landing party beam in, but the opening picture quality is so ropey it looks more like badly shot stock footage and dilutes the immediate impact.

The story itself has the same problem as A Private Little War. There are lots of intriguing ideas in play around the fringes of the episode but the core story for Kirk is dull; we've seen him have romances which end tragically before. The point of the story is to grant Kirk's wish for a simple life, as is clearly set out in the teaser. 

MCCOY: What's the matter, Jim?
KIRK: What? Oh, nothing. It's just so peaceful, uncomplicated. No problems, no command decisions. Just living.
MCCOY: Typical human reaction to an idyllic natural setting. Back in the twentieth century, we referred to it as the Tahiti Syndrome. It's particularly common to over-pressured leader types, like starship captains.

Unfortunately as soon as Kirk gets inside the mysterious obelisk his mind is wiped, so the person we see running around, living free of complications and command decisions, and falling in love isn't really Kirk. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light hits similar story beats to The Paradise Syndrome but deals more effectively with an Enterprise captain being assimilated into a different culture without using amnesia as a crude plot device. Using amnesia to drive the plot also carries the disadvantage that the audience knows Kirk's memory must be restored at some point. The episode becomes about waiting to see how Kirk's memory comes back and, when it does, what additional plot device will be used to break up the relationship with his Native American wife Miramanee.

Much more interesting is the B story. The Enterprise came to this planet to deflect an asteroid which is due to hit in 59 days. With Kirk missing Spock takes command of the Enterprise and pushes the ship beyond its limits, burning out the star drive. Now running on impulse power the Enterprise spends the next 59 days limping back to the planet, with the asteroid only four hours behind. At this point the two stories come together because Spock believes the alien obelisk holds the key to deflecting the giant rock, and Kirk in his new position as village medicine chief is expected to, “go inside the temple and make the blue flame come out.” 

There's any number of things Margaret Armen's script gets right. It's well paced. The crisis point comes at the end of act three which leaves the whole of act four to wrap up the plot; reuniting Kirk Spock and McCoy, restoring Kirk's memory, getting inside the obelisk, deflecting the asteroid, and mourning the death of Kirk's pregnant wife. The episode takes place over nearly two months giving enough time for Kirk's relationship with Miramanee to develop credibly. The passage of time is also handled very stylishly. Just after Spock has burned out the Enterprise engines McCoy angrily confronts him in Spock's quarters. When McCoy leaves we cut to the events around Kirk's wedding to Miramanee, before returning to the Enterprise. Only three minutes of screen time have passed and when McCoy walks back into Spock's cabin it looks as if he wants to continue the earlier argument, but then it quickly becomes clear 58 days have passed in the space of a single cut. There's also an excellent attempt to explain the number of humanoid aliens and parallel Earth civilisations the Enterprise has encountered. The obelisk is the product of an alien race called The Preservers.

MCCOY: Were you able to make sense our of the symbols? 
SPOCK: Yes. The obelisk is a marker, just as I thought. It was left by a super-race known as the Preservers. They passed through the galaxy rescuing primitive cultures which were in danger of extinction and seeding them, so to speak, where they could live and grow.
MCCOY: I've always wondered why there were so many humanoids scattered through the galaxy.
SPOCK: So have I. Apparently the Preservers account for a number of them.

For everything Margaret Armen's script gets right the problem remains that the B story on the Enterprise is more interesting than the Kirk in love A story. It's a shame because this is one of those episodes where everyone is putting in a lot of effort. The alien obelisk looks fantastic. It's huge. One of the biggest set elements the series has built, even the stone plinth appears to be specially constructed, and on location it looks solid and part of its world. There's also an attempt to do something new with the transporter effect. Standard practice is to cross fade from a freeze frame of the location without the landing party, to a freeze frame of the location with the characters in place and start running the film normally once the transporter effect has finished. This can be seen when the landing party arrive at the start of the episode. Watch one of the trees in the background, the branches are blowing in the wind and then freeze, and then fade to a slightly different position before starting to move again. This almost unnoticeable when the motion of the background is very slight, but at the end of the episode when tree branches are thrashing around it would be really obvious. It's not clear how the effect is achieved but at the end of the episode as Spock and McCoy, and later Nurse Chapel, beam into the storm the background stays in motion. In both cases the scene carefully cuts away from the materialisation effect before it is complete, so there's obviously some editing slight of hand taking place.

It's odd to realise how the asteroid impact/deflection story is way ahead of its time. It's taken for granted now that Earth is the subject of regular impacts but Luis and Walter Alvarez's mass extinction theory which really brought this idea into the public domain was not proposed until 1980. The Paradise Syndrome pre-dates all the best known fiction on the subject; the Sean Connery film Meteor was released in 1980; Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven's novel Lucifer's Hammer, 1977; Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, 1972. Some idea of how unfamiliar this idea must have been for the contemporary audience can be seen in this exchange.

SPOCK: Doctor, that asteroid is almost as large as your Earth's moon. Far enough away, the angle necessary to divert it enough to avoid destruction is minute, but as the asteroid approaches this planet, the angle becomes so great that even the power of a starship 
MCCOY: The devil with an asteroid! It won't get here for two months, Spock!
SPOCK: If we arrive at the deflection point in time, it may not get here at all.
MCCOY: In the meantime, what about Jim?
SPOCK: Once the asteroid has been diverted, we'll return here and resume the search.
MCCOY: That may be hours from now. He may be injured or dying.
SPOCK: [picks up two stones] Doctor, assume this is the planet we're on. This is the approaching asteroid. If we don't get to that deflection point in time, it will become physically impossible to divert this asteroid. In that case, everyone on this planet will die, including the captain.
MCCOY: Can a few more minutes matter, Spock?
SPOCK: In the time it's taken me to explain the problem, the asteroid has moved from here to here. The longer we delay, the less the likelihood of being able to divert it. Beam us up, Mister Scott.

How often has Star Trek stopped to explain how tractor beams work? Or time travel; or warp drive; or phasers; or artificial gravity? These are all science fiction concepts familiar to the audience through films or other television programmes. But in 1968 something as simple as the mechanics of diverting an asteroid is new enough to require an explanation for the audience.

Margaret Armen's inspiration for the asteroid impact plot may have come from a 1967 Time Magazine article Systems Engineering: Avoiding an Asteroid. The article was based on a student project set by MIT Professor Paul Sandorff. His systems engineering students were asked to devise a plan to destroy the asteroid Icarus; assuming the asteroid was on a collision course with Earth. Alternatively Margaret Armen may have watched a repeat of The Wandering Asteroid, an episode of 1963 British puppet series Space Patrol. This series was definitely shown in some American television markets; Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has said it was his favourite series growing up in New Jersey. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None again.
Running total: 46

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