Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Gamesters of Triskelion

Written down The Gamesters Of Triskelion looks like it should be the worst ever episode of Star Trek. Kirk, Chekov, and Uhura are kidnapped, and forced to fight for the entertainment of multi-coloured brains. The story is painfully generic, change the character names and this could easily be Blake's 7, or Battlestar Galactica. The message is trite, “slavery is bad” (not good like you thought). The peril is reduced to the bare minimum, and no one is likely to be surprised when after 47 minutes the Enterprise crew do escape from their seemingly hopeless situation. Also, William Shatner spends far too much of the episode shirtless.  

If those reasons aren't enough to send The Gamesters Of Triskelion to the bottom of the quality pile then it's not difficult to supply more. The woodenness of Angelique Pettyjohn the actress playing Kirk's drill thrall Shahna. While there's something endearing about the way she always stands hands on hips, she has essentially mistaken being expressionless for being stoic; in fact her performance goes a long way towards demonstrating how unbearable Spock's lack of emotion could have been in the hands of a lesser actor. Then there is the moment when Lars tries to force himself on Uhura at the end of act one. Not the attempted rape itself which is a valid way to show the unpleasant brutality of life on Triskelion, but what tips the moment into exploitation is the way it is used to end act one. Will Uhura be raped? Stay tuned to find out! Then there's the awkward gear change into the comedy moment three minutes later when Chekov has to deal with the unwanted advances from Tamoon. Complete with ironic 'sexy music' as the yellow-skinned and deep voiced female tries to hit on him.

Characters have names like Galt, Tamoon, and Kloog. There are horrible made up sci-fi terms like master thrall, collars of obedience, and quatloos, the currency of the providers. There's a lengthy sequence where Kirk is whipped, and another where he seduces Shahna by talking to her about kissing and love, “the most important thing on Earth.” It's as if writer Margaret Armen was given a big book of science-fiction clich├ęs and somehow mistook it for a to-do list.

Yet The Gamesters Of Triskelion is a long way from being the worst episode ever. It's certainly not good, but the end result is one of those episodes often described as a guilty pleasure, or so bad it's good; a useful critical shorthand for anyone who likes something but can't quite put their finger on why. It's easy to say why The Gamesters Of Triskelion isn't good. Any of the reasons listed above will do, and someone who hates the episode will be able to supply lots more. What's trickier is explaining why it isn't as bad as The Apple, or this blog's whipping boy The Alternative Factor.

The strange thing about The Alternative Factor is that everybody concerned seems to have given up simultaneously. As if all the accumulated stress of making the whole Star Trek series was dumped on this one episode.” That's how this blog described The Alternative Factor. The Gamesters Of Triskelion and The Alternative Factor are made at roughly the same points in their respective seasons (The Gamesters Of Triskelion is the 17th episode of the second season, The Alternative Factor is the 20th episode of the first) but what separates the two is that The Gamesters Of Triskelion still has a spark of life. The Alternative Factor looks like an episode made by an exhausted production team. The Gamesters Of Triskelion is an episode made by a team who are still trying.

This is an episode packed with small details. Lars reaches over to Chekov's belt and grabs his phaser while Chekov is distracted by Galt, the master thrall, appearing out of thin air. Kirk, Chekov, and Uhura make an escape attempt when first taken to their cells. The attempt is thwarted by Galt and his telepathic activation of the collars of obedience the trio have been forced to wear. What's nice is the way none of the escorting thralls make any move to block the escape. They simply stand and wait for Galt to take care of it, which demonstrates how utterly conditioned the thralls are to their life on Triskelion, and also shows the lack of initiative which makes the providers sceptical about
the thralls ability to govern themselves. Once Kirk has fought Kloog, and the providers start bidding on the new arrivals, Chekov walks over to stand next to Kirk. Tamoon, who was next to Chekov, does this weird, floating hand gesture. As if she now knows Chekov will not be “selected” for her, and is waving him goodbye. Best of all may be the moment when Galt appears just after Kirk has snogged Shahna. At the point where Galt appears she sits rigid with embarrassment, like a naughty schoolgirl caught doing something inappropriate by the headmaster. She uncrosses her legs, straightens her back, puts her hands flat on the floor, and looks down. Then when Galt says, “ there will be no punishment,” she looks up as if she can't believe what she is hearing.

Obviously small details are not enough to salvage a script. It takes more than some nice background action to do that. Still, the actors are thinking about their characters and how they should be reacting. The actors are putting in some effort, not just coming in to say their lines, and hit their marks. We are a long way from The Alternative Factor where McCoy's commitment to patient safety is so low he allows Lazarus to wander out of sickbay, and justifies his lack of care to Kirk with the line, “ I don't know, Jim. This is a big ship. I'm just a country doctor.”

New director Gene Nelson might be responsible for the attention paid to the actors' performances. He's certainly putting in a lot of effort elsewhere. He makes interesting use of a hand held camera, especially in the escape attempt sequence when the cameraman rushes from a close-up of Kirk's face, to Chekov in one unbroken shot. There's also a lovely moment of direction during this exchange.

MCCOY: ...It's still a fancy way of saying that you're playing a hunch. well, my hunch is that they're back on Gamma Two dead or alive and I still want another search.
SCOTT: Doctor McCoy speaks for me, too, sir.
SPOCK: I see. Gentlemen, I am in command of this vessel, and we shall continue on our present course. Unless it is your intention to declare a mutiny.
SCOTT: Mister Spock!
MCCOY: Who said anything about a mutiny, you stubborn, pointed-eared...

On screen the line appears like this

[A three shot, Spock seated in the captain's chair in the foreground, McCoy standing facing him in the middle, and Scotty standing at the back].
SPOCK: I see. [He pauses, stands, and walks to stand next to Scotty]. Gentlemen, I am in command of this vessel, and we shall continue on our present course. Unless [he lowers lowers his voice and leans forward, this action makes Scotty, and McCoy lean forwards as well; at the same time the camera zooms in] it is your intention to declare a mutiny.
SCOTT; Mister Spock!
[the camera zooms out, and the three straighten up]

The simple act of zooming the shot, and getting Nimoy to lower his voice, makes the routine Spock/McCoy bickering appear conspiratorial, and intimate, as if the audience is eavesdropping. This exchange, in fact nearly the whole of the scene, is played as another unbroken hand held camera shot which starts with an interesting, and unusual, angle on the big yellow dial between the helmsman and navigator chairs. Sadly, this episode seems to have been Gene Nelson's only work on Star Trek, it would have been great to see what he could do with a different script.

Also working hard is James D. Ballas, the film editor, who drops a little humour into the editing via some jump cuts. Galt's line to Kirk, “I have been sent to welcome you,” is immediately followed by a shot of Shatner gurning as Kloog grips him by the throat, and forces him into a collar of obedience. Ballas also cuts together an excellent sequence of shots for Kirk, Chekov, and Uhura's abortive escape attempt. A quick cut sequence showing a big close-up of Kirk, then Chekov, then Kirk again pretending to walk into the cell before he wallops Kloog, and the three begin to run. Then we cut to Galt, whose eyes glow, and we immediately cut to another big close-up of Kirk clutching his throat, his eyes bulging, as Uhura screams, and the three fall to the floor.

Also worth praising is the simple ruin set used for Kirk and Shahna's training run. It would have been easy to cut this set to save money. The scene which takes place here could have played out largely unaltered on the main arena set. It's really pleasing that no one did cut the set, and Walter M. Jefferies was able to reuse the ruins from The Man Trap. Getting away from the other Triskelion sets, even for a little while, opens the whole episode up, and makes Triskelion feel a little more like a real world. Also helping with the world building is the use of an Andorian costume during the final fight. Like the ruin set it would have been easy to have replaced the Andorian with something requiring less time consuming make-up, but the production team put in that little extra effort, and used a familiar alien. The presence of the Andorian is never commented on, but just the fact that he is there implies the providers have been snatching races from across the Star Trek universe.

The Changeling feels like the closest relative to The Gamesters Of Triskelion. Both episodes have quite simple plots, and a single threat is used to push the narrative through to the finale; Nomad in The Changeling, and the threat to Kirk of spending the rest of his life as a thrall in The Gamesters Of Triskelion. Compared to some of the stories Star Trek has delivered recently The Changeling and The Gamesters Of Triskelion both feel narratively pared down. There are no parallel story lines as in The Trouble With Tribbles. No attempt to create new back story, as was done to Kirk in Obsession. There's not even an audacious plot twist like the Jack the Ripper reveal of Wolf In The Fold. John Meredyth Lucas who wrote The Changeling, and produced The Gamesters Of Triskelion, is the connection between the two stories.

Gene L. Coon's last story as producer will be the as yet unbroadcast Bread And Circuses. The Gamesters Of Triskelion is John Meredyth Lucas' second broadcast story as producer (the first was the Spock centred Journey To Babel which has much more the feel of a Gene L. Coon episode). From here on in there is a new producer in charge, and it remains to be seen how this new order will change things.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. After the events of Obsession, it's been a nice couple of quiet weeks for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 43

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Trouble With Tribbles

The Trouble With Tribbles must be Star Trek's most well documented episode. Writer David Gerrold wrote a book covering the story's development from outline to revised final draft (at least from memory that's what the book does, my copy now starts on page 55 for some reason). In the book Gerrold discusses what works, and what doesn't, and is commendably honest about the accidental resemblance of tribbles to the Martian Flat Cats from the Robert Heinlein book The Rolling Stones.

Gerrold goes into such a level of detail it's actually a bit awkward to review the episode. There's not much left to mention. The book talks about everything from points of continuity to story logic; such as Klingon secret agent Darvin, and his inability to withstand even the most minor questioning. Even the editing gets mentioned, including a moment during Captain Koloth's line, “we Klingons are not as luxury-minded as you Earthers. We do not equip our ships with, how shall I say it, non-essentials.” As William Campbell says, “non-essentials,” he uses his hands to trace a womanly hourglass shape in front of him. The footage is edited to cut right through the unscripted gesture, and does a good job of making it almost indistinguishable on screen. David Gerrold puts this down to badly timed editing, but the choice of shots used seems so deliberate it's tempting to wonder if someone on the production team wanted to remove this action as much as possible from the final episode. William Shatner has Kirk react to the gesture by giving a little chuckle. With the gesture present Kirk is laughing with Koloth, as if he sympathises over the lack of feminine company, with the gesture obscured he's laughing at the Klingons and their spartan lifestyle. Could someone on the production team have not wanted Kirk to get too chummy with the enemy?

Something else Gerrold mentions is the reaction to the episode; both from the cast and the viewers. There is no false modesty here, understandable when your first professional sale is nominated for a Hugo award, but the book is laced with enough self-deprecating humour to avoid becoming unbearable. Unsurprisingly the cast loved the script. The results are there on screen. As with
This Side Of Paradise, Amok Time, or Mirror, Mirror the cast are visibly enjoying coming to work and that enjoyment is reflected in their performances. William Campbell is back, after his season one performance as Trelane in The Squire Of Gothos. He joins Roger C. Carmel and Mark Leonard in the very small group of actors who have returned to the series. Campbell is great, it's a more reined in performance than Trelane but the energy and enthusiasm are still present. He puffs out his chest, and sticks out his chin, and often stands hands on hips. He's every inch the proud and arrogant Klingon so it's a surprise to see, in long shots, how skinny Campbell is; there's almost nothing to him.

So everybody likes The Trouble With Tribbles. Everybody except associate producer Robert Justman. He says, in the book Inside Star Trek, “although the concept was amusing, the story was just too cute. I feared that... it would lead to a loss of believability. Kirk, Spock, and the others were real people, and real people just did not behave that way; our finely drawn characters should never parody themselves.”

Justman's concerns about the characters are justified. Look at the moment when McCoy comes in at the end of the storage compartment scene. He says, “Jim, I think I've got it. All we have to do is quit feeding them. We quit feeding them, they stop breeding.” It's a great line, made better by Kirk's, “now he tells me,” response from the tribble pile, but it's a moment of pure sitcom. Apparently McCoy is bursting to tell Kirk the news of his discovery. It's so urgent he's come hot foot all the way from his lab on the Enterprise. He's in such a hurry that he's still carrying a tribble in each hand. He's so distracted by his discovery he doesn't even react to the sight of Kirk buried up to his chest in a pile of tribbles.

Why does McCoy enter the scene at that point? It's because it's the best place in the script for McCoy's joke, and he needs to be there with a medical scanner to instantly diagnose the tribbles as dying. This is what Justman means about the characters becoming parodies. They stop behaving like people and become articulate props, moving around the sets to make scenes work, and to keep the plot moving forwards. It's similar to a scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit when Roger and Eddie are handcuffed together.

EDDIE VALIANT: You mean you could've taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?
ROGER RABBIT: No, not at any time, only when it was funny.

KIRK: Bones, couldn't you have told me about not feeding the tribbles at any time?
MCCOY: No Jim, not at any time, only when it was funny.

Fortunately audiences tend to be more tolerant of things like this in a comedy. So the moment with McCoy fits perfectly into the tone, and pace, of the story. That's not to say pitching a story as a comedy will give a writer a free pass, nothing will sour an audience more quickly than a bad comedy, but it stands out less than the moment in The Alternative Factor when the galaxy spanning scale of the, “cosmic winking out,” is dialled back to nothing because Kirk can't realise there is more than one Lazarus until act four. Or when Doctor Adams is suddenly revealed as the baddie in Dagger Of The Mind because it's the end of act three, and the story needs an antagonist, and Adams is the only suitable character.

Minor gripes aside this is a solid script. A lot of attention has been paid to the structure. The two plot lines, tribbles and Klingons, parallel each other nicely until the climax when the tribbles accidentally reveal Darvin's true nature. Seinfeld was renowned for the way separate story lines would converge at the end of an episode, and we see something very similar here. Sleight of hand by director Joseph Pevney means the expanding tribble population only seems like a problem on the Enterprise. Barely any tribbles are seen on space station K-7 until the big reveal at the end of act three; a few are held by humans in the bar, and there are none at all in Station Manager Lurry's office. On the Enterprise they are stuck to every possible surface.

The teaser is a good summary of the strengths of the episode. What looks mundane when written down, a knowledge check and performance review for Chekov, zips along when performed. Chekov comes across as a gauche young man, cracking jokes, and trying to impress his commanding officer. Spock does his best to step on those jokes, and delivers useful background information. Kirk asks relevant questions and does his best not to appear too amused as his first officer puts Chekov in his place. Bruce Schoengarth's editing gives pace to the teaser. As Spock talks about the history of the quadrant Schoengarth cuts in a reaction shot of Chekov nodding along in the way people do when they want to look knowledgeable. Reaction shots are a bog standard editing technique to break up what would otherwise be a succession of talking heads, but the choice of shot used here really adds to the sense we are eavesdropping on a conversation, and helps with the portrayal of Chekov as someone setting out to impress. Even Chekov's final line of the teaser makes sense in context, “code one emergency, that's a disaster call!” It's a classic example of someone telling other characters something they already know, but here it fits perfectly. Whether it's nerves or showing off, Chekov just can't keep his mouth shut.

Enterprise crew deaths: None but 1,771,561 tribbles die a horrible, horrible death by poisoning.
Running total: 43