Friday, March 29, 2013

Patterns Of Force

Patterns Of Force was made between 29th November and 6th December 1967, and broadcast on 16th February 1968. A Piece Of The Action was made between 2nd November and 9th November 1967, and broadcast on 12th January 1968. As Patterns Of Force is broadly A Piece Of The Action with Nazis it's easy to assume Patterns Of Force is an attempt to repeat the formula of A Piece Of The Action, but the genealogy of both stories is more complicated.

The concept for A Piece Of The Action first crops up as a suggested outline in Gene Roddenberry's original pitch document Star Trek Is...There a three line description reads, “PRESIDENT CAPONE. A parallel world, Chicago ten years after Al Capone won and imposed gangland statutes upon the nation.” Based on this George Clayton Johnson wrote an outline for an episode called The Syndicate which was refined into a treatment called Chicago II before being put to one side and forgotten while The Man Trap was developed. Separately writer Paul Schneider submitted an early outline for Patterns Of Force in December 1966 which was developed into a teleplay in early 1967. For some reason John Meredyth Lucas then wrote a new outline in June which was further developed through June and July 1967.

In the wake of The Trouble With Tribbles Gene L. Coon rediscovered George Clayton Johnson's treatment and decided it would make a good premise for another comedy episode. It's quite possible another factor in Gene L. Coon's decision to resurrect Chicago II was that the then in development script for Patterns Of Force, and Bread And Circuses, demonstrated stories about planets based on Earth history were practical. Then, for whatever reason Bread And Circuses was made and held back, Patterns Of Force slipped back in the production order, and A Piece Of The Action was broadcast first and looks like the story which originated the idea of doing planets based on historical periods.

So, it's time to raid the Desilu Studios' costume store again. There's no more depth to the use of Nazis in Patterns Of Force, than there is gangsters in A Piece Of The Action. They are just there to allow their costumes and iconography to act as an eye catching visual and grab the attention of any viewer flicking between channels. It works, Patterns Of Force looks great. It has visual appeal and freshness because it looks completely unlike any other Star Trek episode except A Piece Of The Action. The plot of both episodes is a simple adventure tale of capture and escape. There is no depth to the story, no analogy, or moral; beyond possibly the blindingly obvious one that totalitarian governments are bad, and peace is better than war. The subplot involving Federation observer John Gill and his daft plan to unite the anarchic planet of Ekos under a benign Nazi system, because it is “efficient” is as spurious a justification for the costumes as A Piece Of The Action's backstory involving the book Chicago Mobs Of The Twenties. Both are just there to force Kirk's hand in taking action. The situation on Ekos/Sigma Iotia II is the Federation's fault, so Kirk must attempt a repair.

The similarities between Patterns Of Force and A Piece Of The Action are strong enough that it's even possible to imagine a Nazi version of A Piece Of The Action in which the careless crew of the starship Horizon leave behind a book about the Nazi Party. Sigma Iotia II would have been broken up into a territories run by mini-Fhurers with each competing to be top dog. Comedy Gestapo officers would run around shouting at each other and the unnamed women who complain about Oxmyx and the “crummy street lights around here,” and lack of laundry pickup would have instead grumbled about the trains not running on time. The only question is whether NBC would have accepted a comedy Nazi episode? It's unlikely but not impossible. Hogan's Heroes had been running on CBS since 1965, but having said that Mel Brooks' The Producers was released to widespread accusations of bad taste roughly a month after Patterns Of Force aired. By 1968 comedy German soldiers were okay, but comedy Nazis were still a step too far.

In fact humour is the main difference between A Piece Of The Action and Patterns Of Force. A Piece Of The Action is unique because it was commissioned with the specific intention of making a deliberately funny story, whereas the humour in The Trouble With Tribbles appears to have evolved naturally as the script was developed. By contrast the tone of Patterns Of Force is all over the place. There are jokes in there, and some of them are good jokes. As might be expected Spock gets all the best moments. His, “you should make a very convincing Nazi,” to Kirk, and his perfectly timed raised eyebrow when deputy Melakon describes Spock's, “low forehead, denoting stupidity”. These moments sit awkwardly alongside attempts to emphasise the evil of the Ekotian regime.

ABROM: Isak, Uletta is dead. Shot down in the streets.
ISAK: She would've been my wife.
ABROM: She lived for five hours while they walked past her and spat on her. Our own people were unable to help her. Now you ask me to help strangers.
ISAK: If we adopt the ways of the Nazis, we're as bad as the Nazis.

Notice the names Abrom/Abraham Isak/Isaac, and the name of the twin planet Zeon/Zion. In the broadcast version there is no need for these disguised names. They add no depth to the story because what's on screen is literally about the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews. If the Nazi uniforms, symbols, and terminology were stripped out to leave a story about Kirk struggling to avert war between twin planets, then the disguised Hebrew names would add a little depth and point to an analogy. As it is their presence is just gilding the lily. It would be like making the planet killer from The Doomsday Machine, an analogy for nuclear weapons, look exactly the same as a Minuteman ICBM.

It's the realisation that all the Nazi imagery could be stripped from Patterns Of Force, and still leave a workable story which points to the biggest weakness of the episode. The element which makes Patterns Of Force so distinctive, the uniforms and symbols, is also the story's most redundant feature.

Enterprise crew deaths: None again. Seven whole weeks without anyone dying.
Running total: 43


Misc:
More distinctive than the episode itself is the Next Voyage trailer broadcast at the end of Return To Tomorrow. Next Time trailers normally open with a Captain's log voiceover and a shot of the Enterprise. Patterns Of Force begins stylishly with the Enterprise but the soundtrack is Isak's, “hide! They're right behind me. Hide! Hide!” The next image is the reveal of the Ekotians wearing SS Brownshirt uniforms from the episode teaser. Through the entire trailer there is no indication Patterns Of Force takes place on another planet. With the exception of a line from Kirk, “she captured a Zeon spy that was attempting to assassinate the Fuhrer,” the trailer is carefully edited to suggest Kirk and Spock are somehow fighting real Nazis. It would be really interesting to know what viewers at the time made of this. Did they think they were going to get another time travel episode?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Top Ten

The Doomsday Machine
Mirror, Mirror
The Corbomite Manouver
Arena
Amok Time
Balance Of Terror
This Side Of Paradise
The Naked Time
The Devil In The Dark
The Trouble With Tribbles

The Trouble With Tribbles comes in at number ten but apart from that there are no changes from last time. For anyone interested, lurking all the way down the bottom of the list is The Apple.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Return To Tomorrow

The Enterprise crew are in pursuit of a mystery and going where no man has gone before. Something beyond the limits of known space has activated the Enterprise distress relays and given the ship a course to follow. According to Spock the Enterprise has travelled, “hundreds of light years past where any Earth ship has ever explored.” It will take over three weeks for Starfleet to receive any messages the ship sends. As a concept this is pure distilled Star Trek, like the reception for the interplanetary ambassadors in JourneyTo Babel, but as a whole Return To Tomorrow is horribly slow, and dull.

Basically there simply isn't enough story to fill the 48 minutes running time. The core concept of the episode is a mindswap. Sargon, the sender of the mysterious signal, is a disembodied intelligence in a sphere who wants to borrow temporarily the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Doctor Ann Mulhall; Diana Muldaur making the first of two Star Trek appearances, plus she'll be back as Doctor Pulaski for the second series of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Into the crew's bodies will be placed the minds of Sargon, his wife Thalassa, and Henoch, sole survivor from the other side in the conflict which destroyed their race and planet. The borrowed bodies will construct androids which will become the permanent homes of the three minds.

That's the set up to the story, but the transference itself doesn't take place until 22 minutes into the episode. It brings to mind associate producer John D. F. Black's advice to George Clayton Johnson about
The Man Trap script, “you don't get the creature aboard the ship fast enough.” Here it takes too long to get to the scene where Sargon, Thalassa, and Henoch once again feel the pleasure, and temptations, of being alive. Weirdly, having moved at a snails pace until now, the story suddenly leaps into action and two and a half minutes from the first mention of a metabolic inhibitor (the presence of these alien minds places great stress on the host bodies, Spock's body can easily cope but it's killing Kirk and Mulhall) act two ends by revealing Henoch is a bad'un. He plans to keep Spock's body for himself and will kill Sargon/Kirk with a doctored metabolic inhibitor. This stop/start storytelling continues into acts three and four. About 90 seconds pass between Kirk announcing, “Spock's consciousness is gone, we must kill his body, the thing in it,” to his regretful, “Spock,” as he examines what he thinks is the corpse of his first officer and friend. The lasting memory of Return To Tomorrow is of an episode which carefully ekes out moments of incident between scenes where the story stops and the characters make speeches at each other.


Some of the speeches are very good. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Doctor Mulhall gather in the briefing room and debate the dangers of agreeing to Sargon's plan in a scene which ends with a line from Kirk which is a mission statement for Star Trek. “Risk is our business. That's what the starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her.” But that line follows four minutes of back and forth about whether to go ahead with something which the audience knows is going to happen because it's the subject of this week's episode. It's great to see the crew chewing the fat like this but by episode 49 the inter-character debate needs to do more than just pad out the running time. Here McCoy objects and is talked round by Kirk while Scotty is tempted by the promise of technological advances. The result is a four minute character scene which doesn't advance the plot or tell the audience anything new about the characters. The only new development is that it is Mulhall rather than Spock who gets to describe Sargon's offer as, “scientifically fascinating.” 

Scenes with Sargon and Thalassa are particularly trying on the patience. Taking their cues from the script both William Shatner and Diana Muldaur opt for measured, declamatory performances; as if they were auditioning for the Charlton Heston role in some Biblical epic. In addition these scenes are often smothered in George Duning's heavy on the strings music which crushes what little subtlety exists in exchanges like:

THALASSA: Oblivion together does not frighten me, beloved. Promise we'll be together.
SARGON: I promise, beloved.
THALASSA: Together forever.
SARGON: Forever beloved. Forever.


Leonard Nimoy makes a better impression as Henoch. While the novelty has worn off seeing Spock act out of character Nimoy makes the script work by playing against the evil intention of the lines. He's charming, pleasant, and sarcastic. His best moment comes early on when praising Spock's body: 

SPOCK: This is an excellent body, Doctor. I seem to have received the best of the three. Strength, hearing, eyesight, all far above your human norms. I'm surprised the Vulcans never conquered your race. 
MCCOY: Vulcans worship peace above all, Henoch.
SPOCK: Yes, of course, of course. Just as we do, Doctor. 

Nimoy plays Henoch like a politician who realises he has gone too far. His “of course, of course,” complete with a reassuring touch on McCoy's arm is very well done. 

Doctor McCoy is also very well written in this episode. With Kirk and Spock both acting out of character he is our link to regular Star Trek. He's the sardonic voice of sanity in the early scenes. Not only pointing out the insane risks of agreeing to Sargon's plan but also lightly mocking the plot as if he is also playing the voice of the viewer at home, “that's the most ridiculous statement I've ever heard.” McCoy's character is just going over old ground, in addition to the briefing scene above there is also a pre-beam down scene where he frets about the danger of using the transporter, but Deforest Kelly plays him very well, and makes the effort to add small moments like his glance at Scotty when dismissing “a list of possible miracles,” as a reason for allowing the transfer to take place.

On the other side of the camera Ralph Senensky is directing again. His work is more distinctive here than it was in Obsession, possibly this is a less demanding script which allows him more time to compose shots. When Sargon/Kirk 'dies' there's a fantastic low angled view of Kirk on the floor with Thalassa, McCoy, and Nurse Chapel kneeling by his body. There's also a great shot of Scotty and Thalassa discussing the android filmed through the framework of the android body. Senensky also seems to be one of the few directors to give director of photography Jerry Finnerman time to really indulge himself with the lighting. The Enterprise sets look brilliant in Return To Tomorrow, and are lit with great slabs of colour; purple in the transporter room and green in the briefing room.

Film editor Donald R. Rode also does some great work with the cutting, and tries to inject some pace into a story which tends towards the languid. There are two brilliant jump cuts, one from Sargon telling the crew they are free to leave to Scotty's outraged, “you're going to what?”, and the second from Kirk's, “we must kill [Spock's] body, the thing in it,” to Uhura screaming. Rode also knows when to allow Ralph Senensky's footage to work on its own terms. Kirk's, “risk is our business,” speech plays out almost uninterrupted as a slow zoom into a close-up of Kirk. Then once Kirk is done Rode cuts to reaction shots of McCoy (looking very unimpressed), Scotty, Mulhall, and Spock, before cutting back to the same big close-up of Kirk which he follows with a matched close-up of one of Sargon's spheres in sickbay. Rode's first work on Star Trek was The Doomsday Machine, and since then he has also worked on The Deadly Years, The Immunity Syndrome, and A Private Little War. He's one of the unsung behind the scenes heroes of Star Trek's second season, and frankly he deserves to have his praises sung as often as possible.

Enterprise crew deaths: It's now been six episodes since any member of the Enterprise crew died, matching the six episode death free period between Errand Of Mercy and Who Mourns For Adonais? If the crew can get through next week without anyone buying the farm it will be the longest death free period in Star Trek.

Running total: 43

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Private Litttle War

A Taste Of Armageddon is an allegory of Vietnam war body counts, and more generally about the dangers of making war easy. The Doomsday Machine is an allegory about nuclear weapons. A Private Little War is a 1968 allegory of the Vietnam war itself. However where A Taste Of Armageddon and The Doomsday Machine are both clearly against the subject of their allegories A Private Little War surprises by being very much a pro-Vietnam war story.

The allegory is most clearly stated by Kirk towards the end of the episode when he decides the only solution is to begin arming the hill people with the same flintlock rifles the Klingons have been secretly supplying to the villagers.

KIRK: .. What is your sober, sensible solution to all this? 
MCCOY: I don't have a solution. But furnishing them firearms is certainly not the answer.
KIRK: Bones, do you remember the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt could pull out.
MCCOY: Yes, I remember. It went on bloody year after bloody year.
KIRK: What would you have suggested, that one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No. The only solution is what happened back then. Balance of power.
MCCOY: And if the Klingons give their side even more?
KIRK: Then we arm our side with exactly that much more. A balance of power. The trickiest, most difficult, dirtiest game of them all, but the only one that preserves both sides. 

There's an often used quote from Gene Roddenberry, “I realised that by creating a separate world, a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network.” In the case of A Private Little War it's hard to believe the network would have cared about the message if it had been spotted. 

Star Trek's contemporary audience is often described as containing a large proportion of  high school and college students. How did they react to being lectured about the importance of the Vietnam war by Gene Roddenberry? There's nothing wrong with confronting your audience with ideas and opinions to which they may be opposed. It makes the audience think about why they disagree with the message, and stops them being just passive consumers. That said there is something distasteful about a 46 year old man, well outside the 18-26 draft range of men eligible for selective service, lecturing about the importance of a war which was a very real worry for a large chunk of their target audience. 

What we have here is an actual, genuine generation gap. In 1968 the Second World War had ended 22 years ago. Gene Roddenberry, Robert Justman, and Gene L. Coon had all fought in different branches of the armed forces. Gene Roddenberry volunteered for the United States Army Air Corps, and took part in missions in the South Pacific. Robert Justman served two years in the Navy. Gene L. Coon was in the Marines from 1942 to 1946, and then having enlisted in the Marine reserves was called back to serve in the Korean war from 1950 to 1952. Unlike their young audience World War Two was a reality to them, as was the development and use of atomic weapons, the rise of the Soviet Union, and the Korean war. To a 20 year old viewer even something as recent as the Cuban missile crisis, took place when they were 14; a quarter of their life previously. Seen in this context A Private Little War seems less like the polemic of a typewriter warrior, and more a warning from someone who had fought in World War Two and didn't want to see it refought with atomic weapons. It also explains the odd, slightly dismissive way anti-war protesters are treated in The City On The Edge Of Forever.

Moving away from the tricky area of politics A Private Little War see the Klingons back after their last appearance in Friday's Child. In Friday's Child Kras the Klingon hoped to persuade the natives of Capella IV to cede to the Klingon Empire by backing the more aggressive tribal leaders. Here Krell, who isn't named on screen, is repeating the trick in a slightly more subtle way by supplying weapons primitive by Klingon standards to the villagers, and encouraging them into a war against the hill people. Friday's Child and A Private Little War both show the Klingons beginning to react to the peace forced upon them by the Organians in Errand Of Mercy. They can no longer add planets to their empire simply by invading them. Instead they act as agents of corruption, feeding on people's greed, and turning them into proto-Klingons by using existing disputes to their advantage.


KRELL: You are late, my friend Apella.
APELLA: A quarrel by my people. A division of some skins and a hill woman taken this morning. It's hard to divide one woman.
KRELL: Give her to the man who killed the most of her people. The others will see the profit in bravery. I'll make a Klingon of you yet. 

and 

APELLA: I thought my people would grow tired of killing. But you were right. They see that it is easier than trading and it has pleasures. I feel it myself. Like the hunt, but with richer rewards.
KRELL: You will be rich one day, Apella, beyond your dreams. The leader of a whole world. A governor in the Klingon Empire.
 

It's not clear why the Organians tolerate this subversion of their treaty. Maybe it's only direct war they care about, but in Errand Of Mercy it was the act of violence itself they found distasteful so presumably they just don't know. There must be some limit to the Organian's ability to detect and prevent conflict between the two sides, and the Klingon's actions here are part of the process of working out exactly what are the Organian's limits.

The script of A Private Little War is a little confused about the exact nature of the peace treaty. Kirk talks about it as if it was an actual physical object signed by both sides, “if the Klingons are breaking the treaty it could be interstellar war, he says. According to Errand Of Mercy the one thing breaking the treaty cannot lead to is interstellar war. Later when Kirk and McCoy sneak into the village they gather evidence as if there is some Galactic United Nations they can appeal to, and hand over any proof they find. This is a little more consistent with earlier episodes. The Trouble With Tribbles established that Sherman's planet would be given to whichever side could develop it most effectively. Possibly if Kirk can prove the Klingons are cheating then the Organians will enforce some penalty on the Klingon Empire in the disputed quadrant referred to in The Trouble With Tribbles. 

The Klingons motivation for all this secret interference is unclear. In Friday's Child both sides are interested in Capella IV because it is rich in the mineral topaline. At the start of A Private Little War McCoy talks vaguely about interesting organic compounds with medical benefits, and presumably the Klingons are also after these compounds. However they could just be interfering out of sheer devilment. Maybe they read the planetary survey report Kirk wrote 13 years ago, using more of their surgically altered spies, and know Kirk has a fondness for this world. Perhaps it is just a way to expand their empire while keeping within the provisions of the treaty. To extend the Vietnam analogy, if the Klingons are the Soviets then they will want their own Warsaw Pact; dependant territories to act as a buffer zone and provide defence in depth against invasion. 

The skimpy character motivation extends to Nona, Tyree's wife. She is frustrated by Tyree's pacifist ways, and wants him to get some “firesticks” and do to the villagers what the villagers are doing to the hill people. So why did she marry him? Tyree says he married her after she cast a spell over him, so he must have had something she wanted. In the end she's just a power hungry woman who is willing to sell out her husband, and his tribe. There's some poetic justice in the way she ends up dead at the hands of a village hunting party who do not understand the advantage Kirk's stolen phaser would give them.

If Krell was going to all this trouble to turn the planet into a Klingon satellite state then there is also no small irony in the fact that he taught the villagers to act like Klingons. If they had been more interested in the phaser than Nona, they might have brought it to him. He could then present it to the Organians as 'proof' of Federation interference, arming the hill people with superior weapons, and gain whatever benefit Kirk thought would come from exposing the Klingon plan.

This is an episode with a lot of stuff going on in the background, but unfortunately what is foregrounded is a rather dull tale of goodies and baddies in which the nasty villagers wage war on the nice hill people. The morality really is that simplistic. The hill people are the goodies because they are the underdogs in the war, and Kirk is friends with one. The villagers are nasty because they have aligned themselves with the evil Klingons. It's a western, and while the goodies and baddies may not wear white and black hats the hill people do have blonde hair, and the villagers black hair; as does nasty Nona.
 


Extensive location work cannot save this story. Nor can some excellent editing from Donald R. Rode. The Mugato may look silly, think albino gorilla with spines and a single giant horn growing from the top of the head, but its attack on Kirk is well handled and comes out of nowhere. The introduction of Krell is also striking. A cut to a big close-up of the Klingon gazing into the camera as he waits for Apella. 

Is Kirk right? Yes within the confines of the script and the extremely narrow set up of the world. A balance of power is the correct solution. Maybe if the war between the hill people and the villagers can be maintained as a stalemate for long enough then both sides will learn it is unwinnable and return to their peaceful ways. Maybe. But how long can the Federation keep sending down flintlocks every time the Klingons send down flintlocks? What if the Klingons send grenades, or automatic weapons? What happens if the leader of the villagers invites the Klingons to help out by sending in military advisers? Will the Federation follow Kirk's plan and match the Klingons bomb for bomb, adviser for adviser, conscript for conscript? Evidentially not because if it had the space hippies who turn up in The Way To Eden would have sat on the transporter pad, burnt their draft cards, and chanted, “hey, hey JTK, How many kids did you kill today?” 

Enterprise crew deaths: Once again none, the Enterprise crew start making plans for the future. 
Running total: 43

Misc:
Lots of shenanigans with the closing credits this week. To start with the most confusing one, this is the producer credit for the episode.
 My understanding is that the previous episode made, Journey To Babel, marked the first episode produced by John Meredith Lucas so I'm not sure why Gene L. Coon is suddenly being credited as the producer again. The only explanation I can think of is that before he left Gene L. Coon did the bulk of the production work on A Private Little War, and it was felt more appropriate to give him the credit than John Meredith Lucas.

One of the closing stills appears to be a make-up test for a Tellarite from Journey To Babel.

Lastly, the Mugato is credited as the Gumato. Apparently this was the original name for the creature but DeForest Kelly could not pronounce the name so it was changed. Evidently the change never reached whoever did the closing titles: Gumato/Mugato Mugato/Gumato, let's call the whole thing off.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Immunity Syndrome

The Changeling, The Doomsday Machine, Obsession, and The Immunity Syndrome are four second season episodes which all share a similar plot. In each the Enterprise is both the first and last line of defence against a powerful single entity which will destroy billions if left unchecked.

In two of the stories the entity is a bizarre form of life. In the other two it is a machine. In two of the stories the entity is destroyed by anti-matter. Two of the stories begin with the discovery that entire solar systems have been wiped clean of life. In two of the stories the entity is a space vampire which can suck the life right out of you. Two of the stories use Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a character template. In two of the stories the entities are huge, rendering the Enterprise insignificant in comparison. In two of the stories the creature is about to reproduce. In two of the stories the menace has come from beyond the edge of the galaxy. In two of the stories the action takes place entirely on the Enterprise (and a third uses redressed Enterprise sets as a different location).

Any series will hit on themes and repeat them because they easily lend themselves to scripts. In the case of the four stories listed above it's a basic part of the Star Trek format that the Enterprise is out there on the front line by itself. A certain level of repetition is going to be an inevitable part of the set up of an episode. It's down to the skill of the writers and the production team to make sure individual episodes are distinctive, and don't just become an endless stream of clich├ęs along the lines of David Gerrold's spoof storyline Green Priestesses Of The Cosmic Computer from his book The World Of Star Trek.
What matters is the difference between stories, not the similarities. How many times has the Enterprise run into a being with superior god-like powers? About ten, depending on how you define a being with superior god-like powers, but nobody would describe the Metrons in Arena as being the same as Charlie X. What is important about The Changeling, The Doomsday Machine, Obsession, and The Immunity Syndrome is how each episode differs from the others. So where The Changeling begins by sharing plot elements with The Doomsday Machine (after investigating a distress call Kirk must face off against an overwhelmingly powerful machine foe) the story surprisingly turns into a mechanical version of Charlie X where Kirk must act as a father figure to a massively powerful being and keep it happy until he can work out a way to neutralise the threat.

Purely in script terms The Immunity Syndrome is the weakest of these four episodes. What makes makes The Immunity Syndrome different is what its script lacks compared to the others. The Immunity Syndrome has no character like The Doomsday Machine's Commodore Decker. There is no attempt to develop a character by adding new back story, as with Kirk in Obsession. Unlike Nomad in The Changeling the space amoeba cannot talk. If the monster cannot be reasoned with, or bluffed, then the threat cannot be personified. It's a simple space monster waiting to be destroyed. The Immunity Syndrome is the story which comes closest to matching the basic plot outline given earlier; the Enterprise is both the first and last line of defence against a powerful single entity which will destroy billions if left unchecked.

However, sometimes less is more. The Immunity Syndrome is more narratively pared back than the other three stories and so there is actually less to go wrong. It's great that Nomad can talk, and come on board the Enterprise. Kirk can confront the menace rather than just staring at a view screen in awe. Unfortunately Kirk then goes on to defeat Nomad by confusing it with logic. Likewise with Obsession it's great that Kirk is given more back story and written as a man out for revenge, but midway through a weekly television series is not the best place to suddenly reformat your lead character as a watered down Captain Ahab in space. The Doomsday Machine remains practically perfect in every way.

So the script of The Immunity Syndrome is simple, and a little familiar, but fun. The Enterprise goes toe-to-toe with a giant space amoeba which can suck the life out of entire planetary systems , and is about to reproduce by binary fission. The remorselessness of mathematics means one amoeba will become two, and then four, and then eight, until the entire galaxy is as dead as the Gamma 7A system. A nice concept, and one which is well used.

Like The Changeling there is a mismatch between the being at the centre of the script, and the effect it has. The Changeling wanted the audience to be surprised at the power of Nomad being contained in such a small shell. In The Immunity Syndrome there is a mismatch between the simplicity of the amoeba and its ability to potentially wipe out all life in the galaxy. The script is able to carry this difference in size through to a nice metaphor comparing the amoeba invading our galaxy to a virus invading a body, with the Enterprise as the antibody.

Also, like The Doomsday Machine, small story telling tricks add to the believability although they are really there to make the script work. In The Doomsday Machine it is not practical for the planet killer to keep following the Enterprise. The script needs breaks in the action to move the story forwards and to give the characters a rest from being constantly chased. To get round this the planet killer is described as being programmed to ignore anything as small as a ship beyond a certain radius. This behaviour is there for solid plot reasons, but makes the planet killer seem more like a real object. It has a logic to its actions and its behaviour is predictable, like a real machine. In The Immunity Syndrome the amoeba is surrounded by a zone of darkness. The zone is really there for logistical reasons, to cut down the number of expensive and time consuming amoeba effects shots, but it also makes sense for an energy eating being to be surrounded by a zone of darkness. The thing even eats light! Although evidently it doesn't find light as nutritious as whatever energy it drains from lifeforms.

The zone of darkness also allows the slight plot to be stretched out, without making the episode seem padded. Acts one and two are about the mystery of the zone. What is it? What is the cause? Why do the laws of motion seem to be reversed? What is slowly killing the crew? The first two acts emphasise the exploration of the unknown, and the willingness of the Enterprise crew to put their lives on the line when required. Unfortunately it also makes for an episode which is less rewarding on repeat viewing. Once all the answers to the questions are known there's not much to concentrate on beyond some quality Spock/McCoy bickering, and Kirk having to decide which of his friends will be sent to their death in the shuttle.

Joseph Pevney directs and, rather like Ralph Senensky in Obsession, the Enterprise standing sets seem to mess up his ability to compose interesting shots. Generally speaking I've preferred Joseph Pevney and Ralph Senensky's direction to that of the other regular director Marc Daniels, but there's no doubt The Doomsday Machine is the better directed story when compared to Obsession or The Immunity Syndrome. The more generic approach Pevney uses here could be a result of the stricter time restrictions Senesky complained about when making Obsession; the insistence on completing shows in five and a half days. This isn't to say Pevney's direction here is completely flat. There's some nice naturalistic direction as Spock senses the destruction of the Intrepid (an odd name for a ship crewed by 400 Vulcans, does Vulcan not have its own starships?). McCoy and Kirk look as if they are about to start riffing on what it would be like to be on a ship full of Vulcans when Spock suddenly reacts with pain. McCoy is positioned to face Spock, but Kirk is looking forwards. As Spock groans Kirk's head snaps round, and he and McCoy stare at Spock as if unable to believe what they are seeing. For a fraction of a second the pair stand frozen, and then McCoy touches Kirk's arm and the two race across the bridge to Spock. Moments like this are few and far between. Film editor Donald R. Rode, who did excellent work on The Doomsday Machine, can't make much of the footage. It's a shame this was the last episode Pevney directed.

It's not possible to talk about The Immunity Syndrome without talking about the effects work on the space amoeba. It's brilliant. A high point for effects work on the series. No wonder Van Der Veer Photo effects shared an Emmy nomination for Star Trek special effects in 1969; although the series did not win. Interestingly outside of the space amoeba much of the effects work is cut to the bare minimum. This is possibly the only episode in which no one transports anywhere, and no phasers are fired. The limited resources of the show are virtually all concentrated on the amoeba. Of course the remastered versions have been able to expand the scope of the effects shots considerably, but it's very pleasing to note they largely settle for recreating what was seen in 1968.
Original
Remastered version
Original
Remastered version
The Immunity Syndrome also adds to the idea that outside of our galaxy is some sort of nightmare howling waste populated by hideous creatures and killer robots which are constantly seeking a point of entry. So far Star Trek has shown us the space parasites from Operation - - Annihilate!, the planet killer from The Doomsday Machine, and now a giant single celled life form capable of draining the life force from entire solar systems. No wonder Q thought mankind wasn't prepared for the unknown in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Q Who. Based on what Kirk has encountered so far Q was right.

Enterprise crew deaths: None again.
Running total: 43

Misc:

Robert Justman is messing around with the closing titles again. This week he uses a test shot of William Blackburn as one of Sargon's androids from Return To Tomorrow. In the photo Billy Blackburn is rolling his eyes up into his head which accounts for the android's slightly grotesque appearance. Also in the closing titles is a shot of a smiling Spock, also from Return To Tomorrow which I don't think was used in the episode.



Monday, March 4, 2013

A Piece Of The Action

From here on in there is a new producer in charge, and it remains to be seen how this new order will change things.” Those prophetic words ended the review of The Gamesters Of Triskelion, and clearly demonstrate I should never go into the soothsayer business. The next episode is of course A Piece Of The Action with a joint teleplay credit for David P. Harmon and departed producer Gene L. Coon.

[This also seems to be an appropriate point to confess my error in the second to last paragraph of
The Gamesters Of Triskelion review. Talking about the difference between stories produced by new producer John Meredyth Lucas and Gene L. Coon I mentioned Obsession, and implied it was produced by Gene L. Coon.

Oops.]

A Piece Of The Action sees Kirk, Spock, and McCoy visit Sigma Iotia II; planet of the Chicago gangsters. Putting the regulars into a story from a different genre, and seeing how they interact with the world, is a storytelling technique used before on Star Trek. The Conscience Of The King is Star Trek does Shakespeare. Kirk dithers like Hamlet, Lenore goes mad like Lady Macbeth, and within the episode itself we see the characters watching extracts from plays which mirror the plot. It's a common technique in television. Buffy The Vampire Slayer took the idea to its extreme with the musical episode Once More With Feeling. Futurama has the superhero episode Less Than Hero and, appropriately, Where No Fan Has Gone Before. Doctor Who used it in the early days to tell adventures in history. The Reign Of Terror is Doctor Who meets the French Revolution (a mashup of A Tale Of Two Cities, and The Scarlet Pimpernell), and The Romans is Doctor Who goes to Rome (assorted historical and biblical epics).

Doing a story from a different genre has its advantages and disadvantages. It allows a cash strapped production to raid the costume store, and save money by using pre-existing sets from other series; A Piece Of The Action uses the Paramount backlot for location filming. The downside is finding a good reason for all the characters suddenly wearing zoot suits and trilby hats. Do it wrong and the result is Miri where much amazement is expressed over a planet which looks exactly like Earth, but no explanation is ever offered for this coincidence. 

This is where Doctor Who has a built in advantage over Star Trek: time travel. To do a story about the Mongols, or the Great Depression, or Nazis the Doctor only has to travel to the appropriate year. For Star Trek to do the same the series has to invent an alien race which is like the Mongols, find a method for the Enterprise crew to time travel to the 1930s, or go to a Nazi planet. It's possible to use any of these techniques a couple of times, but repeated use is going to start pushing the limits of suspension of disbelief. Obviously this is one of the reasons behind the invention of the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that's a solution which carries its own problems. Imagine A Piece Of The Action done as a holodeck story. For starters you need a reason why we are watching Kirk and co. play dress up rather than going where no man has gone before. Secondly it removes all jeopardy from the story. Those scenes of Kirk being held at gunpoint have no dramatic tension if Kirk can shout, “computer end program at any time.” The only real way to resolve this problem is either to have Kirk not realise he is on the holodeck, or have a reason for it to break down. Again.
Attila the Hun, Professor Moriaty, Jack the Ripper, and Evil Lincoln. "The Holo-Shed's on the fritz again! The characters turned real!"," Damn. The last time that happened I got slapped with three paternity suits."
A Piece Of The Action's solution to having a planet just like Earth history is inventive. The inhabitants of Sigma Iotia II are bright but highly imitative; in itself a good solid science fiction concept. 100 years ago the crew of the space ship Horizon left behind a book called Chicago Mobs of the Twenties, and the Iotians mistook it for a social instruction manual. It's a funny idea but also one which is quite pleasing, and if you are prepared to run with the concept then it's easy to imagine the impact of the Horizon's visit on the Iotians; their first contact with an alien race. If the crew of the Horizon left a stack of technical manuals, plus Chicago Mobs of the Twenties by accident, and made some throwaway comment about the books containing everything the Iotians needed to advance their development then its easy to imagine how the cultural contamination began.

So, a funny concept is at the core of what is for some people the funniest Star Trek story. Right from the start this is an overtly comedic episode and the teaser has a lighter and more comedic feel than The Trouble With Tribbles. In that story the jokes in the teaser come from the characters and their interactions while the situation, at least in the beginning, is treated seriously. In A Piece Of The Action the audience is expected to share Kirk's amusement at a planet leader with the title boss, and his landing site instructions, there's an intersection just at the end of the block, near a yellow fire plug.” In between these two moments, Shatner sits in his chair and slowly rotates it in a semi-circle first one way, and then the other (some nice direction from James Komack who moves the camera with the chair to keep Shatner facing the camera), as he struggles to explain why it's taken 100 years for a radio message to reach the Federation, and the function of the transporter. Then as Spock and McCoy come onto the bridge Kirk walks between them, and spins them round on the spot leading the pair back into the turbo elevator. Possibly this lighter tone is designed to stop the audience thinking too much about the concept. If they view the story as funny, they are less likely to sit there picking holes in the idea. Scattered through the episode are some very good character based lines, such as Spock's valiant attempt to avoid telling a direct lie when Kirk asks him for the odds of a royal fizzbin, “I have never computed them, Captain,” but the downside of the script is the same as Robert Justman's concern about The Trouble With Tribbles. “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.”

There's a quote from Douglas Adams which sums up very well the pitfalls of doing an obviously jokey script. “A danger one runs is that the moment you have anything in the script that's clearly meant to be funny in some way, everybody thinks 'oh well we can do silly voices and silly walks and so on'.” Essentially that's the problem here. Everyone is having a wonderful time being silly. Particularly William Shatner who is occasionally allowed to get away with a performance which comes dangerously close to breaking character.

When Kirk is forced into a car by Zabo we get some lines which are a good pastiche of hardbitten gangster dialogue.

ZABO: Hold it! Okay, pally, we're going for a ride.
KIRK: If you don't mind, I'd rather walk.
ZABO: Listen, pally, this could either be a taxi or a hearse. You know what I mean?

Then as Kirk climbs into the car William Shatner uses a massively over the top worried expression, complete with furrowed brow and chewed lip. It's the sort of my-character's-worried emoting which might be expected from a drama student. He's worse while explaining the rules of his made up card game fizzbin. His tone of voice is all over the place on the lines, “oh, look what you got, two jacks. You got a half fizzbin already,” and “oh, look at that. You've got another jack. How lucky you are! How wonderful for you.” It overplays the comedy of the scene. Even Leonard Nimoy isn't immune to what must have been a great atmosphere on set, and his usually iron grip on the character wobbles during the car driving scene when he also starts fishing for laughs. “Oh. I believe they had a device known as a clutch. Clutch, Captain. Perhaps one of those pedals on the floor,” is a moment when he plays Spock far to broadly. Nimoy's Spock is normally very still, and his moments are considered, but here he's all jerky body movement and emphatic head nods. Oddly, Shatner is more tolerable later in the story, when Kirk adopts a cod-Chicago accent and starts using slang; asking Scotty, “can do, sweetheart?” Partly this is because his performance never reaches the extremes it does in acts one and two, but also because this fits the concept of the episode. If Kirk is going to put Sigma Iotia II back on track he first needs to out mobster the mobsters.

A Piece Of The Action looks amazing, nothing beats seeing Kirk and Spock in sharp suits and hats, driving period cars, and packing heat. The episode feels fresh if only because it looks completely different to anything which has gone before. There are no metaphors, or analogies, or moral lessons to be learned. The plot is fairly sparse. Kirk and Spock run around being captured by, and capturing, gangsters, but it's packed with incident (gun fights, fist fights, the car driving scene, the fizzbin rules, characters being phasered) and never gets dull. When the episode doesn't go too far in its quest for laughs it's great fun; and your definition of going too far will depend on your tolerance for William Shatner being allowed to indulge himself.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. 
Running total: 43

Sunday, March 3, 2013