Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bread And Circuses

Star Trek has tried several different ways of setting up the parallel Earth concept. None of them entirely successful. Miri and The Omega Glory both make a big deal over their respective planets' miraculous resemblance to Earth but keep utterly quiet over any hint of an explanation. The societies in A Piece Of The Action and Patterns Of Force were both contaminated by visitors from Earth. This works a little better but there's a limit to the number of worlds which can be contaminated by meddling earthmen before that concept wears thin. Ironically the best approach is seen in The Return Of The Archons not technically a parallel Earth story, but one in which the locals wear old style clothing and live in a recognisably Earth-like town. The vaguely Amish manner, in terms of how they dress and act, of the locals on Beta III subtly cues the audience in on what type of society to expect (no technology, peaceful, friendly) and then surprises when red hour strikes and everyone goes crazy. So, the most successful way of making a parallel Earth story is to adopt a sort of don't ask don't tell policy. Dress your guest cast in a historical style appropriate to the story you are telling, and film on location, but don't tell the audience you are doing a parallel Earth story. Let them work it out for themselves. However, while The Return Of The Archons approach would allow for a Roman allegory, it wouldn't work for Bread And Circuses itself which actually wants to be about Space Rome.

So, Bread And Circuses uses a variation of Miri/The Omega Glory's parallel Earth set up. The episode imagines a 20th century version of the Roman Empire, to be more precise a 1960s version. For the sake of brevity assume everything said in The Omega Glory review about the lack of explanations applies here to Space Rome. Even allowing for that Bread And Circuses is a more successful episode than either Miri, or The Omega Glory, and the lack of any explanation for how Space Rome developed (complete with the same Gods, gladiators, centurions, etc) doesn't nag nearly as much. 

Miri and The Omega Glory both want the audience to be amazed at their respective planets' miraculous similarity to Earth, but neither episode wants the viewers to think about it in too much detail. The result is two episodes which are not actually about the planets on which they are set. The plot of Miri could take place on any planet, while The Omega Glory's version of the USA isn't revealed until 35 minutes into the episode. In both cases there's a separation between the story the audience is expected to follow, and the parallel Earth concept, and that separation is hard for the audience to resolve. Imagine trying to watch a version of The Apple in which the end of act two surprise is a reveal that Vaal looks like Mount Rushmore. By contrast Bread And Circuses is most definitely about Space Rome, and exploring that culture, and seeing what it would be like, and how it differs from and also resembles Earth. Miri and The Omega Glory also don't want to talk about their parallel Earths. In both stories characters express amazement but then quickly shut up. In Bread And Circuses people keep talking. Someone, normally Spock will harp on about the amazing parallel development. “This atmosphere is remarkably similar to your twentieth century.” “Complete Earth parallel. The language here is English.” “Colloquial twentieth-century English. An amazing parallel.” (Actually Spock ixnay on the Englishway, if this really were Space Rome everyone would be talking Latin). Also mentioned is “Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development,” a fig leaf piece of cod future science which doesn't explain events any more than Doctor Who's Blinovitch Limitation Effect explains time travel paradoxes, but at least shows someone on the writing side is aware of the need for an explanation. 

Bread And Circuses may be better than both Miri and The Omega Glory, but that's still a pretty low bar. On it's own terms the episode is engaging but never great. The story is written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon, and directed by Ralph Senensky. In theory this should be the ideal set up for an episode. Gene Roddenberry's vision filtered through Gene L. Coon's ability to make engaging television. In a single episode Bread And Circuses should be everything that made Star Trek work as a series but it isn't. There's some clever attempts to imagine how a modern Roman Empire would work -slavery as an institution with rights and pensions, and gladiatorial contests on television- but the story just ends up feeling like Spartacus without the spectacle. The ending is a mess, Kirk is sentenced to be executed but gladiator/Christian/slave Flavius interrupts proceedings by suddenly rushing on shouting, “murderers! If you want death, fight me!” It's not clear how Flavius is able to escape and make his timely intervention. Presumably Merikus, formerly Captain Merik of the SS Beagle, lets him loose although Merik's sudden change of heart also isn't really explained. He's spent five years as First Citizen and Lord of the Games watching his own crew die in the arena, and then suddenly he's babbling to Proconsul Claudius Marcus about Kirk's spirit. “He commands not just a spaceship, Proconsul, but a starship. A very special vessel and crew. I tried for such a command.” Likewise Claudius Marcus' attitude to Merik abruptly alters, out of nowhere he starts flattering Kirk and doing Merik down. “Because you're a man, I owe you that. You must die shortly, and because you are a man... Would you leave us, Merik? The thoughts of one man to another cannot possibly interest you.” Essentially it seems as if nothing more than the awesome manly presence of Captain Kirk is enough to wreck their five year working relationship.

When the landing party are taken to the arena there's some mild nose tweaking of the television industry. The arena is a cheap studio backdrop, and the crowd noise just sound effects. It's overstating the material to call it satire, there's not much more than a couple of lines “you bring this network's ratings down, Flavius, and we'll do a special on you,” and Claudius' comment that Kirk's execution will be, “in full colour. We guarantee you a splendid audience.” Frankly it comes across more as a private joke between the two Genes and the production team. A realisation that the only way to make arena scenes work on Star Trek is to shrink them down to a corner of the studio, and that this provides the opportunity to have a little fun at the fakery of television.

Ralph Senensky is one of the most distinctive Star Trek directors. His work on This Side Of Paradise and Metamorphosis is outstanding. However his website makes clear that by this point in the series he feels the reduced shooting schedule (on paper six days, but in reality closer to five and a half) was damaging the finished episodes. Certainly there are very few stylistic flourishes here. Act one, which unusually is all shot on location even the cave interiors, is the strongest. There's a lot of hand held camera work, and some very wide shots which give a sense of scale to the Bronson Canyon location. There's also some really good attention to detail in the news broadcast Uhuru picks up. There's a clear difference in filming styles, as you would expect to see between the news and sports footage. The opening shot of dissidents is filmed using a hand held camera, while the arena footage is shot from a fixed tripod. The success of the final reveal of the slaves religion as Christianity is largely due to Senensky's careful work, aided by film editor Fabian Tordjmann. There's a terrific piece of misdirection when Septimus says, “may the blessings of the son be upon you.” On the word “son” Tordjmann cuts to a very low angled shot of the landing party and Flavius heading towards the city, with the sun in the top left of the frame, and the rest of Septimus' line continues in voice over. It's this sort of deliberate sun/son confusion which makes the final reveal work. 

Enterprise crew deaths: None, after a few rough weeks for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 46

The television cameras used in the Empire television studio set appear to be genuine video cameras. As far as I can tell they are the RCA TK-10 model. If they are TK-10s then Claudius is wrong to tell Kirk his execution will be in full colour. The TK-10, introduced in 1946, was a black and white camera only.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Ultimate Computer

Back in 1990 when the BBC finally decided to start showing Star Trek: The Next Generation I was watching Datalore with my parents. Within about a minute of Lore being reactivated my mum said, “I'll bet he turns out to be evil.” Some stories have a weight of inevitability about them. If a character develops a cough or a headache then they will be dead soon. In The Ultimate Computer it's obvious things are going to go badly from the moment Commodore Wesley tells Kirk the Enterprise will be used to test the new M-5 computer, and that all he has to do is, “sit back and let the machine do the work.”

Sure enough the M-5 goes berserk after mistaking simulated war games for the real thing and, as is always the way in these situations, Captain Kirk talks the M-5 to death. However, if the overall course of the plot runs on rails
The Ultimate Computer deserves some credit for taking an unexpected detour on the way. The first two acts are more character driven than might be expected in a rogue computer story as Kirk tries to cope with discovering that the M-5 really can do his job better. This still gives the story a weirdly contemporary edge. Who wouldn't worry about being replaced by a computer? It's odd to see Kirk so rattled. A man who has faced down Klingons and alien invasions, and generally shown himself to be a decision making machine, is faced with the prospect of being replaced by a machine better at making decisions.

MCCOY: We're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that's different. And it always will be different.
KIRK: Am I afraid of losing command to a computer? Daystrom's right. I can do a lot of other things. Am I afraid of losing the prestige and the power that goes with being a starship captain? Is that why I'm fighting it? Am I that petty?

Kirk has dabbled with self-doubt before but it's never really convinced.

KIRK: I could've prevented all of it.
SPOCK: I don't see how.
KIRK: A walk in paradise, among the green grass and flowers. We should've beamed up at the first sign of trouble.
SPOCK: You are under orders to investigate this planet and this culture.
KIRK: I also have the option to disregard those orders if I consider them overly hazardous. This isn't that important a mission, Spock. Not worth the lives of three of my men. I drop my guard for a minute because I like the smell of growing things, and now three men are dead. And the ship's in trouble.
In that scene from The Apple Kirk's self-doubt is there to justify the Enterprise crew massacre which it follows. Three crew have been killed and the script needs Kirk to seem affected. It's an artificial script device because once Kirk has beaten himself up over the deaths of Kaplan, Hendorff, and Mallory it's never mentioned again in the episode; not even when Marple is also killed.

Kirk's self-doubt is handled much better in The Ultimate Computer . “I've never felt this way before. At odds with the ship. I sat there and watched my ship perform for a mass of circuits and relays, and felt useless. Unneeded.” It makes Kirk petty and he takes any chance he can to downplay the achievements of the M-5. “All it's done is make the required course changes and some simple turns. Mister Sulu and Mister Chekov could've done that with their eyes closed.” This time self-doubt is not an emotion he indulges in and forgets, it's a theme running through the first two acts. It humanises Kirk because we can relate to what he is going through. He's not declaiming, “why oh why didn't I realise this weird alien planet was alien and weird?” He's faced with the realisation that he is the best person he knows at doing his job, and yet the machine is better.

With this in mind it's interesting to see the end of act one used as a red herring. “Captain, I've located the source of the power shutdowns. It's the M-5 unit, sir. That thing's turning off systems all over the ship.” Scotty's line bluffs the audience into thinking M-5 is out of control. Throughout act one Kirk and the audience have seen the M-5 unit performing flawlessly. Kirk and the audience are both waiting for the M-5 to fail. Kirk because he doesn't want to be replaced in a job he loves, and the audience because they know the M-5 won't be around next week so it's due to be proved faulty at some point. When Daystrom discovers the reason for the shut downs in the opening moments of act two it's designed to confound audience expectations, “as I suspected, it is not a malfunction. M-5 was merely shutting down power to areas of the ship that do not require it.”

In a different episode the M-5 going mad would be the moment of crisis. Act one would have ended with the discovery that M-5 will not allow itself to be turned off and the remaining three acts would have been about the crew's attempts to disable the rogue machine. Instead of being the crisis point for the whole story the M-5 seizing control is the resolution to the plot about Kirk's fear of replacement, and also ups the stakes for the second half.

Ironically it's the characterisation which stops The Ultimate Computer from achieving it's full potential. Not the characterisation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy which is spot on. In fact McCoy get all the best lines in the episode, and this is some of the best material he's given across the series. “Did you see the love light in Spock's eyes? The right computer finally came along.” The problem lies with the characterisation of the secondary characters which never quite seems right.

Commodore Wesley really dislikes Kirk. There's his “Captain Dunsel” comment (Dunsel apparently being an academy term for a part which performs no useful purpose) made over an open communicator so the Enterprise bridge crew, and possibly the crew in the other ships, can all hear him burn their captain. Then when the M-5 has taken over and is using lethal force during the war games Wesley believes it's Kirk who is out of control. “Jim. Have you gone mad? What are you trying to prove? Break off the attack! Jim, we have fifty three dead here... If you can hear us, stop the attack.” When the Lexington takes damage there's a shot of Wesley on the bridge asking, “what the devil is Kirk doing?” It brings to mind the season one story Court Martial where the other starship captains at Starbase 11 are all too willing to believe Kirk killed Ben Finney. Unfortunately the episode wants to end with a point about the M-5 lacking the human factor by having Wesley make a leap of faith, “the Enterprise looks dead. I'm going to take a chance he's not just laying a trap.” Kirk is gambling on Wesley's humanity, but if Wesley really thought Kirk had gone mad (and note the 'he' in Wesley's line about laying a trap) and murdered so many with his attack, then would Wesley show any compassion?

Likewise Daystrom is written a little off beam. He's great for the majority of the episode, acting exactly like a proud parent indulging his baby, and always trying to find the best motive for the M-5's increasingly bizarre actions. After the M-5 overrides the off switch Daystrom convinces himself it's in the best interests of the unit to not switch it off. When the M-5 destroys an automated ore freighter he describes this as, “minor difficulties,” and when the computer vaporises engineer Harper while directly tapping the power of the warp engines Daystrom tries to dismiss this as an accident. “The ensign simply got in the way.” However, no matter how wilfully blind Daystrom wants to be there is one moment he can't really ignore.

After the M-5 destroys the automatic ore freighter Kirk, Spock, and Daystrom head to engineering to turn off the M-5, only to find it has protected itself with a force field. “ It's not my doing, Kirk,” says Daystrom, and presumably this means the M-5 was not built with the ability to project force fields; this makes sense it would be rather like fitting airbags to a desktop PC. Still it's not just Daystrom who overlooks this new ability. Once M-5 has repelled Kirk, it's never mentioned again, in fact this amazing ability of the M-5 unit is demonstrated and then shuffled off screen as quickly as possible because it's a sticking plaster on the story logic. An easy answer to someone's question during script development wondering why Kirk didn't just head down to engineering with a phaser and melt the M-5 into slag. Sometimes these fixes make the story stronger, see By Any Other Name and the Kelvan's ability to distill humans into solid shapes which results in the memorable death of Yeoman Thompson, but here it fixes one story logic question only to raise another; why doesn't Daystom notice his computer can do things it was not designed or built to do?

Lastly there's M-5 itself which counts as a character because it's based on Daystrom's engrams. It's never clear why the machine goes mad. It just goes from coping with a surprise simulated attack, to taking pot shots at automatic ore freighters, before moving on to mass murder. Still there's enough slack built into the script to allow viewers to supply their own explanations. Given that Daystrom did imprint his own engrams on the machine it's possible that what we see is overconfidence. The M-5 is as frustrated, for want of a better word, at Kirk for constantly taking the Enterprise back under control as Daystrom, “you'll find it won't be necessary for you to regain control of the unit after it's completed each manoeuvre.” It sees the ore freighter as an opportunity to cut loose and show what it can really do. Overconfidence blinds the M-5 to the consequences of destroying the freighter, and once it realises what it has done it has no alternative but to protect itself by destroying any pursuing ship. 

It's easy to watch The Ultimate Computer and wonder what benefits Starfleet expected from the M-5. Yes the computer was incredibly good at small details, such as recalling personnel details even Kirk didn't have instantly to hand, and it could steer the ship as efficiently as a human navigator, and it was better in direct combat, but when have we ever seen the events in an episode hinge on one of those factors? It's difficult to see what advantages M-5 could have brought to the battle against the Gorn in Arena. How would it have dealt with the Kelvans from By Any Other Name or Apollo in Who Mourns For Adonais? But asking this question misses the point. The episode is not about why Starfleet would want to replace Captain Kirk with a computer, it's about what will happen when computers get clever enough to replace even Captain Kirk. Thematically The Ultimate Computer belongs with stories like The Return Of The Archons, or A Taste Of Armageddon where people's lives and deaths are planned centrally by a big computer. That seems to have been the future perception of computers in 1968. Not the internet, but a big central IBM computer which told you when to work, when to sleep, and when to eat your protein pills. This attitude is the reason Commodore Wesley demands to know what Kirk thinks he is doing when the M-5 attacks the war game fleet. The Ultimate Computer is warning that in the future the infallible computer will be your boss, and when it goes wrong you'll still get the blame.

Enterprise crew deaths: Just one, engineer Harper.
Running total: 46

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Omega Glory

For 35 minutes The Omega Glory plods along before abruptly taking the end of act three turning to Crazy Town. This is the episode where the savage Yangs of planet Omega IV are revealed to be misunderstood Yankees who have been engaged in a war with the Kohms (Communists, do you see?). This is the episode where the Yangs recite a corrupted version of the Pledge of Allegiance, complete with hand on heart gesture. This is the episode where the Yang's leather bound Bible, with Holy Bible written on the front, contains a picture of the Devil looking uncannily like Mr. Spock. This is the episode where Captain Kirk reads aloud from the Yangs' copy of the Preamble to the United States Constitution (which also establishes that the Yangs' country was called The United States because the document is perfectly readable on screen). This is the episode where the Yangs of the United States of Omega IV have the same flag as Earth's United States of America. This is also the episode where this astonishing duplication of Earth's history and artefacts is never explained.

The split between acts one to three and act four of The Omega Glory is so extreme it's almost two different episodes. The first two thirds of the story are A Private Little War but with the focus of the storytelling shifted. A Private Little War is about Kirk attempting to find the best way to intervene in the Klingon driven conflict between the hill people and the villagers. The Omega Glory is about Kirk attempting to find the best way to deal with rogue starship captain Ron Tracey who has gone native and spent the last six months directly helping the Kohms in their war with the Yangs. A similar shifting of the story focus can be seen between Obsession and The Doomsday Machine where Obsession is about Kirk's determination to hunt down and kill the cloud vampire at all costs, and The Doomsday Machine is about Kirk dealing with Commodore Decker who is determined to hunt down and kill the planet killer at all costs.

The teaser and opening act form the strongest part of the episode. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lieutenant Galloway investigate the mystery of the abandoned USS Exeter. Subdued lighting, and a simple echo effect sells the idea that these familiar sets are actually a different starship. These sequences are atmospheric and the mystery of what has happened to the Exeter's crew is well handled. The empty crew uniforms and piles of crystals are instantly reminiscent of the previous episode By Any Other Name, and the Kelvan's ability to distil bodies down to crystal-like shapes. It would be interesting to know if any contemporary viewers jumped to the not unreasonable conclusion that aliens were responsible. After finding a message from the Exeter's medical officer the landing party make haste to the surface of the planet Omega IV where they meet the Exeter Captain Ron Tracey, and learn they are infected by a virus held in check by some unknown environmental factor. The landing party can never leave Omega IV.

Gradually the story gets less interesting. Kirk has a fist fight with Ron Tracey, then he has a fist fight with Cloud William leader of the Yangs, then he has another fist fight with Tracey. So many different plot strands are picked up and discarded it's difficult to tell what the story is about. There is the empty starship, the mystery of the vanished Exeter crew, the virus, the hunt for a cure, the rogue starship commander gone native, the post-apocalyptic battle between two tribes, the search for the fountain of youth, and the 'savage' Yangs and 'civilised' Kohms. More frustrating is the indifferent way these plots are resolved. The apparently fatal virus is contracted by beaming down to Omega IV, and then cured by hanging around on Omega VI a bit longer. The natives of Omega IV live for thousands of years and Ron Tracey's motivation is provided by his search for the environmental factor responsible. Until it's revealed there is no fountain of youth. People on Omega IV just live longer. The war between the Yangs and the Kohms ends off screen. All the story lines which run across the first three acts are resolved before act three ends which again gives the impression of two separate episodes crushed into one 48 minute slot.

It's the performances which hold the attention. Particularly Morgan Woodward as rogue captain and sole survivor of the USS Exeter, Ron Tracey. He sells the idea of the Yang Kohm war ending off screen. “They sacrificed hundreds just to draw us out in the open. And then they came, and they came. We drained four of our phasers, and they still came. We killed thousands and they still came.” In fact all three actors in this scene turn in terrific performances, Woodward, William Shatner, and Deforest Kelly; Spock is unconscious at this point so Leonard Nimoy gets to sit this one out.

MCCOY: He'll live, but I'll have to get him to better facilities than this.
TRACEY: Impossible! You can't carry the disease up to the ship with you.
MCCOY: He's fully immunised now. We all are.
KIRK: We can beam up at any time. Any of us.
TRACEY: You've isolated the serum?
KIRK: There's no serum! There are no miracles! There's no immortality here! All this is for nothing!
TRACEY: Explain it to him, Doctor.
MCCOY: Leave medicine to medical men, Captain. You found no fountain of youth here. People live longer here now because it's natural for them to.
TRACEY: Outside. Or I'll burn down both your friends now.

William Shatner's furious delivery of “there's no serum..” is perfect. Suddenly Kirk has a depth of anger we've not seen before, and Deforest Kelly is just as good on “leave medicine to medical men...” All three actors are working really well together and the performances mesh perfectly.

On the other side of the camera Jerry Finnerman's lighting also adds a lot of atmosphere. He uses shadows very well, and his best moment comes during Woodward's “ they sacrificed hundreds...” speech. Finnerman keeps Woodwards face and body in shadow but his white hair is illuminated from behind and looks like a crazed halo. Director
Vincent McEveety is also trying to keep scenes visually interesting, he's fond of using a quick zoom to add impact to a shot.

Then at the end of act three a Yang warrior carries in the United States flag, accompanied on the soundtrack by The Star-Spangled Banner. Suddenly the rest of the episode is utterly overshadowed. It doesn't matter if this is the worst Star Trek episode ever or the greatest because this is the episode in which the aliens have the United States flag and it's never explained! It's like coming home and finding the Mona Lisa on your living room wall. You're not going to stand there talking about the composition of the painting, or use of symbolism, or the enigmatic smile. You are just going to wonder how the hell the Mona Lisa ended up on your living room wall.

First season story Miri (ironically also directed by Vincent McEveety) suffers from the same problem. The episode begins with the Enterprise discovering a world exactly like Earth. An exact duplicate. As Kirk says, “not the Earth, another Earth.” The viewer sits patiently waiting for an explanation which never comes. The “another Earth” material is just there to hook the viewer. After that Miri's writer Adrian Spies is confident his plot about the landing party catching a disease and meeting kids gone wild will so grab the viewer's imagination that they will forget about the duplicate Earth. This proves not to be the case. The episode is caught in a trap of its own making. The script has established Miri's world looks like Earth so every time the episode cuts back to the Enterprise in orbit the viewers are reminded of the lack of a solution to the mystery.

Worse, not attempting even to suggest a solution, makes the Enterprise crew look like idiots with no intellectual curiosity. At the start of Miri everyone is amazed by this cosmic coincidence. By the end, because the writer doesn't want to draw attention to his lack of an explanation, no one mentions it. So apparently the Enterprise crew have forgotten about the duplicate Earth even if the audience hasn't. Kirk makes a weak joke about not dating older women, and the Enterprise warps out of orbit. Kirk says he's contacted, “Space Central,” who will send teachers and advisers to Miri's world, but not scientists. No one suggests sticking around and investigating. Why are these people even in space?

The same problem affects The Omega Glory. Once Kirk has taught Cloud William the true meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution the episode is over. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were amazed when the Yang soldier walked in carrying Old Glory, but they're over that now and they leave. The anthology nature of Star Trek means the events on Omega IV are forgotten. On Omega IV the Kohms (and presumably the Yangs) live for at least 1000 years. For Cloud William to mangle the preamble as he does (he says, “ee'dplebnista norkohn forkohn perfectunun” in place of “we, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union”) it must have been passed down through generations, so Omega IV had the flag, and the pledge, and the Constitution of the United States even before the United States existed on Earth. You can understand why no one thought any of this was worth investigating.

Another reason why act four totally overshadows the previous three acts is because the end of act three ad break is like a fault line running across the episode. Before that the story is about dealing with Captain Ron Tracey, afterwards it's about the correct way to treat the Yang's holy artefacts. The whole story is suddenly distorted. The appearance of the flag of the United States of Omega IV isn't a plot twist it's the moment the story wrenches out of shape. By Any Other Name is about the conflict between the Enterprise crew and the Kelvans. The location of the story shifts from planet, to Enterprise, to intergalactic space but the story is always about that conflict. The climax of the episode is the resolution of the conflict between the two sides. The Doomsday Machine is about Commodore Decker's obsessive need to destroy the planet killer, when Decker sacrifices himself his death provides Kirk with the information needed to destroy the planet killer at the climax of the story. The climax of The Omega Glory is Kirk reading aloud the Preamble to the United States Constitution and telling the Yangs they must also apply its principles to the Kohms, but the Yang's holy artefacts were only revealed ten minutes ago; literally in this case, since the last act of The Omega Glory appears to play out in real time.

Gene Roddenberry wants to tell a story about symbols and what happens when the symbols are valued but the philosophy and meaning behind them is misunderstood, or forgotten. That's a good starting point for a story, and tying that story on to the cultural artefacts of America is a bold move. The result is a story which warns Americans that saluting the flag, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is pointless without also allowing the principles they represent to apply to everyone. 

Unfortunately a story like that doesn't really fit the Star Trek format. It might work for The Twilight Zone where the story could be set in a post-apocalypse America but Star Trek never goes to Earth so immediately the story has to be set on an alien world. Then you have the problem of getting the Enterprise crew involved, and then somehow you have to get Kirk to remain and stay close to the heart of the action so he can be there for the denouement. Gradually the story starts to accrete round the original idea and becomes more and more cumbersome. Which is why The Omega Glory consists of so many different plot strands. Plus for the story to work as television it must be exciting and interesting on a visual level. It would make for a more sensible episode if the Yangs had their own flag and constitution. Kirk could explain how they've forgotten the true meaning of their artefacts, and the values of their ancestors, and draw the comparison with the United States. Then once the episode is done the landing party can beam back to the Enterprise and say, “Yangs and Kohms, I wonder,” and everyone can scratch their chins and look thoughtful. However having someone say, “that flag.... why it's an allegory for the United States flag,” is no match for the visual impact of actually having an alien walk in carrying the Stars and Stripes. Which is of course where we came in. 

Enterprise crew deaths: Lieutenant Galloway, vaporised by Captain Tracey.
Running total: 45

Sunday, April 7, 2013

By Any Other Name

When talking about Star Trek it's easy to get hung up on big name stories like The Trouble With Tribbles. While these episodes have come to define the series the real joy often comes from discovering (or rediscovering) the stories which don't persistently hang around in top ten lists. By Any Other Name is one of those episodes and it turns out to be a little gem. 

By Any Other Name has a script which constantly wrong foots the viewer about exactly what kind of story they should expect. The episode starts out looking as if it will be I, Mudd with aliens. The teaser, and act one, focus on the Kelvans plot to take over the Enterprise. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and two other Enterprise crew, are kept hostage to ensure the good behaviour of everyone else while the Enterprise is converted for the 300 year journey back to the Kelvan's home in the Andromeda galaxy. This episode being another addition to the list of stories suggesting the universe outside our galaxy is full of hideous monsters. Spock describes the Kelvans in their native form as, “immense beings [with] a hundred limbs which resemble tentacles."

The Kelvan's main weapon is a nifty little belt device which neutralises nerve impulses to the voluntary muscles leaving the target paralysed. All the elements are in place for this to be a generic Star Trek episode. The conversion of the Enterprise for its intergalactic voyage looks as if is there to add an arbitrary deadline to the story; forcing Kirk to save the day before the Enterprise departs. The aliens main advantage is technological, the belt paralyser, and when head alien Rojan mentions the neural field radiates from a central projector the episode looks set to turn into a game of hunt the power source; like Catspaw. It's easy to imagine how the next three acts will play out. A sequence of captures and escapes as Kirk tries to get hold of a paralysis projector, locate the central unit, and then turn the tables on the aliens by paralysing them until they have learned their lesson.

Still, even at this early stage it's clear the story is more interesting than average. There's an unusual amount of continuity. Spock's prison break technique from A Taste Of Armageddon (using the Vulcan mind meld to trick a guard into believing the Enterprise crew had escaped) is mentioned along with the energy barrier around the galaxy from Where No Man Has Gone Before. We also get to see the Kelvans take over the Enterprise, something which happened entirely off screen in I, Mudd. The takeover is a brisk little 60 second sequence of Kelvans appearing in key sections of the ship and paralysing the crew. It nicely demonstrates the Kelvan's technical superiority and ruthless efficiency. Plus, someone has found some money to give the Kelvans a signature effect. A blue twinkling visual when people are paralysed. This effect is completely unnecessary from a storytelling perspective. It's obvious when the the belt paralyser is used. There's a sound effect and everyone freezes (usually in some exaggerated “oh I can't move” pose, I particularly like Deforest Kelly's finger pointing, opened mouthed, position when McCoy is frozen while turning to say something to Spock). Still it's great that someone found the cash for the effect. It really adds visual interest to the scenes where it features, and its use is positively lavish considering Star Trek's normal frugal use of effects. Where you might see phasers fired once or twice in an episode, the Kelvan's belt paralyser is used twice in the teaser, and then another five times in act one.

The first real indication that events are not going to run as expected comes after the first escape attempt when Rojan tells Kirk, “this cannot go unpunished.” It turns out the Kelvans can reduce humans to small three dimensional objects, “the flesh and brain and what you call the personality, distilled down into these compact shapes.” People distilled down can be restored, but if the shape is crushed the person dies. Rojan demonstrates this on Lieutenant Shea and Yeoman Thompson, crushing Yeoman Thompson's distilled essence and killing her.

Yeoman Thompson's death may be the most disturbing seen on Star Trek. All we see on screen is a three dimensional shape being crushed to powder but somehow it's a weirdly graphic moment. What makes this killing so gruesome? It's hard to describe exactly but it's a combination of causes. There's the demonstration of Rojan's ruthlessness in forcing Kirk to watch a crew member being killed, and his killing of Thompson is literally more hands on than if he had shot her with a phaser, or zapped her with a bolt of lightning. There's the demonstration of Kirk's powerlessness, he cannot do anything except stand and watch. There's also an illogical attachment between Yeoman Thompson and the crushed shape. We've seen Thompson reduced, and we've been told the shape represents her very essence, so it feels as if we are watching Rojan's hand squeezing not just her body but somehow her brain and thoughts as well. On a more physical level crushing the object is not easy. Rojan squeezes once, twice, three times. Each time breaking the object into smaller chunks. Thompson's death would not seem nearly so prolonged or brutal if the shape had immediately exploded into a puff of power, or if Rojan just squeezed it once before dropping the remains on the floor. Lastly it's all too easy to start trying to imagine what the ruin of Thompson's body would look like. Rojan says Thompson cannot be restored to life, but presumably her body could be reconverted back into flesh and blood.

Yeoman Thompson's death is one of those moments which grips the imagination. As the story heads into act two it surprises again when the Enterprise warps out of orbit, and what had looked as if it would be a largely planet based story instead transfers completely to the Enterprise. It rapidly becomes clear that talk of the energy barrier around the galaxy wasn't just to set up the plot. We will actually see the ship attempt to do what it could not in Where No Man Has Gone Before, breach the barrier and head out into intergalactic space. At the same time Spock and Scotty have come up with a suicide plan. The barrier is composed of negative energy. On Kirk's order Scotty will flood the matter-anti-matter nacelles with positive energy and the ship will be destroyed. The result is a tense sequence as Kirk agonises over his decision. It's well edited by film editor James D. Ballas, and made more exciting by simple but effective use of the standard Enterprise control panel beeping noise as Scotty waits for Kirk's order, and by reusing part of Sol Kaplan's score for The Doomsday Machine. The whole sequence is capped cleverly by splitting Chekov's line, “we... made it,” around a shot of the Enterprise zooming towards Andromeda.

Obviously in the end Kirk decides not to blow up the ship, and it's a matter of personal taste as to whether you think his decision was correct or not for the character. As Kirk says in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, “I don't believe in the no-win scenario.Sacrificing the crew and ship would feel like Kirk was admitting there are no other possibilities. It solves the short term problem of what to do with this Kelvan scouting party, but for all Kirk knows there could be others. Or the failure of Rojan's group to report in could prompt the Kelvans to send another scouting party which the Federation don't know about, or worse a full scale invasion fleet. Plus at this point Kirk still has a full compliment of crew, he doesn't know Rojan plans to reduce them, so the humans outnumber the Kelvans, and the odds are in his favour. 

The scope of the story narrows in the later part of act three, and act four. With only four Enterprise crew remaining, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, the solution to the problem of defeating the Kelvans turns out to be tempting them with the pleasures of the flesh. Scotty gets Tomar drunk, Kirk seduces Kelinda, Spock expertly plays on Rojan's jealousy of Kirk and Kelinda, and McCoy starts injecting Hanar with stimulants while pretending to give vitamins to the alien. Amusingly no one seems to remember there's a fifth Kelvan on the bridge, Drea. While Tomar gets drunk, Kelinda gets snogged, Rojan gets furious, and McCoy gets Hanar hepped up on goofballs, Drea sits on the bridge patiently steering the ship on its 300 year journey towards Andromeda. She must be baffled to receive Rojan's order to reverse course. These scenes allow for some very good comedy, especially Scotty's drinking contest with Tomar, but there's something disappointing about By Any Other Name ending up as another story in which clever humans outwit superior beings. It's also not helped by repeating similar themes from Return To Tomorrow, although By Any Other Name was made first and is the superior episode of the two.

If the solution to beating the Kelvans is disappointing By Any Other Name does deserve praise for ultimately being resolved by diplomacy and an offer of assistance; admittedly after a fist fight in one of the recreation rooms. A lesser story might have ended with Kirk hoisting the Kelvans on their own petard, maybe paralysing them, or reducing them to cubes and leaving the problem for the future to deal with. One genuinely nice touch about the ending is that the much sought after neural paralysers end up being a Macguffin, and irrelevant to the resolution, to the extent that Scotty passes out just after getting hold of one. Which is probably just as well. The Enterprise corridors are littered with the shapes of the reduced crew. Imagine Scotty trying to deliver the projector while drunk. Kicking a shape here, tripping on one there, knocking off a corner, cracking another, and then probably falling over and crushing a whole load of them at once. 

Enterprise crew deaths: Just one, poor Yeoman Thompson. 
Running total: 44
Misc: More messing around with the closing credits. This time we have a still not from an episode, or a makeup test but a blooper. As William Blackburn peels the Return To Tomorrow android makeup from his head someone, possibly makeup artist Fred Phillips, says, "well, son, you wanted show business. Goddammit, you got it!" and then walks into shot and helps Blackburn pull off some of the latex."

Monday, April 1, 2013

April 1st And All That

Given the date it seemed appropriate to post this. It's something I produced for a blog I used to write. Although technically it is the wrong version of Star Trek.