Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Enterprise Incident

On 23rd January 1968 the USS Pueblo was boarded and captured by North Korean soldiers. The ship had been monitoring Soviet Union naval activity and gathering signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea. The United States maintained the USS Pueblo had always remained in international waters while North Korea claimed the ship had violated its territory. For D.C. Fontana this was the inspiration for the story which became The Enterprise Incident. Star Trek has dealt with contemporary issues before but this is bold even by their standards. The Pueblo incident, as it has become known, bubbled away through 1968 as the script was written, filmed, and broadcast. The crew were finally released from North Korea on 23rd December 1968, some three months after The Enterprise Incident was first aired.

The main strength of The Enterprise Incident is that the plot barrels forwards at top speed. By the end of the teaser the Enterprise is surrounded by Romulan ships, then act one ends with Spock betraying Kirk, act two with Kirk being pronounced dead, and act three with Scotty in a race against time to install the stolen cloaking device on the Enterprise. There's very little slack in the script. Unlike the act one Enterprise bridge scenes in Spock's Brain where the bridge crew work through the problem of locating Spock's purloined organ; those scenes don't do anything except pad out the running time to the required length. Although it's great to see the bridge crew working as a team it's the work of the actors, and Marc Daniels inspired decision to use back projection for the bridge viewscreen, which makes those bridge scenes interesting. In The Enterprise Incident each time the viewer thinks they've got a handle on the plot something new is thrown into the mix. The most obvious example being the act three reveal that this is all a big bluff to steal the new improved Romulan cloaking device. Then Kirk is disguised as a Romulan, and the episode turns into something more like Mission: Impossible; a spy/caper story in space.

The big advantage of keeping the plot moving like this is it stops the viewer noticing how conveniently everything falls into place. Kirk and Spock are consistently insanely lucky. Under orders from the Federation to steal a cloaking device they fly into Romulan space and are intercepted by a ship which has exactly what they need. Rather than destroy the Enterprise, “standard Romulan procedure” according to Spock, the Romulans decide the ship would make a great prize and invite Kirk and Spock across to the flagship. The Romulan commander is a woman who is attracted to Spock, which gives him a chance to distract her. When Spock “kills” Kirk his body is returned to the Enterprise before Spock's nerve pinch wears off. When the theft of the cloaking device is noticed the Romulan commander delays any action for 20 minutes while she takes Spock's confession, giving Scotty time to fit the device on the Enterprise, and Chekov time to locate Spock with the sensors. There's nothing wrong with having a character saved by a moment of luck but there's only so long a script can rely on coincidence before it starts to feel contrived, and as The Enterprise Incident moves into act four it does feel as if the coincidences mount up too much.

Worse, as the coincidences pile up it makes the viewer more sceptical and less willing to allow the story the required suspension of disbelief. Essentially it encourages them to actively pick holes in the story, and there do seem to be plenty to find. It sure is lucky that the Romulan cloaking device is compatible with the Enterprise systems. Just as it sure is lucky the Romulans don't search Spock and find the hidden communicator he is carrying. Just as it sure is lucky the Romulans notice Spock's transmissions but don't notice Kirk beaming over from, and back to, the Enterprise. Just as it sure is lucky the Romulans bring Kirk and Spock onto their ship. It would have wrecked Kirk's plan if the Romulans had kept everyone on board the Enterprise. The Enterprise Incident is a good script, but there's just too much narrative cheating for it to ever be great.

Another strength of The Enterprise Incident is that it paints the Federation with a little more grey than we normally see. The Federation is prepared to use sneaky and underhand tactics to gain an advantage and by ordering the Enterprise into Romulan space on a spying mission the Federation risks the crew of the Enterprise and, more seriously, war with the Romulans. This acknowledgement that sometimes even the good guys have to use morally dubious methods is a sign of maturity not always seen in Star Trek. Standard practice is simply to not discuss the subject. It's just taken as read that the Federation is a force for good. Which is fine until something comes along which makes the Federation look bad. How many lousy Federation officials have we met? Or insane starship captains?

At its worst Star Trek will assume that anything its heroes do must be right, simply because they are the heroes and therefore incapable of doing anything wrong (and this is true of any television series not just Star Trek). Look at The Apple where Kirk's destruction of Vaal is presented as heroic because now the Feeders of Vaal can kiss and have babies; never mind that the entire planetary population is 15 people and their world is a lethal death trap. Or compare the way the Terran Empire's threatened standard procedure (“phaser barrage on Halkan cities”) is presented as evil in Mirror, Mirror but Kirk's threat to use Starfleet General Order 24 (“the entire inhabited surface of your planet will be destroyed”) is a heroic way to force Anan 7 to listen in A Taste Of Armageddon.

This pragmatic Federation feels more realistic. A return to the complexities of episodes like
Errand Of Mercy where every decision Kirk makes is for the right ethical reasons, but at the end of the story he is on the side arguing for war. What's particularly pleasing is that none of the characters are used to justify the Federation's actions. There is no The Apple style speech telling us that the Romulans are so bad that anything the Federation does against them is justified. Instead Kirk and Spock are carrying out orders they have been given as part of what seems to be routine toing and froing of secrets between the Federation and Romulans and, as Spock acknowledges at the end of the episode, he and Kirk went to all that effort and exposed themselves to danger for what was probably only a short term gain. “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all.”

Enterprise crew deaths: None again, Kirk's risky plan works perfectly.
Running total: 46

Friday, May 24, 2013

Spock's Brain

The weirdest thing about Spock's Brain is that anyone thought this was the ideal episode to open season three. The second weirdest thing about Spock's Brain is how close the episode comes to working.

To stick with the second point. Yes, the premise is dumb. An alien woman scoops Spock's brain out of his head and runs off with it because they need its processing ability to run their city. Still Star Trek has taken less promising ideas and turned them into workable stories before. Spock must have sex or he'll die; that's Amok Time. Or there's the incident Leonard Nimoy recalls in his memoir I Am Spock. “But that day in 1967, when [D.C. Fontana ] came onto the Star Trek soundstage and told me, “Hey I have an idea for a Spock love story,” I was taken aback. Worse than taken aback – I was frightened... the very phrase “Spock love story” seemed oxymoronic.” “Trust me,” Nimoy reports Fontana saying to him, “there's a way to pull it off properly,” and of course she was right, This Side Of Paradise was the result. 

Taken individually each element of the story feels like it could work. The goofiest idea is the women of Sigma Draconis VI exiling unneeded men to the icy surface of the world. This war of the sexes concept is one other programmes have played with but no one has ever really made it work sucessfully; there's Power the series four episode of Blake's 7, and the Doctor Who story Galaxy 4.

In isolation everything else works. The idea of a brain as the central processing unit of a complex machine can be seen echoed in films like RoboCop. The idea of a pampered civilisation cared for and surrounded by the technology of their ancestors which they no longer understand is straight out of E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (on YouTube you can find BBC2's outstanding 1966 adaptation for the series Out Of The Unknown). The idea of aliens harvesting organs for their own purposes occurs again as the basis of the Vidiians in Star Trek: Voyager.

Gene L. Coon's script (writing under the pseudonym Lee Cronin) characterises the regulars very well. McCoy gets some great lines which Deforest Kelly uses to good effect. Most notably after using The Teacher to gain the necessary surgical knowledge, “a child could do it. A child could do it.” There's the discussion on the bridge as the crew work through the problem of which of the three inhabited planets in the Sigma Draconis system is the correct one. There's also a scene which perfectly captures Kirk as the man who never gives up even in the face of insurmountable odds.

KIRK: Then we'll take him with us.
MCCOY: Take him? Take him where?
KIRK: In search of his brain, Doctor. From what you say, the moment we find it we must restore it to his body, or we lose him.
MCCOY: Jim, where are you going to look? In this whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock's brain? How are you going to find it?
KIRK: I'll find it.
MCCOY: Even if you do, I can't restore it. I don't have the medical technique.
KIRK: It was taken out. It can be put back in.
MCCOY: But I don't know how.
KIRK: The thief that took it has the knowledge. I'll force it out of her.
MCCOY: If you don't find it in twenty four hours, you'd better forget the whole thing, Jim.
KIRK: You and Scotty have Spock ready.

Scrape away the melodramatic dialogue, “in this whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock's brain?” and you'll find a perfect sketch of Kirk's “I don't believe in the no win scenario” personality. He's got two impossible problems to solve, finding Spock's brain and then getting it back inside Spock's head, and his immediate reaction is to solve them one at a time.

Yet, even though that scene captures the essence of Kirk it's next to impossible not read it and die a little inside. Somehow almost everything Gene L. Coon writes turns to ashes when realised on screen. The same is true of Marc Daniels' direction. As in The Doomsday Machine Daniels uses back projection for the bridge viewscreen, but where it was a throwaway moment in that story it's used repeatedly in Spock's Brain. It looks brilliant, and it really adds to the believability of the bridge to see the crew interacting with the images. The best moment may be a single close up of Kirk standing right in front of the screen with stars moving in the background. Unfortunately very little else of Daniels' direction works as intended. The episode has no clarity of tone. Star Trek has done silly stories before, but even in an episode like The Apple it's always clear that Vaal is a threat. Unless he's stopped he can, and will destroy the Enterprise. Here the tone is all over the place, the characters are treating the danger to Spock as real but the editorial style of the story is very arch; as if the audience are meant to be laughing at the characters for taking it so seriously.

Probably the biggest mistake of the episode is bringing the remote controlled body of Spock to Sigma Draconis VI. At various times both Marc Daniels and Robert Justman have gallantly taken responsibility for this idea. Again on paper it makes perfect sense. The episode is called Spock's Brain and Leonard Nimoy is one of the real assets of the series. Why wouldn't you want him on screen as much as possible instead of occasionally cutting back to Spock unconscious in sickbay with Nurse Chapel looking concerned? Unfortunately as with much else in the episode, it's an idea which doesn't work. Mistake one is adding a ticking effect to the remote controlled Spock which is probably meant to suggest the clicking of electrical relays but actually sounds like he is now run by clockwork. Mistake number two is having Spock's body on screen while Kirk is talking to his disembodied brain. Again in theory it's a good idea, that Spock can be physically present and also absent in the same scene, but the result is a slack-faced Nimoy who distracts from the scene precisely because he is motionless or left gazing in the wrong direction. Possibly the silliest decision comes from film editor Bill Brame who occasionally cuts to Spock for reaction shots; pointless when the whole episode is about Spock's body being incapable of reacting. 

It's easy to understand why at the planning stage this episode seemed like a good curtain raiser for the third season. Exactly the same rationale was behind choosing Amok Time to open season two. Spock is Star Trek's breakout character, probably the most identifiable character from the series. Why wouldn't you start a new season with a story based on him? However once the episode was finished it's amazing anyone still wanted to run it first. Spock's Brain was the sixth third season episode made, also available to air would have been Spectre Of The Gun (made first) and The Enterprise Incident (made fourth). Both are superior Spock heavy stories. There's some logic behind holding Spectre Of The Gun back to air near Halloween (what better night to broadcast a story in which Captain Kirk dresses up as a cowboy?) but 31st October 1968 was a Thursday so Spectre Of The Gun ended up showing over a week before on Friday 25th. Far enough away that the Halloween link was vague. The Enterprise Incident would have been a good first episode, but presumably it wasn't wanted because NBC only ever seemed to value stories set on planets and, whatever its faults, Spock's Brain is a planet story. 

It's something of a cliché to hold Spock's Brain up as an example of everything rubbish about Star Trek. Just as it's also something of a cliché to try and be all revisionist and pretend this episode is good. Boringly the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Spock's Brain has too many bad moments to be good, but too many good moments to be truly bad. In the end it fails even to be the worst episode of the third season. 

Enterprise crew deaths: The third season starts with no one dying.
Running total: 46

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Photographic Effects

This is a post born largely out of ignorance. I understand the basics of how Star Trek's special effects were produced -different visual effects houses around Hollywood were commissioned to produce the special effects shots for each episode- but I'm not really sure how that worked on a week by week basis. When Cinema Research Corp. made the effects for Miri were they supplied with pre-shot footage of the duplicate Earth globe, star fields, and the Enterprise and just asked to combine the footage to make the final shot? Or, did they make the globe, and combine it with stock footage of the Enterprise.

I first started wondering about this while watching Mirror, Mirror (Van De Veer Photo Effects). The transporter effect seemed cruder than in other episodes with a noticeable black line almost like a drop shadow around the landing party as they beam up to the Enterprise. In the episode which follows in production order, The Deadly Years (Westheimer Company), the drop shadow effect is still present, presumably a legacy of the optical printing process, but it is nowhere near as pronounced. Since then I've come to suspect the more visible black line is actually a result of the colour grading, as the colours in Mirror, Mirror are more vivid than in The Deadly Years, but it did get me wondering about the differences between the work of each effects house.

Mirror, Mirror
The Deadly Years
The result is the list below showing which companies worked on which episodes, in production order, and there are patterns to the list which fit with stories from other sources. Inside Star Trek by Herbert Solow and Robert Justman recounts a disastrous screening of months of work by Howard Anderson Co, only one moth before Star Trek was due to air. The result was, “six good shots and some others that were partially usable,” when asked where all the other shots were Darrell Anderson, “began to shake. He jumped to his feet, screaming, “You'll never make your first airdate.” Bursting into tears he ran out of the room, still screaming...” “We later found out he had been working both day and night for months, trying to satisfy our needs. That afternoon Darrell went to Palm Springs for a rest cure.”

Sure enough the list shows Howard Anderson Co. is credited for photographic effects for the first six episodes made, with the exception of Mudd's Women (Westheimer Company). Then after a credit for The Menagerie Part II, presumably due to the use of footage from The Cage, they are not used again until halfway through season two. Film Effects Of Hollywood and Westheimer Company handle the majority of the effects for the rest of the first season. Film Effects Of Hollywood are not used after the first year. Inside Star Trek says, “its costs were too high for a television budget.” They were responsible for many of the ambitious first season matte paintings; Starbase 11 in Court Martial and The Menagerie Part I, Eminiar VII in A Taste Of Armageddon, and Janus VI from The Devil In The Dark.

Cinema Research Corp. initially keep producing a blue transporter effect, rather than a yellow one. It can be seen in Miri, The Doomsday Machine, and The Gamesters Of Triskelion before someone obviously has a word and their next episode The Omega Glory has the standard yellow coloured effect. In The Doomsday Machine they also don't hold Kirk frozen on the transporter pad for quite long enough when he beams back from the Constellation. He begins moving while still partially transparent from the cross fade effect. Still he was in a hurry to get to the bridge. 
The Doomsday Machine

The Gamesters Of Triskelion
The Omega Glory
For some reason Effects Unlimited only ever worked on one story, Who Mourns For Adonais? The episode is unusual in that it features effects combining live action elements, Apollo's hand grabbing the Enterprise and the shot of him towering over the landing party, so possibly Effects Unlimited brought some unique skills to the production which were never needed again.

Howard Anderson Co
Pilot: The Cage
1x01: Where No Man Has Gone Before
1x02: The Corbomite Maneuver
1x04: The Enemy Within
1x05: The Man Trap
1x06: The Naked Time
1x07: Charlie X
1x16: The Menagerie Part II
2x13: The Trouble With Tribbles
2x21: By Any Other Name
2x24: The Ultimate Computer
3x02: Elaan Of Troyius
3x04:The Enterprise Incident
3x10:For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky
3x14:That Which Survives
3x16:Whom Gods Destroy
3x20:The Way To Eden

Westheimer Company
1x03: Mudd's Women
1x09: What Are Little Girls Made Of?
1x10: Dagger Of The Mind
1x12: The Conscience Of The King
1x17:Shore Leave
1x21: Tomorrow Is Yesterday
1x24: Space Seed
1x25: This Side Of Paradise
1x27: Errand Of Mercy
1x29: Operation - - Annihilate!
2x01: Catspaw
2x02: Metamorphosis
2x05: Amok Time
2x08: The Changeling
2x09: The Apple
2x11: The Deadly Years
2x15: Journey To Babel
2x18: Obsession
2x20: A Piece Of The Action
2x23: Patterns Of Force
3x01: Spectre Of The Gun
3x06: Spock's Brain
3x08: The Empath
3x11: Day Of The Dove
3x15: Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
3x17: The Mark Of Gideon
3x21: Requiem For Methuselah
3x24: Turnabout Intruder

Film Effects Of Hollywood
1x08: Balance Of Terror
1x13: The Galileo Seven
1x14: Court Martial
1x15: The Menagerie Part I
1x18: The Squire Of Gothos
1x20: The Alternative Factor
1x22: The Return Of The Archons
1x23: A Taste Of Armageddon
1x26: The Devil In The Dark
1x28: The City On The Edge Of Forever

Cimema Research Corp 1x11:Miri
2x06: The Doomsday Machine
2x17: The Gamesters Of Triskelion
2x25: The Omega Glory
3x07: Is There In Truth No Beauty
3x13: Wink Of An Eye
3x19: The Cloud Minders
3x23: All Our Yesterdays

Van Der Veer Photo Effects
2x03: Friday's Child
2x07: Wolf In The Fold
2x10: Mirror, Mirror
2x12: I, Mudd
2x14: Bread And Circuses
2x16: A Private Little War
2x19: The Immunity Syndrome
2x22: Return To Tomorrow
2x26: Assignment: Earth
3x03: The Paradise Syndrome
3x05: And The Children Shall Lead
3x09: The Tholian Web
3x12: Plato's Stepchildren
3x18: The Lights Of Zetar
3x22: The Savage Curtain

Effects Unlimited
2x04: Who Mourns For Adonais?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Assignment: Earth

A sneaky pilot for a series starring Robert Lansing as Gary Seven, and Teri Garr as Roberta Lincoln. Assignment: Earth is unable to demonstrate the strengths of the proposed new series or Star Trek.

As a Star Trek episode, Assignment: Earth ends up being Tomorrow Is Yesterday stripped of all the concepts which made Tomorrow Is Yesterday the better episode. Gone is the clever near future setting of Tomorrow Is Yesterday, broadcast in January 1967 but set in a then undefined future just before the first mission to the moon. Instead the opening Captain's log immediately tells us Assignment: Earth is intended to be contemporary, “ the year 1968.” Gone too are D. C. Fontana's carefully worked out solutions for getting the Enterprise crew in and out of the story. The Enterprise has been in 1968 for some time at the start of Assignment: Earth, and the story ends before the Enterprise heads home. Also gone is much of the incident from Tomorrow Is Yesterday, the increasing complications of a plot in which the Enterprise crew know they cannot interact with 20th century Earth, but must in order to try and resolve problems caused by earlier interactions, which causes more problems, and so on. In Assignment: Earth Kirk never gets to take the lead, he and Spock spend most of the story following Gary Seven from New York, to McKinley Rocket Base, and back to New York.

As the first episode of a series called Assignment: Earth, the viewer is left with no idea of how that show would work on a weekly basis. The concept is clearly laid out when Gary Seven describes his mission as, “to prevent Earth's civilisation from destroying itself before it can mature into a peaceful society,” but what does that mean over 26 weeks? There is no antagonist in Assignment: Earth. The plot, such as it is, runs entirely on Kirk, and Spock not knowing if they can trust Gary Seven, and Roberta not knowing if she can trust Gary Seven, or Kirk and Spock. Earlier non Star Trek drafts of the pilot featured an evil alien race called Omegans but in the broadcast story there is no hint of any malevolent external threat. From the pilot it seems the audience is meant to assume Gary and Roberta will work as a team, but what we are shown on screen is a script which keeps the pair apart. Gary Seven goes off and sabotages the rocket while Roberta stays in New York being a quirky klutz, and saving the day by accidentally twiddling the right knobs. There's very little opportunity to see if the pair have any chemistry together, Gary Seven spends more screen time with Isis the cat. Based on the episode, Assignment: Earth the series would involve Gary Seven and Isis the cat infiltrating a different military or scientific facility each week, and committing a little light sabotage to highlight the danger caused by whatever activity the facility conducted. There's also a fundamental problem caused by the series being a Star Trek spin off. If Gary Seven's mission is to neutralise threats to the future then it's hard to generate jeopardy around the concept when we have already seen that future in Star Trek.

A big problem with the episode is that the pace of the storytelling is glacial. In act three the following story points are covered; Gary Seven has to sabotage the rocket; Kirk and Spock must follow Seven to McKinley Rocket Base; Scotty must use the resources of the Enterprise in the hunt for Seven; and Roberta must discover Gary Seven's transporter. Covering these story points takes 14 minutes. Worse, many of these story points are simply delaying tactics for the plot. Kirk and Spock follow Gary Seven to McKinley, where they are instantly arrested and made to stand in the corner of the control room set until they can discretely beam back to his New York apartment. The audience was shown Gary Seven's hidden transporter in act two, so when Roberta discovers it we are watching Roberta learn something we already know. Even worse, four of act three's 14 minutes are NASA stock footage. That's stock footage used as visual material in it's own right (for example the rocket launch which takes up about a minute of screen time), edited into viewing screens, treated with voice-overs (there's lots of grainy film of mission control with public address style announcements played over the picture), or featuring characters wordlessly interacting with the footage (Gary Seven in the gantry lift, Scotty using the transporter room viewscreen).

Some fun can be had with the ideas behind the episode. It's difficult not to feel sorry for John D. F. Black. All the way back in The Naked Time he proposed a model for time travel (antimatter implosion) and the series constantly ignores it. The second time they travel in time, Tomorrow Is Yesterday, is an accident using the slingshot method, the third time in The City On The Edge Of Forever it's the Guardian of Forever, and for Assignment: Earth they're back to using the slingshot method. Actually one point in the episode's favour is the stylish way it starts by essentially saying, "yeah we've travelled in time, deal with it."

It's also difficult to understand what Starfleet thinks it can learn from the Enterprise's mission. Surely there are more interesting periods for the ship to visit? The mission might make sense if Assignement: Earth is a trial run for time travel history research and the plan was to go to a historically insignificant time to minimise the risk of disruption, but the script is clear that 1968 is a big deal in Earth history. Spock has a line, “there will be an important assassination today, an equally dangerous government coup in Asia...” but 1963 had a more historically significant assassination and a coup in South Vietnam. Obviously in the real world this is to flatter the viewer, “hey kids what we're doing now matters,” but in story terms why investigate 1968 in a series which has established the Eugenics Wars will start in the 1990s. On a more nitpicking note, when Spock complies his historical report for Kirk at the beginning of the episode he describes the launch of the orbital nuclear warhead platform as, “highly critical,” but does not mention, as Kirk does at the end of the episode, “our record tapes show, although not generally revealed, that on this date, a malfunctioning suborbital warhead was exploded exactly one hundred and four miles above the Earth.” It seems odd for Spock to miss that important point out of the briefing he gives to Kirk. Perhaps we can write this off as history changing around the events of the episode but the big lesson of The City On The Edge Of Forever is that even the tiniest change can have unforeseen consequences.

Another unsolved mystery is what is Spock doing with Scotty in the transporter room at the beginning of the episode? Kirk says the Enterprise's mission is, “monitoring Earth communications,” so why would Spock be anywhere other than the bridge? Is monitoring communications actually a cover story? For their historical research are the Enterprise crew secretly beaming people on board, interrogating them, and then using a Vulcan mind meld to erase all memories of the experience?

One real mystery of Assignment: Earth is that this episode turns out to be the most expensive Star Trek story made. According to a post at the Trek BBS website the final cost of Assignment: Earth was $288,049.00, easily beating the final $250,396.71 cost of The City On The Edge Of Forever. To put it bluntly, the episode doesn't look that expensive. The City On The Edge Of Forever had night location filming on the Desilu backlot with vehicles and extras dressed appropriately for the period, as well as some large studio sets, and a big one-off piece of scenery in the form of the Guardian. By comparison Assignment: Earth has a couple of ambitious effects shots which add a rocket to location footage filmed on the Paramount lot, but there's very little else which would seem to account for the money bar some location filming with a lot of extras to look like New York crowds. Maybe there were a lot of additional behind the scenes costs to do with making a pilot as part of an ongoing series?

Enterprise crew deaths: None again
Running total: 46