Monday, June 24, 2013

Is There In Truth No Beauty?

Each of the three core Star Trek directors had their own speciality. Marc Daniels' strength was making the most of the Enterprise sets, producing his best work on bottle shows like The Doomsday Machine, or Mirror, Mirror. Joseph Pevney was great at big set piece stories, ones with lots of location shooting like Arena, but he also had an excellent eye for composing individual shots as in Amok Time and the scene where Spock tries to explain the pon farr to Kirk (“The birds and the bees are not Vulcans, Captain”).

The Star Trek production team seem to have viewed Ralph Senensky as the actor's director and tended to give him scripts with lots of character moments; This Side Of Paradise and Metamorphosis. He also has an astonishingly good sense of cinematography. In script terms Metamorphosis is frankly dull. Like This Side Of Paradise it's a love story between two mismatched people but Cochrane and the Companion are no Spock and Leila. However regardless of the faults of the script the finished episode looks stunning and judged on its visuals alone the story would be one of Star Trek's ten best. Ralph Senensky's real strength appears to have been in inspiring the people around him to do their best work; in the case of Metamorphosis the art director Matt Jefferies, and director of photography Jerry Finnerman.

What's true for Metamorphosis is also true for Is There In Truth No Beauty? The episode looks stunning and there's a constant sense that Ralph Senensky is always looking for a more interesting angle. Most notably with his and Jerry Finnerman's use of a 9mm fish-eye lens to capture point of view insanity shots. However where Metamorphosis was dull, Is There In Truth No Beauty? is a much better paced story. Like The Enterprise Incident it is full of plot and keeps the attention of the viewer by constantly moving the story in new directions. Ultimately Is There In Truth No Beauty? is a better episode than The Enterprise Incident because the story is much neater. Where The Enterprise Incident ends up being overbalanced by the weight of too many coincidences, Is There In Truth No Beauty? carefully sets up its story. If Jean Lisette Aroeste's script has a fault it's a little predictable in places. In the opening Captain's log when the Medusians are described as, “beings who are formless, so utterly hideous that the sight of a Medusan brings total madness to any human who sees one,” it is immediately apparent that someone is going to see one and be driven insane. Likewise it's clear Ambassador Kollos' navigation skills will be required when Kirk later asks Miranda Jones, “do you feel any way may be found to employ Medusan navigators on starships? It would certainly solve many of our navigational problems.” One surprise the script sucessfully pulls off is the end of act three moment when Spock accidentally catches sight of the Medusan. Early on it is established that Miranda Jones is jealous of Spock's superior ability to mind meld with Kollos but it remains unclear if Spock/Kollos accidentally forgets to wear the visor when Kollos returns to his box or if, as Kirk later accuses Jones, she deliberately made him forget.

The cast are in fine form, and there are two excellent guest stars. Most obviously Diana Muldaur, back again after appearing in the earlier Ralph Senensky directed episode Return To Tomorrow. She makes Miranda Jones spiky and unpleasant without being irremediable. For half the episode Diana Muldaur is given the extremely difficult task of playing a blind character without giving away that her character is blind; her condition is not revealed until act three. The odd vulnerability Diana Muldaur succeeds in giving Miranda Jones is an accomplished piece of acting. More easy to overlook is David Frankham as Larry Marvick who makes the most of a smaller role. his sweaty hysteria once Marvick goes mad is really well done, especially his delivery of the oddly creepy line, “We mustn't sleep! They come in your dreams! That's the worst! They suffocate in your dreams!”
The two behind the scenes stars of the episode are film editor Fabian Tordjmann and George Duning who composed the additional music. Fabian Tordjmann's editing work on the episode is tremendous. Watch the scene where Larry Marvick is driven mad by Ambassador Kollos. In the 30 seconds between the slow zoom to Kollos' container and the shot of Miranda Jones sitting in her cabin there are something like 20 cuts, but the sequence is more than just simple rapid cutting. Everything works together to create a sense of dislocation; the lurid green light; the headache inducing animation; and cutting around within a single shot so that, for example, we see Larry Marvick twist in agony, before Fabian Tordjmann cuts back to the beginning of the shot and then suddenly to the end, so that Marvick appears to jerk around the frame as if time is out of joint. Played over the top of this is George Duning's frantic score. The discordant trumpet stabs and electric organ would sound ridiculous on any other episode, but perfectly fit the mood and pace of Is There In Truth No Beauty?

Act two encapsulates why Is There In Truth No Beauty? works as well as it does. Running at a brisk six minutes the pace never lets up and showcases the work of Ralph Senensky, Fabian Tordjmann, Jerry Finnerman, George Duning, and the cast. The act begins with a tracking shot following the now insane Larry Marvick as he runs from the Medusan Ambassador's quarters to a turbo elevator, and then cuts between Marvick heading to engineering with, first, Miranda Jones investigating the Ambassador's cabin, and then Kirk, Spock, McCoy and two security guards walking down the same corridor with the camera tracking backwards. There is no dialogue for the first minute of the act, but the mood is captured by the camera movement in the shots used, Duning's score, and the body language of the actors; David Frankham, distressed and disoriented; Diana Muldaur hesitant and unsure; and Kirk and the security team purposeful.

At this point I'm going to have to politely disagree with Ralph Senensky. Over on his blog he describes when he first saw the episode on television, “I was appalled. Who had ordered the horror film flickering green light and the comic strip animation?” I can understand why he feels they are an unnecessary addition to his director's cut. His opinion is that they represent a “vulgarizing technique [that] had never intruded into STAR TREK before." The green light and animation are b-movie techniques but I don't think Star Trek should be above using these techniques, and I also think they are an important part of why the episode works. The green light and animation give the audience a sense of something incomprehensible in the Ambassador's container. This is not just some rubber suited monster but literally something indescribable which the human mind cannot cope with, and it's important to have this conveyed with a visual cue.

Enterprise crew deaths: None this week. Although recurring extra Billy Blackburn does get punched in the face by the insane Larry Marvick.
Running total: 48.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

And The Children Shall Lead

“We're writing radio shows. All the actors can do now is stand around and talk to each other.” Maybe no episode better demonstrates Robert Justman's complaint about season three Star Trek than And The Children Shall Lead where the script itself actively works to prevent Kirk from taking any meaningful action.

The central premise of writer Edward J. Lakso's script is that an evil alien called the Gorgan is using children as its agents of evil. Not a bad idea in itself. Creepy kids have a history in science fiction, The Twilight Zone episode It's A Good Life or the 1960 film Village Of The Damned, an adaptation of John Wyndham's book The Midwich Cuckoos. The problem is that here the children are used in such a way it becomes impossible for Kirk to take any substantial action against them without looking like a bully, or a monster. Kirk's standard operating procedures of fighting, or seduction, are certainly off limits. The whole plot could be wrapped up in five minutes if Kirk stunned the kids with a phaser, or got McCoy to sedate them, but that's something no network would be prepared to show. When McCoy also forbids Kirk from questioning the children on psychological grounds, Kirk is effectively unable to act or investigate. One of the reasons this story feels so static is that Kirk becomes a spectator. He's unable to do anything except react; react to the children taking over the Enterprise, react to footage from Professor Starnes' tapes, and react as he loses command.

There's also a production decision which adds to the inert feel of the story. The Gorgan is realised using special effects. On screen he is always semi transparent and covered with a glowing green special effect. This limits Marvin Belli's movement, and also stops him from interacting properly with the other characters. If Marvin Belli was the world's greatest actor he might be able to overcome the limitations of not being on the same set as the principle cast, and a costume which restricts his body language to the extent he is just a talking head, but he isn't the world's greatest actor; he's a celebrity lawyer who unsuccessfully defended Jack Ruby. It turns out stunt casting isn't a new development

Having written a script which actively works to prevent the lead characters from doing anything except watch footage from the doomed Starnes Exploration Party, Edward J. Lakso is then faced with several problems.

A) Kirk must learn why the children are behaving so strangely.
B )Kirk must learn about the true source of the children's power.
C) Kirk must learn how to summon the Gorgan.
D) Kirk must learn the Gorgan's plan.

Lasko's solution results in one of the silliest Star Trek scenes committed to film. It's certainly the laziest scripting since The Alternative Factor. In context the scene just about works, as does the whole episode thanks to director Marvin J. Chomsky and film editor Donald R. Rode (genuinely one of the unsung heroes of Star Trek his work lifts otherwise average episodes like Return To Tomorrow or A Private Little War), but out of context the scene where the children summon the Gorgan to the bridge of the Enterprise is ludicrous.

The problems with this scene are many. Firstly none of the crew react in an even slightly human way. When Kirk dashes onto the bridge, having discovered the Enterprise is no longer orbiting Triacus, the children are in the middle of the ritual to summon the Gorgan. Uhura is gazing placidly at them as if this is the most delightful thing she has ever seen, while Chekov is oblivious to the din going on just behind his right shoulder. Then when the Gorgan appears everyone looks surprised, but that's pretty much the minimum required level of reaction. There are two armed guards on the bridge what are they there for if not to point their phasers at intruders who materialise out of thin air?

Secondly, no one says anything. Not a, “kids please don't play in here,” as the children conduct their ritual, or a word from Kirk. It's genuinely ludicrous that Kirk doesn't try to engage with the Gorgan but instead stays silent for almost 90 seconds. William Shatner rightly gets a lot of criticism for his performance in this episode but frankly given the material he's working with it's not really a huge surprise he's given up and is apparently just trying to amuse himself. Watch this scene from the beginning of act three as the Gorgan appears, delivers a speech, and disappears again, before the children leave the bridge. Compare the silent statues who passively watch all this with the bridge crew we've seen over the previous 58 episodes; how do you think those characters would have reacted? By wondering how those characters would react, you've already put in more work than Edward J. Lakso. He needs a scene in which the Gorgan infodumps his entire plan in such a way that Kirk learns it, and so that's exactly what he writes. Only the Gorgan has information to pass on so none of the other characters are given any lines. We're back at the scripting level of The Alternative Factor where McCoy allows Lazarus to walk out of sickbay because the plot will grind to a halt if he doesn't.

Thirdly what dialogue there is, is terrible. “Friends we have reached a moment of crisis. The enemy have discovered our operation, but they are too late,” says the Gorgan, apparently misunderstanding his part to be the role of narrator. The enemy haven't discovered your operation, you've revealed yourself to them. The only reason you have reached “ a moment of crisis” is because your followers decided to conduct their secret ritual in public.

Fourthly, despite now knowing the Gorgan's plan no one makes use of the information. At the end of the Gorgan's speech three of the children are allowed to just walk off the bridge. One of the security guards even follows the children into the turbo elevator. Presumably he's following the captain's orders to the letter. “Post a guard on the children. They're to be kept under constant watch.” Obviously he's not going to intervene as the children take over the Enterprise, he's only been ordered to watch.

There is the core of an interesting premise in And The Children Shall Lead, but the finished episode never comes close to realising that potential. The script never makes it clear if the Gorgon is somehow one of the marauders who operated from Triacus surviving in psychic form, or the entity which inspired the marauders to their centuries long reign of terror pillaging the Epsilon Indi system. If it's the latter there's an intriguing H. P. Lovecraft aspect to the story. The idea that a cave on the planet Triacus is the home of an ancient corrupting evil, and that evil has now latched on to the children of the Starnes Exploration Party; corrupting them, turning them against their own parents, and ultimately encouraging the children to focus its power against their own parents and drive them to suicide. Unfortunately, something else the script never makes clear, is what exactly did happen to the parents of the Starnes Party. Did they kill themselves to escape the horrific illusions and tricks of the Gorgan, or did their own children summon up their parents darkest fears and drive them to suicide?

Enterprise crew deaths: Two security guards are accidentally beamed into space. The most unpleasant crew death since Yeoman Thompson.
Running total: 48.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Paradise Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enterprise crew deaths: None again.
Running total: 46