Monday, December 23, 2013

The Empath

It feels unfair to criticise The Empath because it's a sincere attempt to tell a very different story. There are none of the usual Star Trek staples; no one "dies" or is presumed dead, and nobody falls in love or meets an old flame. Gem is an attempt to realise a very different type of alien. The Vian's have their own agenda and are not out to conquer the Galaxy. These are not superior beings outwitted by clever humans. Earth is not in danger. The story is resolved not with a fist fight but when Kirk tells the Vians that they have lost the very qualities they are looking for in Gem; almost a proto Star Trek: The Next Generation resolution. This is an attempt to break out of the usual format while still telling a recognisably Star Trek story.

Unfortunately The Empath is dull. Like Return To Tomorrow it feels as if there isn't sufficient plot to fill a 48 minute episode, but where Return To Tomorrow could pad out the running time with characters making speeches at each other The Empath has an additional problem. Gem is mute. This is, as already mentioned, an attempt to realise a very different kind of alien, but it does mean large portions of the story are dialogue free. It's possible to do exciting dialogue light sequences but they rely on the film editor having sufficient material to cut a sequence together. In The Doomsday Machine the 90 seconds between Kirk activating Scotty's improvised self-destruct system and the planet-killer being destroyed has this dialogue.

KIRK: Beam me aboard.
SPOCK: Energise.
KYLE: Energising. Bridge, it's shorted out again.
SCOTT: Och, what's wrong with it?
KIRK: Gentlemen, beam me aboard.
SPOCK: We can't, Captain. Transporter is out again... Mister Scott, twenty seconds to detonation.
SPOCK: Mister Scott?... Mister Scott. Try inverse phasing.
SULU: Sixty, fifty, forty, thirty.
KIRK: Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard.
SULU: Ten, nine, eight, seven.
SPOCK: Mister Scott?
SCOTT: Try her now, Mister Kyle.
SULU: Six, five, four.

That's 13 lines of dialogue to cover one of the most exciting 90 seconds in Star Trek. Film editor Donald R. Rode is able to keep cutting between Kirk on the Constellation, Spock on the Enterprise bridge, Scotty in the Jefferies tube, the transporter room, the damaged exterior of the Constellation, and the maw of the planet-killer. In The Empath Donald R. Rode struggles to make a shorter sequence work when Gem heals the cut on Kirk's head; simply because he doesn't have the same variety of material.

[Medium close-up of Gem]
[Medium close-up of of Kirk showing a cut on his forehead]
[Medium close-up of Gem, she begins reaching forwards]
[Three shot of Kirk, Gem, and McCoy, Gem puts her hand on Kirk's forehead]
[Medium close-up of Gem]
[Medium close-up of of Kirk, the cut vanishes]
[Medium close-up of Gem, the cut appears on her forehead]
[Medium close-up of McCoy]
[Medium close-up of Kirk, he begins reaching forwards]
[Medium close-up of Gem, Kirk touches the cut]
[Medium close-up of Kirk, he looks at the blood on his fingertip]
[Medium close-up of of Gem, the cut vanishes]
[Medium close-up of McCoy]
[Three shot of Kirk, Gem, and McCoy, Gem slumps forwards as Kirk touches his forehead]
Kirk: The pain is gone.

Even that simple sequence was probably a nightmare to film. Something as basic as capturing two shots of William Shatner with and without make-up for the cut, so they could be convincingly dissolved together, probably ate up filming time. In fact possibly that's one reason for the black void setting; a featureless background would simplify the process of dissolving between shots of actors. The lack of dialogue also hampers storytelling because the shots that are filmed have to be as simple and basic as possible to allow the audience to see what is happening and understand events without explanatory dialogue.

It's easy to think of The Empath as a cheap money saving story, the central location for the action is a large black void, but by the standards of Star Trek this is lavish. There's a specially composed score by George Duning. The research station seen in the teaser doesn't look like a redress of one of the Enterprise sets which means a specially constructed set was made for an area with less than three minutes of screen time. There's also a planet exterior set, make up for the two Vians, more make up for the assorted injuries inflicted on the landing party and Gem (plus the time required to make up the actors), the hire of special props to fill the different areas of the black void, and lots of optical effects; the Vian's matter-energy scrambler, their force field, even something as simple as Gem's healing of the cut on Kirk's head is given a small optical effect. Ultimately even the black void itself comes across as a halfway house, less an excuse to save money than the only practical way to represent a large underground cavern on Star Trek's budget.

Ironically while the episode is dull it is visually interesting. The black void setting is unique and well lit and filmed by director John Erman and director of photography Jerry Finnerman; again there's no small irony that the man who made
Star Trek so colourful should spend his last episode lighting black drapes. In production order The Empath falls between two Ralph Senensky directed stories and it's tempting to wonder, given his skill at drawing sensitive performances from actors, whether the intent was to get Ralph Senensky to direct this episode rather than either The Tholian Web or Is There In Truth No Beauty?. If that isn't the case then its notable that the episode uses lenses in a similar way to those two stories. During the act two chase across the surface, when McCoy and Spock realise the rescue party is an illusion, a 9mm lens is used to add depth to the set and, exactly as was also done in Metamorphosis, strategically placed rocks hide off set areas which would have been revealed by the lens. It's also possible that some shots of the Vians make use of the 9mm lens, occasionally there's a degree of distortion to the aliens like the point of view madness shots in The Tholian Web or Is There In Truth No Beauty although the effect is more subtle. When Donald R. Rode is given sufficient material to work with he cuts together some good sequences. The act two chase works very well, and there's a lovely moment when, just before the healing sequence mentioned above, his editing shows the two Vians teleporting away by stepping forwards as if to walk out of frame; a subtle but good looking effect.

Enterprise crew deaths: None. After 12 episodes only three crew have died making season three the safest for the Enterprise crew; so far.
Running total: 49

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Wink Of An Eye

Several Star Trek stories really grabbed me as a kid. The Galileo Seven was one. The idea of being trapped with hostile monsters who wanted to do nothing except kill you and all your friends gripped my imagination. Although probably not in the way Gene Roddenberry intended. He would have sat me down and given me a talking to about infinite diversity in infinite combinations if he'd seen me playing Enterprise crew vs hideous space monsters. That's the problem with coming back to programmes you watched as a child. Your quality criteria is totally different. The Alternative Factor was spooky, and the idea of spending eternity imprisoned, "with a madman at your throat," was something I didn't really understand but I found it haunting in a way I couldn't articulate. Now The Alternative Factor is just bad Star Trek.

Wink Of An Eye was another story that I loved and it's easy to see why. The idea of being speeded up to a point where your friends appear like statues, and you are moving too fast for them to see and hear, is irresistible. It was like the programmes you would sometimes see on television where people were speeded up until just doing something as basic as walking became funny, or things were slowed down until water appeared to flow like treacle. A sign that you've engaged with a programme is when you find yourself thinking about what you'd do if you were caught in the same situation. I remember wondering what I would do if I was speeded up like Captain Kirk and how I would try and contact my friends? I also remember not really understanding why Kirk couldn't just stand on one spot for a long time until someone else saw him. And, although I didn't get it at the time, that's the problem with Wink Of An Eye. Its plot is a cheat.

The whole idea of hyper-acceleration as presented in the script just doesn't work. The logic of the plot actually works against itself. Kirk is meant to be moving at a vastly increased speed compared to the Enterprise crew but Kirk's story line and that of the Enterprise crew run simultaneously, and we cut between them as if events are happening at the same time. When Kirk is first accelerated he meets Deela and leaves the bridge to investigate the mysterious device in Life Support. We cut back to the bridge crew reacting to Kirk's disappearance and then to Kirk arriving at Life Support as if the time it took for the bridge crew to react was also just enough time for Kirk to race through the ship.

For obvious plot logic reasons it's never clearly stated on screen exactly how much faster the Scalosians live. Phil Farrand in his book
The Nitpicker's Guide For Classic Trekkers once calculated that one minute of real time equals at least 840 minutes of Scalosian time; that's one minute of our time equalling 14 hours of their time. That's pretty fast. The bridge crew's discussion of Kirk's disappearance lasts 20 seconds. Unless my maths is completely shot, which is not impossible, that's around four and a half hours in Scalosian time. The Enterprise is a big ship but it seems unlikely that it would take four and a half hours so get from one area to another, even if you couldn't use the turbo lifts (from Kirk's perspective they'd be moving too slowly to be practical, you could wait several hours just for one to arrive). Kirk's story line and the Enterprise crew's story line should very quickly drift out of sync but they can't because this episode is trying to tell a logical and ordered story.

[Actually all this works if you pretend being hyper-accelerated actually means the Scalosians are slightly out of phase with our universe. They could be in a dimension extremely close to ours which somehow allows them to interact with our dimension but in a way that makes our time seem impossibly slow and theirs impossibly fast. Unfortunately this goes against the intention of the script which clearly states the Scalosians are just moving very very quickly.]

Don't get me wrong. The story is fun, in the same way an episode like The Gamesters Of Triskelion is fun. It's made by a production team who are still putting in as much effort as they can. There are visually effective sequences like Deela dodging a phaser beam, or little moments like Kirk's hair being ruffled in sickbay, or the dutch camera angles used in the hyper-accelerated world to make it visually distinct from the regular Enterprise; watch the sequence where Spock drinks the Scalosian water and see the way the camera tilts as the water takes effect, and then untilts in a single shot to show McCoy and Nurse Chapel reacting to Spock's disappearance.

It's because of episodes like Wink Of An Eye that Star Trek often gets lumped in with 60's camp like Batman and Lost In Space. Individually episodes like this are fun, but cumulatively they distort the memory of the series. Deela's introduction seems deliberately designed to be as silly as possible. Kirk explores the frozen bridge when a voice behind him says, "Captain." Kirk turns to see Deela, and he walks towards her across the bridge.

KIRK: Would you mind explaining [she grabs him and kisses him passionately. Kirk pushes her away] Who are you?
DEELA: Deela. The enemy.
[Fade to adverts]

The whole aesthetic of the series has changed.
Star Trek started dabbling with comedy when Gene L. Coon arrived as producer, but recently the tone has changed; and recently means since Spock's Brain. It's the difference between laughing with and laughing at something. It's now as if the production team are talking to us directly over the series going, "we know this is silly, and we know you know this is silly, so let's have some fun." The audience is presented with stories which involve a threat to the Enterprise and her crew, but that threat is made as frivolous as possible so the audience can laugh at the Enterprise crew for taking it so seriously. Maybe it's unfair to ascribe such cynical motives to the production team. Batman had just been cancelled by ABC but was offered a fourth season on NBC. If that deal had worked out the fourth season would have aired across 1968-69 with Star Trek's third season. Other programmes being made at the time include Lost In Space, Bewitched, and The Flying Nun. What we could be looking at is a production team doing their job of keeping Star Trek on the air by tweaking it to appeal to contemporary taste, and if contemporary taste leans towards self-mocking, frivolous and light-hearted then that's the direction the series will take. 

Enterprise crew deaths: Compton who is hyper-accelerated and then aged to death when he suffers "cell damage."
Running total: 49

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Plato's Stepchildren

The teaser for Plato's Stepchildren is really effective. A lot of this is due to Alexander, played by Michael Dunn with a twitchy nervous energy. His opening info-dump packed lines should fall flat on the screen but he makes the exposition work by portraying Alexander as someone who just cannot stop his mouth from running. "...Platonians. I'm sure you've never heard of us. Our native star is Sahndara. Millennia ago, just before it went nova, we managed to escape. Our leader liked Plato's ideas Plato, Platonius. See? In fact, our present philosopher-king, Parmen, sometimes calls us Plato's children, although we sometimes think of ourselves more as Plato's stepchildren."

At this point we're barely 90 seconds into the episode and Alexander's character is already solidly established as someone a little odd and lacking in social skills; Kirk, Spock, and McCoy certainly think so judging by the look they exchange over Alexander's head as he rambles on and on, and the trio pretend to listen politely. When Alexander says, "excuse me, someone's waiting for you," and then twitches and dances backwards out of the scene it could be taken as yet another aspect of his strange character but it isn't. The Platonians have telepathic powers, and there's another nicely handled moment when Parmen snatches McCoy's hypospray and it floats through the air (it's a shame the cleaned up prints make the wires more visible). Finally the teaser ends not on a reaction close-up of the landing party as might normally be expected, but on Alexander in pain and worried.

This really should feel tired and second hand. Just another bunch of toga wearing demi-gods, as previously seen in
Arena and Who Mourns For Adonais? but instead it feels fresh. In the space of two and a half minutes the teaser sets up some intriguing characters and has the audience asking the question all good teasers should raise; what's going on here and what's going to happen to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy?

Act one continues the trend mixing nice understated moments, the contrast between Alexander's struggle to move his chess pieces and the effortless telekinesis of Eraclitus, and bigger moments like Parmen's telepathic delirium. Ultimately your opinion of the story will depend on how you view the later acts when Parman tries to force McCoy into staying by humiliating Kirk and Spock, and later also bringing Uhura and Nurse Chapel down from the Enterprise. Personally I find the humiliation scenes go on too long. They make up the bulk of act two and it's possible to go through a whole suite of emotions while watching; anger, embarrassment (for the characters), boredom, embarrassment (for the actors), horror, embarrassment (for yourself at the fear of being caught watching Kirk pretending to be a horse). Then, after act three provides a recovery period the humiliation scenes start up again, this time with Kirk and Spock dressed in vile red and green togas. It's difficult to know how to read these scenes. The audience is meant to be outraged at the Platonian's humiliation of the Enterprise crew for their own entertainment, but it's also being done for the entertainment of the audience. At what point does the sadism of the Platonians blur into titillation for the audience? Probably around the point where Parmen brings out the implements of torture and Spock menaces Nurse Chapel with a red-hot poker and Kirk starts cracking a whip around Uhura; had someone on the production team seen a bootleg copy of The Avengers episode A Touch Of Brimstone? It went into syndication on American television in 1969.

Apart from those togas what surprises most about the story is how lush it looks. It's easy to mock Star Trek's tendency to use the style of ancient Greece as a symbol for strange alien power, but being able to pull costumes and sets from storage must allow tight budgets to be stretched further than normal and the result is some visually pleasing, and surprisingly large and complex sets. Art director
Matt Jefferies has added a small square pond behind the main throne room, and behind that is a view of greenery and a horizon. The whole set has real depth and looks bigger than Apollo's temple in Who Mourns For Adonais? although it is almost certainly smaller. In addition director of photography Al Francis lights the sets beautifully and the result is a rich and colourful world. I can't help feeling guilty for criticising Al Francis in my review of The Tholian Web because here he does sterling work.

Ultimately it's not the big set piece scenes of act two and four which stick in the memory and make the episode work, it's little moments. Bruce Schoengarth the film editor uses some great reaction shots of Philana as she smirks or looks bored or disdainful; she gets surprisingly few lines but her regular reaction shots allow her a constant presence in the story. The slow realisation that Alexander's nervous desire to constantly please is due to hundreds of years of literally being pushed around. The two fops Dioniyde and Eraclitus who mock Kirk and Spock during the revels. "Oh, how faithless and fickle." "Make up your minds." The laughter and applause which accompanies the revels and makes those scenes feel like some bizarre sitcom. Liam Sullivan's delivery of Parmen's line, "how can you let this go on?" which ends act two and Leonard Nimoy's subdued and broken Spock at the start of act three; somehow more shocking than any of the indignities inflicted on him by the Platonians.

Enterprise crew deaths: None again, a six episode run of no deaths for the Enterprise crew.
Running total: 48

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Tholian Web

There's been a significant departure from the Star Trek production team. This is the first episode filmed without Jerry Finnerman as director of photography. The complications of production order versus broadcast order mean we've already seen a couple of episodes shot by Jerry Finnerman's replacement Al Francis, Day Of The Dove and ForThe World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky, and Finnerman's last story The Empath is still to come. Jerry Finnerman's loss is significant because he was responsible for the look of the show. The bright slabs of colour, the use of lenses to add depth to sets, and the use of lighting to help tell the story. Go back and watch This Side Of Paradise and the scene where Kirk fights the effect of the spores. The lighting in the transporter room is used to represent Kirk's internal emotional struggle as Kirk goes from being lit normally, to silhouetted, and then, when he leans forward, his face is lit a harsh electric blue. No disrespect to Al Francis but his lighting on Day Of The Dove and For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky and of course here on The Tholian Web is flatter and less interesting.

The Tholian Web also sees the departure from Star Trek of Ralph Senensky who was replaced after the third day of shooting by Herb Wallerstein who takes the directing credit on this episode. Ralph Senensky's input is obvious. Most notably in the use of a 9mm lens to show Chekov's distorted point of view when he is driven mad by this strange area of space. Ralph Senensky used the same visual trick in his other third season episode Is There In Truth No Beauty? The script's suggestion that the dimensional structure of the overlapping universe can drive people insane because it is utterly alien is reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft's stories about monstrous geometries which cause everything from a sense of dread to full blown madness.

Judy Burns and Chet Richards' script is unusually structured. Instead of a big central crisis there are several little problems. Kirk is lost in the other universe and will not reappear for two hours. The area of overlap is fragile and any energy use from the Enterprise could damage it, resulting in Kirk being lost forever. The overlapping universe is gradually driving the Enterprise crew insane. Then the Tholians arrive. Individually any one of these problems would be simple to resolve, but they start coming one immediately after another and the crisis keeps building as the episode progresses. Compare this to For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky, a story with two main strands; McCoy's terminal illness and the badly off course asteroid/world Yonada. Both these plots are set up in act one and everything which occurs is just filler until Yonada's course is corrected in act four, and Spock finds the cure to McCoy's disease and the episode ends.

The other unusual aspect of Judy Burns and Chet Richards' script is that it is largely Kirk free. Although it is a credit to the writers that his presence hangs over the story even when the character is apparently lost. According to Judy Burns in the original story outline, called In Essence – Nothing, it was Spock who was lost but this was changed following a memo from Robert Justman. It was a smart change to make. Losing Kirk strengthens the story. McCoy would never challenge Kirk in the way he does Spock. Unfortunately it turns out that McCoy goes a little too overboard when he challenges Spock's decision making.

MCCOY: ... I really came here to find out why you stayed and fought.
SPOCK: The Captain would have remained to recover a crew member at the risk of his own life or even his own ship.
MCCOY: Yes, he would, Mister Spock, but you didn't have that decision to make. What would you gain by fighting the Tholians? You could have assured yourself of a captaincy by leaving the area. But you chose to stay. Why?
SPOCK: I need not explain my rationale to you or any other member of this crew. There is a margin of variation in any experiment. While there was a chance, I was bound legally and morally to ascertain the Captain's status.
MCCOY: You mean to be sure if he was dead. Well, you made certain of that.

That's McCoy virtually accusing Spock of murdering Kirk. Granted McCoy is grieving the loss of his friend and he doesn't understand that Spock feels the same pain, he's just better at concealing it. Yes, he backs down later and apologises after hearing Kirk's last message. And, yes the moment is very well played by both Deforest Kelly and Leonard Nimoy, but it feels like a step too far for the character. There are moments in The Tholian Web when Doctor McCoy feels like a new character who has just joined the Enterprise crew, rather than someone who has served with Spock for almost three years.

Enterprise crew deaths: Despite the mass outbreak of insanity nobody dies.
Running total: 48


The closing credits feature a make-up shot of an aged Uhura from And The Children Shall Lead, when this was used in the episode the image was cropped and inserted into a mirror.