Thursday, February 6, 2014

That Which Survives

Redshirt has become such a generic term for a character who dies soon after being introduced that it has it's own Wikipedia entry. Different script writers use redshirt deaths in different ways. Nine unnamed crew die off screen in Where No Man Has Gone Before because an audience unfamiliar with Star Trek needs to have the damage to the Enterprise put into a context they can understand. "Ship's condition, heading back on impulse power only. Main engines burned out. The ship's space warp ability gone. Earth bases which were only days away are now years in the distance." Kirk's log entry means very little to someone new to Star Trek but nine dead is a concept which can be instantly grasped. An incident which killed nine crew must be serious. When crewman Darnell becomes the first Star Trek character to die in The Man Trap the purpose of his death is to tell us what the salt vampire does. In the case of By Any Other Name a quick and dirty fix to the story -to answer the question what happens to the Enterprise crew when the Kelvans take over- results in the memorable death of Yeoman Thompson.

It's an ongoing problem for
Star Trek that in order to underline the danger facing a landing party someone really needs to die but that someone can't be a member of the regular cast. It's not so much a story telling problem as a suspension of disbelief problem. No redshirts die in The Doomsday Machine (Commodore Decker doesn't count being a fully fledged guest character as opposed to the anonymous crew who join the choir invisible in Where No Man Has Gone Before). Despite this lack of crew death The Doomsday Machine is an exciting story well told and the audience allow themselves to be swept along and, for want of a better word, to pretend that they believe Kirk might die when the transporter fails at a crucial moment. In The Apple it doesn't matter how high the death toll rises. A conga line of redshirts could have fallen into Vaal's maw. It wouldn't solve the basic problem that watching the story grind through its four acts is dull. Without that audience engagement The Apple seems stupid and the multiple redshirt deaths simply underline the ludicrousness of the five survivors of the nine person landing party being the four regular cast and one woman who beamed down.

The third season of
Star Trek features the fewest redshirt deaths. Only seven by the broadcast of That Which Survives. At first glance it seems as if the production team are aware that regularly killing the supporting cast leaves the series open to parody and have decided to scale back the number of times it happens. Actually this is probably a symptom of the budget problems Robert Justman used to complain about. One simple money saving measure is to eliminate all those minor characters before filming starts. Having said that, looking at the list of third season episodes it's hard to spot ones where a few additional extras might have upped the ante and improved the story. The only obvious candidate is Whom Gods Destroy. If Kirk and Spock had beamed down with a few security guards for Garth to threaten, or confuse with his shape shifting ability, then the story might have seemed less static; the scene where Garth blows up Marta might make more sense if it was an Enterprise crew member rather than a woman to whom Kirk barely has any connection.

With all this in mind the teaser to
That Which Survives surprises when a woman appears in the transporter room and kills the unfortunate transporter operator. For the first act we seem to be watching a traditionally structured Star Trek. The landing party is trapped on a planet facing a threat and isolated from the resources of the Enterprise. In Whom Gods Destroy Kirk and Spock are trapped below a security screen. In The Apple it is Vaal which keeps the landing party and the ship separated. The Empath has the Enterprise leave orbit, and the story, because of a powerful solar flare. In That Which Survives the Enterprise is transported, "nine hundred and ninety point seven light years," from the planet. In theory this should make the end of act one, when Lieutenant D'Amato is also killed by the mystery lady, the point where all tension drains from the script. The landing party now consists of Kirk McCoy and Sulu, and there is no way any of them are going to be killed. However the teleplay is written by old hand John Meredyth Lucas, from a story by Michael Richards, and he does his best to make some changes to the formula.

Aware that threatening the lives of the landing party is a dead end for generating tension, the story switches back to the ship. Losira, the strange woman with the killer touch, appears back on the Enterprise and kills an engineer then sabotages the ship. This links the planet side and ship board stories more directly than normal. The story is opened out, rather than closed down when the audience realise no one else can die, and the power of Losira is emphasised. Another interesting variation on the normal story is that both the landing party and the Enterprise crew believe the others to be dead. The side effects of the power which flings the Enterprise across space make the landing party think the ship has been destroyed, and vice-versa. This leaves the landing party focusing on survival rather than simply thinking about getting back to the ship.

Elements of
That Which Survives feel like an attempt to tell a ghost story in a science fiction series; there's a mysterious planet haunted by a strange woman whose touch causes death. The recent Doctor Who story Hide was a similar attempt to tell a genre crossing story, and in both cases
the shift from a haunted house/planet story to science fiction is a little awkward as the story attempts to find a scientific explanation for the spooky events. One problem is that the climax to the Enterprise plot, Scotty's trip into the service crawlway to shut off the fuel, doesn't have any relation to the rest of the story. It's tense, and a good showcase for James Doohan, but it has nothing to do with the mystery of the strange planet or Losira.

Another problem with
That Which Survives is that the dialogue can be over-ripe. It's nicely sharp in places. Kirk's "if I'd wanted a Russian history lesson, I'd have brought along Mister Chekov," is great, as is Scotty's " I know what time it is. I don't need a blooming cuckoo clock, " as Spock insists on counting down the time remaining. Unfortunately in other places the dialogue skids over into the melodramatic. Sulu's "how can such people be, Captain? Such evil and she's so, so beautiful." Or, when McCoy wonders who killed D'Amato, Kirk's insightful, "something or someone did." Spock suffers from several particularly bad attacks of cute dialogue.

UHURA: Mister Spock! Are you all right?
SPOCK: Yes. I believe no permanent damage was done.
UHURA: What happened?
SPOCK: The occipital area of my head seems to have impacted with the chair.
UHURA: No, Mister Spock. I meant what happened to us?

SPOCK: ...Can you give me warp eight?
SCOTT: Aye, sir. And maybe a wee bit more. I'll sit on the warp engines myself and nurse them.
SPOCK: That position, Mister Scott, would not only be unavailing but also undignified.

SPOCK: Mister Scott, you have accomplished your task.
SCOTT: You might at least say thank you.
SPOCK: For what purpose, Mister Scott? What is it in you humans...
SCOTT: Never mind.
SPOCK: ...That requires an overwhelming display of emotion in a situation such as this? Two men pursue the only reasonable course of action indicated, and yet you feel that something else is necessary.

And so on. At times he's so weirdly literal, and funny-logical that it's tempting to wonder if Mr. Spock has been at McCoy's Saurian brandy. He's in character but acting very differently to normal. There are times when Leonard Nimoy seems to be struggling with playing funny-Spock. In the warp eight exchange his emphatic finger pointing is at odds with
Leonard Nimoy's normal tight control on Spock's movement. It gives us a glimpse of how Spock might have been handled differently in an alternate version of Star Trek where the character was played much more as comic relief.

Enterprise crew deaths: Three, Ensign Wyatt, Lieutenant D'Amato, and Crewman Watkins. The most crew to die in a single episode since
Running total: 53

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