Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Mark Of Gideon

"There is no place, no street, no house, no garden, no beach, no mountain that is not filled with people. Each one of us would kill in order to find a place alone to himself. They would willingly die for it, if they could."

The Mark Of Gideon was written at a time when overpopulation was a common subject in the media; possibly as a result of global population passing three billion in 1960. Harry Harrison's science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! was published in 1966; it was later adapted as the film Soylent Green. William and Paul Paddock's non-fiction book Famine 1975! America's Decision: Who Will Survive? came out in 1967 and was followed a year later by the best seller The Population Bomb by Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich. 1968 also saw publication of the novel Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner. For Star Trek, which always liked to have an issue lurking behind the script, a story about overpopulation was as inevitable as one about the Vietnam war or racism. The script came from an unlikely source. While filming The Trouble With Tribbles actor Stanley Adams, Cyrano Jones, talked about the subject to Gene Roddenberry and suggested Star Trek tackle the issue. This episode, via some considerable rewriting, was the result.

The Mark Of Gideon may have started with a sincere desire to explore a topic but the end result is a mess. It's an episode with a lot of superficial resemblances to Wink Of An Eye (Kirk is separated from his crew and 'trapped' on the Enterprise, Spock works to locate and rescue his captain, there's a woman who has an ulterior motive for making Kirk fall in love) but of the two Wink Of An Eye is the better episode. It's more tightly written. The Mark Of Gideon suffers from dangling plot threads which encourage the audience to pick holes in the story. For example where exactly do the Gideons get plans for their exact duplicate Enterprise? If pressure for space is so acute on Gideon then how do they make room to build a full sized Enterprise? How does Gideon function as a world? If these billions of people are living toe-to-toe then where does their food come from, or their sewage go to? Why does Spock very quickly realise the Enterprise replica is completely inoperative while Kirk does not?

The more an audience is left to pick holes in the set up the less likely they are to accept the overall premise. What's frustrating about the above examples is that any of them could be fixed with a line of dialogue; although it's often difficult to pick these things up at the time with the pressure of deadlines.
Let That Be Your Last Battlefield has a couple of nice lines covering plot points and helping build the universe. When McCoy examines Lokai he has the line, "the organs are there. They're rearranged to a degree, plus a few I've never seen before," which covers Lokai and Bele's ability to generate shields and electrical charges more effectively than if the audience was just left to assume these were the powers of the aliens of the week. Likewise when Bele's invisible ship approaches the Enterprise Kirk asks, "could it be a Romulan ship using their cloaking device?" This reminds the audience that there is a precedent for invisible space ships in Star Trek and takes some of the sting away from an obvious budget saving measure.

The episode has other problems. A morally dubious acceptance of mass death as a method of population control; maybe Gideon should just have asked Kodos the Executioner from
The Conscience Of The King for some suggestions. Also a sense that the scale of the story is too large for Star Trek's resources. This is not like The City On The Edge Of Forever where some stock footage and backlot filming will stand in for a couple of blocks of New York. We are being asked to imagine an entire world and for that the audience really need to see Gideon in all its horror. Odona often describes it to the audience, "thousands pressed in against me. I could hardly breathe. I was fighting for oxygen, screaming to get out," but the few glimpses we do get of Gideon's huddled masses look comic; in their body-stockings they look like the sperm from Woody Allen's film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. Lastly, there's a sense that in the early stages of the episode the script keeps missing its own plot beats. The mystery of the abandoned Enterprise barely lasts a minute of act one before we see Spock on the Enterprise bridge beginning his hunt for Kirk. Then instead of ending act one on the sudden appearance of Odona the act carries on to finish on her more generic line, "Captain, before I said I wasn't afraid. Now I am.

The abandoned Enterprise portion of the plot, like the idea of being speeded up in
Wink Of An Eye, is something which can grab the imagination of watching children. It makes the familiar seem strange and unsettling, and it's a shame this idea is abandoned so quickly; although it probably wasn't practical to make an entire act out of Kirk alone on the Enterprise searching for the lost crew. There's also the irony of a story about overpopulation taking place on an empty starship. When Kirk and Odona hear the heartbeats of the massed Gideons outside the episode verges on gothic horror. As do the scenes of Gideons watching Kirk and Odona. These two moments come the closest to explaining how important this experiment is to the people of Gideon. They've got barely enough space to live and yet they've found room for a replica Enterprise, and once it's built they gather outside to follow the experiment and jealously watch Kirk and Odona walk the empty corridors.

Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 50

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Balance Of Terror told this story more effectively. In that episode you've got the outright racism of Lieutenant Stiles who has learned from his family to hate the Romulans for the deaths of some of his ancestors a century ago. "There was a Captain Stiles in the space service then. Two Commanders and several junior officers. All lost in that war, sir." Stiles' attitude is contrasted unfavourably with Kirk's more enlightened perspective, "their war, Mister Stiles. Not yours. Don't forget it." Then once Spock taps into the Romulan bridge Stiles bigotry and paranoia, "we could have Romulan spies aboard this ship," becomes attached to Spock. The focus, as all Star Trek should be, is always on the Enterprise and her crew.

Contrast that with Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in which Lokai and Bele bring their aeons old dispute onto the Enterprise. The pair run around making speeches at everyone while the Enterprise crew raise their eyebrows at the aliens "primitive thinking" and simper about there being persecution on Earth once and how they, "remember reading about it in my history class."

One of the great things about
Balance Of Terror is that it reflects flawed humanity. Someone like Stiles can be a good bridge officer but a bad person. He can hate Spock for the wrong reasons but be right about what it means for galactic peace if the Romulan ship is allowed to return home. Presenting the Enterprise crew as beyond racism in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield reduces them to the status of observers. Literally considering the only decisive action Kirk takes in the story is when he sets the ship to self-destruct and makes Bele briefly return control. For the most part he stands around watching Lokai and Bele argue. Understandably he prefers to take the pair to Starbase Four where they will become someone else's problem. The Enterprise crew can see the hatred between Lokai and Bele but it's not something they can understand. This distances the Enterprise crew from the viewer because it's never explained how they reach this enlightened perspective, understandably given that the writers have no more idea than the viewer how this can be achieved; although one point in the episodes favour is that it does make their values aspirational, something which humanity should work towards.

Unfortunately the lofty post-racism of the Enterprise crew also allows the production team to avoid making an unambiguous statement condemning bigotry. Kirk needs to clearly and explicitly condemn the attitudes of Lokai and Bele in the same way he publicly dresses down Stiles. "Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There's no room for it on the Bridge. Do I make myself clear?" In
A Taste Of Armageddon Kirk gives a speech in which he admits that humanity, like the people of Eminiar VII, is a race of killers. "We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we won't kill today." Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is crying out for a speech like this from Kirk in which he compares humanity to Lokai and Bele and admits that we are flawed but work to constantly overcome the hatred Lokai and Bele feel for each other. However the script doesn't want to admit that Kirk, and by extension the audience, are anything like Lokai and Bele. This is a story which could explore the Vulcan idea of IDIC more effectively than IsThere In Truth No Beauty?
Worse, the script is determined to be oddly even handed. The anger of Lokai, the oppressed, is presented as being as bad as the bigotry of Bele the oppressor. This massive oversimplification of a complex issue might be necessary to make the episode work but in the end what should be a clear message condemning racism becomes fudged. The story ends up as a shrugged statement that bigotry and hatred are stupid but both sides are as bad as each other. In the end it's redundant to talk about the acting or the direction or the editing or the make-up because the moral lesson is the point of the episode, unlike Balance Of Terror which keeps the moral lesson as a subplot to a larger story, and the episode fails the moment it fumbles the clear delivery of it's own message. It's not clear why Let That Be Your Last Battlefield should fumble its message but it's possible that
when this episode was written and filmed in 1968 , which was a terrible year around the world, anything stronger was seen as inappropriate.

nterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 50

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Whom Gods Destroy

On 15th October 1968 Leonard Nimoy wrote a stinging memo to Gene Roddenberry and Doug Cramer, who had replaced Herbert Solow as Executive in Charge of Production. The memo complained about the script for Whom Gods Destroy describing it as,"re-doing a show we did during the first season... Dagger of the Mind." The memo is reprinted in Leonard Nimoy's biography I Am Spock and is critical the quality of the script and third season Star Trek but reserves most of its punches for the portrayal of Spock.

"[Spock] walks into a room, phaser in hand, and is confronted by two "Kirks"...can Spock handle the situation using his deductive logic, the phaser in his hand... or any other of the imaginative techniques that a smart ass Vulcan would normally use? The answer is: NO... My primary interest in contacting you gentlemen is my concern over my lack of experience in playing dummies... Maybe if I watched some "Blondie" episodes... Or better still, I could get right to the bottom line by wearing some braids and feathers and learning to grunt, "Ugh, Kimosabee"?"

The finished episode is the result of the rewrite to take Leonard Nimoy's comments into account. Spock still looks like an idiot but to be fair so does Kirk, who is also unable to come up with a way to confirm his identity, and Garth, who forgets he has a working phaser although where it goes when he shape shifts is anyone's guess, and the entire Enterprise bridge crew who spend the episode fretting about the situation on Elba II but fail to take the initiative when the security forcefield is dropped. Sloppy writing isn't unusual for Star Trek. The existence of The Alternative Factor is proof it was possible for everyone concerned to drop the ball. What's unusual here is the tag scene where Kirk talks to Spock after the fight.

IRK: Tell me something. Why was it so impossible to tell the difference between us?
SPOCK: It was not impossible, Captain. Our presence here is proof of that.
KIRK: Yes, and congratulations. What took you so long?
SPOCK: The interval of uncertainty was actually fairly brief, Captain. It only seemed long to you. I was waiting for a victor in the hand to hand struggle, which I assumed would be Captain Garth. Because of your depleted condition. Failing a resolution to the struggle, I was forced to use other means to make my determination.
KIRK: I see. Mister Spock. Letting yourself be hit on the head, and I presume you let yourself be hit on the head, is not exactly a method King Solomon would have approved. Mister Scott, ready to beam up.

What makes this tag scene odd is the deliberate way it draws attention to Spock being stupid. Why write a character as an idiot, and then mock the character for actions the writer has imposed? Leonard Nimoy is pretty open in I Am Spock about being protective of the character. He gives examples of memos he wrote regarding Spectre Of The Gun, and a dispute over the IDIC medallion seen in Is There In Truth No Beauty? It's not impossible this is writers revenge. A warning shot to Leonard Nimoy from the production team that writers write and actors act. Then again it could just be bad writing. If the production team were utterly wedded to the two Kirks fight idea then short of drastic rewriting the easiest way to take the sting out of Spock's sudden inability to use his brain is to acknowledge it; to wink to the audience over the story and go 'we know this is silly, and we know you know this is silly' as noted in the review for Wink Of An Eye.

Apart from the tag scene there's little notable about Whom Gods Destroy. Garth and Marta are both insane but it's strictly television madness meaning they do little more than act like capricious children. In the end Garth is Trelane without the omnipotence; but in The Squire Of Gothos the danger develops as Trelane acquires a taste for the hunt, "but this is such sport. I must fetch all the others back to play," and Trelane has the power to carry out his threat. Without the countersign to the code "queen to queen's level three" Garth is trapped on Elba II. And although Kirk and Spock are trapped at a madman's whim nothing too bad can happen to them with NBC's Standards and Practices Department making sure the torture isn't too traumatic for viewers. The story is on hold from the moment Garth discovers he can't get up to the Enterprise until he's finally stunned into unconsciousness by Spock. In fact this is a pretty Spock light story. He's dragged off stunned at the beginning of act one, reappears for the banquet in act two, and then disappears until he's needed to end the episode. It's as if someone on the production team realised Spock's presence was potentially story breaking but also necessary for the scene where Garth disguises himself as Spock.

It's easy to see why Whom Gods Destroy was made. It has a limited number of sets, few speaking parts, not too many special effects requirements, and allows the chance to reuse some old costumes and props. It's a lot harder to believe anyone was passionate about making this episode. In Inside Star Trek Robert Justman writes of the third season. "By the time episodes were filmed, whatever excitement existed in the original stories and scripts had been diluted... it was now strictly budget driven. There were no highs and no lows -just a boring in-between. My never ending battle to cut costs without compromising quality had failed." Whom Gods Destroy was the first episode produced without co-producer Robert Justman, he'd resigned to go and work for Herbert Solow at MGM Television.

Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 50

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Elaan Of Troyius

John Meredyth Lucas was Star Trek's renaissance man. He produced the episodes from Journey To Babel to The Omega Glory, wrote The Changeling Patterns of Force and the teleplay for That Which Survives, and directed The Ultimate Computer and The Enterprise Incident. He also wrote and directed Elaan of Troyius. It would be interesting to know the combination of circumstances which allowed John Meredyth Lucas to write and direct his own episode; a degree of creative freedom not given to anyone else on Star Trek or any of the subsequent spin off series. The combined fee for John Meredyth Lucas to write and direct might have been less than the cost of paying him as a writer and hiring a separate director. That might have been appealing during production of another episode which looks like it is pushing the boundaries of Star Trek's strained finances with alien make-up, a lot of speaking parts, extensive costume requirements, and a brand new Klingon ship model.

Whatever the reason for allowing John Meredyth Lucas to direct as well as write it represented good value for money. He's a very functional director in terms of shot composition but he gets some brilliant performances from his actors. France Nuyen's portrayal of Elaan is charismatic and she makes Elaan likeable. This sometimes requires working against the intention of the script which is quite an acting challenging considering the man directing her performance also wrote her lines. When she's eating her dinner after stabbing Ambassador Petri the intent of the script seems to be "look at this awful woman" but she gives Elaan a strength which works against the undercurrent of the scene and makes her lack of interest in good table manners admirable. France Nuyen also throws away some lines which could have been played more broadly. "So, Ambassador Petri is going to recover? That is too bad." And a great zinger at Gene Roddenberry's concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

KIRK: It's been my experience that the prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.
ELAAN: It's not in my experience.

Contrast France Nuyen's delivery with the way William Shatner overplays some of his lines and facial expressions. He and Jay Robinson, playing Petri, bounce off each other to try and wring as much humour as possible from their scenes together and the result is Petri never feels like a real person. He's a caricature of an oily diplomat, rather than an oily diplomat. The best thing about France Nuyen's performance is that her presence seems to force William Shatner to raise his game and in the second half of the episode we see a more subdued performance from him than we have for some time. For the rest of the cast it is largely business as usual. Not to be dismissive of the hard work they put in each week but, for example, DeForest Kelley long ago worked out exactly how to play Doctor McCoy and there's nothing in this episode to challenge his acting ability. Likewise Leonard Nimoy knows exactly how to deliver his performance and without breaking Spock's emotionless facade he is expertly able to inject whole worlds of suffering into a line like, "Captain, the Dohlman is dissatisfied with the quarters provided."

John Meredyth Lucas' script starts out as
The Taming Of The Shrew via Pygmalion in space before becoming something marginally more nuanced in the second half. John Meredyth Lucas has cited the Helen of Troy myth as a source, unsurprising given the Helen/Elaan Troy/Troyius naming. If that is the case then the myth has been carefully inverted because the kidnapping of Helen of Troy by Paris caused the Trojan war while here the marriage of Elaan to the ruler of the planet Troyius will bring peace. Elaan's situation is more that of a European princess being married off to an eligible prince in the name of diplomacy; similar to Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleeves to provide England with a potential ally in case of a Roman Catholic attack.

The Taming Of The Shrew is a good starting point for a Star Trek script is a whole separate question. Academics have spent years arguing if Shakespeare's play is misogynistic or a satire of the views espoused by the male characters in the play, and some Star Trek blog on the internet is not the place to debate that issue. There are uncomfortable lines in the script. Nurse Chapel's line "if Elasian women are that vicious, why are men so overwhelmingly attracted to them? I mean, what magic do they possess?" is particularly offensive because it's dialogue written by a man for a female character assuming that some women are so awful the only way they can ensnare a man is by trickery. Kirk's slapping of Elaan is unforgivable. No doubt similar scenes can be found in any number of contemporary shows but Star Trek is unfortunate enough to have endured and what would have been acceptable on broadcast is now dated and uncomfortable to watch. As fans we want Star Trek to be better than it sometimes is, and it's disappointing to be reminded that the series was written and produced by sixties men, mostly, and reflects their attitudes.

That said thanks to France Nuyen Elaan often comes across less as a shrew to be tamed than as a strong woman frustrated by finding herself trapped in a situation which renders her powerless, and there's a case for arguing that her most unappealing behaviour is an act to try and get the wedding abandoned. She switches tactics when this doesn't work and plan B is to use a biological advantage, as Petri explains, "it's biochemical. A man whose flesh is once touched by the tears of a woman of Elas has his heart enslaved forever.

Based on how
Star Trek has told stories in the past, acts three and four should feature Kirk becoming increasingly obsessed with Elaan while Spock and McCoy fret and speculate about the change in his behaviour, and worry about whether to relive him of command. McCoy's search for an antidote to Elaan's tears would be the resolution to this plot crisis when he cures Kirk of his obsessive love. That this doesn't happen is of some credit to John Meredyth Lucas. Instead there's a sub-plot about a Klingon attempt to destroy the Enterprise, and Elaan, to gain control of Troyius; a planet naturally rich in dilithium. Kirk puts his command duties before his love for Elaan and by doing so proves his point that responsibilities and obligations come before personal wishes. In the end Elaan is not some broken woman who is fixed by teaching her how to hold a knife and fork properly and say please and thank you. She's a person in her own right who learns that the honour she values so highly takes many different forms. Best of all she learns this lesson not from a long winded speech from Kirk, as was the case with the Vians in The Empath, but from observing the way he behaves. She learns that very Star Trek lesson that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

Enterprise crew deaths: One, engineer Watson killed by Kryton as he sabotages the warp drive.
Running total: 50