Thursday, February 20, 2014

Requiem For Methuselah

Requiem For Methuselah was written by Jerome Bixby who contributed the impressive script threesome of Day Of The Dove, By Any Other Name, and Mirror, Mirror. It contains some of the finest individual lines in Star Trek. "A very old and lonely man. And a young and lonely man. We put on a pretty poor show, didn't we?" Kirk's line deserves to be quoted alongside Spock's, "I have killed my captain and my friend," from Amok Time. Even better, William Shatner responds to the obvious quality of the dialogue and turns in some of his best acting work for a long time. In fact this may be one of the best acted episodes of the series. Guest stars James Daly as Flint and Louise Sorel as Rayna, also turn in sterling work; we're a very long way from the arch performances of Spock's Brain. And Flint is an intriguing creation. An immortal man who began as "a soldier, a bully and a fool," and met the great minds of history, "Galileo, Socrates, Moses," and learned from them. He evolved from cruelty and barbarism and educated himself to become a succession of brilliant men; Leonardo, Brahms, Solomon, Alexander, and so on. He is almost the incarnation of Kirk's speech at the end of A Taste Of Armageddon. "The instinct can be fought. 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." Flint is the soldier who learned not to kill.

So what's the problem? If
Requiem For Methuselah contains such great acting and a scintillating script then why does it drag? The most obvious flaw is that this is a love story for Kirk. Another one. There comes a point where no matter how beautifully you tell your love story it's simply going over the same old ground. How many times can Captain Kirk meet the love of his life and begin an affair which ends tragically? About three. There's an additional issue. To inject some urgency into the plot an arbitrary deadline has been added. The Enterprise is in the grip of an outbreak of Rigelian fever. McCoy has, "four hours to process [the ryetalyn cure], otherwise the epidemic will be irreversible." Unfortunately this results in the problem everyone notices with the story, in the space of less than four hours Kirk falls so deeply in love that at the end of the episode he seems barely able to function. Imagine The City On The Edge Of Forever rewritten so that Kirk and Spock arrive five hours before McCoy, and Kirk and Edith Keeler fall in love across a single afternoon. That's the story presented by Requiem For Methuselah. The script's justification for Kirk's abrupt fall for Rayna is that she is unusually captivating and beautiful and extraordinary. Except that all the women Kirk falls for(as opposed to the ones he more cynically seduces such as Kelinda in By Another Name) are unusually captivating and beautiful and extraordinary. Edith Keeler was. So was Miramanee from The Paradise Syndrome. Kirk has a definite type and his type is the woman who dies tragically around the 48 minute mark.

The plotting of
Requiem For Methuselah is spartan. In The City On The Edge Of Forever Kirk has a stark choice; save the future or save Edith Keeler. There is no similar conflict in Requiem For Methuselah. Kirk falls in love with a woman who dies. The end. The Rigelian fever outbreak is a device to get Kirk into the story and is then largely forgotten;
like the duplicate Earth in Miri,. There's no attempt to bring the romance and the disease story together and have, for example, Rayna die of Rigelian fever. The developing love story between Kirk and Rayna is the only significant story and it's simply too slender to support an episode all by itself. The City On The Edge Of Forever keeps several plots running simultaneously; the hunt for McCoy, restoring history to the right path, and Spock's attempt to learn the fate of Edith Keeler.

It's tempting to excuse the plot light nature of
Requiem For Methuselah by describing the episode as a character study of Flint. Unfortunately Flint simply isn't interesting enough as a character. Yes, he is an intriguing creation but in practical terms his background plays no part in the story beyond the moment when he tells Kirk, "I am Brahms." Flint is a character for a film or a book. We need to explore Flint's life, because the story of how he came to be the person living on this unnamed planet far from the rest of humanity is more interesting than Flint the person. Unfortunately that is a story Star Trek cannot tell. When Doctor Who created a similar, if more humorous, character in the alien Scaroth from the story City Of Death the Doctor was able to travel in time and explore Scaroth's life; on a BBC budget. We saw Scaroth in 1979 Paris, and the year 400 million BC (approx.), and 1505 Florence, and we saw hints of his life elsewhere as an Egyptian god. We get a sense of a life lived. More than that we get a sense of how frustrating it must be for Scaroth to live among these primitive creatures which were created as as result of the accident which destroyed Scaroth's race and made him immortal.

Metamorphosis has a similar problem. The story makes a big deal out of Kirk meeting Zefram Cochrane, the discoverer of the space warp, a man out of time who has been kept alive for 150 years by the mysterious alien Companion but Cochrane's background ceases to have any impact on the story the moment McCoy says, "that's impossible. Zefram Cochrane died a hundred and fifty years ago." Ultimately Zefram Cochrane could be any Joe Sixpack who crashed his shuttle. Likewise there's nothing about the character space occupied by Flint which specifically requires a 6000 year old man who was a succession of famous historical figures. Flint needs to be brilliant but he could still be any 23rd Century robotics genius who decided to drop out and live with his android girlfriend.

Lastly there's the final scene. Your mileage will vary but I find it creepy and wrong. Spock takes it upon himself to edit Kirk's memories and presumably dull the pain caused by the death of Rayna. What frustrates about this scene is that the mind meld is not necessary. Simply showing Kirk grieving is unusual enough to demonstrate the depth of his feeling for Rayna. It establishes that what Kirk has been through is more than just another space fling. The mind meld is there because someone on the production side wanted to show that Rayna meant more to Kirk than all those other space babes, but also wanted to explain why Kirk isn't still prostrated with grief at the start of next week's episode. It's a classic example of over-thinking a problem because simple implied passage of time between episodes will take care of the mourning period. If the audience wasn't bothered at the end of
The City On The Edge Of Forever or The Paradise Syndrome then they won't be bothered now. As it is, when Spock starts whispering "forget", I just wonder how many other times has he crept into Kirk's room and done this?

Enterprise crew deaths: Three Enterprise crew die off-screen because of Rigelian fever.
Running total: 56

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Lights Of Zetar

The last hundred survivors of the dead planet Zetar survive through sheer force of will in a non-corporeal form. They have travelled through space for over a thousand years looking for a body which they can take over and live out the remainder of their lives. In the course of their search they killed everyone on Memory Alpha; a planetoid set up by the Federation as a central library containing the total cultural history and scientific knowledge of all Federation members. The lens through which writers Jeremy Tarcher and Shari Lewis focus this story is a romance between Scotty and Lieutenant Mira Romaine a Starfleet specialist supervising the transfer of equipment to Memory Alpha.

A Scotty love story! Has no one learned anything from Who Mourns For Adonais? The answer is yes. A little. This time Scotty is at least involved in a relationship which seems mutual. Unlike the loveless relationship in Who Mourns For Adonais? where Scotty was willing to sacrifice his life for a woman who barely seemed to recognise that he existed; the height of her passion was a reluctant, "all right," when he invited her for coffee.

Apart from that there's very much the sense that The Lights Of Zetar could be Who Mourns For Adonais? with the Apollo plot taken out and the Zetar survivors plot slotted into its place. In both stories Scotty acts utterly obsessed to the extent of disobeying direct orders from Kirk. In both stories there is also the sense that someone on the production team simply looked down a list of episodes and saw there had already been a recent Kirk love story, a Spock love story, a McCoy love story, and a Chekov love story; the only two regular cast not to get a love story are Uhura and Sulu who are both rarely asked to do anything interesting. It's the generic nature of the love plot which really grates; Scotty could be Sulu or Chekov or Lieutenant Kyle. It's like the joke at the end of The Simpsons episode Das Bus where the children are marooned on an island and the narrator says “... eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say... Moe.”

tar Trek is great at telling unique emotional stories for Kirk and Spock. The City On The Edge Of Forever couldn't be about another character falling for Edith Keeler, and there's something endearing about Kirk's reluctance to talk about Ruth in Shore Leave; as if he is embarrassed by the unexpected reappearance of this ghost from his past. Unfortunately when it comes to other characters the scripting suddenly becomes utterly interchangable. "McCoy falls in love...Chekov falls in love...Scotty falls in love." Anyone could have caught a terminal disease and fallen in love in For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky. Still this might simply be a reflection of how television worked at the time; maybe carefully worked out character stories were strictly for the lead actors. For all I know on Gunsmoke Chester Goode, Festus Haggen, and Doc Adams were all having interchangeable romances on a weekly basis. At the end of the episode Scotty gazes moon-eyed at Lieutenant Romaine and says, "now we have all the time in the world". We never hear about Lieutenant Romaine again.

It's frustrating that Jeremy Tarcher and Shari Lewis have foregrounded the Scotty love story. The other concepts are really interesting. There's a spiritual element to the Zetarians who drift around the universe as disembodied minds, possessing people, forcing them to speak in tongues, and giving Lieutenant Romaine the power of second sight. Their psychedelic colours and appearance in extreme close-ups of Lieutenant Romaine's eye probably springs more from Dave Bowman's trip beyond the infinite in 2001: A Space Odyssey which premièred in Los Angeles on 4th April 1968.

Memory Alpha is the Library of Alexandria for the Federation. It is destroyed because, "when the library complex was assembled, shielding was considered inappropriate to its totally academic purpose. Since the information on the Memory planet is available to everyone, special protection was deemed unnecessary. " The line is probably a quick story fix; like M-5's unexpected and never again mentioned ability to generate a force field in The Ultimate Computer. During story development someone probably wondered why everyone on the Enterprise survived their encounter with the Zetarians unlike the people on Memory Alpha. It makes the Federation seem sweetly naive, as if they never expected anyone to attack a library. The line implies that Memory Alpha has no shielding whatsoever, not even against natural radiation which is strange considering cosmic radiation was a known hazard of space travel by 1968. Apparently anyone using Memory Alpha will be sterilized whenever a nearby star coughs. There's also an odd line from Spock about the loss of Memory Alpha being "a disaster for the galaxy," and "irretrievable," because the memory core is burned out. The script seems to be suggesting that Memory Alpha holds its information in an electronic format which is not backed up. It's easy to watch The Lights Of Zetar today and assume Memory Alpha is like the internet but it's not. It's a genuine space library and Spock's line is a relic of days when information was harder to duplicate.

Enterprise crew deaths: None.

Running total: 53

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