Monday, April 21, 2014

All Our Yesterdays

It's easy to assume that the last few episodes of Star Trek were filmed with the knowledge that the series had been cancelled. This isn't necessarily the case. Presumably at the end of the third season the cast and crew were toiling away with the expectation that the series wasn't coming back, but also with the the memory of the extraordinary letter writing campaign which led directly to the renewing of the series. In The Making Of Star Trek Stephen E. Whitfield describes the mid-January second season wrap party as, "a mixture of party atmosphere and half-voiced despair."

Certainly All Our Yesterdays looks like the product of a team who are still holding out for a miracle, but they are not just sitting around and hoping that miracle will happen all by itself. All Our Yesterdays looks stunning. It's obviously been made by people determined to prove that there is still life in the Star Trek format. It's an episode designed to satisfy all of NBC's wants. An action adventure story set on an alien world, which begins on the planet and not on the Enterprise as NBC Network Production Manager Stan Robertson constantly nagged, with a good meaty story for Spock and McCoy, and lots of jeopardy for Kirk. As a production it's got an impressive scope. With no Enterprise sets needed the series goes to town bringing the planet Sarpeidon's history to life. In order we see a library set, a street scene (including what looks like night shooting on a backlot) an ice cliff, a cave interior, and a jail set. All of these sets are large, the library and the cave interior both contain several distinct areas, and it looks as if money for sets must have been diverted from Turnabout Intruder which takes place largely on the Enterprise. The story is also lit gorgeously. Director of Photography Al Francis produces some amazing work for this episode. Zarabeth's cave is filled with blues and oranges and deep reds which highlight the shadows. Kirk's jail cell is also filled with shadow and there's a lovely moment as Kirk overpowers the Prosecutor, who is pushed into shadow so only the edge of his hair is lit before Kirk grabs the man's chin and turns his face into the light.

The script makes an effort to give Sarpeidon's people different speech patterns.

WENCH: Oh, thank you, man. I thought I'd be limbered sure when that gull caught me cutting his purse.
KIRK: What's that? Are you all right?
WENCH: Oh, I took you to be an angler, but you're none of us, are ya? Well, you're a bully fine coe for all of that. What a handsome dish ya served them, the coxcombs.

Everyone in Kirk's storyline talks in a faux olde-English, except for the Prosecutor who turns out to also be from the future. Zarabeth has some nice understated and bitter humour ("my crime was in choosing my kinsmen unwisely") and care is taken to make sure that Mr Atoz can be distinguished from his duplicates. Unfortunately the story itself is derivative. Like
The Savage Curtain it's another assembly of previously successful plot elements. The Spock/Zarabeth romance suffers from the same fault as the Kirk/Rayna story in Requiem For Methuselah. We've seen this plot before and it just feels like one time too many round the block for the [crewmember] falls in love story. Leonard Nimoy and Mariette Hartley work hard to give the romance some weight and make it seem of real significance to the characters but All Our Yesterdays is no This Side Of Paradise.

Spock's slow reversion to the brutal and savage ways of his ancestors allows the relationship to seem slightly less contrived. Presumably Vulcans share some sort of telepathic group mind. When Spock travels into
Sarpeidon's past he unconsciously plugs into an earlier version of this telepathic network and it overwhelms his logical and rational side. Although Spock has travelled into the past in other stories the furthest back he went was 1930 New York in The City On The Edge Of Forever when Vulcans were still rational and logical beings. This telepathic link must also be what allows him to instantly sense the destruction of the Vulcan crewed starship Intrepid in The Immunity Syndrome. The near instantaneous nature of both suggests that telepathy in Star Trek travels faster than the speed of light. Maybe it's not limited by the normal laws of physics.

At first glance this story would seem to contradict the basic lesson of The City On The Edge Of Forever, that changes in the past cause changes in the present. The sheer number of people
fleeing into Sarpeidon's past should reduce it to a mass of paradoxes and undo the future which they need to escape from the coming nova. Actually, the time travel aspect of this story makes sense; or at least as much sense as any time travel story can. The history of Sarpeidon is a closed loop. The library sits literally at the end of Sarpeidon's history and the records it contains have already been shaped by the actions of the refugees. They may have only left recently but as Spock puts it, they are dead now. "dead and buried. Long ago." 

Enterprise crew deaths: None.

Running total: 56

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Savage Curtain

Genghis Khan runs away. That's the moment which best illustrates the flawed and silly nature of this episode. It might seem an odd moment to pick in a story which begins with Enterprise meeting Abraham Lincoln floating in space (never has that stock footage of the bridge screen over Sulu's shoulder looked more inappropriate he just carries on driving the Enterprise as if Abraham Lincoln floating in space is something he sees every other day). A story where Kirk and Spock are fighting for the safety of the Enterprise and their lives in a philosophical death match between good and evil. A battle set up by the rock monster inhabitants of the planet to determine whether good or evil is stronger. A battle in which Kirk and Spock are joined on the side of good by Abraham Lincoln and Surak the Vulcan against Genghis Khan; Kahless the Unforgettable "the Klingon who set the pattern for his planet's tyrannies"; Zora of Tiburon "who experimented with the body chemistry of subject tribes on Tiburon"; and Colonel Green " who led a genocidal war early in the 21st century on Earth."

Following the death of Lincoln, Kirk and Spock are attacked by the opposing four. In a sparsely choreographed fight Kirk grapples with Genghis Khan for a bit before throwing him to the ground and Genghis Khan runs away. That's Genghis Khan, who united the Mongols, and founded the Mongol Empire which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan. Does Genghis Khan sound like the sort of person who would run away after a scuffle? Follow that thought. Does Genghis Khan sound like the sort of person who would meekly follow the orders of a weasel like Colonel Green? In fact isn't there something annoyingly simplistic about applying labels like "good" and "evil" to historical individuals as complex as Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan?

Fans of The Simpsons sometimes use the term Zombie Simpsons to describe new episodes of the series which seem to lack the heart and spirit of earlier shows. The Savage Curtain is Zombie Star Trek. The Savage Curtain constantly gives the impression of a story assembled by people who don't understand Star Trek but have a list of elements which have been used successfully in the past. It explains the characterisation of Genghis Khan or rather the lack of characterisation. Genghis Khan and Zora of Tiburon don't get any lines because there isn't enough space in the story for eight characters, nine if you include the Excalbian. The script isn't interested in Genghis Khan, or how he might react as a person, but simply wants to use the name "Genghis Khan" as a shorthand for "this person is bad." It also explains the treatment of Surak's pacifism. This is no story like Day Of The Dove where Kirk must ironically fight for an end to violence. The script isn't interested in examining pacifism as a point of view, or seeing how people who believe in it might be tested. It's just a label to slap on Surak which allows him to be killed in a way that demonstrates the evil of the baddies.

Like Arena there's an alien with ambiguous god-like powers who forces Kirk into a fight. Gene Coon shuffled the Metrons on and off screen as quickly as possible to avoid the audience thinking about them too much, they're nothing more than a plot device to set up the fight between Kirk and the Gorn captain, but in The Savage Curtain the rock-like Excalbian sticks around for the whole story. Kirk even challenges the Excalbian's motives at the end of the story and there's a bizarre attempt to claim some sort of moral equivalence between the two.

KIRK: How many others have you done this to? What gives you the right to hand out life and death?
ROCK: The same right that brought you here. The need to know new things.

Arena tests Kirk. He's alone and must use his wits to beat the Gorn. In The Savage Curtain he's part of a larger team and it's just a case of good and evil punching each other until one side falls down. In fact in The Savage Curtain even the fight itself is pointless. It's a fight to the death in a series where Kirk and Spock cannot be seen to kill. This is partly because the pair are heroes who cannot do anything too unheroic but mostly because NBC's Standards and Practices won't allow anything too graphic. Arena makes Kirk not being allowed to kill into a strength by having him spare the Gorn when it is at his mercy. The Savage Curtain simply glosses over the fate of the evil side by making it unclear what has happened. At one point Kirk jabs Kahless in the stomach with a blunt stick and the Klingon folds up on the floor in a foetal position. Is he dead or just winded? Then Kirk judo throws Colonel Green to the ground and we cut to an angle where Green's body is concealed behind a rock. There's an ominous musical sting, and Kirk looks grim, but again it's not clear if Colonel Green is dead or unconscious. This casual attitude to violence, and the consequences of violence, actually ends up being more offensive than if we'd seen Kirk directly taking the lives of Kahless and Colonel Green.

Undoubtedly everyone who's ever watched The Savage Curtain has had more fun thinking up unlikely battles for the Excalbians to stage (The Beatles vs The Monkees, or science vs religion). In the end The Savage Curtain is just another story to toss on the pile of episodes to laugh at.

Enterprise crew deaths: None.
Running total: 56