|"I'm so sorry."|
Really, it's a bit unrealistic to expect Star Trek to come up with something to top “The City on the Edge of Forever” for its first season finale. Even if you, like me, grant that last episode was ultimately a morally bankrupt nightmare on every possible level, the sheer gravity it exerts upon the series, and the larger franchise, is undeniable. For those enraptured and left starry-eyed by the events of last week, it's tough to see how anything, let alone a story about flying parasitic space pancakes, could possibly live up to their expectations, and for those with the perhaps more applicable response of being deeply disturbed and unsettled by the fallout from “The City on the Edge of Forever” (and maybe the last few months on the whole) it's tough to get excited or optimistic about anything Star Trek does at this point.
But this is being a bit unfair to “Operation -- Annihilate!”. The concept of the season finale as we know it was not one that was as entrenched in pop consciousness as an indelible part of television literacy the way it is today. That didn't begin to happen until approximately the 1980s (and no, it was not the result of the episode you're thinking of either: As talented as Michael Piller was, he didn't invent the season finale-At the very least let's not forget Dallas and “Who Shot J.R.?”). “Operation -- Annihilate!” plays out more or less like an average episode of the series as of 1967, which is not entirely terrible. It's certainly not as great as the best episodes of the year but, mercifully, it's also leagues better than the worst (and there have been a lot of worsts).
The first thing this episode unequivocally has in its favour is the acting. Anyone who thinks William Shatner is a poor actor really ought to watch this one (and probably “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Balance of Terror” and “Miri” as well) because once again this is a stellar showcase for his talents. Kirk has a lot of emotional investment in this story, as first his brother, his family and then Spock all succumb to the neural parasites. Shatner plays it as any good old-school thespian would: With gratuitous, overstated theatrical flourish that very clearly marks every single thought and emotion that crosses Kirk's mind. We watch Kirk grow increasingly more desperate and determined, and every single iota of his pain and and resolve is highlighted for our benefit.
What it comes down to is that Shatner isn't a method actor: His approach is not, as a general rule, about trying to get his mental state to emulate Kirk's. Instead, what he does is take great care to meticulously outline the sorts of emotions his character would most likely be feeling in a given situation and draws our attention to them by conveying them ever-so-slightly caricatured. So, for example, in the teaser, Shatner plays Kirk very visibly anxious and preoccupied when recording his log entry on the Deneva colony. He builds his nervousness gradually as Kirk listens to reports from Spock, Uhura and Scott about the colony's probably fate, eventually prompting DeForest Kelley's McCoy to ask him if his brother is still stationed there, as the camera zooms in on Kirk's look of dismay and then cuts to the intro.
Shatner is a primarily a performer, but he's a performer who knows how to act and reiterates his theatrical bombast back into the narrative. Unlike someone like Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker on Doctor Who, Shatner very explicitly is not playing himself, or even an exaggerated version of himself (nor is that even what he does in his post-Star Trek fame: That's a not-entirely invalid approximation, but it's significantly more complex and nuanced then just straightforward self-parody). Neither Shatner nor Kirk can be the singular entity that all of Star Trek revolves around: The show's own structure simply won't allow it, if for no other reason than it has to split screentime evenly between him, Spock and McCoy, and “Operation -- Annihilate!” is a fantastic example of how this works in action. Firstly, as much as this might be Kirk's story, given how invested he is in defeating the neural parasites, this is once again Spock's episode. They key scene comes just after Aurelan dies and Kirk beams back down to the colony: Kirk is shot from a very dramatically low-angle perspective, as if the hero has returned from personal trauma to exact justice on those who have wronged him. But this is also the scene where “Operation -- Annihilate!” very decisively switches to being about Spock, as he is promptly attacked by the aforementioned flying parasitic space pancakes.
While in the immediate aftermath of the scene, we get a shot of Kirk cradling Spock that delightfully invokes the Renaissance-era Pietà-style of sculpture and painting, with the emphasis very clearly on Kirk, from then on out the episode focuses on Spock's inner battle with the neural parasites. Leonard Nimoy is, of course, amazing, playing Spock subtly more stressed and pained then usual: Not blatantly so (Nimoy is in some ways the inverse of Shatner in this regard, preferring a subtle understatement to a subtle overstatement), but just enough to be barely noticeable, and with an occasional facial twinge to remind us something's not quite right. Spock also makes no fewer than three attempts at a heroic sacrifice, pushing the episode's moral occasionally towards “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Thankfully, however, that's not what the story ends up being about, instead focusing on the turmoil and sadness this brings upon the people of the Enterprise, revisiting a theme the show hasn't really dealt with since “The Man Trap”. The best scene is the climax where Spock's seeming blindness becomes absolutely devastating to Kirk and McCoy: Kirk at first wants to blame McCoy for not realising only infrared radiation was necessary to kill the parasites, but instead reminds him the accident wasn't his fault and gently asking him to “look after” Spock. Shatner conveys Kirk's mixed, riled emotions beautifully, and while Kelley remains in “bristling passion” mode, the powerful effect this has on McCoy is obvious.
That said, this scene also highlights the areas where “Operation -- Annihilate!” isn't altogether effective. One of the reasons “The Man Trap” worked in spite of itself was that we got a very sizable cross-section of the Enterprise crew. We see how the situation effects not only McCoy, but also Kirk, Doctor Crater, Uhura, Sulu and Janice Rand, not to mention numerous nameless crewmembers. At the opposite end of the season, Star Trek has very clearly abandoned any pretenses of being an ensemble show: While there is a lot of drama and emotion on display, it is exclusively limited to Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Uhura, Scott and Sulu are barely in this episode and get maybe ten lines between them, a trend that will sadly see the Original Series out.
Christine Chapel is also back and, credit to Kelley and Majel Barrett, the show does pick up on her affections for Spock last explored in “The Naked Time”. The only problem is it's been 23 episodes since “The Naked Time”, and in an era before readily available home video recording technology, expecting people to remember the personal motivations of a character who's only appeared twice before and who we last saw six and half months ago is a bit ludicrous. While James Blish's novelizations of the series had indeed begun by this point (the first volume of Blish's novelizations came out in January 1967, this episode aired in April), it's probably reasonable to expect this was a resource not every viewer would have had access to unless they were already Star Trek fans, which was, if we're honest, implausible given the ratings this show got in original run.
The other major issue with “Operation -- Annihilate!” is that, with the exception of the other regulars and arguably Chapel, every other character exists purely to serve as angst fodder for the leads, and Kirk in particular. The most egregious are Kirk's brother's family: They're the quintessential example of relatives or love interests whom we've never heard of before and show up only to die to give the main character some emotional drama for the week (and before anyone comments, expecting us to remember the fact Kirk mentioned having a brother with a family back in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” in a throwaway dialog exchange with his android duplicate is significantly more ludicrous then expecting us to remember Nurse Chapel's feelings for Spock, or indeed Nurse Chapel herself, and James Blish doesn't even novelize that one until 1975. I know Star Trek is cult sci-fi, but it doesn't have *that* kind of fanbase in the late 1960s).
Aurelan in particular is quite bad: Her main purpose in the show is to scream her head off, sob uncontrollably and then promptly die after giving her requisite bit of exposition. This is not helped in the slightest by the scene later on where McCoy calls Kirk out on his emotional investment in the mission, talking about his “affection for Spock” and “the fact [his] nephew is the only survivor of [Kirk's] brother's line”. This scene implies Kirk's primary concern is that his brother’s genetic lineage and name live on, not that he or his family actually do physically. Although it's bad Samuel debuts dead and Peter spends the whole episode unconscious, this mostly dehumanizes Aurelan, who apparently is now only important because she had a son. Thankfully, this is not at all how William Shatner plays Kirk in these scenes, showing very visible concern and love for Aurelan and well as his brother and Peter. Shatner really sells that these were important people to Kirk and that he cared deeply for them: This is the most concerned and compassionate we've seen Kirk be towards somebody since Miri, and that makes us wish Sam and Aurelan could have lived despite the script seemingly wanting to treat them purely as plot devices.
But of course this is a trauma we'll never see mentioned again. Just as Spock's sight is restored at the last second in a truly magnificent bit of plot convenience (thus sparing us having to deal with ablest issues and the effect having a blind friend would have on the crew, which, given this show's ethics, is probably still a good thing) the status quo is restored just as the credits hit because Star Trek is an anthology show, and those last few seconds of banter jar horrifically with the rest of the episode. A fitting microcosm for the show Star Trek has become: A clear step forward and a desire to deal overtly with character drama bewilderingly set against the backdrop of clear genocide of “new life” that's immediately reigned in and subsumed by the necessary imposition of a structure that was probably flawed and dated in 1964. After its first season and first three years Star Trek has become a very strange and at times unfathomable beast of its own. At times it feels like the show actively hates itself, its reactionary and progressive tendencies locked in a seemingly unbreakable stalemate in an excruciating war of attrition. But in spite of all that it's been renewed, and it'll be back in the fall to continue its journey to...wherever it's going to end up.
But before we rejoin it, we should take some time to look at some of the other things that were on the air at this time to see just where Star Trek stacks up in comparison. And we also have a responsibility to the future to attend to: It's still not been quite sorted yet, you know.