Sunday, October 13, 2013

“...a mere apendix.”: Spock's Brain

The newspaper reads "Spock gets 2-year prison term".
“Spock's Brain” needs no introduction. It is infamously terrible. Universally regarded as the single worst episode of the Original Series by those for whom “The Omega Glory” is too niche a pick. Every aspect of this story is iconic for all the wrong reasons: It's just as memorable as something like “Arena”, albeit for being as bad as the former episode is good. And, to add insult to injury, it went out as the season premier for the fans' hard-won third year of Star Trek, a move which has to go down as one of the biggest, most grandiose middle-finger salutes to a television audience in the history of broadcast.

I thought it was OK.

Now, I hasten to add “Spock's Brain” isn't good by any means either. Is it campy and cheesy? Oh, please. This is Roger Corman levels of lowballing it. Is it sexist? For sure: It's a story involving a tyrannical matriarchal society of incompetent, childlike women who torment their male underlings with mixed signals-Of bloody course it's sexist. It's borderline racist too, with characters throwing around words like “primitive” and “apish” on a regular basis and Kirk's ultimate resolution to the problems of the Sigma Draconians is to encourage them to follow a “natural” course of social evolution and learn how to think for themselves. It's just “The Apple” all over again. And, as is par for the course for this season, there are logic lapses and exposition holes everywhere and the plot actually completely falls apart if you think too hard about it. (Although really it all boils down to “alien space women need Spock's brain to control the computer in charge of running their library and central heating system”, which is arguably straightforward enough. Trust me: I watch 1980s Scooby-Doo. I've seen stuff that makes far less sense than this.)

But is “Spock's Brain” the single worst episode of Star Trek, or at least the Original Series? Oh, Prophets no. It's not even the worst episode of the season that we've see so far. As far as terrible Star Trek episodes go, it's eminently watchable for a number of reasons, and in fact I'd go so far as to say it's probably the most watchable bad episode of Star Trek that there is. There's a certain entertainment factor in how charmingly lowbrow it is. Furthermore, “Spock's Brain” is one of the most interesting episodes of the show to talk about, if not actually watch, and frankly, given a choice between this and another test of endurance like “The Paradise Syndrome” or “And The Children Shall Lead” I'll go with the Morgs and Eymorgs every time. So I mean yes it's bad, but not really in a way that would seem to justify the amount of vitriol it gets from mainline fandom. Unpacking how “Spock's Brain” got quite the reputation it did is a worthy field of study, and we'll return to it in a bit, but first let's try and answer the most obvious question: Why does this episode even exist?

One other thing “Spock's Brain” shares in common with “Arena” aside from being its antimatter universe twin is that, perhaps astonishingly, both are Gene Coon scripts (well, originally at least). Coon is once again using his penname Lee Cronin, and, unlike “Spectre of the Gun”, I can absolutely see why Coon wouldn't want his name associated with this one. But the question remains: How on Earth did Coon crank out something like this? He's consistently been arguably the best writer on the entire series (for my money only Paul Schneider and D.C. Fontana come close, and Schneider only wrote two and a half episodes while Fontana has the ill fortune to have crap like “Charlie X” and “Friday's Child” attributed to her, even if they weren't really her concepts). It seems unthinkable to imagine Coon sitting down to genuinely and unironically pen “Spock's Brain”.

Well, for one thing, just like Fontana, Coon had his scripted gutted by the production team, and this one came out in considerably worse shape then “The Enterprise Incident”. Some of the differences between Coon's original story and the aired one include the Sigma Draconians being called “The Nefelese” and being ruled by a male authority known as “Ehr Von”. There would have been an exploration of the Vulcan concept of slon porra, supposedly a state of mind where conscious mental faculties are in absolute control of the self. Also, there wouldn't have been a temporary transference of hyper-advanced medical knowledge to McCoy and there wasn't going to be a “Teacher”: McCoy only received information on the planet's local culturally specific techniques and it was a combination of them with his own abilities that would have allowed him to reconnect Spock's brain and body. Now, it's not especially clear that even had Coon's original draft gone through this episode still wouldn't have been a legendary turkey: This is still, after all, ultimately a story about shoplifting Spock's brain and using it as a glorified CPU chip. But one does get the sense, especially just knowing the stuff Coon has written in the past, that there may have been at least a halfhearted attempt to explore the concepts of the Self, mind/body confluence and structures of authority.

Or, it's entirely possible Coon wrote this episode simply to troll Fred Freiberger, Arthur Singer and the new production team: “OK, so you guys aren't going to treat Star Trek any differently than a bottom-of-the-barrel pulp sci-fi serial? Then fine. Here's a story that's as pulpish as it gets” (William Shatner even jokes this episode is a “tribute” to the NBC studio executives, which is frankly as good an explanation for “Spock's Brain” as exists). Because really, that's what this episode is: We've got a stereotypical-to-the-point-of-parody pulp sci-fi situation and a structure that is, of course, a tedious series of captures and escapes. Aside from this episode in particular (though it is certainly the best example), the accusation the third season is “pulpy” and “campy”, and that this is the year's real sin, seems to be a common one amongst fandom: Recall back in “Elaan of Troyius” Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann said that “overblown” writing, wardrobe and makeup design was “common” to year three. This raises some rather interesting implications, however. If in the end the biggest crime “Spock's Brain” commits is that it shows Star Trek succumbing fully to its pulp instincts and this is enough to make it the Worst Trek Ever Made...Then why aren't we once again making the same argument against Gene Roddenberry's work? Just like in “The Omega Glory”, I have to wonder: If this is as bad as it gets, why aren't we being equally as critical to, say, “The Cage” or “The Corbomite Maneuver”?

There are two possible reasons for this the way I see it: The easy answer is that while Star Trek has been pulpy on many occasions in the past, it's never been quite this campy before, and for a certain type of genre fan and film critic campy and theatrical is the worst possible thing for a work of visual media to be (I will briefly mention the homophobic and misogynistic overtones such a statement can potentially acquire, but you all are smart enough to take it from there, and anyway such a discussion is best saved for when we return to slash fiction). However, there's a bit more to it than that: Namely, Star Trek is also a whole lot more visible now than it's ever been before.

While ratings continued to decline throughout the 1968-9 season, partially by design but also partially because despite everything this was still Star Trek with Star Trek's audience, certainly more people were probably at least *aware* of the show and the reputation it now had. It would have been difficult not to be: It really has to be stressed what a watershed and discourse changer “Save Star Trek!” must have been. So, what I have a feeling happened was that while Star Trek may have built its fanbase on its momentary flashes of progressive idealism, starting with the third season there was a now the beginnings of an expectation for the show to behave that way on a regular basis. Something like “Spock's Brain” is going to stick out a *lot* more in the fall of 1968 then it would have in the fall of 1967, and I have a feeling had it been made in the second season it wouldn't have quite the reputation it does (I mean, not that it would have been made at that point in the first place: If it's a work of troll literature it's specific to this particular climate).

The other thing peculiarly notable about “Spock's Brain” is the cast. Normally an episode like this would merit the actors totally phoning it in or goofing around, but that's largely not the case here. With the exception of Leonard Nimoy, who has gone on record saying this episode left him constantly embarrassed, as much of the season did (which is, to be fair, a perfectly natural and understandable reaction) and whose stage presence totally reflects this, the cast does seem to be on the whole actually trying here, which is curious. However, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan don't quite give their normal performances either: They wind up at something considerably different and more interesting.

Starting with Shatner, we fully expect him by now to just eat everything in sight like he did in “And The Children Shall Lead”, and while there's a little bit of that in certain places, the version of Kirk he delivers for “Spock's Brain” is altogether more complex and nuanced then should really be expected: Shatner plays Kirk as someone intensely driven and who'll stop at nothing to get Spock back. Similarly, Kelley plays McCoy as obsessed with the concept of removing and reconnecting a brain, especially at the beginning of the first act when the Sigma Draconians' duplicity (and unfathomably advanced technology) is discovered and during the climax as he feverishly races against time to rejoin Spock. Doohan, meanwhile, plays Scott as a loyal and dutiful assistant who uses his specialized skill to help Kirk and McCoy's ambition. Now, while it could just be because I'm writing this in October so maybe it's on my mind, it seems to me that Shatner, Kelley and Doohan might just be trying to turn this into the Star Trek version of a horror movie, with Kirk and McCoy playing two sides of the mad, single-minded obsession of Victor Frankenstein.

Just like the doctor, Kirk and McCoy are consumed by their goal to, in a sense, bring Spock back from the dead by transplanting his brain, and this can be seen as being paralleled with the Eymorgs' steadfast, unthinking dedication to the Teacher's tyranny of hierarchical knowledge and ritualized subservience. There are even moments where Shatner and Kelley give performances that are uncannily reminiscent to me of Colin Clive's portrayal of Frankenstein in the 1931 Universal film, and James Doohan taking up the role of eerily capable and loyal lab assistant is actually genius. “Star Trek does Frankenstein” is a brilliant, brilliant concept, especially given how the original Frankenstein novel was a cautionary treatise against unrestrained technoscience that marked not only one of the first works of modern science fiction, but one of the first fusions of science fiction and horror. Even the movie adaptations are worth taking note of, as there becomes a kind of kinship between the genres of science fiction, horror and cowboy westerns with the camp aesthetic as B movie staples (even if this isn't really what the original Universal films were). If there was ever a time for Star Trek to attempt something like this, crossing all these genres together to make a larger metaficitonal statement, well, this would be the year to do it.

The only problem with this reading is that there are ultimately too many ideas here that never cohere. “Star Trek does Frankenstein” is a great idea, and so is an exploration of Self and identity through the lens of authoritarian power structures. It's just that nothing actually sticks here and, as is frustratingly the norm for this season, nobody seems to be on the same page about what they're doing (or should be doing). Had Coon been given the comparative freedom he enjoyed on “Spectre of the Gun” this *might* have actually worked, presuming (as I think is fair to) that the chasmic structural problems and casual sexism came from the production team's rewrites. There's a fine line between falling into camp due to incompetence and embracing it as an aesthetic style, and Coon seems like the kind of guy who could have pulled it off. But any good ideas the different people involved in “Spock's Brain” might have had remain buried and difficult to tease out of the uncooperative mess that became the finished episode.

But that says something in and of itself: Even at its worst, the Star Trek that comes out of people like Gene Coon, William Shatner, James Doohan and DeForest Kelley remains thought provoking and very, very entertaining. I wish the same could be said about everything that's part of this franchise.


  1. I had a feeling Spock's Brain would go the "so bad it's good" route, here. I'm in complete agreement. Eminently watchable.

  2. I want to rewatch this again now.