Tuesday, December 31, 2013

“Hello, little teeny-tiny people!”: The Terratin Incident

I'm really running out of Godzilla jokes to make here at this point.

The first, most immediately startling thing about “The Terratin Incident” is that it was written by Paul Schneider. The same person behind the flagrantly and angrily anti-war “Balance of Terror”, “The Squire of Gothos” as well as the first draft of the equally anti-authoritarian “Patterns of Force” is now penning a story where the Enterprise crew gets zapped with cosmic rays and shrunk down to less than an inch tall in order to rescue a civilization of equally miniscule individuals.

This is, obviously, not at all the sort of thing we would expect from Schneider. It's also his weakest contribution by far, and as tempting (and easy) as it would be to chalk this up to good writers having bad days and leave it at that, the fact is, like so much of the Animated Series, “The Terratin Incident” isn't actually bad. It has a few especially egregious moments, but there's actually a few interesting things going on here. It's another example of an episode indicative of the positive direction Star Trek is heading in.

The key here is in the final shot where Kirk describes the Terratins, descendents of a colony of Earth explorers who have evolved into a new species thanks to prolonged exposure to the stature-diminishing rays of the planet their ancestors landed on, as Lilliputians. The entire episode is a version of Gulliver's Travels with a great deal of science fiction shenanigans thrown in for good measure. This makes sense, as Schneider and D.C. Fontana built this episode around a one-paragraph brief from Gene Roddenberry, who was well known for his admiration of Jonathan Swift's masterpiece, as well as for his cataclysmic misunderstanding of said masterpiece.

Roddenberry frequently described his ham-handedly didactic version of the original Star Trek as Gulliver's Travels in Space while Swift's original is well known as a work of political and social satire. The hook of the original novel is that Gulliver espouses a different viewpoint of the inhabitants of the land he visits in each section, which is then mirrored and exaggerated by the inhabitants of the land he visits in the next section. So, for example, while Gulliver sees the Lilliputians as inherently aggressive, the Brobdingnagians he visits in the next section (who are giants compared to Gulliver) sees humanity as equally aggressive. The joke then being, of course, any good idea or plan can go bad at some point and humans are inherently shitty at organising themselves, also evidenced by Gulliver's growing hardness and cynicism throughout the book. The hook of Gene Roddenberry's version of Gulliver's Travels is that the Enterprise goes around and runs into a bunch of civilizations based around one single gimmick and then tells them why blind adherence to that gimmick is self-destructive and unnatural and how everyone would be better off living under a Western-style representative democracy.

But while “The Terratin Incident” may be a *literal* Gulliver's Travels in Space, as has become the norm for the Animated Series this is considerably played around with to an intriguing degree. The crucial thing about this version of the story is that it's the Terratins, who as Kirk helpfully reminds us at the end are stand-ins for the Lilliputians, are in fact in the right here. Kirk throws a big fit about them turning their shrink ray on the Enterprise and beaming his crew down without permission, but as the Terratins point out, this was the only form of communication available to them and their planet was literally breaking up around them and they needed to find some way to call for help.

Read this way, the size difference is also another metaphor for privilege blindness: This time it's the Enterprise crew who are unable to hear the voices of others because of their perspective. So, while the episode is not quite a reiteration of Gulliver's Travels as the alternation of viewpoints is integral to conveying the book's central point, it *is* a reiteration of half of the book's core structure and, crucially, it's the half that Roddenberry spectacularly failed to pick up on (although to be fair, it's also the half most people only casually familiar with Gulliver's Travels fail to pick up on too). Thus, “The Terratin Incident” is another attempt by the Animated Series to fix Star Trek by re-examining its central tenets and assumptions, and a rather laudably cheeky one at that as it takes a pot-shot at the show's original pitch by inverting the structure it operated under.

This is all well and good, but the problem is “The Terratin Incident” isn't quite as good at this as “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” was, and this is largely because it saves all the interesting stuff 'till the last third of the episode. The rest of the runtime is taken up by the rapidly-shrinking Enterprise crew trying to figure out what's happening and how to adjust to it. This is a plot so stock I would expect it to show up on Space Ghost (in fact now that I think of it it might well have) and, the be blunt, this kind of story just does not interest me in the slightest. I find it both juvenile and boring. I can barely tolerate it in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that's one of my two favourite books of all time.

This episode also features the singular moment where Nurse Chapel finally stops being a potentially interesting character and fully transforms into the token chick she was probably always destined to be: After Sulu breaks his arm stupidly trying to fire phasers at Terratin to stop the shrink ray, Chapel eagerly volunteers to go get a microscope part that she figures will work similar to their bone-knitting device. In the process of doing so she doesn't watch where she's going (which sort of seems hard to do if you're less than an inch tall, but maybe that's just me) and trips and falls into the fish tank. Chapel apparently never learned how to swim, because she stupidly flails around for about five minutes until Kirk has to rescue her with a bit of recycled running animation, after which he basically tells her “No more independent thinking from you, young lady!”, to which Chapel sheepishly giggles and demurely returns to her proper post. Watching this era of Star Trek really gives me new respect for Lwaxana Troi and what she did for Barrett's career and legacy.

I will grant the space adventure part of the episode a few things. For one it's not a terrible idea to have what appears to be a standard adventure plot undone at the end by a plot twist, I mean that's a fair approach to critically writing the kind of show Star Trek is at this point. And they do go out of their way to try and explain the shrinking stuff in scientific terms (or at least terms that sound plausibly scientific at first glance) with Spock's lengthy explanation of contracting DNA strands or whatever. “The Terratin Incident” really does break new ground for technobabble. I guess my issue with it, and everything about this story, really, is that I'm not sure this kind of plot really belongs here. This sounds more like something that would go near the beginning of the second season of the Original Series, not in a season that's already given us “Beyond the Farthest Star”, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” and even “Once Upon a Planet” if you're inclined to swing the same way I am on that episode. It's a problematization of Star Trek's original premise, and no matter how good and welcome that might have been at one time we're sort of beyond where it might have been appropriate to see it: “The Terratin Incident” sort of feels like it missed its moment to be relevant to me: Star Trek's clearly not going anywhere at this point and there's not a whole lot else to recommend about the episode as it exists where it exists.

But “The Terratin Incident” is also where we say goodbye to Paul Schneider. Of whom, what else do you want me to say? He wrote one of my two favourite episodes of the Original Series, and one of the only two I'd call flawless. He also wrote the clever “The Squire of Gothos” and had a hand in “Patterns of Force”, which was also staggeringly brilliant. Perhaps in hindsight some of the genius of those episodes was also due to Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon tweaking them, and “Patterns of Force” at least was technically written by John Meredyth Lucas. But that only means he needed some help to adapt his work for Star Trek, and as I've said before, Star Trek is actually unbelievably hard to write and write *properly*. Even a storied writer like Jerome Bixby needed help with Star Trek, so that's hardly something to hold against Schneider. Especially as the future will demonstrate that it's scripts like Schneider's are the ones that are the real models Star Trek aspires to in its finest moments.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

“I love you! I hate you!”: Mudd's Passion

"Hey, baby."
Maybe Harry Mudd just doesn't work.

I would make the argument that when you reach the third of three appearances of a character and still come up with something that can charitably be descibed as a “non-starter”, this might perhaps be the time to call into question whether the character and his signature plots were ever really a good idea to begin with. Except, of course, for the fact that I'm in the minority here. Harcourt Fenton Mudd is one of the most beloved characters from the original Star Trek era despite never once appearing in a halfway decent episode. If I'm tipping my hand early, it's just because “Mudd's Passion” is extremely difficult to work up any enthusiasm for. It's probably the second-weakest episode of the Animated Series I've seen yet, trailing behind “The Lorelei Signal” only because it's not a grotesque train wreck. It's simply bad in a ponderously mediocre way and is, ironically enough, utterly dispassionate.

“Mudd's Passion” begins with a dutiful recitation of Harry Mudd tropes that have already become worn and tired. The Enterprise is once again playing Space Cop and is sent to the Arcadian system to investigate Mudd, who is once again running a scam operation to peddle false promises of romance to horny miners. The script even tries to recycle the “he STOLE a SPACESHIP” joke from “I, Mudd” and to say it didn't work would be being kind (if for no other reason then it gives the key line to Leonard Nimoy instead of William Shatner: Spock is absolutely the wrong person to be the second half of that kind of double act). This time Mudd is selling a love potion he promises is infallible. He gives himself up to Kirk when the miners start to revolt, but once on the ship he tries to sweet talk Nurse Chapel into releasing him from the brig by bribing her with a sample of the love drug for her to use on Spock. So naturally, like an idiot, she agrees. Mudd then mugs her, steals her ID card and takes her hostage as he hijacks a shuttlecraft to escape to a binary star system the ship just discovered. And this one's by the same writer as the Original Series Mudd stories, so we can't lay the blame on someone else not understanding the source material.

At this point, the episode stops being a half-baked rip-off of “Mudd's Women”...and becomes a half-baked rip-off of “The Naked Time” instead as the love potion somehow manages to get into the Enterprise's ventillation system and everyone in the crew starts falling in love with each other. We get a token “we must learn to control our emotions” speech from Kirk after he beams down with Spock to rescue Chapel right in the middle of being chased by Giant Rock Beasts (who are, again, far and away the most interesting things about this episode). This is no more captivating or less problematic than it was last time we saw it, or then it will be in any other of the bafflingly at least three more times Star Trek attempts this story. This script is also unrepentantly heteronormative, anti-trans and a whole host of other nasty things as Mudd's love potion explicitly only works on members of the “opposite sex” and the only reason it avoids being as misogynistic as “Mudd's Women” is because M'Ress is here: Chapel is obviously the weak-willed woman tempted by the sin of her own sexuality because she endangers the ship by releasing Mudd because she wanted to get it on with Spock.

I mean there are some fun things about this one. Roger C. Carmel is back and predictably good, though not as good as he was last time and it was a serious mistake to have him interact with William Shatner as rarely as he does. The love scenes in the back half of the episode are also interesting, as brief and neutered for “children's television” as they are. The Beta Couple is, delightfully, Scotty and M'Ress, which is the sort of thing that is at once only possible through animation and also something one doesn't typically expect to see outside of fanfiction, but this episode just blatantly goes with it and it's amazing. Also speaking of fanfiction, once Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet to chase after Chapel and Mudd they start acting very emotional and talk about how close and important they are to each other, which was something that just had to have been put in to tease the shippers. This also makes the moment a few scenes later when, feeling the effects of the drug's “hangover” (which balances a few hours of intense love with a few more of intense hatred) Kirk starts to snap at Spock for being unable to keep his hands of Chapel also amusing: Do I detect a hint of jealousy there?

Back on the ship things are no less intriguing: Apart from Scotty and M'Ress, the crew seem to mostly be flirting with each other instead of just with “the last member of the opposite sex they touched”, which was what the drug was supposed to do. Mudd has essentially turned the entire ship into a giant love-in orgy, which is fantastic. But the person who hands down wins the episode is McCoy. In the rec room while trying to impress a young female Lieutenant, he ends up delivering what is actually one of the most memorable speeches I've heard on the show yet:

Did I ever tell you about the time I saved Captain Kirk's life? Or Spock's? And my dear friend Scotty. And that pretty little Lieutenant Uhura. I've saved just about everybody on this here ship. If the Enterprise had a heart, I'd save her too. Now, let's talk about your heart, my dear.

Apart from that last eye-rolling pick up attempt, this is actually a really lovely and heartfelt moment, and DeForest Kelley sells the heck out of it. I think this is the first time we've seen any sort of exploration into McCoy's own personality and motivation, at the very least since “The Empath”. In this quote, McCoy truly sees himself as a healer and lifesaver, someone whose job it is to protect and look after people who have become his close friends through many long years of service with them. He even goes so far as to suppose the Enterprise herself might have a heart, and if she did he'd take care of it. And he does, because he's it: He's the ship's moral conscience. It's a staggeringly good bit of dialog that stands apart from an otherwise eminently forgettable episode.

But it's not enough to save “Mudd's Passion”. None of the few good (and they are genuinely good) moments are. The orgy, delightful as it is, simply isn't anywhere near as effective as it is in something like “Wolf in the Fold” because we're right back in that “emotions are bad” quagmire from the first season of the Original Series. The way some of the cast play around with gender roles and sexuality is fun and to be commended, but it doesn't work as well here as it does in even something like “Turnabout Intruder” because the rest of the episode is so ridiculously sexist. Even by the standards of Harry Mudd episodes this comes up short because while it was ultimately something of a hot mess there was a lot to recommend in “I, Mudd”'s goofball earnest Vaudeville routine, especially anytime Shatner and Carmel were onscreen together. This one doesn't even have that, the other stuff can't keep it afloat and the predictable Harry Mudd misogyny seals it.

It's exceedingly difficult to critique an episode like this because for one thing it's so short and for another pretty much everything that's bad about it is stuff Star Trek has tripped up on before. There's simply too many of these episodes with not enough unique tropes and motifs between them. “Mudd's Passion” is another example of a middling-to-poor episode redeemed by Star Trek's outstanding cast, but that's no longer enough to get a pass from me, especially given the Animated Series standard of quality and especially given the last two weeks. It's not enough to put the series in a dangerous position, but equally it doesn't really leave me a lot of material to sink my teeth into. It just sort of there, which I guess means this is another filler week for the show.