Sunday, June 30, 2013

“You Will Be Assimilated”: The Return of the Archons

Kirk sees no reason why he can't have both a frock *and* a gun.

Let's take care of the obvious first, shall we? We've got Gene Roddenberry writing again this week. By this point we should know what this means: Terrible pacing, ham-fisted, confused ethics, a disturbingly capricious attitude towards the personhood of women, screamingly vast logic lapses and a truly amazing ability to craft a cartoonish 16-ton safe of a moral and somehow still manage to miss the point entirely. With that squared away, let's take a look at the less obvious: “The Return of the Archons” is final, conclusive evidence Roddenberry's original concept of Star Trek wasn't a utopia and is the first appearance of the Prime Directive (and thus also the first deconstruction of the Prime Directive).

The Prime Directive is a very interesting concept unique to Star Trek, and by this I mean I don't like it very much. I never have: Traditionally doing a Prime Directive story is the quickest way short of doing an “evil clone frames the hero” plot or having a woman strut onto the bridge in a miniskirt to get me to shut the TV off. On the surface, it sounds like a self-evidently Good Thing, as it prohibits Starfleet officers from interfering in the natural development of a society (although here it's framed more in terms of a vague opposition to “noninterference” of any sort). In fact, at conventions or in interviews Roddenberry (or those attempting to speak for him) would tout the Prime Directive as a key indication of the Federation's evolved, idealistic society, typically framing it in opposition to Western colonialism or the cargo cult myth. This is of course hilarious, as every single Prime Directive story throughout the entirety of Star Trek is either about how demonstrably, measurably worse off the local people are by the crew's adherence to it or how they just go ahead and flagrantly violate it anyway because they know better. Anthropologically speaking, however, it's a nightmare, and given my prior experience in that field it causes me no shortage of headaches.

That said I don't want to spend too much time on the Prime Directive here as, aside from this being the first mention of it, it doesn't play an enormous role in the ethics debate of the week and there are two episodes coming up in the second season which are in many ways the definitive Prime Directive stories, so it seems something of a waste to use up all my critique of it in this post. What's more interesting about how it's used in “The Return of the Archons” is that it's explicitly framed as a mirror of Landru's “Prime Directive” to preserve The Body at all costs. As it's Landru's fixation on this basic order that results in the Beta III colony becoming “soulless”, in the words of Spock, it could be argued Roddenberry is trying to tell us blind adherence to orders is a Bad Thing and people need to think for themselves and make decisions on a case-by-case basis, and furthermore, that he's now become perfectly willing to point the finger as much at his own people as he is at others. This makes a great deal of sense: First of all, it fits very neatly with what can be ascertained about Roddenberry's worldview (he was very much an individualist and this is exactly the kind of simple, didactic message he loves on the Original Series), but also with the way the rest of the episode plays out as The Body is basically a society built around unthinkingly following the orders telepathically communicated to them from Landru.

But of course there's a problem. In this case, it's that Beta III can also be read very easily as a collectivist, communist society: Everyone calls each other friend, doesn't ask any questions and obeys orders for the good of the The Body, i.e., the overall society. Perhaps it's a Stalinistic society, where a single, authoritarian power has absolute control under the guise of an egalitarian, co-operative paradise: Even the viral motif, where those who are “foreign” and “do not conform” are “destructive” to The Body and must be “purged”, is straightforwardly a reiteration of Stalinistic disciplinary and disappearing tactics, albeit a rather clever and original one. Even so, it's not clear that Roddenberry actually recognises the difference between communism, collectivism, Stalinism and generic authoritarianism (which, to be honest, is probably an accurate allegation). As a result, “The Return of the Archons” is at once a critique of rote obedience that fingers Starfleet as being part of the problem and a chest-thumping bit of Rugged American Individualist Anti-Soviet Propaganda and neither of those things because nothing about this episode fits together.

The big revelation is, naturally that Landru is a computer. Exactly who programmed it, why, and how it lasted this long in control of an entire planet for 6000 years (or was that only 100? I was never very clear on that, and there's a bit of a difference between those two numbers) is not explained, but also not entirely important. What this also means is we get another example of the signature James T. Kirk method of computer repair: Blowing it up by shouting paradoxes and logic errors at it (it's a good thing he never tried this on Spock, especially given his lines in the denouement this time). This is of course ridiculous and displays a riotous failure to understand and wanton disregard for basic computer science, but again, there's another episode coming up where it will be far more appropriate to talk about that than it is here. This is very irritating to me, as it all adds up to “The Return of the Archons” being another episode that there's very little for me to say intelligent about it.

But there are a few things. Firstly, like “Miri” and “The Squire of Gothos” before it, “The Return of the Archons” is also very good at building an air of mystery. The teaser alone holds up the rest of the episode in this regard: Sulu and a redshirt are running though Mayberry dressed in Victorian frock coats while evil clockwork monks slowly close in on them with what basically amount to magic staves. That's got to get anyone's attention. Likewise, the Stepford-esque villagers and chaotic, hedonistic Festival (despite actually making no narrative sense whatsoever if you think too long about it) help contribute to the general unsettling atmosphere. Most importantly in my opinion, however, is that the one thing “The Return of the Archons” is unwaveringly consistent and coherent about is its perhaps surprising, yet firm and undeniable, anti-utopian stance.

It's continuously stressed by not only the followers of Landru, but the crew itself, is that Beta III is explicitly a utopian society. Those who are part of The Body continually talk about how happy, serene and peaceful they are and how Landru has created a paradise. Indeed, he arguably has: There is no war, hunger, disease or conflict on Beta III (except during the officially-sanctioned Festival) and Landru removes such concepts from The Body immediately as inherently dangerous foreign substances should it detect them. And the show hates it for those very reasons. The Body is depicted as vapid, empty and without any sense of creativity or enthusiasm for life, despite being placid, content and happy. The clincher comes in the denouement, where Spock muses on how humanity has often longed to create an ideal, perfect world and Kirk grins and says “Yes. And we never got it. Just lucky, I guess”. This is quite frankly astonishing from a modern perspective: Here's Gene Roddenberry, the supposed Arch-Utopian, quite clearly penning a story where a desire for utopia is portrayed as dangerous, stifling, wrongheaded and dehumanizing. To paraphrase a young Jean-Luc Picard: What the Devil is going on here?

Thing is, this isn't so inconceivable a statement as it first appears, and we should already be familiar with some of the reasons why. Roddenberry in 1967 is not a utopian futurist, and actually whether or not he ever actually was is a matter for debate in my opinion (a case could be made there's evidence he becomes this as of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but how much of that was him and how much was him playing up his audience can be hard to discern at times). Star Trek was never created to be something like this, and the show as it exists now most certainly isn't. Furthermore, the entire idea of a utopian society is a loaded concept: The term was coined by political philosopher Thomas More in a treatise that is now largely seen to be a work of straight-up satire, skewering 16th century Europe's panglossian attitude towards its rampant, systemic social problems. As a result of this, anyone following More attempting to craft an unirionically “utopian” society really has to be seen as somewhat egregiously not getting the joke. The fact so many of the so-called utopias in speculative fiction come from Western authors who are still very much part of a culture descended in more ways than they'd care to admit from the Europe Thomas More was bitterly complaining about in 1516 can be seen as nothing short of delicious poetic irony.

Does this mean that Star Trek and other works like it can never be hopeful? Are we all doomed to all be eschatological nihilists from now until the inevitable heat death of the universe, or the equally inevitable entropic collapse of human society, whichever comes first? I don't think so, and the key reason why I don't is that I strongly believe there is a stark difference between utopianism and idealism. Star Trek isn't utopian: It never has been, and each and every time the franchise has started experimenting with utopianism it's caught and severely problematized itself, sometimes with absolutely horrifying consequences. Star Trek is, however, idealistic: When it's at it's best, it shows us people and concepts entirely within our reach that we can strive for. Even now, in 1967, it's showing us that maybe an environment where men, women and others of all backgrounds and creeds can live and work together as equals isn't an absolute impossibility. Granted a lot of this is coming about purely by accident, coincidence and the secondary effect of decisions that were made in the interests of goals pretty far removed from that of material social progress and the show isn't going to engage with these themes with any seriousness or maturity until it gets rebooted a few more times, but it's still a reading and implication that's demonstrably there, if only as a truism given that a not-insignificant number of people have in fact read it this way.

This is hopeful; this is idealistic-It's not a utopian society by any stretch of the imagination, and as Kirk says we probably shouldn't be waiting around for one, but it is giving us the most basic of hints that a world better than our own is possible. This is a declaration we should take notice of, respect and be thankful for. These things can happen, and we can and should strive for them. Even if it's not really all there now, in 1967, it definitely will be before our trek through the stars is over. It won't always be paired with completely unproblematic concepts and ideas (it certainly hasn't been to date) and indeed on a great many occasions will be actively working contrary to this declaration, but this still may well be the most important thing to know about Star Trek: A better life is possible. Equality and peace are possible. Love is possible. Enlightenment is possible. And isn't that, ultimately, what progressiveness means?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

“Everything is as it should be”: Tomorrow is Yesterday

Current theory points to the Enterprise being responsible for medieval Earth legends about the Skyships of Magonia.

The following is an excerpt from the archives of the United Federation of Planets Temporal Integrity Commission. It appears to be a fragment of an introductory text for prospective Agents educating them on proper temporal mechanics and etiquette.

It is common knowledge the the United Federation of Planets of our time requires all Starfleet officers to observe strict adherence to the Temporal Prime Directive. As its name would suggest, this directive is an extension of the earlier Prime Directive, which was a policy of nonintervention with the natural development of cultures less developed then ours. The logical outgrowth of this core premise, the Temporal Prime Directive clearly states that interference with historical events is strictly forbidden, and the current timeline must be upheld at all costs. In our age of freely available and accessible time travel, the preservation of the sequence of events leading inevitably to this glorious present is of paramount importance. Under no circumstances will any time travel event that could jeopardize or even nullify the possibility of this particular future coming to pass be tolerated, and the stewardship of our timeline can only be seen as our primary responsibility as Starfleet officers.

Once time travel technology became commonplace in all the civilized cultures of the galaxy, an interstellar pact was signed between all the major political powers mutually agreeing to prohibit the use of that technology for any purpose other than pure, untainted scientific research. Furthermore, the agreement outlines explicit guidelines, instructions and procedures on how time travel can be undertaken safely, rationally and virtuously without contaminating or endangering the timestreams that lead to our reality. The ratification of this treaty and related documents, which collectively became known as the Temporal Accords, remains the fundamental guiding tenet of Federation and Starfleet policy to this day. Although most governing bodies freely accepted the new terms, many more did not, and broke off their Federation alliances, feeling that temporal mechanics should be used to change the past for self-centered and misguided notions of “personal improvement”. Such temporal incursions are the greatest threat to our safety and sovereignty, and it is the sworn duty of all temporal agents to track down and repair the damage caused by such incursions, and ideally preventing them from occurring in the first place whenever possible.

Although time travel of any sort is discouraged if it can be avoided, Federation and Starfleet policy does acknowledge that the past holds merit from a scientific perspective. One of the reasons it is imperative that we do not change the past is that studying it both teaches and gives us perspective for how to live in the present. In this regard, a history of time travel is beneficial to help us better understand the moral and ethical ramifications of temporal mechanics, why Federation policy has evolved to the point it has and how best to handle a time travel situation should you happen to find yourself in one. it is the past that provides us with a map with which to chart our behviour in the future, both for helping us to decide what choices it is in the best interest of the majority to take, and which it is in their best interests to avoid making again.

The earliest known record of Federation time travel occurred on stardate 3113.2 when the U.S.S. Enterprise, registry number NCC-1701, under the command of James Tiberius Kirk encountered a black hole, resulting in the ship travelling several centuries into the past to the Earth of July, 1969. The event has since become the ideal template for the handling of all time travel events, both those of an accidental nature and incursions of malicious, selfish intent. As with much history on file regarding Captain Kirk, the example he sets in this case is one to which we all should strive, for the good of the timeline, the galaxy, and our most sacred freedoms.

There is, of course, troublingly inconsistent data on record about the actual origin of this event. Captain Kirk's recorded logs of the event posit his time warp took place on stardate 3113.2 as the result of a chance encounter with a black hole while in the middle of a routine supply run, although there is also evidence the event actually took place on stardate 1704.4, and was instead the result of a contained matter-antimatter implosion in the Enterprise's warp engines, a last-ditch attempt to free the ship from a decaying orbit around the planet PSI 2000. Such contradictory evidence would seem to support the hypothesis that a temporal incursion occurred prior to the events on file, possibly the doings of Federation enemies acting in opposition to the Temporal Accords for some unknown, yet most certainly nefarious purpose. While the origin of the mysterious “Lost Kirk Incursion” is a hotly debated topic amongst Federation scholars and Starfleet temporal agents alike, the time travel event that we have on record is undeniably a significant one, and a cornerstone for the temporal stability policy we maintain and strictly enforce to this day.

The events as we know them begin shortly after the Enterprise's encounter with a black hole, thus leading to the discovery of the “gravitational slingshot effect” that has since become the foundational theory of modern temporal mechanics. After communications officer Uhura and science officer Spock were able to corroborate to Captain Kirk that the ship had, in fact, travelled back in time to July, 1969 the Enterprise was intercepted by a crude jet-propelled scout vehicle from the atmospheric military organization that existed on Earth at the time, in the region then known as the United States of America. As the ship was carrying nuclear weapons that could have jeopardized his ship, Kirk correctly made the decision to use a sustained tractor beam pulse to entrap the vehicle and transport the pilot aboard before it broke apart.

Although it is regrettable Kirk was forced to beam the pilot aboard, thus revealing to him the true nature of the Enterprise's temporal displacement and endangering the stability of the timeline, it would have been much worse for Kirk to have let him die, as the pilot was in fact Captain John Christopher, the father of Colonel Shaun Geoffrey Christopher, the pilot of the first manned mission to Saturn and thus a historically significant individual. Kirk also wisely chose to withhold strategic information about the Federation of the time to Christopher and a guard who was subsequently accidentally beamed aboard the ship due to a failed attempt to retrieve visual evidence of the Enterprise's approach into US airspace, claiming to Christopher that he instead represented the interests of the archaic United Earth Space Probe Agency. In particular, it would have been a grave threat to the integrity of future events had the true nature of the black hole been revealed to any of the corrupted individuals, as Earth scientists were just beginning to formulate the theory positing the existence of such phenomena approximately the same time this event took place, albeit in the corrected timeline.

Perhaps the most praiseworthy action Kirk undertook during these events was his keen reasoning that a reverse slingshot effect would send the ship forward in time and, if a precise transporter beam-out occurred, then Captain Christopher and the guard could be returned to the exact moment they were removed from their timestreams and, as the events had no longer happened, they would remember nothing. this allowed Kirk to cover his tracks in such an elegant manner it has rightfully become standard operating procedure for all Federation temporal research ships. The only exceptions to this standing order are, of course, granted to temporal agents acting in the interest of the Temporal Accords who are allowed to interact with timestream natives should they judge it to be appropriate and necessary to sufficiently respond to crises and emergencies and maintain structure and stability. Agents desiring such privileged access should seek Level 10 Security Clearance from the managerial offices of the Temporal Integrity Commission and are encouraged to seek a positing on a Federation timeship.

There is little wonder why James Tiberius Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise are the most storied captain and most storied ship in Federation history. The exploits of this fabled pairing are decorated and celebrated such that they could almost be seen as modern-day legends. Thankfully, however, rationality prevails in our more enlightened age. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise were no more mythic heroes than this year's graduating class of the academy: They were merely competent and professional human beings who were as dutiful in their day as any officer is expected to be today. This is why we should study and learn from Kirk: He is a fitting role model for valour, honour, and sober respect for the virtues of law, order and the inevitable march of history. We must not give in to the temptations of misty-eyed romanticism and declare Kirk or others like him heroes, icons or legends, but we should look to their stories for advice and guidance on how best to craft ours.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

“DARKSEID IS MY WILL!” The Alternative Factor

Then Captain Kirk left the Enterprise and went back to the space that was not a space.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, genre fandom underwent something of a shift in the way it expressed itself, at least on the Internet. A new generation of fans-turned-critics sprang up, ushering in a new style of criticism that can loosely be described as the Internet Review Show. Centred mostly around the website network Channel Awesome, which itself grew out of both YouTube and YouTube's copyright policies, these shows took concisely analytical and frequently equal parts extremely nostalgic and extremely negative, perspectives on science fiction and pop culture ephemera from the 1980s and 1990s, often using the analytical tools of film school. Two of the primary influences on Channel Awesome and similar sites were Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Agony Booth, both of which were known for their trademark style of sarcastically sending up assorted bits of genre fiction's past.

Don't you see? This is not Your ship. This is not Your crew. It's changed, different: It's already begun. It may be too late to undo the damage that has already been done, but You can set things right and prevent further harm from coming to Your universe. You see now the danger You are in? The natural order of things is at stake because of this! It's not only this plane, but all of them! The Future, Our Future, Your Future is on the verge of nonexistence. You must put a stop to this here and now so the proper path of Things-To-Come may unfold as it is destined to. Find him, stop him, destroy him, whatever it takes! You must do it and do it immediately! The fate of Reality-As-We-Know-It is in Your hands!

The reason I bring all of this up is because one of the primary ways by which Star Trek fandom as we currently know it was able to take shape was through The Agony Booth's text recaps of various episodes from across the franchise. The cancellation of Enterprise put Star Trek pretty clearly into the category of “the past”, and even in spite of J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann's two blockbuster cinematic reboots, there is still a lingering sense in many corners of the fandom that Star Trek as a relevant, extant thing remains dead and buried. Therefore, it was sites like The Agony Booth and related web efforts (like SF Debris) and its descendants (like Channel Awesome and other sites like it) that helped usher in a reflexive and introspective period of self-examination in Star Trek fandom. The one problem is that, given their status as entertainment based on making fun of things, the consensus of places like this is going to be extremely negative, or at the very least they heavily emphasize the parts of the series they look at that are the easiest to lampoon.

Yes, I am He, the horrific and terrible monster who destroys civilizations and can make reality vanish in the blink of an eye. But so is he, of course. It depends on your perspective. Much as a hole may become a door, should you choose to view it as such. He will tell you it is a grave threat that the two of us exist in the same place, and in one sense I concede he would be right. He and I are opposites, as you know. Matter and antimatter. Order and chaos. Our existence in the same place and the same time are logical impossibilities. And yet here we both are. And you, as well. My universe is breaking through into yours, and yours into mine. But I submit to you this is a mutability, there is play here. The destruction of one reality does not by default necessitate Nothingness.

This is a very long-winded and roundabout way of getting to the fact The Agony Booth gave “The Alternative Factor” a right panning, tossing out words like “incoherent” and calling Kirk and the crew “severely brain damaged” before finally dubbing the episode as a whole “one of the most poorly constructed fifty minutes I've ever seen” and declaring it “one of the true stinkers in the Trek universe”. I found this all terribly interesting, because “The Alternative Factor” is one of the single most enjoyable episodes of the Original Series I've seen so far.

I don't think you understand the full gravity of the situation at hand here. We are talking about plus and minus coming into contact. Matter and Antimatter. We are talking about the flagrant violation of every known Natural Law of both universes. As a lawkeeper yourself by trade, you must at least respect and understand the significance of that? What is happening out there now is a thing that simply can not and must not be! He would change all of this, sabotage it, reform it in his image: Remake reality in a way that would suit him and him alone. Surely you can see how a thing such as this cannot be permitted to continue? This incursion must be stopped! You must stop it! Help me defeat him and restore The Way Things Are Meant To Be!

This is not to say the episode doesn't have problems; it does, and they're frequently too serious to ignore. However, that said, the problems “The Alternative Factor” do have are purely structural ones, and that really must be stressed in a season that's seen both “Mudd's Women” and Yeoman Barrows. The one solid criticism The Agony Booth does manage to land in my opinion is the accusation of clunky pacing: That's definitely true: There are a few too many exposition scenes, and they could have been written a lot clearer. The battle scenes between Lazarus and Anti-Lazarus go on a bit long, and there's one extended scene near the middle of the episode that really slows things down to a crawl. However, there's an actual behind-the-scenes explanation for this: The script was split just about in half when prospective affiliates raised cane about a proposed love story between Lazarus and Charlene Masters, forcing it to be dropped at the last second. This really can't be seen as anything less than an overall, ahem, positive thing though I feel: Chief Engineer Masters is an absolutely brilliant character by Star Trek standards: Granted this is helped a lot by the fact her scenes were obviously written for James Doohan's Scotty (who's not in this episode for whatever reason), but still, to have an African woman in that role and not have the show draw overt attention to it has to be commended. Saddle her with yet another throwaway romance subplot, even if it's not with Kirk, and that would have hurt her overall effectiveness I argue. It's just a shame the change came about thanks to the southern affiliates throwing a fit over a potential interracial romance and not feminist introspection or good sense.

I do not seek to destroy, only to change, for change is flux and constant. In fact, it is the antithesis of change, that is, stagnation, that begets death, and it is death which pursues you. What you are witnessing now is a conflict at a point in time yet to come in your future, but that has already begun in mine and will continue to rage from now until eternity. He and I shall fight again and again until all of the stars and all of the worlds throughout all of the cosmos blink out and the vultures and death-dealers pick over the dried and bleached remains of creation. In this way our domains will be kept separate, for now. But there will come a time the door will open again: I've seen it before, and it will happen again. So be it.

Then there's Lazarus himself, who is significantly more interesting then perhaps he ought to be. First of all, Robert Brown was not the original choice for the role: He was a last-minute replacement when the actor who was actually cast, John Drew Barrymore, never showed up for work. Brown was such a last-minute addition, in fact, the show had to start shooting the scenes without Lazarus before they had even found a substitute, which would also account for the hectic and frenzied production. For an emergency stand-in, however, Brown is really quite excellent, and his mood swings and dramatic stage presence are really fun to watch. The name Lazarus itself is, of course, taken from the Biblical character Lazarus of Bethany. This is fundamentally another example of how indebted Star Trek is to Westernism at this point, but, just like the best parts of the Original Series, it's wonderfully oversignified thanks to a seemingly truly inept screw-up. See, the thing is Lazarus of Bethany is primarily famous for cheating death, as he's brought back to life by Jesus four days after he died as an example of how Jesus has transcended (or perhaps conquered might be the better word) the mortal shackles of death.

You're just going to let him stand there? You have to take action! You must send him back, he cannot stay here of his own accord! If he is allowed to assert his will on the universe, all of reality will be imperiled! The future that has been prescribed for us shall not come to pass and the stability of the entire cosmos will buckle! The universes must be kept separate! We must persevere over the Anti-Life! The timeline must be preserved!

This is problematic on a number of levels, most notably the fact this doesn't seem to hold any connection whatsoever to Lazarus' actual role in “The Alternative Factor”. And, once again, we see that Western motif I mentioned in “The Menagerie” post about one needing to “move beyond” one's Earthly limitations. But perhaps instead of being the Anti-Life we can reconceptualize Lazarus as the Anti-Death instead: Everyone in this episode seems in some way to be racing to outrun the Death Drive-before the Matter/Antimatter hook is introduced, it seems for all the world that Star Trek's internal narrative logic is on the verge of falling apart, and Lazarus describes his opponent as death itself. Even after we learn about the “antimatter universe” (an admittedly self-evidently silly sci-fi concept), that reading is still faintly there. Recall Anti-Lazarus' goal is to uphold reality by removing his duplicate from the multiverse: In a sense, he is sacrificing himself to ensure the continued life of us all. What we choose to do with it is up to us.

Change is constant. Even now, things are not as they were. Where are Christopher Pike and Number One? Doctor Boyce? Where is Earth Command, and what happened to the Space Air Force and the Space Navy? Starfleet and the Federation didn't exist before, and yet now they apparently have always existed. By his own admission he has reshaped reality. The outside universe bleeds in, and nothing remains as it once was. That which he so desperately wishes to preserve is as much an illusory construct as that which I wish to change. I wonder what he would have to say about that. Or you.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

“The best techniques are passed on by the survivors...”: Arena


Arguably the most memorable episode of the Original Series' first season, there's an awful lot going on with “Arena”, and all of it is deserving of our attention: This is the first episode actually written by Gene Coon, it boasts one of the most iconic extraterrestrial designs in the show's history in the Gorn and three of the most iconic setpieces as well: Kirk's brutal, drawn-out fistfight with the Gorn captain, his improvised tree-trunk cannon (which recently, as of this writing, saw an entire segment dedicated to it on MythBusters) and his climactic confrontation with the Metron where he refuses to kill his opponent after beating him. Also, for good measure, “Arena” also sees the debut of a little thing called the Federation. So, kind of a big story then.

Let's get that last one out of the way first, as it's by far the most interesting from the perspective of the future. Like the debut of Starfleet and Starfleet Command in “Court Martial”, this is primarily a nomenclature change at this point. Furthermore, the Federation is even less important to “Arena” then Starfleet was to “Court Martial”: In that episode at least the organisational structure of Starfleet Command was important to the main plot, here, the Federation is introduced with a single throwaway comment from Kirk and then never mentioned again. Nevertheless, the word choice here is interesting, to say the least. A “Federation” is by definition an alliance of self-governing political states with partial autonomy brought together by shared mutual interest. What it's not is a colonial empire; at least not by default: An empire grows through colonization and militaristic conquest. Calling a centralized power a “federation” would at least *imply* a more co-operative arrangement.

In the past the world of Star Trek has been pretty clearly a galactic empire based on Earth: The overwhelming majority of places we've visited have been Earth colonies, and we've seen no other significant political power in the galaxy aside from the Romulan Star Empire, and they're tucked safely away behind the Neutral Zone. That's all changed as of “Arena”, however: The central twist of the episode is that the Gorn, who are introduced as an aggressive, warlike Other who cannot be reasoned with, turn out to be a highly sophisticated civilization in their own right who feel threatened by Federation expansion into their area of space. The Metrons' lesson to both crews seems to be about stressing the importance of communication and diplomacy, it would seem that this might be what distinguishes the Federation from the former Earth Empire.

This is of course not to say a federation is incapable of being imperialistic. The oldest and most influential federation on *our* Earth is the United States, which is known nowadays primarily for its policies of economic and political imperialism built around manipulating diplomacy and trade sanctions and the fetishistic focus on neoliberal privatization resulting in a capitalistic tyranny that rewards only those who are already in an extremely privileged position while absolutely crushing and dehumanizing everyone else, not to mention being a general fascistic police state towards its citizenry. Furthermore, there have been numerous cases throughout the history of the US that proves the country is obsessed with its own particular flavour of government, believing it to be far and away, and without question, the greatest and most perfect in the history of the world and of being all too willing to convert others to it, and by any means necessary. The US also obviously has owned colonial territories of its own at various points and has the clear-cut genocide of the entire native population of the Americas on its hands. If anything, the history of the US is incontrovertible evidence that the federation is far from the ideal way to organise a society.

These are all issues and implications Star Trek will deal with at different points throughout the history of the franchise, either that it recognises in itself as problems or has hoisted on it from outside forces. A federation may be a fairer way to organise the kind of setting Star Trek operates in than an empire, but it's not necessarily going to be the perfect solution either. This is, however, primarily a concern for the future-After all, the Federation in “Arena” is, as I've already said, a throwaway line. It's not going to become actually relevant to the overall story arc of Star Trek until next year at the very earliest. But even here I think the show is on some level cognizant of this: Look at the story Coon chooses, by his own hand, to introduce the Federation in-He sends its sole representative, Kirk, on a vicious, bloodthirsty revenge mission and has him ready to disregard all concern for sentient life, both on the Gorn ship and on the Enterprise itself, so long as he can send the coldest, most ruthless message to the Gorn possible. Furthermore, the Cestus III colony turns out to be in Gorn space, something the Federation never bothered to check on, just waltzing in like it was entitled to the place, an act which the Gorn rightfully saw as the prelude to an invasion. Clearly the Federation's not working much better in the world of Star Trek than it does in ours.

The overall tone and general plot of “Arena” bear some superficial similarities with those of “Balance of Terror”, and it's worth looking at the two episodes side-by-side here as they reveal not only the differences between Paul Schneider's writing style and Gene Coon's, but also a bit more of the latter writer's philosophy. Both stories are soundly critiques of imperialism and conflict-for-conflict's sake, but they go about exploring these themes in very different ways. The most alarming difference is in how the two stories depict Kirk: “Balance of Terror” showed him to be almost world-weary and tired, dreading the thought of being dragged into a bloody conflict with the Romulans and the prospect of sacrificing his ship, his crew and himself for a misbegotten ancient feud, as befitting him being paired with Mark Lenard's Commander. In “Arena”, by contrast, both Kirk and the Gorn captain are chomping at the bit to usher in a new galaxy-wide war, with the Gorn salting and burning Cestus III and Kirk willing to throw out his sense of morals and ethics and jeopardize his crew to avenge the colony, thus prompting the Metrons to dump them both in Vasquez Rocks to beat the shit out of each other.

The Metrons as a third, neutral party are another concept new for “Arena”, and, unfortunately, in my view, have problems. I have a feeling what Coon wanted their inclusion to show is how war and conflict are detrimental to the health of a society, and that any people who wish to consider themselves “advanced” and “civilized” would have moved beyond them. In this regard it's telling how Coon has Kirk be the most overtly warlike person in the show: It's a very firm claim that the Federation and Starfleet are nowhere near as sophisticated and cultured as they might wish you to believe. Unfortunately for me, it's simply not as interesting as having Kirk be a burned-out solider tired of war and fighting looking for a way to move beyond them, which seems, at least in my view, to be a far better fit for the kind of performance William Shatner is prone to giving and a compelling microcosm of Star Trek itself. Indeed what Coon is doing here can be seen as a metaphor as well: Just as in “The Squire of Gothos” Kirk stands in for the ethics of the entire show and is judged for them, but Shatner plays a character who is larger than the role he's being asked to fill, and that to me calls for a different approach.

As for the Metrons themselves, I feel their whole conception is a bit flawed, unfortunately. Firstly, the whole idea some civilizations are straight-up “superior”, “more advanced” and “more civilized” is undistilled Social Darwinism, a fact which is not at all helped by having the Metrons' true appearance resemble classical Greek ideal forms and (of course) be played by white-as-the-driven snow actors in golden haired wigs. Even the name “Metron” is derived from “Metatron”, a Judaic angel with a Greek name meaning “instrument of change”. It's a clever reference, as it facilitates reading them as the spark that sets humanity on a new path, but it does make them, and “Arena” on the whole, about as Abrahamic and Western as it is possible to get. It's perhaps not entirely fair to condemn this episode for being so of its culture, but, combined with the themes it's also trying to work with, this does cripple the story's overall impact with a number of seriously unfortunate implications, which can't really be seen as anything other than a handicap.

The end result of this, sadly, is that for me “Arena” is just nowhere near as effective a bit of anti-imperialism as “Balance of Terror”. It has a lot of good ideas, and both introducing and quietly subverting the Federation in one fell swoop has got to go down as some kind of grand slam for Coon, but between the Metrons and the way Kirk is portrayed it's just not quite as meaningful as it could be. So why is this episode so fondly remembered in this vein and not “Balance of Terror”? Granted, that episode is iconic in its own right mostly due to the Romulans, but it's most fondly remembered in hardcore Star Trek fandom: I get the sense “Arena” has significantly more cultural capital in the larger populace. If I were to hazard a guess, it's probably due in large part to the Vazquez Rocks location, which is a very stunning backdrop for William Shatner to brawl stuntmen in lizard suits, and the aforementioned lizard suits themselves, which impressively manage to walk the line between intricate detail and overblown cheese to create one of the most memorable images of the Original Series.

There is one more factor in “Arena”'s favour, however: That tree trunk cannon. It's very revealing it eventually showed up on MythBusters, a show that has traditionally spoken to maker culture, and that geek icon Grant Imahara breathlessly went on and on about how influential this scene was on him: Kirk's resourceful ability to throw together a functional projectile weapon out of only the basic materials he has on hand is seen as a sign of great ingenuity by everyone on the show and cited by many as the highlight of the episode. It's rather easy, I feel, to see why this scene would be so memorable: See, contrary to what one might conclude based on examining the things people *say* are Star Trek's virtues (it's progressiveness, utopian idealism, focus on camaraderie, spirit of adventure and general hopeful attitude), if you actually look at who makes up the majority of Star Trek's fanbase, at least the most vocal and visible branch of it, it's made up almost exclusively of tech people: Computer enthusiasts, engineers, hobbyists of all sorts (especially model builders) and yes, makers.

A brief analysis: "Maker" is a label coined to describe a culture grown out of homebrew machinists and DIY tinkerers. Many of them are engineers, or at least have an engineering and machining background, and are interested primarily in playful experimentation and seeing the sorts of things they can build on their own or in small groups. In French I believe the term would be bricolage couture, but maker society strikes me as a fairly recent phenomenon, (say within the past decade), or at least a phenomenon that's only recently been in the spotlight, whereas the bricolage in France dates back much further. And there's a lot of overlap between maker culture and the more traditional nerd culture, as both groups share many common texts and languages, namely science fiction and fantasy cinema and television. Adam Savage, possibly the most public face of the maker movement, for example, is profoundly influenced by Blade Runner, and the Star Wars, Hellboy and Indiana Jones franchises.

Also consider Wil Wheaton, who has built his entire post-Star Trek: The Next Generation fame on being an icon of nerd culture (and more recently a celebrity spokesperson for homebrew beer), or LeVar Burton, who first went to computer enthusiasts and Apple fans when he rebooted Reading Rainbow as a tablet application (and fitttingly so, as much of the multi-touch technology that powers the modern tablet computers and smartphones to come in the wake of the iPhone and the iPad were inspired by Mike Okuda's LCARS touch interface designed for Star Trek: The Next Generation). This is who Star Trek historically seems to have resonated the most with, not leftist philosophers or utopian visionaries, so of course they're going to get a kick out of an episode where Captain Kirk fashions a cannon out of a tree stump, diamond, coal, sulfur and potassium nitrate and make it one of the series' most iconic stories.

But there's a problem here too, I argue: Within the context of “Arena” itself, the tree cannon is pretty clearly a sign of Kirk's advanced intelligence and foreshadowing for the Metrons' claim in the denoument that there is hope yet for humanity. The fact Kirk's opponent is a reptile, who if you notice was only able to make a crude dagger out of a sharp rock, means it's fairly easy to read this as evidence humans are “more evolved” than the Gorn, as reptiles are often seen in speciesist terms as lesser, more primitive forms of life than mammals. In other words, technology, and in particular advanced weapons technology, is seen as a sign of being a “more evolved” people. This isn't just speciesism and Social Darwinism, it's technological determinism (and determinism built around the development of machines of war) and Scientism to boot, which run pretty flagrantly contrary to the supposed moral of “Arena”.

Of course, the Federation has kind of worrisome track record for technological determinism, teleology and Social Darwinism. But these are, once again, concerns for the future.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

“It is said that the first sport, the original main event that thrilled the masses, considered the greatest spectacle of all, was the fight.”: The Squire of Gothos

I got your gun...

We've finally found the weird at long last.

The opening salvo of “The Squire of Gothos” is simply put the most mental thing yet. We've got a planet that instantaneously materializes out of nowhere, Kirk and Sulu jump-cutting off the bridge and foppish Victorian gentle-alien holding the Enterprise hostage due to his fascination with warmaking. Each one of these concepts individually would be enough to throw viewers for a complete loop; dumping all of them on us at once requires us to take a few steps back, a deep breath, and take them one at a time.

The first thing to note is that we're back in “Miri” territory. Actually, a case could be made this is the structure of “Miri” done right: The Enterprise is on space patrol as always, en route to deliver some more supplies. Just like in the earlier episode, however, they are swiftly interrupted by the thoroughly inexplicable. This time though, the show takes its time unfolding the mystery: The phantom planetoid, disappearing crewmembers and bizarre antiquarian message of “Tallyho!” showing up on Spock's monitor is enough, but the show gradually builds on this, first with the reveal of Trelane's oasis-within-an-oasis and then well into the third and fourth acts as each answer does nothing but open up a new question. Unlike the earlier episode, which promptly resolved all of its mystery in the first act, this one clearly takes the time to relish it, taking gleeful pride in constantly getting its audience to wonder what the heck is going on.

“The Squire of Gothos” is of course nowhere near as mind-bogglingly weird as something like the roughly contemporaneous Verity Lambert era of Doctor Who, best exemplified by the Georges Méliès-inspired spacescapes, giant ants and man-butterflies of the serial “The Web Planet”: This is something that's absolutely not in Star Trek's wheelhouse at this point, if it can in fact be argued it ever will be. But this is still a very stark break from what we've come to expect from Star Trek, especially under Gene Coon and in particular after the past three episodes. The precedent is, naturally, “Shore Leave”, and the effect of that episode's traumatically altered state of consciousness is very clear here, as is it's ultimate reluctance and hesitation. From the very beginning Trelane operates completely and utterly above and beyond the crew's level of comprehension, and the very first thing they set about doing (and continue to do for the remainder of the story) is to try and explain him a way using rationality language they understand. It is simply inconceivable for Kirk and his crew to accept the possibility there may exist things which do not fit neatly into their currently established knowledge systems.

And Trelane is definitely unlike anything we've seen before: He's the first genuinely “alien” character in all of Star Trek, for one. Spock, and by extension the Vulcans, were originally at heart just Number One's human personality turned into the defining trait of a culture (they of course quickly become much more than this, thanks almost exclusively to the combined efforts of Leonard Nimoy, Theodore Sturgeon and D.C. Fontana, but this is what they were originally). Pretty much all the other extraterrestrials in Gene Roddenberry's tenure were generic monsters, while Coon has kept the action primarily at a human level so far. The Romulans were an alien culture, but they were also consciously designed to be the mirror of us, so they are by definition very humanized. Trelane is just plain strange: He's an all-powerful, unreadable and unpredictable entity with a bizarre fascination with 18th and 19th century Earth.

Actor William Campbell, a Star Trek fan favourite with a deeply storied history with the franchise who makes his debut appearance here, is absolutely phenomenal as Trelane: He's manic, charismatic and completely unhinged; a just about perfect match for William Shatner's Kirk. Trelane is Kirk's inverse, twisted, mirror-image evil camp twin: Both characters are in some way defined by a fixation on overstated bravado, and ultimately there's little difference between Trelane's gleeful, play-acted goose-stepping and Kirk's overblown, impassioned speeches about duty. The key difference between the two lies in the contrast between the way their characters are depicted: Shatner's performance is just overstated enough to draw attention to the artifice of the thing, thus encouraging us to read Kirk as a kind of playful subversion. Shatner is obviously playing a role, and playing it just a little bit off-He is in fact a drag pulp sci-fi action hero, and a great deal of his charm comes from him frequently eliciting subtle laughs at the expense of the role and premise.

Campbell by contrast plays Trelane with active and clearly noticeable malice: It's an entirely more venomous portrayal, designed to rub our noses firmly in our own enjoyment of the setting's general pomp and circumstance. Kirk's detournement is meant to be somewhat muted, but visible if you're paying close enough attention to it; Trelane's is grotesque, mad, and violent. As such their conflict is utterly, beautifully elegant and without doubt the highlight of the episode. Furthermore, Campbell is excellent at giving Trelane a genuinely uncanny and disquieting air, playing up to great extent the fact he gets the trappings of the various characters he takes on and the settings he studies ever-so-slightly wrong. What makes this delicious, of course, is this once again makes him immediately comparable to Kirk. Although, as Kirk observes, he may be nigh-omnipotent, but he *is* fallible. In fact, Trelane might almost be *too* fallible.

What makes Trelane such a compelling character in my view is that he's an absolute caricature of repugnant good-old-boy politics and imperialist jingoism. Trelane idolizes Napoleon, which is perfect, and extolls, to deeply uncomfortable effect, the virtues of flags, nationalist pride, stereotypical Tory aesthetic and the honour of sending soldiers to fight and die for not just his cause but him personally. And, tellingly, Kirk has just about no comeback to this. Oh, he loses his patience, demands Trelane release the Enterprise and keeps pointing out he's got his historical details a little wrong, but in terms of actually debating Trelane on an intellectual level? In terms of refuting his claims that humanity is an inherently predatory species for whom warmaking and murder is a fundamental instinct? Kirk's got nothing. Indeed, he's got less than that: He ends up in a straight up brutally savage brawl with Trelane at the end of the episode that damn near gets him run through with a sword for his trouble. He can declare up and down humans are a noble species that deserve to be treated with dignity, but does absolutely nothing to support his claim. But, once again the show aggravatingly stops short and backpedals, revealing Trelane to be the misbehaving child of other, more grown-up and benevolent beings, thus completely stripping him of any authority he could have used to take the show to task.

It's fitting I mentioned the Romulans earlier, because this is the second outing of Paul Schneider, who had previously penned “Balance of Terror”, the episode I still consider to be arguably the Original Series' high water mark. Predictably, “The Squire of Gothos” is at heart a furious anti-war piece. Schneider says the impetus for this episode was watching with horror as young boys acted out war games for fun, so he penned this story to show what it would be like of that kind of light, capricious attitude to war was extrapolated to a superhuman degree. While I can understand and respect that, I still think it was a mistake to make Trelane a child. Perhaps this could have worked had there been more scenes where the Enterprise crew gets to prove their peaceful virtues and defend their character to Trelane, but that never really happens. The majority of this episode is dedicated to watching either Trelane using the crew as playthings or to Kirk screaming at him for doing so and baiting his ego. At the end of it all we're left feeling a bit hollow: Nobody's critique has really stuck, and it seems suspiciously like the show is hastily sweeping it all back under the rug before we start to ask too many questions about the ethics of what we're watching, which seems strange coming from the guy who wrote “Balance of Terror”.

But even if this isn't quite as successful as Schneider’s prior work, “The Squire of Gothos” is just as upfront about its firm anti-imperialist stance which can't be seen as anything less then an unequivocal positive. On top of that, it's yet another step forward into the weird and fantastic realms of the cosmic imagination that lay outside the boundaries of Earth-controlled colonial space. Slowly but surely Star Trek is beginning to learn how to broaden its mind and its horizons and that there's a bit more out there than itself. This is frequently a painful, yet necessary process, and the show's been forced to adapt. And the transformations that are to come soon will hold repercussions for the entire galaxy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

“There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!”: Shore Leave

"How Beautiful You Are That You Do Not Join Us."

“Once upon a time there were three little sisters...”

The three sisters lived together, all by themselves, on a small island. To this day no-one is quite sure where that island lay: Some have claimed it was somewhere among the modern-day Marquesas, while other swear it was much further out, an outlier island far off to the west. Then there are those mythologizer-poets who swear by the stars themselves that this island was impossible to place on a map, for any cartographer foolish enough to attempt to chart its location on parchment would find it to be forever out of reach, just beyond the edges of the paper. Most who claim to have reached it never return, and those who have are unable to find it again, even if they retrace their path down to the exact last nautical mile. And yet this island did exist, as alive and real as any of us. It presumably still does today.

“What did they live on?”

Mostly coconuts and the splendid gifts of the sea, but they were very well provided for on the island. I am told it is a place where scarcity and want does not exist, for the island and its inhabitants live together in balance and harmony. But that is not this story.

On the beach, the sisters sat in a circle facing each other, each with legs crossed in the lotus position.

“I vote one of us tells a story,” Tertia suddenly exclaimed “Would either of you happen to know one?”

“Here's one,” Hedda responded with a smile “Once upon a time there were three little sisters...” she began, but was quickly interrupted before she could continue.

“Very funny,” Tertia drolly responded with her hands on her hips, “We've all heard that one, you know...”

Then, Alice spoke up: “Have I ever told you the story of the spacemen, my dear sisters?” she inquired.

“I believe I know it, if that's what you mean,” Hedda answered, “I have seen it thus invoked.”

“Oh please do tell it anyway!” Tertia implored, “As the dawn rises over the eastern waters each night, the future shall be known to us again and again and again.”

“It was in the days before you, dearest star-sisters,” Alice began, “My counsel is sought on one of the multiplex planar realms of invocation. These are the lands where Is and What Is exist together in their death-dance. These are truths we know.”

“Yes, I have seen many such places,” Tertia remarked, “The world-stage and World-In-Itself in cohabitation”.

Alice nodded, then said “And this world-stage was Thought, which is the child of thought yet not an heir to its throne. As I passed through this realm, I met the first of the spacemen, who had come seeking my guidance. They adorned themselves in the visage of a summer's day, but did not yet know its meaning.”

“They do not see the Day, for some are not attuned to seeing it.” Hedda continued.

“All was blank at this time, for as blankness is what they sought blankness is what they found. This is not the wondrous apotheosis of the All Thing, but glorification of the Zero, and thus the lamentable zeroing of all.”

“Much as a canvas remains blank if the dream is forsaken” Tertia added, as she drew a treacle jar in the sand.

“I appear in this way because I was summoned to so appear, and this was My Will. The spacemen could not accept this, for they understood the shape, but not the meaning. It was for this reason I journeyed to the glade, whereupon I was observed yet unseen.”

“I See and I Do Not, don't I?” said the first spaceman, and this was the incantation that thus blinded him.

“I came bearing the egg of Mystery and Time, though I was not yet prepared to be reborn again into this visage,” said Hedda.

“Those who know the word may reshape the world-stage, so I did. Wearing the Sun Crown, I did take my leave of another realm. It was in this way the world was broken, and in this way the spacemen would come to see through blinded eyes. The world has changed, and it cannot be fixed now.” Alice declared.

“The spacemen didn't like the breaking of the world very much, did they?” asked Tertia.

“It is the time wound that will never, and can never, heal. It aches in the days past and far out into the future, destined to be inflicted again and again.” said Alice.

“The static, sex-death of being.” Hedda offered.

“That's another story, Hedda!” her sister Tertia responded.

“Indeed it is.” Hedda replied. “Another time, perhaps.”

Another thing that makes “Shore Leave” worthy of note is its handle on characterization. Building on Coon's previous overtures in this direction in “The Galileo Seven”, a major theme in this episode is examining the innermost thoughts of various characters and the relationships they have with one another. This works significantly better here than it did in “The Naked Time”: Sulu's interest in arms returns, as does Kirk's reminiscence on his more tight-laced and reserved academy days. The best execution of this structure is probably Kirk's fight with Finnegan, in spite of the fact the latter is once again a horrifying Irish stereotype, this time down to his ability to teleport around like a leprechaun. Aside from those brought upon by the planet itself, this episode has a number of nice character moments just in passing: Kirk's conversation with McCoy about Finnegan and his academy days is lovely bit of the everyday and the massage scene on the bridge during the teaser is an absolute riot and justifiably a memorable moment that called the fanfic writers to action.

Aside from its meta-narrative connotations, the concept of a planet that reacts to desires and imagination is a remarkably good one, and has the potential to be a far more effective window into the psyche of our leads then getting them space drunk was. The keyword here is potential, however: The problem is, apart from Kirk and Sulu, the show frustratingly stops short of giving us enough meaningful content: McCoy's budding relationship with Barrows could have been nice, except that Barrows is a sexist nightmare. She openly fantasizes about being “ravished” by Don Juan (and we're sickeningly all meant to laugh at when she “gets what she asked for”), then about being a fairy tale damsel with knight to fight over and protect her and finally about jumping Doctor McCoy's Bones (to the point she even gets a Roddenberry signature comedy catty jealous scene at the end). Even McCoy himself gets a few really uncomfortable lines. The rest of the development comes from the random science techs we never see again and this is kind of tough to read as anything other than a staggering mismanagement of the cast.

The problem is, of course, Gene Roddenberry. Theodore Sturgeon is going to end up writing one of the most beloved and acclaimed episodes in the entirety of the Original Series, but Roddenberry didn't seem to take too kindly to the script he turned in here, finding it to be “too much fantasy” and “not believable enough”, so he gave it to Coon to rewrite. Coon is alleged to have misunderstood Roddenberry's complaints and rewrote “Shore Leave” to be even more overtly mystical and fantastical (a draft I'd actually really like to have been able to read), leaving Roddenberry to furiously and completely rewrite the entire script alongside filming, yet retaining Sturgeon's name on the finished product. This of course means we're in the exact same situation we were in with “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, which should already raise a considerable number of warning flags. This one turns out better, mostly because the central concept is already a great one to begin with and the overall quality of the show has increased dramatically under Gene Coon.

“Shore Leave” is not completely spared, however: The tension between Roddenberry's and Coon's differing styles is painfully evident any time the former writes under the latter, and especially in this episode. While “The Menagerie” (quite ironically) had logic lapses, it was a more or less competent step forward. “Shore Leave” screams at itself: Whereas in “Court Martial” we had an African commodore on Starbase 11 and an Asian records officer on the Enterprise and nobody made a big deal about it; here we have Roddenberry pitching a fit because his story about the futuristic Space Navy and lawkeeping taskforce taking shore leave on a far-off planet isn't realistic enough and then populating it with a magical Irish leprechaun and a yeoman who boldly declares it's a woman's natural right to be submissive and protected. Yeesh. The First Speaker and the Second Speaker battled each other in the heaven-earth, tearing it asunder, and this was the time wound the first. It's little wonder Alice tells Kirk at the end of the episode that humanity is not yet ready to understand her ways.

“I believe”, said Alice “This realm now lies shattered before us.”

“Before and After, you mean.” corrected Tertia.

“Things can exist without and within,” Hedda added, “I have seen it to be so-Events dance the cosmic dance of potentialities echoing to the dawn and beginning at the End of All Things. All that can be is.”

“It was in this way, and in many other ways, that the War in Heaven began. I have chanced to hear this story told on many occasions from many fellow dream-travellers in different transformative incarnations. The War begins and it begins again, and it is fought at all times in all places,” Alice said, “The spacemen exist in ceaseless conflict, for this is their way. To fight is to play is to be. This is a path. But the War in Heaven shall consume them. This I have seen, and it is thus written. Yet fire does not destroy, it carbonizes, and this remains transformation and metamorphosis.”

“The spacemen dance to the intersection of stasis and change,” added Hedda.

“And it is there, my dearest star-sisters, that we reconvene.”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

“The following program contains material that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”: The Menagerie

"In the not-too-distant future, next Sunday, A.D...."


So what we have here a grossly overspent production budget forcing the show to hastily retool “The Cage” into a clip show interspersed with footage filmed using sets, costumes and indeed the entire actual plot recycled from “Court Martial”. Incidentally, we've also now had to stretch the already tortoiselike pacing of “The Cage” to a two-parter to accommodate the new framing device which we've turned over to Gene Roddenberry again to write the script for. Miraculously, however, despite all of this and almost by complete accident, this is a story so gratuitously oversignified it shoots the show straight into the symbolic stratosphere. “The Menagerie” may not be the best episode of the original Star Trek, but it may well be the most archetypical.

It is worth noting this was not the original plan for “The Cage”: Roddenberry had hoped to turn it into a full-length movie with a new first half depicting the crash of the Columbia. It was Bob Justman who convinced Roddenberry to adapt it into “The Menagerie” because the show had run out of both scripts and money, and the fact Roddenberry had wanted to take a story that had already somehow managed to be simultaneously too crammed full of details and concepts for only an hour and too ponderously paced to be especially enjoyable television and make it into a feature film probably tells you everything you need to know about Roddenberry at this point. It would be both easy and churlish of me to call the framing device Roddenberry writes for this episode “predictably terrible” as we have in fact seen more than a few solid outings from him, but even so this has got to be one of his worst efforts at least from a purely structural perspective: The new material is absolutely riddled with yawning, cavernous plot holes that threaten to leave “The Menagerie” actually incoherent as a text at numerous points and the justification for forcing the court to sit through a Star Trek rerun is more than a little flimsy. At least Roddenberry doesn't introduce any new major female characters this time so we're thankfully spared his usual gender issues.

But getting bogged down in silly little things like “plot”, “narrative logic” and “coherence” is the wrong approach to take with something like “The Menagerie”. This is one of the single most iconic stories in the Original Series, and rightly so in my opinion. The first thing to note is that “The Menagerie” is clearly trying to be just as much about honour, duty and procedure as “Court Martial” was. While it lacks the grandiose, sweeping Aubrey-Matarin pomposity we got last time, it could perhaps be argued the theatrical theme we've been building over the past few weeks exists here in the form of Roddenberry himself, who seems here to be doing a halfway decent impersonation of Don M. Mankiewicz. And, just like “Court Martial”, the framing device segments of “The Menagerie” can be read as the show taking its original premise as far as it can possible go.

The definition of a narrative collapse story is one where both textual and metatextual elements conspire together in an attempt to destroy the text's ability to tell its own stories. At first it seems like this is what “The Menagerie” is trying to do: Spock lies and betrays Kirk and the crew, commits high treason, commandeers the Enterprise, kidnaps Pike and takes the ship on a course to the one world it is absolutely forbidden to visit, a standing order whose violation is punishable by death. But, upon closer inspection, that's really not what's going on here: Rather, what “The Menagerie” is doing is continuing “Court Martial”'s conviction to pushing Star Trek to its logical limit. The biggest evidence for this reading is Spock himself, who has always had an air of suspicion about him. We always worried he might attempt something like this, and it's even more fitting that when he actually does he does so out of logic and duty. two concepts that have been absolutely central to both his character and the show at large since the beginning. As this is a militaristic setting there is of course legal drama aplenty (just like last time), but here we have a script that (at first, at least) invites us to question honour and loyalty, as pursuing those ideals has led Spock to violate everyone's trust in him.

Furthermore, this time the show is taking its introspection and self examination to the extreme by literally going back to its own beginning: We not only return to Talos IV but we get to see the actual pilot play out in front of us once again.


Indeed it's what “The Menagerie” does to “The Cage” that's the most immediately interesting thing on display here from my perspective. Although not the first time the original pilot had been seen outside NBC (Roddenberry aired both it and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at the Cleveland, Ohio World Science Fiction Convention in early 1966) this was the first time the vast majority of people had seen it, so it must have been a sort of television event. The contrast between the set design and cinematography of “The Cage” and what Star Trek had become by this point alone must have been impressive to see, and I'd imagine adequately conveyed the illusion the show had more money and resources than it actually did. Furthermore, from an ethical standpoint, the way this episode handles the concept of the Talosians' power of illusion is far more satisfying than what we originally got.

What Pike is suffering from in this episode can best be described as a kind of sci-fi version of total locked-in syndrome, a rare condition where a patient's entire voluntary muscular system is completely paralyzed, rendering them fully awake and conscious but unable to move or communicate. Pike is very lucky to exist in a world where the technology exists, even at a rudimentary level, to restore him some ability to speak with others. What this allows the show to do is shift the meaning of the cage metaphor: Where previously it had been a literal description of the Talosian zoo as a way to express how humans detest even a gilded cage, here it becomes a symbolic extension of Pike's imprisonment in his own body, thus immediately bringing to mind transhumanistic issues. McCoy even gets a line in part 1 where he just about states this word-for-word, making the link explicit.

Transhumanism is a popular subject for the kind of science fiction Star Trek occasionally find itself a part of, and the idea that humanity somehow needs to transcend its mortal shackles is a reoccurring theme in futurist writing of this type. This has as much capacity to become a rewarding thread of discourse as it does to become a highly problematic and contentious worldview: One does get the sense with some transhumanist writing that being physical entities is somehow not enough, and that nature is somehow holding humans back. This begins to touch on spiritualist concerns I'm not quite prepared to talk about yet, but for now let's return to a thread we first touched on in the post on “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”. Even if you posit that the self and consciousness are purely material things, it is still certainly possible to conceive of a model of it that conceptualises the experiential self as a product of that materialism: Even something like Buddhist ego death does not by definition preclude this. That our physical existence is somehow a hindrance to enlightenment would seem to smack of Cartesian Dualism, which is descended from a very classical, traditional kind of Christian intellectual tradition that has gone out of vogue even in contemporary Western philosophy.

(There is an additional wrinkle here unique to Star Trek and it's position during the end of the Space Age concerning the fact some sci-fi writers and thinkers of the period reasoned transhumanist enlightenment, though it wasn't called that at the time, had to be found in outer space as we hadn't found it on Earth yet, but we'll pick that up in 1969 with the most obvious Sensor Scan entry yet).

Thankfully for Captain Pike his condition seems far more straightforward: Spock's decision to return him to Talos IV so he can live out the rest of his natural life with the illusion of full mobility and the ability to communicate, and the opportunity to go anywhere his mind desires, seems like the obvious solution. That said, were it me I'd far prefer to go dig up Doctor Korby and ask him to show me how to upload myself into an android body: “The Menagerie” doesn't quite manage to break free of “The Cage”'s Platonic cave message. But what this also manages to do is


re-position “The Cage” in Star Trek's evolving mythos, or perhaps to be more accurate try to give it a position at all. The events of the pilot are retconned to be thirteen years prior to those of the framing device and Pike's Enterprise is now explicitly a part of Starfleet, not the Earth based Space Air Force. If I'm allowed one of my more cynical observations, I'd say this is probably the primary reason this episode is beloved by fans so much as it helps streamline the original pilot into a kind of Star Trek “canon”, which it is otherwise completely irreconcilable with.

But, once again, it's Star Trek's commitment to justifying its existence over these past few weeks that makes this all worthwhile. No matter how stilted the plot devices to get us to this point are, the fact remains we have an entire episode dedicated to watching Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scott watching Pike, Number One, Colt, Spock and Tyler on television. We have Star Trek's present not only watching it's own past, but critiquing it. This isn't Spock on trial, it's Roddenberry: This is Gene Coon's Star Trek evaluating and judging Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. In that regard, the scenes where Kirk, Uhura or Commodore Mendez keep interrupting the broadcast or get impatient with Spock and complain about how much time the transmission is wasting are actively hilarious. As I said in my essay on “The Conscience of the King” I'm positive Coon's team was not ridiculing or being dismissive of the show at all, but taken within the context of the terse behind-the-scenes climate it does feel like the tensions onscreen are a painfully fitting reflection of those on the Desilu lot.

Which brings me to perhaps the most curious thing about “The Menagerie”: Why, exactly, is contact with Talos IV so explicitly forbidden to the point where a violation of Starfleet General Order 7 is punishable by death? It's true the Talosians' illusory powers have the potential to be quite dangerous and that they expressed some concern about what might happen if they fell into the wrong hands, but I was under the impression the whole point of “The Cage” was that Pike showed the Talosians reality is more important than illusion and that humanity's abhorrence of imprisonment meant they were unsuitable for the planetary reconstruction effort. If the Talosians had no further interest in humans, why would Starfleet consider them to still be dangerous, let alone dangerous enough to justify imposing the death penalty on anyone who visits their homeworld?

Although I remain at a loss for a diegetic explanation, perhaps the answer may lie with the extradiegetic: Perhaps the reason it is forbidden to travel to Talos IV is because to return there is to return to the origin of Star Trek. Roddenberry's “Cage” didn't just trap Captain Pike, it trapped the show, and from the moment Star Trek went to series it's been more than clear that its being held back by baggage left over from the original pilot. Gene Coon's entire tenure so far has been defined by a desire to push the boundaries of what the show can do in every direction, and that includes showing us the consequences of being slavishly loyal to the show's original premise. Following that thread to its conclusion yields not just entrapment, but death. Star Trek has nowhere to go from there: It's a non-starter, a narrative dead end. Returning to Talos IV means returning to “The Cage”, and that would be death sentence for Star Trek. Also note Starfleet Command dropped all charges against Spock and the Enterprise crew after watching the transmission and judging their actions to be in keeping with the spirit of exploration: The show has found a way to avoid that death, at least for now. And with the last of its demons accounted for, if not quite exorcised, Coon is finally free to continue to shepherd the Star Trek franchise's journey toward its own enlightenment.




Thursday, June 13, 2013

“The penal code! The penal code!”: Court Martial

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!"
If “Miri”, “The Conscience of the King” and “The Galileo Seven” were about pushing the boundaries of what Star Trek was and could do, than “Court Martial” is about taking a long, hard look at what the show was originally conceived of being and the implications of that central concept and running with it to its logical limit.

This isn't like “Balance of Terror”, which was about firmly putting its foot down and loudly, overtly protesting the show's militaristic roots (not that there was anything wrong with that): Instead, “Court Martial” feels like Gene Coon and his team doing a lot of introspection and putting a lot of thought into what a show about the Space Air Force (or indeed the Space Navy, which seems to be increasingly the more accurate description, especially in this episode) would actually be about and what the world of that show might look like. This likely wasn't the original intent, given as this story's genesis came about by Coon approaching writer Don M. Mankiewicz to come up with a money-saving script that could be filmed with one new set. The extent to which this was successful can be easily deduced by observing that this episode features four new sets, a slew of new uniforms, some new matte paintings and the fact the next episode is a two-part clip show.

While it fails rather spectacularly at being a bottle show, “Court Martial” is a significant episode in several other regards, in particular, it's a canon compiler's dream as it introduces numerous new world building elements that will quickly become beloved parts of the “Star Trek Universe”. Most important of these from a modern perspective has got to be the debut of Starfleet and Starfleet Command. This is, to understate things considerably, the single most important development in the series so far from the perspective of the future, and indeed it's so titanic a moment there's only one more that can top it (but we have to wait a bit longer for that). For the first time we have an actual name for the service the Enterprise is a part of and that of the body that governs it. It may seem surprising to those who haven't seen Star Trek in awhile, but this is the first time anything resembling the word “Starfleet” has been mentioned in the show, two years and 14 weeks in. Previously we'd occasionally heard references to Earth or an Earth Command, but with the introduction of the phrases “Starfleet Command” and “United Star Ship”, Star Trek has expanded its scope considerably.

Although primarily a nomenclature change, this does alter the way we look at the world of Star Trek a bit. In the past the Enterprise seemed to have been representing the interests of some kind of colonial power based on Earth: While that reading is still possible, this new terminology encourages a more nuanced and complex way of interpreting the version of the galaxy this show takes place in-This is also helped by having the entire episode basically be devoted to world building, showing exactly the way Starfleet's chain of command and and governmental organisation works. We have a Commodore, who is a retired starship captain, operating a planetary starbase designed for resupplying and refitting passing ships, we have a legal system in place that holds officers accountable for their actions and a bureaucracy supervising all of it. It's very clearly an extension of the United States naval tradition into outer space, and it's a perfectly logical extrapolation of the setting Gene Roddenberry put in place, except far more detailed and sophisticated than he could ever have made it.

That said it's worth keeping in mind we're operating from hindsight here: We know what Starfleet becomes so it's easy to latch onto this as “the way it was supposed to be from the beginning”, but remember Star Trek has a noticeable lack of consistency and continuity at this point. It would been just as easy for a viewer in 1967 to figure all of these fancy world trappings would be tossed out the next episode. After all, that's the way the show's operated before now, and there's no reason to suspect it won't continue to do so. That Coon doesn't throw this out, retains these parts of the setting and indeed continues to expand upon them is something we should return to when he does. What this all ultimately comes down to is that no matter how exciting the reveal of Starfleet Command might be for us, at the moment there's no reason to believe it's anything more than the new name for the Space Naval Service, and that's exactly how “Court Martial” treats it.

In that regard, making “Court Martial” a legal drama is an incredibly sensible idea: If you're going to do an episode about a lot of world building involving bureaucracy and military service, it only follows you'd want to tell a story about a court martial so you can show how that all works together. It's about as far away as you can get from Exploring Strange New Worlds or, for that matter, Gulliver's Travels in space, but it's a perfectly reasonable thing to expect a show about the Space Air Force or the Space Navy to do. The only problem is “Court Martial” isn't an especially *good* legal drama-It's utterly in love with its own jargon, protocol and procedures which, again, makes sense, but there's isn't much actual *drama* per se to be had here. We know right from the beginning Kirk is innocent: He has to be, he's an established character and straightforwardly the series' hero, kicking him off the show 13 episodes into the first season would be actually insane.

This would be alright if the episode was about how Kirk proves his innocence against almost insurmountable odds, and while the show does hint at this direction it never really gets there. Establishing Shaw as Kirk's ex-lover and also the prosecutor is an easy way to drum up tension in theory, but all it does in practice is to further cement Kirk's innocence because she very obviously doesn't believe in her case even if she's good at arguing it. The episode further tries to go this route by having the primary evidence about Kirk be the supposedly “infallible” automatic ship's record and giving him Cogley as his defense attorney, a man defined almost exclusively by being a boisterous old-fashioned bibliophile and humanist who has no time for this newfangled, highfalutin' computer stuff. There's a secondary thread here about how much mechanization should be acceptable and whether computers can be trusted, but after the episode halfheartedly builds it up in the first few acts it turns out to be irrelevant to the actual plot as Finney is discovered to be still alive and playing hide-and-seek on the engineering deck (and anyway there's another really famous episode that deals with these themes better and far more overtly so I'll save my critique of them until we get up to it).

The other big complaint I have with “Court Martial” is its general attitude. This is an episode all about honour, duty, command and service. The overall plot is already about protocol and procedure, and the key scene comes when Kirk first takes the witness stand: He gives a big, pompous monologue about how he “did what he had to do-by the book!” and how all the things he did “and the order in which I did them!” he did for his ship and his duty, as those are the most important things to him. It's right out of the military drama textbook and is pure C.S. Forester and Aubrey-Matarin material and really just not to my tastes at all. However, to William Shatner's credit, he sells the hell out of this, going into a big, overplayed piece-to-camera and doing the entire soliloquy in one take, immediately reminding me of the Shakespearean embellishments of “The Conscience of the King”. And even this isn't a fault I'm finding with the episode (it's quite well done space military drama) it's me drawing a philosophical line marking the boundary of what I like Star Trek to be about.

Additionally, even here it's worth comparing “Court Martial” with its nearest Roddenberry-era analogue, “The Corbomite Maneuver”. That episode was an action-packed thriller with a twist ending that was clearly banking on us being really excited by the back-and-forth bluffing and tense countdown to potential Armageddon. This episode, by contrast, is a more complex courtroom piece that takes its time to explain and establish its setting and actually examines themes like valour, honour and duty instead of tossing them out as buzzwords: We see quite clearly how this affects the characters of Kirk, Stone, Shaw and Finney and how they interpret those concepts, which also builds off of the character studies we saw in “The Galileo Seven”. This is still Gene Coon expanding what Star Trek can be about, only now instead of bringing in other genres to play with, he's beginning to turn his attention to the fundamental pitch of the series itself, and he'll only continue to do this more and more as his tenure progresses. Granted, the end result of this (for the moment at least) is a show that's still overtly militaristic, but at least it's militaristic in a bit more of a nuanced way now.

None of this to say that “Court Martial” is a bad bit of television: With the exception of the few inconsistencies I've mentioned already, it's certainly watchable and far more solid a production than many of the other episodes I've covered so far. My big issue with it is that it represents a version of Star Trek I've never been drawn to and am even less so now. I don't like military drama and I especially don't like it when that's what Star Trek becomes, which I guess should say something about how I feel about the franchise given I'm doing a Star Trek blog. However, there's another side to this: What Gene Coon and Don M. Mankiewicz realised is that a show about the Space Air Force or Space Navy is eventually going to end up here. If nothing else, that's what “Court Martial” is demonstrating-That this is the logical endpoint of a specific, formative thematic thread that's been a part of Star Trek since the beginning. That Star Trek becomes something more than this is evidence Coon knew this wasn't really all the show was capable of, and now that he's found the show's original idea and taken it as far as it can go, he can start to reshape it and push it into the beyond. But Coon has one more act to perform, and what he's about to do next is turn his lens back onto the show's most primal form itself.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

“I cannot-Yet I must! How do you calculate that?”: The Galileo Seven

Little known fact about Taurus II: It is actually the Bigfoot homeworld.

The key thing to note, I feel, about the second third of the Original Series' first season is that it can in many ways be read as a systematic attempt to reconceptualise the show by redefining the kind and broadening the scope of stories the show can do. Gene Roddenberry had a fairly straightforward pitch for the show: Gulliver's Travels with the Space Air Force. Gene Coon, by contrast has from the beginning set about making overtures to change this, and this will eventually culminate in his two most memorable and defining episodes at the back end of the year. For the time being we still have the setting we inherited from Roddenberry, but Coon is starting to tweak and refine it a little and “The Galileo Seven” takes some of the most clear and obvious steps forward we've seen yet.

Following up on the implications of the teaser and opening act of “Miri”, we have the Enterprise going out of its way to investigate a quasar phenomenon for purely scientific reasons, Kirk claiming he has standing orders to do so whenever he has the opportunity to. This seems like an unusual thing for Earth Command to take an interest in, as it certainly falls outside the jurisdiction of interplanetary patrol and law enforcement. Indeed, this is actually literalized in the narrative, at least from the bridge crew's point of view, as the Enterprise is torn between first investigating the quasar, then rescuing the crashed shuttlecraft, and getting the supply of vaccinations to Makus III on time. Although this plot point obviously exists primarily to give the episode dramatic tension, it is also a clear move away from the sorts of things the show was doing less than a month ago.

While “The Galileo Seven” doesn't take the exploration theme any further, the main thrust of the plot, the marooned science crew and Spock's attempts to command from a purely logical perspective, is new territory for the show in its own way. This episode marks the first real time Star Trek has attempted a story where proper character development is the primary driving force. Under Roddenberry we frequently had episodes dealing with main character's emotions and relationships, but the very structure of the show forced them to be extremely superficial and disposable: Kirk's friendship with Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is there purely for drama and is never followed up on. The same is also true of McCoy's history with Nancy Crater in “The Man Trap”, and while that episode did play with soap opera tropes, with the exception of Rand and Sulu all of those moments were between random extras, most of whom get death-suckered by Salt Vampire not long after they showed up. Plus, Rand's gone now so in hindsight the effectiveness of that scene is dampened.

In this episode, however, the interpersonal conflicts and connections between characters are central to how the whole story works: The entire plot hinges on the fact Spock is determined to handle the situation with disaffected logic as he feels it is the self-evidently correct way to run a command, and the specific situation he's in forces him to see the limitations of his philosophy because not everything in the universe operates according to logical principles. This puts him at immediate odds with McCoy and Boma and is directly responsible for the deaths of Gaetano and Laitmer as well as the attack from the Tauren natives (and incidentally imagine for a moment how horrific these scenes would have been had this been Number One instead of Spock). While it's true this is yet another iteration of the logic versus emotions theme, this episode handles it with more complexity and nuance than we've seen in the past: There's a genuine debate going on here-While Spock's choices do cause measurable harm to the team, he's also very clearly the best person suited to being in command and it's his leadership that eventually helps pull them through. Furthermore, the episode is explicitly *about* this debate: There's no moral to be told and no lawbreaker to be perpetrated, “The Galileo Seven” is entirely about how Spock deals with a crisis situation and how his friends and co-workers respond to that.

It's the addition of the word “friends” to the end of that last paragraph that's another way this episode expands Star Trek: There's a sense of friendship and camaraderie here for the first time. We got hints of this in things as early as “The Man Trap”, but “The Galileo Seven” is really the first time we've seen the show embrace it as an important part of what it is. Kirk comes right out and states that he refuses to abandon the search even when things look hopeless not only because he doesn't want to feel responsible for seven deaths, but because the people in the survey team are his friends. Similarly, even when Spock pushes McCoy to the point of explosion, he remains more exasperated and frustrated than offended. DeForest Kelley's inimitable believability and humanness sells this perfectly, and we really do get the sense from him that McCoy understands Spock and can read him like a book. In the past, the main characters, especially Kirk, Spock and McCoy, were mostly there to articulate sides in a debate, hence the popular interpretation of them as standing in for the id, ego and superego, but here they seem more like actual characters for the first time. This is very much to the show's benefit and it's all Coon, as it comes naturally right out of Kirk's compassion for Miri and Spock's and McCoy's concern for Kirk in “The Conscience of the King”.

If there's one criticism to be had of this episode, it's that the version of Spock the story seems written for occasionally comes across as a different one than the version of Spock Leonard Nimoy actually seems to want to be playing. The central conflict relies in some sense on Spock operating like an unfeeling logic machine and this alienating his shipmates to the point of open hostility. But ever since at least “The Naked Time”, it's been clear that Spock isn't a purely logical automaton, but someone defined by his internal turmoil brought upon by his mixed Vulcan and human ancestry. Whether or not Spock's climactic choice to jettison the Galileo's fuel supply is to be seen as an “act of desperation” as McCoy and Kirk read it or a logical option to take when all others have been exhausted (I personally think a compelling case could be made for either), every other move Spock makes is one of discreet logic, down to his “overflow error” brought upon by realising his logical decisions have resulted in the deaths of two people and the ire of the Taurens.

But Nimoy's not exactly playing the character that way: He infuses Spock's orders with a fundamental tension and stress, most noticeable when he snaps at Boma and Gaetano about their desire to hunt down the Taurens and his smug statement to them later on that “Fortunately, I am in command”. It's clear McCoy is right and that Spock is eager to use this mission as an opportunity to prove perhaps not his own natural superiority in making command decisions, but that of logic as a guiding principle, and that he's getting progressively more irritated when it doesn't work out for him. Certainly there's some of this to be found in the script as well; the denouement can't really be seen as anything less than the show flatly telling us Spock was wrong and this episode was rewritten by Shimon Wincelberg, who has already shown himself to be good at injecting Star Trek with some much-needed complexity, but I still get the sense that the original idea here was a straight logic versus intuition conflict. However, with some fine-tuning from people like Coon, Wincelberg and especially Kelley and Nimoy, it becomes a character study about Spock, and the first such story proper in all of Star Trek.

Elsewhere “The Galileo Seven” demonstrates further growth in other areas. Kirk's linking narration in this episode is some of the most pensive, dramatic and poetic dialogue he's been given yet, and William Shatner sinks his teeth right into it:

"Captain's Log, stardate 2821.7. The electromagnetic phenomenon known as Murasaki 312 whirls like some angry blight in space. A depressive reminder that seven of our shipmates still have not been heard from. Equally bad, the effect has rendered our normal searching systems useless. Without them we are blind, and almost helpless." '

"Captain's Log, stardate 2822.3. We continue to search. But I find it more difficult each moment to ward off a sense of utter futility, and... great loss."

Shatner's portrayal of Kirk here is one of my favourites in the series so far, building off of the Shakespearean gravitas established in “The Conscience of the King” and depicting his overstated, unwavering resolve to find the crew of the Galileo any way he can. The scene on the bridge at the end is also something really special: After McCoy catches him up on what happened on Taurus, Kirk actually teases Spock about making an impulsive, emotional move, after which Spock agrees he's stubborn and everyone laughs the show to fadeout. It's a charming scene, and something that absolutely could not have been done before now. Pike would never do something like that, and his crew didn't feel at all close enough to joke around in this way. The laughter itself is consciously overstated and overacted, almost to the point of feeling insincere, but it fits with the show's newfound theatrical bombast perfectly.

Also stellar in this episode is, actually, Nichelle Nichols, who gets more to do as Uhura here then she's ever had before. It's wonderful that without Spock, McCoy or Scott around Kirk turns to her as his trusted second in command, as Uhura is seen doing double duty as both her regular post as communications officer and filling in the science station in Spock's absence. The scenes where Kirk asks her for updates on the sensor and transporter issues are lovely, as Nichols plays Uhura deeply empathetic with Kirk's pain and his frustration at being unable to take any real action, and it's clear her presence is a comfort to him. There's more friendship, loyalty and support between Kirk and Uhura in these brief vignettes than there were in eleven episodes between Kirk and Rand under Roddenberry. This is Coon's Star Trek taking an unmistakeable stand, as is the character of Boma, who, despite, becoming one of the biggest sources of the episode's conflict, is portrayed as being unchangeably honourable, competent and loyal. Under Roddenberry we had women and nonwhite characters as background extras; under Coon they've become lead roles.

“The Galileo Seven” isn't perfect, but it's easy to see why it became an early fan favourite. We've had more noticeable steps toward improving the show and making it work on a regular basis in the past two episodes then we have in the entirety of the previous eleven. There's no way even a few weeks ago we could have predicted Star Trek was going to be able to do Shakespearean drama or an egalitarian character study. That said, while Gene Coon and his staff have made great leaps in improving Star Trek's progressiveness already, some worrying aspects do still remain, mostly in regards to the show's inherent militarism and fixation on the chain of command. While the show may be a far friendlier place to women and nonwhite people now, this is going to be the biggest challenge it's going to have to overcome. It seems Coon knew this, however, because his next few episodes tackle these issues head on.