Tuesday, July 30, 2013

“Wednesday's child is full of woe/Thursday's child has far to go”: Friday's Child

What d'you think, Spock? I was thinking "Get Rid Of Slimy Klingons".

D.C. Fontana has a rather unsettling habit of making my life extremely difficult.

She's Star Trek's first staff writer who is a woman and has written several of the most influential and groundbreaking episodes in the franchise, including two of my absolute, all-time favourites. Unfortunately, every single episode she's been involved in I've looked so far in this project (save, debatably, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”) has been an infuriating, baldly reactionary disaster including, well, this one. In “Friday's Child” we have, in no particular order, the Federation explicitly as the “good” empire to the Klingon's “bad” empire, Kirk and Spock completely overturning the society and rules of an entire planetary culture pretty much for lulz, and, oh yeah, a pregnant woman, belittled and infantilized by just about every other character by being referred to as “the girl”, whom the show treats as both a comic relief and a burden because of her attempts to be headstrong and independent.

Let's take a look at the most egregious and upsetting thing first: Not the imperialistic or Prime Directive issues; the show couldn't give a toss about those here and neither should we until it decides to take another look at them. No, I'm instead talking about Eleen Akaar, because of fucking course I'm talking about Eleen Akaar. A proud, strong woman who doesn't let any man touch her, yet who eagerly submits to Doctor McCoy when he proves his superior fortitude and asserts his dominance and authority over her, by, of all things slapping her and knowing more about labour and childbirth then her as well as every other woman in her society. This is so blatantly, obviously and stupefyingly misogynistic I'm actually speechless: There's no reaction to that I can muster apart from stunned disbelief and disgust such that I actually feel dirty and personally hurt after watching this. Let's try and move on as quickly as possible, lest this essay devolve into another screamy, infuriated diatribe a la “The Corbomite Maneuver” or “The Enemy Within”.

In an attempt to give Fontana some manner of credit and benefit of the doubt, because I truly find it almost impossible to believe a woman in her position could ever come up with something as hurtful and offensive as this, a large portion of the blame for the feminist nightmare of “Friday's Child” should, both sadly and obviously, go to Gene Roddenberry. Had Fontana's original draft gone into production, Eleen would have been depicted as an even stronger presence, explicit in revolt against the male supremacy of Capellan society, which believed women were mothers and homemakers and nothing else. The climax would have also seen her sacrificing the life of her child in order to preserve her own, which actually gels much better with Kirk's line that Eleen “hates the unborn child she is carrying” and Eleen's own dialog that in her culture, children belong expressly to the father (as well as the subtle implication early on that the only reason Akaar married Eleen was to give him a son in the first place). Roddenberry, it would seem, didn't like any of this and had Fontana rewrite the entire last act so that the child survives and becomes McCoy's honourary son and Eleen attempts to broker peace between the landing party and the warriors who the Klingon agent incited into a rebellion, which would sufficiently demonstrate that Gene Roddenberry was even more clueless about feminism, gender roles and women in general then we had previously believed.

It's tempting to want to demand Fontana stand up for her work and herself more and say no to things like this, but we have to remember being a woman, and one of the only women, who was a staff writer, and a story editor no less (who already has to write under an androgynous credit), in the United States, in Hollywood, on network television, on a major primetime drama, in science fiction in 1967 is difficult enough: I should imagine she would have been constantly aware of the authoritarian, patriarchal, male supremacist power structures she was working under and would have had to worry on more than one occasion about being “outed” as a woman, losing her job, or what would happen if she had to find another. All of those oppressive forces working together can be a very powerful, and very effective, silencer. I'm far more inclined to go easy on her than I am on Gene Roddenberry. And yet...

Even taking all of that into account, this episode still isn't good enough. Even if all Roddenberry did was change that bit of plot about Eleen and her son, the rest of “Friday's Child” is hamstrung by problems of its own. The first of which is that the Klingons and the Federation are very obviously fighting a proxy war here, and Fontana doesn't seem to see a problem with this. The Klingon agent is trying to provoke a military coup such that when Akaar is deposed, he'll be replaced with someone far more willing to side with Klingon interests. This could be read as an indictment of the United States' rather unforgivable track record of doing exactly this, particularly in the then-current Vietnam War, which was already something of a big deal, were it not for the fact the Federation does basically the same thing with Eleen and Leonard James Akaar: Kirk's big motivation in this episode is to prove to the Capellans than the word of Starfleet officers and Federation law was far preferable to and far more just than that of the Klingons, and by the very nature of his birth Leonard James is going to be incredibly sympathetic to the Federation (indeed, he's so sympathetic he rather baffilingly becomes a popular reoccurring character in several spin-off works). That Fontana has Kirk set this up for the Federation on national television against the backdrop of said Vietnam War is quite frankly deeply distressing, and this, taken in the context of her association with “The City on the Edge of Forever” and actually, her next episode, is more than a little concerning.

The problem is that Fontana seems to be working towards the notion of the Federation as an explicit utopia. This is a thread best saved for her next story, but as it's already become a theme it's worth talking a little bit about now. There's a serious difference between the world of Star Trek being utopian or idealistic and the *Federation* being a utopia. This is something we've already talked a little about and is going to become a major, major theme throughout the rest of the franchise. For now, though, “Friday's Child” is the first time the Federation has been depicted in an explicitly, unambiguously positive light. They're the good guys, the Klingons are the bad guys. In the past there's been a significant amount of uncertainty about that fact, and even when Gene Coon introduced the Klingons in “Errand of Mercy” (who were already by definition more straightforwardly evil than the Romulans) the point was that they weren't really all that different from the Federation from the perspective of a third party. Here, though, while there's a token mention that “[the Klingon] has offered us things for our rocks as well” and a brief debate in Akaar's tent, the Klingons are pretty clearly meant to be wearing the black hats, as the agent is very obviously shifty, disingenuous, self-interested and manipulative while the Capellans stress the “Earth men have never lied”.

The thing is, Coon did not create the Federation to work like this: It was designed to be problematized from the get-go, and that's a clear thread that goes back as far as “Arena”. One of the things I'm going to keep returning to, not so much in this part of the project but absolutely once I reach Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that the Federation and Starfleet aren't actually our heroes here, or at least shouldn't be: Our heroes are the crew, and the a great deal of the point of Star Trek is watching how the crew, on both an individual and collectivist level, respond to their positionalities within different sociocultural systems and structures of power. Raumpatrouille Orion, in fact, already works precisely this way and Star Trek really ought to be following suit, but the problem we've got this week is that it doesn't seem D.C. Fontana quite gets this yet. Furthermore, while “Catspaw” and “Metamorphosis” were both flawed in their own ways, the net result of them was overwhelmingly positive. Frustratingly, “Friday's Child” seems to be completely ignoring the last two productions happened, and is steadfastly, albeit ineffectually, attempting to close the magickal tear in the fabric of the cosmos Gene Coon and Robert Bloch have ripped open.

The additional problem with Capella that makes all of this significantly worse is that, for the first time (the fluke humanness of the Romulans in “Balance of Terror” excepted), the episode's planetary society isn't designed as some kind of blunt metaphor for the moral-of-the-week. Compare it with Eminiar VII in “A Taste of Armageddon”, which was an entire society built around the concept of perpetual war such that Kirk could stroll in, wreck things, and teach them about how bad war is (not that this particular moral was an especially bad one, mind). Here though, we have a culture seemingly designed to actually be a culture, with society-wide mores about strength and lawfulness. The point of “Friday's Child” isn't for the Enterprise crew to teach the Capellans a lesson (or the other way around, for that matter), the point is very clearly demonstrating that the Federation's code of ethics is superior to that of the Klingons, mostly because McCoy says it is. Perhaps in Fontana's original draft the Capellans would have been defined by male supremacy in order to underscore and highlight Eleen's eventual rejection and condemnation of them, but thanks to Gene Roddenberry very little of that remains and the episode as aired has the distinct smack of US Cold War neo-inperialism about it.

In spite of all this general unpleasantness, there are bits of “Friday's Child” that are properly excellent. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are particularly terrific: Starting with Shatner, while Kirk is once again asked to stand in for the Federation and its ethics (and uncomfortably coming across as proselytizing as he's no longer standing trial for it), for the majority of the episode he seems profoundly uninspired to actually be the Federation's representative. There's a token ideological battle near the beginning, but this is quickly overshadowed by the actual real battle that breaks out when the Klingon agent launches his coup, and from that point on Kirk seems far more focused in wilderness survival then proving his moral superiority. This is also helped by DeForest Kelley getting almost the entirety of the episode's key emotional scenes to himself, as McCoy had previously been stationed on Capella, is familiar with their culture and spends the most amount of time interacting with Eleen. This leads to some rather delightful moments as Kirk, once again contrary to his womanizer reputation, seems completely uninterested in Eleen beyond objecting to her people's treatment of her, quite obviously preferring to let McCoy work with her while he goes and plays Cowboys and Indians with Spock in the shrubbery. Since the end of last season, Nimoy and Shatner have been honing and refining their onscreen chemistry and are by this point and extremely compelling double act. Their rapport is tight, their banter smart and their comic timing spot-on, and it's easy to see even now how both the actors and the characters go down in television history for this. Shatner and Nimoy are the best things about this episode by miles, and here is where Kirk and Spock start to become pop culture icons.

And that alone is almost enough to save “Friday's Child” from being complete and total bomb. We're only three episodes into the second season and despite the stumbles and pratfalls of the past few weeks the show has unarguably taken a turn for the better, and in a direction nobody could have anticipated even just a few months ago. Let's not forget three episodes into Star Trek proper we were at “The Corbomite Maneuver” and unsure whether or not the show would even last long enough to see out its first season. A year later the show is considerably better shape, and we can expect some growing pains for not just D.C. Fontana, but the show itself. Fontana has said she looks back on her earliest Star Trek work somewhat astonished that her name is one these scripts: She doesn't view them as even being written by the same person she is now, and she's correct, of course. They're not. Writers, just like anyone, grow over time, especially over the course of a 25 year career. D.C. Fontana is redeemed by her work that's yet to come, and Gene Coon's new approach has paid off beyond our wildest imaginations. We're only now starting to get a glimpse of what the future might look like for this new Star Trek.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

“...a uniquely portable magic.”: Metamorphosis

Love is possible.

The obvious way to open this post would be with some cheekily prescient call-forward to Star Trek First Contact, the consensus-second-best Star Trek movie, in which Zefram Cochrane (who is introduced here) plays a significant role. However, that essay is going to be wild and crazy enough without having to deal with baggage from “Metamorphosis” on top of it all, so let's leave the future to the future for now.

“Metamorphosis” is a significant improvement over last episode, which is typically the case when Gene Coon is writing. What's more interesting, however, is that this is very much Gene Coon for the second season: Building off of themes he introduced in “The Devil in the Dark” and clearly noticing the show's landscape has been permanently altered in the wake of the bombshell that was “Catspaw”, “Metamorphosis” is the first clear, concrete step forward Star Trek has taken since, well, Coon's last episode. It's not perfect, not even the best script we've seen from Coon so far, and the particular kind of faults it has mean it's ultimately less than successful, but this is still very much the sort of sign we should be looking for from Star Trek at the start of its second consecutive year on the air.

Charmingly, Coon's next step from burning the show to the ground and challenging it to justify its existence and prove it's capable of behaving in a peaceful, constructive manner is to give it an incredibly straightforward and intimate love story. Not a fake romance plot, like Nurse Chapel swooning over Doctor Korby just long enough to provide necessary drama in a floundering episode or when Kirk shacks up with any of his Desilu-mandated girls-of-the-week, but a real, actual love story between two people that takes a serious, mature look at what that concept is, how it's expressed and how its interpreted. The Companion loves the stranded Zefram Cochrane, but is only capable of displaying her affection by keeping him alive and providing for him. But that's not the kind of companionship he really needs, which prompts her to similarly maroon Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the commissioner. Cochrane can't see this as love, because The Companion is not a being like himself, and when he finds out the truth he recoils in horror. And, in an actually lovely speech from Kirk, without doubt one of his most memorable scenes in the show so far, he points out to both of them that true love can't be one-sided and that two people must be joined as equals for it to exist.

This speech is a watershed from Kirk, and his depiction in this episode is crucial to continuing his extradiegetic challenge given to him by Coon in “Arena” to grow and mature Star Trek. Much like in “the Devil in the Dark”, Kirk starts out angry and frenzied, even considering destroying The Companion if it means freeing the trapped shuttlecraft. But he is reminded by McCoy, in one of his best and, frankly, most welcome lines to date that “perhaps being a soldier for so long” has caused Kirk to forget he's “also trained as a diplomat”. This is one the one hand the first evidence we've seen that Starfleet may actually be more than an interstellar police department, but also a direct invocation of the very themes Coon seems to have been working with over the past year. However, this statement is worth parsing out: Firstly, Kirk doesn't actually act especially like a diplomat here. There are no regulations, concessions, compromises or ultimately pointless political sleight-of-hand, and Star Trek on the whole still seems fairly suspicious of diplomacy and bureaucratic politics (indeed the only reason I'm not pitching a fit over Commissioner Hedford is she's very clearly meant to be just another obstructive bureaucrat in the mould of Ambassador Fox in “A Taste of Armageddon” or Galactic High Commissioner Ferris in “The Galileo Seven”).

It's also telling, and not entirely for good reasons, that the preferable opposite of “soldier”, according to Star Trek is, apparently now “diplomat”. Use of that sort of word, in addition to terms like “Federation” and “negotiation” means the show is really starting to solidify that its world takes place in a Western-style representative democracy, and in a world where it's not entirely clear that's an especially desirable form of government. I mean this is definitely better than the enlightened despotism Khan offered us back in “Space Seed”, but we're already, in 1967, in an era where notions like “government the way the US works is an inherently positive thing and should be the goal of all civilized societies” are starting to be put into question. It's impossible to ignore the growing counterculture movement in the US and it's staunch anti-war roots that put the blame for contemporary civil unrest not really unfairly square at the feet of the US government and military, even if we are less than a year out from it's ultimate implosion, and Star Trek sticking its fingers in its ears and pretending this isn't happening is worrying and dangerous.

This might have been OK if Star Trek was openly willing to problematize its own setting, like other shows of the time were, but it's really not clear that it is. The crew in “Metamorphosis”, having been through the howling exorcism of Coon's first half-season, seem like they're at a midpoint between the crass moralizing of the Roddenberry era and the idealized role models they'll eventually be remembered as. Kirk is definitely meant to have the moral high ground, but only after he stops thinking like he's at war all the time. Even Star Trek's most obvious television peers, Raumpatrouille Orion and Doctor Who, (not to mention The Prisoner, even though it's not quite as linked to Star Trek as the other two series), were doing stories overtly about questioning this sort of status quo. The major problem is going to come when Star Trek becomes a utopia and falling back onto Western-style democracy as the teleological ideal future for humanity is going to prove...problematic.

But this is a theme that, while it's introduced here, is best dealt with in full force when it starts to become an overt influence on the series, and there's an episode coming up later in the season that discussion will be ideal for, so we'll return to it then. Especially since “Metamorphosis” has a few problems of its own that hold it back from *quite* achieving greatness. The most obvious and troubling one is that, of course, the love story Coon tells is blatantly heteronormative. Spock says, upon discovering The Companion is female, that this “changes” things somewhat, as if it would have been impossible for a male entity or a life-form that doesn't conform to binary notions of gender to love Cochrane. The Commissioner's big emotional moment comes when she calls out Cochrane on her deathbed for resenting and hiding from love when someone like her remained lonely and unloved all her life. It's a wonderful scene that's promptly ruined by her contrasting this with her profession, which she says she was always good at, as if it's impossible for a woman to be loved and be successful at her career at the same time. I mean, I have to give Star Trek credit: It continues to amaze me with its ability to find ways to be insultingly reactionary decades ahead of its time. That said though it's probably a bit unfair of me (though not overly, I should think) to expect Coon to pull something with Star Trek in 1967 that fiction today can't even regularly and reliably pull off.

There's also the issue that, thanks partially to the episode's pacing problems (we once again get lines repeated almost verbatim, redundant bits of exposition and scenes that don't quite logically follow from each other) Kirk's final speech to The Companion about love isn't as clear as it needs to be. There is a troubling implication that The Companion is unable to truly love because she's not human, where I think the point should be (and was intended to be) that the problem is she and Cochrane are unable to be together in their current forms. The former snaps back not just to heteronormativity but borderline xenophobia and threatens to undo the good work done by the rest of the plot, so let's politely ignore it and look at the other possibility. The latter is a statement about not just the unattainability of love for these specific characters, but also the show on the whole thanks to the structure it's imposed on itself. There's a longstanding tension in some genre works between the spheres of the mythic and the mundane, and a notion these have to by definition be irreconcilable, this speaks to: The easy example would be to compare this to Kirk's numerous complaints in the past about being unable to sustain a meaningful relationship thanks to his shipboard duties and responsibilities, an interpretation facilitated by the fact the small, intimate world of the asteroid offered by The Companion is contrasted with the vastness of the universe offered by Kirk, but I prefer to read this as an indictment of Star Trek's hit-and-miss relationship with the mundane and a claim from Coon that the show is perfectly capable of handling it, but just needs to handle it with more depth and maturity than it has so far.

Because Star Trek actually has the potential to be the show that finally unites these two seeming polar opposites (well, OK, Raumpatrouille Orion probably did this first, but Star Trek can go even further, if for no other reason than it will last longer). It's given us plenty of evidence that it can even this early. Just as The Companion and Cochrane need not be forever apart, Star Trek need not feel it's unable to experience love and happiness in the distant reaches of outer space. Uniting the two then, just as The Companion unites with Hedford and, because she loves him, Cochrane, is just as much the metamorphosis described by the episode's title as the Commissioner's transformation. And, just like that one, it is an expressly magickal transformation, perhaps a transmutation, if you will: While Spock tries to explain The Companion in electrical terms, nothing it does is really in any way comparable to the behaviour of electricity. No, The Companion creates matter, life, out of nothingness, and she doesn't do it because she's some distant, objective God: Rather, she does it because of, and through, her love. Her fusion with Commissioner Hedford then, which is also tacitly compared with her blossoming relationship with Cochrane, becomes a spiritual union. This isn't so much an ascension to a higher plane, which could be read as either unsatisfyingly vague or implicitly pop Christian: It's more, as the title would suggest, growing into someone and something wiser and aware of its existence as part of a larger whole. This is the first step towards formulating a true mysticism for the cosmic age.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

“Trick or Treat/Trick or Treat/Trick or Treat for Halloween”: Catspaw

Little known fact: Back in the day they used to have Enterprise moon pendants.

Well, to start things off I'd like to say that coming off of Raumpatrouille Orion and The Prisoner it's rather exasperating to tune in for the brand new season of Star Trek and see Captain Kirk stomp around the bridge in a huff and bluster about people failing to follow landing party procedure. It would have been very nice to be able to open this post with a hearty declaration that the show has finally turned a corner with the first story produced for the new year, especially with a premise as tantalizing as the one this episode has. But no, “Catspaw” is aggravatingly business as usual.

Which is really rather puzzling, because it has the makings of something incomparably bizarre and interesting to talk about. First of all, this episode has the single most bonkers pitch in the history of the franchise: It is literally a Star Trek holiday special. I'm not even kidding-The only reason “Catspaw” exists is because somebody, most likely at NBC, decided Star Trek really needed to have a Halloween special. So, we get fifty minutes of Kirk, Spock and McCoy wandering around a stereotypically spooky haunted castle with witches, skeletons, black cats and evil wizards. There are any number of reasonable, plausible reasons for this premise to go hilariously and catastrophically off the rails but, in a moment of genuine insight, Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon make the actually sane and sensible decision to give the story to the only person on staff remotely capable of taking this quite literal nightmare pitch and turning into something other than an unmitigated disaster: Robert Bloch.

Bloch only had one other Star Trek script to his name at this time: “What Are Little Girls Made Of”? early on in the first season, an episode that could charitably be described as not going quite according to plan. However, before we run to the hills screaming, it's worth pointing out Bloch was actually an extremely respected and influential author, penning a little novel called Psycho, so perhaps the failings of the previous story can and should be laid once again at the feet of Gene Roddenberry, who decided he needed to rewrite the whole thing in the middle of primary filming. Thankfully Roddenberry seemed to see no need to do similar micromanaging here, so with “Catspaw” we get a better glimpse into the sorts of things Bloch is actually interested in talking about, which seems to be pretty clearly “horror”. Not just any kind of horror, though: The type of horror Bloch seems to fancy the most, especially when it comes to writing Star Trek, is descended from the works of US novelist H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a prolific early 20th century writer with a particular interest in uniquely mystical and cosmic variety of psychological horror. In Lovecraft's works, the universe is really the domain of vast, incomprehensible ancient monsters who exist so far above and beyond the realm of human comprehension that to even glimpse one or speak its name would drive a person to complete and inconsolable madness. These beings, often referred to as either Eldritch Abominations or the Old Ones, represent what Lovecraft saw as humanity's ultimate insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, and they have the power to wipe out reality as we know it without so much as a thought. This is a line of thinking that very much interested Bloch as well, having written a number of stories set in the Lovecraft mythos and actually corresponding with Lovecraft himself regularly while he was still alive. Interestingly, both of Bloch's Star Trek scripts so far make mention of Old Ones, being both the creators of Ruk in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and the people whom Sylvia and Korob apparently have a “duty” to in “Catspaw”.

So naturally, we ought to read Korob and Sylvia, who are already, as Spock remarks “utterly alien” and beyond human comprehension, able as they are to transmute thought into reality, as some kind of Lovecraftian horror come to match wits with the Enterprise crew, out on a mission of exploration in places they don't belong. Except this doesn't really work in practice: If it was Bloch's intent to make Korob and Sylvia Eldritch Abominations he failed pretty spectacularly, as they're dispatched laughably easily when Kirk smashes the transmuter at the end of the episode, revealing their true form and distinctly not driving the landing party out of their minds. Perhaps they're servants of a larger Lovecraftian power, but one does get the sense these beings are not so much grand, incomprehensible cosmic horrors from the dawn of space and time and perhaps just the standard-issue hyper advanced beings the crew comes into contact with every once in awhile.

It doesn't help the actual horror motifs “Catspaw” works with are less magickal paths toward enlightenment and more kindergarten Halloween decorations. Depressingly befitting the episode's status as a holiday special for network television, we get the most stereotypical and stock out-of-context tropes you can think of. It's all here, from wailing witches with a predilection toward what Spock somewhat aptly dubs “very bad poetry”, big medieval castles with dungeons and shackles, black cats, skeletons witches and warlocks. There are no Jack-o-Lanterns or dudes running around with bedsheets over their heads, but they honestly wouldn't look too out of place.

I'm not sure whether or not I should commend Bloch for trying to get this theme park of family-friendly scares to cohere together, because what he comes up with is a somewhat confusing, and really not especially convincing, explanation of “race memory”. Apparently, Korob and Sylvia were trying to scare Captain Kirk as part of his aptitude test to find out whether or not he could teach them about sensations and emotions (concepts that are alien to them), so they read up on what was supposedly frightening to all humans (though Spock also says, flagrantly contradictory, that Korob and Sylvia were looking for a setting to make humans comfortable but were only able to tap the subconscious and found primal genetic fears instead). This is ludicrous on several levels, not the least of which is that watered-down Gothic horror isn't going to be scary to anyone, let alone all of humanity. Why would someone from a culture completely removed from modernist Europe, either because they exist so far in the future so as the imagery has become meaningless or, heaven forbid, they come from a place that isn't Europe or the United States, have these sorts of images in their shared consciousness anyway? This is hegemonic provincialism, plain and simple.

Perhaps a better approach, if the show absolutely *had* to go the kindergarten Halloween decoration route (instead of, you know, an actually intelligent and thoughtful analysis of pre-Christian Celtic and Northern European mythology and spirituality), would have been to look at the specific genre of generic horror story that sort of setting fits into and turn that into a kind of critique. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, which is only two years out from debuting as of this episode's airdate, handles this sort of thing effortlessly and that's ostensibly a brainless kids' show for 7-10 year olds (largely because Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is fundamentally neither horror nor a horror pastiche, but rather German Expressionism). One would think the supposedly grown-up, mature, intellectual and thought-provoking science fiction show airing as a primetime drama on NBC could do this in its sleep. But no, Star Trek prefers to have Kirk blunder around a third-rate harvest festival attraction punching things.

This isn't the only problem “Catspaw” has either. A really big one is Sylvia herself, for pretty much exactly the reasons you'd expect. Apparently, her species is incapable of feeling sensations and emotions, and, since using the transmuter to assume human form has become what can best be described as drunk on sensory overload, lusting for both power and the things one usually seeks when the word "lusting” is involved, and perfectly willing to browbeat and manipulate both Korob and Kirk to get what she wants. Of course, having the alien presenting as a woman be the one to turn traitorous and evil is hideously sexist. How many ways is it sexist? Well, just to name a few, women are often seen as weaker and more fickle than men, there's a tradition of ambitious, power hungry, manipulative women in Western literature dating back to at the *very* least Lady Macbeth, and furthermore women are seen as more sensual and sensuality is seen as a Bad Thing in the pop Western manifestations of Christian thinking. So we have Sylvia, a cruel and heartless Lady Macbeth (Kirk even tells her she lacks compassion which “all women must have”, apparently) tempted away from the path of righteous Intellect and Reason by the sins of the body. I don't think I really need to go the next step and point out what the symbolism is of her being a witch implies.

I could carry on ripping this episode to shreds, and I will, but I'd be remiss if I didn't take some time to mention this episode makes the first appearance of the last regular to join the cast of Star Trek: The famous and beloved Ensign Pavel Chekov, played by Walter Koenig, who, while a science officer here, will soon take his familiar post next to Sulu as navigator and the seventh member of the bridge team. Chekov is, let's be honest, a profoundly weird character. Supposedly he was created to serve as yet another example of Star Trek's enlightened future and to show how even people who were staunch enemies in the present could be friends and co-workers in the future. Also, he was created to cash in on the success of The Monkees by giving the Enterprise Russian Space Davy Jones as a senior staff member. Predictably, Gene Coon disagreed with this official story, claiming instead Chekov was going to be English before Roddenberry received a letter of complaint from Soviet fans arguing the hypocrisy of a show depicting a future with a united Earth didn't have any Russians, especially as they were, at the time, ahead in the Space Race. However, this time he's contradicted by Koenig himself, who has the really rather plausible theory this letter more than likely didn't exist, because no Soviet television stations would be airing US programming at the height of the Cold War. Koenig claims making Chekov Russian was always Roddenberry's idea, due to him wanting to acknowledge the USSR's aforementioned dominant space programme.

Regardless of whose idea the character ultimately was (and not to play favourites necessarily, but I am for various reasons more inclined to side with Gene Coon) the fact is Chekov, much like a lot of this show at this point in time, frankly doesn't work all that well. He's an endearing enough character and will only continue to become more so as the series goes on, but in terms of what he was actually intended to do? He's a disaster. The attempt to pay lip service to The Monkees is ridiculous and transparently a bit of cynical pandering, not to mention far too little too late given what the show's done to youth culture so far. Furthermore, having a Russian member of the Enterprise crew is a nice idea in theory, but not when he's portrayed as the most skin-crawlingly caricatured stereotype of the funny foreign blinkered, Mother Russia-praising comrade imaginable. This isn't really noticeable in “Catspaw” per se, but it becomes an irritatingly defining part of the character as he develops over the next two years. Chekov is basically Yakov Smirnoff 25 years early except unironic and not funny.

Even on Raumpatrouille Orion at least, while Eva Pflug wasn't Russian she at least played Tamara Jagellovsk as a real person instead of a bad cartoon character and didn't feel the need to engage in a borderline offensively fake (and inaccurate) accent. But this has always been a problem for Star Trek: I hate to say it, but James Doohan's Scotty is no different, and the fact Uhura and Sulu are spared the same theme park approach to ethnicity is something of a miracle. Speaking of Uhura, Sulu and Scotty, they're once again barely in this episode. Nichelle Nichols gets to do her usual “frequencies are jammed sir! I can't compensate!” routine on the bridge, but James Doohan and George Takei don't even get to speak any lines in this episode. At least with Takei there's an excuse, as he spent the majority of the second season filming a movie so he wasn't available on set as frequently as he had been in the past, but to see a noted and respected character actor like Doohan, who was it must be stressed supposed to be playing a major role here, treated this way is appalling.

Nevertheless, in spite of everything that's wrong with “Catspaw” and there is a frightening amount of things wrong with it, there is one thing it manages to do that saves it from the dregs of irredeemable, reactionary rubbish. A magic spell, if you will, that gives it a certain power to stand out in the mind. See, there are a few lines near the end of the episode, not all that many, but enough, that just about change the game for Star Trek forever. While Sylvia and Korob's transmuter allows them to channel their abilities, it's not the source of them. As Sylvia says, the true power is the ability to see inside minds and join with them, and once again we get that very Star Trek motif of mental unions being described in sexual language. This is magic, actual magick. Not the juvenile waving-of-the-wand and book-of-spells silliness one might expect given the rest of the episode, but real, symbolic, spiritual magickal power. In one scene Sylvia basically becomes a voodoo priestess, making a voodoo doll of the Enterprise, which she can do any number of conjurations to and have it affect the real ship as well. This is also alchemical, as the symbol and the object are considered one and the same: She even calls it “sympathetic magic”.

And crucially, the rest of the show can't explain this away. Spock makes some attempts at hand-waving Korob and Sylvia's powers by saying they're the result of telepathy and telekinesis and other “mental abilities”, much like the “mental sciences” of Foundation and other Asimov-style Golden Age science fiction, but none of them take. This may or may not be hyper-advanced technology from a race of super evolved extragalactic beings, but it's also magick. This is exactly what magick is and how it works, and Korob and Sylvia are explicitly, overtly magicians. Really rubbish magicians, but magicians nonetheless. And no matter how intolerable this episode may have been and how dangerously unstable Star Trek may be, this remains a revelation. Star Trek may be nowhere near as symbolic and mystical as something like contemporaneous Doctor Who, blessed as it was by the combined talents of wizards Patrick Troughton and David Whitaker, but colliding the world of magick into Star Trek is still unbelievably fascinating, and there's no point from here until the franchise finally sails away for good when this will cease to be a part of what it is. The door hasn't just been opened, but blown off its hinges. The course to take has never been more clear.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sensor Scan: The Prisoner

Let's get this straight right from the start: Entire analytical projects can, have been, and should be written about Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein's The Prisoner. It's rightly regarded as one of the single greatest and most influential, and most oversignified, television series of all time. Given I don't even regard the entirety of Vaka Rangi, which tackles just about every filmed moment of Star Trek and then some, as a definitive authoritative reading of the Star Trek franchise, there is absolutely no way I can be expected to come up with some comprehensive interpretation of something like The Prisoner in one blog post. That said, this is still one of the most iconic parts of the televisual landscape of 1967-8 (not to mention a show that was a massive source of inspiration for at least one future creative figure) so there's no getting away from me saying something about it.

Some assorted thoughts then. First, for those who might not be intimately familiar with The Prisoner, it's a seventeen episode (though apparently only seven were actually intended and are considered by the creators to be part of the overall story arc) miniseries aired during the 1967-8 season on the British channel ITV that was a rather-more-than-spiritual successor to Patrick McGoohan's previous series Danger Man, in which he starred as secret agent John Drake. The Prisoner follows a nameless agent, played by McGoohan and largely assumed to be Drake himself, who, after resigning from the service, is kidnapped and imprisoned in a mysterious coastal retirement community. The rest of the series follows the agent, who is never named but who is referred to as Number Six in keeping with the Village's convention of assigning its residents numbers, as he refuses to acclimate and constantly tries to escape his captors. Number Six's captors, spearheaded by Number Two (a position filled by a revolving door of individuals) and his superior, the mysterious, unseen Number One, launch a campaign to systematically break Six and discern why he resigned so abruptly.

This summary, of course, does the show no justice because one of its biggest signatures is its overt focus on psychedelic and 1960s counterculture themes, best exemplified by its avant garde cinematography and editing and conspicuous usage of jarring, unsettling and downright bizarre imagery. There is a willfully dreamlike and disjointed approach to structure here: The show goes out of its way to muddle its viewers just as much as The Village tries to psychologically manipulate Number Six and frequently violates its own internal logic just to show that no rules or conventions are above reproach (there is infamously an entire episode where the show suddenly and inexplicably becomes a western, complete with unique intro and closing credits sequences). Although this is possibly the most celebrated part of The Prisoner's legacy and contribution to TV, it's also the part that's most easily misunderstood. First of all, expecting the show's abject weirdness to be some kind of overly complicated way of obfuscating “The Truth” and trying to use it to discern some kind of secret, hidden meaning or revelation (like the popular fan theory the show's credits are designed to give away the ending, and thus the show's “point”, with the exchange “Who is Number One?” “You Are Number Six”-this rather pointedly and obviously does not mean what fans might like to think it means if you actually watch the show) is hopelessly misguided. This is a show that is not designed to make sense. It is a show designed to tear down the concept of sense.

In that regard one of the things The Prisoner (as well as Danger Man) does not get nearly enough credit for being is an actually rather straightforward critique of its genre, which, head trippiness aside, is really spy fiction. Despite starring in a spy series himself, McGoohan was always somewhat sceptical and apprehensive about the prevalence of certain kind of spy story. He was actually one of the first choices to play James Bond, but he turned the role down because he objected to the fundamental ethics of the character and the series. Number Six is in many ways the complete opposite of Bond: He doesn't carry a gun, refuses to fight unless forced to and is explicitly celibate, the show going out of his way to show his interest in the female characters is purely platonic and that he's anything but a womanizer. The Prisoner is actually rather excellent on feminist grounds on the whole, being the rare action show without any really significant overt gendered remarks or assumptions. In addition, a reoccurring theme is suspicion over the growing threat of rampant nationalism, and indeed the one real clue we get for why Number Six resigned is that it was “a matter of conscience”.

It's also possible to read The Prisoner rather easily as another individualist versus collectivist treatise. The Village definitely operates like an oppressive, effacing institution, down to the show's famous catchphrase “I am not a number! I am a free man!”. What's particularly interesting about the way The Prisoner does this however is that this theme is not conveyed as a blunt, anti-communal attack on Soviet-style classical “liberal” systems of government that so typifies much fiction of this era. Rather, it's an altogether more localized critique of a uniquely British, and if I'm being honest Western, kind of power structure. The Village bears more then a passing resemblance to a British holiday camp, which was a peculiarly mid-20th century phenomenon whereby legions of working to lower middle class families would be shipped off to spend several weeks on holiday in a stretch of housing for what basically amounted to the adult version of a summer camp. Part and parcel of this experience would be mandatory communal meals and activities, lots of general forced happiness and even authoritarian monitor who would patrol up and down at night to make sure everyone was in by curfew and that nothing untoward (meaning flirtatious) went on. The nearest fictional US equivalent might be something like Stepford Village, if the secret wasn't that everybody was a robotic killer but that there's an authoritarian power out to gain dominance by enforcing an oppressive classist power structure.

In other words, what McGoohan is essentially doing here is likening glamourous spy fiction, and by association the espionage system Western powers like Britain are built on, to a holiday camp where everyone is required to be chipper and behave like good little conformist citizens while a distant and very probably fascist jingoistic power lords over them. So I guess in the end not much unlike Stepford after all. The sort of collectivist mentality The Prisoner is attacking isn't the kind of generative, bottom up communal living of the sort that typifies the actual left, but the kind of authoritarian statism that has defined Western imperialism since the concept began.

If we were to compare The Prisoner to what we've seen on Star Trek so far, the closest point would probably be “The Return of the Archons”, with Gene Roddenberry's critique of blindly following orders and the whims of centralized powers, or perhaps Robert Hamner's “A Taste of Armageddon” with the Federation's constant screwups and the Eminians quietly submissive to war as it's become ingrained in their society. Were I inclined to be especially charitable to people like Roddenberry, I could read an episode like that a similar way, not as blunt Red Scare rubbish but as a critique of at least the idea of authoritarianism, if not its manifestations in the West. The only problem with this is that Gene Roddenberry was not Patrick McGoohan. If Roddenberry ever intended a theme like that to be prevalent in any of the scripts he worked on in Star Trek's first season, he was nowhere near capable enough a writer to adequately convey this in the finished products, and his reactionary tendencies elsewhere make it rather difficult for me to give him the benefit of the doubt on anything. McGoohan has a deft handle on his craft and knows exactly the sorts of things he wants us to think about, and his shows reflect this in turn.

No, a far better point of comparison in my opinion is actually Raumpatrouille Orion. While that show lacks The Prisoner's handle on psychedelic, avant garde imagery and themes, it too has a very clear suspicion of hierarchical power structures. Recall the key joke is that the unified Earth government is actually staggeringly incompetent and hilariously petty, and Tamara Jagellovsk's primary character arc involves her having to come to terms with how slavish deference towards rules, regulations and authority is unhealthy, counterproductive, unsustainable and unworkable. Cliff McClane as well, despite being an ace pilot and one of the best commanders in the fleet, is far more likely to part with official policy then enforce it and he's become something of an annoyance to some of his superiors in spite of his heroism, valour and upstanding, selfless nature. While Raumpatrouille is far lighter on the whole and doesn't approach these themes with anywhere near the gravity and seriousness The Prisoner does, it does seem to share them. Much like Raumpatrouille Orion then, The Prisoner is frequently quite clearly working with the concept of institutionalized and otherwise hegemonic power structures and how to work against them from within.

However, focusing on McGoohan's basic political statements, as interesting and important as they may be, rather avoids the issue that The Prisoner is still one of the most artistic and unorthodox bits of television ever filmed. Although it remains fundamentally a bit of spy fiction, the show's explicit embrace of psychedelic imagery means the realms of the mystic and transcendental are never far away, always exerting their wills on what The Prisoner does. It may not have been the trippiest work of its time, that title would probably go to one of The Beatles' contemporaneous films (although it is worth noting The Beatles were enormous Prisoner fans and had actually originally hoped to get McGoohan to produce their movies), but what's special about how it's used here is that it can be seen as bringing together and reinforcing the other concepts the show is working through clear cut meta-commentary. There is a very noticeable televisual motif throughout The Prisoner, most noticeable in the scenes where Number Two and his aides watch Number Six's efforts on a monitor from the Blue Dome. The camera angles constantly switch between the action with Six and Two watching the same scene from the same perspective. Number Two and his men can also remotely operate different facets of The Village to foil Six's efforts, and this is another method they use to try and psychologically manipulate him.

An example that comes to mind is in the first episode, where Number Two is remarking on the failure of one of his agents, disguised as Six's sympathetic housekeeper, to extract information from him. Two says something along the lines of how “well acted” her performance was and how convincingly she played her role, and that he was sure Number Six would be taken in by it. Two sounds exactly like a hypothetical audience member here, remarking on the actions of the characters onscreen and the talents of the actors who portray them. Furthermore, the one bit of knowledge those in charge of The Village keep stressing is of paramount importance is the exact reason Number Six resigned his commission. Interestingly, we actually do get to see the moment Six resigns in the opening scene of the first episode, but we're unable to hear what he says to his superior as all audio apart from the soundtrack is muted.

Later on, we learn that The Village apparently knows everything about Six's life except this one minor annoying detail and they're obsessed with finding out what it is, and Number Two is standing in for the audience. So now, we don't just have spy fiction equated with British holiday camps and authoritarian Western statism, but also with the act of voyeuristically watching television itself. From a modern perspective, it's almost impossible for me not to see Number Two's anal fixation on irreverent and inconsequential details like why exactly this character resigned his post as a rather scathing, yet also hilarious, critique of a certain kind of obsessive genre fiction fan, which is all the more impressive as such an archetype, at least in the way we would recognise it, really didn't exist in 1967. What this means is that Number Six isn't just constrained and imprisoned by his job, or the kind of society he lives in, or even by the trappings of his genre, but by, honestly, the abstract concept of television Soda Pop Art itself.

In this regard then perhaps Number Six is more similar to Captain Kirk, at least when he's written by people who know what to do with him, then might be immediately obvious. Both can be seen as characters who are trapped and restricted by the shows they're on, and who are constantly looking for ways to escape and grow apart from them. The primary difference between the two, however, is how the shows they're on work through these ideas. Star Trek is a show that consistently only works in spite of itself, and its various disparate elements are each trying to become their own equally fascinating things while the actual structure and value system the show inherits from its influences keeps trying to hold it back. When Kirk works he's great and William Shatner is far more savvy then absolutely anyone gives him credit for, but he's got both the diegetic and extradiegetic shows fighting against him. But while Star Trek is struggling because of these concerns, The Prisoner could be convincingly read as actually being about them, which really says quite a lot about what it was possible for both the television landscape and also the larger zeitgeist of 1967 to be.

Unfortunately, this means that, in 1967, Star Trek is frankly behind the times. Between The Prisoner and Raumpatrouille Orion the world of television around it is going in directions that are pretty clearly forcing Gene Roddenberry and the Enterprise crew to play catch-up. It's telling that, of the three shows, Star Trek is the only one to be canceled outright by virtue of its own quality and ratings: Raumpatrouille's overblown budget made it financially unviable, and The Prisoner almost got another season and Patrick McGoohan actually had to fight and compromise to keep it at seventeen episodes, as it was never intended to be a long-form serial. Star Trek, in spite of its cult legacy and what the material episode lists say, really only has one more year left in it before NBC puts it to bed. But Star Trek the franchise has outlasted almost everything, which is, here in 1967, is just about the most stupefyingly inexplicable thing ever. Why is that? Well, I think part of the reason has to do with things like this...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Myriad Universes: The Planet Of No Return (Gold Key)

One of the key points frequently brought up in fan discussions about the differences between Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who as large-scale science fiction franchises is that Star Trek supposedly has a hard and fast “canon”: A meticulously constructed and maintained Official History of stories that actually “happened” as opposed to ones that “don't count”. For better or for worse, this is seen as a major point of contrast between the three franchises: Star Trek's canon is supposedly absolute, whereas Star Wars' is more fluid and the subject of much debate. Meanwhile, true Doctor Who fans will be quick to point out their show has no canon at all: Every single Doctor Who story that has ever been told both did and didn't happen, depending on the perspective of the person making judgment calls about it.

I've never been especially fond of the idea of canon. Aside from the self-evidently rather silly notion of squabbling over which events did and didn't happen in a fictional world, to me the concept grows out of a particularly exclusionary mindset and approach to genre fiction I pretty strongly disagree with. While the fundamental goal may be to pay respects to a work's originator, and weigh their contributions to it accordingly, canon to me seems more typically used to lay down arbitrary and authoritarian rules as to who can and can't contribute to a developing oeuvre. There's a very good reason there's no mythological canon: Myths and legends belong to an entire people and their whole existence is built around the expectation that stories and ideas will be shared and retold constantly, and that new ones will be continuously added to the pile. If Soda Pop Art is going to serve a similar role for Western cultures, building a big gate, locking the door and only giving a podium to the people already on the inside isn't going to do anyone any good.

The first recorded use of the term “canon” (which is, of course, a word gleaned from Biblical studies) to refer to genre works is actually in a 1911 satirical essay by Ronald Knox, who was lampooning scholars interested in discerning a “historical Jesus” and sourcing the Synoptic Gospels by applying their methods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories (blog friend Andrew Hickey has more details in this excellent post). The problem is, as with most great satire, few actually got the joke and Sherlock Holmes fandom in fact latched onto the idea and attempted to construct a legitimate Sherlock Holmes Canon, which became no more and no less then every story Conan Doyle himself wrote, and set about trying to create a timeline to make it all fit together. It should go without saying this was expressly not Conan Doyle's intention for his stories, which he turned out on a fairly regular schedule to keep up with massive demand for more Holmes mysteries and keep himself employed as a writer (his numerous attempts to either kill Holmes or end his adventures went over about as well as trying to kill off a massively popular franchise does today).

But regardless of where the idea of genre canon came from, the fact of the matter is that it's something Star Trek latched onto and was a perspective Gene Roddenberry was clearly working from, isn't it? After all, the whole idea of a Star Trek canon comes from Roddenberry specifically saying only the TV and film stories counted, and as the shepherd decrees the flock obeys.

Well, not quite.

First of all, the idea of Gene Roddenberry being the sole torch-bearer and authority for all of Star Trek should already be a claim we should all be more than a little sceptical of. Secondly though, even if you for some bizarre reason want to grant Roddenberry the title of Godlike Creator, the fact is he never actually *said* anything like this. What he actually said was something far less concrete and more guarded: Early on in the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while he was still de facto showrunner, Roddenberry was asked by a fan at a convention which stories “counted” among all the various Star Trek TV episodes, movies, novelizations and comic books. Roddenberry said that when he and the writing staff were making new episodes and needed to cross-reference something, they only looked at the TV episodes and movies, because there was just too much spin-off content for him to keep track of. Roddenberry also apparently asked Mike Okuda to come up with a solid timeline for the franchise at this point (something it had lacked beforehand) just to keep things easy for him and the production team, hence the first recorded mention of an in-universe calendar year in the Star Trek: The Next Generation season one finale.

It's very important to look very closely at what exactly Roddenberry's statement is, because it is manifestly not a declaration of the existence of a canon. Instead, this is rather an explanation by Roddenberry of a specific approach to writing the franchise that he uses to make life easier for him personally. It is not a decree from on high that certain stories “don't count” or are somehow less valid or less worth investigating because he and his team didn't film them for whatever reason, and to take this comment and use it as some excuse to throw out reams of Star Trek novels and comics, or to discourage fans from writing their own Star Trek stories (many of which are in fact leagues better than the stuff that actually made it to air), is at once more evidence of the annoying tendency to deify Roddenberry and hang on every word he said, as well as a clear misreading of those words and an attempt to weaponize them for a purpose they were never intended to be used for. There is, in point of fact, no such thing as a hard-and-fast Star Trek “canon” and nobody involved in making the show (at least from the first and second generation of writers) ever meant for there to be one in the first place.

Which is rather a roundabout way of both introducing this section of the blog, which looks at so-called “non-canon” works in a way designed to hopefully demonstrate their merit and value both apart from the television and movie stories and as a vitally important part of Star Trek history in their own way. The first story I've pegged to talk about is “The Planet Of No Return”, the debut issue of the spin-off Star Trek comic series from Gold Key. This series lasted an impressively long time, from July, 1967 to October, 1979, and was the first (and for a significant amount of time only) licensed comic book based on the franchise. The idea of a licensed tie-in comic is an important one, and this is far from the last time we'll be talking about it. A comic book based on a TV show is both an easy way for a publisher to squeeze more money out of the franchise, but it's also a way for fans to get new adventures featuring their favourite characters during the series' hiatus. It's also telling Star Trek got a comic book right away as opposed to other forms of spin-off media, as that rightly or wrongly tacitly implies a target audience of children (which the show in its earliest days seemed to be working hard to distance itself from), and indeed Gold Key was largely famous for licensed works based on cartoons (including distributing Carl Barks' Donald Duck stories in the United States for a time).

“The Planet Of No Return” is apparently nobody's favourite Star Trek comic, despite its historical value (and corresponding exorbitant collector's value). Much of the disdain for this story comes from, naturally, its apparent flagrant violations of Star Trek canon. The transporter is called a teleporter, the bridge looks nothing like the bridge on the TV show, nor does, actually, the rest of the ship, and Kirk and Spock talk about using TV and radio frequency scanning instruments. In some later issues of the Gold Key Star Trek book, there are some rather infamous scenes of the Enterprise acting like a rocket ship and leaving ignition trails. It is true that Gold Key's writers in the earliest days of the comic frequently had no working knowledge of the property they were ostensibly trying to adapt, but given that obvious handicap Star Trek actually doesn't turn out too badly and, in fact, “The Planet Of No Return” is probably closer to the actual TV show in 1967 than many fans would probably be comfortable admitting, if not outright superior to it in some areas.

Firstly, the fact the ship's interior looks nothing like Desilu's backlot is actually a *plus* as far as I'm concerned. A comic book naturally has more space and resources to experiment with elaborate artwork and design then a TV show, and that actually shows here. The Enterprise bears more than a passing resemblance to its TV counterpart (which is more than can be said for Kirk, who looks absolutely nothing like William Shatner. Spock, McCoy and Rand don't look too off by contrast), and actually looks far more visually evocative, with pleasingly curvaceous instruments and meticulously detailed rooms, which give the ship a sense of scale it never had on TV. There's also a variety to the decks, with the various science labs looking rather dark and claustrophobic as Spock and McCoy huddle over monitors, which is contrasted to with openness of, say, the transporter room. The Enterprise here actually looks more than a little like a convincing hypothetical halfway-point between the Orion and the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The story is also quite attention-grabbing: Nonsense technical jargon about travelling though “Galaxy Alpha” aside, the Enterprise is very explicitly on a mission of exploration here, conducting a survey with the express intent of finding new and undiscovered forms of life. That may not sound too revolutionary, but coming off a season that, contrary to the pop perception of the Original Series, was about 90% comprised of stories where Kirk and the crew are on routine patrol duty enforcing space laws, is a genuine breath of fresh air. This is the first time the Enterprise has been consciously designed as a ship of scientific exploration, and the fact this momentous change happens in the silly spin-off comic book that “doesn't count” is frankly absolutely delightful. Said new life is also interesting in its own right: The crew stumbles upon a planet inhabited by a civilization of intelligent, sentient plants who reproduce by seeding spores throughout the galaxy that turns animals into plant creatures. It's not the most original or engrossing premise, but for a 12-cent action sci-fi adventure comic it's more than serviceable, and a damn sight more imaginative than the parade of identical Earth colonies we got in the Roddenberry era.

The rest of the book is standard pulp stuff: The crew beams down to investigate, gets menaced by plant monsters (including one eye-rolling scene where Rand gets kidnapped and tossed into a plant cattle farm, which is mercifully of the slaughterhouse variety instead of the dairy one), laser gun fights ensue, as do a charmingly heaping helping of silver age expressions like “Great Galaxies!” and “Howling Crashwagons!”. That said, the story does have one more surprise up its sleeve in the treatment of its token redshirt: When the security-guard-of-the-week gets predictably infected and mutates into a plant beast, he sacrifices himself to protect the rest of the landing party and there is almost a full page dedicated to the crew mourning his loss and remarking on what a good friend and officer he was before burying him in an impromptu service on the planet's surface. This is the most care and attention Star Trek will *ever* pay to a redshirt death, and it displays a level of awareness about the limitations and drawbacks of its genre that's decades ahead of its time. He's obviously only there to get killed off, but the crew still treats him as a person who had relationships and aspirations. Once again, the supposed silly spin-off work is doing things better than its parent property.

The final aspect of “The Planet Of No Return” that Star Trek fans are most likely to raise a fuss about is the resolution, where Kirk has the Enterprise sterilize the planet, thus totally wiping out a civilization he himself regarded as intelligent and sophisticated, to prevent the spores from spreading throughout the galaxy. This could be seen as a pretty flagrant violation of Starfleet ethics and philosophy, not to mention a generally morally bankrupt thing to do. However, this scene is, disturbingly, not quite as removed from the sorts of things we've been seeing on television this year as we may like to pretend it is. After all, let's not forget that in “A Taste of Armageddon” Kirk gave a standing order to destroy all signs of life on Eminiar VII should he fail to convince the Eminians of the true horrors of war and almost facilitated genocide of the Horta in “The Devil in the Dark” before he came to his senses. So really, a scene where the Enterprise uses its phaser banks to salt and burn an entire planet because its native civilization is based around intergalactic parasitism is a depressingly reasonable thing to expect of Star Trek in 1967.

But really what we have with “The Planet Of No Return” is a book that's doing exactly what a spin-off work ought to do, which is provide more adventures when its parent property is off the air that are in keeping with the spirit and tone of the original while doing things that it couldn't do constrained by television. It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend to someone looking for a sterling example of how Star Trek's spin-off and fan works improve the franchise on the whole, but it's everything we could reasonably expect a Star Trek comic book circa 1967 to be like. And the time will come on more than one occasion where stories like this will be the franchise's torch-bearer, because something like Star Trek can only be native to a medium like television for so long. This is a theme that is every bit as important to learning about what Star Trek is about as figuring out what Gene Roddenberry's words meant or what the original point of the Klingons was: It's stories like this, the “non-canonical” and the “ones that don't count”, that will keep Star Trek alive for years to come.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sensor Scan: Raumpatrouille Orion

Raumpatrouille Orion

In September of 1966 the landscape of pop culture changed forever with the debut of a groundbreaking new science fiction television show that would singlehandedly transform how the genre was thought of. Blending elements of pulp and Golden Age sci-fi with a critical deconstructive eye and unique fascination with the trappings of soap operas, this show dared us to follow the adventures of a ragtag group of Space Air Force pilots in a utopian future setting where nationalism had been abolished as they set out to explore the universe beyond the realm of human knowledge and experience. I am, of course, speaking about the legendary Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.

Every once in awhile you stumble upon something so unbelievably serendipitous it really does force you to stop and muse for a time on synchronicity and the effect reoccurring patterns of time and place have on human beings. There is literally no other way to explain how two groups of people on opposite ends of the planet came up with two superficially identical science fiction shows in the exact same month other than a simultaneous tapping of the shared cultural zeitgeist. It's perhaps tempting to expect the West German production filmed in stark black-and-white on sets made out of kitchen appliances and scrap metal to be an almost hilariously shameless ripoff of the bright, flashy, big budget Technicolor Hollywood spectacle airing on major network television, were we to conveniently forget that Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion (hereafter Raumpatrouille Orion or simply Raumpatrouille) was filmed at the exact same time as Star Trek's first season and premiered within days of it. Germans wouldn't be introduced to Star Trek until 1972, and most people on the other side of the Atlantic to this day have no idea Raumpatrouille Orion exists. And that's a true shame, because, to be blunt, Raumpatrouille Orion is unabashedly superior on almost every single level. This show is everything Star Trek should have been in its first season.

The most immediately obvious thing Raumpatrouille just absolutely nails is its setting. While the world of Star Trek retroactively becomes an idealized or utopian society thanks to the large-scale fan reconceptualization of the Original Series in the 1970s, a reading which is bolstered by the influence of Star Trek Phase II and Star Trek: The Next Generation (which were, of course, written in the wake of this re-evaluation), the world of Raumpatrouille actually explicitly is one. In lieu of Captain Kirk's famous “Space...The Final Frontier” monologue that opens every Star Trek episode starting midway through the first season, Raumpatrouille Orion gives us this declaration, equally famous in German science fiction circles, at the opening of each of its stories:

"What may sound like a fairy tale today may be tomorrow's reality. This is a fairy tale from the day after tomorrow: There are no more nations. There is only mankind and its colonies in space. People have settled on faraway stars. The ocean floor has been made habitable. At speeds still unimaginable today, space vessels are rushing through our Milky Way. One of these vessels is the ORION, a minuscule part of a gigantic security system protecting the Earth from threats from outer space. Let's accompany the ORION and her crew on their patrol at the edge of infinity."

While Gene Coon has been steadily introducing more world-building elements to Star Trek ever since taking over as showrunner, the series as originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry didn't seem to much care about the implications of its setting beyond its ability to get our heroes to a new place every week where they could get in some scrapes and lay down some good-old-fashioned dead weight moralizing. Raumpatrouille Orion, by contrast, wants to make it very clear that this is an idealized vision of an outer space adventure. Earth is explicitly united, and all disputes over national boundaries, gender, race and ethnicity have long since ceased to exist, which it might be beneficial to point out is something Star Trek hasn't actually come out and said yet. Indeed, the Orion itself boasts a very diverse crew, with two female officers (who actually get proper uniforms and are treated no differently then their male co-workers to boot), one French and one Russian, an Italian computer scientist, a Scandinavian chief engineer, a Japanese navigator and a commanding officer of US-Scottish descent.

This overtly idealistic setting is also realised in a truly marvelous fashion, as Raumpatrouille Orion takes place in one of the most unique, beautiful and evocative sci-fi worlds I have ever seen. There is an unmistakeably European look about the show, and it also evokes its time in possibly the most nuanced way I've yet seen a contemporary show manage. Raumpatrouille's elegant curves and futuristic touch-screen computer displays blended with visceral, physical knobs, bulky television monitors, oscilloscopes, gears, levers and punch-cards give it an aggressively and endearingly analog feel that's truly all its own. It's on the one hand exactly what you'd expect the mid-20th Century in West Germany extrapolated to the far future to look like, but that's absolutely a good thing in this case. On top of that the crew's home base is at the bottom of the ocean and looks like a Mod bar built in a walk-through aquarium, and I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to learn Kraftwerk got some of their inspiration for Radio-Activity listening to the countdown on the Orion's flight computer.

The thing about Star Trek's sets and props is that they look pretty much exactly like what they were: Bits of plywood and lumber lashed together on a Desilu studio and painted with bright primary colours to make it all stand out. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and it certainly helps add to the show's theatrical appeal. That's said, there's something to be said for conveying narrative and mood through the visual aspects of the production on a work of visual, cinematic media and that's one area in which Raumpatrouille Orion truly excels. This is even more remarkable given that while the show's 360,000 DM budget (about € 642,000 as of 2009) was not insignificant, the production values the team had to work with were still definitely not giving Hollywood or even the BBC a run for their money at the time. The reason why Raumpatrouille looks as singular and stunning as it does is because the art design is an absolute masterpiece, which is not entirely surprising: The set designer, Rolf Zehetbauer, would eventually win an Oscar for Cabaret and special effects artist Theo Nischwitz would once again collaborate with him on Das Boot. Together, they did more with pencil sharpeners, irons, upended furniture, drinking glasses and dolled-up spools of thread then I've seen some high-profile directors and producers manage with unlimited special effects budgets and the latest modeling and CGI technology.

An atmosphere as singular and gorgeous as this would probably have been enough to shoot Raumpatrouille Orion to classic status by its own merits, but thankfully the show's characters are equally as memorable and well done, and the ideas it deals with are surprisingly sophisticated and forward-thinking. While they operate one of the fastest, most modern ships in the fleet, the crew of the Orion are far from the darlings of the force, and Commander Cliff Alister McClane has a reputation as something of a rebellious thorn in everyone's side. Although McClane is not averse to showing off every once in awhile, such as when he attempts a risky landing on Rhea in violation of orders in the first episode, he's mostly persona non grata because he doesn't keep in lock-step with his superiors and frequently disagrees with official policy: The Rhea landing, far from a bit of adolescent showboating, was actually intended as a scientific experiment meant to demonstrate such a landing was possible, thus breaking new ground for stellar navigation. Regardless, this is one stunt too many and McClane and his crew get demoted to patrol duty (and it's interesting to note here routine patrol duty is seen as a step down for McClane's crew) and assigned an overseer in the form of Lieutenant Tamara Jagellovsk, who is assigned to make sure the Orion crew stays out of trouble.

What Jagellovsk and her superiors don't quite grasp, though, is that McClane is actually far from a hothead, simply preferring to operate his ship by its own special code of loyalty and morals. Because of this, the crew of the Orion have an extremely close, and extremely obvious, sense of kinship, and camaraderie with one another that really does go above and beyond anything contemporaneous Star Trek was doing. It helps that while McClane is clearly one of the central characters, equal time is afforded to every member of the crew, and the show goes out of its way to provide a healthy amount of scenes where the characters engage in small-talk with each other, which strongly reinforces their humanness and relatability as well as the close bond they share.

The unique way the ship is organised also allows Raumpatrouille Orion to avoid one of the biggest logical pitfalls Star Trek suffers in all its incarnations: If these ships are staffed with hundreds or thousands of officers, why is it always only the senior staff who beam down into dangerous situations (I mean, besides the obvious answer: You want the characters you care about to be actually involved in the plot)? Well, the Orion's crew literally only comprises the six main characters (counting Lieutenant Jagellovsk) as it's a much, much smaller ship then anything in Starfleet, so naturally they're the only ones who can go on away team missions and get into action scenes. This also adds another level to the crew's fierce loyalty, because they know they have nobody except each other other to rely on out in the depths of outer space. Some of the show's most gripping and enjoyable scenes are when two of the crew leave the ship and run into trouble, while the remaining officers (even McClane) are forced to double up on shipboard duties and harden their already steely resolve, as leaving someone behind is completely unacceptable to them. Every single member of the Orion's crew must be equally proficient with every station on the bridge as they have no “relief officers” and neither the chain of command nor classism have a place in this environment: There's no sitting back and sending underlings to do your dirty work for you here. Everyone truly is an equal on this ship.

What this allows Raumpatrouille Orion to do is look very carefully and very seriously at the concept of authoritarian power structures and the ability of people within them to rebel and formulate their own identities, and perhaps even to subvert the structure entirely. While McClane works for the military wing of Earth he is, as I mentioned, someone very few people within it like to talk about. His only two real fans are his former superior and sole frontline commander General Lydia van Dyke, who shares his perspective, if somewhat less inclined to act on it quite as frequently and publicly as he does (and when does Star Trek get female captains and flag officers? Not until halfway through Star Trek: The Next Generation, if memory serves me) and his new commanding officer, Winston Wamsler, who, as a retired soldier, has an extremely high respect for individualism and a contempt for government and bureaucracy. Everyone else in the minor cast seems either highly suspicious of or openly disdainful towards the Orion crew.

This is theme is reiterated on the ship itself, as the primary source of tension early on in the series is the warring worldviews of Commander McClane and Lieutenant Jagellovsk. Raumpatrouille's (far less amiable) version of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy split involves McClane's flagrant anti-authoritarianism and belief in responding to situations on a case-by-case basis clashing with Jagellovsk's unfettered faith in rules and regulations and doing things by-the-book. In many ways this means Raumpatrouille becomes Jagellovsk's show, as she frequently must learn that blindly following orders makes a person less than human and that clinging to a blinkered view of the world when faced with the vastness of the universe is not only impractical but ludicrous. However, McClane has things to learn as well, as his impulsiveness has a history of getting himself and his crew into unnecessary trouble, and he frequently needs someone like Jagellovsk to appeal to reason and get him to occasionally re-think his split-second choices.

The first big test of this happens in the premier episode, when the Orion stumbles upon an extraterrestrial invasion force that has snuck into the solar system undetected and captured an Earth outpost, slaughtering the entire crew. This is a situation nobody is prepared to deal with, and both McClane and Jagellovsk screw up horribly and dangerously: For her part, Tamara clings feverishly to a book of rules Cliff continuously has to remind her are hopelessly outdated as there are no procedures for alien invasions because nobody writing them was expecting one (this actually results in one of McClane's best scenes in the series, where he calls Jagellovsk out on the anthropocentric arrogance of her and her superiors, asking if she truly thought in the entire universe humans were the only species intelligent, special and important enough to become a spacefaring civilization). But McClane, and really the entire military is also far too willing to wage all-out war and in the end the only reason the crew is saved is because Jagellovsk's boss Colonel Villa gets the generals on Earth to call off a massive retaliation strike at the last second, correctly pointing out that just because the aliens have committed a hostile act does not mean they should be condemned before Earth is able to communicate with them and find out who they are and why they did what they did, let alone if they even share the same set of values as humans.

The aliens, who go on to become reoccurring antagonists, are perhaps part of the reason there's been a lot of hand-wringing by contemporary critics that Raumpatrouille Orion is flagrantly fascist. There is perhaps an argument to be made here, as the aliens are immediately seen as dangerous and are given the derogatory nickname “frogs”: We never do get an examination of their culture or motives, and they're pretty clearly an Other. One could read this as the show telling us the real purpose of uniting people is not for communal benefit and exchange of ideas, but to protect and strengthen the group against even bigger, scarier outside threats. But I don't think that's what Raumpatrouille is actually about: The whole point of the first episode seems to be that shooting first and asking questions later is actually a really terrible idea, and after this the show prefers to concern itself with natural disasters, Golden Age-style logic puzzle plots, a mysterious lost colony of humans, institutionalized corruption and even a delightfully metafictional episode where the crew takes on (and regularly ribs) a science fiction author.

Because of this, and despite its space patrol setting, I really don't buy the accusation Raumpatrouille Orion is militaristic. On the contrary, the military (save the rebellious, unorthodox Orion crew and van Dyke) is shown to be just as incompetent and ineffective as the rest of Earth's organisational structure, and there are more than a few episodes split in half between the Orion in mortal peril struggling to resolve a crisis at the other end of the solar system and a lot of shouty exchanges back on Earth as representatives from the government, the military and galactic security would much rather argue with each other and demand their group be given total control over the situation then to actually do anything that might be beneficial, productive or useful. To me a much more intriguing and nuanced reading would be that the show is grappling with issues of authoritarianism and self-governance, best embodied in the split between McClane and Jagellovsk. Throughout the series they're frequently required to cooperate and compromise and each one has to admit on a number of occasions the other has an approach that's better suited to some things. But these characters are written as people, not walking philosophical symbolism, and both McClane and Jagellovsk grow closer to each other in temperament as the series progresses and even become a couple in the final two episodes. Far from advocating a police state, Raumpatrouille Orion seems to be making the claim only cooperation, reasoned discourse and empathy will pave the way forward.

Indeed, McClane's true defining moment comes at the end of episode two when, after having narrowly averted the total destruction of Earth from a runaway planetoid (sacrificing two fleet ships in the process) he faces a mountain of paperwork to fill out back at base. Instead of sheepishly rolling his eyes or bemoaning the distant inefficiancy of bureaucracy, he happily sits down to work with the clerk sent by the government to sort the situation out, telling him “you know, you people have it the worst of all of us, having to sort through all this. All we had to do was blow up a supernova”. To Commander McClane, bureaucrats are just as human as anyone else, and are just as trapped by the roles they play in the social order as he and his crew are. We're all people in the end, after all.

While Raumpatrouille Orion frankly runs absolute rings around Star Trek in most areas, there are some things that are simply out of its wheelhouse. While it's much, much better on things like gender and diegetic progressive politics, Raumpatrouille lacks, for a number of reasons, Star Trek's ability to be ridiculously oversignified. There's nobody like William Shatner here, for one, though that said while Dietmar Schönherr's Cliff Allister McClane may not be a drag action man, he is very progressive in other ways: As someone who strives for peaceful solutions to crises at all costs and who values life above just about all else, he definitely seems ahead of his time and out of place in Earth's military. Raumpatrouille also trends very strongly to the hard side of science fiction (or at least tries to: The second episode rather infamously uses the terms “planet”, “star”, “asteroid” and “supernova” interchangeably and the show has more indecipherable technobabble than Star Trek Voyager) while Star Trek, despite its pretensions, really doesn't. The bottom line is we're not going to get anything like “The Squire of Gothos”, “The Alternative Factor” or Spock's Vulcan mysticism and sexual experimentation on this show, and one thing I truly love about Star Trek is how deeply spiritual and magickal it eventually becomes.

Also, there are just some advantages that being filmed in Hollywood gives you: For example, while surveillance officer Helga Legrelle beats communications officer Uhura hands down in terms of being a memorable character and feminist role model, Star Trek does have Sulu played by George Takei, while Raumpatrouille, for some reason unknown to me but more than likely related to this being West Germany in 1966, was unable to get a Japanese actor to play the part of Atan Shubashi, forcing them to cast the *extremely* German-looking Friedrich Georg Beckhaus. However, the show deserves full credit for refusing to put him in yellowface, which is something that it absolutely could have done at this point in history and not gotten a second glance for, and instead just asking us to ignore his ethnicity (especially given as this blog has just recently come off of “Errand of Mercy”).

Then there's the obvious thing. Star Trek is a massive pop culture phenomenon ubiquitous all over the world comprised of at the time of this writing six television shows, twelve feature films and an incalculable amount of spinoff material. Raumpatrouille Orion is a seven-episode miniseries that hardly anyone remembers anymore and that's looked on by those who do with a slightly nervous and guilty camp fondness. There's no Raumpatrouille: The Next Generation or Raumaptrouille: Deep Space Nine and while there is a spin-off line of tie-in novels that purports to continue the series, which is about how you'd expect a line with that sort of pedigree to be, nobody is going to call it an iconic bit of Western pop consciousness; at least not anymore and not outside its home country. Why didn't Raumpatrouille Orion last longer? Many modern critics seem to point to its alleged fascist overtones, which I remain unconvinced of, and a popular story is that the show got canceled after only seven episodes because the networks and governments were concerned about its militarism. The wife of the original screen writer claims instead there were only ever going to be seven, but more scripts do in fact exist then were actually filmed. The more likely explanation to me is that the show was laughably expensive to produce for the time and place where it was filmed, and some reports claim it outright bankrupted parent studio Bavaria Film. All that said, however, it must be stressed that both Star Trek and Raumpatrouille Orion are vitally important TV series and the world would be a poorer place without either of them.

Did Raumpatrouille deserve more than what it got? I think so. It definitely deserves a better reputation than what it has: Raumpatrouille Orion lies midway between the straight, hard science fiction of the Golden Age and early Star Trek and the ephemeral, symbolic magic of Doctor Who and, er, later Star Trek, actually. While it's not without its problems, I'm going to put it all on the line and declare that this is what Vaka Rangi looks like in the mid-1960s, or at least the prototypical precursor of it. Raumpatrouille is still wedded to militarism in some sense, but there's absolutely no denying the Orion is a canoe and an island unto itself. This crew is a true community, and they know the future will be built on sustainability and cooperative self-governance, and in resisting the ineptitude and corruption of authority. It's very telling the Starlight Casino at the Orion's home base is a Mod bar. The Mods, with their eyes firmly on the future and youth yet bound by predestination, have allowed us to get this far, but it's now fallen to us to take the next step into the infinite beyond.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

“Exterminate! Annihilate! Destroy!”: Operation -- Annihilate!

"I'm so sorry."

Really, it's a bit unrealistic to expect Star Trek to come up with something to top “The City on the Edge of Forever” for its first season finale. Even if you, like me, grant that last episode was ultimately a morally bankrupt nightmare on every possible level, the sheer gravity it exerts upon the series, and the larger franchise, is undeniable. For those enraptured and left starry-eyed by the events of last week, it's tough to see how anything, let alone a story about flying parasitic space pancakes, could possibly live up to their expectations, and for those with the perhaps more applicable response of being deeply disturbed and unsettled by the fallout from “The City on the Edge of Forever” (and maybe the last few months on the whole) it's tough to get excited or optimistic about anything Star Trek does at this point.

But this is being a bit unfair to “Operation -- Annihilate!”. The concept of the season finale as we know it was not one that was as entrenched in pop consciousness as an indelible part of television literacy the way it is today. That didn't begin to happen until approximately the 1980s (and no, it was not the result of the episode you're thinking of either: As talented as Michael Piller was, he didn't invent the season finale-At the very least let's not forget Dallas and “Who Shot J.R.?”). “Operation -- Annihilate!” plays out more or less like an average episode of the series as of 1967, which is not entirely terrible. It's certainly not as great as the best episodes of the year but, mercifully, it's also leagues better than the worst (and there have been a lot of worsts).

The first thing this episode unequivocally has in its favour is the acting. Anyone who thinks William Shatner is a poor actor really ought to watch this one (and probably “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, “Balance of Terror” and “Miri” as well) because once again this is a stellar showcase for his talents. Kirk has a lot of emotional investment in this story, as first his brother, his family and then Spock all succumb to the neural parasites. Shatner plays it as any good old-school thespian would: With gratuitous, overstated theatrical flourish that very clearly marks every single thought and emotion that crosses Kirk's mind. We watch Kirk grow increasingly more desperate and determined, and every single iota of his pain and and resolve is highlighted for our benefit.

What it comes down to is that Shatner isn't a method actor: His approach is not, as a general rule, about trying to get his mental state to emulate Kirk's. Instead, what he does is take great care to meticulously outline the sorts of emotions his character would most likely be feeling in a given situation and draws our attention to them by conveying them ever-so-slightly caricatured. So, for example, in the teaser, Shatner plays Kirk very visibly anxious and preoccupied when recording his log entry on the Deneva colony. He builds his nervousness gradually as Kirk listens to reports from Spock, Uhura and Scott about the colony's probably fate, eventually prompting DeForest Kelley's McCoy to ask him if his brother is still stationed there, as the camera zooms in on Kirk's look of dismay and then cuts to the intro.

Shatner is a primarily a performer, but he's a performer who knows how to act and reiterates his theatrical bombast back into the narrative. Unlike someone like Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker on Doctor Who, Shatner very explicitly is not playing himself, or even an exaggerated version of himself (nor is that even what he does in his post-Star Trek fame: That's a not-entirely invalid approximation, but it's significantly more complex and nuanced then just straightforward self-parody). Neither Shatner nor Kirk can be the singular entity that all of Star Trek revolves around: The show's own structure simply won't allow it, if for no other reason than it has to split screentime evenly between him, Spock and McCoy, and “Operation -- Annihilate!” is a fantastic example of how this works in action. Firstly, as much as this might be Kirk's story, given how invested he is in defeating the neural parasites, this is once again Spock's episode. They key scene comes just after Aurelan dies and Kirk beams back down to the colony: Kirk is shot from a very dramatically low-angle perspective, as if the hero has returned from personal trauma to exact justice on those who have wronged him. But this is also the scene where “Operation -- Annihilate!” very decisively switches to being about Spock, as he is promptly attacked by the aforementioned flying parasitic space pancakes.

While in the immediate aftermath of the scene, we get a shot of Kirk cradling Spock that delightfully invokes the Renaissance-era Pietà-style of sculpture and painting, with the emphasis very clearly on Kirk, from then on out the episode focuses on Spock's inner battle with the neural parasites. Leonard Nimoy is, of course, amazing, playing Spock subtly more stressed and pained then usual: Not blatantly so (Nimoy is in some ways the inverse of Shatner in this regard, preferring a subtle understatement to a subtle overstatement), but just enough to be barely noticeable, and with an occasional facial twinge to remind us something's not quite right. Spock also makes no fewer than three attempts at a heroic sacrifice, pushing the episode's moral occasionally towards “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Thankfully, however, that's not what the story ends up being about, instead focusing on the turmoil and sadness this brings upon the people of the Enterprise, revisiting a theme the show hasn't really dealt with since “The Man Trap”. The best scene is the climax where Spock's seeming blindness becomes absolutely devastating to Kirk and McCoy: Kirk at first wants to blame McCoy for not realising only infrared radiation was necessary to kill the parasites, but instead reminds him the accident wasn't his fault and gently asking him to “look after” Spock. Shatner conveys Kirk's mixed, riled emotions beautifully, and while Kelley remains in “bristling passion” mode, the powerful effect this has on McCoy is obvious.

That said, this scene also highlights the areas where “Operation -- Annihilate!” isn't altogether effective. One of the reasons “The Man Trap” worked in spite of itself was that we got a very sizable cross-section of the Enterprise crew. We see how the situation effects not only McCoy, but also Kirk, Doctor Crater, Uhura, Sulu and Janice Rand, not to mention numerous nameless crewmembers. At the opposite end of the season, Star Trek has very clearly abandoned any pretenses of being an ensemble show: While there is a lot of drama and emotion on display, it is exclusively limited to Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Uhura, Scott and Sulu are barely in this episode and get maybe ten lines between them, a trend that will sadly see the Original Series out.

Christine Chapel is also back and, credit to Kelley and Majel Barrett, the show does pick up on her affections for Spock last explored in “The Naked Time”. The only problem is it's been 23 episodes since “The Naked Time”, and in an era before readily available home video recording technology, expecting people to remember the personal motivations of a character who's only appeared twice before and who we last saw six and half months ago is a bit ludicrous. While James Blish's novelizations of the series had indeed begun by this point (the first volume of Blish's novelizations came out in January 1967, this episode aired in April), it's probably reasonable to expect this was a resource not every viewer would have had access to unless they were already Star Trek fans, which was, if we're honest, implausible given the ratings this show got in original run.

The other major issue with “Operation -- Annihilate!” is that, with the exception of the other regulars and arguably Chapel, every other character exists purely to serve as angst fodder for the leads, and Kirk in particular. The most egregious are Kirk's brother's family: They're the quintessential example of relatives or love interests whom we've never heard of before and show up only to die to give the main character some emotional drama for the week (and before anyone comments, expecting us to remember the fact Kirk mentioned having a brother with a family back in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” in a throwaway dialog exchange with his android duplicate is significantly more ludicrous then expecting us to remember Nurse Chapel's feelings for Spock, or indeed Nurse Chapel herself, and James Blish doesn't even novelize that one until 1975. I know Star Trek is cult sci-fi, but it doesn't have *that* kind of fanbase in the late 1960s).

Aurelan in particular is quite bad: Her main purpose in the show is to scream her head off, sob uncontrollably and then promptly die after giving her requisite bit of exposition. This is not helped in the slightest by the scene later on where McCoy calls Kirk out on his emotional investment in the mission, talking about his “affection for Spock” and “the fact [his] nephew is the only survivor of [Kirk's] brother's line”. This scene implies Kirk's primary concern is that his brother’s genetic lineage and name live on, not that he or his family actually do physically. Although it's bad Samuel debuts dead and Peter spends the whole episode unconscious, this mostly dehumanizes Aurelan, who apparently is now only important because she had a son. Thankfully, this is not at all how William Shatner plays Kirk in these scenes, showing very visible concern and love for Aurelan and well as his brother and Peter. Shatner really sells that these were important people to Kirk and that he cared deeply for them: This is the most concerned and compassionate we've seen Kirk be towards somebody since Miri, and that makes us wish Sam and Aurelan could have lived despite the script seemingly wanting to treat them purely as plot devices.

But of course this is a trauma we'll never see mentioned again. Just as Spock's sight is restored at the last second in a truly magnificent bit of plot convenience (thus sparing us having to deal with ablest issues and the effect having a blind friend would have on the crew, which, given this show's ethics, is probably still a good thing) the status quo is restored just as the credits hit because Star Trek is an anthology show, and those last few seconds of banter jar horrifically with the rest of the episode. A fitting microcosm for the show Star Trek has become: A clear step forward and a desire to deal overtly with character drama bewilderingly set against the backdrop of clear genocide of “new life” that's immediately reigned in and subsumed by the necessary imposition of a structure that was probably flawed and dated in 1964. After its first season and first three years Star Trek has become a very strange and at times unfathomable beast of its own. At times it feels like the show actively hates itself, its reactionary and progressive tendencies locked in a seemingly unbreakable stalemate in an excruciating war of attrition. But in spite of all that it's been renewed, and it'll be back in the fall to continue its journey to...wherever it's going to end up.

But before we rejoin it, we should take some time to look at some of the other things that were on the air at this time to see just where Star Trek stacks up in comparison. And we also have a responsibility to the future to attend to: It's still not been quite sorted yet, you know.