Thursday, August 29, 2013

“War. What is it good for?”: A Private Little War

"I'm sorry, I seem to have gotten lost and wound up on some other show."

Well, the one good thing to say about it is that we can now be certain about who to blame for “The City on the Edge of Forever”.

Yikes this one is a mess. “A Private Little War” should have been interesting, being the second episode written by Don Ingalls. As the writer of “The Alternative Factor”, an episode I thought was positively delightful, giddily clever and a highlight of the first season, his follow-up effort for the more experimental second season should have been a fascinating watch, if not a minor classic. However, following a comprehensive rewrite from Gene Roddenberry, the story's Vietnam-inspired anti-war subtext became Vietnam-inspired pro-war text in one of the ugliest and clunkiest transformations I've ever seen an episode undertake. The end result is a catastrophically imperialist and bigoted and right up there with “The Apple” as one of the single worst things Star Trek ever produced, and this one doesn't even hold together as a cohesive bit of narrative structure. Ingalls was so offended by this he took his name off the script and used the pseudonym “Jud Crucis”, which is wordplay on the phrase “Jesus Crucified”. So that sounds promising.

I mean really, what more is there to say? Kirk discovers the Klingons feeding advanced weapons technology to a peaceful, idyllic group of childlike natives for...some reason, and his solution is to feed the other side weapons to preserve the “Balance of Power” and, just for good measure, explicitly stating this was the only way humanity survived the proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This is just about the exact same tack the show attempted back in “Friday's Child”, and I obviously owe D.C. Fontana an apology because it's now perfectly clear whose fault that bit of ethical bankruptcy was. We also once again have that interminable Book of Genesis Garden of Eden drivel which I'm at this point genuinely sick to death of seeing the show roll out over and over again. This time it's shown to be a tragedy, though a necessary one to introduce serpents into the garden (as opposed to “The Apple” which just considered this to be natural part of societal development), but this isn't adding any nuance to this stock, overused plot or providing a sufficiently fresh angle that would justify going over it yet again. Maybe Roddenberry should have just gone into Bible Studies instead of becoming a TV writer.

On top of that, any goodwill the episode stocked up thanks to the introduction of the really quite excellent Doctor M'Binga is quickly squandered by returning to the “Errand of Mercy” tactic of browning up the white actor portraying its Klingon adversary, something every Klingon episode in between had managed to avoid doing. Additionally, having Chekov, Scotty and Uhura freely contribute their opinions and analysis in the first bridge scene, and than having the script incapacitate Spock in order to explore Kirk and McCoy's relationship, are both brilliant moves except for the fact Roddenberry doesn't have Kirk listen to any of them and instead has him just go around winning arguments by shouting louder then the person he's debating against. And, since the show felt I hadn't quite suffered enough, it makes its primary antagonist an ambiguously brown shaman Lady Macbeth who has mastery of strange, vaguely-defined bush magic, lurks around the male cast in an obvious Judas Kiss pose and gets her comeuppance by being gang raped to death by the opposing faction because Gene Roddenberry apparently believes reactionary politics work like pinball machines and that he can somehow score an intolerance combo bonus multiplier.

Structurally, this episode is a disaster. It's perhaps tempting, though I would argue too easy, to blame this on Ingalls' original script, as no matter how much fun “The Alternative Factor” might have been no-one is going to call it an especially tight or coherent piece of work. But in that episode, the structural issues come primarily from the rushed and hectic production schedule the show was working under in its first season, and especially that week. Furthermore, those few problems it did have didn't detract from the experience because the conceit about conflicting parallel universes of matter and antimatter threatening to cause a narrative collapse through their interaction was genius, and the quirks wound up reinforcing that. “A Private Little War” doesn't have that kind of a setup to work with in the first place, and really it's pretty obvious the flow problems come from Roddenberry taking a hack saw to Ingalls' submission: Kirk's motivation and entire personality changes from scene to scene and he waffles back and forth about what his actual moral stance on the situation is, and not in a way that seems indicative of a person re-evaluating himself and his judgment. Kirk, like Star Trek itself, seems to be written to give all the illusion of taking a decisive stand while in truth desperately hoping to remain as neutral, apolitical and indecisive as possible. It's painfully obvious Roddenberry is trying to get Kirk to come out against what would seem to be Ingalls' anti-war intent while still making him look like the upstanding heroic moral crusader, and he just abjectly and comprehensively fails across the board.

It is also worth mentioning one of the many, many changes Roddenberry made to Ingalls' original script was making the Klingon adversary a unique character, when he was originally apparently supposed to be Kor from “Errand of Mercy”. I bring this up not to focus on irrelevant production minutiae, but because in a memo dating from the production, Bob Justman apparently had this to say about that idea:

“Here we are in the outer reaches of our galaxy and who should Captain Kirk run into, but good old Kor – an adversary that he has encountered before and with whom he has been unable to get very far. Just think of it – billions of stars and millions of Class M-type planets and who should he run into, but a fella he has had trouble with before. No wonder Kor doesn’t recognize him at first. The coincidence is so astounding, that he must feel certain that it couldn’t possibly have happened."

Well then.

I guess I can throw “The City on the Edge of Forever” at his feet as well: Never mind the fact that just three episodes ago we were thinking about making Koloth a reoccurring adversary, not to mention four episodes ago we actually turned Harry Mudd into one. Forget all of that: Reoccurring adversaries really are lame aren't they? I mean, who'd want to have our heroes regularly face off against an equally matched, likeable foil who had perfectly legitimate reasons to be involved in the plot and who provided an ever-present challenge to their ethics that they would have to constantly rise to defend their philosophy against? That's just stupid. But, we'll meet Ingalls halfway and make the new guy just as hideous a racist caricature, right? That will make it all better.

Look, when you start making Harlan Ellison look reasoned and cosmopolitan by comparison, it might just be time to re-evaluate some things about yourself and your life.

I could continue to yell and scream and rant and rave and turn this post into yet another 3000 word missive on how reactionary and offensive Star Trek is, but what's making me the angriest now is that “A Private Little War” is bad in exactly all the areas the show has been bad in the past. It's a kind of Greatest Hits version of Roddenberry's retrograde writing style, but it grates in exactly the same way “The Apple”, “Friday's Child”, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and the entirety of Roddenberry's tenure as showrunner did. It contributes absolutely nothing to either the show or my discourse about and analysis of it, except I guess for the big snow-white furry poisonous ape dude. What's really the point? Star Trek has somehow, and without any help from Roddenberry, transformed itself and touched immortality this season. “A Private Little War” not only doesn’t help the franchise, it doesn't even get to hinder it in any meaningful way apart from being yet more evidence to support my argument that the original Star Trek had more of an impact in setpieces and isolated iconic moments than it did in the aggregate as a TV show.

Ultimately this episode leaves me in a bit of a conundrum. While it's certainly not filler and most definitely another train wreck, it ends up *feeling* like filler. It's really beginning to seem like since “The Trouble with Tribbles” things have changed for Star Trek forever: I find myself far less inclined to break down and declare the show dead at this point and much more inclined to just get really annoyed that I have to review another Gene Roddenberry episode. Was “Tribbles”, in addition to demi-classics like “Amok Time”, “The Doomsday Machine”, “Wolf in the Fold”, “Mirror, Mirror” and “Journey to Babel” enough to turn this floundering ship's fortunes around to such an extent that not even Gene Roddenberry can run it aground anymore? From hindsight we can easily claim that yes, it absolutely was, but in 1968 “A Private Little War” must have seemed like yet another example of Star Trek's utter lack of consistent standards or quality. In the end, the story might not be that Star Trek was at risk of dying, but that it was dead on arrival and has been trying to claw its way out of the grave since day one.

But we know its legacy is certain now. We can rest a bit easier. The only good thing about “A Private Little War” is that stock footage of the White Rabbit's footprints from “Shore Leave” were used for those of the Mugato. It sucks. Gene Roddenberry has to go. Let's move on.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed.": Journey to Babel

"If you want to know how to run a meeting, you consult 'Rooster's Rules of Order'".

“Journey to Babel” is the most iconic and beloved of D.C. Fontana's Star Trek scripts, and also apparently her favourite. It's not difficult to see why, as its strengths are in the very things fans love most about Star Trek: Character development and world-building. I don't personally consider it either her best work or my favourite thing she'll ever contribute to the franchise (we have to wait for the second phase of her career for those), but it is certainly the best script of hers we've seen on the Original Series so far, and a convincing claim could be made it's her best effort of the entire show.

Primarily, of course, “Journey to Babel” comes out of a vested interest in characters. Most obviously Spock, and, to be precise, his family history. Fontana took a few lines from previous episodes about Spock's mother being human and a schoolteacher and his father being an ambassador and wrote a story designed to explore the triangular relationship and tension between them. Fontana was very interested in what kind of a human woman would willingly marry a Vulcan, what their half-human, half-Vulcan son would experience growing up and what effect this would have on the person he grew up to be. This is a fact that would be worthwhile to take note of, because it's emblematic of a very particular approach to character development that I think Fontana is especially interested in, and it seems to define the way Star Trek among other kinds of television shows handles this. The way I see it, there are at least two major ways to go about characterization (naturally, there are more than this but to simplify things I'm just going to talk about what I find to be two basic categories different tacks and tactics can be more or less squeezed in to).

The first takes a character who has a specific worldview and personality borne out of a specific positionality and is predominantly interested in seeing how they respond to a given situation, be it widespread event, an interaction with another character or so on and so forth. The second is more interested in constructing a meticulous fictional biography of the character based on, among other things, throwaway lines in other episodes, and using that to construct a comprehensive profile and life history of this character as a person. To put it another way, the first approach can be summarised as “What is this character like and how do they react to the story of the week?” while the latter can be summarised as “Why does this character think the things they think and act the way they do?”. “Journey to Babel” is very much in the latter style, and I have a feeling this is the style D.C. Fontana prefers on the whole, at least at this stage in her career. It's also the style that is most clearly identifiable with Star Trek.

Now obviously both are valid ways of doing character development. On the whole I do prefer the first approach to the second myself, but both are equally worthwhile and valuable. What's more interesting to note here I argue is that, to be frank, the second approach is essentially character development by fanwank. This is not by definition a bad thing, but it does seem to be the structure in place here: Both forgo operating in the present moment to taking specific, typically unrelated, details, connecting them together and extrapolating backward in an attempt to create a definitive narrative of something. Furthermore, both are hallmarks of Cult Sci-Fi and both seem right at home in Star Trek. While we're still a little under half a season before it becomes eminently clear the Original Series is manifestly Cult Sci-Fi, the trappings that would reveal it as such are starting to become noticeable: It barely got renewed, references to past stories are starting to become more prevalent, there is a ridiculously passionate fanbase that is as dedicated as it is miniscule (even though they've yet to fully bring their voices together in a chorus) and it seems to now be operating by Cult Sci-Fi logic.

What makes this all the more interesting is that I'm not sure “Cult Sci-Fi” is a thing that exists yet in 1968, at least in the US: Raumpatrouille Orion suffered a similar fate to the original Star Trek in West Germany, but it absolutely did not work like what we'd call a Cult Sci-Fi show today, even though its fans most definitely comprise a cult. Doctor Who is known for being a Cult Sci-Fi show, but it won't achieve that status until the 1980s and it can really only be called that for about twenty years or so of its history (a blink of an eye in grand-scale franchise Soda Pop Art terms). Star Trek, by contrast, starts as Cult Sci-Fi and stays there forever, and in a world where “Cult Sci-Fi” isn't a genre yet to boot. This is what's so important about the Original Series-In many ways it is the maker and Ur example of an entire category of fiction (though it is crucial to stress *only* the Original Series: The spinoffs are something else entirely).

One might assume, given all this talk of fanwank, Cult Sci-Fi and world-building, that the unique and distinctive extraterrestrial cultures introduced in “Journey to Babel” and brought to life through its lavish costumery and prosthetics (and Fontana's savvy decision to set the whole episode on the Enterprise thus allowing the entire budget to go into designing the guest stars) are the most important things about it. However, no matter how memorable the Andorians and the Tellarites are and how important they're going to be to the franchise in the future (not to mention the equally distinctive unnamed races who show up), the fact is the entire political and diplomatic machinations plot is a loose framework for Fontana to drape her story about Spock, Sarek and Amanda over. Which is all well and good, as there are a number of surprisingly noticeable plot holes that detract from it significantly: Namely, it's not clear why an Orion operative was skilled enough in Vulcan tal-shaya to use it to expertly dispatch someone, or for that matter why framing Sarek was necessary to the plan, and I'm not sure Spock's hypothesizing of the Orion's motives in the denouement would technically have been enough to legally absolve Sarek of suspicion, which is something he probably should have caught.

As one would expect, the characters, both the main and guest casts, are handled expertly here. What's most interesting to me is that every character is simultaneously right and wrong: Sarek and Spock's preference for detached logic and adherence to regulations is obviously vital to the resolution of the crises, even though it puts strain on McCoy and Amanda. By contrast, Amanda's devotion to Sarek and the value she places in human compassion is also a self-evidently correct attitude, even if it makes decision-making difficult (and here it's interesting to note Fontana depicts Vulcan as an expressly patriarchal society through how it manifests in Sarek and Amanda's relationship, which also handily manages to retroactively redeem the one real annoying thing about “Amok Time”). Meanwhile, Kirk's loyalty to Spock and the Enterprise, and McCoy's to his patients are also commendable, even as they come into conflict. While his character is pulled in other directions in this episode, this also remains an echo of Spock's ability to act as a microcosm for the show due to his hybrid human and Vulcan parentage. Although McCoy “gets the last word” in an actually kind of amazing bit of fourth wall awareness in the final shot, “Journey to Babel” on the whole provides a far more nuanced resolution to the logic vs. emotions debate: Namely, by setting it aside and freely admitting both positions have merit and are worth holding to.

The actors too are in fine form-Leonard Nimoy is predictably brilliant, as is William Shatner: Kirk's most memorable scene for me here is his attempts to console Spock on the bridge, to Spock's evasiveness (Shatner's signature subtle overstatement conveys Kirk's mixed emotions beautifully). While Mark Lenard handles himself quite well as a Vulcan, Sarek will never have the haunting, elegiac power the Romulan Commander in “Balance of Terror” did for me, and the real standout in my opinion is Jane Wyatt as Amanda Grayson. Amanda is arguably the first time a female character in Star Trek has been allowed a lengthy sequence where she asserts her agency and gets validated for it from an expressly female perspective, albeit that of a mother, and Wyatt absolutely runs with the opportunity (despite, like William Windom in “The Doomsday Machine” not taking Star Trek at all seriously). It took Fontana long enough to be allowed to write a character and a scene like that, but now that she finally has the chance she proves she's gangbusters at it, as we ultimately always suspected she would be.

But this is not to say the bits of “Journey to Babel” not expressly part of the Spock/Sarek/Amanda story are entirely forgettable or not worth taking the time to look at: The fact that the Andorians and Tellarites do, in fact, become major aspects of future Star Trek and are considered iconic enough to be seen as unique signifiers of the franchise in the pop consciousness would seem to indicate they were particularly memorable parts of this episode. And indeed they are: Apart from the makeup and costume, the actual guest actors are all universally excellent and deliver distinct, standout performances. Of special note here is Reggie Nalder, who does wonders with Ambassador Shras, turning a bit part into a strong, likeable personality.

More importantly from our perspective, however, at least the perspective of the future, is that “Journey to Babel”'s political subplots mark the first time the actual governing structure of the Federation (not Starfleet) is explored in any detail. What we have here is the beginning of an idea that is both new to Star Trek in 1968 and also predominantly associated with it: The United Federation of Planets, as we know it today. Remember while we've had the Federation since way back in “Arena”, it's been loosely defined at best, and there was never any concrete evidence it actually extended beyond Earth and its colonies. Here, though, it's something much larger and more complex: An alliance of multiple spacefaring civilizations from around the galaxy united by shared beliefs, principles and exchange of goods and ideas.This, the way everyone thinks of the Federation in Star Trek today, makes its first appearance in this episode and it's all D.C. Fontana's idea.

As we talked about a bit when last we discussed Fontana in “Friday's Child”, the concept of the Federation, even (actually, especially) the Federation as it exists as of “Journey to Babel”, is still heavily associated with particular tropes of Western-style representative democracy, and this actually may not be a good thing. The problems come when this ceases to be just a setting and becomes an idealized or utopian model we're supposed to strive for, which is how the UFP is typically read. Not to completely retread old ground, but as I brought up both in regards to “Friday's Child” and “The Apple”, the US style of representative democracy the Federation is explicitly modeled on (though here it does swerve closer to the United Nations but still, you know, they're in many ways the same kind of thing) doesn't actually work all that well, as anyone currently living with “representatives” reflexively pushing big corporate interests and operating under and devastating economics of growth and disaster can probably attest. At it's best its proved to be unsustainable and at its worst it's the terrifyingly destructive poster child for modern neo-imperialism.

But this mostly becomes an issue when idealism becomes more of a driving creative force for Star Trek and the purpose and meaning of the Federation change over the history of the franchise: This isn't actually what Fontana is getting at with “Journey to Babel”. We're not meant to pay attention to the ins and outs of Federation policy (or at least any more attention than strictly necessary for the functional purposes of the narrative), and the whole reason for why the admittance of the Coridan planets is a matter of dispute is never elaborated on (nor should it have been: One of the episode's best lines in when Kirk says “The issues of the council are politically complex” and that many of the races represented “...have strong personal reasons for keeping Coridan out of the Federation.” and never really goes into any more detail than that). The summit story is transparently there to give Ambassador Sarek a reason to be on the Enterprise, but it's handled and executed well enough it doesn't feel like it's just an excuse either. The scenes where Kirk is making small-talk and trying to keep the delegates from starting fights with each other is delightful to watch, and it fulfills Gene Coon's challenge to him from “The Metamorphosis” to remember he was trained as a diplomat as well as a soldier.

And really there's not a whole lot to say more about “Journey to Babel” then that: It's straightforwardly solid and a deserved classic that lays important groundwork for the future of the franchise. Now that we're reasonably certain Star Trek is actually going to *get* some kind of a future, it's time to start work on defining what that future might look like.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”: Bread and Circuses

"May Auri-El's light guide your way."

At last, we've come to the series finale of the original Star Trek.

At least when the end came, it came quickly. In one of the franchise's saddest twists, “Bread and Circuses” is the epilogue to the story of Star Trek grasping immortality last week and proves once and for all the Original Series really had nowhere to go after “The Trouble with Tribbles”. As the only episode co-written by both Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon (and serving as a send-off to the latter's tenure as showrunner) it's a tight summation and echo of all the series' motifs, and while it brings closure to the show in style, the last, desperate grab for glory “Bread and Circuses” represents is ultimately futile: While it's ironically one of the best episodes of the season, and one of the tightest, most creative productions in the entire series in terms of both writing and cinematography, the writing is on the wall. There's one more episode to go, but even a cursory knowledge of what that one was supposed to be should make it abundantly clear what Star Trek's future prospects look like.

Frustratingly, “Bread and Circuses” is genuinely exciting and clever: It's a scathing condemnation of life in the mid-20th Century United States penned by people unfortunate enough to witness some of the more particularly excessive aspects of it. The indictment of the late-stage capitalist, Modernist West and its careless ecological destruction, self-absorbed egotism, short-sighted ecological carelessness, insensitivity to brutal violence general cynicism and society built around spectacle and artifice remains frighteningly relevant and one of the strongest statements Star Trek ever made on the issue. Furthermore, we now have the circa-1968 United States being just about explicitly called Rome and, as before, comparisons are made between Starfleet officers and Roman legionaries, with the most obvious being the Proconsul's growing admiration for and respect of Kirk and his quip to him that he'd “make a good Roman”. However, perhaps because we've now had “Mirror, Mirror”, there's no longer any ambiguity about how our heroes stack up: Coon and Roddenberry (though I suspect this is mostly Coon) are firmly on the side of Kirk and the Enterprise crew and this story is about them proving that while they may have the makings of imperialists and have a conflict-ridden, imperialist history (as Spock points out on a number of occasions) they are manifestly not imperialists.

The way they go about this is, interestingly, the Prime Directive. This is the other major episode this season to deal with it and, unlike “The Apple”, it's portrayed as being unambiguously a good thing: Taking the oath of the Prime Directive is shown to be a solemn responsibility and that Starfleet officers would rather die than break it, which really just makes “The Apple” look even more ridiculous than it already did. Although, there's a bit more nuance to the Prime Directive debate here than there usually is-Merik is portrayed as being in the wrong for violating it, but he's shown to have been coerced into doing so by the Empire. Kirk, Spock and McCoy face the same dilemma, but eventually Scotty comes up with a solution that engineers their escape without directly interfering. Of course, this doesn't eliminate the self-defeating contradictory problems inherent in the Prime Directive, but it does clarify what the writers intended it to stand for a bit. As a result, it works noticeably better here than it does in other places as Coon and Roddenberry seem to want it to be a straightforward rebuttal to Western imperialism, so it actually makes sense to have it in a story like this.

Indeed the anti-imperialism theme is laudably blatant and well-executed in “Bread and Circuses”. The highlight, apart from the general brilliance of the setting, is McCoy's argument with Spock in the Proconsul's dining room. Spock comments on the efficient and ordered way the society is organised, while McCoy keeps pointing out it's dependent on slavery and engages in violent spectacle for light entertainment. Spock and McCoy are once again reduced down to their most basic programmatic roles, that is, strict logic and unbridled passion but, as with the Prime Directive, this actually seems somewhat appropriate for this particular story. It's certainly just about as good an execution as this particular theme got in Star Trek, mostly because “Bread and Circuses” manages to remember these are supposed to be characters as well.

The best single scene of the episode comes after the first battle, when Spock and McCoy are alone together in the gladiatorial cage. Last time we got the first Spock/McCoy bickering scene that was written to be textually uncomfortable, where McCoy compared Spock unfavourably to a Tribble, which causes the latter to be visibly hurt despite his quick comeback. This episode builds on that by first having Kirk tell Flavius Spock and McCoy don't know if they're enemies or not, and then, wonderfully, by having Spock save McCoy in the games. As McCoy tries and fails to thank Spock for saving his life, to Spock's predictable detachment, the two finally reach a breakthrough when McCoy declares that Spock isn't afraid of death, but is afraid of living because he lives in fear that his human half will eventually overtake his Vulcan half, and that he wouldn't know what to do if that ever happened. It's possibly the greatest scene these two characters ever get together in the Original Series, and for the first time we finally get a sense about what their relationship might actually be and why they're so confrontational towards one another. While Star Trek didn't have character arcs per se, this serves as a sufficient closure to a reoccurring motif that's been a defining aspect of Gene Coon's tenure on the show.

But as good as the character moments are, and they are quite good, the true high point of the episode is the horrific blood-sport of NBC's You Pick The Winner. Coon and Roddenberry's intended attack on network television and its drive for ratings through violent spectacle is so blunt and obvious it almost doesn't warrant mention. What does, however, is the combat itself: Fistfights were an integral part of Star Trek from the beginning, dating to “The Cage” being dubbed “too cerebral” and the resulting obligatory dust-up in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and pretty much every other episode of the Original Series ever made. These last few weeks have seen a growing discontent with this aspect of the show from the creators themselves, most notable in the barroom brawl in “The Trouble with Tribbles” being played as laughably gratuitous, but maybe even dating back to the resolution to “I, Mudd” being a painfully staged Vaudeville routine. The peak is in “Bread and Circuses”, however: Unlike almost every other fight in Star Trek, the games are depicted not as fun and campy action but visceral, dangerous and deeply disturbing. This is clearest in the cinematography of the fight scenes, which shoots the action in extreme close-up and makes jarring edits (where previous fight scenes had been shot at wide angles in order to give the best view of the action), giving the sense of a brutal, ugly struggle. This is not violence to take in and cheer on, this is violence intended to make us feel uncomfortable and unclean.

This then is the perfect backdrop for the show to eat itself alive against. While the script unquestionably gives the Enterprise crew the moral high ground and wants to grant them dignity and intelligence, the series had other ideas. Incoming producer John Meredyth Lucas observed the acrimonious atmosphere during the filming of this episode, and it shows. The actors fought each other in the arena, all looking to gain favour with Lucas in the hopes they'd be spared and declared champion. William Shatner took on Captain R.M. Roddenberry, feeling personally hurt by his renouncing of his oath to uphold the Prime Directive. And lording over the proceedings was Proconsul David Sarnoff, a candidate for the most unsettling and formidable adversary the Enterprise crew ever faced. The unwavering confidence Sarnoff had in his control over everything and everyone was truly disturbing, and it makes the likes of Khan Noonien Singh and any of the Klingons look like complete pushovers (and in an inspired bit of costuming, the insignia Sarnoff wears on his lapel is William Shakespeare's coat of arms). This is due in large part to the tremendous acting of Logan Ramsey, who absolutely owns every scene he's in, though it's clear Coon and Roddenberry wrote him to be a frightening presence.

But even if it weren't for the games, “Bread and Circuses” would have failed in its attempt to send off Star Trek as cleanly and as comprehensively as possible, because the ending is a total hatchet job. The fate of Magna Roma is left in the hands of the freed slaves, whom Kirk, Spock and McCoy had initially thought to be sun worshipers, but who in fact turn out to be Son worshipers, i.e., Christians. When Uhura points this out to them in the denouement (in what is maddeningly otherwise a candidate for her best scene in the entire series), Kirk smiles and seems genuinely inspired by this, emboldened in his belief that the society will progress naturally after all. This is flagrantly, unbelievably, catastrophically and self-destructively hegemonic on so many levels. Unlike previous comparable moments in the series, which were either bones tossed to the affiliates in the southern states or merely pop Christian by association owing to the fact they were the product of mainstream Western culture, this is Star Trek essentially converting to Christianity and encouraging everyone else to do the same as it's apparently the One True Belief, or at least part of a natural, teleological social development path, according to the Federation. Forget “The Apple” and “The Changeling”, this is the best evidence that, far from being a bit of secular utopianism, early Star Trek had an undeniable and irreducible religious streak about it. This is just in keeping with Modernization theory as “The Apple” was, and, furthermore, “Bread and Circuses” manages to make this worse with its sun/son conflation and its Roman setting. That's right: Coon and Roddenberry are (probably unintentionally, but nevertheless clearly) likening Jesus to Apollo, right after telling us Jesus will show us The Way. Yikes.

It's one thing to be a work of fiction with a Christian subtext, or even to be pop Christian by coming out of uncritical Western hegemony. It's quite another thing entirely to overtly act like a Christian missionary, thus equating your faith with neo-imperialism. This is something I need to come right out and say I have zero tolerance for, as its a line of thinking that was singlehandedly responsible for the collapse of countless spiritualities, cultures and ways of life, not to mention, well, the one this blog comes out of. It's fine to have a faith. It's fine to talk about your faith and try to explain why you think you're correct-That's just discourse, ultimately. It is not fine to declare yourself arbiter of Truth and explicitly work towards erasing the beliefs of everyone else, because it's Right and Natural for everybody to end up exactly like you. Even if we accept the anti-imperialist conception of the Prime Directive, which Coon, Roddenberry and the show all seem to want us to here, there's nothing that's a grosser, more flagrant violation and rejection of it than this: In doing so, this means “Bread and Circuses” ends up not as a bristling bit of anarchic revolution like “Mirror, Mirror”, but instead supplanting one form of imperialism with another. No wonder Shatner renounced Roddenberry.

But perhaps that in itself is a proper and fitting send-off to the original Star Trek. A show defined by tension, conflict of interest, ego and a shifting sense of morals and ethics that somehow managed to live on after itself again and again. The physically extent television series may be over now, but the franchise, and, more importantly, the mythology, that bears its name is just beginning. While I hesitate to call the show we can watch a classic, it most certainly created enough classic moments and toyed with enough provocative ideas that remain in the memories of generations of people who grew up watching it over the years, and this is a rare and unique phenomenon. This makes Star Trek somewhat special amongst Soda Pop Art franchises and, as we're about to see, this is part of the reason it keeps coming back and lingers so.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

“Does anybody remember LAUGHTER?”: I, Mudd

Fuck it. I quit.

“I, Mudd” sees Star Trek circling the tower for another week. This is strange, because everything about it seems to have the making of something quite interesting, if not perhaps actually good. It's the return of Harry Mudd which, while not exactly an advisable decision, means Roger C. Carmel has the distinction of playing the only reoccurring character in the Original Series not a member of the Enterprise crew, and I suppose if one were looking for former foils to bring back, Mudd was probably the least disastrous option to go with and he's at least a very memorable personality. It's also the first work we get to look at by future Animated Series co-showrunner and inaugural story editor for Star Trek: The Next Generation Dave Gerrold, who collaborated with Gene Coon on an uncredited rewrite of Stephen Kandal's original treatment due to how impressed the team was with his work on his debut script (which we take a look at next time).

Furthermore, this episode marks one of the first occasions Star Trek attempts to do an overt comedy, or at least a story where the comedic elements are meant to be in the forefront: Previous episodes were humourous and had funny bits in them, but this is the first time the show seems to be going out of its way to try to be funny. The keywords to note here are, naturally “attempts” and “tries”, because “I, Mudd” is an absolute spectacle of magnificent failure. First of all, it is a casserole made of repurposed ingredients left over from “The Cage”, “Mudd's Women”, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, “The Return of the Archons”, “Metamorphosis” and “The Changeling”, and the end result is precisely as terrible as you would expect a story with that pedigree to be. The entire plot can be sufficiently explained, without leaving out any important details, simply by stating that if there was a major element in any of those episodes, “I, Mudd” has it too but is even more heavy-handed about it. Likewise, if there was a mistake those episodes made, “I, Mudd” will make it all the more frequently.

This does not, however, adequately describe the uncanny, surreal experience that is watching “I, Mudd” within the context of the episodes around it or, actually, any previous Star Trek episodes. This is an attempt at comedy in the most broad-strokes fashion, packed to brimming with pratfalls, one-liners, zingers and characters so programmatic they wouldn't look out of place in a cartoon. William Shatner, who is actually quite good at broad-strokes comedy and is served well by it in turn, is very much in his element again here, and the way he deftly alternates between the blusteringly indignant straight man and merry prankster narrative roles is as fine an acting trick as anything he's done: He plays it on a spectrum, so that his mode shifts don't feel jarring within the context of the action. Shatner's conception of comedy is very much born of his theatrical performativity, and this is going to be an extremely important theme to monitor throughout the rest of his association with Star Trek, as it's pretty much crucial to understanding his continued place within it.

Shatner also has a good partner to play off of in Roger C. Carmel, who is strong in many of the same areas, and the double act they eventually turn the Kirk-Mudd relationship into is certainly the high point of the episode (doubly so as Mudd is significantly less of a horrifying Irish stereotype this time 'round, though this is balanced out by Stella being about as stock and cartoonish a sexist depiction of the shrewish, nagging wife as is possible to get). However, the rest of the cast isn't helped by this in the slightest: Leonard Nimoy, who often plays Spock with a dry, sarcastic snark, manages well enough and James Doohan probably would have been good in this episode too, had he been given more to do. Nichelle Nichols, while formidable (especially in the scene where Uhura pretends to betray the crew to the androids), just feels out of place and while DeForest Kelley makes McCoy very witty and enjoyably curmudgeonly, watching him trying to do physical comedy is embarrassing and painful. Meanwhile, Walter Koenig gets to play Chekov setting up a threesome with twin android women, reminiscing about Leningrad and doing the Ukrainian Cossack dance, but really, at this point this is what we fully expect to see him do, and having him do anything else in this episode would have just been disappointing.

But the fact remains there is absolutely no precedent for an episode like this anywhere in what we've seen of Star Trek so far. Coming to “I, Mudd” after “The Apple” and “Mirror, Mirror” is profoundly weird, and even “The Deadly Years” was played fairly straight. This, by contrast, is a live-action Bob Clampett cartoon. Actually, I take that back: “I, Mudd” isn't as much comparable to Golden Age theatrical shorts as it is to Vaudeville, and that in itself is worth examining as Star Trek's first go at Commedia dell'arte. Vaudeville is often called North America's signature form of entertainment and “the heart of American show business”. While I'm not entirely convinced by this statement (I personally feel that, at least in the United States, Hollywood and television has proven to be far more ubiquitous and far more more associated with their point of origin in a global context), I do think there is some truth there in that Vaudeville is an extremely US phenomenon inasmuch as it draws elements from a number of international forms of entertainment (most notably British and continental European music halls and burlesque shows), isolates them from their original context, and then promptly waters them down and defangs them to the point they essentially have no impact or power anymore in the interest of making them “safe” for the “American People”.

While Vaudeville shows were a mixture of sketch, musical and standup comedy, variety, talent shows, magic acts, and the like, the ruthless “modesty codes” of many halls and touring companies meant that Vaudevillian acts were rather famously terrible. It's not something you're likely to find in showbiz history books, but the pop culture memory of Vaudeville, especially of those for whom it was actually in living memory (or that of their parents and grandparents), is that it was excruciatingly tepid and unfunny as a result of its draconian censorship policies. If we look at any pastiche of or reference to Vaudeville in late-20th and early 21st Century US entertainment, the stock scenario is always of a desperate performer bombing onstage Stepford-smiling through tortuously bad material while being pelted with rotten fruit from a bored and increasingly irritated audience (indeed, the number of cartoons that have done exactly this gag is far too high to count). The joke, then, is that performers are forced to scrape out a meager living humiliating themselves to please the ungrateful masses, or alternatively, that the performers are so deluded and incompetent that they get taken in by their managers' flagrant soaking and pursuit of safe profit through “decent” entertainment at the expense of talent and quality. In that regard, Vaudeville being the seed from which sprouts all of US mass-media entertainment is rather perfect, as we continue to see much of the same Puritanical behaviour in, say, network standards and practices.

The one problem, really the fundamental one “I, Mudd” seems to have, is that this is a joke it's in no way in on. One only has to watch the jaw-dropping scene in the climax where the crew literally waltzes into the androids' control room and puts on a truly legendarily bad Vaudevillian routine, complete with miming, improv sketches and “jokes” about logic paradoxes and self-contradictory behaviour in an effort to confuse and overload Norman. The show clearly wants us to read this, and the rest of the crew's actions during the last two acts of the episode, as “funny”, but we end up feeling more like the androids, staring stone-faced at the slow-motion train wreck unfolding before us with smoke billowing out of our ears. It's not so much the routine itself as much as it is the utter lack of irony or situational awareness in regards to how completely off-the-wall mental it is: This is not Star Trek turning its critical lens inward at the heart of US show business, this is Star Trek putting on a straight-up Vaudeville show as a paean to illogic and irrationality and it has absolutely no clue how terrible an idea that is.

The truly grotesque part of this is that Vaudeville is absolutely an overtly performative form of expression: The show will certainly change from night to night and audience to audience. This is still moving Star Trek further away from teleology and prescriptive representationalism. I probably would not have gone with diluted and sanitized musical theater and burlesque as the way to stress the show's performative core, but perhaps it seemed like an appropriate thing to do given Star Trek's place as part of the primetime lineup on major network television at this point (although I still think this is kind of a flimsy excuse as theatrical cartoons had been lampooning Vaudeville for thirty years already by 1967). So, while this may still be a mistake, it's at least a somewhat expected mistake to make. More concerning is that this is apparently what Star Trek thinks humour is: Much like sexuality, humour is something that the entire franchise, not just the Original Series, has serious problems with. Unlike sexuality however, which Star Trek does eventually figure out how to handle (albeit considerably and worryingly later than probably would have been helpful), it has a far more changeable relationship with humour.

It's deeply confusing to know Dave Gerrold's name is attached to “I, Mudd”, because the script that actually got him the job (and indeed the very next episode to be produced) goes for explicit comedy and becomes an instantaneous television landmark while this is, well...this. Although that said, I don't think the failure-to-launch of “I, Mudd” can be laid at the feet of Gerrold, or Coon, or Kandal or even Shatner and Carmel. Partially at issue here is the concept of doing a comedy episode of something like Star Trek at all. When the show's been successful at humour in the past, it's oftentimes been in smaller vignettes and moments that come out of the character's inherent foibles or how they react to certain situations. “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, for example, is a riot, but it's not a “comedy” episode per se: While a lot of laughs are to be had at the three temporally displaced parties, the basic story is a serious one as the Enterprise is at risk of being stranded in the 1960s (how prescient) and their future is also at risk of ceasing to exist. By contrast, a story about a planet of sexbots who are trying to observe humans and who get outsmarted by Kirk, McCoy, Chekov and Uhura acting like lunatics...isn't.

I am reminded of a story Douglas Adams used to tell about the production of the Doctor Who serial “City of Death” (typically regarded as a comedic triumph and a high water mark of the whole series), and a great deal of other writers who know their way around comedy had a version of it. Adams used to say he would have to stop tape and remind his actors not to do funny walks or funny accents because humour is actually better conveyed by people playing their roles straight in bizarre and insane situations. The basic idea is that if you are deliberately trying to act “wacky” or “random”, you are in fact coming across as terrifyingly stilted, forced and awkward. This is I think where “I, Mudd” goes wrong (at least in execution: At its core, it remains a basic story concept that probably wasn't entirely a great idea): It never goes above and beyond stock scenarios and deliberately overplayed zaniness and the whole production feels like its trying much, much too hard. That's not to say Star Trek is incapable of doing comedy, or even broad-strokes comedy (despite the protestations of the fandom, determined as it is to take absolutely everything deathly seriously and who are opposed to having any sort of fun whatsoever), it's just this isn't the way to go about doing it.

But, like “The Deadly Years” this is an episode that, in spite of its missteps, is ultimately largely harmless and inoffensive. That in itself is proof Star Trek has turned a major corner, and if this is the way the show is going to start screwing up I really can't object much at all. And anyway, what Gerrold helps the show do next unilaterally cements its status as a pop culture legend. It's allowed to slide a bit here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

“Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young”: The Deadly Years

DeForest Kelley gives us a sneak preview of his next big project.

OK, it's pretty terrible.

Yeah, “The Deadly Years” kinda sucks. Unfortunately from my perspective, it's bad in ways that are obvious and not especially interesting to talk about. It's blatantly ageist, going into a rather frightening level of detail about how funny doddering senile old people are and how they're of no use to anyone and need to get out of the way to make room for younger, more virile people. Trying to redeem this as a tragic story about the effects of growing old is, in my opinion, putting more thought into the premise than the people responsible for it did: If it's sad, it's only sad in a “we need to take the car keys away from grandma and put her in a home” sort of way not a “the way we treat the elderly in our society is monstrous” sort of way.

On the other hand, trying to read this as a statement about youth culture vs. hegemony also runs into problems I feel, as there simply doesn't seem to be any real support for that reading, especially given as it's our heroes who are afflicted, and the script seems on the whole more interested in bemoaning the physical effects of age and the *idea* of youthfulness, not so much youth *culture*, and eventually gives us a glib, tacked-on handwave of a conclusion about “the right man” (and of course it has to be a man) in command of a situation, but that's about as effective as any of Star Trek's denouements are (read: not in the slightest).

It is also full of the expected casual sexism. The first Yeoman-of-the-Week promptly dies midway through the episode for plot convenience, though McCoy tosses out something that sounds suspiciously like “she lost the will to live” (yes, I know it was supposed to be her metabolism. No, that doesn't count). Janet Wallace is very clearly only there to be Kirk's Desilu-mandated Love Interest for this episode, most of her dialog is recycled wholesale and verbatim from other such characters from previous episodes and she's only invested in the plot because she still has a crush on Kirk (to the point the other characters actually comment on this, so minor points for the show's growing awareness of its own tropes, I suppose). At least her expertise in endocrinology contributes to the final resolution, but McCoy obviously would have gotten there eventually, and in time, without her help. It's also unfortunate Wallace's actor, Sarah Marshall delivers, well, kind of a crap performance. She's about the most stilted and monotone guest star we've seen on the show yet.

In fact, this is a changeable week for the actors in general. William Shatner plays Old!Kirk as basically Mr. Magoo, James Doohan just does “tired” and is barely in this episode anyway while Walter Koenig and George Takei give likable and multifaceted turns as Chekov and Sulu whenever they get the chance, but they're always good at this. The only people seeming to be actually trying here are Leonard Nimoy, whose aged Spock is predictably complex and nuanced, and DeForest Kelley, who, because was hired to be “Old and Wise” anyway, just dials down on that and accentuates McCoy's cantankerousness. Actually, Kelley is so good at this it takes some of the ageist edge off “The Deadly Years”: McCoy is clearly just as competent elderly as he is at his regular age and barely changed, except for being a bit slower and less patient.

We also get another fish-out-of-water flag officer, and “The Deadly Years” is just about the most generic “bureaucrats are pampered, paper-pushing desk jockeys who know nothing about real life out in the field” chest-thumping, American Individualist rant yet (indeed I'm actually paraphrasing one of Old!Kirk's actual lines in the episode with this sentence). At least Charles Drake's Commodore Stocker is deeply sympathetic, expressing great concern for a ship and crew he looks up to and is depicted as someone who made the best (albeit naive) decisions he could under the circumstances, which is a minor improvement over previous efforts I guess. Drake's admirable efforts are ultimately wasted on this script, though: This show still has nothing on Raumpatrouille Orion when it comes to empathy. On top of that, the Romulans are back completely disconnected from their original symbolism and written totally out-of-character and are obviously only here so the show can reuse stock footage from “Balance of Terror”, there's a throwaway callback to “The Corbomite Maneuver” (whose airdate is now creeping on its two-year anniversary) for really no reason and the pacing is shot to hell, which all compounds to make us feel every feather of the padding this episode is.

Ultimately though, “The Deadly Years” isn't worth going into one of my signature moaning Requiem for Star Trek rants for. Partially because having it come after “Mirror, Mirror” is just another example of this show's utter lack of consistent baseline quality and thus any real kind of standards, expectations and preconceptions. There's just no way to take this year's spectacular unevenness and reconcile that with the idea of a coherent, self-contained series and fictional world. In my opinion, Star Trek is best seen as a straightforward anthology show, not the first chapter in some grand, oblique unfolding Master Historical Narrative of a fantasy world (not that that approach is ever unproblematic for anything). The show's rules, characterization and basic ethics are changing week-to-week at this point, and it's all dependent on who the writer is, how involved Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon or D.C. Fontana get and how much effort the actors decide to give. When this show is on-target, it really does have a respectable claim to being one of the best things on TV right now, but conversely when it's not it has an alarming tendency to be one of the *worst*. This really isn't the making of a true Classic television series, though it certainly does have unarguably Classic moments.

Which brings me to my main point for this episode, actually. I just came off of one of the single greatest things this series ever put out, and am about to hit a stretch of episodes that I know for a fact contain at least three oversignified home runs in a row, including the only other episode from the original Star Trek apart from “Balance of Terror” that I will unhesitatingly call a masterpiece. Before then, I just need to get through “The Deadly Years” and, well, the next episode, frankly, neither of which work. But it's just not worth my time and stress levels to get terribly worked up about either one of them. From the vantage point of 1967, “Mirror, Mirror” was enough to build Star Trek a surplus reserve of goodwill and from the vantage point of the future, the looming symbolic singularity is enough to ensure the show actually has a future and is, for possibly the first time, on relatively stable ground for the moment. In that case, “The Deadly Years” is, like “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” last year, an episode that probably shouldn't have been made. However, unlike that first season story, this feels less like a potential derailment of the series and more like straightforward filler. Why might that be?

This gets at the concept of “filler” in television itself. I get the sense modern audiences use the term “filler” to describe an episode that doesn't play into the big, sweeping season-long mythic story arc every single contemporary television show is required to have by law now, but this is at once a dangerous mentality (best suited for exploring when my feelings on Big Damn Myth Arcs start to become more of a concern for this blog) and a recent one, as filler certainly existed before 2004 (or 1997 if you're picky). It can be seen as a peculiarly televisual phenomenon, too: If we were to read a book that had entire chapters or sections that really contributed nothing towards the advancement of the story, or watched a movie that did something similar with its act structure, or played a video game where whole levels, areas or gameplay mechanics felt pointless, shallow and redundant, we would probably complain a lot more, and probably very loudly. However, this is something we've come to expect as a necessary evil of doing something episodic for this kind of broadcast medium. Given the high-stress, labour-intensive way TV production works, we know occasionally teams will need to throw out an episode that might be below their usual standard because you need something, anything to go out that week and the deadline of the airdate ultimately has the final say on what you're doing in a typical work week.

It need not be, though. I think the concept of filler episodes in the classical sense gets at the difference between US television and TV made elsewhere in the world, particularly the UK. In the US, television seasons tend to last from September to May and shows run more or less continuously every week during that period, often with a break around November and December. This means each show, unless it's a mid-season replacement debuting in January, typically accrues 25-30 episodes a season. Simply put, this has the potential to be total overkill. No matter how good a show is, there's only a certain level of momentum it's able to sustain in one sitting, and a convincing argument could be made, I feel, that 30 installments a year may well be too many. Not in the modern sense, born out of the current fetishization of the character drama myth arc, that it muddies and blunts the impact of the year's Big Story, but in the very simple sense that there are only so many clever and workable ideas people can come up with for one project in one single period of time without taking a break from it for a bit.

Despite in many ways pioneering the idea of incredibly long-form television serials and sitcoms with shows like Coronation Street, Last of the Summer Wine, Only Fools and Horses and the original version of Doctor Who, the latter of which was originally on basically year-round, the UK seems to have a better solution here. Television seasons (or series, as is the preferred term there) tend to be much shorter than in the US, often made up of only 6-18 stories a year (in the case of the original Doctor Who, broken down as it was into multiple mini-serials this still averages out to about 24 half-hour episodes a year, but the difference here is that they were all considered part of the same story, and thus the same general idea). Even in 1967, where we're just starting to get a glimpse of how the structure of broadcast television is taking shape, shorter-form concepts were not unheard of, such as one-off, self-contained television plays or miniseries. Recall Patrick McGoohan considered The Prisoner padded at only seventeen episodes and was ultimately unhappy with the way the network handled that show. When taken in this context, 30 episodes a year is insane, and this is likely the reason for the preponderance of so-called “filler” episodes in US television: A more relaxed production schedule would allow a more selective approach to vetting scripts, with more time, money and other resources available for the scripts that do go into production.

But what's interesting here is that we've run across a Star Trek episode that can be described as filler at all. By definition a filler episode is a kind of holding pattern, which implies there's actually somewhere the show is going to touch down in the near future. Almost every other time the show has stumbled backward it's been an almost series-derailing catastrophe, at least this year. This, however, is an episode that doesn't feel like a potential dead end, but merely an off-week, and that alone speaks volumes. Admittedly a great deal of this probably comes from my own ability to see potential timelines and future events and knowing that “The Deadly Years” is in fact exactly that, but even without knowing the episodes that are coming next, it still feels like Star Trek has turned some kind of a corner. Somehow, some way, it's done enough this year so far to set our consciences at ease for awhile and, no matter how forgettable episodes like this may be, it's far, far better to fail and be forgettable then fail and be memorably disastrous.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: Mirror, Mirror

"Remind me to re-evaluate my 'Casual Friday' policy."
Absolutely brilliant, this one is.

Once again, Star Trek takes a hard swerve from one of its worst episodes ever to one of its best. “Mirror, Mirror” is just about flawless: I always knew it was good, but it's actually better than I remember, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Between this and “The Apple” we have, and I'm not exaggerating, two polar opposite philosophical viewpoints being expressed. Probably nowhere else have I seen a television show put stories 180 degrees away from each other one after another. “Mirror, Mirror” honestly does not feel like it's part of the same show as “The Apple”, it's that far removed from it. The most minor of nitpicks hold it back from absolute perfection, although I will confess I'm saying this in part so I don't have to totally reconceptualize the post I have lined up for the episode I want to call the second season's high water mark. Either way though, “Mirror, Mirror” is the bold and clear statement we've been waiting for all year, and it not only just about singlehandedly saves Star Trek from the scrap heap, it finally gives it the moral, ethical and political backbone that will make the franchise a legend.

The first thing that begs addressing is the Mirror Universe itself. From what I can gather, this episode is one of the earliest appearances of the idea of a “mirror” or “parallel” universe in mainstream pop fiction. While not the absolute first (at the very least Star Trek beat itself to its own punch with “The Alternative Factor” last year, but nobody except me likes to talk about “The Alternative Factor”) it's arguably the most famous though, as the style of alternate reality Star Trek works with here becomes the model for an incalculable number of homages, parodies and imitators. However, what these followers (including, irritatingly, more than a few future Star Trek works to return to the Mirror Universe) crucially seem to miss about “Mirror, Mirror” is that the reality it postulates is manifestly *not* meant to be simply the one where everyone is bearded and evil. The Terran Empire is not the Evil!Federation, its instead very clearly meant to be a version of the Federation that's largely the same as our own, except for the fact certain motifs and excesses have been been built on to alarming and dangerous degrees.

This is stressed and reiterated numerous times throughout the episode: Upon arriving on the ISS Enterprise for the first time, Kirk and McCoy observe that everything is largely where it should be, and Scotty says the ship is on a technical level identical to their own, and even the star groups are in their correct respective locations. But the real evidence comes from the characters themselves: While Chekov's and Sulu's counterparts are psychotically twisted and demented (with both Walter Koenig and George Takei very clearly relishing the opportunity to play against type-This is in many ways an actor showcase episode for them) the Mirror Spock, as well as the Mirror counterparts of the away team and (it's implied) our version of Marlena Moreau, are obviously meant to be comparable.

This is the clearest with Leonard Nimoy, who, in a truly delightful acting turn, plays the Mirror Spock just as logical, loyal and principled as his double in the regular universe. The only things that really separate the two Spocks are their circumstances and the way in which they apply their logic and loyalty: Mirror Spock is very much what would happen if Spock lived as part of a ruthless empire, but he's still Spock, and this is what ultimately saves the displaced landing party in the climax. Nimoy's performance is so grand it's rightly become the model for all of the best portrayals of Mirror Star Trek characters since, with both Nana Visitor and Terry Farrell, er, mirroring Nimoy in the way they conceive of Intendant Kira Nerys and Captain Jadzia Dax, respectively, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Mirror Universe stories.

What this means is that “Mirror, Mirror” is in truth possibly the most brazenly and straightforwardly anti-imperialist and self-critical Star Trek ever got. This is not an action-packed romp where Our Heroes face off against their Evil Twins from the Other Side, it's a cautionary introspective piece that takes a hard look at what the Federation really is, what it truly stands for and what might happen if it remains unchecked. In this regard, “Mirror, Mirror” is the complete inverse of both “Space Seed” and “The Enemy Within”: It's drawing a very clear path to where the Federation will end up, and it wants us to be very uncomfortable because of this. The key signposts are the Halkans, who are incredibly sceptical of the Federation's motives. In the teaser they express concern that their strict adherence to a policy of total pacifism prevents them from signing mining rights with the Federation, and flatly state this is unlikely to change. Crucially, they're the one thing most obviously unchanged in the Mirror Universe, and they make an argument to the crew of the ISS Enterprise that's about 99% identical, down to their observation the ship has the capability to sterilize their planet and they would be unable to stop it. The only difference between the two universes in this regard is that in the Mirror Universe, the crew pushes the button (or at least has standing orders to) and in ours they don't. Also, I'm not sure whether or not this was an intentional callback, but Mirror Marlena referring to Kirk (or, rather, who she thinks is Mirror Kirk) as “Caesar” is a powerful statement. That's the subtle, lurking horror here: That the Federation could become the Terran Empire at the drop of a hat.

Part and parcel of this holding up of a mirror to Star Trek's ethics is, laudably, a very clear, decisive and scathing reaction against the show's ugly misogynistic tendencies. Mirror Sulu is shown to be (and Mirror Kirk is implied to be) a callous, dominating, abusive male supremacist, and a vital moment in the episode that does much to remind us why our version of these characters are heroes, is Kirk going out of his way to show he respects Mirror Marlena and reminding her she has agency and personhood and that she can achieve anything she wants to in life. It's telling one of Mirror Kirk's signatures is his ability to take whatever he wants by any means he sees fit, and this is revealed during the same scene where Kirk and Mirror Marlena start to fall in love because they respect and admire each other (indeed I remember finding this scene so effective that of all the dalliances Kirk had throughout the Original Series, his relationship with Marlena Moreau was the one I really hoped and wished had stuck). Words cannot describe how refreshing and necessary this scene is, especially after the sexist disaster much of this season has been. Uhura too is in rare form, being treated as a crucial member of the landing party whose special expertise is needed to help return them home, as well as holding her own in a few fight scenes and, memorably, using Mirror Sulu's blind lust and rape culture against him to give Scotty and McCoy the time they need to rig up the energy transfer without him noticing.

If that wasn't clear enough, there's the moment just after the confrontation in sickbay that really drives home the difference between the Mirror Universe and ours: Mirror Spock's coercive Mind Meld with McCoy to extract information. Given the reading we've been building of the Mind Meld's symbolism, what this act is meant to represent should be rather obvious. Unlike what we got a few weeks ago, however, this time the camera holds the shot with Mirror Spock and McCoy centred in the frame throughout the duration, making us focus on the act itself and what it is, instead of leeringly drooling over the perpetrator's dominance and the victim's pain and horror. Although an argument could be raised it remains sexist to portray male-on-male rape matter-of-factually while gawking over male-on-female rape, I think the more helpful way to read this is that it makes clear to straight male audiences how horrifying rape really is. In removing the patriarchally sexualized aspect by making both parties male, not to mention the shock of having the perpetrator be a version of a character we like and admire (who, given the other themes “Mirror, Mirror” works with, is disturbingly not too far removed from our Spock), it reminds us institutionalized rape is very much something that can exist within the structure of the Federation, and drives home the heinous power structures and violations of trust inherent in rape culture for people who probably wouldn't have gotten it otherwise. An alchemical aftershock of “Who Mourns for Adonias?” then, where that episode's casual and glib approach to rape becomes the false enlightenment the Federation would attain by following its darker predilections.

This all comes to a head in the denouement, where Kirk risks missing the window to return to his universe so he can implore Mirror Spock to become a force for change in the Mirror Universe. This is itself a reflection of Bones similarly racing against the clock to keep Mirror Spock alive in sickbay, which helps convince Mirror Marlena to assist the landing party in their escape. This scene just crackles with energy, with Kirk's and Mirror Spock's philosophical debate about change and revolution set against the backdrop of another nail-biting thriller-style countdown. What's the most remarkable about this though is that both Kirk and Mirror Spock are correct: Kirk in the sense that, idealistically and conceptually, revolution can begin with one visionary person with a desire to change the present, and Mirror Spock with the rebuttal that it is impossible for that same person to singlehandedly change the future and that revolutionaries need allies, support, power and voice to truly make a difference. With this, “Mirror, Mirror” addresses both horns of the anarchist dilemma: The idea “the political is personal” and that individual expression is enough to inspire change contrasted with the concept that material social progress more often than not needs to come about through communal action. What “Mirror, Mirror” is declaring then is that these are not actually mutually contradictory notions, and both are necessary to bring about real action. Furthermore, this one scene is a veritable quote generator, throwing out at least four of the best lines in the whole Original Series:

"You're a man of integrity in both universes, Mister Spock."

"I submit to you that your Empire is illogical because it cannot endure. I submit that you are illogical to be a willing part of it."

"One man cannot summon the future." "But one man can change the present."

"In every revolution, there's one man with a vision."

This is also the moment that finally turns the tables on Gene Roddenberry's Two-Fisted Morality approach to Star Trek and takes it as far as it can possibly go: Kirk shows up to deliver a the Federation. On top of this, he doesn't beam down from On High and tell people what to think and how to behave, he tries to incite a revolution by acting in accordance with his beliefs and talking to people in hopes they'll take action not for him or because he knows better, but because they're people and have a right to their own agency. This not only blows “The Apple” out of the water, it's better than “The Return of the Archons” too, because “Mirror, Mirror” doesn't deal with abstract conceptualizations of authority of bureaucracy, but rather focuses quite clearly on how imperialism and dehumanizing systems and power structures actually manifest, albeit exaggerated to an appropriately unsettling degree.

“Mirror, Mirror”, much like the rest of season two's highlights so far, changes the game for Star Trek at a fundamental level. However, much like Kirk's attempt to incite an uprising in the Mirror Universe, it ultimately only lays the groundwork, and, just as the fate of the Terran Empire and Mirror Spock remains uncertain, the series still has to prove it's capable of continuing on this path. For one thing the ending of the episode is a bit of a cop-out: Not the technobabble way of crossing the gulf between universes (that's suitably and appropriately papered over because it really isn't important to, well, much of anything, really), but the final scene on our Enterprise where Kirk, Spock and McCoy throw speciesist slurs at each other. It's irritatingly glib and not at all necessary and jars noticeably with the rest of the episode. While it is nice to see Spock get in some jabs of his own instead of just stoically taking the abuse (I suppose if we have to have vaguely racist banter, it's slightly better that victims strike back with loaded language of their own), what he actually comes up with trends dangerously close to nihilism: He mentions it was refreshing to witness the behaviour of the Mirror counterparts of Kirk, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty because they were purely and honestly human. If the point of “Mirror, Mirror” is a call to arms against institutionalized oppression and a paean to human dignity, this is a particularly effective way to scuttle your message, especially coming from Spock.

But the big question left at the end of “Mirror, Mirror” is whether or not the lessons of the Mirror Universe will stick. We can blast off with our Enterprise on our way to our next adventure comforted by the thought we're not like those scary bad Mirror Universe people, but there's still the lingering concern our universe could very easily go down that same path. Can Kirk and the Enterprise continue to be the change the want to see, and that they need to be, in this universe as well? This, at least for now, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“The Devil You Know”: The Apple

"1-2-3...Hey! No fair Zerg rushing!"

“The Apple” was the episode of the Original Series that always stuck out in my mind as the one I unequivocally hated. Most of the time an episode being forgettable is a cause for concern when doing this kind of revisit and retrospective, but this is a case where the story made me so angry I never forgot it and I would constantly bring it up in discussions as Exhibit A for why I could never get into this show. It's good to know some things remain constant and my tastes weren't altogether unrefined all those many years ago.

“The Apple” is Biblically awful. That it's not even the worst episode of the season should explain in no uncertain terms how bad things are for Star Trek right now. It is shockingly racist and imperialistic, with naive, simple, primitive people modeled on Pacific islanders in funny skin colours and outfits in a cargo cult setup being told how to live their lives by educated white people from space. It believes quite strongly in a teleological view of history and cultural development, where all societies have to follow a pre-determined and unwavering master narrative where Western cultures are seen as more advanced then non-Western cultures (despite the idyllic, childlike lifestyles they have), basically making this the Space Age White Man's Burden, except that poem was at least well constructed. It is pop Christian, being a straight-up plot lift of the book of Genesis. It is unoriginally pop Christian, shamelessly recycling all the worst aspects of “The Return of the Archons” and “This Side of Paradise” and somehow managing to make both look better by comparison. It is also *textually* racist: Kirk and McCoy talk down to Spock throughout the entire episode, making fun of his green blood, logical mind and resemblance to Satan.

It is sexist, with yet another wistful, pouty yeoman fretting about needing someone to protect her (albeit one who at least gets to hold her own in a fight scene this time). It is proudly and boldly heteronormative, conflating love, procreative sex and heterosexual relationships. It has an appallingly lax attitude towards life and death, casually killing off enough redshirts to the point it makes jokes about Doctor Who's death toll look unwarranted and tasteless (well, at least perhaps even more so). Aside from being a bigot, Kirk is once again written as a gruff, shouty military commander having a psychological meltdown over regulations and taking it out on his crew. Chekov gets another grating “Russia is the greatest country in the universe” scene and is in full-on cartoonish stereotype mode. Even Spock, the most sympathetic person in this episode by virtue of voicing the self-evidently correct course of action (which the rest of the show helpfully belittles him for) is made to look like a complete idiot by getting carelessly and dumbly injured once an act. There is not a single likable character in this entire production. The pacing is sluggish which, combined with the excruciatingly terrible story, has the combined effect of making this feel like the longest fifty minutes ever put to film. Naturally, it's a fan-favourite episode, because this is my own personal self-imposed Hell.

I could carry on in this manner, but, as liberating and cathartic as it might be for me to finally be allowed to lay into “The Apple”, it strikes me as ultimately less than productive. Therefore, I am informally dubbing the rest of this post “The Revenge of Carolyn Palamas” and dedicating it to taking this episode to task from a cultural anthropological perspective. It may still be too easy, but the alternative is taking Warren Ellis' writing advice, which I don't want to write and you don't want to read. In this regard, the first thing to take note of are the People of Vaal, or, to be more precise, the Enterprise crew's reaction to the people of Vaal. Due to the part of the plot “The Apple” lifts from “This Side of Paradise”, we once again have a culture where want and strife do not exist being described as both paradise as well as “stagnant” and “unnatural” because it lacks the Western, Modernist conception of progress (Extra Credit: Go ahead and try to reconcile that with the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, supposedly also Gene Roddenberry's idea). In true Star Trek fashion, we have Captain Kirk coming and *literally* blowing everything the fuck up, and I can't decide whether or not this is actually worse than killing the peace plants of love and happiness in “This Side of Paradise” with anger, hatred and manliness.

Anyway, the point here for our purposes here is the idea this kind of idyllic lifestyle is stagnant (having more or less sorted the reactionary business with “This Side of Paradise”). Yes, there is the fact the People of Vaal are ruled by a giant, vaguely explained authoritarian computer (which would allow me to redeem “The Apple” from an anarchist perspective), but this isn't actually Kirk and McCoy's objection here: Both expressly state on a number of occasions the problem with this society is that it doesn't “progress” not that it takes orders from a machine. The supposed stagnation is very clearly the script's problem with the People of Vaal, and the source of said stagnation is considered purely incidental. Spock points out that this system works and everyone is happy and healthy, and he is obviously in the right, but the show doesn't want us to side with him. There's Vaal's prohibition of romance and physical affection to consider, and some have tried to use this as way to read some free love theme into this episode, but this is also obviously an afterthought: The lack of procreation and children is meant to be another manifestation of the society's lack of growth, not an indictment of oppressive anti-sex cultural mores, and indeed the entire episode can be seen as retrograde and reactionary in terms of sexuality because the Enterprise only values “doing what comes naturally” as a means to an end to produce offspring and keep society growing.

What this means is that “The Apple” is squarely in the intellectual tradition of the Modernization theory of international development. Dating back to the core Enlightenment-era Idea of Progress itself (though most associated with and active during the mid-20th century), Modernization theory is the belief that “underdeveloped” societies can be brought up to the level of “developed” societies by taking the exact same economic and political steps the latter group did, and proponents of the theory furthermore claim to be able to quantify and isolate objective variables that contribute to social progress. Indeed, it may well be the origin of the idea of “development” in the sociological sense. As one would expect anything coming out of Europe during the 18th century, Modernization theory is flatly Scientistic and imperialistic, and essentially every aspect of contemporary Western Neo-Imperialist economic and geopolitical policy can probably be traced back to it in one form or another. Crucially, however, those who hold to Modernization theory believe strongly in the idea of growth and progress through new technology and policies as well as a firm break with tradition (which does nothing but hold societies back) and that this is to be valued and stressed almost above all else. This is exactly what “The Apple” is about and is absolutely central to its entire philosophical outlook.

Modernization theory, it should go without saying, doesn't work, and just about every attempt to apply it to places that aren't contemporary Europe and the United States have ended in spectacular failure and a criminal level of injustice and human rights violations. The obvious anthropological explanation as to why is the same reason no other theory of international development works either: It's self-evidently stupid to try applying a blanket box of policies to every single culture in the world assuming it's going to work the same everywhere because each group of people has a unique set of experiences, challenges and needs. The actually sane, considerate way to approach solving global issues is to, you know, ask people what they need and listen to what they have to say while also making case-by-case, on-the-ground observations of your own thus resulting in a sharing of positionalities and specialized expertise. But that approach requires cultural anthropologists (or at least people who have an appreciation for that sort of way of thinking), and, as is well known, humanities scholars are all uncool, lazy, pretentious trust fund parasites with no practical skills and we all have cooties.

But there's another reason Modernization theory in particular doesn't work, and it's the same reason (or at least one reason at any rate) all the so-called “developed” and “advanced” Western societies are, as of this writing, each undergoing some manner of spectacularly grotesque systemic collapse: The idea of “social growth” (which, being a Western concept, is inexorably bound up with economics) and the notion it must be permanent, steady and infinite, is a particularly dangerous myth. It's simply not possible to maintain a continuous state of “growth” the way Western societies conceptualize it, especially not with factors such as ever-increasingly rampant inequality and the looming ecological disaster of climate crash. Furthermore, there is also mounting evidence constant economic “growth” really doesn't contribute much to the well-being of a society at all. Pretty much any economist will tell you this, not that anybody is actually listening to them, but here are some of the basic arguments and evidence at least.

Aside from the economic imperialism concerns, the other big anthropological bugbear I have with “The Apple” is the Prime Directive. Back in the “Return of the Archons” post I mentioned there are two episodes in this season that deal overtly with the ethics of the Prime Directive, and this is the big one. There are two conflicting lines of thought to be had here and, amazingly, this episode manages to come out in the wrong in both of them. The first is the basic idea of the Prime Directive itself: Simply put, it makes no sense from any conceivable perspective. From a purely narrative standpoint, it seems...counterintuitive, to put it mildly, to have a show built around going to a new place every week and laying down some heavy-handed moralizing while also having a primary facet of the show's setting designed to prevent you from doing exactly that. If it's supposed to add drama to the show by forcing some navel-gazing over whether or not to go against regulations and whether or not Kirk, Spock and McCoy know better than Starfleet Command, this doesn't work because of course Kirk, Spock and McCoy know better than Starfleet Command. That's been a default given since the concept was introduced.

But this is just structural quibbling: The real problem I have with the Prime Directive is that it is a fundamentally unattainable ideal. Gene Roddenberry liked to wheel out the Prime Directive as a key example of how evolved, utopian and sophisticated the Federation is, but he was patently talking rubbish. Aside from the fact that every single Prime Directive story in the entirety of Star Trek is not about how great and wonderful an idea it is but rather 50 minutes of angsting over how it constrains the crew from Doing The Right Thing, the fact remains even if it *were* a good idea there is no way for the crew to actually uphold it unless they never contact another culture ever. See, one of the tenets of postmodern anthropology is that the presence of the anthropologist by definition permanently and irreparably changes the status quo and defines the relationship the anthropologist has with the contacts. It goes without saying that a group of people are going to act differently and change their behaviour when there's some weirdo from another country (or planet) lurking around their village in khakis and a sun hat brandishing a notebook and asking strange questions. There is no way to get an objective, unbiased record of everyday life from an outsider's perspective: It's only possible to write down things you notice and what people tell you and draw your own inferences. Even in an idealized future this would be impossible: People simply do not work that way.

The other reading of the Prime Directive of “non-interference” is that it's in place to prevent, well, things like Modernization theory. The imperialist notion that a supposedly “advanced” or “developed” society can waltz into another society it considers “less advanced” or “primitive” and *deliberately* impose their own ideas of how to live and what choices they make. If this is what the Prime Directive is meant to prevent Starfleet from doing, then Gene Roddenberry was a bloody hypocrite, because from the very beginning his crew is tossing it out without a second thought and deciding that no, they really do have the right to say exactly how a society should act and to force it down the exact same path the Federation took. Imperialism disguised as anti-imperialism: I have to admit that's pretty brazen. Now, take this argument, change the character names and episode titles around and transplant it to every single other Prime Directive story Star Trek ever does: It's a fundamental failing in the philosophy of the franchise that will continue to do nothing but hold it back for the rest of its life.

There are ways Star Trek can handle multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism without resorting to something like the Prime Directive. However, it involves treating people as equals by default and actually listening to their perspectives on issues and life experiences, and none of these are things “The Apple” is interested in. It latches onto the worst, most dangerous aspects of both the morality play and utopian conceptions of the franchise and declares itself Philosopher King in a world where Star Trek has already slain its kings. This is the show bluntly and embarrassingly failing to learn the lessons it itself was trying to teach weeks ago and proudly landing a backflip into ugly racism and socioeconomic Neo-Imperialism. It may not be flat-out worse than something like “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, but at least that episode had an intriguing meta-narrative running throughout it. Perhaps “The Apple” isn't the worst episode of Star Trek ever, perhaps not even the worst we've seen so far, but it may well be the least Vaka Rangi the franchise will ever be.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

“I am error.”: The Changeling

"You're too late. We're everywhere."

I will admit it's very tempting, given my areas of interests, the other projects I'm working on at the moment, and especially so soon after bidding farewell to Robert Bloch, to grab hold of Kirk's line about faery changeling babies that gives this episode its title, run with it and come up with some delightfully overblown reading of this one within the context of the Otherworld and ancient heathen mythology. Sadly, however, the analogy doesn't really work: Nomad doesn't actually act much at all like a proper changeling, Star Trek doesn't quite get a handle on the magickal doors between realms thing for another 25 years or so and when it eventually does this isn't the primary story that will facilitate that transformation, certainly not when compared with something like “Catspaw” or “Metamorphosis” or even “Wolf in the Fold” or “The City on the Edge of Forever”.

However, Gene Roddenberry seemed to have a fixation on the story of a robot built by humans who goes away on a journey, experiences a profound transformation, attains great power and returns seeking its creator, reusing it a number of times over his career. It was the subject of a failed 1974 pilot for a prospective television series co-created with Gene Coon called The Questor Tapes and also served as the basic plot for “In Thy Image”, the pilot episode of Star Trek Phase II, which eventually underwent its own profound transformation into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Arguably, there is even a faint echo of this theme in the very earliest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data's own creator and “point of origin” are a mystery to us. This then is the first draft of a story that is apparently very important to Roddenberry, so we should take a look at what he may have intended to say with it and what it might reveal about him as a writer and a thinker.

Me being me, I'm once again predisposed to snap back onto the magickal interpretation: The robot's journey could be seen as a spiritual one, and the years spent travelling the expanses of outer space and acquiring power and knowledge might be seen as attaining a form of enlightenment. This might make the robot comparable to the original conception of the Cybermen in the Doctor Who serial “The Tenth Planet”, similar mechanics-enhanced life forms who went away on a long journey and returned enlightened. I'm not sure this reading holds though, because in every version of this story the robot is portrayed as extremely deficient in some areas, despite its massive power and intelligence, and its yearning to discover its creator seems at once a primary calling and a microcosm of its inability to gain a complete understanding of the universe and its place within it.

Perhaps something could be made out of how, in “The Changeling”, Nomad literally brings Scotty back from the dead, tying into the mythic reorientation that has played a part in several episodes this year. It has the trappings of a god, as only gods can do things like that, but it remains a dangerous, ignorant machine that requires real people to explain the proper way to behave in human culture. We could extrapolate this to a sort of claim that this is why humans are preferable to gods, as a god by definition will disrupt human life to a degree that would be unacceptable. As this episode doesn't really have any other mythical signifiers, though (except for that not-entirely-accurate bit about faeries and changelings), I'm not particularly in favour of this reading either. No, what this entire plot seems more like is a straightforward metaphor for what Gene Roddenberry probably saw humans to be like: Flawed, imperfect beings who are constantly growing and learning and who are motivated to find their own “creator”, no matter what their individual interpretation of that concept might be.

This is also, once again, quite Christian. If not outright a Biblical allegory (although Roddenberry was known to describe Star Trek stories as “mini Biblical tales” in private), it's that kind of populist secularism that's really just Christianity with the serial numbers filed off by virtue of what it inherits from hegemonic culture: The journey through the stars read as a search for our origins and ultimate destiny which must be definition be big, objective singular Things because Big Questions need Big Answers. What flags this as Christian, or at least Abrahamic, rather than some other kind of spirituality (aside from the obvious fact the robot's human creators are clearly meant to stand in for a patriarchal Creator God) is the idea of an objective, external Truth, either about ourselves, about the universe at large or both, that we can discover on our journey, which is referred to by default as God. Other faiths and spiritualities would tend to conceive of god as either something that's a part of everything and everyone, or of gods that are highly personalized and subject to constant variation and reinterpretation, oftentimes that are strongly connected to the idea of day-to-day life.

Along with this are imperialist connotations in varying degrees of subtlety as this kind of journey is an intensely self-absorbed one: We're not Seeking Out New Life And New Civilizations to exchange our ideas and experience different ideas and different ways of living in the interests of cosmopolitanism, we're doing it to learn more about ourselves and teach what we've learned to the people we run into. We either need to seek out people who know The Truth so they can tell us what it is so we know the “proper” things to believe, or we know it and have an obligation to teach it to everybody else. This isn't the language of travellers, this is the language of missionaries, colonialists and conquerors. It's perhaps fitting then this becomes the story Roddenberry latches on to and seems to feel is the definitive embodiment of Star Trek, as evidenced by its inclusion in two extremely high-profile, high-stakes Trek projects.

Which makes it all the more bizarre, and all the more telling, that “The Changeling” wasn't written by Gene Roddenberry at all. Roddenberry, in fact, had nothing to do with it: This is the work of future Six Million Dollar Man producer John Meredyth Lucas, who we'll be seeing again at the other end of the season when he starts taking turns in the day-to-day producer role on Star Trek with Gene Coon. As a result, the lonely-robot-goes-on-a-journey-theme is more downplayed here than it will be in the various reinterpretations of it Roddenberry will eventually oversee, though the idea is clearly Lucas'. What “The Changeling” instead seems to focus more on is the idea of scrambled orders and what a hyper-intelligent machine like Nomad would do if it “went wrong”. This naturally means it's time for another stellar display of the signature technique of the James T. Kirk School of Computer Repair: Blowing things up by shouting logic paradoxes at them. Disappointingly, this is less dramatic than in “The Return of the Archons”, because Nomad had already programmed itself to destroy anything it deemed imperfect, and all Kirk had to do was convince it that it itself was an imperfect being, thus triggering its destruct sequence (though it does result in one of the altogether finest scenes in the season so far, where Kirk explains to Spock about the autodestruct mechanism right after activating it, to which Spock replies delightfully sarcastically through clenched teeth “Very astute observation, Captain. We are in grave danger.”).

What this also results in is an old-fashioned logic versus emotions debate that would have been right at home in the first season. This one seems to side broadly with logic, as even though Nomad's strict adherence to its programming, damaged and corrupt as its memory banks may be, puts the entire ship in peril, Spock clearly empathizes with it to an extent, or at least understands it. Likewise, Nomad considers Spock “different” because his “programming” is “neat and ordered”. In the end, Kirk manages to outwit it, but only through logic and only after making the situation significantly worse for everyone by revealing to Nomad he was a “biological unit”, something Nomad had considered inherently inferior. Predictably, this means the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are slotted into the programmatic roles we would expect them to have in this kind of story, and the actors respond accordingly. DeForest Kelley is, as usual, the most obvious of the three, trading in the tender nuance he was so deft at conveying in “Wolf in the Fold” for generic Bristling Unchecked Passion mode. William Shatner, likewise, goes back to Commanding Swagger and Leonard Nimoy to Cool Detachment.

There is also the now-depressingly-requisite belittling sexist scene, and this one happens to stumble into racism to boot. After hearing Uhura sing over the the comm panel and tracking her down on the bridge, Nomad completely erases Uhura's memory because it found her singing irrational and inexplicable (and before that, she was back to gamely playing the part she was told to play: The single most stereotypical secretary character imaginable). Unlike Scotty, Uhura doesn't get a reset button handwave, and the episode ends with Doctor McCoy and Nurse Chapel re-educating her up to the college level. Apparently this is supposed to be a happy ending, though I guess this means all of Uhura's memories and life experiences are gone now. But who cares? It's only rote, objective facts that matter, right? How very Scientistic. How very Golden Age. How very logical. How awful.

This entire sequence was completely gratuitous and unnecessary: The death and resurrection of Scott was sufficient evidence of Nomad's power and scrambled priorities-Wiping Uhura's memory is just mean spirited, and the scenes of Chapel in kindly white saviour mode teaching her how to spell “cat” in sickbay are just about unwatchable. Why was this scene included? Why did Uhura of all people have to get wiped? Why didn't Nichelle Nichols or, hell, anybody speak out about or see the ludicrously problematic undertones this opens the entire show up to? Just as is the case every time I mention Uhura, I have to point out her mere presence on the show was apparently seen as enough to gain Star Trek its progressive reputation. But I maintain, isn't it possible to hope for more, even in 1967?

As I write this there is a big debate in the video game medium about the representation of women, especially women of colour. Some would argue people looking for characters of this type in video games should be happy with whatever they get, no matter how minimal a role she plays or how problematic her depiction might be in other areas, and if they're unhappy they're just being picky and it's their fault if they never get any more such characters because that one game that had that one character didn't do well. It would seem beggars can't be choosers when it comes to representation in video games. My friend, colleague and comrade-in-arms on such matters, Maddy Myers, recently explained the situation brilliantly: To paraphrase her, “this is sort of like walking into a deli, ordering a sandwich and having the cashier roll his eyes in exasperation and throw a loaf of bread and a slice of cheese at you. Yes, this is technically what I asked for, but is it really too much to ask that a little more effort be put into the process?”. I could say much the same about Star Trek at this point in time.

What “The Changeling” is then is a microcosm for the show in its second season so far. It has some truly provocative and entertaining moments that help set the stage for the direction the franchise will go in its future, but it's ultimately brought down by a staggeringly catastrophic lapse in judgment that leaves a really unpleasant aftertaste, and a lingering sense of fear that the entire thing is destined to one day, and sooner rather than later, blow up in your face.