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.


  1. Maybe this is just my own head being in on the joke, but I found this episode so ridiculous that it achieved its purpose with me: I laughed my arse off. Maybe it's just that I watched a lot of Marx Brothers when I was a kid, maybe I just found it hilarious how out of place and stupid everyone except Shatner and Koenig were.

    And I do think this is exactly the kind of episode Chekov is made for.

    I, Mudd is, for me, an example of the non-threat story. The cast gets roped into a situation that's entertaining for the audience to watch, but offers no real effort for the main characters to solve, and constitutes no serious threat to them. As a result, we get to watch our characters have a lark. Mrs Mudd was never really given a chance to be a character: her first android appearance Mudd designed so he could yell at her, and her closing appearance is designed as a comedy goodbye for Mudd as his own misogynist creation is turned back on him. The episode asked me to have some stupid fun, so I had some stupid fun.

    No, it's not nearly as good as The Trouble With Tribbles. But whether or not the show was in on the joke, I sure was.

    1. I should add, so I can either utterly invalidate or boost the prestige of my opinion, that in particular circumstances, I find Larry the Cable Guy hilarious. I'm thinking in particular of the documentary show he has where he travels to different odd places around America (a moonshiners' society, a mermaid show on the side of a highway) and acts like Larry. He's a kind of travelling idiot savant.

      In every venue where he isn't an idiot savant, he's insufferable.

    2. It is the perfect episode for Chekov, and it's not like the comedy routines are excruciatingly unwatchable. They're amusing and entertaining (except Stella, who is eyeroll-inducing). The problem comes, I feel, when, unlike a Marx Brothers movie, we're laughing at the show instead of with it. By and large the things I found funny were not what I think the script wanted me to find funny, except Shater, Koenig and Carmel.

  2. Never really liked this episode; it does feel like 'give the actors a party to cheer them up/keep them quiet!' kind of story.

    With regard to Douglas Adams' comments, I think his comments were more about TV productions in general rather than specifically City of Death; as a writer / script editor in the 1970s he would have had very little say in the actors' performances (which was basically his point). Mind you, he was dead right!

  3. Certainly "silly", whichever connotation that may draw upon. But Shatner really excels with the material he's given, and this episode is a textbook example of the citing you often get in retrospect about how Kirk being an emotional man; a citation we often hear from both Spock and Bones, but also from the later fandom as they compared him to preceding Captains.

    The way Shatner can go from stuffy to merry prankster, or even for a moment pausing to philosophize before evaluating his crew's concepts before announcing "no, no chance, we're escaping!" are pretty remarkable in that they never feel "un-Kirk-like" as actions.

    I've never been that fond of the episode, but I've always been quite fond of some of the odd character interactions in it - this is one of the earlier examples of an "ensemble episode" which broke away from the "Power Trio + Fourth Musketeer Scotty" dynamic and gave a handful more characters something to do, stilted or otherwise.

    And I'll admit I've always adored Nimoy's "I love you ... but I hate you" paradox. A slight twitch of eyebrow, all the indication you get that maybe cold, logical Spock is enjoying the irony of being a merry prankster as a logical course of action.

  4. I'll admit to more or less thoroughly enjoying this episode. The vaudeville connection is one I hadn't thought of, and does an admirable job making sense of this episode as anything else I've read so I'll happily accept it.

    Despite relatively little of the actual "jokes" working as such, I find it almost impossible not to simply sit back and enjoy watching all these actors clearly relish their time on this episode. As K. Jones says in the above comment, it's an early "ensemble episode" for the franchise, and every actor seems interested in taking advantage of the opportunity to shine.

    I think the reappearance of Mudd is worth more of a pause than you gave, too. This might be some of the most truly concrete worldbuilding yet. As your project has well illustrated, so many of the ideas we take for granted now were either simply non-existent or subject to drastic change at the whims of whatever writer of the week is interested in doing. Mudd is one of the first times the show has brought back something from its own past and left it basically unchanged in concept or execution (except, as you say, with some of the worst stereotyping toned down). That's worth something, I think. What, precisely, I couldn't hazard a guess...

    1. I mean yes, I admit the actors are the best part of the episode and it's tough not to smile at Shatner, Carmel and Koenig having a ball. The ensemble connection both you and K pointed out is a good one, but it's hard for me to get too riled up about it when the next episode goes and does the same thing several times better. That's the thing for me: So much of what there is to like about "I, Mudd" is done so much more effortlessly and, well, actually functionally in "The Trouble with Tribbles".

      Perhaps I should have talked a bit more about the significance of the only reoccurring character in TOS outside the Enterprise crew, but, other than that fact, there's really not a whole lot to say about Harry Mudd IMO. He was a fan favourite and came back in TAS, but so did Cyrano Jones and Sarek and several other TOS characters (although they did get Carmel to reprise the role, which was actually kind of a rare thing for TAS). He's funny and enjoyable to watch (...well, here he is at least) and he probably would have made a fine reoccurring foil for Kirk if he came back more regularly, but aside from that I'm having a hard time coming up with extra material to dig in to.

      Maybe I'll have more to say about him in "Mudd's Passion" and/or if I decide to do "Mudd's Pets" for Malibu DS9 as a Myriad Universes. And, if it's any consolation, I'm currently in the middle of writing a rather lengthy post on the significance of world-building and character development to Star Trek and the particular way it manifests itself in the Original Series. It's for the episode you'd probably imagine it to be for.

    2. Yeah, I didn't mean so much talking about Mudd much, more along the lines of what it sounds like you're preparing to discuss in a future post. So I'll be looking forward to that.

      From your comments here and in the blog post proper, one thing that I think helps this episode is viewing it in airdate rather than production order. Yeah, when followed by Tribbles it seems like the most charitable thing you could call this episode is a warmup. But when put between Catspaw and Metamorphosis, and with Tribbles seven episodes away from this, it stands on its own two legs a little more. It hadn't occurred to me until you started this project how these episodes change depending on the sequence you watch them in. A subtle thing, but definitely there. It's led to my reappraisal of several episodes (particularly the early Roddenberry produced ones, so not really reappraisals in favor of those episodes).

  5. Hi, I'm liking your blog. I followed it from TARDIS Eruditorum.

    I have to de-lurk and ask: how does the sexism in TOS compare to contemporary US television? I was surprised by the degree of sexism in TOS when I rewatched it all the other year, but assumed it was a product of its time and probably better in this area than other shows of the era, as per Trek's general reputation (if not actual practice).

    I mean, Bewitched seems much more frequently and obviously sexist, often saying women should stay at home and not practice magic/be independent. Darren commands, and Samantha obeys. I Dream of Jeannie has Jeannie devoted to her master (but it's been a long time since I've seen much of it, and I get the impression it was more subversive). In Trek, at least women get to travel in starships, help explore, and have somewhat equal roles, if not treatment. And hold command positions:

    (It's been a long, long time since I've seen The Time Tunnel or Land of the Giants, which might compare more closely with TOS.)

    1. Welcome! Glad to have you!

      From my perspective TOS is better than its peers in some areas while being much worse than them in others others, but it's nowhere near as progressive and ahead of its time as fans like to think it is. Despite my misgivings, Uhura really is a big step forward, but the fact a character who is this extraneous for the majority of the show is still considered a step forward is discouraging.

      But that's about it, as far as I'm concerned. The Roddenberry era is unbelievably misogynistic and even Coon's tenure tossed out one or two stories that were absolutely irredeemable (though it must be stressed this really wasn't his fault or that of D.C. Fontana). Having female officers is nice, but not when they're all interchangeable and on the whole portrayed as being more childlike and less competent then their male colleagues. In a world where Raumpatrouiile Orion exists this just isn't going to fly with me.

      And that brings me to me big point: I really don't think TOS was ahead of the curve all that much. Raumpatrouille and The Prisoner run rings around it in feminist issues to a frankly embarrassing degree (the former even doing everything fans say TOS did, except better than Star Trek would for decades). Doctor Who is always more changeable about this sort of thing, but while no-one would call the late-60s incarnation of the show especially feminist (except for the 1969 season with Wendy Padbury as Zoe who is better than most people give her credit for being) the early-mid 60s era had its moments (typically involving Maureen O'Brien as Vicky).

      Even if we compare TOS only to other US shows of the time, we find that Lost in Space had female characters who were more then one note (...not much more, mind, but enough that it justifies comparison). I'm not all that familiar with Bewitched (but it sounds bad), though what I remember of I Dream of Jeannie (it's been awhile) I get the sense that it was subversive: I seem to recall most of those episodes revolving around a "be careful what you wish for" theme with the guy wishing for something and Jeannie complying, despite her confusion, and having it all blow up at him. Jeannie seemed to me to be the one typically depicted as wiser and more clever, and the lesson was not to abuse her powers.

      And then of course there's a show coming up in two seasons that makes just about everybody look bad, but that's for another time.

    2. Okay, thanks. It's weird trying to draw a line in-universe from Enterprise to The Original Series to The Next Generation with this weird backslide in attitudes towards women in the mid–23rd century.

      One other question while I'm here: will you be covering the RPGs? You've mentioned wanting to see the problems of the Federation, and FASA's The Orions (1987) did interesting things in this regard. It has the Federation act as a full colonial, imperialist power, placing colonies and displacing native peoples, and forcing treaties and borders on the Orion tribes" (the perfect sphere of Orion space reminds me of the straight line borders imposed by European colonials), and making heavy-handed efforts to change distasteful elements of Orion culture without regard for the consequences.

      Speaking of which, will you be discussing the ever-popular, ever-sexist Orion slave girls?

      I like Orions, they're fun and, as developed by FASA, a good way to discuss a lot of political and gender issues (the scars of colonialism, slavery, kamikaze/suicide bombing, financial greed, treatment of women and all), but sadly quite underused by the rest of Trek and FASA itself. Instead, we got the Ferengi.

    3. "One other question while I'm here: will you be covering the RPGs?"

      Most probably: They do, after all, build significantly upon the political structures introduced in "Journey to Babel". Not to mention the fact I'm covering the Star Trek: Starfleet Command series of video games and they draw their lore primarily from the FASA RPGs.

      "Speaking of which, will you be discussing the ever-popular, ever-sexist Orion slave girls?"

      I think the Orion Animal Woman scene in "The Cage" sufficiently speaks for itself. I made an offhand comment about it in my post for that episode. I find it pretty much as horrible and offensive as you'd probably imagine I would.

      There is, of course, the minor issue of "Bound" on Enterprise, but I'll worry about that when the time comes.

      "I like Orions, they're fun and, as developed by FASA, a good way to discuss a lot of political and gender issues (the scars of colonialism, slavery, kamikaze/suicide bombing, financial greed, treatment of women and all), but sadly quite underused by the rest of Trek and FASA itself. Instead, we got the Ferengi."

      I find that the Ferengi become interesting in their own right (well, at least Quark does. At first.), but you make a good point. Now that you mention it, the FASA version of the Orion Syndicate would probably have made a better group of reoccurring adversaries for early TNG than either the Ferengi or the Borg.

      I guess the only problem might have been that Gene Roddenberry is alleged to have laid down a "No Space Pirates" rule for TNG writers (famously resulting in the rather excellent "Gambit" becoming unnecessarily controversial IMO), but Gene Roddenberry was also very rarely correct.