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.


  1. I remember being pretty disappointed when I first saw this episode. Especially as a kid (I must have been under 10 when I first saw it), the idea of having years of your life ripped away freaked me out. The world was already changing pretty rapidly, as it does at that age, and the idea that you'd just skip whole chunks of your own growth was unsettling. Plus, the makeup effects seemed appropriately disturbing.

    A disappointment, then, that the episode doesn't really go anywhere in that direction. Or play into a proto-Cronenberg kind of body horror that would have been interesting. It just sort of... sits there.

    It's not like the story of most of the original series isn't kernels of ideas that don't succeed in practice, but at least in most episodes you have some absurdly good performances from the lead cast as well as the generally garish and delightful visual aesthetic of the show. But you don't even really have that here. Everything is flat and listless.

    1. That's about it in a nutshell, and under 2000 words to boot!

  2. Increasingly I get the feeling that television production in the USA in the 1960s had a dearth of writers who fully understood what science-fiction could do. The novelists understood, which is why they were producing genre-forging and epochal works of literature. But the novelists, if we can take Harlan Ellison's this-time-deserved wrath over City on the Edge of Forever as an example, didn't fit well with the demands of television writing at the time. Or at least, there was no guarantee that once a script would be delivered, the rest of the production team would understand any of its themes and ideas.

    Star Trek has editors in Coon and Fontana who are doing their best, but the best is only as good as your source material. There almost needed to be a generational shift so that the old hands who were writing television could be replaced by a cohort of professional writers who also grew up with good, purposefully thoughtful science-fiction, and could write their own works that could equal the Golden Age masters.

    1. I think you're on to something. Off the top of my head I can count on my one hand people who wrote for the Original Series (apart from Coon and Fontana) who seemed to actually understand not just what the show was capable of doing, but what the genre of science fiction itself was capable of.

      Of those people, one was already a novelist (Robert Bloch), some had their work totally mangled in some form before it made it to air at least once (Bloch and Theodore Sturgeon), three we've already seen their entire (maddeningly brief) contributions to Star Trek (Bloch again, Sturgeon and Paul Schneider) and one we haven't actually met yet (but will very, very soon).

      The other is Jerome Bixby (who wrote "Mirror, Mirror"), but I'm reserving judgement on his Star Trek portfolio until I see all his episodes as his first drift was by all accounts kind of batshit (though he *did* write "It's a Good Life" for The Twiligth Zone, so he gets props for that).

  3. If we were to read a book that had entire chapters or sections that really contributed nothing towards the advancement of the story

    I think contributing to the advancement of the story is overrated:

    1. As do I. Actually, I think "story" is overrated. But I was just trying to provide context for explaining how filler episodes work, or are seen to work.