Thursday, September 5, 2013

“A world sinks thus; and yon majestic Heaven/Shines not the less for that one vanish'd star!”: The Immunity Syndrome

Sometimes you really do have to go with the obvious screenshot.

Well, here's something I wasn't at all expecting. Given how Star Trek has been seriously underperforming the last few weeks as well as the fact the series has been steadily but noticeably running out of steam since midway through the season I fully anticipated that the episode about the Giant Space Amoeba would be another silly runaround, especially as my memory of it consisted mostly of some agonizing debate over Spock taking on a suicide mission from which it was eminently clear he was going to come back, as well as of the aforementioned Giant Space Amoeba. I was totally prepared to glibly take the piss out of this one as another example of Star Trek's inevitable march towards cancellation.

It turns out the memory does in fact cheat, and I'm thankful it does in this case because “The Immunity Syndrome” is actually properly excellent.

In some ways the episode “The Immunity Syndrome” is most immediately comparable with is “The Doomsday Machine”, from which it inherits its thriller structure. Once again, we have a tense countdown to destruction that is narrowly averted at the last possible second and which keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout the entire story. Perhaps as a result, this is a laudably tight and exciting production, and, like its predecessor, a sterling example of what an “average” (to use a potentially loaded term) episode of Star Trek in its second season ought to look like. However it's a great deal more than that: In this regard (and uncannily so given “A Private Little War” is still relatively fresh in the memory) “The Immunity Syndrome” may actually be closer to “The Alternative Factor”, because the threat posed by the Giant Space Amoeba for almost the entire runtime of the episode is an honest-to-goodness narrative collapse.

We've come perilously close to narrative collapse a number of times in Star Trek so far: “The Alternative Factor” is, naturally, the most obvious example, but as I mentioned in its corresponding post, “The Menagerie” at least flirted with the iconography of collapse, though thanks to a combination of the approach of the early Gene Coon era and Gene Roddenberry's general writerly incompetence that's not quite what we got. “The Immunity Syndrome”, however, is the closest we've gotten yet, and while it ultimately stops just short of becoming one, for the vast majority of the episode it seems like it just might go all the way. The telltale sign comes in the very first act, when the Enterprise discovers the aptly named Zone of Darkness, which immediately begins to sap the life force of both the ship and its crew. Within the zone, there is no starlight, either because it's been blocked by something or all the stars have simply gone out. Now a lot of calamitous things can happen on Star Trek: The show threatens the destruction of the ship or the death of crewmembers on a seemingly weekly basis. But as far as I'm concerned, if you take away the stars from Star Trek, that really is it.

Even before that, in the teaser we see Spock recoiling in horror at the destruction of the Intrepid and her crew of Vulcans, which he can sense thanks to a species-wide empathic link. Spock describes the Intrepid as not just “destroyed”, but actually “dead”. It's a commonly circulated piece of Star Trek fan lore typically attributed to Gene Roddenberry that the Starship Enterprise (or starship Voyager or Starbase Deep Space 9) should be seen as a character unto itself and just as important to the show as any of the other regulars (and in reality this probably comes from Dave Gerrold or D.C. Fontana, as Roddenberry had to actually be convinced to use an Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation instead of increasing the range of the transporter). In other words, what we have in “The Immunity Syndrome” is a threat big enough to actually kill the Enterprise. It's tough to think of something that, at this point in the show's history, could seem more like a direct and grave threat to its diegetic existence than this: Vaporize whole sectors of space and you have drama for an episode. Kill the Enterprise and you kill Star Trek.

The behaviour of the Giant Space Amoeba is also interesting to note, as it's described on a number of occasions as a virus, that is, something foreign and dangerous that has invaded the body of the galaxy and needs to be purged before it spreads and infects everything. This rhetoric, just as it was in “The Return of the Archons” last year, is potentially worrying because it has the potential to tread into xenophobia. That said “The Immunity Syndrome” is thankfully divorced of clunkily handled metaphor because the Giant Space Amoeba is simply exactly that: A Unicellular organism, albeit one that's the size of a solar system. In spite of all this though it remains a form of New Life (you know, one of the things the Enterprise is supposed to be on a mission to Seek Out), so Kirk's by this point signature solution of Blowing It The Fuck Up does grate a little, even if it was arguably his only option.

However, this is distinguished from the more ethically troubling iterations of this in the past by a number of factors: Firstly, the Giant Space Amoeba, being a form of single-celled life, can hardly be called sentient, and if we start arguing for the rights of viruses we're probably going to have some serious problems. Secondly though, everything up to the climax shows the crew trying their hardest to make scientific observations about a heretofore unknown type of creature, and McCoy is perfectly willing to risk his life to work in “the greatest biology laboratory ever”. It does seem like somewhere a corner was turned in the crew's standard operating procedure: They're starting to act more like scientists and explorers than soldiers and policemen, and on a more regular and noticeable basis. Crucially though this still almost gets everyone killed: Every attempt the crew makes to study and learn more about the Giant Space Amoeba causes it to react in such a way that it causes things to become markedly worse for them, almost as if the show's own ostensible premise is fighting against it, challenging it to prove it's actually capable of living up to it.

Ultimately of course it's the possible death of Spock that truly marks “The Immunity Syndrome” as a narrative collapse in waiting. While narrative collapses do result in the restoration of a work's ability to tell its stories, this typically comes at a massive, tragic cost, and the death of a major character would certainly suffice. The choice of Spock out of everyone is particularly visceral: As the embodiment of Star Trek's central duality that dates back to Gene Roddenberry and “The Cage” and the character frequently representative of the very best the series tries to strive for, this would be a mighty loss indeed. And, appropriately, “The Immunity Syndrome” goes to great lengths to lead us to believe this might very well be Spock's final bow up until the very last scene, tying in beautifully with the thriller structure the episode employs elsewhere. We've had the death of major characters threatened before (Spock alone has faced death a not-insignificant amount of times just this season), but in the past this has always been clearly a fake-out in order to drum up dramatic tension cheaply and quickly. There's absolutely no doubt Spock's going to survive something like the gunshot in “A Private Little War”, for example-That was only put in to get him out of the story for awhile. Here though, the entire episode is basically set up to telegraph Spock's ultimate fall, with the story gradually building to his supposed heroic sacrifice from his horror in the teaser, which also results in one of his very best moments in the series so far when he criticizes McCoy, and by extension humanity, for their lack of empathy, declaring, probably rightly, that if we had the same conception of a greater whole that Vulcans do our history “would have been a lot less bloody”.

But killing off Spock would have done more than just provide the sacrificial lamb necessary to escape narrative collapse: An argument could be made this would have ended up killing Star Trek just as effectively as killing the Enterprise: As not just a major character but the central one who symbolizes the show itself and its core themes (at least at first) and someone who becomes one of the most iconic aspects of the entire franchise, having him die here would have been absolutely catastrophic, probably bringing about a narrative collapse of its own. Which is why, in the end, “The Immunity Syndrome” once again backs away from unleashing the true horror it was hinting at on the show. Spock miraculously survives his mission and Kirk gets to blast his way out of a problem once again. Star Trek avoids narrative collapse a second time, but we're left with the worrying notion that this time it was a little too close for comfort. And in a sense “The Immunity Syndrome” has condemned the series anyway: By destroying yet another previously unknown, and possibly unique, form of life, the show has really demonstrated itself to be something of a hypocrite. Kirk can talk all he wants about being on a mission of peaceful exploration, but we know exactly what he's going to do when the chips are down.

The only qualifier I may have with all of this is the source of this potential narrative collapse itself: While it serves very well as an unknown form of life, and thus by definition something the Enterprise crew are on the whole unable to deal with, the effectiveness of the Giant Space Amoeba as a believable threat to the very fabric of Star Trek is...somewhat limited by the fact that it is, in truth, well...A Giant Space Amoeba. This alone means “The Immunity Syndrome” comes across as a little lacking when compared to “The Alternative Factor”, the latter episode having as it does matter and antimatter realities that pose a danger to the show's coherence by virtue of traumatic metafictional multiplicity (although it is interesting that within the Zone of Darkness things seem to run backwards, much like one would expect in a realm opposite of ours). Perhaps that can be seen as part of the joke though: Star Trek is on such shaky ground that a Giant Space Amoeba is almost all it takes to completely break the series like a twig. All that said, the Giant Space Amoeba is a truly fantastic visual effect, both the original design and the CGI re-imagining that's part of the new effects added to the rebroadcast syndicated run of the Original Series that aired in the mid-to-late 2000s and that's available now on all the home media versions as an optional extra.

It's also crucial this happens now, at the tail-end of the second season and in the first script of John Meredyth Lucas' tenure as producer that can actually be called basically functional. Behind the scenes, the show really is flying apart at the seams, and it's starting to look more and more like Star Trek isn't coming back next year. There's seven episodes left to air in the season, and only five of those really actually count. Barring something unprecedented, like, say, a large-scale fan-driven letter-writing campaign demanding the show be kept on the air, one does get the distinct sense Star Trek is winding down. This is the perfect time to put out an episode like this, seeming as it does to be such an extradiegetic critique of the show's structure and basic ethics. Was it, ultimately, the show seems to be asking of itself as much as it is of us, at all worth it? Well, we have to wait a few more weeks to get the answer to that.

1 comment:

  1. available now on all the home media versions as an optional extra

    True only for the blu-ray; on the dvd, only the new CGI versions are available.