Tuesday, September 3, 2013

“...is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?”: Obsession

"What did you see, old man?"

“Obsession” is Moby-Dick for Star Trek again, so firstly all of the comments I made the last time we talked about this kind of story in “The Doomsday Machine” still apply. There is fundamentally not a whole lot to add to that (except for one issue I'll discuss a little later). The primary problem is, as always, the idea of doing a blind vengeance story in a setting that's supposedly more enlightened, idealistic and utopian. With Commodore Decker this worked, because we could get a character study about the tragic fall of someone consumed by a need for revenge without jeopardizing one of our own: Imagine, for a moment, that Decker's role in “The Doomsday Machine” had been filled by Kirk, McCoy or Sulu: There's no way the show could come back from that the next week, because the nature of serialized anthology television necessitates hitting the reset button in the last two minutes of every episode and doing that after that kind of intensely personal story would have been catastrophic. Furthermore, by essentially casting the Enterprise crew as Ishmael, this upholds the narrative reiteration structure that helped make the episode successful and also helped push the series towards the idealism it will soon become famous for.

In short, this is the problem “Obsession” is continuously grappling with. It's doing Moby-Dick again, except this time with Kirk as Ahab. Aside from this being, ultimately, a bit lazy and more evidence Star Trek and other US TV shows really need fewer episodes a year in order to better vet their scripts (at least this one is actually somewhat coherent and isn't a total write-off like the past few weeks have been), it risks breaking the tenuous solid ground the show's carved out for itself in the wake of “Mirror, Mirror”, “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Journey to Babel” because now Star Trek is more indebted to idealism than it's ever been before. It's not fully in that camp yet, it will take the fans to actually put it there, but it is now self-evidently the kind of show that someone could conceivably and plausibly draw that reading from. Hell, even “The Gamesters of Triskelion” portrayed the world of the Federation as something positive and worth striving towards, even if it was appallingly modernist and teleological about it. “Obsession” now has to deal with the challenge of doing a mad vengeance story with a main character on an anthology show that's started flirting with utopianism, which is something not even “The Doomsday Machine” had to worry about.

The success or failure of this was always going to hinge on how the script handled conflict, and to its credit “Obsession” at least doesn't totally blow it-It handles the problem about as well as could have been expected of it. It helps greatly that Kirk's turmoil isn't just vengeance here but guilt and self-doubt about his hesitation when facing the Vampire Cloud eleven years prior and his inability to save the crew of the Farragut. Depicting Ensign Garrovick as someone Kirk sees as a reflection of his younger self is a very nice touch (down to him finding himself in an echo of the situation Kirk faced when he was in his place), and their reconciliation in Act Four is a great character scene that's ahead of its time and takes some of the edge off of the episode's biggest problem: “Obsession” simply ties itself in knots trying to keep Kirk the hero and moral centre of the story and is trying desperately to keep him in a heroically authoritarian light.

The first half of the story plays out very similarly to “The Conscience of the King” where Kirk's judgment is cast into doubt because of his intensely personal connection to the situation and a fear he's no longer looking out for the welfare of the ship and the crew, but out for blood. At one point McCoy even tried to determine if he is medically unfit for command. However, unlike “The Conscience of the King” which was allowed to be far more of a character piece (perhaps by virtue of its overt theatricality), Kirk isn't actually allowed to learn anything here and in the second half of the episode the script turns itself inside out and reveals Kirk was in the right all along, and goes out of its way to show McCoy's concern was unjustified, thus undermining one of the best moments DeForest Kelley's been allowed all season when he talks to Kirk in his quarters about the nature of guilt. This need not be fundamentally a bad thing, as I feel the idea characters need to learn something every episode is a largely unhelpful and counterproductive one, but “Obsession” didn't need to do this by forcing Kirk into the heroic lead role and belittling everyone else by showing they were worrying over nothing.

The interesting flip side is that in doing this, “Obsession” actually helps further Star Trek's claim to be considered a work of idealism. What makes the scene in Kirk's quarters such a success, despite it being in many ways a rehash of what amounts to basically the exact same scene in “The Conscience of the King”, is that Kirk, Spock and McCoy have an actual intelligent discussion about their concerns. Kirk is still visibly on edge, but he tries to do his best to keep his anger contained and, when challenged by Spock and McCoy, calmly defends himself and articulates reasons why he doesn't feel he's become consumed by vengeance but is instead acting with the best interests of the ship, the crew and local space in mind (which, of course, turn out to be true once the Vampire Cloud invades the Enterprise). This is an extremely mature and intellectual approach to problem solving: Kirk doesn't hide the fact he's personally affected by self-doubt and feels guilt over his previous actions, but he quite correctly states he can't control that but has to rely on what his intuition tells him is the best thing to do. Instead of wallowing in pain and anguish for our voyeuristic amusement, Kirk actually discusses his feelings and opinions with his friends and colleagues. And, of course, William Shatner is perfect at this and his performance here is 180 degrees around from his antics last week, deftly signaling each and every one of Kirk's conflicted emotions, sufficiently demonstrating that the best way to prevent him from hamtastically eating the set is to give him an intelligent bit of writing to work with.

“Obsession” also provides us the first look at something we could conceivably call indicative of the style of new producer John Meredyth Lucas. Although the first episode to go out under his watch was “Journey to Babel” that was largely an example of letting an established veteran do her thing, which is good because that one was by D.C. Fontana and it takes talent to screw up a script of hers, if you happened to be so inclined to do so. “A Private Little War” saw the chair go back to Gene Coon, which is sad because he had to deal with Gene Roddenberry again. “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was Lucas', which is deeply unfortunate, but remember at this point in Coon's tenure we were still dealing with things like “Miri”, so we should cut him the same amount of slack (it's also interesting to note “Obsession” is Lucas' third story as producer and “The Conscience of the King” was Coon's second). However, the problem the Lucas era has is that it never really gets the chance to develop its own unique voice and perspective: Lucas is here for eight more weeks and then hastily abandons the show along with Roddenberry, Coon and Fontana as soon as “Assignment: Earth” wraps, and, unlike Roddenberry, he doesn't lurk around the franchise for the next twenty-five years such that we get intimately familiar with his worldview. Along with Coon and Fontana he'll occasionally pop in over the course of the third season to contribute a script, often under a pseudonym, but, just like them, it's clear he doesn't have any serious expectations about getting his conception of Star Trek seen and heard anymore.

As a result, “Obsession” is about the closest we're ever going to get to what a typical episode of John Meredyth Lucas' Star Trek might have looked like, although I'll do my best to try and tease his voice out of the remainder of the stories he's involved in. From what I can gather, and remember this is only his third episode, despite having written “The Changeling”, Lucas does seem to be more interested the character side of Star Trek then the “Strange New Worlds” concept. The Vampire Cloud is once again a malevolent Other and is just there to give Kirk and Garrovick something to, well, obsess over. He also seems to be interested in logic vs. emotions debates: On the surface this causes me to roll my eyes because Fontana has already wrapped all that up to a satisfactory degree by now, but to his credit Lucas' episodes (at least this one) seem to understand they're going out into a post-”Journey of Babel” Star Trek and show how all the main characters call upon a mixture of logic and emotions to make decisions. Even “The Changeling” showed Kirk having to use a combination of logic and improvisation to outwit Nomad.

(I'd talk more about the actual writer of “Obsession”, Art Wallace, except his only other Trek credit is co-writing “Assignment: Earth”, which is mostly a Roddenberry effort anyway. However, as the writer of the first seventeen weeks of the horror soap opera Dark Shadows and the author of that series' bible, he's definitely an interesting person to see connected to Star Trek).

But as sound as “Obsession” ends up in spite of its less-than-ideal central concept, it's tough to see it as a good sign either. To see this kind of personnel shakeup behind the scenes going into the tail-end of a season that's seen a mixture of absolute classics and absolute nightmares is not encouraging, especially when the people beginning to retreat are the very people who turned Star Trek into a show that was capable of turning out those classics in the first place. From the perspective of the future, the looming cancellation casts a dark shadow of its own over the proceedings, and it's tough to feel anything but sorry for John Meredyth Lucas, knowing he's inheriting a show that's on its way towards losing many of its best assets and will ultimately, and quickly, prove to be a sinking ship that he'll be unable to turn around. But with an irritable cast, a terrible track record for quality, an apathetic network and ratings that could charitably called middling, it's no surprise the end is coming soon.


  1. One of the nice parts about the blog's coverage of season two has been its cold eye on the nature of Star Trek the series. So often, it's viewed with the rose-tinted glasses of idealism and nostalgia that it's hard to get a real handle on its difficulties. Obsession is a key episode in this regard. I'd call it one of the better ones of the whole series, but it probably merits a B+ because of the points you rightly critique.

    But I wonder what on Earth your take on season three will be. I'm kinder to the series than you are, so I see a few bright points in the insanity, but given what I've seen of your perspective, that whole season amounts to an ocean of shittiness. You'll have to get pretty creative in your posts to slog through it in a way that at least offers the readers some enlightenment.

    1. It's not that I see the entirety of season three as a write-off as much I recognise that it is the end result of some deeply-rooted problems the show's been struggling with since its inception. There are, in point of fact, several highlights to the third season ("Day of the Dove", "The Tholian Web" and "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" come immediately to mind, not to mention scenes scattered throughout several episodes that cement Kirk's and Spock's pop culture legacy, which will be a major theme in my analysis of season three), but it has systemic problems that spring from Star Trek's personal demons, and it is quite possible to read 1968-9 as the year when they finally catch up with the show.

      Thing is, and I'll touch on this a bit in "Assignment: Earth" as well as the inevitable Bjo Trimble entry, Star Trek's renewal wasn't quite a renewal, for a great many reasons.

    2. Fascinating.

      I will say that I also have a soft spot for For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, mostly for its epic title that can never not be fun to say and its showcase for McCoy. The rest of the story is a fairly standard waking-a-population-up-to-their-own-enslavement-by-a-computer-or-whatever plot, but somewhat interesting because Kirk and crew does so for the sake of preventing a catastrophe that would destroy two worlds. I'm interested in what you'll eventually have to say about that one too.

    3. "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky" is one of the most wonderfully overblown and pretentious titles in the history of the franchise.

      My personal, half-serious theory is that it laid the groundwork for the similarly admirably overstuffed titles of Ron Moore and Ira Behr's version of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine such as "...Nor The Battle Too Strong...", "Let He Who Is Without Sin...", "The Darkness And The Light", "Ties of Blood and Water" "Wrongs Darker Than Death Or Night", "In The Pale Moonlight" and "Treachery, Faith and the Great River".

    4. But none of those titles is even remotely as good as "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky."

    5. Given Ron Moore and Ira Behr's fixation on the Original Series, I'll just say that statement may well prove to be very telling and symbolic.

  2. Season 3's an odd story to be sure, quality-wise more sporadic, though I find a fairly even ratio between 'passable' episodes and outright bad ones. But keeping on topic ... I can't get down on Season 2 just yet. The highs haven't ended; after Obsession we enter into a triad of notable (fun) episodes and the season hits its peak before closing out with some low points. There's at least seven passing grades (three quite good, but it's the usual suspects writing them) before we find another F.

    Obsession is an episode that doesn't sit well with me. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, in fact there's a great deal right. But despite interesting enough material for our top three to work with, and an actually substantial guest spot for a lower decks crewman, it's not mesmerizing.

    It never struck me as 'too alike Doomsday Machine' that Kirk had his own personal white whale out there - all these pulp hero types who've had long careers as heroes have their monsters. While the Doomsday Machine felt jarring and powerful because it just inserts itself at random into the Galaxy, a true intruder (more next post!), the Dikironium entity slithers through space. It's not an unstoppable juggernaut, deflecting all weapons. It's a wraith. A literal ghost in space, haunting Kirk, marked by an acute increase in his human senses - particularly his sense of smell, a sense that we humans really just don't use all that often. (We see an eerily similar entity in Crystalline Form some time later, of course, and somebody actually finally questions the ethics of exterminating a cosmic creature that's only trying to feed and procreate, and whether or not self-preservation justifies pest-control. More on that in about 100 episodes.)

    Ghosts of Kirk's past come to life all over this episode, as space-time is caught in a bit of Jungian synchronicity and history repeats itself. Another ghost of his past, Garrovick, is doomed to repeat Kirk's mistake because of a mistake he's making in the present. And it all ends back where it started, on Tycho, like an oroboros, with a titanic circle drawn in the sands of that wasted hemisphere - a seal placed over the grave of a demon to trap it forever in the past.

    This episode, a cosmic monster rearing its head from Kirk's past, was inevitable.

    1. While I do feel the season (and the series, frankly) has already peaked, I do have quite a few nice things to say about several of the episodes coming up at the tail end of the year. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of them.

  3. Any time you mention Moby Dick I'm going to ask about C.L. R. James ....