Tuesday, September 10, 2013

“On your television screen”: By Any Other Name

"Well, I've only got these two d12s. We need more dice to make a complete set."

This was most likely one of the first episodes of the Original Series I ever saw-One of the VHS tapes I rented from the local video store when I was first getting really into Star Trek: The Next Generation to see what all the fuss over this older show from the 1960s was. Although I certainly knew the Original Series existed, my practical experience with it came mostly from pop culture references and the numerous books and video games I had about or set during the show's time period. I never saw this show in syndication (in fact the first time I got to see it in order was when the Sci-Fi Channel picked it up sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s, perhaps a consequence of possessing about four TV stations during my more formative years), so these scattered and assorted VHS tapes were my first real window into Star Trek's past. It may well have been among the first two tapes I got, along with “The Trouble with Tribbles”, although I may be blurring memories of multiple rental events into one due to the passage of time.

What I do remember most vividly about this episode is how the brightness and colourfulness of the Original Series contrasted with the look of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, I'm not one to claim the 1980s and 1990s shows have a drab, dull, faded or Grey look about them: I am in fact very much in love with the look-and-feel of at least both Star Trek: The Next Generation and early Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As far as I'm concerned there's a vastness of scale and a sense of wonder to those shows the other Trek eras simply don't possess, but which is mitigated by a genuine feeling of warmth, intimacy and welcoming. The Maurice Hurley- and Michael Piller-era shows were also shot in a very filmic style (and this doesn't just refer to the use of film stock) and the Enterprise and Deep Space 9 from that period feel radiant and alive. If you need further convincing, I more than encourage you to check out the recent Blu-ray transfer of Star Trek: The Next Generation: 1980s broadcast technology hamstrung that show's sensory impact significantly, as did the previous less-than-acceptable home video transfers of steadily decreasing quality (the DVD transfer is taken from the original VHS transfer, for example, and following several generations of signal decay to boot). On Blu-ray, the show looks the way the creators intended for the very first time.

However, this is very unlike the sheer 1960s primary colour gaudiness of the Original Series, and I don't mean this in a bad way at all (I mean at least as a general rule: There are some episodes coming up next season that look astonishingly trashy in a way the Original Series' theatricality usually manages to avoid). I found the Crayon-bright uniforms on Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty combined with the verdant planet where they respond to the Kelvans' fake distress signal to be quite striking at the time (although upon watching it both in the order and in the rapid succession I'm going at it does look rather a lot like a number of other Class M planets the crew has landed on, probably because it was in all likelihood the same location). I also recall both the transporter and phaser effects, which, to someone accustomed to Rob Legato's practical effects for Star Trek: The Next Generation which were as laudably workmanlike as they were cutting-edge and boundary-pushing, seemed ever-so-slightly off (although upon reflection, there aren't any transporter or phaser effects in “By Any Other Name”, are there?). I remember Kelinda too sticking out quite strongly, and no, not for the reasons you might presume: Say what you will about William Ware Theiss (and I do, a lot) the man had a real talent for designing eye-catching costumes for TV, and that weird, angular, blue-gray jumpsuit with no back definitely stands out, and I suppose in more ways then one.

And of course, it's difficult to forget the Kelvans turning the crew into Styrofoam Dungeons and Dragons dice (apparently they were based on a Mexican onyx dodecahedron D.C. Fontana gave to Gene Roddenberry). Styrofoam has a (somewhat deserved) reputation for being the material of choice for no-budget overreaching TV productions but, just like any prop it can be used quite effectively if the rest of the production makes up for it. Although, seeing it again the Kelvan field projections were probably not made out of Styrofoam: Styrofoam doesn't crumble to dust the way Yeoman Thompson does when she's killed by Rojan (and once again it's nice, by which I mean not nice in the slightest, that we not only have another generic Redshirt killed but a woman to boot. I suppose when the choice is the black guy or the white woman you've sort of written yourself into a no-win situation, although it all could have been avoided by, you know, not randomly murdering people on primetime TV). It was certainly effective though: It's intensely visceral to watch that thing crumble; you can almost hear and feel it within your body, and I remember being genuinely upset to see Uhura and Chekov turned into dice, despite knowing they'd turn back at the end of the episode (not that we get to see this, mind. Upon reflection it's rather cruel to have the Kelvans declare that only Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty are “essential”. It's almost like the show is textually reaffirming its implicit prejudices and predispositions. I know the Kelvans are the bad guys and we're supposed to be put off by it, but the episode doesn't go far enough to prove the show can do any better in my opinion).

“By Any Other Name” is the second script by Jerome Bixby, who previously gave us “Mirror, Mirror”. Unfortunately, it looks like this one is closer to his actual perspective: “Mirror, Mirror” was extensively rewritten (uncredited, naturally) by a number of people, and the original draft was apparently something of a disaster, featuring, among other things, Kirk introducing phasers to a less technological Mirror Federation to help them conquer an opposing empire and Mirror Kirk married to Mirror Nurse Chapel. To say the original script carries the faintest echo of the aired episode's bristling anti-imperialism and self-critique would be being *extremely* charitable-It would seem Bixby had an almost Gene Roddenberry-esque attitude to morality and ethics with a stance on imperialism that could best be summarised as “Empires are bad and things like the Federation should be opposed to them”. D.C. Fontana has a credit on this one too, but her influence was apparently nothing more than tweaking Bixby's script to make it more lighthearted, as the original version by all accounts took itself far, far too seriously. But while Fontana can turn this into a functional, serviceable script (and this certainly is: It's more than competent) she can't actually make it terribly interesting. One can't help but feel this is a staggering waste of someone like Fontana given what we know she's capable of, but I suppose this is part of the job description for the story editor.

And really this does seem to fit “By Any Other Name”, which is otherwise a stock, to-the-letter recitation of tiresome Pulp-style captures and escapes. Even when it's not literally a capture or escape, it *feels* like it as Our Heroes try out a new plan to thwart the Kelvans, are foiled, are forced to come up with a new plan, wash, rinse and repeat. The episode only actually picks up in the last third as the crew try to overwhelm the Kelvans with unfamiliar human sensations (which is, of course, a conceit lifted straight from “Catspaw” and is barely more effective here). Once again, it's the lead female extraterrestrial who gets tempted by sensuality, because of course she is, but I guess it says something “By Any Other Name” is on the whole in favour of this process as its ultimate solution is for the Kelvans to form a new society where they learn to live as humans. The scene where Scotty gets Tomar drunk on his entire alcohol stash was definitely one of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of the episode for me (despite how stupefyingly stereotypical it is to have the Scotsman be the friendly drunkard, and to his credit James Doohan blows the scene out of the water, rightly cementing it as one of his best moments on the Original Series).

Speaking of human emotions, let's talk some more about Kelinda, in particular her falling in love with Kirk. Despite the reputation Kirk has as an interstellar (and now intergalactic) ladies' man thanks to his studio-mandated girl-of-the-week, one thing I've noticed is that for all his dalliances Kirk actually has very few lovers: Almost all of his seductions have been shockingly cold hearted, using his charm to manipulate women as a means to an end. First of all, this is utterly awful, and any person who did this in real life would be rightly dubbed a dangerously abusive sociopath. That the only meaningful relationships Kirk seems to have are with his ship and his crew does have a tangentially sum positive side effect worth talking about at a later date, but as it manifests in the actual show this is continuously and deeply distasteful. As for Kelinda herself, rote sexism is written into her character from the very start: She eventually becomes another passive woman to be fought over (even if the actual animosity was one-sided) and even gets a generically and insufferably precocious “I can do as I please!” scene that is mostly successful only as an unpleasant reminder of how patriarchy leads some men to treat their wives and daughters the same way (as cattle) and that apparently extragalactic beings wearing human skinsuits act the same way as it's a fundamental human emotion. So thanks for that, Jerome Bixby.

Drea punches her time card at the flight conn station.

Personally, I always liked Drea, the Kelvan flight controller. She seemed to me like someone who was just trying to do her job and I got the impression she was a highly skilled and intelligent space explorer (probably due at least in part to Lezlie Dalton's competent and collected portrayal). I would imagine Kelvans have a very serious sort of body dysphoria, but Drea seemed to handle her new form quite well. That she never seemed to succumb to emotional confusion told me she probably had a better handle on her human side than her colleagues did, especially as she seemed to respect Kirk as much as Rojan. I have to wonder what the bridge dynamic might have been like had she decided to stay on as part of the Enterprise crew permanently: After all, they had to warp back to the Milky Way anyway and Sulu wasn't around this week, so she must have been the ship's flight controller for at least the trip back (although given the way the show tends to treat women, and how Uhura in particular has fared just this season alone, it's probably best I only have my imagination here).

Trying to imagine what Drea's everyday life would be like is fun for me. I like explorations of the everyday. My experience with the everyday has always seemed to be very different from that of others, so maybe that means I'm more cognizant of and drawn to it.

I guess I've always been the most drawn to the characters who go largely unaffected by the plot. Maybe it's because it subconsciously signals to me they have their act together and that resonates with me (or maybe it's because it also gives the sense they might be up to something of their own). Star Trek seems to be frequently, and derisively (albeit in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way) referred to as “Competency Porn” these days, a term I confess I'm a bit unfamiliar with. I am starting to see the appeal, though: I will admit the more and more a show delves into a character's inner psyche the less interested or invested I often find myself. I know conflict and character development are important, foundational elements of drama and narrative going back to Aristotle. Maybe that's also part of the reason I actually dislike so much drama. Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first scripted drama I ever saw that actually hooked me enough to pull me into its world, and it remains in many ways my standard for what the genre can and should aspire to.

Aside from Star Trek, the only TV shows I used to watch regularly when I was younger were nature programmes and cartoons. That remains the case to this day, which is making it increasingly hard for me to find television I actually like as both are genres that seem to me to be on their last legs, as much of the medium is. I've always preferred music and video games to stuff descended from cinema.

“By Any Other Name” certainly isn't terrible, but seen coming right after “A Piece of the Action” it's hard to see it as anything other than a rather large step backward, in spite of its quite many iconic moments. It's a far more acceptable “average” (to use a word I hate, but for which I can't at the moment think of a suitable replacement) episode of Star Trek than, say, “A Private Little War” or “The Gamesters of Triskelion”, but I don't think it's a preferable standard operating procedure to something like “The Doomsday Machine” (or even the episode coming up a few weeks from now, actually). I suppose there are worse places for a show to be going into its fifth year, though.

Drea is a creature of outer space who has acclimated to being human. Would this make her an expatriot, or even (in a very literal sense) an anthropologist?

"Enterprise log, Captain James Kirk commanding. We are leaving that vast cloud of stars and planets which we call our galaxy. Behind us, Earth, Mars, Venus, even our Sun, are specks of dust. The question: What is out there in the black void beyond? Until now our mission has been that of space law regulation, contact with Earth colonies and investigation of alien life. But now, a new task: A probe out into where no man has gone before."


  1. "I will admit the more and more a show delves into a character's inner psyche the less interested or invested I often find myself. I know conflict and character development are important, foundational elements of drama and narrative going back to Aristotle. Maybe that's also part of the reason I actually dislike so much drama."

    I actually see where you're coming from here, and feel similarly myself. I feel like television in particular (and film, to an extent) has gone to an extreme where characters and their development have become very heavily "internalized", for lack of a better phrase. We have to get every nook and and cranny, every darkest depth, every agonized decision making process in explicit detail, to say nothing of the incredibly wearying violence and anti-social behavior of the prestige show anti-heroes currently in vogue that now composes dramatic. Or take Batman in the movies, to give another example; compare the Nolan films to the Burton films, the latter of which (inasmuch as they were even concerned with development, which is to say not very) keep Batman at the margins and allow us only fleeting glimpses into his head, thanks to the wonderfully internalized (in a good sense) performance of Michael Keaton, as opposed to the former who tediously spell out the tortured psyche of it's protagonist in every possible way.

    There's no -distance- from characters nowadays; maintaining such from them allows the actual instances of development to be that much more effective. If Picard, say, were given the kind of treatment most protagonists are today, would "The Inner Light" and "Tapestry" worked nearly as well as they do in context of the length of our association with the character, much of which was just seeing him in his (albeit extraordinary) day to day affairs? I think not. Granted, it's a delicate balance to walk, and honestly I though TNG skewed too much onto the non-conflict/drama side for me, and that moments like those episodes were too far between, if not necessarily few. One of the reasons I've always loved DS9 best is that I felt they nailed just the right balance between Competency, as we'll call it, and Drama; turns out, disagreeing with your co-workers and having to get along with troublesome and often extra-legal types is as much a part of Competency as it is a source of drama, as opposed to TNG's no-fighting-everyone-gets-along-always general rule (the occasional philosophical conflict or malevolent alien influence excepted).

    1. I think a lot of it maybe comes from the voyeuristic nature of cinematic works. There was a severe backlash against overt violence and sexuality a few decades ago, so we just shifted what we were voyeuristically lusting over.

      As for the difference between The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine I'm a bit torn. I love both shows almost equally, sometimes for different reasons and sometimes for the same reasons. I confess I'm not as bothered by the "no inter-crew conflict" rule as others, because while in theory having your characters able to argue with each other sounds like a good idea IMO in practice it tended to result in generic betrayal and emotional fallout stories: Conflict that was shoehorned in for conflict's sake. And anyway, I really enjoyed the familial atmosphere this ended up cultivating and the way it forced writers to get creative. Sometimes this paid off in droves.

      Yes, DS9 struck a good balance, at first, although I think "We have to get every nook and and cranny, every darkest depth, every agonized decision making process in explicit detail" is a pretty apt description of what that show became under Ron Moore and Ira Behr, personally.

      But of course, that's largely for the future, although my take on conflict and drama in Star Trek is actually a bit of a theme in the next few posts.

    2. Of course, verily some of the absolute best of Next Generation is in later seasons when they relaxed on the "no inner conflict" rule. (Best example off my head: "Ethics" and the relationship Riker and Worf have, comes to mind.)

    3. Yes, TNG handled itself well. I think it's because the keyword there is "relaxed" and not "repealed". Now late-period Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise on the other hand...

      Well, let's just say I'm inclined to believe conflict can mean things aside from the main cast screaming at and betraying each other or having a nervous breakdown every five minutes.

  2. Thanks for commenting on the bright-and-garish aesthetics of the show. It's certainly a big reason for my love the series, so it's nice to see it get some time on the blog.

    Re: this story, I think this is one I remember reading the novelization of first. That was a pretty fun one for a kid, with the Kelvans feeling very alien and the Andromeda Galaxy stuff sparking a great chord in the imagination for the vastness of the universe. This is another episode I came to later in life, and while I wouldn't call it awful it definitely didn't live up to what my imagination concocted all those years ago. Still, it's another serviceable episode in the only real stretch where the show seems more or less comfortable with itself.

    1. I agree. "By Any Other Name" certainly isn't a disaster, but it does feel like it didn't quite live up to its potential.

      I definitely second that this stretch of episodes feels remarkably solid and has an impressive baseline for quality and ambition (FWIW I think it begins with "The Immunity Syndrome" and ends with...well, the one you'd imagine it ends with). I'd say its one of the weaker episodes of this stretch, but that we're in a stretch where "By Any Other Name" is one of the weaker stories should really say everything.

  3. This is actually my favorite episode of Star Trek. Shakespeare by way of Lovecraft. A rewatch once I've read the article to get my synapses firing should yield neat results.

  4. The episode works in spite of some of the unbearable elements. And that's of course because of the four leads and their opportunity to do both extreme dire seriousness and comedy in one bipolar episode. There's also two elements of Continuity thrown in.

    I'm more interested in the subtext. Transmutation is everywhere. The Kelvan power is that of transmutation; themselves into human forms, us into Bucky Balls. One could extrapolate that their ships operate on transmutation and that is why they, “superior”, were destroyed by the Galactic Barrier, but the Enterprise is not. But why shouldn't it be able to enter our Galaxy? Because transmuting magic isn't native to the Milky Way Galaxy - - but it is native to Andromeda, as we saw with Korob and Sylvia. Moreover, Spock's mental images imply that their true forms might be magical (or at least, multidimensional) in origin.

    The story transmutes as well! Kirk loses it, he's almost defeated mentally, but running out of action hero options has him transmute the high-stakes thriller into farce by doing what humans can do; be creative. Sense and emotion are the magicks of our galaxy, so Kirk knowingly shifts from Stoic Hero to Shatner Drag to win. It turns out, this wasn't a “Doomsday” episode, all along. Star Trek as “takes itself seriously” couldn't defeat this external force; but Star Trek as “lighthearted adventure” could. And that's what humans do; they shift dramatically from Tragedy to Comedy.

    Shatner's excelling at the humane and the humor. His reaction to the crewman's death, or Uhura, his near losing control, had weight and his manipulative treatment of Kalinda is slightly elevated by the twinkle in his eye as we all are in on the plan. She seems to be slightly aware of it too, and just plain curious about it. What is this twinkle? Some kind of magick is at work. Nimoy does great work with Spock's alien body language, and plays the devil well, as he deadpans comedy that is the funniest stuff in the episode. Spock himself, for a guy with little emotion, is certainly an authority at weaponizing it. Kelley gets to do something he doesn't get to do often (until the films), and that's be sarcastic instead of belligerent. And he's aces. (“I'm delighted ...”) Doohan subverts his stereotypes. Any time you pair him with Nimoy, it really is competency porn. The emphasis on Scotty's Number 3 rank feels more important here than when left in command during away missions, and the graveness of his gambit with Spock is incredibly thrilling in the first half, which makes the shift into slight buffoonery in the second half something earned, not jarring. We know how competent he is, and that it's high-stress. So the guy enjoys his downtime.

    Kalinda certainly undergoes a bit of uneven gender depiction, but she never feels helpless. Much of this is a level of intelligence from the actress, and a chemistry with Shatner. In some ways, it's a prototypical, slight example of subversion of the norm – not the first time, but also not enough to properly break convention (Oh, we're going to have fun talking Diana Muldaur). The flower metaphor is a little tortured here (an Eldritch Alien Woman is still a Beautiful Flower?). I've also got to admit, in hindsight that much of my favoritism for this episode rests on the comeliness of Barbara Bouchet. With Rojan it's evident from the second you see his height, build, and haircut, he's a mirror of Kirk. He even gives “We're not so different ...” speeches. But there's a wasted opportunity here – why have it be implicit when it could be explicit? The Kelvans chose human form to utilize the human ship. Would it not make sense that Rojan modeled his human form very much on Kirk? That in doing so he accidentally copied Kirk a little too closely. It would go a long way toward Kirk and Spock's effective manipulation of his emotions, and knowing just which were his weaknesses; jealousy, possessiveness, competitiveness.

    1. See, this is why I need commenters. You can take the episode and my post and distil more interpretations by bringing in your experiences.

      My post on "By Any Other Name" was always going to be experimental and autobiographical. This is a terrific reading that plays off of the continuity references the episode already had.