Tuesday, October 22, 2013

“But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep.”: For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky

You know, sometimes the picture just says it all.
This was an episode I never saw much of. I'd seen scraps of it here and there, but it was never a story I deliberately sought out to watch, for a number of reasons. First of all, I was just never as big a fan of the Original Series as I was its two immediate sequel shows and I wasn't especially inclined to be a completionist about it. Also, from everything I'd seen of “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” told me it just wasn't my kind of story. Not that it was bad, and indeed by all accounts it was a highlight of the third season, it's just this kind of weighty tragedy is not really the way I enjoy spending my leisure time, even knowing it of course had to be undone at the end of the episode. But it seemed like a very well-regarded tear-jerker of a character study awash in a dreamlike sense of poetry, as anything with a title that breathtakingly pretentious damn well better be.

Yeah, no, it's terrible.

“For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” is “The Gamesters of Triskelion” for the third season. It is so awash in Star Trek cliches the show itself seems tired of them. It's not even really possible to come up with a list of episodes this one cribs from, as it seems like it just stole from everything, but, off the top of my head I can maybe mention “The Return of the Archons”, “The Apple”, “By Any Other Name” and most obviously “The Paradise Syndrome”, from which this episode takes its basic plot about a member of the Enterprise crew abandoning Starfleet to live a simpler life married to a high priestess, not to mention a worrying majority of its set. None of this really fills one with boundless enthusiasm.

The one innovation this episode brings to a mountain of overplayed, hackneyed Star Trek standbys is the idea that the reason McCoy wants to retire to Yonada is because he's suffering from a terminal illness. This isn't something Star Trek had looked at before, probably for good reason. Imagining any of the previous creative teams attempting a plot like this is a somewhat frightening prospect, and as good as writers like Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana might have been, this isn't really the sort of thing that's in either one of their wheelhouses. Of course, this logically means we should expect *this* creative team to make an absolute hash of this, as they were both stupidly confidant enough to attempt this kind of episode in the first place and blissfully ignorant of the actual extent of their grasp to the point they could tie it to a story about an intergenerational asteroid starship. We would not be wrong to expect this as the finished product is in fact embarrassingly awful, but let's briefly pause for a moment to remember that intimate character drama isn't really all that unusual a thing for Star Trek to attempt. The series began, after all, with an overt fusion of pulp sci-fi, Golden Age sci-fi and soap opera dynamics. Characterization *should* be a strength of the show.

And indeed it is, but doing character pieces for Star Trek is not the same as doing character pieces for other shows. It's a unique environment with its own quirky and counterintuitive rules, and failing to heed them sort of means you're not *really* doing a Star Trek story. One of the big ones, at least for the moment, is that Star Trek tends to involve going to a new place every week and the setting of the Enterprise has to remain somewhat constant: The show is about the interaction between two status quo: The constant of the Enterprise and the setting-of-the-week of the planet or starbase or whatever (and before someone says something, yes, the show you're thinking of does in fact manage to game this rule and still be Star Trek, at least at first, but that's a special case and we've got until 1993 before it becomes a major theme). The character moments need to be sparked by the plot of the episode, not the other way around. I mean this is just good writing advice in general, but it's absolutely imperative for Star Trek. This is a very long-winded way of saying that teasing the death of a major character really doesn't work on Star Trek unless we know for a fact the actor isn't coming back next season, which was certainly not the case here.

And furthermore “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” just fails at its character moments anyway: If you're going to do a soap opera plot about how the characters might deal with a friend who has a terminal illness, it absolutely needs to be done with the utmost care and respect and more than anything your creative figures need to be on the same page. None of this happens in this episode. While McCoy's disease does serve as his primary motivation here, the shift between the deeply serious plot about him possibly dying and the retread space adventure is audibly clunky and, damningly, neither have very much to do with one another. The acting is also painfully poor this week, and it really, really needed not to be for this to have any chance of working: DeForest Kelley gives an astonishingly phoned in performance and doesn't at all act like anyone in that situation might. Leonard Nimoy is no better: I know Spock is supposed to be a Vulcan who hides his emotions, but Nimoy just looks he doesn't want to be here and has totally tuned out of everything. Thank goodness William Shatner makes up for them, playing Kirk as someone gently compassionate, but who's also awkwardly walking on eggshells around his dying friend because he doesn't know how he should react. Nimoy and Kelley just look utterly bored out of their skulls.

The guest cast is no better: Katherine Woodville's Natira is a neurotic, bug-eyed wildwoman who spends most of the episode mugging for the camera. She's not helped by the fact her love story with McCoy is one of the most stupendously half-assed and thrown-in romance subplots I have ever seen: It basically amounts to Natira taking a fancy to McCoy after about 30 seconds and then proposing marriage after a beat, to which McCoy's reaction is essentially “OK. Sure, I guess...”. This makes Kirk's studio-mandated-girls-of-the-week look intimate and meaningful. At least Shatner had the decency to play those as if he was genuinely in love. Also, while taken on its own the title “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” sounds lovely and poetic, it becomes considerably less so when it turns out to be a literal description of the major plot reveal and is blurted out verbatim by some random crazy old guy who disturbingly creeps out from behind a curtain in Kirk, Spock and McCoy's guest quarters on Yonada before promptly dying of an acute ham seizure. This is a far cry from William Shatner's pantomime recursive artifice performance art, or even his antics in something like “The Omega Glory” or “And The Children Shall Lead”. Shatner at least is never not entertaining, regardless of whether or not he's actually trying. These people are just screwing around and it's not even fun to watch.

(This non-romance also leads directly to the episode's spectacularly incoherent resolution where Natira decides McCoy has to go back to the Enterprise while McCoy wants to stay with her on Yonada. Natira sounds like she's explaining to McCoy why she can't go back to the ship with him...even though that's not actually what McCoy says he wants to do.)

It's a general rule of mine never to get hung up on production details like plot, character development as special effects, as I typically find them to be tremendously overvalued by the vast majority of people who write about visual media and to me they are largely the least important aspects of a work of fiction. With this season, however, and in particular an episode like this one, we've gotten to the point where Star Trek's slapdash approach to production, which could previously be written off as pleasingly theatrical, has now actually become a major problem and is directly interfering with and detracting from the show's overall impact and ability to be read. Neither “The Empath” nor “The Tholian Web” looked especially lavish and neither were the smoothest scripts, but I didn't focus on the structure issues there because both episodes were imaginative enough they absolutely didn't matter. That's...not really the case here.

The problem with the Yonada sets isn't that they're “unconvincing” (very little in Star Trek actually is), it's that they're visibly the same sets we saw five weeks ago and no attempt has been made to make them look the slightest bit different. “The Empath” and “The Tholian Web” reused a bunch of props too, but you wouldn't know that because of the enchanting art design. It's possible to do wonders on a shoestring budget: I direct you once again to not just the last two episodes, but also Raumpatrouille Orion. Here though there's an overwhelming sense of fatigue and deflation, and it's crushingly depressing to see the asteroid-starship that was the one thing from this episode that really stuck in my imagination portrayed not just via one of the saddest, most drab and blase bits of 1960s set design, but also through stock footage from “The Paradise Syndrome”, reminding me once again how cynically similar the two stories are and leading me to wonder if the whole reason this episode exists wasn't actually just to reuse all those effects shots. It all comes back to love: If you love something enough, you can make it work.

Just like the loveless romance between McCoy and Natira, “For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky” is the product of a show that's stopped loving itself.

1 comment:

  1. it becomes considerably less so when it turns out to be a literal description of the major plot reveal and is blurted out verbatim by some random crazy old guy who disturbingly creeps out from behind a curtain

    I found that scene memorably haunting and effective -- but I haven't seen it since I was 12. I wonder what I'll think of it now.