Tuesday, October 8, 2013

“Excuse me, can you help me? I'm a spy.”: The Enterprise Incident

"Legendary Space Encounter", by Randy Asplund
“The Enterprise Incident” is arguably one of the most iconic episodes of the original Star Trek, or at least this season. “Iconic”, however, is not necessarily a synonym for “good”. While decent and a godsend compared to what the show has been hurling out since the beginning of the season, I'm not especially inclined to call “The Enterprise Incident” one of the all-time greatest stories from this show, especially coming off of the streak of home runs that was the latter John Meredyth Lucas tenure. This episode is, however, perfectly serviceable, better than the last two stories by light years and further evidence of what a tremendous asset D.C. Fontana was to Star Trek.

The circumstances behind Fontana's resignation as script editor are somewhat hazy. The official story is that she was too overwhelmed by her day-to-day duties and wanted the opportunity to freelance for other shows, but the somewhat caged and guarded way she tends to recount this (along with the rather exasperated tone she often takes on when describing her time associated with the franchise) leads me to believe there's likely a bit more than that at play. Whatever the reasoning though, “The Enterprise Incident” is Fontana's first Star Trek contribution as a freelancer, a position she'll hold for the remainder of the Original Series, and also her final contribution to the Original Series under her actual name. And right away, it's very clear the impact her absence has had on the show's overall production: “The Enterprise Incident” was extensively “edited” by Gene Roddenberry (even though that shouldn't technically be his job anymore) as well as (I presume) Arthur Singer. As a result, what we get here is in many ways D.C. Fontana-lite: Even “Friday's Child” wasn't monkeyed around with to quite the same extent this story was, and this had an almost quantitatively net negative effect on the final product.

Fontana's original draft was partially inspired by the 1968 “Pueblo Incident”, where North Korean forces captured and detained a United States Navy cruiser for over a year on charges of espionage, hence the title. This would make “The Enterprise Incident” arguably the first Star Trek episode to explore a current and topical sociopolitical issue (previous episodes, namely things like “A Taste of Armageddon”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Private Little War” made halfhearted stabs at this, but were almost always held back by the show's apparent desire to remain somewhat safe and apolitical) were it not for two issues: Firstly, Roddenberry's and Singer's “improvements”, among a great deal many other things, helped to obfuscate this significantly. Secondly however, “Journey to Babel” proved that, if nothing else, Fontana is a master at blending complex political world building plots with intimate stories about characters, and would prefer to lean in this direction if given the opportunity. “The Enterprise Incident” builds off of this, using the backdrop of a high-stakes espionage mission to further explore Kirk and Spock as well as the sense of loyalty and devotion the Enterprise crew shares amongst themselves.

Much like in “Journey to Babel” then, it's clear the story Fontana is really interested in telling examines is the effect the situation has on the characters, as opposed to the intricacies of the situation itself. She's said the Pueblo story was merely what kickstarted the train of thought that led her to write this episode and it was not as much intended as a direct analog or parable. However, and that qualifier hangs like the Sword of Damocles over this episode just as it does every other episode this season, this is largely not the story “The Enterprise Incident” actually is. Nevertheless, we can try to piece together what Fontana's original story might have been based on her words on it after the fact and the inklings we get in the thing that made it to air: We see hints of a story about Kirk pushed to the edge of madness over his flagrantly warmongering and potentially trust-shattering orders from Starfleet Command, Spock's exploration of heritage being pushed to the logical limit by having him sympathetic to, and ultimately side with, the Romulans, and a Romulan Commander who is in many ways an extrapolation of the tantalizing groundwork laid down by Paul Schneider in “Balance of Terror” and who proves once and for all the Romulans, the supposed Evil Enemy, are in truth a deeply complex and multifaceted culture who, while they may not be *just* like us, are ultimately just as worthy and deserving of respect and personhood as we are.

As Fontana is not one to speak ill of her former colleagues (though one does frequently get the sense she'd really, really like to), she says there were a lot of “little things” that were changed she wasn't happy about. And while she may be coy about her original intent so as not to upset the Trekker cart, let's be honest with ourselves. We know enough about Fontana, her writing style and her positionality by this point to rather easily discern which parts of this production were hers and which parts...weren't. I'm willing to bet the first “little thing” that was altered was Kirk's mental state. In the episode as aired, Kirk puts on an elaborate show to give the impression he's losing his mind and endangering the crew to provoke a diplomatic incident with the Romulans, while in truth he's on an undercover mission to steal their new cloaking device so that should something go wrong his reputation and his alone would be tarnished. Fontana says that in the final product “Kirk's attitudes were wrong”, but never elabourates. I have a feeling this is what she's talking about-It would not surprise me in the slightest to learn the original draft had Kirk genuinely teetering on the brink of insanity due to what the Federation is asking him to do and the strain it's putting on his relationship with the crew, and yes, the Romulans. This is the kind of story one does not expect to see until the Dominion War: To see Fontana hinting at it in 1968 is astonishing. But, it is in keeping with her perspective: She was there when Gene Coon created the Federation (which was intentionally problematized from the beginning) and neither of them have been especially keen to leap at the idea it's a perfect utopia.

(That said, as aired “The Enterprise Incident” does give William Shatner a decent vehicle: Playing Kirk playing mad while secretly scheming is right up his alley, and he knocks the performance out of the park: We suspect he's secretly up to something from the teaser. It's properly close to “A Piece of the Action” standards).

Spock's story seems to have remained comparatively intact, which is for the better as it's arguably the best part of the episode. It's not, however, completely unaltered: While Spock and the Romulan Commander were always meant to fall in love based on their similar perspectives and experience, the final episode drastically changes some significant scenes with the Commander such that her impact is altered and, in my opinion, worsened. She starts out as a truly hypnotic presence: Someone just as intelligent, competent, cosmopolitan and with just as much dignity as Kirk (and crucially, just as workmanlike too). And, helped by Joanne Linville's imperious and elegant performance, she absolutely dominates the first half of the episode. Naturally, all this is promptly shoved out an airlock as soon as she begins a relationship with Spock, who is easily able to manipulate her and allow Kirk to sneak on board the Bird-of-Prey and steal the cloaking device right under her nose, turning her into a generic “woman scorned”. Fontana hated this, saying “Any Romulan worth her salt would have instantly suspected Spock because they are related races. That was wrong.”. Of course, she's right, and frustratingly, this would have made a far, far more interesting story: Imagine the Commander and Spock constantly trying to play and outmaneuver each other throughout the whole episode because they know what they're planning and what they're capable of (and what their respective orders are), despite also deeply loving each other. That would have been electrifying.

One alteration Fontana is perfectly upfront with is the actual love scene: Apparently in the original script Spock was meant to “rain kisses” on the Commander. This was *not* Fontana's idea: Gene Roddenberry felt the need to throw this bit of stage direction in before it was submitted to Arthur Singer and Fred Freiberger. This enraged Leonard Nimoy, who penned Roddenberry a scathing letter complaining about this addition and demanding he cut it out. Fontana, predictably, agreed with Nimoy and also wrote Roddenberry a(n altogether more diplomatic) letter cautioning him on what the fan backlash would be if Spock was written out of character. Eventually Roddenberry backed down, and Nimoy and Linville improvised their gestural makeout session, a further extrapolation of the significance of hands to both Vulcan and Romulan society. A final note on the Spock/Commander plot: It's delightfully telling that Fontana's first post-“Save Star Trek!” script puts Spock in an intricate and deeply personal love story and throws Kirk into the clink to pretend to have a mental breakdown. She clearly knew perfectly well the sort of thing all those fans really wanted to see!

Despite everything that was tacked on, altered or taken out, there's still a lot of great moments in “The Enterprise Incident”, the best of which build on not just “Balance of Terror”, but the work both Fontana and Gene Coon have been building over the past two years. This is as nuanced and developed as we've ever seen any culture in Star Trek so far, not just the Romulans, and the Commander's description of them as a deeply passionate and aesthetic people who guard against the more retrograde, warlike aspects of their culture with a smouldering love of life is intoxicating in and of itself: I could listen to Linville go on about Romulan sensuality basically forever. Speaking of Linville, she has the distinction of playing the very first female captain of a starship in the entirety of Star Trek, and I'm quite sure Fontana meant for there to be symbolism behind having her be Romulan instead of a member of Starfleet: There are a number of times she comes dangerously close to having the moral and ethical high ground, and one suspects she would have won the whole thing in Fontana's original version. Shatner-as-Kirk too plays into this theme when possible: It's an easily missed bit of genius to have Kirk retain his surgically altered Romulan appearance after he beams back to the Enterprise with the cloaking device...and have the episode end before we get to see McCoy change him back.

But the problem is these great moments never add up or come together to be a truly great episode. The story that we can watch on television is too in love with its espionage trappings and refuses to problematize the actions of Starfleet Command in the slightest. We never get to see any actual debate over the morality of Kirk's orders and the Federation emerge the unambiguous Good Guys again. And, well, putting aside the larger sociopolitical and ethical concerns of the UFP for the moment, just knowing the sort of things Richard Nixon was getting up to in 1968, one sort of hopes Fontana would have been allowed to write a story less enamoured with the glory of Western-style representative democracy. Furthermore, the Romulan Commander gets a positively dreadful ending: Yes, she's treated as a guest of honour on the Enterprise, but she surely won't be once she gets taken back to Federation space to be “processed”. Imagining the loneliness and despondence she must feel trapped on the other end of the galaxy from her people literally deep in enemy territory just makes me shudder, and no amount of apologising and commiserating on Spock's part makes any of that better.

“The Enterprise Incident” is also the last story to depict the Romulans in a manner consistent with their original characterization in “Balance of Terror”. Though it builds on and extrapolates this to a marvelous degree, it's kind of gut-punching to know we're never going to see this developed on ever again. In many ways the Romulans are the perfect adversaries to the Federation, because we get to see different aspects of ourselves reflected and emphasized in different ways, both for the worse and for the better. But, much like “The Enterprise Incident” itself, future Romulan stories will be subject to micromanaging such that their overall impact is significantly dulled. A case could be made D.C. Fontana too was never able to see the true potential of her vision realised: This is far from her last offering; we'll be talking about her well into the 2000s and 2010s and she even gets to be showrunner of her own Star Trek series, but her story is all-too-frequently one of being hamstrung, runaround and dismissed in favour of bigger-name creative figures and studio party lines. In that sense, while “The Enterprise Incident” may not be her best work, it may sadly be what best represents her contributions to Star Trek's legacy.


  1. It occurs to me that you could have an HBO drama series following the backstage production of 60s Star Trek. The marginalised women, the sociopathic male executives, the sexism, the politics of the Nixon era as a backdrop. 'Trek Men' perhaps.

    1. I don't think I can live in a world where Gene Rodenberry becomes a pop culture sex symbol while people have their cake and eat it too with their privilege porn of a culture that of course they don't -really- want to return to, god no, but ooh isn't it sexy?

      That aside, excellent post; I'm disappointed but not surprised to learn how much better this episode could have been without interference, as Linville's Romulan commander is one of the best characters TOS ever produced. I'm surprised they never did anything more with her in the books, she's just begging to have her own series or one-off.

    2. She's just begging to have her own name.

      I didn't get around to seeing this episode for a while, I think just by sheer luck. I thought it was good, but not great, precisely because the whole story was, in terms of characters, about manipulating the Commander so that she'd destroy her career and life in being captured and humiliated by having the cloaking device stolen on her watch. Balance of Terror did such a good job of depicting a Romulan commander that this just doesn't measure up. The commander in Balance of Terror was defeated, yes, but he went down with dignity. The commander here isn't afforded that.

      And neither commander ever gets names of their own.

    3. This is a minor spoiler, but as we all clearly love and miss Linville's Commander and wish she could have come back, I'll let this slip:

      René Echevarria wanted her to be the Romulan Commander Deanna Troi interacted with in "Face of the Enemy" but Linville was unavailable to reprise the role, so he created the character of Toreth instead.

    4. I'm surprised they never did anything more with her in the books

      She was a major character in two of the earliest Trek novels, Price of the Phoenix and Fate of the Phoenix by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath.

  2. Thanks for that tale of ‘what might have been’ – and well done to Leonard for the stiff letter! The sending of which reminded me of something very silly, which I’ll come to in a minute.

    I wonder if the best line in it remains one of D.C. Fontana’s, then? “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all.” Which could be a comment on how the whole thing was rather pointless in the end. I still think the journey’s worthwhile, even if it doesn’t end up anywhere special and the backstory you report is a little sad.

    And now for something very silly, brought to mind by stiffly formal communication…

    Some years ago, when my fiancé Richard and I watched the whole series through on DVD (many of them for the first time, and I do remember us being impressed by this story), we came upon Amok Time when I was in the middle of reading a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. And while usually if anyone in Star Trek is the icily efficient Jeeves, obviously it’s Spock, and you’d expect a Wodehousian reading of the show to contrast him with all Kirk’s women that he never quite seems to marry because he prefers just driving around, it was Amok Time that inappropriately pushed my buttons. There, it’s Spock who is clearly cast as the Vulcan Bertie Wooster, complete with fearsome Aunt T’Pau and a scheming fiancée who’s using him as a pawn to get someone else, all surrounded by conventions of social behaviour that feel like a bizarre trap. You see? If any Trek deserves to be played as Wodehouse, that was it – even if it’s weird that McCoy was Jeeves that week, finding a device to extract Bertie and cool his ardour into the bargain.

    After that digression, the eventual point is that I remember Richard and I suggesting that The Enterprise Incident is the more complexly plotted natural sequel, in which Kirk and Spock keep swapping the Bertie and the Spock parts. It went something like this, as I recall: Aunt T’Pau has called in Bertie Spock to steal that cloaking device that his uncle had had his eye on from that bounder Sir Watkyn Tomalak. Which involves Bertie Kirk pretending to go mad (stereotypical Wooster mugging). And so Bertie Spock finds himself accidentally engaged to the Romulan Commander! Can Jeeves get him away from this rather fierce girl? And who’s left to play Jeeves?

    Well, it’s funnier than the Cold War shenanigans.

    1. I would have *loved* to see "Star Trek does P.G. Wodehouse", especially this season. That's just about a perfect fit.

  3. This is one of my all time favorite episodes of TOS. I do admit there are problems here...but Shatner is at the top of his game. I saw this when I was about...7 and it was profoundly upsetting to me that Kirk could be going mad. Of course now I see just how much work Shatner is putting in and it shows.

    While we do have Cold War shenanigans and espionage it does come in a package that is enormously enjoyable. It's a fun episode. And here, that's enough for me.

  4. Great examination of the problems with this well-regarded story. I personally love it and rank it highly among TOS episodes, but that can be down largely to the performances that you rightly call out as being top notch, Shatner, Nimoy and Linville You're absolutely right we have a breadown of Linville's character in the back half of the story which always troubled me even as a kid, and is largely responsible for keeping it from being truly top shelf beginning to end (I think I could forgive all the rest, but that one hurts the episode from any angle you look at it).

    Still, it's hard not to get caught up in it all, which is more than one can say for the last couple episodes you've covered.

  5. I mean this is certainly one of the better episodes of the season, but that's not really saying much either. D.C. Fontana is always better than 95% of the other people who write for this show, even D.C. Fontana-lite, and the acting really is tremendous on all fronts: It's probably one of the best productions of the year.

    It's just hard for me (especially given the way I tend to approach reading Star Trek) to not get frustrated that a story like this isn't really all it could have been.

  6. The episode is my favorite because it is the most successful example of Nimoy swapping roles with Kirk. Kirk still does everything Kirk needs to do, with Shatner impressively navigating the transformed narrative, but Nimoy makes the thing, and his chemistry with Linville is impeccable.

    I didn't find her dichotomy between effective commander, and sensual romanticist jarring at all - in fact I found it human as hell, and totally indicative of the logic/emotion collapse that occurred to splinter the Romulans from their Vulcan forbears.

    Not only that, but I've long felt that the greatest problem I have with modern Star Trek is the insufferable way in which Klingon and Romulan societies "swapped roles" in the later shows - the Romulans becoming the duplicitous, sneaky, rival pure enemy figure, the Klingons becoming the different, but noble, culturally fascinating "we could almost be friends". It basically shreds the original premise and strength of their having been Vulcan offshoots in general.

    But then, Vulcans post-Nimoy, though lucking into some solid stories here and there, are largely pretty disappointing.

    1. "I didn't find her dichotomy between effective commander, and sensual romanticist jarring at all..."

      Nor did I. My problem wasn't that the Commander could be both a strong leader and highly sensual, I thought that was a brilliant example of how multifaceted not just she is, but her whole people. I even tried to single Linville out for praise on that front.

      My problem is the same one as Fontana's: That she was easily manipulated by Spock and remained totally clueless as to what he was up to, eventually turning into a vindictive "scorned woman" flipping out over how "betrayed" she was in the last act.

    2. the insufferable way in which Klingon and Romulan societies "swapped roles" in the later shows

      I agree. But a partial defense could be made along the following lines. In the OS the Romulan Empire, explicitly based on the Roman empire, is noble while the Klingon Empire, coded as "Oriental," is duplicitous. Switching them so the Western-referring Empire is duplicitous and the Asian-referring Empire is noble at least redresses that problem. (But, to be sure, there are more complex and interesting ways they could have addressed it.)

  7. It's a legitimate grievance to be sure; on one hand I appreciate them giving Spock a suitably Pulp Hero thing to do, on the other it's as tacitly misogynistic once it comes into play as it would be in most Pulp Hero stock scenarios. Linville weathers that trope well, though and spurned or not, she does remain more dignified than a lot of contemporaries would - this isn't a woman who's going to give us "female hysterics" (ohhhh so much more of that is coming). You certainly believe in her performance, and that she's very much someone Spock would really be taken with. In fact we've seen Spock manipulate before and we know he has a degree of mastery. There's certainly a precedent here for his ability, along with the degree of alien schism between the Romulans and the Vulcans, for it to work.

    Which is probably why there's like three different novels that have attempted to pick back up on her story, and why Memory-Beta lists her under three different names.

    It certainly is a dilemma that Fontana's original concept was mussed with so much - the casting of Linville being what it is, the fact that the Commander even in the final script comes across as the love of Spock's logical life, one can only imagine how much more powerful the "From Romulus, With Love" elements should have been. Ditto Kirk's actual maddened frustration over his immoral orders, but apart from lauding the outright "Kirk is basically a Romulan Centurion (and why that's not the worst thing)" subtext, this episode belongs to Nimoy - I attribute my adoration of the whole affair pretty specifically to the scene on the elevator at the end. It's only rival in my eyes for poignancy in TOS comes soon, as another denouement, in Requiem for Methuselah.

    This episode "works". It doesn't work as beautifully as it could have, but we can sing the "this has been edited, for the worse" song endlessly. The actors were firing on full cylinders, and even the ensemble players and Scotty had things to do.