Thursday, October 31, 2013

“They're dead...They're all dead...”: That Which Survives

"Monkey in the middle!"
“That Which Survives” opens promising to be one of the most creative and exciting episodes since “The Alternative Factor”, and that it doesn't quite maintain that momentum for the whole of its fifty minutes is almost beside the point. We're still in the curious mystical territory the show's been exploring off and on since “The Tholian Web”, and here Kirk even uses the phrase “ghost planet” to describe an astrogeological impossibility: A planet too young to develop life and an atmosphere, yet which clearly has both. As the landing party is about to beam down, the transport sequence is interrupted by a woman who suddenly materializes, imploring them not to go down, killing the transporter chief in the process. She's too late to stop the landing party, however, but as Kirk tries to contact the Enterprise Sulu informs him it's simply not there anymore and that they're stranded. Back on the ship, we learn the Enterprise has somehow been instantaneously flung to the other end of the galaxy.

So once again we've stumbled into a region of space where weird and inexplicable things happen. This time though, the closest analog seems not to be pagan mythology but supernatural horror movies: The mystery woman materializes every once in awhile to a specific crewmember, both on the planet and aboard the Enterprise. Puzzlingly declaring she is “for” them and that she knows everything about them, she gains their trust enough so she can touch them, at which point she explodes every cell in their body simultaneously. The mystery woman is a slasher villain then, and “That Which Survives” works a bit like an old haunted house movie, where travellers have to seek shelter in a dark and foreboding mansion. But it's also a survival movie, as Kirk, Sulu and McCoy are forced to search for food and water as they're now cut off from the Enterprise and are unsure if they'll ever be able to leave. And, in a cruel twist of fate, it seems like the planet they've found themselves on has neither.

However, this is just half the story. “That Which Survives” is split between the landing party and the Enterprise at the other end of the galaxy trying to return to where it was. On the Enterprise, the episode plays out entirely differently-While the mystery woman still hunts people down, the challenge Spock, Scotty, Uhura and M'Benga face is an entirely different one: This part of the episode is straightforwardly a thriller in the mould of “The Doomsday Machine”, albeit with the inspired decision to put Spock at the centre and forcing him to react to everything. The crew soon discovers that in addition to throwing them across the galaxy, the mystery woman has somehow also sabotaged the ship's warp drive. With the warp engines locked and accelerating at a rate beyond Scotty's control and to a speed at which the Enterprise wasn't designed to withstand, the crew has fifteen minutes to figure out what's happened and correct it or the entire ship will blow up. Just as before, we get a tense countdown to destruction averted at literally the last second as Scotty risks his life to manually shut off the engines inches away from the reaction itself.

What's also great about this half of the episode is how it manages to build up its own unique sense of internal narrative coherence. Even without Kirk, McCoy and Sulu, the crew left behind on the Enterprise has great chemistry, and it almost feels like a mini-show unto itself, which hasn't really been the case on previous occasions where the main cast has been split up. One of the reasons this works is that the guest cast this week is both extremely strong and well handled: It's great to see Doctor M'Benga again, especially as “That Which Survives” is an infinitely preferable story to “A Private Little War”, and the way he effortlessly fills McCoy's shoes and narrative function is both a testament to how good this script is and how talented Booker Bradshaw was. Lieutenant Rahda, played by Naomi Pollack, who fills in for Sulu, is also very good: Pollack plays her as a competent professional and an equal and the rest of the bridge treats her as such. Even Watkins and D'Amato, who only show up to get killed off, are defined and likeable. The episode goes out of its way to make its one-off characters distinct and memorable, and that in turn allows each half of the episode to move along a lot smoother than they would have otherwise.

This episode then is a deft fusion of thriller, survival and slasher horror tropes all done effortlessly within the framework of an above-average contemporary Star Trek story. You may recognise this as suspiciously similar to the show's very first hat trick way back in “The Man Trap”, which was also a genre fusion piece (that time it was science fiction, slasher horror and soap operas) in addition to one or two episodes from last year. This is probably because “That Which Survives” is a collaboration between Star Trek veterans John Meredyth Lucas and D.C. Fontana, though Fontana uses her pseudonym Michael Richards here. As one would probably expect, the result is pretty bloody excellent. This may not be either writer's absolute best work and I'm sure it was tampered with in the same way every script this season has been, but even so it's remarkable how intact this one turned out and how just genuinely enjoyable and entertaining it is. Even at this late a stage, Fontana and Lucas are cranking out some of the series' very best material: I could watch about ten more episodes just like this and be perfectly happy.

However, “That Which Survives” is not itself absolutely perfect. As is frustratingly the case with this season, it's a showcase of a lot of really good ideas brought down by really sloppy and ham-fisted production. Certainly it turned out far, far better than something like “The Enterprise Incident” or “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, both of which were episodes that had their fundamental themes torpedoed by micromanagement, but it's still very much a season three story. The biggest issue is that on a number of occasions the characterization and voice of certain crewmembers, much like the Enterprise itself after its molecular dissasembly and trans-galactic beaming, feels ever so slightly wrong. Kirk and Spock suffer it the worst, and they both frequently act, for lack of a better word, like assholes. William Shatner at least makes up for it by taking a lot of the edge off of Kirk's worst lines, but Leonard Nimoy is so beyond giving a shit at this point it is as calculable as the amount of light years the Enterprise travels. Spock is written as the most smug, obnoxious pedant imaginable and Nimoy makes no attempt to disguise this, playing him just as exasperated, snarky and sarcastic as he himself must have felt. All this is stuff that could have been avoided had, ironically enough, the episode's writers still been working for the show: As script editor, Fontana was very meticulous in preserving the characters' voices from episode to episode, a fastidiousness shared by Lucas, Gene Coon and, of course, Gene Roddenberry.

Also, it's more than a little annoying that the slasher villain is an alien femme fatale, although the episode does manage to sidestep this at the end a bit when it's revealed she's a flawed computer recreation of Losira, the last surviving member of a species wiped out by a deadly plague, created by the automated defense system of her people's last bastion (the planet, which turns out to actually be a space station...or something). Losira was very much not a slasher villain, heroically staying behind to maintain the base in case any other survivors happened to find it, until she herself succumbed. Nevertheless, for the majority of the episode we have someone who looks like a stereotypical femme fatale going around slaughtering people, which is somewhat less than satisfying.

Ultimately what's the most telling about all of this is that this is a story the show could have done in its sleep a year ago and it's struggling a bit with now. The delightfully unexpected newfound focus on mysticism is new to Star Trek in 1968-9, but the rest of “That Which Survives” is very much in keeping with the likes of “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Ultimate Computer”. One gets the sense that, just like with those episodes, this is the kind of episode that should, in an ideal world, be an average episode of Star Trek. All that's really missing here is D.C. Fontana and Gene Coon's trademark polish and attention to detail. Had it been made in the second season, I'm confidant “That Which Survives” would have been remembered as the minor classic it really is, rather than being declared “camp” and thrown out with the rest of the third season. Perhaps in some parallel universe we got a tighter version of “That Which Survives” that did indeed serve as a quality standard for the third season. But in the reality we live in, it was just one more step in the Original Series' plodding march towards obsolescence.

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