Thursday, December 12, 2013

“Whatever I see, I shall devour!”: One Of Our Planets Is Missing

There's a bizarre subgenre of Star Trek stories that ape Fantastic Voyage...
The title “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” sort of lets you know right from the start what kind of story you're in for. There's a giant space cloud going around literally eating planets which the Enterprise crew notices when, in fact, one of their planets happens to go missing. It's at once the kind of delightfully mental science fiction concept that can really only be done justice to through animation, but also a plot that's simple and straightforward enough to convey in twenty minutes.

We haven't talked much yet about the difference in runtimes between Animated Series and Original Series episodes. A necessary consequence of changing from a primetime drama to a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show is that the episodes went from being fifty minutes each in the 1960s to only being twenty minutes each on the 1970s. This is largely to Star Trek's benefit: One of the biggest problems with the pulp style of pacing and structure the Original Series so often lapsed into is that it's essentially built around padding. The average pulp action serial plot is nothing more than a series of increasingly tedious captures and escapes occasionally broken up with an implausible, ridiculous and unnecessarily gratuitous fight scene. And indeed, it's a model of storytelling Gene Roddenberry was quite a fan of, even judging only by “The Omega Glory” and “The Savage Curtain”. What this means is that, stretched to fifty minutes, this kind of plot grows tiring and irritating extremely quickly. However, now that Star Trek is a cartoon, it doesn't have the luxury to indulge itself like that anymore: Twenty minutes is just enough time to set up the basic plot, lay out the boundaries of the conflict and than do something about it before the credits role again.

Which is exactly what we get in “One Of Our Planets Is Missing”. The titular planetary misplacement occurs, we get to see some funky looking space cloud that eats things and then there's a rapid-fire bit of exposition about how it exhibits traits of unicellular organisms and grazing animals and oh, by the way, it's currently on a direct course to a planet inhabited by millions of people so we'd probably best figure out a way to stop that. Then the Enterprise itself gets engulfed and partially digested, so oh bugger. With that taken care of, the episode gets to focus on the actual interesting bits, which involve the Enterprise crew making continuous observations about the creature and debating amongst themselves what the best course of action to take is. Nobody has to get kidnapped and we don't have to introduce some left-field plot element three-quarters of the way through: It's just the distilled essence of a Star Trek space adventure. The episode doesn't quite pick up on all the intricacies afforded by its new model yet (there's a wee bit too much technobabble even for my tastes) but honestly? In the scheme of things I've complained about so far? This is nothing. Really the only concern I have now is these episodes are becoming straightforward enough and I still have to write the same amount of words on a story that's about half as long as I'm used to so I'm worried I'm going to run out of things to say.

On the surface “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” seems to borrow heavily from a number of Original Series highlights, in particular the ones called “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Immunity Syndrome”. All three are taught thrillers, complete with countdown timers, all three involve giant, pan-galactic things that go around snacking on solar systems and all three also ultimately end up in some kind of ethical debate about self-sacrifice for the greater good and what precisely the Enterprise's obligation to New Life is. But to say “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” is simply copying the two Original Series episodes would be misreading it a bit: It is most definitely similar in a great many respects, but that's because it's part of the same genre of Star Trek story, and it's a genre that the Original Series could have stood to partake in a bit more often and that the newfound leanness of the Animated Series is actually very well suited to. And furthermore, I'd go so far as to say the ethics of “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” are actually a bit more defined and more laudable here than in at least “The Immunity Syndrome”.

The big difference here when compared to this story's most obvious antecedent is that the giant space creature is sentient, thus making it suitably more difficult for Kirk to just blow it up. Indeed, the scene where Kirk posits that as a possible course of action is one of the best in the episode: Even with the limited animation, it's one of those scenes that seems to call out for a record scratch as everyone on the bridge turns to Kirk in horror at what he's suggesting. Spock and Uhura rightly point out that it's the Enterprise's mission to seek out and contact new forms of life, and to kill the space cloud is just about the most comprehensive betrayal of that mission possible. This is practically a punching-the-air moment for me because it's such a refutation of the handwavy excuses the Original Series used in an attempt to waive its responsibilities in favour of Blowing Shit Up. And where “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” goes from here is genuinely brilliant: Kirk says if the choice is to be his, he'll side with saving the humans over the creature (and possibly even exploding the Enterprise inside the creature's brain if it'll get the job done) unless Spock, McCoy and Uhura come up with a third option.

Which they do. Spock, tying into Uhura's modified communications circuits, “projects his mind” outward in what amounts to a large-scale mind-meld (but that also suspiciously looks like astral projection, another sign that, with the Animated Series, Star Trek is embracing mysticism more seriously), showing the creature that beings live on the things it consumes, and imploring it to return to where it came from so it doesn't endanger any more lives. The creature, being both intelligent and reasonable, feels bad about the destruction its caused and doesn't want to hurt anyone, so it apologizes, releases the Enterprise and then goes home. The problem was the cloud was literally so vast it couldn't conceive that there were forms of life smaller than it; life-forms that would to it seem possibly beyond microscopic. In a way, this can be seen as a fitting metaphor for privilege blindness: From the cloud's vantage point, it was unable to truly know how much its actions hurt others until Spock was able to contact it, and even then only after Uhura was able to make it hear and understand Spock's voice. Finally, through communication the cloud, the Enterprise crew and the planet's population have all grown a little: It's a wonderful testament to and glorification of the power and potential of discourse to make the world a better place.

However all that said, there's another consequence of Star Trek metamorphosing into a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show. It's an aftereffect that's not quite as notable yet, but will be, painfully so, in at least one future episode. That is, of course, the assumption that because it's animated its primary audience has to be children, and with that an obligation to cater *especially* towards children. There was even a little bit of this last week: D.C. Fontana has said she felt the idea of letting loved ones, in particular pets, die with dignity was an important lesson for children to learn. Never mind of course the fact that “Yesteryear” was absolutely brilliant as is and didn't at all need to be justified through or read in that light to be effective. Here though we get the other side of children's television: The irritating assumption that it has to be overtly educational to be worthwhile (seriously, I thought Lewis Carroll already laid that argument to rest in the 1860s).

So, in “One Of Our Planets Is Missing”, we get to spend large portions of the technobabble explaining how the biological process of digestion work and what villi in the intestines are. Handled properly this would be no problem, but the show hasn't quite figured out how to do that cleanly yet: Kirk, a person who really should know better, is written as the one who prompts Spock and McCoy for all the exposition and it feels a bit off. Although I hasten to add this doesn't really detract from the episode on the whole: Once again, it's good enough to stand on its own and this is ultimately just demonstrative of the growing pains the series still has to go through. And, after all, a not-insignificant portion of the Original Series' fans were in fact children: There's a potential for a crossover appeal here that doesn't hurt the work itself. What “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” is really setting the stage for then is a future where Star Trek gets to be a show that can appeal to a lot of different audiences on a lot of different levels without talking down to any of them.

And on top of that this is just another great production: The cast are all once again in fine form and all used to great extent and the animation is once again gorgeous (especially the depiction of the inside of the cloud creature). James Doohan delivers another knockout performance as both Scotty and Bob Wesley (back from “The Ultimate Computer”). In fact, Doohan is so good as Wesley that I initially thought the show had managed to get Barry Russo back: He sounds practically identical. Majel Barrett plays the cloud and, well, she's still not great, but I don't want to pick on Barrett's acting abilities so let's just say this is a factor we'll just have to accept and move on. I'll cut her some slack and assume Uhura channeled the cloud's voice through the Enterprise mainframe so it was speaking with the ship's computer's voice.

While “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” may not be quite as good as “Beyond the Farthest Star” and “Yesteryear” (which were admittedly almost impossibly high standards to meet) it's still excellent and without question one of the best Star Trek stories in *years*. The comparison with “The Doomsday Machine” now seems even more fitting. That was the episode I said the show needed to be shooting for as a baseline level of quality and the fact it wasn't was damning. But now it is. This is the new standard now. We've turned a corner such that the Animated Series can throw out three of the absolute best stories the franchise has done yet one after another and this is business as usual. In four years and five episodes we've gone from “The Savage Curtain” and “Turnabout Intruder” to this. Incredible.

Really, what could possibly go wrong?


  1. Danhauser's site publishes each episode's PSA bumper, in which the intended message for kids is actually spelled out directly.

    have you considered doing a readang with ADF's

    1. Wow, I had no idea those PSA bumpers even existed! I wonder why they aren't included with the episodes on Netflix.

    2. Because they're fan-made. :P

  2. fuck, this new comment system is nearly unusable! that sentence fragment did not appear in preview.

    have you considered doing a readalong with ADF's TAS adaptations? I know you are intending to take a look at his ST material overall, hopefully including the records.

    1. I'll do for Alan Dean Foster what I did for James Blish: A standalone post looking at his overall work, association with Star Trek and the role his novelizations played in the developing fan culture.

    2. Alan Dean Foster is the J. J. Abrams of novelisations.

  3. This episode reminds me of Horton Hears a Who, only without Horton.

    Here though we get the other side of children's television: The irritating assumption that it has to be overtly educational to be worthwhile

    I remember the grotesquerie that was inflicted on Galactica 1980 consequent to its airing in an earlier timeslot than its predecessor: Adama and Dr. Zee solemnly informing each other that "without rain, the crops cannot grow."