Thursday, January 9, 2014

“Just think what some zoo will pay for you!”: The Eye of the Beholder
Which of you is the one named "Mr. Snuffleupagus"?

“The Eye of the Beholder” concerns the Enterprise attempting to locate the crew of a research ship that went missing in the vicinity of Lactra VII. Beaming down to investigate, Kirk, Spock and McCoy discover three wildly different ecosystems positioned unnaturally adjacent to each other. Spock supposes that this planet might in fact be some kind of enormous zoo created by beings significantly more advanced then the Federation races, a supposition proven correct when giant telepathic slugs with trunks come, abduct the landing party and take them to a specially-crafted humanoid exhibit guarded by an unbreakable force field.

Somehow it feels like we've been here before.

This episode was written by David P. Harmon, who also wrote “The Deadly Years” and co-wrote “A Piece of the Action” with Gene Coon. However it's pretty clear now that the latter story must have been primarily Coon because this episode is much more akin to the former. In other words, it's another perfectly forgettable filler episode. And let's be honest: “The Eye of the Beholder” is totally “The Cage” all over again. It doesn't even try to distinguish itself from possibly the most famous episode of Star Trek ever, apart from having the zookeepers be the aforementioned giant telepathic slugs with trunks instead of Talosians.

Since Harmon apparently has no qualms about stooping so low as to recycle the plot wholesale from the very first episode of Star Trek I don't feel bad about reusing a lot of my commentary from “The Deadly Years”. The concept of filler episodes (in the original “this-feels-like-an-off-week” sense and not the contemporary “I-have-to-wait-another-week-to-learn-more-about-my-Big-Damn-Character-Arc" sense) is a phenomenon somewhat unique to television, and United States television in particular, born as it is out of the necessity of making sure something makes it to air every week during the season. Flatly, sometimes you just need to crank something out to fill your episode quota. TV has always been one of the more visibly workmanlike of the creative mediums as a result, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it gives us as viewers and critics special access to the creative process that goes into making it that the allure of the Cinematic Artifice and Singular Vision usually makes it hard for us to notice in, say, movies.


As wonderful as that may all be and as criminally overvalued as I do in fact find plot and character development to be, I still tend to find that US TV engages in filler episodes alarmingly more frequently than it perhaps needs to. This is because in the US, the annual television season traditionally runs nonstop from September to May except for a hiatus in November and December and demands a quota of about 25-30 episodes as a result. There's only so many stories anyone can come up with for one setting in one sitting, and this means time, money and other resources get spread out over a huge swath of productions instead of being discreetly allocated to a small handful of them. US TV creators tend then to be ludicrously overworked and pressured, and corners get cut that inevitably bring down a show's average day-to-day potential. Eventually it can start to feel like the production team is punching a timecard and cranking out generic, formulaic stories because that's all they're physically capable of doing.

And anyway, even if “The Eye of the Beholder” did in fact have to be a filler episode (and given that it's the penultimate episode of The Animated Series' first season, it in all likelihood probably did) there were still ways to make it unique and entertaining without engaging in one of the most painfully obvious bits of self-plagiarism in the franchise to date. This could very easily have been a very enjoyable generic space adventure: Indeed, the first third-to-one-half of the episode is basically that-Kirk, Spock and McCoy wander first through volcanic hot springs, then a desert and finally a forest fending off giant monsters that keep popping up every now and again in search of the missing research team and bantering the whole way. The episode could have played up its already-weird and captivating setting and been about how the landing party survives in such an uncanny place.

The episode could have come up with some out-there technobabble explanation for why so many ecosystems exist in such close proximity to each other, like maybe this is an amalgam planet made up of the hunks of a lot of other planets that fused when their orbits caused them to smash into one another. Or maybe it's a planet that exists in multiple time periods or universes all at the same time and each time the landing party moves into a different ecosystem they're travelling between different realities. There would probably have to be some kind of signature Star Trek twist at the end to keep it from turning into full-on Space Ghost, like perhaps Kirk having to find a way to save both the lost research team and the local wildlife without endangering either of them, but that still strikes me as perfectly doable and exceedingly more interesting then defaulting back to the franchise's dead end of a pilot.

That aside there are a lot of little things that irk me about this one. Though they get some good lines and I enjoy how Kirk keeps imploring Spock and McCoy to stop bickering, the landing party is written in just about the most stereotypical and uninteresting way you can think of. Spock's a logic machine, McCoy is irrational, emotional and impulsive and Kirk tries to mediate between them. Furthermore, Harmon seems to view the rest of the crew besides Spock with some manner of disdain, because for one, hardly anyone outside the triumvirate actually appears in this episode (though Scotty and M'Ress show up near the end and play minor important roles) and secondly Spock is written to be always right: He has the whole plot basically figured out five minutes in, corrects everyone and just generally lectures everyone on how wrong and illogical they're being. I guess it's a return to “The Cage” in politics as well as plot, as this is a very unlikably Gene Roddenberry-esque conception of Spock (or rather the logician character, as in "The Cage" this was, of course, Number One): The character who exists to point out how fallible and naive the hopelessly emotional humans are.

The one thing that is sort of fun about “The Eye of the Beholder” is how it handles its resolution in comparison to how “The Cage” handled its. In the earlier episode, Pike broke the Talosians' thought shield by frightening them with violent imagery and physically and mentally muscled his way out. Here, Kirk and his crew make constant attempts to contact the Lactrans and convince them they're members of intelligent species who don't deserve to be imprisoned. And, in spite of Spock's gloating about the telepathic link he shares with the Lactrans it's Scotty and M'Ress who end up saving the day here: After a botched attempt to beam back to the Enterprise, a baby Lactran ends up getting transported up in Kirk's place and makes its way to the bridge where it confronts Scotty and M'Ress.

After a moment, Scotty beams down with the baby (who, despite being only six years old has an IQ in the thousands) and casually informs the landing party he was able to strike up a telepathic conversation with it and taught it all he knew about the Federation while M'Ress gave it access to the ship's computers to learn more. In doing so, the working-class everyman Scotty does what the highly trained mentalist Spock was unable to do and convince the Lactrans that humans and Vulcans (and Caitians) are intelligent beings: In fact, the Lactrans pay them the highest compliment by telling the landing party (as relayed by Scotty) that they remind them of the Lactrans themselves long ago, and that maybe in a few more (Lactran) centuries, everyone will be able to communicate as equals. It's a wonderfully Animated Series style ending that builds on the work of stories like “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” and “The Time Trap” and ends up making the whole episode worthwhile.

So once again this isn't a terrible episode: Like the vast majority of this series' poor stories, it's a mediocre outing that still shows Star Trek making visible progress even in its weakest moments. And that's pretty damn admirable place to be in at the end of the first season of an animated reboot of a failed Cult Sci-Fi show.

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