Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“...strictly neutral in this matter as you well know...”: The Pirates of Orion

"...I thought we weren't playing cowboys anymore."
“The Pirates of Orion” is one of the best character pieces in the Animated Series and builds nicely on established Star Trek lore without feeling either slavish or repetitive, but most of all it fits neatly into the pattern we've been crafting for the franchise over the past few posts.

The Enterprise is en route to a dedication ceremony on Deneb V while recovering from an outbreak of choriocytosis, a particularly virulent respiratory disease that prevents red blood cells from transporting oxygen. Just when the crew thinks the plague is under control, Spock suddenly collapses on the bridge. After rushing him to sickbay, McCoy informs Kirk that Vulcan physiology is similar enough to that of humans to make him susceptible, but different enough that it becomes far more serious, and that Spock will die in three days unless the crew can get their hands on some strobolin, the only known antidote. Realising the nearest source of the vaccine is four days away from the Enterprise's position, Kirk calls the starship Potemkin and freighter Huron for help in forming a brigade line. However, on its way to the Enterprise, the Huron is attacked by the titular Orion pirates, acting outside the declared neutrality of their government, who hijack the ship and steal its cargo. It now falls to Kirk to track down the Orions and reclaim the cargo without provoking a diplomatic incident.

This isn't the first time we've seen the Orion Syndicate since “Journey to Babel”, but it's the first time we've seen it focused on to this extent. Even so, however, “The Pirates of Orion” keeps its space opera overtones and world building somewhat in check: The Orions act in a manner totally consistent with their previous appearance, down to the mention of how any Orion ship is duty-bound to self-destruct and its crew commit suicide should their mission fail in such a way that it puts their government's neutrality at risk. Just like in “Journey to Babel” though, and decidedly unlike some of their later appearances, infodumps about Orion society are not actually the focal point of the entire episode. Though the space adventure stuff isn't quite less important than the character drama here as they're at least about equal, there's still an appreciable balance between the two. Furthermore, this episode firmly establishes the Orion Syndicate as one of the proper, top tier antagonists for the Federation and the Enterprise crew, so when they reappear a few years later in Star Fleet Battles and when the video game based on that universe gets named after them, it's all but expected.

Which is all good, because “The Pirates of Orion” itself is neither the most original, creative or inspiring space pirate story ever told. I was consistently hoping throughout this episode that Kirk would be forced into negotiations with the Orions to get the vaccine and that we'd eventually get to see Kirk break treaty and regulations to save Spock's life. And while that *sorta* happens, it's nowhere near as interesting as it could have been in my opinion. The Orions get a pretty stock story: They callously hijack a freighter transporting much-needed medicine, and are stubbornly unwilling to hand it over for just long enough to fill out the episode.

What I wanted to see was the Enterprise deliberately *seek out* the Orion Syndicate as it was the only way they could get the medicine in a pinch, and for Kirk to give some speech about how it doesn't matter who's selling it and where it's coming from if the transaction saves lives. This could even be used as a kind of minor criticism of the pharmaceutical industry, as holding life-saving treatments hostage in exchange for capitalistic profit is tantamount to piracy, and at least the Orions are honest about what they do (indeed, McCoy even gets a great little line where he's frustrated that doctors are only as good as their drugs). Instead, we get a generic space adventure with some pirates and, while that's not terrible, it's considerably less effective than what I was hoping for.

Generic space adventures are often the hardest type of episode for me to write about. I don't dislike them, and in fact I can get really into one that's especially well-done (though truth be known I do tend to prefer the ones that use their space adventure trappings to disguise something a bit more clever). But there's not often a ton to actually say about them, and they tend to succeed or fail based on how clever the premise is and what kinds of intriguing images the creative team can come up with. And “The Pirates of Orion” is pretty solid as far as these sorts of things go: The Orion ship itself is imposing and cool-looking, the exploding asteroid belt the two starships take refuge in is delightfully mental and amazingly looks like a bunch of jawbreakers floating in space and seeing a Federation starship that's not Constitution-Class is yet another little thing that helps make the world of Star Trek feel more alive.

(Indeed it's the Huron that captured my interest the easiest here: The first half of the episode splits its time evenly between them and the Enterprise, and we start to get to know Captain O'Shea and his bridge crew. Barring Kirk seeking out the Orion Syndicate, I was hoping we'd at least get to see some swashbuckling action scenes of O'Shea defending his ship from a boarding party, but no, the attack happens completely off-camera).

But all this doesn't take into account what a strong character piece this episode is. If not, perhaps, for the plot (Kirk and McCoy racing against time to save Spock's life as a demonstration of how close the three friends are is not a *totally* fresh concept), definitely for the dialog and acting. Kirk and McCoy get a lot of scenes together where they confess how much Spock means to them, which is nice given this kind of story and really humanizes the two in a way that Star Trek at this stage doesn't always *quite* manage to do as often as it could. But William Shatner and DeForest Kelley are the real standouts here, delivering some of their best performances in the Animated Series yet. Actually, the performances they turn in here are a return to kind of gritty, matter-of-fact frankness and gravity we really haven't seen from these two since quite early on in the Original Series: It reminds me a lot of McCoy's “And in all of that, perhaps more, only one of each of us” speech in “Balance of Terror” and his “Why don't you ask Jim Kirk?” line in “The Ultimate Computer”, which is very much appreciated.

And aside from Kirk and McCoy, the rest of the cast gets handled quite well too. Much like in “Beyond the Farthest Star”, or perhaps even “The Jihad”, each member of the crew has a dedicated role to play and they all contribute something to saving Spock and resolving the diplomatic crisis with the Orions. Kirk, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty beam over to the Huron once they figure out something's gone wrong, and they use their combined skillsets to piece together what happened. Scotty investigates the engine room and the hold, McCoy examines the crew and Uhura goes over the ship's logs and record tapes. Meanwhile, Arex takes over the science station on the bridge in Spock's absence, much as his predecessor Chekov used to do in the Original Series, and the Enterprise itself is left in Sulu's capable hands.

But as perfectly solid as “The Pirates of Orion” is, the real thing that makes it worthy of note is its writer, Howard Weinstein. Weinstein will go on to contribute a number of stories to the various and sundry Star Trek comics, but this is is first effort and when he wrote it he was only 19, making this his actual, very first published work as a writer. And it's a damn promising debut, especially given the fact he submitted it to D.C. Fontana pretty much out of the blue and got it accepted largely without incident. Even Gene Roddenberry said this was one of the best debut scripts he'd ever read. This is endlessly fascinating to me, especially against the backdrop of all this stuff about fan culture and writing we've been talking about lately: There's this huge feeling amongst the fandom that Star Trek is something dead and buried and only being kept alive through zines, and here's some random kid submitting a totally unsolicited script to what I remind you is the current, official version of the franchise and he gets it produced as a cracking season premier.

I don't really have a larger point here except to reflect on the irony of not just that story itself, but the fact this isn't anywhere near the last time something like this is going to happen.

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