Tuesday, January 28, 2014

“Yes, I've read a poem. Try not to faint.”: Albatross

"'The Star Trek fan who hasn't discovered the Animated Series is really missing out", Wise declares."

In their unauthorized Star Trek episode guide Beyond the Final Frontier, Lance Parkin and Mark Jones said that the story for this episode would have been a great concept to explore on one of the live-action series and bemoaned the fact it was done on a cartoon show.

So naturally the first thing I'm going to do is continue to complain about how undervalued animation is as a form of creative expression. Because Parkin and Jones' argument makes zero sense to me. There is nothing about “Albatross” that could have been done better on the Original Series. The emotional core of the episode hinges on Spock and McCoy, and while both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley can be visual actors at times, especially Nimoy, visual acting skills are not expressly needed for the kind of story this is. Actually, this episode serves as a great reminder of how multitalented and versatile this cast really is: Nimoy and Kelley convey all the emotion they need to through their voices alone, evidence they're just as strong in the recording booth as they are on stage. Furthermore, neither Kelley nor Nimoy are anywhere near as visual as William Shatner, who delivers yet another memorable marquee performance here. If William Shatner of all people can make the transition to animation effortlessly and painlessly, really all arguments about animation as an inferior medium are invalid.

Furthermore, declaring that it's a shame an episode like this wasn't done on the Original Series does a major disservice to D.C. Fontana, the Animated Series creative team and all the good work they've done over the past two years. This is flatly a tighter, stronger and more thematically and ethically coherent show now than it was in the 1960s. In fact, far from being the mini-classic Parkin and Jones seem to think it is, I'm of the mind “Albatross” is another of this season's mediocre outings. But the fact this, a character piece about the crew's loyalty to McCoy and righteous anger at a mishandling of justice, can now be called middling should be seen as incredibly telling. On the Original Series, we were regularly getting fed absolute garbage like “Mudd's Women”, “The Apple”, “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, “The Omega Glory”, “Elaan of Troyius”, “The Enemy Within” and “The Savage Curtain”. On the Animated Series, we haven't seen anything come remotely close to those cratering lows with the exception of Margaret Armen's stuff, which is a special case and frankly to be expected. The fact this episode even exists is testament alone to what the Animated Series has been able to accomplish.

I suppose it'd help if I explained a bit about what “Albatross” is about. Basically, on a diplomatic mission to the planet Dramia, the Enterprise crew is shocked to see Doctor McCoy arrested on charges of committing mass genocide via a plague he allegedly brought to the second planet in the system nineteen years ago. With McCoy in jail, a furious Kirk takes the Enterprise and the rest of the crew to Dramia II to conduct an independent investigation in search of evidence proving the CMO's innocence. That's essentially it, and that gets at the root of the problem with this episode. We're back in “Court Martial” territory, if only in general narrative structure, and while we're thankfully spared the lengthy, bombastic courtroom drama and are instead mercifully granted a minor space adventure instead, the same general problems apply. Namely, we know McCoy is innocent, and it's even more apparent here than in “Court Martial”. You don't go five seasons with the same cast of characters and suddenly have one of them turn into a genocidal tyrant, unless the creative team is completely blitheringly incompetent.

Now, the problem here isn't that this is some failure of the episode to build up sufficient tension, it's that this entire type of story is fundamentally unworkable. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot build an entire episode around the possibility one of the show's major characters is secretly a killer or some other kind of awful person. Narrative logic is going to make protagonists immediately and irreversibly sympathetic simply by virtue of them being protagonists. The other option, and I mean the *only* other option, is to base your show around a straight-up villain protagonist, which requires an altogether more deft handle on storytelling craft. The best the kind of story both “Albatross” and “Court Martial” are can hope for is to make its central mystery about why our hero is wrongfully accused, what might have happened to cause the third party to think this way and how we can fix it.

And neither episode really gets it right: The earlier story tried to paper the whole thing over with a whole bunch of manly legal drama swagger and just wound up looking silly and pointless and this one has the Enterprise pop off to Dramia II to find the real source of the plague, which turns out to be a deadly space aurora which, while certainly unique, still isn't terribly inspiring (although this does lead towards a decent climax where Spock, the only one not afflicted, gets to break McCoy out of jail so he can cure the plague and prove his own innocence to everyone). I just really have a problem with any story that arbitrarily puts the protagonists' morality in question unless moral ambiguity is built into the premise of the show, which it's fundamentally not at this stage in Star Trek's history. Indeed, I'd go so far as to claim this kind of plot has worked precisely once in the entire history of Trek, and that success was due in part to the timing of when the episode was made and the fact it was penned by two bloody brilliant writers.

What's actually the most interesting thing about this episode to me, aside from the acting (the puckish delight Shatner imbues Kirk as he manipulates the spy the Dramian government sent after the Enterprise into stowing away, thus invalidating his claim to legal authority, is particularly delightful) is the aurora, and, more to the point, the idea of an aurora in space. Now, before I get yelled at by physics nerds or Richard Dawkins acolytes, I am well aware having a spaceborn aurora is scientifically inaccurate and that they're in truth caused by the interaction of charged magnetic particles in the thermospheres of planets. I also don't care.

Visually and symbolically, aurorae are phenomena of the heavens, and ancient peoples in the far north and far south have historically seen them as belonging to the domain of the sky. Inuit tradition holds that the aurorae are alternately souls of ancestors or animals, a dangerous force that would decapitate you if you whistled at it, or spirit guides for hunting and healing. While I couldn't find any Sami traditions concerning aurorae, the earliest Norse account hypothesizes that they might have something to do with sun flares, or giant fires that surround the ocean, or even the stored energy of the glaciers themselves. In Australia, amongst the Gunai and Ngarrindjeri peoples of Victoria and South Australia, respectively, the aurorae were otherworldly bushfires or the campfires of spirits, while indigenous peoples in Queensland saw them as the medium through which spirits communicated with those of us in the mortal world, somewhat similarly to the Inuit.

Irritatingly, “Albatross” doesn't seem to pick up on any of these indigenous interpretations of aurorae in the heavens. However, what the episode's conception of them does seem the most similar to is, curiously, historical Western astronomical beliefs. Tycho Brahe was said to be of the opinion aurorae cause disease by emitting sulfuric vapour, which is not altogether removed from what happens here. Although the actual mechanism by which it infects the Dramians and then the Enterprise crew isn't really explained, the aurora is very clearly the source of the ailment du jour, which would seem to put this episode somewhat in Brahe's tradition. What I find interesting about this is that it positions Star Trek in some sense into the history of astronomy, or to be more precise, the symbolism and rhetoric of historical astronomy. It's still too Western for my personal tastes, but it is intriguing to think about given the way science fiction of this period is growing increasingly invested with the idea of genre trappings and its own setting and motifs. We can now talk about the history of how people have perceived and interacted with the natural world and how that's shaped our art and philosophies, because of course it has.

But unfortunately I can't really recommend the episode at hand. This is all fascinating and gives us a lot of material to work with in the future, but the actual twenty minutes you can call up onscreen isn't the Animated Series' finest moment, though there are a few charming bits here and there. But again, the fact I can say that about an episode with no discernibly massive problems and that something this solid and effective can be called mediocre really tells the whole story here. It concisely drives home just what D.C. Fontana and her team were able to accomplish with the Animated Series, and that's something worth reminding as we approach its final curtain call.


  1. Shame to see no comment here again. It is difficult I guess though, when for the third time in a while the series has been so solid that it seems just to do its job well. That make sit hard for you to have a lot to say though, which I understand.

    Really, this series needs applauded because it is animated and where it succeeds, rather than it being wished for that it was live action. Sad when creative expression is so misunderstood.

    1. When nobody comments, I tend to default to assuming I've either bored people, scared them away or said something so blatantly obvious it's not even worth the time responding to, let alone the time it took me to write the piece in the first place.

      Either way I appreciate you jumping in regardless! And once again, we of course agree IRT to the creative merit of TAS.

    2. Yes I can understand - you are putting in a lot of time, commitment and passion into this project. Hopefully it has not been too demoralising of late.

      I have been madly reading away to catch up with your postings so I can comment live. Have had a big work (then holiday) schedule that put a big hole in my reading time. Almost there now...

      And gosh yes TAS is SUCH a disregarded product. Shame.

    3. What's been more demoralizing is the stuff I've had to write about, actually. Thankfully I won't be with IDW for *much* longer.

      Either way, glad you can catch up and happy to see you in the thread again!

    4. Ah well good to hear that! Not familiar with the IDW stuff myself but look forwards to discovering. Aye, good to catch up with your entries and see you in the comments!