February 17, 2016
This week’s episode is arguably the most famous episode of The Original Series – or at least, introduces one of the most famous-in-the-mainstream (and most controversially-rebooted) villains of Star Trek.
That’s right. You know who I mean.
In Space Seed, the Enterprise encounters the Botany Bay, an ancient apparent derelict drifting far beyond where a ship of that era should have been able to safely reach. Stranger still, there are lifesigns aboard. When they investigate, the crew discovers 72 people in stasis… who
are definitely may or may not be a missing group of despotic, empire-mad, genetically-engineered superhumans (who in later canon became known as the Augments) who disappeared at the end of Earth’s Eugenics Wars. Their leader is Khan Noonien Singh, portrayed by the incomparable (especially as concerns gangly, ultra-white English actors in reboots better left undiscussed) Ricardo Montalban.
One of the most confusing and inconsistently-covered periods in Star Trek canon history, the Eugenics Wars are first introduced in this episode and never, through four series and close to a dozen movies, satisfactorily explained. But you know we love us some fictional future Earth history, even if it’s full of holes big enough for a Constitution-class starship.
We have our doubts about Khan’s suitability as Kirk’s Greatest Nemesis (mainly due to his and the other Augments’ general incompetence at starship conquest in this and later outings), as well as his much-touted magnetism, but you can’t deny watching Khan chew scenery is entertaining, even if the writers fell back on some pretty backwards romantic constructs when formulating the relationship between Khan and poor, under-written Marla McGivers. Let’s just say that these ladies of the future prefer our men minus the god complex.
February 10, 2016
Yesterday the news hit the Interwebs that we finally have a showrunner for the up-and-coming new Trek series: Bryan Fuller, probably best-known, at the moment, for recently-concluded series Hannibal. His other credits (in addition to some way-back-when episodes of Voyager and Deep Space Nine that officially qualify him as a Trek Alum) include the ultra-whimsical and cult-beloved Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls.
Editor’s disclaimer: Most of Fuller’s existing oeuvre is, as they say, Not In My Wheelhouse (in that I am turned off by greater than trace-level whimsy and actively freaked out by Hannibal). That, plus my “committed pessimism until proven otherwise (because then I can’t be disappointed)” policy re: new Trek, means that the nicest word I can use to describe my feelings about this news is “ambivalence.”
HOWEVER: Bryan Fuller is VERY EXCITED ABOUT STAR TREK, so while I refuse to feel the human emotion of hope about Star Trek ever again, I will grant that that this news is already a step up from the last attempt in the franchise. Kim and Corene are SUPER-EXCITED about this news, so you should definitely ignore this summary and listen to them enthuse. Kim (enthusiastic Hannibal fan) was, at the time of this recording, visibly vibrating with joy.
February 10, 2016
If you’ve ever heard fellow geeks make “of the body” jokes, this is where it comes from. In this episode, the Enterprise is out to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the U.S.S. Archon, which apparently crashed on unexplored Beta 3 – a planet so far away from Earth that it’s taken a century for someone to come looking for them. But instead of the hale and happy descendants of the Archon crew, they beam down to discover to whole planet of old-timey, ultra-polite zombies… and they really want the Enterprise to join in.
This episode is bursting at the seams with amazing early references to stuff that later becomes central the the Star Trek mythos, and asks a lot of really interesting questions, many of which are still relevant today! As a result we spend a lot of time talking about quasi-serious-business Star Trek analogies for real-life history & society this week, including but not limited to: Cold War terrors of communism as an all-consuming, individuality-crushing machine (as a bonus, spot the possible early seeds of the Borg!); herd immunity and the concept of society as body; the nature of human sentience, in an age where we are beginning to seriously discuss the preservation of human consciousness in digital storage; and What Is Consent, Anyway, when you’re being wholly controlled by an evil god and unable to voice an opinion or make a decision? (spoiler: It Isn’t).
There’s also a lot of really interesting, if subtle, in-episode talk about how mythology is perpetuated through a society in the form of a spaceship crash creating a prophecy that accurately predicts the Enterprise’s arrival. Also first seen in this episode: a genuine mention and micro-discussion of the Prime Directive… which of course Kirk & Co. proceed to completely ignore in favour of talking a computer to death.
All good fun.
February 3, 2016
In the Space Justice System, the Space people are represented by two separate, yet equally important Space groups: the Space officers who commit the Space Crimes, and the Space attorneys who Space prosecute the Space offenders.
These are their stories.
That’s right, it’s Law and Order, ST: TOS!
In this episode, Kirk is in trouuuuble. During a recent crisis, he ejected a mumblemumbleplot pod to save the ship. Sounds fine, right? Except the pod contained a guy with whom he had some seriously rocky history (and who’s been holding one hell of a grudge against Kirk), raising concerns that James T. Kirk, of all people, might have chosen to deliberately eject said pod in order to get the angry jerk out of his face. And worse: the computer records say that Kirk is lying about what happened. Cue a court martial, aka: Space Court Room Drama, which comprises about 75% of this story.
Now, I want to be up front here about the fact that this episode contains what we will call a multitude of holes. There are, for instance, better ways to get revenge on someone than elaborately framing them for your murder (because SPOILER: angry jerk isn’t dead! the whole thing was a set-up!). There are also tidier ways of framing people for murder. Agatha Christie, this man is not. Some of the arguments made in the court martial are, let us say: facile. We could also call them: stupid. Also, the crucial central evidence that was supposedly falsely created by the computer due to some kind of *handwave* tinkering? I lost count of how many times I yelled “COMPUTERS DON’T WORK LIKE THAT.”
All that aside, though, 2/3 of your hosts really like this one. Everyone is working really hard. There are some excellent guest stars in the form of Kirk’s defense advocate and the prosecutor, who is an old flame of Kirk’s but is not a) played by a 19-year-old girl or b) swayed by him in any way, shape or form, despite being visibly very fond of him. There’s even some (fundamentally stupid and wrong but whatever) narratively clever detective work by Kirk’s crew, who are basically NOPE about this whole “the captain murdered somebody for petty revenge” thing. It’s also set on a Starbase, which is always a joy: show us more futuristic pseudo-cities!
It turns out all right, with the angry jerk being caught, Kirk being exonerated, and the Enterprise warping off on her merry way. If you like Law and Order or half-baked but very enthusiastic murder mysteries, this episode’s for you.
January 27, 2016
So, just to get this out of the way, I love this episode.
Then again, I love basically any and all Star Trek content that involves the crew of a starship – or really, any people of the 23rd/24th centuries – travelling back to our rustic, shitty present is practically guaranteed to delight me.
In this first time-travel-back-to-ancient-Earth adventure, the Enterprise ends up For Reasons dropped into orbit around 1969 Earth and because they are a crew of highly competent professionals, drop down into the atmosphere far enough to get spotted (and photographed) by the U.S. Air Force. Cue a fighter jet armed with nuclear missiles, the accidental space-crushing of said fighter jet, the accidental kidnapping of the pilot and a very confused military police officer, and everything going straight to hell.
This episode features the kind of wacky hijinks that Corene loves and Kim loathes, some truly pathetic base security on the part of the USAF, and one of the most hilariously failboaty heists (orchestrated by the crew of our fair ship) I’ve ever seen on television. This is also the first incidence of Star Trek’s favourite time-travel method (e.g. slingshot a starship around a star, it’ll definitely work!), which continues to be used all the way through future incarnations of the franchise, notably in Star Trek IV: A Journey Home, aka: The One with The Whales, aka: My Favourite Star Trek Movie, aka: Actually Everyone’s Favourite Star Trek Movie. In fact, some famous time travel episodes of other major sci-fi franchises can be traced right back to this early episode of Trek, like Stargate: SG-1’s 1969, aka: The One Where SG-1 Goes On A Road Trip In A VW Bus, It’s Amazing.
Maybe the coolest thing about this episode is its timing: it’s set in 1969, the year of the first moon landing, but was made in 1967. And despite contemporary official pessimism about the public plans for a ’69 lunar mission, human beings did, in fact, make that deadline.
January 20, 2016
Just about everyone who’s ever even dipped a toe into classic sci-fi TV has seen at least clips and GIFs from this episode, or at least of its secondary villain, The Gorn.
Strangely, despite the Gorn being the thing everyone knows about this episode, neither the Gorn nor the titular arena show up until wayyyyyyy into the story. Technically. Actually it feels like it takes 1,000 years.
If you couldn’t tell, we were not amazed by this episode: a classic early-Trek Hot Mess, confusingly written, bafflingly paced, and also gave half the cast (definitely Shatner, Kelley and Nimoy) tinnitus due to the number of explosions in the first fifteen minutes. It’s also full of flagrantly out-of-character revenge and aggression as Kirk’s driving motivation for pursuit-with-destructive-intent of an alien ship that destroyed a Federation colony and then took off at high warp.
The actual arena part of this episode doesn’t happen until nearly the end, story-wise: an all-knowing race of sparkly toga-wearing aliens plucks Kirk and the Gorn captain off their ships, deposits them on an asteroid, and tells them to fight to the death to decide which ship will be destroyed and which will be spared. This all in the name of… preventing violent conflict? Driving home that compared to said sparkly aliens, humans and Gorn are equally barbaric? Because I know that when I want to seem more collected than someone else what I always do is pit people against each other in gladiatorial combat with the lives of their friends and subordinates as the stakes.
If you can slog through the disaster that is the first majority chunk of this episode, the actual “arena” portion is… well, still boring, but at least watching the poor guy playing the Gorn (Bobby Clark, the same actor who played the White Rabbit in Shore Leave) stomp around, hiss, hit things and try to emote through an immovable rubber mask, and Shatner roll, leap, and fling his entire body around as a fighting tactic is baseline entertaining. The writing? Well, it’s one more of those episodes where you can see the hints of what could have been… but never actually was.
January 13, 2016
So this is one of those episodes where the Enterprise is more or less minding her own business, zipping along through space, when suddenly she’s dragged into a highly inconvenient adventure by an interfering, super-powered alien. This particular alien likes to kidnap samples of random species to put them on display, like museum pieces, and sometimes force them into elaborate games for his amusement. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s a little like the unaired, unlamented pilot, The Cage, but if you’re a Next Gen fan you might recognize an awful lot of other themes and actual subject matter in our villain of the week.
Meet Trelane, General, Retired. He’s omnipotent, omniscient, immortal, and Super Into Ancient Earth History. Unfortunately he’s got a few trivial details wrong – like the little matter of the passage of about four hundred years; he still thinks Earth is somewhere around the era of the Napoleonic Wars – making him the all-powerful alien version of a Fake Geek Boy.
This episode is both entertaining and frustrating, the former because Trelane is played by such a charismatic actor and the latter because he’s just so utterly irrational and intractable you want our brave crew to beat him just so that reason can prevail. We also get a lot of “we’re better than our past” protestation in this episode, which later on becomes a pretty solid basis for what makes Trek Trek.
If you love the Q, you’ll probably at least like this episode. It’s definitely the direct inspiration for the Q as we know them later, and as mentioned above, the episode itself has a lot in common with the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot, up to and including humanity, or at least humanity’s representative, being put on trial for general savageness and barbarism. There’s some genuinely interesting discussion about relative “civilization,” and how progress might be measured up against a universe full of intelligent species whose lifespans dwarf those of puny human beings. You might find yourself getting sincerely upset on behalf of Planet Earth, which is something we all definitely remembered from Encounter at Farpoint, and something that Star Trek has always been good at making us feel: that no matter how badly we fuck up as a species, there’s good in us that’s worth fighting for.
BTW: Yes, the Enterprise can go up and down. Witness:
January 6, 2016
So, if you ever wanted a textbook example of How Not To Behave in a Space Crisis, this is that episode. Our fair ship is on a mission of mercy, delivering medical supplies to a beleaguered colony, but “standing orders” to study all pulsar phenomena (???) mean they must delay said mission of mercy so that shuttle Galileo can investigate an unexpected pulsar. For reasons, basically.
This episode does contain Trek’s first shuttle departure (which excited us a whole lot), the first time the rank of Ensign is spoken aloud (heralding, eventually, the much-deserved death of the Yeoman/Space-Secretary rank for lady guest stars), some of the silliest Styrofoam rock-throwing in classic Trek, and some alien facial prosthetics that we never see because they were deemed too scary for 1960s television.
It’s also one of the more contrived setups we’ve seen, as Kim says, “a plan to get them on a planet… with danger.” All so that the shuttle can crash on a (completely ridiculous) terrible monster-ridden planet and snipe at each other and behave in various out-of-character ways.
We were not huge fans of this one, obviously. It all seemed like a wrong-ordered process, where they decided they wanted to create a situation where the show could sloppily shove interpersonal conflict in the audience’s face, and they didn’t care about how they got there – up to and including forgetting established character traits and basic facts, like the fact that Spock is the fucking first officer and therefore this obviously cannot be his first command, and handily showcasing early Starfleet’s general failure at instilling inter-cultural and inter-species sensitivity in its recruits.
Another one to add to the list of suggestions on your Starfleet Evaluation Card.
December 30, 2015
Okay, so, I’m not an astronaut. Also, you know, no human astronaut has ever explored another planet to the point of setting foot on it sans environmental suit, let alone interacting with an alien ecosystem on a one-on-one basis, so there’s not a real sturdy framework for comparison here.
But even I can tell you for free that cruising up to a totally unexplored random planet, spending fifteen minutes looking around to see if there are any, you know, really big dangerous animals, and then sending your crew down there on shore leave, without even space suits to protect their delicate, fleshy bodies, is a really bad idea.
But that’s exactly what happens in this episode. The random planet in question just happens to be convenient – I mean, they do some checks in the interests of basic safety and discover there are no insects and no animals, so it’s probably cool, right? There’s definitely nothing else in a landscape that can maim or kill you, right? Certainly not earthquakes or unpredictable extreme weather or, you know, poisonous man-eating alien flowers? Did this occur to anyone? Sulu? You’re a botanist, care to chime in?
Apparently the crew of the Enterprise really, really needs some downtime. I’m not arguing this – it’s 100% accurate. Especially Kirk, who has to be tricked/coerced into taking some leave time by basically his entire command staff.
I’m just saying, maybe go the extra mile and take that leave on a Starbase. Or basically any planet that has been proven, long-term, not to be actively harmful to humans or other humanoids and is not apparently infested with giant white rabbits, little girls in Victorian dress, hallucinations of possibly-dead ex-girlfriends, and the stereotypically Irish spectres of your childhood nemeses.
None of the above contribute to a relaxing environment. I’m sure there’s a 23rd-century equivalent of Yelp – maybe look up a spa. Plot a course for Risa or Space-Vegas. You will have a better time.
(Note for your edification that will make much more sense after you’ve watched/listened and heard me enthuse about the cellular casting/yam people thing: real-life scientists have recently invented a thing that basically does this. SO COOL.)
December 23, 2015
In this episode, the Enterprise is sent to investigate a spate of sudden mysterious radio silence from the asteroid-based outposts along the Romulan Neutral Zone. What’s the Neutral Zone? Well apart from the inspiration for the title of this podcast, it’s the neutral boundary between Federation territory and the Romulan Star Empire.
That’s right. ROMULANS. IT’S TIME.
We here at NSMTNZ HQ love the Romulans, and we were pretty excited about their TOS debut. We get a little mini-history lesson about the century-ago Romulan War, which took place in an era where human space travel was relatively primitive; if you got shot down in space, that was it. No survivors. No prisoners. Oh, and no video communication, so not only do we know very little about the Romulans (except that they’re apparently “warlike”), we don’t even know what they look like.
What we do know is that it looks like a Bird of Prey (which at this point in TOS history is actually painted like a real-life bird of prey in bright, cheerful colours) has been buzzing the Federation edge of the Neutral Zone, destroying outposts as a kind of test to see whether the Romulan Star Empire could take the Federation this time around. This is obviously a violation of the existing treaty, so the Enterprise immediately goes on the defensive to hunt down the aggressor, even witnessing the destruction of one of the outposts while basically on the phone with them. Harsh.
A huge majority of this episode is an amazing back-and-forth balancing act of captainly strategy (both Kirk’s and the Romulan commander’s) as the two ships continually outmaneuver each other, a lovely slice-of-life subplot about an onboard wedding interrupted by the growing crisis (poor Ensign Martine), and underpinning it all, a strong, classic Trek theme of how it’s our similarities, rather than our differences, that matter; while the encounter ultimately ends in tragedy and disaster for the Romulan ship, it’s with a strangely soft and hopeful moment between Kirk and the Romulan commander. In another life, says the commander to Kirk, maybe we could have been friends.
Balance of Terror also contains my personal favourite piece of dialogue in all of Star Trek, which I’m going to drop in at the bottom for your benefit because you can’t stop me.
“In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million earth-type planets… and in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this one. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us.” —Leonard Horatio McCoy, Balance of Terror