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
December 16, 2015
Somewhere, some former Star Trek writer is still riding the triumph of putting their English degree to such expansive use, because this episode may have the most Shakespeare references of any single episode of the Original Series. And that’s not just because this episode’s themes are based on not one, but two Shakespeare plays; it also contains two Shakespeare plays. Macbeth and Hamlet are both performed, at least in part, within this episode. It’s so meta it hurts my head, and I have an English degree. Predictably, it’s also one of my favourite episodes of TOS.
This episode is about Kirk’s manpain, and I say that without derision: this episode is legit about a traumatic childhood experience, specifically 13-year-old James Kirk (and crewman Kevin Riley, who you may remember as the warbling descendant of Irish Kings from The Naked Time) witnessing the Tarsus IV massacre, arguably one of the most discussed and debated events in Star Trek canon (by which we mean that the episode is rife with easily-fixable inconsistencies and there are no satisfactory answers within canon, leaving fans to speculate wildly).
Despite its problems, it does a good job of striking the emotional notes, particularly Kirk’s struggle with the obvious-to-everyone-else truth – is this travelling actor really the mass murderer Kodos, who ordered 4,000 innocent colonists executed in order to save the more “desirable” 4,000 from starvation?
This episode was disliked by the network for being too verbose, but everybody has some great lines in this episode, most delivered in some exceptionally pretty, appropriately Shakespearean prose. It also leaves us thinking: How reliable is memory? Is justice more desirable than revenge, and is revenge justifiable in the face of true evil? Is it even remotely possible to use the word “eugenics” without invoking Nazis? Does this episode have more holes in it than the secure perimeter of the Neutral Zone?
The answer to all of these questions (except for the last one, which is a definitive yes) is… we don’t know, really. They’re mostly unanswerables, which are mostly posed rhetorically within the body of an episode that casts James Kirk as Hamlet and his childhood nightmare, Kodos the Executioner, as Macbeth, which sounds like a piece of fusion fanfiction but I swear, mostly works as an episode… as long as you don’t think about it too much.
Trust your headcanon. Focus on the feels. Trust us: you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
December 9, 2015
So I guess you could say this is a landmark of sorts: Star Trek’s first clips episode. Two landmarks! It’s also the first two-parter. In The Menagerie, the Enterprise is called to a starbase (via a message no one can verify and may have been faked) where we’re re-united with Captain Christopher Pike of unaired original series pilot, The Cage. Due to a terrible accident Pike is now disfigured, confined to a hoverchair, and unable to communicate except for a blinky-light that only allows him to say “yes” or “no.” But don’t worry, Captain Pike. Spock has a plan. He’s going to steal the Enterprise and kidnap you on a mutinous six-day interstellar road trip!
Mostly this episode is a contrivance to allow the writers to fill space and catch up a production gap, and this two-parter is principally composed of an onboard court-martial where Spock explains exactly why he’s stolen the flagship and how the whole thing was really the only logical course of action by screening records of that long-ago mission that resulted in the ship’s destination, Talos IV, being marked as forbidden to Starfleet vessels.
The setup is, of course, a little contrived, but it does a surprisingly good job of feeling like a solid, genuine episode despite being an obvious clips vehicle. Also: Spock is the best at mutinous starship theft. This plan is amazing. Spock thought of everything, up to and including the fact that Jim Kirk is definitely stupid enough to hop into a shuttle and follow them despite the laundry-list of obvious reasons why this is a terrible idea more likely to end in his terrible suffocating demise, adrift in space, than actually catching up to the Enterprise.
It also allowed us to fast-forward through a good 75% of the episode, which we all agreed is the best way to watch The Cage.
December 2, 2015
Corbomite. Corbomite. Corbomite. Hard to say aloud, especially if you’re Corene and keep wanting to say carbonite (Corene is very excited about Star Wars). This is a solid, smart, professional episode for the Enterprise crew in which there is a mystery to be solved and a problem to be strategized away, which is one of Trek’s greatest strengths.
Well. Except for that asshole, Bailey, who spends 50 minutes losing his shit in progressively more unprofessional and disruptive ways, to such an extent that we wondered five minutes in why this man was in Starfleet to begin with and yelling career advice at the screen, e.g. You Are A Terrible Starfleet Officer.
This episode was meant to be the first episode after the real pilot, but its unprecedented amount of special effects delayed its release. Most of this story is about the Enterprise v.s. varying sizes and shapes of space-light, so you can imagine why that might flummox 1960s effects departments.
You could even call this an episode-in-a-bottle, because the crew spends 99% of the story staring out into space at the won’t-leave-them-alone mysterious space cube and outmaneuvering its big brother, Space-Disco-Ball. Our crew is cast as the reasonable victims of an outrageously unreasonable, unseen alien threat that decides they must be destroyed, no questions-asked, for trespassing into unmarked sovereign space. But our alien aggressors are apparently unaware of what we the viewers already knew, which is that you should never try to out-bluff James Tiberius Kirk. Mostly this episode is a ton of tense hurry-up-and-wait, all in all a great example of a smart, sensible starship crew trying their intelligent best against intractable space-jerks.
Well. Except for Bailey, who ends up adopted out to the aliens in the interests of diplomacy. Probably the best thing for everyone.
November 25, 2015
So, once again, we encounter a major problem with the operating procedures of the Enterprise NCC-1701, namely Basic Security Precautions. e.g. When you are beaming up cargo from a penal colony, you should probably scan said cargo for escaping prisoners.
Of course, if the Enterprise crew were that well-endowed with common sense we wouldn’t have this episode, which is a common feature of early TOS – both a semi-successful narrative device and a writing problem. At least, the consensus at the NSMTNZ table was this: when your plot depends on all of your characters failing to display basic common sense, it’s a bad plot.
This episode takes the Enterprise to the famous and well-respected penal colony Tantalus V, and as you can imagine, everything goes to hell almost immediately.
For us, Dagger of the Mind represents a turning point for Star Trek: the point at which the Federation and human culture starts being painted as progressive, or at least, more-progressive-than-the-world-of-the-viewer; where the typical Starfleet officer begins to be defined as smart and competent rather than a reckless space cowboy; and where the show starts to take shape as more of an ensemble cast, something that would underlie every Star Trek to follow. It’s also where the heavy Shakespeare and ancient mythology references start noticeably rolling in, and features Star Trek’s first Vulcan mind meld. Because this is an early TOS episode and the worldbuilding hasn’t quite gotten off the ground, the almost-interesting commentary on the justice system of the 22nd century is a little confused and fragmented, but it still gets points for explicitly endorsing rehabilitative methods over punitive ones. Then again, since the penal facility in question seems to have brought about this revolution via brain erasure, it’s a qualified pass.
If you have issues with the rather blase treatment of mental illness common to TV, especially early TV, this one is probably not for you – there are some extremely shady mental health practices employed on this particular penal colony, and some pretty ableist language tossed around with typical 1960s nonchalance. But if you like to see ladies in unfeasibly short skirts kicking evil henchmen in the balls, mad scientists getting what’s coming to them, and seeing how many times the word “penal” makes us giggle like 12-year-olds, this is definitely worth the watch.