January 11, 2017
This week’s episode really, really wanted to be a ghost story.
It almost manages it – Kirk, rather than saving the day, spends most of the episode floating at low-opacity in the background, waving his arms – but mostly this episode is about getting along.
And also how you never, ever fucking board a ghost ship.
The Enterprise is in search of yet another missing ship, this time the Defiant (you might recognize the name from a successor’s major appearance on DS9), which is missing and adrift in a section of uncharted territory where space is literally falling apart around it. Into this comes charging the Enterprise, whereupon they immediately become ensnared in the region’s weird physics and harmful side-effects. Specifically: this part of space does a particular kind of brain damage that makes humans go slowly insane.
This is a pretty well-worn plot for TOS, a Man vs. Environment tale where they have to brain their way out of a seemingly impossible situation. What’s unexpected is that after beaming aboard the ghost ship and finding the Defiant‘s entire crew not only dead, but murdered by each other, they beam back to the Enterprise and leave Kirk behind… and then he’s lost.
You read that right: for most of this episode, the crew is not only without the guidance of their captain, but they’re pretty sure he’s dead. They even hold a miniature, is-this-really-the-time memorial service midway through the episode, which mostly serves to highlight the tensions between the surviving senior officers, namely Spock and Bones who, absent the social lubricant usually provided by Kirk, are having what we will call “issues” with their grief, the dangerous situation, and each other.
Fortunately, the triumph of this story is basically what Kirk leaves in his Final Message addressed to Bones and Spock: we need to get along with each other in order to survive.
As for the titular Tholians? Well, they’re there, for maybe the last 25% of the episode, and they mostly serve to crank up the ticking-clock pressure and build a space-net. I mean, it’s a nice space-net. I guess.
Overall this is a pretty good bottle-episode, even if the Tholians themselves could have been replaced by, like, the ship’s rapidly dwindling power supply. Or a black hole. Or a really big space rock.
January 4, 2017
Season 3 of TOS is a strange, unpredictable beast, in that there are utterly bananas episodes that make no sense and are exhaustingly bad, like “And The Children Shall Lead,” and then there are episodes like this one, which could have stood in for a 60s/70s contemporary standalone sci-fi film and honestly have better internal logic than a lot of them. In other words: we all pretty much liked this one.
I mean, it’s a story about a generation ship, which we all love. But it also features Natira, High Priestess of the Fabrini, and probably the best (only?) standalone female leader on Trek so far.
The wild thing about the Fabrini – and the root of the danger and conflict and danger in this episode – is the fact that they don’t know they’re living on a spaceship. Apparently their ancestors, pre-supernova, decided to send them off on a generation ship hidden inside an asteroid, but decided to make the inside of the asteroid look like a planet and not tell them that they’re on a spaceship. This turns out to be a questionable decision, because it apparently led to the foundation of a religion hinged on absolute obedience to the ship’s computer, and sometimes-fatal head pain if you either disobey or think bad thoughts that question that authority. It also doles out unlimited electric shocks for all nonbelievers.
It’s into this society that Kirk, Spock, and Bones arrive, mostly because the ship is on a collision course with a populated planet and they need to either correct its course or destroy it.
But seriously, we love Natira. She’s smart and committed to her people, she knows how to make high-stakes judgement calls and, despite her questionable – and really really fast, but hey, lady knows what she wants I guess? – choice of Leonard McCoy as her mate, a fair and even-handed leader, even under the duress of the Oracle (their authoritarian ship’s computer).
There are actually some really interesting conversations about the prime directive and the development of a closed society under utterly bizarre conditions, and in the end, our heroes’ Did We Break The Prime Directive This Week score comes out looking pretty good, even taking into account Bones’ decision to move in with Natira and leave Starfleet (he thinks he’s dying of an incurable disease at the time; it’s a whole thing). Natira even gets to choose whether or not to be told the truth about her world, which is a refreshing change from Kirk unilaterally deciding, justified or not, to dismantle an entire set of cultural rules. We’d love to know more about what happened to the Fabrini, planetary winner of the 2017 Most Agency in a Female TOS Character award.
December 28, 2016
So just to get this out of the way before we start: oh god, later Klingons are so much better than TOS-era Klingons. Not just in terms of, you know, a vastly more fleshed-out and consistent culture and general coolness factor, but also because of the wow, really terrible (both in terms of, you know, just being brownface and also because of the impossibly bad quality) brownface makeup. It is somehow most noticeable on Kang’s science officer, wife and one of only two Klingon ladies in the original series, Mara.
(A heads-up at this point that this episode does include a scene with a sexual assault.)
We’re not sure what the goal here was, since earlier TOS Klingons didn’t… really… have this? So we’re not sure what makeup and wardrobe were smoking that day, but.
This week’s episode also purports to deliver a subtle message of not letting yourself be riled up by bullshit, hate-mongering propaganda to hate and fight things that actually have nothing to do with your own life (we try, guys; we try) that could conceivably be relevant to today’s mediasphere, but actually just brings us a torturously drawn-out metaphor for how we should all just hug it out.
Here’s the rundown: the Enterprise and a Klingon ship under the command of one of our favourite Klingons, Kang, are tricked into a rendezvous. The planet supposedly had a Federation colony on it, but it`s mysteriously gone, with no sign on their instruments that it ever existed. The Klingon ship, on the other hand, suffers a catastrophic malfunction that (possibly) kills 400 of their crew. Tragedy on both sides! How terrible! And then the Enterprise beams the survivors aboard, leaving them with equal numbers of Klingons and Federation crew, and suddenly shit gets weird.
The takeway is that the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by a glowy disco-ball alien that feeds on negative emotions like hatred, specifically “race hatred,” because while Star Trek has never been a subtle beast when it comes to its messaging, TOS is somehow even less subtle than its descendants. The disco ball wanted to keep them fighting so it could suck up all those delicious, delicious bigotry feelings, even going so far as to revive fallen fighters when they’ve been killed by the other side.
Like I said, Trek is not subtle. On the other hand, we mostly don’t mind.
December 21, 2016
Do you enjoy bizarre sci-fi-esque westerns like Wild Wild West and Westworld? Alternately, have you been doing a lot of drugs? Then this episode is for you!
Seriously. First of all, the reason given for the Enterprise visiting this planet either makes no sense at all or makes them look like assholes, which always gets us off to a glowing start. Second of all, this episode takes place in a 19th-century Wild West town that apparently did not feel the need to put walls or ceilings on any of its buildings, something that is never, at any point in the episode, commented upon by anyone.
Basically, Kirk, following orders from higher-up, approaches a planet that has done them the damned courtesy of sending a probe telling the Enterprise in no uncertain terms that they are not at home to visitors, thanks. Naturally, this means that when the away party beams down, they find themselves quickly lectured by an almost unbelievably shoddily-constructed Guest Alien who informs them that because they can’t follow simple instructions or respect sovereign space, they must now be executed… in the weirdest fucking way I have ever heard of, even in Star Trek.
Basically, they’re zipped to Pretend Tombstone Arizona, the away team is cast as the Clantons, and the Earps are going to kill them if they don’t skip town by 5pm. Yes, Death by O.K. Corral. Supposedly this was chosen from Kirk’s mind because he (and his crew) must die by the “violence of [his] own past.” The fact that Kirk’s ancestors are from Iowa, not the Wild Wild West, is apparently immaterial to the moment, but… whatever.
Obviously the away team does not perish at the hands of the Earps and Doc Holliday (weirdly cast as Snidely Whiplash-level black hats in this story). But neither do they, really, escape via application of their smarts, as usual. They work out that the whole Wild West set is an illusion, but that the bullets can still kill them if they believe in them. But do we get to see the power of human imagination being wielded as the ultimate weapon against violence and death? No. It turns out that humans? Just too emotional to logically believe that an illusion is unreal.
Like, there are parts of this episode that definitely come out the other side of Bad and all the way back around to This Is Amazing, but the ten minutes of our lives we gave up to Spock doing the most awkward series of mind-melds ever really didn’t help.
Floating sky clocks can only make up for so much.
December 14, 2016
Hold on to your hats, listeners, because something astonishing has come to pass: we all liked this one.
Right on the tail of one of the worst episodes of TOS is one of the best so far, and one that comes with an interesting question, also the title of the episode: is there, in truth, no beauty? Or is unvarnished truth necessarily ugly?
This week, the Enterprise is swinging by to pick up the ambassador to the Federation for species called the Medusans (unsure whether that’s what they call themselves or if that’s just the Jerkface Human translation), who are apparently so “hideous” to look upon that any human that does so goes insane.
Well, except for Vulcans. So it’s Spock who meets the ambassador and his interpreter, Dr. Miranda Jones (played by Diana Muldaur), in the transporter room. Dr. Jones is instantly fascinating to absolutely everyone – mostly because she’s hot – but also because she’s a) a telepath, b) also human? we think? so she’s one of the few mystifying exceptions to the “no human telepaths in Star Trek” rule, c) studied on Vulcan to get her powers under control, d) kind of jealous of Spock, who was offered the job she’s now trying to secure, but turned it down and e) utterly, explicitly uninterested in the creepy romantic advances of all the gross dudes around her.
Also beamed aboard: engineer Larry Marvick, whose chief extracurricular interest is stalking Miranda and failing to take no for an answer. (Content warning: this episode contains at least one brief moment of unwanted sexual contact, i.e. a kiss that is immediately, viciously rebuffed. Larry is not a nice dude and we’re happy when he dies.)
The central conflicts of the story are Miranda vs. Human Emotion (she’s just not that into feelings), Larry vs. Miranda’s Explicitly Stated Disinterest, and Larry vs. the Enterprise. It should also be mentioned that the Medusan ambassador, Kalos, is blameless in the entire affair. He spends 90% of the trip hanging out in his shielded box to protect the squishy human brains aboard the ship from his insanity-inducing magnificence, except for a brief sojourn inside Spock’s head to navigate them back to a known part of the universe after Dickface Larry gazes upon the unfathomable Kalos, loses his mind, and takes the Enterprise on a joyride right before expiring of Toxic Masculinity Poisoning.
(There is so much happening in this episode.)
Anyway, we love Miranda. And Miranda and Kalos, ultimately, settle their difficulties and beam off to the next stop on their tour as simpatico as a human (?) and a formless energy being can be. And do we ever get to see the Medusan in the box? No. We don’t even know if it’s really “ugliness” that drives people mad, though we’re inclined to think that’s just nasty human prejudice-speak for “ineffable.” But we also think that’s kind of the point.
December 7, 2016
This week’s episode is widely considered to be the worst of the Original Series, and while we beg to differ on “worst,” it’s still pretty damn bad. From inconsistent characterization to random dialogue to one of the most random stunt-casts in our shared experience, this ep goes from “uhh” to “what?” to “umm, no” with great speed and all the agility of a drunken wildebeest.
The ship’s first mistake is answering a distress call. Seriously, when does that ever go well? They arrive at Triacus to find that all the adult members of the archaeological expedition have committed suicide, leaving only their children alive. Children who are… shall we say disturbingly unaffected? Creepily cheerful? by the horrible deaths of their parents, apparently right in front of them.
Now you know, and I know, that creepy orphans are not to be trusted, especially in sci-fi, but the crew takes the kids aboard without even a biohazard scan (yet another checkmark in the fail column for the Enterprise crew!) and they promptly take over the ship.
What follows doesn’t make a whole lot more sense than what comes before, nor does the tone get any less inconsistent. We discover that the children are being manipulated by some kind of immortal demon, Gorgan, a translucent holographic dude who most closely resembles an inverted lampshade, but the villain’s motivations – beyond “conquest!” – and the children’s reasons for going along are never really explained or, when they are explained, even remotely plausible. Not to mention that for an episode centred around children, the children themselves are so bizarrely written that we have to wonder if the people writing them had ever met a genuine human child.
Verdict: baffling, off-key, and left us cold. Even Shatner’s famous, oft-mocked performance in the Homoerotic Turbolift Scene couldn’t save this one.
November 30, 2016
So we’ve been looking forward with – not anticipation? More like trepidation? Dread? knowing this episode was coming up pretty soon, and here we are: The One Where Kirk Gets Amnesia and Cosplays A Hollywood Native American. To give you an idea of the level of cultural sensitivity on display for this episode, the alternate episode title was “The Paleface.”
Is this episode, super, super-racist? Why, yes! How did you guess?
So to summarize, briefly: there’s an asteroid headed for a planet that is home to a pre-warp culture. The Enterprise is going to divert the asteroid and keep it from killing everyone, which is apparently nbd in the 23rd century. Cool. Fine. I’m with you.
Except then for no reason at all, even though they are on an extremely tight schedule (this is mentioned at least three times in the first five minutes of the episode), Kirk, Spock and Bones beam down to gawk at a) the weird alien monolith that seems strangely out of place on a world with no industrial development and b) the natives, who look curiously like pre-European-contact Native Americans of the These-Are-What-We-Had-In-Wardrobe tribe and write an ode to how “idyllic” and “uncomplicated” their lives seem. (This is the first mention of The Preservers, aka: the omnipotent aliens who went around plucking up “primitive” cultures and preserving them in situ on other worlds, who we can only assume were invented to retroactively explain away all the highly questionable Alternate Earth writing decisions so far.)
They’re in a hurry, so naturally Kirk has to trip through a hole and get lost, forcing Spock and Bones to leave him behind in order to keep their appointment with the planet-killing asteroid,
Kirk gets himself electrocuted, gets amnesia, and emerges from the monolith to be greeted by the tribe’s priestesses, one of whom promptly falls in love with him. Kirk – or rather, Kirok, as he comes to be called – gets adopted by the tribe as their new, uh, wizard? And worshiped as a god? and it only gets worse from there.
For what should be pretty obvious reasons, we were not huge fans. In addition to being ultra-terrible and full of holes big enough for a starship captain to fall through – the conflict makes very little sense, when it turns out that the planet had an asteroid deflection machine all along, and Spock comes to the solution mainly via inspirational lute-playing – but rife with the kind of infantilizing characterization of Native Americans/First Nations people that should give any decent human contact humiliation. Kirk’s whole character arc in this episode is a desire for a condescendingly-idealized “simpler life” that’s handily delivered to him by amnesia and being slotted into a position of power and basically worshiped as a god. Not to mention the rampant brownface and the fact that the sole female guest star exists only to…
…no. I could go on. But honestly, you can probably guess, and if we had to watch this, so do you.
November 23, 2016
So mostly we loved this episode because it contains a novelty for TOS: a take-no-shit female leader in the form of a Romulan Commander whose authority is so unimpeachable that we don’t even get to learn her name.
I mean, there are downsides. We encounter RomCom (we tend to come up with abbreviated nicknames for guest characters and this one was too good not to share) in the course of the Enterprise 100% participating in cross-Neutral-Zone espionage, and she ends up losing the day at least partly due to her having the hots for the tall drink of pointy-eared water that is Commander Spock. There are, of course, counter-arguments to the interpretations of both of those things, and as a bonus, the episode was written by our girl, D.C. Fontana, which lends at least two-thirds of us some confidence that our ultra-progressive headcanoning of this episode are at least a little right.
I do have to question the wisdom of Starfleet’s plan here, though, at least at the outset. The plan itself is relatively sound: manufacture a situation in which Starfleet personnel can get onboard a Romunal ship? Fine. Probably you do need to cross into Romulan space to do that. Suggest a possible explanation for this highly illegal action that does not represent a breach of the Federation-Romulan treaty (e.g. Kirk Has Gone Mad Again, something that happens often enough that you’d think people would start to get suspicious)? Cool. I’m with you so far. I’m even with you as far as part C of this plan, i.e. While You’re On Board, See If You Can Get Your Hands On Some Cloaking Tech, which I look on as a sort of value-added bonus-level option.
My objection arises in the initial planning stages, in that surely there were easier ways to go about acquiring this intelligence. Doesn’t the Federation have spies? I’m confident that Romulus does. Later on, I know that the Federation does. What is diplomacy for if not to serve as a flimsy cover for international espionage?
Learn from your neighbours, Federation. After all, isn’t that what you’re all about?
November 16, 2016
Welcome to season 3 of both TOS and Not So Much The Neutral Zone! Can you believe we’ve been doing this for this long?? Neither can we!
In less cheerful news: we are so. Sorry. America. The existential dread we feel on your behalf actually came in handy this week, though, because this episode is basically what it says on the tin. That is: repetitions of the title also comprise roughly 25% of the episode dialogue.
In what feels very much like a great big middle finger to the network, this week’s adventure begins with a purple-booted alien lady booping onto the bridge with little warning (in fairness, Kirk did call security, they just didn’t get there in time), knocking everyone unconscious, and then stealing Spock’s brain and making off into the night. The crew wakes up, finds a newly-brain-free Spock on the floor of Sickbay, and then vow to track down the thief and return Spock’s brain to him. Never mind the fact that the medical technology to do that doesn’t actually exist in the Federation: Kirk knows his heroic role and that ultimately, the universe will bend itself to his whims.
Ultimately it turns out that the brain-thieves live on an ice-age planet where the men and women are segregated into surface-dwelling cavemen and bunker-dwelling lamé-clad cave-ladies who live underground, control all the technology, and enslave the men through the use of pain belt devices. They apparently stole Spock’s brain to replace their previous Controller, another brain that finally kicked it after ten thousand years of running their underground complex.
They’re also really, really stupid. The episode really, really wants you to know that the bunker-women are stupid. Or at least I assume it does, given how many times and ways the male Starfleet officers repeat it. Apparently their mental faculties have “atrophied” after generations of having their lives run by the Controller. Setting aside that that’s not how brains fucking work, let’s focus on the relevant questions, like: if they have such tiny, atrophied lady-brains, how did their leader sneak onto the Enterprise, perform cutting-edge neurosurgery, escape, and install Spock’s brain into its new home?
Apparently the answer is “the computer gave her a temporary upgrade,” but the knowledge only lasts for three hours.
No, that’s not how brains work either, I know. But on the upside, this episode solves the question of “how are we going to get a major cast member into every scene of this episode if his brain has been literally removed from his head?”
I AM SO GLAD YOU ASKED.
This episode is fundamentally bananas, but let’s all sit back and appreciate the solid brass balls of the writer who first had this idea, then spoke it aloud in front of other professional adults, and then managed to convince them to use it. Hats off, unknown writer.
November 9, 2016
In the Original Series season 2 finale, we find ourselves, inexplicably, in 1968. Inexplicably because it contradicts everything we’ve been told before or since about messing with timelines and the dangers of time travel. And why? Nominally, to do “historical research” into the “pivotal events” of 1968. Actually? To shoehorn a back door pilot into what might have been the last episode of TOS.
Assignment: Earth was, unsurprisingly, a Gene Roddenberry concept for a show that, equally unsurprisingly, did not get picked up. The premise is basically that generations ago, a secret, distant alien race took humans from Earth (whether this was done forcibly or the humans came willingly is never made clear) to educate and train them with the end goal of interfering in key points of Earth events.
Now, I can hear at least one of the questions forming in your mind, i.e. But To What End? Do these secret, distant, omnipotent (they can beam between star systems, which is how guest star Gary Seven and his sidekick Isis, A Cat, Yes, Literally A Cat, end up on board the Enterprise to kick off the story) aliens have prescient knowledge of Earth’s future? A semi-magical knowledge of causality? Are they, themselves, time travelers? And are they trying to save Earth, or interfere with its development so that the Federation never happens??
Well, we never know, because the episode is so taken with its own cleverness and goofy moments and under-using the amazing and charismatic other guest star, Teri Garr, to actually give us enough information about Gary’s assignment or his employers to form an idea of their intentions. Gary Seven also falls pretty short of likable, to the point that we get a twenty-second scene of him standing at a window sneering down at “primitive” New York City and wishing he could return to the Secret Planet ASAP.
1968 in the Trek ‘verse was apparently so tumultuous that Spock has trouble narrowing down which disaster Seven is here to avert, but they eventually settle on an SDI-type nuclear platform launch which sends Earth down a bad road. Gary Seven refers to it as “starting World War 3,” which, since we know that in the Trek timeline WW3 happens anyway, you have to wonder what the hell Gary and Friends were doing in the 80s and 90s?
The real shame about this episode is that at no point did we care about the wacky hijinks of time cop Gary Seven meeting the obstacle of the well-meaning Enterprise crew as much as we were demanding explanations of what the hell his bosses were up to and why they were up to it. But Assignment: Earth was never to be, and TOS got one more season, so we’ll never know.