March 16, 2016
So the chatter around this episode before we watched was basically KLINGONS KLINGONS KLINGONS. Because this week’s story involves the first appearance of our favourite (I know, we say that every time) Star Trek aliens: The Klingons!
…well, sort of. There’s a running joke regarding Original Klingons versus Classic Flavour Klingons, i.e. pre-Bumpy-Forehead v.s. Post-Bumpy-Forehead. Until the Enterprise storyline that tried (not super-gracefully) to explain away the drastically differing appearances of early and classic Klingons, the best explanation was basically “we do not discuss it.” Generally speaking this is the explanation we prefer, because early Klingons were… different. Warlike, sure. Super into military service, sure. Our favourite wine-swilling, wild-haired warrior poets?
…ehhhhh, not so much.
With war looming on the horizon, the Enterprise is dispatched to secure peaceful, pre-Warp Organia, a civilization that has stalled somewhere around Barely Medieval and just happens to be right in the path of the imminent Klingon invasion. Their planet is strategically valuable, and the Federation wants that planet secured for the protection of the rest of the region. Also, Klingons have a habit of enslaving and massacring their conquered subject worlds, which is something the Federation would like to avoid if at all possible.
Only one problem: the Organians don’t want the Federation’s protection. And then suddenly it’s too late: the Klingons have arrived, and the away team (only Kirk and Spock) are left stranded in the middle of an occupation.
You might describe this episode as a story about imperialism, and how even the benevolent kind of assimilation is Not Really That Great. That’s a valuable discussion to have, especially in Star Trek. Trek canon never stops talking about the fact that even though the Federation is, by and large, a benevolent force for good, the very mechanism of a society so large and powerful means that imperialism and assimilation, often explicitly denounced in Trek as negative, destructive things (that’s basically why the Prime Directive exists), are always waiting in the wings. A great example of this is the famous Root Beer Speech from DS9 (the important bit starts at at 1:35).
Two-thirds of us, though, were too caught up in the glaring, obvious fact that the supposedly helpless, primitive people the Enterprise was sent here to protect were secretly (SPOILER) all-powerful, non-corporeal ascended balls of light who were never in any danger, only took physical form to trick the actually-primitive visitors on both sides, and when the situation becomes genuinely inconvenient for them, snap their fingers and bend the Federation and Klingon forces to their will, declaring the war over. I mean, no war = good. But you might ask: “why take physical form in the first place?” They’re ascended! Beyond all mortal cares! All-powerful and all-knowing! And would they even have intervened if the Klingons and the Federation hadn’t shown up to play loud space-music on their front lawn? WHO KNOWS. (They definitely never interfere in galaxy-spanning space-war again, at least not in this reality, so I’m thinking… no.)
This incensed some of us (mainly me), and it took us a while to realize why this sort of high-handed behaviour felt so familarly infuriating. And then we remembered: the ascended jerks from Stargate.
Ascended Omnipotent Aliens: dicks in every galaxy.
March 9, 2016
So here are some things I have learned about mines from a lifetime of sci-fi and murder mystery consumption:
In this episode, apparently nobody knows about the Cardinal Rules of Mines, because we open with a bunch of space miners ignoring every last one of them. Apparently some kind of monster has been killing (taking?) miners – 50 of them, as we join our not-long-for-this-world space miners – but they still definitely think it’s a good idea to leave one guy to guard the mining equipment armed with nothing but a class 1 phaser which in previous encounters has done precisely nothing against the mine-monster, the titular devil in the dark. Apparently the miners are banking on the imminent arrival of the Enterprise to save them and their mine, but sadly, help will not arrive in time to save poor, poor Sorry-Dude-But-Somebody-Has-to-Stand-Guard, who we see bite it in the first minute and a half of the cold open.
Of course, even our brave crew don’t have much luck with the monster at first – in fact, Kirk & Co don’t even seem to believe the monster exists! Which seems a little strange, given the 50 missing-probably-dead miners, but idk, maybe running off with a duffel bag full of space minerals is a real problem in 23rd century mines. Instead, what our good captain and his first officer first do is stand around, look skeptical, and fondle the mysterious, geological oddity the chief miner has displayed, totally inconspicuously, on his desk – a smooth, perfectly spherical, pure silicone ball – apparently the new level they just reached with their machines is full of them. And yes, this episode is equally full of ball jokes. Sorrynotsorry.
The above absurdity aside, this is actually a really great, classic episode of Star Trek. It’s a logic puzzle, really,where our heroes have to figure out what the monster is, what precipitated the sudden attacks after decades of incident-free mining, and why the monster – the Horta – was suddenly driven to kill. Because don’t be fooled: this is not a monster-of-the-week story. To stop the killing, Kirk, Spock and Bones have to step outside of their established body of knowledge, and solve a problem so alien and new that neither their usual problem-solving methods nor their highly advanced equipment can fully prepare them for it, or really help them. To win the day, our heroes have to totally re-think the definition of “life” as they know it. This episode gives us a situation where human beings (and half-Human beings, in the case of Spock) must grow and learn and depend upon the better angels of their natures in order to survive.
Suspend your disbelief and accept the hilarious 60s effects and the moments of extreme, committed scenery-chewing, and this story delivers a genuinely effective message: that life, and sentience, and intelligence, and people, in the purest sense, don’t always look like us, or anything you might expect, and that is not a requirement for someone to deserve your compassion, or your respect.
“If you can learn to feel for a Horta,” said Gene Roddenberry, about one of the most popular episodes of the Original Series, “you may also be learning to understand and feel for other Humans of different colors, ways, and beliefs.” And if that’s not the very essence of Star Trek, I don’t know what is.
March 2, 2016
In this week’s episode, the Enterprise crew is dispatched to investigate the fate of the worst summer camp of all time.
Technically they’re trying to establish the fate of the probably-lost colony of Omicron Ceti III – “lost” because after the colonists had already departed, Earth scientists discovered that the planet was under constant bombardment by deadly radiation that not only kills within a week but disintegrates unprotected organic tissue. (I mean, “lethal disintegrating radiation” would definitely be in the “must verify” Cons column in my Should We Colonize This Planet Pros/Cons checklist, but what do I know, I have an English degree.) The Enterprise arrives expecting to find no trace of the sadly-dead colonists, but then beam down to discover that… uh, they’re definitely all alive. Somehow.
Hey there, say the colonists. Sorry we haven’t called, but our space radio was busted, and we were busy founding a collectivist space farm commune on this perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect planet!
Fortunately this is one of those times where our heroes look at each other and say “hey, that’s weird,” and they keep asking reasonably pertinent questions, like a) what happened to all of your farm animals? and b) why are you all so eerily content? And actively attempting to solve the mystery.
Also present among the colonists is a woman from Spock’s past, botanist Dr. Leila Kalomi, who had a Thing for Spock that, by all evidence, he either did not, or could not, reciprocate. Leila is delighted to see Spock again, and equally delighted to answer all of his questions about how the hell they’re all still alive. The answer, amazingly, is flowers – flowers that, uh, well, there’s no other way to say it: ejaculate into people’s faces the moment they get close enough.
Leila exposes Spock deliberately, hoping to convince him to stay with them and, specifically, with her – and is upset when the affect of the isn’t as painless for half-Vulcan Spock as it was for the purely-Human colonists. He comes out the other side, though, as One of Them – because the flowers’ spores not only protect the colonists from radiation, but also create a kind of psychic groupthink that suffuses everyone with an overwhelming sense of perfect happiness and serenity, which doesn’t sound so bad until you substitute “serenity” with “total social stasis and possible mind control.”
Weirder still, under the influence of the flowers Spock is happy, for the first time in his life, which Nimoy portrays in a way that is somehow both gratifying (because even by whatever definition you want to use for a half-Vulcan, Spock is not, generally, a very “happy” man) and deeply, deeply unsettling (because flower-high Spock is disarmingly, heart-breakingly happy). Especially once he joins the colonists in their mission to convert the entire Enterprise crew.
Kirk saves the day by virtue of his immunity to happiness, but we’re left with some pretty troubling questions, like is happiness, imposed from without, really happiness? And is it better to be content but never change, or to change and grow at the expense of perfect serenity? And is paradise, by those descriptors, something anyone really wants?
February 24, 2016
This week’s episode is best described as a game of RISK that got massively out of hand.
Our fair ship is ordered (against the better judgement of literally every member of the crew, it seems) into a region of space with a galactic-standard Do Not Enter sign hung on the door. These orders are issued by Federation Ambassador Fox, AKA: The Beigest Man Alive, who probably should look into another career because he is actually not very good at diplomacy. Kirk protests that going in there is a) a bad idea and b) could totally start a war, but Fox insists, and in they go.
Guess what happens.
Not only is the Enterprise crew instantly sentenced to death the moment the away party beams down, but it gets crazier: this planet has been engaged in a 500-year-long war with a neighbouring world where casualties are caused not by bombs and guns, but calculated by computer – at which point the unfortunate victims of mathematics walk willingly into a disintegration machine. We kill 3.1 million of ourselves every year in this war, say their extremely solicitous hosts! It’s no big deal!
As you might imagine, Kirk & Co. object in the strongest possible terms.
This episode also features guest star Barbara Babcock, who went on to join the secondary cast of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, which you’ll know because of the 2.5 minute micro-lecture at about minute 26. It also also contains the second appearance of Yeoman Tamura (played by Miko Mayama, first seen in Court Martial), who is highly competent and wishes she got to point alien space-crystal-rayguns at people more often.
The consensus is that this episode was and remains relevant to the way we, in the West, view distant wars. In 1967, this was a thinly-veiled metaphor for Vietnam conscription and the Television War – in 2016, it’s a commentary on drones and our ability to kill real fellow humans from thousands of miles away using what is basically an Xbox controller. Eerily lifelike, and sufficiently chilling that despite the usual massive plotholes and inexplicable decision-making, I think this one holds up.
Editor’s Note: There’s a point where I suggest this episode contains callbacks to the movie Logan’s Run, before Kim reminds me that Logan’s Run the movie came out in 1976, and A Taste of Armageddon hit TV screens in February 1967. Logan’s Run the book was published in 1967, but I couldn’t find a specific date. Who knows? But if the two were unrelated it’s a hell of a co-incidence. (tl;dr: watch Logan’s Run. Sci-fi classic. Scary. Very Good.)
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
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: