Wednesday, September 07, 2011

From the Archive: Star Trek: "The Enterprise Incident"

[John's note: Today, I continue my celebration of Star Trek's 45th birthday this week with a few episode and movie reviews from the blog archive.]

For over forty years now, Trekkers have passionately debated the third and final season of ST: TOS (Star Trek: The Original Series, for the non-Trekkers out there).

This was the spell during which the late Fred Freiberger (1915 - 2003) assumed the role of executive producer after series creator Gene Roddenberry -- the Great Bird of the Galaxy -- reduced his involvement.

A little background: Roddenberry had apparently promised NBC he would be a hands-on show-runner for the third season, but then the network pulled a fast one and re-scheduled Star Trek to the Friday night graveyard (or "death slot") at 10:00 pm. Roddenberry stepped down, and Freiberger arrived on the scene. Not everyone was a happy camper.

The general perception has long been that Star Trek took a significant downward turn in quality during Freiberger's tenure; perhaps as a result of his involvement.

Yet the ratings-troubled series had other problems to grapple with too, including a dramatic budget cut in the third season which rendered location shooting impractical except on rare occasions (such as "The Paradise Syndrome," early in the new season). According to William Shatner's Star Trek Memories, the per episode budget dropped from a high in the first season of $193,500.00 to a low at the third season of $178,500.00. (William Shatner, Chris Kreski, Harper Collins, 1993, pages 290-291).

Now intriguing, visually-exciting location work -- "planet side" action -- had been a staple of Star Trek in the first two seasons; with episodes such as "Arena," "This Side of Paradise," "The Alternative Factor," "Shore Leave," and "Friday's Child" springing to mind. But in the third season, Freiberger -- in the words of original series star, Nichelle Nichols -- suddenly became a "producer who had nothing to produce with." (Nichelle Nichols, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York 1994. p.189.)

So depending on mind-set, you can either appreciate Star Trek Season Three for what it is (and in some cases, by necessity what it had to be), or dislike it for the manner in which it differed from the first two seasons.

One can either laud episodes such "The Paradise Syndrome," "The Enterprise Incident," "The Tholian Web" and "All Our Yesterdays" or curse the quality of such outings as "Spock's Brain," "And the Children Shall Lead" and "The Way to Eden."

Other third season episodes remain even more controversial, both loved and despised by fans in equal measure: "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield," "The Empath," and "Spectre of the Gun." Failures, or, in some cases, almost avant-garde masterpieces?

One third season episode that holds up remarkably well today is author D.C. Fontana's "The Enterprise Incident," which first aired September 27, 1968 and featured the Enterprise's secret espionage mission inside Romulan space to recover a new and deadly cloaking device technology. This was the second broadcast installment of the last season.

When I interviewed D.C. Fontana for Filmfax Magazine, she explained in detail about the origins of this episode: "It was a reflection of the Pueblo Incident, where a ship was captured in an area of sea where it shouldn't have been. The ship claimed not to be a spy ship, but in fact it was a spy ship."

Specifically, on January 23, 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Banner-class research vessel with six officers and seventy crew men aboard, was surrounded and captured by North Korean vessels. The U.S. government insisted the ship was well within international waters, but the Democratic People's Republic of Korea countered that Pueblo was inside its territory when captured.

Classified, high-security material was eventually found aboard the was on an American spy mission after all. The ship was brought back to an enemy port (the nearest U.S. naval vessel was -- ironically, the U.S.S. Enterprise -- positioned some five hundred miles south and in no position to assist...). The Pueblo crew was then processed, tortured, and eventually returned stateside. The ship itself remains in the custody of the North Koreans.

In "The Enterprise Incident," you can see many deliberate resonances of the real-life incident, which had occurred scarcely nine months before the episode was broadcast. Here, a Federation starship, NCC-1701, strays into enemy waters, metaphorically-speaking. The Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) plans to take the Enterprise back to a Romulan port as a prize, and process the crew before eventual release. Of course, that doesn't happen.

Here, history is re-written rather dramatically. The party that is actually in the wrong (conducting the espionage in enemy territory in the name of intergalactic security,) escapes with a secret device that could alter the balance of power. In fact, the Enterprise actually gets away scot-free, with an important captive in tow: the Romulan Commander herself. In other words, Kirk and Spock are on the side of the angels, keeping the Romulan-created technology...out of Romulan hands.

In space, all warriors are cold warriors...

In "The Enterprise Incident," Kirk and Spock's secret spy mission also involves the logical half-Vulcan science officer...uh...romancing the Romulan Commander to gain her confidence.

Like the rest of us, then, the Romulans prove themselves intrigued by Vulcan morals and ethics. In this case, they make a bad mistake. The commander is manipulated by the poker-faced Spock. Specifically, he distracts her while a surgically-altered Kirk (now resembling a Romulan) makes off with the top-secret cloaking device. Scotty does a lickety-split installation, and the escape is made.

Notably, Spock re-affirms in this episode that "Vulcans are incapable of lying" and live by a code of "personal honor and integrity." The Romulan Commander naively accepts his word on these crucial matters, and pays the price for trusting Spock.

Yet, "The Enterpise Incident" works so well because the noble Spock clearly takes no satisfaction, let alone joy, in manipulating this Enemy of the Federation. In the hands of another actor, Spock might very well seem like a heel or a cad for actively encouraging the romantic inclinations of the Romulan Commander, but Leonard Nimoy plays the role sensitively; humanely. This subtle approach comes to the forefront during Spock's final conversation with the Romulan commander aboard the Enterprise, in the turbo-lift.

The Romulan commander has been tricked and disgraced. She is angry, and rightfully so, over Spock's trickery. And yet Spock doesn't hide behind orders or regulations here. Instead, he expresses, perhaps obliquely, that this has all been a rather useless and short-lived game. "Military secrets are the most fleeting of all," he acknowledges. Rather, he suggests to the Commander that it is the connection that the two of them shared that will prove more permanent, more lasting.

This is one of the reasons I love and admire Star Trek. The character of Spock -- perpetually the outsider -- gives us a good, outside perspective on ourselves and our behavior. By contrast, Kirk is the giddy American cowboy, the dashing American secret agent, the guy who is going to accomplish his mission with heroic flair and dynamic action. He is entrenched in his mission (he cannot afford otherwise), and he doesn't really look outside it at the big picture. We love and admire Kirk for this clarity of vision and purpose.

But Mr. Spock thinks more analytically, and with a deeper perspective. He weighs matters outside of petty political and military concerns. Though as a Starfleet officer he performed his duty, he intimates that in this case, that duty involved something "fleeting," hence ultimately unimportant. Rather, the bond established by the Romulan Commander and Spock suggests that these two clashing races/empires can find common ground in the future, beyond the conflict of the present.

The second-to-last time we encounter Mr. Spock in Star Trek history, he is pursuing this very cause: the re-unification of Romulus and Vulcan. I've always wondered if Spock's personal encounter with the Romulan Commander was the impetus of his decision to pursue this tough-to-negotiate peace. In some subtle way, Star Trek -- despite the presence of all kinds of alien creatures and some imperialistic tales -- has really been, sub textually, about the bonds that unite humanity. We may differ with the Soviet Union (during the Cold War) or the Taliban today, during the War on Terror, but we hope and pray that in the future what unites us all as inhabitants of the planet Earth will overcome that which today divides us. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), only Nixon could go to China; only Kirk could bring peace between the Klingons and The Federation. And here, way back in "The Enterprise Incident" in 1968, the seeds of peace between the Romulans and the Federation are being Spock; in his humane treatment of the Romulan Commander.

Now, Spock also manipulates the Romulan Commander very successfully and in some sense, it does play as cruel. But lest we forget, she is also manipulating him simultaneously, using what she perceives to be Spock's sense of racial superiority to harness resentment against Kirk and loyalty towards her. So they are both pawns of the mission. But I would suggest that -- all along -- Spock may have a better future in mind. He may be stealing a cloaking device and deceiving a beautiful woman in the present, but he also realizes that military secrets are fleeting and that one person can change the world; can alter the direction of the future (also a message of another Star Trek episode, "Mirror, Mirror.")

In Star Trek history, "The Enterprise Incident" may actually be one of the most significant episodes of all, especially in terms of impact on the franchise.

This episode establishes a Klingon-Romulan alliance (later shattered, with great resentment and animosity in the Next Gen era), and it introduces blue Romulan Ale, though not in name, as a "powerful recruiting inducement." The episode also establishes Spock's time in Starfleet as 18 years.

Much of the drama also hinges on the mistaken belief that "Vulcans are incapable of lying," a turn of phrase which returns in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

Also, although Fontana introduced Vulcan "finger-touching" as a gesture of affection in "Journey to Babel," here we see a more...erotic...application. That too returned to Star Trek, in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Additionally, in "The Enterprise Incident," the audience gets some significant knowledge of the Romulans, from the "Right of Statement" to the command structure inside the Empire.

And of course, "The Enterprise Incident" introduces the Vulcan Death Grip. Which, as you surely know, does not exist...

I'll go even further. I believe that "The Enterprise Incident" is very much a template for the modern Star Trek motion picture series, as it involves the Enterprise forced to take dramatic action to capture or otherwise stop a weapon of mass destruction. Here it is the Romulan Cloaking Device. But Khan had Genesis, Soran had the Ribbon -- which he wielded as a weapon, Shinzon had a tharalon device, and Nero had Red Matter.

Over the years "The Enterprise Incident" has not been without controversy, of course. Fontana told me that the "episode wasn't substantially re-written" from what she had imagined, but rather "was changed in ways that really bothered me. The relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander was somewhat different than what I had envisioned. From a production standpoint, the cloaking device was supposed to be small and easily hidden, but on the show it looked like a lamp. That didn't work for me, because they had to run around holding this large device, it was pretty obvious. More than that, the relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander wasn't what I had in mind. I wanted it to be more adversarial than it was."

Indeed, if "The Enterprise Incident" contains one weakness, it is that the Romulan Commander appears far too trusting, far too early, of Spock. Especially since she did not know he was stationed on the Enterprise and therefore could not anticipate her strategy before seeing him on the viewscreen. Of course, given a little thought, the Commander's actions might be written off as signs of a healthy, Kirk-sized ego. She believes she can appeal to Spock's ego, assuring him that he is a "superior being" and thereby offer him ample incentive to turn against the Federation. Given Kirk's irrational, arrogant behavior leading up this incident (all orchestrated, of course...) it is also easy to see why she could imagine Spock would prefer to serve her rather than the fragile, insulting Captain Kirk. Of course, that's what she's supposed to believe.

I think some fans also dislike "The Enterprise Incident" because it says, basically, that when Starfleet breaks its own laws, it is okay, because -- hey, these are the good guys.

Perhaps today, given all we've been through in the last decade, this makes the program feel a little simplistic. The (overlooked) fact of the matter is that this mission could have sparked an all-out war with the Romulans, one that could have cost millions if not billions of innocent lives across the galaxy.

And furthermore, the Romulans had not even used this cloaking device in battle yet. They had used a similar weapon in the past, on Federation border outposts ("Balance of Terror"), but still, this seems to qualify as a pre-emptive strike, right? Does Starfleet subscribe to the...Bush Doctrine?

For a second, imagine what a powerful episode this might have been had Kirk's mission failed; had he and the stalwart crew been taken hostage and interrogated back on Romulus; had the mission been exposed as a dangerous, irresponsible one; had Starfleet paid the consequences for issuing such orders. But you know -- honestly -- that sounds more like a Next Gen era story of DS9-flavored one. And if that had happened here, we might have lost the valuable message that is clear in "The Enterprise Incident:" that peace can begin in the heart of one man, or one Vulcan, as the case may be. That Spock is, for lack of a better word, emotionally affected by his contact with the Romulan commander...who, despite her manipulations, comes across as strangely vulnerable...and likable.

In closing, I submit that "The Enterprise Incident" is a worthwhile and memorable installment of Star Trek because in that last scene, Spock acknowledges something important and true. Kirk, the Romulan Commander, and Starfleet itself are all playing one dangerous move in a much larger chess-game. They are focused on that move: getting the Cloaking Device (or getting the Enterprise, contrarily). But Spock is thinking a long-term strategy, thinking several moves ahead, to something more permanent than a fleeting military secret. He was touched by his encounter with the Romulan Commander, more than he ever could have imagined.

On the other hand, you could also argue that Spock's entanglement with the Romulans, begun in earnest in this episode of the classic series, is the very thing that destroys his timeline some hundred years down the road. As the Vulcan himself might note, "fascinating..."

Also, I appreciate Leonard Nimoy's thoughtful take on this tale: "Episodes like "The Enterprise Incident" made it exciting to go to work. Like all of Dorothy's scripts, it had an edge to it, an adult level of complication, and social commentary. The characters' lives were being affected, their ethics violated, even their spirituality touched. Scripts like this added to the moral structure of the Star Trek universe." (Nimoy. I am Spock. Hyperion, 1995, page 118).


  1. To me, The Enterprise Incident is the best episode of the third season. Freiberger may have had a smaller budget, but he was also a hack who didn't know a good script if it bit him, as evidenced by his work on the second season of Space: 1999.

    The moral dilemmas you talk about hadn't quite filtered into the storytelling of 1960s TV. Mission: Impossible was another show that paid little attention to the moral implications of their work. They were the good guys; therefore, what they did was correct, and the writers would make sure everything worked out for the best. It wasn't until the early 70s, when Americans began to question their government more, that M:I started to address these issues, however briefly. I'm speaking specifically of the fifth season episode The Innocent.

  2. So again we have a good episode and a good review.

    Joanne Linville's Romulan Commander is amazing. And she is, I agree, VERY much like Kirk. I would have liked to see her more onscreen. I've never seen anyone compare her to Kirk; her counterpart from Balance of Terror or Kang and Koloth and Kor have all been held up to the mirror for Kirk. But all five of these memorable captains have made appearances in books; only the Klingons reappeared on small screens. You are absolutely correct about her: everything that Kirk is, she is: bold, sensual, sexual, daring, quick to action... in another timeline, where the Romulans are in the Federation, I could easily see her and Kirk having an on-again, off-again relationship from their days at the Academy to their first commands, until they joined the Admiralty.

    I think you are completely dead-on when you describe the events of The Enterprise Incident as a template for the movies. Even more so. There is something dangerous, and there are political implications, and a loose cannon (in this case, Kirk is apparently the loose cannon).

    ST:TMP--V'ger itself is the loose cannon; political hole if Earth and Starfleet Command and the Federation Council are wiped out.

    Wrath--Khan and Genesis; interstellar war possible.

    Search--Kruge is a loose cannon after Genesis, and Kirk behaves like a loose cannon; again we see the threat of interstellar war.

    Voyage--The Probe is the loose cannon; again, losing Earth, Starfleet Command, and the Federation Council would dramatically weaken the Federation, and by losing Sarek, the UFP's best diplomat, you'd lose the best hope to keep the UFP together.

    Final--Sybok is the loose cannon and the technology of piercing the barriers is crucial; by messing around on the 'Planet of Galactic Peace' he risks starting interstellar war.

    Undiscovered--Chang and the conspirators are the loose cannons (and to a lesser extent so are Spock and Sulu), with the firing-when-cloaked Bird-of-Prey the tech; interstellar war could result.

    Generations--Soran the loose cannon and his star-destroying weapon could easily provoke a war; and by changing the path of the Nexus, it could potentially swallow Earth, leading to the same possibilities as STTMP and Voyage.

    First--Picard was regarded as a potential loose cannon by Starfleet when he was ordered to stay on the Romulan border; Borg time travel the technology; and the loss of Earth and probably the Federation and maybe the Klingons and Romulans as well is the risk. (But at least they'd kick the Founders' butts by unifying the Alpha, Beta, and Delta Quadrants...LOL)

    Insurrection--Zerbe's character and the Sona are the loose cannons, and the radiation on the Baku world is the dangerous powder keg that could have started a war.

    Nemesis--yup, you got it: Shinzon and the thalaron and the loss of Earth and a war with the Romulans up against the Feds...and the Klingons would pick it all apart.

    And it's pretty obvious for the Abramsverse film, too.

    I'm glad that the relationship between Spock and his lady friend did have a personal element; because from an adversarial nature, the Kirk vs Romulan Commander relationship would have been diluted.

    What an episode!

    Gordon Long

  3. Great comments here on The Enterprise Incident, a terrific episode of ST.

    Neal P: I totally agree with you that in the 1960s, American television wasn't quite there yet regarding questions of murky morality. Mission:Imposssible is a great example of that. I remember reading of a sequel script from about 1980 that would have seen Phelps hauled before Congress for his actions in the IMF, and testifying that it (the 1960s) was a different time. You are absolutely right.

    PDXWIZ: I share your admiration for the Romulan commander. She's a great character, and indeed, a risk-taker like Kirk. Had things been slightly different, she would have been victorious.

    I enjoyed your breakdown of the Trek movies in regards to this episode. If you think about it, Enterprise Incident is enormously influential to the shape of post 60s Trek indeed!

    best to you both