Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Shore Leave" (December 29, 1966)

Stardate 3025.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise orbits an uninhabited planet in the Omicron Delta system, and an exhausted Captain Kirk (William Shatner) prepares to authorize shore leave rest-and-relaxation for his fatigued crew.

On a landing party with Mr. Sulu (George Takei), however, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) spies a talking white rabbit, and then a little girl who is apparently the protagonist from Alice in Wonderland.

Kirk delays the shore-leave to investigate this oddity, and soon begins to encounter several others. Sulu discovers a twentieth century hand-gun, for example. And Kirk, after reminiscing about his days at Starfleet Academy, encounters a tormentor and bully, Finnegan (Bruce Mars) and a former lover, Ruth (Shirley Bonne).

Then the unthinkable happens: Dr. McCoy is killed in cold blood by a black knight. 

Enraged and in mourning, Kirk resolves to solve mystery of this strange world, where thoughts and imagination seem to take tangible form.

“Shore Leave” is another classic -- nay, trademark -- early episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) and one that is oft-remembered in the modern pop culture. "Shore Leave" has been parodied, for example, on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1989-1999).  

The episode's central idea, which borders on fantasy, is simply of a planet where wishes or thoughts become reality.  “Shore Leave” reveals, in its final moments, that the strange planet is actually an amusement park for an alien race, and that there is no danger of any visitors being permanently harmed. A variation of this notion -- right down to an underground “fantasy” factory for the construction  and repair of robots -- is developed in the Michael Crichton film Westworld (1972).

Perhaps the first thing one should understand about Theodore Sturgeon’s “Shore Leave” is that it is possessed of crazy, boundless energy. 

Characters run back and forth across wide open fields on a regular basis, and Kirk has a knock-down, drag-out fight with Finnegan.  That fight is energetically choreographed and scored in an unforgettable fashion.

At one point in the adventure, Spock expresses exasperation with the human concept of a vacation, or rest, and his comment is illuminating about the episode itself:  “On my planet, to rest is to rest. To cease using energy,” he notes. 

Humans, by contrast, vacation and relax by going on trips, or exerting themselves hiking, swimming, or undertaking other exhausting but fun physical activities. “Shore Leave” lives up to this paradox about "resting by presenting a story that never stops moving, never stops running, and which acts, finally, as a kind of physical catharsis both for viewers and the characters.  In short, “Shore Leave” is Star Trek letting its hair down and having a bit of fun.  And on that basis, it is both delightful and memorable.

“Shore Leave” also features another great line of dialogue, and one which I have repeated on more than one occasion to my brilliant nine year old son, Joel.  “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play,” Kirk notes, and this is another splendid moment of Star Trek philosophy.  

What does it mean?  Simply that an advanced alien race with incredible technology and knowledge need not give up fun as it evolves and matures.  Indeed, the opposite is true. 

Such a race would need more outlets for fun, perhaps.  In an era wherein so many programs (from The Outer Limits to Trek itself) sometimes conflate advanced beings with emotionless sobriety, it is delightful and -- again -- cathartic, to see a tale like “Shore Leave” that champions play, make believe, and imagination as worthwhile and advanced traits.

So this episode boasts a great through-line or theme, reveals some fun back-story for Kirk (regarding his Academy days) and possesses energy, literally, to burn. It also delves into some creepy imagery, like the wax-face of the fearsome black knight.

But overall, "Shore Leave' is a story much like The Voyage Home (1986) or “The Trouble with Tribbles” that practically oozes feelings of delight and happiness. There's an exuberance and looseness to the whole enterprise that is downright infectious. These stories are fun, and watching the characters go through their paces is fun too.

On those grounds, "Shore Leave" is unimpeachable, and worthy of its reputation as a great episode of the franchise.

On the other hand, the episode is a bit of a wreck, at least visually-speaking. This is not a big surprise, perhaps, because the episode underwent drastic rewrites even as it was being filmed...and that kind of last-minute work is never a conducive environment for filmmaking.

Here are just a few examples of the visual problems:

On at least two occasions, red spray paint is visible on the trees where the main characters are staged for action.  

At about the twelve minute point of the episode -- as Kirk and McCoy are walking through the wilderness of this planet -- a straw hut is plainly visible behind them. Of course, this is a planet in which no animals and no structures are supposed to exist.  

A chain leash is clearly visible around the tiger’s neck, even though it is supposed to be wild and free.  
And finally, the Japanese zero plane that strafes Esteban and Angela is clearly stock footage that features not one plane, but two, and therefore doesn't match the dialogue or situation on the ground.

The worst moment in the episode may be the one in which that plane attacks. Esteban and Angela run from the bullet spray, and the staging of their attempted escape is so poor that it is not clear, upon watching, whether Angela has been hit by bullets, or Esteban has merely run the poor woman, face first, into a tree, and knocked her out.  If she were hit by bullets (which I believe is what the viewer is supposed to infer), there should be some blood on her uniform.  

I won’t even mention the fact that the episode’s final scene resurrects Dr. McCoy but neglects to resurrect, on-screen, poor Angela Martine.

Actually, Angela’s presence in "Shore Leave" raises another question of continuity worth exploring. We initially met this character as the doomed bride-to-be in “Balance of Terror.”  Admittedly, there is quite some time between the stardates of that episode and this one, but the air date is sequential.  So viewers watching Star Trek in December of 1966 saw Angela’s groom-to-be die one week, and then saw her flirting with Rodriguez in “Shore Leave” the next week. It’s not a good impression, generally, of the character.

On the other hand, the same air date order works well in other regards. Since this episode follows up the tense “Balance of Terror,” it makes sense McCoy would conclude (to Sulu) that “we are one weary ship.”


Perhaps the biggest logistical problem with “Shore Leave” is that the protagonists don’t react quickly enough to the presence of things that, well, couldn’t possibly be there. There is no way -- and Kirk should know this -- that Finnegan and Ruth could appear on this far-flung planet.  Upon seeing them, he should reckon, immediately, that his thoughts are being translated to concrete manifestation.  

The episode’s answer, that “we must all control our thoughts” comes much too late in the action.  

Perhaps one can chalk the slow responses off to the crew’s weariness, since Kirk, at episode’s beginning, can’t even remember accurately the current stardate.  

His efficiency rating is off, indeed.

“Shore Leave” is an absorbing, entertaining and classic episode of Star Trek.  It is such fun, in fact, that I feel like a curmudgeon pointing out the episode’s flaws.  

Perhaps I just need to be reminded of the Caretaker’s words. The planet, and this episode too, are “intended to amuse.”

And amuse “Shore Leave” certainly does.

Next Week: “The Galileo 7.”


  1. A terrific episode: fun, introspective, touching at times, and nice to look at (lovely images from unique locations).

    "Shore Leave" is hardly a "visual wreck". The stock shot is high quality in image, but yes, there are those two fighters. The spray paint was done to give the tree an odd look. Anyway, the visuals help make this episode. There are nice long dollies and zooms to punch up the dramatics. The camera business with Finnegan is outstanding.

    Gerald Fried's score is big top wonderful... it secured him more commissions on the series.

    My single favorite moment among many in this episode: McCoy and Barrows hold hands for just a moment.

    This episode was, as you state, John, being rewritten as they were shooting but that would not impact on a hut being seen in the background. I never noticed that. Time to rewatch. Not that that blip means a heck of a lot. (Years ago, while watching ER, I saw a whole wall move when someone slammed a door; and in a Space: 1999 two weeks ago Alan Carter made a wall in Main Medical flutter significantly. No one cares, really.)

    Yes, a beautiful and rich episode is "Shore Leave".

  2. Sheri3:33 PM

    You are so right that one of the things distinguishing Star Trek from the much more dour anthology sci-fi series' was its injections of whimsy, while trying hard not to become silly and absurdist. The future has got to have some fun, doesn't it?

    "Shore Leave" is so enjoyable, even though its done-in-haste elements don't always add up. It helped that on original airing on 19-inch low-resolution over-the-air signal, it was easier to miss or overlook the tiger's chain, the hut that shouldn't be there, etc. I never noticed so many of these things and find them easy to dismiss.

    What's not so easy to dismiss are things like Kirk muttering that Spock is beaming down when he can't possibly know it's Spock, or the fact that Kirk loses his head and just takes after Finnegan again right after McCoy dies. I just always took it that everybody involved is sort of goofy and addled, like they all have ADD, and just appreciate what it gives us about the characters.

    I must say when I was little and seeing this episode in 1966, the Caretaker creeped me out at first for some reason. The look on his face initially, or something.

    The scoring of this episode is just terrific throughout. The wistful and lovely flute theme for Ruth will be revisited later in the series.

    I always wondered if the amusement planet was another remainder from The Preservers, who seemed responsible for seeding other Star Trek planets, and always hoped for more explanation of the mysterious Caretaker!

  3. Of course, Barbara Baldavin's character in "Shore Leave" wasn't originally supposed to be Angela Martine but instead Mary Teller. Kirk even addresses her as Teller when he and Tonia Barrows beam down and she's credited as Teller in the closing credits. During filming, someone remembered that she had previously played Angela and changed the character's first name, but too late to change the last name, apparently. Additionally, Barbara Baldavin was the wife of casting director Joe D'Acosta.

  4. dngillikin is correct. The character of Mary Teller was changed to Angela Martine once it was realized the same actress appeared previously - part of the hasty rewrites that took place in the chaotic atmosphere in which this episode was created. She was again cast as a character called Baker in "Space Seed" but her scenes were cut. Some fans have taken to calling her Angela Martine-Teller. This girl really gets around.

    Angela is presumably shot by the Japanese Zeroes, and like McCoy, taken into the heart of the planet to be revived. She does appear in the final moments on the planet, but if you blink, you'll miss her. She's behind Spock as he hands the girl on his arm off to Sulu. There she is, standing next to and putting her arm around Esteban.

    Part of me always wondered if McCoy was actually a duplicate, and if the real McCoy's body was still on the planet. I didn't mean to make a play on the words "real McCoy," but that reminds me how James Blish did just that in his first book of Star Trek adaptations. He uses the title "The Unreal McCoy" in place of "The Man Trap." Presumably Blish came up with this title himself, as the working title for the very first ST episode was indeed "The Man Trap," rewritten as "Damsel with a Dulcimer," before being changed back and filmed as "The Man Trap."

    I really need to get a life.

  5. Intelligent and knowledgeable commenters. If we ever got together and made a Star Trek podcast it would be the best one ever. No contest.

    "This isn't your fanboy Star Trek podcast."

    1. Sheri5:09 AM

      I'm in! Where? Where?

      Seems like Trek discussions are often so dedicated to micro-level dissections that they forget to mention things like the music, the cinematography, the lighting (hello, underrated Jerry Finnerman!), the overall tone/mood/approach, the actual performances, what's memorable or isn't, and on and on. "What's your overall impression of the episode?", I want to scream, or "You let a little thing like THAT ruin it for you?"

      So, when do we start, Barry?

  6. Three things stand out for me in this episode.

    First is Finnegan's theme which brings so much infectious energy to every scene he's in.

    Second is the cinematography. Given that they were shooting outdoors, you'd expect more tied down shots but the camera moves gracefully giving the episode a certain theatrical look.

    Finally, the actual outdoor filming location itself. After so many episodes set on the Enterprise or on a soundstage dressed to represent an exterior, filming on location brings an increased sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings. Rather than the soundstage-bound planets taking you out of the situation, the location photography lends an air of reality which increases the sense of dread as the body count begins.

    This certainly ranks as one of my favorite episodes.

    1. Sheri5:11 AM

      Yes, and it doesn't just consist of standing in the sun! The way the director took advantage of the setting to move in and out of the shade, the differing landscapes, the varied flora . . . it's a gem of an episode in so many ways, despite its flaws, which don't detract from the story at all for me.

  7. Anonymous8:04 PM

    I remember hating this one as a kid. That talking rabbit left such a bad taste; Trek being dragged down to the level of "Lost in Space" (fortunately, no talking carrot or talking trees as in S:99's "Rules of Luton"). The ep is also full of hammy overacting. The 'rabbit ears' tracking device sure looks high tech!

  8. Speaking of curmudgeons: This was the episode that Cleveland Amory (1917-1998) spent most of his time discussing in his review of “Trek” for TV Guide. Amory was amused by Kirk’s instructions to the crew: “Face front, everyone. Don’t talk. Don’t breathe. Don’t think.” Finding the episode and the show rather too fanciful for his taste, Amory wrote, “it was good advice, and in our opinion the best way for an adult to watch this program. For the kids, though, let them breathe…they’ll love it.” Unsurprisingly, this mixed review drew ire—and mail—from the show’s already loyal adult fans. A self-described curmudgeon, Amory was not famed for bowing to public opinion. Nevertheless, at the end of the season, Amory named Star Trek as the show he had most over-criticized: “lately we’ve enjoyed and admired much in this series.”

    Interviewed for a 1995 TV Guide retrospective on Trek, Amory remarked, "There was more creativity in those early shows. You had a sense of travel and adventure, and I think they've kind of lost that." I find myself somewhat in agreement with that. Seeking out new life and new civilizations sometimes took too much of a back seat to politics and Dominion wars, for my taste.

    As to "Shore Leave:" Personally, I find this episode similar to the Doctor Who story "The Mind Robber," but it's a fun romp that does a good job maintaining the mystery for the length of the episode.


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