Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Spock's Brain" (September 20, 1968)



Stardate: 5431.4

An ion-drive powered alien spaceship intercepts the U.S.S Enterprise, and deposits one life-form on the bridge. This strange woman, Kara (Marj Dusay), incapacitates the crew, rendering everyone unconscious.

When the crew awakes, a startling discovery is made. The interloper stole Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy’s) brain. Now, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) suggests he can only keep the half-Vulcan alive for 24 hours without Spock’s brain.

But Captain Kirk (William Shatner) insists that in that 24 hours, he will recover that missing brain.  

To start, the Enterprise follows the spaceship’s ion trail to the Sigma Draconis system.

There, on the sixth planet, humanoid Morgs (men) and Eymorgs (women) live apart. The men are primitive and live together on the icy surface, fearful of the eymorgs; the “givers of pain and delight.”

Beneath the surface, the women live in a subterranean technological society; all their needs for survival met by a computer.

There, underground, Kirk learns, that Spock’s brain is being used to power and regulate the entire complex.  Now Kirk must negotiate for the return of Spock’s brain, but even if he succeeds, the surgery is impossible by current standards.

Fortunately, a device called the Teacher holds the answer…if only McCoy can avail himself of it, and then remember the knowledge.


It will come as no surprise to readers when I note that “Spock’s Brain” is considered the very worst episode of the original Star Trek (1966-1969).  Many words, sentences, and paragraphs have been devoted to this installment’s many flaws.

However, I disagree with that assertion that “Spock’s Brain” is the worst episode of the series for a few reasons, though I acknowledge it is, indeed, a very bad episode.

But there are at least two stories which are worse. 

My two selections for worst episode of Star Trek are actually “And the Children Shall Lead,” which is hobbled by a dreadfully-stilted central performance from attorney Melvin Belli and a humorless, unsavory plot-line (the corruption of children), and “Requiem for Methuselah,” which features an unbelievable (and utterly unconvincing) love-story for Captain Kirk.

But “Spock’s Brain?”

Well, it’s extremely low-brow, and yet it manages never to bore. It’s Star Trek, just Star Trek on a really dumb, superficial level. It is juvenilia, and most episodes of the series are never even in the same solar system as juvenilia.  On the other hand, it would be difficult for me to deny that “Spock’s Brain” moves at a faster-clip than last week’s episode, “Assignment: Earth.”

But this episode is so distinctive, so memorable, in its utter weirdness and wrongness, that it’s easy to see why people remember it as the worst. Once you’ve watched it, you’re not likely to forget it.

In fact, even twenty years after its first airing “Spock’s Brain “was being recalled and parodied, which proves, if nothing else, the story’s utter uniqueness, or hapless charm. It may be bad, but somehow this  badness has stood the test of time, and people feel affectionate towards it.

I’ve never met a Star Trek fan, by contrast, who feels affectionate towards “And the Children Shall Lead.”

Look at this clip from The Wonder Years (1988-1993), for example, to get a sense of how the imagery and sound effects of “Spock’s Brain” worked their way into the pop culture:




So why does “Spock’s Brain” fail…so colorfully?

Well, for one thing, I have a theory about William Shatner and his acting style, and it goes like this: The worse that the material is that he must contend with, the more Shatners invests, emotionally, and even in terms of his energy level.  It’s as if he’s facing a mountain he must climb. He steels himself, and gives it everything -- EVERYTHING -- he can, so as to breathe life into it.



Here -- given a patently absurd teleplay -- Shatner simply over-invests to the point of near-insanity, hoping to pull off the drama.  He makes Kirk bitchy and obsessed, and single-minded to the nth degree. I actually commend him for his efforts, but Shatner’s performance contributes, finally, to the feeling that the episode has adopted some weird, hyperbolic, hysterical tenor.


And DeForest Kelley faces a similar problem. He goes from dead-pan seriousness to over-the-top bug-eyed, failing to modulate his performance effectively from scene to scene. One minute he’s asking (seriously) the (awful) question: “In the whole galaxy, where are you going to look for Spock’s brain?” with utter solemnity. And in the next he is marveling, wide-eyed, that a child could complete the brain surgery.

Understand, please, that I love both these actors, and don’t intend to insult them. They were faced with a crappy script, and had to figure out some way to make it sing. They made choices, according to their particular gifts, and yet those choices don’t, ultimately, work towards the story’s success.

Instead, they make the story feel campy.



Finally, the marvelous Leonard Nimoy often grants a weak Star Trek story some facet of dignity. He is someone who underplays a scene to perfection, and restrains his emotions brilliantly. Here, Nimoy is reduced to the level of a walking piece of furniture. Mindless, but ever-present.  And no, it doesn’t seem terribly dignified.

The actual mechanics of the story are baffling too.  Spock’s brain is stolen, and re-inserted into his skull, and yet -- in neither instance -- is his head shaved, his skin cut.  The idea of high-tech brain surgery might have worked a bit better if we had a constant physical reminder of what Spock endured, physically.  We don’t.

Or, the stolen brain concept might have worked had we been given the information that the brain had been “beamed” out, rather than cut out. This would be in keeping with Trek technology, and also permitted us to understand why Spock’s hair was not cut off.  But it seems ridiculous for the man to go through two brain surgeries in an hour-long episode, and never have even one hair out-of-place.

And don’t even get me started on the idea of Spock leading Bones through brain surgery, once his voice box is reconnected. 

For one thing, this help from Spock diminishes the dignity of Dr. McCoy, who should be able to get through a surgery without the verbal instructions of his patient.

And for another thing, it diminishes Spock too, making him seem invincible. He can actually give a doctor instructions for reattaching his brain.  That feels very….cartoon-ish.

The episode is sloppy too. Sigma Draconis VI is twice called Sigma Draconis VII by principal cast members, for example. This is not a small detail in a system of many planets, right?



All of these problems suggest that “Spock’s Brain” is a train wreck.

Yet it is a train-wreck, as I’ve intimated above, that you can’t stop watching, that you can’t quite turn your back on. The episode is dynamic in terms of its color, its movement, even its eye-brow raising hysteria.

It’s unforgettable, really.  These qualities make it odd, but they don’t make it the very worst Star Trek.

The silliest episode? Perhaps so.

The most over-the-top in terms of acting? Indeed.

The most ill-conceived?  No argument. 

“Spock’s Brain” should have never gotten past the idea stage in the first place. But beyond that, it should never have been slated as the premiere for the third season, either. 

As a kid, I first saw the series in local affiliate reruns, so I never had to see “Spock’s Brain” as a premiere and suffer that sinking feeling that things were taking a turn for the worse.  Instead, I merely saw it as a bizarre and not very good episode. I can only imagine what dedicated fans felt, tuning in to a new season and seeing…this.

I would suggest that my reading is correct, however.  This is a bad episode, sure.

But others are worse, in part because they simply aren’t as gonzo-nuts and flat-out unforgettable as “Spock’s Brain” remains.

Next week: “The Enterprise Incident.”

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:16 PM

    It's not one of the best but I never found this the super bad episode everyone seems to think it is. Sure, it's campy but it's still Star Trek. The colorful setting and those women under the surface just make you laugh.

    -T.S.

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  2. John, absolutely perfect review of "Spock's Brain", for what is was.

    SGB

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  3. John, I appreciate your taking "Spock's Brain" seriously enough to review it instead of simply dismissing it with a wink and a hand wave. It's true, for all the invective directed at this as The Worst, there are several Star Trek episodes that are actually worse. You can't even laught at "And the Children Shall Lead", which is at the bottom of my list, and as you point out there are others too boring, unmemorable, unconvincing, or just impossible to feel strongly about either way. Bad enough to be hilarious is not the worst thing in the world; hell, whole television series have been made on the basis of being so bad they're good: for example, please explain how a real network executive could ever have approved "My Mother the Car" as if it could actually be executed as a television series!

    I agree that the more risible and impossible the material, the more William Shatner tried to give it. Because, what else is there to do? At least nobody could ever accuse of failing to commit to the material! This is something the great Vincent Price understood when he remarked, "People just love to see a man enjoying his work!" Anybody can do great material, but carrying crap is really hard work.

    The real flaws in "Spock's Brain", as you pointed out, John, are the things that would damage any episode. Clearly they were frantically revising by the minute, as the name of the planet keeps changing. (Wasn't it "The Immunity Syndrome" where Kirk calls Mr. Kyle "Mr. Cowl" because they couldn't reshoot when the script changed after two days of filming?) What's filmed is imbalanced--too much Frankenstein Spock walking around, the Teacher montage is too long, the operation goes on and on, it's too talky overall, etc. The original story began as a serious examination of a supposedly evolved civilization that cannibalized living brains to maintain themselves, with implications for about ownership of one's mind versus The Greater Good. Clearly something fell apart in actually drafting the story into an episode, and here is where I think Fred Freiberger's tenure reached its nadir. Getting workable stories into shootable script form became a problem, and if people like Dorothy Fontana and Bob Justman hadn't been diminished, they might have killed this turkey early as one that couldn't be turned into a workable script.

    There are actually things about the episode that sort of work, just enough to never be able to forget it. The sight of McCoy under that modified beauty salon hair dryer (!) is one of those things that's both ridiculous and cool at the same time--you can't help noticing what it is, but also marveling at what they made of it. Like the bicycle wheel musical instrument played by the space hippies.

    We get several unforgettable lines, especially classics like "I never should've reconnected his mouth," and "Brain and brain! What is brain?"

    The score for this episode is just terrific, and an opportunity to hear it is the best of all reasons to watch "Spock's Brain" if you don't like camp.

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  4. John,
    I may have a bone to pick with you regarding "Requiem for Methuselah," but we'll talk about that later. However, you will never hear me defending "Children." To paraphrase Roger Ebert, I hated hated hated that episode.
    One of the best aspects of "Spock's Brain" is its soundtrack by Fred Steiner, which would be tracked throughout the third season. I find it to be haunting and memorable.
    As for the rest of it, I think your review says it all. This episode is never boring and is fun. Like you, I remember seeing it in reruns and don't envy those who sat through it during its original run.
    "What were they thinking" could be applied to both the viewers and the creators of "Spock's Brain."
    Steve

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  5. I first encountered this episode in syndication in 1972,at the age of six. I had spent the previous year devouring syndicated reruns of "Lost in Space" and "Wild,Wild West." And before that, I was all about "The Adventures of Superman" and "Gilligan's Island" [I was 3-4 then, don't judge me.]

    Now, as a six year old, I quite enjoyed "Spock's Brain" along with other not particularly well regarded episodes. Now, I grew up lower middle class, and was watching on a black and white TV, and, looking back on it, since I was too young to process all the nuances of adult storytelling in the better episodes, I suspect that I was reacting on a visual aesthetic, atmospheric, and emotional level. Even though I didn't have the vocabulary, things like scene lighting and shot composition stuck with me, even if I didn't initially view these in color.

    And Shatner's more out-there performances are easy for a child to process.[They are also very fun to play-act when you're that young.] While KIRK is supposed to be a good poker player, Shatner telegraphs every emotion such that even an inexperienced child can understand it.

    Now,when one is a teenager and into the early nature adult years, the over the top theatricality combined with a poor script becomes cringeworthy.

    As I am now rapidly approaching old age, I'm finding that there comes a point where something like "Spock's Brain" and "The Way To Eden" goes from being crap to being enjoyable crap. ["And the Children Shall Lead" and "Plato's Stepchildren", however, remain exercises in sadism to my mature self.

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  6. "Brain! Brain! What is brain?!"
    So special.
    I can get past the craziness. The hair-surgery... it's the future, if you can displace structure through teleporters, I'll let that fly. It's the execution really. All of it could work if the execution had. And yes, as you said, even that issue with better execution, some allusion to futuristic techniques to extract a brain would have helped. If the "controllospock" device wasn't 4 buttons to control a lumbering brainless body, that might have looked less daft. Of course, there is the whole planet of the Sexeh Women too that ages it.
    But it does have Shatner what looks to me as if he's improv'ing in the final fade out - watch in the background and you'll seem him hamming up a desperate attempt to get the controllospock control to work thereby stopping the Spock waffling. It's too thoughtful to have been scripted or directed, surely.

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