Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Enterprise Incident" (September 27, 1968)

Boy, would this episode have made one hell of a third season premiere!

Of course, that's not what happened, and for over fifty 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 and 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?

You'll know exactly where I stand when I review those particular stories in the coming months

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, 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 Pueblo...it 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 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 planted...by 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? 

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 person, 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. John, excellent in-depth review of "The Enterprise Incident". This is one of my favorite TOS episodes. I think that NG"The Pegasus" episode was a remake of this episode. NG"The Pegasus" is told from an internal Federation point of view secret cover-up of a Philadelphia Experiment cloaking device. In the end, Picard tells the Romulans. I do not think that "The Pegasus" would have ended that was on TOS.


  2. Sheri5:30 PM

    I've always liked this episode and my thoughts about it pretty much coincide with yours, John, with a few exceptions. I think it's too easy to dismiss Kirk's attitude as more thoughtless or less forward-looking than Spock's, but I Kirk reveals in subtle ways that he isn't enamored with this mission, either; it's just that he doesn't have to become entangled with the commander as Spock does.

    I've never understood the handwringing over the espionage that characterizes reviews of "Enterprise Incident", since Intelligence and espionage are older than Sun Tzu and neither "good" nor "bad" in and of themselves. It's hardly shocking that Starfleet's frontier officers might be pressed into intel ops. I'd point out the action here is obviously *the result* of previous intel ops: the Federation had advance info about the device testing, and I think there's an implication that the tech will be shared with the Romulans' sometime allies. Espionage and counterespionage have no doubt been ongoing on both sides. Starfleet's mere presence here serves notice that the Romulans' security has been breached and their tech is on the loose, erasing the advantage of having it--which is almost as good as actually stealing the device.

    I figure that the commander, encountering the surprising presence of Spock in Starfleet, just abandons whatever plan she might have had if they were discovered and decides in the moment to appeal to Spock on the basis of racial superiority. I think it's a complete shock to her that Spock refuses this appeal. The biggest flaw in the episode, to me, is her glomming onto Spock as the transporter beam takes him. She's obviously defecting intentionally, but why? Was she surprised to discover real feelings for Spock? Did their meld convince her the Federation will treat her better than the empire in the aftermath of this incident? I think there's some romantic subtext between her and Subcommander Tal, so maybe she wants to spare Tal from having to denounce her to the empire if she remained?

    I'm not sure Spock is somehow uniquely unfortunate in this assignment, as if he feels just horrid about what he's doing, which is a perspective underpinning this review as with others I've read. He may be uncomfortable with finding unexpected commonality with the commander, but Spock clearly asserts that her assumptions about his identity and status are wrong and he is a committed Starfleet officer. There's every indication of his involvement in advance planning: the fake Vulcan Death Grip, the go-with-the-flow distraction of the commander, the intentionally meandering Right of Statement. I think too often people project stuff onto the character that isn't really there.

    I think season three of Star Trek is no worse than the first two, really. I think season one rather uneven until it hit its stride; season two was actually better, though not in every episode; and three simply had a slightly higher number of true clunker episodes which are no clunkier than prior season clunkers. I'd rank several of the season's best with prior season bests. I think the diminished budget worsened time pressures, so execution was a bit more ragged. I think there was a slight change in *tone* overall, and here I think the issue was less Freiberger himself than the frustrations his arrival caused among the creative staff. Fontana, Justman and Finnerman dropped out one by one, and without them something just went a little off. I don't think the season was as risible as myth would have it, though.

  3. Superficially, 'The Enterprise Incident' seems
    to have been one of two episodes designed to
    ride the coattails of the spy craze of the mid
    60's exemplified by shows like I, Spy and The
    Man form U.N.C.L.E.; the other episode in this
    vein, of course, was 'Assignment: Earth' but
    while that earlier installment was content
    with James Bondian hi-jinks this one, as your
    analysis brings out, used the occasion for
    a thoughtful consideration of the chess game
    of Cold War geopolitics.

    I do feel, though, that much of what was
    established by this episode and others about
    the Romulans, their ethos and their culture
    was squandered and even, I would say,
    repudiated by later incarnations of the Star
    Trek franchise.

    From their first appearance in 'Balance of
    Terror' it was established that the Romulans
    were, in contrast to the Klingons, a war-like
    but noble breed, adhering, in their dealings
    and actions, to a strict code of honor.
    Such an ethos, and the hinted-at brothers-
    under-the-skin affinity between them and
    the Vulcans, seemed to foreshadow an eventual
    resolution to the conflict between with
    the Federation.

    Subsequent incarnations of Star Trek seem
    to have effected a virtual role reversal
    between the Klingons and Romulans though;
    it was the former who were now allied with
    the Federation and portrayed as noble warriors
    steeped in a Spartan ethos of military honor
    while the Romulans took on the role of a wholly
    villainous breed without honor or virtue.

    I understand that Mr. Roddenberry had earlier
    expressed remorse over the original portrayal
    of Klingons as Fu Man Chu styled Oriental
    Villains so this role reversal may have been
    a way of making amends but I wonder if it
    could not have been done without sweeping
    away what had previously been established
    about the Romulans, thus forsaking what
    could have been a rich vein of stories
    now never to be told.

    1. Sheri1:12 AM

      I agree, the Romulans were indeed devalued and diminished in later Star Trek. An interesting people and culture reminiscent of the Roman Empire just became bland and ignoble. I never understood why TNG didn't incorporate at least one Romulan as well, instead of transferring all the Romulans' better attributes onto a Klingon. So much interesting stuff could have been made of the Romulans that just went by the wayside. A shame.

  4. John,
    Full disclosure: I read your review of Arrival and wrote comments before reading this review of "The Enterprise Incident." I literally laughed aloud upon reading "Only Nixon could go to China." One did not influence the other, but that made me smile.
    Count me among the camp that holds "The Enterprise Incident" as classic, great Trek. There is real suspense here, played up well by the supporting cast, that Kirk is maybe more than a little off lately, setting up the events to follow. Their reactions to Romulan Kirk are wonderful. There are so many nice little touches, not the least of which is Nimoy's suggestion of how a Vulcan and Romulan would display intimacy. The original script had him acting like Kirk! This was a cast firing on all cylinders at this point in the show's run.
    "The Enterprise Incident" also carries its influence even further than you mention; in the Next Gen episode "The Pegasus," it is stated that an agreement was reached between the Federation and the Romulan Empire (known as the Treaty of Algernon), which expressly forbid the Federation from developing its own cloaking technology. It is strongly implied that the treaty prevented a war initiated by the events of "The Enterprise Incident."
    Also, the prequel comic book series to the 2009 Star Trek film has Spock living on Romulus, following the events of "Unification." His efforts to make peace between Vulcan and the Romulans is, ironically, the cause of Nero's hatred in the film. The peace allows Vulcan to attempt to save Romulus' sun using Red Matter; the "unthinkable" Spock mentions being that Vulcan's calculations regarding the sun's demise were wrong; and Spock being unable to save the star causing both he and Nero to be thrust backwards in time. Had no peace been reached, the star would have simply exploded and Nero would have not had Spock to blame. All of this can be traced back to "The Enterprise Incident" and Spock's wishes for "something more permanent" between the two races.
    Kudos for your quotes from both Shatner's and Nichols' biographies in your review!

  5. This is a fabulous episode, one with an electric nervous tension. It is exciting when it should be and absorbing at other times. I like the fact that the Federation is just as bad as its enemies. Any sense of moral superiority is put aside when an advantage can be won. Just like the real world!

    I'd be careful with those budget figures as they are just what's called "studio mandated". (Shatner and Nichols are actors.) The quoted numbers were not the final episode costs. In television production terms, Freiberger had a lot of money to work with in his year, just not what was there before.

    I recommend highly Marc Cushman's outstanding books, "These Are the Voyages"; there is one book dedicated to each season. Mr. Cushman published the episode budgets for each episode.

    "Star Trek" was still an expensive show in its third season, just not as expensive as the previous two, especially the first. (Ms. Nichols is incorrect when she states that Freiberger "had nothing to produce with". There would have been no show.) Yes, there were shifting department trims in the third season in order to make the show possible with less money.

    After the "Trek" incident television producers would not touch a space travel show with a barge pole. The financial commitment was immense.

    I like your episode notes overall. Very good! This blog is a rich online resource.

  6. Always wondered what the deal was with the Klingon cruisers. The production team lose the Warbird prop?

    1. Apparently what happened was that NBC wanted to show off the Klingon battlecruiser as soon as possible. The producers found a way to fit it in. The idea of one "foreign power" acquiring a superior war machine from another makes sense as our own history has many such examples. (Sorry, I'm a bit of a military history nut.) "It" rings true.

    2. The Warbird featured in 'Balance of Terror' was
      a small attack craft designed for stealthy
      incursions and hit-and-run raids, a fact under-
      lined by the cramped and Spartan interiors
      shown in the course of that episode.
      Since that original Warbird design could not
      plausibly have accommodated the spacious
      and (for a military vessel) fairly luxurious
      interiors featured in 'The Enterprise Incident'
      a much larger class of vessel was needed.
      Rather than invest the time and money that
      would have been needed to design and build
      a new class of Romulan vessel from scratch,
      the producers of the show took a budget
      saving short cut and used models for the
      Klingon battle cruiser that were already
      on hand. The fact that Romulans were using
      ships of Klingon design was explained by
      invoking a Treaty of Alliance between the
      two races, one briefly alluded to in the
      episode if memory serves.