Saturday, September 09, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "Orkus" (December 18, 1976)

Our retrospective of Ark II comes to an end with this fifteenth and final episode, “Orkus.” 

Interestingly, “Orkus” is an episode that feels more like an installment of Logan’s Run: The Series (1977) or The Fantastic Journey (1977) than one from the Filmation series’ own catalog. It’s very much in the nature of a 1970's, prime-time “civilization of the week” tale.

Here, the Ark II team stops for repairs and investigates reports of pollution.  Unfortunately, Ruth and Adam fall prey to that pollution, and deadly toxins super-age them in a matter of moments.  Unless an antidote can be developed, Ruth and Adam will die of old age in mere hours.

Then, out of the blue, an imperious man named Orkus (Geoffrey Lewis) utilizes his high-tech powers to hijack the Ark and seize control of it.  Jonah matches wits with this duplicitous leader of a Utopian community ensconced behind a protective force field, and tries to free the Ark and save his friends. 

Orkus is virtually immortal, Jonah learns, and made so by his society’s super-computer, called “The Provider.”  Furthermore, Orkus requires Ark II’s power source to continue protecting his own people and city from the atmospheric pollution.  “We can only save ourselves,” he insists.  Also, as Jonah learns, Orkus and his people are actually responsible for the pollution in the first place.

Now Jonah must not only apply a cure for Ruth and Adam, but destroy the source of pollution, and transform Orkus’s society to one of more human dimensions.  Fortunately, he gets help from some of Orkus’s more independent-minded followers…

“Orkus” is a more hard-edged Ark II segment than some, albeit one with many familiar ingredients from 1960's and 1970's cult television.  There’s the super computer that governs a stagnant society (“Return of the Archons,” “Guardian of Piri,” Logan’s Run, “Turnabout”) and a disease that causes extreme, instantaneous old age (“The Deadly Years.”) 

In the end, order and “normal development” are restored, as immortality is destroyed (“The Apple,” “Guardian of Piri”), and something more “human” replaces it.  It’s not a particularly original episode, but it is fascinating to see the Ark II crew pitted against a dyed-in-the-wool liar and “black hat” like Orkus, for a change; especially with crew-members imperiled and on the verge of death.

With this episode, our retrospective of Ark II is complete.  The series’ strongest points remain the technology and production design, in my opinion.  The vehicles, sets, props and uniforms are all genuinely impressive, even today. 

Less impressive is the kind of loose-minded, indistinct “background” detail underlying the post-apocalyptic world of Ark II’s future.  

In Star Trek, episode wrap-ups would frequently see Captain Kirk noting in a log that Federation advisers, teachers or helpers were on the way to help a planet changed by the Enterprise’s visit.  Ark II could have used some of that specificity, particularly since Jonah and his people are trying to rebuild a world, and that agenda requires more than a cursory one-off visit to troubled villages and towns.

Yet the missions undertaken by Jonah and his crew are generally pretty loosely-structured, and there’s very little sense of follow-up or persistence.  Many episodes involve the idea that bad actors and evil-doers, once confronted with their anti-social behavior, will see the error of their ways and do right.  That is not a strong enough basis upon which to re-build a ruined world in my opinion.  

The series should have featured, at some point, back-up personnel helping to smooth transitions and usher in the positive changes first initiated by Jonah and his team.  Also, I would have found it fascinating to feature a story in which Jonah and the others run across a villain who won’t back down, but only doubles-down, thus forcing them to confront their “non-aggressive” mission strategy and actively fight.  In other words, I would have liked to have seen a stronger test of the protagonists’ values.  

I must confess: this is the very thing that bothers me the most about Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s easy to preach noble values when you live in paradise; when you have a full stomach and the time to “enrich” yourself educationally and otherwise.  But what happens when you don’t live in paradise?  Then what?

Because of the series format, the Ark II team often over-matches the bad guys.  The vehicle’s crew has science, technology, knowledge and force fields on their side.  Accordingly, many episodes do not feature an adequate or deep sense of menace.  Thus the episodes that I remember best are those, like “Orkus,” which present a real challenge.  Other examples are episodes such as “Omega” (about a mind-controlling computer), “The Cryogenic Man” (about an entitled 20th century businessman) and “The Lottery,” which features a kind of “phantom zone” pocket universe where a tyrant banishes enemies.

Another highlight of the series is the episode “The Robot,” which features Robby the Robot as a learning machine, and includes an abundance of colorful character interaction.

Every Ark II episode carries a message about morality, and some adults may find this aspect of the series tiresome.  But if you remember the program’s original context – as a Saturday morning show for children – the didacticism is easily understandable.  I don’t have any problem with the moral framework of the series, and feel it’s an excellent program for kids to watch since it meditates on ideas about how best to “build” a better tomorrow.

Finally, I can’t help but feel that an adult-oriented Ark II would be a great subject for remaking today.  This is a “sci fi” world that could certainly stand some deepening and maturity, but which is already interesting and unique enough to merit interest from audiences. 

The problem, of course, is that probably not enough people remember the series in the first place.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Help Wanted - Firefly"

In “Help Wanted – Firefly,” the clumsy Sparky (Billy Barty) makes a nuisance of himself trying to be useful to the Bugaloos. 

Finally, he decides he should apply for a job uptown, but it is up to the Bugaloos to get him one. After some persuading, Peter Platter agrees to hire Sparky as an assistant at his radio station.

Meanwhile, however, Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) is furious that Platter still refuses to play her latest album.

When he tells her she needs her own radio station, she gets a fiendish idea. Benita re-wires the radio station to transmit from her own juke box!  Now she has a platform for her own (terrible) music.

Sparky proves useful by helping the Bugaloos set the matter straight.

Sparky’s lack of self-confidence is the impetus, once more for a plot-line on The Bugaloos.  In this case, Sparky wants to help his friends -- as they work on the buggy, paint, or set the table for dinner –- but he proves himself a disaster. “I’m a failure. I give up,” he announces.

The truth is, and the episode doesn't really suggest this, is that Sparky just needs to know himself (and his limitations), more honestly.  I suppose the transmitted message, for kids: don't worry if your parents are busy, and don't try to help, or you could make things worse!

Once more, the Bugaloos try to help their friend, but he falls into the clutches of Benita Bizarre who realizes -- before the modern age of the pro-sumer, ironically -- that she must take a hand in her own career; owning a radio station for herself.

The disguise of the week involves the Bugaloos pretending to be part of Benita’s fan club, and the song of the week is “Castles in the Air,” a distinct improvement over last week’s song (“Gna, Gna, Gna, Gna, Gna…”).

Here it is:

Next Week: "On a Clear Day."

Friday, September 08, 2017

Star Trek Anniversary Top 20 Episodes: As Chosen By Blog Readers

I decided to put together the results of the reader "Top 20" Star Trek episodes -- just for fun -- for the final post of the week.

I awarded each episode that came in slots eleven to twenty (+1) point, any that came in ten to two (+2) and any first place episode a score of (+3).

There were a number of ties.

But without further delay, here are the twenty "top" episodes of Star Trek as selected by the readers of this blog who participated.

20. "The Tholian Web."

Tie for 15-19:

19. (Tie) "A Taste of Armageddon"
18. (Tie) "The Squire of Gothos"
17. (Tie) "Arena"
16. (Tie) "The Galileo Seven"
15. (Tie) "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

Tie for 11-14:

14. "This Side of Paradise"
13. "Charlie X"
12. "Space Seed"
11: "Where No Man Has Gone Before"

10. "The Naked Time"

Tie for 7-9:

09. "Mirror, Mirror"
08. "Journey to Babel"
07. "The Corbomite Maneuver"

06. "Devil in the Dark"

05 "City on the Edge of Forever"

04 "Amok Time"

03" The Doomsday Machine"

Tie for 1-2 (The Top Episodes of Star Trek!)

02. "Balance of Terror"
01 "The Menagerie."

Star Trek Anniversary - John's Top 20 "Amok Time" (#1)

Here it is, #1 on my top 20 list.  

"Amok Time" is a funny, exciting, surprising episode. It adds tremendously to the series' Vulcan lore (Pon Farr, the Vulcan salute), and even visits Spock's planet, for the first time in the series

The character interaction is great as well, as Kirk does everything in his power to save his friend.  The episode's coda, with Spock breaking out into a wide smile at the sight of his friend, Kirk, alive and well, is the best in the series.

Stardate: 3372.7

Aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) urgently confers with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) about some uncharacteristic behavior by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Kirk witnesses some of that behavior, himself, and soon asks Spock what is wrong.

At first, Spock will not explain sufficiently, and simply demands that he be allowed to take shore leave on his home planet, Vulcan. Kirk complies, but new orders from Starfleet promptly assign the Enterprise to a presidential inauguration in the Altair system.

Spock orders the ship to change course for Vulcan, over Kirk’s orders, and Kirk demands that Spock explain the situation.

With great difficulty, Spock reveals information to his captain about the Vulcan condition of “Pon Farr,” wherein Vulcan adults must -- every seven years -- return to their home world…to mate or die.

When McCoy reports that Spock will die in seven days if not returned to Vulcan, Kirk realizes that there is much more at stake than his career. He changes course for Vulcan to save Spock’s life.

Once in orbit around Vulcan, Spock requests the presence of Kirk and Spock at his wedding ceremony to his betrothed, T’Pring (Arlene Martel).  The three men beam down together, and Kirk is surprised to see the respected Vulcan diplomat, T’Pau (Celia Lovsky) in attendance at the ceremony.

During the ceremony, with Spock deep in the “plak tow” -- the blood fever -- T’Pring chooses challenge over marriage. 

And she chooses Captain Kirk as her champion. Afraid to back out, Kirk does not realize that the challenge involves a battle to the death.

“Amok Time” may just be the single greatest episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) produced.

The second season premiere is funny, emotional, exciting and, at times, genuinely shocking. There is also, not surprisingly given the subject matter, some degree of eroticism involved as well. 

Most significantly, however, the episode reveals new, very personal information about Mr. Spock (and Vulcans in general), and showcases, to great effect, the Kirk-Spock friendship. Here, Kirk puts his very career as captain of the Enterprise on the line to save his friend’s life. He does so without looking back, or second-guessing.  Instead, he notes simply, that Spock has saved his life more times than he can count...and that's a debt that means more than a career does.

And the expression of relief and joy Spock’s face when he learns that Kirk is not dead is, surely, one for the ages. 

That coda is one of the most unforgettable and beautiful moments in all of Star Trek.

“Amok Time” also grants audiences their first look at the hot, arid planet Vulcan, as well as the denizens of that planet not named Spock. Depictions of Vulcan in The Motion Picture (1979), The Search for Spock (1984), The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek (2009) all owe much to what the production designers created for this episode.

Much more intriguing, however, are the glimpses of Vulcan biology and cultural ceremonies. 

On the former front, “Amok Time” establishes a key piece of Vulcan lore: Pon Farr. 

This is the natural instinct and drive to mate, which Vulcan adults experience every seven years.  

They can engage in sexual intercourse at other times, of course, but they must periodically return home to Vulcan, to “spawn” or “die,” in the episode’s lingo. Spock explains the details of Pon Farr with great discomfort, and Kirk hears those details with an equal level of discomfort.

As a longtime Trek fan, I love watching Shatner and Nimoy perform these uncomfortable scenes together, as Spock tries to provide as little detail as possible, and Kirk attempts -- with that very little bit of detail -- to understand fully what his first officer describes. These two men are friends, but there is still some terrain or distance between them, in terms of personal knowledge.  There are still places that their friendship has not touched. 

Pon Farr has recurred frequently in Trek history, both official and unofficial.  It appears briefly in the third feature, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and is a key element of such Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) episodes as “Blood Fever.” It also is a prominent plot element in Enterprise’s (2001-2005) “Bounty.”  Fan fiction, of course, has really run wild with the idea.

In terms of Vulcan culture, “Amok Time” provides some fascinating details. We learn that young Vulcans are betrothed to one another via telepathy, hence their mates are selected for them before they enter puberty. 

Similarly, we learn that Vulcan women often carry tremendous power and authority. Here, T’Pau is revered by Kirk as “all of Vulcan in one package.”  

And T’Pring, though apparently destined to be the “property” of her mate, nonetheless demonstrates cunning and agency in a most effective way during “Amok Time’s” final sequence. T’Pring’s description of her plan, to Spock, is relentlessly logical…if cold.

This episode also introduces the Vulcan greeting/motto “Live Long and Prosper,” which has endured in the franchise right through the 50th anniversary, as well as the split-finger Vulcan salute.  Again, this is veritable trademark of the franchise by this point.

Some great Star Trek wisdom arrives in this episode too, straight from Spock.  "Sometimes having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true."

I noted that the episode is erotic, and to back up that claim, one need not only consider Mr. Spock’s physical condition -- desperate to mate -- but also brief scene in which the half-Vulcan begins to approach Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) in his quarters. 

When Spock realizes there may be no way to reach Vulcan and achieve, he begins to talk to Chapel, rather cryptically, about their natures.  He discusses a dream he had about her.  In short, it’s clear he is planning for her to “step in” for T’Pring, should he be unable to return home. Right as he is about to make his move, he gets news that they are bound for Vulcan.

In some of Star Trek’s best episodes, there’s just so much to talk about, and it’s hard to remember each  and very detail.  Here, I must make note of the wonderful manner in which McCoy is depicted in this episode. Spock asks for him to be a “best man,” in essence, at his wedding. A lesser writer would have had McCoy crack wise, or quip at the request.

Instead, McCoy answers honestly, and with heart-felt emotion. He would be honored to fulfill that role.

And, of course, it is McCoy who -- with T’Pau’s apparent tacit approval -- saves Kirk’s life with his “tri-ox” compound. That’s some real quick thinking McCoy does under that Vulcan heat, and it saves the day.  

Once more, Kirk is lucky that his command crew thinks so inventively, and so rapidly, in such unconventional situations. 

I have tallied the concepts it adds to Trek lore -- Pon Farr, the Vulcan salute, “Live Long and Prosper” – but I don’t know that I’ve signaled just how entertaining, or how emotionally-fulfilling the episode is.  

The Kirk-Spock friendship is, often times, what makes Star Trek so memorable, so effective, and finally, immortal.  Here, in “Amok Time,” that friendship is front and center in a most dramatic and memorable way.

I could literally watch "Amok Time" once a week and not get bored by it.

Star Trek Anniversary Top #20 - Edward Erdelac's List

[Writer, reader, and friend Ed Erdelac contributes our last reader list of the week below].

1.  A Taste of Armageddon - I know this probably doesn't even make most people's top ten lists, but it's my all-time favorite. Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet to assess the civilization’s potential as a Federation member only to have the Enterprise declared a casualty of a centuries long computer simulated war fought with a nearby galactic neighbor. The crew is now expected to voluntarily report to local suicide booths.

SPOCK: Then the attack by Vendikar was theoretical.
ANAN: Oh, no, quite real. An attack is mathematically launched. I lost my wife in the last attack. Our civilization lives. The people die, but our culture goes on.
KIRK: You mean to tell me your people just walk into a disintegration machine when they're told to?
ANAN: We have a high consciousness of duty, Captain.
SPOCK: There is a certain scientific logic about it.
ANAN: I'm glad you approve.
SPOCK: I do not approve. I understand

I know Spock is the face of Star Trek, but I've always been a big admirer of Kirk, and I think this exchange sums up everything I love about the character.

KIRK: I'm not interested in discussing our differences. You don't seem to realize the risk you're taking. We don't make war with computers and herd the casualties into suicide stations. We make the real thing, Councilman. I could destroy this planet.

ANAN: Why do you think I don't let you talk to your ship?
KIRK: I don't need the ship for that.
ANAN: You mean, all by yourself with a disruptor, you can destroy this planet?
KIRK: That's exactly what I mean.

2. Arena – When I think of original Trek, I think of this episode. Kirk and The Gorn Captain locked in mortal combat in front of Vasquez Rocks. That awesome diamond bullet bamboo mortar. This episode arrested me as a kid. Yeah The Gorn seems slow and lumbering now, but back then, those scintillating insectoid eyes in that leering reptilian face, that deep voice, all terrified me. The ultimate moment, when Kirk has him dead to rights but spares him, that encapsulates everything great about the optimistic humanity of Trek - that even after relentlessly hunting down an enemy who has killed women and children, Kirk can show mercy enough to impress the enlightened Metrons.

3. The Devil In The Dark – Another great the-monster-is-not-what-it-seems episode, as in "The Corbomite Maneuver," but here the message is all the more poignant given the totally alien nature of the Horta. Spock sells the telepathy scene high, and my absolute favorite member of the triumvirate, Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, delivers one of the best ‘I’m a doctor not a’ lines (with bricklayer).

4. Charlie X – Mannnn this was a scurry one for me when I was a boy. The Enterprise takes on a volatile orphan (played fantastically by Robert Walker Jr, whose dad famously played the psycho Bruno Antony in Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers On A Train’) who makes inappropriate advances on Yeoman Rand and displays some unsettling powers. The most horrifying image in all of Trek is the woman whose face Charlie wishes to the cornfield when he perceives her laughing at him. I think only the crewman who gets phased between decks in the Next Generation episode ‘In Theory’ comes close.

5. The City On The Edge of Forever – The best of the time travel episodes, with that agonizing central choice that saves the world from the reign of Hitler. Best closing line too. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

6. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield – So this one gets a bad rap for its heavy handedness, with Batman’s The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) the last of a race of bi-colored humans hunting down the last of a neighboring race who on the surface looks completely alike to the rest of the crew, except their colors are reversed. The treatise on racism made a huge impression on me as a young kid, and given the state of the world, I wonder if maybe the simple binary color lesson depicted here might still be worth revisiting.

7. Amok Time – Spock needs to get married or the pon farr blood fever will destroy him, so Kirk takes the Enterprise to Vulcan. It’s our first look at Spock’s culture and home world, and the iconic duel music by Gerald Fried highlights the combat between Spock and Kirk perfectly. A classic episode.

8. Mirror Mirror – Kirk and the landing party experience another transporter foul up (is it any wonder McCoy hates that thing?) and wind up in an alternate universe where the Federation is sort of a continuation of Imperial Rome, all Kirk’s subordinates are out to kill him to advance their own ranks, and Spock has a beard. Barbara Luna as Marlena Moreau has got to be one of the loveliest actresses ever to grace a Trek episode and those alternate costumes really are spiffy.

9. Space Seed – The reason we have the best original Star Trek movie (and one of the finest sci fi adventure movies) ever made. Ricardo Montalban is the anti-Kirk from his hubris to his mannerisms, to his tendency to display man chest. Khan’s relationship with McGivers is problematic, but what of it? It’s still a kickass episode.

10. The Naked Time – The Enterprise picks up a bug from a research station that quickly starts driving everybody bonkers. My favorite bit character Lt. Kevin Thomas Riley (played with bravado by Bruce Hyde here and in The Conscience Of The King, sadly then never seen again) takes over engineering and croons ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’ over the PA, Sulu goes full D’artagnan (My favorite exchange, between him and Uhura, when he calls her ‘fair maiden’ and she replies ‘Sorry, neither.’), and things generally go to pot. A fun episode.

11. Journey To Babel – We meet Spock’s mom and dad, Amanda and Sarek, and we get a sense of the scope of the Trek universe when we’re quickly introduced to a slew of mainstay aliens (including my favorite, the Andorians) all munching on Play-Do cubes. Kirk foils a Romulan plot. There’s nothing not to like.

12. The Man Trap – An early, and welcome McCoy-centric episode, where the doctor has to choose between his heart and his brains. The salt vampire is a memorable critter (and shows up later as one of Trelane’s trophies in The Squire of Gothos), and I like the little exchange where it becomes a Swahili speaking crewman to entice Uhura. Neat little bit where Sulu is a botanist too, and his hand through a table alien plant reacts negatively to the disguised creature.

13.  This Side of Paradise – Spock becomes infected by alien spores that lower his emotional defenses and allow him to fall in love. But the whole crew’s caught the bug and want to ground the Enterprise forever, so Kirk’s gotta step in and break his best friend’s heart. Fantastic episode with an affecting final scene where Spock laments that he felt something he had never felt before – ‘happy.’

14.  The Trouble With Tribbles – A bona fide classic. Humorous and some great character moments from Scotty, brawling with the Klingons not over any insult to his captain, but to the Enterprise.  

15.  Operation: Annihilate! – More mass insanity spread by parasitic lifeforms, but this time they claim the life of Kirk’s brother Sam. Shatner gives a performance that is more affecting when you realize his own father had only died a week prior to shooting in real life. The critters are nasty flying anchovy things, and Spock apparently sacrifices his eyesight for the crew, foreshadowing the ultimate sacrifice he will make in Wrath of Khan.

16. The Galilleo Seven – Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and some red shirts crash land in the shuttlecraft and Spock has to take command, the more desperate members of the away team mistaking his dispassionate decisions for a lack of basic empathy. Spock and McCoy shine.

17. The Squire of Gothos – A neat Twilight Zone-esque episode where the seemingly all-powerful alien baddie turns out to be a kid left a planet to play with.

18. A Piece Of The Action – Kirk and Co land on a planet of mimics who have based their society on a history book of gangland Chicago left behind by a previous Federation expedition. The premise is absurd, but it’s fun watching Kirk try to drive a Model A and everybody negotiate the old lingo. Plus, Scotty sets the Enterprise’s phasers to stun and STUNS A HUGE PORTION OF THE PLANET. Something that wisely never comes up again.

19. The Immunity Syndrome – I love this episode which is mainly a cheapo set piece with the Enterprise pursuing a giant planet eating amoeba, mainly because it’s fun to watch Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all outdo themselves in a bid to sacrifice themselves for the crew.

20. Whom The Gods Destroy – Kirk and Spock beam down to a model penal colony run by a doctor who alters the criminally insane a la Doc Savage, only to find the inmates have taken over the asylum. Just a cool little thriller-esque episode with Kirk trying to get the Enterprise to realize he’s a hostage while trying to sew dissent among his captors. Yvonne Craig is a knockout as a Harley Quinn-esque Orion prisoner.

Star Trek Anniversary - John's Top 20: "The Corbomite Maneuver" (#2)

At #2 on my list is "The Corbomite Maneuver," a classic episode of Star Trek. If I could show a non-fan just one episode to "characterize" the series, it would be this installment.

I'm putting it at second, because there's one episode I prefer over it, but "The Corbomite Maneuver" could be the perfect template or prototype for Star Trek storytelling.

Stardate 1512.2

On the third day of a star mapping mission in previously uncharted space, The U.S.S. Enterprise is blocked by a cube: a border marker, apparently, left behind by some unknown alien race. 

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is forced to destroy the cube when it emits dangerous levels of radiation and threatens the lives of his crew and the safety of the ship.

Before long, however, the powerful force behind that cube arrives to confront the Enterprise. Commanded by the fearsome Balok (Ted Cassidy) is a colossal vessel -- the Fesarius – hailing from a society called The First Federation.

Balok threatens to destroy the Enterprise for trespassing in restricted space. No escape is possible. No plea is acceptable, he says.

On the bridge of the Enterprise, Balok’s uncompromising behavior rattles the nerves of a young navigator, Bailey (Anthony Call), and stymies Kirk’s attempts at diplomacy. There seems to be no way to escape destruction, at least until Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) off-handedly mentions chess.

Inspired, Kirk realizes he is playing the wrong game with this opponent. He adopts a different game -- poker -- and then, with the straightest of poker faces, attempts to bluff Balok.

This ploy succeeds, and opens up a channel of communication between the Enterprise an Balok.

Some months back, I was asked by a reader here on the blog to pick just one episode that I felt could represent the totality of the Star Trek (1966-1969) experience.

I selected “The Corbomite Maneuver.” 

Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest episodes of the series -- one of the ten best -- and an installment that delivers drama, suspense, and most importantly, a distinctive and uplifting philosophical world view.

First of all, “The Corbomite Maneuver” presents the idea that the greatest enemy in space is not alien races, but fear itself.  In other words, human psychology.  The problem is how we respond to that which we don't fully comprehend or know.

The greatest danger facing us is ourselves,” Kirk announces to the crew in this episode. He then discusses “an irrational fear of the unknown,” and notes that there is actually no such thing as the unknown, rather merely “things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”

This is a remarkable monologue, and a perfect distillation of Star Trek philosophy. 

The men and women of the 23rd century and aboard the Enterprise are equipped to handle new frontiers, new civilizations. And what is unknown or seems different, in due time, becomes understood, explainable. They are explorers who -- if they can conquer their own demons -- are ready to meet the universe.

This is a great affirmation of mankind, and our potential. Star Trek shows us who we can aspire to be, if we put anger and fear behind us.

Kirk’s assertion of this philosophy is developed in the episode on an individual basis too; by Bailey, the young navigator who finds it difficult to control his fear, his emotions when Balok threatens the Enterprise. 

Bailey is young, and inexperienced, and unlike the senior crew has not yet learned how to manage his fear. He is well-trained, responsible, and capable...but personally, he grapples with the unknown.

At the end of the episode, Kirk notes that he “owes” Bailey a look at “the face of the unknown” and it’s a remarkable moment. Kirk has taken him under his wing, and shows Bailey that as captain he does not just mouth a philosophy of exploration, peace and understanding…he practices it. He lives it.

In my opinion, this quality is what makes Kirk (and certainly Kirk of the first season) an extraordinary captain and role model.

The very idea of fear is reinforced in the episode through the character of Balok as well.  

He has constructed a menacing puppet (replete with menacing voice…) as his “alter ego.” This is the face he shows the world...the universe.

Balok is so fearful of alien contact that might go wrong, that the very face he puts on is one of sheer terror.  At the end of the episode, Balok declares it "was a pleasure” testing the Enterprise and her captain (a common Roddenberry theme, actually), but it is clear that the First Federation (Balok's governing entity) operates from a position of fear, hiding behind technology and masks to suss out the characteristics of other races. Given their diminutive personal stature, this is perhaps an understandable philosophy too.  They present as terrifying, lest they be seen as weak.

The first episode of Star Trek filmed following the second pilot, “The Corbomite Maneuver” also establishes a long-lived Kirk/Spock character dynamic. Specifically, Spock makes an observation or analysis about a current situation or dilemma, and that remark inspires Kirk to concoct a brilliant, but spontaneous strategy for success. 

Here, Spock is reminded of chess, noting that Kirk and Balok keep making effective counter-moves.  That notation gives Kirk the inspiration of a different game, poker…and bluffing.  

As late as The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Spock’s observation of Khan’s “pattern” indicating “two dimensional thinking,” we see this character dynamic re-asserted.  Spock observe and assesses; Kirk synthesizes that work into purposeful, life-saving action. One man is all about knowledge and information. The other man is all about improvising survival from that analysis.

There are so many grounds upon which one can commend “The Corbomite Maneuver.” It is excellent entertainment, first off, with a surprising ending.

More trenchantly -- and like other early episodes of the series (namely “The Man Trap,” “Charlie X” and “The Naked Time,”)  -- this episode creates the impression of real people functioning on a real vessel. 

I termed this the “the lower decks” paradigm in my reviews of those episodes. Here, for instance, we see Yeoman Rand bringing Kirk dinner (while he gripes about a diet), and meet a young surrogate for the audience: Bailey.  

Bailey, like the audience, doesn’t quite know the ropes. This episode is his journey. In a way, he is really the central character of this work of art. No, he’s not a captain, a CMO or exec.  He’s just a kid promoted to a job of great responsibility. But importantly, he is a individual who has no practical way of grappling with his fear. When Kirk mentors him, he is really mentoring us too.

I also find this episode exceptionally tense, and, indeed, a template, perhaps, for many of the most challenging an remarkable episodes of Star Trek.  

Much time is spent on the bridge, as strategy is discussed and executed, and there are no planets to visit. 

Think about how much Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) resembles this story type. The crew --from their workaday control room -- grapples with alien contact.  In the midst of an emergency, the crew must face their fear of the unknown, and puzzle out the rationale behind an intelligence beyond human experience.

And of course, the answer in both cases is not violence. It is not hostility. It is not to kill that which is different.  

Instead, an episode such as “The Corbomite Maneuver” suggests that we can control all those impulses and meet the unknown with the best angels of our nature.  Bailey sees the face of the unknown, and fear disappears.

Put aside your fear, says Star Trek, and that which is dark an mysterious, becomes illuminated and known.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Star Trek Anniversary Top 20: Pierre Fontaine's List

[Animator, illustrator and writer, Pierre Fontaine, contributes for the blog his list of Top 20 Star Trek Episodes].

Season 1:
Charlie X - A great character story and nicely handled with a lot of character moments.  The core of the episode is Charlie's crush on Rand and how it's left to Kirk to help him through his adolescence while struggling to deal with Charlie's god-like powers to control the world around him. What's terribly interesting is that given all his powers, Charlie can't "will" anyone to love him.

Where No Man Has Gone Before - A great adventure story, again about a person given god-like powers.  I included this on my list because this second pilot provides a sense of history...the crew looks different, the uniforms are different but the core of the show is firmly in place.

The Corbomite Maneuver - One of my contenders for a "perfect" Trek episode.  An enemy is confronted only to find that they aren't what we expect them to be.  It's nice to see that Roddenberry's utopian future still had room for people who aren't perfect and can still learn important lessons.  A real standout for me personally.

The Menagerie/The Cage - Another episode that provides a sense of history to the show.  I think this episode and the pilot episode that it's drawn from truly cemented the feeling that the characters we've grown to like have a past history and that loyalty sometimes supersedes logic.

Balance Of Terror - Another contender for a "perfect" Trek episode.  It's a very exciting story and superbly presented.

Shore Leave - This "high concept" story just makes me happy.  There's a sense of fun, fright and exhilaration as the crew tries to determine what's happening around them on this strange and absurd planet.

Arena - Another classic and one that really showcases Roddenberry's desire to show that the human race can move past it's instinct for revenge.

Return Of The Archons - I've always liked this episode because the Archons are just so damn strange yet familiar.  Movies like "The Purge" series play on similar ideas of a polite society that needs to "purge" itself on a regular basis to keep itself on the straight and narrow path.  It doesn't make much sense but it is disturbing and still resonates with me.

Devil In The Dark - Yet another "perfect" Trek episode. Spock's mind meld with the Horta is absolutely riveting, as is Kirk and McCoy's reaction to its pain, leading to a desire to "heal" rather than "hurt".

City On The Edge Of Forever - I grudgingly include this in my top 20 because it is a classic episode with great ideas though I've never connected to it as much as others have.

Season 2:
Who Mourns For Adonais - A great concept and a fun simple as that.

The Changeling - Another "perfect" Trek story where the stakes are high and everyone has to think and act quickly to prevent a machine from destroying the crew, the ship and the universe beyond.

Mirror, Mirror - A fascinating opportunity to see how the crew reacts to a situation that is truly topsy-turvy.

The Doomsday Machine - Another "perfect" Trek episode.  Yes, it's another galactic threat but the inclusion of two ships, two captains with two opposing ideas about how to defeat this killing machine make for a really wonderful episode.

Journey To Babel - A necessary inclusion for the introduction of Spock's parents and the strained relationship he has with his father.

Season 3:
For The World is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky - As a kid, I thought the visuals were stunning, especially the technicolor asteroid.  It's one of the "crew in love" stories that occurred often during the third season but it always resonated with me personally.

The Lights Of Zetar - Yet another "crew in love" story but as with "For The World", I really like the story and the way it was told.  Besides, I've always liked James Doohan as an actor and really enjoy watching him "out of his element" and playing a love-struck engineer.

Spectre Of The Gun - This has always remained one of my all-time favorite Trek episodes.  I love everything about it; the basic dilemma, the surreal western town, the sense of dread when the crew realize that there's no escape, the death of Checkov, and the realization that if they can control their minds and their fear that even the bullets fired at them will have no effect.  Honestly, it remains up there in my top three favorite episodes.

The Tholian Web - A strong episode with unforgettable visuals.  A real treat for the mind and the eye.

That Which Survives - This is the first episode I can remember watching, and as a result this story has remained a favorite of mine.  Besides, the basic dilemma is riveting as is the way the planet's defense system is visualized as a alluring woman whose touch is deadly.

It doesn't surprise me that season 1 has the most episodes in my top 20 but I was surprised that season 3 matches season 2 with favorite episodes.  While Gene Coon was a fantastic writer and show runner, I felt he injected a bit too much whimsy into Trek, especially in season 2.  I personally like my Trek stories character driven and "serious", reflecting the dangers of space rather than making space travel feel familiar and safe.

Thanks for the opportunity to run through this exercise and try to define my favorite Trek episodes.  There were quite a few episodes that nearly made the list but had to acknowledge that some episodes like "City On The Edge Of Forever" are classics for a reason and deserve to be on any top-20 list.

Pierre Fontaine
Illustration, Animation, Paper Model design