Archive for January, 2022

Trekaday 006: The Alternative Factor, The City on the Edge of Forever, Operation – Annihilate!

Posted on January 29th, 2022 in Culture | Enter your password to view comments.

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Trekaday 005: Space Seed, A Taste of Armageddon, This Side of Paradise, The Devil in the Dark, Errand of Mercy

Posted on January 26th, 2022 in Culture | Enter your password to view comments.

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Trekaday 004: Shore Leave, The Galileo Seven, The Squire of Gothos, Arena, Tomorrow is Yesterday, Court Martial, The Return of the Archons

Posted on January 21st, 2022 in Culture | Enter your password to view comments.

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Trekaday 003: Dagger of the Mind, The Corbomite Maneuver, The Menagerie, The Conscience of the King, Balance of Terror

Posted on January 14th, 2022 in Culture | Enter your password to view comments.

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Trekaday 002: The Enemy Within, Mudd’s Women, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Miri

Posted on January 8th, 2022 in Culture | Enter your password to view comments.

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Trekaday 001: The Man Trap, Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Naked Time

Posted on January 4th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TOS S01E01 The Man Trap (4 out of 5 stars) gives rise to one of my favourite stories about television production. The plot revolves around a creature that craves salt and thus the Enterprise crew needed to be seen salting their food. What is easy to overlook watching these early episodes is they had to invent everything. Consider the problem of imagining the 23rd century from the vantage point of the mid-1960s. What would doors look like? What would shoes look like? What – crucially for this episode – would salt shakers look like?

A gallant props man scoured local flea markets and exotic boutiques and came back with an assortment of peculiar objects, all of which he was assured could be used to season food. They all looked suitably weird and futuristic but none of them looked like salt shakers. Using them in the scene would thus require some dreadfully clunky dialogue to be written. “Could you pass the salt please?” “Why, yes, here it is in this salt shaker – see?” And so eventually they fell back on just using regular 1960s salt shakers. But the bizarre articles rejected for this purpose were immediately put to good use as Dr McCoy’s operating instruments, enhanced with suitable sound effects.

Watching this episode, of which I have scant memories, what’s amazing is how much they got right first time. All right, not quite first time. This was the first episode transmitted, but the fourth after the two pilots to go before the cameras. (There is an argument to be made for watching these in production order, the better to track the evolution of the series, but, oh well.) The second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, transmitted third after a quick re-edit, looks a bit shakier. We’ll have to wait till next week for The Corbomite Maneuver, the first regular episode to be shot.

In any case, here we have the vital Captain’s Log – missing from The Cage – the familiar triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the notion of “beaming down” to the planet (which must have a lot of suns judging by all the shadows cast on that very smooth ground), and the uniforms we’re all used to.

Almost immediately Kirk is teasing McCoy about his old girlfriend. This is the crucial difference between Kirk and Pike, between Shatner and Hunter. Kirk loves being captain of the Enterprise and Shatner loves being Kirk. His joy at being able to play space hero for a living radiates out of him. He’s fantastic. As with Dr No (another iconic series which got an awful lot right first time) we’re plunged into the middle of the story. There’s no set-up, no origin story, no first meeting. Here’s the ship, here’s the crew, here’s the mission. We don’t even get the “series sell” until after the teaser – which wastes no time in setting up the key mystery for the beginning of the story. It’s amazingly clear, bold, confident stuff. And it’s fun. And clever, building to a really complicated suspenseful situation in which the fate of our antagonist is being unwittingly discussed in front of them.

We also get our first “red shirt” death, although Crewman Darnell is wearing blue (science/medicine). And the shock and dismay which Uhura feels on learning this news is effectively used to create a contrast with Spock’s cold, calculating nature – avoiding the earnest, business-as-usual teamwork of Pike’s dour, characterless crew. Before long, Sturgeon and Green have bitten the dust as well, further thinning out the Enterprise’s bustling corridors.

This episode marks the debut of Yeoman Janice Rand, who gets to use the salt shaker (and who should definitely report some of the men aboard the Enterprise to HR) but no sign of Scotty. Sulu gets to say “May the great bird of the galaxy bless your planet” – which gave rise to a fond, or sometimes not-so-fond, nickname for Gene Roddenberry. And of course, in the climax, Star Trek’s signature humanity and compassion shines through, although it doesn’t, this time, carry the day.

TOS S01E02 Charlie X (3 out of 5 stars) gives us our first look at the transporter room and Kirk’s tummy-flattening wraparound green tunic (Shatner also takes his shirt off for the first time). The transporter room is a bit of a funny one. Having invented the transporter as a budget-saving measure, the writers had to struggle not to make it a magical get-out-of-jail-free card. Having a special room which is necessary to effect transportation helps, but the need will get ignored from time-to-time as point-to-point transportation becomes a thing.

Again, the teaser is super-punchy and effective, setting up the key mystery of the episode. And this is our first look at that most indefatigable of Star Trek clichés – the child-like alien with godlike powers. This was hardly new to TV – science-fiction fans would remember it from The Twilight Zone if nothing else – but it becomes a Trek staple, probably because it feels huge and yet is cheap to film – the destruction of the Antares happens off-screen and most of Charlie’s special abilities are achieved with simple editing.

This kind of story also plays into the philosophical aspects of the show as well as the jeopardy. Robert Walker does everything the script requires of him and Charlie Evans is a fine enough example of the type, but the device will get old fast, and the first incarnation isn’t necessarily the best. It also feels needlessly repetitive to have the first two stories both revolve around a human-looking intruder on the ship who has terrifying powers that the crew don’t even suspect are there. Surely it won’t be this same story every week? It’s also an entirely ship-bound episode which feels like a lack of ambition this early on, although some strikingly non-naturalistic lighting partly makes up for it.

Charlie’s minders have uniforms from the second pilot, but with different insignias. The familiar Star Trek “delta” insignia was thought of as the symbol of the Enterprise at this stage. Yeoman Rand exists only to be lusted after again. White Charlie can’t be seen to be lusting over Uhura – that would be offensive. Likewise, a playful slap on the rear is fine between two men, but inappropriate when Charlie does it to Rand. Poor old sixties Trek struggles nobly for progression but falters as often as it succeeds.

Off-duty officers strum alien harps, play with familiar-looking decks of cards and improvise torch songs, sometimes all at the same time. Kirk beats Spock at chess, even though his mind isn’t on the game. Spock is a lousy chess teacher, taking 30 seconds to beat Charlie and then ending the lesson. Kirk if anything is even worse, but at least his judo lesson reveals Charlie’s true nature.

What’s fascinating (Captain) is that, even discounting the repetition of format from last week, this feels less engaging than the excellent The Man Trap even though the threat is far greater. The salt creature slowly picked the crew off one at a time, whereas Charlie could melt everyone on board with a single glance. But The Man Trap was about McCoy’s emotional crisis and Charlie X is about Kirk solving a problem, which feels less engaging – although we do connect more with Charlie than we did with Salty McSuckface.

No Sulu and still no Scotty. The regular cast of this show is Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and Rand – which makes her apparent death at Charlie’s hands (eyes?) the most shocking part of the episode. The final act feels apocalyptic – Charlie makes force fields vanish, ages up young girls who reject his advances, magics away people’s faces to stop them from laughing. It’s a nightmare for the Enterprise, except that those bustling corridors make it feel like business as usual. In a rather drab ending, Charlie’s powers are overcome not by Kirk’s ingenuity but by his parents coming to take him away. The use of this reset switch also means that technically the ship suffered no personnel losses this episode. Interesting to recall that this is DC Fontana’s first episode for the show – is Charlie her attack on the adolescent man-babies whose advances she had to fend off even into adulthood?

TOS S01E03 Where No Man Has Gone Before (3.5 out of 5 stars) as noted, is the re-edited second pilot. This is the footage which convinced NBC to commission a series. The early, oft-excerpted dialogue between Kirk and Spock is a primer for those unfamiliar with the show and as such is somewhat over-written – Spock would never say “one of your Earth emotions”. As S01E01 showed us, we don’t actually need anything like this to understand how the show works. But maybe NBC in 1966 needed reassurance in the opening minutes that this wouldn’t be The Cage Redux.

Spock’s silly haircut, fluffy eyebrows and sallow makeup from The Cage are all back, as are the costumes with ribbed collars (which oddly echo the Wrath of Khan costumes which will debut 16 years later). James Doohan finally appears, in a strange oatmeal jersey, operating the transporter. That same colour is worn by other crewmembers including – hey it’s Gary Lockwood from 2001. And in blue (with trousers) it’s Hotlips from MASH. They’re kind of the Decker and Ilia of this episode – two senior officers we’ve never met before who have their own relationship arc and are then written-out.

Compared to episodes one and two, the teaser is a bit feeble – the old box transmitting data isn’t anything like as interesting as freaky Charlie or three-faced Nancy. We’re initially ship-bound again, but the sparking consoles, shaking camera and general sense of Das Boot claustrophobia (even Spock is barking orders) does much to mitigate this. Sadly, this is the third episode in a row in which the corridors of the Enterprise are stalked by one or more seeming humans with deadly powers – in this case “Espers” who sound like they are going to be a big feature of the Star Trek universe, but which I don’t believe are ever mentioned again. In fact, Mitchell has exactly the same patter as Charlie – insisting that people be friendly to him and threatening dire consequences if they aren’t. It does seem at this stage as if this most imaginative of series can only tell a single story.

Lockwood and Kellerman’s silver contact lenses are very effective, far more so than Robert Walker rolling his eyes back in his head. Mitchell’s tales of their time together at the “Academy” does much to build this world and these characters in a few lines. Note that neither Star Fleet nor the Federation have been mentioned so far, only “Earth bases”. Kirk’s “gravestone” gives him the middle initial “R” instead of “T”.

Instead of McCoy we have an older and crustier Dr Piper who doesn’t make much of an impression and nor does Sulu who pretty much just stands mute in the background. Shatner is the one holding the whole thing together. His narration about the crippled ship strikes the perfect balance of crisis and competence. We want him to succeed and that’s what makes the episode work as well as it does. It would work even better for a room full of network suits who hadn’t just watched The Man Trap and Charlie X.

But when Spock suggests murdering Mitchell while they still can, it not only jars, it cries out for McCoy to put the other side of the debate. Mitchell’s personal relationship with Kirk adds what The Man Trap had and Charlie X lacked, and this has a better ending than last week, but this still isn’t quite as good as that fantastic first episode with its perfect blend of heartbreak, high concept and jeopardy.

TOS S01E04 The Naked Time (4.5 out of 5 stars) presents an odd approach to character development for a brand new show: let’s really get to know our regular cast by having them act totally out of character. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does, because the crew are in the position of having to be professional (and shh, don’t let Gene hear you) military, which means when they do show some personality (such as when Uhura baits Spock on the bridge) it can seem rather unbelievable. By stripping off some of that professional façade we can see a bit more of who these people really are. It worked so well here, it was repurposed as an early episode of TNG too. And yes, this is another uh-oh, something snuck on board the ship when we weren’t looking story but it plays very differently than the first three.

It’s distressing in these times of COVID to see that the Enterprise is in danger because a redshirt didn’t keep his mask on properly, but the crew have to be numbskulls from time to time or there would never be any good stories.

McCoy is back so we have our core trio in full effect, although the good doctor fails to take any of notice Crewman COVID’s distress even when he’s pawing anxiously at his own flesh (to be fair, neither does Kirk, but there’s clearly something medically wrong with the crewman, which really should have shown up on McCoy’s examination). When he stabs himself, he seems to bleed purple blood. We’re also still reporting back to “Earth Science” not the Federation. And – gloriously – here’s Scotty proudly talking up “his” engines, and complaining that he can’t change the laws of physics, not to mention it’s the first appearance of Nurse Chapel (in a weird silver wig).

George Takei was pitched this episode and told he would be wielding a samurai sword. “I see what you’re getting at,” he responded, “But I’m a Japanese American. I grew up watching Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. Why can’t I have a fencing foil?” The writing team agreed and Takei immediately booked himself some fencing lessons in preparation for his shirtless cavorting. Then in quick succession we get our first Vulcan Nerve Pinch followed by an early appearance of Sarcastic Spock – “Take D’Artagnan here to sickbay,” he quips over the body of the fallen Sulu.

1960s sexism alert: “That’s what I like! Let the women work! Universal suffrage!” chortles Crewman MacIrish as Uhura takes over his station, before later dictating female crewmembers’ hair and make-up choices as the infection further addles his brain.

This is fantastic stuff – the ship in deadly danger, the antics of O’Reilly and the others is blackly comic, Shatner and Nimoy are on top form (Spock’s breakdown in his quarters is exceptional, as is Kirk trying to snap him out of it) and it’s a good vehicle for Scotty, Uhura and of course Sulu. And absolutely no-one fucks an android. I’d like the ship to feel more imperilled as the countdown continues, and I desperately wanted Uhura and Scotty to go nuts as well so we’d have the full set, but these are minor quibbles. This is the show firing on all cylinders. And then they discover time travel. Wow.

Key takeaways from these first four episodes

  • These are really good, well-told, science-fiction adventure stories that still hold up today. Which is lucky, as otherwise, this would be a long three months.
  • Some of the things we take for granted aren’t here yet – no Federation, no Star Fleet, no Klingons, no photon torpedoes, no Chekov.
  • The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is key but although Nimoy is the best actor, Shatner is the series’ MVP. His charisma is undeniable and he holds the whole show together.
  • There’s more stuff on board the ship than I remember – those standing sets were cheaper, which means the temptation to keep telling the ship-has-a-hidden-menace-on-board story is a significant one, but I’m hopeful that the series will spread its wings more fully as more episodes unfold.

So… What did I think of Eve of the Daleks?

Posted on January 1st, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

3.5 out of 5 stars
Here’s the top line. That was pretty good. Plenty of the faults of this era are still present, but many were mitigated and all of the extra special Flux and Timeless Child annoyances visited upon us have been temporarily set aside. This was a simple story which – just about – sustained 60 minutes. It wasn’t told in a pointlessly confusing way, nor was it egregiously padded out (much) to fit the running time. There’s a problem, it gets worse, there’s a solution. And, we’re blessed with a couple of guests stars who really elevate the material – Aisling Bea in particular really makes even the poorest dialogue sing.

It seems as if Chris Chibnall’s chief contribution to Doctor Who may be having episodes air on the dates the stories are set, which makes this episode all about New Year’s Eve but transmitting on New Year’s Day all the odder. With any lucky, Rusty will bring back Christmas episodes (and Saturdays, although today is a Saturday). Anyway, let’s meet Sarah whose job is a) running a storage facility and b) doling out exposition while on the phone to Mrs Doyle.

This is a good idea for a story – a storage facility is a great spooky location for an adventure (especially with lighting and direction as good as this) and time loops are fun. But almost immediately there is stupid overwriting. Does this facility really have more employees (two) than customers (one)? And yet, being reliably staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is still an absolute priority for the owner? The same is true of the needlessly high stakes TARDIS fix. Why not land first, then get everyone out, and then trigger the reboot? And just how long does it take these super Daleks with their fancy upgraded super weapons to blow a hole in one thin aluminium door? (They can also teleport it seems – so why not just teleport on to the other side of the door?)

And why does nobody know what a Dalek is? Dan acts like he’s never seen one before and yet he was an active (or at least present) member of a story in which the Doctor deliberately plotted to wipe them all out. (Seems like she needn’t have bothered.) And Sarah and Nick presumably slept through last year’s New Year’s Day special in which the streets of the UK were crawling with the buggers. Also, Sarah (who basically has to run this place singlehanded due to her feckless staff) has never once walked down the corridor in which her only customer has his storage unit until tonight. But her trying to face down a Dalek is some of the best writing we’ve seen in years (at least on episodes credited to the show-runner), and her fumblingly getting to know Nick really does work. “We must have missed each other,” she pathetically lies, hating herself. LOOK! A LINE WITH SUBTEXT! IN A CHRIS CHIBNALL SCRIPT!! IT MUST BE CHRISTMAS!!

Seeing both Nick and Sarah get offed so early is quite shocking – but the lead in to the titles is actually great, even if the other shoe drops almost immediately. Though this isn’t quite a Groundhog Day situation in which people in the time loop remember everything, nor is it TNG’s Cause and Effect where discovering you’re in a time loop is the biggest problem. Here people kind of remember but also kind of don’t, until they definitely do, all of which feels like the weakest possible choice. And the rules of the time loop are desperately fuzzy. Time keeps resetting closer and closer to midnight, which does something to mitigate the inherent lack of drama when you know you’ll always get another go. But reaching midnight is never something we notice – the time loop resets when everyone’s dead, regardless of what time it is, so we have a ticking clock which never counts down to zero.

Now, come on, Chris, you’ve only got five characters to service. You must be able to find something for Yas and Dan to do this time. Sadly, not. There’s lip-service paid to the fact that they need to work together as a team (although the Doctor’s rousing speech is desperately shit and then immediately undercut by the fact that the next go through is their least successful yet). And sure, all five are present and doing… stuff at the end – even Sarah’s mammy. But whereas Sarah and Nick light up the screen as fully rounded characters with agency and appeal and an arc, Yas and Dan just traipse around after the Doctor, as usual. Yes, Dan goes off to “distract a Dalek” at one point but this is just busy-work. It doesn’t change anything. He doesn’t learn anything useful, and the Doctor isn’t noticeably helped by this noble act. In fact, until the climax, she’s even more useless than usual, taking ages to cotton on to what’s happening, alienating everyone and unable to get there in time to save Nick who has to figure out how to duck all by himself.

As usual, there’s a patented story-grinds-to-a-halt-so-characters-can-talk-about-their-feelings-but-not-in-a-way-which-affects-the-plot scene. But if we’re going to have one of those, let it be this one. Poor old Mandip Gill who has stuck with this thankless part for seemingly ever, finally gets to show what she’s capable of. Yes, the line about her and Dan having travelled together for four years is just absurd, and yes, the episode ends by kicking the can down the road yet again, and no this scene doesn’t connect with the rest of the episode thematically or in plot terms – but it does work as a bit of television drama. If only the story it was telling wasn’t one about an abusive relationship. Hey-ho. The fact that Sarah and Nick’s relationship can be developed so smoothly without the plot needing to stop so they can chat makes this device even more irritating. Why is this so easy with characters we’ve only just met and so hard with characters one of whom we first saw in October 2018?

Sarah is not just defined in terms of her relationship to Nick either. Her not trusting the Doctor is very neat. True, it once again undermines the Doctor, but it makes sense, speaks to her character, and complicates the plot without any kind of “special pleading”. And that’s this episode all over. As the story of how Sarah and Nick met under bizarre circumstances and were freed from the time loop and spared from the Daleks by a not very likeable blonde lady in funny clothes who probably caused all this to happen – it’s exciting, looks great and is even funny at times. Not only that, it all just about makes sense, and it’s quite hard to guess the ending. Dragging it down are two extraneous characters who add nothing and quite often just stand around mute, engage in dreadful “bants”, or repeat what other people have already said, but as they’re not on-screen much, the amount of damage they can do is limited.

As usual then, this is first draft stuff, with inconstancies and silliness which a quick script-editor’s pass would have easily fixed. But this is a hugely promising first draft. Unlike pretty much everything from Spyfall onwards (with the possible exceptions of The Haunting of Villa Diodati and Village of the Angels) this doesn’t have any major problems which hole it below the waterline. It works. It’s a story. So Happy New Year everybody.