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 | No Comments »

TOS S01E22: Space Seed (5 out of 5 stars) is not one I remember watching, but I know all about it because of course it gave rise to The Wrath of Khan. Unfamiliar with Trek, incoming producer Harve Bennett sat down and watched the whole of The Original Series and immediately saw the potential for a rematch with Khan, who in both his appearances is an absolutely exceptional villain. 23rd century Star Fleet officers may have evolved beyond petty grievances but you can’t say the same for a survivor of the Eugenics Wars of the… (checks notes) 1990s?

This is also I think the first true appearance of The Shat. I’ve been impressed by William Shatner’s performances so far and his often-imitated vocal tics have been largely absent. But opposite Montalban’s scenery-chewing, sensitive Canadian actor William Shatner fades away and his evil doppelganger The Shat emerges, who will act you off the screen given half the chance.

In a neat reversal of the usual Benny Hill style capers in the face of a beautiful woman on the Enterprise, here it’s Madlyn Rhue as Lt McGivers who goes goo-goo eyes over Khan. His relentless negging and then near-raping of her is some this episode’s strongest and most disturbing stuff. Her torn loyalties are fascinating and it’s a shame that she too wasn’t brought back for the movie.

The ending is perfection as well – a thrilling race against time, followed by a selfless act of clemency on the part of the Captain (with no chance of anything going wrong). Well played everybody. I say everybody. Uhura is present but largely mute until captured by Khan. No Sulu in sight (and of course, no Chekov).

TOS S01E23: A Taste of Armageddon. (4 out of 5 stars) Having tackled organised religion, Trek now sets its sights on mutually assured destruction. Of course the Captain isn’t going to willingly march into a disintegration chamber for the sake of diplomacy, but nor does he even consider leaving them to their antiseptic war games which aren’t harming anyone else (whither the Prime Directive?). Picard would be wringing his hands far more.

My favourite part of this episode is the way that Scotty is able to see through every deception which Anan 7 tries. He’s indomitable, a magnificently immovable object against which both Ambassador Fox and Eminian’s futilely batter themselves. I love seeing our characters at their very best.

The flip side of this is that we are introduced to The Patrician Federation who knows far better than the inhabitants of the planets they visit what is best for them, and can solve in a few hours problems which they have been wrestling with for years, or in this case centuries. And there’s more 1960s anti-computer sentiment here which has dated badly. I do like that the stuffy ambassador, who is wrong about everything, is given the chance to redeem himself rather than being humiliated and mocked.

Some of the plotting here is fuzzy. The Eminians have orders to fire as soon as the “screens” are lowered. But the ambassador beams down and the ship isn’t destroyed. And is General Order 24 a real thing? Or was this a codified bluff? Some sort of pre-medicated Corbomite Maneuver? I’d like to think the latter but it isn’t made clear.

TOS S01E24: This Side of Paradise (5 out of 5 stars) at first seems like a re-hash of The Naked Time, with a hint of Return of the Archons and a bit of The Cage. But if that’s true, then it outstrips all of them with its fascinating exploration of Spock, its hugely complex problem to solve and the deep relationship stuff between the two leads which resolves the plot. About the only thing which lets it down at all is Jill Ireland as Spock’s girlfriend – she’s a bit stiff and bland compared to McGivers or Mea 3.

Having Spock smile and laugh is wonderfully transgressive, but also a risk. In clumsy hands this could have been pointless and stupid (like all those avaricious producers who wanted Harpo Marx to speak or Buster Keaton to smile). But this script and Nimoy’s sensitive playing make it work brilliantly. It’s genuinely shocking to see him smile and laugh and kiss. Sulu, alas gets less to work with.

When Spock is whammied, it knocks out one of the legs of the command stool so it’s also shocking to see the same plants detonate in the faces of Kirk and Sulu. But Kirk suffers no ill-effects (unlike McCoy who is affected off-screen and who begins happily transporting plants aboard the Enterprise). The sight of Kirk alone on the bridge (and alone on the ship) is very striking and a wonderfully insoluable problem for him. If he beams down, how can anyone get back to the ship with nobody to operate the transporter? If he doesn’t, he’s powerless to solve the problem. But The Shat’s overlong pauses are starting to creep in “I don’t know what I can offer against… …. … paradise!”

The solution, when it comes, is tremendous. Kirk has to make Spock angry, so the resolution doesn’t depend on technobabble but on character, and wildly transgressive character at that. The flicker of sadness across Spock’s face when he becomes himself again is deeply affecting. Nimoy is fantastic in this scene (and throughout). We also learn that Mr Spock’s first name is unpronounceable. I just wish that the inescapable pathogen infecting everyone on board the ship wasn’t deriving from somewhere called “Omicron”.

TOS S01E25: The Devil in the Dark (5 out of 5 stars) Unusually, we start on the alien planet before the Enterprise’s arrival (in the Doctor Who mode) and this mine has very smooth floors. “The Federation” is now referred to with no further explanation and is in desperate need of Unobtanium, adding to the already high stakes. (Death by chemical corrosion is simultaneously very nasty and family-friendly.)

Those high stakes are provided by an undetectable monster (Spock’s notion that it is silicon-based seems to drop out of the air) which sadly, when revealed turns out to be light years beyond what the budget of the show is capable of. But the plotting and the character work absolutely sings. Kirk is clear that killing the creature is the duty of every crew member. Spock attempts to subtly undermine him and suggest that if they could capture it alive, that would save having to exterminate the last member of a species. Kirk is forced to privately admonish him.

Moments later, Spock believes Kirk to have been caught in a rock fall and cries “Jim!” in near panic. When he realises Kirk and the monster are face-to-face, Spock urges Kirk to fire his phaser. Love for his friend overwhelms any scientific curiosity or moral qualms. And brilliantly, the Horta is a mother protecting her eggs, which the miners have been thoughtlessly destroying. This is absolutely magnificent stuff on every level. McCoy even gets to say “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer”.

TOS S01E26: Errand of Mercy (3.5 out of 5 stars) can’t quite maintain the sky-high standards of the last few episodes. I think it is probably the last piece of the TOS puzzle, though. We meet the Klingons for the first time, the United Federation of Planets needs no further explanation and, sadly, The Shat is out in force.

After his open-hearted sparing of the Horta last week, this episode gives us Kirk as ruthless pragmatist (“I’m a soldier, not a diplomat”) opposing the pacifist Organians, whose attitude to violence goes mysteriously unquestioned by Kirk and Spock in order to prolong the episode.

Kirk makes all sorts of offers to the council to share Federation technology with them – again, whither the Prime Directive? But while it’s somewhat of a pleasure to see the sanctimonious Federation be taught a lesson, the cost is that Kirk and Spock come off like chumps, unable to see that the Organians are clearly vastly more powerful than they at first seem.

In the plus column, here’s John Colicos as the world’s first Klingon, a superbly villainous performance from behind some suitably Fu Manchu facial hair. Despite all the contortions that the series will later go through, it’s fairly easy to imagine that Kor and Worf are members of the same alien race.

The Klingon occupation is a riff on the Nazis, although the Klingons will later be re-thought as Samurai, obsessed with honour. Spock is referred to as “Vulcanian” yet again, although later Kor tells him, “All right, Vulcan, you may go.” I also note that money is still a thing in the 23rd century as a great deal of it has been invested in Kirk’s training.

At the end of the episode, the Organians tell Kirk that in the future humans and Klingons will work together. How right they were.

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 | No Comments »

TOS S01E15 Shore Leave (3 out of 5 stars) opens with a Kirk and Spock-less landing party having been despatched, as well as a replacement for Janice Rand making her lithe presence known on the bridge. We’re on location again as everybody needs a rest (as well they might if the preceding 14 episodes are at all typical of life on board the Enterprise). Helmsman Sulu turns out to be a botanist. And McCoy’s right – this planet is like something out of Alice in Wonderland – exactly like!

I continue to be astonished at the nimbleness and flexibility of this series. A week after the intense Das Boot-like tactical claustrophobia of Balance of Terror we get white rabbit costumes and Lewis Carroll allusions. Again, rather than further exploring the characters of Scotty or Uhura, we spend time with two new young officers (who get menaced by a tiger) plus Yeoman Sexypants. Sulu is present and swaps his fencing foil for an antique revolver before beginning some enthusiastic target practice. So, this is basically The Naked Time Part II, plus bits of The Cage, but on location and with a wider streak of surrealism, and it’s striking how much more confident the show is now, with some lovely flourishes in the direction.

Once more, the gender politics lets the side down. Kirk gets to spar with an old Academy rival, but Yeoman Once-Only gets menaced by Don Juan and spends half the episode with a torn uniform before changing into a princess frock as McCoy leers over her before getting run through by a jousting knight. It’s hard to be too invested in this seemingly fatal injury when we’re on Planet Illusion, and Kirk’s fisticuffs with Finnegan don’t tell us anything new about him. He’s also rather unconcerned about the body count which is a bit of a giveaway that nothing here is real, or at least permanent, and the arrival of a benevolent being with godlike powers to sort out the mess is, even at this early stage, hardly much of a surprise.

TOS S01E16 The Galileo Seven (4 out of 5 stars) opens with a rather snazzy overhead shot of the bridge. The transporter having been invented to save on the budget, the Enterprise does now turn out to be equipped with shuttlecraft and one such is launched containing Spock, Scotty, McCoy and a bunch of expendables to investigate a quasar. The shuttle’s immediate distress combined with a baleful passenger on the bridge makes for a very beguiling teaser.

The sight of the shuttle on the planet’s surface is a striking one, and there’s some nice interplay between Spock and McCoy regarding the former’s desire (or not) for a command of his own. Spock’s logical mind may be the only thing which will save (most of) the shuttle team but his dispassionate nature can’t help but alienate the rest of the crew. The Roddenberry who killed dramatic situations in TNG on the basis that there must never be conflict between Star Fleet officers should take some lessons in television scriptwriting from the Roddenberry who oversaw this script.

A neat blend of high jeopardy race-against-time problem-solving and excellent character work, foregrounding Spock over Kirk for the first time (and demonstrating the potential limitations of his logical thinking) contributes to a fine episode which kept me guessing about almost everything. A recent episode of Discovery stranded Tilly on a dangerous planet, struggling to keep a team of trainees alive, which trainees didn’t yet trust her leadership style. It worked just as well there as it did 55 years ago. Sure, the spear-chucking aliens look a bit pony, but I’ve seen Warriors of the Deep and then went to school the next day, I can’t be embarrassed by a poorly-realised monster (or a polystyrene rock for that matter). The happy chortling after an encounter that left three crew dead is a bit harder to accept.

TOS S01E17 The Squire of Gothos (3 out of 5 stars) opens with both Kirk and Sulu disappearing into thin air. Nobody seems to think it’s anything to do with the transporter (maybe because it’s a cheaper effect?) and everyone on the bridge is in a panic. Spock has to take over recording the log. We also have our complete set of all six regular cast members given lines within the first few minutes, which is a far rarer occurrence than I would have expected. Mr Spock orders Scotty to start transporting the landing party with “Activate” instead of “Energise”. For the first time the landing party wears dinky oxygen masks until they’ve verified a breathable atmosphere. They’re also equipped with a (useless) laser beacon.

The sight of a gothic castle on an alien world just two weeks after Shore Leave doesn’t quite have as much impact as might have been hoped, but it all looks splendid. Shatner and Takei’s struggle to remain frozen in place reminds me amusingly of Police Squad. But, blah blah blah. This is all about William Campbell as General Trelane (retired) who is frustrating, charming, unpredictable, whimsical and idiotic in equal measure. It’s a lovely performance. What he isn’t is much of a threat which makes this a diversion rather than a classic for the ages. He’s also an old letch, which is no surprise. Given his effective reincarnation as Q, putting humanity on trial in Farpoint, his appearance as a judge in the final act is particularly noteworthy. At the end, he is carted off by his parents, just like Charlie Evans was. Ho hum.

TOS S01E18 Arena (4.5 out of 5 stars). This almost feels like cheating, but I know this one very well. It was in one of the James Blish books which I read and re-read as a child and the climax is one of those moments that built Star Trek and set it apart from the thick-eared action yarns on offer elsewhere. So this will largely be an exercise in distinguishing memory from reality. In the teaser, I note that Kirk is meeting up with Commodore (Tonker?) Travers, and that the camera pans away from the transporter pads to save an optical shot. In this age of ten minutes elapsing before the opening credits, I adore these punchy opening moments which establish the drama with fabulous economy.

I think this is our first actual red shirt death. Plenty of expendable crew members have beamed down to the planet and barely got out a line of dialogue before meeting their maker, but I don’t believe any of them have worn red shirts. This time, the only member of the landing party in red is vaporized in the first five minutes of Act One. Indeed, while I praise the economy of the teaser, the Gorn and the mano-a-mano battle takes much longer than I remember to show up. The location work looks great though – our first visit to Vasquez Rocks I believe – and there are some suitably thrilling practical explosions going off near Shatner and Nimoy in the opening skirmish. Weirdly, Kirk appears to give helmsman Sulu command of the Enterprise in his absence, but he doesn’t get to sit in the Captain’s chair.

It’s also the first script from Gene L Coon, who will be a vital member of the creative team going forward and it’s the first time the Federation is mentioned (and “Star Fleet Command”). The wider universe of the show starts coming into focus at last – although Kirk does insist that “Out here, we’re the only policeman around,” as he pursues the aliens to enact vengeance for the destruction of the Earth outpost.

This is really three stories in one – adventures in the ruins of the Earthy colony, pursuit of the alien ship, and then the gladiatorial contest – and the progress is largely a smooth one, although it’s the final act which defines the episode. And it’s a marvel: a highly entertaining, well-constructed and thoughtful battle of wits, followed by a tremendously humane final act of defiance from Kirk. It’s also nifty that Spock, watching Star Trek from the bridge, figures out the solution before his Captain, so that we’re willing him to succeed (and Nimoy can articulate Kirk’s thought processes). It loses half a star only because it takes a little longer than is ideal to decide what the story is really about. The Metrons promise a further encounter, but I don’t think it ever happened.

TOS S01E19 Tomorrow Is Yesterday (4 out of 5 stars) A highly unusual opening – instead of the Enterprise processing smoothly through space, we see 20th century military craft on the runway. 1967 viewers could be forgiven for thinking that NBC had cued up the wrong tape. But it quickly turns out that the craft buzzing the US Air Force base is our own USS Enterprise – and we also quickly see why creating the transporter was so key to making the weekly production budget work.

The ship’s time travel journey through the black hole is thus presented in voice-over and flashback which is a very efficient (if undramatic) way of getting us into the real story. Following a series of fairly poor command decisions, the crew ends up transporting a fighter pilot on board the ship (who materialises in a standing posture). Shatner introduces himself as “James T Kirk” for the first time and we discover that there are 12 ships such as the Enterprise under the authority of the “United Earth Space Probe Agency” – which I don’t think is ever referred to again. At the end of the episode, Kirk reports in to the more familiar-sounding Star Fleet Control.

This episode was intended to follow on from The Naked Time and as such is the introduction of time travel for both the viewers and the crew. It takes rather too long for Spock to point out the problems inherent in giving Captain Christopher a tour of the bridge. It’s also a pity that he gets put into standard 23rd century uniform so quickly, which means he blends in with the rest of the crew, rather than standing out, as he should. And there’s that dreadful 1960s sexism over everything. Kirk reassures Christopher that the women on board are crew members, but the soundtrack can’t help but pull out a slinky sax line – and the less said about the ship’s annoyingly female computer the better. Genuine People Personalities are best left on the Heart of Gold.

I complained that in another episode or two, scenes took place oddly on the bridge, presumably because there were no other standing sets available. Here, Kirk’s quarters are seen several times. We also fill in some more Earth history. This episode was broadcast in January 1967 (the day before the Apollo 1 disaster) when the moon landing was over two years away, but the crew still confidently states that this happened in the late sixties. And Christopher’s son heads up a mission to Saturn which presumably took place in the eighties or nineties.

This lays the groundwork not for classic stories like City on the Edge of Forever but rather Star Trek IV with the crew having jolly japes on Earth at the time the episode happened to be made. It’s a lovely change of pace for this supremely flexible format and it works very well, a few unfortunate lapses and a slightly too neat ending notwithstanding.

TOS S01E20 Court Martial (3 out of 5 stars) The show which can be a thrilling adventure story one week, a goofy comedy the next, and a bizarre fantasy the week after that turns its hand to a courtroom drama. But whereas the show seems effortlessly able to transcend the usual clichés of science fiction, here the tropes of melodrama drag it down into mediocrity. The dead man’s daughter wanting “One last look at the man who killed my father,” is a notable low point. The format of the genre fights a little with the format of the show – court room dramas are designed to centre the lawyer not the defendant. The bureaucracy of the still not clearly named Federation makes its presence felt – Kirk has to fill in paperwork following the off-screen death of a red shirt. God help him if he has to do that after every fatal away mission.

There are some stunning guest stars coming up. Here we get Elisha Cook Jr, probably gunned down by more Hollywood gangsters than any man who ever lived, defending the Captain and doing a very nice job even if he doesn’t trust computers. In a neat twist, an old flame of Kirk’s has the job of prosecuting him. The outcome of the hearing is never in doubt and there are precious few wrinkles in the progress of the case (unless you count Spock describing himself as “Vulcanian”), which makes this diverting rather than essential. No “regular cast” members appear outside Kirk, Spock and McCoy (who contributes very little).

TOS S01E21 The Return of the Archons (4 out of 5 stars). Again, we start in media res and we get another visit to the back lot and it’s fun to see our regular crew in eccentric clothes. Curiously, when Sulu says “two to beam up” the transporter is unable to lock on to his fellow crewmember. Since we’ve seen people transporter who aren’t holding communicators, was this just a cock-up?

The set-up here is fascinating. A genuinely alien society, albeit one heavily influenced by early 20th century Earth. In a way it’s another version of The Cage – imprisoned in paradise is still imprisoned. The explosion of violence and lust at the “Festival” is genuinely shocking and disturbing especially in the context of a very thinly-veiled attack on organised religion (as well as being a trial run for the Borg (absorption is a lot like assimilation). This is also the first mention of the Prime Directive (although I note that Landru’s cult has a prime directive also).

And the stakes are sky high. Sulu being brainwashed is fairly arresting but McCoy being headscrambled is devastating and Kelley plays it brilliantly. Only the ending lets it down in any way at all. Following a classic “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” sequence, Kirk argues a computer to death – one of the least satisfactory ways of resolve a Star Trek plot. I suppose I should be grateful Landru’s parents didn’t come and take it away. And overall, the conclusion is somewhat hasty, although it’s nice to hear that they left a sociologist behind to sort out the mess.

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 | No Comments »

TOS S01E09 Dagger of the Mind (4 out of 5 stars). Another day, another intruder on the Enterprise. This time it’s penal colony (more like a resort colony, according to Lock ’em Up Kirk) escapee Simon van Gelder. The Enterprise crew is well practiced now in tracking down intruders who aren’t what they appear to be and so van Gelder is overpowered fairly rapidly – particularly when he marches on to the bridge and announces himself.

Kirk asks McCoy to send a qualified member of the medical staff to accompany him and McCoy despatches one of Kirk’s previous conquests. Hilariously, Kirk reacts as if he didn’t even know she was on board. Compared to many of the sweaty liars we’ve beamed down to meet, Dr Adams is warmly convincing, which helps to keep us guessing. Morgan Woodward constantly looks is if he’s going to dislocate his jaw or pop out an eyeball and is the first human to experience a Vulcan mind meld. Here it is portrayed as nearer to hypnosis than a touch-based psychic connection.

Meanwhile Kirk is undergoing a brainwashing which makes The Manchurian Candidate look like a vague suggestion. He’s remarkably helpless in his captor’s grip – more shades of The Prisoner. Again, TNG would have had the Captain’s brainwashing as a reveal but it works perfectly well when we know what’s happening from the off, trading mystery for dramatic irony. It’s also surprising that Dr Sexy Pout isn’t immediately written out, having concluded her arc (but nor will we ever see her again I suspect). Even the red shirts make it back alive, but Kirk looks genuinely disturbed by what he’s experienced.

TOS S01E10 The Corbomite Maneuver (4.5 out of 5 stars) is a bit of Trek history – the first regular episode to be filmed after the two pilots (but as you can see, transmitted tenth). A few things are a bit wobbly. Neither Nimoy’s hair nor makeup are quite right (but no fluffy eyebrows), Uhura is in gold, McCoy looks like he hasn’t shaved and it’s a Kirk-less teaser which is highly unusual (not even a Captain’s log). It’s also one of those episodes of which I have no memory whatsoever.

McCoy asks “What am I – a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?” which is one of the more absurdist variations on this theme. Spock thinks that adrenal glands sound inconvenient and ponders whether they could be removed. This is used to burn poor Mister Bailey who is roasted by Kirk moments later and pretty soon is given a dressing-down around the conference table (where a mute Uhura is included under the term “gentlemen”).

There’s some striking camerawork here – a big crane move at the beginning and some handheld shots when Kirk enters the bridge. They know that we’re going to be on this same set a lot this week and they’re determined to shoot it as flashily as they can. The lighting is nuts here as well (in a good way).

Compared to some of the more exotic menaces the crew has been up against recently, this colourful space cube doesn’t seem all that exciting, but its implacable omnipresence become increasingly arresting as the story unfolds. Interesting too that Kirk waits and waits and waits before opening fire on the thing – desperate to avoid destroying it before he’s solved the mystery. A far cry from the shoot first, ask questions later gunslinger which he’s sometimes portrayed as when comparing him to Picard. He repeatedly emphasises the importance of preserving life – all life – to his crew. And this episode is an interesting study in tactics, leadership and personnel management. Should Kirk be pushing Bailey harder and harder, or cutting him some slack so as not to burn him out?

Kirk and McCoy’s relationship is solid right from the off, but Kirk’s attitude to Yeoman Rand betrays the shuffling of episodes – she’s presented here as new in the role, but we’ve seen her and Kirk go through a lot together, particularly in Miri. Don’t get too comfy Janice…

We’re apparently on board the “United Earth Ship” Enterprise and the enemy appears to inhabit “a planet of the first federation”. Eventually, it turns out that the geometric solids are the work of – ho hum – a childlike alien with god-level powers. All right, at this stage, it’s still a pretty nifty reveal. As with The Cage, a disorienting effect is created by having one performer on camera and another behind the mic. On camera is Ron Howard’s little brother Clint. The initial vision of Balok is one of those indelible Star Trek images, a Mekon-like blue head issuing dire threats from the view screen.

This episode forms a well-spring of ideas that will be returned to again, and again, especially when Roddenberry has his way. The probing of the Enterprise by Balok feels a lot like Star Trek The Motion Picture, the sense of hopelessness recalls early encounters with the Borg, and the there’s a clear line connecting Balok to Q (via the Squire of Gothos and various others). The ship is caught by a tractor beam, which I believe is another one of those things which we imagine was always part of science-fiction storytelling but which was in fact invented out of whole cloth by Star Trek writers.

What makes this episode sing, as usual with TOS at its best, is the interplay of the characters. Kirk, Spock and McCoy all take different approaches to Bailey, ship operations and the threat of Balok, but mutual respect is at the heart of their interactions. The desperate improvisation which Kirk engages in is uniquely his, however, and a brilliant piece of scriptwriting. This may also be the first mention of poker in the series, which becomes a big feature of TNG in years to come.

For a series that only got on the air by promising action and adventure, the warmly optimistic ending is revelatory – closure for poor old Bailey, for Kirk and we hope for Balok. This has got it all.

TOS S01E11 The Menagerie Part I (3 out of 5 stars). Our first glimpse of a bigger organisation behind the Enterprise starts here. Spock claims to have orders from Star Fleet, we’re on Star Base XI, there’s a commodore waiting to see the Captain – even though “Space” sent no message summoning them. Nor did rangy, angular Captain Pike who is now a mute version of Davros – 23rd century space science lags behind what Stephen Hawking got in the 1980s. Spock having served with him – for eleven years! – also begins to add richness to the backstory, not just of these characters but to the “world” of Star Trek.

This of course is the emergency manoeuvre which enabled the writing team to create two episodes of Trek out of about two-thirds of an episode’s worth of scripting and filming. So we get an episode of Star Trek in which our regular characters sit around and watch an episode of Star Trek, in which episode a bunch of aliens sit around and watch an episode of Star Trek. It doesn’t play quite as meta as that sounds. It does however require some production-created continuity issues to be hastily swept under the carpet, and not for the last time – you try asking Worf about TOS-era Klingons.

It takes a while for the pilot episode to get on-screen – longer than I remembered (this is one I definitely saw on BBC2 in the 1980s). To begin with this is fairly standard Trek intrigue, albeit with a fascinatingly duplicitous Spock at its centre. Part I is half over before the hearing starts and Spock begins showing the old footage, everyone having put on their dress uniforms, all Christmassy gold braid and colourful insignias.

For some stupid reason (possibly to do with managing clearances for the use of the old footage) the voice actor for the Talosians is in the framing story is Commodore Mendez, which required further treatment on the Talosian voices to conceal the doubling-up. He also has to remind Spock that he in a “court of space law” which is a pretty dreadful line.

How much you enjoy this episode depends greatly on what you think of The Cage. The framing story grinds to a halt once Spock starts his home movie show, so if you’re in the “Star Trek’s original pilot was a misunderstood work of genius” camp you may love this, but if, like me, you think that the original pilot got a lot of things wrong and they needed another go, then seeing those mistakes all over again isn’t terribly interesting. Under the extraordinary circumstances though, this works well enough to fill two weeks and avoid NBC having to show fifty minutes of test card.

TOS S01E12 The Menagerie Part II (3 out of 5 stars). Part II is almost all The Cage so I don’t have a lot more to add. Although watching Kirk be compassionate, thoughtful and measured week after week (if often highly libidinous) makes the more aggressive Pike seem even less suitable to be the lead of this show. Even the Talosians make fun of his pugilistic instincts and he escapes captivity mainly because of his restless human nature, not because of any stratagem or insight specific to him.

The resolution of the framing plot when it finally comes is neat enough and just about makes sense of Spock’s insane-seeming actions (as well as giving the Talosians a happier ending than they got in The Cage) so it’s unlikely first-time viewers would be too frustrated. The death penalty for visiting (or even talking about) Talos IV is a bit hard to swallow, but Shatner and Nimoy are as committed as ever and pretty much make me believe it. More egregious clip shows will follow (or at least one will) meanwhile this should be celebrated primarily for keeping the show on the air in any form at all.

TOS S01E13 The Conscience of the King (2.5 out of 5 stars). By now the series is devoted to demonstrating that it can do anything, tell stories in any genre. This is essentially a murder mystery in space with a dose of Shakespeare for added class (nice to see that arts subsidies are still going strong). Talk of a new synthetic food which would end famine is odd given we’ve already had talk of replicated meatloaf. Plastic surgery seems to have made little progress in 250-odd years too, as Tom Leighton is forced to wear a Phantom of the Opera-style half mask to conceal his disfigurement. And genetic fingerprinting (or even regular fingerprinting) appears not to exist in this world either.

William Shatner wears Kirk like a glove by now. The leer he gives the chief suspect’s 19-year-old daughter on first seeing her is simultaneously delightful and grim. Sexual politics is the big blind spot of this series. Talk of Shatner’s absurd acting style is greatly exaggerated. Talk of Kirk’s demented libido is not, but we haven’t really had anything like a love story since The Man Trap and that was with McCoy. It’s all just been teenage ogling so far. When Kirk strands her acting troupe on the planet, Lenore negotiates for a lift on the actual Enterprise bridge, which looks like flagrant cost-cutting – surely they had a Captain’s ready room set still standing?

Although Kirk seems to be thinking with his groin, his actual agenda is to try and unmask an infamous mass-murderer. So why does he never take Spock into his confidence? Is it revenge for Spock pulling a similar trick on Kirk last time? I also think that’s Majel Barrett as the computer – for the first time? And speaking of familiar faces, Lt MacIrish from The Naked Time is back.

I appreciate the shift in tone, but this feels like a hangover from a more exciting story we only get to hear about. We also don’t get enough face-time with the supposed villain, and the plot relies on characters wilfully concealing information from trusted friends and colleagues and suffering hysterical blindness on occasion. A Columbo-style trap which definitively exposed the truth would have added considerably, but as it is, Kirk just keeps putting himself in harm’s way until everyone confesses. No sign of Sulu or Scotty, but Uhura continues her song writing career in the rec room.

TOS S01E14 Balance of Terror (5 out of 5 stars) opens with Kirk having to split his time between investigating Earth outposts and officiating an onboard wedding – the old softie. The Neutral Zone (between planets Romulus and Remus) makes its first appearance as do the Romulans. Unlike many aspects of the series – phasers, transporters, Vulcans, communicators, much else besides – the appearance and culture of the Romulans is unknown to the crew as well as to the viewer. The backstory needed to set up both the existence of a treaty and the cultural amnesia about Earth’s long-ago foes stretches credulity a bit (22nd century spaceships didn’t have Zoom, nobody took any prisoners) but the human drama works wonderfully well. Kirk again is compassionate, thoughtful, telling a crewman that this was not his war despite his family history (compare this to Kirk’s “Let them die” regarding the Klingons in Star Trek VI). Kirk reports back to “our nearest command base”.

Romulan ships are said to look like birds of prey and have cloaking technology. Later episodes will tend to overlap Klingon and Romulan technology and terminology for reasons I’m not sure are deliberate. But the big overlap here is between Romulan and Vulcan physiognomy which is an amazing way of ramping up the internal tensions between the crew.

In fact, compared to last week’s rather relaxed encounter, the tension throughout this story is incredible. It’s a shame that the Romulan war backstory is given to an interchangeable right hand console crew member rather than be used to flesh out one of our regulars, but that does give them more leeway to put narrow-minded views in the mouth of that character – which dissenting views Kirk calmly solicits in order that his conference table receives a full range of options. And of course, that’s Mark Leonard as the Romulan commander – later to be immortalised as Sarek, father of Spock. The mutual respect between the two ship’s captains is fascinating.

Much of the Romulan iconography established here would survive to TNG and beyond, save for the bird-like helmets worn by junior officers, which resemble Flash Gordon more than anything else. The glimpses of life on board the Romulan vessel are fascinating too – there are two sides to this story as well as this conflict. And in the debate which Kirk moderates, it’s Spock who offers the logical reasons for striking first – to McCoy’s horror. In a fascinating reprise of the Pike/Boyce “I’m tired” scene from The Cage, Kirk and Bones have a heart-to-heart before the final battle. Coming half-way through the first season, it means so much more. And that final battle isn’t without cost, it transpires.

Uhura takes over the navigator’s station at one point, but all she gets to say is “hailing frequencies open, Captain.” And thanks for your service, Yeoman Rand. We’ll see you in The Motion Picture.

Key observations

  • This is where the series starts spreading its wings. It can be a conspiracy thriller one week, a murder mystery the next, tackle hard SF themes, even do broad comedy. What it isn’t doing is making much use of the regular cast – this is the Jim Kirk show, with able support from Spock and McCoy. All the other “regulars” drift in and out, missing whole episodes and rarely contributing more than a scene or two.
  • Gradually, the world of Star Trek begins to emerge. Wisely, the creative team spent most of their time on the ship and its people. The organisation behind them and its history could wait and so it was assembled piecemeal without much forethought.
  • Roddenberry’s obsession with eliminating conflict between the crew has yet to appear. The passionate debates between Kirk, Spock and McCoy are the lifeblood of this show, and Kirk is consistently presented as more compassionate, thoughtful and reasonable than some of his bridge crew. It’s impossible for me to watch these episodes and recognise swaggering, bratty Chris Pine as playing anything remotely like the same character.

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

Posted on January 8th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TOS S01E05 The Enemy Within (4 out of 5 stars). No Captain’s Log in the teaser! Now that the series has found its feet and established some core concepts, it can start playing around with what else those concepts imply. The transporter was a budget-saving measure – landing a ship the size of a football field on an alien planet every week was financial suicide. But having invented it – what else can we do with it? Answer – duplicate evil Kirk!

What’s fascinating about this episode is the idea that – unlike in the mirror universe stories where we have regular old Kirk vs evil goatee Kirk – Kirk needs this evil side of himself, and without it he’s a weak, indecisive milquetoast. The debate between Kirk and Spock about whether or not to tell the crew is a lovely evocation of this idea. And stranding Sulu on the freezing planet below while the transporter is fixed is a great way of raising the stakes even further (although disliked by original writer, Richard Matheson from off of The Twilight Zone).

Shatner has impressed me hugely so far, but it’s clear that despite his Jewish heritage he has no fear of thickly sliced ham. Here he goes for broke and it’s glorious. He also gets his shirt off again, because of course he does, and the green wraparound top gets another outing. Kirk losing his ability to make decisions upsets the usual dynamic of Spock and McCoy presenting opposing points of view and Kirk casting the deciding vote. His inability to decide whether or not to risk a transporter merger is wonderfully agonising – but what’s missing is the way I’m sure TNG would have played it: relying on the relationship between the two Kirks to arrive at the decision. Here the evil Kirk is only ever portrayed as a duplicitous monster who must be defeated – never as a thinking, feeling being who can be understood and reasoned with.

That weird purple blood is back (maybe they bought a job lot) and, sure, we’re five for five in stories about something nasty sneaking on board the ship when no-one is looking, but this is, if not the very best of the five, very probably the most fun. McCoy even gets to say “He’s dead Jim,” referring to a weird alien dog thing.

TOS S01E06  Mudd’s Women (3.5 out of 5 stars). Some dynamic camerawork gives a dramatic start to an enjoyably silly episode. Then, as his ship enters an asteroid field, Kirk orders “Deflectors on” – first mention of shields I think. We’ve had some amusing character moments between the regulars, but this is the first time that a fully-fledged comedy character has been dropped in amongst the ultra-professional Enterprise crew. Sadly, while Roger C Carmel is amusing enough, the male crewmembers react to his trio of lovely ladies as if they’re in an episode of The Benny Hill Show and the score goes completely nuts as if Kirk and co. have been living an entirely monastic existence to this point.

Kirk also is accused of having exceeded his authority, but we are still no clearer from whence this authority derives. This also has benefits. When out of lithium (not yet “dilithium”) and struggling to maintain orbit, Kirk can’t call on Star Fleet Command to mount a rescue mission. The ship is exploring the unknown in a way which feels very unfamiliar to regular viewers of most later series (which was the problem that Voyager attempted to solve).

The interplay between the playful Mudd and the all-business all-the-time crew puts me immediately in mind of Adam West’s gently mocking performance as Batman opposite a gallery of ripe comedy villains. Batman had been on the air since January and this went out in October so it’s not impossible that it was an influence, but I’d guess instead that they’re both responding to the same cultural touchstones.

Compared to the existential crisis of the last episode and the threat to the whole ship the week before, this is pretty flimsy fare, but it’s nice to see the series trying something new – even if this is yet another version of uh oh, this new arrival on board isn’t quite what they seem, making it six in a row.

The negotiations with the miners also make it clear that money is still a thing in the 23rd century, and Rigel XII feels like a real alien civilisation in ways that other planets we’ve visited haven’t managed. The underlying premise of the story – a woman’s worth is in her attractiveness to men – while it is mildly critiqued, still leaves me feeling a bit queasy. The flip that a placebo can (sometimes) work just as well is neat though – Kirk cons the conman.

TOS S01E07 What Are Little Girls Made Of? (2.5 out of 5 stars). We haven’t had a Sulu episode yet, or a Scotty episode, or an Uhura episode. The nearest we’ve had to a McCoy episode is the first one. We haven’t even had a Spock episode really. So far, this has entirely been the Captain Kirk show with everyone else playing second fiddle. But – here it is! – the Nurse Christine Chapel episode that the fans couldn’t wait for.

“Send down two red shirts,” orders Kirk (nearly) and it isn’t long before both of them stumble into a bottomless pit. And that’s Lurch from The Addams Family as the murderous android “Ruk”, picking up William Shatner like he’s a Captain Kirk action figure. In a rare blunder from the costume department, Dr Brown wears cross-your-heart dungarees in bright blue and puke green. Sherry Jackson as Andrea wears it better. This is the Thiess Titilation Theory in full effect. Andrea’s costume doesn’t get the male audience members’ blood pumping because of how much skin it exposes – the effect is due to the fact that it has no visible means of support and thus can be supposed to be about to slip and reveal far more. Kirk cracks on to her as soon as they’re alone together – all in furtherance of the mission of course.

This slightly fuzzy and sluggish episode can’t quite decide whether it’s about sex robots or free will. It’s too coy to engage fully with the former and its attempts to tackle the latter stumble into a confused muddle of essentialism before everybody kills everybody else. It’s also our second duplicate Kirk in three episodes, but I miss Bones and Spock who are relegated to babysitting the ship till the captain gets back. It’s not bad exactly, it’s just not all that interesting.

This episode doesn’t revolve around a seeming human on the Enterprise who isn’t all that he seems, but the android Kirk does briefly beam back up to the ship and pass himself off to Spock as the real thing.

TOS S01E08 Miri (3.5 out of 5 stars) opens with another really punchy teaser – “Another Earth!” And then before long we’re on the Culver City backlot for, I think the first time. It’s amazing what a difference this makes. Instead of those stagey “exterior” sets we’re in the open air, able to see the sky. And the mystery is fascinating too. Following complaints received after its first UK broadcast in 1970, the BBC did not include the episode in any Star Trek repeats until the 1990s. Three other episodes, Plato’s Stepchildren, The Empath and Whom Gods Destroy were not shown at all until the 1990s. Kim Darby (“Miri”) would be seen a few years later as Mattie Ross in True Grit opposite John Wayne. And that’s Moss from Bonnie and Clyde as “Jahn”.

The threat is a chilling one – a wasting disease which first makes victims feral. And rather than one of the red shirts being infected and dropping dead as an early warning, Kirk himself is the first to notice signs of contamination. This also isolates the landing party from the ship which raises the stakes, but unlike last week, we have our core team all present – and Janice Rand is along for the ride, still seemingly like more of a regular cast member than Sulu, Scotty or Uhura. Don’t get too comfy, Janice.

This is a brilliantly weird episode, tinged with tiny bit of the same flavour as The Prisoner or some of the odder episodes of The Avengers. It’s also thematically rich, playing with notions of childhood and the unsettling changes of puberty. It feels like a story which only this show could tell and yet it’s completely different from any of the preceding entries – not least because there’s hardly any male chauvinism or shirtless cavorting. But the action does flag in the middle – seven days is a realistic timeframe but too long to really ramp up the tension. And the riddle of the duplicate Earth is never resolved.

Key takeaways from these episodes

  • Captain Kirk doesn’t spend his time ferrying diplomats around or observing stellar anomalies. He’s really exploring the unknown, with no Federation to fall back on (although Kirk does contact “Space Central” to come and look after the kids in Miri). It’s not unlike Doctor Who being only gradually revealed as a Time Lord from Gallifrey. But in the British series, the lead character’s origins are established as a mystery in need of solving. Here (as always happens) the universe of the show just gradually accumulates material.
  • Kirk is very much the lead character and we haven’t really zeroed in on that iconic core group of six yet. Sulu, Scotty and Uhura get whole episodes off. In some episodes, Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand get more to do than characters who will later be seen as indispensable. Only McCoy and Spock are guaranteed screen time, and even then, neither of them has carried an episode so far.
  • The ambition of the show is growing, almost by the episode, and shows no sign of stopping. Imagine being on this writing team – the whole universe is yours to explore!

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.

So… what did I think of The Vanquishers?

Posted on December 5th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

We’ve seen plenty of promising set-ups undone by poorly-thought-out finales during modern Doctor Who, of course. Almost none of Steven Moffat’s final episodes live up to the promise of the penultimate instalments – with the apotheosis of this trend being Heaven Sent / Hell Bent, one half of which is a total triumph of the television arts, the other half of which is wildly undisciplined, often makes very little sense and doesn’t earn any of the emotional beats it strains for.

This was rather different. The previous five episodes had been so poor in execution that it was scarcely possible for the final chapter to redeem them – but the concept of the season as a whole was also completely wrong-headed. When reviewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, I noted that the Doctor spends some time early in the episode acquiring a temporary gang to surround himself with – behaviour so peculiar he is forced to comment on it, in the hope that that will make it seem more understandable (it doesn’t). It’s scarcely a surprise that when the end of the story comes, each of these people has a skill-set which exactly meets a need which the plot presents the team with. It’s a version of James Bond using each gadget he’s given by Q exactly once. It’s basically a set-up and payoff, if you squint, but ideally you need not to notice that the set-ups are being set-up at the time.

It’s the same here, but with the volume turned up to eleven, the jump-cutting gone bananas and the technobabble so thick you could eat it  with a spoon (or a quantum neutrino artron spoon, I suppose). I could, and I suppose I will, make a list of things which didn’t make any sense, but honestly, what was the point of any of this? It’s not an epic battle for the safety of the universe in any meaningful way, none of the characters get a chance to register and the whole thing is littered with cargo-cult drama.

Let’s define that term for a moment. In the 1940s, westerners landed planes full of amazing cargo on remote islands and then buggered off again. The islanders, hopeful that more planes would visit, recreated the landing strip, lights and so on, turned into a religious ritual. They copied the form of what they had seen without understanding its function or purpose.

We’ve seen this since early in Series 11. Chris Chibnall dimly recalls that the Doctor doesn’t like guns, so he has her resort to non-artillery forms of fatal despatch, or condemns her foes to the torture of a long slow death rather than a quick painless one – while trumpeting her superior morality. She walks up to weeping angels, taunting them by blinking, because Chris Chibnall dimly recalls that blinking is a bad thing to do near an angel, but he’s forgotten why. And here, he dimly recalls that having a sympathetic character die at the end gives the audience a rush of emotion, but Jericho’s death is pointless and stupid and meaningless.

So, because the story ends with the Earth intact, friendly characters restored to their right time and place, and the threat of the Flux withdrawn, we get a feeling of satisfaction. But the entire edifice collapses under the weight of a moment’s introspection, there are no emotional beats that feel earned or worthwhile and the tactic of starting the story off with a flurry of different characters and locations didn’t remotely pay off, because most of them stand around doing nothing during the climax – fairly standard for this writer but particularly galling when so much effort has been expended to set them all up. While the contrived neatness of the Dinosaurs on a Spaceship gang feels first draft, forced, laboured – at least it is contrived. This is just excess for the sake of excess.

Okay, if you can bear it, let’s go through some of the things that didn’t work, didn’t make sense or left me confused. Let’s start by noticing – as I didn’t in my review of last week’s episode – that among a series of easily-dismissed cliffhangers, the shocking end of episode four turned out not merely to be undone almost instantly, not merely to be yet another seemingly-fatal-event-revealed-as-taxi-service-to-the-next-bit-of-plot, but in fact the angels delivering the Doctor to the precise place and person that she had been seeking at the start of chapter one. <PITCH MEETING>Oh very convenient psychopathic killers!</PITCH MEETING>

The “previously on…” montage seemed to blend into the beginning of the episode proper, which is cut so rapidly that it gave the whole episode a previously on… energy (a device employed for real by The Good Fight recently, but here just the result of trying to pack too much into 60 minutes).

What will Swarm and Azure do now they have the Doctor in their grasp? Well, they will split her through time enabling her to be exactly wherever she needs to be in order to foil their plans. The rest of their time together is spent portentously announcing the same kind of gibberish we’ve been hearing since Fugitive of the Judoon until they obediently commit suicide and let the Doctor go. Nothing that happens in this part of the plot matters at all. There are a couple of lines about the Flux not being quite as bad because of some Oodling around, but honestly, it doesn’t make a difference. The Flux (and the Flux part two) have had such wildly inconsistent destructive powers that it scarcely matters if the Ood turns the volume down a bit – or up a bit, or anything.

The Sontaran takeover of an Earth surrounded by a shield of Lupari ships continues not to have any reality whatsoever. If it was happening, presumably it would look a lot like what we already saw in episode two. In which case, why did we spend an entire episode establishing how easily-defeatable the Sontarans are, before revealing them as the season’s Big Bad? Their plan just about makes sense, but it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone overmuch, and at the end of the day, when it’s used against them, it’s just a light show.

You can’t say the same about the Williamson tunnels which allow visitors to travel to other worlds and other times. Williamson dug the tunnels to connect these different portals he had discovered, which is a neat trick given that he must have excavated first in order to have seen these portals. He then did more digging because he thought that yet more tunnels would give humanity somewhere to hide from the end of the world. The thought of making a shelter somewhere further from the destructive power of these portals did not occur to him, it seems. And lo – he was mocked for his foolishness, despite the fact that all he had to do was walk unbelievers into one of these portals and they would have seen with their own eyes he was telling the truth. He is dismissed from the narrative, having served his purpose, which was… nothing I can easily recall. Nothing about the tunnels solves the problem of the Flux or does anything other than muddle an already complicated narrative and provide a feeble justification for people meeting up who have no business being re-united. This is Chibnall’s habit of “I need this character to be here, so now they are,” taken to ludicrous extremes.

On which subject, having three Doctors knocking around does at least give the central character some agency, but at the cost of stopping anyone else from having anything to do. Yas and Dan come off worst, as usual. As far as I can recall, neither of them does anything other than gawp for the entire run-time. Kate Stewart from 2017 procures a TARDIS abandoned in 1967 and delivers it to the Doctor in 1904 by means not disclosed and then takes Vinder’s moment of triumph away from him by pointing a second, redundant gun at The Grand Serpent – and now she’s done for the day too.

Ah yes, The Grand Serpent. It’s passably amusing I suppose that the Doctor takes the piss out of his silly name, even if this is this week’s script taking the piss out of how poor last week’s script was, but again, The Grand Serpent doesn’t really have a role to play here either. Everything the Sontarans are doing they could have done without him, and evidently they could have done it all with or without UNIT in place to defend the Earth. But they’re made to look and sound ridiculous by having a stupid obsession with candy bars, so that’s nice.

There probably are explanations as to what Jericho and Claire are doing on the Sontaran ship, what the Sontarans think they are doing, why they wanted them to do it, and what happened as a result, but I didn’t pick them up. The Doctor’s sacrifice of Jericho would have been pretty hard to take if his death was the only way in which the threat could be neutralised. It’s kind of nauseating here, since it amounts only to – oops, butterfingers.

What’s far, far harder to take is that every single one of the six billion Lupari have been murdered to protect the Earth. At the end of the episode, as everyone congratulates themselves on a job well done, Karvanista doesn’t seem any more than mildly peeved at this slaughter. Remember, he began the episode fully intent on killing the Doctor and Yas because she had dared to ask him about the Division. Now she’s responsible (in part) for the wholesale massacre of his entire race, every single person he ever knew or loved, a grudging respect seems to have formed between them. What must really grind his gears is that he can fly every single one of those six billion Lupari ships on his own by remote control. So really all of his friends, colleagues, family and associates could have stayed safe at home. <PITCH MEETING>Whoops! Whoopsie!</PITCH MEETING>

I could go on, but honestly it’s too tiring. This exhausting series has been characterised by juxtaposition over dramatic action, whirling pixels over personal jeopardy, confusion over mystery and a total unwillingness to grapple with the ideas the story has presented. When Yas and the Doctor have their heartfelt chat at the end, it almost – for an instant – feels as if, at the eleventh hour, Flux might be about to give us something with some kind of meaning, even a cargo cult version of it. But no, comedy Dan is here to ruin the moment. Phew. Hurrah for comedy Dan.

There will be time to put the Chibnall/Whittaker era in its proper context soon. When we get to November 2023, we’ll be able to see not just how we got here, but also where we went. For now, it remains inconceivable to me that a writer this incapable of basic characterisation, cause-and-effect plotting or sayable dialogue should have been put in charge of the BBC’s flagship show, and equally inconceivable that he thought himself at all capable of handling a story this vast and sprawling.

I haven’t given stars for any of these episodes. With the previous two seasons, I think I was probably a bit too generous, as early optimism forced me to tack on extra points for “just being Doctor Who” or somesuch. That optimism now having evaporated, I think I would probably take a whole star off pretty much everything after The Woman Who Fell to Earth because even the best instalments are labouring under the weight of terrible series-wide decisions. With these episodes, I guess Sontarans on Horseback is worth two out of five, and Oh Look It’s the Angels Again might struggle up to three. The rest are all zeroes across the board, because they never actually cohere into stories.

What a fucking shame.

So… what did I think of Survivors of the Flux?

Posted on November 28th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

Christ, I mean, what even was that? If you thought episodes 1 and 3 were a bit hard to follow, episode 5 was a complete sugar-rush, trailer-cut, epilectic seizure of an episode – all bright lights, pointless callbacks and bonkers juxtapositions, amounting to precious little.

Survivors of the Flux mainly progressed three different threads, none of which had any connection to people who had survived the Flux. Yaz, Dan and Jericho are stranded in 1901; the Doctor has been turned into an angel and recalled to (The) Division; the Grand Serpent is taking over UNIT. I’ll go through this in more detail in a minute, but the first thread achieves next to nothing which couldn’t have been achieved by Dan remembering his Liverpool history in the very first scene; the second is more info-dump in place of drama and the third is redundant, repetitive and borderline nonsensical.

Let’s take the turn-of-the-century crew first. Stranding our three humans, with varying levels of experience with the Doctor, in Earth’s past with no recourse to the TARDIS, should have been fascinating. But this creative team has no interest in who these people are, how they might react to this situation, or how not just days or weeks but years of battling to stay alive might change them. After countless months risking life and limb side-by-side with Yaz, Jericho remarks that she seems very used to dealing with dead bodies as if this is the first such instance. Either the past few years have been very incident free, or somebody has let another first draft script go before the cameras.

So, we get a lot of sub-Indiana Jones running about and falling over, none of which achieves very much. The Doctor has told them to look for where Earth is vulnerable, and coupled with all the UNIT stuff, I did fear we were going to get a needlessly complicated explanation as to why the Earth kept getting invaded year-after-year in the 1970s (or was it the 1980s?). It still isn’t clear to me why the Flux destroying/not destroying/damaging/affecting/being near lots of other planets in 2021 would mean that Earth would be likely to be serially invaded 120 years earlier. But also, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t. So that’s good.

Meanwhile, nothing that the Raiders of the Lost Story Arc gang does actually has any effect. Borrowing a page from River Song’s handbook, they graffiti the Great Wall of China. Karvanista, in 2021, looking at images from 1904, complains that he can’t help because he doesn’t have a time machine. Finally, Dan remembers that he’s from Liverpool and there are mysterious tunnels there. These scripts have gone the long way round to bring Dan and Joseph Williamson face-to-face but despite the enormous amounts of shoe leather involved, we still have Dan from 2021 and Williamson from 1820 meeting in 1904. Why? Who can say?

The Doctor shrugs off the cliffhanger like a mild cold and – oh dear – Barbara Flynn is Tecteun, who for reasons which defy logic claims that she found the Doctor, created the Time Lords, fiddled with the Universe to make it better, sent a memory-wiped Doctor out into it to fuck it up, and now has retrieved the Doctor before erasing the Universe. Anyway, she’s been dusted now, so if she had more exposition to dump, it dies with her.

Just as the only scene which matters in Yaz, Dan and Jericho’s plot is the one with Joseph Williamson, the only scene which matters in Dot Cottan’s plot is the one with Kate Stewart. I don’t know who The Grand Serpent is, why he is now a one-man-band instead of the great ruler he was in episode three, why he founds UNIT only to dismantle it, or why he takes decades to do what he clearly could have done in an afternoon. If played from Kate Stewart’s point of view, this might actually have worked as drama. Battling to save UNIT from bureaucrats who don’t understand its value, a shadowy figure seems to be helping her, but her suspicions mount until finally she confronts him. As it is, it’s just another trip the long way round to achieve very little except “Hey it’s the Sontarans again”. Big whoop.

Bel was there at one point. So was Di, for some reason. Vinder was atomised, or swallowed up by Passenger, or something. But for all the talk of universe-ending calamity and for all the running around and falling over, this was an episode in which a lot of frantic energy was achieved to push the plot on hardly at all and where there was precious little actual jeopardy. Yas, Dan and Jericho are hardly ever in mortal danger, are coping just fine psychologically and don’t suffer much worse than a waiter banging one of them on the head before obediently committing suicide. The Doctor, as usual, plays the role of companion asking questions and getting cryptic answers and achieves absolutely nothing at all during her time on screen. Kate Stewart comes out of this fine, but spends four years doing sweet FA while Dot Cottan is opening the back door to the Sontarans.

Not for the first time in this era, nobody is ever placed in the kind of physical danger which would make this work as an exciting adventure story, apart from Kate Stewart for five seconds. Nobody is placed under the kind of psychological pressure which would make this work as ambitious TV drama. None of the big concepts make any sense and none of the characters do more than recite their intentions or backstories at each other.

Honestly, this looked and sounded like fan fiction at best, a Blue Peter competition winner at worst and I have little hope that the final episode will redeem the season, because I just haven’t the slightest clue what any of this means or why I should care. These episodes shriek for attention like a hyperactive child but can’t think what to do with that attention once they receive it. Episode two was tolerable and episode four had some fine moments. The rest has been scarcely more than gibberish. A fine comedown for the BBC’s flagship export. I think I’m actually a little bit grief-stricken. I feel as if someone has killed an old friend, as someone once said.

So… what did I think of Village of the Angels?

Posted on November 21st, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

So – on the one hand, The Haunting of Villa Diodati wasn’t a fluke. On the other hand, this is basically that story all over again. The Doctor and co turn up to a spooky old house and run around dealing with old enemies and various spatio-temporal phenomena until it’s time for the Doctor to come face to face with the big bad, be taken over by something it was carrying – and boom, we realise this was all just a set-up for the big confrontation next week. Only this time, some clot has edited in five minutes of another unrelated story at random points through the episode.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Actually, I liked it a lot. But it’s odd that Maxine Alderton has chosen to, or been asked to, more or less replicate last season’s antepenultimate episode for this season. Anyway, trying to apportion credit or blame by looking at the title sequence is a mug’s game. I don’t know who wrote what, and I won’t pretend to. What I will say is that while some characters and some sequences work better than others, there’s a real sense of pace and jeopardy and energy here that has been pretty much completely absent from the show for quite some time.

Let me get some niggles out of the way first. The cliffhanger resolution is frankly drab. Quipping furiously to try and distract us from the vacuity of the explanations offered, this is little more than “with one bound they were free.” Some of the dialogue hints at terrible things happening to the TARDIS interior when Jodie connects those wires, but no – a few sparks, a bit of a pop and everything is fine. And what’s the point of bunching up your three regulars so they can all fit nicely into a single 16:9 frame and then cutting that frame into three vertical slices?

Once the action gets going, a lot of this is Blink redux, with a bit of Time of Angels mixed in. Just as in early episodes this year, the script is largely happy to have the angels play the hits rather than reinvent themselves. And just as before, the direction is sometimes sloppy about who is looking where and when, how fast the angels move and so on. Also sloppy is that nearly-fabulous mirror shot. Annabel Scholey stands up revealing that her mirror image has wings. But where’s the pull-back into the rest of the bathroom which we needed to establish whether Claire really has wings or only sees them in the mirror (or has become nothing more than a mirror reflection)?

Claire of course is the woman we saw in episode one, but it doesn’t affect the story one jot that they’ve met before and in fact the script is playing silly games here. We’re meant to think that Claire met the Doctor out of order. She calmly greets her as if she’s an old friend. In fact, she’s only glimpsed the Doctor and the TARDIS in a confusing and disorienting premonition that she can’t yet make any sense of – but you get no hint of that in the episode one encounter.

What you do get in the early portions of this episode is Scholey and Kevin McNally playing actual characters who sound like they have agency and interiority in a genuinely interesting and dramatic situation. This isn’t just competent, it’s seriously properly good. McNally’s Professor Jericho doesn’t tear up the rule book (and we could probably have done without name-dropping Belsen) but he’s well-thought out, very well played and he works. And Scholey continues to deliver on the promise she showed in episode one, bucking the trend I identified in last week’s review of the casting director not having as good an eye under this regime.

Also more than pulling their weight are Gerald and Jean, who aren’t fleshed out quite as much, but still pop off the screen in the way that so many characters in this era of the show refuse to. True, we have to overlook the way in which small-minded little Englander Gerald, who’s never even considered that his grand-niece might be a person worth talking to, still blithely allows himself to be given orders by a teenager from the colonies. But – hey! – someone has remembered that Yas is/used to be/wants to be/once wanted to be a copper so that’s something.

For all her running around and barking orders, the Doctor achieves very little once again, and as usual is relegated to the role of companion in her own story, desperately asking questions so better-informed characters can fill her in with exposition dumps. The difference this time round is that what is happening to her and the other characters really does feel exciting and high stakes and like it matters. And the expo-dumps when they come are genuinely interesting. I’m even starting to give the tiniest of fucks about the Division and the Doctor’s role in it, truth be told. Claire turning to stone is a hugely arresting image and the twist of the angel being the quarry rather than the hunter is fabulous – as is the incredible sight of the quantum extracted village just petering out into empty space, and the 1967 and 1901 versions sitting side by side. True, the old Peggy / young Peggy business is a direct lift from Blink but it was a good story beat before Steven Moffat used it and it’s still a good story beat here. I just don’t know what it adds, other than a feeling of familiarity.

What really lets these scenes down is Dan, whose entire character has just disintegrated over the last two episodes. Lately he just says or does whatever is required to keep the plot wheels turning. Swap him out and put in Ryan or Graham and nothing changes. In fact, take him out all together and just have Yaz on her own and nothing changes. And further undermining the title character for no particular purpose, Yaz has to tell the Doctor not to go through the time barrier which is so wrong it almost hurts. And how do Yaz and Dan even know how the Angels work? All the Doctor has told them is “Don’t Blink”. She doesn’t explain to them (or the audience) why not or what the consequences will be until the episode is almost over.

But before it’s over, it’s going to deliver one of the finest cliffhangers of the revived series, with everyone in massive trouble – and then nearly fuck up that brilliant ending by channel-surfing to the tedious adventures of Vinder and Bel.

So, let’s just ignore the whole silly Vinder/Bel/Azure plot which obviously could have been in another episode, but that’s not the game this season is playing, so okay, fine, I suppose. What’s left is generally pretty bloody good, both as a thrilling 45 minute slab of escapist TV and as part four of a six part adventure. In particular, the Doctor has been turned into an angel and Yaz and Dan are stuck 120 years in the past, with no TARDIS and no way of getting help. That’s exactly the kind of big, complicated problem which would have benefited from having six whole episodes to sort it out. Shame there’s only two left.

Oh – and what happened to the closing theme music? I don’t much like this version of the theme but it seemed to be missing its bassline tonight. Was that deliberate? If so, why?

So… what did I think of Once, Upon Time?

Posted on November 14th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

– How’s the script going then?

– Oh, you know. Fine.

– Just fine?

– Well, no, I mean… I don’t mean fine… I mean… it’s…

– Fine?

– Yeah, it’s fine.

– Wow. Okay. What are you going do?

– I mean, I could…

– No.

– I could…

– Don’t.

– I might have to.

– Please, please, just don’t.

– I could just tell the whole thing in the wrong order…

Once, Upon Time joins its 21st century stablemates World Enough and Time and Twice Upon a Time to continue the saga of “Flux” and bring us to the half-way point. If episode one was “what if Doctor Who but ADHD?” and episode two was “what if Doctor Who but only the hits?” then episode three was “what if everybody’s backstory but all at once?”

We begin with yet another sodding character in yet another new location with yet another barely-visible strand of story holding it together. The slow downgrading of the Flux from universe-ending catastrophe to possibly only confined to a small area now continues with even if it hits you dead on, your planet just goes a bit Terry Nation’s Survivors rather than being reduced to ash. And speaking of which, some badly-rendered CGI Daleks are floating about, doing nothing.

Speaking of badly-rendered CGI there was some nostalgicly shoddy effects work this week with the blue floaty pixels resembling something Dave Chapman might have conjured up for Peter Davison with a BBC Micro and a Quantel machine. Seriously – was this left to the last minute? There’s no interactive lighting, no sense of the cloud moving through its environment, and it makes nearly half-a-dozen appearances, all equally poor. It’s really rare to have to complain about dodgy effects in modern Who, and sure, if the stories are good enough, we can survive some ropey visuals, but in this case, well…

Another odd thing happens immediately after the opening titles. We cut straight from northern Irish one woman army and her interior monologue to the Doctor’s interior monologue. Virgin New Adventures editor Peter Darvill-Evans made it a rule for the novels he oversaw that writers should never go inside the Doctor’s head. The Time Lord should be unknowable, keeping private thoughts private. This writer is so keen to let us into to Jodie’s thoughts that he places two different people’s voiceover narration in consecutive scenes. It’s enough to give Robert McKee an aneurysm. Luckily, Jodie quickly abandons interior monologue in favour of just talking out loud to nobody instead. Was the writer briefly confused and thinking that this was a Big Finish audio drama?

Once Whittaker practises her hurdling skills, it’s time out for narrative coherence and buckle up for 40 minutes of Random Stuff coming at you thick and fast. But juxtaposition is not narrative and confusion is not mystery. Unless we know where our heroes are and what’s happening to them, why should we care? Never mind, relaxen und watchen das blinkenlights.

One game that’s being played here is watching the regular cast playing different characters – one of my absolute favourite tropes of all times – but even this doesn’t really come off here. The fun of seeing familiar actors playing unfamiliar roles is seeing them acting very differently from their established characters. But for that to work, they have to have established characters and they have to act differently. This is just, oh look, Mandip’s wearing a different hat. The one exception might be that brief scene in the police car between Whittaker and Gill. Look how much better, livelier, funnier, Jodie Whittaker is when doing pastiche Victoria Wood. I’ve done my best to distance the lead actor from my overall disappointment at the post-Moffat show but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this incarnation of the Doctor is just an empty suit of clothes. The combination of flat writing and straight-arrow delivery resolutely fails to lift the character off the page, and here’s where it’s exposed most fully.

It doesn’t help that, as usual, Chibnall makes sure that the Doctor is clueless, helpless, baffled, powerless and inert. As the episode reaches a climax, she’s actually begging for agency in her own story and, as usual, her pleas go unanswered. Meanwhile, Dan and his not-a-girlfriend pop up again (mam and dad are forgotten) and we get that ping of “Oh, she was in the first episode” which is what takes the place of actual narrative catharsis when you have to resort to telling your story in the wrong order because it would be deathly dull if you told it so that it was easy to follow. Or even possible to follow.

Almost none of the other arbitrary floating bits of narrative really come alive. As noted, seeing Jacob Anderson, Mandip Gill and John Bishop pretending to be space marines wouldn’t be all that interesting even if they were much, much better at pretending to be space marines. But when you’re given dialogue which requires that you explain to your platoon how your equipment works as you’re deploying it, frankly there’s not much even the best actors can do. And they’re incredibly dumb, again and again and again attributing their leader’s loopy behaviour to Temporal Haze (I love their early stuff, especially on vinyl).

Vinder’s crisis of conscience might mean something to someone – who knows? – and it’s Mandip Gill’s turn to re-enact Blink this time because, sure. That Victorian tunnel-botherer pops again, because, well, we’ve paid the actor now. But all of this is basically gibberish, and because none of it means anything or relates to anything, it’s also incredibly boring despite all the pretty lights and colours. When the Doctor tells us that she’s “hiding you here” while she “tries to get the Mori into place” what does that look like? What does it feel like? What’s hard or easy or costly about it? What does it mean? What is she actually doing?

There are crumbs of interest along the way. Although I have zero interest in the timeless children, it’s cool to see Jo Martin again. Yet again, the Whittaker Doctor has to passively sit and watch Doctor Who before she knows how to resolve the situation. It’s a bit of a cheat (and a swizz!) that most of the time it isn’t Martin on-screen, and Jodie cos-playing the Fugitive Doctor isn’t a noticeable upgrade. But although I despaired at how easily-killable all those Cybermen were (gosh little Chrissie has got all his action figures out of the play-box today!) there is some genuine depth of feeling in that little scene where that fierce wee woman tells a dying tin-plated foe “Love is the only mission. Idiot.” Where has this story been hiding amid all of this nonsense? And will we get to see more of it soon?

Someone else who manages to blast away the cobwebs as soon as she sets foot on the set is blessed, indomitable and Very Peculiar Barbara Flynn who classes up the joint no end in her cameo as the White Guardian / Omega / God / The Terrible Zodin. Something else that this episode made me realise is that, for whatever reason, the post-Moffat years have been a bit of a desert when it comes to really strong guest stars. Billie Piper, Jenna Louise Coleman, Freema Agyeman, Pearl Mackie and especially Karen Gillan have gone on to have huge careers. I can’t somehow see the same happening to Mandip Gill or Tosin Cole.

And the series also showcased early performances from the likes of Andrew Garfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Carey Mulligan and Felicity Jones as well as attracting stars like Bill Nighy, Anthony Head, Diana Rigg, Frances Barber, Ian McKellan and many more. When the current team goes shopping for a big name celebrity they come back with Mr Big from off of Sex and the City, or John bloody Bishop. And the featured roles like Racist Fonzie in The One with Rosa Parks go to bland actors who fade from my memory while I’m watching them. Where have all the good actors gone? What’s happened behind the scenes to screw this up?

But look what happens when somebody really fucking good like Barbara Flynn turns up. Yes, she’s yet again undercutting the Doctor (Chibnall never wavers from this mission – even the Ravagers tell Jodie “We brought you here, knowing what you would do”) but by god she’s doing it with some style.

The end of the episode feels oddly perfunctory. Last week’s cliffhanger has been resolved with an almost-literal “and with one bound, they were free.” Dan and Yaz haven’t done anything in the real world (Have they? Did they?) so they just blithely soldier on, unaffected by the narrative as usual. Vinder – whose backstory we’ve sort of had explained to us (just not in a way that either makes sense or impacts the ongoing story) – is now dropped off on a desolate Survivors version of his home planet – why does the Doctor abandon him there and why does he want to stay? – and is mooning after Cyberkiller, which is nice. And next week it’s going to be more chances to re-enact Blink. Maybe this time, they’ll remember that if you look away from the Angels long enough to, say, unplug the Playstation then they’ll get you. Or maybe they won’t. Does it matter? Does anything really matter?