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.

Trekaday #000: The Cage

Posted on December 28th, 2021 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I hadn’t planned to watch The Cage on the basis that it wasn’t shown on TV (well, all right, it was as part of a celebration of Trek during the TNG era) and because I was going to see most of it in The Menagerie anyway but a bout of COVID has left me with extra time on my hands, so – as it was included on my Blu-ray box set – I popped it on.

Doctor Who fans, whose knowledge of the show in the 1960s is at the mercy of the random quirks of the BBC archive and overseas sales policies, can look at Star Trek with a certain degree of envy. Everything exists, all shot on 35mm film and able to be cleaned up and look fantastic (until we get to Deep Space Nine anyway). But we almost don’t have The Cage for the stupidest of reasons.

The two-part story The Menagerie was a desperate manoeuvre during Season One which enabled the Star Trek production team to magic up two whole episodes with the bare minimum of extra writing and filming. Kirk, Spock and co. sit around and watch Star Trek’s original pilot while a thin court-room drama unfolds. Shades of Trial of a Time Lord but that was on purpose.

To make this happen, Gene Roddenberry handed over the only known existing colour print of the pilot assuming that the editing team would make a duplicate and return the print to him. In fact the editing team assumed that they had been given a duplicate and merrily began hacking it up with scissors in order to assemble The Menagerie. When the pilot was finally released on video and shown on TV, the now-missing sections had to be patched from a black-and-white workprint.

Then – hurrah! – the negative trims turned up in a warehouse somewhere (or most of them did) and so now we can watch the pilot in all its glory. You can even watch it with early 2000s CGI spaceships if you want.

The story behind the story has been told often enough. Roddenberry sold the studio a space western – Wagon Train to the Stars – and then delivered a cerebral mini-movie with almost no action and a female second-in-command. This was Roddenberry’s girlfriend Majel Barrett and depending on who you ask, the studio couldn’t bear the idea of a woman on the bridge, or that’s what Roddenberry told her to spare her feelings, when actually they savaged her performance.

There’s a lot to like here. The crew works together very well – one of the pleasures of Trek is seeing a group of professionals problem-solving as a team – and the problem is a knotty one: once they know they can’t trust their senses, how do they know if they’re ever making progress? And the script doesn’t tease us for very long. Almost as soon as the crew has met the “colonists”, we zoom out to see the Talosians watching Star Trek. Not long after that, the illusion melts (very convincingly) away and Captain Pike knows what we know.

The ground-breaking effects look great, especially considering that this is before even 2001: A Space Odyssey had hit cinemas, so Forbidden Planet was the high watermark of moving-image science fiction (and there’s quite a big chunk of Forbidden Planet here). The Talosians, with diminutive and heavily made-up women playing the parts, but dubbed by male actors, look and sound completely original and their attitudes to the crew are fascinating.

But if the plot and the guest performances are all working, what’s wrong? A few things aren’t quite as we remember them. Spock orders that the Enterprise proceed at “time warp factor four”, he isn’t the emotionless Vulcan we remember, and he has a silly haircut and fluffy eyebrows. Reports are faxed to the bridge (I think paper was nixed from the second pilot onwards), the guns are called “lasers” and the communicators are very chunky. Also, the uniforms aren’t quite the ones we remember, although I rather like the grey-blue away jackets worn over the colourful pullovers – more functional and more interesting to look at than the plain velour jerseys we’d get next time.

But it’s the characters that don’t work. I rather like Majel Barrett as “Number One” and it’s refreshing to see a female second-in-command, but even after Captain Pike lampshades her sex, audiences couldn’t get on board with a bossy woman, so when the show is re-tooled the Enterprise becomes the boys club we’re familiar with. Number One’s emotionless cool was transferred to Spock instead. Variations on this character crop up again later in the form of Seven of Nine, T’Pol and (sort of) the Borg Queen. Leonard Nimoy becomes the only actor to survive to the second pilot (although Barrett is slipped in as recurring character Nurse Chapel in a blonde wig).

The other members of the regular cast don’t really register. There’s a young ginger kid who didn’t even get a name as far as I can recall, a perky Yeoman who keeps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s a crusty doctor who exists principally to shine a light on Captain Pike’s character. As the lead character of the show, he’s genuinely fascinating. Jeffrey Hunter plays him with a fiery intensity and he even seems to have an arc of sorts – at the start of the episode, he’s haunted by an away mission that went wrong and is beginning to buckle under the weight of command responsibility.

What he isn’t, however, is fun. I really don’t imagine very many viewers would be tuning in week-after-week, in 1966, to spend more time with this sourpuss. Hunter does exactly what’s asked of him – including bawling out Perky Yeoman for no reason – and the camera loves his freakishly angular handsomeness, but the sense of a family unit, which Roddenberry and co would carefully contrive and/or happily stumble into, is fatally missing. We get the sense that Spock and Number One are rescuing their clinically depressed Captain out of a weary sense of duty, rather than a passionate need to save a beloved comrade. In fact, apart from Pike’s various outbursts from his titular confinement, the rest of the crew barely breaks a sweat. In the series, Spock’s calm in the face of a crisis is the exception – here it’s the norm, which lends proceedings a dry and tepid air. It’s this I think, more than the exotic concepts in the plotting, which gave this 60 minutes of film its often-repeated tag of “cerebral”.

So – we didn’t lose a masterpiece when the studio rejected this pilot. Hunter may be a better actor than Shatner, but Pike would never have been able to carry the series, and while we can only imagine that Perky Yeoman and Mister Ginge would have been given more to do in future episodes, they completely fail to register here. Crusty Doctor is a good idea for a character but he doesn’t jump off the screen, and while I’m sad about Number One, her absence created the Vulcan mythology which built the series, so it’s hard to get too cut up about it.

Okay, that’s the first go. Who’s ready for the first episode to be actually transmitted? We begin on New Year’s Day with The Man Trap.

Star Trek and me

Posted on December 15th, 2021 in Culture | 1 Comment »

“I’m sorry Tom, I couldn’t remember if it was Star Trek or Star Wars.”

“It’s okay, Steve. I’m not angry, just disappointed. And more in myself than in you.”

Steve is from Syria and (COVID-permitting) he’s been living with us for around four years now. I showed him his first episode of Doctor Who, his first episode of Fawlty Towers, and two episodes of Columbo. I showed him The Wizard of Oz, I showed him Singin’ in the Rain and I showed him Star Wars. It’s fun for me to see these classics through someone else’s eyes and he now knows what people mean when they say “We’re not in Kansas anymore” or “May the force be with you.”

Star Trek slipped through the cracks slightly. I’ve always been interested in Trek, as a general student of pop culture and telefantasy, but I’m by no means a completist. As well as Target Doctor Who novels, I got a couple of James Blish Star Trek books second-hand when I was about ten years old. These were collections of short-story length renderings of classic episodes, so when I think of City on the Edge of Forever or The Trouble with Tribbles or Amok Time I’m far more likely to think of these prose versions and I couldn’t swear that I’ve ever even seen the TV originals (although I definitely did see some episodes repeated on BBC2 in the 1980s).

The original cast movies were my kind of thing, and again the novelisations of the first three were all on my bookcase. I also remember the outcry about the perceived poor quality of the fifth instalment. By this time, The Next Generation was on TV and that’s “my” Trek. I rented the VHS episodes as they were slowly released, I attempted to tape them all off the TV when they were repeated. I bought the restored Blu-rays and was astonished at how much better they looked when scanned from the original 35mm film (seriously, they look they were shot yesterday, it’s incredible).

I watched much of DS9, admiring the serialised storytelling but getting frustrated if I missed episodes. I was thrilled when Voyager started up and dismayed at how dull many of the episodes were. I lost track of Enterprise and then everything went away.

Berman-Trek having concluded, Abrams-Trek eventually arrived. The first movie works, kinda, but it’s not the Trek I remember. The second is genuinely appalling. The third also works, kinda, but by then the second movie had expunged any remaining goodwill. Meanwhile, however, Trek was coming back to TV. Picard is a bit slow and creaky (much like its leading man, ho ho) but not without interest. Discovery is a bit too keen to show you how iconoclastic it’s prepared to be (and far, far too interested in subtitled Klingons in season one) but the cast has grown on me. I haven’t seen any of Short Treks or Prodigy but I love Lower Decks which is cheeky, funny, knowing, heartfelt and exciting in precisely equal measure. It’s fantastic. (We’ll leave discussion of The Orville to another day.)

And then there’s Untitled Star Trek Project. Some of the minds behind Flight Through Entirety (a long-running Australian podcast which watched the whole of Doctor Who from 1963 and is currently up to Matt Smith) have started a commentary podcast where they watch a “randomly” chosen episode of Star Trek each week. But their Trek knowledge is far deeper and broader than mine.

I really need to start from the beginning.

So, a little spreadsheeting later, here’s what I discovered. If I watch Star Trek in transmission order, at the rate of one episode a day, treating feature length episodes later split into two for syndication as one episode, and each movie as one episode, and not counting The Cage at all (most of it I will see anyway as The Menagerie), and I start on New Year’s Day 2022, then I will be watching the final episode of Enterprise on Christmas Day 2023.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Compiling this spreadsheet threw up a few points of interest. There are only 79 original series episodes, so I’ll burn through all of those in the first three months, and the 20 episodes of the animated series will take only another three weeks. Then in mid-April it will be four movies in a row, and we’re on to Next Gen. These are the episodes I know best, not least because I watched them all on Blu-ray during 2012-2015 as the discs were released (I actually stalled half-way through Season 7). But except for a couple of movies, it will be all TNG all the time until September 2022 when DS9 starts up and then they will roughly alternate. And once TNG finishes, DS9 will interleave with Voyager between December 2022 and July 2023.

I could have sworn that the same thing happened with Voyager and Enterprise, but no. DS9 finished its original run on 2 June 1999 and then Voyager was the only Trek show on TV until it finished in May 2001, Enterprise beginning in September of the same year. So for me, the final set of episodes will be the four seasons of Archer and co, which I will watch between 19 September 2023 and Christmas Day (interrupted only by Nemesis). And then what?

Well, first of all I have to stick to this, which is far from guaranteed. I will post a Tweet about each episode with the hashtag #trekaday. Searching for this revealed an account @trekaday which attempted the same feat in 2012 and stalled after 16 episodes, so currently my goal is to get beyond The Galileo Seven. There will be round-up blog posts every week or so.

Assuming I do stay the course, who knows how much more Trek will have been generated in the interim, so for the moment I’m leaving it open as to whether I continue in the same vein with the Abrams movies and the Kurtzman stuff or whether I close the book on this project.

Mr Scott. One to beam up.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Posted on April 12th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

voyagehome

There is an alternate universe somewhere, where in addition to all the nice people glowering from behind their dark goatee beards, the principle guest star in Star Trek IV was Eddie Murphy.

Really.

It seems insane, but after the dour Search for Spock, Paramount was keen to make the fourth instalment a little lighter in tone and a little easier for newbies to get on board with. Murphy had made a boat-load of money for Paramount in Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places and Superman III had done well with comedian Richard Pryor only a couple of years before. With the contemporary San Francisco setting which Nimoy and Harve Bennett were considering, Murphy would work well. No?

Eddie Murphy turned them down.

Who can say how much money the Star Trek IV: The Eddie Murphy Show would have made, or how well-received it might have been by fans? In our universe, despite (or maybe because of) sitting very oddly in the rest of the canon, it was the highest regarded since Khan, and remained so probably until First Contact, or possibly forever. It also made more money than Khan, in fact its box office haul wasn’t bettered until First Contact, ten years later.

And yet, it isn’t really a Star Trek film at all.

It kinda-sorta looks like a Star Trek film for the first twenty minutes or so, picking up where III left off (again, for no particular reason, except that that seems to be the form now), with the ramshackle crew of the Enterprise limping home in their stolen Klingon ship to face the music. But – whaddyaknow! – another Mysterious Alien Probe is attacking Earth and playing whale song at it. Whales having long gone extinct in the 23rd century, Kirk announces that this beaten up and very unfamiliar ship is capable of time travel (who knew it was so easy?) and they nip back to 1986 to scoop some up.

When they arrive in then-contemporary San Francisco, the movie’s tone changes completely. The epic space opera of the previous two movies gives way to a breezy, eighties whale-out-of-water comedy, with the Eddie Murphy role blandly but ably fulfilled by Catherine Hicks as whale-ologist Gillian Taylor. The huge success of this very enjoyable movie is to avoid the baggage of Treks past, and to treat the ensemble cast as an ensemble, instead of three lead guys and a bunch of red shirts.

Kirk splits his crew up so he and Spock go find the whales; Scottie, McCoy and Sulu build a tank to put them in; and Uhuru and Chekhov go and find a nuclear reactor so… so Chekhov can say “nook-ular wessels” I think. Everyone seizes the opportunity to have fun with these parts, and William Shatner seems far more comfortable playing this easy going time traveller, even with his rival Nimoy behind the camera once more. Their crackerjack timing in this little exchange is just delightful.

If I have a criticism, it’s when all the other characters are getting such good scenes to play, Spock seems a little absent. Possibly this is due to Nimoy’s duties behind the camera, possibly it’s that dying and being resurrected just takes it out of even the hardiest half-Vulcan, but he seems a shadow of his former self for much of the movie.

Needless to say, in its cheerful what-the-hell way, returning to the future presents no new problems and the whales are presented to the space probe which obediently buggers off and leaves our heroes to it. They are rewarded with a spanking new Enterprise-A, Kirk is demoted back to Captain where he belongs and we have come full circle.

What a perfect place to stop.

Facts and figures

Released: 26 November 1986
Budget: $21m
Box office: $133m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer (plus Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes who mainly worked on the Eddie Murphy version)
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett

 

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Posted on February 19th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

star-trek-3-the-search-for-spock

The old adage with Star Trek movies is “the even-numbered ones are good”. This doesn’t work with Star Trek X as we’ll see, but it holds pretty well for most of the series and it’s certainly true that III isn’t half as good as the films either side of it. But it’s easy to overlook it, sitting as it does between the most iconic film in the series and the most fun film in the series.

The success of Star Trek II had made Star Trek III inevitable, and Harve Bennett had more than proved himself an able producer. But more Trek meant more Spock and Leonard Nimoy was persuaded to return only if we was also able to sit in the director’s chair. Luckily (or not, as we’ll see) Nicholas Meyer wanted no part of a movie which was going to unpick the narrative of Star Trek II, and so with a studio-imposed deadline breathing down his neck, Harve Bennett sat down to write the screenplay on his own.

With the benefit of hindsight, the job of Star Trek III is to move the characters from their positions at the end of Star Trek II, to the positions they need to be in to start Star Trek IV. These three films make a particularly tight trilogy, unlike anything else in the series. They didn’t need to do that. Plenty of screenwriters would have picked up the story back on Earth, or at a Starbase, where the Enterprise and her crew are getting patched up. But Bennett just keeps the ball rolling, bringing Saavik and David along for the ride, and reusing the Genesis device as the Macguffin (as well as an awful lot of footage from the previous film). Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a very efficient or a very unimaginative way of constructing a story. The only new element is a gang of Klingons (if you can call Klingons in a Star Trek movie “new”) led by a virtually unrecognisable Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. He makes a fine villain, but he’s hardly in Ricardo Montalban’s class.

As well as being lean to the point of austere, the movie is also very, very depressing at times. Whereas in Wrath of Khan, Kirk triumphs over impossible odds, in Search for Spock, he fails at pretty much every turn. Yes, he finally manages to deliver Bones to Vulcan where they extract his Vulcan pal’s marbles and ladle them back into his rapidly-aging body – but pretty much everything else is a disaster. Kirk gets his son killed, has to blow up the Enterprise, loses his standing with Star Fleet and barely escapes with his own sorry life. The constant air of gloom which pervades this movie makes it quite difficult to engage with at times. The motto of the first film was “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The motto of the second film clearly seems to be “one Leonard Nimoy is worth a dozen of you clowns.”

And yet, amid all the bloodshed and destruction and horror, it’s the lighter moments which work best and which stick in the mind. Bennett’s script is the first (and probably one of only two) which actually succeeds in using the TV cast as an ensemble, instead of making it the Kirk, Spock and (if you’re lucky) McCoy show, plus five other guys who get seven lines between them.

Obviously it helps that Spock (or at least Leonard Nimoy) is absent almost throughout, but one wonders at the patience of George Takei, James Doohan et al, as they stood quietly at the back for most of the two previous films. And for no reason – the film roars into life when Kirk elects to steal the Enterprise and Scotty, Chekhov, Uhuru and Sulu spring into action like a space-faring Oceans Eleven, while Saavik tends to the brainless Spock on the Genesis planet. Kirstie Alley declined to return to the role, but miraculously, Saavik once again makes it to the end credits without betraying anyone or dying at all. She is now played with a good deal more class but rather less vulnerability by Robin Curtis. The nearest we get to a turncoat/sacrificial lamb is James B Sikking as the odious commander of the Excelsior, the Federations latest and greatest, which can’t make it out of space-dock when Scotty removes the spark-plugs. So, he’s just a doofus rather than a traitor.

Nimoy directs efficiently, but without noticeable flair and professional standards are all suitably high, with ILM once again turning in beautiful matte paintings, spaceships and phaser blasts. And if the Genesis planet sometimes looks a bit studio-y as it blows itself up, well that adds a welcome touch of nostalgia. The movie ends with the Star Trek cast (even Nichelle Nichols, bafflingly left out of the adventures on and around Genesis) celebrating the return of Spock, but with no ship, several casualties and on the run. Given how much of the set-up takes place in the previous film and given how little is resolved in this one, it’s hard to see Star Trek III as a hugely successful movie in its own right, but as a chapter in the ongoing saga, it works just fine.

Facts and figures

Released: 1 June 1984
Budget: $16m
Box office: $87m
Writers: Harve Bennett
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Posted on December 30th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

25071592

Now, that’s more like it.

Once again, with hindsight, what’s remarkable about Star Trek II is not so much that it set the template for the billion-dollar franchise which followed (although it undoubtedly did), it’s that Paramount was willing to make another movie at all. Actually, on paper that’s not so surprising. The film did make money – around three times what it cost to make – but it was hugely expensive. Disney’s The Black Hole, released the same year cost half what Star Trek The Motion Picture cost and it was Disney’s most expensive movie ever. But the reception from mainstream media and die-hard fans alike had been luke-warm. Did it really make sense to risk another forty million dollars to try again?

Enter TV producer Harve Bennett who confidently told Paramount bosses he could make five movies for the budget of the first one. After a year or two of script development going nowhere and staring down the barrel of a release date, Bennett sent for Nicholas Meyer who compiled a list of the bits-and-pieces people liked from the dozens of Star Trek II draft scripts and sat down to write the final screenplay, stitching all these disparate bits together, before beginning work on directing the movie, days later. These two men, neither of them familiar with Star Trek before they started work, saved the franchise, largely by completely and utterly ignoring the first film.

Meyer knew nothing about spaceships and future technology, but he saw the Enterprise as a sailing ship and Captain Kirk as Captain Horatio Hornblower. Ironically, Gene Roddenberry – who had by now been kicked unceremoniously upstairs – hated the naval paraphernalia and militaristic feel which Meyer gave to the Enterprise, but had himself used Hornblower has a frequent touch-point for the character of Kirk. Generally, Meyer’s reimagining of the Enterprise and Star Fleet through a naval lens works very well to create an impression of a colossal ship, manned by an enormous and active crew. Occasionally, he goes too far, such as when Kirk is literally piped aboard, or when photon torpedoes sit under hatches which have to be manually levered open, but these are tiny and easily-overlooked transgressions.

The whole look-and-feel of the film is vastly improved. The new uniforms strike the perfect balance between the colourful sixties jerseys and something which does actually resemble military garb, as opposed to pyjamas. They would still be in use for Star Trek Generations, a dozen years later. The bridge feels more like a submarine and less like the lobby of a futuristic hotel. The plot has the kind energy and drive so lacking in the first film, and the charm and humour of the characters returns, most noticeably in the early birthday scenes, but also throughout.

Despite – or possibly because of – the script’s mongrel heritage, it’s pretty much iconic scene after iconic scene. Playing into rumours of Spock’s death, Meyer apparently kills him off in the first five minutes as new crew member Lt Saavik struggles with the Kobyashi Maru scenario. Before long, Captain Chekov is facing down Ricardo Montalban’s fearsome Khan Noonien Singh, reincorporated from the original series, but that hardly matters.

Saaviki is also notable for actually making it to the end of the movie, but Paul Winfield as Terrell fulfils the usual role of doomed new cast member – in fact he does double-duty being both revealed as traitor and dying at the half-way point. Few of the rest of the cast get very much to do, but Bones gets a few choice lines and of course Leonard Nimoy gets to play a very real death scene at the end.

There are just a few moments where the film’s joie de vivre shades into smugness. On second viewing, it’s a little hard to understand just why Captain Kirk lets Carol and the rest continue to believe that they are trapped in the Genesis Cave with no hope of rescue, and the gag of the Reliant not bothering to look up or down in the final space battle in the nebula is a little hard to take seriously, but overall, this movie give us the space adventure we had so missed in the first film, and yet manages to be about something at the same time. Themes of age, decay, responsibility and obsession reverberate pleasingly throughout but never upstage the blood-and-thunder action and Montalban of course is an exceptional villain, gleefully chewing on Meyer’s theatrical dialogue.

What adds to the power of the film, and almost certainly secures its crown as the very best of the series, even thirty-odd years later, is that Kirk’s victory is so hard-won and comes at such a terrible cost. Spock’s death is meaningful, poignant and apparently permanent – three things it’s very hard to say about its karaoke re-enactment at the clumsy hands of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and JJ Abrams recently.

Meyer might have cut back on the super-expensive transporter and warp drive effects, but he puts the money on the screen, re-using a few models and even model shots from the first film, and using then cutting-edge computer graphics to show the effect of the Genesis wave – a sequence which would become very familiar not only from its use and reuse in this film and its sequels but also as the iconic images for early eighties CGI in the movies in countless documentaries and behind-the-scenes TV specials.

Of course, as production neared its close, the whole cast and crew began to suspect that they might be on to a winner, and so rather than being the film that would shut the door on Star Trek, there was every chance that it might be only the beginning, and so Nimoy and Bennett hatched a plan to leave just enough of a thread to pull on if Spock needed resurrecting in Star Trek III – should that ever be made. This is done just gracefully enough that it doesn’t spoil the ending, and even that shot of Spock’s coffin on the Genesis Planet which enraged Meyer doesn’t bother me too much.

Pretty much perfect in every way, Star Trek II gave the series a future – without the Great Bird of the Galaxy who would soon turn his ambitions back to TV.

Facts and figures

Released: 4 June 1982
Budget: $11.2m
Box office: $97m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Jack B Sowards, Nicholas Meyer
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Producer: Harve Bennett