Sunday, August 9, 2009

TOS Season 3

I've been watching Star Trek: The Original Series on DVD. Wal-Mart has a good deal on them, $50 per season, which is less than they cost online and half of what you would pay for them most places. I started, oddly enough, with the third and last series of the show that made my inner world go round when I was a teen. The special effects have been goosed up with CGI. But that isn't the only reason things look different now...

The season opener, which first aired on September 20, 1968, was "Spock's Brain." The only previous time I saw that episode was the day my Mom decided to sit down with me and share my passion for Trek reruns. She laughed all the way through it, a humiliating experience for me. Since then I have carried around the idea that "Spock's Brain" was the worst-ever episode of The Original Series (TOS). A lot of people seem to agree, apparently including the cast and crew of the show. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised when I watched it. It was a fun episode: preposterous, goofy, riding the thin line between self-parody and campy awfulness, yet quite absorbing and entertaining all the same. I particularly liked the scene in which Kirk, Sulu, and other members of the bridge crew debate over which planet in a given star system stole you-know-what. It was a whole lot of gab about next to nothing, accompanied by a totally lame visual aid, but it worked somehow. That's why actors get the big bucks.

The next episode aired (Sept. 27) was "The Enterprise Incident." This is a top-quality episode. Yet, at the same time, it exemplifies a problem that frequently arises in the Third Season of TOS, one of the reasons (besides being shunted to an audience-killing Friday 10 p.m. time slot) that it was also the last season. The problem of which I speak is "main characters acting out of character." In this nail-biting episode, we see Kirk undergo a mental meltdown. We see Spock show disloyalty and, later, duplicity. We see the latter apparently kill the former. And then it all turns out to have been a ruse to steal a Romulan cloaking device. It's all highly watchable, can't-wait-till-the-end-of-the-commercial-break stuff, even better without commercial breaks. Plus, the female Romulan commander (played by Joanne Linville) is hot stuff. Her chemistry with Spock is incendiary.

The episode of October 4, 1968 was "The Paradise Syndrome." My father calls it a "vacation show" because it's one of those episodes where only one of the regular cast members plays a major role, all the others appearing in scenes that could probably have been shot in one day. The actor who didn't get a vacation was William Shatner, playing a Captain Kirk who loses his memory and joins an Indian tribe that has somehow (with the help of aliens, I believe) migrated to a planet that looks just like the Los Angeles Reservoir. He marries a beautiful priestess, who then dies while bearing his child because the villagers stone them when "Kirok" proves unable to activate the mystical temple/asteroid blaster that defends their planet from cataclysmic collisions. I wonder what it is that makes that planet so susceptible to asteroids. Anyway, the guest actors sucked, the scenes with McCoy and Spock played like an endless squabble between a married couple who ought to understand each other better by now, and series continuity was predictably restored by killing off the babe. Oh, well. At least the scenery was nice!

It took a lot of self-discipline to subject myself, knowingly, to the episode first aired on October 11, 1968: "And the Children Shall Lead." I hated this episode when I was a kid, and I hate it now. But I gave it another shot, for your sake. Let me warn you to change the channel when you see this loser coming on. It features celebrated trial attorney Melvin Belli as a see-through alien who appears to be immobilized by a giant wad of tacky upholstery. Belli's character, who for unknown reasons becomes known as the Gorgon, uses the children of his victims to spread a plague of mind-control and suicide across the galaxy. The children's acting abilities amounted to one little girl being able to cry on cue, and a teenage boy making you want to smack him good. Captain Kirk's hissy fit, brought on when the kids make him believe that his worst fear is coming true ("I'm losing command!") brings new meaning to the phrase "over-the-top." When the kids finally stop believing in their "friendly angel" and begin grieving for their dead parents, Belli fades away to a a dying echo of his final words, "Death to you all," intoned beautifully but without the slightest hint of anger. Yeesh.

I used to think quite highly of "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" The episode of October 18, 1968, starred Diana Muldaur (later Dr. Pulaski in season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a blind telepath who wears a dress embroidered with high-end sensors, so she can avoid being pitied. As an ambassador to a race of beings so ugly that the sight of them drives men mad, she is supposed to form a mind-link with her Medusan opposite-number - becoming, as it were, of one mind with him. But her plans are delayed by the jealousy of a spurned lover, who tries to kill the Medusan ambassador before going nuts, getting the ship into a pickle, and dropping dead for no plausible reason. The melodramatics continue as Spock mind-melds with the Medusan in order to use their combined skills to save the Enterprise, in spite of the blind chick's jealousy. The episode is supposed to be about "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," using the rhetoric of ugliness vs. beauty to drive its point. In fact, it is really about jealousy, the scenery-chewing skills of its cast, and another chance for Spock to act out of character. In my latest read-through of this episode, I was only about 60% satisfied. My Dad says I should give it another chance, though...

The first season-three episode filmed was "Spectre of the Gun," aired on October 25, 1968. In it Kirk, Spock, the doctor, and Chekov offend some aliens who have the power to project their thoughts into other people's minds. Their punishment is to relive the events leading up to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, playing the roles of the losing Clanton gang. The setting is eerily abstract, like a Hollywood back lot where no attempt has been made to hide the artificiality of the scenery. The actors playing the Earps have the look of soulless phantoms. The solution (making believe that the bullets cannot harm you because they aren't real) is very Zen, very Matrix, very "There is no spoon." And Chekov gets to do something besides twiddle the navigation controls and say, "Aye aye, sir, warp factor two it is." It's a very effective episode.

So is "Day of the Dove," which aired on November 1, 1968. This is the one in which Michael Ansara (TV's Cochise) played one of TOS's most memorable Klingons. He went on to reprise this character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, albeit in the post-1960s "ripply forehead" style of Klingon makeup. Wow, what a voice that man has. Rumors of his demise have been exaggerated. My Dad was surprised to learn that Ansara is still living, though no longer married to Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame. Here he plays a Klingon captain whose crew beams aboard the Enterprise and triggers an all-out war with Kirk's crew, spurred on by an alien who feeds off violence and hostility. Chekov attempts to ravage Trek's first-ever female Klingon in a truly eerie scene in which the young ensign clearly isn't himself. Everyone acts out of character for a while. The alien finally flees when the humans and Klingons join together to laugh it off the ship. Nothing says "late 1960s" quite like a campy, forced-laughter ending. But again, the episode works.

We return to the planet Melodrama for November 8's episode, "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky." Those words are also the last spoken by an old man who dies in agony after describing how he discovered that his planet is a spaceship. This is heresy on the inside-out world of Yonada, where a deified computer uses electronic dog collars to keep people from thinking thoughtful thoughts about the nature of their world. The trouble is, they need the knowledge the computer is withholding from them to avoid a collision with an inhabited planet. The other trouble is, Dr. McCoy is terminally ill, and the high priestess of this nasty little cult wants him as her mate. There's no way to describe this episode without making it sound stupid. But it's actually pretty effective, and it's nice to look at.

Aired on November 15, 1968, was one of my all-time favorite episodes: "The Tholian Web," in which Kirk is lost in another dimension, presumed dead, then begins appearing as a space-suited ghost who may actually still be alive. Meanwhile, the crew is starting to go violently insane, Spock and McCoy are at each other's throats, these weird 2-D aliens are spinning a web of pure energy around the ship, and they don't dare use their weapons or warp engines for fear of messing up their chances of saving the captain. They have a lot of stuff to keep them busy in this episode. Plus, McCoy and Spock get to bicker like an old married couple (again), and Chekov goes out of his mind (again), and you think Kirk is dead (again). It has all the parts that made earlier episodes in this season work. And it works.

The same cannot be said for "Plato's Stepchildren," first aired on November 22. We're supposed to buy the idea that these telekinetic aliens visited earth during the golden age of Greek philosophy, adopted Plato's ideas (together with certain details of wardrobe, interior decor, and cultural amusements), and kept them essentially unchanged through all the centuries, while using space flight to colonize a new planet. Now they are virtually immortal, but they have difficulty treating even minor cuts and infections. So, in order to persuade Dr. McCoy to stay and be their healer, they seize control of his crewmates and force them to act out a humiliating sideshow. Kirk and Spock are forced to act out of character; the latter laughs, cries, and even sings until you wonder how long it's going to take getting to the obvious point. Nichelle Nichols as Uhura is forced to act, period (never a good thing). She and William Shatner share network TV's first interracial kiss in this episode. Otherwise it's a silly, unconvincing bore. Everything the Platonians do is utterly stupid and self-defeating.

Stupid and self-defeating also describes the behavior of the Scalosians in "Wink of an Eye," first broadcast on November 29, 1968. The last survivors of an advanced race whose metabolism was accelerated to the point of being invisible to the naked eye, while also rendering their males sterile, they keep their culture going by luring spaceships into orbit, putting their crew in deep freeze, and thawing the males long enough to mate with them before the friction of high-speed hanky-panky inflicts enough cell damage to cause them to age rapidly. This scenario enables William Shatner to look down at the corpse of an apparently elderly man and say, with a straight face, "He was so young." The alpha male alien wears a costume that includes a glittery silver choker, which makes him look vaguely drag-queenish. The only thing that enables this episode to work is the cute smile of the female lead, played by the late Kathie Browne. Somehow her dimply grin lets you think that it's all tongue-in-cheek, and a little sexy too. So all in all, it's an OK episode, in spite of the ludicrous conduct of the ill-fated aliens and the handful of seemingly obvious (at least to me) solutions to their problem, solutions that no one even brings up.

"The Empath," first seen on December 6, 1968, starred Kathryn Hays in the title role. This is the most visually abstract episode, containing long sequences shot against a pitch-black background, with only a few pieces of scenery scattered around the emptiness. Here we find cone-headed aliens performing inscrutable experiments on humans, together with a mute female alien whose powers of empathy are so great that she can actually transfer other people's wounds to her own body. It turns out the aliens need Kirk, McCoy, and Spock so they can teach the girl, nicknamed Gem, the concepts of compassion and self-sacrifice. It ends with Kirk delivering a sermon to a pair of technologically superior, yet curiously sheepish, aliens. It's an all-right episode, if you don't mind the lack of visual detail to amuse the eye.

"Elaan of Troyius" is another fairly lame episode, obviously taking its departure from the legend of Helen of Troy. The Helen of this melodrama is played by France Nuyen, perhaps best known as Joe Cable's girlfriend in South Pacific. Here she plays a quite different heroine: a vicious, arrogant, spoiled child-queen whose tears infect Kirk with an incurable love potion. Fortunately, he has already given his heart to the Enterprise, so he is able to shake off his infatuation with the exotic beauty, break her pride, and prepare her to become the peace-bride of a blue-skinned alien. Also used to great effect, blue skin or no, is Jay Robinson of Caligula fame. He plays an oily ambassador with broad, comic flair. Every second he is in the frame is precious. On the other hand, how convenient is it that, just when you need dilithium crystals so you can fight off a Klingon attack, an alien babe shows up on the bridge wearing a necklace made of them? Hmm???

Lamer still is "Whom Gods Destroy," first aired on January 3, 1969. For such a lousy episode, it had an incredible guest cast, including the flamboyant Steve Ihnat (who sadly died only four years later at the age of 37), lithe Yvonne Craig of Batgirl fame, and Keye Luke, immortalized as Charlie Chan's Number One Son, Kung Fu's Master Po, the villain in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon, and other roles of the type. One had better ponder the pedigree of its cast than watch this episode, in which the inmates take over an asylum, led by a former starship captain who brings a powerful explosive and a talent for shape-changing to his nefarious (but silly) plot to rule the universe. The tale hinges on Spock being able to decide which of two Kirks is the real Kirk in time to shoot the other. Spare me!

The series continued its downhill slide - by this point in the series, one wonders whether the producers and writers had simply stopped caring - with "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," aired on January 10, 1969. It features Frank Gorshin of Riddler fame as one of two half-white, half-black aliens dressed in embarrassingly snug costumes, one of whom has been pursuing the other across the galaxy in a four-thousand-year vendetta fueled by race hate. The moment when Kirk and Spock gape, uncomprehendingly, at Gorshin's character while he explains the basis of his claim of racial superiority (it depends on which side of your face is white, and which side black), is an implosively powerful "aha" moment - but in the end, the episode is just preachy, preachy, preachy. Plus, the sequence where the two aliens chase each other through the decks of the ship goes on entirely too long.

"The Mark of Gideon," aired on January 17, also sucked. All right, so this planet is trying to get into the Federation, but its leaders refuse to allow sensors to scan their planet and they don't want anyone to beam down in person, either. When they finally agree to let Kirk, and only Kirk, beam down to visit them, he materializes on an exact replica of the Enterprise, only without the crew. He can't account for the nine minutes after he beamed down, or for the bruise on his arm. Soon he finds a woman, who claims to have no memory of where she comes from, wandering around the ship. She naturally falls in love with him. But then it turns out to be a meaningless charade, the point of which was to exploit a disease Kirk carries in his blood to control the exploding population of a planet where a deep-seated reverence for the sanctity of life threatens to... Oh, shut up. This is pro-death, pro-abortion, zero-population-growth stuff. Utter tripe: preposterous, inconsistent, and nasty to boot. The episode's only redeeming features are a number of cute epigrams muttered by Spock (such as "The purpose of diplomacy is to prolong a crisis"). Meanwhile, this episode features an increasingly recurring guest role that I like to call "Bitchy-Spock." That green-blooded chap can really be mean when he wants to. Hardly anyone on the bridge escapes his barbed tongue in this outing.

The episode of January 24 was "That Which Survives," an essentially mindless, pointless episode that has always, nevertheless, been fun to watch. It's the one where Scotty crawls into that, er, crawlspace and sticks that polarized wrench thingy into a panel full of dancing, colored lights. This is only part of a subplot in which the Enterprise is hurled 900 light years in an instant, conveniently putting it out of range to help Kirk's party on the ground. It also furnishes Scotty and Bitchy-Spock with a top-drawer opportunity to snipe at each other. Meanwhile, former Miss America and Barnaby Jones sidekick Lee Meriwether keeps appearing out of nowhere, killing with the power of her touch. "Lieutenant Sulu, I am for you..." She turns out to be an automatic security system left behind by the last survivor of an alien plague, and her planet is really an artificial space station of some kind. The only defense against her is fancy footwork, until the Enterprise arrives (after barely avoiding a warp-engine explosion) and destroys the computer that makes her go. That it is a watchable episode is another example of a cast and film crew bringing a special flair to bear on a mediocre script.

On January 31, 1969, NBC aired "The Lights of Zetar." Shari Lewis, of Lambchop fame, cowrote this episode with her husband, who specializes in paranormal fiction. Predictably, it brings a sci-fi angle to the idea of possession by ghosts. The person being possessed happens to be Scotty's girlfriend. So the episode also depicts a May-November romance between two people whose behavior, just for this episode, makes me want to gag. The alien ghosts take over the girl's body, and they drive it out by putting her in a hyperbaric chamber and raising the atmospheric pressure to "ghost crushing" levels. Is it just me, or does that sound ridiculous?

"Requiem for Methuselah," vintage February 14, 1969, is one of only two really good episodes in the last half of TOS's third season. By then, it must have been "too little, too late." Starring soap opera maven Louise Sorel as a gorgeous robot who serves as companion to an immortal human, it provides Captain Kirk with another tragic romance, McCoy with responsibility for treating one of several plagues used as plot devices during this season, and Spock with an opportunity to display his piano-playing chops. Spock ends the episode by controversially using a mind-meld to help Kirk "forget" what has happened, a moment that plays poignantly on screen but that doesn't bear thinking about in any depth.

Another episode I wish I could have skipped was "The Way to Eden," first aired on February 21, 1969. This is the hippie episode. Enough said? No?? Well, all right. It features a group of scantily-clad, protest-song-singing kids, mesmerized by the charismatic Dr. Sevrin into hijacking the Enterprise in their search for a mythical paradise planet where they can live unencumbered by technology. The lead alien, who has really amazing ears, has rejected Federation society and its environmental controls, ever since he became infected with a deadly plague. He is, as Spock quickly deduces, quite insane. But that doesn't stop his followers from pulling a fast one under cover of a jam session that sounds, go figure, like something out of the late 60s. I wasn't old enough to appreciate how embarrassingly, painfully bad this episode is until some 15 years after it was made. 25 years later, I find that it still stinks.

Not quite as abysmal as the episodes surrounding it, but still on the weak side, is "The Cloud Minders," broadcast on February 28, 1969. It showcases a Federation planet where the intellectual and artistic elite lives, literally, in the clouds. Down on the planet's inhospitable surface, the economy is kept going by the toils of the volatile, lowbrow Troglytes. The obligatory plot-device plague requires the Enterprise to pick up an ore which only the Troglytes can supply - but, in their bid for cultural equality, they refuse to do so. Part labor strike, part civil rights movement, part sermon on regulation of public health hazards, the conflict is only resolved when Kirk defies direct orders and a bounty on his head, beams down to the planet, kidnaps its leader, and forces him to face facts about the insidious gas that makes people exposed to it act like stupid savages. Apparently the producers banked on viewers being most interested in the scenes where Kirk and his costars acted like stupid savages; they didn't count on us noticing, and wincing at, the arrival of yet another recurring character, Horny-Spock, as he engages in inappropriate and out-of-character flirting with a vaguely repulsive alien woman.

Some of Trek's most memorable episodes use preposterous story-lines as a framework for pointless violence. Such an episode is "The Savage Curtain," aired on March 7, 1969. In fact, pointless violence seems to be the point of it, as an alien requires Kirk and Spock to act out a winner-takes-all, loser-dies melodrama so that it can study whether "good" or "evil" is the stronger philosophy. In my view, if you're asking that question, you've already taken a side in it; for as I understand the terms "good" and "evil," only the latter can be measured in a test of brute strength. So much for the pointless-violence part. Where the preposterous storyline comes in, has to do with Abraham Lincoln coming to visit the Enterprise, joined eventually by Surak (founder of the Vulcan way), Kahless (founder of the Klingon ditto), and Genghis Khan, among others. Abraham Lincoln on Star Trek? Some gimmick! Who's next, Apollo?

The next-to-last episode of TOS, aired on March 14, 1969, was "All Our Yesterdays" - and it's really quite a fun episode. When they beam down to a planet threatened by a supernova, Kirk and friends find that all the inhabitants have already gone to safety. Using a historical library and a machine that can transport them back in time, the planet's citizens have escaped into the past. Unfortunately, our guys only figure this out after accidentally getting trapped in the planet's history. Kirk spends time in jail in an era similar to 18th century Europe (except that the prison cells have steel bars, like a modern jail). His crime? Having been overheard conversing with Dr. McCoy through an invisible time portal, he is accused of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Spock and McCoy end up in the ice age, where Mariette Hartley has been exiled all by her lonesome. Spock begins to revert to his pre-Surak state of savagery - once again going out of character, and exhibiting characteristics of both Bitchy-Spock and Horny-Spock.

The final episode, "Turnabout Intruder," made its belated appearance on June 3, 1969. It isn't altogether awful. But it does have Captain Kirk swapping bodies with a deranged ex-girlfriend, whose ambition was always to be a Starfleet captain. In possession of Kirk's body, she attempts to neutralize the real captain with the aid of a corrupt and incompetent doctor. I wonder which is weirder: Seeing Shatner, dressed as Kirk but playing a female character? Or seeing an actress playing Kirk trapped in a female body? The strangeness affects other members of the crew, who end up under arrest for mutiny until, conveniently but for no known reason, the two souls go back to the bodies where they belong. The crooked doctor embraces a despondent woman, saying, "She's as I loved her," as she mutters about wanting to kill everyone and be a captain; they then walk away, scot free, in spite of being guilty of multiple counts of murder. When I was a kid, first getting inducted into the joys of Star Trek, my Dad and godfather used to tell a joke every time the music came up at the end of a cliffhanger moment, right before a commercial break: "Gee, this must be the last one they ever made." Whenever I see this episode I think, "It's a good thing it was, too."

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