Star Trek Review: TOS – Dagger of the Mind (1×09)

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Where there is no emotion, there is no motive for violence.

By my reckoning, this may well be the first episode we’ve got that actually is something approaching utopian. Or, sort of, anyway.

The idea of how prisons would work in a utopia like the federation is actually quite an interesting one, when you think about it; presumably the focus would very much be on rehabilitation, rather than punishment. (The three main potential aims of a prison being rehabilitation, retribution, and restraint.) Equally, of course, one might argue that you wouldn’t really commit crimes in a utopia, surely, so why do they even have prisons? It’s such an interesting question because prisons are, I suppose, actually sort of an important facet of society, so when you’re talking about a new society, that throws up lots of intriguing points and questions. Moreso, really, when it’s a perfect society – what is the perfect prison like?

Admittedly, the way we handle this isn’t quite dedicated to answering those questions. It’s becoming a bit of a theme with Star Trek, I realise, where interesting questions are being thrown up essentially as a backdrop to normal television stories. This episode here is basically a thriller; the questions of how prisons should and do work are more or less left largely unanswered. Thinking about it, then, I suppose I may well have stumbled upon another of the reasons why Star Trek ended up so popular – it posed all of these questions which would capture one’s imagination, but largely left the answers up to the viewer. To be presented with a world that is, essentially, very much your own is quite powerful, and that’s going to lead it to resonate with a fairly large number of individuals; in many ways that’s perhaps going to help people skip over the less desirable parts, because they can more easily focus on the aspects that are their own.

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Helen Noel I think is worth commenting on. I actually counted this, interestingly, and the moment she’s introduced with the “da-dah” music and the camera zoom is about 20 minutes in; this is the same time Miri yesterday, and while I’m not certain, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true of Andrea and Mudd’s eponymous Women. So it seems that the sex appeal aspect is quite cynically positioned in these episodes (or I’m drawing more of a connection than actually exists).

Still, what I have realised is that I can’t make a point of it every time I see something I consider somewhat sexist or male gaze-y in these episodes, because otherwise I would be writing about it every single time. And there’s a value in that, don’t get me wrong; a deconstruction of the male gaze in Star Trek would probably be a really fascinating thing to read, if you’ve got suitably niche interests as myself. But it’s also not something that I would feel comfortable writing, or indeed competent enough to write; for now, these vaguely meandering and infrequently insightful little commentaries are probably the best I can manage. For now, though, I think I’m going to have to gradually begin to ignore that sort of thing; sadly, it’s just part of the fabric of the episodes. Short of outright rape apologia (again), I’ll likely just let it go. Unless it particularly aggravates me, I suppose.

So, even though she’s introduced in a very male gaze-y way, is Helen Noel a sexist caricature? As written, you could perhaps make the case that she is; there’s all the science Christmas party stuff (which I admittedly found hilarious) and the fact that she uses the neuralyzer to brainwash Kirk into loving her. However, I think they just about get away with it because Marianne Hill plays the role with a sort of… knowing sarcasm, I suppose. It comes across as quite self-aware, and often her comments to Kirk read as more playful and teasing than wistful and desperate; I think you can reasonably justify reading her as a character, rather than a caricature. It’s also quite important to note that, in the end, she plays quite an important part in saving the day – complete with ventilation shaft crawl! I must admit, I love ventilation shaft sequences. They’re classics. So, you know. That’ll do.

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Something I appreciated about this episode was the dual focus on Spock and Bones, as well as Kirk and Dr Noel. I’ve spoken in the past about how I think these episodes need a B plot of sorts to try and fill the runtime, and I reckon this episode is a very good example of that; while Kirk and Dr Noel are working to solve the mystery on the surface, you’ve got Spock and Bones working to solve the same mystery from the Enterprise.

It was nice to see the pair of the working together, actually, because thus far I think that’s been a little rare; with this episode you can begin to see the development of that aspect of the Kirk/Spock/Bones trio which is so well known. It doesn’t really work unless it is a trio, to my mind; you need to be able to see that Spock and Bones are friends, just as much as Kirk and Spock or Kirk and Bones. (You can sort of see how they struggled with that in Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness, only getting it right with Star Trek Beyond.)

Notably, we’ve also got the first appearance of the Vulcan mind meld, which will obviously go on to be a staple of Star Trek for years to come; it’s interesting, I think, to see that we’re already getting that sort of “Spock is special” vibe, which obviously develops further as he increasingly becomes a fan favourite character, ahead of all others.

In the end, then, Dagger of the Mind is a decent episode. Another one which is quite entertaining, and though nothing special, it still stands up reasonably well even now.

7/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – Miri (1×08)

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Blah, blah, blah!

We’ve now reached the point at which, for the most part, I actually don’t know a lot about what’s going to happen. Miri isn’t an episode I even knew existed, to be frank; we’ve well and truly scratched away the surface of my relatively superficial knowledge of the original show, and we’re getting into an aspect of Star Trek that I’m just not all that familiar with. In some regards, that’s actually really exciting, because it means I’m viewing these episodes almost completely as if they’re new.

I think Miri starts quite well, actually. You’ve got a really interesting hook, right from the beginning: this alternate Earth. Obviously, this is conceived of primarily as a cost-saving device – I’m under no illusions about that. At the same time, though, it’s a great premise from which to start the episode, and this episode gives us Star Trek’s best pre-credits sequence so far, to my mind. There’s an immediate level of intrigue, not just because it sounds strange to us, but also because the crew are baffled by it; there’s something immediately appealing about a phenomenon that isn’t known to our heroes. (Although, I suppose, if they are seeking out that which is strange and new, this probably shouldn’t be quite as exciting a pitch as I found it. Hmm.)

Beam down, though, and it gets even better. I’ve spoken about the idea of the juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane a lot, particularly in terms of Doctor Who, but this is the first time that Star Trek actively engages with it – because here’s the first time we see Kirk, Spock, and McCoy wandering around in a setting that we recognise. They’re quite explicit about that, actually, with Spock likening the surroundings to 1960s America; this is Star Trek interacting with our world. (Of course, since I’m watching this about 50 years on, it does take on a rather different feeling; this is Star Trek interacting with the world contemporary to it, not my world. And yet the effect remains broadly the same, given it’s still playing upon an iconography familiar to me and alien to their usual setting.)

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Despite starting well – and, to be fair, continuing well for the first twenty minutes, until the rather excellent revelation that Kirk has contracted the disease – the episode does gradually begin to fall apart.

The primary issue, I think, is that they don’t really follow through on the original premise. Rather than exploring this Earth, and why we have an exact replica of Earth in the 1960s, we end up substituting that plot for what is essentially a riff on Lord of the Flies; it becomes painfully evident that, despite how tantalising an idea it made, this 1960s setting really is just a cost saving measure. That’s a shame, to be honest; I can’t help but feel as though the writers should have made a more concerted effort to work within their limitations, as opposed to essentially just ignoring them. The idea of a society that exactly reflects Earth is a fascinating one; I also know it’s something we’ll return to later, so I don’t feel too hard done by, but I can’t help but feel as though the ball was dropped here. Even then, though – the new Lord of the Flies type plot feels astonishingly underdeveloped. There’s actually quite an interesting idea at the core of this too; the children live for a very long time, but because of the social structures in placed, they’re never really forced to mature or to grow up. You could do a lot about a society like that, and really dig deep into the concepts at the heart of it… but they just sort of don’t. Thus we end up with a rather empty feeling town, and though at times it can be a bit unsettling and creepy to hear the children chanting, mostly I only feel disappointed we didn’t get something better.

Still, there’s certainly engaging aspects to it; our crew are, as ever, pretty reliably fantastic. DeForest Kelly stands out in particular, as he so often does, because of how fantastic his performance is; McCoy getting increasingly stressed and agitated is a really impressive thing to see. It’s great to give the actors the opportunity to play against type, because we really get the chance to see how talented they are, and the range they’re capable of. (Shatner, admittedly, doesn’t do quite as well here with his aspect of the angry acting.)

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The biggest flaw in the episode is Miri herself, to be perfectly honest. It’s… creepy, to be honest, to see her interacting with Kirk. Her crush on Kirk is, I suppose, meant to be played as though it’s little more than that, just a young girl infatuated with this amazing gentleman. However, since she was being played by a 19-year-old, it doesn’t really read that way. Indeed, given it’s followed by Kirk giving her instructions and telling her to clean and do tasks and such, it either comes across as him being quite manipulative, or of her finally maturing to the point she’d ready to be a wife, or some such similar. It’s really just quite uncomfortable.

It gets worse, though, because Miri is contrasted with Janice Rand; Janice is seemingly quite jealous of Miri, because Kirk appears to be interested in her. Don’t forget, of course, that we’re meant to read Miri as pre-pubescent, so about 12 or 13 maybe. Janice is captured, and given lines like “I always wanted you to look at my legs”, and in the end, she’s almost the butt of the final joke – when Kirk says “I always stay away from older women”, that’s a reference to the fact that Grace Lee Whitney was older than William Shatner.

And so, in a way, Miri is pretty much the end of Janice Rand. It was her last episode filmed, as I understand; even if we see her again, this is basically her final outing. It also marks the start, arguably, of Kirk’s love interest of the week; even if Miri is a pretty creepy starting point, you can see how the show is picking up on a precedent established with the android yesterday, and developing this idea of Kirk having a new alien (or variations thereupon) babe to hook up with in each episode. After that, there just isn’t much space for Janice Rand, is there? Who needs a romantic lead when you’re making it part of the fabric of your show to swap in a new one each week? Janice is also the only one who points out that the Kirk/Miri interactions are a bit creepy, so there she’s quite literally getting in the way of Kirk womanising his way across the galaxy.

When I began this trek, if you will, I wasn’t really aware of Janice Rand as a character. In theory, sure, I knew the broad details of who she was, but I’d never seen a single episode that she was actually in. Generally speaking, I’ve actually quite liked her. But I also can’t help but look at her as the symbol of Star Trek’s early failures, and the manner in which it began as something very far from the utopian ideals we like to impose upon it. It was just as sexist, and at times outwardly misogynistic, as the rest of television in the 60s.

Because of it, Star Trek failed Janice Rand, and that’s a failure the show will always have to try and fix.

5/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – What Are Little Girls Made Of? (1×07)

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Do you realize the number of discoveries lost because of superstition, of ignorance, a layman’s inability to comprehend?

Not knowing a lot about this, I kinda assumed – going by the title, and the infamous outfits – that we’d be in for another hour of sexist nonsense. I’m glad, frankly, that this wasn’t the case; three awful episodes in a row really would have been pushing close to the tipping point. I had set out on this rewatch to try and understand just why people love Star Trek – I wouldn’t want to end up hating it. (If nothing else, watching The Original Series has given me a much deeper appreciation of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine!)

Thankfully, however, this episode is not that bad. I would actually be inclined to call it good! At this stage I think I can finally stop making those pacing complaints, because we’ve got to the third or fourth episode in a row where, actually, the episode doesn’t feel overly padded, or as though it could easily have been cut down. (Equally it’s actually possible that I might have just gotten used to the style of the episodes now, so it’s not really something I notice particularly anymore.)

We’ve also got some more intellectual aspects – thin ones, but they’re there nonetheless – and some interesting science fiction conceits. The characters are treated reasonably well, there’s some rather intelligent twists, and the writing is actually quite strong throughout. While What Are Little Girls Made Of? is far from the best of the episodes I’ve seen so far (honestly I’m still inclined to give that title to Where No Man Has Gone Before), I think it’s among the stronger episodes. It is, perhaps, in many ways the median – it has the strengths you’d expect, none of the weaknesses we’d want to avoid, and is basically quite entertaining. All in all, a good episode.

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Notable here is Majel Barrett’s Christine Chapel, who has here what is surely the largest role for a female character… well, at all, actually. Arguably you could say Elizabeth Dehner in Where No Man Has Gone Before perhaps came close, but even then, it’s not exactly comparable – Chapel is the Starfleet member with the most screen time bar Kirk, taking a role which you’d typically expect to be filled by Spock. I think it’s really nice to see her get this more substantial role, even if it was perhaps because of her relationship with Roddenberry that it happened. (At the same time, that feels perhaps unfair; I do think Majel Barrett is pretty good in this episode.)

It’s interesting, actually – and this has just occurred to me now – but there are some similarities between this and The Man Trap, aren’t there? In some ways, McCoy and Chapel parallel one another here, trying to reconnect with their past lovers, but ultimately having to confront the fact that they are very much a different person now – be it a salt vampire or an android. That, perhaps, might have been a nice thing to tack onto the end; McCoy and Chapel talking to one another in sickbay, having a bit of a heart to heart. In the end, though, there wasn’t time for that. It’s a shame, I suppose, that we don’t necessarily get that sort of character moment – it’s just some closing banter being Spock and Kirk. (I realise, of course, there are some people who would much prefer banter with Spock and Kirk to a conversation between Chapel and McCoy. Oh well, I suppose; can’t lose sight of the fact that this is, or ultimately should be, an ensemble program.)

Dr Korby was an interesting character as well, because he presented an alternative viewpoint – yet he was never quite an unsympathetic character, was he? He had an alien perspective, certainly, but it was one he believed in wholeheartedly and one he was able to back up reasonably well. I do worry, admittedly, that this might become something we’ll lean in on a lot; I already know that “humans justifying humanity” is quite the theme in Star Trek, and while I do think it was handled reasonably well here, I’d hope we can get a better argument in future. After all, just listing a few positive emotions in counter to negative ones isn’t really a particularly cogent case for why we shouldn’t all just become androids – far more interesting was the point about programming, which would perhaps have felt quite resonant at a time when WWII was still a recent memory for many.

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What’s also worth noting, though, is something I’ve not really commented on so far – the production values. It struck me during one of the underground sequences, actually – specifically the creation of Kirk’s android – that this episode must have been a rather expensive one to produce. There’s obviously this reputation for all these old episodes being really cheap, made out of cardboard on a shoestring budget, but honestly, it doesn’t quite show here – it all looks pretty stylish, for the most part, and it’s generally quite effective. I imagine there are quite a few recycled sets here – it hasn’t been lost on me that we’re in an underground rocky place again – but nonetheless, it is rather impressive.

I quite liked the look of Ruk, the android; he’s essentially our first unfamiliar humanoid type figure, and he’s got an impressive sort of style. Good work on the design there. It’s also worth remarking on the costumes by William Ware Theiss, who’s quite an important figure on all the early days of Star Trek – those strange costumes for the women were typically his design. He had quite an interesting rule, actually, where he posited that you could get away with showing as much flesh as you wanted, so long as you still kept certain areas, such as the bellybutton, concealed – consider the outfit in this episode, with the two diagonal lines of fabric crossing at the bellybutton. Costuming isn’t really my forte, to be honest; you’d have to go elsewhere to find an intelligent discussion of what the clothes of Star Trek ultimately mean in the end. But still, it’s important to pay heed to these individuals who were notable at the beginning of the show.

In the end, What Are Little Girls Made Of? was a decent episode. It’s not great, to be honest, but nor is it awful – I described it as largely average earlier, but I’d say if this (an entirely competent and entertaining piece of television) is your average, the show isn’t in a bad place.

7/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – Mudd’s Women (1×06)

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Oh, the sound of male ego. You travel half way across the galaxy and it’s still the same song.

Occasionally, there’s a part of me that wants to just do a one-word review. Some episodes of television, or movies or books or suchlike, don’t really deserve the usual thousand or so words. (Plus, my sense of humour is niche enough for that to rather entertain me.)

Mudd’s Women is one such episode, because honestly the only word I can come up with is “ugh”. It’s not very good. It’s better than yesterday’s effort, in that while it is kinda misogynistic and crappy, it doesn’t outright excuse rape. So, you know. But equally, this is an episode about mail order brides that ends with Captain Kirk swapping three women for some lithium crystals. This is far and away not the sort of episode that you want to admit exists in Star Trek.

It’s interesting to watch all of these old episodes back again, because I’m starting to realise how much of our conception of Star Trek is perhaps from the legend, as it were – what we refer to as Gene Roddenberry’s vision – rather than the show itself. Everyone likes to talk about how important and groundbreaking this show was, but let’s not also forget that it was often painfully sexist, and rarely quite as utopian as you’d hope for it to be. I mean, consider this episode; Kirk and his crew aren’t explorers or scientists, they’re acting as space policemen, and you’ve got more than enough references to money to blow a hole in that society without money idea. This is an episode which very much demonstrates that Star Trek isn’t always what we’d like it to be. (Technically speaking, it hasn’t yet been that at all – I’ve not seen any of those infamous allegory episodes yet.)

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Of course, it is a pretty poor episode in and of itself. Let’s not beat around the bush with that – any time a piece of television goes with the “women have some sort of magical powers linked to their beauty that adversely affects the men”, you know it’s essentially going to be trash. Doesn’t matter if it’s The Original Series in the 1960s, or if it’s Enterprise in the early 2000s – that’s a plot that is solely guaranteed to be trash. It’s made worse, of course, by the fact that there are so few women in the regular cast anyway; Uhura, inexplicably in yellow, gets about three lines here, and poor old Janice Rand is nowhere to be seen.

This is something that reminded me of Ghostbusters, actually. Or rather, some of the discussions that were happening prior to the movie, and whether or not Leslie Jones’ character Patty was a racist stereotype. One of the things that was referred to during this debate, though, was an interesting quote from this TED Talk: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” And that’s the case here! (Also in Where No Man Has Gone Before with Elizabeth Dehner sticking up for Gary because she had feelings for him, but honestly, it’s only worth focusing on the sexism of the story at hand.)

The only female characters to get a significant focus – and it’s probably worth noting the irony of the fact that this is, thus far, the episode with the most women to have speaking roles – are the ones who are depicted as vapid, vain, and desperate to get a husband. Even avoiding the sheer wrongheadedness of this, the fact that there’s no contrasting alternative is essentially to say that all women are like this. It’s absolute and utter rubbish.

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I don’t know, necessarily, if it’s worth going into the above much more. Mudd’s Women is, I think, infamously quite sexist. From Kirk selling the women to the focus on their beauty pills (to say nothing of the terribly unearned and blatantly shoehorned in “believe in yourself” stuff), it’s pretty obvious that this episode is little more than misogynistic dreck. There is nothing of worth in this episode. Like, at all. And I would hope everyone knows this, really; if you’re interested in further discussion of quite how sexist it is, it’s been written about a lot. I don’t particularly feel that I have much more to add on the topic, really. Here’s a decent blow by blow of all the egregious moments from the episode, if you’re interested in more.

What does seem worth discussing, though, is how we’re meant to approach Star Trek in light of this. After all, it’s not like the people involved didn’t understand what this was; executive producer Herb Solow summarised the episode as “three beautiful women-hookers selling their bodies throughout the galaxy”, after all, and anyone who’s even a mite familiar with Roddenberry can tell that a lot of this came from him. (Memory Alpha has a quote from Jerry Stanley, the program manager at NBC, where he says of this episode “One of the problems we had was in trying to talk [Roddenberry] out of some of his sexual fantasies that would come to life in the scripts. Some of the scenes he would describe were totally unacceptable”)

I have no problem assigning the blame for this one at Roddenberry’s feet, incidentally. Obviously in part because he has a story credit for the episode, but also because he was the executive producer on the show, and a rather controlling one at that; there would have been little stopping him from excising the sexism of the episode had he so wished. Or, indeed, had he taken issue with it at all.

Mudd’s Women, more than anything else, is much like The Enemy Within – we’re being faced with the fact that Star Trek isn’t a visionary program. It’s not even particularly utopian; it’s painfully of its time, and it’s very clear that the people who are making it aren’t that fussed about an inspirational cultural institution. And, well, duh – it was just a job to them, and at the end of the day this is still just a sixties TV show. Which means that there’s a lot of crap in it.

We can still credit Star Trek for a lot, because it did become a cultural force for the better. But I don’t think we should ever forget, or indeed forgive, the flaws from its early days; part of striving to be better means we shouldn’t stop applying a critical eye to what came first.

2/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – The Enemy Within (1×05)

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We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man.

Someone described this as “Jungian” on IMDb, and while I’d never claim to have the best understanding of Jung’s works, it feels like a pretty simplistic reading of his philosophies to apply them to this episode.

Because this is a quite a simplistic episode. It’s a reasonably well structured, albeit quite basic, run around of an episode; it’d be largely forgettable and essentially forgivable were it not for one fundamental flaw, which I imagine would be rather easy to guess for those who have been following my blog for a while. More on that later, though. Typically, I like to at least start these reviews with something positive, because I think it’s nice to find something positive in everything, and I do think it’s worth questioning whether or not the episode is entirely irredeemable. If nothing else, to try and find the positive will help me to figure out just what my opinion is.

It’s a step in the right direction in terms of the pacing and structure; I mentioned yesterday that Star Trek episodes have been struggling with this, but I think that The Enemy Within does a rather decent job of making sure that the episode fills its runtime reasonably effectively. Thankfully, as soon as the other Kirk is revealed, he does start getting on and doing things; this isn’t another Charlie X situation where we reveal the threat and then kinda just do nothing for half an hour. Here, at least, things are happening. You’ve even got the secondary plot with Sulu on the ground, although admittedly it’s used more to add tension to the rest of the episode as opposed to being explored in its own right. Still, though – it starts out as reasonably effective television.

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You can perhaps make the argument, to an extent, that it’s a good episode for the characters. To an extent it perhaps is; I think we got a much fuller view of Sulu here than we have previously, which I certainly appreciated. I’m becoming increasingly fond of Sulu, actually – quite possibly I may have a new favourite here. It’s also interesting to see Spock and McCoy’s different command styles, and their different suggestions to Kirk for dealing with the problem.

(I can’t help but feel, admittedly, there was a much easier solution to any problem – Kirk should have been confined to quarters, with Spock temporarily assuming command. Presumably there would have been medical reasons for McCoy to relieve Kirk, and it would have been a lot easier to handle the other Kirk if they didn’t both keep getting in each other’s way.)

As for the plot itself? Well, it was alright. Again, rather unsubtle, but equally, it’s one of the first episodes we’ve had that is trying to do something that comes from within the concept. This sort of transporter malfunction idea isn’t really the sort of option they’d have on a traditional naval show, and perhaps plaudits are deserved for that.

Of course, it would have been better with Spock, obviously. To separate him into the human and Vulcan sides of his character would have been a far superior episode to this one; it would have allowed for a very interesting exploration of his character, for one thing, but also I think would have prompted a more nuanced examination of those aforementioned Jungian ideas. Although having said that, it’s possible that we would have ended up with something broadly similar, so perhaps it wouldn’t have been a huge improvement.

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The episode’s main problem, you see, is the rather reductive view of good and evil put forth, as well as the fact that, because they need to link Kirk back up at the end, The Enemy Within has to argue the necessity of evil.

Which would be all well and good if the other Kirk hadn’t tried to rape Janice Rand.

There’s no other way to put that, I’m afraid, because that’s exactly what it is. It’s quite horrific, frankly; other Kirk is trying to overpower her, she’s cowering, hiding behind furniture, all of that. It becomes worse later on in the… almost the interrogation scene, I suppose, where “good” Kirk, Spock and McCoy are talking to Janice about the incident. It’s deeply uncomfortable, really; Janice is quite shaken about the event, and you end up getting some quite disturbing moments. Hell, we’ve even got a line where Janice says she “wouldn’t even have reported it”, had it not been for the other crewmember seeing it too. Shatner really misjudges one of his lines, to be honest; the moment where he says “look at me” should have been gentle and reassuring, but rather he delivers it as being more stern and commanding. Had it been any other line of Captain-ly dialogue, that may well have worked, but it’s totally unsuited for the situation here. Not only is Janice Rand nearly raped, Kirk makes it all about himself, and his own confusion around the event – she even apologises to him at the end!

(It’s far worse to see this when you remember that Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand, would later be sexually assaulted by a Star Trek executive producer; possibly, although not necessarily, Gene Roddenberry himself. There’s an even more insidious tone to it – the distinct feeling that actually, this isn’t quite fictional.)

It is, to be honest, a rather disgusting thing to have come out of Star Trek, and it feeds into a general trend I’ve noticed with Janice Rand as a character; presumably by virtue of her being a pretty blonde, she’s on the receiving end of a lot of sexism and misogyny. It was bad enough in Charlie X, but this is on quite another level – it’s treated as such a normal thing, even something for Janice to just sort of get over; at the end, after all, it’s just brushed off. Not only brushed off, it’s played for a bloody laugh – Spock makes a joke about it! Spock! Christ.

For all that we tout Star Trek as being a glimpse into a utopian future, a series that was made by a group of visionaries, it’s at times quite blatantly not. Because this is an episode that posits that it’s okay for the lead character to try and rape another character (who was, let’s not forget, at this time considered the romantic lead of the show), being made by a group of people who presumably saw no issue with what they were doing.

You know what? It doesn’t matter if this is well made, or better structured that the prior episodes. Those minor positives do not outweigh the huge negatives. This is an episode that deserves to struck off the record – not just quietly forgotten, but actively disowned.

0/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – The Naked Time (1×04)

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Attention cooks, this is your captain speaking. I’d like double portions of ice cream for the entire crew.

This episode has something of a reputation, I suppose, as being a bit of a weird one. It is, after all, remembered primarily as the episode in which Sulu dances around shirtless, because they’re all space drunk. That is pretty much the long and the short of it, so I was expecting this to be quite poor. (I was also, I suppose, a little worried, given quite how bad that The Naked Now is – my fear being that the original would be as bad as its sequel was.)

Having watched it now, though, that was perhaps unfair. If nothing else, The Naked Time is actually pretty entertaining, Sulu and all. (Mind you; all the recent controversy about his sexuality, but by his third episode he’s asking his friend to come to the gym and do some workouts to relieve stress together? Interesting.)

What stands out about this episode is that it is actually… reasonably funny. Not in the regards that it wants to think it’s funny, of course; Kevin Riley singing and blathering on about ice cream wasn’t particularly amusing, but it’s Kirk’s exasperation that’s entertaining, or Spock sighing when he sees “Love mankind” scrawled across the walls – that sort of thing. It’s the moments where the episode reaches for humour that’s a bit more self-aware that the episode works; the rest of it is just a bit inconsequential. Perhaps it would have been better had it been a little bit more conscious of some of the implications of this virus; after all, the first person to come down with Psi 2000 is driven to madness and kills himself. We remember this episode as a bit of a camp runaround, but in places that’s quite dark – I can’t help but feel as if, had the episode been a bit more willing to take itself seriously at times, it might have been a little stronger.

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A question that is worth asking, though, is just how appropriate this episode is for when it is. I don’t mean 1966, of course, but rather the episode’s placement in the season. I can’t help but feel that this should have been something closer to the 15th episode, as opposed to the fourth; it feels very much like mid-to-late season filler, as opposed to the sort of thing you show when you’re still trying to define the concepts and characters of the show.

The idea, I think, is to explore the characters when they lose their inhibitions. Which is… a good idea, to an extent, though I would question just what some of these things are supposed to tell us. It does feel a little as though the choices were made on the basis of being entertaining rather than about their characters in some cases, though. And in many ways that’s the problem with this episode – because it happens so early on, the majority of the characters aren’t really fully formed yet. But here we are, starting with “this is what these guys are like when they’re not acting normally”. In a very real sense, we’ve ended up defining some of these characters in the negative. To some extent, it works, but it’s quite a misguided choice – we can appreciate it in hindsight because to us these characters are archetypes we’re quite familiar with already, but I can’t help but feel that this was a bad idea back in the 60s.

Spock is really the only character for whom this works, and there’s two reasons for that. The first is the simplicity of it; we’ve already been able to get a pretty firm handle on his personality, because it’s easy to understand. He lacks emotion. The opposite to that is also clear – when Spock loses his inhibitions, he has emotion. Makes perfect sense. And so, with this now, we actually are learning about Spock and about his character, and that’s a pretty cool thing to have here.

It really works, though, because Leonard Nimoy is a very skilled actor. When Spock is having his meltdown here, it’s absolutely note perfect; it would have been quite easy, I think, for this to slip into melodrama, but it’s actually quite well done. In all fairness, despite my reservations about defining the cast in terms of what they’re not, this sort of emotional turmoil and the battle to keep his human side in check is actually going to be quite important for Spock. Here is where we get perhaps the first glimpse of what lies beneath the surface, and it is really effective.

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The only other thing I have to say, really, is something that keeps occurring to me. Each of these episodes feel quite… strangely paced. To an extent, this is presumably just the fact that I’ve been trained on a much faster moving style of television, but I’m not actually so sure that they’re slow moving as such – rather, the scripts are all low on incident. Not much is actually happening, which means we take a lot of time to do not a lot at all.

It’s probably not so fair of me to single out The Naked Time for this, because it actually handles things far better than Charlie X or The Man Trap did; when we realise the virus has got out, there is a decent amount of tension as to the potential for the spread of the disease. (There’s an interesting moment where Kirk and Uhura start shouting at one another, clearly having lost their tempers; it feels like a hint that the virus is now airborne, and has got to them too, but this isn’t really explored further. It’s just a weird little moment there, that felt like something more.) But outside of that, I don’t really know that the script justifies a fifty-minute runtime. There should have been more of a focus on McCoy developing the cure, for example, alongside the rest of it. Much like the rest of the episodes I’ve seen so far, there’s a real lack of a B plot, and rarely enough exploration of the A plot. It’s all a little thin on the ground.

That’s not the biggest problem – I realise to an extent that’s just the style of the episodes, and it’s easy enough to tolerate. But it is a clear sign of the manner in which these episodes are still, to an extent, quite of their time. (To say nothing of the casual sexism that still permeates episodes; however, it was definitely nice to see both Uhura and Janice Rand taking on the conn at different points.)

Ultimately, The Naked Time was alright, actually. Undoubtedly it’s pretty naff in some places, but it’s got a fair amount of decent stuff too. I still just can’t help but feel it would have been better off had it been done a little later in the day.

7/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – Where No Man Has Gone Before (1×03)

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Of all else, a god needs compassion!

Part of what got me into Star Trek was this big folder full of magazine pages that I got from the charity shop for a fiver once. I’ve just done a bit of googling, and found the Memory Alpha page for them; they were the Official Fact Files, apparently. I collected a few more editions over the years – also from the same charity shop, and I eventually figured out who my local Star Trek fan was – and I re-read that particular first set several times over the years.

The relevance of this, outside of my own Star Trek history, is that for whatever reason, the articles about this particular episode made a pretty big impression on me. I think they were probably just near the top of the folder, but also that there were simply a lot of articles on this episode; on Gary Mitchell, on Elizabeth Dehner, on the ESPers and the galactic barrier, and so on and so forth. I’d also ended up with the impression, somehow, that this was the first episode of TOS, and in 2011 had been rather hoping Into Darkness was an adaptation of this story to some extent. (It wasn’t.) Where No Man Has Gone Before occupied something of a unique status amongst TOS episodes for me – the episode I was most familiar with, of the series I was least familiar with.

This was still the first time I’d watched it, mind you. I’ve never really had access to all these episodes in one place – I was pretty much at the mercy of the repeat channels, and again, whichever VHS tapes I could find. (This is probably making me sound older than I am; I was just quite low tech, back in the day.) So it’s nice then, to have seen this episode – and frankly even nicer to be able to report back that it’s actually very good. I think it’s possibly the best of the season so far, although given how early on we are at present, that’s something of a case of damning with faint praise. Where No Man Has Gone Before is a really well put together piece of television, that I’d argue is actually far more entertaining, and in some regards more coherent, than its predecessors.

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A lot of that comes down to quite how impressive Gary Mitchell is as an adversary. Especially considering, actually, that broadly speaking he’s a repeat of Charlie X, just one episode later – omnipotent being as bad guy. Thankfully, though, Gary Mitchell is so vastly superior to Charlie that you don’t really realise this until after the episode has finished.

The reason for that is that Gary Mitchell has a far more substantial character arc than any of the villains we’ve seen thus far; with Charlie (who remains a good point of comparison) we become wise to the fact that he’s evil and threatening from the beginning, and then there’s just sort of a lot of nothing. Here, though, it’s built up slowly; you’ve got these long scenes in the sickbay between Gary and Kirk, or Gary and Dehner, where there’s a real sense of gradually rising malevolence. We really get to see his mental decline and fall from grace, and I think that this really shows an important strength for Star Trek, and indeed all of science fiction – you have to focus on having good character work for the science fiction aspects to resonate properly.

I’d also like to highlight the music for a moment. The background music in Star Trek doesn’t really have a reputation for being subtle, and rightly so to be honest; it is often very of its time, and that can be a little offputting on occasion. Mostly it’s just sort of “lovably ridiculous”, like that crash zoom on Gary Mitchell that wouldn’t have felt out of place in 1980s Doctor Who. It’s often still effective, but as I said, no one could ever really accuse it of being subtle.

In this episode, however, there’s this one really impressive detail that I thought really added to the presentation of Gary. During his sickbay scenes, there’s this metronome running underneath the scene. I thought it was part of the instrumental, at first, but it actually wasn’t; it’s revealed that this metronome is actually the sound of nearby medical equipment, which Gary is controlling subconsciously. You can interpret that, to some extent, as a metaphor for Gary’s powers now beginning to change the diegetic and extradiegetic nature of the narrative – that’s really godlike power.

(But, you know, even outside of my English Literature student nonsense, it’s actually a really well-done aspect, because it does make these scenes far tenser, and adds to the aforementioned sense of rising malevolence for Gary.)

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Also worthy of note is Kirk and Spock. Since this is the pilot (in a roundabout way, anyway) there’s still a lot of early episode weirdness – it is deeply unsettling for some reason to see Spock in yellow but Sulu in blue. There’s also a few moments regarding Spock and his emotions, or lack thereof, that irritated me; “ah yes, irritation is one of your Earth emotions” or words to that effect. I suppose at that stage it was a bit more “I don’t have emotions”, rather than “I carefully suppress and control them”, but still, it was a little weird as a line.

Nonetheless! Despite this early episode weirdness, Where No Man Has Gone Before does a really great job on the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and I think makes a compelling argument for its longevity. It’s clear that the pair of them work well together, not just as characters but from a dramatic standpoint; Spock’s ruthlessly logical solution to the problem presented by Mitchell is a great counterpoint to Kirk, who’s inclined to try and find the best solution to help everyone, not wanting to be quite as utilitarian as Spock is. (Gary Mitchell again is a great character, because his relationship with Kirk and their easy camaraderie makes for a nice contrast alongside Kirk’s relationship with Spock; interestingly, it’s the moment when Gary begins to agree with Spock, saying that they should kill him, that we see he’s essentially gone off the rails. That loss of humanity is a bad thing; the difference with Spock is that he’s employing this cold logic for the needs of the many, as it were.)

Again, I’m inclined to say that part of the reason for Trek’s longevity was the early performances of these actors, particularly Nimoy and Shatner; they’re quite charismatic, and they do a great job of making these characters feel a little bit deeper than just what’s happening on screen at that particular moment. Their relationships with one another feel quite fleshed out already, in terms of how they joke together (or more accurately, how Kirk jokes at Spock), but also how they make a particularly effective team when working together.

Ultimately, I think Where No Man Has Gone Before is a very strong episode, and definitely the strongest of the three I’ve seen so far. In a way, it’s perhaps the most obviously Trek-y so far, with a rather fantastic thematic throughline about just how humanity is meant to develop, and the fact that even as we go further, it’s not the technological developments that matter most, but our cultural and philosophical ones. After all, a god needs compassion.

I’m hoping that this level of quality can be maintained, though… well, we’ll see.

9/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS  – Charlie X (1×02)

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There are a million things in this universe you can have and a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are.

What becomes evident, even as early as this second episode, is how important the actors were to the success of Star Trek, particularly William Shatner. I must admit, I’ve always been a Picard guy (with a great deal of appreciation for Sisko, of course), but I’m absolutely starting to look at Kirk in a new light. Shatner does a great job portraying Kirk as a calm and easy going individual, but at the same time there’s a firm and assured sense of authority to him. He’s not really the immature, womanising scoundrel that pop culture seems to paint him as – or at least, not yet. Kirk has, thus far, come across as an entirely able Captain, and indeed quite a good one too.

I’m also growing quite fond of Dr McCoy, in no small part because of DeForest Kelly’s performance; he’s charming and charismatic, and it’s a pleasure to watch him on screen. You can clearly see the chemistry he shares with Kirk, we’re also starting to see some of that infamous banter between McCoy and Spock. Spock, incidentally, has long been a favourite character of mine, so it was nice to see him in a slightly expanded role, following on from last week.

It seems to me, then – and I imagine I’ll be throwing out a lot of hypotheses like this over the coming weeks – that part of the reason for the longevity of Trek is these actors, and the life they imbued in their characters. Clearly, it’s still early days yet – we’re yet to properly see Scotty, for example – and certain aspects are still being worked out, but it does seem to me that this was a fairly important part in securing the future of the franchise.

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Certainly, though, while I might point to the performances of our regular cast as being one of the reasons why Star Trek proved to last so long, I’m not all that convinced that anyone would be pointing to this episode in particular. The fact of the matter is that it’s… well, it’s not great. It’s okay, I guess, but while The Man Trap suggested a reasonably entertaining space navy television show, this was… just kinda meh.

The problem is most evident in terms of the pacing, I think. While the mysterious Charlie X is a decent hook, there isn’t really a lot being done with said hook; it becomes quite obvious to the audience quite early on that Charlie has mysterious powers – it’s heavily hinted as soon as he arrives, and confirmed not long after – so it’s not exactly accurate to say there’s a building tension across the episode. In a way, it’s almost frustrating that it takes the crew so long to cotton on to what we already know, and indeed somewhat aggravating that when they do find out, they don’t really do much about it. I found that particularly odd, actually, in light of the previous week – Kirk placed a lot of emphasis on protecting his crew, and was clearly quite angry about their deaths. That was, in the end, why he killed the Salt Vampire. Yet here his actions don’t quite seem consistent with that, as Charlie is making crewmen disappear (we don’t really get any confirmation as to whether or not the majority of them return, only Janice) and Kirk essentially just takes it all in his stride. You can fairly easily make the argument that he was just trying not to provoke Charlie, of course, but it remained just a little weird.

One thing I did appreciate, mind you, was Kirk’s talk to Charlie about love being a two-way street, and how it’s important to pay attention to what both parties want. It’s a pretty basic message, which should be obvious, but given the fact that it isn’t – even today – I was glad to see it there. That was far more in line with the progressive Trek I like to remember.

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Other than that? Well, there were a few little things that stood out to me. I found the interactions between Spock and Uhura to be quite interesting, actually; I’ve always felt that the relationship between the pair in the new series movies was a tad superfluous, and more than a little out of nowhere. Watching these early episodes for the first time, though, and you can see that there may well have been more to the Spock/Uhura relationship in the original series than we tend to credit it with. Certainly, it was there in The Man Trap (albeit in something of an egregious manner) and here again you’ve got Uhura and Spock singing to one another. So, that was interesting to note.

I also want to just point out, by the way, that Kirk totally shouldn’t have won that game of Chess. He was, after all, in Check; any move he then makes would first require him to move out of Check. I suppose it’s possible for him to do that at the same time as checkmating Spock, but from looking at the pieces, that didn’t really seem to be the case. (Then again, I don’t really know much about 3D Chess.) I find it entertaining to think that Spock’s general exasperation wasn’t at losing, it was at Kirk getting it wrong – or perhaps at Kirk deliberately getting it wrong, so he could go away and leave Spock with Charlie!

Ultimately, this was… it was okay. The main crew were decent; Charlie far less so. In terms of the actual plot, it was lacking, and I think it’d be quite easy to get bored if you’re not already invested in it to some extent. Certainly, I’d never show this to a friend in the hopes of getting them to appreciate Star Trek, because frankly it’s more likely to lead them to dismiss the show entirely.

But, you know. It’s fair enough to just have “okay” episodes.

6/10

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Star Trek Review: TOS – The Man Trap (1×01)

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I was thinking about the buffalo, Mr. Spock.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek – half a century since the premiere of a little television show that gradually proved to be a global phenomenon. Across that time, it’s spawned seven hundred and twenty-six episodes, thirty seasons, five television shows and an upcoming sixth, and thirteen movies, as well as countless novels, comics, and other ephemera. Star Trek and all its hallmarks are quite firmly lodged in the cultural zeitgeist in a way quite unlike any other.

It seemed apt, then, to try and do something to commemorate today. My hope, then, is to review the entirety of the first year of The Original Series over the course of the coming weeks; each review will post on the 50th anniversary of the episode itself. Beyond that, I’ve not entirely decided on my plans. I might continue on in order, tackling subsequent seasons and then The Animated Series, the movies with the original crew, and then move on to The Next Generation, and so on and so forth. We’ll see, I suppose.

I’m quite looking forward to this project, I have to say. While I would I consider myself to be a Star Trek fan, the amount of actual content I’ve seen – particularly of the original show – is rather small. Sporadic episodes here and there (I searched out the highlights) and a few of the movies (The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home, obviously) essentially comprise the sum total of my viewing experience; while my familiarity with subsequent spinoff shows is far more extensive, it’s still lacking.

So my hope, then, is to spend the next few weeks immersing myself in the show, and then really getting to grips with it. Even though, broadly speaking, I like it a lot and I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable about it, I’m hoping to be able to get a deeper understanding of just why Star Trek is so loved, and perhaps why it grew to be the force it is today.

Let’s get started then, shall we? Where I have never gone before…

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What immediately stood out to me, actually, is that this doesn’t really feel like a pilot episode. Certainly, had you approached me to write a Star Trek pilot I wouldn’t have produced anything even close to resembling this; this could easily be the seventh episode, or the middle of the second season, or near the end of the third. There’s nothing that really sets it apart from just a normal week on the Enterprise; when you consider this alongside Encounter at Farpoint or Emissary, and indeed The Caretaker or Broken Bow, The Man Trap is very much the anomaly in that this isn’t the start of the mission for the crew. It seems to be to be quite early on; the interaction between Uhura and Spock regarding the death of Darnell seems to betray a lack of familiarity between the pair, for example. Was this the right way to handle it? I’m not sure, really; I feel in some regards I would have preferred had the episode been approached differently.

Equally, though, it’s not fair to say that we weren’t introduced to the characters well. It’s very much an episode for Kirk and Dr. McCoy, with a fair amount of time dedicated to fleshing out their friendship. There’s a good basis to build up established here; you can tell the pair of them are old friends, and that they get along well, but equally you can see the points at which the chain of command takes over and Kirk is quite firmly a Captain. I’d say Kirk comes across quite well here too, actually; he’s charismatic and reasonably charming, and manages to walk the delicate line between friend and commanding officer quite well. The potential for the character is clear to see, in any case.

What was interesting to see as well, I think, was the manner in which the episode feels… partially formed, in a way. There are a lot of recognisable elements – Kirk and Bones, Spock, Uhura and Sulu – but at the same time, there’s also a lot missing, or things that didn’t quite make it into public perception of the show. Quite entertainingly, the first throwaway crewmember to die is a blueshirt, and the one following that a yellow; I’m not actually certain if a redshirt died at all during the episode. A lot of the bridge crew, as we know them, aren’t here; there’s no appearance from Scotty, for example, and obviously Chekov isn’t going to be introduced for another series anyway. You’ve also got a relatively significant role for Yeoman Rand, who I believe was initially billed as the show’s female lead, but was ultimately gradually phased out. (The behind the scenes stuff for that is quite interesting, actually; I was reading about it earlier today.)

Despite that, though, there’s quite clearly a firm outline for what Star Trek is going to become; while this isn’t really a particularly philosophical or high concept episode, it does end on a bit more of a contemplative note, which was nice.

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In a lot of regards, though, the episode is quite dated – most notably in terms of how it depicts women. It’s very 60s; as much as we would like to hold Star Trek up as always having been this paragon of progressive virtue (look, a woman wearing trousers walked past!) that’s not necessarily always the case.

Each of the three female characters – Nancy, Uhura, and Janice Rand – all get their ditzy airhead moments, and they’re all objectified to some extent as romantic conquests to pursue. There’s a particularly strange moment where three male crewmen are leering at Janice Rand, and say they wouldn’t mind her being their personal Yeoman, which is just a tad creepy. You can understand where it comes from, of course; this Star Trek is being pitched as not so different from a naval vessel, and this kind of joke-y banter between a group of male crewmen probably wouldn’t feel so out of place. It’s definitely the sort of thing that would engender a laugh from the audience, in any case. Now, while this obviously doesn’t spoil the episode or anything like that, it does feel a little bit of a letdown; for a show that has a reputation for being quite so forward thinking, it’s perhaps a little disappointing to be confronted with certain realities we tend to ignore.

Nonetheless! The Man Trap is a pretty decent episode. It’s got a nice little mystery going on, it’s quite well paced, and at times it’s actually rather tense – I’m not sure I’d necessarily call it exciting, but it was certainly very engaging, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a strong episode, and while it doesn’t speak of fifty years’ worth of potential, it would absolutely get me to watch the next episode.

7/10

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