An Original Series Part 1

Okay, something completely different.  I’ve made no secret of my fondness for Star Trek.  It was a very important series in the development of contemporary science fiction, but it was also just plain fun.  So, for no good reason, I thought I’d do a rundown of that series, sort of a set of brief episode analyses.  Granted, most fans will find little new here, and everyone else probably has no interest, but what the heck.  Perhaps I can offer just a bit of insight for people too young to have seen the original run, and who may well have never seen the series at all.  That said, I’m not offering synopsis, since that’s something you can find plentifully.  This is my personal comments and analysis.

And yes, let me be clear that I refer to the series as Star Trek.  That’s what it’s called.  I know everybody now calls it “Star Trek: The Original Series,” but that’s not what it says on the title card.  The other series that came after have their merits and their assorted subtitles, but this one is just Star Trek.  In the same way that it’s just Star Wars, not “Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope.”  (And Han shot first.)

Okay, so I begin with the first season, in broadcast order.  The series was finding its legs and there are some odd moments.  It was mostly written by either established TV veterans or genre sci-fi authors, and the fairly serious tone reflects that.

“The Man Trap”  This was not the first episode produced, but it’s easy to guess why it was the first aired: it’s the closest to “classic” science fiction of any episode, with the series’ only real “monster.”  Of course, this being Star Trek, a layer of pathos is added, putting the story right in line with the sorts of things being done on The Outer Limits.  The score is particularly creepy, as befits a story of this sort, but doesn’t sound much like subsequent scores.  Perhaps the most notable element of this episode, however, is how it has much more of an ensemble feel than any other episode.  The series gradually shifted focus solely to Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and apparently William Shatner also played a hand in the diminished participation of the secondary regulars, but that is not in evidence here, as considerable screen time is given to Sulu, Uhura, and the forgotten regular, Yeoman Rand.  Their lively interaction aboard ship, interspersed with Kirk and Spock’s more serious investigations on the planet, is surprising and delightful, and this is the only time we really see Sulu as the inveterate hobbyist he was originally conceived as being.

“Charlie X”  This is the first of several iterations of a theme that was apparently very significant to Gene Roddenberry: the effect of ultimate power bestowed on a flawed human.  In fact, the theme is also central to the second pilot, but this one aired first.  Guest Robert Walker Jr. is not convincing as a teenager, but he does effectively convey the menace of a character unable to control the frightening power he has (I suppose, in some tiny way, there’s a trace of Charlie Evans in my character of Tanya).  It’s also notable that the score, created by Fred Steiner, would go on to be by far the most tracked of the entire series; cues from it can be heard in nearly every subsequent episode over the run of the series.

“Where No Man Has Gone Before”  The second series pilot, this one has a very different feel from the rest of the series.  The tone is somber, and the design of the show is strikingly monochrome compared to how colorful it would later become.  Leonard Nimoy was still finding his way as Spock, and, as a result, there are some uncharacteristic mannerisms and bits of emotion.  It is unfortunate that the story so closely mirrors the previous episode, which surely should have been held off, rather than played back-to-back.  The guest stars, genuine movie stars hired to bring some heft to the pilot, are a mixed bag. Gary Lockwood offers a chilling performance as the superhuman Gary Mitchell, and it’s a shame we don’t have an opportunity to get to know the character before he’s thrust into godhood.  On the other hand, Sally Kellerman’s performance is especially lifeless, and, although the character is supposed to be cold, overall she just comes across as wooden.

“The Naked Time”  Another episode that would have benefited from being held back, this one works on the conceit of laying bare the inmost workings of the characters’ psyches.  It surely would have been better to see this after getting to know them, but maybe the production decided that this would be a good way of accomplishing exactly that.  Perhaps they were right.  Completely stealing the proceedings is Bruce Hyde as Kevin Riley; unlike Gary Mitchell, Riley gets a chance to play out a bit before going crazy, and as a result, we like him, despite what he subsequently does.  It’s quite a shame Riley was not part of the regular cast, although, given the series’ ultimate direction, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered.

“The Enemy Within”  Yet another episode that would have meant more if we knew the characters better.  Seeing Captain Kirk split into “good” and “evil” halves gives a bit of insight into the character, but it would have been better to know him first, and then see this.  It could have allowed for a more nuanced interpretation of the two sides as well.  But then, of course, we’re talking William Shatner, who takes the opportunity to offer one of his hammiest performances.  Also, for what it’s worth, this is the episode that introduced the legendary “Vulcan neck pinch,” invented on the spot by Leonard Nimoy, with the improvised assistance of Shatner.

“Mudd’s Women”  This story stems from Roddenberry’s earliest conception of the series, and is the most tied to the idea of the series as a “space western,” with the hoary cliché of providing wives to lonely miners.  Even worse, the titular women are hampered by being shown in a very mid-sixties bombshell sort of way.  Beyond introducing the world to Harry Mudd, magnificently played by Roger C. Carmel, there is little to recommend this very dated and rather sexist episode.

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?”  The first episode to showcase Gene Roddenberry’s other fascination: human-like machines, in this case androids.  Ted Cassidy makes a terrifying ancient android with its own agenda, but the episode itself is sluggish.  Probably the best moment (other than guest Sherri Lansing’s infamous open-sided outfit) is Kirk’s clever ploy to attract Spock’s attention by filling his head with improbable bigotry as his brain waves are projected into an android duplicate.

“Miri”  Another uneven episode, this one is probably most notable as the one that brought an end to the character of Janice Rand, and arguably put a bullet in Grace Lee Whitney’s career.  A planet overrun by long-lived children with no adult authority should be terrifying, but most of them project no real presence, and leaders Kim Darby and Michael J. Pollard just come across as being too old to be convincing.  Further, while we are okay with the idea of Kirk bedding every space babe that comes along, the attraction for him shown by what is supposed to be a young girl is quite disturbing, as is the overly affectionate way he interacts with Rand.  Hence her being written out of the series as a dramatic liability.

“Dagger of the Mind”  This episode, set in a penal colony run by a director who is even more sociopathic than the inmates, seems to exist for little more reason to put yet another alluring woman in Kirk’s arms (for the record, it was originally supposed to be Yeoman Rand, see above).  Guest James Gregory strives mightily to give some depth to the malevolent director, but, alas, the script offers him (and us) no actual justification for why he does the horrific things he does.  It’s an interesting idea without a story.  On the other hand, it does introduce the Vulcan mind meld, so that’s worth something.

“The Corbomite Maneuver”  The first episode produced after the two pilots, this one shows some distinct elements of the series finding its way.  The pacing is very slow, yet somehow the tension is largely maintained.  This is the episode where Uhura (wearing gold instead of red, another sign of being a very early episode) literally has nothing to do except open hailing frequencies.  I didn’t count, but she has to do it at least a dozen times.  The titular maneuver comes very late in the story, and seems an odd thing to base the title on, but it does allow us to see a fundamental difference between the way the captain and his first officer approach challenges.  And the amusing twist at the end is a lot of fun.  Who here doesn’t relish Tranya?

“The Menagerie”  Of course, Star Trek’s first pilot was extremely different from the ensuing series.  Primarily, it features a cast almost entirely different from what we would end up with, most notably the captain, who doesn’t come across as the action hero the network wanted.  Nor could they handle a powerful woman as second-in-command.  Unfortunate, and one does wonder what the series might have looked like had the first pilot sold.  We’ll never know.  And we likely wouldn’t even have this much to go on had the producers not had the brainstorm to package the pilot up as a flashback to an earlier time, placing it into an unconvincing frame story that seems to go to an inordinate amount of trouble to solve what is actually a rather simple problem.

“The Conscience of the King”  This episode is another example of the series finding its bearings, as it plays quite differently from any other.  Heavily rooted in Shakespearean tragedy, the action focuses mostly on the blooming relationship between Kirk and the daughter of an actor he suspects of mass murder.  It is never entirely clear how much he is using her, so the alleged romance falls flat, despite a marvelous performance from guest Barbara Anderson.  And in any event, the reveal at the end makes the entire thing irrelevant.  Nevertheless, the idea that Kirk has actually fallen in love with her diminishes a later episode where his falling in love is truly significant.  You just can’t have the leading man falling in love every other week.  On the other hand, Arnold Moss as the actor/murderer gives a performance of such power it’s surprising to realize he has barely five minutes of screen time in the entire episode.  And we get our second (and final) visit from Kevin Riley, albeit disappointingly subdued.  Add to this a gorgeous musical performance by Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, and, despite some weaknesses, all in all this is one of the stronger episodes of the first season.

“Balance of Terror”  The series’ first truly great episode.  The fact that this is merely a spaced up retelling of the old cruiser vs. submarine chestnut does nothing to diminish the power of a great story and stunning performances.  True, some liberties are taken, to match the nature of the premise (phasers don’t work that way in any other episode), but when we have the profound performance of Mark Lenard as the noble Romulan commander (a better role than his more famous assaying of Sarek of Vulcan) it’s all good.  This is the introduction of the Romulans, and a remarkable amount of time is spent with them, making them complex and comprehensible.  Ultimately a much better adversary than the two-dimensional Klingons who would appear more often.  And the time with the good guys is not wasted either, as we get to explore themes of bigotry, and the sacrifices demanded by war.  Easily one of the best episodes in the entirety of Star Trek.

“Shore Leave”  A very strange episode, played with a light touch, this episode may be most notorious as the one viewed by critic Cleveland Amory prior to giving the series a pretty negative review.  A worse choice he could not have made.  It is atypical in every possible way.  Like “The Naked Time,” this one gives insight into our characters’ inmost desires, but in a much more amusing way.  Everyone’s having fun on the series’ first location shoot (while “Miri” has outdoor sequences, they were all done on the backlot).  And what do you suppose Kirk did when he wandered off with old flame Ruth at the end?

“The Galileo Seven”  A very tense little story that puts Spock in command of a situation and shows the deficiencies of a purely logical approach to dangerous circumstances.  Kirk, meanwhile, has a very reduced role in this one, as it all comes down to the landing party trying to survive while crashed on a very hostile planet.  The primitive natives may well be among the most terrifying adversaries of the series, which makes it quite amusing when you see how ludicrous they looked up close.  That said, what the hell were the ship’s surgeon and chief engineer (and, as originally written, the captain’s yeoman) doing on a rather routine mission to take readings of an unstable nebula?

“The Squire of Gothos”  This is an inordinately popular episode, yet another that showcases Roddenbery’s interest in all-powerful beings beyond the comprehension of mortal men.  Guest William Campbell gives a game performance which is clearly driven by his awareness of the twist at the end of the story, but never gives it away.  Yet, for some reason, the proceedings just come across as annoying, and this episode is one that doesn’t really support multiple viewings.

“Arena”  One of countless retellings of a classic short story by Frederick Pohl, this episode works, despite being pretty simple.  It is the first of several episodes shot at Vasquez Rocks, a distinctive Los Angeles landmark that took on the nickname “Kirk’s Rocks” largely due to this episode.  It also is another episode to use aliens-more-powerful-than-we-can-comprehend as the deus ex machina.  It was, no doubt, impressive for the time, but the base story is so familiar, and the telling of it such a wealth of Star Trek clichés, that it doesn’t hold up as well as it should.  That the Gorn is so obviously a guy walking slowly in a rubber suit doesn’t help either.

“Tomorrow is Yesterday”  The first of several time travel stories, this episode has one of the best openings of all, as we initially have no idea what’s going on, nor even that we are watching Star Trek, until we see the familiar ship in the sky.  There are some amusing moments at the air force base, and a rare chance for Sulu to have a strong (albeit brief) role in the action.  One assumes he’s there because of his interest in twentieth century history, although that’s never made clear.

 “Court Martial”  Another unusual episode, this one a courtroom drama that is enlivened by veteran actor Elijah Cook Jr. as the iconoclastic attorney defending Kirk from a charge that comes across as pretty contrived.  It’s unfortunate that the producers couldn’t trust the drama to carry the story, and felt it necessary to tack on a fist fight at the end (with some of the most obvious stunt doubles in a series that saw that problem often), followed by de rigueur ship-in-danger tension.  Contrivances indeed.  And then there’s the noise canceling device that allows them to track the culprit via his heartbeat.  Not only does it make no reasonable sense, it also flies in the face of the sensors’ established ability to isolate individuals at a great distance.  They really were willing to evacuate the entire ship just to clear Kirk of the charges?

“The Return of the Archons”  Another Star Trek theme shows up, one of the most outrageous: Kirk outthinks a computer.  Had they only gone to this well once it would be worth something, but they did it far too much.  The strangely repressive society plays effectively enough, and it’s interesting to note how much resemblance the recent film The Purge bears to this episode’s “red hour.”

“Space Seed”  Another inexplicably popular episode, that is probably more remembered than it would be due to being the inspiration for Star Trek II.  Ricardo Montalban does his best as the infamous Khan, giving a far more subtle performance than he would in the movie.  But, in the end, one can’t help wondering what makes these genetic supermen “super.”  Aside from having the ability to force open the sickbay door with his bare hands (and we don’t actually know how hard that really is), Khan’s only real enhancement is an outsized ego.  Well, that, and the ability to remember on sight someone he’s never met, specifically Chekov, in a scene in the movie that sent Trekkies spinning from the start.

“A Taste of Armageddon”  An intriguing idea, that war could be waged by computers and a pacified populace would willingly submit to suicide-by-lottery to avoid the ravages of real warfare.  It seems unlikely, yet, in today’s society, most of us are so removed from the realities of war that this could almost come to pass.  Alas, the episode itself is more straightforward action than any real meditation on these profound ideas.

“This Side of Paradise”  The one where Spock falls in love.  Okay, one of two.  Anyway, the love story is really quite charming and, all things considered, rather sad.  And in the end, that’s what carries the episode.  We are presented with the fundamental Star Trek philosophy that mankind apparently doesn’t like unlimited happiness; that, apparently, given the choice between a life of simple contentment and one of toil and struggle, we’d all prefer the latter.  Maybe so, in theory, but I wonder how many would actually turn down the bliss provided by these supposedly malevolent spores, whose evil takes the form of curing all diseases and making their “victims” happy and open to being loved.  Uh… yeah.

“The Devil in the Dark”  Another of the true classics.  This is another sci-fi cliché, but played so well that we don’t care.  As with others episodes, this is reminiscent of The Outer Limits, both in theme and execution.  Nimoy’s over-the-top performance of the mind meld would likely draw laughs from today’s jaded, cynical audiences, but for its time it was extremely moving.  And we learn that McCoy is a doctor, not a bricklayer, the most wonderful variation of his classic catchphrase.

“Errand of Mercy”  And now, the Klingons.  Invented by series co-creator Gene Coon, who simply does not get the recognition he deserves, they are rather less intriguing than the less-seen Romulans, but fun nonetheless.  This is due in no small part to the sterling performance of character actor John Colicos as the first Klingon, Kor.  It should be noted that, while we could say he set the mold, he really didn’t, as Kor is rather different from what Klingons would come to be (it wouldn’t be until the third season that we would see something close to “real” Klingons as the franchise would develop them).  Kor is much more a charming, yet brutal, bureaucrat than a noble warrior, a characterization quite similar to one Colicos would play the same year in an episode of studio-mate Mission: Impossible, “The Reluctant Dragon.”  And we are introduced to another example of aliens before whom we are as insects: the Organians.

“The Alternative Factor”  There are a number of candidates for “worst episode ever,” and, surprisingly, this is rarely numbered among them, yet it probably deserves the title more than any other.  Other “bad” episodes earn their status by over-top-performances, ludicrous premises or just plain embarrassing situations for all involved.  In other words, they fall into the category of “so bad it’s good.”  Not this one.  It’s just plain incomprehensible.  The premise, which should be mind-blowing, makes no sense, there are numerous continuity problems that make it impossible to distinguish between the two Lazuruses, even on repeated, careful viewing, and we never actually know what either of them are trying to do, even after it’s been explained to us.  In the end, we just don’t care, which is a shame, given that, in theory, this episode has one of the most tragic endings in the series, as an innocent man consigns himself to spend eternity in inescapable combat with a murderous madman.  If only we cared.

“The City on the Edge of Forever”  This one is often called the greatest episode of them all.  I disagree, but it is powerful.  Writer Harlan Ellison has made no secret of his distaste for the changes the production made, but they had to.  His intended ending, where, at the fateful moment, Kirk fails to do what must be done, would have been a profound moment, full of genuine human fallibility, but would have also fatally undermined the character.  The producers knew what they were doing.  This is Kirk’s most effective romance (and therefore should have been the only one) and the time travel elements are handled well.  Pathos and comedy blend flawlessly.  The tragedy is real and painful.  And Leonard Nimoy gets the privilege of delivering the single best line in all of Star Trek: “He knows, Doctor.  He knows.”

“Operation-Anihillate!”  And then we get this.  Couldn’t the producers have opted to end with “City”?  This is one of the series’ least memorable outings, despite being “invasion of the squeaky fried eggs.”  Yes, the premise is intriguing, but there are many contrivances, not the least of which is the circumstance of Spock being blinded simply due to pretty much everyone involved being an idiot, including Spock.  Really?  He subjects himself to the fatal light without protection merely because “those on the planet will have none”?  What the hell kind of logic is that?  That he miraculously regains his site through a means we’d never even heard of before would be unforgivable in a better episode.  In this one, we just say, “Whatever.”

On to Season Two

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “An Original Series Part 1

  1. Interesting points and perspective! I definitely agree with you on “Balance of Terror,” definitely one of my favorite episodes of the whole series.

    I’m making my way back through the first season of Star Trek and blogging about the psycho-social themes I’m picking up. If you get a chance, check out my site (http://thecontinuingvoyage.wordpress.com/) and let me know if you have any feedback at all! Always open to advice!

    • Thanks. I must say your site is really quite impressive; the degree of thought you put into your commentaries is remarkable. Are you familiar with the _____ and Philosophy series of books? They examine a wide range of pop-culture mainstays from a philosophical/sociological perspectives. Naturally, there’s one on Star Trek.

      It will take me some time to properly read all you have written, but I look forward to doing it and am happy to promote your efforts here. I also hope you intend to carry on through the rest of the series. I’ve always thought the third season was the most philosophically rich (despite having a number of pretty stinky episodes). You could write an entire dissertation on “Is There in Truth No Beauty” alone, and I’ve sometimes considered trying to put together a piece that examines the unique, and intriguing, presentation of time travel in “All Our Yesterdays.”

      Keep up the good work.

      • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! So far, I’m planning on continuing through the whole series, I enjoy doing this as way to keep up with my own writing skills and deeply look into something I love.

        I’ll definitely have to look into that philosophy series you mention, sounds like it would help inform the kinds of things I’m trying to discuss.

        Again, I appreciate the kind words, and thanks for the advice! I look forward to reading through more of your posts as well – I like the insight and thoughtfulness you put into your posts, and the varying topics you choose to discuss and write about.

  2. Pingback: An Original Series Part 2 | The Doors to Everywhere

  3. Pingback: An Original Series Part Three | The Doors to Everywhere

  4. Pingback: An Original Series Part 3 | The Doors to Everywhere

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