I continue my examination of the episodes of Star Trek. The first season is often regarded as being the series at its best, but that may not be the case. True, it contains some iconic episodes, but it’s very uneven, which is not unusual for a series. Had the series run longer than three years, it is likely that the first season would be looked back upon as quite odd compared to the series as a whole, despite having strong moments. This was certainly true for studio-mate Mission: Impossible.
By the second season, the series had found itself. The actors were comfortable with their characters, the writers knew what the show was all about, and the production was more efficient. Because of all of this, it is arguably the second season that is overall the best, and is, in many ways, quintessential Star Trek.
The tone is quite different. I’ve already addressed the greater sense of ensemble in the first season, especially the earliest efforts. That was largely gone by this point, with the secondary characters rarely having any significant role beyond their jobs on the ship. Perhaps the only real exception is Walter Koenig’s Chekov, a character added this season either to answer concerns from the Soviet Union that there would surely be a Russian on board, or more likely a direct response to the immense popularity of The Monkees. In either case, Chekov was being afforded more personality than returning regulars Sulu and Uhura. This is particularly sad in the former case, as the original intent had been to give Sulu more to do. But George Takei was away filming The Green Berets for much of the time, and thus, choice episodes went to the newbie instead.
Several other tonal elements distinguish the second season. It was less science-fictiony, and had more emphasis on action/adventure, enhanced by a considerable number of episodes filmed on location. We also saw the full implementation of a concept Gene Rodenberry wanted from the beginning: the idea of “parallel earths” that mirrored our own but for key differences that would illuminate our own culture. Thus, we got a Roman planet, a Nazi planet, a gangster planet, and even a planet where the Cold War had been fought and ended… badly.
Related to that is the move away from a familiar, inhabited Federation. In the previous season we frequently uncounted Federation citizens, visiting no fewer than three starbases as well as assorted colonies devoted to mining or farming. The Federation seemed very lived-in and populated by ordinary guys named Bob and Joe. But someone must have decided we weren’t seeing enough of the “strange new worlds” promised by the opening narration, so that’s where we end up spending most of our time from now on.
But perhaps the most striking element of the season was a new emphasis on comedy. Where before the series had offered light character moments to break the tension, this year we were presented with three outright comedies, and many other episodes that clearly didn’t take themselves seriously. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the individual. It certainly added to the fun. Let’s go…
“Amok Time” What fans had been waiting for (especially those of the female persuasion): a visit to Spock’s home planet, and a glimpse into the nature of Vulcan sex. A terrific start for the season, with compelling character moments, and rousing action, as Kirk and Spock fight to the death to the strains of the most easily recognized (and easily lampooned) music in the entire series: the fight music called “The Ancient Combat.” Wonderful things are done with limited budget, and the guest stars make flawless Vulcans. This episode also introduces the Vulcan salute, and there is another, more subtle moment of import. Spock invites Kirk and McCoy to the ceremony, saying he is permitted to be accompanied by his “friends.” And with that, the essential trio relationship that would drive the remainder of the series was set.
“Who Mourns for Adonais” The title references a romantic poem by Shelley, an elegy, and the episode has a very elegiac feel, despite moments of tension and action. Guest Michael Forest is imposing as a genuine Greek god, and effectively conveys the mercurial temperament that the gods of myth were famous for. And he does it while maintaining his dignity in the world’s shortest toga. It helps that Leslie Parrish distracts attention while managing to stay covered by one of the most famous costumes in television history. An early indicator of the tone of this season is the way Kirk resolves the problem by blasting it with the ship’s phasers. But Apollo’s subsequent departure (scored with a stirring theme by Fred Steiner that would see frequent reuse) is moving, despite being virtually identical to the departures of Charlie Evans and Trelane in the previous season.
“The Changeling” Once again, Kirk convinces a computer to destroy itself, this time a malevolent space probe called Nomad that is actually the only “guest star” of the episode. A straightforward design and voice actor Vic Perrin’s ominous delivery make it work, and we are as worried as Spock when the only thing keeping Nomad from wiping out the ship is a mistake it made and Kirk allowed it to continue believing. Also powerful is Leonard Nimoy’s performance of a cryptic mind-meld with Nomad, which, despite not actually making sense (how you read the “mind” of a machine?), nevertheless deepens the eeriness of the story. Perhaps the only weakness in the episode is how Uhura apparently recovers from having her mind erased with no ill effects.
“Mirror, Mirror” A huge fan favorite, and justly so, as the “Mirror Universe” allows most of our favorite characters a chance to be very different. Apparently there’s something appealing about evil and the actors run with it, while still remaining true to their characters. Author Jerome Bixby offers a variety of creative means of torture and murder, including the legendary “agony booth,” and a device that simply wipes people from existence, not surprising for the writer of the bleakly nihilistic “It’s a Good Life,” about a very young boy with god-like power who mindlessly tortures everyone around him simply because it doesn’t occur to him not to. But it must be said that the flamboyant, pirate-like uniforms that were only ever seen in this episode are actually quite an improvement on the original. And the episode provides us with Kirk’s rousing, “In every revolution…” speech (although as part of it, he provides mirror-Spock with the means of murdering vast numbers of people to achieve an allegedly noble end). Special note should be made of the fact that the last scene of this episode was borrowed for the DS9 episode “Troubles and Tribblations.” In the reuse, Captain Sisko gets to have a wide-eyed encounter with Kirk, and is quite pleased at the pleasant smile Kirk offers him. Am I the only one amused that, in its original context, the look Kirk gives is toward a lovely yeoman we are pretty sure he intends to bang in the near future? Just sayin’.
“The Apple” One of the weaker episodes of the season, and indeed of the series, this one is distinct in that it features the one all-powerful computer that Kirk doesn’t try to outwit but simply blasts to oblivion with the ship’s phasers. What could have been an intriguing story about cultural stagnation is rendered silly by the costumes and makeup worn by the primitives and the fact that trouble brews because the Enterprise crew introduces them to the concept of smooching. And then we must not overlook the fact that the landing party includes not one, not two, but actually four security guards, each of whom is dispatched in a different way. Thus it was this episode more than any other that made us aware of just how dangerous it was to accompany Kirk, Spock and McCoy to the planet in a red shirt. “How many ways are there to die on the planet, Spock?” “Four, Captain.” “Right. Assign four security guards.”
“The Doomsday Machine” Bookended by two of the most ludicrous episodes of the series comes this, easily the best episode of any version of Star Trek, and arguably the finest hour of television ever produced. There really isn’t a wrong note. Guest William Windom chews the scenery to perfection as a man driven to madness by guilt and horror, and, perhaps in response, William Shatner delivers one of his most restrained performances, perfectly deadpanning the deathless line, “Gentlemen, I suggest you beam me aboard.” The tension is unrelenting, aided in no small part by a masterful score by Sol Kaplan. Perhaps the only weak point of the episode is the fact that Dr. McCoy is unable to relieve the deranged Decker from command because he hasn’t had time to run a physical on a man he just declared to be in a state of shock. But in other episodes he declares that his right to demand such an examination is inviolate. He must have forgotten that, and presumably the reason he disappears halfway through the episode is because he needs to bone up (heh heh) on Federation medical regulations.
“Catspaw” Okay, who thought a Halloween episode was a good idea? From the very start, when the landing party is greeted by hilariously over-the-top witches in the fog, we know that what we are in for is not to be taken seriously. And, indeed, despite what is presumably serious peril both on the planet and to the ship, we never have any real sense of danger. It feels like a bunch of people playing dress-up at a costume party that got out of hand. The fact that it turns out that’s exactly what’s going on should help, but doesn’t.
“I Mudd” One has to wonder what fans were thinking by this point. Having already seen two unintentionally hilarious episodes, we get one that tops them all. But the fact that it quickly becomes clear that things are supposed to be silly makes all the difference, and we are able to enjoy the first, and most effective, outright comedy of the series. Wisely bringing back the charming rogue Harry Mudd in a lighter story than last season’s “Mudd’s Women” allows us to strip away the very dark aspects of the original character (who was essentially a pimp and a drug smuggler) and simply enjoy the antics of a buffoonish con-man. That a presumed paradise of beautiful androids who will indulge your every depraved whim turns out to be a prison is an intriguing spin on several Star Trek themes. And the ultimate dénouement, where Kirk once again outwits a computer, actually grasps the reality of how illogical that idea is, and takes it to the hysterical extreme. Say it with me: “I… am… lying.”
“Metamorphosis” One of the most sensitive stories of the series, this is essentially a very odd love story between two unique entities: an impossibly old figure from the past, and an incorporeal being. Somehow it works. Credit must go to composer George Dunning, who in his first outing for the series, demonstrates a lush, emotional style very different from any of the other regular composers, and which saw him coming back any time an episode featured a delicate romance. This episode is notable as the first of many where it’s just Kirk Spock and McCoy, plus guest starts, while everyone else stays on the ship with very little to do. And then there’s the unanswered question left by the episode’s otherwise moving conclusion: what will they do about the war Commissioner Hedford was supposed to mediate?
“Journey to Babel” Along with “Amok Time,” this episode stands among the most treasured, because it offers us a look at what makes Mr. Spock tick, this time exploring his strained relationship with his father, played marvelously by Mark Lenard. If that were all this episode offers, it would be worthwhile, but we get much more. We get to meet a delightful variety of exotic (for the time) denizens of the Federation, and also have a genuinely suspenseful story of menace to the ship. A lot to juggle, and it’s no surprise it came from the pen of D. C. Fontana, one of the series’ most sure-handed writers, who was fast becoming the resident authority on all things Vulcan.
“Friday’s Child” A location shoot, and the return to Kirk’s Rocks. Another Redshirt, doomed before the opening credits. Our second encounter with a Klingon, this one not nearly as interesting as Kor, mostly just a devious villain. But what makes the episode is the well-realized “primitive” culture our heroes must come to terms with. Combining Persian, Native American and North African elements, the Capellans are distinct and believable as an honor-bound society based on clan loyalty and tradition. Unfortunately, our heroes come off as much less admirable. The conflict stems mostly from a series of stupid actions based on a combination of cultural ignorance and a stubborn refusal to actually conform to the cultural norms they do know. You’d think Starfleet would have sent trained diplomats to avoid exactly this kind of bungling On the other hand, this is the first time we see Scotty in command of the ship for any extended period, and it’s a treat. The outdoor scenes are fun, and reminiscent of The Wild Wild West. And anchoring it all is guest Julie Newmar, bringing the same light comedic touch to an otherwise serious role that made her performances as Catwoman one of the best parts of the Batman series.
“The Deadly Years” Perhaps no other episode benefits so much from the passage of time, although the benefit is ironic and unintentional. This story, with the dubious premise of mysterious radiation causing the crew to age rapidly, allows us to see projections of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty reaching advanced age. How amusing indeed that those appearances are pretty much nothing like the way the actors actually aged. But then could you expect otherwise? While it’s fun to watch the characters doddering around and adopting elderly mannerisms, the resolution is the second least plausible in the history of the show. They might be able to stop the rapid aging, but actually making it reverse is something else entirely. Also inexplicable is just what exactly Janet Wallace is doing on the ship other than to be a biology specialist just when one is needed, and also an old flame of Kirk’s with whom he strikes no sparks whatsoever. Was she the “little blonde lab assistant” that Gary Mitchell steered Kirk’s way at the academy?
“Obsession” This episode draws on a couple of different ideas. The concept of Kirk being so driven to correct what he considers a mistake that led to the deaths of much of the crew of his first assignment, including his captain and mentor, that he is willing to jeopardize his own ship and crew, was already explored, much better, in “The Doomsday Machine.” This behavior on Kirk’s part comes out of nowhere, as does the chief of security, a station never seen on any other episode of the series. And how convenient indeed that it’s the son of the dead captain! But of much greater interest is the deadly “cloud creature,” presented by a combination of practical and optical effects, and made especially creepy by the reuse of music from “Catspaw,” serving much better use here. Cues from “The Doomsday Machine” are also put to good use, especially in the nail-biting climax involving, once again, a cranky transporter.
“Wolf in the Fold” Again we get to see an exotic culture, this one allegedly devoted to hedonistic pleasures, although what we see is pretty tame, even by 1960s standards. The Jack the Ripper story is far from original, and in this case isn’t particularly creative. The story in particular suffers from the fact that we can’t really be sure how the entity works. We see it hopping from host to host, so it’s not unreasonable to assume it inhabited Scotty when the murders occurred, yet the story plays out to point to a single host who just happened to be able to be present. So the story doesn’t follow its own rules. It’s nice to see character actor John Fiedler playing a maniacal villain when he’s so often associated with meek characters. On the other hand, the response to the entity taking over the ship seems extreme; was it really necessary to get everyone stoned, to the point where Sulu acts like a refugee from Reefer Madness?
“The Trouble with Tribbles” What can be said about this episode that hasn’t already been said, mostly by David Gerrold? Or, more accurately, “David Gerrold, the guy who wrote the most popular Star Trek episode of all time, bitch!” I’ll give the man credit for managing to build a successful writing career on actually getting an unsolicited story produced, something that rarely happens. Anyway, this is the episode that really paved the way for comedic episodes. Unfortunately, it’s also the weakest as such. The humor is strictly vaudeville/borscht belt, with a distressingly predictable pattern of setup-punchline, setup-punchline. Good humor comes from character, not cheap one-liners. But the cast is game, particularly a who’s-who of comedy veterans, including William Schallert as an officious bureaucrat, William “Trelane” Campbell as the least Klingonish Klingon in the history of the series, and Stanley Adams, who steals the show as the well-intentioned but shady trader, Cyrano Jones.
“The Gamesters of Triskelion” This episode revolves around a very dark premise, one that has been used to ill effect much more recently: people being forced to fight combat to the death for the amusement of bored superbeings. It’s especially discouraging at the end. Kirk ostensibly wins the final wager, securing freedom for his crew and all the thralls, but the Providers had already made clear they weren’t above rigging the game, when they changed the terms of the fight to be three against one, so there’s no reason to assume they will be good to their word. But the fight scenes are well-staged and exciting (even though there aren’t very many thralls around, it seems). Uhura and Chekov get to figure prominently in the action for a change, with Walter Koenig benefiting again from George Takei’s absence, since the part was originally intended for Sulu. And then there’s Angelique Pettijohn, she of the green hair and mylar bikini. Was Kirk just using her to try to escape, the way she suspects? Or was he using her to satisfy a different concern entirely?
“A Piece of the Action” The third and last straight comedy, this one manages to get laughs from the premise of planetary contamination. A whole planet of gangsters is not really a sustainable society, but never let logic get in the way of the joke. Seeing Kirk, and especially Spock, running around in pinstripe suits and fedoras is a treat, as is the legendary game of fizzbin. The actors are all having a grand time, and the result is a diverting hour.
“The Immunity Syndrome” This is what’s known as a “bottle show,” one shot entirely on standing sets with mostly just regular cast, usually near the end of production to save costs. Indeed, the bulk of the budget went to special effects, in rendering the infamous space amoeba. The whole idea is beyond plausible, but it’s still a tense, exciting hour. This episode features some of the strongest exploration of the Spock-McCoy relationship yet seen, and Shatner is, again, more subdued than normal, which works well in this case, with the idea that everyone is literally dying of exhaustion.
“A Private Little War” Another location shoot, and also one of the few “monsters” seen in the series, although the mugatu is mostly just an excuse for Kirk to be injured and in need of sexy witch-doctoring. This episode is one of the most overtly political of the series, with the Vietnam parallels very nearly spelled out for us. Once again the Klingons are rendered perfunctorily by a single one-dimensional representative. But the parable is strong, and, to the series’ credit, does not reach a neat resolution. The downbeat ending does as much to sell the “moral” as anything else that happens in the episode.
“Return to Tomorrow” Another encounter with god-like aliens, this time ones who wiped themselves out, and then put themselves into storage to await someone to come and give them another chance. One wonders why they need to occupy the precise bodies they choose, but it gives Leonard Nimoy a chance to have some fun as the villainous Henoch, who has occupied Spock’s body. It’s also never clear why having your body taken over by an ancient god-like being would suddenly give your voice reverb, but oh well, it’s still good fun, with Kirk giving one of his most rousing motivational speeches: “Risk… risk is our business!”
“Patterns of Force” We already had planet of the gangsters, now we get planet of the Nazis. This episode seems to be little more than an excuse to trot the Nazi uniforms out of costuming, but we should also bear in mind that, while Nazis and World War II seem like ancient history to many today, when the series was produced the war had ended barely twenty years earlier. Consider that twice that much time separates us today from Vietnam, yet we are still struggling with the scars, so for people at the time, the Nazi horrors were very real. Unfortunately, the proximity of time meant that, as with pretty much any representation of Nazism, it was cartoonish and completely lacking in subtlety, despite the implications of the premise that, under a more benign leader, Nazism might have flourished into something positive. But they made sure to undercut their own message in no uncertain terms, suggesting that such a system will always produce genocidal maniacs. Who knows, maybe that’s true.
“By Any Other Name” This is an exceptionally strange episode. It begins with a chilling premise, the vanguard of an implacable invasion force from another galaxy who effortlessly commandeer the ship and give us what is without a doubt the most horrific redshirt sacrifice in the series. Or, perhaps more accurate, reddress, and kudos to writer Jerome Bixby for having the courage to do that. And yet, once the story gets underway, the means by which our stalwart heroes begin their efforts to defeat the aliens take a bizarre turn, involving what is essentially a comedic lesson in the seven deadly sins. Kirk romances a female alien to make the leader jealous while Scotty engages another in a legendary drinking contest. And all of this is played largely for laughs. To quote Rojan, the alien leader, “Curious indeed.”
“The Omega Glory” Oh boy. The one with the American flag at the end. The political parable is never more explicit than in this one, where we encounter a planet that fought the Cold War and the West lost, plunging the world into primitivism. We encounter another deranged Starfleet representative (there sure do seem to be a lot of them about), who takes care of the obligatory redshirt with no real reason for doing so. The initial threat, a deadly disease which will supposedly strand our people on the planet forever is resolved by… well… just sort of going away. Seriously. But all of this is really just a setup to allow William Shatner the chance to give the most over-the-top recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in history. This is Bill at his most Shatnerish. And then he gets his hands on the Preamble to the Constitution. “Weeeeee……. the People!” Oh the humanity. On the other hand, I wonder how many people can recite the thing at all, let alone with that kind of passion
“The Ultimate Computer” This was a real rip-snorter of an episode at the time, but now is quite dated, and, ultimately, was on the wrong side of technological history. The idea of turning command of the ship over to a machine was horrifying at the time, especially given how everyone had heard of HAL 9000. But since then computers have gotten smaller, not bigger as was assumed back then. There will never be some massive sell-aware monster computer, because they don’t work that way. And as for being able to run things more effectively than humans, well, that’s pretty much true. It’s ludicrous to see some science fiction adventure where the hero puts the controls on manual because “this is a tricky maneuver.” Both Kirk and Spock make noises about how important it is to have “that man at the helm,” but even within the story there is little justification other than the fact that this particular computer is implausibly unstable. On the other hand, William Marshall, as yet another crazed Federation hero, gives an exceptionally magnetic performance, perhaps second only to William Windom. And the motivation to the character’s mania rings surprisingly true. It can very hard on a prodigy to peak young, and then realize he is facing a lifetime of watching people surpass him.
“Bread and Circuses” Planet of the Romans. It’s Roddenberry’s commentary on the cutthroat world of television production, and the idea that twentieth century Rome might have broadcast gladiatorial games on TV is intriguing. Much could be said about the complacency of such a society, and again, this theme has been played to ill effect more recently. Unfortunately, this profound idea never really goes anywhere in the episode. A key moment comes near the end when the Proconsul gets a few moments with Kirk and says he wants to explain what this society is all about and why the ship cannot be allowed to leave and inform other about them. And he then proceeds to… not do so. There could have been some idea that a society such as this hangs by a thread and could not withstand any form of outside contact, but that’s not even hinted at. Instead, it’s just about making our heroes fight. And the combat scenes are lackluster, so there’s not much enjoyment in that, either. Too bad. It could have been quite impressive. But the series was near the end of production, with a great likelihood of not being renewed, so perhaps the motivation was not there.
“Assignment: Earth” This is Roddenberry’s famous backdoor pilot, originally intended to jumpstart a series about powerful, alien-trained agent Gary Seven and his ditzy assistant Roberta Lincoln as they try to prevent World War III from breaking out in the late 1960s. The series might well have been fun, with the leads very well played by an imposing Robert Lansing and a young and already brilliant Teri Garr in one of her first roles. But it was not to be. Instead the program got burned at the end of the season, which explains why the regular characters get comparatively little screen time compared to the guest stars, and also makes quite ironic Spock’s comment at the end that, while he cannot tell them any specifics, he suspects that Mr. Seven and Miss Lincoln have “some interesting experiences ahead of them.” Apparently not.