I am entering the final leg of my discussion of the episodes of Star Trek. I have already addressed seasons one and two and I move now to the much-maligned third season. This is widely considered the weakest season, and there is some justification in that there are a significant number of sub-par episodes. Yet it is often forgotten that they are balanced out by some of the most thought-provoking episodes of the series as well. Indeed, some number among the best episodes of all.
The series was up against a number of challenges by this point. Never fully supported by the network, it had been on the verge of cancellation the previous year, and the legend is that it was saved as a result of the most substantial letter campaign in TV history, although the truth is more complex. Nevertheless, despite the reprieve, the network was still not supportive and placed Star Trek in a very unfavorable time slot, where it was doomed to fail. In addition, the studio drastically slashed the budget. This meant, among other things, the virtual elimination of location episodes, as well as other cost-cutting measures.
Faced with this, series creator Gene Roddenberry essentially threw in the towel and left the day to day production to focus on other projects. Taking his place was veteran producer Fred Freiberger, who immediately put his own imprint on the series. But that should not be seen as a bad thing.
Freiberger’s first dictum was the complete rejection of comedy episodes of the sort that characterized the second season. “Star Trek is not a comedy,” he said. Making the tone more serious also led to a reduction in the action-adventure tone of the previous year and a return to more science fiction storytelling. This, in turn, allowed writers, some of them fans who submitted unsolicited manuscripts, to explore deeply philosophical ideas. The results were mixed, but when it worked, it was spectacular. Let’s take a look…
“Spock’s Brain” An inauspicious start, this is widely considered the worst episode of the series. Certainly it immediately challenges the idea of “no comedy,” as it is one of the most unintentionally hilarious episodes of all. The clichéd brain-in-a-tank premise does not inspire, although it went in a slightly different direction than usual. And words cannot describe how insane the finale is. However, to be fair, performing brain surgery on a conscious patient is actually possible now, and is sometimes considered the most appropriate method, although it never leaves an intact head of hair. And yet, for all its failings, the episode has its merits. The first half layers mystery upon mystery in a very effective way, and the idea of a “dead and buried city” emanating unimaginable energy on a glaciated planet is evocative. Additionally, regular composer Fred Steiner matches the eerie tone with some of the series’ best music. And I must take the time to point out that this episode offers a remarkable, unprecedented moment early on: having lost the trail of the alien ship and with time running out, Kirk must decide which of several planets to investigate. Deprived of his resident logical authority, he turns to the junior officers. In a tightly written and elegantly underplayed scene, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov share information and explore options with the captain, collectively arriving at the course that leads to success. The actors must have been beside themselves at the opportunity. No other scene like it exists in the series, and it’s exhilarating.
“The Enterprise Incident” Obviously, this tense, surprising outing would have made a better season premier. Yet its premise is nearly as implausible as the previous episode’s. It’s fun initially wondering if Kirk has really gone over the edge, and Spock’s seduction of the Romunlan Commander that makes up the bulk of the episode is, as they say, fascinating. But, as covert ops go, this one is really ill-conceived. Leaving the entire crew in the dark as a means of protecting them from political blowback doesn’t make up for the much greater risk of the mission itself, as it was mentioned in the previous season that, “Romulans do not take captives” (luckily, the Romulans appear to have changed that policy by this point). Since the whole plan hinges on the seduction, how fortunate they were that the commander turned out to be a woman; was there a Plan B if it were a man? And if the plan was to steal, and subsequently use, a cloaking device, shouldn’t they have allowed the engineer given the job the chance to study and make preliminary arrangements, rather than forcing him to do it by guesswork while under extreme pressure? No wonder Starfleet wanted to give themselves deniability for this stupid suicide mission.
“The Paradise Syndrome” The season’s only location episode, and thus the last one of the series, this makes good use of spectacular scenery and effective actors in a remnant of Roddenberry’s “parallel earths” concept. The amnesia chestnut actually works better than it should have, and the romance is moving, even though we’d already seen Kirk fall in love, and suffer heartbreaking loss. Doing it once is great; twice, maybe not. But the final scene shows how effective music can be in establishing tone; that soft hit in the low brass at the key moment is guaranteed to make any fan tear up just by hearing it.
“And the Children Shall Lead” As with “Miri,” this episode presents us with malevolent children, and, like that episode, they just don’t register enough. Tommy, the lead child, is much too old to be playing games with the other kids. The mental torment they apply to the crew is too strange to be believed: seriously, Sulu would freak out because he thinks space is suddenly full of giant swords? On the other hand, we do get the wonderful line from Spock: “Captain, why are we bothering Starfleet?” And I must say this about guest Melvin Belli: as an actor, he makes a great attorney.
“Is There In Truth No Beauty” This is, quite simply, one of the best episodes of the season, and the entire series. This is made all the more remarkable that it was a spec script sent in by a fan named Jean Lisette Aroeste, who, unlike David Gerrold, didn’t then turn around and trumpet her greatness to everyone who would listen. Instead she simply went on and wrote another standout episode. This one is a complex, profound meditation on some heavy concepts, including beauty and ugliness, love and jealousy, the definition of madness, and even the nature of disability. The story takes multiple turns and surprises us at every moment, and the utterly alien ambassador who temporarily merges with Spock offers a brief, heartbreakingly profound comment on the essential loneliness of the human condition. And it all plays out against a magnificently moody score by George Dunning. Unfortunately, guest Diana Muldaur, while a fine actor who was excellent in last season’s “Return to Tomorrow,” is miscast as a character whom everyone refers to as a “girl” and “vulnerable” (she was apparently not the first choice for the role and was cast at Gene Roddenberry’s insistence). The only other weakness is the forced dialogue about the IDIC, a cheesy bauble Roddenberry inserted in the episode so he could sell it to fans by mail order. Too bad, because it slightly diminishes an episode that otherwise perfectly inculcates the basic philosophies he wanted to represent.
“Spectre of the Gun” It’s really hard to address this one, as it’s excessively strange, both in concept and execution. The idea that xenophobic aliens would test our characters by making them reenact a famous incident from the Old West could only happen on TV. And the reenactment itself is very divisive. The surrealistically incomplete sets are often praised as being simply a product of Kirk’s mind. But the original concept was to shoot on Paramount’s western backlot sets, until budget cuts put the axe to that. One wonders how that would have changed the way the episode played. Certainly it would have made more sense for Spock’s suggestion that this might be a replay of history, and thus they would all have to die; on the weird red sets in the episode it’s hard to imagine he would even consider it a possibility. It’s also intriguing that our heroes take the roles of a notoriously murderous criminal gang, while the Earps, the nominal “bad guys,” were actually respected lawmen. Yet how many Trekkies hear the name Wyatt Earp and immediately boo?
“Day of the Dove” Another episode that belies the assumed poor quality of the third season. This is our second full-on outing with the Kingons, and, in many ways, it improves on what has come before. Guest Michael Ansara provides probably the definitive Klingon characterization for the series, and the one that paved the way for all that was to come. Kang is cold, ruthless and conniving, yet he is also as fiercely dedicated to his command as Kirk is to his, and is fully able to lay down arms and make an uneasy peace when the situation calls for it. Add his obvious love for his knock-out wife, Mara (the only female Klingon we get to know in the series and, not coincidentally, one of the strongest female characters we ever get, making her a particular favorite of mine) and we have in Kang a very well-rounded character who may well be the best Klingon of them all.
“For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” An incredibly clunky title, but a decent episode. It is McCoy’s only romance and it’s nice to see, although the deus ex machina ending of discovering the cure for his incurable disease at the very last second is forced. It’s unfortunate that there was no budget for location work, because the premise of a hollow world would work better if it weren’t staged on indoor sets that are conveniently underground, along with one patently fake “outdoor” set. And the central tension of the story, the fact that this world-ship is on a collision course with another planet, is also undercut. Supposedly, it will impact in one year, and they will have to destroy it if they can’t correct the course. Of course they do, and are pleased to announce that the ship will reach its original destination… in one year. Um, is that destination by any chance the same planet everyone thought it was on a collision course for?
“The Tholian Web” Another very layered episode, with several different tensions, any one of which could have driven the story: the horrific loss of the Captain, the internal threat of violent madness infecting the crew, and the external threat of the implacable Tholians all add up to a nail-biting hour. Shatner gets the week off while Spock takes command, and we really see the Spock/McCoy dynamic laid bare. And the Tholians are a rare attempt at presenting an alien that is truly alien. Too bad the budget limited how much they could really do.
“Plato’s Stepchildren” This episode is famous for giving us TV’s first interracial kiss, and much has been written about that. But otherwise, the episode is painful to watch, as our heroes are subjected to the most abject degradation by a society that seems intent on proving Jack L. Chalker’s rule that those with power will inevitably use it to enslave and torture those without. They also employ a particularly maddening form of emotional blackmail, telling McCoy that it’s entirely in his power to stop them from torturing his crewmates simply by agreeing to stay, and saying that if he doesn’t, what happens will be his fault. How is anyone able to buy into that sort of nonsensical reasoning? But the episode isn’t a total loss. Carrying the hour is the towering (so to speak) performance of Michael Dunn as the noble victim Alexander. He is far from his familiar role as the charmingly evil Dr. Loveless from The Wild Wild West, and at the end when Kirk makes good on his promise to take Alexander on board the ship, Alexander’s gentle delight at the prospect is tremendously moving, accompanied by one of the best finale themes of the series (incidentally the last cue ever recorded for the show).
“Wink of an Eye” Another classic science fiction concept plays out as Kirk is “accelerated” by a race who exist at a much faster rate of time than normal. There are all sorts of physics and biology problems, but never let the facts get in the way of the story, and it is fun. Of particular note, at least from some perspectives, is guest Kathy Brown’s extraordinary outfit, with just about the most implied nudity we would ever get on the series. And, perhaps because of the outfit, that’s not all that’s implied. A legendary moment that got past the censors shows Kirk and Deela in a passionate embrace, and the next time we see them, she is brushing her hair in his quarters while he sits on the bed putting on his boots. Way to go, Kirk!
“The Empath” Another standout episode, and also one written from an unsolicited story, although writer Joyce Muskat dropped back off the radar afterwards and, near as I can determine, never wrote anything else. This is another example of Kirk, Spock and McCoy alone on the planet while we barely see any of the other regulars (at least there isn’t an obligatory redshirt). The spare, darkened sets work well for the ominous tone, and George Duning offers some his most beautiful themes to highlight the waiflike Gem, played to expressive perfection by Kathryn Hays without a single word of dialogue. Unfortunately, the story itself raises more questions than it answers. The Vians have somehow decided Gem’s people are only worthy of saving if one of their representatives is willing to give her life for strangers, but then what makes them think one individual is representative of an entire species? It would be like being judged by aliens who had an equal chance of picking Ghandi or Charles Manson to speak for us. And if her race are all sufficiently self-sacrificing, presumably they’d want to sacrifice themselves so the Vians could save someone else! It’s catch-22: we’ll only save you if you don’t want to be saved. The shipboard scene at the end is another weak point; how in the world is Scotty able to compare the events of the story to the parable of the Pearl of Great Price? But, plot holes aside, it’s still one of the most moving episodes of the series.
“Elaan of Troyius” A decent episode, but in the end it doesn’t amount to much. The “Helen of Troy” parallel is fine, but they didn’t need to make it so blatantly obvious in the names. And we get a rare ship combat sequence which is quite good. However, while the idea of aphrodisiac tears is interesting, by this point making Kirk fall in love just doesn’t get any traction. We’ve already seen him in love, and better. On the other hand, considering the tour de force of outfits that costumer Bill Theiss provides for guest France Nuyen, we can’t blame him. The one on the far right is supposedly a wedding dress (!) provided by the future groom’s mother (!!). Thanks, Mom!
“Whom Gods Destroy” What this comes down to is ham vs. ham as Shatner goes toe to toe with guest Steve Ihnat as this season’s obligatory fallen Federation hero. Ihnat plays every maniacal mood swing with every acting trick he’s got, and a little goes a long way. Yvonne Craig does better, with a measured performance as a murderous concubine (and she looks great in green body makeup). And, of course, every Trekkie worth his dilithium knows the counter-sign to “Queen to queen’s level three.” Unfortunately, that stated move has been a nearly insurmountable obstacle for people trying to invent rules for tri-d chess, which, in the series itself, had none.
“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” This episode tackles racial issues and lays the matter out in black and white… literally. The point is hammered home with little subtlety, but guests Lou Antonio and, especially, Frank Gorshin, play their adversarial roles for all they’re worth, making it clear that, in situations where both sides can’t be right, it’s entirely possible for both to be wrong. And, again, Trekkies get more stuff to recite with each other. Now everyone knows the secret self-destruct codes for the Enterprise. But that’s okay, because the self-destruct scene is played so well, with such magnificent tension, you are willing to forgive anything else that takes place.
“The Mark of Gideon” This one tackles the issue of overpopulation, but does so in a rather unsatisfying way. There are a number of implausibles, starting with the way the Gideonites were able to construct a complete recreation of the Enterprise on the planet accurate enough to fool her Captain. The initial mystery of Kirk finding the ship apparently abandoned is tipped much too early, and ultimately the overpopulation idea becomes a side-note to the main story, which revolves around yet another romance, one that feels every bit as forced as it actually is.
“That Which Survives” This is a surprisingly creepy episode, given that the stranded crew are trying to survive the repeated assaults of a mysterious beautiful woman. It’s nice to see Sulu get to be a major player, and the resolution takes a poignant turn as we learn the tragic reality of this “ghost planet,” accompanied by the elegiac music originally composed by Fred Stiener for Apollo in the pervious season.
“The Lights of Zetar” Now Scotty gets a romance and, unfortunately, it’s not convincing. His devotion to the woman in question just comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem tied to his established character in any way. Nevertheless, the episode is tense and ominous, and draws heavily on music originally composed for the second pilot, intermixed with choice George Duning motifs, showing just what a good music editor can do.
“Requiem for Methuselah” Yet another romance for Kirk, and arguably the least effective, perhaps because they try too hard to make it meaningful. Had he not already fallen in love multiple times it might have worked, and then the moving moment at the end where Spock wills Kirk to forget his pain would have earned the emotional impact it generates. James Daly has the gravitas of an immortal man with many lifetimes of accomplishment. And Louise Sorrel’s performance perfectly fits the true nature of her character without ever giving it away. I can’t help thinking she would have been an excellent choice for Dr. Jones in “Is There In Truth No Beauty.”
“The Way to Eden” Here it is, the infamous space hippies. No episode is more dated (and badly) than this one. The groovy music we hear is now laughable (and was back then, too). Also distressing is the way that Chekov, originally intended to appeal to hip young viewers, would be turned into a representative of the conservative, rigid status quo of conformity. Walter Koenig hated that as well. But somehow you can’t help tapping your toes to the famous Duet for Vulcan Harp and Bicycle Wheel (appropriately referred to in the music library as “Far Out Jam”).
“The Cloud Minders” An attempt at addressing issues of class disparity, this episode is undercut by providing a geological cause for the problem, as though all inequities are caused by breathing zenite gas. It would also have been nice to see more of the benighted lives of those on the planet’s surface to contrast the luxury enjoyed by those literally above them. Probably the most interesting thing about this episode (other than guest Diana Ewing’s boobtastic costume) is the Cloud City itself, and it’s unfortunate that we ultimately see very little of it.
“The Savage Curtain” The one with Abraham Lincoln. Or, more accurately, an incredibly idealized Lincoln (but that is appropriate to the nature of the story). I confess I have no idea what the title means. We get another iteration of the idea of people being forced to fight to the death to suit someone else’s purpose. Only in this case it makes even less sense than usual, since Kirk and Spock are the only real participants, with the others, both good and evil, drawn from their minds. So it’s not clear what the Excalbians really hope to learn from watching them fight. Surely it would have been better to pit them against, say, a Klingon and a Romulan and their “heroes.” And what about the Excalbians who played the Roles of Lincoln and Surak and the others? Were they actually killed? We leave the planet as mystified as the characters.
“All Our Yesterdays” As the series nears the end, we get one more standout, an unusual time-travel episode. Rather than the typical story of going back and interacting with human history (or the present day) and trying not to change it, Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves stranded in the past of a doomed planet. And that’s really just a vehicle for the interactions they have there. The second episode written by Jean Lisette Aroeste, this one is just as moving. The rules of time-travel in this episode are unique and fascinating, and the idea that you must be “prepared” or you can’t survive in the past actually may make more sense than you would first think. Kirk facing trial for witchcraft and ultimately trying to reason with the single-minded administrator of the time library is merely a side-note to the real story: Spock’s second romance. And an extremely moving one it is, with the most tragic character in the history of the series. How many fans fell in love with Mariette Hartley thanks to this episode? How many wept openly as Zarabeth walked away to resume her life of utter solitude in a frozen wasteland? Again, the Spock/McCoy relationship is shown as the delicate balancing act it is. And, for what it’s worth, this is the only episode of the entire series with no scenes on board the ship.
“Turnabout Intruder” The final episode filmed, and aired. It’s distressingly sexist, implying that a woman has no business in command of a starship. Considering the way Kirk treats her in their limited time together, and his dismissive attitude towards her and her ambition, it’s no wonder Dr. Lester went crazy with jealous rage. William Shatner does a marvelous job in what is essentially a guest role, as he spends most of the episode playing the woman who has commandeered Kirk’s body. He has just the right mannerisms and inflections to be convincing without engaging in parody. Real guest Sandra Smith is not quite as effective in capturing Kirk’s vocal delivery, but she does the best she can. In the end, the situation is resolved mostly by just waiting it out, which is a shame. And Kirk’s last line, the last words spoken in the episode, and the series, are quite significant in hindsight: “If only. .. If only…”
If only, indeed. The series managed to make just enough episodes to be a viable syndication package, which is where it really took off. And the rest, as they say, is history. Given the perceived decline of the series, what would have happened had it continued? It’s hard to say. But we have what we have, and Star Trek will continue to live long and prosper.
Oh, jeez, did I really just write that? Sorry.