Category Archives: Star Trek

TREK-A-DAY: Bread and Circuses

EPISODE FIFTY-THREE: Bread and Circuses

Well, this one’s a bit of a dream episode for me: the crew finds a planet much like Earth that has developed much the same way…only Rome never fell, and thus they come upon 20th Century Rome, complete with sound effect laden televised Gladitorial games and gun-toting centurions.

AWESOME!

I started reading a book with this premise a while back, but it quickly ditched the concept in favour of a fairly standard “young person with magic powers and destiny out to avenge family” story that could have taken place anywhere.  Trek, instead, uses this fantastic premise to its utmost by focusing on a small corner of the Roman world (the gladiator spectacles) and what that says about the people running them.  Through this, we get slave rebellions and politics, wealthy elites running games, and both savage and noble gladiators (who of course end up fighting our crew, in this case Spock and Dr. McCoy!)  What I dig about this approach is that it doesn’t try (and ultimately fail) to show us every last detail about what 20th Century Rome would look like, it just gives us a taste, while hinting at a broader world (particularly neat is the implication that their religion is starting to shift to Christianity by the end, just a fun cap to the episode, but indicative of a greater story on the planet than just what our characters experienced in their short time there).

This episode continues to win, as we find a missing captain basically running games now, as the head Roman of the area figured out about the Prime Directive (which is finally defined aloud, with the ‘rather die than interfere with the development of cultures’ underlined; it makes a bit more sense with regards to which societies they openly mess with…basically, if you’ve mastered space travel, then you’re advanced enough to be tampered with-just like the Vulcans with Humans.  If you haven’t reached warp speed space travel yet, you can’t be contacted for fear of contaminating the culture.)  In any case, knowing full well that a Captain is obliged not to interfere at any cost, the Roman USES THE PRIME DIRECTIVE AS A WEAPON to force Kirk to beam down the rest of his crew as game fodder (Kirk, of course, outsmarts him, with the help of Scotty who merely kills the power to the city in a non-starshipy way, allowing the Prime Directive to stand).  But the idea that a guy could basically say “You can’t interfere, nor can you send down armed troops because it would violate your directive, ergo I own you now” is awesome.  It’s a fascinating power switch and fun to watch.  It also means that when the crew does finally escape, they just leave.  There’s nothing else really they can do.

The episode also has a wonderfully complicated scene between McCoy and Spock, where McCoy tries to thank Spock for saving his life, then tears into him about not letting his human side out at all and his insecurities.  It’s a bit uncomfortable to watch (perhaps because we’ve seen Spock slip a number of times that McCoy hasn’t), but not dissimilar from watching two good friends have it out about each other’s personalities.  You know there’s a deep bond there, but sometimes that means the jabs hurt a bit more.  It’s a neat scene, particularly since Kirk is not around to break it up (he’s busy meeting his planetly quota of women to sleep with, later explained as “They threw me some curves, no time to explain”.  Slick.  Sorry Yeoman Rand; you’re still first in our hearts.)

All-in-all a very entertaining episode, if cut of the increasing common fabric of “it’s like human history…but with this twist!” So far, this season alone, we’ve had Chicago Gangsters, Nazis, Greek Gods, post-viral war Communists/Yankees, and now Rome.  Combine that with CARBON COPY EARTH of season one and you’ve got a hell of a lot of “it’s almost the sames” going on.  It’s a fun premise to explore, but I do find it funny that the crew only occasionally notices how bloody strange it is to find another planet advancing the same way we did.

Ah well, good times never the less.  Was I not entertained?

Yes.  Yes I was.

TREK-A-DAY: The Ultimate Computer

EPISODE FIFTY-TWO: The Ultimate Computer

Two recipes for disaster:

1)    War games.

2)    “We’re going to give control of the ship over to an untested super computer for a while.”

This fun and -frankly- exciting, episode has both! It’d be like activating SkyNet during Top Gun.  Starfleet’s top computer science guy has built the M4, a new super computer which is going to run drills during said war games.  We get a number of fun plotlines running through this episode, such as Kirk’s fear that he can be replaced by technology and the inventor’s love for his AI child.  Given the state of computer technology at the time, this was a fantastic little piece of ‘science’ fiction in its truest sense: a look ahead at the possible challenges of tomorrow (our today, right Siri? “YOU HAVE A BLACKBERRY, TOM.  WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO FIND YOU A PHONE THAT IS SIRI COMPATABLE?”…a guy can dream…)

Anyway, things really get hairy when the M4 decides it’s running the show (the programmer imprinted human ideas in order to make it more efficient) and that it must protect itself at all costs.  These costs include another Starfleet vessel’s entire crew (The Excaliber, later featured in both The Next Generation and Voyager) and the possible threat of death by Starfleet attack.  Kirk manages to convince the computer (using the programmer’s own moral code) that it deserves to die for the murder it has caused, leading to a safe resolution.

There’s a bit of Terminator 2 in here, with the ‘teaching the computer to love’ stuff as well as the first appearance of an actual star fleet (four ships!)  the pace is fast, the stakes are raised well, and the wild-card programmer (who both wanted to stop the death of red shirts during routine exploration AND show his asshole colleagues he was still the best at computering) make for a tense and enjoyable episode.

Good stuff.

TREK-A-DAY: The Omega Glory

EPISODE FIFTY-ONE: The Omega Glory

Now here’s a spot of weirdness: yet another ‘parallel development’ episode, wherein the Enterprise eventually stumbles upon a Yankee/Communist society that almost wiped itself out during a chemical war (like ours, of the 1990s, remember that? Right around the time Khan was ruling most of Asia and Europe.  Dark days, those.) and now had be one tribal, while still worshipping artifacts of their lost civilization.  Watching a bunch of white ‘Yangs’ (short for Yankee) broadly stereotyped ‘native’ outfits slur and mumble versions of the US constitution evoked Kevin Costner’s seminal The Postman.  I appreciate the idea, but the awkward declaration of Kirk of the true purpose of the spirit of the US constitution was awfully out of place; for a society existing in a post-national future, they sure are proud to be American (with a nod to other alien cultures’ versions saying roughly the same thing, just not quite as well).

The episode itself is strangely structured, beginning with the finding of an abandoned ship filled with dead crewmen (who had lost all moisture in their bodies) only to beam down to the planet with the aforementioned Yangs (and their Asian Communist counterparts the ‘Conns’-who won the bio war). On the planet, they find a crazed Starfleet commander blatantly disregarding the Prime Directive by killing the Yangs with his phaser while ruling the Conns (whom he believes have found the secret to eternal life).  Then there’s some weirdness involving Kirk having a rage-in-the-cage style fight with a couple Yangs in jail cell…this all eventually boils down to a fight between the rogue captain and Kirk bound together at the wrists, and Kirk’s eventual triumph…but the villain never really reaches his potential.

The whole episode basically boils down to a bunch of sci fi trappings to stall and build the reveal of the American flag and constitution…neat, but weird.  A little jingoistic for my tastes, but then again, there’s no Cold War going on right now…so that makes a pretty big difference.  Nevertheless, the pacing is strange though the rogue captain is a good villain.  Strange episode.

TREK-A-DAY: By Any Other Name

EPISODE FIFTY: By Any Other Name

Alright, so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when the set up revealed yet another ‘omnipotent being messes with the crew’ plotline; in this case, a bunch of Cthulu lookin’ aliens have taken human form in order to hijack The Enterprise for a return ride to their own galaxy (Andromida, thousands of years away at maximum warp).  They have done this through use of neural neutralizers that freeze people, or can turn them into D20s.  D20s made of sponge, that can then be re-humanized (basically so the whole crew except for Kirk, McCoy, Spock, and Scotty can get ‘killed off’) leaving just our main four to deal with the alien menace.

What sets this apart from the plethora of omnipotent being episodes we’ve seen before, is that the strategy they finally find to defeat them is to play off of the aliens’ unfamiliarity with sensation.  Which is awesome: humanity is used as a weapon.  So, everyone sets off to overwhelm the senses the best they can: Spock engages in logical discourse with the leader, forcing him to examine his humanity; McCoy shoots an underling full of irritability drugs; Scotty engages one of them in an epic drinking contest (awesome); and Kirk seduces the woman (surprise!)

Scotch: 1, Omnipotent Alien: 0

Eventually, Kirk manages to convince the aliens that they can settle into the Federation just fine and since they’re in human form (and can enjoy each other’s humanity…SEX…), but nevertheless all of the flaws of human nature (and some of the joys) are weaponized!  Which is awesome and a fantastic way to handle the omnipotent being.

Good stuff.  The pacing is a bit slow, but watching Scotty in a drinking game is worth the price of admission.

TREK-A-DAY: Patterns of Force

EPISODE FORTY-NINE: Patterns of Force

The strangest Das Boot remake of all time…

If there’s one thing worse than Nazis, it’s space Nazis.  And that is exactly what Kirk and Spock have to deal with in this random, but awesome episode. Upon landing on a humanoid planet where a Federation historian and cultural observer had been sent, Kirk and Spock find Nazis hunting the other resident alien culture the Zaeons in classic Nazi style.  Through a number of hijinks and disguise work, they inflitrate the Nazi base, are captured, tortured, escape using an improvised laser, join the resistance, and solve the mystery of why Kirk’s mentor became the furher.  From a plot perspective, it’s a fun World War II spy thriller episode, remincent of The Great Escape or Indiana Jones (or lately, Inglorious Basterds).  But what I think is particularly interesting is the idea about history being exploited by someone far removed from the event.

This is not the first episode to deal with the problem of interference and disregarding the Prime Directive (we got that in spades a few episodes ago),  but there’s a bit more at work here than just introducing a weapon to a culture.  The Federation historian-turned-furher knew what happened in Nazi Germany; however, when faced with a culture that was collapsing and dividing, he implemented the Nazi system in order to quickly and efficently rebuild the planet’s unity and hope (as the Nazi movement united Germany very quickly…you know, before the horror began).  He had hoped to keep it in check, but fell victim to his vice-Furher who doped him up and turned him into a mouthpiece of hate.  The Vice-Furher then began the cultural genocide of the Zaeons, even going so far as to launch a fleet full of nukes against the other planet.  What I like about this is the idea that a historian in the far future, so very far removed from the horrors of World War II could look on it with detachment and even respect.  We’ve already seen this happen with the Neo-Conservative “Pax Americana” movement during the Vietnam War and later under George W. Bush (referring to the “Pax Romana” or Roman Peace, which essentially meant: conquer everyone and make them all Romans, then they won’t have any need to fight because we’ll all be equal…ish.  The ‘ish’ was the big problem, as was the conquering, which essentially involved taking over one village and then demanding these new Romans go kill their neighbors one town over.  Not such a great plan and was instrumental in the fall of Rome.)  Despite the Roman plan’s failure, elements of the US government to this day think it can work better if they do it.

It’s also a fascinating example of the dangers of humans interacting with humanoid races.  Much like the Chicago Mobster episode, there’s a unique danger in plugging Earth ideas into other humanoid societies that almost transcends interfering with a truly alien race.  The concept of a hard-wired ability to adapt and re-purpose the ideas of Earth’s past by other cultures is a frightening one and perhaps the best argument for the Prime Directive to date.

This is also the first episode to deal with space Nazis, but not the last; as I recall both Voyager and Enterprise also explore them (Voyager through the Holodeck, Enterprise through…magic?) It will be interesting to see where those shows go with the idea, but nevertheless, I think the fact that this episode is more about the dangers of violating the Prime Directive and the mis-use of history rather than Nazis will set it a step above.

We shall see.  Oh, and also, it’s the first time we get shirtless Spock AND Kirk in the same shot, leading to mass swooning and/or online romance fan-fiction:

You’re welcome.

TREK-A-DAY: Return to the Future

EPISODE FORTY-EIGHT: Return to the Future

A neat little episode about body switching.  The crew stumbles upon an ancient race that transcended phyisical states but failed at the whole “life beyond becoming energy thing.”  On their way down, they planted seeds of life across the galaxy, claiming Adam and Eve as their explorers (though this is refuted and left ambiguous) knowing one day possible surrogates would come along and find them and provide them bodies long enough to build android bodies (or something in that vein).  Kirk agrees to the body take over exclaiming “Risk…is what this mission is all about!” and everything is going swimmingly until one of the energy beings decides he’d rather stay in Spock and thus sets out to destroy the Captain.

Spock is the big winner this episode, as Nimoy gets to be a charming rogue for a change, grinning and taunting, and seducing with the best of them.  There’s also a couple of neat Nurse Chapel moments (including a coy look after they shared her consciousness for a while) that really make me happy.  She’s like the Chief O’Brien of the show, that extra character that is fun to have around in a support role.

It’s also nice to have an episode where an omniscient being actually wants what it says it does, rather than being all evil and schemey.  Sure his jerk friend tries to kill and control, but the initial guy was on the level, which is a welcome change from the “overlord of the week” we’ve seen a lot of.

All-in-all, a cool little episode and one that offers a much different view of being a space explorer: actually offering up your body as a vessel of connection and exploration.  Nifty.

TREK-A-DAY: A Private Little War

EPISODE FORTY-SEVEN: A Private Little War

This is a strange little episode.  Parts of it are brilliant, parts of it are very silly, parts of it are horribly misogynist, and parts are downright out-of-place.  Roddenberry himself takes the reigns on this one, which is appropriate since it is the first time The Enterprise really failed badly at protecting a species.  Unlike the personal tragedy of City at the Edge of Forever, this is the critical failure of the Prime Directive and the aiding of a culture to slip into war and mutually assured destruction.  Unlike the previous anti-war sentiments, this episode has Kirk insisting on mutually assured destruction as a deterrent, with him arming bow and arrow armed tribe with flintlock rifles to counter the Klingon-armed rival tribe.  McCoy insists this is madness, but Kirk spends a huge amount of time justifying the madness; it’s a nice departure from our usually utopian captain and adds another angle to the man.  Ultimately, there’s nothing they can do but either give the tribe a bunch of guns, or leave.  The ending has them beam aboard and leave, ambiguously (though heavily implied they gave the tribe guns).  They failed to prevent war and instead only applied a bandage that ensures balance, but also escalation.  They also fail to properly deal with the Klingon threat, leaving potential for even quicker escalation.  For everytime I’ve wondered why they don’t simply leave when a speices insists on destroying them/themselves, there’s this episode where this is exactly the case.  They use the Garden of Eden metaphor lots here, even going so far as to have a peaceful man commit his first murder with a rock to avenge his wife and as McCoy puts it, Kirk and the Klingons are two snakes corrupting the place.  It pains Kirk, but he does it anyway.  Neat.

Then there’s the silliness.  They fight a creature called a Mugatu (hopefully the inspiration for the classic Zoolander villain of the same name…classic I tell you!) which is a white gorilla suit with a horn and spikes…

The female lead looks like Barbarella if she killed a muppet (she’s wearing a strange orange fur sports bra)

…and the only way to revive Spock from near death is to slap him silly a la Leslie Nielson Airplane! until the pain allows him to focus enough to wake up.  Naturally, Nurse Chapel (after holding his hand; yay continunity!) is the first slapper.   Good times.

And then there’s the misogyny.  This episode is kinda hard to watch at times, as the mystic wife of the main, peaceful tribesman (who is Kirk’s friend) is at times a scheming manipulator, using magic leaves to enchant him and Kirk to wage war, other times completely useless (like when, while holding a phaser and being strapped with a knife, she is almost gang raped by three rival tribesmen…just because she lets them walk up to her and grab her…)  It’s incredibly frustrating, after watching women like Uhura and that random ensign a few episodes kick ass and take names, only to this one swing back in forth in status and motivation, seduce people wantonly, and then get killed because she just kinda stood there being useless.  No dice.

And the out of place stuff: woman saves Kirk’s life with a magic plant incantation thing, may have cast a spell on him.  Never explained.  She uses leaves to seduce and control men.  Never really explained.  She steals a phaser and takes it to the other tribe, poorly explained.  There’s a lot of long scenes about magic and suggestion of its power without any real exploration or point.

Nevertheless, the fact the Enterprise failed to protect a culture is a super important one.  We love to see our heroes succeed, but if they can’t fail there’s no stakes at play and this is the first time we’ve really seen that (even with the death of Kirk’s love, they saved the human race so it’s still a win).  It also evoked a sad reality about weapons and indigenous people that would only worsen with the fall of the Soviet Union and the flooding of the illegal arms market with Soviet tech.  There is a great documentary series called Tribe (you can watch the entire series here by virtue of the magnificent internet; this is the episode about the Suri) about a journalist who goes and lives with various tribes, one of whom (The Suri) had the incredibly civil war tradition of both bands of warriors staging combat in an open field, running through each other hitting their enemies with sticks.  For each hit, they would add a notch to their stick.  The warriors with the most “kills” won the day and the victory.  The tribes settled their differences accordingly, having both resolved the dispute and earned individual pride and honour (not unlike the purpose the Olympics theoretically serve).  On the day he went to observe, the journalist noted the ‘battle’ was called off, as someone opened up with an AK-47, firing it into the air and causing everyone to scramble.  This peaceful, sane version of warfare had been polluted and the village elder warned him that this way of life was rapidly coming to an end.

As usual, Roddenberry’s observation of history serves also as a prophesy for the future, where throughout the world, old rivalries are being fought by new weapons, be they Western, Soviet, or otherwise.  Sadly, there’s no balance point in sight.

TREK-A-DAY: The Immunity Syndrome

EPISODE FORTY-SIX: The Immunity Syndrome

Well, this episode is basically an episode of The Magic School Bus, except Kirk is Ms. Frizzle and if the trip goes awry everyone dies.  When the ship gets sucked into a giant space amoeba, Spock and McCoy argue pettily over which one gets to do the suicide mission for science, while the rest of the ship is still in mortal danger.  The pacing is atrocious, with everyone constantly reminding us “We’re being sucked in!” Then bantering some more.

There’s a neat concept buried in here, that this amoeba is like a virus in the solar system’s body, then The Enterprise is the anti-body attacking it.  Hence the Magic School Bus parallel.  But really, we get an episode that really wants to convince us of its own importance, while no one in it seems to really care all that much.

It is, however, special for me, in a way, as I had a GameBoy Star Trek game that involved a multitude of space amoeba that you had to fly through and attack and I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered it watching this episode.  Other than that, it felt like filler.

TREK-A-DAY: A Piece of the Action

EPISODE FORTY-SIX: A Piece of the Action

Another fun genre episode, this one finds the crew on a planet inspired by Chicago mobsters, leading to all manner of “Funny talk, see?” dialogue, gangster slang, Kirk telling Spock to “Cover ’em, Spocko” and all manner of fun.

The most important thing to take from this episode, is a glimpse at how genre episodes were handled by Trek before the application of the Holodeck.  Instead of a random character having a fantasy they live out on the deck, the writers had to justify why there was a planet that had the genre capabilities.  In this case, the people of the planet are highly impressionable and imitate things; when a ship last left, it left behind a book on Chicago Mobsters, leading to the whole fiasco.  That a race could so embrace an idea that within 100 years’ time they ARE that thing is a lot of fun and justifies the fun locale.  This is handled much, much better than that time there was a whole carbon copy of Earth floating around, or the subconscious fear of…dungeons and skeletons?  It’s neat and inventive and fits the universe nicely.

All-in-all, an incredibly entertaining genre episode.  I especially enjoyed Scotty threatening to send a guy to the bottom of a river wearing “concrete galoshes.”  Fun.

TREK-A-DAY: The Gamesters of Triskelion

EPISODE FORTY-FIVE: The Gamesters of Triskelion

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VuIShM5kAQ

…yep, it’s that kind of episode.

When Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov get abducted by gambling addict brain-creatures (evolved beyond bodies into coloured jelly brains!), they are forced to fight in gladiatorial games for the amusement of said brains.  Kirk, being awesome, not only seduces the above green-haired Lady Gaga, but also manages to talk the aliens into gambling all their Thrall’s freedom on a 3-on-1 throwdown with galactic unarmed champion Shirtless Captain Kirk.

Meanwhile, Spock is a pretty good captain (though he gets no love) and yeah…that’s about it.  The above clip is from Kirk’s escape plot; he apologies afterward, but needed to knock her out for her keycard (she was his keeper).  Kind of like that first guard from the Bunker II level in GoldenEye 64…but in a silver space bikini.

Ultimately, aside from the usual fun of gladiator fights and some of the hammiest Kirk yells to date, this episode is a prime example of the sense of pride the writers were going for with humanity.  I’ve mentioned this a few times before (and am reminded of it playing through games like Mass Effect where being human is a huge part of the politics of the game), Star Trek always has other races in awe of humanity, but to this end they have had to highlight what aliens would be impressed by.  This list boils down to: tenacity, inventiveness, adaptability, and emphasis on emotion and sentiment in decision making (most illogical…).  Hearing the jelly brains express these ideas, I couldn’t help but marvel at what Roddenberry was trying to do with this ongoing point: he was pointing to the great, basic traits of our very species, so easy to overlook when not surveying history, and putting them into the mouths of aliens.

We don’t often consider why we’re a nifty species anymore, because we’ve messed a hell of a lot of things up…but now and then, it is worth looking to our strengths to help us move our planet and ourselves toward a better future.