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TREK-A-DAY: Star Trek Season One in Review


And so ends both the first month and first season of TREK-A-DAY!  So far I’m having a fantastic time and I hope you are too.  This season held some of the most iconic episodes in all of Star Trek: the appearance of Khan, the Gorn Captain, City on the Edge of Forever, the first Klingons and Romulans, and a host of other fun moments.  The show grew a lot over the season and is already well on its way to finding balance with its characters (I joke about it a lot, but the Yeoman Rand subplot really did limit the story options for Kirk quite considerably; and let’s face it, a Kirk in a relationship on board the Enterprise would be weak storytelling.  He’s already in a great relationship with Spock and McCoy, why complicate it?).  The show is also mixing the more adventurous sci-fi (like that time McCoy got jousted to death by a  knight) with more hard sci-fi (like City of the Edge of Forever‘s tragic time travel plot).

It’s a fantastic mix, the performances are great, the scripts at best wonderful or at worst interesting conceptually (there has yet to be an episode that has truly seemed like a terrible idea.  I know we’ll get there, but so far so good) and there is a sense of optimism that must have been refreshing in the 60’s (and a spirit of adventure and exploration that sadly is refreshing now.)

Neil Gaiman recently tweeted that though he does not support Newt Gingrich’s politics, he found the general derision of his talk of space colonization to be disappointing.  There’s a sense of cynicism and defeat about space now, with NASA’s shuttle program ended and a variety of large scale mistakes and failures that have resulted in massive wastes of resources (like all those probes that just crashed and burned) have turned public opinion against space exploration.  It’s odd, but the next great resurgence will likely be once galactic tourism actually kicks into gear with Virgin Galactic.  Perhaps tourist and commercial dollars are what will finally lead to real headway into space…

In any case, the dream Roddenberry has just begun to introduce to us is a glorious one.  In the 60s, it signalled equality between genders, races, and ideals, moving past the fear and paranoia of the Cold War toward the betterment of humanity.  For us, it signals, sadly, some of those same things, but also the dream of science fiction: where our flights of fancy become science fact.  Shatner is fond of commenting on how the president of Bombardier got into aerospace because of Star Trek.  This show is a real beacon of hope, even today.  And a constant reminder that it is worth dreaming; for even if it remains a dream for us, you never know when someone’s imagination will be ignited by that dream and make it a reality.

If you need proof of this, look at your phone.

Coming up tomorrow: Star Trek Season Two!

TREK-A-DAY: The Galileo Seven

EPISODE SIXTEEN: The Galileo Seven

Hey everyone, it’s our first ‘shuttle craft bottle episode’!  These have the potential to be fantastic character pieces (as they often were in Next Generation) and this proves to be the case here too.  After lots of wackiness and political overtones in the past few shows, this one is just about the crew and how they interact, specifically Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and some characterful bit players (always nice to see).  The shuttle craft Galileo gets stranded on a planet inhabited by giants who wear bearskin capes and throw giant spears.  The Enterprise has essentially been hijacked by a bureaucrat who is demanding they abandon the crew members so they can make an important rendezvous to drop off plague vaccines; the result is a harsh time limit on a long search.

The meat of the episode revolves around Spock as Captain of the away-team and how his pure logic approach leads to some bad decisions.  This is a bit of a tie-in episode to The Enemy Within wherein Kirk realizes that his emotional side is part of what makes him a great leader.  Spock attempts to fight the animalistic giants with logic, causing all manner of problems.  The crew finds it increasingly hard to relate to him, particularly as people start dying, leading Spock to ultimately make a rash, last minute decision to save them (leading to Scotty’s first, “I explain the pseudo-science through metaphor!” moment).  The crew saves them and has a good laugh over Spock’s attempts to justify his very human gamble with logic.

It’s a solid character piece, well done, but there’s not much more to say beyond that…except that the “shuttle craft” looks like a spare room in the studio, which is fun.  Yay shuttlebox!

TREK-A-DAY: The Menagerie, Part II

EPISODE TWELVE: The Menagerie, Part II

What an oddly prophetic episode.  As the trial of Spock continues and the flashbacks to Talos IV continue, the central question becomes about the nature of illusion versus reality.  The Talosians desire to create a perfect world for their specimens born of their specific dreams and desires.  Think the concept of the original Matrix (the one humans rejected): they plumb the depths of your psyche for scenarios you might enjoy and create them for you.  In Pike’s case, this is creating a battle situation (with sword and shield. EPIC!), torment him with images dug from his psyche; yet another Orwellian scenario straight out of 1984, then a trip home to earth, and then finally to an exotic harem with (you guessed it) a green dancing lady!  This is easily one of the most visually recognizable characters from Star Trek, the sultry, green, dancing Orion slave girl, in this case played by Pike’s fellow captive, Vina.  

Star Trek‘s Slave Leia equivalent.

The Talosians need humans to repopulate Talos IV, as they have become addicted to their illusions and can no longer function as a civilization.  Their weird captivity thing is a test ground to save their race; they suddenly become a lot more sympathetic.  Pike was chosen as a mate for Vina, as they had read her mind and determined him to be the perfect pairing.  She loves him, he is falling for her; but still seeks to escape.  He does, of course, but discovers that Vina was horribly mangled in the crash long ago and was rebuilt by Talosians who had no conception of the human form.  They’ve given her an illusion of beauty and thus she chooses to stay behind.  It is for this reason that Spock has been bringing the newly disabled Pike back to Talos IV, so he can live out his life with Vina as illusions.  There’s also a “The Commander in the tribunal was an illusion” McGuffan and Kirk and Star Fleet recognize Spock’s intentions were pure and respect Pike’s wishes to return to the planet.

The episode ends on the prophetic sentiment I mentioned before, as the Talosians tell Kirk, “Pike has his illusion, you have your reality.  May you find as much happiness on your way.” (Particularly interesting when considered with Kirk in Generations, living a perfect life in an illusionary world.  The more original Trek I see, the more Generations seems to be a fitting end to The Original Series.) 

The underlying argument of the episode is between illusion and reality and how illusion is often better.  There is a warning about becoming so consumed by dreams that one ceases to operate in the real world (as was the case with the Talosians) but at the same time the show does not condemn living for dreams.  The reason I suggest this is prophetic is that for a lot of people, Star Trek IS that illusion; as are many sci-fi and fantasy realms.  Sometimes they are more attractive than reality and easier to live in; this is true of games like World of Warcraft, or of fan communities in general.  We nerds often like to shake off our reality and join Pike in his illusionary world, where we can look like anything, do anything, BE anything.  Roddenberry didn’t know it, but he was essentially defining Star Trek‘s legacy.

There’s a reason this episode won a Hugo Award.

TREK-A-DAY: What Little Girls Are Made Of?

EPISODE SEVEN: What Little Girls Are Made Of?

Robots.  We basically want to be them.  This comes up time and time again in science fiction and to a large degree in life as we work increasingly hard to anthropomorphisize technology (SIRI, anyone?)  In this episode, Kirk, Nurse Chapel (that one who has a thing for Spock…possibly never mentioned again) and two red shirts beam down to find a missing scientist (Chapel’s ex-fiance); the two red shirts promptly die (the first proper red-shirt deaths!) and Kirk comes face to face with a giant humanoid robot and Cylon-esque human androids (I know Cylons came much later, still an apt comparison).  Turns out the scientist found old alien tech that allows him to make perfect replicants and even transfer human consciousness (which -spoiler alert, time travelers from the 1960s- he has done to himself!)

This leads to questions of what makes a human and robot different and a robot Kirk being  made.  This is a neat instance of ‘actor playing evil version of himself’ as Kirk gets to verbally spar with himself.  It’s a cool scene, because the robot isn’t evil, just programmed to be obedient.  Consquently, there’s no ‘I’m evil’ business, just two Kirks who think the other is inferior.  Eventually, Kirk seduces the lady-bot (nice!), gets his first on-screen kiss, and awakens emotion in her.  He also fights the big robot guy with this hilariously phallic stallactite:

Sadly, this photo hasn’t been altered.

Ultimately, the robots prove to be more human than the humans, and Kirk (having imbued his robot-self with anti-Vulcan slang during the copying process) manages to outsmart the scientist and his robo-twin, leading everyone to leave the planet wiser and robotless.  (Also, two men died.  Anyone?)

I think this episode is kind of indicative of why the original series fans give Next Generation a lot of flak; though the Data arch over the series is one of the best character development processes I’ve ever seen on TV, the root argument is played out in this one episode beautifully.  The ladybot proves capable of love, the giant robot guy overcomes his programming by considering logic (similar to Robocop) and the scientist realizes that even though his consciousness was human, he lost his humanity in pursuit of a dream of everyone being a robot.  We get all facets of the ‘imperfect human’ vs ’emotionless but perfect robot’ debate and it’s wrapped up in an hour.  This issue of what defines a human is a constant in all Treks, whether it’s Spock, Data, Odo, Seven of Nine, or the actress who played T’pol (still not convinced she’s human) and it’s neat to see it played out as a story of the week.

All-in-all, a neat little episode, as usually punched up by some really nice, intimate moments between characters who care about each other, be they robot or otherwise.

So say we all.

TREK-A-DAY: Mudd’s Women

EPISODE SIX: Mudd’s Women

Ah drug pushing space pimps…when will you learn?  In this episode, The Enterprise chases down an unlicensed starship (COPS style) only to find that the ship contains Harry Mudd and his women, all gorgeous 60’s sirens which happen to be his cargo.  See Harry Mudd is a space pimp, bringing women to remote, rich mining colonies.  The women are extra intoxicating but seem out of sorts…there’s clearly more a foot…

Which leads us to the Venus Drug, a pill that makes ugly women beautiful (no joke) so our intergalactic huster is keeping his women hooked while scamming frontiersmen into marrying ugly girls.  Mudd is a dick.

Even McCoy calls him a jackass.  Also, he’s Falstaff.

Mudd represents an awesome kind of villain: the meddler, who actually poses no real threat but just manages to screw everything up in increasingly interesting ways through guile.  He’s also despicable (as mentioned above) but in a different way than a murderous alien or somesuch. He’s just regular, everyday evil; and to make matters worse he can’t just be punched or shot.  Trickster characters like this are always fun to watch because they force our heroes to think fast rather than punch hard (a great example of this is when the Mummy called a human rights group on Jack Bauer in season 4 of 24-played by Harry from Sex in the City, he was a perfect nemesis for Bauer who had to convince him verbally to let him torture a terrorist.  Neat!)

The show goes a bit off the rails when they hit the planet and the miners are eventually faced with the fact that they’ve been duped.  They soon learn a valuable lesson about valuing a person’s worth not just their looks (jumping high five for lessons, everybody!) but not before one of the women manages to change her looks by pure force of will when given placebo pills.  (To which Kirk, instead of screaming “HOLY SHIT, SHAPESHIFTERS!” smirks and says something to the effect of, “You just had to have faith in yourself all along!”)

“I know, I gotta believe!”  PaRappa=Captain Kirk???

Nevertheless, a fun episode featuring a Falstaffian trickster and a bunch of women being beguiling.  And a lesson (taught by one of the women) about how to clean pots and pans by sand blasting them on a planet full of weird ash wind stuff.  Neato!

In other news, Harry Mudd’s conning of miners on frontier planets is actually what caused the Browncoat uprising in Firefly.  Think about it. 

TREK-A-DAY: The Naked Time, Star Trek

EPISODE FOUR: The Naked Time

Space madness!  The greatest fear of all space goers comes to the Enterprise when an away team picks up a water-based bug on a dying planet.  Transmitted through sweat, it acts like alcohol and releases inhibitions leading to AWESOME.

This episode balances a lot of interesting ideas and deep character moments really well; from the first infected crewman’s rant about how people just shouldn’t be in space (he raises a lot of valid points) to a playful drunk swaggering Irishman hijacking the ship’s systems to sing ditties minor day players get some great moments here as does the central cast.  

This episode allows a hard look at the core motivators of the main players: Sulu becomes a swashbuckling adventurer (hilariously chasing crew members around the shop without a shirt on trying to stab them with a fencing foil…although this may in fact have just been George Takei being awesome):

This photo is better than the entirety of the new Three Musketeers film. 

A nurse confesses her love to Spock and points out how the crew teases him constantly, which in turn leads to a complete breakdown by Spock (first of many) where he weeps and admits that he could never tell his human mother he loved her because he hated the feeling and was trying to suppress it.  He further explains to Kirk that whenever he thinks of their friendship, he is disgusted with himself for feeling it-that’s some rough, hard stuff working at the core of Spock’s character and speaks to just how damn good some of these scripts and performances were.  

Kirk, in turn, gets at his romantic core for the first time, admitting unrequited love for Yeoman Rand (the blonde featured heavily in Charlie X) but how The Enterprise is the truest relationship he can ever have, since he has taken responsibility as a captain rather than a man.  This sentiment is reflected in Picard as well, who occasionally (and only occasionally) gives a glimpse into the sadness he feels that he never had children and dedicated his life to the dream of exploration.  It’s the mariner’s lament, updated for space travel and it’s really fun getting to see it start in the fourth episode.  

We also get our first real moments with Scotty, as he insists on safety procedures even as the ship is imminently doomed.  It’s a small touch, but an honest one, as anyone who has ever worked with a technician will tell you.

Once all the space madness is resolved (by the heroes soldiering through their individual problems and working together) we get a little almost throw away scene that actually introduces one of the most important features of the Star Trek franchise: time travel.  During their escape, the crew creates a time warp that sends them back 72 hours and has absolutely no consequence to the episode, but that Mr. Spock points out means “Now that we know the formula…we can travel through time.”

Hold on to your DeLoreans, kids and get ready for some time-paradox defying hijinks: Star Trek has discovered time travel.

TREK-A-DAY: The Man Trap, Star Trek

EPISODE ONE: The Man Trap (Feb 1, 2012)

I always find it interesting watching the first few moments of a franchise that doesn’t know it’s iconic; take, for instance, the first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: A New Hope, or the first few lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or The Hobbit.  Before anyone on any of these franchises knew what they’d become, you get a moment of awesome, unassuming storytelling which somehow grabs us hard enough for us to want to see more. In The Man Trap, the first episode of Star Trek, we get exactly this.  The episode begins mid-stream, with the Enterprise already well underway on its journey and all the characters’ relationships to each other established.  We are told most of these through Kirk’s voice over and in general interactions, but never in a “But so-and-so, don’t forget, she’s your sister…” way that first episodes occasionally resort to in order to catch the audience up.  Kirk tells us simply that Mr. Spock is in charge of the ship at the moment and that he and “Ship’s surgeon McCoy are beaming down on a routine medical examination…routine but for the fact that Nancy Crater is the one woman from Dr. McCoy’s past.” Reminiscent of Casablanca’s “Of all the gin joints in the world…” isn’t it? It immediately tells us this is going to be a story of lost romance and intrigue; and we’re sucked in.  This one turn of phrase sums up what this episode is about and the most enduring feature of Star Trek: it’s about people, their emotions, hopes, dreams, relationships and how they interact with and against each other.  Whether alien or human, this basic building-block of story is present and allows us deep connections to the fantastical settings and situations.  Neat. So, the plot: Kirk and McCoy arrive on a planet to deliver a routine medical check-up for Dr. Crater and his wife, Nancy (the woman that got away).  The problem is, everyone sees Nancy differently and at 8:15 into the episode… THE FIRST CREWMAN DIES! This is, of course, a watershed moment, given the fate of countless more extras in Trek…however it should be noted that he is NOT wearing a red shirt(!) but rather a blue one. 8:32 Brings our first: “He’s dead, Jim” (now co-opted by Google Chrome when it crashes) See it turns out that ‘Nancy’ is actually the last of a race of shape-shifting aliens who need salt to survive.  This is a neat monster, because its basic motivation is both simple and exotic; it feeds on salt (rather than just eating people or killing them arbitrarily) and thus drains people for sustenance.  It does, however, also need love (sure-why-not) and thus taps into people’s psyche and gives them what they want to see (hence the Nancy form).  Throughout the episode it takes on many other forms, including Bones (making Deforest Kelly the first Trek cast member to get to play another version of their own character) as Kirk and Spock run an investigation.  It’s part murder mystery, part vampire horror story, and part western.  Wacky moments abound, such as Spock double fist pounding the Nancy impersonator to prove she’s not Nancy (Bones isn’t so sure) and Uhura being seduced by a Swahili speaking form of the Salt Vampire (it should be noted, however, that Uhura is already a smart, capable character, having just blown off advances by half of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, who apparently have an office aboard the Enterprise). Ultimately, Bones has to shoot the monster (still posing as his love) and Kirk reflects aloud how they essentially caused a species to go extinct (referencing the American Buffalo as Dr. Crater did early in the episode). There’s no Prime Directive in sight yet, so I guess that’s kosher. What makes this such a great intro to the series is that it doesn’t hold our hand, or throw tonnes of info at us at once; instead it introduces us to the characters that are important to this specific story (we don’t meet Scotty or Chekov in this episode).  Kirk and Spock act as a well established team, Uhura tries to coax some emotion out of Spock, but mostly because she’s just bored at her console (she reminds me of a teenager working a mall food court; quite capable and intelligent, but tired of menial work and looking for intellectual stimulation).  Sulu is established as a bit lightheared and mischievous, and we get our first taste of Kirk’s swagger and charm as well as his deep care for his crew’s well being.  The conventions of how naval rules and regulations apply to space begin to show up and the characters are shown eating quite a bit, which seems a minor thing, but establishes that these are people who live and work aboard ship.  Eating on the job is a necessity and it’s a nice touch.  Throughout we get the taste of a greater universe, but they don’t walk us through the entire thing all at once.  We’ve given a lot to chew on, but not bombarded with every last cool thing they’ve thought of.  If we only got this one episode, we got a full, complete, and compelling story.  What a fantastic way to kick off a show. It’s a fun, charismatic crew in an interesting setting and scenario that evokes all sorts of established genres and archetypes while establishing its own.  The pacing is a bit slow by today’s standards, but it’s easy to see how this episode would capture the imaginations of its audience. And so it begins.