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TREK-A-DAY: Mirror, Mirror

EPISODE THIRTY-FOUR: Mirror, Mirror

This was yet another Trek episode I was eagerly awaiting and I would argue is one of the most attractive concepts to come out of The Original Series: so much so, that it captured the imaginations of future generations of Trek writers, by creating an amazing playground to work in.

The premise: due to a transporter failure, Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, and Bones end up in a fascist mirror dimension’s version of the Enterprise.  Where Earth in an Empire and more importantly Spock has a beard.

BEHOLD!!!!

(This is actually commented on an absurd amount: when Mirror Kirk arrives in our world and is being dragged to a jail cell he yells, “What is all this? What is with these uniforms?  Where is your beard? Where is my personal securty detail?!”  Yep, Spock’s beard takes precedence over a personal security detail.)

Needless to say, bearded Mirror Spock is also directly responsible for this recent TV gem:

“Evil Troy and Evil Abed in the Trek-A-Day blog!”

So, bearded Spock aside, The Enterprise is a much more brutal place; the Federation logo is Earth with a sword through it, Sulu is pretty intent on sexually harassing Uhura, Checkov attempts a coup within the first few minutes, everyone does the Roman Centurion salute (a predecessor of the Nazi heil) and everyone on board gains rank through murder.  Kirk himself got his commission by murdering Captain Pike and obtaining a machine that lets him kill anyone on board the ship anytime.  Badass.  Our crew has to work quickly to get back to their own world, all the while playing the game of thrones with the new crew.  Eventually, Mirror Spock figures it out, but is convinced by Kirk to instead seize control of the Enterprise from Evil Kirk and begin a revolution (since a fascist, expansionist empire is unsustainable and thus illogical).  Cool.

But aside from the entertaining storyline, what we really get here is a fascinating character study.  While there is intrinsic fun in watching the cast play evil/alternate/robot versions of themselves, the real magic is in watching them play slightly altered versions.  Sulu is a ruthless careerman, playing by the strange rules of the universe but operating within his duty (twisted though it may be).  The harassment of Uhura is a bit out of step, unless we take the swashbuckler analysis from Spock back in The Naked Time and apply it here.  A good person with that attitude falls into a Three Muskateer vein, living with honour and integrity, whereas the darker side is a Don Juan, taking what he wants with a flourish.  It’s a neat take, and gives Sulu some much needed screen time.  Chekov, meanwhile gets his chance to be the evil Russian.  “Calm down, conservative US audience base of the 1960s!  The Russians can still be bad guys!  Only Chekov isn’t, in our world.  But here’s that thing you expect and kinda demand.  Got it?  Cool, let’s move along.”  (I can’t tell whether this was really a nationality-based or rank based choice, as an ensign would naturally want to advance through treachery, but it makes sense to me that it might have been a sign of the times; like how we still need evil Russians in spy movies…or video games, like both Call of Duty and Red Alert)

We also get to see an extraordinarily similar Spock, which is an awesome choice.  I mean, he DOES have a beard, which is different.  But his behaviour, though much more viscious, is still logical in its execution (part of the reason why Kirk can reach him) to the point that Bones risks staying in the Mirror Universe to save Mirror Spock because he reminds him so much of his friend.  We also see Kirk get his first, real lothario moment with Mirror Kirk’s ambitious ladyfriend…where Kirk basically shrugs and romances her for a bit.  Because he can.  His meeting of the regular universe version of her at the end is a neat touch as he clearly retained the feelings for her though she’s never met him.  

It’s also a neat episode because EVERYONE gets some time to shine.  Uhura kicks a tonne of ass in this episode, from fending off Sulu with a knife, to disarming Mirror Kirk’s lady in the grand finale (a classic “take me with you” stick up).  Scotty gets to rock some hardcore science (yeah!), McCoy gets to ruminate on human life (yeah!), Spock gets to be the least altered (aside from the beard) and thus the most interesting as all his changes are subtle, Sulu gets to be an evil sketchbag, Chekov gets to be an evil Russian, and Kirk gets some love as well as engaging Spock in some good ol’ fashioned impassioned logic speeches.

Also, there’s a four-on-one brawl with Scotty, Uhura, Bones, and Kirk fighting Mirror Spock.  Epic.

There’s also a nice touch about the Mirror Kirk, Uhura, Bones, and Scotty’s quick imprisonment (we get one scene where Spock bascially has them arrested, labels them “fascinating” and walks away.)  Namely, that it is easy for civilized people to feign barbariansim, but almost impossible for barbarians to feign civilization.  It’s a good point and well used, as the raving, evil Kirk is clearly both raving and evil.  I’d have caught them too (plus they presumably learned their lesson after the LAST time there was a teleporter problem involving the captain…)

By clearly establishing this harsh Mirror Universe that runs parallel to ours, Trek opened quite a few doors.  Various episodes (and books; the only Next Generation book I ever bought was the Mirror, Mirror book about Picard.  Which I now intend to read) either touch on this universe or create a new one, but now have the freedom to (for better or often worse) play with alternate dimensions.  And most significantly for the modern Star Trek fan, this episode clarifies J.J. Abram’s intent quite a bit: I remember as I watched the film (which I quite like) that part of my brain was struggling with the whole “wait, if the timeline is changed, how does this affect my Next Generation?” But Abrams and Co. never intended to erase the universe (Spock mentions this a bunch in the film) but rather explore a new parallel version (which I wholeheartedly support).  Much like time travel, there are some terrible alternate reality episodes to come; but when done like this they’re a brilliant way to explore sides of the heroes we don’t get to see.

Like Spock, with a beard.

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TREK-A-DAY: Amok Time

EPISODE THIRTY: Amok Time

What a helluva way to kick off season two!  Amok Time is one of those episodes I’ve been looking forward to for some time, knowing the name and the basic Kirk vs. Spock premise…but as is the case with the famous episodes, it went above and beyond.  Fantastic episode.

Sing it with me: Buh buh buh BA BA BA ba BA ba BAHHHHHH

The episode kicks off with two things that make me really happy: a nod to continuity with Nurse Chapel is back and hitting on Spock, a fact known to McCoy who comments on it (I had written this off as another “things said in The Naked Time don’t count *cough Yeoman Rand cough*” but here we are with Chapel still very much in love with Spock).  The second was an immediate emotional outburst by an irrationally irritable Spock.  Subversions of established characters are my favorite, so it was great to kick off the new season with a “here’s someone you know quite well acting crazy” moment.  This entire episode serves as a fantastic character study about just how little we know about Spock beyond immediate circumstance and is a wonderful look into our co-workers’ “weekend lives”.  As close as Kirk and McCoy are to Spock, they really do know very little about his past or traditions.  Although they know his personality, virtues, likes and dislikes, this episode underlines the big cultural gap exists between Spock and his human counterparts (but acknowledged by Chapel way back in The Naked Time!)

As it turns out, Spock is in the Vulcan equivalent of heat and thus must return to Vulcan to mate with his kinda-wife to whom he was psychically linked as a child (like a werewolf in Twilight! *shoots self in head*) to meet up with at this time.

And so, Kirk risks his career to get Spock to the church on time, but as it turns out the church is a strange Vulcan plateau and there’s a wacky ritual known as (excited gasp) PON FARR to be accomplished first.  This is a classic, classic Star Trek term and concept and has fuelled any number of nerd sex jokes since (and doubtless has been used successfully as part of a pick up line).  Problem is, when Spock logically counted up his 99 Problems, he neglected to notice that his pseudo-bride was indeed one, as she is in love with another Vulcan and thus chooses Kirk as her champion (knowing he’d want none of that if he won and release her to be with other Vulcan) to battle Spock to the death for her hand.  Kirk, being an awfully good friend, accepts the duel with a mind to save Spock from fighting the giant other Vulcan guy, not understanding that it’s to the death.  And so, we get our biggest fight since Mr. Noonien Singh caused that ruckus in engineering, as Kirk and Spock duke it out with American Gladiator weapons to the most famous song in all of Star Trek: The battle music (I couldn’t help but grin when I heard them sneak it in earlier in the episode, considerably slowed down and more deliberate when Spock is describing the Pon Farr to Kirk).  Anywho, due to some quick thinking by McCoy (and a good old shot of fake death seurum in Kirk’s arm) the feud is settled with only Kirk’s shirt as a casualty and Spock’s fever is sated.  He doesn’t want to marry the chick anymore (for good reason) and gets in a great dig at other Vulcan about how “having is often less fun than wanting” before returning to The Enterprise to stand trial for Kirk’s death.

Which in turn gives us a great Huck Finn moment of Kirk re-appearing and one of the most genuinely touching moments we’ve had in the series so far as Spock excitedly exclaims, “Jim!” with a big grin on his face and hugs Kirk.  Only to immediately snap back into logic mode, but the little glimpse is a wonderfully honest moment and sums up how close these two characters really are.  The episode is filled with awesome moments of commradery between the three leads (particuarly when Spock asks Kirk to be his best man.  Then quietly asks McCoy to come along as well.  Three best friends that anyone’s ever had, and they’re never, ever, ever, going to leave each other…)  And then we’ve got my new favourite dynamic on the ship: the Chekov and Sulu variety hour!  The two have a few scenes grumbling about course changes and already Sulu feels like more of a character.  Chekov and he have a nice buddy comedy thing going and I can’t wait to see more from it.

Also notably, we get our first real look at Vulcan culture, to this point a closely guarded secret by Spock.  While the costumes are typically weird, we get our first “Live Long and Prosper,” which kind of blew me a way because I hadn’t noticed its absence in the first season.  It’s yet another one of those things I always took for granted about the Original Series that I’m only finding out the truth of now (Chekov was also one of those things.)  There’s also a stubborn elder named T’Pau which really threw me for a loop, going “Holy crap, that’s T’Pol from Enterprise all grown up.”  It gave me much more respect for that series…until I read up on it, and while they were meant to be the same character, there was some legal weirdness that prevented it.  Ah well; a cool little moment nevertheless.

So, all-in-all, a fantastic episode.  Great characterization, a fun fight, legendary music…who could ask for anything more?

I can.  It’s only the first episode of the season, after all.

On Season Two…

So, what’s different about season two?  Well, right off the bat, the damn DVD menu is now based around the science officer’s station rather than the helm.  This was both disconcerting and awesome.  Each boxed set is themed around a different wing of command (Season 1 is Captain’s yellow, 2 is Science blue, 3 is Engineering red) and this is a nice nod to the overall product.  Well done.  There’s a budget for the show now, which shows already in the variety of extra crewmen running around (no more of this “there are six people on The Enterprise” scenes) and we also get the very noticeable (and welcome) addition of Mr. Chekov to the crew.  The theme music (and music in general) are more bombastic and include a wider variety of instruments (most noticeably, the bass line on Spock’s scenes) as a financial falling-out between Roddenberry and Alexander Courage (the original composer) led to a new musician in charge.  It’s not worse, just different…for the most part.  Sometimes it’s worse (the new theme song with extra vocal accompaniment, for instance).

TREK-A-DAY: Court Martial

EPISODE TWENTY: Court Martial

What a neat and oddly prophetic episode: the second of the “character gets court martialled by Starfleet” episodes (of many over the many series), “Court Martial” has some major points of interest (in addition to being an entertaining episode).

The first and most interesting to my eye is the aforementioned prophetic tone: the central conceit of the episode is that Kirk has erred in judgement during an ion storm causing the death of a crewman.  This is proved by a computer recording of the incident in the visual log, which shows Kirk jettisoning the pod containing the crewman before issuing a Red Alert to warn the crewman.  Kirk remembers it otherwise (and begins to question his ability to make command decisions) and Spock deduces (logically, of course) that Kirk is not the kind of person who would err in this way, however the court has this video footage, which is pretty damning.  Kirk’s lawyer (the epically named Cogwell and precursor to the excellent lawyer of Battlestar Galactica) is an old fashioned guy, who trusts the texts and languages that laws and people wrote in over massively accumulated databanks and thus gets everyone thinking about technology versus the human experience.  This in turn leads Spock to realize how easy computer systems are to tamper with, which in turn leads to the discovery that the crewman is alive (and plotting) thus solving the case and giving us our daily dose of fisticuffs.  The prophetic element is two-fold: one, the appreciation (despite the still limited understanding in the 60’s of how computers were going to revolutionize the human experience) that despite human limitations, computers have their own set of fallibilities and when left to stand exclusively as evidence for or against human behaviour, we rob the human of their rights and elevate the technology.  It’s hard not to think of computers in courtrooms now and how many programming steps go into everything that processes everything from evidence to transcripts, to the articles about the trial.  There is so much room for error and for a pre-Apple I/DOS world, this demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the future to come.  True science fiction.

The other prophetic element regards books: given Google Translate, we now have access to more information from around the world than perhaps ever before; but as anyone who has ever tried to get a solid translation out of the program knows, it’s hugely inaccurate.  A very useful, but still very blunt, tool.  The concept of understanding the root of information from its primary sources can be found everywhere from Ian Malcolm’s impassioned speeches in Jurrassic Park to the anti-Wikipedia movement in schools.  With increasing automation, there’s also an increased need and desire to comprehend the source rather than just absorb the info.  This is mentioned several times in this episode, ending nicely with the gift from Cogwell to Kirk of a book, “Which isn’t a first edition or anything, but it’s a book and that’s enough.”  We’re seeing our future that we seek to reach reach back to us for our knowledge.  It’s a nice closing of the circle of science fiction, really.

And then we have my favourite running success in the show: it’s use of characters.  Courtroom scenes can still be engaging based on story alone (we’ve seen this countless times in countless shows), but where The Original Series continues to triumph is in its slight twists on the players involved.  The prosecting lawyer is a good friend (and former lover) of Kirk’s who desires justice served but believes in Kirk.  The dead crewman was an old friend of Kirk’s who he’d fallen out with after reporting a negligent act and thus killing the crewman’s career.  The crewman’s daughter was even named “Jamie” for Kirk; the ship’s computer is treated as a character for all intents and purposes; Cogwell is a quirky “dramatic hero lawyer” type of character.  The results, though not entirely unexpected, are made more enjoyable by the inclusion of this variety of characters, who are allowed to intermingle and bounce off each other.  The crewman turns into a melodrama villain by the end (whom Kirk beats, despite the tragic loss of yet another yellow shirt, torn asunder) but nevertheless, the add depth and flavour to the whole preceeding by filling it with characters who have relationships with each other.  This episode would be improv gold!

So all-in-all a highly entertaining courtroom episode, which (as mentioned before) re-affirms the precedent set by “The Menagerie” that you can get some good character work done by just putting someone on trial and seeing who defends them and how.

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.