Sunday, December 18, 2016

Star Trek: The Original Series — Four First-Season Episodes: “Balance of Terror,” “Space Seed,” “The Devil in the Dark,” “The City on the Edge of Forever” (Desilu/Norway, 1966-1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie screening in Golden Hill for a program of four episodes from the first season (1966-1967) of the original Star Trek TV series, screened in gloriously restored prints from a Blu-Ray boxed set with so-called “enhanced” effects — though the effects really didn’t look all that different from the endearingly tacky ones we got when the shows were new (the starships moved more smoothly, they were better lit, and the flares showing space weapons being fired looked at least marginally more credible — but then given that we still had only a black-and-white TV when Star Trek originally aired it’s always a jolt to me just to see the show’s original episodes in color and note there really didn’t seem to be much of a schema as to who wore what color and one would have thought they could have come up with a better, more authoritative-looking color for Captain Kirk’s tunic than that ghastly mustard-yellow which clashed with the bright blue of Spock’s). I was particularly interested in this evening because the first Star Trek episode they were showing was the one episode from the original series I had never seen before — “Balance of Terror,” an uncredited knockoff of 1950’s submarine movies The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep which introduced the Romulans. I had known about this episode before because it appeared in the first fictionalized collection of Star Trek stories which science-fiction writer James Blish adapted from the episodes’ scripts — only Blish’s adaptation differed from the actual script by Paul Schneider in several particulars. One of the big turning points of the story comes when the Romulan spaceship inadvertently sends out a video of the goings-on on its bridge, the Enterprise receives it, and thereby it’s revealed for the first time to Federation personnel that Romulans look like Vulcans. Stiles (Paul Comi), a navigator who lost three direct ancestors in the previous war between Romulus and the Federation 100 years earlier, has a great line in Blish’s story, “So that’s how they could have stolen our ship’s design. They look like us — or at least like some of us” — but, to my surprise, it was Blish, not Schneider, who wrote that line; it doesn’t appear in Schneider’s teleplay.

Also Blish said that “Romulan” was “not their name for themselves,” whereas Schneider not only riffed off the names Romulus and Remus (they are two planets orbiting each other as well as their system’s sun, though there is no evidence that Remus has sentient life forms) but used terms from the Roman Empire to describe them: the Romulan captain (Mark Lenard, who later played Spock’s father — one gets the impression they’d already fitted him with the ears so they didn’t have to do that all over to cast him as a Vulcan) reports to an official on Romulus called a Praetor; his second-in-command is called Decius (Lawrence Montaigne); and there’s an elderly official on board the Romulan ship whose title is “The Centurion” (John Warburton) who’s killed in mid-battle and sent out into space along with debris that’s supposed to fool Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) of the Enterprise into thinking that the Romulan ship has been destroyed. The episode kicks off with attacks on three of the eight manned earth stations that supervise the Neutral Zone imposed by the peace treaty between Earth and Romulus that ended their war a century earlier (obviously writer Schneider was thinking of the supposedly “demilitarized zone” between North and South Viet Nam — in 1966 the Viet Nam war was in full swing) when a Romulan vessel that has a “cloaking device” that renders it invisible except when it actually fires a weapon (it can be invisible but doing so takes up almost all the ship’s power, so they have to become visible again in order to fire their weapon, which in Blish’s adaptation was a metal fatiguer but in the actual show is something called an  “enveloping energy plasma.” The show is basically a battle of wits between the two rival commanders, and director Vincent McEveety — a name usually not seen on Star Trek — actually manages to get a quiet, understated performance out of Shatner. It’s also ironic to see Shatner as Kirk challenge Stiles (who dies at the end of the story — alongside Tomlinson, who was supposed to be married by Kirk at the start of the episode to a woman colleague on the ship’s phaser crew — but is alive at the end of the episode) on his anti-Romulan racism when just five years earlier Shatner played a racist nut-case in Roger Corman’s civil-rights movie The Intruder (a quite good film that was Corman’s first box-office flop). And it’s really nice to see the original Desilu logo on the end of each of these early episodes, a valuable reminder that after other production companies (including MGM) had turned down Star Trek it was Lucille Ball’s company (which she had been running since she and Desi Arnaz broke up in 1960) that greenlighted it. I remember getting into an argument with someone who said he didn’t watch Lucille Ball’s shows because “I like more serious TV — like Star Trek,” and of course, being me, I tore into him and said, “If it hadn’t been for Lucille Ball there would never have been a Star Trek!”

After “Balance of Terror” I was on more familiar ground with the three other first-season Star Trek episodes I got to watch last night. The next up was “Space Seed,” which introduced the character of Khan (full name: Khan Noonien Singh) who was later used in the second Star Trek movie with the original TV cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (made in 1982 with Ricardo Montalban repeating his role as Khan from this episode) and still later in the second in the sequence of three (so far) in J. J. Abrams’ reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing him. Montalban was quite striking casting, even though it’s hard to accept him without thinking of the roles he’d played both before and after this one: before in MGM movies like Fiesta (where he plays the son of a bullfighter who wants to be a composer, while his fraternal twin sister, played by Esther Williams, does want to follow in dad’s footsteps as a matador and fights bulls under his name) and after in Fantasy Island. It’s also interesting that we’re told he’s from India (and the last name “Singh” would indicate he’s a Sikh, not a Hindu or Muslim) when we know he’s from Mexico — though some of the “Trivia” posters argued that this was Star Trek creator and show runner Gene Roddenberry being ahead of his time in cross-racial casting. Still, Montalban is an arresting screen presence and just right for the part of the leader of a group of 72 genetically engineered superhumans, the last survivors of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990’s in which a group of superpeople tried to conquer Earth and establish themselves as dictators. (Though it’s highly unlikely that Donald Trump’s dad had him genetically altered, it seems like writers Carey Wilbur — who submitted this script unsolicited — and Gene L. Coon were off by only 20 years.) They fled in a nuclear-powered spaceship called the Botany Bay (after a real-life penal colony in 19th century Australia) and put themselves into suspended animation — only their ship drifted off course and was lost in space until the Enterprise found it and revived Khan, then had to deal with Khan as he studied the Enterprise’s technical manuals and used the knowledge he gained to take over the ship. He has help not only from the other 71 superpeople with whom he was fleeing on the Botany Bay but from Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue, who had previously played Ricardo Montalban’s wife on a Bonanza episode), a ship’s historian who specialized in late 20th century Earth history and predictably goes gaga over the prospect of actually meeting, dating and having sex with a man from the 20th century — especially one who looks like Ricardo Montalban. In the end Captain Kirk decides on a merciful resolution — which for anyone who’s seen The Wrath of Khan seems like a bi-i-i-i-ig mistake: he sets down the 72 Botany Bayers on a deserted planet and lets McGivers off the hook if she joins them there — and his final comment is to the effect that he’d like to look in on them a hundred hears hence and see how they’ve done. “More like 20,” one of the audience members joked, referencing the 16 years that elapsed between this episode and the film The Wrath of Khan.

The next episode they had on tap was “The Devil in the Dark,” which according to was actually the inspiration of Janos Prohaska, who designed a costume for a monster creature and wore it into the office of Star Trek writer and associate producer Gene L. Coon. “What is it?” said Coon. “I don’t know,” said Prohaska, challenging Coon to write a story around his costume and the monster it depicted. Actually the costume is the weakest part of what became one of the most compelling stories Star Trek ever did; it takes place on a planet called Janus VI, where miners working to extract something called pergium (pronounced “Pair-GEE-um”) are being killed right and left by a mysterious object that moves through solid rock the way humans move through air. They’re also finding and destroying hundreds of so-called “silicon nodules,” ball-shaped objects of virtually pure silicon that look like purple bowling balls (though apparently they were actually beach balls). The monster has already killed 50 miners when the Enterprise finally gets to Janus VI in response to the distress call sent by the supervisor of the mining colony, Vanderberg (Ken Lynch), and they’ve tried everything to kill it, including firing at it with phasers, which don’t hurt it a bit. Spock (it would be Spock!) deduces that the thing is a silicon-based life form, and he advises the Enterprise to equip the mining crew with the improved Phaser Two — which emits a stronger and more destructive beam than Phaser One (this is one of the few Star Trek episodes that acknowledges there are different kinds of phasers) and can be reset to be especially destructive to silicon and anything made of it. This was one of the first episodes in which a red-shirted Enterprise crew member was offhandedly killed — the phrase “red shirt” has entered the language for an expendable character in anything that isn’t going to last long — and it’s also the first one in which Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) spoke his famous line, “I’m a doctor, not a _____!,” which soon became one of Star Trek’s most annoying clichés. (Here it’s “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”)

The gimmick in this one is that the monster turns out to be a sympathetic creature, a moral reversal that begins when it burns a message into the floor of one of the tunnels reading, “NO KILL I” — and Kirk wonders whether that’s a plea to the Earthlings not to kill it or a promise not to kill any more humans. (According to an “Trivia” poster, a punk band that does Star Trek‑themed songs calls itself “No Kill I.”) It turns out the creature calls itself a “Horta,” it’s fully sentient (even if it can’t converse in a normal Earthling, Vulcan or any other Federation species’ fashion) and it responds to the Vulcan mind-meld (I believe this was the first time it was used on the show) as Spock contacts the wounded Horta and manages to get through past her overwhelming pain (a feminine pronoun is appropriate because she’s the last of her species and is responsible for hatching her young) to learn that she’s the last remaining member of her kind; that every 50,000 years all the Horta die off except one, and she’s responsible for bringing the new generation of Horta into the world; and that the silicon nodules the miners have been destroying willy-nilly are her eggs. Once McCoy uses silicon-based thermal concrete to patch up the Horta’s wounds, the Horta survives and she and the miners are able to reach an understanding: they’ll leave the Horta alone and in exchange the Horta will tunnel through the planet and thereby enable the miners to get at deposits not only of pergium but gold, silver, platinum and other important commodities, thereby multiplying the mine’s profits. Arthur C. Clarke said this was the only one of the original Star Trek episodes he remembered, and it was because “it presented the idea, unusual in science fiction then and now, that something weird, and even dangerous, need not be malevolent. That is a lesson that many of today’s politicians have yet to learn.” About the only element of “The Devil in the Dark” that goes wrong is the actual appearance of the Horta, which looks like a bastard cross between a Sid and Marty Krofft puppet and the bizarre mess of carpet samples director Art J. Nelson cooked up for his 1964 messterpiece The Creeping Terror, and though at least you don’t get to see the feet of the person or persons moving the Horta around the way you did with the people under the “monster” in The Creeping Terror, the Horta does drag around a whole lot of things that look like rug tassels (and probably were!); she looks like a mobile carpet some people puked on a lot and nobody bothered to clean up — indeed, one person at the screening questioned whether it had been appropriate for me to bring and serve pizza at the screening, since the outside of the Horta did look an awful lot like the top of a pizza.

The next and last of last night’s Star Trek episodes is one I feel a particular affection for, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison’s sole contribution to Star Trek even though, typically for Ellison, a lot of his story elements ended up on the cutting-room floor. At least his basic concept remained: Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with an overdose of a powerful drug, beams himself to the surface of a planet that has an operating time machine, and ends up in 1930 New York City. His disappearance through the time portal instantly makes the Enterprise and the whole Starfleet infrastructure disappear (a major point of contention with Ellison, who wanted the Enterprise to continue to exist but become a ship full of drug addicts and crooks, product of the oppressve regime that took over the world after Nazi Germany won World War II— though a later Star Trek, “Mirror, Mirror,” did tap into the concept of a “bad” Enterprise in an alternative universe). Kirk and Spock see only one choice: they have to go back into the future and arrive in 1930 New York just before McCoy does so they can undo whatever it was he did that changed time, and thereby bring the Enterprise, Starfleet, the United Federation of Planets and the rest of the Star Trek infrastructure back into existence. Kirk and Spock (the latter passing himself off as Chinese and wearing a watch cap to conceal those famous Vulcan ears) steal some normal 1930 clothes off a clothesline (what criminal slang of the time called a “gooseberry lay” — Dashiell Hammett inserted this term into The Maltese Falcon as a diversion for the censors so they wouldn’t notice the more innocuous-sounding but actually nastier term “gunsel,” which meant the kept boyfriend of a Gay male gangster), flee from a police officer and end up in the basement of the 21st Street Mission, run by Edith Keeler (Joan Collins, in probably the best performance of her career). It seems Edith Keeler is a truly inspirational figure who’s not only ministering to the street people who’ve been left homeless by the Great Depression, she’s a pacifist who dreams of a time when humans will be able to explore space. Kirk finds himself falling in love with Edith Keeler, while Spock uses the readings from the human past he collected on his tricorder before he and Kirk crossed through the time portal and plugs them into a ramshackle apparatus he’s been able to construct out of the radio equipment available in 1930 and whatever he was able to buy on the tiny wages Keeler was paying them for housework. Eventually Spock reads two different versions of Edith Keeler’s future: in one, she dies in a traffic accident in 1930; in the other, she becomes a nationwide pacifist leader and wins a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

The problem — and the element that brings genuine pathos to this episode, especially once Edith Keeler emerges as a character Kirk is genuinely in love with and not just a convenience so he can get his rocks off — is that the event that has to happen for the Enterprise, Starfleet, the Federation and all the other optimistic parts of Gene Roddenberry’s future vision to occur is Edith Keeler’s death. If she survived past 1930, she’d build a pacifist movement so powerful the U.S. would stay out of World War II, Nazi Germany would win and the rest of human history would change accordingly. McCoy ultimately arrives in 1930 New York just in time to witness the traffic accident in which Keeler is run over by a truck and killed, and Kirk holds him back so he cannot save her life. There are some lacunae in the script — notably an anachronism in that the night she dies Keeler is on her way to see a film with Clark Gable, and she expresses astonishment that neither Kirk nor McCoy have ever heard of him. In 1930 most people would never have heard of Clark Gable: he was a New York stage actor whose only film work was a few appearances as an extra in the 1920’s and the part of a villain in a Pathé Western called The Painted Desert. Gable didn’t become a star until 1931, when he replaced John Mack Brown in the Joan Crawford vehicle Laughing Sinners. (Apparently the original draft of the script said she was going to see a film with Richard Dix, who was a major star in 1930 but was virtually forgotten by the 1960’s; the logical names for them to have dropped would have been one of the actors who were in fact the biggest male stars of 1930, and who were still identifiable decades later: Maurice Chevalier or Ronald Colman.) Having seen three episodes of The Outer Limits which Ellison wrote at a previous Vintage Sci-Fi screening, “The City on the Edge of Forever” seemed more of a piece with Ellison’s other TV writing of the period — particularly his skill at creating lonely, alienated characters wrenched out of their proper time periods and only suffering more when they realized how they were displaced — and the reason I have a particular affection for this show is that in 1976 my brother and I attended a Star Trek convention in San Francisco at which Harlan Ellison was the featured speaker. Being Harlan Ellison, he delighted in going into a roomful of Trekkies and skewering their illusions about the show; he said that when he presented the script to William Shatner, Shatner went through it and counted both the number of lines he got and the number Leonard Nimoy got. He then told Ellison he had to have more lines than Nimoy because “I can’t compete with those ears.”