Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) was a follow-up to two previous events at which the proprietor pulled together the four highest-rated on imdb.com episodes of the first two seasons of the original Star Trek series on NBC from 1966 to 1969. Last night he showed the most highly rated shows from Star Trek’s third and last season, one of the most controversial parts of the whole Star Trek canon because it entered the world under less than optimal conditions. Disappointed in the low ratings and high production costs of Star Trek, NBC ordered the show canceled after its second season. Then a woman named Bjo Trimble started a public petition campaign to get people to write NBC and plead with them to keep the show on the air, and for the first time in TV history a major network relented and restored to the schedule a show that had been canceled because of public pressure to retain it. Alas, NBC and Star Trek’s creator and executive producer, Gene Roddenberry, then had a public pissing contest over just when Star Trek would appear on the TV schedule; instead of keeping it on in the previous season’s time slot, Fridays at 8 p.m., they moved it to Fridays at 10 p.m. Roddenberry knew that this would be the kiss of death for the show, and at one point he threatened that if NBC kept it at such a hopeless time slot he would withdraw from direct creative participation and appoint another person to produce and be the show runner. NBC called his bluff and, in order to maintain his credibility with the network on potential future projects, Roddenberry picked Fred Freiberger as the new Star Trek show runner.
Freiberger’s best-known previous credit was producing the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, loosely based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” — in the book It Came from Hollywood, containing the original story sources for a number of 1940’s and 1950’s science-fiction films, there’s a marvelous essay by Bradbury telling how Freiberger tried to hire him to do a rewrite of the script for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Bradbury read the script they wanted him to revise, noticed the similarity between it and his old story and threatened to sue. They gave him a token payment for the rights and the final film listed Bradbury as the author of the original story and Freiberger and Lou Morheim as the screenwriters. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a mediocre movie whose only saving grace is the marvelous Ray Harryhausen animation of the title character, a revivified dinosaur who emerges from the sea after a nuclear bomb test. (Bradbury was much better served by Hollywood in 1953 through Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space, with a screenplay by Harry Essex from an outline by Bradbury that apparently contained most of the film’s dialogue, and direction by Jack Arnold that matched the quiet strength of Bradbury’s writing.) Anyway, thanks to Roddenberry’s step-down as show runner and his replacement by the schlock-meister Freiberger, the third season of the original Star Trek has had a bad rep over the years that it may partially deserve (the third-season opener, “Spock’s Brain,” in which a woman steals the titular organ for purposes the script, at least as I dimly recall it, never made clear, is generally considered the worst-ever original Star Trek episode), but three of the four episodes shown last night are among the very best of the original series and show the skills of Roddenberry’s writers (plus at least some of the first-timers Freiberger hired) at weaving tightly knit tales and sneaking in social and political commentary on the issues of that turbulent time in the guise of science fiction. It’s also interesting that, despite the continuing desire on the part of NBC for more “planet shows” — more episodes actually taking place on alien worlds and fewer confined to the interior of the starship Enterprise — the three good episodes shown last night were all “ship shows.” They were:
The Enterprise Incident (September 27, 1968): A tightly-knit tale of ambiguous morality which begins with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) apparently going paranoid and ordering his ship into the Romulan Neutral Zone on his own authority, and then past the Neutral Zone into Romulan space, thereby risking war between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulans. This has one of the most infamous cop-out lines in TV history — the appearance of the Romulans flying a Klingon battle cruiser and Spock’s [Leonard Nimoy] sudden explanation, “Intelligence reports that Romulans are now using Klingon design.” The page for this episode on imdb.com lists two contradictory explanations for this: one that it was caused by an accident when a member of the film crew stepped on the model of a Romulan starship and broke it, and since it couldn’t be repaired in time the filmmakers used a Klingon model instead; and the other that writer D. C. Fontana intended the Romulan ship to be based on a Klingon design from the get-go. (One imdb.com “Goofs” poster said that in this episode the Romulans have a ship capable of faster-than-light “warp speed” travel where in the episode from season one that originally introduced the Romulans, “Balance of Terror,” they only had impulse rockets — which somewhat contradicts the impression I had from both the TV episode “Balance of Terror” and James Blish’s short-story adaptation of it that the Romulans had used their resemblance to Vulcans to infiltrate Starfleet and steal the full monty of Federation warp-drive technology — but if the Romulans hadn’t had a ship capable of warp drive before that would be one explanation of why they bought one off-the-shelf from the Klingons.) D. C. Fontana was one of the very best of Star Trek’s original writers; her real name was Dorothy Fontana but, like quite a few women writers before (and since: does the name “J. K. Rowling” mean anything to you?), she concealed her gender by signing her scripts with initials — and as she explained when Charles and I heard her speak at the 2016 ConDor science-fiction convention, where she was the guest of honor to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek, it was so she could sell action-adventure scripts to producers who would have pigeonholed her as a sitcom and soap-opera writer if they’d known that “D. C. Fontana” was a woman.
“The Enterprise Incident” was apparently inspired by the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo by North Korea just two months before Fontana wrote the script; and, like the Pueblo, the Enterprise actually is on an espionage mission: the aim of the whole endeavor is to steal the “cloaking device” by which the Romulans can render themselves and their ships invisible and undetectable by enemy sensors. (An earlier, less effective version of the cloaking device appeared in “Balance of Terror.”) The episode features the first woman starship commander in Star Trek history (in the later spinoffs, as more women worked themselves into positions of power and authority in real life, the Federation as well as its enemies acquired women commanders): identified only as “Romulan Commander,” she’s played by Joanna Linville, and it’s a real shock when we see that she’s running the Romulan ship and Tal (Jack Donner), the Romulan representative who appeared on the Enterprise’s view screen to tell Kirk and his officers that they needed to depart Romulan space immediately or face destruction, is merely her second-in-command. There are some quite chilling and well-done seduction scenes in which Linville attempts to seduce Spock, pointing to the shared heritage of Romulans and Vulcans as twin spinoffs from the same ancient race, and suggesting that Spock’s talents are being wasted by being first officer to a mere human and if he defects to the Romulans, they’ll give him a ship of his own to command.
At the demand of the Romulans, Spock and Kirk have beamed into the Romulan flagship — with two Romulan red-shirts beaming to the Enterprise as reciprocal hostages — and to establish his bona fides as a defector Spock gives Kirk a “Vulcan death grip” and apparently kills him. Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley, who in the third season got a co-equal credit title of his own right after William Shatner’s and Leonard Nimoy’s) demands to be transported to the Romulan ship to look after Kirk, but when he gets there Kirk is apparently “dead” — though not really, since there is no such thing as a “Vulcan death grip” and all Spock did to Kirk was give him a nerve pinch that put him under for a few hours and made him look dead. (Afterwards McCoy acidly observes that for Kirk’s sake it’s a good thing the Romulans didn’t decide to give him an autopsy.) The ending shows Kirk, after a quickie plastic-surgery job to give him the pointy ears and tilted eyebrows of a Romulan (or a Vulcan), infiltrating the Romulan ship in disguise and stealing the cloaking device, following which in order to get out of Romulan space before the commander’s flagship and the two other Romulan vessels in their fighting group can annihilate the Enterprise, engineer James Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) has to figure out how to install it and make it work so the Enterprise can use the cloaking device to escape the Romulans. “The Enterprise Incident” is a tough-minded, excellently plotted, well directed (by Marvin Chomsky) and acted by the irreplaceable Star Trek cast — for once William Shatner’s overacting makes sense given that he’s pretending to be crazy in the opening scenes!
Day of the Dove (November 1, 1968): Once again directed by Marvin Chomsky, this time from a script by Jerome Bixby, in some respects “Day of the Dove” is an even more striking and politically aware comment on then-current events than “The Enterprise Incident.” The Enterprise shows up at a planet in response to a distress call from a Federation colony, only when they arrive they find not only no survivors but no evidence that a colony ever existed. Then Captain Kirk and his key officers are confronted with a Klingon battle cruiser commanded by Kang (Michael Ansara), who insists that 100 Klingons were just killed by a Federation sneak attack on the ship — exactly the same number as the colonists supposedly killed on the planet whom Kirk was trying to rescue. While all this is going on we see a mysterious ball of flickering lights hovering around in space — the lights are normally white but they glow orange and then red as the humans and the Klingons get angrier at each other. Klingon commander Kang and his second-in-command, his wife Mara (Susan Howard) — the first female Klingon ever depicted on Star Trek — board the Enterprise and insists on taking her over as a prize of war and compensation for the attack on their ship. Eventually — though it takes them long enough — both sides realize that they’re being provoked into combat by the alien ball of light, which is a pure-energy life form that feeds on hatred and fear and which has worked it out so that there are 38 humans (including the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock) and 38 Klingons on board and able to fight (the others in the Enterprise’s 400-person crew are locked behind bulkheads), and the alien has destroyed all modern weapons on both sides and given them swords, spears, maces and other medieval weapons to fight each other in hand-to-hand combat.
The alien won’t even let the combatants on either side die: if a Klingon kills a human, or vice versa, the alien will revive the slain fighter so the war can continue. Eventually Kirk and Kang realize that the only way they can drive the alien away is to bring peace and love to each other, and though fortunately they stop short of singing “Kumbaya” (I was actually dreading that Bixby would have Kirk say, “I remember a song from 20th Century Earth that people used to sing when they wanted to make peace with each other … ”), they manage to pull enough warm affection between them that the alien gives up and goes away. The parallels between the story and the real-life Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and also with the pointless proxy war the U.S. was fighting in Viet Nam (where we were literally throwing hundreds of thousands of troops into an attempt to suppress a national liberation struggle under the guise of “fighting Communism” and stopping the “dominoes” from falling — with the ironic result that we lost the military struggle but eventually won the peace: today Viet Nam is a haven for capitalists who want to make their stuff in Third World sweatshops and think Chinese workers are now overpaid), are obvious in Bixby’s writing, and the overall message of this show is, as Rodney King said a decade and a half later, “Can’t we all just get along?”
The Tholian Web (November 15, 1968): Written by Judy Burns (apparently this was her first produced screenplay; she was still a college student and used the money from it to go on a study trip to Africa) and Chet Richards (her husband), and directed by Herb Wallerstein (and an uncredited Ralph Senensky, who had worked on previous Star Trek shows but was fired from this one in mid-shoot), this is yet another Enterprise-confined episode and another tough battle of wills between the Federation crew and an alien. The Enterprise has been called out to a corner of space to rescue a sister starship, the Defiant, only the Defiant has been caught in “interspace,” an area in which two space-time continuua come in contact with each other and objects — including a starship, or a human body — can disappear from one and reappear into another. As if that weren’t plot enough (the way they packed this script full of story lines Mr. and Mrs. Richards seem like they were warming up for the Law and Order shows!), the interspace area is right next to the space of the Tholian Assembly, an enemy we learn very little about in this show but who became significant adversaries on some of the later Star Trek spinoffs. The one Tholian we see, giving Kirk and the Enterprise crew to get the hell out of his space fast or face annihilation, looks like a kid smeared brightly colored paints all over his teddy bear, but the titular “Tholian Web” gets spun out of energy beams and, if completed, will entrap the Enterprise — which can’t leave because they have to wait for the next time the two space-time continnua come into contact with each other so they can beam Captain Kirk aboard again.
Four Enterprise crew members beamed aboard the hulk of the Defiant but the limited energy field or something meant that only three could come back before the space-time continnua diverged again, and as temporary commander Spock had to hold the Enterprise in place until they made contact with each other so they could retrieve Kirk — who’s floating in outer space in one of the most ridiculously tacky spacesuits ever put on film by a major studio (Paramount, who by this time had acquired Desilu Productions, Star Trek’s original producing company — that’s right: it was Lucille Ball, of all people, who originally green-lighted Star Trek after MGM and other more prestigious studios had turned it down!), complete with a mesh visor that looked O.K. on the black-and-white and low-resolution color TV’s of the 1960’s but just seems tacky today. (We were watching the Star Trek episodes on a Blu-Ray boxed set that ballyhooed versions with revised special effects — though the effects don’t look that different and the improved resolution of Blu-Ray just showed up some of the short-cuts the original producers thought they could get away with, not realizing that some day these shows would be viewed on big screens in high-resolution formats.) Also the effects of interspace create a mental illness among the Enterprise crew members that make them become paranoid and attack each other — it’s established that the Defiant suffered a similar fate: like the legendary 19th century ship the Marie Celeste, it was found with all its crew members dead, and in the Defiant’s case (buffs are still arguing about why and how the Marie Celeste drifted into port with all its crew members dead) it’s because that mysterious mental illness made them all kill each other.
So McCoy and his lab assistants, including long-suffering Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett, who was originally cast as the female second-in-command, “Number One,” on the first Star Trek pilot, only 1960’s audiences reacted negatively to the idea of a woman authority figure — that again — but the test screenings said the audiences liked the actress, so Gene Roddenberry found another role for her as McCoy’s nurse), have to come up with an antidote, which they make out of a nerve gas called Theragen that was originally used by the Klingons as a chemical weapon — it’s deadly when inhaled directly but it can be dissolved in alcohol that renders it non-toxic but effective in treating the mental distortions caused by exposure to interspace — and what results is an orange fluid whose resemblance to Tang didn’t escape the viewers at our screening (its proprietor even has a large container of Tang on hand so audience members can imbibe what became the more-or-less official drink of NASA) and which engineer Scott, the hardest-drinking member of the original Enterprise crew, seizes on, drinks more of than he needs and mixes with Scotch to get drunk. There’s also a lot of infighting between Spock and McCoy in Kirk’s absence, a tape Kirk left behind before he disappeared to be viewed by Spock and McCoy if he died to tell them to get along and respect each other’s authority, and even a memorial service for Kirk when the crew members think he’s dead (the largest crowd scene of Enterprise crew members ever done in the original Star Trek). Though a bit overcrowded in the sheer plethora of plot lines, and with a not very effective resolution (once they recover Kirk, alive, well and glad to be among fellow humans again instead of alone in the interspace universe, the Enterprise does a slingshot maneuver through the interspace and emerges safely away from the Tholians — ya remember the Tholians?), “The Tholian Web” is a nice, tight ensemble drama representing the original Star Trek at close to its best.
All Our Yesterdays (March 14, 1969): The one “planet show” of the four and the only clunker in the bunch, written by Jean Lisette Aroeste and directed by Marvin Chomsky (again!), a time-travel episode in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to the planet Sarpedion, whose sun, Beta Niobe, is about to go supernova and obliterate it. Thinking their services are needed to mount a rescue operation to save any remaining Sarpedians, the three find that there’s only one person left on the planet, Atoz (Ian Wolfe), who along with at least two robot replicas of himself (I joked that they could have been called Btoz and Ctoz, though apparently writer Aroeste was working in a library when she wrote this and meant the name as “A to Z”), who has supervised the relocation of the entire planet, not to somewhere else in space but to the planet’s own past. Atoz has a bunch of metal discs that each contains a record of an era in Sarpedion’s past and can be used to travel there, but only if one is first “prepared” — a mysterious requirement that only becomes significant later. The discs themselves are metal, have no spindle holes and are about twice as thick as CD’s but have about the same surface area. The episode’s plot as it develops has a striking resemblance to the legendary episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” but the differences only show the yawning quality gap between Harlan Ellison and Jean Lisette Aroeste as writers: like Ellison, Aroeste arranges for one of the three Enterprise officers to beam into one past era while the other two end up somewhere else (in “The City on the Edge of Forever” it was actually the same era but at different times).
Kirk gets accused of witchcraft in a past that resembles 17th century England, with its fops and its witch scares, and he’s accused of witchcraft when he’s overheard talking to Spock and McCoy — who are in the planet’s ice age until they’re rescued by Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley, a talented, sensitive actress wasted here in a silly role). Zarabeth was a political prisoner of the government of Sarpedion so she was sent to the ice age as her punishment — the time-travel equivalent of exile to Siberia — and she was given just the bare minimum of food and clothing (her all-in-one tunic seemed to be going for the same appeal to straight teenage guys as Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years, B.C.) but apparently all the home permanent kits she can use, since her hair has a wave that is very obviously the work of a stylist. (This reminds me of the earlier version of One Million, B.C. in which the cave people were still hunter-gatherers but they had somehow managed to invent the push-up bra.) Five thousand years out of his normal time, Spock reverts to the barbarian origins of Vulcans, who were originally a warlike race who nearly destroyed themselves and their planet until they learned to discipline themselves and run their lives and their society by logic. (This was an aspect of the Star Trek universe dreamed up not by Gene Roddenberry but by Leonard Nimoy: in Roddenberry’s original prospectus Vulcans were instinctively logical and always had been, but when asked to write a backstory for Spock Nimoy came up with the idea that Vulcans had learned to live logically only as a form of self-discipline to keep from destroying themselves — and Roddenberry liked the idea so much he incorporated it into the official Star Trek guide.)
Spock’s reversion to a pre-logical Vulcan existence is exhibited when he takes the meat Zarabeth proffers him (I had forgotten that all Vulcans are vegetarians) and responds to her sexual appeals as graphically as NBC’s Standards and Practices Department (the network’s official censors) would allow. Later on he feels sorry for himself and apologizes for doing so. Zarabeth tells Spock and McCoy that they can’t leave the previous time because their atoms have been altered to survive there but not in their original time, but Kirk learns from Atoz (whom he can still talk to even though he’s in a different time — I’m not making this up, you know) that that’s only true if you went through that mysterious “preparation” process: if you didn’t, it’s the past that will kill you within a few hours unless you escape back to the present. Eventually Spock bids a tearful farewell to Zarabeth and returns to his own time, as do the others, and they beam aboard the Enterprise and get the hell out of there just before Beta Niobe becomes a supernova and blows Sarpedion up. David Gerrold ridiculed this episode in one of his books on Star Trek (he wrote at least two, an overall history of the original show and a book about his experience writing one of the best-loved episodes, “The Trouble with Tribbles”), apparently upset at the whole idea of Spock getting laid — I wonder what his reaction was when the current cycle of Star Trek movies, presented as a prequel to the original series and featuring Chris Pine as a surprisingly effective Kirk (though most of the rest of the cast seems like very good cosplayers), presented Spock and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols in the original shows, Zoë Saldana in the recent films) as hot if rather tempestuous long-term lovers!