Tag Archives: Star Trek

Better than I expected: the original Star Trek’s third season

When I first started watching Star Trek the show’s three seasons meant nothing to me.

While I caught one episode — the first half of The Menagerie — on British TV, I didn’t start watching regularly until my family moved to America. Star Trekwas running in syndication right about when I got home — intentional timing to hook a teenage audience, I imagine — and I was hooked. I’d never seen anything like it before and I loved it. It almost shocked me when I’d read books or reviews that criticized episodes — it was Star Trek, how dare they!Watching Monday through Friday gave me no clue how the episodes originally broke down by season; I don’t have any idea if they even aired them in original order. I think the first episode guide I ever saw was in the book Fantastic Television and that came out in 1977. In those days, having a source for that information was priceless.

Decades later, I can look at the original show and see the flaws that developed in the second season. Fan support saved it from cancellation but I’m honestly not sure it was worth it. Not that all the episodes are horrible, let alone as bad as S2’s Omega Glory. But the season as a whole skews heavily to mediocrity.

Part of that, as David Gerrold once observed, is sloppiness in the characters. Spock, Kirk and McCoy all have some great bits this season, but Spock had a huge fan base, particularly women, and that led to him playing way out of character to get some romantic scenes in The Cloud Minders, as well as The Enterprise Incident earlier in the season and the next-to-last episode, All Our Yesterdays.

More generally the writers can’t think of anything but love to raise the stakes. Scotty falls in love in the tedious Light of Zetar (as Gerrold says, you’d think he’d go for a female engineer, not just a pretty face); McCoy falls in love in For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky; Chekhov falls in love in both Way to Eden and Spectre of the Gun. Kirk falls in love in The Paradise Syndrome.

There are some dreadful episodes such as Spock’s Brain (TYG insists it’s worse than Omega Glory but she’s wrong) but far more that are just bland. Zetar and Touched the Sky. All Our Yesterdays. The Savage Curtain.  There’s an increasingly tight budget: All Our Yesterdays has no scenes on the ship, no cast but Scott, McCoy and Kirk (we get Scott’s voice over the communicator) and some time-travel adventures that I suspect let them scavenge the studio’s costume closet to save costs. Cheap worked in The Empath, in which aliens torture the three leads to see if an empath is willing to give up her life to heal them. The dark underground chambers where everything happens come off like an episode of Outer Limits. Having them on a Wild West set for Spectre of the Gun? Not so effective.

But it’s not as unwatchable as I’d anticipated. Despite the many tedious episodes, many poor ones have some redeeming feature, such as the performances in Plato’s Stepchildren. Kathie Browne, who plays Deela in Wink of an Eye, is a delight, a fun-loving tragic villain (using the Enterprise as breeding stock to save her dying race) who happily puts moves on Kirk. Mariette Hartley is incredibly charming as Zarabeth in All Our Yesterdays. While the final episode, Turnabout Intruder, is appallingly sexist, William Shatner gives an amazing performance as a Kirk possessed by an unstable woman’s mind.

I’d debated skipping this season — why watch that many bad episodes? — but as it turns out, I’m glad I didn’t.

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Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy!

Following on last week’s Star Trek post, here’s a look at a couple more (in)famous S3 episodes, “The Way to Eden” and “The Cloud Minders.” Both tackle then-contemporary issues, both fall short, neither is good. They are however interesting.

“The Way to Eden” opens with the Enterprise pursuing a stolen spaceship. When they teleport the thieves aboard, they’re stunned to discover they’ve captured five space-hippies and their leader, Dr. Sevrin. They’re seeking a possibly mythical world called Eden which is still unspoiled and untamed. Spock, who identifies with their sense of not fitting in anywhere, agrees to help locate Eden. However he also concludes Sevrin is barking-dog insane. Sevrin is also infected with synthococcus novae, a disease spawned by the sterile, high-tech society humanity now lives in (this is not explained). The law requires he stay in that same society because on a primitive world they won’t have the tech to cure the disease if it spreads. Sevrin cannot, therefore, reach Eden.

The good doctor is not down with that. One of his people, Irina, is a former lover of Chekhov’s, so she worms out of him how to take over the Enterprise from the auxiliary control room. Distracting the crew with a concert, the hippies seize the ship and steer it to Spock’s location for Eden. They take a shuttlecraft down but oops, the world has its own serpent: the plant life is lethally acidic, the fruits toxic to humans. Sevrin and his chief disciple, Adam, die. Spock tells Irina to keep hunting for Eden.

I’m curious what someone my niece’s age (mid-twenties) would make of this. The visuals for someone my age scream futuristic hippies but would someone much younger pick up on that? Or would they simply look like weird alien outfits? But there’s no question it was a take on the hippy movement: they’re into movement, spout their own slang (“Herbert” for stuffy official types such as Kirk) and reject modern high-tech civilization. And they sing — the title comes from a couple of lines one Adam sings at one point (“Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy/Got a clean bill of health from Dr. McCoy.”).

This is the first episode to suggest the Federation has serious flaws. Spock explains the hippies are rejecting the carefully constructed societies on so many worlds, and the way even the atmosphere has to be scientifically layered and managed. They want Eden because they can live a free, natural lifestyle there. This is a reasonable motivation even without the novae disease, but it has no resemblance to anything we’ve seen of the Federation in the past three seasons. Nor does it seem like the galaxy has run out of planets so what’s so special about Eden?

And of course the real hippies were motivated by distaste for racism, capitalism and war; shifting to a more environmentalist stance avoids any pointed critique of society (but since the Federation’s supposed to have beaten those things, how could the show critique them?).

What the show is doing isn’t really condemning hippies as much as suggesting this group is misguided. It’s similar to the way old swashbucklers would give us evil monarchs and tyrants yet come out as supporting monarchy: all that’s really needed is for the right person to take the throne or to replace the evil vizier with a good one. Likewise the hippies’ quest is presented as good, it’s just that they were led astray by an evil leader.

A lot of reviews find Spock’s sympathy for Sevrin’s group implausible: how does a guy who values logic find merit in such an emotional group? But I can see him appreciating their critique of Federation society, though it’s unlikely he’d sympathize with their approach.

All that said, the episode is not good. However it is lively and memorable in a way much of S3 isn’t. For example, “The Cloud Minders.”Kirk and Spock arrive on Ardana, a supposedly utopian planet where the sky-city of Stratos is home to artists and philosophers. What the tourism brochures leave out is that they have a lower class, the Troglites, who labor in the zenite mines. Vanna (Charlene Polite), who was elevated to serve the ruling family in Stratos, has gone back to the mines to lead the Troglites in revolution. Kirk needs zenite to treat a devastating pandemic; due to the revolutionaries, none is forthcoming.

The Stratos dwellers refuse to negotiate: the Troglites are mental inferiors and violent brutes, so there’s no point in making concessions to subhumans. In David Gerrold’s original script, the Enterprise forces both sides to negotiate after a shuttlecraft crashes on the planet; in the finished version, which Gerrold hated, McCoy discovers byproducts of zenite mining really do make the Troglites stupid and violent. Kirk transports the governor of Stratos down to a mine to prove the effects only to wind up with the men going for each other’s throats as the gas takes hold. Fortunately Vanna, who seems more resistant, uses Kirk’s communicator to drag everyone to the Enterprise. Kirk agrees to provide the Troglites with protective equipment so they can regain normal intelligence. Vanna vows to pursue the goal of equality even more fervently, possibly with Federation negotiation.

As Gerrold complains, the zenite gas undercuts the episode’s themes: the underclass really is mentally inferior so the cloud city treating them as inferiors seems justified. He’s right, though that doesn’t absolve Stratos completely: their servants, free of the mines, show excellent intelligence but they apparently write Troglites such as Vanna off as outliers.

Another problem, typical of the third season, is that the stories get increasingly lax about characterization. “Amok Time” established that pon farr is something Vulcans can barely bring themselves to speak of, yet here Spock brings it up to Droxine (Diana Ewing, above) quite casually. He’s also close to flirting with her, which isn’t very Spockish either — and while pretty it’s not like she has much else to recommend her.

Vanna, however, is one of the series better female characters: she’s strong-minded, intelligent, dedicated to her cause, and neither falls for Kirk nor does he try to seduce her. It’s a pleasant novelty.

I’ll probably have a full S3 review next week.

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Thoughts on third-season Star Trek (OS)

So last year while I was tackling The Aliens Are Here, Netflix lost streaming rights to Star Trek. As I didn’t want to pay to watch the third season I bided my time until I could rent the DVDs from Durham Library and finish the series in three weeks (I have about two weeks to go). I’d have preferred weekly viewing — there’s a lot of bad episodes this season — but I’d sooner save the money.

The series is a far cry from S1. There’s nothing I’d consider classic or really good. That said, it’s better than I expected. I’ll get into more detail when I finish the season but I wanted to take today and look at two famous episodes, one better than I remembered and one worse.

“Plato’s Stepchildren” is best known for having the first interracial kiss on TV. The Enterprise arrives on a planet ruled by psionic immortals whose past visits to Earth exposed them to Greek philosophy. They’ve modeled themselves on Plato’s ideal society, except that Parmen (Liam Sullivan), the leader, is a brutal tyrant. He smugly proclaims a society that grants authority based on mind-power is ideal — which has totally nothing to do with his having the strongest mind, no sirree!At the bottom of the hierarchy is Alexander, a dwarf played by Michael Dunn, the great Dr. Loveless of Wild, Wild West. Alexander has no psi-power, he lacks the physical perfection of the other Platonians, so he assumes they look down on him as an inferior. It’s only when they start torturing Kirk, Spock and McCoy that Alexander realizes it’s not him — they’re bullies who’ll push around anyone they can dominate.

The episode isn’t great. They spend far too much time on the Platonians tormenting the Enterprise crew, using their tremendous TK power to manipulate them like puppets (the interracial kiss is one example of that). But Dunn’s performance makes up for much of that. So does Sullivan, who does a fine job playing an arrogant, entitled prick. Despite it’s footnote status in TV history, I hadn’t thought much of this episode, but the acting redeems it some.

“Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” is another famous one, routinely brought up when clueless people complain about Star Trek getting all political and woke and shit. This episode shows the Trek-verse was always political, but that doesn’t make it good.

The alien Lokai (Lou Antonio) is captured trying to steal a shuttle. Then his pursuer, Bele (Frank Gorshin) shows up, demanding custody of Lokai, a revolutionary he claims has killed untold numbers of Bele’s people. Lokai replies that he’s a political refugee: Bele’s people kept his in slavery and after it ended, they were still denied full rights. Bele insists that if they didn’t gain full equality it’s because they weren’t equal.The twist: while the two men see themselves as separate races, to Kirk and Spock, having the white and black sides of their face reversed is a trivial thing. To Bele and Lokai it’s everything. When they return to their homeworld and find race wars have wiped their people out, they can’t give up — Lokai keeps running and Bele can’t stop pursuing.

Coming in the late 1960s, after increasing racial conflicts, protests and riots (the Watts riots of 1965 were still a vivid memory), the message is clear: two races fighting against each other can only bring death and destruction. We have to get past black and white to colorblindness or we’ll ravage our world like the aliens did. And besides, is there really that much difference between us?

As presented here, it’s a bad message. It reminds me of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s quote that if the elephant has its foot on the mouse’s tail, neutrality only benefits the elephant. Bele’s people did keep Lokai’s as slave; near the end, as they return to their homeworld, Bele gloats that Lokai’s race have been penned up enclaves or ghettos where they can be controlled. Watching today, I can’t but see Bele as the bad guy.

The show doesn’t seem to think so. At one point we see Lokai rabble-rousing on the lower decks by describing his people’s suffering to the crew; Spock listens with a frown but nothing comes of it. It’s meant to imply that Lokai’s just a race hustler; Kirk comments at one point that while his followers may have died, Lokai obviously didn’t (of course one could make the same point about Enterprise red shirts …). Bele gets to dine with Spock and Kirk; Lokai doesn’t.

It feels like the script is siding with the people — and there were many — who just wanted all the racial conflict to stop. And not stop by putting an end to racism, but by having those angry black people just settle down and be patient. Don’t stir up violence by asking for equality. As this Martin Luther King quote says, it’s like asking the Israelites to just keep baking bricks — stop stirring up Egypt by demanding freedom!

So not the searing commentary on then-contemporary politics it’s meant to be.

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Two TV seasons of two 1960s shows: Twilight Zone, Star Trek

Following its fourth season switch to hour-long episodes, TWILIGHT ZONE reverted to a half-hour for its fifth and final season. It did not lead to an uptick in quality, but like S3, it has lots of terrific episodes amidst the bad ones. Just not enough of them. The opening episode, In Praise of Pip, has Jack Klugman in his fourth and final turn on the show, as a low-life bookie who goes on a strange, surreal bender when he learns his son has died in Vietnam. In other A-list episodes, William Shatner endures A Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Mickey Rooney gives a dynamite one-man show in Last Night of a Jockey, and Number Twelve Looks Just Like You is an absolutely chilling tale of conformity.

The failed or merely mediocre episodes, though, are too many to list. The pretentious allegory of I Am the Night — Color Me Black. The forced humor of A Kind of Stopwatch (though I was amused that mansplainers were spouting pretentious business-speak 60 years ago). Flat takes on the Evil Ventriloquist’s Dummy (Caesar and Me) and immortality (Queen of the Nile). More hamfisted humor in From Agnes — With Love.

A pleasant surprise though is that two episodes exempt from the original syndicated run are available streaming. Sounds and Silences stars John McGiver as a windbag obsessed with surrounding himself with noise at all costs; The Encounter has Nisei George Takei lock horns with a veteran who once murdered a Japanese officer after the man surrendered. The first (kept out of syndication due to a plagiarism lawsuit) is only okay (I feel more sympathy for McGiver than I’m supposed to, which messes up my reaction to the ending). The second has some dynamite, intense action and some sharp moments as Takei’s character pushes back against the idea he’s not as American as the vet. However it labels Takei’s father a traitor who guided Japanese planes to Pearl Harbor — contrary to popular belief at the time, Japanese Americans did not help with the attack — and implies Takei bears as much guilt for his father’s action as the veteran does for being a murderer. It is, as they say, problematic.

STAR TREK’s second season provoked a similar reaction in me. The first season had only one awful episode,  but S2 has bunches of them, with some gems mixed in. The shticks the show began using in S1 get a lot more play here: the alt.Earth (Bread and Circuses, Patterns of Force, Omega Glory), the godlike adversary seizing the ship (Who Mourns for Adonais?, Catspaw, Gamesters of Triskelion), and Evil Computers (The Changeling, The Apple, The Ultimate Computer).

There’s also an increased emphasis on the core trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy with the rest of the regulars reduced to supporting parts. Chekhov (Walter Koenig) is part of that: adding a new crew member reduces the amount of air time any of them get. That said, the relationship between the Big Three gets better and richer with many great scenes.

And some of the episodes are awesome. The Theodore Sturgeon-scripted Amok Time gives us our first look at Vulcan, and the script truly makes it a complicated, alien place. Journey to Babel introduces us to Spock’s parents. Mirror, Mirror gives us the mirror universe. The Trouble With Tribbles is hysterical fun and Obsession gives Kirk a good character story (blaming himself for an alien creature that killed his crew-mates years earlier, he puts the Enterprise in danger when he encounters the thing again). The final episode of the season, Assignment Earth, was a pilot for a show involving agents of an advanced civilization working to keep 20th century Earth from destroying itself; a time traveling Kirk and Spock get involved.

But then there’s The Omega Glory, in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy are stranded on a post-apocalyptic alt.Earth and help everyone rediscover the wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers. It’s painfully, laughably awful; I wouldn’t have rewatched it if I hadn’t been determined to work through the whole series.

NBC decreed the series wasn’t pulling its weight and axed it, only to have fan support raise Star Trek from the dead for one final season. Where, unfortunately, the ratio of good to bad got even more unbalanced. I imagine I’ll be back to review S3 some time next year.

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First do no harm: Star Trek’s Prime Directive

Star Trek‘s Prime Directive is a nice moral statement but a pain in the butt when it came to actually writing episodes.

The Prime Directive, as every Trekkie knows, is the rule that the Federation and its starships don’t interfere with cultures that have not achieved spaceflight. No intervening in them politically or changing their natural course of development. No giving them signs that life exists beyond their world, such as showing advanced tech or evidence of alien life. This is so fundamental, if it’s choice between saving your ship, your crew and yourself and breaking the Prime Directive, a starship captain should choose death before dishonor.

I’ve read this was partly a pushback against the Vietnam War. During the Eisenhower presidency the U.S. had supported the French colonial regime to stop the Vietnamese independence movement — communist oriented, therefore the bad guys — from winning. Eventually the country divided into two parts, North and South Vietnam, with elections to follow; as it was obvious the revolutionaries would win, the U.S. and its allies refused to let elections happen. Instead, we provided military support for South Vietnam, then eventually committed our own troops. It was a major scar and influence on U.S. society at the time, and increasing numbers of people went anti-war (you can read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam for an excellent history of the nation and the war).

Vietnam wasn’t a unique screw-up. We overthrew lots of democratic governments in the 20th century — El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Chile — because we didn’t like who the people voted for. While we saw ourselves as the champion of freedom against tyranny, all too often we went in the other direction. And as David Rieff says in A Bed for the Night, any attempt at a humanitarian military intervention is a contradiction in terms: military force isn’t humanitarian in nature. As in a lot of things, I think the part of the Hippocratic Oath that says “first, do no harm” might be good advice for us.

In practice, though, the rule was a mess. If we go by the Prime Directive, Kirk had no right to challenge the Landru-computer’s control of its world in Return of the Archons, or to take down Vaal in The Apple. Indeed, the latter story seems like a textbook example — Vaal’s control of his people is totalitarian, but it does apparently keep them at peace, happy and immortal. Will destroying Vaal improve things? Will shutting down the war computers in A Taste of Armageddon actually end the nightmare war, or will they go fully nuclear? As a kid, these episodes worked fine; as an adult I wonder if Kirk has not, in fact, done harm.

Of course not intervening is the opposite of how we expect heroes to work. When good guys stumble into a tyrannical society, fictional convention says they’re supposed to liberate the people, not turn a blind eye. That can, of course, make for dramatic tension, but it could obviously turn a lot of people off: what if the Enterprise crew doesn’t intervene at all to affect the repressive caste system of The Cloud Minders?

There have been multiple expansions and explanations of the details of the directive to handle all the contradictions and try to rationalize it. Ultimately it’s an interesting idea but very awkward, perhaps unworkable, in practice.

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Star Trek: A bite of the Apple

When I reviewed the first season of Star Trek I mentioned that I could spot many of the tropes the show would run into the ground in later seasons. While I’ll cover most of that in the review of S2 after I wrap it up, I’ll focus on one episode, The Apple, as an example of how not to do it.

The Enterprise is checking out a beautiful, newly discovered planet that looks like a garden of Eden. Until a flowering plant launches thorns at one of the red shirts and kills him. Another gets blasted by an unstable, explosive stone. A third is killed by disintegrating lightning — seriously, it’s almost like a self-parody of the red shirts trope. And now a force on the planet is now draining energy from the Enterprise.

In contrast to the environment, the inhabitants of the planet are peaceful, gentle souls; when Kirk strikes one of them for spying on the away team, the guy is so shocked he cries. The population makes up a small village that serves as votaries to the god Vaal, who lives in a cave with a dragon/serpent mouth. Spock figures out that Vaal is a supercomputer buried deep in the planet with the cave as an access point. Vaal keeps his acolytes in ageless perfect health and prelapsarian innocence, with no children or sex (though one young couple starts to figure it out from watching Chekhov and a yeoman make out); this being the era when married couples on TV were shown sleeping in twin beds, the efforts to tackle the topic are painfully euphemistic.

McCoy and Spock debate the merits of this system: the inhabitants are comfortable, cared for and healthy but they’re little better than Vaal’s slaves. Spock argues they’re content and should be left alone; McCoy advocates for freeing them from the shackles they don’t know they’re wearing (I’ll come back to this topic in another post). But as often happens with the Prime Directive, it’s a moot point: Vaal’s out to destroy the intruders so they have to destroy him first. Eventually by cutting off his food supply (the rocks, though that isn’t clear) and blasting him with phasers, the burn the computer out. The natives will have the chance to develop as a culture naturally and having babies instead of being preserved in amber, though a dubious Spock compares this afterwards to casting Adam and Eve out of the garden. Kirk points out that out of everyone on the ship, Spock looks the most like Satan … and we end.

This was the second world-controlling computer (more will follow) the Enterprise encountered after Return of the Archons but there we got enough backstory to make sense of things: Landru, the great leader, programmed the computer to carry on after he was gone and keep society from breaking down (if you haven’t seen the episode, suffice to say things didn’t work as planned). Here I have no idea where Vaal came from; did the village’s ancestors build it and the computer took over? There’s no indication other than Vaal they’ve ever been that advanced. Why is the planet so full of booby-traps? Is it naturally deadly, because the villagers don’t seem to find it so, or is it set up by Vaal, in which case why? Does it see that many visitors? And if one of the natives falls on the exploding rocks or triggers a thorn-flower, do they then have sex to restore the population? The Enterprise crew brings that up but in all the hemming and hawing about discussing S-E-X, they never get an answer. Maybe because an answer would probably require the innocent natives having had sex.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, “cool worldbuilding” is not something that makes me want to grab a book and read it. But if you’re building a world, it does have to make sense. If I have questions afterwards they should be in the category of “I want to see more!” not “how the heck can that make sense?” The Apple, unfortunately, falls into the second category.

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Have you heard of this show Star Trek? It’s really good!

A little over a year ago, I started Netflixing Star Trek from the beginning. Having finally finished the first season, I’ve got to say it’s a really good show. Of course I knew that already, but I’m not sure I appreciated it the same way. When the original series was in syndication, I watched it endlessly, over and over, and ever since then it’s been a part of me, much as Sherlock Holmes and comic books are. In a sense I took the show for granted. Now, though, I’m more impressed. And this is probably the first time I’ve caught the episodes in the order they aired and with no syndicated cuts.

It’s not a perfect show. Crew members in miniskirts. Offhand casual sexism. Having a black woman and an Japanese-American on the bridge was groundbreaking then, but it’s a pretty white cast now (though it pleases me that they do show crewmembers of color rather than making Uhura and Sulu the only nonwhite faces). Kirk, Spock and McCoy are sharply defined, but the other characters much less so. But as I pointed out at the link, we have Charlie X with its toxic-masculine villain and Kirk doesn’t put up with him. He doesn’t tolerate bigotry against Spock in Balance of Terror and I agree with The Mary Sue that he wouldn’t tolerate it against Uhura either.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a kid watching the show when it was new. I’d watch almost any show SF show on the air because there were so few of them. Here was one that was a full-on space adventure, with tons of SF concepts (transporters, ray guns, warp speed, alien life) but unlike the space operas of the 1950s, it was played seriously. Many of the episodes use classic SF tropes: This Side of Paradise resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers while Operation: Annihilate is more like Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. The Devil in the Dark gives us a misunderstood alien; Arena reworks a Fredric Brown short story; Errand of Mercy, which introduced the Klingons, resembles John W. Campbell’s Twilight (it’s also incredibly funny. Knowing what godlike powers the Organians have, seeing Kirk and Kor treat them as helpless sheeple is hysterical). Harlan Ellison’s Hugo-winning City on the Edge of Forever is first-rate.Watching the series in order is interesting because I can see it develop. We have Spock referring to having human ancestors before they settled on a human parent. Uhura flirting with Spock. The introduction of the Romulans (Balance of Terror, which draws on WW II movie tropes) and then the Klingons. The first appearance of Roger Carmel as Harry Mudd; while he only made one more appearance, his roguish conniving has led to countless fanfic and authorized fic appearances (and plans to use him in Next Generation only to have Carmel pass away first).

And while countless people think the show’s essence is “Captain Kirk has sex with hot space chicks” (something I’ll discuss next week), the romantic/sex focus of the show this season is very much on Lost Love. McCoy meets a lost love in the first episode, Man Trap. Nurse Chapel meets hers in What Are Little Girls Made Of? Kirk encounters former lovers in Court-Martial and Shore Leave (a delightful episode written by SF master Theodore Sturgeon). Even Spock turns out to have a former not-quite-lover in This Side of Paradise.

On the downside, I can also see the tropes the show would run into the ground over the following two seasons. The alt.Earth setting (Miri). The computer-controlled culture that has to be liberated (Return of the Archons). The godlike entity that captures the cast (Squire of Gothos — though Errand of Mercy fits that category too).

Still, overall the show only had one truly wretched episode, The Alternative Factor. Didn’t like it as a kid. Hasn’t improved any. That’s a good batting average.

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A phantom, a fiend, a comet and a captain: media watched this week.

Due to the current quarantine crisis, Andrew Lloyd Webber has begun streaming his musicals on YouTube, free. Last weekend it was THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and as I’ve never seen it on stage, I watched it Sunday morning. Suffice to say, this West End production — the 25th anniversary special — lived up to what I thought it would be (though I thought the chandelier collapse would be more spectacular, nor was Erik’s scarred face). Looks great, good performances and in the equivalent of a post-credits scene they brought out Sarah Brightman (the original Christine) and several past Phantoms including the original, Michael Crawford, all of whom then sang (not Crawford — I’m guessing it’s the vocal strain he’s had to deal with over the years). A real pleasure. “You alone can make my song take flight/It’s over now, the music of the night!”

DESPICABLE ME (2010) is a very oddball animated entry in the genre of Sudden Fatherhood films (which includes Three Men and a Baby, Kenny Rogers’ Sixpack and the TV series Family Affair). Protagonist Gru (Steve Carrell is the kind of diabolical master criminal who’d give a toddler a balloon, then pop it for kicks; as part of his elaborate scheme to steal the moon, he has to adopt three orphan girls, only to discover, inevitably, that they’re exactly what he needed in his lonely life (well, sort of lonely — he has weird minions who eventually got their own spinoff). A part of me wanted to dismiss this as sappy cornball fluff, but it won me over so I guess it’s good sappy cornball fluff. “The physical appearance of the ‘please’ makes no difference.”

I loved NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) when I saw it in theaters, and I had much the same reaction watching on BluRay (though I’m way too old to crush on Catherine Mary Stewart as I did originally. She and Kelli Maroney play Valley Girl sisters (that California subculture turned up a lot in TV and movies back then) who are among the few survivors when a comet’s tail reduces most of humanity to dust, while transforming those partly exposed into zombies. Fortunately the sisters are Army brats who can fight, shoot and not loose their cool; but even allied with average guy Robert Beltran, can they survive the zombies and Mary Woronov’s sinister scientific cabal?

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt says on one of the commentary tracks that after seeing the movie Valley Girls he wanted to write a movie using that subculture, and combined it with his fondness for “empty city” SF films such as Target: Earth. The results are a blast, not least because it’s an end-of-the-world movie centered around two capable young women instead of the male lead (though making the last good man on Earth Latino was novel too). And while there’s a lot of humor, the movie manages to get the humor/horror balance right. This was my birthday present from TYG and I’m very grateful. “The legal drinking age is now 10 — but you will need ID.”

Using a First Month Free offer I got to stream the first season of CBS’ PICARD, which brings back Patrick Stewart as Captain (okay, now admiral) Picard. Years ago he quit Starfleet when it refused to support his plans to rescue and resettle Romulans facing death when their sun went nova (“Resigning was my backup plan.”). Now a the death of a mysterious woman possibly tied to the late Commander Data convinces Picard to get back in the game and back into space, accompanied by an inevitably scruffy rag-tag crew. Meanwhile, the dead woman’s exact double is working with XBs (Ex Borg) on a deactivated Borg cube in Romulan space. What’s the connection? And why are Romulans so hostile to all forms of artificial intelligence?

The show has some plot holes but Stewart’s tremendous presence anchors it and the supporting cast are excellent, particularly Alison Pill as an AI expert. There are several familiar faces from Next Generation (and one other series), and the show uses them effectively. I don’t know if I’ll pay to stream S2, but maybe … “If you find a way out of this, they should call it the Picard Maneuver — wait, that’s already a thing, isn’t it?”

Alison Pill also appears as another computer whiz in the much less interesting show Devs. I posted a detailed review at Atomic Junkshop.

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The women of early Star Trek

A few weeks back I started doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: rewatch the original Star Trek series. It was very much a part of my teen years as I watched episodes over and over in syndication, but it’s been years since I caught any of the episodes, except in passing when TYG was rewatching them. When I began, I discovered Netflix’s run includes the original pilot episode The Cage preceding the first episode, Man Trap. The difference between them was interesting.

Gene Roddenberry has rightfully taken crap for a vision of the future in which women, even though qualified to serve on a space ship, are primarily eye candy. The Cage is a step up from that. The ship’s first officer, Number One (Majel Barrett) is competent; Captain Pike’s female yeoman, Colt (Laurel Goodwin) is much more tomboyish in demeanor than ST: OS’ Yeoman Rand; the show emphasizes that having a female yeoman on the bridge is a novel thing.

The show does make it clear that the woman are attracted to Pike, so who knows how they’d have been written if the original pilot went to series. But having a woman as first officer, and clearly competent, is still striking, particularly in that era.

A little too striking for the network, which told Rodenberry to either dump Number One or get rid of Spock; he opted to keep Spock, believing viewers needed to see an alien on board. Colt got replaced by Rand.

The opening episodes of the regular series do feel much more sexist. Yeoman Rand is mostly there to be pretty and smile and run errands (watching as a teenager, I thought “yeoman” must be something like a valet). Uhura flirts quite a bit with Spock. It’s disappointing to compare.

But then we get to the second episode, Charlie X. This gives the Enterprise it’s first encounter with a cosmically powerful foe, a teenage boy raised by disembodied intelligences who taught him their ability to transform matter. It’s apparently a limitless power, and Charlie’s a teenager, full of raging hormones and completely unused to dealing with other humans. He reacts viciously to slights or hurts and winds up a lot like Billy Mumy’s demigod on It’s a Good Life.

He also looks like the embodiment of the #metoo villain. Once he meets Yeoman Rand she’s all he can think about, and he can’t tolerate being told no. She tries introducing Charlie to a girl his own age; he treats the girl like dirt. His feelings, his needs, are all that he cares about; he thinks he loves Yeoman Rand but she’s just a means to an end, the end being his own satisfaction.

Watching in my teens, I knew he was out of line, but I saw him mostly as a tragic figure, screwed up by his own lack of experience dealing with people. Now I see him as much creepier.

I don’t think I’ll have more to say about the series until I finish S1, but you never know.

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Star Trek transported my week away!

More specifically, my new Screen Rant on embarrassing roles of Star Trek actors. Like William Shatner (above) as an alcoholic priest in The Horror at 37,000 Feet.

The embarrassment isn’t necessarily that they did a dreadful job. Although Brent Spiner (above) did not cover himself with glory in Rent Control. To say nothing of his mustache. It’s simply that the production as a whole was dreadful. Roxann Dawson didn’t make a memorable impression in the nursing drama Nightingales but it’s not like that show gave her much to work with (or anyone else).

It was fun to do, but because there are so many actors and so many potential entries, I ran it up to 25 items. That’s a lot of writing, and it took up way more time than usual. So basically my accomplishments this week were that piece, my usual array of Leaf articles, and a couple of thousand words of Southern Discomfort.

But that said, it was fun, and I think I did a great job. So go check it out.

And the Leaf project I’ve been working on apparently wraps up this week (something new may be coming down the pike in July or August) — there’s no more articles in the queue. I knew that was coming, but I figured it would be a couple more weeks. That’s an extra 10 hours a week the rest of the month to do my own writing stuff, whoot! I shall put it to good use.

So not much else to say. On the personal front, a foundation-repair job (nothing critical, just shoring up some potential weaknesses) began this week, though it won’t finish until Monday (weather permitting).

Oh, and despite Verizon confirming in writing that they’d closed a fake account someone took out in my name (and didn’t pay for), I got a call today from a debt collector today. I offered to send them the Verizon email: oh, sorry, they don’t have an email address! And they can’t contact Verizon! Yeah, right. So I hung up. I’ll deal with them if they call back. I’m not entirely surprised — I’ve read plenty of accounts of people who resolved debts, but some data entered online, somewhere, kept it alive. Sometimes even within companies like Verizon. And the penalties for error are few.

A sour note to end the week on, but I’m still looking forward to next week.

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Filed under Personal, Screen Rant, Southern Discomfort, Time management and goals, Writing