Friday November 27th 1964: cameras roll in soundstage 16: a tired, half-ramshackle unit at Desilu-Culver studios left over from the great silent era of ‘epic’ Hollywood movie-making. Today, something very different is being captured under the old studio lights – “The Cage” – an ambitious Science Fiction pilot for a proposed television serial called ‘Star Trek’. Despite its intricate story and astonishingly good special effects, its commissioning television broadcaster NBC wouldn’t like it and declined to order a series. The now-legendary reason for their rejection of Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” showcase was that it was deemed too ‘cerebral’. In reality, NBC’s executives found the whole show just too edgy, unusual, explicit and controversial for its audience (and, crucially, its advertisers).
Despite this setback, NBC felt there was something to this crazy ‘Star Trek’ idea, and, in an unprecedented event in television production, they ordered a second pilot – with a much stricter budget and even stricter set of guidance issued as to the requisite content, tone and look of this revised film (aside from any perceived over-intellectuality to “The Cage”, the network had voiced concerns over a lack of physical action, the risqué appearance of female characters and the Enterprise’s “Demonic”-looking science officer – Spock. Gene Roddenberry, as history now confirms, overcame these battles… eventually.)
So, some seven months later – on Monday July 19th 1965 – a revised crew of the USS Enterprise – now led by a young Canadian actor called William Shatner as James Kirk after “The Cage” star Jeffery Hunter declined to return as Captain Christopher Pike – launched with the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.
Whilst this second attempt to win NBC’s favour was far from perfect and still wasn’t exactly what the network wanted, it did enough to illustrate that a weekly Science Fiction series of such unusual nature could be produced efficiently and could offer a satisfactory blend of intrigue, adventure and, most crucially, action.
A series was commissioned and Star Trek had achieved lift off.
By the autumn of 1968, with only 79 episodes aired (a failure by the standards of a ‘successful’ television series’ then and now), the Enterprise would come crashing to Earth – its titular ‘Five Year Mission’ terminated prematurely.
Looking back from a vantage point of some fifty years, it is remarkable that Star Trek ever existed at all – let alone for three years and almost four thousand hours-worth of episodes. Gene Roddenberry’s creation – with its pointy-eared, yellow-skinned protagonist; bizarre monsters; ray guns; strange diseases and frequently disturbing psychological themes – was too much for the conservative establishment of late 1960s America – a nation battling to reconcile racial tensions, ‘Beetlemania’, the Space Race and a war in Vietnam.
But despite its unremitting battles to stay on the air (from the outset of production, tension existed between Trek’s producers, its parent studio Desilu and the network NBC – in short, both senior executives at Desilu and NBC held deep reservations about the show, resulting in regular script rewrites, cast changes, budget cuts and anxious waits to see if the show was to be renewed in consecutive summers), Star Trek was consistently rated amongst America’s top 40 television shows, outperformed supposed heavyweight rivals and, crucially, cultivated a dedicated and fervent fan-base: another ‘first’ for a television show.
Produced on a slippery high-wire, Star Trek’s existence, success and legacy is testament to the ingenuity, creativity, dedication and sheer bloody-mindedness of a small group of people who believed in telling probing, prescient and meaningful stories with the ample filter of Science Fiction to enable them to say the unsayable and challenge convention. What they left behind was a rich fictional universe and a canon of ideas and concepts that would be the catalyst for a multi-billion- dollar franchise that would go on to encompass four more live-action television series, an animated television series, twelve feature films and a galaxy of books, videogames, graphic novels and merchandise.
More importantly, Star Trek’s cast and crew left a catalogue of wonderful stories and, simply, great television. If a modern audience can look beyond some of the crass, dated misogyny on show and the weaker instalments that came largely in the third season (poor story concepts; late, network-demanded rewrites and ever-shrinking shoestring budget hindering the film-makers ambitions), one if left with legitimately some of the best-written and excellently-photographed television in the history of the format, with characters so well-devised and effectively realised they would transcend into almost mythical status in the decades after Star Trek left the air. Much credit must go to the plethora of outstanding writers who served the show, the skill of its stable of directors (with Joseph Pevney, Marc Daniels, Vincent McEveety and Ralph Senensky the primary contributors), Jerry Finnerman’s beautiful cinematography, Matt Jefferies’ inventive and distinctive production design and the wily stewardship of Robert Justman, Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry, all aligned with stunning scoring (courtesy of Alexander Courage, Fred Steiner and Gerald Fried in the main) and often underrated acting (particularly from William Shatner whose hyperbolic, larger-than-life Kirk was frequently the life-blood of the show’s energy and provided a critical juxtaposition to Leonard Nimoy’s always measured and wonderfully dispassionate Spock). These are not television episodes – these are hour-long feature films, crafted with skill and care far beyond that of a weekly serial instalment.
Technical skill notwithstanding, what places Star Trek so highly and has kept it so prominent within our popular culture for half a century is that it tells stories that are about us: stories about the human condition – stories about love, sacrifice, envy, lust and desire. Star Trek explored our species and its progress – science, discovery, law, ethics, conflict; a rich allegory of 20th Century America but with universal themes stretching back to dawn of our sentience and the powerful suggestion offered within that these will be unshakable far into our possible future. This is why Star Trek has survived, flourished and kept its relevance in a 21st Century world of global commerce, the internet and spiralling digital technology far beyond the imaginations, even, of those visionaries who devised the sojourns of Kirk et al before humanity had even walked on the moon.
Below, in spontaneous appreciation of a show that, when at its best, was nothing short of magnificent, is a snapshot of this quality. The episodes chosen, from the perspective of this writer at least, exhibit Star Trek’s charm, wit, quality and style in a variety of ways. This selection is highly unscientific and subjective (illogical, even). The episodes selected have been so through sheer enjoyment of them as discreet pieces of dramatic work within the wider framework of the series’ rules and ‘grammar’. If this sounds a little abstract, let me explain: what I haven’t done here is single out episodes, as many fans of Trek do, because they serve some wider purpose to the fictional canon or establish something that contributes to the grand tapestry of Star Trek’s folklore. As a result, I’m aware that I’ve omitted some much-championed ‘classics’ of the series like “The Naked Time”, “Shore Leave”, “Space Seed”, “Amok Time”, “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Journey to Babel”, to mention a few. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these episodes – they’re all very good in-fact – but for this article, I thought I would take a contradictory approach to much of that which is written about Star Trek and ignore episodes whose merits can be judged (and often are judged) on what they establish rather than the work they actually do dramatically in their hour of screen-time.
To digress briefly into this issue, I must confess that I’m not a ‘Trekkie’ on this kind of level: it’s never really concerned me how many decks the Enterprise has, what ‘anti-matter’ does or how Kirk and his crew can understand all these different human-looking alien races each week or why they all have American accents. For me, none of this technical minutia is essential to understanding, enjoying or, most importantly, investing emotionally and intellectually in what takes place on screen. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with this level of interest in Star Trek as a ‘real’, living and existent universe (to the contrary, I think it is demonstrable proof of the depth and quality of the show), I just don’t personally think that the creator, writers, producers or actors intended it to be appropriated in this way: if you scrutinise Star Trek to this extent (like, for example, calculating the relative positions in the galaxy the Enterprise was each week and subsequently calculating – and inevitably deriding – how impossibly fast the ship would need to be travelling to get to where it supposedly was in subsequent episode) you’re only ever destined to find deficiencies, inconsistencies and faults in what was, let’s remember, a low-budget and experimental television show whose format, style and production was evolving, changing and oscillating on a weekly basis in order to – at times – just survive and meet production targets.
A classic example of this approach is the ‘Klingon Forehead’ conundrum. To summarise succinctly, it goes like this: in the original Star Trek series, the Klingons are established in a handful of episodes – beginning with the Gene Coon-penned first-season episode “Errand of Mercy” – as the Federation’s arch enemies: a ruthless, militaristic empire to counterpoint their opponent’s pacifistic, democratic ideology. In order to visualise this race economically, the Klingons were given an (perhaps none-too-politically-correct) ‘oriental’ look: dark skin; harsh, angular eyebrows and thin, reedy facial hair. Essentially, this look was quick to apply to actors and extras, inexpensive to reproduce on a daily basis (and in large quantities if needed) and, critically, provided an immediate and tangible aesthetic contrast to our heroes. In summary, it was a functional and pragmatic piece of television-production decision-making.
In 1979, after a decade of swelling fan-numbers and the arrival of a film called Star Wars in 1977 that settled once-and-for-all the question as to the viability of Science Fiction Space Operas as a financial investment for movie studios, Star Trek was resurrected in Robert Wise’s epic but flawed Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In terms of production, two major things had changed since events had wrapped-up on Kirk’s original Five Year Mission: time and money. More specifically, these were two commodities that were now actually available to the film-makers. In addition to a plethora of other changes, enhancements and upgrades to the world of the Enterprise crew, the Klingons were brought into the new era for a brief cameo… with a striking new look. Taking advantage of technical advances and the aforementioned benefits of cinematic production, the Klingons in ST:TMP have a distinctive animalistic appearance – characterised by large, protruding ridges across their foreheads. A significant departure from their forebears. This new aesthetic would be refined and adapted in subsequent Trek feature films and television series in years to come.
What followed within Star Trek fandom was several decades of argument, conjecture and (sometimes) detailed analysis as to what had happened to the Klingon race in the years between the Enterprise’s maiden voyage and the events of ST:TMP. Ideas ranging from genetic experimentation, mutation and interspecies variation have been posited as explanations to ‘close’ this continuity gap. But here’s my question: who cares? Again, the aim here isn’t to be derisory to those who enjoy this line of study of Trek’s inner mechanisms, I personally just find this level of investigation perplexing. It seems, in this case, prudent to me to simply recognise the artificial nature of the construction at work and suspend one’s disbelief accordingly to ‘close’ the relevant gap in continuity (i.e., ignore it’s there. We know that these are all meant to be Klingons because the respective film-makers tell us they are, so why not just accept the discrepancy, process it and move on?)
I would much sooner focus attention on the quality of the dramaturgy – the stories and how they are told – as well as the visual artisanship of the work, rather than elevate or demote an episode because it conforms to or contradicts some arbitrary fictional paradigm or another. So in conclusion, I’m just not into this whole angle with Star Trek: I’m not going to flag up a stinker of an episode as ‘classic’ just because the name of Kirk’s brother’s wife’s second cousin is mentioned or the date that Spock’s mum’s cat died is established. For me, it’s all about interesting ideas executed well and presented brilliantly, whether the events they establish endure for one episode or one hundred.
Anyway, that’s enough preamble – if you want to read more about the genesis and production of Star Trek, there’s a wealth of excellent websites and books available. This is a personal view, so if you are fully versed in all things Star Trek I hope you will find some snippets of interest below. If you’re not a fan or are new to the classic show that spawned a global phenomenon, why not try these episodes as a first port of call… (Warning, spoilers!)
Five To Watch…
Season 1; episode 14 (Written by Paul Schneider, Directed by Vincent McEveety)
Original airdate: December 15th 1966
What’s it all about?
While investigating a series of destroyed outpost stations, the Enterprise discovers a lone Romulan vessel with a cloaking device. The Romulans, having never been seen by humans, are revealed to visually resemble Vulcans, casting doubt on Mr. Spock’s loyalty as the two ships become locked in a cat-and-mouse battle through space
Why’s it so good?
“Balance of Terror” is Star Trek’s first and greatest thriller: the setup is intriguing (the mysterious destruction of outposts), the narrative unfurls spectacularly (ancient foes who look like Mr Spock!) and the denouement is leaden with emotion and consequence (two proud adversaries face off and a human cost is added to the butcher’s bill).
The absence of information initially drives this episode and creates a brilliant hook on which to hang the narrative. The viewer is offered only scant fragments of information about a powerful distant enemy of whom no-one even knows what they look like. As the Enterprise sets en route to investigate, we share the crew’s apprehensions about what might await through being sat alongside them as they race into the unknown.
Further conflicts and tensions are briskly thrown into this mix – not only is this the infamous Romulan race, that we are told were once engaged in a bloody war with Earth, they now seemingly have a powerful new weapon and the ability to cloak their ship. Furthermore, a view of the enemy ship’s command-bridge brings on the startling revelation that the Romulans are akin to the Vulcan race, creating additional and unexpected internal conflict on the Enterprise (do we have to begin to question the dependable and loyal Spock?) When helmsman Lt. Stiles openly questions Spock’s loyalties, Kirk’s swift and aggressive dismissal of this baseless bigotry provides a crucial piece of character development for our captain, well handled by Shatner as he tersely informs Stiles that such hatred has no place on his ship. We also feel acutely here Spock’s sense of isolation as this unfurls and his suddenly being an imposter amongst friends. A briefing-room debate as to how to deal with this Romulan attack (retaliate or retreat) is a masterful scene – eloquent, charged and sombre – culminating in Spock’s portentous warning that they “dare not show any weakness” in the face of this enemy as, if they are indeed akin to Vulcans, they will show no mercy to their enemies. This entire scene is stirring stuff played with conviction by all and launches the following act marvellously; one of this writer’s favourite moments in all of Star Trek.
The real masterstroke in “Balance of Terror” though is its use of a shifting narrative point-of-view which enables the viewer to witness events from the perspective of the Romulan crew – the action cutting back and forth as the two enemies track each-other in a game of cat and mouse through space. Through this device, we experience their own flaws, fears and apprehensions and can empathise as we do our protagonists on the Enterprise. Resultantly, these potentially two-dimensional villains are instantly given personality, importance and credence due to this – strengthening the impact of events and the consequences of this story. Of a superb guest cast, it is Mark Lenard’s scene-stealing turn as the unnamed Romulan Commander that is truly memorable and elevates this episode to even greater heights. Lenard (who would return to Trek for many years to portray Spock’s father Sarek), as the embattled and weary commander fatigued with warfare and destruction, brings a wealth of authority, style and melancholy to the part which helps affect a subtle but powerful anti-war message (neither side in warfare long for battle and there is no glory in it). This exchange below, when a discussion regarding destroying the Enterprise takes place, is pitch-perfect and Lenard’s delivery is soaked with exasperation and despair:
CENTURION: If we are the strong, isn’t this the signal for war?
COMMANDER: Must it always be so? How many comrades have we lost in this way?
The entire visual tone and overt mood of the episode is dark, serious and subdued; the stakes are played-up as being high and the staging is claustrophobic and restricting so as to emphasise the entrapment felt by our protagonists as they enter a dangerous game with a daunting foe (the episode rarely strays from the immediacy of the Enterprise bridge or its Romulan equivalent). This genuinely feels like a seminal moment for Kirk’s command and, in the best tradition of a weekly serial like Star Trek, we feel that there may be real, lasting consequences of losing this fight.
Additionally, adding another dimension to an already strong story, events are bookended by a sub-plot regarding two crewmembers who, at the outset of the episode, have their wedding ceremony put on hold when ‘Red Alert’ is signalled on the Enterprise (ending the teaser segment). When the male half of this couple is killed during the battle that follows, Kirk’s final duty becomes not one of heroic champion or even that of valiant winner exchanging poignant words with his defeated opponent (a brilliant exchange between Shatner and Lenard no-less), but is instead one of solemn counsel to the bereaved. This is a stunning final turn which drives home the human cost of war and victory, and is one which echoes earlier apprehensions by the Romulan Commander. As a weary, grim-faced Kirk strides the decks of Enterprise as the end credits appear on screen, the viewer is left with no doubt that we have witnessed something crucial and powerful.
“Balance of Terror” is an episode unique in its style and structure and creates a genuine sense that the universe of Kirk and company is a vast, dark and dangerous landscape despite any outward proclamations of a ‘utopian’ future for humanity. This episode is memorable, not only because of its underlying quality, but because it ignored many of the quintessential and formulaic elements of many of Star Trek’s episodes: there are no beautiful females to woo our captain; no rogue scientists to overcome or strange diseases to contend with here – this is an episode bereft of gimmicks or awkward SF ideas and instead, it is an uncomplicated and taught thriller which drew inspiration from 1957 WWII-submarine film The Enemy Below, transposed key themes and ideas to a new setting and fashioned an absolutely classic slice of television.
Season 1: episode 18 (Written by Gene L. Coon/Fredric Brown, Directed by Joseph Pevney)
Original airdate: January 19th 1967
What’s it all about?
Kirk and the gang come under attack by unknown aliens while investigating the near destruction of a colony. Both enemy ships are captured by a powerful race who force Kirk and the alien captain to trial by combat: the winner’s vessel will be set free, while the loser’s will be destroyed.
Why’s it so good?
If “Balance of Terror” is Star Trek’s flagship thriller, then “Arena” is its most prominent foray into all-out action. This episode does not possess the skilful nuances of the former, but what it does have in abundance is scale, scope and unrelenting adventure of the sort that, despite many solid efforts beforehand and subsequently, the show never quite ascended to again.
“Arena” feels and plays ‘big’ – the narrative is broken into three distinctive and memorable acts, all of which evolve the narrative and, pertinently, physically and emotionally ‘move’ our protagonists deeper into the story ahead. In a series where limited finances frequently put paid to the show’s ability to shift its action to multiple locations in any one episode (often restricting outings to single planets or entirely to the Enterprise itself), this facet marks “Arena” out and has contributed to its celebrated status. From a dramatic perspective, the episode’s sense of motion is an excellent feat of screenwriting by Gene Coon (who made a name as an economic and expedient writer in addition to his producers’ duties), as every second of screen-time is utilised to maximum effect. There is no ‘padding’ in “Arena”, nor is there any relenting in the pace of its diegesis.
A simple plot outline demonstrates the speed and geographical shifts that take place: From the episode’s teaser segment, we are launched into a full-scale battle and an intriguing mystery: when Kirk and co beam down to a dinner engagement on Cestus III – a Federation outpost – they find little remains of the colony and, instead, are attacked by an unidentified enemy. Whilst Kirk’s team fend off their attackers, the Enterprise is barraged in orbit leading to a high-speed pursuit into an unexplored region of space where both the Enterprise and the enemy vessel are captured and informed by a powerful race of beings – the Metrons – that the two must settle their dispute through a one-to-one duel on an unnamed planet. The enemy captain – identified as a Gorn – and Kirk enter battle, as the Enterprise crew watch on, powerless, in space. There is dynamism running through the veins of this episode from the outset which is more akin to a feature-film than any other Trek instalment.
In addition to the scale of events in “Arena”, there are potent themes at work concerning respect, compassion, honour and duty. Rather than construct the ‘Gorn’ race as one-dimensional and faceless adversaries that are there to be vanquished by our heroes, they are portrayed (like the Romulans in “Balance of Terror”) with a sense of purpose and rationale which is essential in letting the viewer become invested in what occurs. Whilst not as complex nor cerebral (there’s that word again) as the Romulans, we learn via the Gorn captain as he taunts Kirk during their battle that his ship attacked Cestus III because they believed the Federation were encroaching on their territory. Although there’s was a brutal retaliation, this is important detail which enables multifarious readings of events and reminds us that a perceived act of aggression by one party can be viewed antithetically by another (an act of defence, for example). What could have been delivered as a binary ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ morality play is given ambiguity – and resultantly credence – through this small addition. (A late first-season episode “Devil in the Dark” would take this exploration of the perspectives of alien life-forms much further).
Admittedly, the giant lizard-looking Gorn captain is ridiculous to look at (but charming none-the-less in a nostalgic sort-of-a-way) but William Shatner’s performance during their battle is full of conviction, energy and his usual dose of overstatement – convincing us thoroughly that this creature is nothing less than a powerful, intelligent and guileful foe (what other actor could extract so much from wrestling a stuntman in a big green rubber suit?) The aforementioned cutaway scenes to the Enterprise crew watching Kirk’s protracted duel is an ingenious dramatic beat that enables some much-needed exposition and analysis of the events unfolding on the planet, whilst serving to ratchet-up tension by allowing the viewer to see Kirk’s crew and the emotional strain his fight is taking on them (Spock’s typically stoic commentary on events juxtaposed against McCoy’s increasing despair is a joy to watch).
Finally, the utilisation of external location shooting really pays dividends in “Arena”. It was always a neat touch when Star Trek went, well, trekking away from studios 9 and 10 at Desilu into the wilderness – providing some visual variety and expanse to their stories, and here is no exception. For this outing, the now-iconic Vasquez Rocks in northern Los Angeles stage both the opening battle on Cestus III and the climactic fight between Kirk and the Gorn. The high, angular precipices of sheer rock are a suitably ‘alien’ and desolate backdrop, whilst the crisp blue of the Californian sky is a cool and sparse canvas that Kirk finds himself trapped beneath.
“Arena” is utterly undeniable: it is righty one of Trek’s most referenced and revered outings and one which imprints itself on the memory as an irrepressible and insatiable action adventure with a Science Fiction twist. “Arena” never becomes overcooked and never lags – it is everything a ‘Space Opera’ should be: pacey, sprawling and gripping, with just a snip of guile thrown into the mix for good measure. Essential viewing.
Season 1; episode 28 (Written by Harlan Ellison, Directed by Joseph Pevney)
Original airdate: April 6th 1967
What’s it all about?
After accidentally overdosing on a powerful stimulant, Dr. McCoy becomes intoxicated and disappears through a mysterious time portal on a remote planet. Discovering that McCoy has somehow changed history through his actions in the past, Kirk and Spock follow, hoping to set things right. Arriving in 1930s New York, the duo meet Edith Keeler, a social-worker who Kirk finds himself falling in love with. However, Spock discovers that Keeler must die to restore their own timeline.
Why’s it so good?
Imagine watching a three hour feature -film where a time-travel plot – involving a mysterious alien gateway that can transport people into any point in history – is fused with an almost hopeless and desperate attempt to save the life of a dear friend following an accident. Then, chuck in an achingly poignant angle where the story’s protagonist must allow the woman he falls in love with to die so that his own future and that of the entire galaxy will be preserved. Sound a bit farfetched? Yes? Well, try packing that little lot into only fifty minutes and you’ve got a decent idea as to why the Hugo Award-winning “City on the Edge of Forever” is not only considered by many Trek fans to be the greatest single work the franchise has ever produced, it is regularly listed by popular polls amongst the finest works in the entire history of television.
There is so much to praise with this instalment, it’s tricky to know where to begin. Perhaps at the beginning: despite its protracted, difficult and eventually bitter development process, writer Harlan Ellison’s underlying story is magnificent and provides the platform for everything else to fall on top of subsequently. Just the premise alone is tantalising SF: a mysterious, remote planet harbouring an omniscient entity that can access the entire history of the galaxy and allow access to the past (and what a name to boot – “The Guardian of Forever” is simply wonderful). Not only does this dramatic device offer a wealth of possibilities, Ellison’s script engineers an essential element of good fiction to back this up: immediate danger. When McCoy stumbles back in time through the ‘Guardian’, his actions destroy the present (and the Enterprise with it) abandoning Kirk, Spock and their small team in an abyss; a state of eternal nothingness where their reality no longer exists. No instalment of Star Trek in any era, format or series ever had a dramatic ‘problem’ for its characters to solve quite like this one, although many would imitate and rework this premise in later years. The addition of Kirk’s love interest is one that almost seems unnecessary (wasn’t this a strong enough premise already?), but this is what ultimately elevates “City” to an even higher realm – far beyond the territory of a SF action serial. The heartrending choice that faces Kirk (to sacrifice the woman he loves or his entire world) is nothing short of Shakespearean in scope and fuses together the stories’ narrative elements into a desperate harmony. Credit must also be given to director Pevney, cinematographer Finnerman and the episode’s editors who help to pace and regulate the tone and pitch of this complex and ambitious ‘harmony’ – devoting all the right angles, cuts, shots and compositions to both capture and frame the action in a way that serves it truthfully.
It is though, the characters that are the heartbeat of “City” and its power over the viewer: in weaker instalments of Trek (and particularly in later series like Star Trek: The Next Generation), technical and scientific concepts and ideas all too often took precedent over events and, as a result, held the narrative hostage – with the audience being the ultimate victim. This episode though has lived so long in the memory and remained so potent because its people drive the action and grip our attentions, not redundant scientific details. In “City”, the balance between the novel premise that the action is set upon (time travel) and the consequences of this on the protagonists is pitch-perfect and the viewer never becomes lost or stalled in lengthy discussion or exposition as to the granular details of things that are occurring.
Further, the on-screen interactions and relationships in “City” are potent: Kirk, Spock – and McCoy belatedly – are given the opportunity here to push the boundaries of their burgeoning camaraderie (a personal highlight in this episode is when Kirk and Spock find McCoy and the trio embrace in a jubilant reunion which resonates with genuine warmth beyond that of officers and comrades. This reunion quickly turns bittersweet as Edith Keeler’s fate is decided). These personal interactions are strengthened by the wonderful undulations between romance, comedy and suspense throughout the episode. Scenes elegantly shift between light-hearted asides, plot complication and development, and the intensifying romance between Kirk and Edith. Not only is the writing sharp and thoughtful, but the cast – as with “Balance of Terror” – genuinely seem to be relishing the material they are working with and Nimoy and Shatner take full advantage of this scenario to expand their characters’ personalities. Kirk and Spock enter hitherto explored and fertile dramatic ground in this episode and their warm, witty bantering and bickering transcends their established character traits but also their defined, rigid roles as ship’s captain and first-officer. Typically, Nimoy finds just the right notes to convey a restrained but remarkably compassionate friend, comrade and subordinate to Shatner’s Kirk, who reigns in his sometimes exuberance to deliver a measured and thoughtful performance as the emotionally-torn captain – culminating in his downbeat and jarringly sombre closing lines that he wants to “get the hell out of here” and return to the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock would never share better time on screen than here and the series’ lead actors would never again have the opportunity to play their characters quite so three-dimensionally.
Joan Collins’ casting as Edith Keeler is another element that marks “City” out as being exceptional. In a series that regularly opted for scantily-clad, salacious femme fatales as guest actors who entrap the crew of the Enterprise (and Kirk in particular), Collins is a conspicuous alternative, bringing a strength, grace and dignity to the piece which is essential to the forcefulness of the episode’s climax. Collins’ Edith Keeler is a beautiful, intelligent and principled woman who Kirk falls in love with – not lust – and this heightens his and our despair that her tragic fate is one that cannot be altered.
From front to back “City” is, simply, a very special piece of work: Ellison’s concept is rich with possibility, the staging and production (shot on location for that extra magic touch at the now-destroyed and iconic ‘Desilu/RKO 40-Acres’ back-lot in Culver City) is grandiose and the performances are devastatingly powerful (to heighten praise in this respect, it must be noted that unlike many modern television dramas with ongoing story arcs lasting months or even years, the achievement of establishing, evolving and resolving such ‘big’ themes here in under an hour is truly remarkable).
Star Trek would never again – despite some damn fine attempts in years to come – get better than this. Television rarely gets any better than this. If you only ever see one episode of the show called Star Trek, make sure it’s “City on the Edge of Forever”.
Season 2; episode 4 (Written by Jerome Bixby, Directed by Marc Daniels)
Original airdate: October 6th 1967
What’s it all about?
A transporter malfunction causes Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura to plunge into a parallel universe, where the Enterprise is part of a barbaric, bloodthirsty Empire. Kirk and company must fight to survive in this alternative world whilst finding a way to get back to their reality.
Why’s it so good?
Whilst certainly not an out-and-out comedy vehicle, there is a certain impishness to “Mirror Mirror” that turns an interesting idea into a classic outing for the Enterprise crew. A story that could have been told ‘straight’ is laced with a deft stroke of satire by cast and crew, which resultantly makes this episode not only an engaging story, but a lot of fun to watch. In a selection of episodes here which up to now have dealt in largely serious matter (even though “City of the Edge of Forever” has its quotient of humour), “Mirror Mirror” – arriving at the beginning of season 2 – is a welcome and expertly-handled change of pace.
The Science Fiction premise here (an ion storm causing the teleporting team to get switched into another reality) is ridiculously fanciful and affords the writer Bixby the opportunity to set up events in a way that only this genre allows. A handful of cast regulars find themselves confronted with ‘evil’ alter-egos of their crew-mates in a parallel universe and, herein is a mouth-watering opportunity to have fun with established conventions and characters. Trek writers used this type of conceit on a number of occasions during the series’ run in order to help break the shackles of expected behaviours and formats of Star Trek’s ‘world’ and to enable some range and scope in storytelling (“The Enemy Within” about another transporter mishap that creates an evil Kirk and “The Naked Time” where a disease which affects the crew’s emotions are two notable examples of this). “Mirror Mirror”, however, is the finest case of this format at work, as we get to witness an entirely alternative ideology at work on the Enterprise (imperial as opposed to democratic) and are able to experience recognisable characters interacting with doppelgangers, which forges an interesting dynamic.
As with all episodes featured here, there is that extra level of detail and attention in this episode that makes it memorable. The subtle but critical contrasts between the ‘prime’ universe and the alternative one are intriguing and extend from key plot points (the remit of the captain in the alternative universe to raze the Halkan’s planet immediately when they do not offer-up the required dylithium crystals) to smaller details (the striking ‘sword’ emblem that is painted on all of the ship’s doors and the military salute all crew offer the captain as he passes); these all contribute to an immediate sense of discord in the viewer, with novel additions like the ‘Agonizer’ and ‘Agony Booth’ punishment devices serving to intensify an immediate unease at this strange, brutal Enterprise and its crew.
But there are many elements of “Mirror Mirror” that are irascibly tongue-in-cheek and these are what make the episode so entertaining. The performances on show are superb, and these again evidence a fondness for the material on-hand. In particular, Walter Koenig and George Takei (as Chekov and Sulu respectively) play their evil alter-egos with joyful excess: Sulu is a calculating, scar-faced security chief whilst Chekov is likewise a sinister schemer with designs on the captain’s chair. Not to be outdone, Shatner, during the brief cutaways to ‘prime’ Enterprise and the ‘evil’ Kirk stranded there and detained in custody, provides a veritable tour-de-force of overstatement – hilarious, ludicrous and marvellous to behold.
Beyond these entertaining caricatures, it falls to Lenard Nimoy to provide some anchorage for the viewer through his portrayal of the bearded, ruthless ‘evil’ Spock. Nimoy treads a careful line between imbuing this alternative Spock with malevolent traits whilst leaving enough familiarity on the table so that the audience – and Kirk – can recognise some hope within. Never betraying the always cool, detached raison d’être of the half-Vulcan, but never diminishing the menace and threat of this ‘other’ Spock, the actor’s part in this piece is what makes it ‘tick’. The audience feel some connection with this Spock, but this is ambiguous and difficult to define as we – as Kirk does – struggle to reconcile that this is indeed not our Spock. This chink of light in Spock’s facade (his prevailing logic) is what enables Kirk’s plea to him during the denouement that he has the power – through his strength and intellect – to change the ways of this vicious imperial universe. Without Nimoy’s portrayal offering glimpses into the conflicting thoughts of Spock, this climax would be impotent and meaningless.
“Mirror Mirror” is a wonderfully playful episode with tight plotting, a significant complication for the protagonists to solve and many interesting details and scenes to hold one’s attention to the screen. This is an instalment that can be watched time after time and loses none of its intrigue or lustre, such is its novel nature, classic SF concept and its effective, entertaining execution. The acting is energetic and the production is considerate, imaginative and devoted – with just a whiff of the droll and self-referential about it – all underneath a never-overbearing or pious motif regarding power, greed, morality and the power of change. “Mirror Mirror” is, in short, just a lot of fun.
Season 2; episode 24 (Written by Laurence N. Wolfe/D.C Fontana, Directed by John Meredyth Lucas)
Original airdate: March 8th 1968
What’s it all about?
The Enterprise plays host to the trial of a sophisticated new computer system that, according to its creator, can mimic the behaviour of humans and operate a starship independently. During a ‘war games’ exercise designed to test the computer, it transpires that all is not as it should be with this revolutionary machine.
Why’s it so good?
“The Ultimate Computer” ain’t no “City on the Edge of Forever”; we may as well as establish that at the outset. No, by the time this episode came along at the back-end of season 2, the gradual decline in quality that Star Trek experienced through its three-year run, and which would render swathes of the final season treacherously poor, were becoming evident. That said, “The Ultimate Computer”, whilst arguably a marked decline from some of the production quality of earlier episodes, is an excellent premise and an engaging, gripping narrative that holds up to repeated viewings.
Despite taking a concept that had been used multiple times before (a rogue computer that Kirk has to ‘talk’ into self-destruction) in episodes like “Return of the Archons” and “The Apple”, “The Ultimate Computer” works effectively as script and plays well for just under an hour, holding the viewer’s attention and creating a sense of intrigue and threat. For that, I think it is more than worth a watch, especially in a series that, despite the presence of a powerful theme or urgent message within the text, offered up a host of episodes that are actually quite dull and whose stories lag and flounder (second season episode “The Changeling”, for instance is an intriguing concept about an indestructible probe that thinks Kirk is its creator, but is an odd, uneven and poorly-paced outing).
What really makes “The Ultimate Computer” work dramatically is that it cuts to the core of our lead character. The arrival of the M-5 computer on the Enterprise – and its promised ability to replace not only the ship’s crew but its captain – threatens to undermine and, moreover, diminish Kirk’s entire reason for being – his command and with it, his life. Watching Kirk removed from the captain’s chair and his ensuing helplessness as the M-5 runs amok is a great character study worthy of the show at its best.
What also works well in this episode is the consequence that events are given. When the M-5 destroys other starships during the ‘War Games’ exercise, the deaths of their crews are treated by Kirk with the trauma, exasperation and despair expected as a result of such an act (this wasn’t always the case in Trek. Bizarrely, some episodes – the aforementioned “The Changeling” among them – treated catastrophic death tolls, genocide and mass murder with an awkward kind of casualness that was almost instantly dismissed and forgotten by the next scene) and this lifts the tempo and exigency of events – the audience senses acutely the need to deactivate this wayward machine whilst recognising the terrible damage it has inflicted.
This episode’s guest actor – William Marshall as the M-5’s genius creator Dr Daystrom – is an entertaining addition whose character is evolved nicely throughout the piece. Initially, Daystrom – onboard to supervise the test of his creation – is portrayed as an arrogant man who puts blind faith in his machine. As the M-5 begins to make erratic and unpredictable decisions, Daystrom’s impassioned defence of the computer begins to intimate at a more maniacal caricature lurking beneath his exterior. As Daystrom roars into a fully-blown nervous breakdown – screaming with wild eyes about being passed over for recognition during his life – we learn that he has devised the M-5 so that it thinks and learns like a child and is, ultimately, a product of his own vanity and desire to validate his own intellect. Although Daystrom’s breakdown can be seen coming from a fair distance, Marshall’s performance is terrifically brazen and Daystrom’s words about his regrets and disappointments during his life resonate with the viewer in an unexpectedly poignant way.
There are some pertinent themes in “The Ultimate Computer” which remain as prescient today as they were in 1968, prolonging this episode’s impact. Firstly, we have the angle explored through Daystrom: that of ambition, failure and learning to accept the ebb and flow of life with all of its peaks and troughs. Daystrom has been a revered and respected scientist, but his great years, accomplishments and finest ideas are long behind him. Unable to accept this drives him to despair. This is a stark reality for all of us – the idea that we will not remain at our peak forever – some us have success which fades whilst many never experiencing fame or glory. Living with and accepting these realities is a difficult but essential aspect of our nature.
Secondly, this episode explores, through the arrival of the M-5, ideas relating to automation and its impact on society. A fear then and now, the increasing sophistication and prevalence of computers, machines and artificial intelligence poses a threat – it is posited by “The Ultimate Computer” – to our very function and role within the world we live in. A theme explored frequently by Science Fiction, here it is a direct usurpation of Kirk and his command which threatens his sense of self-worth and value in his ‘world’. In the same way that Daystrom has been usurped and replaced by technological innovation and younger minds building on his work, Kirk fears becoming obsolete via the products of minds like Daystrom and his peers. There is an undeniably clever synergy in these themes which creates a neat, thoughtful package for the audience to untangle.
“The Ultimate Computer” is a tidy, uncomplicated and effective Trek instalment with all the right ingredients in place: a solid idea, solid performances, good pacing and an ample amount of drama. Underpinning this are some really quite probing themes which offer enough to merit repeated viewings. This is a quietly efficient and underrated piece of work which is more than worth checking out.