Time to wrap up the first season.
S01E26 – “The Devil in the Dark”
A mining facility is under attack by a creature that can burrow through rock the way humans move through air.
An alien life form based not on carbon, but on silicon. I ask you… where else were you going to find this in the 1960s? That’s storytelling ahead of its time. Once Spock adds up the clues for us, it’s a story as familiar to us as anything can be: a mother protecting her young.
One of the truly great hallmarks of Star Trek is drawn from the mission statement of the Enterprise: “To seek out new life and new civilizations.” The choice put to Kirk is one that people throughout history have made all the time: kill or be killed. In this case, it’s kill the creature, or allow the miners to die and stop production of the mineral. What Star Trek does so well is offer that impossible third choice. In this case, Spock’s ability and willingness to communicate make all the difference. How often do people ignore that possibility even in everyday situations? How often could fights be avoided simply by opening one’s mind and heart to new understanding? Beyond doubt, this is one of the landmark episodes in the entire Trek canon.
S01E27 – “Errand of Mercy”
The Enterprise is called to disputed territory. Her mission: to secure the planet Organia for the Federation in the war against one of its deadliest foes.
Bring forth… the Klingons! And better yet, bring forth one of television’s all-time great scene chewing character actors, one of my personal favorites, Jon Colicos. I’m just going to say it… this guy made Battlestar Galactica what it was a decade later, and that uncharismatic wuss that replaced him on the reboot is the largest part of why that series sucked. Yeah, I said it. It’s hard to believe the showrunner on the new BSG is the same guy that did so much for the Klingons on The Next Generation. But that’s another tale, and this… this is another foundational episode of Star Trek that absolutely must be given its due. Why did it work? Because Colicos delivered on the promise of this script and gave us a truly memorable opponent. Putting the Klingons in dark makeup with Fu Manchu goatees… may not have been the best choice…
The Organian Peace Treaty is one of the foundational pivot points in the story, wherein the cold war between factions was enforced, allowing the series to use the Klingons to represent threats to democracy across the world in the form of military dictatorship but forcing a stalemate that requires brains over brawn to achieve anything. It’s genius, really. The Klingons were metaphors for the Soviet Union and sometimes China in 1967 when this episode aired, but as time moves on, they’ll be able to be placeholders for similar situations. It wasn’t until TNG that we really got to understand them and their culture. And it wasn’t until Discovery that we finally got to see the backstory that episodes like this one alluded to.
I always find myself wondering how come these peaceful and all-powerful Organians (and races like them) never seem to step in until war comes to their own doorstep, as it was with the Metrons. And for that matter, why do they always claim no one will understand them, but they never stop to explain themselves? Communication seems to be the weakness of superior beings, which makes me wonder how they became superior in the first place. TNG’s Q never had any problem talking up a bluestreak. And he was entertaining about it. Imagine if he were an Organian: “You see, mo capitan… we’re godlike beings, and you are of a race of children.” See? Not that difficult! But I suppose it’d be a very different episode, wouldn’t it? Ultimately, it’s the message of the Organians about the right to peaceable existence — and the prophecy that the Federation and the Klingons would become friends — that would be so interesting and controversial at the time, but it would prove to true. There was a time when it seemed just as true on our side of the screen, which we’ll discuss more when we finally get to Star Trek VI.
S01E28 – “The City on the Edge of Forever”
Accidentally injected with an overdose of a drug, causing temporary madness, Dr. McCoy jumps through the Guardian of Forever… and changes history to a timeline where the Enterprise — and everything it represents — never existed. Kirk and Spock must find McCoy and set to right whatever it is was that he changed.
It’s been hailed repeatedly over decades by fans and insiders alike as the very best episode of all of Star Trek, and until Deep Space Nine came along, that claim was undisputed. It’s easy to see why. The fullest potential of Star Trek‘s heart and soul is on display here: perfect character beats, some brilliant acting, the humor, the optimism, the can-do spirit of humanity, the acknowledgment that our greatest ability to overcome obstacles is found in our ability to dream big, to dare the impossible. While the Enterprise‘s crew represents the exemplars of our future, Joan Collins’ portrayal of Edith Keeler grounds this story in a way that reminds us that it takes only one kind voice to change a world of hurt. That’s what makes the ending of this story so poignant. How often does this world sacrifice its peacekeepers? How often do we have to learn things the hard way? And then there’s that new wrinkle that perhaps no one thinks about: can a peacekeeper be in the wrong place and time and actually make things worse? It’s an idea that the Federation ambassador had to learn on Eminiar VII, but it’s something else entirely to point to a character of such light and say, “Because of her kind heart and positive works, the Nazis get a clean sweep.” That’s harsh.
For all of the praise one can offer, it’s most important to point out that what’s on actually screen is only about a third of what’s in the original script, and only by reading the script does the title make any sense. After all, there is no city in the screen version. Science fiction god Harlan Ellison poured his genius into that script. I remember when it was first made available in paperback. Reading that script absolutely blew my mind and put Ellison on the map for me as a name I’d never forget. That in turn led me a few years later to a series that would take place in roughly the same years as Star Trek, albeit in a very different timeline, where Ellison’s talents were properly cultivated as creative consultant: Babylon 5.
S01E29 – “Operation: Annihilate!”
A pattern of planet-wide mass insanity follows a straight line to Deneva, a colony world where Kirk’s brother and his family are stationed.
For the first season finale, Star Trek gets personal. You know, because the previous episode wasn’t personal enough. Hot on the death of Edith Keeler, Kirk gets to deal with family trauma and the takeover of Mr. Spock. As a story idea, the parasite creatures are particularly nasty business. They’re creepy enough by buzzing and pulsating. But then they’re capable of flying around and attacking a person by leaving a stinger behind that entwines tentacles throughout the nervous system, which just causes pain as it takes over the body and more pain and insanity if the person tries to fight it… which we all know Spock is going to do.
The special effects of 1966, however, aren’t up to par with what the concept of the script demands, so it requires the actors to step up and make us believe it. I really have to credit Leonard Nimoy with making this episode work as well as it does. Spock “disconnects” the pain, so he claims, but you can look at Spock and see he’s physically and mentally fighting everything at a level that only he can. There’s a subtle discomfort in how he moves, how he talks. The tension he brings to bear is amazing, even when he’s not actively demonstrating Spock’s weakness. Really, all of the principles bring their A-games for this one, rendering an otherwise average episode into something better. For a little sci-fi series that was never intended to go the distance, that’s pretty special in and of itself.
I somehow managed to do a little binge-watching for the latter part of this season. It probably won’t happen that often, but I hope nobody minds the feast or famine approach. Sure, I could schedule them to be spread out more evenly, but really… who would that serve? One down, two to go. Not exactly sure yet when I’ll get to start season two. I promise it won’t be long at all.