First there was cancellation. Then there was the letter writing campaign that saved the show. But NBC was determined to kill it, placing Star Trek opposite the other network juggernauts, screwing around with scripts and contracts, and basically throwing anything at the wall to see what would do lasting and permanent damage. Even so, the spirit of the series prevailed, albeit under some… interesting scripts. Decide for yourselves which of this third and final season is worthy of the legacy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point this out up front: the music in this series takes a quantum leap forward, and until the release of the Star Trek Soundtrack Collection from La La Land Records, pretty much all of it from this season was unavailable to own. Some of what’s found here in this third season, especially from Alexander Courage, is undeniably influential on his frequent collaborator, the much-loved maestro John Williams, whose own scoring career was building steam at this time over on the series Lost in Space. (Note: Courage worked on that series as well, to a lesser extent.)
As with the previous seasons, we’ll be going in production order, which is a very different animal from the airdate order.
S03E01 – “Spectre of the Gun”
Despite a warning, the Enterprise proceeds into Melkotian space to make diplomatic contact, and the landing party finds themselves reenacting the most famous gunfight in Earth’s history… on the losing side.
Ten years prior to this episode, DeForest Kelley played Morgan Earp in Gunfight at the O. K. Corral. I find that a bit ironic since he’s mostly known to play the baddie in westerns. Suitably, Morgan Earp is the first of the infamous group to threaten our heroes. And that’s where it gets weird. I’ve seen a number of adaptations of this story over the years, my personal favorite being the historically inaccurate but oh-so-quotable Tombstone. In all of the adaptations I’ve seen, I don’t recall the Earps ever being cast as the villains… unless you count their horrible musical numbers in Doctor Who‘s version of this story just a few short months before Star Trek premiered. It spins the tale on its ear to cast our heroes as the Clanton gang, but let’s face it… they are marked to die. If history holds true, this is an effective death sentence for at least three of our crew. Of course, history isn’t that true here either. They keep stressing the gunfight at 5:00 pm. Historically, it happened around 3:00 pm. Oh, c’mon… that’s the least of the stuff they got wrong. But it’s ok. Most versions of this story get it wrong. I think Kevin Costner’s version of Wyatt Earp was probably the one that got closest. But Tombstone was just a better movie. I wish these things lined up better, but they don’t. Besides, historical inaccuracy is something Spock calls out when Chekov is gunned down early. His assumed role, Billy Claiborne, survived the fight.
All in all, this is a good episode for highlighting the character beats, and more importantly, demonstrating how our future characters have evolved considerably over the gunfighters of the Old West. After two world wars, some civil rights issues, some time in Vietnam, and a saturation of such Old West mentality on television at the time, it had to be a bit refreshing to have another means to solve problems than simply with the brute force of firearms. Perhaps it would still hold such promise for modern audiences, given the sign of the times.
S03E02 – “Elaan of Troyius”
In Klingon disputed territory, the Enterprise plays host to warring parties destined to secure peace through marriage.
If McCoy can slap Julie Newmar, it’s probably not a stretch for Kirk to slap the Dolman aboard his own vessel. I hate to say it, but it’s scripted the same way as last time in season two’s “Friday’s Child,” where this is the only thing that begins the road to respect. In the end, we can probably point the finger at Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew: Star Trek Edition. But this kitten has some serious claws in the form of tears that act as a biochemical love potion of sorts. Most useful, considering how intolerable she’d be otherwise. I bet she had a blast playing this role too. In the end, the antidote to the irresistible woman is the Enterprise. Of course it is. It’s one of those great character motifs we’ve seen from Kirk before. As Spock points out, Kirk was infected by her long ago. Truer words have never before been spoken.
While not a spectacular episode, it is a solid one that gives plenty of character and some cat and mouse between all factions. And some ridiculously gawd-awful costuming. It’s also our first look at the D-7 battle cruiser, which is the Klingon Empire’s equivalent of the Constitution class starship. Look! A budget! Even after cancellation! It almost makes up for the costuming to see this in action. Almost. In just a couple of episodes, this ship is going to become important for the launching of some serious storytelling that will have longstanding ramificaitons.
S03E03 – “The Paradise Syndrome”
On an Earth-like world threatened by impending collision with an asteroid, Kirk loses his memory and becomes a tribal deity.
This is an incredibly out-of-the-box episode of the series. While it’s still a variation of the ancient astronaut theory, we rarely see our heroes go native. What’s more, Kirk loses his heart yet again in circumstances beyond his control — as well as an unborn child. While we know the Enterprise will ever be that first love, this is the episode that really makes me wonder if Miramanee was the first competition for that heart, even if it was unknown to all concerned at that time.
We see here an incredibly peaceful portrayal of Native American culture, just a few years before Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West would portray European and American expansionism through the eyes of the native tribes. It’s further evidence of a changing zeitgeist that, undoubtedly, Star Trek had a hand in helping along. To what extent, we may never know, but it’s interesting to think about.
S03E04 – “The Enterprise Incident”
Exhibiting fatigue and erratic behavior, Kirk orders the Enterprise into Romulan space, where she is immediately surrounded by the enemy.
I trust I’ll be forgiven if I get incredibly geeky with this episode. There’s a lot to discuss, and I assume you care if you’ve read this far. The Romulans only get two episodes in the whole of the original series, which is unfortunate because both episodes are fantastic, thus marking the Romulans as one of the best races and deadliest threats in the entire canon. As far as classic enemies go, they’ve often been my favorite in the franchise. As far as alien races go in Trek, they rank near the top. As under served as they are, they are quite memorable, largely due to the performances of their lead representatives. Where we had the indomitable Mark Lenard the first time, this time we are treated to the equally charismatic Joanne Linville as the Romulan Commander, adding a new dimension to their society. Through her, the Romulans build a bridge to the Vulcans that, through Spock, would continue on through The Next Generation and even into the Kelvin timeline films, even if the Romulans themselves get screwed over in more ways than one as a result of those later films. As comprehensive as that is, it gives virtually zero credit to Linville’s chemistry with Nimoy, however, and that really is a highlight of this episode. These two played their scenes together magnificently.
It’s called out at the top of the episode that the Romulans are now using Klingon ship designs, meaning that the series production spent all this money developing that ship, and they wanted to get their money’s worth. What makes the Klingon design an even bigger threat? A Romulan cloaking device, of course. This suggests an alliance between the two empires, which has exploded into fan theory and ultimately into canon. Obviously, the cloak is what the Klingons get out of it, which is why we don’t see the Klingons use one until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which also introduces a smaller scout vessel, the ever-popular Bird of Prey. That name can’t be a coincidence. So what did the Romulans get out of the deal? Looking back at “Balance of Terror,” the answer seems to be warp drive. All in all, I think the Romulans got the better end of the deal, as that system would provide significantly more power to the energy-leeching cloaking field, especially given that both Spock and the Romulan Commander confirm that the military secrets of the cloaking device are fleeting. The idea of an alliance was played with in the novels and such, but in The Next Generation, it would truly be explored with deep ramifications for Worf. It also calls into question the idea of honor when a cloaking device is used. Honor means something entirely different for Klingons and Romulans. For Romulans, it is simply one more military advantage for a military mind to exploit. For Klingons, sneaking around is disreputable as a “true warrior” will look the enemy in the eyes while driving home the blade. It marks a fundamental difference in these societies, which reflect differences in such ideas in our own cultures throughout history. For one such as myself, it’s fascinating to consider.
Speaking of our own culture, it’s worth noting that the Federation never officially employs the cloaking device that Kirk stole, but it is utilized on black ops projects. We’ll see a variation of the cloak in use in The Next Generation aboard the Pegasus, a sticking point in Riker’s backstory that will cause all manner of consternation for him. It’s also more than reasonable to assume that Starfleet engineers would keep upgrading the concept just to help advance their sensors and such, providing military advantages in the event of encounters with other cloaked vessels. Of course, we also have to acknowledge that such advantages would be used by the official / unofficial secret branch of Starfleet known as Section 31. Section 31 undoubtedly raises the level of dramatic tension and story opportunities. It makes Starfleet more realistic to what modern audiences understand. But I sometimes wonder if it’s not a step too far, given Roddenberry’s ideal for humanity. Section 31 has to operate so far underground simply to maintain their existence, but by their own claim, it’s their efforts that make the Federation plausible. As much as I fear that idea, it’s difficult to argue. Given what we know of Starfleet, it makes me wonder if Kirk’s orders for this mission to steal the cloak didn’t come — perhaps unknowingly — from Section 31. It also makes me wonder, given all we know of Kirk’s unswerving character and higher ideals from the first two seasons, what made him say yes to this mission. I’d almost be tempted to question the writing, but this episode comes from D. C. Fontana, one of the best scribes Trek ever had, and clearly it is of the superior quality we know to expect from her. She knows Kirk and Spock far better than I ever could. In her mind, there’s a reason, in character, that this unfolded as it did. I really want to know what it is. As it is, there is one extant source of information out there that does satisfy this specific “lapse” to some extent and conveniently explains some others this season as well: The Autobiography of James T. Kirk.
Something began to happen to me toward the end of my first five years on the Enterprise. I had many successes, made so many discoveries. I’d stopped wars, sometimes single-handedly; I had a record number of successful first contacts. I’d escaped death on numerous occasions, not just for myself but also for my crew.
I feel now the problems began when I started to “believe my own press.” I got arrogant, confident in the belief that there was nothing I couldn’t do. I was losing touch with who I was and buying into the prestige that went with being a starship captain. And since there was little else to my life than serving on the Enterprise, I began to think I needed more. I wanted promotion. I started taking unnecessary risks to get even more attention from my superiors.
The plan [to steal the Romulan cloaking device] was audacious, dangerous, and in hindsight, ridiculous. And it also happened to work. Upon reflection, the only reason we succeeded was we encountered a Romulan commander who was so blinded by the possibility of capturing a functioning starship, she ignored some pretty obvious warning signs she was being manipulated. In any event, I delivered a new cloaking device to the Admiralty, and, in doing so, prevented another war. And in less than a year, it got me what I thought I wanted.
It’s hard to read something like that and have it ring true, but it does fit well with the character arc that we see from the late television era to the film era. The entirety of it all paints Kirk not as a superhero, but as human as the rest of us, which will most certainly catch up to him. And it resonates that character point that we know so well, that he is truly incomplete without the Enterprise. Or as Spock will point out in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.” Curious, isn’t it, how the pivot points can be readily seen in hindsight even when no one could ever have guessed them at the time?