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Star Trek – The Corbomite Manoeuvre (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

Again, The Corbomite Manoeuvre is one of those early episodes of Star Trek that was shuffled around in the broadcast order. Not that there’s too much internal continuity to mess up or anything like that, but it is particularly noticeable when episodes at the start of a television show get shuffled around. The writers are establishing characters and concepts, so it feels strange to watch the first episode written with McCoy after we’ve already seen him established as the ship’s doctor.

(The first episode aired, The Man Trap, centres around McCoy, which makes it strange when the ship suddenly has a different Chief Medical Officer in the Where No Man Has Gone Before.)

Fortunately though, The Corbomite Manoeuvre is the last time that this really becomes a concern, as Star Trek seems to iron out all the difficulties and the nuances on a new television show. Effectively the first regular episode of the show produced after two pilots, a large part of the charm of The Corbomite Manoeuvre is really watching it all come together.

What a dummy...

What a dummy…

It is worth noting, of course, that Star Trek actually has a phenomenally strong first season. In fact, you could make a convincing argument that it is still, almost fifty years later, the best single season of the franchise ever produced. It’s ironic, considering that the first seasons of the spin-off series tend to take a while to find their feet, to figure out what they want to be about and how they want to be about it. In contrast, the original Star Trek has that effectively sorted by the end of the first regular episode, following the second pilot.

It’s a truly awe-inspiring improvement, and it’s all the more remarkable that so many of the spin-offs struggled so much in their introductory seasons. Of course, you could make a legitimate argument that the reason the spin-offs like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine have so much trouble is that they spend their first year trying to distinguish themselves from their franchise siblings. After all, the first year of The Next Generation makes a substantial improvement when it stops trying to emulate this version of Star Trek and instead reimagines the concept for… well, the next generation. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

Still, there is something a bit weird about The Corbomite Manoeuvre, sort of a conflict between its position in the production schedule and the fact that the production team probably knew that it would air much later in the season. So we have this weird dissonance where the episode sort of picks up as if this crew have been together for a long time, while it’s still introducing new characters and concepts.

For example, the show features Kirk and McCoy together for Kirk’s physical. This is the first time that McCoy appears in the production schedule, taking over as Chief Medical Officer from the character of Mark Piper. No comment is made about this shift, it’s just accepted at face value. In fact, Kirk and McCoy banter as if they’ve known each other for years. “Winded?” McCoy asks after one round of tests. Kirk responds, “You’d be the last one I’d tell.”

Well, Kirk is already firmly in character...

Well, Kirk is already firmly in character…

Similarly, it’s clear that Spock seems to be used to working with humans, demonstrating his wonderfully casual sarcasm. “Raising my voice back there doesn’t mean I was scared or couldn’t do my job,” Bailey protests at one point. “It means I happen to have a human thing called an adrenaline gland.” Spock doesn’t seem too bothered. “It does sound most inconvenient, however. Have you considered having it removed?”

Even the dynamic between Kirk and Spock seems to be firmly established. At one point, Spock asks, “Has it occurred to you that there’s a certain inefficiency in constantly questioning me on things you’ve already made up your mind about?” Kirk, in his charming way, responds, “It gives me emotional security.” Like Kirk and McCoy, we get the sense that these two are well-established and have been working together for a considerable length of time.

Spock has received logical character development.

Spock has received logical character development.

This makes sense if the show is going to air out of order. If you assume that everybody is already very familiar to one another, then there’s no chance of character arcs getting messed up by a disjointed broadcast order. However, there are other aspects of The Corbomite Manoeuvre which make it quite clear that this is intended as a very early adventure, introducing the audience to the world and the rules of Star Trek. This is most obvious in the character of David Bailey, the helmsman.

To be fair, it’s made clear that Bailey is a new helmsman who hasn’t spent too much time in the field. “Navigator’s position’s rough enough for a seasoned man,” McCoy advises Kirk. “I don’t need textbooks to know you could’ve promoted him too fast.” However, Bailey acts as if it is his first time on a starship, and is he’s completely new to the way that Starfleet operates, or the very concept of alien life.

This looks more like it...

This looks more like it…

Bailey provides a vital plot function that is necessary in an early Star Trek episode – he freaks out so we can more firmly establish what it takes to serve on a ship like the Enterprise. It’s something that only really works early on, though, before the rules of the universe get coded and laid down. Airing the episode later in the season makes his freak-out seem increasingly weird and makes Kirk’s judgement in appointing him seem increasingly suspect.

Of course, the episode itself is something that works exceptionally well as an introduction to the concept of Star Trek, the narrative tropes and the storytelling logic, but it’s also a brick that later episodes build on. The Corbomite Manoeuvre is a fantastic second episode, but it becomes a little less brilliant the further you move into the middle of the season. It’s sort of like placing Star Trek 101 after Advanced Star Trek.

This alien's a bit square...

This alien’s a bit square…

Consider Balok. He’s an iconic Star Trek alien, especially the dummy. In fact, one of the best gags of the crossover with Futurama was the use of Kiff to stand in for Balok’s dummy in the end credits. However, Balok isn’t really that special of that memorable once the show has become used to alien lifeforms and strange creatures. He’s incredible and humbling as the first alien encountered in the show, but he becomes a little less impressive airing after The Man Trap or What Are Little Girls Made Of?

He is, of course, the most prototypical of Star Trek aliens, a strange creature who finds himself at odds with the Enterprise over what amounts to a cultural misunderstanding. “Your vessel, obviously the product of a primitive and savage civilisation, having ignored a warning buoy and having then destroyed it, has demonstrated your intention is not peaceful,” he advises Kirk. “We are now considering the disposition of your ship and the life aboard.” There’s a sense that the Enterprise has trespassed and that Balok has a legitimate complaint, even if he overreacted.

Kirk's not afraid to get physical...

Kirk’s not afraid to get physical…

Of course, Balok also falls into that most common of Star Trek alien archetypes. He is an immensely powerful alien who seems to be well-established and possibly quite ancient. The Enterprise is presented as reckless and inexperienced, humbled when Balok approaches. One of the most frequently recurring images in the first season of Star Trek is the notion that humans are effectively the new kids on the block when it comes to space travel, stumbling into a universe that is already incredibly old.

While there are aliens who appear to have developed roughly in tandem with Earth (the Romulans and the Klingons, to pick the obvious examples), there’s a greater sense that there are a lot of older civilisations inhabiting the cosmos, watching their influence slowly fade as a new and dynamic galactic power emerges. Star Trek is anchored in American post-war optimism, and the expansion of mankind to space seems to mirror the emergence of American as one of the defining global powers (if not the defining global power) in the second-half of what has been termed “the American Century.”

Lighten up, Kirk!

Lighten up, Kirk!

In fact, The Corbomite Manoeuvre provides first contact between Kirk and an alien species. Pike met the Talosians in The Cage and Spock is obviously an alien, but the show sets the template for interactions with alien lifeforms. There’s the initial tension, the threat of disaster and then the opportunity for greater understanding. It seems that The Corbomite Manoeuvre really sets a template for adventures to come, right down to a speech from Kirk outlining the shows values.

“Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien lifeforms,” he explains. “You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilisation is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives.”

Everything's ship-shape over here...

Everything’s ship-shape over here…

As alluded to in the opening line, this dialogue is a bit redundant to a crew (and an audience) familiar with the tropes of Star Trek, but outlining them in The Corbomite Manoeuvre feels very much like an introduction, as if Gene Roddenberry is demonstrating to us how this future works and how mankind deals with the unknown. It’s a line that feels a little awkward and on-the-nose to a generation already familiar with the tropes of Star Trek, but it works surprisingly well as the first episode produced after the pilot.

The Corbomite Manoeuvre also does a nice job solidifying the atmosphere established in Where No Man Has Gone Before. Once again, there’s a feeling that the Enterprise is charting the expansive universe, that it is venturing to places where no human being has ever been. “Three days of this now, sir,” Bailey notes. “Other ships must have made star maps of some of this?” Spock replies, “Negative, Lieutenant. We are the first to reach this far.”

The real McCoy...

The real McCoy…

Indeed, Kirk even expressly questions the decision to keep pressing forward after their first encounter with the alien devices. In his log, he ponders, “The cube has been destroyed. Ship’s damage minor but my next decision, major. Probe on ahead or turn back.” Of course, this is Star Trek, so there’s never really a circumstance where the latter will seriously be an option. However, the fact that Kirk states it as such indicates just how far out the Enterprise must be.

The Kirk featured in The Corbomite Manoeuvre seems a lot more like the character we know than the one the script to Where No Man Has Gone Before referenced. That pilot featured a scene suggesting that Kirk needed help with the ladies, or that he had a long and respected academic career for taking command of the Enterprise. Both of these seem a little out of character for James Tiberius Kirk. It seemed like Shatner’s dynamic and emotive performance was really what drew the audience to Kirk and defined him as an action hero.

That alien has a friendly glow...

That alien has a friendly glow…

The Corbomite Manoeuvre seems to understand that. The climax of the episode features Kirk pulling a bluff on an enemy with superior fire power, relying only on his charm and confidence to sell the deception. It is, perhaps, the defining character moment for Kirk, the earliest point in the series that nails down exactly who Kirk is. This feels more like the version of Kirk who would cheat at the Kobayashi Maru, and seems more like the character who would get wanderlust whenever he found himself trapped on Earth. This is the cowboy on the frontier, playing by his own rules – reckless, a little arrogant, but hard to resist.

It seems that the script-writes have caught up with Shatner’s portrayal. On meeting Janice Rand for the first time, Kirk complains, “When I find the headquarters genius that assigned me a female yeoman…” McCoy responds, “What’s the matter, Jim? Don’t you trust yourself?” This feels like a legitimate joke at Kirk’s expense, even if it is a good-natured jab. Kirk takes the comment in his stride, with a deflection rather than a denial. “I’ve already got a female to worry about,” he explains. “Her name’s the Enterprise.”

This would be the last major shake-up...

This would be the last major shake-up…

In effect, those three lines firmly establish who Kirk is better than any reference to “a stack of books with legs.” Indeed, they actually serve to foreshadow Elaan of Troyius, a later episode where Kirk’s lust for a beautiful woman would be overcome by his deep and abiding love of the Enterprise. And, in that episode, it’s so consistent with his established character that it doesn’t feel like a cop-out or a plot contrivance. We actually believe that – despite Kirk’s ladykilling ways – he will never love a woman as much as he loves the Enterprise.

The ensemble is working well, too. It’s notable that the show’s central dynamic (Kirk, Spock and McCoy) works on conflict between three different viewpoints and outlooks. The trio works so very well that Roddenberry’s later “no conflict” directive seems especially puzzling. There’s no point where we think that the three characters don’t respect one another, and there’s no point when any of the three ceases to be a hero.

The write stuff?

The write stuff?

So it seems strange that after crafting an iconic character dynamic, Roddenberry would handicap the spin-offs by denying them the opportunity to do something the original Star Trek did so very well. In fact, in The Corbomite Manoeuvre, McCoy even threatens to file an official complaint with Starfleet about Kirk. “I intend to challenge your actions in my records. I’ll state that I warned you about Bailey’s condition.” And, again, it’s a legitimate position. We understand McCoy’s perspective, as much as we sympathise with Kirk.

The leading trio in Star Trek demonstrates that it is possible for reasonable people to disagree without casting one as the villain. It allows the show to establish and define character, and create legitimate drama – drama that is more powerful because there’s no right or wrong answer. Watching this first season of Star Trek, I really can’t figure out how Roddenberry thought removing conflict from the ensemble in The Next Generation was a good idea. Perhaps I never will.

No, wait... the right bluff!

No, wait… the right bluff!

It’s also worth remarking on the bluff at the end of The Corbomite Manoeuvre. It’s a wonderful little scene, and one of the few parts of the episode that is better the more familiar who are with Star Trek. Kirk effectively relies on gibberish techno-babble to defeat the enemy. In short, he sort predicts every second episode of Star Trek: Voyager. However, The Corbomite Manoeuvre is also significantly smarter than that because it concedes that Kirk is talking nonsense.

It is like a parody of a particular type of Star Trek ending that doesn’t quite exist, where the writers throw together some scientific-sounding words to get the crew out of trouble. It’s a gag that only really works if you’re familiar with some of the show’s later reliance on techno-babble, but it turns a very smart finalé into one of the most ironic Star Trek scenes ever produced. It has more wit and charm than any of those endings, while also predicting them. It just seems that the writers forgot that The Corbomite Manoeuvre also had a very human element to its climax, one that was more important than the gibberish Kirk was spouting.

Too hot to handle...

Too hot to handle…

I should also discuss the remastered editions of the episodes. For the 40th anniversary of the series, CBS went back and upgraded the special effects using CGI. The blu ray releases contain both versions of the episodes. Since I’ve already watched the original effects several times, I thought I’d watch this first season with the new special effects – so that’s why the screenshots all feature the update effects.

That said, I actually quite like the upgraded versions. And the fact that the originals are kept to hand means that we avoid a situation like what has happened with Star Wars. More than that, though, it’s clear that the remastering isn’t being done to try to make Star Trek blend in effortlessly with its spin-offs. Instead, the special effects still very clearly emulate the aesthetic of the sixties television show. The colours are still bright, and the style very much in the spirit of the sixties.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

It isn’t intended to fundamentally change the style of the show. There’s still that sort of hyper-real design to the models, a sense that they are as fake as the cardboard walls in the Enterprise. However, the updates special effects does allow for more complex constructs or more dynamic action scenes. Balok’s ship is still a piece of sixties sci-fi, we just get a greater sense of scale this time around. I don’t want to spend every episode discussing the remastered effects, but I think that they are done remarkably well, and that those involved deserve a great deal of credit.

The Corbomite Manoeuvre is pretty much what Star Trek will look like. Okay, there’s the odd inconsistency. Uhura is wearing a gold miniskirt, for some reason. Kirk introduces the ship as “United Earth Ship Enterprise.” The collars are a bit high. Still, everything looks a lot more familiar, a lot more like the show that is going to air for three years and leave a lasting impression on popular consciousness. By one episode following the second pilot, it seems that this production team has this Star Trek thing down. Which is pretty damn impressive.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:


7 Responses

  1. I really love these reviews. So insightful and well written. Thanks Darren.

  2. This was the first ever TOS episode I watched. I was in High School at the time, and for awhile, they played the TOS episodes at midnight in HD. I didn’t know at the time this was an episode from the very beginning, the cast were very much in character as they would be in the movies. This episode really got me interested in the old series and I began to stay up late to catch more episodes. The only thing strange about this episode was the way everyone acted so gobsmacked over such a tame looking alien. At the time, I was wondering why everyone was reacting that way, there were way more weirder aliens in Star Trek IV. While I think the episode has aged very well (especially in HD), the original special effect of the Enterprise’s phasers was incredibly bad, and the first real sign I was watching something from a bygone era.

    • I love the design of the Balok puppet. I think he does look rather odd, although not as odd – as you point – as aliens in later shows/films. Still, I can see why he ended up in the closing credits seemingly every other week.

  3. Ehhhh…..I don’t think you can make the argument that any season of TOS is the best season in the franchise. Not from where I’m sitting, anyway. The stronger seasons of TNG and DS9 completely blow even Season 1 out of the water. There’s that one joke on “Futurama” about how 12 episodes of this series out of 80 are actually good, and I honestly think that has some truth to it (more like 20 though).

    This episode is very good-definitely one of the better ones in the series. I’ve noticed that, for all that TOS has the reputation of being fiery and progressive in a good way, it seems like most of the episodes dealing with those issues are downright disastrous. It seems like the best ones are either more subtle about it, or just focus on telling a good story.

    • … or written by Gene L. Coon!

      But in defense of the season, I think that it – like the third season of TNG – has the benefit of generally building in quality from one end to the other. The third season of TNG is a great ramping up season, at least until around “Sins of the Father” or “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” The first season of TOS works in a roughly similar way, where it generally keeps getting better and better as it figures out what it is.

      It’s hard to quantify that – certainly you’re right that on an “average episode rating” scale other seasons would blow it out of the water – but it brings a thrill to watching the season that few others can match.

      • Yeah, that’s a very fair point. Gene L. Coon and DC Fontana were the MVPs of the original Star Trek.

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