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Star Trek – The Enemy Within (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.

One thing that I don’t think the original Star Trek gets nearly enough credit for is the quality of the writers that Gene Roddenberry recruited to contribute scripts. Television obviously operated under a different model at the time, but there’s an impressive selection of science-fiction literary giants who contributed scripts to the show. More than that, it’s impressive how many of those stories became truly iconic Star Trek stories.

The Enemy Within is the work of author Richard Matheson, best known for stories like I Am Legend or What Dreams May Come. It’s very much a high-concept science-fiction story, but it’s also notable because it establishes two of what would become the show’s favourite tropes: transporter accidents and evil duplicates. Indeed, the two devices would be reunited in the following season’s Mirror, Mirror. These narrative elements even featured in the last season of Star Trek: Enterprise to air, in episodes like Daedalus and In a Mirror, Darkly.

Perhaps it’s a demonstration of how important these outside writers were to the development of Star Trek as a franchise that Matheson would effectively codify two stock narrative devices that would still be in use four decades later.

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror…

Of course, Matheson wasn’t the only science-fiction writer of that calibre to write for Star Trek. Harlan Ellison wrote The City on the Edge of Forever, while Theodore Sturgeon wrote Amok Time, with Norman Spinrad contributing The Doomsday Machine. That’s saying nothing of Larry Niven writing for Star Trek: The Animated Series. Outside of writers known for science-fiction, What Are Little Girls Made Of? came from the author of Psycho, Robert Bloch.

Those are some very important names, and they are names that immediately establish the pedigree of Star Trek. The involvement of these iconic science-fiction writers demonstrates that the show is more than merely a western in a novel setting. Instead, these names demonstrate that Star Trek is legitimate science-fiction, with all the high-concepts and big ideas that come with it. I am not, of course, suggesting that the absence of any or all of these names would put paid to the suggestion that Roddenberry was producing a science-fiction show, but their presence serves as an acknowledgement of what the creator was attempting to accomplish with the show.

Kirk always was a bit in love with himself...

Kirk always was a bit in love with himself…

To be fair, some of these experiences would be least than pleasant. Harlan Ellison’s foreword to the book collecting his initial work on The City of the Edge of Forever offers a particularly bitter account of how difficult working within the show could be. At least Matheson didn’t have to worry about too much aside from what he felt to be an unnecessary b-plot unfolding on the planet below. Given that it eats up about five minutes of the episode, I think we can forgive it that.

Despite these teething problems, it’s hard to deny the results. William Shatner – writing in Star Trek Memories – credits strong stories like The City on the Edge of Forever for keeping Star Trek alive at the end of its first year in production. While Ellison tends to (deservedly) generate the most discussion about these respected authors working on Star Trek, his work is indicative of one of the greater strengths of the show. In fact, I think that the contributions of the other established science-fiction writers are occasionally overlooked.

Shatner dials it up...

Shatner dials it up…

These writers deserve credit for demonstrating that Star Trek was a fascinating avenue for compelling and exciting televised science-fiction. It’s something of which the spin-offs may have lost sight. Star Trek: The Next Generation and the later shows tended to the work of an established writing staff. That said, the shows welcomed unsolicited scripts from outside the office. This is, for example, how they recruited Ronald D. Moore for the third season of The Next Generation. However, there didn’t seem to be a conscious effort to court established science-fiction writers to contribute to television’s largest on-going science-fiction franchise.

Then again, it’s hard to complain about the consistent quality The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine once they got past their first two years, but it does feel like the spin-offs were missing something that had been a vital ingredient to Star Trek. You could argue that the model of television had changed in the years since Star Trek went into cancellation, but that’s hardly fair. Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have made it a point to invite established writers on to Doctor Who, to great success. Neil Gaiman wrote the acclaimed The Doctor’s Wife, while Richard Curtis wrote the much-loved Vincent and the Doctor.

On the prowl...

On the prowl…

Being honest, it’s clear that Star Trek owes Richard Matheson a fairly significant debt. The Enemy Within is very much an archetypal Star Trek episode. In fact, I suspect it is one of the few stories that ripples around in the broader public consciousness. While evil!Kirk might not be as iconic as goatee!Spock, I think that William Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk’s primal id is one of the most memorable images of the series. I also suspect that this is where Shatner established his reputation for scenery-chewing among the public at large.

The plot of The Enemy Within is relatively simple. In fact, it’s so simple that it would provide the basis for Mirror, Mirror the following season – albeit with the two ingredients inverted. Here, a transporter malfunction sends an evil version of Captain Kirk to the regular Enterprise. In Mirror, Mirror, a transporter malfunction sends the regular version of Captain Kirk to an evil Enterprise. It’s not to suggest that Mirror, Mirror is a rip-off of The Enemy Within. It’s just to illustrate that Matheson has crafted a simply story that effectively establishes two narrative staples of Star Trek.

To be fair, half the cast wanted to do that at one point or another...

To be fair, half the cast wanted to do that at one point or another…

In a way, The Enemy Within is effectively an update of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Transporter proves itself remarkably unreliable for only the first time in Star Trek history, somehow splitting Kirk into two halves. One half embodies all of Kirk’s best qualities, and the other half contains all his negative attributes. This is, of course, pure scientific nonsense, but it allows for an interesting story and a nice allegory. Plus we get to witness Shatner demonstrating his dramatic abilities in his portrayal of good!Kirk, which is a surprisingly nuanced performance.

One which is, admittedly, overshadowed by his campy turn as evil!Kirk. Even then, it’s work noting that Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk’s rampaging id personified is strangely compelling. As I mentioned above, it’s fair to argue that Shatner’s reputation of a hammy over-actor was cemented here. evil!Kirk poses, pantomimes, screams, spits and shouts. You could make a legitimate argument that evil!Kirk isn’t just a concentration of Kirk’s darker side, but also the embodiment of Shatner’s tendency to go over the top.

Double trouble...

Double trouble…

This isn’t the first time that Shatner’s campy tendencies have been on display. We’d seen hints of his hammy-ness at the climax of Where No Man Has Gone Before, as Shatner milked Kirk’s appeal to Denher’s humanity for all it was worth. Still, evil!Kirk is arguably the furthest that Shatner would go off the reservation during the three-year run of Star Trek. Still, there is some skill here. Shatner cannily plays him as more animal than man. He crouches, lurches and swings aggressively. His movements are exaggerated, with Shatner making sure that the audience is aware that this is evil!Kirk in action.

In fact, for all the episode’s fixation on Kirk’s “doppelgänger”, Shatner makes it quite obvious which version of Kirk is which. The crew might be confused, but Shatner’s performance makes certain that we never are. And, to be fair, this isn’t a bad thing. After all, the premise is delightfully simplistic. This is a story where a magic technology can somehow rend a man’s soul in twain. It is not a subtle tale. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more subtle performance working as well as Shatner’s decision to gleefully chew the scenery.

Just scratching the surface...

Just scratching the surface…

I will concede that the characterisation on classic Star Trek was not the strongest. Still, I think that the leading trio were drawn very clearly very early on, and I’d argue that the movies did a great job extending the characterisation of the main characters. Still, for all that The Enemy Within is a science-fiction high-concept, it is hard to see the plot working with any Star Trek captain other than James Tiberius Kirk.

Shatner’s Kirk has a roguish charm to him that is lacking from his successors. We don’t doubt that he’s sincere and that he is a good man, but there’s a darkness lurking underneath Kirk’s charming exterior. Kirk is the most dynamic and physical of the Star Trek leads, the one who isn’t afraid of violence, the one who indulges almost recklessly in casual sex with random women. (In fact, he even winds up with a son he never knew about.) Kirk has wit and skill, but he’s also reckless. He leads away teams into danger and there’s a sense that Kirk gets a vicarious thrill out of high-stakes contests.

And your little dog, too!

And your little dog, too!

In short, there’s a sense of something very sinister hiding behind all that charm. Shatner might not be the strongest actor in the history of television, but he gets Kirk. He embodies the character perfectly. Even when the scripts portray Kirk as an enlightened and sophisticated 23rd century man, Shatner makes it clear that there’s something primal lurking beneath. It’s not for nothing that he turns out to be so damn good at all those crazy gladiatorial contests.

So there is something to split here – two palpable facets of Kirk’s persona that can be separated from one another. Freed of the pragmatic cynicism of his darker half, good!Kirk trusts his crew to understand what has happened. He wants to disclose absolutely everything, including the fact that half of him is a de facto attempted rapist. “Yes, I’ll make an announcement to the entire crew, tell them what happened,” he assures Spock. “It’s a good crew. They deserve to know.”

Keep your shirt on...

Keep your shirt on…

It’s not necessarily a stupid position, just an idealistic. After all, Kirk has served with this crew for some time now. He knows them, he respects them; many of them are his friends. However, as Spock points out, he doesn’t have the luxury of indulging his conscience. “Captain, no disrespect intended,” Spock responds, “but you must surely realise you can’t announce the full truth to the crew. You’re the Captain of this ship. You haven’t the right to be vulnerable in the eyes of the crew. You can’t afford the luxury of being anything less than perfect. If you do, they lose faith, and you lose command.”

In a weaker story, good!Kirk would be an emotional idealist without any self-restraint. He would wallow in self-pity and guilt for everything he has ever done. Here, instead, he’s simply a decent man constrained by his inability to compromise, to make sacrifices, to be ruthless for the greater good. evil!Kirk is willing to order the ship to abandon Sulu and the away team without a care. good!Kirk can barely bring himself to sacrifice a dog to test the transporter. “Don’t hurt him,” good!Kirk asks Scott.

Putting it all together...

Putting it all together…

It’s a nice plot point – the idea that Kirk owes some of his strength to something approaching ruthlessness and brutality. Without that darker half, good!Kirk is somewhat impotent. He can’t barely order Spock to call him out on it. “Mister Spock, if you see me slipping again, your orders… your orders are to tell me.” He concedes that, due to the separation, he has lost his “strength of will.” It’s interesting to see Star Trek concede that some of these darker drives are necessary or even useful. The show is generally so idealistic, that such a concession seems a little weird. In fact, Grace Lee Whitney protests that argument in her biography, The Longest Trek.

Indeed, it’s this sort of attitude that would be missing from a lot of the first season of The Next Generation, as Roddenberry insisted that the show present the crew as completely flawless. However, the key isn’t necessarily to completely purge the darker aspects of the human psyche – after all, those are essential parts of ourselves. It’s difficult to relate to the perfect humans of The Next Generation in the show’s first year because they are so perfect that they don’t seem human.

Face-to-face...

Face-to-face…

“We all have our darker side,” McCoy argues. “We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly, it’s human.” That’s the key right there, and Star Trek has always been as much about exploring the human condition as it has been about charting the final frontier. It has – at its best – about exploring who we are and what makes us human. The Enemy Within might not be subtle, but it is effective. It uses the backdrop of science-fiction to comment on mankind and our relationship with ourselves and the wider universe.

That said, there are some problems. It is very tough to watch the scene where Kirk tries to sexually assault Rand, knowing that Grace Lee Whitney would be sexually assaulted herself a few weeks later, on the set of Miri. The scene isn’t gratuitous or especially problematic of itself, but it’s very tough to watch knowing that Whitney would be assaulted by an anonymous studio executive only a little while later.

A cool reception...

A cool reception…

The abuse that Whitney experienced is one of the most shameful moments in the history of the Star Trek franchise, and a demonstration of some of the problems the series had with sexism behind the scenes. Nobody was ever held accountable for it. Whitney herself was let go after her thirteen-episode contract elapsed. For a show about a bright an enlightened future, it seems that the sexual politics behind the scenes on Star Trek were regressive.

Sadly, these problems would continue into the early years of The Next Generation. After all, that show would lose two of its three female leads in the first year. Gates McFadden left because she had trouble working with a male producer. Patrick Stewart has explained that he spent a great deal of the first season protesting sexist scripts. You could make a compelling argument that Star Trek never got quite past its gender issues until Deep Space Nine introduced Kira.

He'll sleep it off...

He’ll sleep it off…

Even outside of the context of Whitney’s departure from the series, the show’s final joke would seem to be misjudged. It sees Spock – who seems to have a bit of a weird fixation on evil!Kirk, read into that what you will – make a joke about evil!Kirk’s sexual appeal to Janice Rand. This is the same Janice Rand who was sexually assaulted by evil!Kirk in her quarters only a little while earlier. The scene is quite troublesome, especially because it seems like nobody realised that it really wasn’t an appropriate line to close on.

As Whitney herself notes in her memoirs, The Longest Trek:

At the end of The Enemy Within, there is a badly botched attempt at humor. In a poorly motivated and out of character moment, Mr. Spock needles me about my feelings toward the evil Kirk (who came to be called “the Imposter,” even though he was supposedly every bit as much a part of the “real” James T. Kirk as the good Kirk). There is almost a nasty leer on Spock’s face as he says to me, “The Imposter had some very interesting qualities, wouldn’t you say, yeoman?” My response was to ignore the jibe.

I can’t imagine any more cruel and insensitive comment a man (or Vulcan) could make to a woman who has just been through a sexual assault! But then, some men really do think that women want to be raped. So the writer of the script (ostensibly Richard Matheson — although the line could have been added by Gene Roddenberry or an assistant scribe) gives us a leering Mr. Spock who suggests that Yeoman Rand enjoyed being raped and found the evil Kirk attractive!

This scene is doubly ironic in view of how wonderfully caring and compassionate the real Leonard Nimoy was a few weeks later after the real Grace Lee Whitney was sexually assaulted and violated by The Executive.

Then again, the show was never especially thoughtful in its portrayal of Rand as a character. It’s just that The Enemy Within strikes closest to home in light of Whitney’s history with the programme.

Some cheek...

Some cheek…

Still, despite these awkward moments, The Enemy Within is still a damn fine piece of Star Trek. It’s admittedly got a goofy premise, but it is compelling and fascinating high-concept science-fiction, demonstrating the versatility of Star Trek as a show.

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

 

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