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Star Trek – Shore Leave (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.

When I talk about the surreal sixties energy that really holds quite a bit of Star Trek together, it’s quite possible that it sounds like a back-handed compliment, a cheap and easy gig at a cult television show. However, I mean that sincerely. When I argue that the illogical and somewhat scattershot dynamism of the last act of Court Martial can barely hold the patchwork script together, it’s quite possible that I sound like I’m being sarcastic. However, my affection for the mad-cap mayhem particular to the first iteration of Star Trek is entirely genuine. Although it makes no sense, the climax to Court Martial isn’t the problem. Everything leading up to it is.

I think Shore Leave is pretty much the perfect iteration of this concept. It is, from start to finish, absolutely insane nonsense that threatens to fall apart if one concentrates too hard on any particular detail. However, it’s executed with enough energy and drive that it becomes a compelling and surreal piece of television, and one of the best illustrations of the kind of weirdness that the classic Star Trek could pull off almost effortlessly.

No bunny business...

No bunny business…

I suppose that Shore Leave provides a practical opportunity to explore a question that I’ve never really been too concerned about. How do you classify Star Trek? Is it science fiction? Is it science fantasy? Is there a difference, at the end of the day? Personally, I’ve never been too fond of trying to rigidly catalogue fiction so that it neatly fits into established genres. I’ll happily throw off a quick label for an easy case, if somebody asks for it, but the notion that a film or television show defies easy classification is not a problem that will haunt me. And I won’t get too upset if somebody disagrees with my assessment, or takes exception to my means of classification.

Being honest, I think that there are certain stories and franchises that are self-classifying. Star Trek is, at the risk of being reflexive, Star Trek. That is the subcategory in which I would place the show – a concept so large that it takes up its own space on the shelf. If we’re rigidly ordering the items on this shelf, then I suppose that it would go with the genres that most people would classify as “genre” rather than “literature”, if you subscribe to such a theory. It would be grouped alongside “sci-fi” and “fantasy” and Star Wars.”

Finnegan's awake!

Finnegan’s awake!

However, that is obviously a cop-out. There are people who will insist that Star Trek is clearly science fiction, or that it clearly can’t be science-fiction and is instead fantasy. Both will construct valid and convincing arguments to support their stance. Of course, it’s worth conceding that – even now – there’s still a lot of debate about where the line between science fiction and fantasy might lie. Apparently Isaac Asimov has even weighed in on the debate, offering the suggestion that “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.”

That’s just one definition, of course. There are any number of people who would disagree, citing legitimate objections to the logic of Asimov’s argument. Writing in Science Fiction: Its Criticism & Teaching, Patrick Parrinder suggested that “definitions of science fiction are not so much a series of logical approximations to an elusive ideal, as a small, parasitic sub-genre in themselves.” It’s a contested issue, and one that is unlikely to be fully resolved at any point in the near future.

A shirtless scene! We must be in Shatner's fantasy!

A shirtless scene! We must be in Shatner’s fantasy!

Truth be told, I find the distinction fascinating. As I mentioned above, I’ve never really been that firmly swayed one way or the other by genre, particularly because so rigidly structuring entertainment makes it far too easy to dismiss or to pre-judge. Note, for example, the way that horror films like The Exorcist or The Shining are notoriously slow to earn a consensus as cinematic classics, and how particular genres are frequently overlooked or ignored in the major end-of-year awards.

Indeed, writer China Miéville’s high profile defence of fantasy as a genre that is not inherently inferior to science-fiction suggests that perhaps some of that elitism and snobbery has bled into fans of genre fiction itself – that perhaps the arguments over how to classify a piece of genre fiction is really a way of measuring its importance or worth. Perhaps part of the reason some people are so invested in the argument that Star Trek must be science-fiction rather than fantasy is because science-fiction attracts a greater deal of respect.

It's only logical...

It’s only logical…

Of course, such an argument would be pure nonsense. And I’m not convinced that Star Trek can really lay an legitimate claim to being an especially serious or stoic piece of science-fiction by Asimov’s aforementioned measure. After all, there must come a point where “a hyper-evolved being beyond our comprehension did it” is really no more sophisticated than “a wizard did it.” In fact, you could even argue that the wizard is at least honest about it.

However the reader might feel about Clarke’s Third Law, and although there’s a massive difference between hyper-advanced science and pure magic on a thematic and conceptual level, the plot function is effectively the same. “Something just happened,” the script seems to say, “and we can’t quite explain it. Just trust us, there is an explanation.” While there’s never quite anything as overtly magical as in Star Wars, there are times when Star Trek might as well just call some advanced technology “magic.” Indeed, there are points when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine gets a bit mystical and gently concedes the point.

Jim's really angling for that special "Vulcan Back Rub"...

Jim’s really angling for that special “Vulcan Back Rub”…

Shore Leave feels like the perfect point to discuss this, because it’s one of the very few times when Star Trek strays firmly into what would be considered the realm of fantasy, despite the science-fiction trappings. Sure, the plot argues that these are aliens at work. Describing how he could be mysteriously revived, McCoy explains, “I was taken below the surface for some rather remarkable repairs. It’s amazing. They’ve got a factory complex down there you wouldn’t believe. They can build or do anything immediately.”

The aliens in Shore Leave are hardly exceptional when it comes to Star Trek aliens. Discussing What Are Little Girls Made Of?, I suggested that there was something quite Lovecraftian about these early scripts, the notion that some of the universe is almost beyond our comprehension. That’s explicitly the case here. When a caretaker finally arrives, Kirk inquires,“You say your people built all this. Who are you? What planet are you from?” Their host replies, “My impression is that your race is not yet ready to understand us, Captain.”

You brought a phaser to a sword fight...

You brought a phaser to a sword fight…

There is a sense here that the universe is very much a big open void, full of darkness and emptiness. In Kirk’s log, he talks about Earth in terms that make it feel more like a distant memory than a place that the ship may visit regularly. “We are orbiting an uninhabited planet in the Omicron Delta region. A planet remarkably like Earth, or how we remember Earth to be. Park-like, beautiful, green, flowers, trees, green lawn, quiet and restful. Almost too good to be true.” While the dialogue’s a little clunky, it does give a sense of how big and empty space must be, fitting quite well alongside a lot of first-season episodes.

So the notion that the caretakers, despite looking clearly human, might be very fundamentally alien is a surprisingly unsettling one. Still, the matter is raised and dropped incredibly quickly. Kirk doesn’t react in existential horror to the revelation that this is a world created by beings beyond their comprehension and run by mechanisms above their understanding. Instead, Kirk tells his crew to beam on down and “prepare for the best shore leave they’ve ever had.”

Tiger trouble...

Tiger trouble…

There’s no attempt to discover how such large-scale matter-replication must work, or to ask about the ability to read the minds of the patrons of the planet, or even to wonder about the cybernetic life-forms used to populate the planet. It’s all accepted at face value. Words like “factory complex” and“our race of people” serve to give the story a coat of science-fiction authenticity, but it’s really just fantasy.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the episode’s breathless charm comes from the fact that the show embraces these crazy ideas so readily without stopping to question them too much. Things keep moving along, and the script keeps throwing us compelling visuals, so it is easy enough to get on board with the idea of a magical planet where the visitor’s every thought can become reality. It’s the kind of thing that the classic Star Trek could do better than any of the spin-offs, and it works well.

Star tracking...

Star tracking…

However, a bit of the genre uncertainty apparently emerged during the episode’s development. According to James Doohan’s video introduction to the episode, the initial pitch was deemed too fantastic for the show:

The network were concerned that it was too fantasy-oriented, and the script needed to be re-written. As Sturgeon had moved on to another project and Gene Roddenberry had left town for the week, the story was handed over to Gene L. Coon. Somehow, the memo about playing down the fantasy elements was lost, and he turned in an undeniably brilliant story, but one which played up the fantasy. When Gene Roddenberry returned from his trip, we were just beginning to film. Then he saw the script, and he realised that even more and fairly rapid re-writing was in order. At the end of the first day’s frantic writing and shooting, there was round-table session in a local restaurant, both to restore the script to the tone of the original draft and to make it filmable on our budget!

That the episode ultimately turned out so enjoyable feels like validation of Sturgeon’s original idea, and a demonstration that there is at least a hint of snobbishness in the rejection of the script as too fantasy-orientated.

He's a bit of a dummy...

He’s a bit of a dummy…

There’s a lovely anecdote about how the network’s reaction to the fantasy elements was so strong that William Shatner came up with a rather inventive way of winning their support. According to the star’s Captain Quirk biography:

NBC thought the Theodore Sturgeon script too abstract, so Shatner looked for some way to add a little excitement. Since most of the filming took place at a wild animal park, he volunteered to wrestle a full-grown tiger that had been used in one of the earlier scenes. But Roddenberry did not think it was such a good idea, and the producer made his point when he took Shatner to watch the animal tear apart fresh meat during feeding time. The intrepid star quickly changed his mind, making it one of the few times that Shatner compromised his “anything-for-the-show” philosophy.

There are very few things that would make Shore Leave even more fantastic, but “William Shatner wrestles a tiger” is one of them.

Oh what a knight!

Oh what a knight!

Indeed, the only way that Shore Leave really works is if you are willing to accept that Kirk and his crew would be willing to investigate these curious happenings without becoming too nervous or even too curious. At one point, Spock prudently volunteers, “Captain, shall I beam down an armed party?” Kirk responds, “Negative. Our people here are armed with phasers. Besides, there’s yet to be any real danger.” This is after a female crewmember has been assaulted so severely that her uniform is torn.

At another point, Kirk seems rather frustrated when a communicator call from one of his away team members interrupts a reunion with an old girlfriend from the Academy. “Captain,” the younger officer states, “a while ago, I saw well, birds, a whole flock of them.” You can sense that Kirk’s heart isn’t in the conversation. “Don’t you like birds, Mister Rodriguez?” His subordinate responds, “I like them fine, sir, but all our surveys showed–“ Kirk cuts him off to state the obvious, “Then offhand I’d say our instruments are defective. There are indeed life-forms on this planet.”

It's a dirty job...

It’s a dirty job…

Again, that’s the sort of thing that really should be a big deal – especially when the Captain’s ex-girlfriend and old rival keep popping up. Shore Leave only really works if you can accept Kirk responding to these fairly spectacular events in a manner that is remarkably calm, and remarkably accepting of them – that there’s no real worry or concern about what this represents. It’s a big leap, and it seems at odds with an overly rational approach to the show. Then again, this is a television series where the captain of a starship beams himself into danger on an almost-weekly basis.

There’s something undeniably fun about most of Shore Leave, and it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t work if Star Trek weren’t firing on all cylinders at this early stage of its run. It’s great, for example, to see the genuinely affectionate relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Both McCoy and Spock have to convince Kirk to take a vacation. Kirk seems to instinctively trust McCoy when the good doctor sees a giant bunny rabbit.

Put your back into it...

Put your back into it…

Indeed, the episode opens with Kirk asking for a back massage from Spock (“that’s it… a little higher, please…. push… push hard… dig it in there, Mister –“), as if the show was already aware of the homoerotic undercurrents of the relationship that would give birth to entire subgenre of homoerotic fan fiction known as “slash.” In fact, Kirk looks positively disappointed when it turns out that it was the episode’s obligatorily random female yeoman working on his back.

Of course, Star Trek always seemed more comfortable with sex and sexuality than any of its spin-offs. The classic Star Trek has a very particular sexual energy to it, another by-product of the show’s roots in the counter-culture of the sixties. This was the era of free love, after all. So Shore Leave can be quite candid about the fact that some of the crew’s fantasies will be sexual in nature. Between engagements with he former Academy bully, Kirk meets up with an old flame.

Just what the doctor ordered...

Just what the doctor ordered…

However, the show doesn’t allow Kirk to be the only officer with a sexual life of his own. In fact, it’s Leonard McCoy who gets to play the romantic lead here, flirting with the female member of the away team (“…then you’d have whole armies of Don Juans to fight off,” he advises her, “and me, too…”) and imagining “two girls in the chorus line” from a distant memory. The planet in Shore Leave seems to function like the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that spin-off was always a little cagey about the idea that some of the crew might have less-than-wholesome fantasies. The original Star Trek is able to embrace it at face value.

Of course, the two shows are products of different times. Star Trek emerged in the late sixties. The first season would run from September 1966 through to April 1967, breaking off before what would become known as “the summer of love.” As such, the willingness to embrace and accept casual sexuality represents one of the many ways that Star Trek was in tune with the times, becoming a perfect embodiment of the late sixties.

Bully for you!

Bully for you!

One of the mistakes Gene Roddenberry made when he produced the first year of The Next Generation was to assume that the same attitudes towards sex and love existed in the late eighties. Cast against the backdrop of the AIDS scare and changing social attitudes towards sex, episodes like The Naked Now and Justice felt like ill-advised throwbacks that were out of touch with modern social realities. Those episodes might have worked well in the context of the original Star Trek, but the fact that they count among the weakest entries in a rough first season of the spin-off demonstrate how out-of-touch Roddenberry had become.

Unfortunately, Shore Leave continues Star Trek‘s somewhat spotty track record when it comes to female characters. With Grace Lee Whitney no longer appearing on the show, the part of the female yeoman had become a rotating stock character – akin to the red shirt security guard. As such, it seemed that no female character was ever going to be well-developed by the show. However, Shore Leave continues the unfortunate attitude towards rape that we saw at the end of The Enemy Within, where the sow seems to imply that women on some level covet that sort of attention.

Dressed to impress...

Dressed to impress…

The Enemy Within ended with Spock making a dry joke about how interesting evil!rapist!Kirk must have been, while shooting a sideways glance at Janice Rand, the woman he sexually assaulted. Here, Yeoman Barrows is attacked by Don Juan. When the crew find her, she’s in a defensive position, and her uniform has clearly been torn. It looks like an attempted rape. Explaining what happened, she states, “It was so sort of story book walking around here, and I was thinking, all a girl needs is Don Juan.”

Given what we learn about the planet, it seems that her imagination brought Don Juan to life. And that her fantasy figure attempted to assault her. The implication seems unfortunate, the suggestion that Barrows on some level must have wanted to be assaulted. After all, most of the other illusions stem from deep-seated desires. Sulu seems to enjoy fighting the samurai. Kirk has a great deal of fun knocking the stuffing out of Finnegan.

No Bones about it...

No Bones about it…

It’s only Barrows’ fantasies that are actually dangerous, attempting to assault her and practically killing McCoy. It seems like a genuinely unfortunate plot point, suggesting that the one female character both isn’t capable of controlling her fantasies and secretly imagining a man who would kill another suitor for her affection and who would assault her in a story book world. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated portrayal of gender in Star Trek, and it’s something it would take the franchise a while to fully resolve.

Still, aside from Barrows, Shore Leave remains a delightfully fun piece of sixties “pop!”, and a wonderful demonstration of just how well Star Trek could do light entertainment. It’s a firm rebuttal to any accusation that the show took itself too seriously, and a fascinating piece of television.

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

6 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Jane Newman Press and commented:
    I love the bunny rabbit

  2. What bothered me about this episode was how quickly Kirk seemed to get over the death of McCoy. There he was, fighting with Finnigan and ending up with a big smile on his face, when as far as he knew, McCoy had just been horribly killed.

    Otherwise, a fun episode that has me quoting Finnigan to this day, Jimmy Boy.

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