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Star Trek – By Any Other Name (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

By Any Other Name is very much a stock episode of Star Trek. It hits on all manner of familiar themes and ideas. It’s a story about powerful aliens who seem to overpower the crew, only to be outmanoeuvred themselves. It is about the Enterprise literally going where no human has gone before. It is about how humans are undeniably and incomparably special – about how becoming human opens up the aliens to a world of sense and experience.

However, By Any Other Name never really has anything particularly insightful to say about any of this stuff. The script to the episode is a mess, despite the best efforts of D.C. Fontana to develop the character beats. For a show based around such core Star Trek concepts and storytelling devices, By Any Other Name is surprisingly all over the place, with a wildly dissonant tone and a sense that the script was desperately padded in order to extend it out to the requisite fifty minutes.

"No dice, Captain..."

“No dice, Captain…”

By Any Other Name is not a terrible episode of Star Trek, but it’s not a particularly good one either. It is just “there.” In many ways, it feels like an example of an episode designed to fill a gap in twenty-odd-episodes-a-year schedule. After all, the last eight episodes of the season were pushed into production at short notice when NBC opted to pick up the show for the rest of the season during the production of The Gamesters of Triskelion. It makes sense that the episodes in this final stretch of the third season are somewhat rough.

By Any Other Name is a familiar Star Trek plot with a somewhat bloated script and a sense that the show is just trying to eat up minutes between here and the end of the season.

"It appears the rock knows as little as we do, sir..."

“It appears the rock knows as little as we do, sir…”

It is very hard to firmly delineate between the end of Gene L. Coon’s tenure as producer and the start of John Meredyth Lucas’ time in the role. Lucas stepped in to fill a gap left by Coon’s sudden departure. There wasn’t a clean break, with Lucas taking over almost immediately. He inherited quite a few of his scripts from his predecessor, with various stories in various stages of development when Lucas took the reins.

As such, it is hard to distinguish between Lucas’ vision of the show and aspects of Coon’s vision slipping through. Lucas departed Star Trek at the end of the second season, when it looked like the show was unlikely to get picked up again. As a result, Lucas never quite gets a clean slate of commissioning and shepherding a collection of scripts through each stage of the production process. Despite the fact that he produced, wrote and directed for Star Trek, Lucas remains a tough creative voice to pin down.

Light 'em up, boys...

Light ’em up, boys…

Nevertheless, there are some interesting trends towards the end of the second season – trends coinciding with Gene L. Coon’s departure as producer and John Meredyth Lucas’ arrival in the role. It may be too much to credit these to Lucas; they could easily be coincidence, or the result of other creative voices like Roddenberry or Justman stepping in to fill the storytelling void left by Coon. After all, Star Trek was a collaborative effort, changing one ingredient changes the whole texture of the cocktail.

Nevertheless, it feels like the show is regressing slightly. It feels like the end of the second season has a clear move back towards the style and tone of the early episodes of the first season. There is a step away from the crowded and busy galaxy that Coon developed, where the Federation found itself locked in a Cold War with the Klingons and the Romulans.Instead, there’s a sense that the galaxy is a lot emptier and a lot more hostile.

Playing games with the Kelvan party...

Playing games with the Kelvan party…

Under Coon, the Klingons and the Romulans had become recurring adversaries. The Klingons appeared three times in the first sixteen episodes of the second season. Even when no Romulans or Klingons appeared, mentions of them were worked into the background of otherwise unrelated stories like The Deadly Years or Amok Time to create a sense of a wide and developed universe. Coon had wanted Koloth to be a recurring antagonist, and early drafts of A Private Little War had featured a return appearance of Kor.

In contrast, the Klingons and the Romulans were absent from the final ten episodes of the season. Two Romulans were originally meant to appear in A Piece of the Action, but were promptly removed. Space seemed as random and hostile as it had during the first season, rejecting the attempt to impose order upon it in episodes like Journey to Babel. Instead, it seemed like space was full of horror and terror once again.

Buckle up...

Buckle up…

Obsession and The Immunity Syndrome saw horrors lurking in the darkness, ready to prey on the unsuspecting. Episodes like The Gamesters of Triskelion, Return to Tomorrow and The Omega Glory suggested the universe was once again populated with collapsed or decaying civilisations, as if mankind were wandering through a graveyard. Even the “Assigners” from Assignment: Earth seem to loom above the universe rather than move through it.

The Kelvan advance force featured here are defined as explicitly alien. They may look like (very pale) humans, but the episode makes it quite clear that they are not human in any measurable sense. Like Trelane, they are something far more surreal wearing the appearance of humanity. By Any Other Name sets this idea up quite early, making it clear that these explorers are a little too perfectly human in design and appearance.

Another world...

Another world…

“They registered as perfect human life forms,” Spock reflects. “I recall noting the readings were almost classic textbook responses.” Kirk muses, “Spock, what are the odds in such absolute duplication of life forms in another galaxy?” Spock answers, “The chances are very much against it.” Given how frequently human-like aliens pop up in Star Trek, it doesn’t seem completely impossible. However, it’s a very effective way of establishing how wrong by the Kelvan party are by emphasising how uncannily perfect they present themselves.

Shortly after this, Spock uses his psychic powers to catch a glimpse of the Kelvans in their true form. As Spock describes them, they resemble something from the work of H.P. Lovecraft. “A series of bizarre and exotic images bursting on my mind and consciousness. Colours, shapes, mathematical equations fused and blurred. I’ve been attempting to isolate them, but so far I’ve been able to recall clearly only one. Immense beings, a hundred limbs which resemble tentacles. Minds of such control and capacity that each limb is capable of performing a different function.”

Ashes to ashes...

Ashes to ashes…

Like the Gamesters, Sargon, the giant space amoeba and the vampire cloud, there is something distinctly “alien” about Rojan and his people. By Any Other Name deserves a great deal of credit for conveying this through dialogue and performance, working through the limitations of sixties television in presenting something so definitely “other.” The script cleverly gives the exposition to Leonard Nimoy, who sells the idea phenomenally well.

There are other ways in which By Any Other Name seems to hark back to the earliest episodes of Star Trek. The episode finds the Enterprise journeying beyond the galactic barrier for the first time since Where No Man Has Gone Before – with the dialogue alluding to that earlier encounter. Nobody in the crew becomes a god-like being this time, so perhaps there is something to all those fancy Kelvan enhancements after all.

Hey now, Spock... self-melding is a filthy habit...

Hey now, Spock… self-melding is a filthy habit…

(One wonders if Starfleet ever used the Kelvan technology after this point. After all, the ability to travel through the barrier would likely revolutionise space travel – particularly given how much of a deal Where No Man Has Gone Before made of the Enterprise’s journey into the void. It’s a nice touch that the travel estimates between galaxies in Where No One Has Gone Before seem to factor into the Kelvan enhancements to the engines of the Enterprise, suggesting they’ve been incorporated into subsequent designs.)

Similarly, the emphasis on Spock’s psychic abilities – particularly over distances rather than through touch – in By Any Other Name and The Immunity Syndrome seem to hark back to the very sixties fascination with ESP and other para-psychological elements in Where No Man Has Gone Before. Though subsequent episodes had expanded and developed Vulcan psychic abilities, they were generally presented as tactile experiences – Spock melding with the Horta in The Devil in the Dark, Sarek and Amanda gently touching fingers in Journey to Babel.

Breaking barriers...

Breaking barriers…

Beyond that, By Any Other Name feels like a stock Star Trek episode. It touches on some of Roddenberry’s favourite core themes – the idea that there is something inherently and undeniably special about humanity. The Kelvan party transform themselves into humans, but get more than they bargain for. Initially uncomfortable in these human bodies, the alien invaders come to accept them. At the end of By Any Other Name, there is no indication that they plan to revert to their natural forms.

Gene Roddenberry was quite fond of the idea that human beings were special and that putting alien creatures into human bodies would shine a light on the human condition. In 1956, Roddenberry had written a similar story – The Secret Weapon of 117 – for the anthology show Chevron Hall of Stars. The very next episode of the second season, Return to Tomorrow, would feature more aliens in human (and half-Vulcan) bodies. It would be Roddenberry who would suggest making Q human in Déjà Q.

"You can really taste the food dye..."

“You can really taste the food dye…”

A clear line can be drawn between this fascination with human exceptionalism and the smug superiority exhibited by the Enterprise crew in the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stories like this have to be careful, because they run the risk of suggesting that mankind has nothing to learn from the universe, while the universe has a lot to learn from them – a position that seems a little self-aggrandising and somewhat immodest.

There are points where it works, but there’s also a significant risk of it tipping over into a trite “humans sure are great, aren’t they?” sentiment that forgets that Kirk’s mission is to explore other worlds and to evaluate his own human condition, rather than trying to “sell” the human condition to other civilisations. The conclusion of By Any Other Name is not simply that the human experience and the Kelvan experience are very different, but that the human experience is inherently better. For all the associated trouble, the invaders seem happy to remain human.

"You're an inanimate $%&!ing object!"

“You’re an inanimate $%&!ing object!”

Of course, “the Kelvan experience” is something that doesn’t actually exist. However, there is a tendency – particularly in the original Star Trek – to equate “the human experience” with “the American or Western experience.”  The Enterprise may have a diverse ensemble, but the Federation itself seems to be an extrapolation of American values into the future. It doesn’t help that the Enterprise crew members who help the Kelvan party come to terms with “the human experience” are all white guys from Western cultures.

Sure, Spock is half-Vulcan, but he’s noticeably less active in the plot than the other three characters; besides, Leonard Nimoy is a white American performer. Early in the episode, Rojan casually murders a red shirt to prove that he means business. The sequence is filmed to keep the death ambiguous until the last possible moment – keeping the audience in suspense as to whether the show has killed off the black man or the white woman as the three white male away team members look on.

"I can't connect my iPhone to anything, but this is just plug-and-play..."

“Typical! I can’t connect my iPhone to anything, but this is just plug-and-play…”

Truth be told, there’s really no right choice in that situation. While By Any Other Name is not quite as casual with its brutality as episodes like Obsession or The Apple, there is a sense that the episode is too casual about its violence and threat. The two halves of By Any Other Name seem at odds with one another. The first half is a series of familiar and generic capture-and-escape sequences that present Rojan as a real threat; the second half is a lighter story about teaching these aliens how to be human.

There is a strange dissonance there. After Rojan murders Yeoman Thompson, Kirk is visibly distraught. The moment where Kirk grimly runs her scattered remains through his fingers is superbly effective, Shatner helps convey Kirk’s anger and guilt. It feels like the death of a crew member has actually affected Kirk in a serious manner. On the other hand, the episode closes with everybody perfectly happy, with Kirk offering the Kelvan party support and safe haven in Federation space.

Getting his hands dirty...

Getting his hands dirty…

“You would really do that?” Rojan asks. “You would extend welcome to invaders?” Kirk replies, “No. But we would welcome friends.” It seems a little strange, given Rojan’s cold-blooded and sadistic murder of Yeoman Thompson. The sequence might have played better had Kirk and Rojan reached a grudging respect for another rather than professing genuine friendship – more in line with the détente between Kirk and Khan at the end of Space Seed.

The show does try to offer some explanation for how the crew of the Enterprise can be so blaisé about Rojan’s murder of Yeoman Thompson. “Rojan, you are only a link in a chain,” Spock suggests, “following an order given three hundred years ago.” It reads uncomfortably like another rather more infamous defence, one that would perhaps seem a little more appropriate later in the season. However, skirting the edge of Godwin’s Law aside, it feels like a rather facile attempt at a happy resolution.

Sleeping on it...

Sleeping on it…

Of course, the ending of By Any Other Name is just eager to wrap everything up as quickly and as cleanly as possible. Despite Kirk’s seduction of Kelinda, she opts to return with Kojan at the end of the episode – after Rojan has demonstrated a violent temper and an unwillingness to talk to her directly about how he feels towards her. It seems like the character was being shuffled off to avoid any potential long-term love-interest for Kirk – in a way that ends with everybody smiling and laughing together.

There is something quite cynical about Kirk’s seduction of Kelinda. Being the most significant female guest star, of course Kelinda is overwhelmed by love – or at least attraction to Kirk. Rojan is consumed by his jealousy and temper, Tomar is defeated by alcohol, Hanar is incapacitated by stimulants. The episode doesn’t bother to mention how the other major female Kelvan character – Drea – is subdued by the crew, if at all.

"Shine on, you crazy engineer!"

“Shine on, you crazy engineer!”

Maybe that is for the best. The female characters in By Any Other Name seem almost incidental. Lieutenant Thompson is killed off and promptly forgotten. Kelinda is powerless against Kirk’s raw sexual charm; but she is also a pawn in Kirk’s game against Rojan. She is very much a trophy to be won. “You thought I was taking your woman away from you,” Kirk boasts to Rojan, making it clear that his seduction of Kelinda is just as much about Rojan as it is about her.

And yet, despite all this, there are aspects of By Any Other Name that have their charms. The production design is absolutely wonderful – By Any Other Name looks exactly like an episode of sixties Star Trek should look. From the Kelvan uniforms to the soundstage hosting the planet, from the hairstyles to the belt buckles to the little cubes of crew members, By Any Other Name looks like the quintessential Star Trek episode.

Sadly, the Scottish flag did not come in red, so the production team could not find a way to make it match the colour scheme of the apartment..."

Sadly, the Scottish flag did not come in red, so the production team could not find a way to make it match the colour scheme of the apartment…

D.C. Fontana’s work on the script also pays off, to an extent. The character-driven second-half of the episode may have its problems, but it is a plot that treats the Star Trek cast as an ensemble. There’s just the slightest hint of The Naked Now or This Side of Paradise in Fontana’s writing here – a chance to put these iconic characters in decidedly human situations. Fontana is good at these sort of little character interactions, from Spock playing chess with Rojan to Scotty getting drunk with Tomar.

The drinking sequences in Scotty’s quarters are particularly memorable – to the point that Relics chose to reference Scotty’s infamous description of a mystery beverage. James Doohan does not get as much credit as the leading trio, but his performance is a delight. It’s particularly nice how Scotty’s accent gets more pronounced as the drinking goes on. (And the production design on his quarters is gloriously and endearingly patriotic – he has a set of bagpipes and a kilt hanging up, in case the audience forgets his nationality.)

Flash! A-ha...!

Flash! A-ha…!

By Any Other Name is not one of the second season’s strongest episodes, but it’s hardly among the weakest. Ironically, this is Star Trek literally going where Where No Man Has Gone Before has gone before. It’s a very bland and generic instalment, one that feels like a collection of themes and ideas that we’ve seen before.

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

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