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Star Trek – Season 2 (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.

The first season of Star Trek was quite remarkable. The cult television show opened with a reasonably solid run of episodes that gradually built momentum over the course of the season. The first season seemed to build towards a crescendo, climaxing with a run of episodes including all-time classics like A Taste of Armageddon, Space Seed, The Devil in the Dark, Errand of Mercy and The City on the Edge of Forever. Sure, Operation — Annihilate! ended the first season on a whimper rather than a bang, but the quality of the show only seemed to improve as the season went along.

In contrast, the second season was a bit more uneven. It probably contains as many truly classic hours of television, but the quality is a lot more variable on an episode-to-episode basis. The Apple leads in to Mirror, Mirror, which leads into The Deadly Years. Metamorphosis leads into Friday’s Child. The Immunity Syndrome and A Piece of the Action follow The Gamesters of Triskelion and Obsession. Watching the season blind is a roller-coaster, with episodes varying radically in quality from one week to the next. Some of the franchise’s best and worst episodes sit back-to-back here.

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The second season of Star Trek can be incredibly hard to get a handle on. It is, in many respects, the season that defined a lot of what the franchise could and would become. Episodes like Amok Time and Journey to Babel really built up a universe around the Enterprise and her crew, expanding on late first season episodes like Arena or Errand of Mercy. The show also demonstrated incredible range, with the occult sensibilities of Catspaw and Wolf in the Fold existing alongside the broad comedy of I, Mudd and The Trouble With Tribbles.

However, the season also demonstrated some of the worst tendencies of sixties Star Trek. Episodes like Friday’s Child, A Private Little War and The Omega Glory engaged in precisely the sort of sabre-rattling jingoism against which Balance of Terror and Errand of Mercy had cautioned. The Changeling, By Any Other Name and Return to Tomorrow felt like generic science-fiction retreads. The show brutally (and casually) massacred red shirts in episodes like The Changeling, The Apple and Obsession.

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This variable quality is a feature of episodic television. After all, different writers working on different stories featuring the same characters will inevitably produce a wide variety of results. Some writers “get” the show more than others, and some scripts are subject to more work and attention than others. Such is the nature of the industry, particularly when the production team is cranking out more two dozen hours of television in a year – under intense pressure, both in terms of time and money.

Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to distill the second season of Star Trek into a cohesive or singular whole. It is diverse and multifaceted, capable of being almost anything from one episode (or, perhaps, one moment) to the next. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of this second season; demonstrating that there is very little Star Trek cannot be.

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To be fair, the second season may feel so disjointed because it was the work of three separate producers. Gene L. Coon handled the longest stretch of the season, from Catspaw through to A Private Little War. After Coon suddenly quit, John Meredyth Lucas stepped into fill the void, producing from The Gamesters of Triskelion through to The Omega Glory. Finally, Roddenberry produced the season finalé, Assignment: Earth. Each of the three producers brought their own style to the show.

Gene L. Coon seemed primarily interested in world-building, in developing the Star Trek universe beyond Kirk and Spock. After all, Coon had introduced the Federation in Arena and the Klingons in Errand of Mercy. His work on the second season continued that trend, with the Klingons becoming recurring adversaries – although they did not appear outside of the episodes produced by Coon. Coon wrote Metamorphosis, introducing the character of Zephram Cochrane. Under Coon’s tenure, the Enterprise visited Vulcan in Amok Time and explored Federation politics in Journey to Babel.

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Despite (or perhaps because) Coon had spent so much time developing the world of Star Trek, he also seemed quite comfortable playing with it. Gene L. Coon seemed highly skeptical of large institutions like the Federation. The Trouble With Tribbles turned the Cold War between the Klingon and the Federation into a farce. Amok Time had Kirk decide that saving Spock’s life was more important than flexing Starfleet muscle in front of the Klingons. Metamorphosis suggested true love between two people was more important than Federation bureaucracy.

(Of course, the flip side of the coin is that Coon also oversaw episodes where Federation jingoism was played entirely straight. There are points where Star Trek seems to endorse the Enterprise as it imposes Federation values upon unsuspecting populations. Friday’s Child, The Apple and A Private Little War all endorse Kirk’s interference with an alien culture – particularly to counter other influences like the Klingons or Vaal. Indeed, Coon is even credited on the teleplay for The Apple. Perhaps the distinction is not as clear-cut as it might seem.)

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Still, there was also a sense that Coon did not treat Star Trek itself as a sacred cow – that he was willing to play with the show and stretch it out a bit, that he didn’t take the series too seriously. In the second season, Coon really pushed the idea that Star Trek could do comedy. Under his tenure, the show produced I, Mudd and The Trouble With Tribbles. Coon also wrote A Piece of the Action, although it was produced by his successor. Coon seemed quite comfortable experimenting with television genre, allowing Star Trek to be many different things at many different points; broadening the show’s range.

In contrast, John Meredyth Lucas seemed a bit more conservative. If Coon was building on the work that he had done in the second half of the first season, Lucas seemed to try to recapture the atmosphere of the first half of that first season. The universe was a cold an hostile place once again; the Klingons and Romulans had vanished from sight; Spock’s psychic abilities were emphasised. It seemed like the show was moving backwards, more in line with what it had been during its first few months on television.

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The episodes overseen by Lucas seemed decidedly pulpier than those under his predecessor; The Gamesters of Triskelion featured corny aliens, gladiatorial wrestling, and a beautiful woman with green hair and a tinfoil bikini; Obsession pitted Kirk against a space vampire cloud; The Immunity Syndrome set the Enterprise against a giant space amoeba; By Any Other Name and Return to Tomorrow both meditated on how wonderful humans were, as truly alien beings took on human form to appreciate the pleasures of the flesh.

The classic “planet with a culture that appears specifically like a historical period on Earth” gimmick returned with a vengeance. A Piece of the Action and Patterns of Force featured civilisations modeled on twentieth-century Earth, albeit with more justification than Miri ever offered. In fact, The Omega Glory even unfolds on a planet with its own convenient parallels to Earth history, featuring a culture that evolved to mirror the United States – right down to the constitution and the star-spangled banner.

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To be fair, it is harder to get a read on Lucas’ version of Star Trek. The producer heroically stepped in after Gene L. Coon suddenly resigned half-way through the season. As such, he boarded a train that was already in motion, inheriting scripts and story ideas that would have been in development since before he took the reins. It is hard to figure out how much of the late second season is Lucas’ own taste shining through, and how much is down to the pragmatic realities of television production.

That said, The Omega Glory feels very much like the influence of Gene Roddenberry. The writer had proposed the story as a potential second pilot for the series, and had continued to suggest the idea throughout the show’s first two seasons. With the second season winding down, Roddenberry finally got to push the story into production. He also officially took over the role of producer for the season finalé, Assignment: Earth. A rather inglorious affair, Assignment: Earth relegated the Star Trek cast to guest stars in a failed pilot for a new television show, having traveled back to 1968 for some reason.

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Interestingly, the variation in quality does not correlate to these changes in behind-the-scenes personnel. Both Gene L. Coon and John Meredyth Lucas oversaw their fair share of masterpieces and disasters. Coon produced classics like Amok Time, The Doomsday Machine and Journey to Babel; Lucas oversaw The Immunity Syndrome, A Piece of the Action and The Ultimate Computer. Conversely, Coon produced Friday’s Child, The Apple and A Private Little War; Lucas was in charge for The Gamesters of Triskelion and Obsession.

Everything about the second season of Star Trek seemed to lean towards extremes; even the quality. And, yet, the season endures. When the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary loomed, it was no surprise that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine chose The Trouble With Tribbles as the episode to celebrate; in fact, they had originally considered homaging another second season adventure, A Piece of the Action. The fight music from Amok Time is one of the most memorable and distinctive cues in popular culture.

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Indeed, certain aspects of the second season seem to hark forward to the years ahead. In many ways, The Ultimate Computer forces Kirk to confront the same demons that he would face in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, wondering if his time was over. Similarly, the Moby Dick fixation evident in The Doomsday Machine and Obsession seems to foreshadow Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and a wealth of other future references. Both The Ultimate Computer and Bread and Circuses seem curiously mournful, suggesting a future point at which Spock and McCoy may find peace with one another.

The third season of the original Star Trek is often written off by fans, enjoying a pretty terrible reputation for a number of different reasons. It is hard to blame fandom for this; saving your favourite show and getting Spock’s Brain in return feels like a twist that belongs in a modern-day Monkey’s Paw story. While the third season is perhaps a lot stronger than most fans believe, there is a logic to that frustration. You could cut off Star Trek after two seasons and have a pretty solid base from which to grow the rest of the franchise.

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After all, you have Klingons and Romulans as recurring adversaries; there are Tribbles; the audience has met the Andorians and the Tellarites. Spock’s father has been introduced and the show has set foot on Vulcan itself. The series has engaged with the Vietnam War in a number of different ways. The show has argued for and against non-interference, with Kirk having come down on both sides of the issue in different episodes. By just about any reckoning, Star Trek has had a great two years.

It is interesting to wonder whether a show cancelled after Assignment: Earth would have found an audience in syndication – or if there would have been too few episodes to make a syndication package alluring to various local and national television stations. One suspects that the third season of Star Trek and the two seasons of Star Trek: The Animated Series both played an important part in keeping Star Trek on the popular consciousness in the long gap before the release of The Motion Picture.

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Nevertheless, there is a sense that the second season of Star Trek has helped cement the tone and the potential of Star Trek. The first season of the show was a long and occasionally winding journey to discover what the show could be – a journey with a roughly upward trajectory, as Star Trek mapped out its own identity. The second season is about solidifying that identity, whether by demonstrating the show’s range with comedy (I, Mudd, The Touble With Tribbles, A Piece of the Action) or horror (Catspaw, Wolf in the Fold) or simply by fleshing out the universe around the series (Amok Time, Journey to Babel).

Indeed, Gene Roddenberry’s most substantial contributions towards the second season come towards the end of the season, as he demonstrates that Star Trek is not something that can be killed so easily. Star Trek survives a journey back to a rejected racist pilot (The Omega Glory) and attempts to reduce it to a launching pad for Roddenberry’s next television show (Assignment: Earth). Even though the show was sitting on the cusp of cancellation, it had a strong enough sense of identity that it could withstand such vigorous assaults.

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Star Trek survives. Star Trek endures. Star Trek can be anything that it needs to be. In a way, the second season of Star Trek established some of the franchise’s core strengths.

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

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