This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.
The third season of Star Trek was always doomed.
NBC had wanted to cancel the show after the second season, but a massive outpouring of fan support (and no small amount of press coverage) convinced them to renew the series for a third year. However, this was not a pardon. It was at best a temporary reprieve. The budget was slashed. Key creative personnel were lost. Outsiders with minimal experience in science-fiction television were drafted. The show was exiled to the graveyard shift of late Friday nights, when its target audience would either be in bed or out on the town.
With all of that in mind, it is no wonder that history has been cruel to the third season. The third season is generally regarded as a massive step down in quality from the first two years of the series, and that is certainly true. Without a strong producer like Gene L. Coon or a quality script editor like Dorothy Fontana, Star Trek would struggle to match the consistency of those first two years. Even before factoring in budget cuts and other constraints, the third season cannot compete with the prior two seasons on an episode-to-episode basis.
However, there is also a recurring sense that the third season of Star Trek is odd. It feels tangibly different from the two seasons that came before it. However, it also feels markedly different from the twenty-four live action seasons that followed. There is a strange tone to the season, one that feels distinct from that of the larger Star Trek franchise. The third season is populated by ghost stories and dying worlds, by mythology and folklore. Repeatedly, the logic that drives plots seems more magical than rational.
This lends the third season an almost mystical and irrational quality. While Star Trek has flirted with irrationality and dream logic before, most notably in the episodes credited to writer Robert Bloch and instalments like Shore Leave or The Immunity Syndrome, the third season grabs these concepts with both hands. There is a sense that all of the assumptions underpinning the Star Trek universe are up for grabs, that nothing can truly be known for certain, and that relaity itself is coming undone.
Coupled with a recurring motif of dying races and dead worlds, this irrationality serves to cast a shadow over the entirety of the third season. For all that the third season embraces the utopian ideals that would become a staple of the franchise, the third season is permeated by an apocalyptic dread. There is a sense that doomsday is approaching, that death is an inevitability, that all might be lost. In a very real way, this perfectly captures both the production realities of the third season and the general mood of the time around it.
All media is a product of its time. Nothing can divorced entirely from context. As much as Star Trek is a massive media franchise spanning half a century that offers a utopian vision of the future, it is also very much a piece of late sixties pop science-fiction. Acknowledging this does no injustice to the television series, its longevity and its impact on popular culture is testament enough to its enduring appeal. However, exploring a piece of popular culture like Star Trek often means interrogating it both in the context of its own time and from a modern perspective.
More than the first and second seasons, the third season of Star Trek is a product of its time. It is hard to tell why exactly that is. The show changed hands between the end of the second season and the start of the third, with new producer Fred Freiberger expressing little fondness for science-fiction. It is possible that the shift reflected his own interests in looking beyond traditional science-fiction. Alternatively, the sixties really built to an apocalyptic climax between 1968 and 1969. There was no way they could not intrude.
As such, the third season seems to reflect the late sixties in ways both major and minor. Individual stories like The Enterprise Incident and Spock’s Brain touch upon temporary fascinations, alluding to the capture of a United States naval vessel by North Korea and the first heart transplant operation respectively. However, the third season also engaged with broader cultural concerns, exploring American identity at the end of what had been a traumatic and tempestuous decade.
The late sixties were a chaotic time for the United States. The War in Vietnam waged overseas, but there was also conflict brewing at home. Civil rights and counter-culture, feminists and pacifists; sometimes intersections of those same groups. Public protests were common, with protest marches and sit-ins dominating the nightly news. Frequently, that activism took a more aggressive turn, with the Youth International Party staging a number of daring attacks upon the establishment and protesters clashing with authorities.
More than that, the idealistic dreams of the early sixties came to a shocking end. The assassination of Martin Luther King sparked riots across the country. The murder of Robert Kennedy threw the Democratic party into chaos and served to draw the shutters down on the Kennedy Camelot. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a bloodbath. Feminists protested Miss America. To the casual observer, it could seem like the social order was breaking down. Much as television news turned the public against Vietnam, it helped build an apocalyptic anxiety.
These uncertainties played into the third season. To be fair, they had always bubbled in the background of the show. Most obviously, it is impossible to divorce Star Trek from Vietnam, with episodes like Return of the Archons, A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy, The City on the Edge of Forever, Friday’s Child, The Apple, A Private Little War and The Omega Glory all informed by the conflict in one way or another. However, there were also other recurring fascinations, with This Side of Paradise and even Journey to Babel touching on youth culture and generational divides.
However, the third season seemed particularly interested in these big ideas. Vietnam and American foreign policy was arguably a smaller concern in the third year than it had been in the earlier seasons, only faintly reflected in episodes like Elaan of Troyius, The Enterprise Incident, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky and Day of the Dove. The third season seemed much more interested in domestic politics, in the state of America itself. Over the course of this season, Star Trek delves into the mood of these last years of the late sixties.
While This Side of Paradise had touched upon youth culture and counter-culture towards the end of the show’s first year, And the Children Shall Lead and The Way to Eden offer even more overt meditations on hippiedom. These episodes very much reflect the anxieties of an older generation watching their children led astray by hucksters and charlatans, whether in the persona of Gorgan or Sevrin. Many parents around the country could empathise with Kirk and Spock, as they watched teenagers and young adults rebel against an ordered and structured society.
Indeed, the third season puts paid to the idea of Star Trek as an especially progressive piece of pop cultural history. All too often, the third season feels reactionary and regressive, as if the production staff have been looking out the window (or at the television) and wondering what the world has come to. It makes sense that Star Trek would align itself with an older generation wary of activism and protest. Many of the production team had served during the Second World War, and could not fathom why the younger generation would tear away decades of prosperity.
The third season values order above all, including principle. Repeatedly over the course of the season, those who threaten the established order are presented as insane. Sevrin is medically classified as insane in The Way to Eden, while Scotty accuses janice!Kirk of “red-faced hysteria” in Turnabout Intruder. Gorgan threatens to plunge the established order into insanity in And the Children Shall Lead. Although sympathetic to the oppression Lokai has experienced in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the show still holds him equally responsible for the destruction of his world.
Indeed, the third season of Star Trek seems quite skeptical about movements like the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism, acknowledging the value of those ideals in principle while questioning whether they are worth upsetting the status quo. Indeed, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield offers a very clever and stinging critique of institutional racism, but still insists on an equivalence between Bele and Lokai. Turnabout Intruder suggests that Starfleet is a deeply sexist institution, but then insists that such sexism is necessary to preserve the social order of things.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with The Cloud Minders, David Gerrold’s only contribution to the third season. Gerrold’s original story idea was an interesting morality play touching on issues of social class and wealth distribution, elements that are quite apparent in the broadcast cut. However, Gerrold wanted to end the episode by forcing the two classes to reconcile with one another. In contrast, the broadcast episode ends by finding a way to preserve the status quo between those who work in the ground and those who live in the clouds. Order is maintained.
There are other frustrating recurring elements to the third season, most notably the treatment of female characters. Star Trek was never the bastion of progressivism that many fans would suggest, but it is particularly uncomfortable over the course of the third season. In particular, women in authority get a very hard time. The Romulan Commander in The Enterprise Incident and Natrina in For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky are both undercut by their attraction to a male lead. The less said about Turnabout Intruder the better.
The third season is packed with disposable female characters, women who appear as love interests only to be promptly forgotten about once the end credits begin. To be entirely fair, there are some episodes in which this approach works; The Enterprise Incident, Wink of an Eye, All our Yesterdays. However, there are episodes in which it feels very cynical; killing off Miramanee and her unborn child in The Paradise Syndrome, McCoy abandoning Natrina in For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, Romaine disappearing after The Lights of Zetar.
Again, there is a sense that this is a reflection of how Fred Freiberger approached Star Trek as a more conventional sixties drama. With the third season, Freiberger decided to devote more attention to fleshing out the bit players in the cast, but the only way that he knew how to do that was through adding romance. So Chekov gets a love interest in Spectre of the Gun and an ex-girlfriend in The Way to Eden, while McCoy falls head over heels in For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky and Scotty is enamored with Romain in The Lights of Zetar.
Even Spock gets noticeably flirty in the third season. This Side of Paradise was really the only Spock-centric love story to this point in the show, but the third season has Spock breaking almost as many hearts as the show’s memetic womaniser. Spock proves perfectly capable of using romance as a tool, whether as a delaying tactic in The Enterprise Incident or as a means to gather information in The Cloud Minders. However, the third season also affords Spock his own variation on The City on the Edge of Forever in All Our Yesterdays.
Still, in spite of this cynicism, it is worth noting that the third season finds Star Trek embracing the utopian idealism that will come to define the franchise. While the first two seasons were idealistic in the sense that they imagined a future where mankind had survived into the twenty-third century and various ethnicities and nationalities could peaceably coexist, they were not utopian in an explicitly political sense. There was none of the heavy-handed back-patting of later stories like Lonely Among Us or The Last Outpost or The Neutral Zone.
The third season sees this idealism coming to the fore. In The Empath, humanity is singled out by the Vians as a race from which Gem might learn. Although toned down somewhat from the original outline, Day of the Dove emphasises that mankind has moved beyond warfare as a tool of statecraft. In Whom Gods Destroy, Kirk finds himself confronting one of his heroes, a warrior who served as a “prototype” for modern starship captains but who has been rendered redundant. (This is also an episode that has the Federation cure all mental illness.)
In some ways, the third season can be seen to pave the way for the franchise’s more overt utopianism, the kind espoused by Gene Roddenberry in his novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Certainly, Roddenberry’s own scripts for the season go out of their way to reference just how perfect this future is. The Savage Curtain finds Kirk and Spock enrolled as the avatars of absolute good so that humanity might teach the Excalibans about morality. Even in Turnabout Intruder, McCoy rejects the idea that Star Trek is a bureaucracy.
Still, in spite of this recurring utopian theme, the third season of Star Trek is surprising apocalyptic in tone. While the galaxy seemed eerie and hostile in the earliest days of the first season, the third season seems uncomfortably morbid. There is a sense of dread building across the season, a palpable anxiety that the end is near and that nothing can be done to avert it. Time and again in the third season, Kirk and the Enterprise arrive on dead worlds inhabited by dying species. Only rarely can they actually help.
In both The Paradise Syndrome and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, the Enterprise crew divert a dangerous asteroid away from a populated planet. These successes are the exception. In The Empath and All Our Yesterdays, the Enterprise stops by planets threatened by supernova, knowing that there is little that they can do to save the populated worlds in the vicinity. Bele and Lokai return home to a world destroyed by war in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, while the Scalosians are rendered infertile by radiation in Wink of an Eye.
Massacres on Federation colonies seem to be quite common this season. The brutal murder of all the adults on Triacus spurs the plot of And the Children Shall Lead, with the episode eventually suggesting that the children are indirectly responsible. The Enterprise is summoned to a Federation colony under attack by the Klingons in the opening scenes of Day of the Dove, they arrive to find no lifesigns. The implication is that the colony never existed, but it still plays into the themes of the year. Memory Alpha is massacred in The Lights of Zetar.
Similarly, ghosts haunt the third season. Kirk finds himself forced to relive history in Spectre of the Gun, cast as a dead man opposite Wyatt Earp as the angel of death. Kirk is himself rendered a ghost in The Tholian Web, an episode that ends with the Enterprise traveling through an ethereal other realm to safety to evade the eponymous antagonists. The impossible planet at the heart of That Which Survives is guarded by a duplicate of a woman who died millennia ago, with just enough of her personality intact to be horrified at what she is doing.
The Lights of Zetar is essentially an exorcism story in space, with the disembodied consciousness of an entire civilisation stubbornly clinging to life because they refuse to accept their own demise. Perhaps the third season of Star Trek can empathise with that sentiment. And the Children Shall Lead specifically reference the Gorgan as a ghost story told by pirates who used to roam the sector. Even in seemingly innocuous episodes like The Mark of Gideon, death lurks at the edge of the frame. The happy ending of The Mark of Gideon brings death to the planet.
Meanwhile, the fate of the Enterprise is hinted to be undeath. Kirk and the Defiant are doomed to fade into and out of space in The Tholian Web, trapped as spectres for all eternity. The Scalosians plot to put the Enterprise crew into suspended animation in Wink of an Eye. When Flint threatens to freeze the Enterprise for all eternity in Requiem for Methuselah, Kirk treats it as a fate worse than death. It seems almost as though Star Trek is anxious about what will happen to it in death, as if worried that it might become trapped in amber through reruns and syndication.
This funereal tone plays across the year. Budget cuts meant that fewer extras were available to play crowd scenes on the Enterprise, so the ship frequently looks understaffed and empty. In fact, Kirk finds himself wandering through mostly-empty versions of the Enterprise in Wink of an Eye and The Way to Eden. The penultimate episode of the season, All Our Yesterdays, is the only episode of the show to feature no scenes on the Enterprise and no appearance from any of the show’s regular cast other than the three leads.
It is worth pausing to note that the third season looks beautiful. The production design on the series is still top notch, despite the budget cuts. This is notable in episodes like Plato’s Stepchildren, The Cloud Minders and All Our Yesterdays. In particular, the lighting on the third season is particularly evocative, even shooting on familiar sets like the planet set in That Which Survives or the caves in All Our Yesterdays. However, the night lighting on the Enterprise in episodes like Elaan of Troyius or That Which Survives plays into the quiet morbid mood of the third year.
There are moments at which the third season seems almost aware of its own fictionality. Performance is a recurring motif across the season, from the moment that Kirk is cast as Ike Clanton in Spectre of the Gun through to the point where Janice Lester is forced to impersonate Kirk in Turnabout Intruder. This is most notable in episodes like Day of the Dove or Plato’s Stepchildren, where the crew performs for the amusement of malevolent entities. Surroundings appear like half-built sets in Spectre of a Gun and The Empath.
Indeed, it is worth remarking on how often the third season asks William Shatner to play a role beyond that of James Tiberius Kirk. Again, there were elements of this in earlier seasons; Shatner played Kirk as Sargon in Return to Tomorrow, for example. However, the third season is populated with such examples. Shatner plays Kirk-as-Clanton in Spectre of the Gun, Kirk-as-Romulan in The Enterprise Incident, Kirk-as-Kirok in The Paradise Syndrome, Garth-as-Kirk in Whom Gods Destroy and Janice-as-Kirk in Turnabout Intruder. It is all an elaborate performance.
Repeatedly over the course of the third season, Kirk and the crew find themselves confronted with a universe that does not make sense. The kind of logic reserved for Robert Bloch episodes like Catspaw or Wolf in the Fold is liberally applied across the length and breadth of the season. Indeed, Bloch’s old mentor and friend H.P. Lovecraft is presented as a point of reference in Is There in Truth No Beauty?, an episode that features an alien so outside humanity’s frame of reference that to see it is to go mad. A library is a means of escape in All Our Yesterdays.
Again and again, the Enterprise seems to face phenomena that are physically impossible. Spock cannot make sense of the lights traveling faster than light in The Lights of Zetar. Spock emphasises that the planet encountered in That Which Survives is an impossibility. The Enterprise finds itself thrown out of the galaxy and into oblivion in Is There in Truth No Beauty? Later on in the season, Day of the Dove settles for simply having the Enterprise hurdle towards that oblivion outside the galaxy on what Kirk describes as “stardate armageddon.”
It is insane and illogical. To be fair, Star Trek was never a particularly rigourous show when it came to science-fiction. After all, the warp drive is a concession to storytelling and the transporter is a concession to budget. However, the third season often abandons any sense of logic or reason, in favour of mood or tone. All Our Yesterdays is a prime example, with Spock reverting to a primitive Vulcan psychology on travelling back through time, despite the fact that time travel has never worked that way on the show. (And still does not for Kirk or McCoy.)
There is no greater illustration of this loose approach to internal logic than the entire plot of The Mark of Gideon, which hinges on an alien civilisation trying to extract a deadly disease from Kirk in order to solve its overpopulation problem. The logical way to do this might be to drug Kirk and take a sample, or to do this in the background during some negotiations that serve might offer a pretext. Instead, the Gideons decide to build an eerie (and empty) scale model of the Enterprise on a planet where space is at a premium.
There is no way that this makes sense in any logical manner. It is an insanely elaborate and risky way of accomplishing what the Gideons want. From a plotting perspective, this storytelling choice makes no sense. However, it serves two clear purposes. Most crassly, it allows the production team to save some budget by shooting on existing sets. However, it also leads to some of the third season’s most uncomfortable imagery, as Kirk runs through empty sets with no understanding of what has happened to him. It makes no sense, but is effective.
At a couple of points in the season, it feels almost as though the narrative framework of Star Trek is collapsing and that the boundaries are blurring between it and other weird fiction. At certain points, it seems like Kirk has wandered out of the Star Trek universe and into something profoundly weirder. Nautical ghost stories inform The Tholian Web. The tales of the fair folk resonate with Wink of an Eye. Even UFO folklore gets a faint nod early in The Mark of Gideon.
Repeatedly, the third season pays respectful homage to early examples of science-fiction and fantasy. The show riffs on Shakespeare’s The Tempest in both Is There in Truth No Beauty? and Requiem for Methuselah, although the latter also pays homage to key Star Trek influence Forbidden Planet. The work of H.G. Wells informs Spock’s Brain, Wink of an Eye and The Cloud Minders. Indeed, The Cloud Minders nods towards the classic science-fiction film Metropolis. Spectre of the Gun and The Paradise Syndrome play on the show as a “space western.”
The third season of Star Trek seems to have one eye on the past and one eye on the future. There are a number of occasions at which the third season seems to hint at the stories to come, the future for Star Trek that nobody could have imagined from the vantage point of the late sixties. The Enterprise Incident suggests that the Star Trek universe has a political life beyond the Federation. Day of the Dove introduces Kang as a Klingon much more in keeping with later series than Kor or Koloth. That Which Survives evokes The Last Outpost and Arsenal of Freedom.
There is almost a sense that the third season of Star Trek is “future-proofing” the franchise, distilling the show’s core ideas and images down to their essence so that they might be preserved. A lot of the core concepts of the Star Trek franchise can be traced back to these twenty-four episodes. The concept of infinite diversity in infinite combinations is introduced in Is There in Truth No Beauty? The iconic Klingon cruiser first appears in Elaan of Troyius. A lot of the images in these episodes resonate with fandom and with pop consciousness.
It could be argued that the image of “Kirk the womaniser” is very much rooted in these third season portrayals. Sure, Kirk had flirtations in earlier episodes like Dagger of the Mind or The City on the Edge of Forever, but never with this intensity or frequency. The third season seems unhealthily fixated upon Kirk’s virility. He marries Miramanee and becomes a father-to-be in only a few months in The Paradise Syndrome. The Scalosians plan to use Kirk to repopulate their planet in Wink of an Eye. The Gideons target Kirk as a walking STD farm in The Mark of Gideon.
In fact, the image of Kirk making out with an Orion Slave Girl comes from the third season. Marta is only the second Orion Slave Girl to appear in the franchise, and arguably the first real Orion Slave Girl. She is the only green-skinned space babe to spend time with Kirk, making her appearance in Whom Gods Destroy particularly notable. That episode features a sequence of Kirk wrestling with a beautiful woman in bed as she tries to stab him with a knife. The image recurs in The Cloud Minders.
There is arguably no greater summary of the franchise’s fondness for social-commentary-through-allegory than the image of Bele and Lokai, the half-black/half-white aliens that serve as a scathing critique of racism in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. It does not matter that they only ever appear in one episode of the franchise, or that the episode in question isn’t particularly good. That is a powerful and memorable visual, as striking as any other image across the three-year run of the show.
The third season is populated with similarly memorable characters and ideas. Fandom has fixated upon the character of Garth of Izar from Whom Gods Destroy, for example. Manny Coto got to position In a Mirror, Darkly, Part I and In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II as sequels to The Tholian Web, although he never got to revisit Stratos from The Cloud Minders. Writer A.C. Crispin constructed two novels (and planned an entire trilogy) building off Zarabeth from All Our Yesterdays. The Romulan Commander from The Enterprise Incident pops in lots of spin-off material.
For all the criticism that the third season of Star Trek receives, it has a sizeable cultural footprint. It might not be Star Trek operating at its peak, but is a vital and vibrant part of the franchise’s history and legacy. It is different than the two preceding seasons, but that is no bad thing. It is an example of the versatility of the format, a reminder of the range that exists within the basic premise of Star Trek. The third season might easily be the weakest of the series’ three seasons, but it is still a fascinating piece of television.