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New Podcast! Standard Orbit #196 – “Star Trek Origins: Season 3”

I was thrilled to be invited to join the great Zach Moore on Standard Orbit, a Star Trek: The Original Series podcast hosted over at Trek FM.

Zach very kindly asked me on to talk about an aspect of the original Star Trek that I thought was overlooked, so I suggested the rather unlikely shadow that the third season of Star Trek casts over the rest of the Star Trek franchise. These episodes have developed a reputation as the worst episodes of the original run, coming at a point when the production team was exhausted, the budget had been cut, and the series was in its death throes. With all of that in mind, it is interesting how many core attributes of the Star Trek franchise can be traced back to these twenty-four (relatively) unloved episodes.

Kirk as a lothario, Klingons as honourable, the Federation as a utopia, the Romulans and the Klingons as entities that have lives outside of the Federation.

Zach was, as ever, a very gracious host. You can hear the full discussion below or visit the episode page here.

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Star Trek – Season 3 (Review)

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.

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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.

tos-allouryesterdays48a

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.

tos-isthereintruthnobeauty28

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Star Trek – Turnabout Intruder (Review)

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.

This is the end.

And what an ignominious ending it is. Turnabout Intruder is the last episode of the original Star Trek run, bringing down the curtain on three years of boldly going and bidding farewell to this cast… at least for the moment. It is also an infamously terrible episode of television, in which Captain Kirk finds himself swapping bodies with the psychotic scientist Janice Lester. Lester is repeatedly categorised as insane, but her primary motivation seems to be rebellion against Starfleet’s institutional sexism.

It's full of stars.

It’s full of stars.

Seen as this is a Gene Roddenberry story, Turnabout Intruder sides entirely with Starfleet on the matter. This was the same writer and producer who would later balk at The Measure of a Man because he thought that Data should willingly surrender himself to Starfleet experimentation. So, instead of becoming an exploration of sexism and discrimination, Turnabout Intruder instead becomes a vigorous defense of institutionalised misogyny. Of course Starfleet doesn’t allow women captains, the episode suggests, they could never handle the strain!

It is an episode that really puts paid to the show’s claims of liberal progressivism, credited to a writer who would in later years cultivate a mythology of himself as the architect of that liberal progressivism. Turnabout Intruder is just about the most damning argument against the franchise’s utopian idealism imaginable, which makes it particularly insulting as a series finale.

William Shatner did not react well to news of cancelation.

William Shatner did not react well to news of cancellation.

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Star Trek – All Our Yesterdays (Review)

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.

It is almost as though the Star Trek franchise doesn’t want to end.

For a fifty-year-old franchise, Star Trek has a hilarious near-miss ratio when it comes to offering satisfying conclusions. There are exceptions, of course. The franchise seems quite good at closing smaller chapters while the rest of the property rattles on. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was the best place to leave the cast of the original show. The final season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might have been rocky, but What You Leave Behind bid an emotional farewell to the cast and crew. Beyond that? The franchise struggles.

A cold reception.

A cold reception.

It often seems like the ideal closing instalment is buried one or two stories shy of the actual ending. All Good Things… would have been a great place to leave the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, particularly since Star Trek: Nemesis wound up being such a damp squib of a conclusion. Demons and Terra Prime provided a satisfying conclusion to the final two years of Star Trek: Enterprise, only for These Are the Voyages… to air as the final episode of the franchise for well over a decade.

This is something that the franchise inherited from the original show. Star Trek was remarkably terrible at choosing a high (or even an appropriate) note on which to end. Although some of this can be down to the fact that sixties television seasons did not build to a finale in the way that modern television does, the three seasons of Star Trek all end in disappointing fashions. The City on the Edge of Forever would have been a great close to a first season that built incredible momentum across its run. Instead, the year ended on Operation — Annihilate!

Snow escape.

Snow escape.

This was a bigger issue during the second season, when it was entirely possible that Star Trek would be cancelled. Ending on a strong note was imperative. Instead, Gene Roddenberry chose to give over the last broadcast and production slot of the season to Assignment: Earth, a thinly-disguised (and ultimately underwhelming) pilot for a series that never got off the ground. Even in terms of production, the penultimate episode of the season was Roddenberry’s vile passion project, The Omega Glory. (The Ultimate Computer would have made a much better ending.)

So it is with the third season. The last episode of the third season is an infamous disaster, Turnabout Intruder ranking as one of the very worst episodes of Star Trek ever produced. Even the misguided and mean-spirited cynicism of These Are the Voyages… has nothing on the rank sexism of Turnabout Intruder. It was an ignominious episode upon which to draw down the curtain, to wrap up three years and seventy-nine episodes of storytelling. It is hard to tell whether the episode is more or less awful than The Omega Glory or Assignment: Earth, but it is in contention.

Dying free(ze)...

Dying free(ze)…

This is all the more frustrating because a perfectly good alternative rests right along side it. All Our Yesterdays is a flawed and imperfect episode in some key ways, like many of the third season episodes around it. It is a story that flows on dream logic rather than rational plotting, relying on a bizarre fairy tale version of time travel and falling back on some of Fred Freiberger’s best-loved tropes. It is also a tough sell as a “final” episode, given that the series had not been cancelled by the point that the episode entered production, and it does not offer too much in the way of closure.

And yet. All Our Yesterdays feels like the culmination of the morose themes that have been building through the third season, all the dead worlds and the ghost stories and the doomed romances. It is a story about escaping to the past when there seems to be no future. It is populated by barren wastelands and death sentences, about the literal end of the world and survival beyond that point. It is a quiet and withdrawn affair, morbid and reflective more than heightened or action driven. It is a story about death, which feels entirely appropriate at this interval.

How BiZara...

How BiZara…

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Star Trek – The Savage Curtain (Review)

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.

Gene Roddenberry returns to Star Trek, to put the show to rest.

Two of the final three episodes of this third season originated with Roddenberry, putting paid to the idea that the veteran executive producer was entirely absent from the year. Roddenberry had departed the show at the start of the season, after issuing NBC with an ultimatum regarding the scheduling of his series. He had moved out of the Star Trek production offices and across the lot to develop his own projects. The standard narrative of the third season suggests that Roddenberry was no longer around to keep the show on the rails.

Holy space!Lincoln...!

Holy space!Lincoln…!

This is untrue, in a number of respects. Roddenberry was involved in the production of the third season, just not as actively as he had been. He was responsible for commissioning and championing a number of early third season episodes inherited by Fred Freiberger, including Elaan of Troyius and The Paradise Syndrome. He had even used his remaining leverage to shamelessly try to shoehorn merchandise into Spock’s Brain and Is There in Truth No Beauty? He was also drawing an executive producer salary and nabbed two late-season production slots.

Of course, this argument also relies on the assumption that Roddenberry understood Star Trek better than anybody else. Roddenberry had created Star Trek, but he was not the singular vision behind it. Writers like Dorothy Fontana and producers like Gene L. Coon were as responsible for shaping the show as Roddenberry in many respects. Roddenberry might have talked a good game, but he was also a producer who believed that The Omega Glory would have made a good pilot for the show.

Legion of Doom!

Legion of Doom!

If anything, there is something faintly damning about Gene Roddenberry’s triumphant return to the series at the end of its third year. Neither The Savage Curtain nor Turnabout Intruder are good episodes. In fact, the best thing that can be said about Roddenberry’s two final contributions is that The Savage Curtain probably isn’t quite as bad as And the Children Shall Lead or The Way to Eden. Still, both episodes feel regressive and awkward. Roddenberry’s writing is a reminder of just how far the show had come in the care of other producers.

However, at least The Savage Curtain is memorable.

Topping it all off.

Topping it all off.

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Star Trek – Requiem for Methuselah (Review)

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.

Requiem for Methuselah is a surprisingly quiet episode.

The basic premise of the episode suggests sound and fury. The crew of the Enterprise have been infected by a deadly illness. McCoy speculates that there are only four hours in which to save the crew. Desperately searching for a cure, Kirk leads an away team down to a planet rich in the necessary minerals. When a man claiming to be the planet’s sole inhabitant refuses to allow Kirk access to the mineral, there is a tense stand-off; Kirk threatens to have the Enterprise obliterate the man and take the compound by force.

"You know, falling in love with the surrogate daughter of the man who can save my ship might not be the best tactical move here. Particularly since I've known her all of two hours."

“You know, falling in love with the surrogate daughter of the man who can save my ship might not be the best tactical move here. Particularly since I’ve known her all of two hours.”

Despite this rather high-stakes set up, the rest of Requiem for Methuselah is rather low-key. Despite his initial hostility to the uninvited guests, the mysterious stranger invites Kirk and the away team to his home. The episode spares the audience the sight of crew members sick and dying, with Scotty and Uhura (and a “skeleton crew”) doing a respectable job of holding down the fort as the end approaches. Even when the first couple of attempts to manufacture a cure fall flat, McCoy and his colleagues remain professional and dignified through to the end.

In a way, this would seem to capture the tone of this stretch of the third season.

Our man Flint.

Our man Flint.

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Star Trek – The Way to Eden (Review)

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.

Like any television, or any piece of popular culture, Star Trek is a product of its time.

That does not mean that the show speaks only to its time or that it has no relevance beyond that moment in time, but in means that the series is very much anchored in the zeitgeist of the late sixties. Sometimes that influence is obscured by advances in the intervening years, like the fascination with the novelty of transplant surgery that played out in the background of Spock’s Brain. Sometimes that tangible connection is more like ambient background noise than direct influence, as with the sense of apocalyptic dread that permeates the third season as a whole.

"You reach?"

“You reach?”

Sometimes, however, it is impossible to look upon Star Trek as anything other than a product of the late sixties. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield was undeniably a product of 1968, with its anxiety about civil strife and civil rights, its somewhat reductive metaphor for race relations and its general production aesthetic. However, that is nothing compared to The Way to Eden, which might be the most flamboyantly and stereotypically sixties episode of the entire original run.

The Way to Eden is the episode that opens with a bunch of space!hippies staging a sit-in in the Enterprise transporter room and escalates from there.

Trippy hippie shakedown.

Trippy hippie shakedown.

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