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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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Star Trek – Whom Gods Destroy (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.

Whom Gods Destroy is a mess.

In a lot of ways, Whom Gods Destroy is shoddy and lazy. In many ways, the episode plays like a collection of familiar Star Trek elements blended together to pad out forty-odd minutes of television with no regard for internal logic or plotting and with minimal regard for the characters caught in the middle of it all. There are very few ideas in Whom Gods Destroy that have not been done before, and done better. The episode is not only a rehash of familiar concepts, but it is an exercise in diminishing returns.

Dance with destiny.

Dance with destiny.

This is to say nothing of the chaos unfolding behind the scenes during the production of the episode. It seemed only appropriate that Kirk’s latest mission would take him to what is effectively a gothic asylum in outer space, because it seemed more and more that Star Trek was turning into a madhouse. Veteran staffers were leaving the show in droves, while tensions were mounting on the set, and Fred Freiberger was struggling to keep the budget under control. More than that, there was a clear sense that the series was over, and this was the end of the line.

Whom Gods Destroy really sounds like a disaster. It is certainly not a good episode of television. However, this is the third season. Whom Gods Destroy is interesting enough that it works much better than the season’s weaker episodes. It is elevated by a manic energy that goes some way towards covering for the more illogical elements of the plot, and three central performances that play into the high camp of the premise. Whom Gods Destroy is far from classic Star Trek, but it is much better than it has any right to be.

Absolute madness.

Absolute madness.

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Star Trek – The Tholian Web (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.

Who hath seen the Phantom Ship,
Her lordly rise and lowly dip,
Careering o’er the lonesome main,
No port shall know her keel again…
Ah, woe is in the awful sight,
The sailor finds there eternal night,
‘Neath the waters he shall ever sleep,
And Ocean will the secret keep

– Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1897

Here there be ghosts...

Here there be ghosts…

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Star Trek – And the Children Shall Lead (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.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

– Bob Dylan, The Times, They Are A-Changin’, 1964

Either you Gorgan, or you be gone.

Either you Gorgan, or you be gone.

And the Children Shall Lead is a notoriously terrible episode of television.

It is also another reminder that the sixties are coming to an end, and (with them) Star Trek. For a so that is widely considered progressive and utopian, Star Trek often seemed to struggle with its perspective on the various social issues of the sixties. Fans might point to episodes like A Taste of Armageddon or Errand of Mercy as sweeping condemnations of the Vietnam and the Cold War, but they tend to gloss over the patriotic defence of United States foreign policy in episodes like A Private Little War or The Omega Glory.

"I regret to inform you, Captain, that the script is indeed 'that bad'."

“I regret to inform you, Captain, that the script is indeed ‘that bad’.”

Star Trek seemed very strongly divided on the countercultural movement. In many ways, Spock spoke to a generation of young people distanced from their parents and disenfranchised from the status quo, while the franchise imagined a bright future in which people of different colours and creeds worked together. On the other hand, the show was also quite anxious and condescending about the threat counterculture posed to the establishment, as demonstrated in episodes like Operation — Annihilate! or This Side of Paradise.

Although The Way to Eden tends to get treated as the third season’s definitive statement on the hippie movement, And the Children Shall Lead is a much more patronising and reactionary response. It is a fifty-minute public service message about the dangers that radical ideas pose to young minds and why those young minds should never dare to question their elders, who almost certainly know best.

A healthy green glow...

A healthy green glow…

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Star Trek – Elaan of Troyius (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 strangest thing about Elaan of Troyius is just how influential the episode is.

In many respects, Elaan of Troyius codified Journey to Babel as a genre of Star Trek episode unto itself, the kind of story where the crew find themselves assigned the task of ferrying foreign dignitaries around while intrigue and pseudo-science happens around them. This would become something of a template in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, even carrying over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Lonely Among Us, Loud as a Whisper, The Price, The Forsaken, Remember.

The Dohlman wants YOU!

The Dohlman wants YOU!

However, in that respect, Elaan of Troyius was simply extrapolating from Journey to Babel by demonstrating that the franchise could employ this basic storytelling model with some frequency. The innovations in Elaan of Troyius are in grafting a “sexy alien babe” narrative into that existing “ferry around” template, which would lead to future stories like The Perfect Mate, Precious Cargo or Bound. In some respects, it was prefigured by Mudd’s Women, an earlier episode about women who exert an unnatural influence over our male lead(s).

The influence of Elaan of Troyius over the rest of the franchise is quite simply astounding. Particularly given how terrible it is.

Elas, my love, it is time to go...

Elas, my love, it is time to go…

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Star Trek – Spectre of the Gun (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.

Star Trek is dead.

Not in a literal or technical sense. The show had been brought back from the brink of cancellation, offered a last-minute reprieve by NBC following a number high-profile fan campaigns. As far as outside observers were concerned, Star Trek lived. Kirk and Spock would continue their voyages into the space, the production team offering new and exciting interstellar adventures for the delectation of the audience at home. The execution had been stayed, Star Trek was back on television for another season.

End of the line.

End of the line.

However, the show had been mortally wounded. Star Trek was clearly not a top priority for NBC. The show was moved to the infamous “graveyard slot” of Fridays at 10pm. The budget was slashed even further. Most of the top tier creative talent left, including veteran producers Dorothy Fontana and Gene L. Coon along with creator Gene Roddenberry. Tensions were simmering behind the scenes. Even before NBC cut the season order to twenty-four episodes later in the season, it was clear that the series was on its last legs.

Star Trek was very much in limbo. Indeed, looking at third season as a whole, many such analogies suggest themselves. Star Trek was a show limping and lurching towards its own funeral, hobbled and humbled by forced outside of its control. These creative problems bubbled through the production into the finished product, with much of the third season inheriting a haggard and defeated disposition. There is a funereal tone to a lot of the third season, distinct even from the Lovecraftian horror that bubbled through the show’s earliest episodes.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

Spectre of the Gun is part of that funereal tone, although it is also something different. Spectre of the Gun was the first episode of the season to be produced, although it was shuffled into the sixth broadcast slot. To be fair, this rescheduling seems appropriate; Spectre of the Gun aired both the week of Halloween and one day shy of the eighty-seventh anniversary of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The episode has a haunted quality to it, a more mournful horror than that on display in the franchise’s previous “Halloween episode”, Catspaw.

In some ways, there is an interesting contrast between the first episode of the third season to be produced and the first episode of the third season to air. Both Spectre of the Gun and Spock’s Brain speak to the grim realities of the third season, offering a taste of the anxieties simmering through the show. Both seem to acknowledge that Star Trek is a shell of its former self, whether in the half-remembered ghost town of Spectre of the Gun or the brainless Spock shuffling his way through Spock’s Brain. The only difference is that Spectre of the Gun is a good episode.

Men of mist-ery.

Men of mist-ery.

Death stalks through Spectre of the Gun. Seeking to confront the Melkotians, Kirk and his crew beam down to a formless world that is nothing more than swirling clouds of gas. When they find themselves transported to Tombstone, the sky is an ominous red and the Earps are cast as horsemen of the apocalypse. The world seems hollow; the sound stage is incomplete. Time ticks down, albeit to a fictional five o’clock deadline rather than the historical three o’clock shout out. During the final confrontation, the wind howls as if the world itself is screaming in anguish.

Spectre of the Gun confronts Kirk with a world of phantoms. It evokes a world long vanished into fading memory, populated by characters who died long before. It traps Kirk and his crew in what is effectively a death trap, cutting off all of their narrative options as it marches them inexorably towards a bloody finale. It is even written by a ghost, with Lee Cronin a convenient fiction allowing former producer Gene L. Coon the chance to write a few scripts for a show he had already departed and which was not long for this world. The setting is even called “Tombstone.”

Even the newspaper is in on it!

Even the newspaper is in on it!

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