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New Podcast! Standard Orbit #246 – “A Tale Of Three Producers “

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. I appeared on the show last year to discuss the third season of the series, and so it makes sense that I should be back to discuss the second season.

Zach got in touch after reading some of my reviews for the second season from several years back. He was particularly fascinated with my breakdown of the season between three producers: Gene L. Coon, John Meredyth Lucas and Gene Roddenberry. Each of those three producers had their own unique style and each brought their distinct sensibility to the series. In fact, watching the season in production order, there a discernible shift between the three talents involved. Coon was much more interested in playing with the tropes and conventions of the young series, while Lucas was engaged with more traditional science-fiction storytelling and Roddenberry had his own strong idea of what the series could be.

Zach was, as ever, a very gracious host. I had great fun discussing it. You can hear the full discussion below or visit the episode page here.

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Star Trek – Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (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.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is iconic Star Trek.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a reminder that the iconic Star Trek is not necessarily good Star Trek.

Half and half.

Half and half.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield has become a cultural shorthand for the show.

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a testament to the weird influence that the dysfunctional third season has on the cultural memory of Star Trek.

Two sides of the same coin.

Two sides of the same coin.

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Star Trek – Wink of an Eye (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 has an ethereal and mystical quality to it.

The Tholian Web is probably the best example of this, an episode structured as a ghost story in space. However, there are other examples; the barely-there ghost town of Spectre of the Gun, the legend of the Gorgan in And the Children Shall Lead, the H.P. Lovecraft monster at the heart of Is There in Truth No Beauty?, the half-formed world of The Empath, the siren of That Which Survives and the planetary madhouse of Whom the Gods Destroy. In the third season of Star Trek, it increasingly seems like space is an irrational place, a haunted and spectral realm.

It doesn't faze her in the slightest.

It doesn’t faze her in the slightest.

Wink of an Eye fits quite comfortably within that tradition. This is the perfect example of an episode which makes little sense as a science-fiction story, but which plays quite well as fantasy. Much like The Tholian Web draws upon centuries of stories about ghost ships, Wink of an Eye draws from another rich literary genre. This is the story about a man who is mysterious spirited away by a queen and her people, only to discover that time has been distorted in this mysterious realm.

In other words, Wink of an Eye fits quite comfortably in the tradition of fairy stories.

All's fair in love and war.

All’s fair in love and war.

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Star Trek – Spock’s Brain (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.

Spock’s Brain is not the worst episode of Star Trek ever produced.

Indeed, Spock’s Brain is not even the worst episode of the third season as a whole. More than that, Spock’s Brain is not even the worst episode of the third season to this point. Spock’s Brain is a pretty bad piece of television, but it seems difficult to argue that the episode is quantifiably worse than Elaan of TroyiusThe Paradise Syndrome or And the Children Shall Lead. However, the episode’s reputation looms large in the broader context of the Star Trek canon. Many would point to this as the worst episode that the show ever produced.

"Check out the big brain on Spock!"

“Check out the big brain on Spock!”

To be fair, Star Trek fandom has never been entirely consistent or even-handed when it comes to identifying the worst that the franchise has to offer. This is a fandom that decided that Star Trek Into Darkness was somehow a worse film than Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Star Trek: Nemesis, and that Threshold was somehow the worst episode of Star Trek: Voyager despite sharing a season with episodes like Tattoo and Alliances. When dealing with consensus fan opinion, it is always interesting to wonder why such things matter over others.

Spock’s Brain is pretty dire. It is sexist, it is ill-judged, it looks cheap, and its underlying premise is beyond absurd. It was also the first episode of the third season to be broadcast. In a way, it seemed like the ultimate affront to fandom. After all, these fans had worked really hard to convince NBC to bring the show back for a third season. Having those same hardcore fans tune into the new time slot to catch Spock’s Brain must have seemed like the ultimate insult, a hokey sci-fi b-movie premise executed on a tiny budget from a show that normally did much better.

The brains of the operation.

The brains of the operation.

There is an element of nostalgia to this reading of Star Trek. The franchise has always had a goofy side, even beyond the necessity for science-bending budget-saving plot devices like warp drive or the transporter. The franchise has a long history of misunderstanding the concept of evolution (see GenesisThreshold or Dear Doctor) or embracing Erich von Däniken (see Return to TomorrowThe Paradise Syndrome or The Chase). Star Trek has always run on ridiculous ideas, opening with a story about how voyaging outside the universe turns a person into a god.

Indeed, goofiness is part of the joy of Star Trek, from the giant green space hand in Who Mourns for Adonais? through to the pleasures of space!Lincoln in The Savage Curtain. More than that, the goofiness can even lead to truly spectacular episodes and stories in its own right, as with the weird space!amoeba in The Immunity Syndrome or the “planet of the gangsters” in A Piece of the Action. (Similarly, the “planet of the Romans” in Bread and Circuses and “planet of the Nazis” in Patterns of Force are also underrated episodes.)

Okay, Kirk. It's not THAT painful.

Okay, Kirk. It’s not THAT painful.

It is perhaps a combination of factors that accounts for the hatred directed at Spock’s Brain. It is not just the goofy premise, because there have been goofier premises before. It is not just the sexism, because there has been more overt sexism before and there is more overt sexism to follow. It is not just the bad script, because there have been terrible scripts before. It is not just the cheapness of the episode, because the show’s ambition always outstripped its production budget.

It is a combination of these factors, culminating in the decision that Spock’s Brain should be the show to open the third season of Star Trek on television. This is the stalking horse for the disjointed and uneven third season, and it seems like it is the first show caught in the cross-hairs.

Matters come to a head.

Matters come to a head.

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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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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.

tos-returntotomorrow25

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.

tos-theapple

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.

tos-thetroublewithtribbles2

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Star Trek – The Omega Glory (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.

Gene Roddenberry is a controversial figure who casts a fairly large shadow. It is very hard to talk about Star Trek – particularly the classic Star Trek – without talking about Roddenberry’s influence and vision. Roddenberry was fond of myth-making when he was alive, of playing up his own contributions to Star Trek while marginalising or dismissing the other people who shaped or defined the franchise.

Roddenberry is a polarising figure among fans and critics, insiders and outsiders. To some, Roddenberry was the man who created Star Trek. While this doesn’t immunise him against criticism, it does provide a sense of context – whatever sins he may have committed and whatever faults he may have had must be offset against that. To others, Roddenberry was prone to exaggerate his accomplishments at the expense of people like David Gerrold or Gene L. Coon who shaped the franchise just as much as (if not more than) he did.

Flagging trouble ahead...

Flagging trouble ahead…

While those are two extremes, they are not the only possible views of Roddenberry. There are a broad range of opinions that might be offered, and not all of them are mutually exclusive. Ask a dozen people who know their Star Trek about Roddenberry, and are likely to come up with a dozen nuanced and defensible positions on the man and his legacy. Nobody seems entirely what to make of Roddenberry and his creative contributions to the franchise.

The Omega Glory is an interesting episode, one that invites as much debate as any of Roddenberry’s contributions to the franchise.

A strong constitution to make it through this one...

A strong constitution to make it through this one…

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