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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 – 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 – 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.

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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Star Trek – The Ultimate Computer (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 Ultimate Computer is the second classic produced by John Meredyth Lucas, following on from The Immunity Syndrome. (Although it is credited to him, Journey to Babel was actually overseen by Gene L. Coon.) Like The Immunity Syndrome before it, The Ultimate Computer is a bottle show, filmed on the show’s standing set. It features a relatively small guest cast, even trimming the number of extras appearing on the Enterprise sets.

It seems that these sorts of constraints and pressures brought out the best in Lucas. Lucas steps behind the camera on The Ultimate Computer, and helps to bring the show to life. Although he is using familiar sets, he often figures out ways to shoot them that feel original and fresh – no mean accomplishment two years into the show’s run. The guest cast that Lucas has assembled is superb – with William Marshall turning in one of the best one-shot guest appearances in the history of Star Trek.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

However, what is most notable about The Ultimate Computer is the funereal atmosphere that haunts the episode. There is a solemn and reflective tone to the episode, particularly during the early tests of the M-5 computer. The Enterprise is dark, abandoned, empty. Kirk is reflective. As with Bread and Circuses at the end of Gene L. Coon’ tenure, Spock offers McCoy an olive branch. In many respects, The Ultimate Computer seems to hark forward to the film series, with Kirk wondering how he might define himself if he is not a starship captain.

Appropriately enough for a series staring down the barrel at cancellation, The Ultimate Computer would have made for a pretty great finalé.

"Dammit, I told you we should have used a surge protector..."

“Dammit, I told you we should have used a surge protector…”

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Star Trek – Patterns of Force (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.

Patterns of Force is a rather strange little episode, the type of weird and iconic adventure that Star Trek tended to do quite well. It’s very much an off-the-wall adventure, of the kind that none of the spin-off shows would attempt. “Planet of the Nazis” is a concept that belongs alongside other second-season episodes like “Planet of the Romans” or “Planet of the Gangsters.” It’s a very goofy premise, one that requires considerable suspension of disbelief before the episode even starts.

And, yet, despite the many serious problems with Patterns of Force, this is an episode that very clearly and very forcefully has something to say. Reflecting the world in which it aired, Star Trek is a show that is largely defined by the Second World War. In The City on the Edge of Forever, it was revealed that the Second World War had to happen to beckon the bright and optimistic future of Star Trek. Almost forty years later, the final televised season of the franchise would return to that idea in its opening episode.

"Computer, query. What is Godwin's Law?"

“Computer, query. What is Godwin’s Law?”

Kirk’s “final frontier” was Kennedy’s “new frontier” extrapolated centuries into the future, an optimistic and very American vision of what the twenty-third century might hold. Given that the show aired two decades following the end of the Second World War, the conflict that made America the most powerful global superpower, it makes sense that the conflict should cast a shadow over Star Trek. Various members of the production had served in the conflict, and it remained part of the national consciousness.

So an episode pitting Kirk and Spock against honest-to-goodness space Nazis seemed inevitable.

"Well, there goes syndication in Germany..."

“Well, there goes syndication in Germany…”

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Star Trek – By Any Other Name (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.

By Any Other Name is very much a stock episode of Star Trek. It hits on all manner of familiar themes and ideas. It’s a story about powerful aliens who seem to overpower the crew, only to be outmanoeuvred themselves. It is about the Enterprise literally going where no human has gone before. It is about how humans are undeniably and incomparably special – about how becoming human opens up the aliens to a world of sense and experience.

However, By Any Other Name never really has anything particularly insightful to say about any of this stuff. The script to the episode is a mess, despite the best efforts of D.C. Fontana to develop the character beats. For a show based around such core Star Trek concepts and storytelling devices, By Any Other Name is surprisingly all over the place, with a wildly dissonant tone and a sense that the script was desperately padded in order to extend it out to the requisite fifty minutes.

"No dice, Captain..."

“No dice, Captain…”

By Any Other Name is not a terrible episode of Star Trek, but it’s not a particularly good one either. It is just “there.” In many ways, it feels like an example of an episode designed to fill a gap in twenty-odd-episodes-a-year schedule. After all, the last eight episodes of the season were pushed into production at short notice when NBC opted to pick up the show for the rest of the season during the production of The Gamesters of Triskelion. It makes sense that the episodes in this final stretch of the third season are somewhat rough.

By Any Other Name is a familiar Star Trek plot with a somewhat bloated script and a sense that the show is just trying to eat up minutes between here and the end of the season.

"It appears the rock knows as little as we do, sir..."

“It appears the rock knows as little as we do, sir…”

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