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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.

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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.

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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 – 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 Mark of Gideon (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 Mark of Gideon is in many ways a direct counterpoint to Whom Gods Destroy.

Both The Mark of Gideon and Whom Gods Destroy have what might charitably be described as “major logic problems.” Both episodes were produced on a tiny budget, with those constraints bleeding through into almost every frame of the finished production. Both stories engage with the idea of utopianism as an essential ingredient in Star Trek storytelling. Both episodes are very much third season episodes, in terms of production and construction and storytelling.

Viewing screen on.

Viewing screen on.

However, Whom Gods Destroy manages to turn all of these elements into an ambitious mess. Although far from the strongest episode of the season, or even a half-decent episode of television, there is an endearing charm to Whom Gods Destroy that carries the episode far further than it should. In contrast, The Mark of Gideon is dead at arrival. It is an episode with a striking premise and set-up that has no idea where to go from that starting point and so meanders limply and lifelessly through forty-five minutes of television.

It also offers a pretty reprehensible vision of the franchise’s utopia.

This is an accurate representation of the third season's viewing figures.

This is an accurate representation of the third season’s viewing figures.

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Star Trek – The Enterprise Incident (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 Enterprise Incident is generally regarded as one of the masterpieces of Star Trek‘s much troubled third season.

The third season of Star Trek has cultivated a reputation as a failure or a disappointment, a collection of episodes that are wildly disjointed at best and openly frustrating at worst. This disappointment is largely justified. While the third season struggled with a number of problems beyond its control, there were also a number of serious self-inflicted wounds. The production team consciously chose to bury Spectre of the Gun deep in the running order while pulling Spock’s Brain forward to be the season premiere.

When on Romulus...

When on Romulus…

However, the third season of Star Trek is not the disaster that many would claim. Taken as a whole, the season is much weaker than the first two seasons, but it also has its share of strong and classic episodes. There are classics upon which everybody agrees, like The Enterprise Incident or The Tholian Web. However, there are also any number of delightful oddities like Spectre of the Gun or The Empath. Still, there is a sense that the show is not everything that it once was, and that things have changed.

In some respects, The Enterprise Incident is the most conventional and “classic” of the third season episodes, the episode that feels the most “of a piece” with the first two seasons. It is also the last Star Trek episode of the original series to be credited to franchise veteran Dorothy Fontana.

A Commanding presence.

A Commanding presence.

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Star Trek – The Paradise Syndrome (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.

As with Elaan of Troyius, it feels like The Paradise Syndrome casts an awfully long shadow for such a simply awful episode.

Much like Elaan of Troyius before it, The Paradise Syndrome marks out what will become a particular subgenre of Star Trek episode. To be fair, Elaan of Troyius had a much greater influence; it demonstrated that the basic “Enterprise ferries diplomats” plot from Journey to Babel was something that could be repeated, throwing a healthy helping of “our hero falls for an alien princess” into the mix. In contrast, the basic template defined by The Paradise Syndrome is a lot more specific.

Going Native American.

Going Native American.

The Paradise Syndrome effectively posits a “what if…?”, wondering what might happen if Kirk gave up adventuring to settle down into a more mundane existence. It is an idea that Star Trek: The Next Generation would revisit to much greater effect in The Inner Light. It is also the basic template employed by Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II during the final season of Star Trek: Voyager. It is very rare to point to Voyager and argue that it executed an idea much better than the original Star Trek, but this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

The Paradise Syndrome is also (and unavoidably) a clumsy racist misfire of an episode.

"That'll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better."

“That’ll teach me to hope that the next episode will be better.”

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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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