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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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Star Trek: Enterprise – Chosen Realm (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Chosen Realm is Manny Coto’s second script for Star Trek: Enterprise.

His script for Similitude marked Coto as something of an old-fashioned Star Trek writer. It was clear that Coto harboured a great deal of affection for the source material, and Similitude was structured in the style of a classic Star Trek morality play. It was a story about the circumstances in which “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” There is a reason that Star Trek fans are so very fond of Similitude, particularly given its position in the middle of a rather polarising and provocative season.

Archer encounter an enemy with faith of the heart...

Archer encounter an enemy with faith of the heart…

However, it was not entirely clear just how traditional Manny Coto was in his approach to Star Trek until the broadcast of Chosen Realm. If Similitude felt like a classic Star Trek morality play, then Chosen Realm literally was a classic Star Trek morality play. A commentary on religious fanaticism and zealotry, Chosen Realm was very much an update of the iconic Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Coto is quite explicit about this, rather blatantly borrowing the emotive (and poignant) ending from that episode.

Although it aired in the much-maligned third season, and has no shortage of its own problems, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is an instantly recognisable Star Trek allegory. Casual fans – and even those with a passing familiarity with the franchise – remember “the one with the aliens who are half-black and half-white who are racist against the aliens who are half-white and half-black.” It is not a subtle or nuanced allegory, but it doesn’t really need to be. It is not as if the sort of blatant racism against which the Civil Rights movement fought was a grey area.

"I think I've seen this before..."

“I think I’ve seen this before…”

Unfortunately, Chosen Realm chooses to apply this simplistic metaphor to a complicated issue. In keeping with the War on Terror metaphor running through the third season, Chosen Realm explicitly ties religion into the larger arc. Archer finds his ship hijacked by a bunch of religious suicide bombers actively intent on turning Enterprise into a weapon that can be deployed against those who believe differently than they do. This is a very classic Star Trek morality tale – the “religion is bad” theme dating back to Who Mourns For Adonais? or The Apple.

Religion is undoubtedly an element of the War on Terror, but it is not the only issue or an issue that exists in isolation. Islamic extremism (as Chosen Realm never seems particularly interested in the trope of Christian extremism) is rooted in more than simply faith. There are political and economic factors at play that are just as vital to understanding why things happen in the way that they happen. Chosen Realm is uninterested in any of this, structuring itself as Richard Dawkins rant in science-fiction form.

What was that about politics or religion?

What was that about politics or religion?

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Star Trek: Enterprise – First Flight (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

First Flight is a prequel to a prequel.

First Flight unfolds before the events of Broken Bow, providing something of a belated origin story for Captain Jonathan Archer. The tail end of the second season feels like an odd place for such a story. The decision to air First Flight and Bounty as a double feature meant that First Flight premiered only a week before The Expanse, an episode that changed everything that fans thought they knew about Star Trek: Enterprise. Then again, perhaps this is the perfect place for an episode like this.

Ground Control to Commander Robinson... Ground Control to Commander Robinson...

Ground Control to Commander Robinson… Ground Control to Commander Robinson…

Much of the final stretch of the second season of Enterprise is introspective and reflective. The show seems aware that a big change is coming, and takes the opportunity of these last few episodes to look back on a classic model of Star Trek. Judgment puts Archer on trial; Cogenitor wonders whether old-fashioned Star Trek morality plays can still work in the twenty-first century; Regeneration finds the Borg lying among the (literal) wreckage of Star Trek: The Next Generation. First Flight opens with the death of Captain A.G. Robinson, a character we never met before.

More to the point, First Flight opens with the death of the man who was almost the captain of the Enterprise. On the cusp of a creative change in direction that effectively kills the show as it existed in the first two seasons, First Flight is pretty heavy on the symbolism.

... Take your protein pill and put your helmet on...

… Take your protein pill and put your helmet on…

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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.

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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.

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