Saturday, 8 September 2012

Blu-ray Review: STAR TREK - Season One, episode 1-7

Saturday, 8 September 2012

To celebrate today's 46th anniversary of Star Trek, I've reviewed the first seven episodes of this 1960s science-fiction classic, from its excellent remastered Blu-ray...

This is where all those famous voyages began. Star Trek isn't the longest-running science-fiction property in the world (that distinction belongs to Doctor Who, which debuted three years earlier in 1963), but it's easily the most diverse and successful; with five cartoons/sequels/spin-offs, eleven feature films (currently), and all manner of tie-in books, toys and merchandise to its name. Gene Roddenberry first developed the idea of a "Wagon Train to the stars" back in 1964, inspired by the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials from his childhood, but wanted to create something less trifling and more optimistic about mankind's future. Gulliver's Travels was another muse of his, as Star Trek would likewise tell extraordinary stories with a moral backbone propping everything up.

For cultural hermits, Star Trek is set in a 23rd-century depicting a time where humans are part of a peaceful United Federation of Planets. In this era where class, race, religion and currency no longer matter, the admired Federation and its faster-than-light starships instead explore the galaxy. The flagship vessel being the U.S.S Enterprise NCC-1701, commanded by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), which is on a five-year mission "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Kirk's loyal crew consisted of science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a member of the elf-like Vulcan race who've learned to inhibit their emotions to embrace pure logic; longtime friend Dr Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelly), the Enterprise's grouchy chief medical officer; chief engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan); comms officer Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols); helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei); Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney); and nurse Christina Chapel (Majel Barrett). Chekov (Walter Koenig) wouldn't arrive until the second season...

1.1 – "THE MAN TRAP" (8 Sep '66) The first episode to air on NBC, but not the first produced, which is perhaps why "The Man Trap" isn't a post-pilot introduction to the Star Trek universe. However, the show's a cinch to grasp despite this episode dropping you into the deep end. Kirk and McCoy beam down to the planet M-113 to give its two inhabitants, Professor Crater (Alfred Ryder) and his wife Nancy (Jeanne Bal), their annual medical examination (is that a good use of Federation resources?) While there, McCoy's delighted to be reacquainted with Nancy, as she's an old girlfriend of his, but it soon becomes apparent that the beautiful "Nancy" is in fact an alien shape-shifter that craves salt and love...

The idea behind this story is very solid, like a family-friendly The Thing From Outer Space, and obviously the notion of an alien creature that can alter its physical appearance to survive was and continues to be fertile sci-fi territory. Maybe this episode even planted the seed of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's use of Changelings over 40 years later? And while the episode is a little sluggish in places, that's mainly due to the differences between TV made in the '60s and now. What matters is there's an charming eeriness to the alien's presence after Nancy boards the Enterprise and hides in plain sight, and a handful of nice peripheral moments unrelated to the A-story; like Uhura's informal chat with Spock about romance, and Sulu in the botanical lab. It was also unintentionally amusing to note an instance of '60s sexism impinging Roddenberry's idyllic future, with two male crewman practically ogling Yeoman Rand as she sashayed down a corridor carrying a food tray. written by George Clayton Johnson / directed by Marc Daniels

1.2 – "CHARLIE X" (15 Sep '66) Far better is the enjoyable "Charlie X", where the Enterprise crew take charge of a 17-year-old boy called Charlie Evans (Robert Walker), who grew up alone on the planet Thases as the sole survivor of a spaceship crash 14 years ago. Charlie instantly crushes on Yeoman Rand (the first woman he's ever seen), but the teenager's naivety and immaturity soon becomes a problem when it's revealed Charlie has extraordinary abilities. Interesting this idea appeared to have been inspired by Jerome Bixby's 1953 short story "It's A Good Life", which also led to the 1961 Twilight Zone of the same name. Charlie also appears to be a loose model for the race of "Q" in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as he's likewise able to do practically anything with the power of his mind (although a key limitation in Charlie's case proves to be his undoing).

It's a strong concept and D.C Fontana's script treats everything intelligently, helped by a nice performance from Walker and Whitney. There are a few very dated or silly moments (most memorably Kirk in bright red leggings, teaching Charlie judo throws in the ship's gymnasium; or Uhura singing in the mess hall with Spock playing harp), but most of this episode still holds up very well because it's essentially about an awkward teenager trying to deal with his hormones and awareness of his own power. written by D.C Fontana / directed by Lawrence Dobkin

1.3 – "WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE" (22 Sep '66) The writers must have enjoyed "Charlie X", because they practically remake it for the very next episode! Or, more accurately, they must have loved "Where No Man Has Gone Before", because this was actually Trek's second pilot after "The Cage" was deemed "too cerebral" (with Shatner's Kirk replacing Jeffrey Hunter's Captain Pike)—hence some of the odd alterations to cast and costumes. Regardless of Trek's confusing first season chronology, it's unfortunate either episode is shown consecutively because the similarities between them are so stark.

Here, the USS Enterprise encounters a bizarre "magnetic space storm" which claimed the SS Valiant two centuries ago, which has an astonishing effect on Kirk's old pal Lt Cmdr Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood). As the Enterprise limps home on impulse power, a mercury-eyed Mitchell starts to exhibit signs of extra-sensory perception (ESP) and gradually becomes a danger to the crew when he develops a God Complex over his newfound powers of telekinesis and mind-reading. So much so that Kirk's forced to hatch a plot to abandon Mitchell on a nearby planet rich in minerals that may re-power the ship.

Like "Charlie X", this is another story where the crew have to defend themselves from a superhuman aboard their ship, although in many ways this is more of a crowd-pleasing version of that same idea. It's just unfortunate that Mitchell's a sketchier character than Charlie was, and the story makes no attempt to establish him before his transformation takes place. Why does "absolute power corrupt absolutely" in Mitchell's case? He goes from anonymous helmsman to demi-God in the blink of an eye. Still, if you were disappointed with the range of powers shown in "Charlie X", this episode offers more action and thrills; with a rather nice strangulation, floating cup of water, and a fist-fight showdown between Mitchell and Kirk on a foam-rock planet. (Earlier this year, there were rumours this episode's the basis for JJ Abrams' Star Trek 2, and it's easy to see why people think it deserves a second pass.) written by Samuel A. Peeples / directed by James Goldstone

1.4 – "THE NAKED TIME" (29 Sep '66) Perhaps Trek's first minor classic (remade by The Next Generation as "The Naked Now"), "The Naked Time" is a notable episode because it contains some iconic moments; from a topless Sulu swashbuckling with an epée (Takei claims this episode's his favourite, likely because his character did more than press buttons at a desk), to Scotty's classic exclamation to Kirk that he "can't change the laws of physics!" The story itself is straightforward formula, with crewman Lt Tormolen (Stewart Moss) becoming infected while investigating the dead inhabitants of a research station on planet Psi 2000; an infection that causes irrational behaviour and paranoia, commonly associated with extreme inebriation. So yes, it's an episode where the cast, notably Sulu and Spock, get to act uncharacteristically (not that Sulu has a character to subvert at this stage in Trek history), and that's mildly enjoyable to watch.

But what worked here was the greater sense of threat to the entire crew, as the Enterprise was dragged towards the planet's surface as it mysteriously condenses. This ticking clock" really elevated what was otherwise an amusing episode where nobody's life was at stake. This also marks the first time where Shatner really felt alive in Kirk's shoes, McCoy's enmity towards Spock was noted ("your blood pressure is practically non-existent; assuming you call that green stuff in your veins blood"), and it was nice to see Majel Barrett (the future Mrs Roddenberry) make her debut as Nurse Chapel. There are only two issues I have with "The Naked Time": the weak ending, where writer John D.H Black throws in time-travel as a symptom of the nosediving Enterprise's escape plan, which felt unnecessary and silly (they accidentally invented time-travel by imploding their engines?!); and how the infection wasn't widespread enough to make the situation feel truly intense and insurmountable. But other than that, "The Naked Time" was a very entertaining and fun hour. written by John D.H Black / directed by Marc Daniels

1.5 – "THE ENEMY WITHIN" (airdate: 6 Oct '66) It's Trek's first ever "transporter accident" episode, which almost became a tradition in the ensuing sequels/spin-offs. Written by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), "The Enemy Within" has a duplicate of Kirk created after a mishap while beaming up from a planet. The doppelgänger's presence isn't known at first, but its unruly behaviour (especially an unwanted sexual advance on Yeoman Rand, which is made significantly uncomfortable via a shaky-cam filming style), soon has everyone treating the original Kirk with great suspicion. It's easy for modern audiences to predict what's happened (the transporter has separated the "good" and "evil" sides of Kirk's personality), but there are nevertheless some enjoyable ongoing concerns.

I especially liked how Good Kirk starts to lose his ability to command a ship when robbed of his worse traits, and Shatner does a decent job creating two different characters. A few things confused or concerned me, however: with the transporter broken and crew stranded on a rapidly-cooling planet's surface, why didn't the Enterprise send down a shuttlecraft as rescue? Also, it was uncomfortable to note that Rand essentially admitted she'd have kept quiet about Kirk's sexual-harassment because, well, he is still the captain. '60s attitudes creeping into Roddenberry's progressive future vision again, undoubtedly. Special mention to this episode's brilliant music, composed specifically for this episode, as it's more typical to recycle score from existing tracks. written by Richard Matheson / directed by Leo Penn

1.6 – "MUDD'S WOMEN" (airdate: 13 Oct '66) I thought the previous episode had misogynist elements, but it's not a patch on the uncomfortable beginnings to this hour, which introduces Irish con man Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) to the series. A character who'll make a reappearance that seems unfathomable based on the grubbiness of his debut. Here, the Enterprise loses power after overwhelming its deflector shield to protect a stolen ship from asteroids, moments after beaming the occupants aboard ship: the aforementioned Mudd and three nubile, scantily-clothed beauties in gladiator sandals and sparkly dresses. Cue cheesy violin music and the yucky sight of Bones making goo-goo eyes at the lovely girls in sickbay, while Spock's gently mocked for being unwilling to show any lustful feelings of his own. (The Vulcan prude.) Despite the fact Trek was a progressive show in many ways, it was still a product of its time. (There may be a black woman in charge of comms, but Uhura's still basically a telephone switchboard operator.) And Star Trek isn't yet above telling stories where the crew salivate over hot girls swishing down corridors.

To be fair, the story got steadily less creepy as it developed, with the reveal that Mudd's harem are taking an illegal drug that only makes them appear beautiful to men. But I'm still uncomfortable about an episode where an Irish traveller/thief has women dosed on drugs and wants to sell them to lonely men. Sorry. written by Stephen Kandel (story by Gene Roddenberry) / directed by Harvey Hart

1.7 – "WHAT ARE LITTLE GIRLS MADE OF?" (airdate: 20 Oct '66) Here comes another duplicate of Kirk, mere episodes after we encountered his evil twin with "The Enemy Within". This one's a replica android, created by Nurse Chapel's fiancé—the famous exobiologist Dr Roger Korby (Michael Strong)—using high-tech machinery abandoned by a subterranean alien race known only as the "Old Ones" (a nod to H.P Lovecraft). It's an episode that attempts, rather half-heartedly, to explore what it means to be an exact copy of a living person, with a few twists about people's identities that are now over-familiar to sci-fi fans. It was an unfortunate mistake to have Kirk partner Chapel for the majority of the episode, too, because the Captain clearly needs to bounce off Spock and McCoy to be interesting. Kirk and Chapel just don't make for a compelling double-act, alas. Still, bonus points for the presence of The Addams Family's Lurch (actor Ted Cassidy), playing a gigantic automaton known as Ruk. His character's great value, a memorable physical presence, and possibly the most alien of aliens we've met thus far. written by Robert Bloch / directed by James Goldstone