Wednesday, August 31, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

"Operation Annihilate" can't help but come up short, premiering after the critically acclaimed "City on the Edge of Forever." It's a decent enough "thriller-type" episode, though, and it does recapitulate tropes that appear throughout the series' run: the fear of contagion and the fear of crowd-madness.

The Enterprise-crew investigates a wave of madness that has appeared on several Federation planets. An accidental comic moment is supplied when Kirk and Spock discourse about how they can be sure of a continuous wave: because there's a "straight line" between all the affected planets. I don't demand a lot of attention to real-world science in fictional stories, but it's quite funny to think that anyone could imagine a series of planets remaining in such static arrangements.

Further, the plague is communicated by entities that can possess human beings and use them to convey the entities, via star-ships, to their next victims. The whole business of planetary alignment seems to suggest more the idea of the plague-creatures crossing the spatial gulfs under their own power. The contrasting idea that the entities actually commandeer star-ships makes nonsense of the whole alignment idea. (Can't star-ships just travel anywhere they please?)

The alignment idea mostly suffices to inspire Kirk and company to investigate a planet called Deneva, where Kirk's brother Sam lives with his wife and son. Sure enough, once a landing-party descends, Kirk and his cohorts are attacked by the irrational locals. After stunning the attackers, Kirk's party seeks out Sam's domicile. Sam Kirk has already died of the plague, while his son is comatose and his wife Aurelan seems delusional. Following these discoveries, the crewpersons also see the plague-creatures for the first time. Spock later describes them as looking like brain-cells, though the actual appliances might remind some viewers more of oversized ameobae. Spock is infected by one of the creatures, and, once again in the TREK series, a contaminated crew-member is taken aboard the ship, long before the crew can possibly know that he's non-communicable.

Spock describes what others have experienced: that a new creature gestates inside each victim, and that the creature inflicts intense pain to make the affected follow instructions. The script seems to suggest that the plague-cells share some mass intelligence, and that they may come from some universe where scientific laws are different (one of Roddenberry's few brushes with Lovecraftian tropes). Yet it's never clear as to what the creatures want. Does their possession of human beings serve some propagation-purpose, as it would with, say, viruses?

The dramatic subplot in which Kirk seeks to save his late brother's wife and son never congeals: Aurelan dies halfway through the story, and the boy never becomes conscious, though it's implied that he's saved when Spock finds the clue that will destroy the creatures. The episode's only saving grace is that the situation, ill-defined though it is, gives the Spock character the chance to show his indomitable Vulcan courage to best effect. There's also a subplot in which Kirk debates the possibility of destroying Deneva to prevent the spreading of the plague, which seems ludicrous if it's true that the plague-things need ships in which to move about. If the latter is the case-- why would it not be possible to simply quarantine the planet?


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

It's difficult to say something new about "City," one of the most acclaimed episodes of STAR TREK, and there seems to be no need to recapitulate most of its well-known narrative. Considering that the show's previous time-travel outing was so mediocre, I'm tempted to credit the dramatic excellence of "City" to primary writer Harlan Ellison. Certainly much of his prose work focuses on the difficulty of persons being able to recapture or understand the past-- a very different concern from Roddenberry's concern with seeing humanity in Spengleresque terms of cyclical barbarism and civilization.

A couple of ironies: the title is one of the few that refers to nothing extant in the script. In one of Ellison's early scripts, the crewmen of Enterprise were supposed to find a whole city on an alien planet, not just one free-standing alien artifact. Patently the city was cut to avoid needless expense. In addition, Ellison's script seems to have followed the example of other stories that initiated trouble by exposing the starship to some massive cosmic disturbance. However, by the end of the episode nothing has been done to prevent the Time Guardian from continuing to unleash waves of temporal distortion. The reason for this, like the complementary difficulty of having a crewman accidentally suffering from a drug overdose, was apparently that Ellison cared less about the fine points of the story than its dramatic arc.

The interaction of the time-guardian and the overdosed crewman-- McCoy, a doctor who gets too much of his own medicine-- causes the total erasure of the Federation's history. Kirk and Spock leave the rest of their landing-party on the Guardian's planet in order to go back and "fix" the time-stream. By so doing, the two future-men get their first look at the chaos of Depression-era America, one of the periods of economic upheaval that Roddenberry's "perfect future" was designed to solve.

Eventually Kirk and Spock learn that their friend McCoy altered a pivotal point in American history by saving the life of a religious reformer, Edith Keeler. But by a joke of destiny, Kirk falls in love with Edith. In a climax every TREK-fan knows by heart, Kirk is obliged to sacrifice Edith to return the universe to its status quo.

I've never read Ellison's treatments for the episode, prior to its re-writing by other hands. I've seen critics assert that it's just as good a script as the finished episode. This may be true, but without going into great detail, I'll say that I didn't care for what I heard about Ellison's original climax, which did not involve the captain allowing Edith to perish in a street-accident. Still, I feel that whoever conceived of the televised conclusion showed a superior sense of the Greek idea of Necessity: of the knowledge that the universe makes demands on mortals that cannot be set aside or contravened.

This was the penultimate episode of the first season, and, given that it shows James Kirk deeply in love with his female lead, I should note that up to this point Kirk was portrayed as a Serious Young Man, rather than the Cosmic Bladesman he became in later seasons. Kirk has indubitably had some romantic liaisons in his past, referenced in "Shore Leave" and "Court Martial," and there are some fuzzy suggestions of an aborted romance in "Dagger of the Mind." But none of these relationships portray Kirk as a Don Juan, and of course he's generally the soul of propriety around the comely Yeoman Rand and the somewhat juvenile Miri. The only times Kirk really turns on the charm, and thus gives rise to the Don Juan image, are in two episodes where he's using his charm for the purpose of justice: trying to confuse Andrea, one of his captors in "What Are Little Girls Made Of," and sparking Lenore in "Conscience of the King" in order to gather more information on her father.  True, practical concerns also figure into other episodes in later seasons, but more and more Kirk tended to lose his "Serious Young Man" demeanor in favor of being "the Playboy of the Federated Planets."

Saturday, August 27, 2016


MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

20th-Century Fox's remake of the 1920 version of THE MARK OF ZORRO stands as one of the great swashbucklers of the Classic Hollywood Era. Yet in some ways it's a little too slick for its own good, and doesn't quite come up to the level of the silent film.

Fox has been called the "Tiffany's of the moviemakers." There's no denying that the 1940 MARK is a sumptuous production, projecting great glamour through its crisp black-and-white photography, and though its assemblage of stars and support cast: Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, and Eugene Pallette (more or less repeating his turn as the earthy Friar Tuck from 1939's ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD).

Comparisons between Power and Fairbanks are inevitable. Power was not as much of an athlete as Fairbanks, so Power's Zorro doesn't do a lot of stunt-work, though arguably the staged sword-fights in the 1940 film are better than those of the 1920 outing. But in place of the silent film's intense action, this MARK brings in more melodrama, and Power excels Fairbanks in conveying the shifts of the main character's mood.

The film provides early scenes in which Diego Vega (Power) is shown practicing the arts of war at a Spanish school for caballeros. The young man clearly hopes to distinguish himself in the military, and takes it hard when his father summons him to their home in Spanish California. He even sheathes in his sword in the ceiling, indicating his frustration that he's forced to give up a glorious career to manage an estate in sleepy California.

Frustration gives way to caution when Diego learns that his father has been deposed as the local Alcalde, and both the new Alcalde Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his military aide Pasquale (Rathbone) have taken over the Vega household. Director Rouben Mamoulian may be responsible for the cagey scene in which Diego takes stock of what's happening, and slowly evolves his "scented fop" pose in order to misdirect his family's enemies.

This time, Diego's pose is inspired by a female character who appears nowhere in the novel or the 1920 film: middle-aged Inez, the wife of Quintero (and possibly a covert lover to Pasquale). Her prating about wanting to see the fashions of Spain again apparently gives Diego the idea of playing the fool-- though the young man is somewhat less than pleased to have the older woman pursuing him.

Diego also encounters Lolita (Darnell), his more age-appropriate lady love-- and in this iteration, Diego's beloved is the niece of the corrupt Alcalde: an idea somewhat reminiscent of 1935's CAPTAIN BLOOD. As in most versions, Lolita is immediately attracted to the masked freedom fighter Zorro, but scorns his gutless alter ego Diego.

The melodramatic romance keeps MARK from being as action-oriented as its predecessor, and the theme regarding the "noblesse oblige" of the caballero class doesn't come across as clearly here. However, Rathbone presents a much stronger villain than Noah Berry Sr in the first film, and the soldiers as a whole are much more venal. After Zorro has vanquished all the villains, he again sticks his sword in the ceiling, but now the context is that he has obtained his desired glory and is more than ready to settle down and "raise fat babies."

BEHIND THE MASK OF ZORRO is a pleasant Zorro-pastiche. Like many of the Italian adventure-flicks cranked out in the 1960s, this one, directed by Ricardo Blasco, has a stylistic sameness about it, but it does deliver a few strong swordfight-scenes. Tony Russel, an actor of American birth (though he had Italian roots), puts across the requisite charm, and the production manages to work in more lovely ladies than the plot technically needs.

Though the plot follows the broad outlines of the Hollywood Zorro-films, the producers rang in some changes: the hero no longer sports the name Diego Vega, and instead of being a fey caballero, he's an apparently subservient valet who waits on the very people who are plundering California. (Did the producers fear the wrath of Disney, even though the Zorro teleseries had ended six years previous?) In the dubbed version I saw, the film's climax includes one memorable humorous moment: Zorro's assistants dress up like Russians (I forget why) and their spokesman speaks in gibberish that largely consists of Russian proper names piled atop one another.

Friday, August 26, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*

"Errand of Mercy" isn't one of the great TREK episodes, but it assumes a pivotal role in the mythos for having introduced the villains Trekkers loved to hate, the Klingons.

The episode opens with the Enterprise crew receiving the news that negotiations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire have broken down. The ship is ordered to proceed to Organia, a planet inhabited by a simple, mild-mannered people, one which happens to be in the middle of a disputed area. When Kirk receives further news, that outright war has been declared between the two space-faring cultures, the captain compares Organia to "Armenia" and "Belgium," small, inoffensive countries that simply got caught between warring nations.

A space-battle between the ship and a Klingon vessel ensues, and the Enterprise destroys the enemy ship. This proves to be a far-sighted touch on the part of scripter Gene Coon, for, short as it is, the altercation keeps the audience's focused on the same "us-vs-them" paradigm that Kirk and his people believe inevitable. Once the ship reaches Organia, Kirk and Spock beam down. Their misison is to appeal to the locals, to prevent the Klingons from using the planet as a base (and, perhaps implicitly, to allow the Federation that privilege). However, as soon as the two of them have descended, a Klingon fleet draws near the planet, and the Enterprise is forced to withdraw, stranding Kirk and Spock.

The utterly pacific Organians will do nothing to help or hinder either space-empire, and Spock's scientific analysis judges that everything on the planet has been stagnant for centuries. Coon's script thus leads the audience to think they're going to see another condemnation of unchanging societies, such as "The Return of the Archons." Kirk duly lectures the Organians about all the improvements that the Federation can bring to Organia, sounding for all the world like a pitch-man for the Peace Corps.

The Klingon fleet deposits a military detachment onto Organian soil, and its commander Kor loses no time in demanding total submission, threatening to retaliate with brutal force against any insurgency. The Klingons' garb and appearance remain one of the show's best alien designs, suggesting, albeit indirectly, the look of the Mongol Hordes. Kirk and Spock attempt to masquerade as, respectively, a native Organian and a Vulcan trader, but in due time the two of them seek to undermine the Klingon mission with acts of sabotage.

Near the conclusion, Kirk and Spock have squared off with Kor, while the fleets of the two empires square off in space. Then comes one of the series' better Big Reveals: the Organians are not helpless victims, but hyper-advanced, non-corporeal beings. Such are their phenomenal powers that they are able to force both empires to sign a peace treaty. It's a great example of TREK's ability to "have its cake and toss it away too," for on one hand, Kirk has expoused all of the values of Johnsonian democracy, without any real contradiction of those values, yet on the other, the hyper-advancement of the aliens makes the ideologies of both sides seem like the squabbles of children.

"The Alternative Factor" earns its "fair" mythicity rating only for having been adventurous enough to pose metaphysical questions within TREK's SF-universe. However, it's a rambling, often confusing story, an attempt to frame such questions within the limiting context of a "Moby Dick" scenario.

The Enterprise is once more performing one of its simple exploratory missions: to make a cartographic map of an uninhabited Earth-like planet. While the ship orbits the planet, the ship undergoes a massive spatial cataclysm. After the disturbance subsides, Spock tells Kirk that it seems that the entire universe has "winked out" for a moment, and input from other Federation sources confirms this supposition. In addition, Spock declares that a single humanoid form has now appeared upon the formerly empty planet.

The humanoid, who gives his name as Lazarus, spins a vague story about pursuing a "monster" who is out to destroy the universe. In due time Lazarus's story is proven untrue, but the real tale is never too clear. All that emerges is that the "monster" seems to hail from an anti-matter universe, where he is the lookalike counterpart of Lazarus, Lazarus tells Kirk that he needs the Enterprise's dilithium crystals to recharge his ship and continue the fight, and when Kirk refuses, the obsessed scientist steals them.

The main factor of "Factor" is that, like "Enemy Within," it depends on the good guys trying to suss out the nature of two identical individuals. However, while the conflict of Good Kirk and Bad Kirk is easy to comprehend, one never really knows which Lazarus is Ahab and which is the White Whale-- and even the threat to the universe isn't overly compelling. Moreover, while I can blink at an alien's use of the name Lazarus, with its particularized cultural baggage, I don't get the sense that the writer had any well-defined goal for using the name.  A myth-analyst might venture that the Biblical Lazarus is a "double" of Jesus, since both rise from the dead-- but the two "Lazari" have no other significant Biblical associations. At most, the status of the two at the episode's conclusion-- the two mortal enemies, locked in combat for all time in order to keep the universes separate-- bears some resemblance between the Egyptian conflict of Horus and Set. But on the whole "Factor" seems like little beyond an excuse for lots of fights and histrionics.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I've already alluded in this review to my theory about the reasons why a couple of third-tier comics properties, THE VIGILANTE and HOP HARRIGAN, made it into serial form before the first-tier SUPERMAN showed up on silver screens.

Of these two third-tier products, HOP HARRIGAN is marginally better than THE VIGILANTE, which as I said suffers from a dull crime-solving mystery. To be sure, the heroes of HARRIGAN also engage in a lot of pointless running around, as the daredevil pilot and his heavyset sidekick seek to stop a deadly device from falling into the hands of a mystery villain. However, though HARRIGAN does not re-invent any wheels, at least this common serial trope-- keep the super-weapon out of enemy hands-- has a basic sociological persuasiveness to it.

William Bakewell plays pilot Hop Harrigan with a kind of bemused attitude, so that on those occasions when he gets into a fistfight or gunfight, he seems less than heroically equipped for the job. The aforementioned comic relief guy is no better or worse than many of his kind, but Harrigan does get some decent support from an aviation-minded kid-character who supplies some of the serial's best acting. Also noteworthy is John Merton playing a demented scientist who may be able to unleash a weapon capable of destroying the world, unless the henchmen of the unseen "Chief Pilot" get it from him first.

The action scenes are occasionally engaging, but there aren't enough of them, and the Chief Pilot stands as one of the lamest mystery villains in serials, given that he's never seen as anything but a shadowed figure.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological, cosmological*

After the mythic depths of "Space Seed," the next three first-season episodes are merely good, albeit in a slightly workmanlike way.

It could be said that on some level "Return of the Archons" was about the Federation trying to gain a toehold on a planet where one of its ships went down, as if the ship gave the Federation some sort of metaphysical claim upon that world. "A Taste for Armageddon"-- an ironic title, since the story's point is that none of the principals possess any such taste-- seems even more aggressive than "Archons," almost on the level of "gunboat diplomacy."

The Enterprise has been charged with establishing diplomatic relations with the planet Eminiar Seven, and to this end Kirk must escort a diplomat named Fox, who has authority to overrule the captain's decisions. To the script's credit, there's no pretense that the Federation is doing this for any idealistic motives; they want the treaty with Eminiar so as to facilitate the Federation's economic expansion.

Unfortunately for Kirk and company, when they send a landing party to the planet-- despite having been given explicit warnings not to venture near-- they learn that Eminiar has for centuries been fighting a "virtual war" with their planetary neighbor Vendikar. No actual fighting takes place, for the two planets have agreed to send a computer-calculated number of "victims" to disintegration booths. Thus the wars can go on, killing citizens but keeping the infrastructure intact. The parallels to the then-current Vietnam War have been put forth by many critics and thus need no further comment.

Whereas in "Space Seed" Khan was the barbarian and Kirk the scion of advanced civilization, "Armageddon" reverses the equation. When Kirk and company are informed that their whole crew has been pronounced "war casualties" by the computers, they refuse to play along, diplomatic mission or no. Three or four times the head councilman calls Kirk a "barbarian," and Kirk clearly relishes this role, deeming that the two planets have become overly complacent about the horrors of war. The episode is somewhat hurt by many pontificating speeches, and the concluding one is conceptually weak, particularly with respect to Kirk's banal line: "We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today."

The continual banter between Kirk and Spock keeps up interest, although the episode's tacky sets and costumes may make some viewers think of old SF-serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS. As a minor touch, the landing-party includes Yeoman Tamura, who seems to be the first Asian female to have any lines in an episode. She gets one nice visual moment, when Kirk tells her to stand guard over the taller Caucasian character Mea. Tamura's no-nonsense stance makes it clear that she's more than ready to handle the other woman if necessary-- one of the few times a female crewperson demonstrated physical competence.

"This Side of Paradise" is a stronger episode, both in terms of being a character-piece and providing an intriguing mystery. How did the agricultural colony on Omicron Ceta III manage to survive, after Federation resources (computers? survey ships?) discovered that the whole planet had been bathed in deadly space radiation? Kirk, Spock and McCoy are the principal investigators, trying to figure out how the colonists can not only still be alive, but far healthier than they were when they came to the planet. While none of the female crewpersons has any significant role here-- even Uhura contributes only a few lines-- the Y-chromosome contingent is well represented by Leila, a botanist who knew Spock during his Earth sojourn. Leila admits to another character that she fell in love with Spock, but that his Vulcan nature caused him to withhold any reciprocal feelings.

The military discipline of the entire crew is gradually demolished as they are covertly exposed to a unique species of space-born flowers. When the flowers spray their spores into the faces of human beings, the humans become docile and contented, uninterested in progress. Spock is one of the more remarkable converts, since in the thrall of the spores he casts all logic aside and passionately courts Leila-- which, clearly, is something he would have done earlier, had he been governed by his human half. (One is never nearly as sure about Nurse Chapel's charms, and maybe the producers weren't either, since she only made one other appearance in Season One.)

Thanks to this quiet, almost hippie-like revolution, the entire crew succumbs to this bucolic paradise, and even Kirk nearly gives in. He discovers that only strong emotions can dispel the spores' influence, so he chooses to de-program Spock by playing upon the Vulcan's memories of being a racial outcast from both sides of his parentage. Kirk has used something like this tactic before in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" Yet it might be argued that Kirk goes a  bit over the line, particularly in implying that Vulcans ought not to have congress with humans, which is clearly derived from prohibitions against relations between whites and non-whites. Still, as uncomfortable as the scene is, it's preferable to all the self-congratulatory maunderings about racial topics in the later TREK franchises. The "flower power" invasion is destroyed by human crankiness and competition, and Kirk makes closing remarks about the importance of human beings learning to escape the  blandishments of paradise.

"Devil in the Dark" has long been a favorite TREK episode for many afficianados. I find it diverting, and I give its mythicity a "good" rating thanks to the thoroughness of its cosmological myth: that of extrapolating the nature of a silicon-based life-form. However, though the Horta is one of the best aliens on the series, the episode is little more than a standard monster-hunt, even if the monster is spared the final thrust at the end.

In another of the Enterprise's "interstellar cop" assignments, Kirk and his crewmen must descend into the tunnels of the mining-colony Janus VI. (The name of the two-faced Roman deity is nicely evoked, given that the revolting face of the monster conceals another "side," that of an intelligent creature of a different species.) The monster has slain several miners in the past few months, and the situation immediately establishes a mystery, given that the colony has been present on the planet for several years previous. No one but Spock tips to the significance that the murders began after the miners broke into a particular chamber-- one that will later be revealed as the silicon-creature's egg-chamber. Spock also suspects that the many "silicon nodules" lying around the tunnels are actually the creature's eggs. And yet, despite his being the ship's science officer, he doesn't test his hypothesis by beaming up to the ship to analyze one of the nodules, and he conceals his theory from Kirk and McCoy for no good reason except that the script-writer needs to keep the "Big Reveal" secret.

Still, of these three episodes, this one has the best share of clever interpersonal exchanges, including the immortal classic, "I'm a doctor-- not a bricklayer!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological. sociological*

"Space Seed" is one of the best expressions of Gene Roddenberry's position regarding the "Jekyll-and-Hyde" nature of humankind. Beside its superior mythic concept-- in which Kirk becomes the representative of altruistic civilization, and his adversary Khan the symbol of society's original state of barbarism-- the early episode "The Enemy Within" comes off like a college bullshit session regarding the nature of good and evil.

The script had its origin in a story written by Carey Wilber for an episode of the CAPTAIN VIDEO teleseries. Despite the script's separate origins, though, the story easily coheres with one of the major fears seen on STAR TREK: the fear of taking some menace aboard the Enterprise that will then be infiltrate or assault Federation society, be it the monster of "The Man Trap" or the potential "race of espers" foretold in "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Unlike the espers, however, Khan's breed represents a fear of the past, not of the future.

The Enterprise happens across an apparent derelict ship dating from Earth-civilization in the 1990s; a time of multiple petty national despots and great societal upheavals-- all of which were at some point overcome by Earth uniting in the world government of the Federation. Kirk and his crew are therefore cautious when they realize that the ship, the S.S. Botany Bay, is devoted to keeping a cargo of 84 Earth-people alive in cryonic suspension, although 12 of the 84 have already perished due to equipment malfunction. The use of suspended animation implied that the craft predates the Federation's development of the time-saving "warp drive," though the script does not emphasize the usual scenario: that cryo-sleep was the only method of space-travel for a culture lacking faster-than-light travel.

The question of the Botany Bay's destination is also not addressed in detail: Kirk is more concerned with learning whether or not Khan, the one man who automatically revives from cryo-sleep, is in truth one of the products of the Eugenics Wars, in which scientists sought to breed a race of supermen. The captain consults with one of his officers, historian Marla McGivers, in order to suss out the nature of this reticent relic of the past, but McGivers seems to be overly fascinated with the macho culture Khan represents. In due time Kirk and his officers learn, mostly from computer records, that Khan is indeed a eugenically engineered superman, as well as one of the petty despots of the past.

It's never clear whether Kirk and Spock believe that Federation law has some outstanding legal quarrels with Khan's past reign. One would tend to think that some statute of limitations would have run out hundreds of years down the line, unless one were dealing with Nazi-level atrocities. The latter does not seem to be the case: in one scene Kirk, Scott and McCoy display a sneaking admiration of Khan's past reign, horrifying the prim Mister Spock. Thus it would seem that his offenses are more on the level of any 'strong ruler," rather than falling into the domain of unforgivable war crimes. Nevertheless, Kirk keeps Khan under close watch and declines to revive any more of the supermen.

However, McGivers proves the chink in the Enterprise's armor, having "gone native" in her extreme admiration of the barbaric Khan. Like most barbarians, Khan sees everything in terms of challenge, and so he dominates McGivers, bending her to his will so that she will betray the service and help Khan revive his fellows. Thanks to her betrayal, Khan subdues the ship's crew. He then tries to subdue them to his will, principally by sentencing Captain Kirk to death. McGivers recants at the last possible moment, saving Kirk and making it possible for the captain to triumph over Khan in a direct confrontation between the pure strength of the primitive warrior and the tool-enhanced skill of the modern civilized man. Yet, though Khan is defeated, Kirk gives him his due by giving him and his fellows the chance to do what they do best: taming a primitive world that frustrates the control of modern civilized men.

"Space Seed" is best known for crystallizing the essence of the barbarian ethos, even though many subsequent episodes would find it just as easy to stigmatize that same ethos. At the same time, it does offer an intriguing insight into the makeup of what I will term "the Roddenberry woman." Despite appearing in 1967, Marla McGivers conceptually predates Second Wave feminism. The scene in which she is humbled, when Khan none-too-gently squeezes her hand to make her submit to him, aligns with many similar pre-feminist fictional scenarios, some even composed by female authors like Margaret Mitchell and Ayn Rand. Certainly one will find nothing like the submission-scene in any of the latter-day TREK franchises, all very conscious of their liberal status. Yet it should be noted that although McGivers does give in to Khan and betray her Starfleet trust, she providentially rebels against Khan when she beholds him using his strong-arm tactics on her fellow crew-members. Yet by the episode's conclusion she remains deeply attracted to Khan, and he bears her no ill will for undermining his efforts at conquest. The episode's end strongly implies that they will remain together in their difficult, frontier-like exile. I'm reminded of Jung's contention that women, no matter how feminine they may be in their public personas, always maintain a male "animus" that contains their masculine aspects. Perhaps, rather than seeing McGivers as a traitor to feminism, it would be fairer to see her as a woman who succumbs to an internal weakness at first, but then finds her own strength of character, the strength of what Khan calls "the superior woman."

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I rated the mythicity of "Squire of Gothos" as poor, but not the episode as a whole. "Return of the Archons" is the first episode I consider to be poor in almost every way. The one exception is that the actors do a professional if undistinguished job with the materials given.

The Enterprise is assigned to investigate the Earth-like world of Beta III, which is also the area where another starship, the Archon, disappeared 100 years ago. (Even given the rationale that Starfleet doesn't have that many ships available-- a datum loosely suggested in "Tomorrow is Yesterday"-- this still seems like a really long time to follow up on such a disappearance.)

At the start of the episode, Kirk has already sent a couple of men, Sulu and O'Neil, down to the planet in native outfits, which look like 19th-century American garments. The investigators fail to learn anything about the lost ship, on top of which the populace becomes roused against them. The ship loses track of O'Neil, and when Sulu is beamed aboard, he has fallen into a state of intense rapture, in which he no longer recognizes his crew-mates and believes himself a member of "the Body," a stock phrase denoting absolute submission to Betan society.

Nothing daunted, Kirk takes Spock, McCoy and a few others down to the planet, again in native garb. After beholding the Betans walking around with largely vacant expressions like Sulu's, the crew-members take refuge in a nearby domicile as a ritual called "the Festival" begins-- a bacchanal in which the citizens lose themselves in an outbreak of sex and violence. Kirk and crew attempt to gather information on the society from some of the less vacant locals, but the inquires are interrupted by a pair of robed citizens called "Lawgivers."

Kirk learns that the frozen state of Betan society has endured for roughly 6000 years, when a ruler named Landru sought to banish political chaos by instituting this repressive regime. Then, one hundred years ago, the Archon visited Beta III, and Landru's machines caused the ship to make planetfall. The script never says what happened to the crew, but one must suppose that some of them survived and perhaps intermarried with the Betans. Some of Kirk's informants are members of an underground movement opposed to Landru-- or more properly, to the computer that has taken the original ruler's place for several centuries (big surprise). Evidently the Archon's crew made some sizable impression upon the Betans, for the rebels now believe in a prophecy that promises a "return of the Archons" who will abolish Landru's rule.

Though earlier episodes suggested a Federation ideal of non-interference, "Archons" is the first time a story invokes a "prime directive." Spock mentions it over halfway through the episode, some time after the Landru-computer has started to bombard the Enterprise with heat rays-- in other words, at a time when the space-sailors have no choice but to defend themselves against the malign mechanism. Kirk rebuts Spock's lukewarm caution by claiming that the prime directive only applies to cultures that are "living and growing." Most TREK episodes did not invoke this dicey sort of reasoning, preferring to utilize the self-defense rationale instead. In any case, though there are a few suspenseful moments-- such as Landru's brainwashing of Doctor McCoy-- Kirk and his crew rather easily overthrow the computer. Kirk's method of so doing-- telling the computer that it's violated its own "prime directive"-- is not well thought out, but looks forward to much better moments of computer-breakdowns in episodes like "The Changeling" and "I, Mudd."

A third justification for the Enterprise's intrusion is, of course, the loss of the Archon crew, but that's not exactly a motive with Rambo-esque emotional appeal, given that all the ship's crew-members are long dead. The word "Archon" means "ruler," though, and so it might be inferred that Gene Roddenberry-- whose story-kernel was expanded by scripter Boris Sobelman-- meant to suggest that Beta III ought to be ruled not by its own corrupt, static system but by the dynamic democratic system represented by the Federation.

The incidents involving "the Festival" are peculiar in that they would seem to contradict the image of Beta III as relentlessly conformist. I believe that Roddenberry wanted to allude to something along the line of the "steam engine" theory of society, which argued that even the most straight-laced society had to "let off steam" through rituals of controlled anarchy. However, the social function of the Festival is dropped early in the narrative, and never raised again. Still, the allusion does cohere with Roddenberry's "Jekyll-and-Hyde" concept of the human spirit, and perhaps this is the reason the computer-villain bears the name as the famed French serial killer Henri Landru, sometimes described as a "20th-century Bluebeard."


Saturday, August 20, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

I reviewed Rankin & Bass's 1977 THE HOBBIT over two years ago, and since this telefilm was written by the same scripter and directed by the same directors, there aren't many differences in the aesthetic approach of the two films. My problems with the character design and the de-emphasis of  violence are similar though not quite identical.

One matter pertains purely to my classification of works in terms of being combative or subcombative. I consider that because both Tolkien's original HOBBIT and his RING trilogy culminate in scenes of sublime violence, both are combative works. However, the former novel is more episodic and juvenile in its focus. This apparently encouraged Rankin & Bass to play down any potential violence in their HOBBIT, so that I deemed it a subcombative film.

This de-emphasis wasn't really feasible when R&B adapted the final third of Tolkien's epic. Even though the film-script omitted assorted conflicts that had been present in the third section, ranging from the near-slaying of Faramir to the somewhat anti-climactic Battle of Bywater, the animators did reproduce the broad outlines of the Orcs' assault on Minas Tirith and the city's rescue by the Rohirrim. Rankin and Bass are clearly not as emotionally invested in these violent conflicts as they are in their many musical interludes, a few of which actually derive from Tolkien. But they produce a credible version of the most outstanding one-on-one fight in the third book: the duel between the female knight Eowyn (seen above) and the Lord of the Nazgul.

The sequences dealing with Sam and Frodo picking their way through Mordor, dodging Orcs and fending off the obsessed Gollum, aren't nearly so successful. Though the animators devote considerable attention to the weariness of the travelers, the "bigfoot" character-design mitigates against any narrative assertions of suffering.

The most important failing of the two Rankin & Bass outings, though, is that they never comprehend the double-sided nature of Tolkien's work. The animators could apparently understand the author's love of simple, homey things, to judge by the general tone of the musical numbers. But grandeur and the sublime conflict of good and evil were utterly beyond them. In the novel, when Frodo is essentially possessed by the evil of the One Ring, Tolkien presents the hobbit's situation as a spiritual struggle. In RETURN OF THE KING, Frodo's lapses into the Dark Side seem more like an inconvenience than anything. Most of the celebrity voice-casting doesn't especially hurt or harm the diegesis, but Roddy MacDowall's dulcet tones are just a little too over-familiar to produce a distinctive Samwise.

Friday, August 19, 2016

IN THE YEAR 2889 (1967)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*

In my review of Larry Buchanan's CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION I wrote:

CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION is the closest its director Larry Buchanan ever came to directing a decent fantasy-film script-- but that's because said script, credited to one Enrique Touceda, is simply a reshuffling of Lou Rusoff's script for THE SHE CREATURE.
That statement implies that I don't think too highly of either the original scripts on which Buchanan worked, like CURSE OF THE SWAMP CREATURE , or the scripts derived from earlier films. YEAR 2889, though it sports the title of a story credited to Jules Verne, is an unalloyed remake of Roger Corman's 1955 atomic-war flick THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED.

I haven't re-screened the Corman flick in some time. I recall finding it serviceable but far from exceptional in its picture of a small group of post-atomic refugees, holed up in a small country house and endeavoring not to kill one another while avoiding threats like fallout-clouds and mutated humans. But even without re-visiting the 1955 film, I'd say that Buchanan at least does the original no damage, in contrast to his fumbled remake of SHE CREATURE.

The gist of Corman's original scenario, also written by the aforementioned Lou Rusoff, is fairly simple. Because the small group of nuclear survivors has no idea what has happened to the rest of humanity, they must consider the possibility of re-populating the Earth. This may sounds a bit like the situation of Lot and his daughters following the destruction of Sodom. Naturally, the 1955 film is careful to set things up so that its patriarch-figure intends to marry his daughter off to a young man on whom Daddy's set his seal of approval. The young man never arrives at the country house, at least not at the outset of the story. However, other refugees do, setting up an atmosphere of competition for access to the fertile female.

According to online sources YEAR follows the DAY script beat-for-beat, but in place of the histrionics Corman generally favored, almost all of Buchanan's actors render their lines with a sort of mind-numbing lack of affect, much as the cast of CREATURE did. The one pleasing exception is actor Paul Petersen, fresh from the termination of the DONNA REED SHOW. Petersen brings a strong sense of conviction to his simple role and easily steals every scene he's in.

Even though the DAY script is not one of the best Corman ever worked on, it's lively enough that even the somnambulistic acting-style favored by Buchanan can't eradicate the story's appeals to good old sex-and-violence. The design for the "mutant man" of Buchanan's remake is far inferior to the famed Paul Blaisdell version, but Buchanan does manage to get across some of the tension involving the impending rain: whether it will be a contaminated downpour that wipes out the remaining survivors, or will provide the coming generation with their liberation from the folly of their predecessors,


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*

"Tomorrow is Yesterday" falls into a category of TREK narratives that might be called "the unwelcome guest." Usually the guest is an entity with phenomenal powers that pose a danger to the ship's crew, like Charlie Evans or Nomad of "The Changeling." "Tomorrow is Yesterday" isn't one of the first season's more compelling episodes, but it does put Kirk into the ethical position of being the one responsible for disrupting an ordinary man's life.

Kirk and his crew are innocent of any intentional wrongdoing. In a scenario that may owe something to the conclusion of "The Naked Time," a cosmic accident slingshots the Enterprise back in time. As the ship attempts to navigate the skies above mid-1960s America, it's taken as a UFO and pursued by an Air Force jet in attack mode. Faced with the pilot's aggressive stance, Kirk is forced to transport the pilot aboard the Enterprise. This humanitarian act sets Kirk up for the first of his many violations of the Prime Directive: he cannot allow Air Force Captain John Christopher (interesting initials, there) to return to his people after having seen the wonders of the future.

In order to keep up the viewers' sympathy for the heroes, their meddling in Christopher's life is downplayed in favor of the space-sailors seeking to erase the records of their presence. This leads to the episode's best scene-- a captured Kirk being grilled by Air Force officers-- but the sequence also points up one of the production's most glaring faults: that the viewer never sees more than about a half dozen persons manning the Air Force base.

At the eleventh hour Kirk and Co find a solution to their dilemna, so that Christopher and a second officer can be returned to their time-stream without ill effects, and the Enterprise can do the same. Given that the heroes have had almost no practical experience with time-travel up to this point, the solution may strike some viewers as a little too pat.

"Court Martial" is more of an intellectual thriller for the majority of its running time, though it does conclude with one of Kirk's more athletic hand-to-hand fights of the season.

The conflict concerns a matter of military protocol: did Kirk accidentally send a subordinate to his death by virtue of a premature action? As with the setup for THE GALILEO SEVEN, the viewer has to take the episode's depiction of Federation military procedures on faith, for as I re-watched the episode, I could glean no good reason why the Enterprise would be eject a manned research pod-ship during the violence of an "ion storm." But the computers assert that Kirk took this action too soon, causing the death of Lt. Commander Ben Finney. Things look particularly bad for Kirk because Finney, formerly a good friend to Kirk from their Academy days, conceived a grudge against Kirk for having done his duty and cost Finney a promotion.

While "Arena" portrayed a situation in which the Federation might have been in the wrong by virtue of a mishap, "Court Martial" has the distinction of being the first to show the military hierarchy as something less than ideal. Initially Kirk's superior Commodore Stone wants Kirk to step down and accept desk duty rather than further tarnishing the service. Kirk demands a full court martial-- only to find that the odds are against him, when the computer record shows him to be derelict.

Kirk's big fight-scene may serve as compensation for the fact that he's basically helpless for most of the story (not to mention that he's also prosecuted by one of his old lovers-- darn that female liberation thing!). His attorney Samuel Cogley-- Elisha Cook in a finely textured performance-- talks a good game, but he actually can't do anything to exonerate Kirk until Mister Spock manages to throw doubt on the veracity of the computer. Cogley has a strong scene arguing for the validation of human beings over the machines they make. This somewhat Luddite rant stands as the first time a TREK episode actively critiques TREK's hyper-technological paradise. generally portrayed as Roddenberry's solution to modern difficulties. Prior to this, most criticisms came from persons of dubious morality, such as Anton Karidian, or from persons who were just being cranky, like "country doctor" McCoy.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *superior*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological. sociological*

"Squire of Gothos" is the first episode to which I assign a "poor" level of mythicity. It's a competently made thriller, but it doesn't have any purpose beyond putting the Enterprise crew through its paces. In this story the crew meets its third "irresponsible god,"but whereas Gary Mitchell and Charlie Evans served to illustrate interesting metaphysical and sociological myths, Trelane is just the menace-of-the-week, redeemed only by actor William Campbell's bravura performance.

Trelane, it will be revealed, is an alien who has patterned his world and his appearance after that of late 18th-century Europe, to judge from some of his references. He does so because he's observed Earth from afar, but due to the discrepancies between time-frames, he believes that he's seen present-day Earth, rather than that of Kirk's 23rd century milieu. This lack of perspicacity may have been intended to hint at the "Big Reveal" of the episode, that Trelane is a child of his species, playing with a less advanced species as a human child would demolish an ant hill.

Trelane does apparently assume that his visitors will be Americans, for though he projects the persona of a foppish European aristocrat, he introduces himself as "General Trelane, retired," which may mean that he thinks he's acting the part of a colonial American. There are scattered references in the script to Trelane embodying aristocratic attitudes that the 23rd century has happily set aside, but writer Paul Schneider, who produced a sterling episode in "Balance of Terror," did not sustain the critique in any meaningful way. Trelane also has a short sequence in which he forces his attentions upon a female yeoman, albeit only  by obliging her to dance with her. This "damsel in distress" trope was so common in TREK that it's hard to say if it meant something to Roddenberry personally, or if it was simply a standard device for increasing tension.

By all accounts, Gene Coon wrote his original treatment for the show's eighteenth episode before someone pointed out that its theme of champion warfare-- that is, pitting the representatives of two warring forces against one another-- bore a strong resemblance to Frederic Brown's short story "Arena." TREK promptly bought the rights to the Brown story, which presumably led Coon to put elements from the prose tale into the finished screenplay.

 The 1944 story, summarized here, is very much a product of an American author writing in the shadow of World War II. Earth's champion is pitted against the champion of the alien "Rollers" by a hyper-advanced alien species, and when the Earthman wins, the entire race of the Rollers is expunged. The writers for STAR TREK could never be accused of extreme pacifism, but on the whole Coon's "Arena" takes issue with that "final solution."

The script skillfully puts the audience in the approximate position of the Enterprise crew: as soon as the spacemen learn about an unprovoked attack on an unarmed outpost, a landing-party descends to that planet. Kirk and his crewpeople are immediately assailed by enemy forces, and only manage to return to the ship after losing some of their personnel. The enemy ship flees, and Kirk gives chase. Shatner, incidentally, gives a far better portrait of an obsessed military-man than he ever did in TREK's "Hamlet." The captain is so eager to overtake and battle the enemy that he puts the ship in danger by ordering it to assume excessive warp-speeds.

Then both ships are halted in their flight by the godlike power of the Metrons. These aliens, who may or may not be energy-beings, object to the war having come near their domain. While keeping the ships in stasis, the Metrons transport both Kirk and the commander of the alien enemy, "the Gorn," to the surface of a nearby planet. Kirk and the Gorn must seek to kill one another, knowing that the loser's ship will be destroyed by the Metrons. In addition, the Metrons inform the combatants that they can make weapons with the common substances found on the largely barren planet.

"Like most humans," thinks Kirk, "I seem to have an instinctive revulsion to reptiles. I must fight to remember that this is an intelligent, highly advanced individual, the captain of a starship like myself." The running battle between the captain and the much stronger bipedal reptile Gorn is well choreographed, but it also succeeds in tapping a deeper archetype: an opposition between human and reptile, attested both by archaic myths and by the 20th-century's reconstructions of primitive life. In essence, although the Gorn is seen using tools just as Kirk does, only Kirk has the wit-- and perhaps the sheer desperation-- to suss out the Metrons' clues, By so doing, the captain constructs a primitive gun, and manages to wound his opponent. Thus, even though dinosaurs were long gone by the time prehistoric men rose to prominence, "Arena," like a dozen scientifically incorrect caveman-films, portrays a retroactive triumph of ape-born man over the spawn of the reptile kingdom.

Many of the latter-day TREK epigoni were fond of re-writing pro-war scenarios, emphasizing peace over warfare in all circumstances. Coon's "Arena" certainly does rewrite the bloody-minded conclusion of the Brown story, but it does not do so in a mindlessly knee-jerk manner. It's carefully established that even though the Gorn attacked the Federation, the former may have done so because the latter carelessly trespassed on the Gorn's boundaries. Thus Kirk has good reason to temper his earlier hostility to his reptilian foe, and so earns the Metrons' approbation when he spares the alien captain. Kirk is re-united with his crew for an upbeat conclusion, though one that encapsulates some of the flaws and failings of humanity, rather than simply singing the praises of humanity to an audience of the converted.

Monday, August 15, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

As mentioned earlier, "Balance of Terror," the 15th episode broadcast, is the first time the audience got a substantial look at the sociopolitical setup of the Federation. Significantly, "Terror" begins with Kirk officiating over a wedding between two crew-members, which the captain calls one of his more pleasant duties. However, the wedding is interrupted by a call to arms, emphasizing the fragility of the Federation's peaceful domain.

Spock reveals to Kirk that the ship has received a message that Outpost 4, a planetary station, has been attacked. Further, other outposts in the same area-- "the Neutral Zone"-- have recently gone "silent." Thus Kirk must investigate the possibility that the occupants on the other side of the Zone, the Romulans, have chosen to move aggressively into Federation Space.

The script goes to great pains to spell out the previous history of Federation-Romulan encounters; a history fraught with conflict due to the latter stellar empire seeking conquest after the fashion of Imperial Rome. (The script goes so far as to use Roman terms like "centurion" for certain officers of the Romulan hierarchy.) Indeed, Stiles, a crew-member on the Enterprise, experienced one of the earlier battles when he was a child, and he's clearly aching for a chance to attack the Romulans on the basis of their past, rather than their present, aggressions.  In addition, for reasons that relate to the episode's "Big Reveal" of what the Romulans look like, it's established that no one in the Federation has any idea what their former opponents look like.

The Enterprise is unable to prevent the Romulans' new ship-- armed with a cloaking-device that partly conceals it from Federation sensors-- from destroying Outpost 4. However, the ship is able to follow the ship's progress, resulting in a space-pursuit reminiscent of more than a few submarine-pursuit films. Spock is also able to use his instruments to give the bridge-crew a look at the Romulans on their bridge, and they turn out to be racially related to the Vulcans. Thereafter throughout the episode Crewman Stiles constantly makes suspicious remarks about Spock, as if he were some sort of Fifth-Column agent sent into the crew's midst by his Romulan masters. Though this episode was not the first time TREK touched on the matter of racial tensions in a science-fictional context, "Terror" is the first time this story-element became a vital part of a story's theme.

The other major element of "Terror's" theme is the conflict between Kirk and the unnamed Romulan commander, who never meet one another but who learn to anticipate one another's battle-maneuvers like two master chessmen. The Romulan ship is eventually defeated, but the commander's demise is given a tragic dimension. Much the same applies to the death of Tomlinson, the man who was going to be married that same day. Spock is present during the disaster that takes Tomlinson's life, but the Vulcan is only able to save one of the two crewmen involved-- none other than Stiles, whose bigotry is refuted in a patent object lesson. That said, at no time does Spock show anything but diffidence toward Stiles, even when the latter makes a fumbling attempt at an apology.

The episode's only false note appears during one of the tense bridge-scenes. At a time when the Enterprise seems to be in extreme danger, Yeoman Rand draws near Kirk and the two of them un-self-consciously exchange a light embrace, despite the presence of the rest of the bridge-crew. Given that it had already been established in "Naked Time" that Kirk never meant to act on his hidden impulses, this moment seems an awkward misstep into the realm of sentimentality.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

Presumably, after the heavy dramatics of "Conscience of the King" and "Balance of Terror," the producers may have thought TREK's audience for TREK's needed.a vacation from drama. Whatever the particulars of the episode's genesis, "Shore Leave" provides a welcome change.

The Theodore Sturgeon script is a favorite of Trekkers, but I don't find that it rewards a lot of re-viewings. The premise is simple: that an Enterprise landing-party, including Kirk, McCoy, and Sulu, descends to a planet where everything they think about "magically" comes into being. However, in order to keep the story from ending in the first fifteen minutes, no one catches on to this until near the conclusion. It's acceptable at the outset, when Kirk simply thinks Doctor McCoy is hallucinating after the latter sees two characters from "Alice in Wonderland" wandering around the planet's virgin forests. But after a yeoman is attacked by Don Juan after thinking about him, and Sulu finds a service revolver after thinking about one, that should have immediately tipped off Kirk and Co, that their minds were being tapped by alien influences. Hadn't Kirk just given witness to the powers of the big-brained aliens of Talos 4?

Still "Shore Love" is a fun romp, with the added bonus of being shot on location. The Sturgeon script, heavily rewritten by Roddenberry, emphasizes the lighter side of the crew's interpersonal dynamics better than any prior episode-- and so, one might look upon "Shore Leave" as the spiritual ancestor to all later light-hearted entries.

I will say that though it's possible to justify Roddenberry's "a woman's always a woman" philosophy in episodes like "Mudd's Women," I found the character of Yeoman Barrows pretty tedious. Her function in the story comes down to (1) fantasizing about Don Juan, so that she almost gets raped by the rogue, and (2) dreaming of pretty princess garments, which she immediately dons as soon as she sees them.

"The Galileo Seven" is the series' first "Spock-centric" story. It follows the pattern seen in "Miri" and "Dagger of the Mind" by separating a small coterie of crew-members from the rest of the ship, but this time Kirk is placed on the sidelines.

The setup for the story also doesn't track particularly well. Kirk's command is compromised by the presence of an officious "high commissioner" who's assigned to supervise the ship's timely delivery of a vaccine to a distant planet. The captain, faced with this evident ticking clock, perversely decides to challenge it when the Enterprise passes by a quasar-like formation. Kirk claims that he has "standing orders" to investigate all such phenomena. Yet it's not clear why he has to send out a shuttlecraft, crewed by Spock, McCoy, and a few one-shot crewpersons, to perform this task. Given everything that has been established about the Enterprise's resources, why would a shuttlecraft be able to discern anything that the ship itself couldn't? Later, when the quasar's radiation deranges all the sensors on the ship and causes the shuttlecraft to crash on an unexplored planet, the script fails to establish that this is an effect that Kirk and his crew failed to anticipate.

Despite these faults, the castaway-peril of Spock and his crewmates is handled with an excellent level of suspense. Unlike the majority of later TREK franchises, Roddenberry's original series constantly shows a strong awareness of the physical limitations on what these space sailors can or can't do. As senior officer Spock assumes the authority for getting the crew back to safety, but his ultra-logical approach to command both provokes the hostility of his human subordinates and results in some serious errors on his part.

In contrast to many of the episodes in which Spock's logic is validated, "Galileo Seven" ends up advocating a more instinctual approach to life's difficulties. Despite the fact that some of the crewpersons have died for dubious reasons, the story ends with a cheery mood, due to Spock's refusal to admit that his vaunted logic has been proven less than an across-the-board solution.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

"the man on top walks a lonely street. The chain of command is often a noose." -- Doctor McCoy.

No one can claim that in his salad days Gene Roddenberry didn't exhibit significant ballsiness. "Conscience of the King" doesn't go so far as to adapt the plot of the Shakespeare play from which it takes its title. But given that some critics, notably Harold Bloom, deem HAMLET to be central to all of Western culture, riffing on it for a television space opera was supremely gutsy.

To condense the plot-- SPOILERS for anyone not hep to the mystery's resolution-- the Enterprise is summoned to the oddly named "Planet Q" by Leighton, a food research scientist, who wants Kirk to behold a performance of a troupe of Shakespearean actors. Twenty years ago, both Kirk and Leighton resided (for reasons not cited) upon the planet Tarsus-IV. At that time the governor, later known as "Kodos the Executioner," reacted with extreme measures to a planetary crop-failure: he executed 4,000 citizens in order to keep the rest of the populace fed. Official history claims that Kodos died long ago, but Leighton claims that the troupe's lead actor, Anton Karidian, is actually Kodos. Kirk doesn't initially believe Leighton's wild accusation, though he is more than a little taken with Karidian's beautiful daughter (and fellow performer) Lenore. Then Leighton is found murdered. Kirk immediately wants more time to suss out Karidian, so he arranges to have the acting-troupe transported to its next venue by the Enterprise. He continues to romance Lenore, in part to gain more intel on her father, but he doesn't seek to play upon the conscience of the alleged ex-tyrant. After there are murder-attempts on the last two living people to have seen Kodos in the flesh-- Kirk himself and his subordinate Lt. Riley-- Kirk beards Karidian in his room. Unable to force a confession from the somewhat frazzled old man, Kirk obliges the actor to read a speech given by Kodos during his reign, in order to make a voice-comparison. Lenore remonstrates with Kirk, accusing him, not incorrectly, of having made love to her in order to gain evidence on her father. Kirk's evidence is not decisive, but Lt. Riley, recovering from the attempt on his life, provides the rash action that Kirk never takes. The players then give a performance of HAMLET for the crewmen, with Karidian playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Lenore made up to play Ophelia. Riley sneaks into the backstage area, determined to shoot Karidian dead once he hears the actor's voice. Kirk arrives and sends Riley back to sick bay, and he also manages to overhear the solution to the mystery. Lenore reveals to her father that she's the one who's been contriving to kill off all the witnesses who might reveal her father's true identity. Karidian, already tormented by the guilt of his past deeds as Kodos, wails at the discovery that his sins have driven his daughter to both murder and insanity. Kirk starts to take both of them into custody. Lenore seizes a phaser from a crewman, charges onto stage, and shoots a fatal blast at Kirk-- only to kill her father when he leaps in front of the captain. Lenore descends into madness. In the coda, McCoy tells Kirk that Lenore is now under psychiatric care, and remembers nothing about her murderous career.

As should be clear from the summary, Kirk isn't called upon to emulate Hamlet's relentless self-doubting; he only doubts the nature of the evidence. Despite McCoy becoming florid about Kirk carrying out "bloody vengeance," the captain almost never elicits the suffering of innocents as Hamlet does in Shakespeare's play. Lenore is an apparent exception, at least up to the point that the audience believes her to be an innocent who's been hurt by Kirk's quest. However, by the episode's end Kirk is essentially absolved, since it's the crimes of Lenore's father that have turned her into a murderous madwoman.

It's interesting that an episode so replete with Hamlet-references actually starts with a scene from another Bard-play, MACBETH. Karidian, as the titular character, commits the knife-killing of King Duncan on stage, indirectly abetted by Lady Macbeth (played by Lenore). In a sense, no one in the episode never uses either a play, or any other stratagem, to "catch the conscience of the king." But Lenore does make covert use of her theatrical troupe, using its activities to conceal her vendetta against those she perceives as her father's enemies. This bears a nodding similarity to the action of MACBETH, in which the murderer and his wife perpetrate a bloody campaign against many victims in order to secure their reign.

Karidian/Kodos is curiously opaque. The summary of Kodos' career implies that the food shortage may have simply dovetailed with his pre-existing beliefs on eugenics, and in the conviction that certain people were more valuable to society than others. When Karidian allows himself to remember his deeds in full, he calls himself "a soldier in a cause," though he does not expand on his concept of the cause. He's roughly paralleled to Claudius in HAMLET, though his parentage to an "Ophelia"-- one who obligingly goes mad at the finale-- aligns him slightly with Polonius. However, even more than Macbeth, Karidian is most like some of the Bard's "fatal fathers" who bring peril to their daughters, as seen in LEAR, PERICLES, and WINTER'S TALE.

To my recollection, though Shakespeare has a few nasty older female characters, like Lady Macbeth and Tamora of TITUS ANDRONICUS, he has nothing comparable to a young woman who's also a mad killer. However, in HAMLET the protagonist accuses his mother Gertrude of being in some way complicit with his uncle's murder of his father. It might be hazarded that scriptwriter Barry Trivers simply took Gertrude's appearance of complicity, made it literally true, and melded that with the idea of an Ophelia out to protect her sinful father at all costs. The name "Lenore" doesn't appear as such in Shakespeare-- though the Bard did use the name "Eleanor" for a would-be sorceress in one play-- but most Americans would have known the name Lenore from its appearance in various poems by Edgar Allan Poe. There it denotes a deceased woman, so in essence Trivers has reversed the usual powerless connotations of Poe's Lenore figures, and of the general helplessness of many Shakespeare-daughters, by making this one a mad, yet very effecient, serial killer. To be sure, it's not clear what Lenore would have done to get at Kirk and Riley if Kirk hadn't conveniently offered her passage on his ship. Still, one suspects that a "demi-devil" of such deep obsessions would have found some method of bringing down her prey.

Monday, August 8, 2016


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

In my unfavorable review of 2011's THOR, I said:

But when I see such potential wasted, I’d rather watch a popcorn film—again, like the aforementioned He-Man film-- that never had any potential from the get-go.

Unlike the He-Man cartoon, the comic book SUICIDE SQUAD had at least as much potential to spawn a good film as Marvel's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY franchise (if not more). The comics-series, largely masterminded by writer John Ostrander, culled an assortment of villains and near-villains from various DC features and obliged them to work for the U.S. government on various compulsory "black ops" missions. Ostrander's stories walked a fine line between two politically opposed postures: (1) enjoying the Squad's freedom to assail terrorists and drug-lords in extra-legal ways, and (2) questioning the price paid by the characters for indulging in such displays of power.

In the cinematic SQUAD writer-director David Ayer toys with both of these postures, but in the end commits to neither, for he is at base making a "summer popcorn film." That doesn't mean that there's no interesting content in SQUAD, but a lot of the content is rendered generally incoherent due to a sloppy script that relies on lots of repetitive action-scenes. And yet, despite all of the dubious directions of SQUAD's plot, it accomplishes its aim, for it's a fun film, as long as one doesn't for a moment take it seriously.

I would conjecture that Ayer couldn't possibly have approached this project without being aware that it had the same potential problem as Marvel Studio's 2014 GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: that most of the characters were unknown to the American mass audience, the major exception being Squad-member Harley Quinn, mostly known for her relationship with Batman's signature villain The Joker. Regardless of what Ayer thought of Gunn's film, the former has sedulously followed the earlier film's central idea of " loners who find their real raison d'etre in being parts of a buddy system." However, though Ayer brings his Squad together in roughly the same manner, most of the characters' "bonding moments" are horribly contrived, and the director never succeeds in selling the group as being even so much as a company that shares the same misery, much less the "friends" Harley Quinn dubs them. The original comic book makes clear that the majority of the Squad members are damaged people, if not outright assholes, but Ayer isn't quite able to go that dark-- though it's at least interesting that the film more or less concludes with the six criminal members of the team back in their separate cells. Having them sitting around eating schawarma would have been even more of a betrayal than any mediocrities of individual characterization.

As in most popcorn-films, the majority of the characters are given minimal characterization, and SQUAD is no exception. I have no opinion on any previous incarnation of the "Diablo" character, as I frankly don't know who or what he's based on. (Ironically, he's the only character in the group who has a level of power capable of going toe-to-toe with the menace du jour.) However, in comics there have been much better character moments for most of the other super-crooks-- specifically, Killer Croc, Boomerang, and Deadshot-- and for both of their handlers, non-criminals Captain Rick Flag and Katana.

The popcorn-ization of the characters of Boomerang and Croc didn't bother me much; their virtues are pretty tough to put across in a stand-alone movie. Katana comes across a little better, given that she usually hasn't been much more than a stock "rigorous samurai" in her comics incarnation. Flag's not a profound character either, but given that he's supposed to be the leader of the motley crew, his cinematic version suffers much the same way that the cinematic Cyclops suffered beneath the taloned shadow of Wolverine

And who's the alleged "Wolverine" of the movie? Well, if you go by the lion's share of allegedly clever dialogue-lines, it's the movie's version of Deadshot. I try not to be offended when a film drastically revises a favorite character. But in place of Ostrander's driven, trying-to-be-affectless killer, Ayer substitutes a one-dimensional "I'll slap you up side the head" badass with no redeeming character points. Possibly this version came into existence purely to showcase the limited talents of Big Name Star Will Smith. However, whereas Hugh Jackman sold audiences on the appeal of Wolverine by sheer talent, Smith simply coasts on playing a character-type he's already done before. To be sure, the audience with which I saw the film laughed at Smith's lines frequently, so my negative reaction to this dumbed-down Deadshot may not be representative.

However, I was on the same page as many audience-members and reviewers, in feeling that the characterization of Harley Quinn saves the film. Ayer gives Margot Robbie all the best lines, and Robbie takes advantage of her character's sexy zaniness to upstage pretty much every one else. She also has the strongest character-arc, although there are rumors that in an earlier draft she might have rejected the Joker near the film's conclusion. I wouldn't mind seeing this potential plot-point explored in a future tale, but for Harley's first live-action adventure, I think Ayer made the right choice by keeping her bound to "Mister J."

As for the Joker, his nugatory role in the story didn't bother me. Jared Leto's tattooed, bling-busy nutcase is essentially the living incarnation of the film's edgy, graffiti-filled design. In fact, both he and Batman (nicely essayed by Ben Affleck, despite the brevity of the scenes) serve as the dark background to the world of the Suicide Squad.

The thing I like most about SQUAD has nothing to do with the film itself, but with the chances for Warner Brothers' DC films to do what I advocated in my review of DAWN OF JUSTICE: "to formulate a superhero universe with its own unique tonality." SQUAD is a supremely sloppy film, but it has an aesthetic that doesn't look like the Marvel product, particularly the ultra-slick GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. In the comics-world Marvel tended to pursue a middle course, while DC always seemed to pursue extreme poles of creativity, going from the bright world of Silver Age Superman to the fearsome abyss of the Vertigo titles.

I don't know if future films will deliver on the potential of either creative pole. But SUICIDE SQUAD, rough beast though it may be, may at least be the harbinger of better films, films able to slouch all the way to Bethlehem.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

Though "The Menagerie" won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, it's not one of the strongest stories, due to its attempt to meld the original TREK pilot, "The Cage," with a frame-story featuring the current Enterprise cast.

In the frame-story, for reasons unknown Mister Spock programs the ship's computers to take the vessel and its crew to a planet, Talos IV, which has been designated as off-limits to all Federation citizens. The script keeps the mystery behind Spock's actions interesting, though for the seasoned viewer there's never any serious doubt that Spock's motivations will prove both rational and morally uplifting, and that he is in some fashion seeking to help the crippled Captain Pike, Spock's former commander as well as the previous commander of the Enterprise. Prior to the revelation of the true motives, there are some fair dramatic scenes in which Kirk seeks to understand the reticent Vulcan, who insists that both Kirk and Starfleet can only comprehend his actions by watching "broadcasts" from Talos IV that chronicle Pike's previous contact with the natives. (Amusingly, the moment Kirk sees one of the broadcasts, he protests that they're too sophisticated to have been recorded by the Enterprise's usual systems-- a tacit admission that no ship-computers could have been artfully switching between head-shots, altering perspectives, and so on.)

The dramatic meat of the two-part episode, however, must be found in the main conflict of the original pilot, featuring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. Roddenberry's concept of Pike seems more emoionally ambivalent than his concept for Kirk. While Kirk is devoted to his captaincy from the first-- his command only mitigated by his heartfelt dedication to his crew-- Pike begins his story by confessing to ship's doctor Boyce that he's considering resigning from the service. Pike seems to desire a life free from his onerous responsibilities. One moment he envisions returning to the bucolic country life of his youth, and the next he fantasizes about setting up shop in the Orion system. For some reason this confession prompts the doctor to mention the infamous "Orion slave girls," though Pike does not expressly claim that he dreams about dealing in slaves. However, a distress signal from an unknown planet-- later labeled as Talos IV-- calls Pike back to the path of duty, Pike, Spock and other crewmen descend to the planet to investigate. Though they encounter a settlement of castaways, it's soon revealed that only one castaway, a young woman named Vina, is a human being; all others are illusions created by the Talosians.

Both the original "Cage" and "Menagerie" play upon a frequently seen SF-trope: that of aliens who treat human beings as pets or specimens. The Talosians also embody a familiar trope: that
of the big-brained humanoids whose adaptation has caused them to become over-dependent upon their cerebral abilities. Pike, kept a prisoner for reasons that are never very well developed, finds that he can block the Talosians mind-reading abilities by concentrating on primal emotions of hate and violence. This would seem to be flipping the formula seen in the second pilot: whereas the emotions of the primal ego undermine the godly pretensions of Gary Mitchell, for Pike they are his sole defense against beings who have become too god-like to battle on equal terms.

The various attempts of the Talosians to experiment on Pike with illusions become somewhat tedious in this two-hour format, with the exception of the now mythic (and politically incorrect) sequence in which castaway Vina merges with Pike's fantasy of a sexually feral Orion slave girl. Here, in contrast to his conversation with Boyce, Pike does imagine himself as a quasi-Oriental lord watching Vina dance for his entertainment. To be sure, one scene, written but not filmed, would have shown Pike play the rescuer by saving Vina from a whipping, which reflects the general American idea of saving primitives from their corrrupt overlords. Yet the scene works better as it stands, for it suggests that there's some strange identity between the enlightened Federation officer and the barbaric slave-lord-- an identity Roddenberry would explore later with the episode MIRROR, MIRROR.

In the end of the original pilot, Pike re-commits to duty over pleasure, yet the frame-story provides a coda to that moral. Because modern-day Pike is hopelessly crippled, Spock has delivered his former commander to the Talosians so that they will give back the illusions he once cherished-- including a reunion with Vina, who in the pilot was revealed to be a near-cripple given the appearance of beauty. While there are various episodes of TREK in which femininity is conceived as a thing of illusion, "the Menagerie" is one of the few in which masculinity proves just as dependent upon the "happy lie."


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In later years Gene Roddenberry was pleased to claim that he never meant STAR TREK to be any sort of military drama; that he only did so reluctantly due to network demands, and really wanted to have the Enterprise be a vessel devoted primarily to exploration,

THE CORBOMITE MANEUVER, the first regular episode to be filmed following the show's two pilots, would seem to put the lie to that assertion. CORBOMITE is a military drama in every way, though it still keeps the Federation's sociopolitical realities obscure. True, the apparent dilemma of the story is solved with guile rather than with force. Yet the importance of soldierly discipline aboard the Enterprise goes beyond the level of simple survival, as exemplified by THE NAKED TIME.  Discipline is the manifestation of reason, represented as the hallmark of what intelligent species aspire to, as Kirk states to his crewmen:

Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien life-forms. You know the greatest danger facing us is... ourselves, and irrational fear of the unknown. There's no such thing as 'the unknown,' only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.

Kirk does not quite advocate the level of emotional suppression favored by his Vulcan science officer, but pure emotion-- represented in the episode by newly assigned navigator Lt. Bailey-- doesn't come off too well here. Doctor McCoy remonstrates with Kirk for having placed such a green officer on bridge duty, and accuses the captain of doing so because he Kirk sees something of himself in the raw young man. Kirk does not deny it, and in effect, Bailey becomes Kirk's negative alter ego, hesitating when the ship is threatened by an alien artifact, or becoming distraught under threat of death from the artifact's owner, the alien ship-commander Balok.  Bailey's dismissal from the bridge for breaking military discipline is much more the core of the drama than Kirk's attempts to out-maneuver Balok. And when Kirk is proven correct-- that "the unknown" is actually knowable-- the script neatly dovetails the plot of Bailey's validation and that of Balok's desire to suss out the representatives of the Federation.

CORBOMITE is also the obverse of the first Shatner pilot, since WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE suggests that there may indeed be some unfathomable mysteries in the universe; mysteries that mirror those of the ambivalent human heart. CORBOMITE asserts a much simpler "can-do" philosophy, but arguably one of the strengths of STAR TREK was its ability to alternate between diametrically opposed philosophies, rather than falling into any single dogmatic stance.

There are some decent dramatic exchanges: McCoy quarreling with Kirk, and Spock dryly commenting upon Bailey's emotionality, but nothing goes too much beyond the routine. Spock is also given a peculiar "what-were-they-thinking" line: at a point when the alien Balok is threatening the entire ship with destruction, Spock remarks that Balok reminds him of his father, apparently for no reason but so Scott can shoot back: "Then may Heaven have helped your mother!" Even taking into account the likelihood that in these early days Roddenberry probably had no firm take on Spock's parents, the line proves jarring, as if it exists as no more than a se-up for a lame joke.