What the hell, I’ll stop watching Star Trek

Well, sort of!

My time with Star Trek has come to an end for now. I’ve made it to the end of The Original Series, but I do intend to watch the films at some point in the near-ish future. After that? I’ll almost certainly get around to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and maybe some other things as well. I’m open to suggestions, but those are all stories for another time.

Right now, I’m taking a look back at season three of The Original Series. I was interested in this season for extremely selfish and thoroughly disrespectful reasons. Or, reason: “Spock’s Brain.”

For decades I had been hearing about how terrible this episode was. It wasn’t just the worst episode of The Original Series; it was among the worst episodes of television, full stop. How could I not want to watch it? That, as Van once put it, was honey to the bee.

We can learn a lot from the way things fall apart. Sometimes it’s our only real chance to get a peek inside something we love. When a piece of media works — truly, thoroughly works — it’s like watching a magician. We see only what we’re supposed to see; everything else is concealed or (to be more accurate) distracted from. We get caught up in the illusion, with the narrative or characterization or dialogue or filmmaking keeping us so engaged that everything else remains unseen. And, therefore, might as well not exist.

When a piece of media doesn’t work, when you see its guts spilling out all over the place, though, it’s brilliantly fascinating.

Something that is supposed to make us weep is making us laugh. Something that is supposed to move us is amusing us. Something that is supposed to form a coherent whole instead unspools as we watch it.

That’s thrilling to me. I love it. As a writer, I am able to learn from it. As a member of the audience, I am able to revel in it. I don’t hope for movies or television shows to be lousy. Ideally, I’d love everything I watch to be perfect forever. But if something is lousy, I want to see it. I want to know exactly how it went wrong. I want it to educate and entertain me in its failure, because it’s ironically difficult to learn from the things that get everything right.

And so I wanted to watch “Spock’s Brain.” I could have done so easily, at any point. Star Trek isn’t difficult to find legally, and I’m sure if I were willing to do illegal things it would be even easier. All I needed to do, basically, was set aside an hour of my time.

But I didn’t want to do that. Not on its own. I had a feeling that watching “Spock’s Brain” in isolation wouldn’t give me the full scope of just how awful it was. And that’s mainly because I knew Star Trek was beloved for a reason.

Television shows, by and large, are slick productions. There are great episodes and terrible episodes, of course, but terrible episodes don’t usually feature boom mics dipping into frame, sets falling apart, actors forgetting their lines, or other such superficial indications of awfulness as we often get in bad films.

The reason for this is simple: Television shows offer regular employment. The production staff has often been with the show for long periods, and has been working in the industry for even longer. No matter what a particular episode consists of — from brilliance on down to nonsense — they know how to shoot it, how to edit it, how to package it into a tidy little product for the audience to consume.

The writing may stink, the story may be idiotic, and narrative logic may be absent, but in terms of production, these people know what they are doing. A crappy filmmaker will assemble an incompetent crew and give us something that fails by every metric, but in television this simply doesn’t happen. Individual episodes don’t have individual crews. Specific members of that crew come and go, but never all at once and for the duration of a single episode. Production competence is the background hum.

On top of that, Star Trek in itself was a well-made show. People loved it because suspending disbelief was easy. Walls can wobble and makeup can look ridiculous, but it’s not difficult to look past those things and see, at its very sturdy core, that the show was projecting a universe we could understand. I can say that with confidence now, as I just watched most of it for the first time 50 years later, and I had no personal or nostalgic attachment to it at all. If I thought the show worked, it’s because I really did think — as an adult with more or less fully developed critical faculties — the show worked.

Which means “Spock’s Brain” must have been bad for other reasons. Reasons a non-fan probably wouldn’t understand. And so I didn’t think it was fair of me to watch “Spock’s Brain” before having a baseline understanding of what Star Trek offered on a weekly basis. That would only be fair to the show, and it would help me to better appreciate the precise way in which the wheels of “Spock’s Brain” came so fascinatingly off.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say that…

Okay, yes, it’s bad. It is a bad episode of a show that had been, in large part, quite good.

But it’s not that bad.

We’ll get to this in greater detail but, for now, let me say that I’d heard almost nothing but negative things about season three. In fact, as uniformly as people claimed season two was by far the best, they claimed that season three was by far the worst. As you know from my previous Star Trek post, I didn’t think season two was all that far above season one. Overall, yeah, it was better, but not by enough to matter.

And so I figured that season three might not be as bad as its reputation suggested. Maybe it would indeed be the worst of the three, but — again — not by enough to matter. Perhaps it came in third place only because something had to come in third place. Maybe the disappointment of “Spock’s Brain” — which was a frankly idiotic choice for season premiere — tarnished opinions in a way it wouldn’t have if it had come much later, after a string of better episodes.

I had convinced myself that this must have been the case. Then I actually started watching season three, and became immediately more confident in my assumption.

We’ll come back to “Spock’s Brain,” which indeed sucks on toast, but after that episode, we were in really good hands again.

“The Enterprise Incident” was a fun and engaging heist story, with our heroes infiltrating a Romulan vessel and stealing some dangerous technology. It had an excellent guest star in the form of the Romulan commander, who is toyed with and manipulated emotionally by Spock. She gets her feelings hurt, understandably, and Spock ends up feeling no better, surprisingly. It was a nice, compact little adventure with great twists and a bit of sad characterization as well. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorite Star Trek episodes, but certainly it belongs on the list of good ones.

And the good episodes kept coming.

“The Paradise Syndrome” saw Captain Kirk dreaming openly about settling down one day on a peaceful planet, only for an unfortunate accident to wipe his memory and leave him doing exactly that. “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” was a smart episode about perception and preconception, with another fantastic guest character and some impressive meditations on the nature of love. “Spectre of the Gun” was an amusing, surreal episode about the Enterprise crew being forced to participate in a reenactment of the Showdown at the O.K. Corral.

Have I skipped over anything? Oh, right, “And the Children Shall Lead,” which…wasn’t great. It had a decently haunting premise (the crew arrives at a colony in which all of the adults are dead, and they learn quickly that they were killed by their own children) and an excellent scene with Nurse Chapel interacting with the kids, but it falls apart when it’s revealed that it’s all the work of a glowing evil fat guy.

Just about any other direction this episode could have taken would have been better, but that’s okay. This is just one stumble along a very strong stretch.

Then we had “Day of the Dove,” which is just fantastic. At its heart it’s about a creature that feeds on negative emotions, but the actual story is smarter and more interesting than that. It’s really about the conflict between the Enterprise crew and the Klingons.

While the creature indeed manipulates them into mutual aggression, it’s more of a gentle nudge than an outright push. The crew and the Klingons already think so poorly of each other and are so suspicious of each other that they immediately assume the worst. They punish each other and take action against each other before they know if there’s a reason to do so, because they assume that of course there is a reason to do so.

It’s a graceful evolution of the idea introduced in season one’s excellent “Errand of Mercy,” which established that Kirk and the Klingon commander weren’t all that different. One may ultimately want peace a bit more than the other, but the more indistinguishable their methods turn out to be, the less convincing the “peace” argument becomes. It’s a great episode with some excellent insight.

Then there’s “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” which sees my precious Dr. McCoy finding out that he doesn’t have long to live. On its own that could be a great story, but it’s layered atop another story, about a race that doesn’t realize it’s not on a planet; it’s on a multi-generational spaceship that is on a collision course and will be destroyed if it isn’t diverted.

Two visions of a looming end, explored differently but in ways that overlap thematically as well as narratively. McCoy behaves in ways he would not behave in other episodes, but here it makes sense. We aren’t seeing the Bones we know and love; we’re seeing a desperate Bones trying to come to grips with the fact that he has no future, aside from whatever he chooses to do right here and now. It’s a flawed but wonderful episode.

I assume I’ve made my point by now. The first stretch of season three had a pair of stinkers, but it was otherwise composed of episodes that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best stuff the show had done prior.

I was vindicated. Season three wasn’t bad; season three got off on an unforgivable foot with “Spock’s Brain” and fans found it difficult to take the season seriously after that. It squandered more good will, fairly or unfairly, than the rest of the season was able to win back. What a relief.

Then, friends…my lovely, wonderful friends…the season really did take a nosedive.

Roughly the first half of season three compares favorably enough to what came before, but the second half of season three is a genuine shambles. Where I could see moments of weakness in the first stretch of episodes, I was celebrating any moments of decency in the final stretch.

My first indication that something was wrong came with the abysmal “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which seems to trip over itself trying to become as stupid as possible as quickly as possible. At one point I was watching a little person ride William Shatner like a pony while the latter neighed with delight. (That little person had by far the most dignified role in the entire mess.)

A couple of episodes later we got the miserable “The Empath,” which saw the crew being slowly tortured within an inch of their lives. What fun we have on this space adventure! There was “That Which Survives,” which was about a computer or something. There was “The Savage Curtain,” during which Kirk meets Abraham Lincoln and a rock monster. The season even ended on an extraordinarily low note with “Turnabout Intruder,” in which Kirk is possessed by — gasp — a woman!

When people tease Star Trek for its writing, for its acting, for its corniness, these must be the episodes they are referring to. Watching the first two seasons — and much of season three, at first — the criticism struck me as overblown. As though people were remembering and responding to an exaggerated echo of Star Trek rather than what Star Trek actually was. As though they were judging the show based on jokes about it and parodies of it, rather than anything it actually did or failed to do on its own.

But shit lord did season three really hit rock bottom.

Which means I should have been in heaven, right? If I love watching the wheels come off, a previously great show now falling apart on a weekly schedule should be one hell of a lucky break for me!

The problem, though, is that the episodes I just listed are not interesting failures. They’re boring. They’re repetitive. They’re superficial.

I’m not watching a show that stretched too far and couldn’t say what it wanted to say; I’m watching a show floundering for anything to say. I’m seeing finally, for the first time, some actors showing up and putting on costumes and saying the lines they need to say before they can cash their paychecks. Star Trek, surprisingly quickly, became a joke, and not an especially good one.

Do you want to know what was an interesting failure, though? “Spock’s Brain.”

I can’t imagine watching all of Star Trek or even all of season three and concluding that “Spock’s Brain” is as bad as it gets, because “Spock’s Brain” is entertaining. It’s so dumb that it becomes riveting.

It’s about a colony that needs a brain to operate its supercomputer, and so they steal Spock’s Brain — right out of Spock’s Head — without anyone noticing. When the crew shows up on the planet to track it down, they bring a literally mindless remote-controlled Leonard Nimoy with them. When they find Spock’s Brain, Dr. McCoy has difficulty putting it back into Spock’s Skull, until Spock’s Mouth talks him through the process.

And these are just the broadest strokes; “Spock’s Brain” is masterfully imbecilic.

The idea of a society needing an organic brain to keep itself operational is fine. There are better premises, certainly, but you could kick off a good story with that one. What we get, though, is almost miraculously terrible, and the episode keeps finding new ways to get stupider.

In the other examples I mentioned, the episodes find only one way to get stupid, and it’s typically the easiest, laziest way. Nothing is interesting about a plot that doesn’t go anywhere.

“Spock’s Brain,” by contrast, goes everywhere.

In many cases, even season three’s disappointing episodes do have something to recommend them. It’s difficult to entirely squash the charm, especially when the charm comes from as many different directions as it does in Star Trek.

“The Tholian Web” didn’t do much for me, but the special effect of the titular web being weaved was fucking incredible, particularly when taking into account the era and the budget of a weekly TV show. (They saved money on the awful Translucent Ghost Kirk floating around the ship, I guess.) “The Mark of Gideon” opened with a hell of a great mystery — Kirk beams down to a planet but never arrives, and we cut to him aboard a completely empty Enterprise — but ended up being about something far less interesting. “The Way to Eden” is about hippies who burn their feet because they don’t wear shoes and Spock sits in for a jam session.

“Requiem for Methuselah” was great until Kirk went mad over wanting to fuck somebody’s robot. “Whom Gods Destroy” had a great scene in which Spock has to figure out which of two Kirks is an imposter, and it had Yvonne Craig, who is hotter than the sun. Actually, we had Julie Newmar last season and Frank Gorshin this season, so the fact that Adam and Burt never showed up is criminal.

Speaking of Gorshin, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was obvious and heavy handed, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t been thinking about it regularly in the weeks since I’ve watched it. Unlike “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory,” I think the message here actually does benefit from being simple and direct. It’s preachy, but deservedly so.

The writing is a bit flat and the episode suffers from an extended foot chase through the ship’s corridors, but the actual substance of the ending — which, like most of the premise, I won’t spoil — was unquestionably the perfect conclusion to this particular story. It stumbles a bit in the execution, but not at all in its intention. Gorshin is fucking marvelous, and the makeup — while also simple and direct — was impressive. It can’t be that easy to get such a perfect division on a human face.

You know, just thinking again about “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” makes it grow in my estimation. I wouldn’t rank it among the best in the series, but it’s guileless and sincere in a way that honestly impresses me more than its flaws disappoint me. And I’ll be fucked if its message didn’t hit home in 2021, after the few years we’ve just had.

So season three, to be clear, wasn’t a total write off. It was just frustrating, and frequently so.

There was an interesting (possibly unintentional) theme that I enjoyed, too. Season one felt like a series of what-if scenarios; The Twilight Zone in space, basically. Season two, as we discussed, felt like a longform examination of Kirk, who he is, how far he can be pushed, and what he could become if he isn’t careful. Season three seemed to focus more on other cultures and how they operate.

That is certainly something we explored in the first two seasons, but it was usually in relation to how the Enterprise crew affected or was affected by those cultures. That made complete sense; we have recurring characters for a reason. Here, though, a lot of what the Enterprise crew does boils down to observing, secretly aiding, or attempting to avoid. They often do interfere — what Prime Directive? — but, even then, the story seems to be more about what these cultures are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.

“The Paradise Syndrome” is about a largely peaceful group of natives who have no idea how close they’ve come to extinction. We learn about who they are, their history, and their customs through Kirk, who becomes a member of the tribe. “Wink of an Eye” is about a group of aliens who move too quickly to be seen by humans, and we explore both the advantages and drawbacks of that kind of existence. “Elaan of Troyius” is entirely about a political alliance that is about to be sealed by a marriage, with the Enterprise acting as little more than a ferry between nations.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is about a massive civil war that we never see, though we hear about its past and we see what it’s done to two characters caught in its midst. The central conflict in “The Lights of Zetar” revolves around the universe’s invaluable memory banks, records of histories beyond number. (It also, incidentally, features history’s single cutest librarian.) “The Cloud Minders” is about a specific — and quite literal — struggle between a lower and upper class.

So much of season three feels effectively alien, and I love it.

“The Lights of Zetar,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” and “The Tholian Web” all feature major appearances from creatures beyond the understanding of our limited human minds. And we get the inverse as well; there’s a genuinely sad, moving moment in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” during which an alien possesses a willing Spock, only to be overcome with sorrow for how brief and limited a human life is.

All of this stuff is good, and that’s just a small portion of it. Just about every episode explores a problem faced by a culture that’s going to continue dealing with the fallout of its own decisions long after the Enterprise moves along to its next adventure.

Each episode is like a window into a different show entirely, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s one of season three’s most impressive feats, even if the windows are not created equal.

I have a feeling that folks who have seen season three have noticed that I haven’t mentioned one particular episode at all.

So…let’s mention it.

When I started this proper journey through The Original Series, I’d already seen a handful of episodes. Those included “Balance of Terror” from season one and “Mirror, Mirror” from season two, which ended up being my favorites from those seasons. I can’t say that I was disappointed by that outcome (they are fantastic episodes of television), but it would have been nice if some other episode I hadn’t seen managed to surprise me instead.

I hadn’t seen a single episode from season three, though, so I had no idea what to expect, what I liked, or what I didn’t like.

No matter what, some episode would become my favorite of the batch. That could just mean it was the least objectionable one rather than anything that approached the greatness of my favorites from the first two seasons. In fact, I honestly doubted anything would come near those heights, especially as the season wore on and puttered along without steam.

Then, the second-to-last episode of this season (and The Original Series as a whole) hit me like a brick.

“All Our Yesterdays” is one of my favorite episodes and my biggest surprise during my little journey. It’s right up there with my two other favorites. It’s not only the best of the season; it’s one of Star Trek’s most magnificent achievements.

Probably coincidentally, each of our three leads this season is faced at some point with the question of where they will end up. Sure, they’re out there zipping around space and flirting with sexy aliens today, but where will they be tomorrow? Everybody ends up somewhere. Where will it be for our heroes?

Kirk raises this question and then ends up trying an answer on for size in “The Paradise Syndrome.” Bones is forced to confront this question in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” when he needs to decide if he’s going to spend his final days patching up wounds or enjoying some sort of brief, quiet retirement.

Then we have Spock, who must address the question in “All Our Yesterdays,” and it’s fucking devastating.

The episode sees the Enterprise crew heading over to a planet that is on the brink of destruction. They’re there to help, but nobody is around to be helped. The residents of the planet have all evacuated…into the past. Everybody chose a destination, and they escaped tomorrow by heading into yesterday. It’s a neat little sci-fi idea. Our landing party doesn’t quite understand the situation, however, and they end up popping into the planet’s past themselves. First Kirk into one time period, then Bones and Spock into another.

For Kirk, his problem is straightforward. He needs to figure out how to return to the present and reconnect with the rest of his team before the planet goes kaboom.

For Bones and Spock, stranded much farther into the past, it’s a different story. They’re stuck in frozen tundra without heat or shelter. Kirk has the relative luxury of being able to think about a solution; Bones and Spock are minutes from death.

The whole “people escaping into the past” premise can go a thousand different ways. This is already one very good way.

Then it gets better.

In fact, it gets so good that it hurts.

Bones and Spock are rescued by a woman who never expected to see another person for the rest of her life. She did not evacuate into this time period; she was sent here as punishment for a crime of civil disobedience. It was, essentially, a death sentence.

The more time we spend with her, the easier it is to believe that the punishment was unfair. She’s a good person. She’s a kind soul. She’s caring and friendly. Stranding her in this icy hell was a cruel injustice. She wasn’t sent here to keep her follow citizens safe; she was sent here to silence her.

She’s been stranded here for years with no hope of returning. In fact, everybody who has left for the past has undergone a process that will kill them if they return. For some of them, it’s to keep them from returning to the impending death of their planet. For others, it’s to keep them caged where they are. This is her life; scrounging for food in a world unfit for human habitation, alone, living in misery and dying slowly.

Until she finds Bones and Spock. She rescued them, yes, but their presence has also rescued her. She is no longer alone. She has companions who can help. Friends. Maybe, in Spock, a lover. Someone to care about and to be cared about by.

This actor, Mariette Hartley, is so gentle, and has such kind eyes, and is so clearly stuck here unfairly, that it’s impossible not to feel strongly for her character. For her predicament. For her very real damnation at the hands of a society that has not thought about her since the moment she was banished forever.

And Spock, unable to find any way back to his captain, or even out of the past, begins to consider a life here. With her. Helping her grow crops and stay safe. Speaking with her. Exchanging stories of completely different worlds and histories. The episode gives his Vulcan impulses a reason to regress, but I don’t believe they’re necessary; Spock feels love, he feels fear, he feels happiness, he feels sorrow, as much as he wished he didn’t. Realizing that he’s stuck in a hopeless world, he’s going to experience a lot of emotions, and they are not going to be pleasant. Realizing further that he’s at least stuck with…well…Mariette Hartley, he’s going to experience even more emotions.

The man’s internal conflict ramps up over the course of the hour to the point that it seems like he is losing his mind. It’s real and it’s sad and it’s even a little scary.

When Kirk manages to find a way to reunite the trio, Spock is faced with the very real dilemma of having to choose between two futures. Does he return to his captain and live that life, or does he stay here and live this one? His choice is soon taken from him, in an even sadder swing of the hammer; since he and Bones slipped into the past together, they can only escape it together. If he stays here, he’s robbing the good doctor of his future. As such, he is obligated to return. A choice between two futures has suddenly become one entire future snatched away before his eyes.

And poor Mariette Hartley, who against all possibility found companionship in the wasteland — with intelligent, friendly people — is left alone again. How much more must it sting, to have to adjust a second time to being alone. How much pain must now follow that brief window of relief. How much sorrow must she feel, knowing that she had what she could not keep.

It’s — again — fucking devastating, and the episode plays it perfectly. In “The City on the Edge of Forever” we similarly met a doomed love interest, but that love interest was always doomed. Joan Collins died in the timeline in which she didn’t meet Kirk, and she died in the timeline in which she did. Nothing really changed except for the fact that Kirk (and we) got to know her. That’s why it hurt. She wasn’t a name in the obituaries; she was a person. In all truth, she was no worse off for the experience, however sad and upsetting her end might have been to us.

Mariette Hartley is worse off. She had adjusted, she had her adjustment shattered, and she was left alone to adjust again. Only this time in more pain, more hopeless, with memories of another, more recent loss.

I love “All Our Yesterdays.” And if Star Trek had ended just one episode sooner than it had, this would have been the final chapter of The Original Series. What a perfect way to go out. Instead we got “Turnabout Intruder,” and the nicest thing I can say about that episode is that watching it didn’t make all of my teeth fall out.

And so that’s it for season three, and for The Original Series. Without question, I enjoyed it. But I expected that. I expected highlights and lowlights. I expected to laugh with the show and at the show at different times. I expected that there would be moments and episodes that impressed me.

But it was also a journey full of surprises, and none of those was bigger or more appreciated than “All Our Yesterdays,” which ripped my heart out and stomped on it in a way that impressed the hell out of me.

Season three was rough going much of the time, but there were still moments that reminded me of why Star Trek was adored in the first place. And there was one episode that would have justified an entire season of “Spock’s Brain.”

Speaking of which, here is every “Spock’s Brain” ranked from worst to best. And please, let me know your favorites from this or the previous seasons. Discussing the show here has been great fun, and I thank you for joining me on this long-overdue trip.

24) Plato’s Stepchildren
23) The Empath
22) The Way to Eden
21) The Savage Curtain
20) Spock’s Brain
19) Turnabout Intruder
18) Whom Gods Destroy
17) And the Children Shall Lead
16) The Mark of Gideon
15) Requiem for Methuselah
14) The Cloud Minders
13) That Which Survives
12) Wink of an Eye
11) The Tholian Web
10) Elaan of Troyius
9) Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
8) The Lights of Zetar
7) The Paradise Syndrome
6) Spectre of the Gun
5) The Enterprise Incident
4) For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky
3) Day of the Dove
2) Is There in Truth No Beauty?
1) All Our Yesterdays

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

What the hell, I’ll keep watching Star Trek

I’m going to open my discussion of Star Trek: The Original series season two with some unexpected disappointment. Why not, eh?

My journey through Star Trek has taken place almost entirely offline. You got my summary post of season one, and I’ve exchanged messages with a few friends, but nearly all of my discussion about the show has occurred in reality, with the friends and coworkers I interact with normally.

They’ve been very — impressively, even — good at allowing me to come to my own conclusions. Very, very rarely do they tell me ahead of time of a development to come or how an episode is overall received by fans. When it does happen, it’s been stuff that’s pretty obvious. (Chekov joining the cast for the second season, “The City on the Edge of Forever” being rightly beloved, etc.) Beyond that, they’ve volunteered very little that I didn’t bring up — or question — myself in the course of conversation.

And yet — and yet! — there is one thing I heard many times over: Season two is a huge improvement over season one.

This made so much sense to me that I didn’t really think twice. Honest question: Can you name many successful series in which the second season did not represent a notable improvement over the first?

In a collaborative medium — such as television, of course — there’s a lot to learn. No matter how well you plan ahead of time, you’ll face a deluge of curveballs once things are underway.

Actors will bring with them their own talents and limitations. Costumes and sets will be limited by a budget, which itself is likely to fluctuate. Continuity (correctly, in my opinion) goes out the window as the writers discover better, more fruitful ideas as the series progresses. Tight deadlines prevent you from producing a show as strong as you might like. Injury or illness takes people out of the rotation when you need them most.

And that’s just a small sampling of very superficial considerations. My point is that you can’t predict or account for every obstacle you will face, and that’s especially the case in season one of whatever show you’re making.

By season two, you’ve necessarily had to adjust and account for those things at least once. New obstacles will certainly present themselves, but you’ve at least got a handle on the old ones. The pool of “unknowns” has shrunk. You are in a position now to create something that is more in line with the vision in your head.

So of course season two of The Original Series would be a huge step forward. I could have guessed that on my own, but it was nice to have it confirmed by long-time fans. It meant that I had something to look forward to.

Then I watched season two, and…man, I am not sure that I agree.

I do believe it’s better. Full stop. But I don’t think it’s better to any degree that is worth mentioning.

The great episodes don’t really stand above the great episodes from season one. The lousy episodes are no better than their earlier equivalents, either. And I’m not sure that there are a larger number of great episodes or a smaller number of lousy ones.

I think I can say that the baseline level of competence has risen, but not enough that it has any measurable difference on the quality of the season as a whole.

Of course, I ended up liking season one — quite a lot — so this is a relative disappointment only. I was prepared for season two to blow the previous season away, and it really, truly did not. I’d love to know what folks believe sets season two so high above season one, because as a newcomer I’m kind of baffled.

What I can say for sure is that the pacing is, on the whole, much better this time around.

Better pacing doesn’t turn a bad story into a good one (nor does poor pacing turn a good story into a bad one), but the journey is much more enjoyable for it. Rarely did I feel that an episode dragged (“The Immunity Syndrome” aside, as it was clearly intended to drag and is just as clearly fucking unwatchable), whereas the majority of episodes in season one had at least one dreary stretch that had me checking my watch.

But that’s about the only real improvement I can cite. I’m genuinely curious to know what other folks think.

The most obvious change is the addition to the cast of Chekov, played by the fucking adorable Walter Koenig. I love Chekov, but I can’t imagine that his debut is the reason people rate season two so highly.

Regardless, he’s an excellent addition. Everybody on the Enterprise has their lighter moments, but young Chekov has a far higher percentage of them, which means that nearly all of his scenes are pleasant and entertaining.

His youth also allows him to illustrate something we saw very little of in season one: a lack of discipline. Chekov is intelligent and accomplished (is there a greater intellectual honor than filling in for Spock whenever necessary?), but he lacks the gravity and authority of his older comrades.

In season one we definitely met some flawed crewmen, but Chekov registers more as someone who just hasn’t had enough time to iron out his flaws. He’s competent and capable, but needs a bit of polish. It’s an interesting kind of character to have as a fixture on the bridge.

In my season one post, I spilled a lot of ink wondering why it took until season two for anyone to think to fill the navigator’s chair with a single, recurring character. Ultimately, I let the issue drop because I knew this would happen with Chekov in season two.

…and yet, now that I’m here, I’m not even sure that that’s the case.

Chekov’s arrival coincides with Sulu’s absence. George Takei was unavailable for many episodes because he was off filming a movie, apparently. So I wonder, was Chekov introduced — as I’d assumed — because it was wasteful to invent / cast a different navigator for every episode? Or was he introduced because Sulu, the only other recurring character on that part of the bridge, would be absent for much of the season?

The amount of puzzlement the navigator’s chair has brought me is beyond measure, and I won’t belabor the point any further, but good lord, what a strange situation.

This is a case in which the BluRay running order is clearly much different from production. Surely Takei would have been absent for one long stretch of recording, but in my experience watching season two, Sulu is there one week, Chekov is there the next, then Sulu, then Chekov. Rarely are they both in the same episode; one really does feel like a replacement for the other.

That’s a bit disappointing, because some of my favorite material ended up being the rare interactions between the two.

Chekov and Sulu have this natural, recognizable sort of default camaraderie that comes from sitting next to each other every day. They don’t necessarily know each other very well, but they share little quips and commiserations out of proximity alone. They are coworkers who don’t dislike each other but who also — almost certainly — spend no time together after the shift ends.

That, to me, is so much more interesting than two lifelong chums would be. And it’s probably more believable, as well.

Surprisingly, Nurse Chapel becomes a semi-regular character in season two. She existed in season one, but only barely, appearing in just one or two episodes (if I remember correctly), and those were early in the season.

I was glad to see that a character who seemed forgotten ended up playing a larger role this time around. I’d be lying if I said she got all that much to do, but her presence meant that we could get scenes in sickbay whenever Bones was out gallivanting with the landing team.

Speaking of Bones, the only other casting change that I noticed was the overdue promotion of DeForest Kelley to the main credits. He appears in every episode now, which is very welcome as far as I’m concerned. The guy is still my pick for MVP from both an acting and characterization standpoint. There’s never a scene with Bones that is not elevated for his presence.

And since I’m destined to gush about Kelley / Bones all over again, I might as well tie it into my favorite thing about the season: its willingness to explore character.

We had plenty of opportunity to discover who these people were in season one, and I’d argue that just about all of the characterization was effective and well handled. Season two, though, gets to take it a step further. Since we already know who these people are, we are able to delve into what makes them that way.

Perhaps because Bones was already damned well realized in the first season, we don’t get too much that centers around him here. His “big” episode is “Friday’s Child,” which I quite liked in spite of its obvious flaws.

The crew journeys to a planet that Dr. McCoy has visited in the past, where he attempted to bring medical knowledge to the civilization there. His experience of this culture — his understanding of their nature and their customs — proves invaluable in a way that I thought was great. He even gets to do some excellent work with guest star Julie Newmar, seeing him pinched between his obligations as a doctor and his obligations as a visitor on behalf of Starfleet.

Overall, though, Bones shines mainly in support roles. I’m hoping we get at least another episode dedicated to him in season three, because I really do think the character can carry more than he’s been given, but the guy is so great as a sidekick that I can’t complain.

He’s insightful and hilarious by turns. The hardest I’ve laughed in a while came in “Bread and Circuses,” when he is tossed into a gladiatorial fight to the death. His opponent — who is a friend — goes easy on him, but tells Bones to at least defend himself. “I am defending myself!” he responds, and Kelley’s delivery is absolutely perfect. There’s surprise, frustration, and fear behind it, and yet it’s still comical.

In fact, “Bread and Circuses” might be one of his best episodes, even if his presence there is no larger than in most others.

There’s a lovely scene in which he and Spock are imprisoned together, and he’s worried to the point that he lets his gruff demeanor fall just enough that he’s able to speak to Spock like a friend, with genuine warmth. Spock responds…well, like Spock. Cold and detached, same as ever. “I’m trying to thank you, you pointed-eared hobgoblin,” McCoy says, and it’s funny and emotional at the same time.

I’ll give the writing its due credit here, but Kelley absolutely elevates this stuff, giving it resonance that works far beyond the words typed onto a script. (However good those words might be.)

Spock gets a pair of important episodes about who he is, and they’re both among the season’s best. Each of them focuses on the struggle between his Vulcan half and human half, and each of them tips the balance in a different direction.

“Amok Time” is by far the more famous one, showing his Vulcan urges completely overtake his humanity to the point that he finds himself in a fight to the death with his best friend. (McCoy is the hero of this one, settling matters in a way that’s both entirely out of left field and completely appropriate to the situation. Just need to toss my man Bones another high five.)

It ends with Spock asserting his human side, in spite of the fact that he knows his fellow Vulcans won’t understand. Having lost his betrothed to another man, he congratulates him, but then adds, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

It’s a pained and painful acceptance of the part of himself he works hardest to keep hidden, and it’s executed brilliantly.

The other one, “Journey to Babel,” approaches things from the other direction. Here, it is Spock’s humanity that is tested to the point of agony.

His father falls ill and is in need of a transfusion, which only Spock can provide. Easy enough, except that with Kirk indisposed, Spock is in command of the Enterprise. No Vulcan would shirk his duty for the sake of something as sentimental as saving a loved one. Spock’s father is one person, after all; there are hundreds aboard the Enterprise. Clearly the logical thing is to fulfill your obligation to them. No Vulcan would disagree. In fact, Spock’s father won’t even disagree as he finds himself at death’s door.

But that human side of Spock — personified in this episode by his human mother — won’t let the matter remain settled. He ultimately gives into this side, but bonds with his father afterward by picking on her (in a genuinely good-natured way) for her tendency to put emotion over logic. After an episode of human struggle, he snaps back to being a Vulcan.

Each episode raises the question of Spock’s nature, and each one provides a different answer. It’s interesting, and though I far prefer “Journey to Babel,” they’re both handled extremely well, with a level of care and intelligence I wouldn’t have expected.

Even Scotty — who I have to assume was an unexpected breakout character last season — is explored in a pair of episodes. In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” we see him fall in love with a woman who doesn’t quite feel the same way toward him, and he’s willing to sacrifice himself to keep her safe. In “Wolf in the Fold,” we see him work through some off-screen trauma, though it does land him in a different kind of hot water, which ends up being even worse.

Then there’s “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which sees him calm and clear-headed as a rowdy group of Klingons insults their captain…but he throws a punch the moment they insult his beloved ship.

His runaway highlight of the season though is his attempt to outdrink an alien visitor in “By Any Other Name.” The drunk acting between the two characters is a fucking delight. It’s played for obvious comedy, but there’s something genuine and identifiable about the way they go from being distant to being pally to seeming like they’re about to fight before they both pass out.

Absolutely wonderful stuff.

Kirk, understandably, gets the most attention as a character, and the criticism of Shatner’s acting that I’ve been hearing for years seems even further divorced from reality.

I’ll put it right out there: I love Kirk. He seems to have been written in a way that positions him as a role model, but also, crucially, as an achievable one.

He’s not infallible; he is a human being as flawed as any other, but he works through his flaws. He earns every ounce of respect and admirability he commands. Kirk doesn’t coast on his good looks or his charm, and he doesn’t take his success for granted.

All of which is very interesting, because season two explores him mainly through other characters. Characters in positions similar to Kirk, but who have let their flaws take over, or who have thought too much of themselves, or who have taken something for granted with disastrous results.

We encounter a number of other members of Starfleet who Kirk remembers fondly, and then we see just what could happen if Kirk were to fail to think through the results of his actions, or let himself take the easy way out at any point.

In “Bread and Circuses,” Captain Merik turns his crew over to a brutal world because he doesn’t have the integrity to fight back…and though he finds himself rewarded for doing so, it’s hollow, and feels like no kind of victory to him.

In “Patterns of Force,” a historian attempts to provide a framework for order to a chaotic society, without quite thinking far enough ahead to realize that Nazi Germany might not be the best example.

In “The Omega Glory,” Captain Tracey has manipulated a civilization into a state of eternal conflict simply to keep himself safe after being stranded among them.

All of these examples suggest alternate paths that Kirk could follow. He won’t, but he could. What’s more, each of these men could be said (to varying degrees) to have been doing what they felt was right, given their difficult situations. Kirk follows his gut on a weekly basis. Surely it’s just a matter of time before that gut leads him to the wrong decision…

In each of these cases, things have spiraled out of control. In each of these cases, the men in question probably got to enjoy a good, long stretch of believing everything has worked out correctly. In each of these cases, we meet them after they can no longer convince themselves that that’s the case. They’re lost, and the best they can do is try endlessly to justify to themselves what they’ve done, because nobody else is around to listen.

But these are all hypothetical paths for some alternate version of Kirk to take. There’s another alternate Kirk we meet this season, and it’s far less hypothetical.

In “The Doomsday Machine,” we meet Commodore Decker, who has lost his entire crew and his ship to a creature of unknowable power. He made the decision to beam them down to a planet, in the hopes that he could save them. He could not; when Kirk finds him, he is the lone survivor of the attack.

Decker made the best decision he could possibly have made at the time, but that didn’t matter. It was a no-win situation, and he lost. The experience broke him. It’s a tragic performance that does excellent work selling just how busted up this man is, just how much he’s lost, just how tormented he feels about outliving the crew that was entrusted to him.

He’s beamed over to the Enterprise for bed rest while Kirk attempts to get the disabled ship up and running. While there, the Enterprise spots the beast…and Decker, out of his fucking mind, assumes command.

He outranks everybody else on the ship. There’s nothing they can do aside from follow his orders. He single-mindedly pursues the monster that could — and certainly will — eat the Enterprise for lunch. The desperate glances between crewmen who reluctantly carry out the orders that will bring them to their deaths are chilling.

They are marching, step by step, into their graves, and there is nothing they can do.

In the end, surprise surprise, Kirk comes back and takes over. The entire crew is understandably relieved to have someone sane in the captain’s chair again.

They all mop their brows and say, “Whew!” A close call, but they will never serve under Decker again. Roll credits.

Then, many episodes later, we have “Obsession.”

Here, Kirk encounters a beast that killed his crewmates early in his Starfleet career. He always believed he made the wrong decision, though he was found to have not been at fault for the disaster. Regardless, Kirk unexpectedly crosses paths with it again, and is determined to destroy the thing this time. He orders the ship onward, toward the unstoppable beast, against all reason, against the counsel of his most trusted friends, against the protestations of his crew…

And suddenly they are serving under Decker again. But it’s Kirk. Which means they can’t sit around waiting for Kirk to beam over and get the crazy man out of the chair. Nobody else is coming.

Kirk meets many alternate versions of himself — versions with different appearances, ranks, histories, but versions of himself nonetheless — and gets to end each episode thankful that he’d never make the decisions that would get him to that point.

Except in the case of Decker, because he makes exactly the same decisions, endangers his own crew in exactly the same way, failing to learn one of the most important lessons this season tried to teach him.

In my rankings below, I honestly wasn’t sure whether to place “The Doomsday Machine” or “Obsession” higher. They chart similar ground and they each do so excellently. You can swap those two around if you like; I won’t mind.

Ultimately it came down either to giving the nod to a truly fantastic guest character, or to the horror of seeing Kirk drift so easily and naturally into the status of “cautionary tale” for whatever captain would happen to come along next. I went with the latter. I’d be no less satisfied with the former.

We get some other confirmations of flaws in Kirk along the way, though they aren’t given nearly as much time as we get in “Obsession.”

In “The Deadly Years” we see him clinging to command of the Enterprise well after he’s lost his faculties and mental acuity. In “The Ultimate Computer” we see him fret about losing his job to a machine, with McCoy both comforting and chiding him: “We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.” (Guys, McCoy is fucking great.)

Possibly not coincidentally, that episode also gives us an alternate Kirk: Dr. Daystrom, another hotshot who showed promise young, and then became desperate to avoid falling into irrelevance.

All of which sounds like this season was pretty excellent, right?

Well…yeah! Kind of. For the most part. At times.

Not all of the episodes I’ve highlighted above are actually good…it’s just that, as with season one, even the worst episodes have something to recommend them.

Also like season one, but which I didn’t discuss there, the episodes have a strange tendency to take a hard left turn at various points, becoming something else entirely.

“The Omega Glory” is a particularly egregious example; it begins promisingly, with the Enterprise finding a derelict ship full of crystalized crewmen. What happened? It’s a good mystery and, as cheap as it certainly was, a nice visual. Then we take a hard left turn to a planet on which Americans and Communists both sprouted up independently of Earth and Kirk explains their — also identical — U.S. Constitution to them in what I hope to Christ is the most embarrassing thing Star Trek ever does.

“Wolf in the Fold” is a strange one, too. It starts with a decently effective whodunit, at the heart of which is poor, baffled Scotty. He’s the only suspect in a series of grisly murders. We know he didn’t do it, of course, but we can still have some fun learning how, exactly, he was framed. Well, the joke’s on us because after a hard left turn the episode is about the ghost of Jack the Ripper who now haunts the Enterprise‘s computers.

It’s not always a bad thing. I really liked “By Any Other Name,” but I don’t know if I’m impressed or confused by how easily it swings from being an episode with a genuine threat to being overtly comic. Both halves work well on their own, but it really feels as though everyone involved with the first half of the episode died suddenly in their sleep and a completely different set of folks were brought in to finish it.

That about does it for anything I can really say with any thought behind it, but I do have a few other, scattered thoughts.

Firstly, Harry Mudd got robbed. Roger C. Carmel is an absolute riot in the role, but “I, Mudd” and last season’s “Mudd’s Women” are abysmal pieces of television. I’m told he doesn’t appear in season three, and that’s unfortunate because if any character needs an episode good enough to redeem him, it’s poor old Mudd. The guy should have been the show’s Sideshow Bob, but it feels like the writers just sort of shrugged and figured Carmel could carry his episodes on charisma alone. I can’t blame them — dude is amazing — but come on.

Secondly, I had somehow gotten it into my mind that “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was the episode with television’s first interracial kiss. I was wrong — that must happen in season three at some point — but I do sort of wish it had happened in this episode. It would have been one of the only redeemable things about that fucking mess.

Thirdly, “Mirror, Mirror” is a god-damned masterpiece. I think I still prefer season one’s “Balance of Terror,” but I was genuinely impressed by every last one of the choices made in “Mirror, Mirror.” It’s not surprising to me at all that the concepts of mirror universes and evil versions of characters became so common after this. Many Star Trek episodes have solid concepts, but this one nails the execution as well anything possibly could. It’s as brilliant as “Catspaw” is dumb. And “Catspaw” is really, deeply, profoundly dumb.

Fourthly, I prefer the theme tune without vocals. No idea how much sacrilege I’m practicing here but, well, there ya go.

Finally, I’m sorry, I almost touched upon this in my season one review but I can’t keep it inside anymore: Everyone on this show is hot as fuuuuuuuuck.

Shatner is gorgeous, and he’s gorgeous in a way that doesn’t lock him into “1960s heartthrob” status. He is just a genuinely great looking human being. Spock isn’t my cup of tea, but his beard in “Mirror, Mirror” absolutely had me swooning. Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov are all adorable in such very different ways. Uhura is quite possibly perfect; if there is a straight man out there who isn’t attracted to her, I’d have to ask what it is they find attractive about women; she certainly seems to satisfy every possible answer to that question. And Bones is probably the least conventionally attractive character on the show but let me be very, very clear about the fact that I would make out with him and I’d do it proudly.

Whew. Okay. Anyway, point is, season two was pretty great, but season one wasn’t much less great. If season two’s quality was inflated, I’m glad to hear it; all I’ve heard about season three is how much of a step down it is, so maybe that will turn out to be an exaggeration as well.

I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. I’ll be diving into that next. And I can finally reveal that, in all honesty, I only started watching Star Trek so I could eventually see the legendary “Spock’s Brain.”

Anyway, everything above is just my opinion and you are more than welcome to disagree. In fact, please do! I’d like to end on some indisputable fact, though, so here is every season two episode of Star Trek: The Original Series ranked from worst to best.

26) Catspaw
25) Who Mourns for Adonais?
24) The Immunity Syndrome
23) The Changeling
22) The Gamesters of Triskelion
21) The Omega Glory
20) A Private Little War
19) The Apple
18) Assignment: Earth
17) Return to Tomorrow
16) A Piece of the Action
15) I, Mudd
14) Wolf in the Fold
13) Patterns of Force
12) Metamorphosis
11) Friday’s Child
10) Bread and Circuses
9) The Deadly Years
8) Amok Time
7) The Trouble with Tribbles
6) By Any Other Name
5) The Ultimate Computer
4) The Doomsday Machine
3) Obsession
2) Journey to Babel
1) Mirror, Mirror

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

What the hell, I’ll watch Star Trek

What did you accomplish during the deadliest year any of us have experienced? If you’re like me, you’ve accomplished the square root of jack squat. But you’ve probably consumed a lot of entertainment, perhaps even stuff you’d never gotten around to experiencing before. For me, my big “late discovery” was Star Trek.

I’m a nerd. (DID YOU KNOW?) For whatever reason, though, Star Trek never appealed to me enough to sit down and watch it properly. I had an interest in it from a historical standpoint — it’s an important part of television history, before we even consider whether or not it was any good — but that was about it. I figured I’d get to it eventually, but there was certainly no rush.

Then 2020 happened, and nearly all of my time was spent alone, indoors. If not under those circumstances, when?

Let me say one thing up front: I will not be reviewing each episode of Star Trek. A friend of the website — and all around ace human being — has done that already. She’s done it better and more thoroughly than I possibly could. Go read those. If you’d like to pretend I wrote them, just imagine they contain a lot more spelling errors. Instead, I think I’m just going to record some loose and disconnected thoughts as I go. Lucky you!

Anyway, Star Trek. It was the first iteration of the show — what we now call The Original Series, the Kirk ‘n’ Spock one — that interested me. I had and have no doubt that the later series are worth watching. People adore The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine sounds like it’s right up my alley. It’s The Original Series that I figured I should start with, though. Even if it were terrible, I at least knew I could enjoy its importance.

It’s taken me a few months to get through the first season. That’s because…well, I have to be honest here: Much of Star Trek is rough going.

Prior to starting this proper watch through, my experience of The Original Series was limited to a few bits caught on TV here and there, some hand-selected episodes that were officially posted to YouTube around a decade ago, and The Motion Picture. When I tell people that, they say, “But that’s the worst movie!” Maybe that’s true, but I liked it; it didn’t sour me in any way toward whatever the show would or wouldn’t offer.

That was the entirety of my first-hand experience. I don’t remember why those episodes were posted to YouTube, but I imagine it was to celebrate some kind of anniversary. William Shatner provided some intro clips, but I don’t remember if I watched those. Some of the episodes I enjoyed. Some of them I did not enjoy. Nothing, apparently, encouraged me to sit down and watch the show from beginning to end.

Starting The Original Series in mid-2020, I wasn’t convinced I’d get much out of it. The season is very slow to start, and it’s clearly finding its footing. I mean that in every regard, by the way. The writing isn’t great. The actors don’t get much to work with. Characters change roles a number of times before they settle into their actual stations. (Or get ejected without comment.) The pacing is slow to the point that genuine boredom set in many times.

All of which…well…it’s a new show doing new things. It’s going Where No Man Has Gone Before. There’s bound to be some teething trouble. I’d find those things easier to excuse if there were interesting ideas behind them. Basically, I’d go easier on the execution if I recognized a strong vision or if it had compelling stories to tell. Maybe the show didn’t quite know how to tell its stories, but if they were worth telling, I’d sympathize with the difficulty it has in getting them out.

Instead, though, a long run of episodes in the first stretch can be boiled down to “something weird got on the ship.” It feels almost daringly uncreative. I realize that fans reading that sentence will think I’m being dismissive of the show, and I understand that perspective. Instead, though, I’m really just trying to convey my bafflement. The show isn’t uncreative, and yet it takes many, many episodes before it demonstrates its creativity in any narratively notable way.

Sitting down and setting an hour of my time aside to watch yet another installment in which Kirk and Spock try to identify and stop whatever weird something got onto the ship this time was not compelling to me. Each of those episodes, to some degree, had interesting ideas scattered around, but it felt so dull and repetitive that I’d have to make myself watch the show.

I’m glad I did, however, because around halfway through the season, something unpredictable happened: The show got very good, and reliably so.

I’ll mention here that I’m going entirely by the running order on my BluRay box set. I understand that the episodes may have aired in another sequence, and they were certainly produced in another sequence, but around the rough midpoint of the season as I experienced it, things actually started to click. The stories got more creative. The characters started interacting more believably. I wanted to know what weird something would get onto the ship next because I could count on it being entertaining.

At the beginning of season one, I wasn’t quite sure why I was bothering. Now that I’ve hit the end, I’m excited about the prospect of season two.

All of which is to say that season one of The Original Series retroactively became a fascinating study of a show finding its footing. Of course, we’ve all seen shows struggle a bit at the start, but The Original Series finds its footing so slowly — with so many false starts and dead ends and lessons stubbornly unlearned — that it’s ripe for autopsy. Whereas most shows make the bulk of their mistakes off camera, The Original Series seems to be making every last one of them in public. I’m sure that’s incorrect, but compared to most shows it feels correct.

My intention here isn’t to beat up on Star Trek. Its accomplishments are genuine and rightly celebrated, but I will say that there are clear examples of the show not quite understanding itself.

Sometimes it’s superficial. Spock’s Vulcan makeup gets less extreme (perhaps just better applied) as the season progresses. Also, he’s sometimes referred to as Vulcan and sometimes Vulcanian.

Even when terminology is consistent, the cast doesn’t always agree on how to pronounce it; it’s both Klingon and clingin’. Costumes change. The ship has a crusty old doctor with no personality until it gets McCoy, though the sequence of the episodes makes it feel like McCoy was the first doctor and was temporarily replaced. Yeoman Rand is an important recurring character until she vanishes and is replaced by rotating yeomen who are neither important nor recurring. Sulu was on the medical staff before he was suddenly, without explanation, the helmsman.

Then there’s The Guy Next to Sulu, the navigator, which is the most puzzling thing of all. I know Chekov shows up in season two, filling that role permanently, but how in the heck did that position survive all of season one without a regular actor?

This might take a bit of explanation, but bear with me, because it both irritated and fascinated me.

There are many miscellaneous crew members who dot the background, even on the bridge. That’s okay. I’d wager most of them only appeared in a single episode, but I can’t know that for sure because they’re rarely the focus of any given shot (and never the focus of any given scene). They come and go as extras do.

The navigator is another story. In every episode, a different person is in that seat, which is notable because that seat is near the center of the frame any time we get a good shot of the bridge. The navigator — whomever he is during any given week — is at the focus of many shots. What’s more, he’s sometimes even important to the plot. He gets lines. Kirk issues commands; he replies. He interacts with the others. He’s always a different person but he’s often involved with the larger goings-on.

Which means that — for each episode — they had to go through the trouble of finding somebody. Of auditioning him to make sure he could act. Of fitting him for a uniform and tailoring it to him. Of rehearsing with him. Of reshooting scenes when he inevitably botches his lines. It was a process to keep recasting that position. Surely at some point somebody would have said, “It would be easier to just cast one actor and keep him around.” Right? Well, maybe they did say that between season one and season two, but good lord, how did nobody say it sooner?

It’s strange. The easier solution — creating a character — was also the better one. They made it more difficult on themselves for no true benefit to the show, themselves, or the audience. Many positions on the ship had rotating crewmen, but this one was front and center in every episode. It’s bizarre.

Of course, the lack of a recurring character means you could do stories in which that character has a memorable disappearance. I’m thinking of Bailey in “The Corbomite Maneuver” or — more notably — Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” In neither case, though, did that character have to be the navigator. One just had to be kind of shitty at his job and the other only had to be on the bridge at an unfortunate moment. Those could be any position on the ship. And even if you disagree and feel that both characters had to be navigators for whatever reason, quietly rotating cast members for 29 episodes only so it could be important to two episodes is a monumentally lousy idea.

Again, though, I’m not intending to nitpick; as a study of television production and the creative decisions behind it, though, the omni-navigator is so odd and interesting to me. I can’t figure out the reasoning behind it, and I can even less understand the reason they didn’t cast someone the moment they realized the position might be an important one. There’s even precedent for it; as I mentioned, McCoy wasn’t originally the doctor, and Scotty and Sulu are both examples of permanent characters taking over previously rotating roles.

Ah well. Overall, once the series hit its groove at about the midway point, it got genuinely good. Okay, I admit not all of them were genuinely good, but they at least stayed interesting, and the characters were finally strong enough that it was worth spending time with them, even if you couldn’t care less about what any of them were actually doing.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise to me was DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, who is easily the best actor of the bunch. (Which I don’t say lightly. Read on.)

That was another puzzling thing to me; I’ve always heard people talk about Kirk and Spock in regards to The Original Series. Those were the two characters who took up the bulk of the discussion around the show. Every so often, to varying degrees, I’d also hear about Sulu, about Uhura, about Scotty. And that’s all fine and good, but why did I never hear much about Bones?

Sweet lord, McCoy is far and away the best part of the show. He’s the most consistently human and interestingly characterized person on the ship, at least so far. He’s competent but not infallible. He’s intellectual but able to fight back. He’s stern but fucking hilarious.

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy also get a nice range of material to work with, but with Kelley, I rarely feel as if he’s acting. When he’s invested in his work as a doctor, I believe he knows what he’s doing. When he pushes back against his superiors because he disagrees with them on moral grounds, I believe in his convictions. When he deadpans a killer punchline, I believe that he knows exactly how funny he is but isn’t impressed with himself. There’s so much going on nearly every time Bones is on the screen, and I was always disappointed when he didn’t show up at all in an episode. This is the guy I would have liked to spend time with.

As I said, The Original Series stumbles with some of its characterizations. For the most part, though, those are confined to the season’s earliest episodes. By the midpoint, they’ve settled into who they are. By the end, they seem to be fully formed. Bones, weirdly, had the opposite trajectory. He arrived fully formed, then, at the very end of the season, the show wasn’t quite sure who he should be.

He goes from being reliably (and crucially) competent to being a fucking boob and getting dangerously close to being a shitty doctor. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” he accidentally jabs himself with a needle, something no sober doctor has ever done in the whole of human history. In “Operation — Annihilate!” he blinds Spock as part of a medical experiment, learning a matter of seconds later that there was no need to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a bad day at work. But when it’s a doctor — and when that doctor’s bad days involve blinding crewmates and rewriting history so that the Nazis win the war — you really can’t write these things off as moments of inattention. He goes from being the crew’s prize asset to being its biggest liability.

That is, of course, a problem with the writing rather than the acting, and please allow me to say that the criticism I’ve been hearing for decades about terrible acting on The Original Series has been completely overblown. Nearly always, the moments of bad acting — which do exist — go hand in hand with bad writing. In short, nobody could deliver some of that dialogue effectively, and it’s wrong to blame the actors in those cases. When the writing is good, the actors inevitably rise to meet it.

This is especially true of Shatner as Kirk, which surprises me because he’s usually the one singled out for ridicule. Shatner does excellent work most of the time, and serviceable work in nearly all other cases.

People like to poke fun at how stilted his line delivery can be, and his seemingly unnatural pauses, but in context there’s nearly always a reason. Sometimes it’s because he’s shifting between demeanors, moving from a personally emotional response to a professional response of leadership. His pauses indicate an internal effort to move from one “voice” to another. Out of context, it sounds like an actor struggling to deliver a line. In context, it’s a character sectioning off parts of himself and opening up others.

I’ve noticed also that the “unnatural pauses” come when Kirk is thinking on his feet, buying himself time. When he’s on the spot — and potentially in danger — he chooses his words carefully. He starts a thought not knowing where it will end up because he has to say something. A lesser actor would communicate this by saying “ummm…” or “well…” or stammering, but Kirk has enough control that he’s instead able to parcel out silence as he navigates his conversational way forward. Again, out of context it seems like the guy forgot his line. In context, it can be riveting, as we discover Kirk’s next bluff or linguistic feint right along with him.

And since I’ve spoken about both McCoy and Kirk I might as well share my thoughts on Spock, which aren’t entirely solid at this point. I like Nimoy and I like the character, to be clear. What I like most, however, is how wonderfully his lack of emotion turns out to be bullshit.

One other thing I did during 2020 was work my way through the Witcher books. (I’ve finished all aside from one stand-alone novel.) In those books, Witchers — like Vulcans — are said to be without emotion. Yet, it’s not true. Geralt, our Witcher protagonist, falls in love. He fondly raises a young girl entrusted to him. He cares about his mentor. He regrets many of his decisions. He frequently helps others not for coin or through obligation but because it’s the right thing to do.

And yet characters in that world meet him, assume he feels no emotion, and treat him as such. He doesn’t correct any of them. Some folks see through him, yes, but Geralt himself allows them to believe this. He even, I think it’s fair to say, does his best to believe it himself.

Why? Because it is a very useful fiction. If Witchers don’t feel emotion, people won’t try to appeal to it. They won’t try to guilt him into certain actions. They won’t attempt to manipulate him, at least not in that way. They will deal with him on a more superficial level meaning he can deal with them the same way, and maintain a kind of distance from the reality of his situation.

Watching The Original Series, I see a lot of that in Spock. It’s a similarly useful fiction. Do Vulcans really lack emotion? They might! I haven’t seen enough of the show to know for sure, but I do know that half-Vulcan Spock does not lack them.

Instead, on some level he knows that if he allows others to believe that he lacks them — and if he convinces himself that he lacks them — he is able to maintain a kind of distance from others that both protects him from emotional pain and reinforces his value to the crew. Spock is often consulted when they need a strictly logical perspective. Anyone can provide a logical perspective, but Spock has made logic His Thing. Just as they might as well have Dr. McCoy patch up every wound, even though anyone can learn basic first aid. That’s why he’s there.

We see Spock demonstrate fondness. Playfulness. Selflessness. The only two-parter of the season, “The Menagerie,” is about his willingness to sacrifice his own career to give his disabled former captain a second chance at happiness.

I’m willing to believe Witchers have a reduced emotional capacity, but I’m not sure I do believe it. Similarly, I’m willing to believe Spock being only half-human means he doesn’t experience the full range of emotion, but I can’t say for sure.

At the end of “This Side of Paradise” he says he’d never been truly happy before. I believe him when he says that, but the fact that he’s never been truly happy doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being happy. That’s what he meant, yes, but I don’t know that that’s the truth. Certainly having to consciously stamp down your own emotions is an unpleasant experience; being freed of that obligation for the duration of the episode…well, of course that would be the first time he experienced happiness. He let himself experience it.

I’ll be interested to see what they do with this, but I love that they didn’t wait several seasons to peel back the “lack of emotion” aspect of the character and reveal the truth. Instead, they more or less immediately cast doubt on it, and continued casting doubt on it throughout the season. The lack of emotion is a coping mechanism for Spock, not an inborn limitation. What could have been a one-dimensional character trait is immediately revealed to be deeper. It’s good characterization and it leaves so much room for exploration.

One thing I knew I’d enjoy was seeing high-minded concepts collide with weekly television budgets. And, sure enough, you have aliens who are just people painted another color. You have parasites that I’m pretty sure are made of novelty rubber vomit. In one episode, you have Kirk and Spock fighting a giant Meat-Lover’s Pizza.

What I didn’t expect is how often the series is able to move beyond its cheapness and engage you in ways that are not bogged down by cost limitations. What I mean to say is that The Original Series has so far produced some truly compelling villains — however you’d like to define villains — and it’s done so while offering up visuals that dare you to take them seriously.

The best episodes let you understand what drives the force opposing Kirk & co. that week. A Godzilla Halloween costume in “Arena” ends up being in the right. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” a race fighting a centuries-long virtual war makes a damned good case for their horrifying reality. The pilot in “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is understandably mortified by the crew’s reluctance to return him home now that he’s seen a glimpse of the future. Our heroes are rarely revealed to be The Bad Guys, but they’re often shown to have their perspectives challenged, shaken, and broken.

That’s something else I ended up enjoying a lot. I expected all-American spaceman Jim Kirk to be the perfect hero. Several times throughout the season, though, he was shown to have an awful lot in common with his enemies.

The best example is the episode-length game of cat and mouse that was “Balance of Terror,” but there are a few other great ones as well. In “Errand of Mercy,” he has a similar mindset to the conquering Klingons about how to deal with a neutral planet. Different methods, sure, but ultimately both sides end up in frustrated alignment in a way that’s downright chilling. In “Space Seed” he even expresses his admiration for conquerors like Khan. It’s important writing; the difference between Kirk and his adversaries isn’t that one is Good and one is Evil. The difference is far smaller than it might seem, and that balance could always tip the other way.

In fact, in “The Enemy Within,” Kirk is split into positive and negative versions of himself in a transporter accident, allowing us to see exactly how much shittiness he carries within him. And the fact that the positive Kirk is almost completely worthless at addressing the situation shows us that it’s not “perfection” that makes the character who he is.

Don’t worry; we do get Perfect Kirk at various points. “Court Martial” is the worst offender, because it begins with a great concept — what if Kirk, under duress, made a bad decision that got someone killed? — and ends by painstakingly dismantling that concept so that we don’t have to question our hero after all. Even so, as of right now, “Court Martial” feels like the exception; Kirk often does make the right decision, but damned if we don’t see him suffer through the process of making it. He’s not perfect; he’s working hard, constantly, to get things right.

There’s not much I can say about the show that hasn’t been said elsewhere and better. But for such an important piece of TV history, I wanted to at least share that I’ve been watching it and get a few of my thoughts down in writing. All of them could be wrong. I might write up another one after season two and completely change my opinion.

For now, though, it’s been an interesting experience. Season one of The Original Series started as one of the most frustrating things I’ve watched and ended as one of the most intriguing. It’s given me bad television to pick apart and great television to savor. Honestly, that’s everything I could have hoped.

On to season two.

Oh, and, as your reward for being good, here is every season one episode of Star Trek: The Original Series ranked from worst to best. Come at me.

28) The Naked Time
27) The Man Trap
26) Charlie X
25) Shore Leave
24) The Squire of Gothos
23) Miri
22) Mudd’s Women
21) Where No Man Has Gone Before
20) The Menagerie
19) What Are Little Girls Made Of?
18) The Alternative Factor
17) Operation — Annihilate!
16) Arena
15) Court Martial
14) Return of the Archons
13) This Side of Paradise
12) Dagger of the Mind
11) The Corbomite Maneuver
10) The Enemy Within
9) Tomorrow is Yesterday
8) The Conscience of the King
7) The Devil in the Dark
6) The Gallileo Seven
5) Errand of Mercy
4) Space Seed
3) A Taste of Armageddon
2) The City on the Edge of Forever
1) Balance of Terror

Images throughout courtesy of Warp Speed to Nonsense.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...