9.24.2016

Star Trek TOS - The Desert Island Collection


From March through October of 2013 I blogged up a whole bunch of Trek, including what I termed at the time my 50 Desert Island TOS episodes. These were the episodes of the series I felt packed the most Trek punch, not even necessarily my favorites - though it turned out they pretty much are - just the ones that I felt would last the longest as a group in such a scenario.

In that Stellar Cartography post (aforelinked) I grouped the TOS episodes by how they scored in the arbitrary ratings system I'd devised. This grouping only makes sense if you're familiar with the points system I was using for the original posts. Since that precludes most of the people on planet Earth, I figured that for this 100th episode of the Captain's Blog, I'd re-organize at least the TOS section into a more traditional Top 50 arrangement.

I didn't want to re-argue my case for each of the selections below, so I just hyperlinked each title to my original review and excerpted some remarks. I added a few, as well, and re-arranged some things. 

Now let's break out some of your drinking stuff (Clink clink) and celebrate the Syndicate.

STAR TREK - THE ORIGINAL SERIES:
THE DESERT ISLAND COLLECTION 

50.

A better name for this one would be "Lazarus, Go Home." Cool idea, bad script. Robert Brown (Lazarus) gets to yell "KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!' before one of the commercial breaks, though, so that's a win of sorts. This is one that doesn't belong on any Trek Top 50 list but made it on mine for very personalized reasons (given at greater length in the original review.)

49.

A better name would be "Lunatic Isle of the Space Damned" but hey. Not a very sensible episode, but if it's Shatnerian hi-jinks you're looking for, then (Admiral!) there be whales here. 

48.

This episode looks ahead rather embarrassingly (for us) to our own media age. Not so much in content (though gladiatorial celebrity and/or enemies-of-the-state fights would not only fit snugly in contemporary programming but also might do society some good; thin the herd a bit, and let us watch please) but in using artificial imagery and narrative to control the masses. Bread and circuses indeed.  

47.

I'm an easy mark for any Curse of the Space Mummy's Tomb sort of tale, which this one is. I am for you, Sulu...  

46.

This backdoor pilot for a show that never was is definitely one where we'd negotiate which 50 TOS episodes to bring on a Desert Island, and you'd say "Now, don't go sneaking in 'Assignment: Earth' or anything crazy while I turn around to lift this cooler," and I'd assure you I wouldn't, then swap in for one of your faves while you weren't looking.

Sorry about that in advance.  


45.

Robert Bloch does his customary blend of traditional genre with sci-fi, but perhaps he needed to stir a bit more. It's a slight episode, hardly one of the best. I include it mainly for its successful creation of mood, its visuals, and its ending.

"All of this - just an illusion."
"No illusion. Jackson is dead." 

44.

One of the series' few Bones-centric episodes. To say any aspect of Trek is "under-appreciated" is probably a stretch at this point - I'm pretty sure even the safe in the Captain's quarters has its own fan page - but DeForest Kelley comes pretty close. It's a rite of Trek passage (perhaps) to marvel at his irrational crankiness and maybe even dislike the character a little. But his performance is pivotal to the TOS dynamic.

This episode isn't really all that great, but Bones gets to see the book with all the knowledge of the creators. (KRRZZKK!) "HYAAUG!!"

43.

I never liked "The Way to Eden" as a title. Because it's not about the way to Eden, neither the planet nor the concept, nor is it ironic enough to really bedazzle. Plus it undermines the episode's real strength, which is its batshit insanity. Ergo, a better title: "The Ubiquitous Dr. Spacegrove." Or maybe "We Reach the Now."


42.

Can the next Trek film be all about the Tholians? Have you ever told someone they're as punctual as a Tholian then chortled with self-amusement? I don't think I have, which surprises me. I guess I'm saving it for the right moment. 

41.

What exactly is the Apple? Who's offering it? Who's taken a bite? Is it what Starfleet is offering? Or is this an inverted p.o.v. of the Keepers of Vaal and what happened to them once absorbed into the more "enlightened" world of the Federation? In the words of Torie Atkinson from her re-watch at Tor: "Are men always trapped by forces greater than themselves, whether man-made or divine? Or is it simply a reminder that choices have consequences, and that the desire to wander in paradise inevitably leads to tragic consequences?"

Considering where our culture has wandered (and continues to wander) maybe we should be asking more questions like this. 


40.

Atkinson again: "Lethe has not chosen to abandon her violent past, she has been forced to, and in the process forced to abandon herself. Eliminating that moral choice amounts to dehumanization, not reformation—one must choose to change, and not simply be forced to behave differently. Both treatments leave the victim with a powerlessness that’s darkly monstrous, and criminal in and of itself. Creepy stuff. Love it."

39.

If I ever travel back in time and join the French Resistance, "I have seen 42 years of the Red Bird..." will be the code-response that gets you through the door.

THERE'S NO SERUM.

38.

The Enterprise's adventures in the birth canal - in space, of course. This is either a story about men wrestling with the unknowability of the clitoris, or it's about conception-to-birth from the perspective of the sperm. "Brace yourselves... the area of penetration will no doubt be sensitive."

37. 

The script is kind of dumb - there are a few nice lines here and there but I mean more its structure and overall point/ cohesion - and there's really no grand theme being explored, no "oh zing!" insight into American culture that isn't applicable to any number of cultures. Unless it's secretly some bizarre S-and-M Hollywood confessional. (Which would be awesome.) What the story does have, though, is mad re-watchability. It always brings to mind preteen sugar-spiked afternoons playing make believe in the backyard.

36. 

It's a fun episode, but it unravels quickly once you start yanking on loose threads. I'd recommend just rolling with it. The script's fun despite the wonky internal logistics, the dialogue's crisp, the character dynamics are fun, and Mr. Atoz's library is still a captivating idea 5 decades later.

35.

"You cannot reach me... Your manual overrides are extremely limited in life!" is a taunt that has never received its due. Just once I'd like to hear someone say that on Cops while being shoved into the back of the wagon. The drugged-out "Die! Die! Kill you all! hahahahaha" stuff is equally and enjoyably demented.

34.

Like "Archons," "This Side of Paradise," or "A Taste of Armageddon," we should probably assume the writers are not speaking through Kirk but using him/ his dialogue with Bones about the wisdom of the balance of power/ prime directive as purposefully evocative dramatic tools. Kirk-as-unreliable-protagonist, so to speak, not in the sense that we shouldn't believe him, or are meant to read Kirk as deceiving himself, but in the sense of the traditional hero's role in the micro (this story) as a cypher for unheroic actions in the macro (Western culture.)

33.

"You don't die... not yet."

I've often wondered what Starfleet makes of Kirk's Captain's Logs. At times he fills them with these philosophical observations or poetic reflections that are in no way relevant to the mission. Other times, he sounds like he's updating Starfleet as it happens. Is he just being a good storyteller? Arranging the details to captivate his audience? Then there are the logs like from this episode:

"Captain's Log, Stardate... Armageddon. We must find a way to defeat the alien force of hate that has taken over the Enterprise, stop the war now, or spend eternity in futile, bloody violence." 
 
So fanciful! And helpful of him to be so blunt about the underlying message. I love it. I always picture some entry-level administrative assistant at Starfleet whose job it is to type these things up always eye-rolling when he or she sees "Kirk, Enterprise" in his or her inbox.


32. 

On one hand, it's totally hilarious at episode's end that Kirk delays Nomad's imminent self-destruction just to get in one last dig before beaming him into "deep space." He's putting the whole ship in danger to do so. But on the other, it makes sense - got to make sure he's irreversibly on the path to self-sterilization. (Through embarrassment.) Kirk's laughing at the superior intellect, again. DAMN YOU!

31.

"Oochie-woochie coochie coo!" were the first words my elder daughter heard outside of the womb on Planet Earth, and no, I hadn't planned it that way. I was distantly aware of it as it was happening; I've long known I have no control over when and where Trek quotes will come flying out of my mouth, (#TrekConfessions) but in retrospect I hope that this small suggestion at the beginning of life leads to her becoming a master of the kligat.

30.

It makes a lot of sense to read this episode as a send-up of the whole "Space Women of the Moon" genre. Unfortunately, Gene Coon (who wrote it under his pseudonym Lee Cronin) died shortly after leaving the show, so his opinion on what "Spock's Brain" was all about was never recorded. Perhaps it's just a crazy coincidence that it succeeds so well as a parody of such. Or perhaps it just dives into the genre with both feet and ends up parodying itself. Either way, the script does a heroic job trying to stay one step ahead of its ridiculous premise, and I for one greatly enjoy watching it all unfold.

29.

Gilbert Ralston, according to Koenig's autiobiography, intended it to be a "The bigger they are, the harder they fall" story. Still is, but it was expanded, not unkindly, into the more familiar Trek theme of "we have outgrown the need for gods" by DC Fontana and the Genes. That theme is probably conveyed here as well if not better than anywhere else in TOS (and beyond. It's a fun companion piece to both TAS' "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" and TNG's "Devil's Due.")

28.

Kirk's sister-in-law's shrieking "They're here! They're here!" as she tries to batten down the hatches is definitely unsettling. (There used to be a place (The Liar Club, maybe? Circa 2005?) in Chicago that had this looped into some video mash-up that kept coming around on the monitor. The place was otherwise ludicrous, though.) Also, the noise that the neural parasites make is pretty memorable. 

It's possible Shatner remembers working with Maurishka more than with Craig Hundley, who played Kirk's nephew Peter. Hell, it's possible Captain Kirk remembers this obscure Yeoman more than his own flesh and blood. (Sorry about your folks and all, but don't expect a birthday card, kid.)

27.

The first draft had more of an anti-war feel to it. Paul Schneider says he got the idea watching children play war. It's still there, somewhat, but certainly not the focus of the episode. Nor does it have to be. It's a cool little story, and I've enjoyed the ending twist with the parents showing up ever since I was a kid.

The script is full of great lines. I still use "You have one saving grace; you're ill-mannered" (and Spock's "I object to you..." comment that precipitates it) as well as "Greetings and felicitations" on a fairly regular basis.


26.

The wish-fulfillment of some cosmic force ("as far above (the Federation) on the evolutionary scale as we are above the amoeba.") stepping in to prevent our political leaders from killing, maiming or destroying millions of innocents in collateral damage as they myopically pursue their respective agendas is sadly all too timely. Effective science fantasy? Or Superman IV? I lean more to the former, here.

It's rendered a little ineffective by the Organians barely being mentioned ever again (in canon, anyway, except for a memorable episode of Enterprise) and their Peace Treaty never ultimately constrains any human/ Klingon conflict. Perhaps it's meant only to prevent wide-scale war, but I think that's against the spirit of everything the Organians say about it. But that's okay. We never adhere to the letter or spirit of our own treaties, so why hold Trek to a higher standard? Perhaps that is in itself a commentary.


25.

On the great list of things to watch while tripping your face off, you rarely see this episode mentioned. (Or "Wolf in the Fold.") Which is a shame. If I was the director of a drug freakout clinic, I'd keep this one queued up at all times. 

Maybe "Wolf in the Fold" might make a bad trip worse, come to think of it. But for the stronger-ego cases under my hypothetical care, I'd make it a double feature. Followed by the movie The Edge. Which is all another way of saying: think twice before checking in to Bryan's Bad Trip and Ego Re-Adjustment Clinic. For Madmen Only!


24.

The body-swap trope was by no means an innovation in 1968, but it's handled with sophistication and sensitivity here. (Compare, for example, to "Turnabout Intruder," only a year later.) I know no one on the Enterprise ever brings up anything that happened on any other mission/ episode, but Sargon might have appreciated a heads-up about the work of Roger Korby or the androids on "I, Mudd."

23.

If "the man trap" isn't meant to be female anatomy nor the salt that Nancy needs meant to be male ejaculate, then the script has some serious 'splaining to do. (Click the link for all the gruesome details.)

22.

The old writing adage Show don't Tell is on good display here. We get plenty of lines from each commander about how worthy an opponent the other is ("He's a sorcerer, this one!") but we also see for ourselves exactly how Kirk slowly outmaneuvers the (unnamed - a nice touch, I feel) Romulan commander. And vice versa; Kirk's growing respect for the commander is evidenced well by both the actions he sees and the actions we the audience see, i.e. his private, unheard-by-Kirk conversations.

Beyond that, it's just a good script. Great character lines, good development and use of tension, and I always liked the nuclear-warhead-in-the-debris trick. 

21.

"Walk carefully in the vault of tomorrow."

As the AV Club noted in its reviews of this classic: (The mind-meld) should be ridiculous. Spock's basically groping a puppet and treating it like a massive spiritual and moral struggle. But it works. (...) It's not memorable because it's campy, either. Nimoy's acting sells it because he never allows for a moment that what he's doing is absurd. He commits, as my old acting teacher would say, and the sequence becomes this whole tragic, horrifying tribute both to his skills as a performer and the writer behind the episode." Hear hear.

Shatner, too, deserves a tip of the brim. His father died during shooting of this episode, but the show must goes on. RIP, Shatner, Sr.


20.

It's not exactly unheard of for Spock or McCoy to think of a solution never considered before, although the Scalosians certainly don't seem to be technological lightweights. (Although they are stubbornly opposed to cloning, apparently. Probably vaccines and GMOs, as well.)

I sure hope the Enterprise beams down a large quantity of the counter-agent once they discover it works. The episode's last line (Kirk's "Goodbye, Deela") seems to indicate they're leaving the Scalosians to their doom. I've floated the idea of a Star Trek: After Kirk show before, where some new crew revisits many TOS planets for mop-up operations in the wake of Kirk's mayhem. Another fun one would be a support group of all these guest-star ladies who team up for closure and revenge. Maybe a TV Movie of the Week instead of a series - it'd be fun.


19.

Contrary to many of the Captain's statements, the episode is less an indictment of war itself and more about the brainwashing and cultural mythmaking necessary to maintain a self-defeating war mindset over many generations.

"I'm a barbarian. You said so yourself."
"I'd hoped I was speaking figuratively."

18.

This one has some great lines, clearly-delineated acts, and a logical enough throughline.
Everyone who isn't a cube does great work in the third act, as they individually go about their plan to agitate the Kelvans. Whether it's Scotty getting Tomar drunk, McCoy getting Hanar cranked, or Kirk's and Spock's working on Kelinda and Rojan, it all comes across pretty amusingly. 

"If you! can't! keep her... That's your problem!"

17.

This was one of my favorites as a kid. Then, whether from watching it too much or changing tastes I don't know, from around 1995 to 2009 I cooled on it substantially. But I've come back around to loving it in recent years. It's structured like a Shakespearean comedy, where every Jack gets his Jane, everyone ends up where they should be, and the social order is temporarily scrambled, then put back together.

The Bones/Barrows arc, however, is a bit of a nightmare as romantic interludes go, which has the added effect of making the story resemble some sort of swinging 60s couples therapy. Very revealing. The planet externalizes their neuroses, which allows them to explore their feelings and romantic arrangement in new ways, which immediately include rape fantasies, wife-swapping, and scream therapy. (Not to mention the various violent things Sulu comes up with. Oh my.)  All things very much associated with the psychological chic of the 60s, couples therapy or otherwise.

16.

The Captain's ego ("good") is paralyzed upon discovery that his Id ("bad") has taken on a life of its own and roams the decks of the Enterprise. Spock gets to play the role of the supergo. You can see how happy he is about this in that screencap, there. Meanwhile, the good Captain is so distraught he can't even bring himself to use traditional sentence structure in his as-it's-happening report to Starfleet:   

"Captain's Log, Stardate 1673.5. Transporter... still inoperable. Negative self... under restraint in Sickbay. My own indecisiveness... growing. Force of will... steadily weakening. On the planet, condition critical. Surface temperature is 75 degrees below zero... still dropping."

15.

So much more than a gag episode. Cultural contamination, communication confusion, and on-point message ("a society based on a moral inversion") combine to make this one of my favorites. The gags are still fun (Fizzbin, I would advise ya to keep dialing, Oxmyx, Scotty's endless confusion, etc.) but the whole thing is a send-up of everything it touches: gang war as country conflict, imperialism, and, most especially, one-world-government. It blurs the line between it - or at least the United Nations model - and organized crime.

14.

This is the story that Tombstone didn't want you to see!

I'm not sure what is so important about the Melkotians that the Federation is ramming first contact down their throats, but hey, I'll give the Starfleet brass the benefit of the doubt. (Likewise Kirk's convenient knowledge of all the particulars of the OK Corral. But I'm sure it was "required reading at the Academy.") 

13.

The plot and symbolic breakdown of this one - unevenly mixed as it may be - is still applicable to our daily lives. It would be instantly graspable to a citizen of Imperial Rome, or Ancient Egypt for that matter. More importantly, Shatner is so wonderfully out of his mind in this episode. It's a delight to behold, each and every time.

12 + 11.

Some see "The Cage" as the true story and "The Menagerie" as its poorer relation, living off its largess, as it were. I of course I agree that "The Cage" is worthy of any and all accolades, but I think the envelope story in "Menagerie" really adds new dimensions to it. It's a marital breakdown / inner-voyeurism exploration that weaves in and out of Trek-culture and some opium dream of Western civilization.


In this light, Kirk's having to watch it all, "blind" to learn what the only other real people in the room already know - and the lengths to which they go to ensure his spellbound participation - is especially interesting.

10.

As you've likely noticed by now, I am powerless before any episode that has a significant level of Shatner insanity. This one is another best of all possible worlds scenario, as the story that surrounds said insanity is quite strong. There's even some rationale for the lengths Shatner goes to as a performer; as with screaming "KHAAAN!" in years to come, he's deliberately deceiving the enemy into thinking he's unhinged. The funny thing is, if Romulan Intelligence is worth its salt, and let's assume they are, how could they tell the difference between fake-crazy-Shatner and real-crazy-Shatner? I don't think even Spock can do that.

Joanne Linville's Romulan commander is great, as is Nimoy. And everyone else, too. It's not just Shatner-insanity; that just enhances everything. But man. ("SHUT UP, SPOCK!")

9.

"I grow weary of the chaszzze..."

Eugene Myers summarizes the theme pretty well: "Though Kirk wins the battle because of his intelligence, true victory comes from his display of mercy and compassion for his violent opponent. We’re meant to learn a lesson when Kirk overcomes his assumptions about the Gorn, which were based on his appearance and misinterpreted actions, and chooses a peaceful way of settling their dispute."

A few more centuries, someone might say the same about us. (To paraphrase the Metrons.)
 
8.

Sort of an It's a Wonderful Life for Kirk, albeit one generated by an ion storm and not his own Christmas Eve despair: he gets to see what his life would look like had he lived in a universe of empire and assassination. And it doesn't look much different. That this revelation strikes not just him but his fellow officers and they shrug it off is sincerely one of my favorite things about Star Trek. Not just here but throughout TOS.

A fantastically entertaining story with impossible-to-beat stakes from start to finish. 

7.

"Ask me to solve any... equate... trans-mit...!"

This episode is pretty much perfect. Provocative, exciting, dramatic, thoughtful, and visually stimulating. When I imagine the Genes sitting around bullshitting about the kind of show they hoped Star Trek would be, it's this episode I imagine them describing. It's Robert Bloch's story, but it has their particular subset of thematic concerns and sexual forthrightness all over it.

6.

What Picard says to the alien super-being Kevin in the TNG episode "The Survivors" about having no law by which him doesn't hold true to Khan. One wonders if Starfleet might be a little pissed about Kirk's capturing one of history's greatest tyrants/ missing-persons-cases and then dropping him on a planet unsupervised. With an aggressive and dedicated cadre f followers to boot.  

Does it make sense for no one to have followed up with him? No Talos IV type restrictions?

I'm sure it'll all work out fine.


5.

"I Am Ki-rok" is an asteroid deflector of its own. And that's just one small - well, maybe not small, let's say half - of the generosity of Shatner's performance here. The rest of the episode could be Spock talking to a hand-puppet in his room, and you'd still have to include it on a short list of Essential TOS. Ki-rok demands it. 

Discovering Nazis, Romans, Greek gods, Yankees and Communists throughout the galaxy is second nature to the Enterprise by this point in the series. So an American Indian tribe is no big whup. But this is the only episode of TOS that has a story that lasts over months. It's not quite Picard living out a lifetime in "The Inner Life," but a not insignificant portions of Kirk's Five Year Mission was spent as a space Indian shaman. 

4.
Amok Time

The title is fine and all, but I prefer its German translation: Weltraumfieber aka" Space Fever."

We're into "what more can possibly said about this episode" territory now. In truth we have been from the first. I've always felt this was one of the Trek episodes that wasn't
critiquing American society in a way traditional 1960s television wouldn't allow. A recent rewatch, though, made me wonder if Theodore Sturgeon and the Genes hadn't slipped an allegory about arranged marriage and reproductive biology under America's nose. Perhaps this isn't strictly internal Trek mechanics or about the friendship between the main characters. Or perhaps it is - either way, it's unarguably one of the series' best.

3.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle, all one color. No key to where the pieces fit in."  

Trek went to the "expulsion from Paradise" well more than once but nowhere as masterfully and ambiguously as it does here. What exactly is the message, here? That man is meant for paradise only if he sacrifices free will? Is the dog-eat-dog status quo Kirk quotes truly a better way? Is the sacrifice of Spock's happiness justified? Are "self-made purgatories" and "violent emotions" all we have to look forward to? 

This episode originally aired on March 2, 1967, sandwiched between Daniel Boone and Dragnet.  Engelbert Humperdinck was riding high in the charts with "Release Me;" Operation Junction City raged on in South Vietnam.

2.

Joan Collins does a great job as Edith Keeler. It's easy to see both why Kirk is so taken with her and how she could have inspired a generation to pursue peace so diligently. Alas, as Ellison writes:

"If you've read the script, you will remember that Edith Keeler is a humanitarian whose philosophy is one of kindness and compassion. It is stated that she develops a coherent identifiable philosophy that many people in that post-World-War-1, semi-isolationist society found appealing. It is set forth in the teleplay that her philosophy catches on - something like Scientology but without the phony scams - and it is sufficiently appealing that it produces a tone in the body politic that briefly keeps America out of the war against Hitler. A brief period that permits the development of the first atomic bomb not by America but by the Third Reich, and that leads to Germany winning World War 2.

And how does Joan Collins remember this glorious role that even now she is asked repeatedly about? (Quotes from her biography Inside Joan Collins.) '(Edith Keeler) tries to prove to the world that Hitler is a nice guy. She is quite probably a Nazi plant. She is in love with Adolf Hitler, while Bill Shatner as Captain Kirk falls in love with her while Dr. Spock - he of the ears - allows her to get run over by a truck lest her teachings lead the world to utter destruction.' 

It seems this journey 'inside' Joan Collins (reminds one) of a visit to a forlorn, empty venue where the wind whistles forever across a sterile terrain."

1.

"Are you aiding The Body, or are you destroying it?"
"Landru-help-me-help-me-help-me-help-me..."

The danger of programmed morality is a concern I wish more people would reflect upon in 2016. This episode would be a great conversation-starter. Every line of dialogue works on a traditional narrative level as well as a deconstructive one. Whenever you think you've cornered the moral statement being made, another aspect or question manifests itself, up to and including the last line. 

Incidentally, "Mister Sulu has returned from the surface in a highly agitated state" is perhaps my favorite of Roddenberry's many swipes at organized religion. It fits the allegorical context of the whole Landru story so perfectly.


~
Text from Christopher Hyatt.