Captain's Blog pt. 45: The Original Series

David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek is arguably the greatest written analysis of the Trek phenomenon, all the more remarkable in that it was published when only The Original Series and The Animated Series and a handful of non-canon books existed. (And when its author was in his early 20s!) It's tough to parse for quotes, since so much of it is spot-on and worthwhile, but for our purposes here (i.e. launching this conclusion of the Captain Blog's series, focused exclusively on TOS) I'll only focus on his comments re: format, formula, and "Green Priestesses of the Cosmic Computer."

"FORMAT is the flight plan for a series (...) and just like any other flight plan, the slightest error will magnify itself over a period of time if it isn't corrected or compensated for (...) Something that seems quite workable in the first 2 or 3 stories may turn out to be a very rigorous trap by the 13th or 14th iteration."

"The FORMULA story is the pat story, the easy story, the one that gets written by the book. It's a compilation of all the tried and true tricks. It's six devices in search of a plot. In Star Trek it might work something like this:

"The Enterprise approaches a planet (...) Kirk, Spock, and McCoy get captured by 6-ft green women in steel brassieres."

"They take away the spacemen's communicators because they offend the computer-god these women worship."

"Meanwhile, Scotty discovers that he's having trouble with the doubletalk generator, and he can't fix it. The Enterprise will shrivel into a prune in 2 hours unless something is done immediately. But Scotty can't get in touch with the Captain."

"Of course he can't. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have been brought before the high priest of the cosmic computer, who decides that they are unfit to live. All except the Vulcan, who has such interesting ears. She puts Spock in a mind-zapping machine which leaves him quoting 17-syllable Japanese haiku for the next 2 acts. 

"McCoy can't do a damn thing for him. "I'm a doctor, not a critic!" he grumbles. Kirk seduces the cute priestess."

"On the ship, sparks fly from Chekov's control panel, and everyone falls out of their chairs. Uhura tries opening the hailing frequencies, and when she can't, she admits to being frightened... Scotty figures there's only 15 minutes left. Already the crew members are wrinkling as the starship begins to prune."

"Down on the planet, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are being held in a dungeon."

"Why is it always a dungeon?"
"The girl Kirk's seduced decides that she has never had it so good in her life and discards all of her years-long training and lifetime-held beliefs to rescue him, conveniently remembering to bring him his communicator and phaser. Abruptly, Spock reveals how hard he has been working to hide his emotions and then snaps back to normal. Thinking logically, he and Kirk then drive the computer crazy with illogic."

"Naturally, it can't cope, its designers not having been as smart as our Earthmen. (...) It shorts out all its fuses and releases the Enterprise just in time for the last commercial. For a tag, the seduced priestess promises Kirk that she will work to build a new civilization on her planet - just for Kirk - one where steel brassieres are illegal."

"GREEN PRIESTESSES OF THE COSMIC COMPUTER has no internal conflict; it's all formula. Kirk doesn't have a decision to make (...) It's a compendium of all the bad plot devices that wore out their welcome on too many Star Trek episodes. It's all excitement, very little story. (...) FORMULA occurs when FORMAT starts to repeat itself. Or when writers are giving less than their best. (...) Flashy devices can conceal the lack for awhile, but ultimately, the lack of any real meat in the story will leave the viewers hungry and unsatisfied."

Let me break in here - I can't argue with Gerrold's storytelling logic, here, and maybe it says more about me and having internalized a taste for bad TV trope junk food over the years, but I get an equal kick out of the trashier Trek episodes than the more refined. I agree that the more worthwhile stories eschew these conventions and challenge the audience (and the writers,) but it's an eternal question for me with regards to my own preferences. It's undeniably fun to watch a Trek story unfold in the manner described even as I fully recognize the validity of what he's saying.

Part of it, too, is that I take the long view when it comes to storytelling. The small dramas we debate from the last 50 years have been playing out more or less the same way for thousands of years. Humans like tropes and repetitive arcs. Then, we like to deconstruct those, defy them and improvise. But we always come round again to the same old, same old, then round to the deconstruction again. (This is expressed more eloquently in things like Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces among other places.)

This doesn't mean I see something like "Spock's Brain" as an equal storytelling achievement to "City on the Edge of Forever," only that I don't quite see the logic in getting too big a head about recognizing how one is superior to the other. Well-spotted, but I still know which one I want to watch when I want to have some beers and yell at the tv, and who's to say which is the "superior" approach?

I'd argue both activate the same synapses in the brain or provide equal capacity for degree of "cosmic revelations." (As would Chuck Klosterman or Doug Coupland. Not bad company to keep.) There's plenty of room for both Tarkovsky and Sharknado.

Gerrold continues:

"There are 2 ways in which Format turns into Formula. One is a hardening of the arteries; the other is erosion. Hardening of the arteries is the process by which a TV show limits itself by setting up conditions which will affect all episodes that come after. The Kirk/ Spock relationship is a good example. As the leads, it made sense for them to get all of the away missions (but) the focusing of attention on 2 characters who should not logically be placing themselves in physical danger but must do so regularly (minimizes the rest of the cast.)

Reaching perhaps its crescendo in this ridiculous business from The Motion Picture, where the Captain feels the need to put on a space-suit and personally go and fetch Mr. Spock.
"They were a good team, but the overuse of Mr. Spock enlarged him out of all proportion to everything else on the Enterprise. (...) This is the real pity of hardened arteries - the show ends up telling and retelling only variations of the same story because it has so limited itself it can't tell any other story."

John Byrne writes of this "Super-Spock Phenomenon" and how it played out on TOS:

"'Where No Man Has Gone Before' - a mysterious force at the edge of the galaxy causes strange change in people with ESP - but Spock is unaffected."

"'Dagger of the Mind' - Spock's first mind meld, but we're cautioned that it is extremely dangerous, requiring as it does that changes be made to the subject's nerves and blood vessels. Simon Van Gelder, when he submits voluntarily to it, is taking a huge risk."

"'Court Martial' - there is no mind meld in this one, but I find myself wondering why if the mind meld exists, courts still function in a manner so similar to our own time."

(Not to mention the psycho-tricorder, internal sensors, or any other aspect of twenty-third century culture we've seen.)
"In 'A Taste of Armageddon,' physical contact is no longer required, as Spock does a mind-meld through a wall and a door."
(This is referenced again in "By Any Other Name.")
"In 'The Changeling,' Spock is now able to use the mind-meld on a machine. By this point, it has become pure telepathy, no longer even requiring the subject to having a living brain."
"In 'The Omega Glory,' now Spock is actually able to do it without any physical contact, from across the room."
"In 'Spectre of the Gun,' for the first time Spock uses the mind meld to actually alter the thoughts of his subjects."
"And in 'Requiem for Methusaleh,' in an extraordinary invasion of Kirk's privacy, Spock, without Kirk's consent, uses the mind-meld to compel his Captain to forget a robot he's been humping."
And so on. 

Lastly, Gerrold's thoughts re: the 2nd example of format hardening to formula, erosion:

"The Enterprise becomes a cosmic meddler. Her attitudes were those of 20th century America - and so her mission was (seemingly) to spread truth, justice, and the American way. Star Trek missed the opportunity to question this attitude. While Kirk was occasionally in error, never was there a script in which the missions or goals were questioned. Of the surface, most of these intervention stories were intended to make very dramatic points.

"Individually, any episode was designed to make a specific point. Slavery is wrong. Exploitation is wrong. Racism is wrong, etc. Cumulatively (...) each situation had been constructed for Kirk to make that point (...) a set of straw men - or straw cultures, actually - for Kirk to knock down (...) If the local culture is tested and found wanting in the eyes of a starship Captain, he may make such changes as he feels necessary."

"Everytime Kirk knocked down a straw-man culture, he was re-enforcing the message: In the name of my morality, this is the proper action."

I wonder how he feels about MSNBC and Fox News? Or every State of the Union address going back several generations, for that matter...

There's a lot of value in all of the above insights. These are the things casual watchers don't really get about Trek , while Trekkies and Trekkers never stop discussing them. And while I'm certainly in the latter category, I'm on the more-forgiving side of it. Any story we tell ourselves is going to be of our own era/ on some level only meta-commentary on ourselves. Whether or not the story in question embraces this inevitability or goes to great pains to disguise it isn't as relevant to me as to whether or not it says something of value about said culture.

(Conversely, I enjoy the Ragnarok story not because it drives home perhaps the only essential truth we can all relate to - that we all pass away and life moves on without us - but because Thor fights a huge serpent with a hammer, the sky is filled with Valkyries, and a giant wolf eats Asgard. Sometimes the details don't even need to have "value," in other words; they just need to kick a little ass.)

And I'd argue that TOS is if not loaded with than certainly generous with opportunities for the viewer to question whether or not Starfleet/ Kirk's course of action is morally sound. Gerrold is correct to point out that we never really hear much internal debate, i.e. Spock and Kirk don't voice this debate in the dialogue. But many episodes ("A Private Little War," "Who Mourns for Adonis?" "This Side of Paradise," "Return of the Archons," just to name a few) pose questions that (at least for this viewer) provoked the discussion Gerrold charges TOS as failing to elicit. I prefer it being left to the viewer, actually, rather than just putting the words in the Captain's mouth.

"You'd make an excellent fascist, Captain."
At other times, I get the impression the Genes (or whomever) are telling me they actually do think Kirk is right to knock over whatever culture he's knocking over, and I enjoy that aspect of it, too, as then I can say "Wait, what?" This isn't 24, after all, (or the real world) where the government's right to torture you in the name of nebulous national security is the holy communion of every episode; actual ambiguity and debate is part and parcel of the Trek experience, even when you disagree with the outcome. (And even when every civilization in the vastness of the universe is predicated on the unchallenged superiority of humanoid life.)

All of which is stuff I wanted to take into account when approaching this project. I knew when I started the Captain's Blog that I'd save TOS for last and do a top 50 of some kind. But I kept changing my mind on how to determine what 50 episodes. Eventually, after much trial and error and many nights of heroic screencapping, I came upon a grading system I liked and began sorting it out. Which is where we'll pick up next time.


  1. A whole series of thorny issues here. I pretty much agree with you, too; as long as the end result is entertaining, I can roll with a certain amount of silliness and even inconsistency.

    I can't do "Sharknado," though. I'm (occasionally) fine with things that end up sucking accidentally, but when you set out to make something that sucks, I don't get much value out of that.

    Green screencaps on this one, by the way!

    1. I can't say the makers of Sharknado set out to make something that sucks. From everything I've read from everyone involved, they knew that no matter what they did, this was a silly concept and would look cheap, so they set out to have fun, filling the movie with knowing winks towards their own silliness and embracing the crazy.

      Trust me, it's no fun being the guy who defends things like Sharknado. But I just see such an important qualitative difference between the rationale behind it and the rationale behind something like Epic Movie/ Date Movie/ Haunted Movie, whatever. I reserve my contempt for those. The value is much more interactive with something like Sharknado. (Or "Spock's Brain.")

      Now either of those (Sharknado/ Spock's Brain) pales in comparison to Evil Dead 2, even though you could point out a hundred similarities between them. (Low budget, genre ridiculousness, realities of filmmaking vs. script integrity/ consistency, etc.) But that's a whole different conversation.

      But at the end of the day, is Sharknado a line in the sand for me? Not at all. Just an example.

      Glad you like the screencaps - I'm finally able to do something with the 1000+ I've accumulated over the last few months...

    2. 1000+?!? That's a lot of screencaps. Awesome!

      As for "Sharknado," your arguments make sense, but I'm just not persuaded. Maybe I'm just being grumpy. But that movie, and all of Syfy's output of that ilk, feels like sucksploitation to me. They're being made because the channel figures X-number of people will watch just to see how lousy the new movie can be. But that means that they're going that route on purpose, which means that really what they're doing is making parodies of suck-cinema.

      And I'll grant you that I've seen none of them and therefore can't really judge them. But still, I think there's a qualitative difference between that and something that ends up being garbage through ineptitude, like "Maximum Overdrive."

      I guess it doesn't much matter in the end, though. You either enjoy something or you don't; that's really the only important factor.

    3. I would one day very much like to work out the reasoning and rationale behind the many shades of grey I perceive between all these things. Why do I find Sharknado so amusing but have no affection for Mega-Shark vs. Whatever? The one with Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, i.e. same schlock factor/ 80s alum, same stupid idea, same crappy fx, same what the hell attitude... and why do I see a huge difference between Maximum Overdrive and Sharknado and Evil Dead 2 and Toxic Avenger, etc. I really don't know. I suspect it has something to do with the enjoyment factor, certainly.

      Sucksploitation is a great concept/ term, though. I can't say for sure, but I think that might be the key to figuring it out. Some things suck because everyone involved has contempt for the material. Other things suck less because those involved don' thave contempt for the product but still make a crappy product. And within that "crappiness," so many levels...! And still other things don't suck even with some combination of these first 2 factors...

      At that point, I usually just yeah, chalk it up to enjoyment/ personal bias. It'd be fun to figure out, though, if only to save myself time.

    4. For me, it comes down to how I perceive the intent of the people making and distributing the movie. For example, I will give Troma as much latitude as they require, because my perception is that that was/is a company hanging on by the skin of its teeth. So it makes schlocky stuff like "Tromeo & Juliet" because it's cheap and fun. But give Michael Bay $200 million to remake "Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD," and the results had better be qualitatively different.

      To bring it back to "Star Trek" a bit, I think the "Phase II" episodes make for good case-points. Those are made by people who clearly just love doing it, and wish they could be doing it professionally. I tend to judge them more on what they do well than on what they do poorly. Troma, in some ways, is the same; that's a collection of people who weren't quite good enough to break into the more legit side of the biz, so they did what they were able to do, which is "The Toxic Avenger."

      "Sharknado" feels -- and again, I'm judging something I haven't seen -- more crass. This is the channel that produced the remake of "Battlestar Galactica." This is not a fly-by-night organization; this is a boardroom making a conscious decision to produce dreck. And like I say, maybe I'm judging too harshly. It might be that the movies they make are more fun than I'm assuming. Certainly it would be possible to produce wink-and-a-grin style dreck that had redeemable entertainment quality.

      Bear in mind, I say all this as a guy who has probably spent close to two days of his life (cumulatively) watching "Children of the Corn" movies. So maybe I am being overly judgmental.

    5. Nice Sgt. Kabukiman reference.

      SyFy originals are what they are. Some, like Sharknado, I'll take over Deep Blue Sea or Lake Placid or almost all more contemporary bigger-budget horror films. Or pretentious dreck like Red White and Blue. Others are basically Warehouse 13/ Haven/ Eureka, but with CGI sharks, or shark-mutants.

      I'll still take those over Scary Movie/ Epic Movie/ Haunted Movie et al. But that's probably just personal preference.

      (I must say for the record, here: SHARKNADO = SHARKS + TORNADO. That alone should get any reasonable person over the hump, regardless of the end product. Whereas the follow-up GHOST SHARK (or MEGA-SHARK or any of the others) doesn't provoke the same instant benefit of the doubt with me. Go figure. But it's the specific intersection of 90210, Sharks, and Tornado, here, that lays down the covering fire.)

      Troma is an interesting case. I like them in theory, but I just find their stuff so unwatchable. Pot Zombies is always On-Demand; it's been there since I moved back to Chicago. I give them all the latitude in the world, but it's just not something I can watch. If it was a niece or nephew making the film in the backyard, I'd give them all pats on the head, of course.

    6. I'm glad to see this discussion of the relative merits of bad movies and TV.

      For me, the problem I have with the SyFy Originals is that they're self-consciously bad. They come up with a silly premise and run with it based on it being silly. There is a lot of winking at the audience and laughing-up-the-sleeve in the production. They never intend to make something good. Now, I can understand the appeal in an intellectual sense - it's like the production and the audience get together and agree to make something silly by using all the genre conventions and suspension of disbelief both sides can muster. Those movies are like all the plywood "haunted houses" that pop up in October. I get why people like them, and hell, I know they can be cool if you experience them with friends or your best girl, but a little of them goes a long way.

      I vastly prefer movies like Deep Blue Sea because of how earnest the productions are, and just how bad the resulting movies, in turn, are. You can tell that the production team meant to make a good movie with something to say via a way-out concept, and ended up with a solid B-flick (or worse) that somehow hits all the trope-beats without really meaning to. Or even if they did mean to, they did it with the intent to somehow subvert them, but end up simply amplifying them into ridiculousness undreamt-of in the very movies they draw from.

      Spock's Brain, an episode I like a lot, is an example, to an extent, of the latter type of production. The concepts are big and interesting, having been honed in quite a bit of literary scifi over the decades by the time Trek came along. But the execution of the production is so straight-faced, so obviously serious about what's going on, that it elevates the episode into near-lunacy, the kind of insanity Lovecraft would have written about as being as close to cosmic truth as man could come. But it's an understated lunacy, oddly enough. My personal favorite bit is McCoy's thousand-yard-stare while muttering about how simple it all is, so easy a child could do it! about brain surgery. Add in a "cthulhu ftaghn!" and it'd all be laid bare. Kelley's performance is so good, so earnest, that it makes the proceedings of the episode even more nutty.

    7. "My personal favorite bit is McCoy's thousand-yard-stare while muttering about how simple it all is, so easy a child could do it! about brain surgery. Add in a "cthulhu ftaghn!" and it'd all be laid bare."

      Oh man, that is so, so true.

      I see your point(s) here. I have no real hard and fast criteria, mainly trying to find my way in the dark, figure out why some bad movies delight me and others put me off. One of these days, I'll find the Book That Contains All the Knowledge of the Creators.

    8. p.s. "1000+?!? That's a lot of screencaps. Awesome!"

      I wish I was exaggerating! I have way more than I know what to do with. I added to the madness tonight, screencapping (which i sometimes call "renegade geocaching") "The Alternative Factor" of all things... this was one I specifically thought to myself "Well, I won't bother with that one" but like a particularly slow-moving Ceti Eel, the idea slowly wrapped itself around my cerebral cortex.

  2. I will write a long essay on this later when I have time to read it thoroughly. Thanks for post it. There is no show that I feel more passionately about than Star Trek TOS!

  3. Star Trek TOS is probably my all time favorite television show. I've probably viewed more hours of M*A*S*H and The Simpsons than I have Star Trek TOS, no show has brought me as much pleasure.

    All of Gerrold's criticisms are valid, but I just don't care. I love the retro feel. I love the overacting and ham-handed directing. I love the way every episode is completely independent of the other (Kirk has a brother for one episode. That brother was never mentioned before and never mentioned again. Spock develops new powers as needed. etc.).

    There's some top notch science fiction to be found in those episodes. Ellison's script for "The City On the Edge of Forever" was brilliant even as it was dumbed down for budgetary reasons. Richard Matheson's "The Enemy Within" was an exceptionally intelligent (for the time) exploration of the necessary duality of man. Who did not ache in their heart for the despairing Charlie X when he couldn't make the woman of his dreams love him? Finding Plato on a remote planet? Who knew?

    There were some exceptionally bad episodes as well. Most people refer first to Spock's Brain. That wasn't great, but it never made me groan in displeasure the way any episode (TOS or animated) featuring Harry Mudd did. Harry Mudd was the worst villain in television history and he's the only recurring villain.

    "That Which Survives" is the main ingredient in Ambien. "The Lights of Zetar" was a series of random lines marching across the screen in search of a plot. "The Way to Eden" is the punch line of many Trekker jokes with Spock jamming with 22nd century hippies.

    With all that said, I still enjoy episodes like "City On the Edge of Forever", "Charlie X", "Miri", "Return of the Archons", "Space Seed", "Mirror, Mirror", "Catspaw" (written by Robert Bloch), "Friday's Child", "Wolf in the Fold" (also written by Robert Bloch), "A Piece of the Action", "Patterns of Force", "Bread and Circuses", "Spectre of the Gun", "The Empath", and my all time favorite, "The Galileo Seven" today as I did as a youngster.

    1. I could not agree more with you about Harry Mudd. Oy vey.

      I'll be devoting some time to That Which Survives and Way to Eden, though - both of those have some fun things to tell us.

      The Galileo 7 is your favorite? That is interesting. It's a solid script, but I don't think I've ever heard someone refer to it as their favorite before. That's cool.

    2. That was the episode that defined Mr. Spock as a character. He entered that episode completely devoted to logic. Seeing that logic had failed him and his crew, he committed an act of desperation -- a human emotion -- and saved the lives of his crew and saved his first command. It was a defining episode of the Star Trek canon.

    3. p.s. Most of my own personal top 10 is in synch with yours. I hope you enjoy the deluge of TOS over the next several weeks, even where we may disagree. At first I was going to do a standard top 50 / countdown but decided just tonight to say screw it and just pick an episode I've screencapped at random or as the spirit moves me.

    4. It's very true re: Galileo 7. It's a hall-of-fame Spock ep, to be sure.

    5. I've never tried to figure out what my favorite original-series episode is, but the first one that comes to mind as a strong candidate is "The Devil in the Dark."

      I agree that Harry Mudd is an atrocious character. I don't dislike either episode, particularly; but I do despise every scene he himself appears in.

    6. Interesting! Also a choice I've never heard as someone's TOS favorite. And like Galileo, also a very strong episode.

      (And one I originally saw in black and white. The Horta seemed almost 3D to me when I finally saw it on a color TV years later.)

    7. Both that one and "The Galileo Seven" were two episodes I found, the last time I rewatched the whole series, to be WAY better than I'd remembered them being. And I'd remembered them being quite good.

      I also found myself not totally hating "Spock's Brain" and "The Way to Eden." I mean, yeah, they both suck; but they suck with style, you know?

      If I'm ever given the opportunity to make a Star Trek movie or series, there WILL be a scene in which a Borg vessel is destroyed by an elite squad of Horta Starfleet officers who beam aboard and just wreak havoc by somehow tunneling through the cube. Yes, I know Borg ships are not made of rock; I'll have to figure a way out of that dilemma.

    8. Borg vs. Horta is so good it actually depresses me that I know I'll never see it.

    9. "I love the way every episode is completely independent of the other (Kirk has a brother for one episode. That brother was never mentioned before and never mentioned again. Spock develops new powers as needed. etc.)."

      Episodic television was the norm in the 1960s. Prime-time dramas didn't do long plotlines or "arcs" stretching over several episodes or an entire season. Even so, some Star Trek TOS episodes did reference events of previous stories.

      And Kirk's brother is actually mentioned in two episodes: "What are Little Girls Made Of?" and "Operation - Annihilate!" In the latter, we briefly see the corpse of Kirk's brother Sam (played by William Shatner himself in a gray wig and mustache).