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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 1: The First Binge

Sometime in January it just occurred to me: I, a 51-year-old Star Trek fan of many decades, actually only know the Original (and best!) Series the same way practically every other Generation X nerd knows the series--as a rerun. For as many times as I've watched the original episodes--and we're talking many, many times--I'd never seen them in actual broadcast order. And for that reason, I knew there were a couple of episodes here and there that I barely knew, so rarely had they made it into the usual Saturday-afternoon rotations--or, for that matter, onto the ancient VHS tape collections I made decades ago and still have stuck in a drawer somewhere. Thus, a determination was born: since the entirety of the Original Series is available on Netflix in original broadcast order, why not just watch them all? And so I began. [Note that this was a determination that I came to months before any kind of coronavirus or quarantine talk; fortuitous to give myself a binging goal so early, don't you think?]

So what's this? My report on the complete first season, which we finished last night. Yep, that's right: we. To my surprise, my wife and youngest daughter (age almost-14) decided to come along on this ride. I'm grateful for them; they snark and ask questions and sometimes even get sucked into these more-than-a-half-century-old, 50-minute-long television episodes, making the whole experience that much better. I'm going to keep my comments to just a sentence or two about each; no need to provide any sort plot summary or extensive reviews, as there's a million people on the internet who have already done that much better than I. Indeed, if you somehow stumble onto these blog posts expecting any kind of thoughtful engagement, you're going to be sorely disappointed. I'm not looking for discoveries myself; just an attempt to re-familiarize myself, in a different way, with something so deeply a part of my pop consciousness that I couldn't extricate myself from it if I wanted to (and I don't). If you're in the same boat as me, though, well, enjoy!

[Additional note: now that we're stuck at home so much more than before, maybe it won't take us 2 1/2 months to get through each of the next two seasons. But really, who knows?

Season 1
"The Man Trap": B-
The very first episode broadcast. A decent premise, with some nice sci-fi touches (the alien appearing differently to Kirk and McCoy was well done), but overall a rather hammy execution.

"Charlie X": C
A spooky narrative concept, with lots of disturbing potential, and an ending that was genuinely sad and creepy. But with what was essentially an all-powerful immature brat onboard, wrecking havoc, why doesn't Kirk freak out? Kind of poorly acted, it seems to me.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before": C+
This is was the second pilot; you can't deny that Roddenberry & Co. didn't let anything go to waste. Once again, this one is built around a spooky--if predictable--science-fiction idea; mostly, the episode's story makes you think of a different, smarter Kirk which was never fully developed.

"Naked Time": B
Oh man, this episode is easy to mock, but it's really great fun. Filled with all sorts of 1960s-style sexism and stereotypes, it tells its story while playing all of them honestly and with great heart. A slight episode, but the show's first really solid one.

"The Enemy Within": B
Again, a ridiculously easy episode to mock, and again, one heavily dependent upon various sexist and deeply Freudian tropes. But the story itself is genuinely kind of scary as well as profoundly adult, deserving a remake today (consider what could be done with Yeoman Rand, a rape survivor who assumes she needs to cover up for her captain!).

"Mudd's Women": D
Their first real stinker. It's an offensive episode, more for its basic stupidity (the Enterprise ran out of power because it extended its shields around a cargo ship?) than its dumb, condescending, clumsily (as opposed to forgiveably dated) message.

"What Are Little Girls Made Of?": C
A decent sci-fi story (an ancient and long-dead alien civilization which left behind humanoid robots, good enough to replace the real thing?), but the whole thing is just weakly developed. Watch out for red-shirts falling into pits.

"Miri": C-
This one gets a lot of hate, but I don't think it's that horrible. Once more, a decent and spooky central concept (kids living on their own, their adolescence extended, eventually contracting the plague that killed all their parents when they hit puberty), but the casting is terrible--what, there were no 12-year-olds available?--and its ham-fisted treatment of "growing up" is just annoying.

"Dagger of the Mind": C+
Better developed than some; in Noel you have an actually competent 60s-era female character (and are we supposed to understand that Kirk was embarrassed or confused about his previous encounter with her, even before she messed with Kirk's memories?), elevating a by-the-numbers story of a megalomaniac needing to be stopped.

"The Corbomite Maneuver": B
This was supposed to be the first "official" episode after the second pilot was accepted; if you know that, then that'll help you look past the painfully obvious "morale of the story." Cheap sci-fi, but solid.

"The Menagerie," Part 1 and 2: C-
First part of this recycling of the original pilot is much better than the second part; it builds an interesting story out of the idea that Spock is faithfully executing one final order for his former captain. The second half drains any interest in what's going on, though, through various deus ex machina moves.

"Conscience of the King": D
Actually kind of boring, with an entirely predictable twist, and Kirk's supposed obsession isn't well communicated at all.

"Balance of Terror": A
This is Star Trek's first truly great episode, and the fact that nothing about it is original is entirely forgivable. It's pure adventure story-telling, a straight-up submarine battle, both nicely told and really well acted.

"Shore Leave": C
Dumb, but take the whole thing as fundamentally unserious, and you can have an okay time. (Man, McCoy is a horn-dog.)

"The Galileo Seven": A-
I'm not sure what the problem some people have with this episode is; it's one of my favorites, because Kirk is actually mostly off-screen, and we're given time to follow the development of Spock as a commander, and the others dealing with a non-human commander (the only really weak bit of writing, if you can ignore the ridiculous ogres-with-spears as the requisite monsters, is why McCoy was on the shuttle craft at all).

"Squire of Gothos": B+
Another slight and not particularly serious episode, but it's a genuinely fun bit of science-fiction, and William Campbell turns Trelane into a actual comic tour-de-force.

"Arena": B
Kirk's willingness to put ship and crew in danger to pursue the enemy is out of character, but the build-up to the stand-off is pretty good, overall. The actual face-off with the Gorn isn't pretty good too, if pedantically handled; it's kind of a small tragedy that the whole thing is so meme-worthy

"Tomorrow is Yesterday": D
Our daughter actually thought it was a funny episode, so I'm glad someone enjoyed it. I though the acting was wooden and the narrative is poorly thought through and has enormous, annoying plot holes (why won't Captain Christopher and the guard remember everything when they're put back in their own time?).

"Court Martial": C
This one has some nice scene-chewing by Cogley, but on the whole a potentially great story is wasted with a bunch of perfunctory scenes and passion-less acting (just like Kirk never showed much concern for Finney--hey, maybe it was a meta-commentary!).

"The Return of the Archons": B-
Once more, a story with lots of potential (it's the Purge, 50 years before the movie!), but none of that potential is really ever explained or worked out. Plus, it introduces one of the worst of all Star Trek cliches: outsmarting the computer!

"Space Seed": A
Deservedly praised. This is a tightly plotted story, with far fewer of the usual loose strings in Original Series story-telling. Khan is consistently brilliant but also arrogant and dismissive throughout, as he should be. It's also interesting to see, through the eyes of the script-writers, how 1960s sexists imagine what a "real man" would be like. For once, Kirk isn't the alpha male!

"A Taste of Armageddon": B
Another smart and genuinely cool sci-fi idea. The episode shows that the writers hadn't thought much about the "prime directive" yet; is Star Fleet a bunch of imperialists imposing their beliefs on an alien culture, or are they the British in India putting an end to suttee, freeing a society from a stagnate murder cult? Also, I liked that the predictable jerk ambassador is given redemption.

"This Side of Paradise": B+
Continuing a run of mostly really great episodes, this one gives us, upon reflection, a sad, desperate, and somewhat manipulative woman (interestingly, it was my wife who spotted the undertone of a wanna-be lover finding an excuse for imposing her choices on Spock), and a Kirk whose heroic escape from the spores really fit with his character, even if it wasn't developed enough. Needed more Southern doctor McCoy!

"The Devil in the Dark": B
A monster conveyed through awesomely bad "special effects"--my daughter actually remembered this one from when she was a child, when we would pull blankets over ourselves and pretend to be "hortas" sneaking around the house. Overall, it's a fun story, with hilariously hapless miners and a hammy Spock.

"Errand of Mercy": A-
This is a wonderful introduction of the Klingons, with great--and really well-scripted--performances by the Organians. It's probably the best of all the many "the crew of the Enterprise meets a super-powerful race that just can't be bothered with humans" episodes; in Season 1 alone, we have, besides the Organians, the Metrons from "Arena," the Thasians from "Charlie X," and Trelane's mother and father from "Squire of Gothos." And there's more to come!

"The Alternative Factor": D
Ending a wonderful run of mostly top-flight Star Trek episodes, this one is confusing, poorly plotted and developed (did anyone on the Enterprise ever even ask where Lazarus came from, or why he was on that planet?), to say nothing of following through on a science-fiction idea that they no means of depicting except with some truly terrible visual effects.

"The City on the Edge of Forever": A
The best, most mature, most serious, tightest, and most effecting of all the Original Series episodes. Everyone knows it, because it's true.

"Operation--Annihilate!": C-
Man, why did you have to end the first season with the stupid flying pancake/amoebas? As so frequently the case--but thankfully, less so towards the end of the season--you have weak acting and weak plotting here, and a reset (the secret Vulcan eyelid!) that wasn't foreshadowed at all. A let-down of an ending, for what was, for the most part, a really decent season of television.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Well, someone had to sit through the whole first season for the rest of us. I've only caught the episodes sporadically over the years, while flipping channels. And, haven't seen the series since the 70's. But, hey, the character Mudd, himself, surely should get a bit more love? Right?