February 26, 2004

The Final Frontier

The Final Frontier
I don't own a Starfleet uniform, which, in my mind, is an important distinction that allows me to plausibly deny that I'm a Trekkie.

But the mere fact that, one time, I actually considered convincing my girlfriend to dress as Lt. Uhura to match my imagined Capt. Kirk costume for Hollywood probably speaks volumes.

Oh, yeah, and I cried at the end of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan".

I was nine. Shut up.

The point is, I do love Star Trek. Which is why I'm saddened that next year may mark the first time since 1987 that there will be no new episodes of the venerable old space opera. It's unfortunate, because "Star Trek: Enterprise" was actually beginning to find it's groove this season. But, I have to admit, even after great actors like Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks, and the advances in special effects, nothing can still compare to the value of Gene Roddenberry's original series. Before we all fell down the rathole of scientific technobabble, Roddenberry's show, much like it's dark cult precursor, The Twilight Zone, was a show about ideas.

Big fat ideas like the price of leadership, like the danger of promulgating pragmatism over passion, like man's eternal struggle with his increasing dependence on machines.

Now, people can cast aspersions on William Shatner's acting all they want. I'll simply say the man is a Shakespearean trained stage actor who won big critical acclaim for holding his own along side Spencer Tracey in "Judgment At Nuremberg" and is shockingly good as a white supremacist in the nearly forgotten Roger Corman film "The Intruder". He already has an Emmy nomination for "Third Rock From The Sun", and I think he's going to surprise a lot of people after the last six episodes this season on "The Practice".

Having said all that, I recently found myself singing the praises of my favorite old Star Trek episodes in a long email, so I figured I'd capture them for the viewing pleasure of the Macroscope audience. So, in no particular order:

This is Star Trek's version of "Hell In The Pacific", where Kirk is marooned on a desolate planet by one of the many races of non-corporeal beings the encounter during the course of the show to go mano-a-mano with an alien lizard captain called a Gorn, whom he suspects has just led an attack on a Federation outpost. This episode is probably most famous for Kirk building a cannon that shoots diamonds out of raw deposits of sulfur, coal, and big piece of bamboo. Sort of the precursor to MacGyver.

But I just love the Gorn's dialogue:

"Earthlingggg! Thisssssss is your opponent! I grow weary of the chasssssssse. Wait for me. I promisssssse. I will be merciful, and quick. Captain, you've LOST! ADMIT IT TO YOURSELF!!!"

"The Corbomite Manuever"
Kirk tricks the biggest spaceship in the universe that the Enterprise is boobytrapped and that, if they attack them, both ships will be mutually destroyed. And the aliens actually buy it. Turns out this enormous ship is run by one guy who looks like a six year old. Bluff vs. Bluff. Highlight comes when, as the alien ship is moments away from destroying the Enterprise, Dr. McCoy whispers a threat in Kirk's ear on the bridge that he intends to give the captain a reprimand in his medical log for pushing a junior officer into a nervous breakdown. Kirk, in response, shouts down McCoy - "Any time you can bluff ME, Doctor!...."

"The Man Trap"
McCoy's old college girlfriend is actually a shape-shifting, salt-sucking vampire who beats Spock's ass with one hand before Bones is forced to kill her. Coolest, yet creepiest moment is when the vampire takes the form of an anonymous African crewman and tries to seduce Uhura in Swahili. "'Crewman, do I know you?' 'No ma'am. But you were thinking of someone just like me.'". That's some pimp game, folks.

"What Are Little Girls Made Of?"
Tthey find Nurse Chapel's finance on a subterranean planet with ancient machinery to make android copies of humans. The guy is, of course, completely mad by now and wants to inflitrate the rest of humanity with these androids. Kirk figures out that the real fiance is long dead and that this is actually an android copy trying to be him. Kirk, playing on their confused emotions and ruthless adherence to logic, manages to talk all the androids, including a pre-Adams Family Lurch, into killing each other. This theme appears over and over again in Star Trek, in episodes such as "I, Mudd", "The Changeling", "The Ultimate Computer", and so on. While Kirk is constantly characterized is simply an intergalatic gigolo, the character is actually quite devious and clever. Which I suppose are not mutually exclusive things.

"Balance of Terror"
Kirk fights the Vulcans' distant cousins, the Romulans, for the first time. The Romulans have a cloaking device, so the Enterprise can't see them on their view screen, but the Romulans don't have a view screen, so their forced to use their sensors to try to track the Enterprise. Kirk spends much of the episode matching the Romulan ship move for more so that they think it's just a sensor echo. A real submarine battle in space of sorts.

"The Conscience of the King"
It turns out Kirk is one of a handful of survivors of a massacre on an Earth colony who can actually identify the administrator that ordered mass executions to help ration their dwindling food supply. The administrator may or may not be Anton Karidian, the lead actor in a spacefaring Shakespearean company whose tour coincides with the murders of the other witnesses. Kirk books them on the Enterprise. Once the murders start again, Kirk discovers that Karidian really is "Kodos The Executioner", but he comes to have a grudging understanding of the price that man paid when given the responsibility to solve an impossible situation. In the end, Karidian's daughter, whom Kirk had been seducing (of course), turns out to be the real killer, hoping to silence anyone who could finger her father. Karidian screams "Haven't I already enough blood on my hands" before taking the proverbial bullet meant for Kirk and dying at the hands of his mad child. Uncommon as a purely dramatic episode. And quite yummy.

"The Return of the Archons"
Investigating the crash of the Federation ship Archon from 100 years ago, they find an abnormally peaceful, rural planet where everybody is incredibly nice & sweet except for "The Red Hour" - the beginning of an annual festival when they all go simultaneously mad for exactly 24 hours, according to the teachings of their cult leader. But, of course, the cult leader died centuries ago and has left the stewartship of the planet in the hands of, you guessed it, a supercomputer than thinks it's the cult leader. Kirk talks it into self-destructing. I'm not quite sure what the point of that episode was, but the "festival" is a sight to behold. Raping, robbing, killing. A dude literally jumps through a plate glass window, just for shits and giggles. And another just runs around, screaming at the top of his lungs "FESTIVAL! FESTIVAL! FESTIVAL!". And then, when the clock strikes noon the next day, they all just stop on a dime and go about their business. Creepy as hell.

"A Taste of Armageddon"
The Enterprise gets logged as a casualty in an interplanetary war that's fought entirely through simulations on a pair supercomputers networked between the two hostile planets. Rather than destroying their cities and eradicating their cultures with real bombs, they just estimate the damages of a theoretical attack, assign people as casualties, and then ask them to willingly walk into a disintegration chamber so their real deaths can be officially recorded. But since they've made war relatively painless, they've had no reason to stop it, so it's gone on in this sociopathic manner for 500 years. Kirk, who, at this point, almost looks like he has a pathological hatred of computers, destroys the computers to protect the Enterprise crew and forces the two factions to actually sit down at the peace table rather than building real weapons. On the one hand, I'm sure there's a really interesting statement about the Vietnam war there, which can very easily be applied to the video game quality of the '91 Gulf War as well. But I also remember this episode because there's a point where Kirk orders Scotty to implement General Order 24 - a Starfleet code for bombarding the surface of a planet with enough phaser blasts to erase all live and make it uninhabitable for years to come. Roddenberry's original vision of the power of a starship was much grander, and scarier, than it was in later years.

"The Doomsday Machine"
One of the worst special effects makes for one of the most intense episodes. Responding to a distress call, the Enterprise finds the burnt out husk of one of their sister ships, the Constellation, amid the debris field of a planet that's been completly obliterated. The only man left alive is the ships commander, Matt Decker, who's gone off the deep end after he encountered a giant robot ship from outside the galaxy that's preprogrammed to blow up planets and consume the remains as fuel before proceeding to the next planet. Decker had ordered his crew to evacuate to the nearest planet, only to watch the planet-killer devour it. They speculate that it's a leftover from a war long since over, and no one was around to shut it off before it started roaming the cosmos, looking for sustinence. The combined fire power of two starships aren't enough, but Decker, overwhelmed by the guilt of losing his crew, goes on a suicide mission to ram a shuttle craft right into the mouth of the beast. Although Decker dies, it gives Kirk the idea to boobytrap the Constellation to blow up once it's inside the jaws of the planet killer.

"The Enemy Within"
A transporter malfunction splits Kirk into two versions of himself: one rational, caring, yet indecisive; the other, violent, craven, and unafraid to take what he wants. My favorite Star Trek scene of all time: the evil Kirk is in his quarters trying to hide the scratches on his face after he tried to rape Yeoman Rand, when the good Kirk gets on the PA and announces that there's an imposter on board. The evil Kirk flips out and ransacks his own room in a hissy fit, screaming at the top of his lungs "I'm Captain Kirk! I'M Captain Kirk! I - AM - CAPTAIN - KIRRRRRRKKKK!!!!!!".

If you love Shatner's over-the-top acting, this episode is priceless. In my second favorite scene from this episode, the good Kirk faces the evil Kirk in engineering. Good Kirk tries to make nice by telling his twin that he needs him, to which, the evil Kirk just sneers "I - DON'T - NEED - YOU!!!

Of course, there are tons of other gems, like "Charlie X", where an adolescent boy with no social skills but the power to alter reality at his whim, simply marches onto the bridge and brags "I can make you ALL go away! Any time I want to." Or the surreal "Spectre of the Gun", where Kirk & Co. are trapped in a dream world where they must play the losing side in a deadly serious reenactment of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and Spock must use his telepathy to give the others the mental discipline to deny the reality of the Earp Bros. bullets.

Spock's dialogue ("They are falsehoods. Lies. Shadows, without form or substance. They will not pass through your body, for they - do not - exist.") are strikingly remeniscent of "There Is No Spoon" from "The Matrix".

Of course, even if this is the demise of Scott Bakula's Enterprise, I'm sure it won't be too long before Paramount finds a way to resurrect the property. In the meantime, I suppose I'll have to do my part to bring a show about big ideas back to television.

OK. I'm through indulging now.

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