Thursday, December 29, 2016

There's No Such Thing As the Unknown: Star Trek episode 2, "The Corbomite Maneuver"

Tonight's episode:
  
  


As I write this, it's the day after Christmas in 2016.  The world has had Star Trek in it for well over half a century now.  We humans are a fractious lot, and we show no signs of impending improvement in that regard.  We've got many -- MANY -- more important things to argue about than Star Trek, but make no mistake: those of us who care about it can, will, and do argue over Star Trek at the drop of a pin.
  
I leave it to greater minds than mine to decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.  But I did want to acknowledge it as a means of leading into making a point: when I think of what MY Star Trek is -- the tone and tenor of it, the look and feel of it, the shape and size of it, the (metaphorical) taste and smell of it -- it is this very episode that comes to mind for me.  It's not the only one; I can think of half a dozen others immediately, two dozen more right after that, and a handful of the movies maybe even before all of them.  Nor do I wish to pretend that this take on Star Trek is the only one worth considering; you may think of something completely different, and there's so much Trek in the world that you might come up with a description that would be entirely other than my own.
  
I get that.
  
What I'm saying is that for me, "The Corbomite Maneuver" is on the list of Trek stories that explain and define my love for Star Trek.  In Bryant-ville, they don't get much better than this episode.
  

It's a bit astonishing that the series knocked one this far out of the park this quickly.  Remember, guys, this was only the third episode ever filmed.  And it was THE first filmed that wasn't a pilot; so in some ways, this is where Star Trek truly began as a series.
  
The central conflict is a simple one: the Enterprise is in some far-flung area of the galaxy, pursuing a rather humdrum mission: charting stars for map-making purposes.  All of a sudden, they are approached by a highly radioactive cube that blocks their path and will neither let them advance nor escape.  Lost for an alternative, they destroy it; a mother ship arrives, and they are told that thanks to their actions, they will be destroyed.  Attempts to apologize -- and to escape -- are rebuffed, so Captain Kirk, desperate, bluffs the alien commander by stating that if their ship destroys the Enterprise, a defensive mechanism will destroy them in turn.  The alien backs down, but begins towing the Enterprise away to a planet where its crew can be jailed.  The Enterprise exerts a massive amount of energy trying to escape, and the alien ship is crippled, their life support critically damaged.  Kirk takes a landing party aboard to render aid, and finds a single childlike alien, who professes that this has all been a test to determine the true intent of the Enterprise and its crew.
  
The resolution works like magic for me, but a great deal of the episode's effectiveness comes from the process by which Kirk and his crew handle the various stages of the threat.
  
We begin with the initial encounter with the cube:
  
  

  
  
This is how the episode begins, and during this pre-titles sequence, it is Spock who is in command of the bridge.  I enjoy looks at the nuts-and-bolts operation of the the Enterprise, which can often help to make the whole thing feel like a more realistic (and, therefore, believable) endeavor.  Could the episode have begun with Kirk on the bridge?  Sure.  But it stands to reason that Kirk would sometimes be elsewhere, doing other things; and when that's the case, it is likely that Spock would be in command.  
  
(Sidebar: if anyone ever puts me in charge of producing a Star Trek series -- unlikely, but let's not rule it 100% out -- then I will establish a 24-hour workday on the ship, split into three eight-hour duty shifts.  The Captain will be present during one shift, the executive officer during another, the next senior officer for the third; during times of increased alert status, there will be a sort of emergency-contingency crew composed of the entire senior staff.  It is, of course, this crew which would be the regular cast, and which would be most frequently utilized.  But I'd want some episodes to focus on more mundane issues, and so each of the three bridge-crew rotations would need to be fully established.  Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?)
  
While Spock is busy commanding this star-charting mission, Kirk is in sickbay, submitting to a routine physical exam:
  
  
  
  
This scene is notable for the fact that it introduces Dr. McCoy to the series, in the person of DeForest Kelley.
  
If you've been reading along with these posts as I've made them, then you know that I'm covering the series in the order in which the episodes were produced, not the order in which they were aired.  I've stated previously that while this mostly doesn't make any difference, there are times when watching in production order yields positive results.  I think this is one of those times, because our introduction to McCoy establishes a major element of his relationship with Kirk: i.e., it establishes that McCoy is somebody who possesses a certain amount of power over Kirk (both professionally and personally).  The episode will explore that dynamic over the course of several scenes, and that dynamic is always present -- if only via implication -- for the remainder of the series (including the animated series and the movies).
  
The first hint we get comes when McCoy notices the red-alert signal flashing on the wall, but chooses not to inform Kirk of it.  Once he wraps up his exertions performing McCoy's endurance test, Kirk notices the red alert, and shoots the doctor an accusatory look.
  
  





  
  
McCoy gives an imperious look right back to him.
  
We've got no choice but to try and piece together McCoy's motivations.  A knowledge of the remainder of the episode (and the remainder of the series) leads me to speculate that, in general terms, McCoy is considerably less interested in exploration than he is in preserving and maintaining human life.  It feels almost as if his station aboard the Enterprise is irrelevant: he could be anywhere and he'd be happy, provided he had ample opportunity to do what he sees as good.  In this particular moment, he is in charge of verifying the health and fitness of the ship's captain, whose health and fitness put him in a position to impact the health and fitness of several hundred other people.  With that in mind, McCoy feels a red alert can wait a minute or two.
  
From Kirk's standpoint, of course, nothing could be more important than reacting to a red-alert situation, so he is justifiably upset with McCoy's inaction.  But in no way is McCoy intimidated by Kirk's rejoinder to him; I think he sees his mission as being more important than Kirk's, and so in many of their interactions, McCoy seems as though he feels it is he who is actually in command, not the captain.  He will sometimes use his viewpoints to try to steer Kirk toward a point of view closer to his own, and this will eventually lead him to butt heads with Spock, whose own point of view is vastly different.
  
All of that is fine and good, but it's only hypothetical unless precisely the right actor had been cast in the role.  For all I know, the intent was for the previous two ship's doctors -- John Hoyt in "The Cage" as Dr. Boyce, Paul Fix in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" as Dr. Piper -- to have filled similar roles in relation to the ship's captain (and the series' lead).  If so, the relationship(s) failed to pop.  But with Deforest Kelley cast as McCoy, there is a spark that leaps right off the screen from the very first scene in which he appears.  Kelley does not allow Shatner to make him a subordinate; he retains an imperiousness that Shatner is forced to try and parry at times, but with which he must always (at least in this episode) contend.  
  
And yet, Kelley also comes off as being an affable man who you believe as somebody who would be a part of Kirk's mission rather than an impediment to it.  Something in the way Kelley plays this sickbay scene implies that while he's serving his own agenda, he's doing so in a way that actually also serves Kirk's agenda in the bigger picture.  You sense that Kirk knows this; so he might be frustrated in the moment, but on the whole he's likely to find no fault with what McCoy has done.  After all, McCoy would know that Spock was in command; and he would know that if the situation were dire enough to require Kirk's immediate presence, Spock would make that happen.  McCoy knows that Kirk would have that sort of implicit trust in Spock, and so from his perspective, this situation is playing out exactly the way Kirk has structured it to play out.

The scene still plays well regardless of when in the chronology you watch "The Corbomite Maneuver," but for my money, seeing it within the context of the series' second episode packs more of a punch than seeing it in the as-aired order of tenth.

Let's touch on on a few other individual scenes that showcase the character work and performances.


"Care to speculate on what we'll find if we go on ahead?" Kirk asks Spock.

Spock replies that he would not care to speculate.  "Logically, we'll discover the intelligence that sent out the cube."  Kirk wonders if that intelligence is different from theirs or superior, and Spock allows that it is probably both.  "And if you're asking the logical decision to make..."

"No, no, I'm not," Kirk says, gentle as can be.  "The mission of the Enterprise is to seek out and contact alien life."  For Kirk, this seemingly says it all.

"Has it occurred to you there is a certain ... inefficiency ... in constantly questioning me on things you've already made up your mind about?"

"It gives me emotional security."



You can type all those words, and the scene works fine.  But as played by Shatner and Nimoy, the scene achieves greatness.  It would be perfectly possible for two different actors to play the scene with a combative edge, but as Shatner and Nimoy play it, the scene carries an air of friendly instruction.  Kirk goes into the conversation already knowing the outcome; he is teaching Spock to reach the same conclusions.  He is pushing Spock to exceed his own personal boundaries, and he's doing so as a means of reassuring himself of the correctness of his own path.

I'm not sure that's my favorite scene of the episode, but it's close.  I also like this one a lot:


Yeoman Rand -- making her series debut -- walks in while Kirk and McCoy are talking.  She sets the table in front of Kirk and sets out a salad for him.

Kirk is aghast with the dietary restrictions McCoy has evidently placed upon him.  He channels some of this disdain into carping about having a female yeoman.

"What the matter, Jim, don't you trust yourself?"

Shatner pauses briefly, and you can see the emotions playing across his face as he decides whether or not to be insulted by McCoy's implication.



But, of course, McCoy has innately sensed that an issue like this would be something this particular man would have to contend with.  By mentioning it, McCoy has given Kirk permission to have the struggle, and has also let him know he has an ally in fighting it.  Kirk pieces this together in the span of a second or two, and Shatner's ability to convey Kirk's thought process is tremendous.

For the record, by the way, I have no idea if that summary represents exactly what is going on between Kirk and McCoy.  It's just my interpretation of it.  My point is, Shatner's acting is so strong -- subtle, but strong -- that you have no doubt some process is taking place.  You might choose to interpret it differently; but you're going to have an interpretation of some sort, and it's the performances of Shatner and Kelley that will guide you.  Once again, they are bringing a great deal more than what is on the page.

Kirk concludes the conversation by gently informing McCoy that he already has a female to look after; her name is Enterprise.  There is just the barest hint of loneliness in Kirk's words, and this will be a major element of Kirk's character -- if only by implication -- going forward.

This might be an opportune time to talk about the episode's director, Joseph Sargent.  Sargent directed only this single episode of Trek, and that's a shame, because he obviously understood exactly what it was all about right off the bat.  If anything, it's a more refined and effective version of Trek than either of the two pilots had been; one balks somewhat at giving Sargent credit for steering the course of the series, but perhaps it's not wholly unwarranted to at least raise the issue.

Sargent worked extensively in television, and eventually graduated to feature films, directing notable projects such as Colossus: The Forbin Project, White Lightning, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, MacArthur, and, uh, Jaws: The Revenge.  He returned to television and helmed a number of major projects, including co-directing the Space miniseries (based on the James Michener novel), the Streets of Laredo miniseries (based on the Larry McMurtry novel), and the award-winning films Miss Evers' Boys and Something the Lord Made.

In other words, this fella was no slouch, and there's every reason to believe that his direction helped Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Takei, Nichols, and Whitney find the footing that would come to define their roles.  I don't want to assume Sargent gave them what would not have been otherwise present; but neither do I want to assume his contributions were negligible.

Moving on, let's talk about the first great Kirk monologue of the series, which is delivered soon after Balok makes the pronouncement that the crew has ten minutes to live.  McCoy comes to the bridge and informs Kirk that Balok's message was heard all over the ship; Kirk doesn't say as much, but it is clear that he understands that the entire crew must be awfully rattled right about then.  He addresses the entire crew:

Captain to crew: those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien life forms.  You know the great danger facing us is ourselves: an irrational fear of the unknown.  There's no such thing as the unknown; only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.  In most cases, we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures.  Surely a life form advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives.  All decks: stand by.  Captain out.

Much has been made over the years about the philosophies expressed by this series (and its sequels).  Here is one of the most profound, in perhaps its purest form.  It's a philosophy the series won't always hold to, even within this first season.  For that reason, it's certainly possible to accuse the series of being a bit less than the sum of its parts on the subject of philosophy and morals/ethics.  Fair enough.  but I'd argue that "The Corbomite Maneuver" is exempt from those criticisms; it's on the list of episodes that got the balance just right.

Shatner is great during this brief monologue.  I didn't take any screencaps of it, except one of James Doohan, playing Scotty.  Scotty is listening to Kirk's words and beaming with pride; you feel as if Kirk is somehow putting into words the things Scotty has long felt but did not know how to express.




And maybe it's more than that.  Scotty seems like a veteran, almost an equivalent to the salty old sergeant types you'd see in war movies of the era.  Perhaps what we're seeing on his face is a recognition for the kindness Kirk is doing his crew by trying to calm their nerves in the moments before their end arrives.  Whatever it is, it's a fine moment.

The next few scenes will explore the ten minutes the Enterprise has been given "to make preparations" for their demise.  How many times over the course of the 700+ episode of the various Trek series will one of the crews find themselves in a situation like this?  The nature of television dictates that in the vast majority of episodes, there will be some dilemma similar to this one; and, of course, the vast majority of those dilemmas will be resolved without any significant loss of life to the cast of characters.  Consequently, most of the episodes merely go tthrough the motions when they arrive at junctures like this one: they don't really try to fool us into thinking anyone is going to die, because they know we aren't fool enough to consider it to be a possibility.

If everyone involved isn't careful, the resultant "drama" can be as undramatic as it comes.  but because we know that they know we know what's going on, we are inherently inclined to give the productions some leeway.

In "The Corbomite Maneuver," everyone involved plays the scene as though there will never be another episode of Star Trek.  This feels like life and death to these characters; for all they know, they really do have a mere ten minutes left to live.  The performances are utterly genuine, from Shatner on down.  The result, for me, is that this is -- emotionally-speaking -- one of the most realistic of all the series' episodes.  There's a moment that really sells it for me.  Kirk has decided to retreat, so he tells Balok they are leaving and orders the Enterprise away.  The ship can't move; Balok comes on and tells them that they are not going to be allowed escape, and have eight minutes remaining.  A look comes over Shatner's face; it is clear that he had not considered the possibility that they might actually be killed.  He does his best to keep his panic internal, and seemingly succeeds; but when Bailey, moments later, makes his own panic very external, it's hard not to feel that Bailey is serving as the mouthpiece for Kirk's reflexive response.

The tension mounts.  "There must be something to do," says Kirk aloud, to Spock, "something I've overlooked."

Spock replies sympathetically, "In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over; checkmate."




Shatner gives Nimoy an utterly disgusted look.  "Is that your best recommendation?" he spits at him.

"I'm s--," Spock begins ("sorry" presumably being the choked-off word).  He stops himself, straightens, reverts to his own programming.  "I regret that I can find no other logical alternative," he concludes.  Kirk turns his back on Spock and walks away; Spock, chastened and obviously hurt by his own shortcomings, literally hangs his head in shame.




This exchange is astonishingly good, and is also a subtle callback -- intentional or otherwise -- to the chess game in "Where No Man Has Gone Before."  You will recall that this is how we first meet Kirk and Spock; there, we see Spock's logical approach get only so far with Kirk.  Spock feels he has Kirk beaten; Kirk is confident he does not, and Kirk will be proven correct.  Balok is going to learn a similar lesson to the one Spock learned in that episode; we're not quite there yet, but it's coming, and the seeds for Kirk's eventual victory are sown in this moment with Spock.

Prior to this scene, Kirk had relieved Bailey of command and has had McCoy escort him off the bridge.  Now, McCoy returns, furious with Kirk over his treatment of the younger officer (about whom the doctor had already expressed concerns).  He presses Kirk to allow him to put a note in Bailey's record that fatigue was responsible for his outburst.  Kirk, in no mood to deal with McCoy's concerns, orders him to drop the matter.  McCoy, not in the least intimidated by Kirk's order (and you may now reflect upon how capably the earlier scene in sickbay established the doctor's disposition toward Kirk's rank), says that he intends to challenge the captain's decision.  "That's no bluff," he concludes icily.

"Any time you can bluff me, Doctor...!" Kirk shouts.  He cuts off the rest of the sentence, aware that the rest of the bridge crew has turned toward the two of them, shocked by the outburst.






Balok informs them that their time is now a mere three minutes, and Kirk softens a bit toward McCoy, telling him that he hopes they have time to argue about it.  He looks toward Spock and Scotty, who are looking toward him concernedly.

Then, something magical happens.






Shatner allows the merest twinkle to come into Kirk's eyes.  Something has happened.  Kirk has had an idea.

"Not chess, Mr. Spock," he offers; "poker."

From this emerges one of the all-time great Kirk moments: a bluff for the ages, the titular corbomite maneuver.  He opens a channel to Balok, and speaks:

This is the Captain of the Enterprise.  Our respect for other life forms requires that we give you this warning: there's one critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the memory banks of any Earth ship.  Since the early years of space exploration, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as corbomite.  It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us.  If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying...

Balok interrupts, stating that two minutes remain.

...destroying the attacker.  It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago, no attacking vessel has survived the attempt.  Death has little meaning to us.  If it has none to you, then attack us now.  We grow annoyed at your foolishness.

And with that, the bluff has been given; all that remains is awaiting the result.  "Will it be raise or call?" Kirk wonders.

It's a truly marvelous moment.  Shatner has never been better, will never be better; he will occasionally be as great, but it's impossible to be better.  The various writers of the many incarnations of Trek (as well as its imitators) will strain to find something this persuasive for their captains to do; they will mostly fail, but let's not blame them too much, because this is a high bar to clear.

Spock walks over to Kirk, shakes his head in a gesture of -- what?  Disbelief?  Admiration?  Spock is bemused, perhaps; rueful; impressed.  I'm not sure it can be put into words.  "However," Spock says, following up verbally upon a verbally-unexpressed sentiment, "it was well-played."  Kirk smiles the smile of a man who has put a critical message into a bottle and then tossed it into the sea.

The deadline comes and goes.  "A very interesting game, this poker," deadpans Spock.  Balok announces that the ship's destruction has been delayed, and Doohan gives a marvelous reaction: he smiles and shakes his head, a gesture of resigned appreciation for his enemy, and for his lot in life.  This is the body language of a veteran who long ago resigned himself to death, and is grateful for every moment it is delayed.

Rand shows up in the midst of all of this with a pot of coffee, and on the one hand, it's a pointless addition to the scene.  McCoy says to her that he thought the power was out in the galley; she reveals that she used a hand phaser.  A pointless moment ... except it indicates that in her own way, Rand is as cunning and resourceful as Kirk is.  I'm a big fan of Janice Rand.  We're going to talk about her plenty more during the first part of this first season, but for now, I'll hint that she seems primed and ready at this point to be a much bigger element of Star Trek than she ended up being.




You know how this all plays out, of course.  Balok is eventually revealed to be not a fearsome adversary, but a kindly and wise being who has been testing the Enterprise to discover the true intentions of its crew.  And those intentions are revealed when Balok's ship is crippled, its life support seemingly disabled: Kirk orders the Enterprise to render aid.

This takes even McCoy by surprise.  He expresses alarm at Kirk keeping his crew in jeopardy when they have seemingly just gotten out of it.

"What's the mission of this vessel, Doctor?" asks Kirk rhetorically.  "To seek out and contact alien life; and an opportunity to demonstrate what our high-sounding words mean."

In Kirk's view, it is the mission of the Enterprise -- and, metaphorically, of humanity -- to be what it says it is, to stand for what it says it stands for.  These are profound and moving words coming at the end of 2016.

This series may be fifty years old, but in its best moments it is still pointing the way forward.  In that way, it has, sadly, not aged a day.

A few more observations before we move on to the next phase of the post:

  • Nichelle Nichols makes her debut as Uhura, wearing a gold miniskirt that is so short it makes me nervous.
  • The musical score by Fred Steiner is perhaps a bit overly insistent; I can see how one would have that reaction.  But for my money, it is absolutely awesome.
  • The mission statement of the opening credits -- "Space: the final frontier," etc. -- is just wonderful.  We take it for granted; we shouldn't.  And I'm willing to bet that part of the reason Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise failed to catch on as widely as The Next Generation did is that they all lack a mission statement.  Here's hoping Discovery comes up with its own; I think it's an integral part of the formula.
  • This is a simple thing, but I love when tv shows put the episode's title on the screen.  It's a device that wouldn't work for every shows, I guess; you wouldn't want that from Mr. Robot.  But for an episodic series like this one, I think it's great.  I find myself wondering what first-time viewers who are unaware of the episode's contents must think of the title "The Corbomite Maneuver" when they see it.  Do they wonder what corbomite is?  Do they assume that the aliens are "Corbomites"?  If they have any conscious reaction at all, then it must play like gangbusters when Kirk's titular maneuver is unfurled.
  • "What am I, a doctor or a moon-shuttle conductor?" asks McCoy in his first such remark on employment equivalency.
  • "If I jumped every time a light came on around here, I'd end up talking to myself," says McCoy to himself.  A silly moment that could have been thoroughly lame in the wrong hands; Kelley's were the right hands.
  • Any regular viewer of Star Trek knows that Sulu looks over his right shoulder at Kirk approximately 1,789,463 times during the course of the series.  This is the first time:
    
  
  
  • Bailey says to Kirk about the cube, "I vote we blast it."  "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Bailey," replies Kirk, "when this becomes a democracy."  Bailey sighs, chastened; Kirk gives a tiny smile.  Another great Shatner moment.
  • "Origin and purpose of the cube: still unknown," says Kirk in his log.  This is similar to the phrasing used two years later in 2001: A Space Odyssey to describe the monolith.  Probably a coincidence, but I can't help connect the two, not via any sort of authorial borrowing, but via the profundity and alienness of both stories.  2001 obviously walks further down than road than "The Corbomite Maneuver," but this episode does contain some of that movie's wonder and terror in the characters' reactions to this strange new communication they have made.
  • Does Bailey seem too incompetent to get to the position of navigator?  If we wish to, we can assume that he has achieved this rank by virtue of Gary Mitchell's demise in the previous episode.  McCoy accuses Kirk of seeing himself in Bailey; if he does, then he may be trying to compensate somehow for what he perceives as his responsibility for Mitchell's death.  Either way, Bailey's relative incompetence has a felicitous side-effect: it makes Sulu, at the helm beside him, seem even more competent and professional in comparison.  George Takei's performance helps; he has little to do, but Sulu seems like a fully-realized person when you look into his eyes.
  • When the Fesarius is upon then, Spock utters a pronouncement: "Fascinating!"  This is the first time that oft-repeated word is used in this way.
  • The Fesarius is so large that its measurements go off Spock's charts; he speculates it must be a mile in diameter, which surely makes this one of the largest vessels the Enterprise ever encounters.  I'm a sucker for an awesomely massive alien vessel.
  • Balok says the Fesarius is from the "First Federation."  It's worth pointing out that this is the first time the word "Federation" is spoken on Star Trek.  The Enterprise has not yet been revealed to be part of that governing body's Starfleet.  One wonders if Roddenberry liked the word "Federation" and decided to borrow it from Sohl.  (This assumes it was Sohl who coined the phrase; tune in to our behind-the-scenes segment for some discussion of what Roddenberry contributed to this episode in his rewrites.)
  • When Balok accuses the Enterprise of being the product of a "primitive and savage civilization," shatner reacts almost as though he's been slapped.  It's a tiny reaction, but a visible one; you can tell it bothers Kirk for his people to be seen in that light.  Yet another great Shatner moment.
  • Generally-speaking, this is a marvelously-directed and -edited episode; but it doesn't all work.  there are some highly questionable moments when we see the first example of the bridge crew actors pretending that the ship is experiencing severe turbulence; if you can manage not to see what Nimoy and Kelley are doing during these moments, I recommend doing so.  Similarly, there is a group of crewpeople in a corridor who you see being "tossed" from one wall to the other.  Let's just say that the way this is filmed and edited is laughable and leave it at that.
  • Sometimes they pronounce Balok as "BAY-lock," sometimes as "BAL-ik."  And clearly, it's BAY-lock.  but among all the virtues of the episode, I can forgive it a flaw like this.
  • We haven't spoken about Anthony D. Call, who plays Bailey.  He's terrific, enough so that you kind of wish he had come back later, once his tour of exchange-duty with Balok had concluded.  (When I get around to writing that trilogy of fan-fiction novels retelling the story of TOS, I might replace Chekov with Bailey, who has returned wiser and more seasoned.)  Call didn't have an extensive career, but did spend much of the sixties popping up on shows like The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  He's wonderful in the final scene, when he volunteers to stay with Balok.  The whole episode has been leading to this.  "The face of the unknown," Kirk says to him when assigning him to the mission; "I think I owe you a look at it."  Kirk wants Bailey to become comfortable with the idea that the "unknown" is an illusion; and Bailey proves, in the end, to be able to greet the idea with a grin.

"Me, sir; I'd like to volunteer!"


Speaking of grins:




How could we not talk about Clint Howard?

I don't wish to be uncharitable, but it must be said: if you're casting a child whom you wish to plausibly look like an alien, you can't do much better than Clint Howard circa 1966.  It was a masterstroke of casting genius, and it really put the ribbon on what was already a formidable package.  Because yes, Howard is unquestionably ... odd-looking; but that very oddity plays into the episode's themes, and his performance -- open, delighted, inviting -- echoes them as well.  He's voiced by another actor, which is understandable; that's the only way which permits Balok to seem advanced (childlike rather than childish).

All things considered, for my money this is one of the all-time great Treks.

Speaking of Trek things I love, check out this Christmas gift my friend Randy gave me:


 

Is that a framed sheet of this year's 50th-anniversary Star Trek stamps?  Why, yes, sir, it surely is.  I have yet to designate a space on my wall for this bad boy to hang, but it's going to perhaps spearhead some new Trek-flavored corner of my apartment.
 
Let's now go behind the scenes:




  • We get some quality information from Grace Lee Whitney about the conception of Yeoman Rand.  To her, Roddenberry described Rand as being like Miss Kitty to Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke: a confidante with whom he could safely discuss his feelings.  The intent was that both would have feelings for each other, but would never openly express that shared attraction; the undercurrent of sexuality between them would come out only in very subtle ways.  This, obviously, was never to be; but during the brief time Rand was a part of the series, you can see everyone working toward that goal.  I find it fun to think about how a different version of Star Trek might have continued to exploit this, and end up considering how The Next Generation tried to do so in different ways via both Riker / Troi and Picard / Crusher.
  • Whitney maintains that it was her idea to clad the crewwomen in miniskirts.  Not Roddenberry's, not costume designer Bill Theiss's; Whitney's.  Frankly, it seems thoroughly plausible to me.  Whoever had the idea, bless their hearts for it.
  • Say, friends, remember earlier when I mentioned that Scotty as played by Doohan had the air of a seasoned veteran?  Well, as it turns out, Doohan had been a serviceman in the Royal Canadian Artillery during WWII, and had been part of the D-Day assault on the beach of Normandy.  He got hit by German bullets in four different places in one leg, and a bullet to the chest was deflected by a metal cigarette case in his shirt pocket!  Oh, and he had a middle finger shot entirely off.  So Doohan's performance as a man facing what looks like death at the hands of Balok had some practice behind it.
  • Roddenberry performed several rewrites on Jerry Sohl's screenplay, and made what you might call major additions such as: changing Balok from a normal-sized humanoid to a childlike humanoid; having the Enterprise officers beam aboard the alien ship rather than have an injured Balok come aboard the Enterprise; the entire character of Lt. Bailey (!); Spock's comparison of the cube to "flypaper"; Spock's comparison of Balok to his father; McCoy aside about talking to himself; Rand's salad and coffee scenes; Kirk's realization that they are playing not chess but poker (!); the entire character of Uhura; and so forth.  Roddenberry would later gain a bad reputation among some of the show's writers for the extent to which he rewrote their work, but looking at that laundry list of his additions to this episode, it's difficult for me to feel other than that he improved it greatly.  That's a bit of an understatement.
  • Joseph Sargent is the person responsible for bringing Nichelle Nichols on board, albeit indirectly.  He suggested that the show needed a black woman, and casting director Joe D'Agosta suggested several actresses, including Nichols, Mittie Lawrence, Ena Hartman, and Gloria Calomee.
  • Sargent may also have been responsible for certain aspects of the character of Spock.  Nimoy seems inclined to credit him thus: "The director gave me a brilliant note which said: 'Be different.  Be the scientist.  Be detached.  See it as something that's a curiosity rather than a threat.'  I said, 'Fascinating.'  Well, a big chunk of the character was born right there."
  • NBC requested that a filmed scene be removed from the final edit.  It involved Rand, who is in Kirk's quarters with a fresh uniform after he's decided to go change prior to reporting to the bridge.

We now turn our attentions to:

My copy is missing a hunk out of the spine and front cover because the dillweed who sold it to me put a sticker there for identification purposes.  And I couldn't just let it stay there, so one rip later, voila: damaged cover.

How great is that set of taglines at the top?

The 1977 publication of Star Trek 12 brought the series nearly to a conclusion; one book remained, and we'll discuss it next post.  You will note that James Blish is co-author on this one with J.A. Lawrence.  Who, you might ask, was J.A. Lawrence?  She was Mrs. James Blish; Blish had died in 1975, leaving this series not entirely finished, so Lawrence stepped in and wrote up a few of the stories which remained unadapted.

"The Corbomite Maneuver" was not among those, so for now, we need speak no further of Blish's demise.

His adaptation of "The Corbomite Maneuver" is like the others we've looked at so far: intriguing in some ways, but ultimately inferior to the filmed product.  A key as to why this might be the case comes in Blish's prologue (completed prior to his death): it's nothing more complicated than that he wrote the stories based on final-draft screenplays, many of which turned out to be dissimilar in some aspects to the finished episodes.  I hinted at this when I talked about Blish's adaptation of "The Cage," so if you remembered that and assumed it to be the case here, too, apologies for repeating myself!  But it seemed worth emphasizing again: it some degree, these adaptations are worth reading because they are like getting a glimpse at ever-so-slightly-from-an-alternative-universe versions of the stories.

With "The Corbomite Maneuver," there are some fairly major differences in tone.  Bailey is a much shriller and more unpleasant fellow, and from almost the first moment we meet him.  When the alien cube appears, Bailey begins panicking.  Uhura tells Spock she's getting no signal from it; Bailey's response is given as follows:

     "And it's still on collision course with us!"
     The excitement in Bailey's voice contrasted only too vididly with the controlled, efficient composure of those of his bridge mates.  Instead of registering the difference -- and using it for improved self-discipline -- he raised his voice to a near-scream.  "And our deflectors aren't stopping it!"

There will be other examples of Bailey's hysteria.  For example, when he tells Kirk that he thinks they should "blast" the cube, it's presented as an "explosion" of words on his part.  And so forth throughout the story.  Frankly, it doesn't work, and it suggests to me that either there were substantial rewrites after the draft from which Blish worked, or there were substantial on-set alterations.

This is where it becomes very tempting to assume that director Joseph Sargent may have had an even bigger hand in this episode than it already seemed.  Is it possible that he -- while on set and working with the actors, including Anthony D. Call -- pulled all of the Bailey material back massively so as to make the character more believable and (therefore) the entire episode more realistic?

If so, we may as well speculate that he and Shatner also collaborated to make Kirk more sympathetic.  Blish's Kirk here is fairly domineering.  In replying to Bailey on the subject of "blasting" the cube, Blish tells us that Kirk's "voice was dry as withered leaves."  He then delivers the line about keeping it mind when the ship becomes a democracy.  Same line; very different delivery.  No small smile unseen by anyone except us viewers, either.  There are other examples of this throughout the story, and the net result in my opinion is that this version of Kirk simple isn't as sympathetic or likable.  I don't know if the credit for changing that on-the-page element to what it became in the final episode should go to Shatner or Sargent or both, but clearly, somebody worked some magic on it.

Other things that jumped out at me:

  • The opening sentence: "Spock was making a map of the galaxy's planet systems, a long and tedious job."  Now there's a fucking understatement if I've ever heard one!  That'd be, like, a hundred-year mission.  Probably more.
  • After Sulu jabs Bailey about crossing brains with Spock, Bailey begins a statement about what he'd do if he were the captain.  Sulu tells him that Kirk is an even rougher customer than Spock is, and adds, "I'm warning you, brother.  It comes as more of a shock because he's such a hell of a leader." 
  • The scene between Kirk and Rand in his quarters with a replacement uniform is present; it doesn't amount to much, and doesn't even contain any dialogue between the two.
  • Uhura (saying "I thought I'd learned English by now" in a winningly sarcastic manner) doesn't know what flypaper is, so Kirk explains it to her.
  • The relationship between Kirk and McCoy is decidedly less comrade-like.  McCoy outright snaps at Kirk here in a few places where the filmed episode presents their dialogue as playful and friendly.  So again, the filmed version is wildly superior to the screenplay/adaptation.
  • Kirk's dialogue to McCoy about Rand: "I'm married," he says.  "And a faithful husband.  My girl is called the Enterprise."
  • Spock's line about the size of the Fesarius being off his scale is given here to Sulu.
  • When Kirk finishes his speech about there being no such thing as the unknown, we get this: "As he turned, he saw that Uhura's lustrous black eyes were tear-filled."  Which is cheesy on the one hand, and just plain incorrect on the other: Uhura had brown eyes last time I checked.
  • "God bless Spock," thinks Kirk at one point.  Say what, Jim?!?  (To be fair, there's enough canonical evidence in TOS to make the case that Kirk believes in God.  Still, it's jarring to see this in Star Trek, and I'm surprised it wasn't edited out.  This is perhaps an indication that these adaptations were not the recipients of a firm editorial hand.  A shocking allegation, that...)
  • When Scotty mentions Sulu having a fascination with timepieces, it's said that "Scott blew up" before he speaks.  The crew in general seems like a fractious lot, and if the episode had been filmed that way, it might have been a disaster.
  • When Kirk orders McCoy to drop the matter about Bailey, he adds the following line of dialogue: "I've no time for you, your buck-passing theories or your sentimentality!"  And that's before he says the bit about McCoy bluffing him.
  • In the interval between sixty seconds and thirty seconds during Balok's deadline, there is a bizazrre exchange about how Sulu is "not a very inscrutable Oriental."  These are words Kirk says to Sulu.  Sulu isn't offended, but grins about it, and tells a story involving him watching movies about "Sino-Western trouble"s which nearly led to World War III.  He says, "the villains were Oriental, remember?  I loved them.  I used to sit in front of the mirror for hours practicing drooping eyelids, mysterious expressions.  I never knew what it meant.  These movies were two hundred years old, I guess, but I wanted to be like them."  Uhura tells him that he never made it.  "I can't figure out why I'm like this.  I don't have a drop of Western blood."  I don't really know what to say about any of this, except a plain old "no."  I suppose it played a bit better on page in 1977.  In 2016?  No sir.  Either way, I don't think it works within a Star Trek context.
  • There's a nice exchange between Bailey and Kirk as they are preparing to beam over to Balok's ship.  Kirk asks the younger officer if he's frightened, and Bailey answers that he is.  Kirk asks what he's frightened of, and Bailey says he doesn't know, exactly.  "Precisely my point, Mr. Bailey," Kirk replies.
  • Bailey's volunteering to be an ambassador of sorts to Balok is massively overplayed.  Kirk asks if Bailey knows where he could find a volunteer, and then: "Bailey jumped from his child's chair with such enthusiasm that he hit his head on the ceiling," and Blish tells us that his response is "cried eagerly."  Nothing in the story has paved the way for this moment.  It does not work, plain and simple.
  
By the way, I should have thought to mention this during my post on "The Cage," but if you are interested in the Blish adaptations, there's an efficient way to get ahold of them:
  
  


    
  
These collections arranged the Blish stories into season-by-season tomes, omitting only "Mudd's Women" and "I, Mudd" (for reasons we will discuss in our next post).  I'm kind of fond of having the original set of twelve paperbacks, but I enjoy the fact that these editions arrange the stories in what appears to be production order (although with "The Cage" placed where "The Menagerie" was produced).
  
Anyways, I figured you'd want to know about 'em.
  
We turn now to some leftover screencaps, a few of which I will supplement with quotations from Blish's story.


"Uhura's rich contralto spoke.  'Getting no signal from it, sir.' "

" 'Quite unncessary to raise your voice, Mr. Bailey.  Unlike us, the object appears to lack hearing.'  Then, addressing Sulu, he added, 'Engines full stop.  Sound the alert.' "

"Spock dissolved into a view of the slowly rotating cube.  'Whatever it is,' Spock's voice offered, 'it's blocking our way.  When we move, it moves too, sir.' "

"The choking Sulu recovered himself long enough to say breathlessly, 'Kid . . . you try to cross brains with Spock -- and he'll . . . cut you into pieces too small to find.' "







"McCoy had been standing at the elevator doors, watching and listening.  Now as Kirk approached them, he spoke quietly.  'Your timing is lousy, Jim.  The men are tired.' "

" 'You're the one who says a little suffering is good for the soul!'  'I never say that!'  As they stepped into the turbo-car, a look passed between them.  McCoy had said it, would say it again -- and they both knew it.  He made no retort."


"Then Sulu called, 'There, sir!' "

"The thing on the screen had enlarged into a mass that should have made some identification of it possible; but like the cube, the image was too alien in appearance to make any judgment of it reliable.


What it absurdly seemed to be was a rounded cluster of balls, each growing bigger as it neared."

"The bridge crew was stunned, struck down into awe as it contemplated the imaged Colossus."









"Bailey was too dumbstruck to act, so Sulu, leaning across to his console, turned a switch.  Gradually, the vastness of the screened shape diminished until the frame could hold it in its total form."



"Silence fell over the bridge personnel.  Long experience in the unimaginable, training and self-discipline, though well indoctrinated, failed to rescue them from the paralysis induced by Balok's threat."


"On the screen, the star background began to ripple like a sea flecked by plankton's phosphorescence.  Then it dissolved into a still rippling but gradually firming shape -- the distorted yet fairly distinct image of what could only have been Balok.

The creature's long, drooping face was set in what seemed to be a permanently grotesque grimace, the nostrils of his bulbous nose upturned to expose blood-red flesh, a space-clown out of nightmare."




"Bailey, swinging toward Kirk, started to shout a reply which, at the look on his Captain's face, emerged as a groan."

"At once Kirk was aware that he himself had cracked a bit under the suspense and strain, and conscious too that his raised voice had made him an object of surprised dismay by the bridge personnel.  He had increased fear instead of allaying it.  Well, there was nothing to do about it.  He'd just have to trust to their experience of him."







"The small, balled alien ship had moved closer to the Enterprise; and as it approached still closer, its mother ship sped off, its cell-like sections dwindling rapidly in size.  Accelerating fast, the thing lost shape to speed, turned to a pinpoint of light, then into a nothingness that left the tiny ship hanging before the Enterprise."

" 'His signal is fading.  It is so faint, I doubt if the mother ship could hear it.' "


"It didn't move as they approached it.  The goggle eyes in the huge, bloated head had no lids to blink but simply stared glassily at the opposite wall."


"Kirk accepted the cup he was handed but didn't drink.  Nor did McCoy."





"The contrast between the powerful voice and its ingenuous confession of loneliness was appealing."


Sort of a scattershot collection of quotes there, but so its goes at Where No Blog Has Gone Before.

Before we sign off, a quick look at a few shots from the Remastered version:


I continue to not much care for the CGI Enterprise.

The Fesarius, on the other hand, is pretty good.  This is arguably superior to the original effects, although the originals don't bother me a bit.  Sure, they look old.  So what?  They ARE old!


I do mostly like this update, though.

That said, why bother with something like this when you've still got that rickety-ass Balok puppet?  The whole Remastered thing continues to feel like a waste of energy to me, and I suspect we won't be mentioning it anymore unless I've got something notable to praise or damn.

Anyways, I'll be back in a few weeks with the next episode: "Mudd's Women."  I may as well tell you now, I'm not a fan; of this episode, or of Harry Mudd in general.  But who knows?  Perhaps a careful examination of the episode will change my mind.  Either way, see you in 2017!

6 comments:

  1. (1) I've always loved this damn episode myself. Well, as you know - I guess we already had our "Corbomite" back and forth recently, eh? As far as my own thoughts on the episode, I mean.

    As for your own, here, kudos - you managed to make me want to rewatch an episode I saw as recently as last week. I especially want to look for all the nice character-to-character moments you point out between the holy trinity.

    (2) Sheesh, Sargent had quite the eclectic filmography after this episode.

    (3) Although my brain instantly yells out a hundred other moments that rival the one you nominate as Shatner's greatest moment, I think you've pinpointed something with his performance in this episode. A lot of S1 eps, but this one in particular: Shatner isn't Shatner self-parody-guy at all, yet. With each action we take, we limit the number of roads ahead of us (as is only natural.) At the time of "Corbomite", all acting-roads were still open to Shatner. With each step he took further into Trek, his inevitable journey to the Shatner he was always meant to be closes one after another. I don't mean this is in a pitiable way, only that neither the Shatner delivering these lines nor the audience watching him do so at the time have any conception of the Shatner of "Free enterprise." Or even TOS s3 Shatner. As far as all are concerned, this guy could be the next Brando. And if you look at it that way, is there anything in his performance in this ep to suggest he wouldn't have been a perfectly legit heir to Brando? It's an interesting question for sure. Whatever, though - you are absolutely right in noting the fine acting moments you do.

    (4) I feel like if you're not going to put the name of the episode on screen in any fashion (be it in the end credits or up front), then why bother naming it? For the SAG? Go the "Friends" route, then. (i.e. "The One Where Khan Shows Up." "The One Where Nomad Thinks Kirk Is Its Mother and Exterminate! Sterilize! STERILIZE...!" etc.)

    (5) LOL at noting the first over-the-shoulder Sulu moment. I'm sure I mentioned it in one of my Trek/Klum reveries, but we used to have a living room set-up where, when we were watching Trek, we could look over our shoulders at the futon in the back of the room, Sulu-style, for any appropriate dramatic moments.

    (6) I often wonder whatever happened to Bailey with Balok. I'm kind of surprised no one ever revisited that.

    (7) That is an awesome Christmas card.

    (8) That seems a stretch to me, personally, but I tend to place all sex-and-miniskirts decisionmaking in the Roddenberry column, probably unfairly.

    (9) I want to say that both Nimoy and Shatner speak very charitably about Joe Sargent's influence on the show and their subsequent careers in their respective memoirs. Nimoy is, definitely (in I AM SPOCK), and I think Shatner, too.

    (10) Another fine entry! I enjoy the format you've got going here. (In addition to the analysis and all the 'caps.)

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    1. Oh, (8) refers to Yeoman Rand's claim to have got all the ladies in miniskirts. But hey, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. Ain't that big of me!

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    2. (1) I've always liked the episode, too, but I never paid close enough attention before now to notice just how good it really is.

      (3) No! There is NOTHING in this episode to suggest he couldn't have gone the Brando route, in terms of stature. He's GREAT. "With each step he took further into Trek, his inevitable journey to the Shatner he was always meant to be closes one after another." Nicely put, and hugely true. I don't think there is any reason to regret where Shatner's career went from here, but it is fascinating to consider the road(s) not taken. And I think you're right that this particular episode has a performance that points elsewhere very strongly.

      (4) The One with the Space Hippies

      (5) That's next-level Trek fandom, there. I applaud it!

      (8) I can't deny that that was my thought, too. But then I remembered that the first two episodes had the female crewpeople -- even the one (Andrea Dromm) that Roddenberry is famed for having hired in an attempt to dip his wick -- in pants, and I had to admit that it sounded plausible.

      (10) Thanks! I'm fairly pleased with it, too. It's just a big old excuse to spend some serious time with Trek, which, of course, is the goal of all these blogs (re.: their subjects) anyways. I say this as if you don't already know it! Speaking of which, I've got an urge to knock out some Sade today... which sounds dirtier than I'd intended, although, yeah, kind of a not-inappropriate phrasing now that I think about it...

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  2. I started working my way through the Blu-ray set "The Roddenberry Vault" tonight, and lo and behold, among the lost clips presented there was the scene in which Sulu talks about not being inscrutable. The documentary about the footage this set includes actually discusses the James Blish books, and more or less specifies that any scenes those books contain that are not in the episodes represent scenes that WERE present in the screenplays, and in some cases were actually filmed.

    So howsabout that? Pretty cool.

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    1. Pretty cool indeed!

      That Sulu inscrutable thing (and its recall at the end of the Giant Spock TAS episode) is too funny. Kirk's telling Sulu he's the "most SCRUtable person he's ever met" and Sulu's subsequent wink is, for me, one of the weirder moments in all Trekdom. (And gloriously so.)

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    2. I'd forgotten about that! It's kind of similar to the "Lincoln"-calling-Uhura-a-Nubian scene in that it feels wrong, but is actually bizarrely charming. You get the feeling you could have called Uhura the worst racial slur you can imagine, and she would just look at you and pat you on the head. The idea that we'd all be THAT over that sort of thing by the 23rd century is a nice one.

      But yeah, it made for a few odd scenes, for sure.

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