You could make an argument that Star Trek wasn’t quite Star Trek in the early stretches of its first season. So many of the features we now regard as essential to the franchise – including ideas as central as the Prime Directive and the Federation – hadn’t really been worked out early on in the series, and only really coalesced quite late in that season. It wasn’t a bad start to the show, but it had its bumpier moments, because the series was still trying to figure out what it actually was.
By contrast, the second season of Star Trek: The Original Series was made with the benefit of hindsight, written by a team of writers who now knew that this was a universe where the Federation, Prime Directive, Klingons, Romulans, and whatnot were all part of the picture, and they were writing for a cast who now had a solid grasp of their characters and their mutual chemistry. It’s got some of the most memorable episodes of the series, but is it all it’s cracked up to be? The only way to find out is to watch.
First off is the episode that launched a thousand ships – in the slash fiction sense – Amok Time. It’s the one where Spock is horny due to Vulcan hormonal cycles, and there’s this Vulcan gal called T’Pring (Arlene Martel) who’s trying to get with Spock, and Spock doesn’t like it and Kirk’s not comfortable with it so Kirk and Spock do this ritual combat by hitting each other with big ornate club-axe thingies and tying each other up with little ropes until they’re all tired out and Spock feels enough of an emotional release to soothe his condition.
Yes, this is the episode which establishes the Vulcan condition of
horny jail pon farr, where Vulcan dudes get an urge to bone down with someone they are psychologically bonded to so intensely that if they don’t resolve it they get a “blood fever” which causes them to die. It’s also the first time in the franchise we visit Vulcan itself, and the first time we really get an insight into Vulcan culture beyond Spock himself – it’s also where we first see the Vulcan salute and hear the “live long and prosper” catchphrase.
It was inevitable, given what a breakout character Spock was, that we’d get this sooner or later, but it’s still wild that it was arrived at in such an unabashedly horny on main way. An interesting aspect of the pon farr thing it’s that a hitherto-unknown feature of the Vulcan species which is a disadvantage for once. Season 1 kept going back to the “Spock has a secret Vulcan ability we haven’t found out about yet” well often enough to risk making him superhuman, so this is a welcome redressing of the balance.
That said, it does seem kind of odd that the whole thing is such a surprise to the others – or that Spock didn’t already have a well-established excuse to go do the whole pon farr thing and come back once he was done. Let’s make like Spock and analyse this logically. Pon farr happens every seven years or so; even if Spock had never experienced it before, he must have realised that there were good odds that it would happen at some point in his Starfleet career. For that matter, any other Vulcan man performing any sort of long-term placement with the Federation would have run into similar issues.
That being the case, even though pon farr is a big cultural taboo that Vulcans generally don’t tell others about, it would be astonishingly illogical not to either put discreet information on it in Starfleet medical databases, or create a diplomatic requirement that all Vulcan personnel serving in Starfleet be given shore leave every seven years for “Vulcan cultural practices”. Though Spock behaving in a weird dramatic way which the others don’t understand and ending up having to divert the ship makes for good drama, it’s definitely an exercise of dramatic licence more than it is a bit of consistent worldbuilding.
Indeed, whilst early depictions of pon farr in Star Trek depict it as only the preserve of Vulcan men, women can undergo it under some conditions – T’Pol enters it due to an infection during Star Trek: Enterprise – so the problem of entering pon farr whilst serving in Starfleet should absolutely have been a known problem; it’s happened before. This is another respect in which it makes most sense if we assume that Spock is the first Vulcan to have undergone a significant tour of duty on a majority-Earther ship, and where Enterprise made problems for itself by trying to tell stories which The Original Series had kind of already told in that respect.
Pon farr is the sort of concept which chould be hugely problematiuc if badly handled; in the Star Trek Adventures tabletop RPG campaign I played in a while back, we took it as read that Vulcan crew all had medication to stave it off, since we were disinclined to play with the theme ourselves. That said, Theodore Sturgeon does better job of handling it than one would expect from 1960s television. The whole pon farr ritual and the arranged marriage aspects of it raise some pretty significant consent issues, which to his credit Sturgeon recognises – and has T’Pring take action in order to prompt the combat challenge in order to avoid a marriage which neither she nor Spock actually wanted.
Moreover, the concept centres around a male character behaving strangely as a result of hormonal issues – something which even today isn’t really acknowledged that much outside of depictions of teenagers getting all moody during puberty. Women are frequently depicted or described as being hormonal; men rarely are, despite the fact that biochemistry affects all of us. Pushing back against this was radical in its time, and would still be a bit of a departure today.
Then, of course, there’s the whole Kirk/Spock slash fiction thing, which season 1 sowed seeds for if you go looking for them but this episode really turned up to 11. The actual duel between Kirk and Spock is such a celebration of sublimated homoeroticism that it near-certainly had to be deliberate – the way Kirk’s shirt is slashed specifically to display his nipples, the breathplay, Spock’s outburst of unfettered joy when he finds out he hasn’t killed Kirk after all… sure, perhaps it wasnt deliberately and consciously designed as fan service slipped past the networks, but if you wanted to spin it as such, you’d end up making something which looked much the same.
The other significant thing about Amok Time, other than the bit everyone talks about, is that it’s Walter Koenig’s debut as Chekov. Publicity at the time put out the idea that he was added as a riposte to Pravda, which had supposedly criticised Star Trek for lacking a Russian character. Actually, so far as can be told this is nonsense, and Gene Roddenberry admitted that the main plan was to add in a young man with a mop-top haircut and a cheeky smile sufficiently reminiscent of the Monkees’ Davy Jones to appeal to the teen audience.
Koenig does what he could to fit that brief in this episode, and the banter he has with Sulu is a welcome addition to the formula and shows instant onscreen chemistry between the two actors. In fact, apparently their professional relationship was initially tense – this was episode 34 in the production order, and George Takei had missed the first few shoots of the season due to a clash with The Green Berets, with the upshot that Chekov was slotted into Sulu’s role in the episodes Takei missed and when George came back he found he had to share a dressing room and shooting script with Koenig, and felt at risk of being crowded out. It’s clear from the episode that they rose above this when on-camera, and if you wanted more shipping options from this episode, you could do a lot worse than Chekov/Sulu.
Who Mourns For Adonais? opens with the Enterprise encountering a giant green hand in space and gets weirder from there, as they encounter an entity which claims to be the god Apollo (Michael Forest). This prompts the away team to include Lt. Carolyn Palamas (Leslie Parrish), who among other skills is an expert on Greek myth – which may turn out useful when Apollo decides not to permit the away team to leave and demands that they worship him. This is a fun setup which is then largely wasted; the episode has a thin story, which it struggles to pad out over the course of its running time, and it’s more or less a relief when it’s over.
This is one of those “powerful being claims to be a deity” stories which would become such a Trek staple, though at points the script seems to be a little muddled on what the problem is with this – Kirk talks up how humans don’t need “god” any more because just the one is enough, which implies that the united Earth culture of the far future has become a monolithic single-religion culture, and indeed that whilst Greek deities were fakity fake gods the single god of this unspecified religion is totes legit.
The story’s handling of Lt. Palamas is kind of shaky. There’s a bit of dialogue early on, when Kirk and McCoy are discussing her relationship with Scotty, revealing an implicit assumption that women in Starfleet who marry retire from the service to be housewives, which I don’t think holds up even set against the rest of The Original Series. Palamas ends up having a fling with Apollo, which feels like a somewhat lazy retread of the “person who studied a historical era gets horny for a legendary figure from that era” plot point from Space Seed, though by the end of the episode she and he have parted ways.
In early drafts of the episode, she’s pregnant with his kid – a plot point which was retained in the novelisation of the episode and some other spin-off media – but in retrospect it’s probably best that this was cut. Ultimately, her relationship with Apollo is an uncomfortable enough plot point already, due to the coercion involved in keeping her and the rest of the away team imprisoned on Apollo’s planet.
Things perk up next with The Changeling, where the Enterprise encounters Nomad (voiced by Vic Perrin), an old Earth satellite given AI and a grumpy disposition by aliens. The resolution is a repeat of the “logic the computer to death” angle from The Return of the Archons, but the setup differs enough from that to save the episode from feeling redundant – and the question “what would mystery aliens do with our probes?” is thought-provoking enough that it became the basis of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Beyond that, it’s an early riff on the idea of technology assimilating other technologies to increase its capabilities – which would later be a central plank of the Borg concept. Though what little we learn of the alien space probe which encountered Nomad isn’t very reminiscent of the Borg, little of it is outright contradictory, and Nomad even has some flashy lights on it in that fetching shade of green the Borg like, so it’s a fun headcanon to entertain the idea that Nomad might have encountered some sort of Borg exploratory probe.
Either way, the idea of two damaged, incomplete space probes having an unexpected interaction of their self-repair systems, yielding a single probe with a mission which is a garbled mashup of their two distinct missions, may be a slightly far-fetched thought experiment, but it’s certainly a stimulating one, and the script follows through the conceit nicely. Star Trek rarely if ever goes into full hard SF territory, but this is an episode which arguably goes further in that direction than The Original Series typically did, and does it quite well.
Classic follows classic with Mirror, Mirror. Evil parallel universe! Spock with a beard! Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, and McCoy having to pretend to be evil until they get out of the mirrorverse! It’s a glorious concept, and it’s absolutely unsurprising that the show has gone back to this well repeatedly since – it’s simultaneously a great little story and intensely meme-worthy. Spock’s beard is the iconic example of the latter, of course, and it’s mildly hilarious to look back at the episode and see how much emphasis the direction puts on it as a signal that something is ver, very wrong.
The mirrorverse is inherently meant to be a more disrespectful and objectifying place – so Uhura gets a more skimpy uniform this time around, and gets creeped on by mirror-Sulu at that. That said, her midriff-tastic uniform reads as though it’s not just cut to display her as sexy eye candy but also to show off her absolutely rocking abs, just as Kirk’s uniform is meant to show off his arm muscles. (Nichelle Nichols’ abs are way more impressive than Shatner’s biceps, though.)
Beyond the visuals, the Empire of the mirrorverse is a delightfully sinister place – sure, it’s cartoonish in its own way, what with promotion-by-assassination being de rigeur, but the Federation itself is an emphatically optimistic vision of the future and so it needs a full-on dystopia to be its parallel; indeed, the whole “sinister parallel universe” angle wouldn’t have hit as hard if the 23rd Century of Star Trek weren’t such a lovely place.
As for the mirror versions of the crew, Shatner had already had a ton of fun playing an evil twin of himself in the first season’s The Enemy Within, and he gets to throw himself into that here too – and this time around much of the rest of the cast gets to join in the fun. Nimoy’s take on mirror-Spock is fun because he’s still an intelligent, logical, scientifically-minded Vulcan – he just plays him as working from a different set of axioms as our Spock. Takei and Koenig as mirror-Sulu and mirror-Chekov are more cacklingly villainous, and you can tell they’re having a fine old time with it.
Beyond all this, there’s some interesting and serious points being made here. Bad actors in a genuinely benign society are swiftly identified and restrained – it’s kind of hilarious but also apt how the mirrorverse characters who end up in the main world are very quickly contained by the Enterprise crew, due to them swiftly realising something’s off. Conversely, good actors in a cruel and unkind society are able to get away with it to a certain extent simply because people observing their unusual behaviour assume that they’re up to something at first. In a society based on deception and dishonesty, everyone expects you to have something to hide anyway, whereas in a society based on honesty where everyone can show their true selves, people are going to quickly recognise when you aren’t your true self.
At the same time, their capacity to do good is greatly hindered – when the majority around them are embracing the worst impulses of this society, small acts of kindness are possible, but without more widespread backup a serious push for reform is doomed to be crushed by ambitious folk looking out for the first opportunity to get ahead. This aspect of the story is heightened by the B-plot – the transporter accident happened when the Enterprise was trying to open diplomatic contact with the pacifist Halkans, and of course while the Federation is happy to be patient with them, the Empire has no such qualms; the sword of Damocles hanging over the Halkans of the mirrorverse is a theme running through the entire episode and helps save it from being a mere farce of mutual backstabbing and betrayal. The conclusion, meanwhile, finds Kirk realising that to change the mirrorverse, he must change the perspective of people from the mirrorverse in the first place – for change to this society can only come from within, not from visitors.
Following this is The Apple, in which Kirk leads an away team mission on a verdant tropical planet full of danger. That a redshirt dies of exposure to a killer plant in short order and the team does not immediately beam up to get protective gear feels deeply irresponsible on their part – but then again, they can’t beam up anyway, because despite the world apparently being quite low-tech, something on the surface has advanced enough gear to meddle with the Enterprise‘s equipment. And what of the locals, who live under paradisical conditions and whose god Vaal seems to be connected to this technological tampering?
Yes, this is another “computer worshipped as a god” story, like The Return of the Archons. This time, the script is less blasé about the potential for Starfleet intervention to disrupt societies. Admittedly, in The Return of the Archons the society in question is a violent dictatorship, whereas here it’s much more pleasant. An argument could be made that the Prime Directive doesn’t apply in this situation, since a technology which can mess with starship systems to the extent Vaal is able to is, if not directly warp-capable, at least a technological peer to warp-capable cultures, so if you define the society of the planet as including Vaal then there’s no Prime Directive situation here.
Nonetheless, Spock raises the Prime Directive here as a reason to let this viable society be (perhaps taking the view that Vaal on the one hand and his People on the other can’t be viewed as peers and so aren’t really part of a single integrated culture) – and Chekov’s canoodling with Yeoman Landon (Celeste Yarnall) raises cultural problems because it encourages sexual contact between the locals, which Vaal maintains tight control over so as to keep the population at an optimal level. It’s in that optimisation where the problem with Vaal really becomes evident – the society Vaal has created might be idyllic when it’s at equilibrium, but whenever something happens to threaten that equilibrium, the measures Vaal orders to restore it are ruthless.
The redshirts die like flies in this one – in comparison to season 1, where away team casualties tended to be a bit more spread among the different shirt colours, it seems like by now the show had settled into the iconic “redshirts are cannon fodder” mode. That said, the fatality rate of the early part of the episode is especially harsh by the standards of the series so far – to the point where Spock has to give Kirk a pep talk when Kirk gets distressed at how many people he’s lost.
The episode has dated especially badly in the depiction of the People of Vaal, which feels like a crude form of racial cosplay since it’s a bunch of white people dressing like a vague pastiche of Pacific islanders. It’s much less imaginative of an alien society than we are used to seeing later Star Trek series offering, and indeed The Original Series was usually a bit more artful at this sort of thing. It’s Star Trek indulging in the whole “island paradise” concept which was so in vogue in the mid-20th Century – the same trend which gave us tiki bars, Martin Denny easy listening records, and the mass proliferation of Hawaiian shirts.
Norman Spinrad’s The Doomsday Machine opens, like The Changeling, with the Enterprise stumbling across the aftermath of a system-destroying disaster. There’s a fun twist early on when they encounter the Constellation – another Starfleet ship, left stricken by whatever was responsible for the devastation. Though we’ve visited Starbases before, this is the first time we’ve actually seen another Starfleet ship come onstage to any major extent – allowing the episode to simultaneously show us something new but at the same time save on production costs (because, of course, the wrecked interior of the Constellation can be represented by the usual Enterprise sets, suitably set dressed).
The Constellation‘s role in the story also allows for a great guest role from William Windom as Commodore Matt Decker, the commander of the Constellation, traumatised not only by what has been done to his ship but also from the guilt he feels at the death of his crew, who he beamed down to one of the planets of the system in a desperate bid to save them only for the planet-killer to consume the world. Exercising his authority to take control of the Enterprise while Kirk is stuck aboard the Constellation, he’s a magnificent spanner in the works, and Windom does a fantastic job in the role.
Having two “roving machine which destroys worlds” episodes in such close succession is perhaps unfortunate, but this and The Changeling end up having sufficiently different takes on the concept to get away with it – not only are the machines different, but the action of the episodes once the Enterprise discovers the respective MacGuffins are very different.
Another story from a well-known author from outside TV is Catspaw, the first episode produced this season but held back so it could be transmitted as the Halloween special. It’s another Robert Bloch story, strengthening the show’s apostolic succession from H.P. Lovecraft (complete with more references to Old Ones), which begins with an away team member being beamed up from Pyris VII only to drop dead – and for a disembodied voice to announce that there is a curse on the Enterprise and they must leave the vicinity or perish. Matters only get spookier when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to investigate, with honest to goodness spectral witches showing up to give Kirk the “start of MacBeth” treatment, and soon enough the expedition shifts into full-on Hammer Horror mode.
In the long run this turns out to be another “extremely powerful aliens create illusory versions of environments from Earth history and folklore” episode, with a lightly witchy aesthetic – essentially a riff on Shore Leave and The Squire of Gothos with stylistic borrowings from the Roger Corman/Vincent Price adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe. Indeed, the lighter moments and the backstabbing and bickering of the “magicians” Sylvia (Antoinette Bower) and Korob (Theo Marcuse) put me in mind of The Raven, though it’s not quite as frivolous as that and the stakes for the away team and the Enterprise add some tension.
Next up is I, Mudd, featuring the return of Roger C. Carmel as Harry Mudd in a followup to Mudd’s Women. Trek episodes constructed as responses to past episodes are par for the course these days, but they were rarer in The Original Series – both for the obvious reason that they had less of a deep bench of past episodes to write sequels to, and because TV of the era assumed less prior knowledge on the part of viewers. Sure, soap operas would have their long-running storylines, but material like Star Trek was working on an assumption of (bar for The Menagerie) self-contained individual episodes, with the status quo restored at the end of each episode, and which could be broadcast in a more or less arbitrary order – conditions which didn’t lend themselves to to ongoing arcs.
(Speaking of continuity, the episode introduces the idea of androids indistinguishable from real human beings into the Star Trek universe, though the androids here are based on technology brought by settlers from the Andromeda galaxy, thus substantiating that the Federation does not yet have the means to make such – hence Data being such an anomaly in The Next Generation. Of course, it does also raise the question of why the Zhat Vash, the secret society of Romulans from Star Trek: Picard who try to exterminate all synthetic life, didn’t swing by to exterminatus this entire planet full of synthetic life…)
I ended up enjoying this episode more than Mudd’s Women (and the followup Mudd’s Passion from The Animated Series), largely because the android concept helps pivot the whole thing away from some of the more badly dated aspects of those episodes and makes it more about depicting what happens when an irresponsible, immature man is given access to these cool technological toys and uses them for pure self-indulgence. The upshot of this is that some of the aspects of episode which potentially come across as sexist end up being comments on Mudd’s own misogyny, rather than an endorsement of such attitudes. Even when Uhura seems to be momentarily tempted by what’s on offer here, it’s more of a response to the incredibly extended lifespans that android bodies make possible – a prospect which would give anyone pause.
It’s another “logic the computer to death” episode, of course, but it’s a fun example of the type, with the humourous tone of the script lending itself well to this particular variant of the plan (where the crew bombard the androids with illogical statements and situations that they are unable to process).
Metamorphosis is a standout episode because it’s the first appearance of Zefram Cochrane (played by Glenn Corbett here), the man whose invention of the warp drive permitted first contact between humans and Vulcans and the beginning of humanity’s emergence into the galactic community. It’s a much younger-looking, somewhat more buff Cochrane we get here than the one that the Next Generation crew encountered in First Contact, though it explicitly says in dialogue here that he’s been rejuvenated by the mysterious alien force known as the Companion, so it all fits together much better than you might at first think if you’re more used to the First Contact version of the character.
A more problematic character is Commissioner Nancy Hedford (Elinor Donahue), a Federation diplomat who is with the Enterprise crew when they’re dragged into the same containment the Companion has kept Cochrane in. She was due to get life-saving treatment for a rare disease on the Enterprise‘s sickbay, and was keen to get back to her duties so she could avert a war (having interrupted crucial peace talks to seek treatment), so on some level it’s understandable that she’s be distraught by the circumstances – after all, being trapped on this isolated planet could not only be fatal to her but also prompt an otherwise-avoidable war.
Nonetheless, the episode doesn’t present her well – she comes across as grumpy, emotional, and this close to telling Kirk that she’ll be taking this up with his manager. Even worse, these personality traits aren’t depicted as a result of her frustration at her condition getting in the way of her work – it’s because on some level she realises she’s been too much of a career woman and she just wants to be loved. The episode ends with her merging with the alien space god of the week in order to become a hybrid deity/housewife to maintain and look after Cochrane. Ew.
Similarly, the plot point about the alien energy space field being intrinsically female because binary gender is a cosmological constant has not only aged like milk, but would have seemed absurd on the face of it even at the time of transmission. That said, there is some amusement to be had when the Enterprise crew point out to Cochrane that the Companion is a horny alien energy space field who wants to love him, and it might be an idea to entertain that notion, and he shoots them down on grounds of not feeling able to love anything which wasn’t human, and the Federation characters shake their head at the parochial attitude of someone who’s not into fucking a monster or two from time to time.
Journey To Babel may well be one of the few major “firsts” this season – specifically, it’s the first Star Trek episode where the main plot is largely built around diplomacy, not space adventure. The Next Generation has a reputation for being much talkier and diplomacy-focused than The Original Series, and that’s true, but just as The Next Generation had its share of adventures and space battles, here we have an example of The Original Series going in a more talky direction. Indeed, as well as the diplomatic main course we have a B-plot based around family drama – the sort of combination which is very Next Generation-ish – because this episode sees the debut of Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard) and Amanda (Jane Wyatt), Spock’s parents.
Sure, there’s other bits spicing things up – a murder mystery, and an unidentified ship shadowing the Enterprise as it conveys the diplomats to the conference – with the result that in the second half the diplomatic side of the equation fades into the background. At the same time, though, the family drama remains centred, with these other aspects elevating the stakes there rather than upstaging them.
Friday’s Child sees the return of the Klingons as a complicating factor in a mission to reach a mining deal with the Capellans, a harshly violent people. There doesn’t seem to be any Prime Directive issues with dealing with them, despite the fact that they show no signs of being technologically advanced enough to have warp capabilities, though I suppose it is possible that prior interstellar contact with non-Federation cultures has made the Prime Directive futile in this case.
Kras (Tige Andrews), the Klingon emissary negotiating with the Capellans, feels like an improvement over the somewhat yellowface-ish depiction of the Klingons in Errand of Mercy, their debut appearance; Andrews seems to be using his natural skin colour, rather than the blatant use of shoe polish, and he isn’t wearing a Fu Manchu moustache. Nonetheless, Cold War politics with some nods to racial and national stereotypes seem to feature; the tent encampments and tribal culture of the Capellans feels like a very rough nod to romanticised notions of Middle East tribal cultures, and as such it’s not hard to see the episode as an allegorical take on the US and Soviet attempts to sway various Middle East states in one direction or another.
Despite the problematic aspects of the episode, there’s some aspects to it which are notable. McCoy gets to play a bit more of a lead role in the way team, due to his experience on a previous visit to the Capellans giving him insights into their culture the others don’t possess. In addition. D.C. Fontana quite badly wanted to write a pregnancy story in which the mother was a strong character who had major reservations about her pregnancy – simply because you didn’t really get stories like that on TV at the time – and the attempt to broaden the range of pregnancy narratives offered seems worthwhile.
Nonetheless, the subplot in question has aged like absolute milk, with McCoy absolutely ignoring any idea of patient consent and hitting the woman in question – Eleen, played by special guest star Julie “Catwoman” Newmar – when she won’t co-operate with a medical examination. Despite some clearly progressive aspects to the storyline – like the emphasis on the idea that the baby boy does not need a father claiming him to be a fully-realised person and single motherhood is valid – the passage of time has rendered this supremely awkward.
The Deadly Years is the one where the core cast members end up subjected to rapid aging, so we all get to watch them grow old onscreen. This proved redundant in the long run, because we got to see that exact thing happen without exaggerated makeup in real time anyway, and the episode itself kind of treats growing old as being an unalloyed evil with no redeeming features whatsoever, which feels mildly insulting at best, absolutely risible at worst. Not even the return of the Romulans can salvage the episode, which closes with a rehash of The Corbomite Maneuver so blatant the writers don’t even try to hide it.
Moving swiftly on, we come to Obsession, which mashes the “Kirk is traumatised by an event in his backstory and obsessively follows up on it” angle from The Conscience of the King, the “relentless pursuit of a spacefaring horror” point from The Doomsday Machine, and the “space vampire thingy sucks out a very specific chemical from victims” concept from The Man Trap. In this case, the threat is a hemoglobin-stealing space cloud which drains redshirts like juice boxes, and the twist offered is that Kirk is not even remotely OK with it, having been traumatised when a ship he served on encountered the entity and got decimated in the process. This would be far from the last time that Trek would play on Moby Dick (Wrath of Khan lifted dialogue from it, after all), but it’s a good riff on the concept.
This leads in to McCoy and Spock being obliged to try with Kirk what they attempted with Decker in The Doomsday Device – namely, confronting him about his behaviour and contemplating overriding his command of the ship due to being incapacitated by a mental health crisis. This evades feeling redundant with the Doomsday Device by Kirk being more willing to engage with McCoy and Spock than Decker was, and taking the approach with good grace – but with Kirk in charge this means that the crew end up carried along in his quest.
Another nice strand running through the episode is the subplot around Ensign Garrovick (Stephen Brooks), son of the captain of the ship where Kirk encountered the creature previously. Having been orphaned by the entity, Garrovick eagerly joins Kirk on his hunt, but then is demoralised after he blames himself for a fellow redshirt’s death; over the process of the rest of the episode several characters, ranging from Nurse Chapel to Spock to Kirk himself, make little interventions to help rebuild Garrovick’s self-esteem and get him functional again, which is all extremely wholesome.
Robert Bloch’s third and final script is Wolf In the Fold, where the crew are visiting the hedonistic pleasure planet of Argelius II. Kirk and McCoy, being good wingmen, set Scotty up with a local dancer Kara (Tanya Lemani), who later on turns up dead – with Scotty as the prime suspect. What follows isn’t exactly a Star Trek take on Psycho, but it’s not 100% unlike that either – there’s even some of Bloch’s armchair psychology here. (Specifically, Scotty is recovering after a nasty accident in Engineering, which happened to be caused by a woman, which left him with a terrible head injury – prompting McCoy to diagnose him with a potential trauma-induced aversion to women which this little trip is meant to clear.)
Aside from the cheesy orientalism (and unimaginative laziness) of the Argelius culture, and the way the story churns through scantily-glad women (Argelians and Enterprise crew alike) like a third-rate slasher movie, the script also makes the blunder of featuring a “psychotricorder” and other lie detector devices, inventions which risk flat-out ruining future attempts to do murder mysteries or trial scenes in Star Trek. (As others have pointed out – if you have devices which can read and record memories and expose when people are lying, why bother with the conventional courtroom processes we’ve seen in past court martial episodes?) There’s an “empath” sequence which, though providing a precedent for Counsellor Troi in The Next Generation, comes across more as a cheesy seance – intentionally so, but it still feels more appropriate to Hammer Horror than space opera.
The strongest aspect of the episode is probably the way it gives James Doohan a wider range of emotional notes to hit than “plucky comic relief” and “serious bsuiness engineer”, the two roles Scotty usually gets shoehorned into. The actual resolution of the mystery is mildly silly – woo, more disembodied space entities, more malfunctioning computers which need to be logiced into submission, yadda yadda.
It’s mostly notable for a completely ridiculous investigative flight of fancy which Kirk and Spock embark on which turns out to make absolute sense, followed by an engagingly nutty turn of events during the last ten minutes or so of the episode. The idea of the crew all dosing themselves up with drugs to stop them feeling fear, due to the disembodied force of the week feeding on it, might be as overtly pro-psychedelic as the Original Series ever got, and leads into perhaps the most interesting scene in the episode, where the evil force is going mask-off and everyone but Spock treats the whole thing as a big goofy joke because they all got too high to yield the negative emotions the entity wants.
Speaking of big goofy jokes, The Trouble With Tribbles is next. It’s notable for being the first of several Trek episodes written by absolute first-timers, fans who’d submitted their scripts in a burst of enthusiasm. In this case, the fan in question was David Gerrold, who of the four writers in this category was the only one who had much of a post-Original Series writing career, and it’s not hard to see why. Not only does it have an amusing core story, but it also has a fun Klingon-based subplot, gives us our first good onscreen look at a deep space station (making the later Deep Space 9 crossover Trials and Tribble-ations all the more apt), and the cast all do a fine job with material which aptly plays to their strengths.
In this latter aspect, the fan’s-eye-view that Gerrold was working from – both in terms of generally being a science fiction fan who wanted Trek to offer somewhat more elevated fare than competition like Lost In Space, and in terms of being keen on the show – may have been a big help.
Not only did Gerrold know good science fiction when he saw it, but he also had a viewer’s perspective on what’s cool and interesting about the show and the characters, and leans into all that, making sure to give nice spotlight moments to minor characters as well as the major players. (Uhura’s lucky she didn’t get 3 million years in cryogenic storage like Dave Lister in Red Dwarf for bringing the tribble aboard…) The episode also further dials back the racism angle with the Klingons – shoe polish is no longer de rigeur, and the whole “Asiatic horde” thing is further downplayed, which is frankly all to the good; indeed, knee-jerk prejudice is presented as a problem here, as is rising to the baiting of people acting in bad faith.
Primarily, of course, the episode is remembered for its comedic aspects, and these are made all the better for how it plays into the characters’ personalities, rather than coming up with contrived reasons for them to act out of character. Spock insisting that he’s immune to the tribbles’ cute purrs despite all evidence to the contrary is funny; Scotty helping Chekov rise above the Klingon insults directed at Kirk but then losing his shit when the ship is insulted is funny; the Klingons and tribbles being mortal enemies is funny; Kirk getting swamped by an avalanche of tribbles is funny, and Kirk having to spar with a pushy Federation bureaucrat (Nilz Baris, played by William Schallert) is also funny, and the two sources of funny play off each other in ways which both heighten the jokes and dial up the drama at the same time.
The first episode to air in 1968 was The Gamesters of Triskelion. This is another “ascended superbeings screw with the Enterprise” episode, mashed up with a “people are put in a box and made to fight” episode. Notably, when Kirk, Chekov, and Uhura are snatched away by the combat sports-loving superbeings, they’re stood on the transporter pad when it happens. We can instantly tell something unusual has happened, because the normal transporter special effects aren’t utilised – but of course this would only be effective if audiences had reached the point where they would recognise the transporter effects as a matter of course and instantly realise this isn’t normal. It’s an early instance of Star Trek realising that its conventions have become sufficiently universally understood that they can play with them in ways which won’t just confuse people and undermine people’s understanding of what counts as “normal” for the show.
The whole “superbeings bamf people away to fight” concept was used in Arena, of course, and this episode is just as cheesy as the second half of that and has several of the same issues. For instance, with Spock and the other crew remaining on the Enterprise powerless to intervene, their only real role in the episode is to fill time trying to track down Kirk and the others, and then watch from orbit as the planetbound party actually resolve the story.
In addition, the appearance and costume of the various other “thralls” that have been captured by the Providers for their entertainment is a particular low point of the series. Shahna (Angelique Pettyjohn) looks like something out of Barbarella – hailing from the same year – and the other thralls are only faintly less ridiculous, looking more like an assembly of rejected pulp-era illustrations than something from Star Trek as we know it, even by the pulpier standards of The Original Series. Then again, these characters are at least depicted as being combat-capable badasses – Shahna has better cardio than Kirk – and it is of course far from impossible that the costumes are selected to amuse the Providers.
There’s also some fairly serious implications involved in Uhura specifically being among the characters snatched into slavery. To be fair, in some respects the episode seems conscious of that – it makes sure she’s depicted as being as combat-capable as Kirk and Chekov, and when she’s about to be punished for disobeying an order it has Kirk step up to take the punishment on the basis that as captain he’s responsible for the other two, which helpfully avoids what would otherwise have been distasteful visual symbolism.
On the other hand, Lars (Steve Sandor), the training thrall assigned to Uhura, attempts to sexually assault her early on in the episode, which at the point it happens feels needless – the situation the trio are in is already perilous enough without adding in rape themes. It is established anyway, through other plot points, that the Providers oblige their slaves to pair off to produce offspring – and there’s themes of consent around that explored already, so the assault is possibly redundant. Then again, I suppose a case could be made that having an overtly violent assault early on in the episode at least underlines that this pairing-off is in essence a form of institutionalised rape, a point which might have been insufficiently addressed otherwise.
Aside from this dark note, however, this is one of the more classically campy and silly Original Series episodes – it even has one of those classics “Kirk explains love to an alien hottie” bits. It’s fun, but fun on a cheesy level, which makes some of the heavier themes it tries to play with a little incongruous. Particularly goofy is the way the big climactic duel between Kirk and three hand-picked thralls goes – the rules established early on state that Kirk must stay to the yellow sections of the arena whilst the others stay in the green sections, and anyone setting foot out of their zone will be deprived of a weapon, but both Kirk and the thralls constantly tread on the opposing sections anyway.
Another episode which recycles concepts from season 1 is A Piece of the Action, which rehashes the “Enterprise encounters a world which for some weird reason is recycling the fashions and social structure of a past period of Earth” deal from The Return of the Archons and Miri – and because the society in question resembles Chicago in Al Capone’s heyday, we’re also dipping back into the “Kirk, Spock, and McCoy visit the inter-war period (or a close approximation thereof)” angle from City On the Edge of Forever (and don’t forget the ever-recurring “write an episode we can use the sets and costumes from other Desilu shows for” theme…).
Still, it’s able to find a new spin on the material by presenting the weirdness, as in effect, a by-product of a century-old Prime Directive violation, with the local culture now being based by a plush, Bible-like tome from 1992 presenting a history of Chicago organised crime. Exactly why someone in 1992 would present a true crime book like it were holy scripture is beyond me, but it’s still a fun idea which sets up an amusingly goofy episode, with hilarious sequences like the characters trying to figure out how early 20th Century-style cars work, and Spock’s disapproval at the end when it’s clear that Kirk has enjoyed himself on this mission way, way too much.
The Immunity Syndrome goes right back to the “big threat that wipes out entire star systems” well that The Changeling and The Doomsday Machine delved into. In this case, the culprit is a giant space organism – and the twist is that the Enterprise is overdue for a bit of R&R, so everyone is already a bit tired and irritable when they encounter it, a condition only exacerbated by its draining of people’s life reserves by the baleful influence to the star microbe. This heightens the bickering between McCoy and Spock over who gets to go on the perilous mission to investigate the cell from the inside, which is all good, but it’s mostly memorable for the trippy special effects, which landed an Emmy award.
A Private Little War finds the show leaning harder into the idea of non-interference as a guiding principle of the Federation – which of course sits oddly with earlier episodes, but the Prime Directive concept hadn’t been enunciated at that point (and wasn’t really consistently applied here). It has the Enterprise visiting the planet Neural for a follow-up check, the world having been visited previously by Kirk when he was serving as a Lieutenant.
As Kirk recalls, the locals had only the most rudimentary weapons technology – nothing more advanced than bows and arrows, and those used for hunting only because war was essentially unknown. So when Kirk and Spock spot a party of locals sitting in concealment carrying flintlock rifles, apparently intent on ambushing a group of hillfolk, something seems bullshitty – and the detection of a Klingon ship in orbit makes Kirk suspect that the Klingons, in violation of their treaty with the Federation, have been tampering with the locals. But when Spock is shot by one of the flintlocks, and Kirk is poisoned by the fangs of one of the local albino dino-gorillas, it falls to McCoy to take the lead.
This is a great little setup for the episode – it shakes up the dynamic we’re used to when it comes to the interpersonal stuff, it builds interestingly on the idea of the Klingon-Federation treaty established last season by depicting the Klingons testing its boundaries and edge cases, it considers how the Prime Directive may interface with the sort of Cold War-esque cultivation of sphere of influence we see both the Federation and the Klingon Empire engaged in, and so on.
The local Neurals might be one of the better depictions of less-developed societies we’ve had so far in the series. A lot of those have been a little too obviously drawing on the aesthetic of Earth societies considered “primitive” or “exotic” by the standards of 1960s America. Here, by comparison, their costume drawns on a slightly broader set of influences; there’s some indications that some Native American dress influenced the costumes, but not the sort of overused “feather headdresses and totem poles” shorthand which was the common currency of the era, and there’s additional bits of personal decoration and the like which seem more original.
At its worst, this reads like hippies appropriating First Nations cultural dress for the sake of it, which might not be great but is better than “Neurals = Native Americans in space”. Sure, Tyree’s specific folk seem to fit the “Native American” niche in some respects – but here’s where the other interesting aspect of the script comes in, which is that there’s multiple cultures on Neural, though there’s enough cultural markers in common between the villagers backed by the Klingons and the hillfolk Kirk engages with to make it clear that the division here really arises from the colonialist intervention of the Klingons.
There’s also an interesting dynamic going on between Kirk’s old buddy Tyree (Michael Witney), who he befriended on his first visit, and Nona (Nancy Kovack), the shaman that Tyree has subsequently married and who is depicted as having this witchy hold over him, which she tries to establish over Kirk as well. The way this is depicted as being in part inspired through ecstatic drugs only boosts the “these people are a bunch of hippies” interpretation, but it also means that the main woman involved in the A-plot is depicted as a spooky witch-lady out to mess with men’s hearts and seek power through the men she ensnares, which is a pretty misogynistic concept.
There may have been an intention to balance this out through the B-plot – in which Nurse Chapel and Dr. M’Benga (Booker Bradshaw) care for Spock as he lies unconscious, which seems to be intended to advance the Chapel/Spock romance some episodes played with. The idea might have been to contrast Chapel’s approach to medicine and emotional labour with Nona’s, in a “good woman/bad woman” angle, though equally the idea of what constitutes a good woman or bad woman in this reading would also be shaky. (Though the bit where Spock breathlessly begs her to hit him to rouse him to consciousness is amusingly lewd.)
This is, unfortunately, another “Klingons in brownface” episode, with Ned Romero as Krell clearly being extensively bronzed up. It’s a pity, especially since Romero himself was of Chitimacha descent; casting someone with that ancestry to depict a colonialist playing divide and rule among colonised peoples at least allows for the episode to stand as a commentary on that process contributed to by someone whose forebears had a stake in it.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the episode is the way it has Kirk effectively giving an argument for the US intervention in Vietnam – explicitly citing the 20th Century Asian brush wars and the way the Soviets and the US armed their respective proxies. It’s couched in terms of balance of power, and the argument given for it is that if the Enterprise does not arm the hillfolk, the Klingons will just keep arming the villagers, which will eventually result in the hillfolk getting genocided, enslaved, or otherwise utterly defeated.
The argument is perhaps reasonable in some limited respects, but only if you accept the analogy of the North and South Vietnamese as being two distinct people who the US and Soviets just sort of found that way, with the Soviets stepping in to arm the North before the US and its allies gave any aid to the South. Even if you imagine that US aid in Vietnam only consisted of providing arms and military “advisors” to the South – a misrepresentation which we know to be utter fiction, and which would only become less and less true after this episode aired – the fact remains that North and South Vietnam were the products of an anti-colonial struggle which larger powers had been intervening in right from the start, and that the seeking of a so-called “balance of power” in the region was no guarantor of peace but an active engine driving war in the first place, not least because the US had no intention of leaving the balance at an equilibrium point.
To be fair, the violent, disastrous outcome of the episode suggests that Kirk is in the wrong here – but the lack of a peaceful alternative means it’s far from obvious what else could have been done, aside from permitting the Klingons to fuel genocide, and the concluding statement has Kirk describing the outcome as “Not what I wanted – what had to be”. As a result, the episode has aged like milk. The fact that it offers a rare downer ending does mean that the cast and crew probably did realise that the whole thing feels like a serious failure on the part of Kirk and colleagues to find an alternative.
Nonetheless, I think having one of the show’s protagonists look directly to camera and more or less directly argue for escalating intervention in Vietnam may well be one of the show’s low points, even if the subsequent events of the episode in question undermined that; it comes across as propagandistic, and one fears that many viewers at the time would remember the argument for intervention much more clearly than the subsequent action.
In Return To Tomorrow, the Enterprise is summoned to a distant, near-dead world to hear a bizarre request of its last surviving inhabitants: the residents are powerful telepaths who have stayed alive only by transferring their personalities into small containment devices – and they wish to temporarily borrow some human bodies in order to construct android host bodies which, they say, they will then reside in on a more long-term basis, enabling them to get away from the planet and seek out new lives for themselves. Specifically, they’d like to joyride Kirk, Spock, and redshirt astrobiologist Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur) to get the job done – prompting some concern – but given that they’re mostly-disembodied godlike aliens of the type which has become standard by now, do the Enterprise crew really have a choice?
This is fairly standard Trek fair by this point, which makes Kirk’s insistence that Sargon (voiced by James Doohan in sphere form, whilst I think when he’s puppeteering Kirk he’s voiced by Shatner with an echo effect) and the other energy beings are “impossible” ridiculous – Kirk, you’ve encountered tons of energy beings, for crying out loud! At the same time, it’s refreshing for the Enterprise to encounter super-aliens of this type where they’re at least claim to want to seek the consent of the crew for their project, and to be happy for the Enterprise to simply leave if they do not wish to undertake the risks involved in body-sharing.
It’s a little dodgy, because they mentally coerce the Enterprise into coming to their world in the first place and Sargon’s first leap into Kirk’s body is without consent, but the first is arguably a distress call and the second is an exercise in demonstrating the viability of what they say they can do. In addition, it’s not meant to be unambiguously fine and OK – part of the premise of the episode hinges on the question of whether Sargon and his colleagues are on the level, and of course a lot of the drama comes from the fact that they are not.
It’s usually enjoyable when the Original Series cast are tasked with playing their characters being possessed or otherwise mentally tampered with, and this time is no exception. Shatner, for the most part, plays Sargon as being fairly stiff, which is in keeping with the way he’s written, but he does shovel in an entire episode’s worth of scenery into his mouth all at once whene depicting Sargon’s ecstasy at having a body again. He also makes up for lost time when Kirk’s himself again, with his “risk is our business” speech in the ready room discussion being simultaneously amusingly cheesy but also kind of moving.
As for Nimoy, his godlike energy being, Henoch, is cheerfully flirty, which is used to advance the Spock/Chapel theme, and is also the requisite evil energy being, which gives Nimoy a chance to play a take on “evil reverse Spock” which takes a different spin from the one in Mirror, Mirror. For her part, Mulhall doesn’t get much of a chance to establish her character beyond “scientist intriged by the possibilities” here before she gets possessed by Thalassa, Sargon’s wife, which of course leads into them getting frisky in Kirk and Mulhall’s bodies.
Patterns of Force is another “world replicating a bit of Earth history” story – and the most infamous one, because the Ekosians are replicating Nazi Germany, with the neighbouring Zeon culture as the target of their Final Solution. On top of that, a good chunk of the episode is played for laughs! Now, the execution of this could have been worse than it actually is. At the time this came out, Hogan’s Heroes – a sitcom based in a Nazi POW camp – was about midway through its run, and that show had a tendency to depict camp guards as blustering braggards or bumbling fools. This episode, at least, pulls no punches about depicting its Nazis as flat-out Nazis.
Nonetheless, in retrospect the transposition of the Holocaust to an alien context has issues. Whilst Nimoy and Shatner’s Jewish heritage meant there was at least some Jewish representation involved in the production, nonetheless presenting a Holocaust without the antisemitism risks genericising the history in a way which is unhelpful. This is especially when there’s already a tendency to forget that the Nazi machinery of perseuction was also directed at homosexuals, Roma folk, the disabled, and a swathe of other targeted demographics; when there’s already a tendency to forget entire categories of people who suffered in the death camps, maybe making a version where you take out the one category everyone remembers isn’t helpful.
Another issue is the way the story is framed. The Ekosians were apparently violent barbarians not too long ago – but the Zeons started to arrive on the world to “civilise” them, having overcome their own warlike period and created a more advanced society. On the one hand, the idea of Jewish cultural influence civilising a barbaric Europe (through the lens of Christianity) has some amusement value – but equally, this is undeniably describing a situation where the Zeons are acting as invading colonisers without the consent of the Ekosians. If you’re going to do a Holocaust analogy, don’t let the idea of the targeted demographic being infiltrators out to reshape the way of life of the majority have an actual ring of truth to it!
What somewhat salvages the episode is that it’s actually about the danger of looking back at Nazi Germany without properly appreciating the full horror of it. The disaster on Ekos has unfolded because John Gill (David Brian), a Federation cultural observer, broke the Prime Directive in catastrophic fashion by encouraging the Ekosians to model themselves on Nazi Germany, having decided that it was a ruthlessly efficient form of government within their ability to implement and which would drive their advancement forwards.
The problems with Gill’s analysis here are extensive. Aside from the ethical catastrophe, there’s also the fact that Nazi Germany rose quickly, lasted for a shade over a decade, and then flamed out just as quickly – as far as models of modern efficiency goes, a state with no long-term endurance is a bad model to pick in the first place. Sure, the Reich was knocked over by enraged foreign powers of the sort which don’t exist here – the Zeons being the closest local modern culture, and pacifistic at that – but that just makes Gill’s choice all the more absurd. What did he expect would happen, implementing Naziism on a world where the clearest and most obvious hate target were the Zeons? What basis did he have to imagine that a Nazi regime could have any longevity without any internal or external enemy to persecute?
It’s a very, very silly choice on Gill’s part, but I think the point here is htat he was looking at Nazi Germany from the perspective of a historian from some centuries in the future. The atrocities of recent history have a way of seeming less of a big deal with the passage of time – where are the people still outraged by what Napoleon did? – and it makes sense that a theoretician like Gill might overlook the horrors of the Nazi regime, especially from a perspective where its study would probably be lumped in with other 20th Century horrors like Stalinism and the Eugenics Wars.
The efficiency point is clumsily handled – Spock backs up the idea on the basis that Hitler’s Germany was able to have this magnificent economic turnaround and challenge the world within the space of years, which feels like a perpetuation of prior Nazi self-justifications. That said, this is somewhat more forgivable in a context where the message is that you can’t have a “benign” implementation of fascism which takes out the persecution, because the persecution and viciousness is part of the point – so even if you think you’ve found a pragmatic advantage to it, the price of implementing that ends up being far too much in the long run.
By Any Other Name is another “alien force tries to take control of the Enterprise” episode. In fact, it’s I, Mudd “by any other name”, since like in that episode the outside force consists of former inhabitants of the Andromeda Galaxy (biological in nature this time, rather than androids) who want to take over our galaxy. The twist here is that while the makers of the androids in I, Mudd have gone extinct, the Kelvan Empire of this episode is still alive and well – but they expect conditions within Andromeda to become fatal to life in short order due to gradually increasing radiation levels, so they want to snatch some lebensraum in the Milky Way.
That said, the script by Jerome Bixby and D.C. Fontana seems to be well aware of how much it’s working in well-trod ground – there’s a plethora of references to earlier episodes, perhaps more callbacks than we’ve ever seen – arising probably from D.C. Fontana’s long-standing role as story editor. Moreover, the duo find a new spin to offer on the concept – rather than having a crisis where the Kelvans attempt to take over the Enterprise and are thwarted fairly quickly, this time the takeover is a more sustained occupation, with the crew having to find ways to resist. Their strategy – overloading the Kelvans with humanoid sensory and emotional experience, which they don’t have in their usual forms, in order to throw them off-balance is a fun concept, and their seeding of jealousy, discord, and drunkenness among the Kelvans is adeptly depicted. (There’s even a bit of Kirk teaching a woman about kissing, though it does at least make more sense because she’s not used to bodies where kissing is even is an option.)
The Omega Glory is another rare episode written solely by Gene Roddenberry – it was originally considered for production as the second pilot before Where No Man Has Gone Before went forward instead. It repeats the gimmick from The Doomsday Machine of having the Enterprise encounter another stricken ship of its kind, allowing the Enterprise set to pull double duty, but this leads into a clumsy Cold War analogy in which a frontier world consists of two cultures – the white-skinned Yangs and the clearly Chinese-descended Comms, with the two groups representing the descendants of prior expeditionary forces who’d carried their Cold War rivalries with them.
The big problem with the episode is that it’s an appeal to tolerance and mutual understanding that remains steeped in the racial prejudices and political divisions of its era, leaning heavily on the then-current Yellow Peril prejudices about the Chinese, and with the Yangs a) a racially homogenous bloc (offering a white-normative view of what it is to be American and b) barbarian savages until Kirk teaches them the true meaning of their holiest text – the Constitution. The bit where Kirk talks about a “white civilisation” and a “yellow civilisation” perhaps is the most direct enunciation of the problem – because it conflates the idea of race with the idea of civilisation in a way which America, if it lives up to its professed ideals, shouldn’t be, and which the Federation really shouldn’t be buying into.
It’s all very tiresome, and the slow sequence in which Kirk uses his Constitution-fu to try and sway the Yangs is downright interminable, even with a fight scene shoehorned in. Shatner is at his most scene-chewy when giving his final speech to explain the Constitution to them, but there’s at least some feeling behind it – and a statement that other political foundations are possible and are potentially equally good.
The Ultimate Computer is an episode whose title should have been a big fat red flag – computers tend to be trouble in The Original Series. Indeed, the computer this time around is the M-5 Multitronic System, the latest invention of Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) – whose work underpins all of Starfleet’s onboard computer systems. Daystrom believes that the M-5 is capable of operating a starship by itself, and the Enterprise is to be the guinea pig, making this another “an outside force takes control of the Enterprise” episode.
That said, the episode’s concerns about advances in technology rendering people’s jobs redundant offers a new spin on the concept – one which would have been timely when it came out, and in this era of ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion threatening those in creative work it’s become relevant again. Daystrom himself has since become a pillar of the canon – at least in name – right up to the current series. The Daystrom Institute has played a significant role in seasons 1 and 3 of Picard, and its storage system for evil computers is a running gag in Lower Decks. (Indeed, the automation concept was the lynchpin of the Lower Decks season 3 finale.)
The conclusion, of course, involves Kirk talking the computer to death, though again this time around a new twist is found in that he isn’t actually using logic this time – he’s instead relying on the knowledge he has gleaned of Daystrom’s psyche, since Daystrom has imprinted the M-5 with his engrams in order to give it human-like decision-making power.
Taking old ideas and finding new ways to rehash them is pretty much the key schtick of this last stretch of the season. Take Bread and Circuses, which is yet another “alien world mimics old Earth culture” concept. This time around it’s spiced up by taking the Earth culture in question – ancient Rome – and adding anachronisms by giving it access to 20th Century technology. This allows them to present something a bit more interesting than just a flat-out reproduction of the period, though it’s based on a really bullshitty premise – a spurious idea of parallel cultural evolution whch means that equivalent cultures just tend to pop up out of nowhere on worlds whose inhabitants are sufficiently close to Earth humans.
At least the other episodes using this schtick made a token attempt to justify them via violations of the Prime Directive – this didn’t even have that. Perhaps the episode’s biggest shortcoming is that it’s just one too many takes on this concept in a season which also included Patterns of Force and A Piece of the Action – indeed, this even repeats some ideas from Patterns of Force, with notes like a Federation interloper becoming a political leader in a local dictatorship out of an excess of fondness for a past culture and Spock disguising his ears with a hat which a Nazi/Nazi-like trooper sees through all too easily.
There’s also honking great gaps in the research. There’s quasi-Christians here who worship the Sun, which the crew regard as an oddity because, as McCoy claims, ancient Rome had no Sun-worshippers. However – that simply isn’t true! The cult of Sol Invictus was very much a thing, and Mithras and Apollo also had strong solar associations. The overtly Christian epilogue given to the end of the episode ends up especially weird. Sure, I can buy the idea that if you’re going with an overly simplified view of history where Christianity overthrew the Roman Empire (rather than being absorbed into its social structure and continuing to perpetuate in West and East for centuries), one might imagine a similar philosophy emerging on this world without divine intervention being involved. Still, it just makes the whole parallel cultural evolution thing even hokier. Is there really much point seeking out new life and new civilisations if they’re all basically carbon copies of ours? Star Trek couldn’t shift away from shaky ripoffs of Earth cultures into more offbeat alien cultures soon enough.
That said, there’s some parts of the epsiode which end up outright clever. The 20th Century technology of the world means that the televised gladiatorial games can just be shot in what is clearly a TV studio setup, with a presentation and commentary reminiscent of very old-school televised wrestling. This is obviously a nice budget-saving measure – it meant they could just shoot the scene on a Desilu sound stage, and didn’t even have to fully set dress it – but it fits the concept of the episode nicely and is perhaps the cleverest merging of Roman culture and modern technology.
The season finale is Assignment: Earth, in which the Enterprise has gone back to 1960s Earth via the same mechanism they used last time for the sake of doing some historical research. Abruptly, the Enterprise inadvertently intercepts a long-range transporter beam – in itself a sign of a massively advanced source, since the beam originates from 1000 light years away and Federation transporters are only good for short hops. Even weirder, the folk being transported are the enigmatic Gary Seven (Robert Lansing) and Isis, his kitty cat who can shapeshift into human form (voiced by Barbara Babcock as a cat and played by April Tatro as a human).
On the one hand, despite this episode rehashing the “Enterprise visits the 1960s” schtick, it doesn’t feel so much like a rehash of that episode, or any other Trek episode – because it is only technically an episode of Star Trek. In fact, it was produced as a backdoor pilot for Assignment: Earth, a new Gene Roddenberry concept which would have starred Gary Seven and Isis as enigmatic troubleshooters on modern Earth backed up with advanced technology.
The upshot of this is that Kirk and the gang are really mostly just here to offer a framing device, and then once Gary Seven uses his sonic screwdriver to escape the Enterprise brig and beam down to Earth, Gary Seven is in effect the main character of the episode, with the pursuing Kirk and Spock basically a complicating factor in the story of his first mission – to avert nuclear war due to an ill-judged decision by the US to launch an orbital nuclear weapons platform.
Indeed, the episode goes out of its way to showcase what would obviously have been a bunch of keynote features of the full series of Assignment: Earth – Gary Seven’s own teleportation special effect, the futuristic office he operates out of, his sassy talking computer Beta 5 (voiced by Barbara Babcock), his special abilities and gadgets, his ditzy hippy human secretary Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr) and so on. There’s even a bit where he sits and patiently explains to Beta 5 his personal backstory and the overall purpose of his mission in order to verify his identity. Isis only transforms from cat into sexy catgirl form right towards the end, presumably to provide a hook which would have been developed further in the rest of the series; in the context of this episode, it just seems like a bizarre non sequitur.
In some respects it makes a lot of sense that Roddenbery and Desilu would do something like this. The smart money was on Star Trek being cancelled after this season – a spin-off series set on modern-day Earth, written from a similar perspective but with much more modest budgetary requirements due to the present-day setting and limited use of futuristic props, could have been a viable thing to do instead of Star Trek season 3. Indeed, some may argue that this would have been preferable – season 3 isn’t exactly well-regarded, Star Trek would have probably been revived anyway on the strength of the fandom its first two seasons had built, and the fact that Trek was rehashing so many ideas suggested that the concept needed a bit of a rest and recalibration anyway. One can very easily imagine a parallel world where we lost Star Trek season 3, but got all the subsequent media anyway, and we also had one or more seasons of Assignment: Earth to enjoy.
If, indeed, we would have enjoyed it. There’s the bare bones of a TV series concept here, but the show which would have resulted from them would have been quite odd. Isis turning into a sexy catgirl would probably have yielded some material which aged very poorly – though it is quite amusing when you realise that Isis gets more affectionate petting from Spock than Nurse Chapel gets all season. Roberta Lincoln, as a character, feels like a patronising attempt to riff on Those Crazy Youth Of Today; she’s reminiscent of some of the less successful 1960s-era Doctor Who companions in that respect.
As for Gary Seven himself – the key role and the lynchpin of the prospective series… sorry, but to me he just doesn’t work. Robert Lansing’s performance of him makes him come across as grumpy, unapproachable, and uncharismatic. I think he was going for “hard exterior but he’s a good guy once you get to know him” – the problem is that we didn’t really get to know him that well over the course of this episode, and there needed to be at least a glimmer of something more for us to want to get to know him. Ultimately, he just looks sort of pissed off, like he doesn’t really want to be involved in any of this.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Assignment: Earth concept, however, is that it feels like it’s much more typical fare as far as 1960s television goes – riffing on the sort of spy stuff like The Saint, Danger Man, The Man From UNCLE, and Mission: Impossible is hardly the sort of thing which would make you stand out in the media environment of the time, and as far as SF/spy mashups of 1968 go, The Prisoner has this beat. Even the weirder stuff like the handling of Isis feels like it would have developed into a riff of the offbeat sitcoms of the era like Bewitched or I Dream of Genie (you could call it I Fuck a Cat, perhaps… or maybe not). Assignment: Earth, had it been made, would have most likely felt much more mundane than Star Trek did at the time.
Assignment: Earth died here. The Original Series nearly did too – but for a letter-writing campaign to revive it. This is justifiably famous as one of the first instances of fandom mobilising itself to keep a beloved show alive by popular demand, though one wonders if it was necessarily the right call. In many respects, the second season was a triumph – capably building on the ideas established by the first season, but with substantially more consistency in the worldbuilding, and yielding some of the series’ most memorable episodes. At the same time, by the end the sheer number of repeated ideas suggested that the creative well was running dangerously low, and it might have been better to let Star Trek lie fallow for a while to recharge its pool of ideas – as, indeed, ended up happening after season 3.
Then again, maybe the writers could pull out something truly unexpected to kick off the new season with something fresh – something we really hadn’t expected to see from Star Trek, and would indelibly become part of the show’s history and lore forever more. It would be challenging – but surely a problem that could be solved with a little brainpower…
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