Over the weekend I decided that instead of a substantive amount of money, I would like to have a ridiculously awesome telescope. Actually this was not an impulsive decision, but the culmination of several years of longing and the internet’s remarkable ability to let you spend as much money as you have as quickly as possible.

Some background. Once upon a time I was an astronomy major, trading in the lucrative and highly employable field of computer science for something cooler that I thought I’d like better that I would ultimately bail on just one year into a PhD program, leaving myself floundering for an adult identity for years and years. In fairness, astronomy’s lack of an appealing career path was not the fault of the HR diagrams and globular clusters I was studying, but the fault of an oppressive and fiercely competitive academic environment I didn’t dig nearly as much as the diagrams and clusters. So I didn’t stick with it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or wouldn’t miss it.

I certainly wanted to have a good telescope even when it had some tenuous relation to my field of study (yes, tenuous: modern professional astronomers don’t exactly spend their nights in the backyard with flimsy paperboard star charts). Only, as a college student, it was a few thousand dollars out of my grasp. Instead of the necessary $1200 or so, I had more like $12. In astronomy courses, they teach you about orders of magnitude. A worthwhile telescope was two orders of magnitude too expensive for the likes of me. The mindset of “this will happen some day” was established.

So: years later, I have a house and a real job. Despite a rigorous morning routine of grousing and whining about having to get up and go to work, I understand I am lucky to have navigated a recession and have a job to go to, and I want to keep it, so I go. A result of such is that I had accumulated a bit of savings. The financial barrier to telescope ownership was broken down. And…nothing happened. Because the “some day” mindset persisted. A number of times this winter, K and I have gone for our evening walk and I would say something like how great a night it would be to have a telescope. She would contrast staying up late and standing out in the cold to use it with not having it and getting to be in a warm bed inside and shrug, but at least give me the supportive wifely, “Yeah.” Then for some reason last week it just clicked. What the heck am I waiting for? This could happen!

I had enough residual knowledge of telescopes to narrow the search quickly. I generally knew I wanted something of pretty high quality and had some basic specifications in mind. It was just a matter of deciding how much I was willing to spend and to do some research. With the obsession switch kicked on, this took relatively little time.

BEHOLD!

Excitedness has achieved CONDITION RED. Here is a brief rundown of the conditions:

  • Blue: You are surprised when it was delivered because you forgot you even ordered it.
  • Green: You know it’s coming at least but aren’t too worried about it. It’ll get here eventually.
  • Yellow: You are aware of the scheduled delivery date and are on the lookout for it. You would be mildly disappointed if it doesn’t show on time.
  • Orange: You leave work a few minutes early hoping to be home for delivery. If you miss it, you are willing to go pick it up from UPS/FedEx during the 30 minute opportunity window in the middle of the night.
  • Red: You refresh the tracking site hourly. You take the whole day off on the scheduled delivery date and sleep by the door the night before just in case of early arrival.

Condition Red has been achieved only twice before: when I bought a particularly exciting new computer once, and when I got the drum kit for Guitar Hero (I dunno, I just got really wound up after playing around with it at Best Buy). UPS currently reports that a shipping label has been created but they do not yet have possession of my shipment. So I’m guessing I’ll see it Friday or Monday.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough but I’ll keep you posted. Next time: scope specifics.

I just finished a re-read of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and my rambling about him got too long for a reasonably-sized Goodreads review. So, some more general thoughts about DeLillo’s style.

There are a number of Goodreads reviews complaining about his style in a very literal way, like how the dialogue fails to be realistic. Which to me is sort of like going to a rock concert and being upset that they’re not playing any of your favorite Beethoven pieces. Such reviewers are certainly free to not like how he handles dialogue, but they’re also sort of missing the point, I think. He’s not a literal writer. His dialogue is really an internal one, but to make it into interesting writing he has some characters saying these things out loud as conversations, and that’s how things work and people talk in the DeLillo universe.

In White Noise, DeLillo is trying to describe the dread and anxiety inherent in modern life. We’re all trapped in an overwhelmingly complex system and rely on the system to provide for our health and well-being. For food, we go to the supermarket where the fundamental choice is between a colorful familiar product you think you know well (thanks to ultra-ubiquitous advertising) or a bland generic you don’t (even though it’s largely the same thing). Either way, you don’t know the origin of the products. You don’t know what’s in them really. For your health, you go to doctors who know more than you about your own body in an objective way, but they’re also separate people with their own communication issues, so how can they really get to know you and every risk factor you encounter? For safety, we rely on governments that we can’t entirely trust, and they are made up of uncertain mortal people just like us.

So, something about DeLillo’s style particularly rings true in White Noise, I think, because the book is so much about how your own internal thoughts find no reconciliation with the outside forces of commercialism and authority and government that affect you.  The same is true for another book of his I liked, Mao II. But it doesn’t always work, especially when the story is more plot-driven and less about what people are thinking.  It was good and bad in Libra and in the film Game 6. And I thought it was largely a miss in Running Dog, which I think was something of an attempt to write a kind of spy-thriller, and didn’t click at all with his style and became a slog. (I have yet to attempt the ambitious [read: long] Underworld.)

Here is where I remind you I am no literary scholar. Thank you.

Do the thing with your fingers53. The Ultimate Computer. This episode gives me a chance to tackle two Trek things worth discussing.  First, more than just a trope, but as an overriding theme of the show, TOS spends a lot of time addressing the increasing human dependence on technology.  Household computers were 15-20 years away on Earth, but automation was a serious worry already for a lot of people who didn’t feel like being rendered obsolete.  A classic TOS maneuver is to set up technology as a savior, then have it fail where only a human can succeed.  “The Ultimate Computer” is exactly this: an incredibly advanced newfangled computer, the M5, is given free reign to run the Enterprise autonomously, much to the immediate disdain of everyone who isn’t a Vulcan or the guy who designed the computer.  For his part, Spock doesn’t like the situation much either, despite McCoy’s continued baiting of him to admit that he does.  In fact, Spock gets a perfect chance to clarify his feelings on computers: that they are simply more efficient for some tasks and always give you the logical solution, which is not always the right solution.  Anyway, of course the M5 malfunctions almost immediately (hey, I feel like I’ve written about such things before…) and begins attacking the wrong targets with overly lethal force, and the humans are all proven right, only they can’t shut the thing off until Kirk talks it into a logical trap. Of course.  Humans win again!  The other thing to bring up regarding “The Ultimate Computer” is that it forcibly addresses the convention that all away missions are headed by the most senior officers on the Enterprise, namely Kirk and Spock and whomever conveniently fits that show’s plot.  Of course this is stupid and totally unrealistic.  But, if you want to have lead characters with the most exciting jobs, this is what you do.  It’s a TV convention and we’re cool with it.  Yet during the integration of the M5, it overrides Kirk’s decision on one member of a landing party (by having a better command of some geologist’s personnel file–computers can do magic!!) and, more important, cuts McCoy and Kirk himself out of the action, deeming them “non-essential personnel.”  However, the show doesn’t attempt any, “Hey, maybe this thing’s right–we shouldn’t send the Captain on every maniacally dangerous away mission…” Instead it just says, “Computers, what do they know?” and opens the door up for more of the general thematic discussion.  Killer Spock line: “The most unfortunate lack in current computer programming is that there is nothing available to immediately replace the starship surgeon.” Overall: it’s a given that folks in the 1960s were scared of computers becoming too integrated into our lives and then malfunctioning and killing us, so the plot here is about as predictable as they come.  Nevertheless, TOS makes it a generally intelligent discussion by strong characters. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Computers can be buggered by logical traps (1)
  • The indomitable human spirit conquers all (3)
  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (6)
  • They’ve gone to the trouble to develop an override but it doesn’t work (1)
  • Anonymous redshirt killed (5)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (3)
  • Lighthearted banter to close episode (5)

54. Bread and Circuses. Seriously, TOS needs to figure out which side of the fence it’s on with regard to the Prime Directive.  This keeps coming up. Half of the episodes I’ve watched so far have either had a clear violation of it, or a thorough discussion on why you should never ever violate it.  If they want to keep harping on how important it is and expecting to get any believability mileage out of it, they need to not immediately break all the rules the next episode, or even later in the same episode.  “Bread and Circuses” tries really hard to show the consequences of total loyalty to the code, only, you know, all of the above.  If I pretend I have never seen another episode of TOS and treat this as a self-contained unit…I guess it succeeds.  They spend some deliberate time rehashing what the Prime Directive is and its overarching importance, and then a cunning bad guy essentially holds Kirk hostage and forces him to sacrifice Spock and McCoy based on the fact that Kirk would have to violate his sworn principles in order to save them.  Yet somehow Kirk gets out of it anyway, largely because he’s Kirk.  But given the overall context of the show, it’s a misfire plot-wise. Anything Prime Directive based is marginalized. So what we basically have is an action-heavy fightin’ episode that gives us a chance to have the crew be Roman Gladiators. One positive is its take on what was essentially Reality TV. The Roman bad guy is about good ratings above all else, no matter how vile the content gets. Interesting thought – I mean, is ultimate fighting or a lot of Reality TV substantively different than what the Romans used to do? (At least there’s a line just before death these days.) Finally, the show makes a disconcerting attempt to justify itself by mentioning “Hodgkin’s Law,” a theory that worlds can evolve in parallel, explaining how the Enterprise just happens to run into so many human-like civilizations. I think generally if you have to make up goofy science you’re better off just leaving things mysterious and unexplained. Killer Spock line: “Doctor, if I were able to show emotion, your new infatuation with that term [logic] would begin to annoy me.” Overall: a good character episode for Kirk, and otherwise solid but treading some tenuous ground. 3 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Violation of Prime Directive (6)
  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (7)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (4)
  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe (5)

BONUS REVIEW!!!!

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ep. 506. Trials and Tribble-ations. Took a brief detour to watch the DS9 Tribble episode. Haven’t watched any DS9 for years, and even then I watched them irregularly, out of order, and without the cache of Trek viewing that I have now. When I was doing Next Generation reviews on the ol’ LiveJournal several folks told me DS9 is the best Trek series, so I imagine I’ll get to it more fully later on, once I’m done with TOS and probably after a detour into Babylon 5.  Anyway, this gave me a taste of DS9 while being an homage to the recently watched Trouble With Tribbles.  Bottom line, mixed feelings. It’s a fairly fun episode and certainly well-done. Really seamless effects and integration into the old series. It’s clearly a labor of love here. But I couldn’t help but think the DS9 crew is a bunch of stiffs. Especially compared to the rollicking stories and characters in TOS. A lot of the humor was awkwardly done and didn’t really work. But then, I gather DS9 isn’t really that kind of show and this is well off-formula for them. Anyway, I’m glad they made the episode and it was worth the watch. It might be interesting to see if it’s more or less enjoyable once I get back to it during a full DS9 watch, around, I dunno, 2014 or something. Overall: 4 out of 5.

And back to TOS to finish up season two:

55. Assignment: Earth. My favorite part of this is the first line. Fade in: Enterprise is orbiting Earth. Kirk says something like, “Captain’s log, we went back in time and are observing 20th century Earth.” Wait, what? I had to look this up, but they did do this before, albeit accidentally, in a first season episode that I hadn’t watched recently and of which I had forgotten the specifics. But anyway, talk about a quick establish. We’re not going to dwell on how we got here, but we’re in the 20th century, got it? Got it. But actually it gets weirder. A sort of superspy government agent, Gary Seven, accidentally beams onto the ship, as he’s been traveling to a far-off advanced civilization and has returned to Earth to prevent some calamity. Of course Kirk and company can’t be sure if he’s telling the truth or not, so they don’t let him proceed, pending further discussion. Naturally he escapes anyway and much of the episode is spent on Kirk and Spock trying to chase him around on Earth without quite knowing if they should even be doing so. So the overall ideas here are fun.  There’s a time travel thing, complete with the ol’ “If I break something in the past, do I destroy the future? Or was it always supposed to be broken, by me, in the past, and if I don’t break it, THAT’s what destroys the future?” paradox question. There’s Kirk and Spock running around in modern suits on 20th century Earth, though of course Spock has to wear a hat the whole time. (I’m retroactively adding the trope about how they send Spock into a place where any non-humans will be highly suspicious, but for some reason they send him anyway rather than anyone else.) The Seven character is really intriguing because we don’t really learn a whole lot about him, his strange companion cat, or this mysterious planet he’s been visiting. (See, Hodgkin’s Law? This is how it’s done. The less said, the better.) All that said, the whole thing does sort of fall apart in the details. The plot has a lot of long segments that ultimately go nowhere. There is an embarrassing reliance on fantastically coincidental timing or naive characters accidentally hitting secret knobs just the right way. Seven uses his sonic screwdriver thing to knock out everyone in his way except the one spunky girl who ends up causing him all kinds of trouble. (I just realized Seven has these traits: he travels through time and space at will, he has a little penlike device with a ridiculous array of powerful functions, he has a ID card for every situation, he has adventuresome companions…where have I seen all this before…?) Anyway, in general, it works well, with an intriguing seed of an idea that Seven lives to shepherd Earth though a dangerous adolescence, and will continue to do so. (Apparently he does so directly in a number of spin-off novels.) Killer Spock line: “Without facts, the decision cannot be made logically. You must rely on your human intuition.”  Overall: generally a winner if you don’t look to closely. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (8)
  • Spock’s suspicious Vulcan nature can be disguised with a good hat (3)
  • They’ve gone to the trouble to develop an override but it doesn’t work (2)
  • In the future, computers are magic, but still make teletype sounds (2)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (5)

Thus ends the second season.  That was fast!  Of course, I started in the middle.  It’ll be on to season three next, then I’ll circle back around and re-watch from the beginning through episode 37.

Yesterday I was browsing through the different Super Bowl logos on wikipedia (having learned that they are standardizing the logo starting this year, rather than having a new design every time). While interesting, what was even more fascinating was the history of Super Bowl halftime performers. I never really realized that it took until the early 1990s to figure out that they could leverage the ridiculous Super Bowl audience and bring in some major entertainers.  Up until that time they usually just had a college marching band, or an old-school musician doing some Vegas-style show, or Up With People (four times!).

Check out Pete Fountain at Super Bowl XXIV*:

So gloriously quaint.

*Super Bowl XXIV: San Francisco’s ridiculous beatdown of the Broncos, 55-10. Not enough Pete Fountain in the world to salvage that.

ONE: online commenters.

Often when I read a story online, particularly on a site with a known rabble of unbelievably horrible commenters, like, let’s say Yahoo, I sort of accidentally drift into the comments area without really thinking about it.  I certainly don’t think: “Hmm, that was an interesting story.  I wonder what a gigantic anonymous horde of semi-sentient trolls have to say about that?”  I just kind of keep reading, as if the story was continuing, and I’m in a bit of a passive reading trance.  Of course, things go from professional writing to barely-literate cave scrawl, usually in all caps and laced with profanity, so it’s not like I don’t notice.  But it takes a few comments to snap out of my reading trance, as the overwhelming depressing horror of them all pounds me back into active thinking.  By then it’s too late, of course, as I’ve just read something so profoundly stupid I barely want to live anymore.  I liken this to coming to the realization that the room you’re in has been slowly filling with poison gas.  By the time you realize what’s happened, the damage has been done.

TWO: food processors.

Cooking without having a food processor is like going into battle without a weapon. You won’t necessarily die but it sure won’t be easy to win. Even the most basic $20 Black and Decker thing you can get at Target is at least like having a slingshot.  In this analogy my new KitchenAid 700 watt 12-cup food-chopping monster is like having a helicopter, equipped with a rocket launcher, that is invisible to other humans.

Do the thing with your fingers49. Return to Tomorrow. TNG broke conventions so so rarely that it was a real treat when they did.  Or, it was a disaster because they were so bad at it.  TOS, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite.  They break conventions so often you objectively kinda wonder what the conventions are.  Really it’s one of the strengths of the show that there are conventions when they break them so often.  K watches an episode with me here and there and it seems like I have to tell her how the characters are “supposed” to be acting all the time, because she never seems to see it.  How did they ever even get established then?  Basically: incredibly strong, identifiable characters, flawlessly portrayed, and a ridiculously well-imagined universe.  They strike a terrific balance throughout the series of establishing these strong characters, then immediately getting them into situations where that is challenged.  You understand pretty fast what’s “supposed” to be happening, and since it isn’t, why it’s interesting.  Anyway, Return to Tomorrow hits the nail on the head of broken conventions.  Or wait, totally misses the nail, I guess.  I should not have attempted this analogy.  Point is, this is a great episode.  The Enterprise encounters a race of near-super beings who need physical hosts to escape from their dead world.  Of course, the beings turn out to be a bit untrustworthy.  Or, as it turns out, maybe they don’t.  Lots of interesting twists here.  Maybe most unusual, the convention of the valiant humans controlling everything and winning is also pushed aside.  Instead the crew is mostly subject to the whim and consequence of these beings.  The story is played out above the influence of the crew, they just have to go along with it.  Some fun extras: Nimoy getting to play essentially a totally different character; Chapel with a real sneaky “I secretly love Spock” moment; McCoy and Scotty getting to be at their best.  Killer Spock line: “I do not know.” (Kirk gives him a surprised look.) “Not even a Vulcan can know the unknown, Captain.” Overall: one of the few that I thought about re-watching immediately to absorb the ending.  Terrific.  5 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Shatner showcase (3)
  • Kirk hits if off with alien babe (uh, not really, actually, but I’m going to count this whenever Shatner kisses a guest star) (3)

50. Patterns of Force. Here’s another that can be boiled down to a simple description (like the recent “the one where they get old”, “the 1920s Chicago gangster episode”).  “Patterns of Force” is “the Nazi episode.” So anyway, a premise: any story requires some buy-in from the audience.  Sci-fi stories have the problem that they are asking the audience to believe something completely out of ordinary experience.  Although, maybe you get some leeway there, because you can always make up new rules.  Like, there can be drama because that’s not how they normally behave on this planet, even though it’s totally alien, right?  Right.  “Patterns of Force” struggles with buy-in, to me.  The whole premise is a little wonky.  The idea is that a Federation guy, John Gill, has come to this planet and managed to implement a Nazi system of government, but not the evil parts, just the really efficient good parts.  Problem is that’s not really how it worked on Earth, of course.  It was so efficient because Hitler convinced most of the population that there were racial scourges that needed to be wiped out, and their efficiency contributed to the overall good of the Fatherland.  Sure, maybe German engineering was really fantastic in the 1930s, but if you also motivate people with threats of terror or death, they’re going to give that special extra effort.  And that’s exactly what happens in this instance: a corrupt member exploits the system and turns it into a war effort against a neighboring planet.  Gill is drugged and neutralized and made into nothing but a figurehead.  But rest assured, Kirk and crew figure out what’s happening and take down the bad guy, to let the nice Nazis regain control.  Mostly I think this episode is an exercise in letting the Enterprise get in a last solid kick on the Nazis.  Take that, history!  The episode borderlines on whimsical as Kirk and Spock spend their time trying to infiltrate Nazi headquarters.  There are plenty of good gags to be had (Nazis=funny!) and Spock spends a lot of time with his shirt off.  Killer Spock line: “Captain, I’m beginning to understand why you Earthmen enjoy gambling.  No matter how carefully one computes the odds of success, there is still a certain exhilaration in the risk!” Overall: kind of a goofy one that is entertaining but there’s not much to take away. 3 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (4)
  • Violation of Prime Directive (mostly by others, but Kirk figures he better just do what he has to) (4)
  • Lighthearted banter to close episode (4)
  • Spock’s suspicious Vulcan nature can be disguised with a good hat (2)

51. By Any Other Name. TOS loves to make the point that humans are just a pretty damn great race.  The combination of intelligence, compassion, emotion, and passion is unmatched by any other species.  It also loves to teach us lessons about moderation and controlling all those human things.  Here we get it all.  The Enterprise encounters a few Kelvans, aliens from the Andromeda galaxy, looking to conquer new territory in our galaxy.  They have a technology that paralyzes humans so they can effectively control them, so Kirk and company are powerless to stop them from taking over the ship and returning to Andromeda to report back home.  They can also neutralize humans altogether by converting them into little matter cubes (that they can crush to fully kill, or restore back to life; kind of like a human save point), so they do this with the entire crew other than Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty.  The four take it upon themselves to trick the Kelvans into stopping what they are doing so they can be welcomed into the Federation as friends instead of enemies.  So we get four different tracks of plot as each tries to use his talent against the Kelvans.  It’s a lot of fun: Kirk smooches the alien babe to make their commander jealous, Spock wipes the floor with said commander at Trek Chess, McCoy drugs up another guy, and Scotty tries to drink his guy under the table.  If you just go along with everything, it’s entertaining and funny and a swell episode.  If you look at it too close, it all falls apart.  Truth is, it’s full of little plot holes and meandering divergences.  Like: we’re all friends in the end, even though in the beginning you turned one of our landing party into a cube and crushed her with your bare hands just to prove a point.  Luckily it’s not the point.  This is a simple trope-heavy episode of entertainment: fightin’, drinkin’, alien babes, and humans winning.  Killer Spock line:  didn’t note one.  Not a heavy Spock episode.  Sorry, Spock.  Scotty gets the glory here as he burns his entire substantial liquor stash trying to out-drunk one of the Kelvans.  Overall: you want to be entertained, right?  Well, here it is.  If you want a good sci-fi story, take it up with Geordi. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again (3)
  • Anonymous redshirt killed (well, she has a name, but it’s not that important) (3)
  • Even in interstellar space, the best way to resolve problems is with your fists (2)
  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe (4)
  • The indomitable human spirit conquers all (2)

52. The Omega Glory. So where “By Any Other Name” succeeds at TOS just being TOS, “The Omega Glory” fails.  It’s certainly a classic example of TOS’ swashbuckling action-oriented nature, but in the end it’s not nearly as much fun, and the plot goes completely haywire.  Part of the problem is that it tries to make a serious point about the unassailable righteousness of the Prime Directive, when like 1 out of every 4 other episodes goes right ahead and ignores it.  Another part of the problem is that if you want to just pad out your episode with fistfights, you may as well just be watching The A-Team.  Anyway the whole premise is insane, and takes a truly bizarre turn at the end.  The Enterprise visits Omega IV, looking for the crew of the Exeter and its Captain, Ron Tracey.  The Exeter turns out to be deserted, with only remnants of the crew’s bodies left behind.  Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and an anonymous redshirt (uh-oh) beam down to the planet after uncovering a warning message about the disease that wiped out the crew, where they find Captain Tracey.  He’s gone loony, though, and has not only messed up the entire power dynamic of the planet, but is convinced Omega IV is some sort of fountain of youth.  Then there’s some fightin’ as Kirk picks this occasion to decide you should never ever violate the Prime Directive.  Eventually he takes down Tracey, and they further realize that the disease and fountain of youth thing weren’t actually anything important (oh well! sorry about all that suspense earlier).  So with the native situation stabilized, it’s time to head home.  Only then things go off the deep end.  It turns out the natives evolved pretty much exactly as humans did, right down to the struggle between Americans (“Yangs” or “Yanks” in local terms) and Communism (the “Khoms”).  They even HAVE THE SAME FLAG AND AN EXACT COPY OF THE CONSTITUTION for some reason.  Only they are too primitive to read or understand it, but Kirk educates them.  In the end, Kirk smirks proudly at the American flag, his work here is complete.  Wait, what?  Seriously, what happened here?  There’s no explanation for anything.  Apparently the idea is that America is so great that alien cultures would definitely come up with the exact same idea independently, and Kirk says, “Heck yeah, why not?  America’s number one!!!”  Killer Spock line: “I’m making a suggestion.” Overall: I don’t think “disaster” is too strong a word.  Although: kudos to Capt. Tracey for a truly whacked-out creepy performance. 1 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (5)
  • Anonymous redshirt killed (4)
  • Even in interstellar space, the best way to resolve problems is with your fists (3)
  • Violation of Prime Directive (5)
  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again (4)

Do the thing with your fingers46. A Piece of the Action. TOS doesn’t have a holodeck, but they make out all right.  Instead they just time travel or manage to find planets that are so Earthlike they may as well have time traveled.  I even know what I’m in for in some future TOS episodes, and I watched every single one of the holodeck TNG episodes, and “A Piece of the Action” is the leader in the clubhouse for the stupidest.  Somehow a long-ago visit to a planet where that crew wasn’t too careful about the prime directive and left behind (among other things) a book about 1920s Chicago crime bosses has led to said planet wholly adopting the 1920s Chicago society, complete with numerous crime bosses.  It gives Kirk a chance to act really hammy and try out a goofy gangster accent, and it gives Spock another chance to be fish out of Vulcan waters, but this episode is a total misfire.  The comedy isn’t funny enough to be worthwhile (compare “The Trouble With Tribbles” or Star Trek IV) and the plot is utterly ridiculous.  How could this ever happen?  And even if it did, could we portray it with somewhat more originality than a Bugs Bunny cartoon?  People get kidnapped at least four separate times.  Which is actually no biggie because simple ruses are adequate to escape.  There’s some negotiation at the end and somehow Kirk mucks with things even more than they are already mucked with.  One of the Tor.com reviewers for this episode gave it their highest rating, but I just don’t see it.  He made what seems like a good point, that this is a chance to have some fun while demonstrating the negative consequences of violating the prime directive.  But where is the lesson, then?  Kirk repeatedly violates the prime directive (including this very episode) now, in the past, and in the future.  If he takes any heed of what happens here, he stops doing it.  Nah, it’s just a flat whiff.  Killer Spock line: “Sir, you are employing a double negative.” Overall: ick. Our low bar is set. 1 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Violation of Prime Directive (it still counts if someone else did it first) (2)
  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (2)
  • Spock’s suspicious Vulcan nature can be disguised with a good hat (1)

47. The Immunity Syndrome. If I fall asleep during an episode, does it mean I was tired or the episode was bad?  I mean, it can’t be a good thing, right?  But then, I fall asleep during movies I like all the time.  Anyway, I fell asleep here, and I was tired, but I don’t think the pacing and lack of intrigue in this episode help.  The crew encounter what amounts to a giant space amoeba.  They investigate.  It’s something, all right.  I mean, yeah, a giant space amoeba!  Everyone almost dies.  But then they don’t. Here is another challenge of TV: you know that not everyone is going to die, so how do you make an episode feel like it matters?  I guess…things just need to be interesting enough that you don’t really care that you know things will be all right, really.  Well, whatever those things are, they aren’t here.  Sometimes just having some crazy thing isn’t enough, you know?  Also didn’t they make a big deal about how the whole crew was really exhausted at the beginning? What happened with that?  So that has no bearing on the actual episode?  Oh, OK.  That’s fine, it doesn’t matter really.  I’m sorry to be so jaded, 1968 Star Trek episode, but I just didn’t feel this one.  Killer Spock line: “Do not suffer so.  This is not the first time superior capability has proven more valuable than professional credential.” Overall: shrug. 2 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Strange probe encountered in space (it counts that it’s actually a giant space amoeba) (3)
  • “Doctor” McCoy admits he has no idea how Vulcan physiology works (1)
  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again (1)
  • Highly experimental plan with low probability of success somehow works anyway (4)

48. A Private Little War. At some point I’m going to have to talk about TOS’s treatment of gender.  Frankly, it’s not the strength of the series.  They try, galaxy knows they do, but this was 1960s TV and just having unmarried women in real jobs was a pretty big deal still.  I think you have to at least acknowledge that TOS needed some work consistently portraying good female characters when it comes to episodes like “A Private Little War.”  Wins: Uhura is a useful part of a discussion on the bridge.  Chapel provides valuable medical assistance.  Losses: the lead female guest star is quite literally a sexy conniving witch.  I really have no defense for some female characters from the classic sci-fi era, both in TV and books.  It’s definitely a limitation of the genre at times and if anyone wants to be critical of it I’m not going to stop them.  But at the same time, I don’t think anyone set out to write bad female characters, it just kind of happens.  There are plenty of flat male characters too.  The thing is, character isn’t the point in a lot of these things and you have to be cool with that.  It would be swell if we could have great characterization while we’re getting all this other interesting sci-fi stuff, and top sci-fi delivers, but they can’t all be winners.  Like this episode.  It’s not great.  Good, yes.  There are a lot of neat ideas here, actually.  Mainly: what do you do if your enemies are violating the Prime Directive?  Do you do it too, just to balance the playing field?  It’s not right of course, but you could argue it’s better than the alternative of doing nothing and letting one side just wipe out the other.  I didn’t have it in specifically in mind while I watched but wikipedia reminds me that it’s basically the same story as the Vietnam War, and yes, of course it is, and in that regard they succeed.  There’s also a scary creature, the Mugatu, thrown in for some fighting and danger.  Killer Spock line: (After being slapped repeatedly by guest star Doctor–and this really was a medical thing): “That will be quite enough.  Thank you, Doctor.” (There are plenty of good lines in the show aside from Spock’s; I’m just choosing to select his.  But I have to say the whole Spock-slapping sequence was golden for both lines and action.  Nurse Chapel slaps his in this sort of girly nurse-ish way.  Scotty happens to walk in and shrieks, “What are you doing, woman?!” and there is no reason for Scotty to be around except to have a reason for Scotty to do his patented over-the-top shrieking and tear Chapel away from Spock’s moribund body.  Then the doctor comes in and really lets Spock have it.  It’s explained that this is necessary for Vulcans to regain consciousness. And I am totally cool with that.)  Overall: some great, some good, some bad, some just weird. 2 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Violation of Prime Directive (it still counts if someone else did it first) (3)
  • “Doctor” McCoy admits he has no idea how Vulcan physiology works (2)
  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again (2)
  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (3)
  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe (2)

Do the thing with your fingers44. The Trouble With Tribbles. Perhaps the most famous TOS episode, and worth the hype.  Simply a great episode on numerous levels.  It’s funny, has a good story, and is utterly memorable. The Enterprise is summoned to space station K-7 on a Priority One call, the most Super Serious Important Call there is in space, only to find that the local administrator, Nilz Baris, is just extra concerned about some grain intended for nearby Sherman’s Planet, disputed between the Federation and the Klingons.  Although Baris has the authority to issue a Priority One call, Kirk is incredibly miffed about it and spends the rest of the episode being snotty towards Baris.  Some Klingons arrive to stir up some things and Kirk is forced to deal with the grain and the Klingons per Baris’ wishes and despite his general irritation.  Meanwhile a local shyster has sold some pleasing little creatures called Tribbles to various Enterprise crew members and K-7 folks.  Problem is that the Tribbles are multiplying rapidly and have soon found their way into every system on both the Enterprise and K-7.  Kirk and Spock spend the episode frantically running around trying to deal with all the problems until things actually manage to resolve themselves in a way that cleverly sews up everything.  Essentially this episode comes down to which of the many goofy scenes you like best.  I like the bar brawl incited by the Klingons’ insults of the Enterprise, particularly fun given that Scotty throws the first punch, only after letting the Klingons’ insults of Kirk slide first.  Killer Spock line: “Its trilling seems to have a tranquilizing effect on the human nervous system. Fortunately, of course…I am immune…to its effect.” A classic episode with great humor.  I’ve watched it twice recently and it’s totally re-watchable. 5 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Lighthearted banter to close episode (3).  Actually most of the episode is lighthearted banter.

45. The Gamesters of Triskelion. This is the kind of episode people have in mind when they write off TOS as a swashbuckling adventure series, only set in space, rather than an intellectual sci-fi show.  They’re totally right.  Nonetheless, it’s still a fun episode, if a little predictable and basically a stage for some fightin’.  Kirk, Chekhov, and Uhura are plucked from the Enterprise by an alien species that wants to train them to be gladiators for their wagering games.  Eventually the trio’s continued irascible urge to rebel and escape convinces the Providers that humans are just too darn plucky to make effective slave gladiators, and Kirk sets up a final mega-fight with winner-take-all stakes.  Spoiler!  He wins.  Meanwhile Spock uses scant clues to trace their disappearance, despite the continued doubts of McCoy and Scotty, even though Spock is always right about these kinds of things.  Anyway, there’s a whole lot of stuff about how humans will always reject any form of slavery, and that love is good, especially when the alien babe involved is hot and not weird and yellow.  There’s some misfired humor with Chekov’s alien companion, partially ineffective because Uhura is being terrorized by hers.  Ha-ha!  I mean, whuh?  But really none of it matters.  Kirk passionately argues for a big fight and gets it.  Ho hum.  Spock’s killer line: “I presume you mean they vanished in a manner not consistent with the usual working of the transporter, Mr. Scott.”  Overall it’s more like a western or a modern reality show but has interesting stories going.  Initially I gave it only 3 but after a few days’ consideration, I’ll make it 4 out of 5.  It’s stuck with me and actually makes for a pretty memorable episode.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe (1)
  • Even in interstellar space, the best way to resolve problems is with your fists (1)
  • The indomitable human spirit conquers all (1)