The visor is a long story. Please try to disregard it.26. Errand of Mercy. This is a suspense episode with no suspense, about an important planet that has no apparent actual value, featuring a villain who poses no particular threat. I didn’t get this one at all. Kirk and Spock pose as locals to subvert a Klingon takeover of a peaceful planet. But things just really go nowhere. Like 45 of its 50 minutes are just milling around posturing. There are all manner of idle threats by the sneering, uninteresting villain and some unknown factor that keeps the locals from caring what happens one way or another. Which means, there are no stakes. Then they further subtract suspense by simply not revealing whatever the mysterious unknown is until things have been padded out enough. At which time nothing changes. This is like, the opposite of drama. Killer Spock line: I think there was a good one but I can’t find my note about it, and I’m not going back to watch this again. Overall: Unadulterated Trek filler. Contains less than 10% Trek product. 1 out of 5.

Trek tropes:

  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again
  • Badger alien until you get what you want
  • I’m not going to bother adding a new trope at this point, but I ought to go back and catalog all the times Spock provides ridiculously precise odds for something that could not possibly be predicted with any accuracy.

27. The Alternative FactorIf I had to pinpoint a single fatal flaw in TOS, it’s that they are absolutely willing to sacrifice storytelling for action. If the plot needs something to happen to keep it moving, well then, let’s do that, even if it really makes no sense at all and weakens the overall production. I suspect that, at the time, TV writing was just sort of a “churn it out and let’s get on with things” sort of process (not that it isn’t exactly that quite often today, too; it’s just that for a show like TOS that was so influential, when you really look at it objectively, the writing is regularly pretty bad). Or at least, the real sweat was put into the main characters’ soliloquies, rather than a comprehensible plot. TOS plots aren’t really about ideas so much as action, and an episode that doesn’t really fit the mold will get hammered into it anyway. I think “The Alternative Factor” could’ve been a great TNG episode: there’s certainly some potential in the story, which is brimming with SF ideas. But on TOS’ terms, it gets thoroughly wrecked.

So the setup is that the Enterprise is about to break orbit from a really boring planet when suddenly all their instruments go haywire for no explainable reason. Some bizarre magnetic field disturbance happened all over the galaxy at the same time, per a priority transmission from Starfleet. The only possible clue is the presence of a random crazy guy with a laughably bad beard named Lazarus running around on the planet’s surface. He claims to be fighting something but doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. So while they try to figure out his deal and what exactly is going on, naturally they just let him wander around the ship.

This might be the quintessential “enemy allowed easy access to highly sensitive area of the ship” TOS episode. Lazarus isn’t an enemy for certain, but he’s outwardly and obviously a nut. Yet, Kirk apparently sees no reason to restrict his access to highly volatile areas, or even bother to put a redshirt on escort detail. So to the detriment of the viewing experience, in a sequence of actions that simply could not have been more predictable or telegraphed, Lazarus breaks into Engineering (although “breaks into” implies it was difficult–“saunters into”?). The instant he’s shown lounging around in the cafeteria I knew he was going to do something naughty. The second time they have him in custody there’s actual dialogue to resolve that he doesn’t need any guards, for no reason whatsoever, despite his pleading earlier with Kirk about how much he really really wants some dilithium, and that he’s already broken into Engineering once. So of course the second they leave him alone he gets right up, easily sabotages the ship’s electrical system, and goes into Engineering to make off with the Enterprise’s lone power source, which was of course, not guarded or protected in any fashion. Door locks being forgotten technology in the future, one supposes. Contrast this with another episode somewhere along the line where an enemy got into engineering and locked the door so effectively that Scotty had to carve into the wall with a phaser to get access. What the hell, Engineering door.

I hate to dwell on plot holes, but, yeah, that, AND the ridiculous issue with them not being able to tell there were two Lazaruses. The dude has different identifying wounds and a completely different attitude at different times. Not to mention: a different beard! But it’s not until like 40 minutes in that Spock submits the possibility that the two very different appearances and behaviors may mean there are two people. (And then, just to really beat the other plot problem into the ground, do they then rush to capture Lazarus? No, Kirk spends another few minutes speculating on all the trouble that could be caused by not capturing him. Arrgh.)

Now here’s the really crazy thing: I still actually mostly liked this episode. It can’t help but be interesting, and as ridiculous as things are, they move along pretty fast. There’s a lot of crazy dudes in TOS but Lazarus is pretty memorable, even if he behaves pretty much exactly like the evil brothers in Myst. (His begging Kirk to let him have some dilithium is practically the exact same wording as Sirrus haranguing you to find all the red pages.) Two leftover thoughts:

  • I like that the effect of a galaxy-wide magnetic field disruption is portrayed as a superimposed picture of a pulsating nebular while the actors flail around.
  • Weird future oversight: when people aren’t busy (like when an officer gets left in the cafeteria by herself) they just do nothing. Stare at the wall and zone out. No one anticipated that people of the future would always keep their tricorder or whatever handy for entertainment in even the briefest moments of boredom.

Killer Spock line: “I fail to comprehend your indignation, sir. I’ve simply made the logical deduction that you are a liar.” Overall: Memorable episode weighed down by its inescapable TOS-ness. 3 out of 5.

Trek tropes:

  • Enemy allowed easy access to highly sensitive area of the ship
  • Even in interstellar interdimensional space, the best way to resolve problems is with your fists

28. The City on the Edge of Forever. K and I watched Star Trek IV fairly recently. I’ve seen it a billion times but not for several years. Man, it’s awesome. Completely goofy. It’s got an intangible 80s-ness to it now, too, that only makes it better. This movie never ever gets made today. There’s no real villain. Nobody’s all that cool in a conventional movie sense. It openly pushes a politically liberal agenda. The reboot Trek franchise has little in common with its ancestors other than having a bunch of characters with the same names. (This bit on gets right at the problems with all the big movie franchises now: everything’s long, dark, gritty, and somehow simultaneously both epic and boring. I hate today’s movies.) Anyway, the seeds of Trek IV are sown in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Kirk and Spock end up on the streets of 1930s New York, thanks to a time gate, in pursuit of an accidentally drugged and crazed Dr. McCoy who has somehow erased the future through some past actions. They have a few difficulties fitting in, naturally, as they try to figure out what sort of trouble McCoy caused. Kirk falls for a local social worker while Spock builds an incredibly advanced computer interface for his tricorder using only the tools and materials of the time. (Kirk gets some inspired leadership credit, as he motivates Spock to do this largely through taunts.)

The whole thing works terrifically. It’s funny, intriguing, and inspired. The only real problem is that they don’t have time to really flesh out the ideas, leaving the ending feeling very rushed. There’s a lot to cover in the last few minutes but we have to settle for some pained Shatner expressions and even a little 1960s-TV-sanctioned cursing. (“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he says to his waiting crew, rather than explain anything about what’s happened the last few weeks of his life in real time.) It’s too bad, because this episode must have been mind-blowing at the time. I give TOS’s storytelling some amount of objective grief during retrospective viewing 45 years later, but some of these shows were totally groundbreaking. In particular, it would have been interesting to consider the reason Kirk’s new love must die: because if she lives, her influence will lead to widespread pacifism, which it turn will delay the U.S. entrance into WWII, resulting in German victory and ruining the entire future of civilization. That’s quite a clear message for the late 1960s, when Vietnam was ramping up and some folks had the gall to protest U.S. involvement. History obviously shows those were two very different conflicts, but they were just guessing in 1967. Still, it makes a confusing impression. (Apparently that comes from the fact that Harlan Ellison’s script went through a lot of changes in production. Ellison is a notorious jerk but probably had his work distorted in this case.) Killer Spock line: “I am endeavoring to build a pneumonic memory circuit with stone knives and bearskins.” Overall: A classic. 5 out of 5.

Trek tropes:

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant
  • Enemy allowed easy access to highly sensitive area of the ship
  • Spock’s suspicious Vulcan nature can be disguised with a good hat
  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe

29. Operation: Annihilate! A quintessential “crew battles rubber space creatures” episode. This one somehow manages to be unique, even if it leans on Trek staples like space madness and scientific explanations using exceptionally dubious science. I sort of like the creatures, though. Something about them is charming, even if they are pretty much ridiculous. At one point, when examining one, Sulu says, “It doesn’t even look real!” Heh-heh, it sure doesn’t. It looks like a rubber space pancake or some fake vomit. Nevertheless, we are told they are blossoming throughout the galaxy spreading some sort of new space madness. Frankly, at this point in the series, I’m surprised when there’s an episode where there isn’t a scene with a sweaty guy ranting from a bed in sick bay. Somehow they determine that the individual creatures are like single brain cells, information which Kirk says “answers a lot of questions.” I submit that it actually raises a lot of questions, but OK. Eventually they stumble onto a solution for disposing of them: extremely intense light. Blindingly intense, actually, and before they spend five minutes remembering that light comes in a lot of wavelengths, including non-blinding ones, they go ahead and zap Spock in an effort to rid him of the creatures’ effect. It’s all good, though, because later on Spock recovers, remembering only then that he has an extra eyelid. So yeah, on the surface it’s pretty ridiculous but I couldn’t help but be entertained. I suspect this is an episode that appeals to fans of “Arena” or “The Devil in the Dark” (like myself) who can overlook terrible effects for a memorable hour of TV. If this was the first classic Trek you’d watched, you’d probably laugh off the series, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Killer Spock line: Didn’t note one. Spock spent a lot of the episode stifling his burgeoning space madness. Overall: I like it for some reason. 4 out of 5.

Trek tropes:

  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (I liked in this episode how he spent a lot of time barking semi-unreasonable orders at people, then storming out of the room to avoid any questions)
  • “Doctor” McCoy admits he has no idea how Vulcan physiology works
  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again
  • Lighthearted banter to close episode