Ensign’s Log #1: My Star Trek BeginsPosted: March 15, 2015
Star Trek has always generally been in my pop culture orbit, even though it never fully came home for me. I’ve seen most of the movies and caught a few episodes of one series or another, and even had one or two books when I was a kid, but it never took hold of my imagination the way that Star Wars and Firefly did. But now, with the death of Leonard Nimoy fresh in my mind and the 50th anniversary of the franchise on the horizon, I’ve decided enough is enough and it’s time to take the Starship Enterprise out for a ride. I will hopefully be doing this column each week, covering about four episodes of the series at a time, to chronicle my first impressions of Captain Kirk and company on their five-year mission. So without further ado, let’s get started and see what Gene Roddenberry has in store.
NOTE: Netflix still has the original pilot, “The Cage”, listed as episode 1, but I’ve skipped it since that pilot was eventually used as flashback material for “The Menagerie”. Otherwise I’ll just be moving through these in order.
The Man Trap: Most modern genre shows make an obvious effort to set up the emotional stakes and over-arching plot of the series in their pilot, so for me “The Man Trap” is mostly notable for just seeming like a run-of-the-mill Enterprise mission. The episode sees the crew making a house call on a researcher and his wife, the latter of whom is an old flame of McCoy’s. Unbeknownst to the crew however, the woman has been replaced by a shapeshifter that feeds on salt, including that contained in human bodies. The episode is built on this pervading sense of loneliness and yearning that is epitomized most by McCoy (drawn by nostalgia for his old flame and the relationship he lost) and by the monster itself (the last of its species, driven as much by a desire for love as for salt). The result is unsurprisingly melancholy, but also very impactful, exposing the importance of love and intimacy in our lives, even momentarily.
Besides the emotional subtext of the episode, there is some good fun and nice character beats that help lay the groundwork for the crew dynamics that we are all familiar with in one way or another. Kirk’s relationship with McCoy is at the forefront here. During the initial landing party, there’s an easy give-and-take between the two, quickly establishing their history and closeness. And later in the episode, when McCoy is quick to hold himself accountable for a failure, Kirk is just as quick to reassure him, knowing McCoy’s skill and commitment to his work. Besides them, we also see Lt. Uhura’s personality shine through, both in her ribbing of Spock on the bridge and in her interactions with the shapeshifter. We also get our first glimpses of Lt. Sulu and Yeoman Rand; Sulu’s interest in botany was surprising to me. And through it all, Spock is exactly the calm, smart voice of reason that we know and love. Overall, a good start to the show, but it still only feels like it’s scratching the surface of its potential.
Charlie X: While the metaphor at play in this episode was just as obvious as I expected from the episode description, that made it no less impactful or well-crafted. Here we have the Enterprise come across a young man who had been stranded on an alien planet for years, and in the process developed powerful telepathic abilities. The whole episode depends on the characterization of Charlie, and being able to illustrate both his teenage angst and his dehumanizing power. This is handled well enough, making Charlie an understandable and somewhat tragic antagonist, and his interactions with Kirk help to further define our lead character. In Kirk’s fatherly moments with Charlie, we can see the basic human goodness that lies beneath Kirk’s jocular swagger, which is a huge component of Kirk as a hero (one that is often overlooked in the stereotypical understanding of Kirk). Despite Kirk’s best efforts, there’s no escaping the bittersweet ending, and the idea that young people have lots of anger and passion, but not enough self-control, and how that self-control is vital to taking one’s place in the larger world.
Outside the main plot, we continue to get quiet development of the other crewmembers. In this episode, Yeoman Rand plays a more prominent role, and comes off as a strong and confident person. As Rand never stuck as a permanent member of the crew, her character intrigues me, and after this first glimpse I’m curious to see what else she gets up to. Meanwhile, there’s the goofy-yet-fun musical duet between Spock and Uhura, which not only reinforces Uhura’s likability from the previous episode but also gives us a minor glimpse of Spock’s less-logical side. And we get another good Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle, as all three debate how best to handle Charlie; even this early, the nature of their dynamic was comfortable and balanced, and continues to provide a core to the show’s family.
Where No Man Has Gone Before: This is supposed to be one of the great early episodes, but my only awareness of it before now was the rumor that Gary Mitchell, the antagonist of this episode, might be the villain of Star Trek Into Darkness (before they went with CumberKhan). Thankfully this episode lived up to expectation and delivered a great bit of scifi adventure. The narrative sees Kirk’s old Academy friend Mitchell develop godlike abilities after the Enterprise passes through a galactic barrier. The thematic conceit- the idea of unbridled power in the hands of people who did not earn it, and of man having more power than his flawed self can control- is a nice big idea, and one that is very well realized in the persona of Mitchell. The fact that Mitchell is, on the surface at least, the same sort of daredevil as Kirk fits this theme really well. One could contrast Mitchell’s gradual surrender to his godlike power with Kirk’s stern decisionmaking in spite of his personal stake in the situation, and see once again the maturity that hides behind Kirk’s swagger. That same contrast only highlights the horror of Mitchell’s change, as he goes from a Kirk-like space jockey to an inhuman supreme being.
While the core story is very strong, this episode is also very odd and out of place in a lot of ways. This was originally the second pilot, and you can tell all of the attempted tweaks that didn’t take (or that were further tweaked after the fact). There’s no McCoy or Uhura in this episode, Spock is wearing a gold shirt and has different eyebrows, and his very demeanor in some scenes is much more demonstrative than previously. And yet, the relationship between Kirk and Spock is just as it ever was: their private grappling with how to handle Mitchell is one of the best elements of the episode. In addition to showing Kirk using brains to undermine his foe’s superior brawn, in the very end we also see Spock admitting some sympathy for Mitchell and his plight. It’s a lovely little grace note to the episode, one that supplements the themes of the episode nicely. Continuity shifts aside, this is probably the best episode yet.
The Naked Time: Of the episodes I’ve watched so far, “Naked Time” is arguably the most character-driven. I say that because unlike the previous episodes, there doesn’t seem to be any greater thematic point being explored. Rather, a dramatic situation is concocted to explore and reveal the characters in new and interesting ways. The situation in question sees the crew become exposed to a virus that brings out their repressed personality traits and causes them to act out until their death… something that’s especially untimely given that the ship is orbiting a destabilizing planet. This dramatic situation is used to very good effect, as we get to see different sides of several different crewmembers, in particular Sulu’s romanticism and Spock’s sorrow. In particular, Spock and Kirk’s confrontation at the end is very effective, not just for exposing Spock’s backstory and human side but seeing how both of them try and fight through this loss of control to save the ship.
Fittingly for an episode built entirely on character beats, this is the first time that almost the entire crew is in an episode at once (sorry Chekov), including the first appearance of Nurse Chapel. Due to those elements, the moments in the finale when the entire crew is gathered on the bridge hoping for a miracle are more than effective. We’ve gotten to know these characters pretty well already, and finally seen them all in action as one collective unit, and the sight of them all hoping for a reprieve is exciting and intense stuff.
So, that’s the first week of episodes. Ultimately the show is really living up to expectations, if not exceeding them, and it’s easy to see how the show has maintained such timeless appeal over the past five decades. I’ll have thoughts on the next batch of episodes around this same time next week, so tune back in then for more!