Friday, August 7, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 5 of 15)

5. Warp Driving on Empty

In the last installment I mentioned "Assignment: Earth", a pilot film for a new Gene Roddenberry series in the guise of a typical Star Trek episode, though there was nothing typical about it. In early 1968 Trek faced imminent cancellation, and Roddenberry had high hopes that this new show could be its replacement. The network dashed those hopes, but it turned out a replacement wasn't necessary after all. At least not just then. With the help of a fan of the show named Bjo (Betty Jo) Trimble, Roddenberry organized a letter-writing campaign, and this being the 1960s, even a demonstration, with a thousand students from twenty different colleges marching on NBC's Burbank studios. The network relented, and Star Trek was renewed for a third season.

What happened next might seem surprising. Roddenberry basically quit Star Trek. Why? He had hoped for a better time slot. During the second season, the show had aired on 8:30 Friday nights, following Tarzan starring Ron Ely. The ape man series got middling ratings, and Roddenberry blamed the lead-in for his own series middling ratings. It also reportedly galled him to be following Tarzan period, whatever the ratings. An Edgar Rice Burroughs fan since childhood, Roddenberry was working on his own Tarzan screenplay, which he knew would never get produced as long as there was a TV version on the air. So when Tarzan was canceled, and Star Trek wasn't, it seemed like two good things were happening at once. Except that for its third season, NBC scheduled Star Trek in a later time slot: Friday nights at 10:00, when so many of those college kids who had converged on Burbank were out partying. Trek now followed The Name of the Game, a series about the going-ons of a magazine publishing company. Whatever audience existed for that show (it lasted three years) most likely wasn't all that into science fiction. So Roddenberry walked away from the series he created without actually walking away. He was still Executive Producer, still drew a paycheck, could still use the show to hawk things like the IDIC pendant, but, by most accounts, in that third season, he saw each episode for the first time when anyone else interested saw each episode for the first time, on 10:00 Friday nights. As for Tarzan, there's been several movies since Ely last swung on the vine in 1968, but none based on a Gene Roddenberry screenplay.

With Gene L. Coon gone, Gene Roddenberry practically gone, Associate Producer Robert Justman (who reportedly acted as Roddenberry's eyes and ears when he wasn't around) on his way out, and D.C. Fontana deciding she no longer wanted to be Story Editor (though she continued to contribute scripts, sometimes under fake names if there were too many changes made by others), Paramount Studios decided to bring in an outsider to run the show, a fellow by the name of Fred Freiberger. His most notable science fiction credits up to that point were two movies he was credited with writing during the 1950s monster craze, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), about a dinosaur come to life in modern times,  and The Beginning of the End (1957), which featured giant grasshoppers. I've seen both films, and they're both mindless fun. Whereas Star Trek, at its very best, was fun that also engaged the mind. By the early '60s, Freiberger had moved into television, where he wrote for shows as disparate as Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies. TV writing led to TV producing, including a few episodes of the medical drama Ben Casey. The first season of The Wild, Wild, West (a show Coon also worked on) was his most recent producing credit when he was called to helm the third, and what many now consider to be the worst, season of Star Trek. Both William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols has defended Freiberger on that charge, claiming he did the best he could under trying circumstances, such as an even greater reduced budget and large staff turnover. They may be right, but looking over the characterless nature of that third season, Freiberger doesn't seem to have had any personal vision that he brought to the series, as had the two Genes. It was just another show to produce and get out on time. That kind of attitude may have worked for the dozens of lookalike western, detective, and secret agent series on at the time, but with a science fiction show where anything can happen, minus a personal vision what you end up with, unfortunately, is a science fiction show where anything can happen, including something as goofy (and not all that vital to the storyline) as the starship Enterprise shrunk down to the size of a toaster. Science fiction's very weirdness is what attracts some of us to the genre, but there's smart weird and there's silly weird, and Star Trek began slipping into the latter category. It didn't but might as well have had giant grasshoppers. What's the difference between those and a miniature starship, other than a few hundred feet?

The season wasn't a total loss. Among the high points (in my opinion) are the episodes "Spectre of the Gun", "Day of the Dove", "The Tholian Web", "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", "That Which Survives" and "The Cloud Minders". Unfortunately those weren't enough to offset the many low points. In addition to a general silliness, there was a cruel edge to the series that third season. Star Trek had always had a dark side (especially for those crew members wearing red shirts), but nothing before made me squirm more than watching the telepathic sadists in "Plato's Stepchildren" force Spock to cry like a baby. And in the otherwise worthwhile "The Empath" Dr. McCoy is actually tortured (no doubt confirming his most xenophobic fears about aliens--and these aliens were self-righteous hypocrites to boot.) An amnesiac Kirk falls in love with an American (by way of outer space) Indian princess, only to watch her get stoned to death in "The Paradise Syndrome". I wouldn't call it cruel exactly, but Kirk has to go under the knife to make himself look like a Romulan for some routine espionage in "The Enterprise Incident". Alexander Scott (I Spy) or Barney Collier (Mission: Impossible) never had to do that. The Children of the Damned ripoff "And the Children Shall Lead" is probably worth watching just to see one-time famous attorney Marvin Belli ham it up as an alien apparition. Instead of ambulances he chases starships.  In "The Savage Curtain" Abraham Lincoln is no match for Genghis Khan. So where's General Grant when you need him? The episode "Is There No Truth in Beauty" contradicts itself completely. Supposedly the moral is we shouldn't judge someone solely on their physical appearance, but has Spock, the character least likely to do that, go insane after eying a homely alien. Of course, we never get to see this alien for ourselves. It wouldn't do to have the television audience go insane and further erode the ratings. The show did take a few stabs at political and social issues in that third season. Racial conflict (black-and-white vs white-and-black) in "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield". That was successful enough, I feel, though some have found it heavy-handed. Less successful and not so much heavy-handed as thickheaded is "The Mark of Gideon" which deals with overpopulation. The only thing the episode can say about the subject is that kidnapping starship captains for their germs is no way to solve the problem (though I suppose it's a better solution than Soylent Green.)

Finally, "Requiem for Methuselah" (the one with the incredible shrinking Enterprise)  has a provocative enough premise: an immortal man, while possessing no more intelligence or talent than anyone else, through a centuries-long accumulation of experience and knowledge, becomes some of the greatest figures in history (and/or legend), including Methuselah, Solomon, Alexander the Great, Merlin, Da Vinci, and Brahms. But once that provocative idea is introduced, the story has no idea what to do with it, other then have the immortal man and Kirk engage in a routine brawl over a girl. Hardly a great way to cap a three thousand year career.

 Before I tell you what happened next to what has come to be known as the Star Trek franchise--and a LOT happened next--I want to take a break from our narrative in order to take a closer look at that Vulcan pal of ours.

Next: Spock Reconsidered



  1. Spock......go insane? Even momentarily? Missed that episode - and a lot of other ones.

    Looking forward to Spock Reconsidered.

  2. Rest assured, Spock regains his senses by the end of the episode, Kass


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