I've talked about how much I love Trek's commitment to Big Ideas, but you'll get no argument from me that sometimes, that commitment has a downside. Trek can be inspirational in its vision of a brighter, more open-minded future, but when it decides to put its Special Message Hat on, it can be preachy, tedious, and hilariously unsubtle. (Hence the classic AV Club Inventory, Space Racism Is Bad) Both episodes this week have points to make, and both put the Enterprise and its crew in the position of moral superiority, but "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" is the clear winner in the stridency sweepstakes. There's cool alien make-up, Frank "The Riddler" Gorshin, and a really good ending. All the rest is speeches; a seemingly endless series of on-the-nose rants that leave you exhausted just listening to them.
The Enterprise is on its way to save some lives (and seriously, are they even pretending to have a mission anymore? The ship is basically just Starfleet's go-to for whatever damn thing happens to come up. Of the five years Kirk and crew are supposed to be exploring, I'm betting they spend maybe four of those delivering space newspapers) when it encounters a damaged shuttlecraft floating in space. Kirk has the single inhabitant beamed aboard, a wounded alien with a startling skin color: one half of him is black, the other half is white. McCoy heals him up, Spock discusses the unlikeliness of bi-chromal skin, and when the alien finally wakes, he turns to be an a arrogant twerp. He says he's from Cheron (aka, "the southern most part of the galaxy," hint hint), his "need" made it perfectly fine to steal a ship, and anyone who questions him is just a big ole meanie.
None of this really explains anything, and the situation doesn't come any clearer until a second alien arrives on the Enterprise, destroying his (invisible) ship while beaming himself onto the bridge. Bele (Frank Gorshin) is also from Cheron, and he's been chasing Lokai, the first alien, for 50,000 years (?!?), to bring him to task for some horrible crime which, unless I zoned out during all the speechifying, never gets explained. It takes a little while, but eventually the metaphor becomes clear: Bele and Lokai hate each other because their black/white coloring is mirror opposites, which is hating someone because of the color of their skin, which is racism. Bele represents the Establishment, aka The Man, and Lokai is the insurgent, willing to commit any act of violence in order to earn the freedom he doesn't even really understand anymore.
There's nothing inherently wrong with using metaphorical science fiction to get your point across, but the metaphors have to be more than just a quick coating of paint. Bele and Lokai never have personalities, despite all the over-acting, and for the most part, Kirk and the rest hang out on the sidelines, trying to dispense wisdom that never gets heard. It was interesting hearing how Starfleet and the Federation deal with alien races outside their organization: Kirk is respectful, but given Lokai's crime (the shuttlecraft theft), refuses to just hand him over to Bele without due processing at a Starfleet base. We've seen the system's bureaucracy at work before, but while it's mostly used as a delaying device here--if Kirk just gave the distinctly unpleasant Lokai to Bele at the start, we wouldn't have much of an episode--it's neat to contrast the oddness of meeting a new race with the menial requirements of diplomacy and government. Whatever the source of the Cherons' enmity, there's still paperwork that needs to be filled out.
No delaying tactic would be perfect without a counter, though, so Bele ends up taking over the ship and trying to force his way back to his home planet. There's a great sequence when Kirk, after exhausting all other options, tells Bele he'd rather blow up the Enterprise then let it continue to operate out of his control. Bele thinks this is a bluff, so Kirk initiates the self-destruct. (Is this the first time we've heard the self-destruct code? They used roughly the same system in Search For Spock, and I've always dug how straightforward it is.) Bele, realizing that Kirk is just crazy enough to kill 430 people on a matter of principle, backs down. I can't decide if Kirk's behavior here was reckless, or hardcore, or both. But whatever it says about his morality, it makes for a tense, exciting scene.
Although it would've been more effective if the director hadn't insisted on a series of pointlessly tight close-ups. "Battlefield" is full of over-the-top visual touches--I especially liked (ie, snickered at) the way the camera would shake every time someone called a Red Alert. You know it's serious when the camera-man has a seizure! Then there's the ridiculous climax: after a lot of negotiation and power-plays, Bele finally gets the Enterprise back to Cheron, only to find every last sapient life-form on the planet dead. (I'm not sure I'd trust the sensors on the ship to make that kind of absolute judgment, but I'll let it pass.) The cities are in ruins, and there are unburied corpses everywhere, because, see, that's the racism end-game: everybody dies. (Honestly, that's the everything end-game.) In response to learning that all they've ever known has been destroyed, Bele and Lokai chase each other around the ship for a while, before beaming themselves down to the planet, presumably to continue their chase until they die of exhaustion, or whatever diseases you get from running around a world full of rotting dead people.
Conceptually, that's not bad. Neither Bele or Lokai are likable enough for me to pity them much, but the idea of them stranding themselves in the graveyard of their civilization is striking enough that you can overlook the symbolic heavy-handedness of it. Too bad this ending is undercut by the hilariously goofy shoots of Bele and Lokai prancing through the corridors of the Enterprise like idiots, with footage of burning buildings super-imposed over the screen to remind us of their grief. It's terribly silly, and that, really, is why "Battlefield" doesn't work: not for that one scene, but for the episode's unwinking insistence on its righteousness. The alien make-up is a cool visual, there are some good moments, but the message here is so overpowering that it's hard to remember anything else.
So at least "The Mark Of Gideon" lets the mystery last a bit longer, anyway. This time, instead of fighting off a deadly bacterial invasion, the Enterprise is running peace talks with the notoriously stand-offish Gideon, and for once it isn't a matter of the Enterprise being Starfleet's dogsbody. The Gideons specifically requested Kirk, and asked that he beam down to the planet for negotiations. Which is totally not suspicious at all, and it's just a tremendous shock when Kirk, after beaming, finds himself in a seemingly empty Enterprise, still orbiting Gideon.
"Gideon" is typical of the third season, in that it has a strong set-up and a weak resolution, but even the set-up has flaws. We get an awful lot of Kirk wandering around his abandoned ship, doing a voice-over about how confusing everything is, and how he's lost time and doesn't know what happened. This starts off cool, because hey, who doesn't like a good mystery, but quickly takes a turn for the boring. It doesn't help that the one person Kirk does meet, a woman named Odona, is spacey and dull. Oh, and almost instantly in love with the captain. We eventually learn that Odona is the daughter of Hidon, Gideon's main ambassador, and this whole thing was a set-up so Odona could get infected with a disease Kirk had years ago. And if that doesn't sound ridiculous, well, keep listening.
Thankfully, not all of "Gideon" focuses on Kirk being smooth and spreading the sickness. In what initially looks to be a place-holder subplot (a series of scenes that use characters outside the main action to make us feel like there's a larger world, and to make sure the episode lasts the full fifty minutes) turns out to be the ep's strongest element, the increasingly hostile negotiations between Spock and the stonewalling Gideons about Kirk's location. Spock's obvious frustration at getting the runaround both from the planet below and from Starfleet high command is hilarious and well-written. The ep would've been better served, I think, if it had focused on Spock from the start. The Mystery of the Empty Enterprise is a decent hook, but it fails to pay-off. Spock's struggles, while more mundane, have a stronger foundation in character, and giving us the episode from his perspective, without even showing Kirk until maybe halfway through, would've worked well.
So why are the Gideons so interested in James T.? Well, they're all terribly healthy. Terribly, awfully, miserably healthy. Gideon has become over-populated, and they needed an outside disease to decimate the population and make for some more elbow room. I'm not sure how well this concept holds up under actual consideration. Gideon exists in an era of space travel, so why not negotiate with Starfleet for some star-ships? Kirk suggests sterilization and birth control, Hidon explains that the Gideons consider life "sacred." So why is their chosen response to the problem essentially a passive mass murder? We're supposed to be upset that Hidon wants Kirk to stay on Gideon permanently, as a carrier of the disease, but I just can't get my head around all the stupid here. Even worse, the end of the episode has Hidon actually going ahead with his plan, albeit in a different way than he'd initially intended.
See, Kirk and Odona have fallen in love, or lust, or some indeterminate emotional connection that will dictate Kirk's actions right up until the end credits, after which he'll never mention her again. Hidon's original plan was to use Odona as a test case, to show his people that he was as willing to sacrifice for the good of the planet as anybody else; after Odona died, they'd start spreading Kirk's blood around the planet. (How the hell would that work? If the whole point of this is to allow them to kill without actively deciding who lives and who dies, what's the use in maintaining a single vector for the spread of the disease?) But now that Odona has got a taste of Kirk kissing, she's regretting her life choices; and of course Kirk can't simply let some really hot chick die on his watch. While Kirk argues with Hodin, Spock, in his usual unstoppable fashion, follows in his captain's footsteps, searches the fake Enterprise (which is just a model of the real ship--is there a reason for this? If all you needed Kirk for was his blood, you could just strap him down someplace. Diseases aren't like cows, they don't taste better if they've been walking around), takes out a pair of the most inept guards ever, and enters the room with Hodin and Kirk. This gives Kirk the power to get Odona back to the real Enterprise, where McCoy can cure her.
One of my favorite things about this current season is the way Kirk and Spock's relationship continues to make sense, even in the most ridiculous eps. Like in "Blink Of An Eye," here we have Spock following in Jim's footsteps, and when he arrives at the same destination, Kirk shows no surprise whatsoever. It's not so much taking Spock for granted as it is a well-earned display of complete trust. So even when the writing is clunky, or the plots full of holes, there's at least that to come back to, a strong, believable friendship between two very different characters.
Once Odnoa is healed, she decides to go back to her people in Kirk's place, and, in effect, be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands (millions?) of her own people. It's an unsettling resolution that's played without any ambiguity whatsoever. As some of you mentioned in the comments last week, "Gideon" has our heroes tacitly assisting in a government sponsored holocaust, without any real regret or moral confusion. Kirk's biggest issue at the end is having to leave Odona behind. That's another problem when you try and bring in big ideas--you need to follow through on the consequences. "Gideon" tries to create a situation in which semi-genocide is the best, noblest response, but it doesn't justify itself enough to work dramatically.
"Let That Be Your Last Battlefield": C+
"The Mark of Gideon": C+
- "Battlefield"'s attempts to make oppressor and oppressed equally morally culpable rang false to me. That's another problem about making such an overt metaphor: because of its connection to real-life situations, it's difficult to judge the story on its own terms.
- "You monotone humans are all alike. First you condemn, then you attack!" Oh man, that's so us.
- Spock: "We must acknowledge once and for all that the purpose of diplomacy is to prolong a crisis."
- Up next week, it's "That Which Survives" and "The Lights of Zetar."