And so here we are—the final two aired episodes of the original Star Trek. One is decent, and the other is flat out horrible. Neither offer much in the way of resolution to the Enterprise's five year mission, neither have any great revelation about the cast or their adventures, there are no important crew deaths or marriages. That sexual tension between Chekov and Sulu? Totally left hanging. Any investment in art involves a certain amount of risk on the part of the audience, but the dangers in falling for a television series are especially severe. Shows are prematurely cancelled all the time, or else actors depart for better roles, creative teams mutate into unrecognizable hackery, plots grow too complex to ever be made sense of. But man, no matter how many times the Fonz jumps that shark, the sting never really gets easier to take. It's like I woke up one morning, and Trek was already gone, its clothes packed, and the only thing left in its absence was a hole in my chest where my heart used to be. (Er, I think that was my heart. The throbbing, pounding thing. Had a lot of valves, and so forth.)
But then, it's hard to feel that bad. It's not like Trek disappeared off the face of the planet after "Turnabout Intruder." The cosmos we glimpsed in the show's three seasons is still with us today. Hell, the plots were so familiar at this point that I'm sure I could start making up my own to review. Tune in next week, as Kirk battles a mysterious alien force that's turned everyone on the Enterprise an ugly shade of purple! And don't forget Spock's adventures on the Planet Where Some Vaguely Asian Actors Pretend To Be Samurai!
"All Our Yesterdays" doesn't win huge points for originality. Apart from a clever hook, the meat of the story is a mix of "City On The Edge Of Forever" and "This Side Of Paradise," with a dash of "Amok Time" for spice. But I enjoyed all those episodes immensely, and even when I recognize the familiar mechanics coming into play here, they still work in some clumsy, awkward fashion. The writing plays it smart by giving Nimoy all the best lines, and we even get another doomed love affair for our favorite Vulcan, sidelining Kirk into action hero mode and casting McCoy as the nagging voice of reason. We've got a female lead who doesn't come off like a fool, we've got a threat which, though pretty ridiculous when you think about it, is actually pressing, and we have James T. beating up an old man. How can you say no to that?
Once again, the Enterprise is called on to make sure everyone's left a solar system before the whole place goes kerblooey. And once again, I have to question Starfleet's resource management skills. There's no indication that anyone in the system called for help, and while Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to Sarpeidon, the only planet in the area known to have sentient life, we eventually learn that the Sarpeidons had their own method of escape, with no need for outside intervention whatsoever. So why this mission for our heroes? I can understand them playing rescue if a distress signal had been sent, but the crew is seriously over-qualified for mopping up work.
I'm not sure it's even possible to adequately "mop up" an entire planet, given how unreliable Spock's computers are. Has anyone ever questioned the fact that it never reads life signs properly? You could almost believe that Spock is making everything up as he goes as a test of humanity's blind obedience to authority (at some point he'll ask Scotty to administer electric shocks every time Kirk gets a question about geography wrong, and it'll have something to do with Nazis). Kirk, Spock, and McCoy aren't on the planet ten minutes before Spock's saying there's no intelligent life around—and oh hey, wouldn't you know it but there totally is. An old man named Mr. Atoz keeps the library running, along with a small collection of automatons that look exactly like him, which leads to some confusion that really doesn't have any purpose from a plot perspective, but is vaguely amusing.
So, where the heck did everybody go? We're about two commercial breaks in before we get an answer. Atoz's library works as a time machine that can send a traveler back to any point in Sarpeidon's recorded history. Kirk gets stuck in what looks like a production of Cyrano De Bergerac, while Spock and McCoy, in a misguided attempt to rescue him, find themselves on a snow covered, windswept mountain. The way to home to their own time isn't clear, and none of them realize what's happened at first—but all three are in danger, both immediate and, well, the not quite immediate but still rather pressing.
"Yesterdays" is a big of a grab-bag of an episode, throwing out pieces of story at intervals, and not all of those pieces stick. We never really understand Atoz's constant confusion, and while the planet's evacuation method is unique, to put it mildly, the time portal is used more as an excuse to screw around with our heroes than as a concept to be explored. Kirk's plotline isn't bad, and there's something funny about watching a whore who looks like Phyllis Dyller in a red wig screech at him, but there's not much conflict to be found. He gets arrested, he finds somebody who knows what's going on, he convinces that somebody to help him escape, and then, back on Sarpeidon, he forces Atoz to help him find Spock and McCoy. All very straightforward.
I was much more invested in Spock and McCoy's adventure on Mt. Crumpet. After McCoy is overcome by the weather, a strange figure leads Spock, carrying the unconscious doctor, back to her cave. The figure is Zarabeth, a woman banished into isolation for political reasons—which is a darn clever idea. If you could be sure you weren't in a "butterfly effect" universe, how convenient would it be to stick people in some ancient era when you didn't want to deal with them anymore? Your conscience would stay relative clean, because hey, you didn't kill them. (Of course, this only works if you're the only one with access to a time machine.)
Anyway, Zarabeth is a hottie, and she's immediately taken with Spock, and Spock with her. It's terribly romantic, both of them stranded in the distant past from everything and everyone they know, her wearing a bizarrely skimpy outfit despite the sub-zero temperatures (I'm sure it's warmer in the cave, but seriously), him struggling with loneliness and a sudden surge of emotion brought on by being transported to a time when his race was still heavy on killing, light on sky cake. (Atoz is supposed to "prepare" people before they go back in time by biologically adjusting them to fit whatever era they travel to, and since he didn't do that for our heroes, all three are in danger of coming undone.)
While it's a card the show has played over and over throughout it's run, when done well like it is here, Spock's struggle with his darker side is exciting and moving. Zarabeth is arguably a fantasy creation (unless the caves of the arctic are full of beautiful women desperate for companionship, I wouldn't know, I've never been there, and the elves won't return my calls), but I appreciated her straightforward sincerity, and I found her instant attachment to Spock authentic. Trek has shown itself fully capable of wringing out strong emotion from even the most ludicrous of situations, and the mini-tragedy we see here, which ends with one of the show's starkest final lines, is powerful even if it is brief. Spock's struggles with McCoy are also exciting: when the good doctor makes one of his usual quips, Spock grabs him by the throat, and says, ""I don't like that. I don't think I ever did, and now I'm sure." I would've loved to've seen more of that.
"Yesterdays" could've been a much better episode if it had focused more on Spock, Zarabeth, and McCoy, initially showing Spock as his usual competent self, than gradually moving the focus over to McCoy as he struggles to handle an increasingly dangerous colleague who's really not happy at all about all the "pointy ear" jokes. As it is, it's the same old season three story, strong scenes sitting next to affably mediocre ones, and, biting ending aside, it doesn't hold together well enough for me to give it as high marks as I would've liked. But it's not bad, and what's good in it is very good indeed.
There's not a lot of good in "Turnabout Intruder," and sadly, what little highlights one can find (Shatner's acting is… something) are buried under the episode's painfully trite foray into sexual politics. Feminism has never been one of the series' biggest concerns, to put it mildly, but we've had some memorable female characters on the show, and at least you can pretend the writers are trying to get the whole "equality" thing, even if they keep playing it as "Daddy is very proud of all the little girls out there!" But in "Turnabout," even the illusion of respect goes out the window. I'd been warned about this one, but man. You can hear "Captain Kirk gets taken over by a power-hungry woman who's basically the male fear of female dominance personified," but until you see it for yourself, you just ain't feelin' the burn.
The Enterprise responds to a distress signal, yadda yadda yadda, science expedition, radiation poisoning, dead guys, weird alien artifacts, etc. The only real important thing here is that Janice Lester, the head of the expedition, has a History with Kirk, they had a relationship while they were both in Starfleet Academy, and she really, really, really wants to be a ship captain. So bad. I'm not sure it's ever explicitly stated, but in all three seasons of the show, we've never seen a woman captain. So Janice most likely ran into the fabled glass ceiling at some point, and she's understandably frustrated about it. It's hard not to be bitter when the world of tomorrow treats you like a citizen of the Dark Ages.
The problem here isn't that Janice is frustrated or bitter or disappointed. The problem is, Janice is completely freakin' insane. Outside her obsessive, grasping quest for control, she doesn't have a character. Everything we learn about her expresses her fixation, from her intricate knowledge of the Enterprise (intricate knowledge, I might add, that doesn't prevent her from being completely incompetent when she actually gains command) to her manipulations of her idiot lover, Coleman, to her willingness to murder her colleagues to achieve her ultimate goal. She's like the Man In Black on Lost, only slightly more implausible than a mythical being that can transform itself into a murderous pillar of smoke. And the truly terrifying thing is, whoever created her probably thought they were being psychologically acute.
Considering she has to deal with all those troublesome lady parts (we never hear much about sex changes of the future, do we), Janice is forced to take, let's say, an unorthodox path towards achieving her goals. Hey, remember all those body swap movies? Vice-Versa, 18 Again, Like Father, Like Son, Freaky Friday, The Silence of the Lambs, etc. Turns out they all came from the same planet, and Janice has decided to go to the source so she can swap bodies with Kirk, take over his ship, and murder him for breaking her heart so many years ago. Oh, you crazy ladies. Just because we don't call doesn't mean you have to profane the laws of space, time, and common sense! You'll find somebody else. We just had this thing, y'know. You shouldn't scream like that, it makes you look mannish.
Against all reason, Janice's plan works… for a while. But she sows the seeds of her own defeat early on, when she's unable to kill the now unconscious and helplessly female Kirk. Not only is Janice a monomaniacal psychopath, she's incompetent to boot; she manages a few good mwa-ha-ha moments in "Turnabout," but they're all undone by her inability to make the logical move and strangle the man she's spent the last god-only-knows-how-many years despising. Because of course, deep down, she's still totally into him. It's always nice when what should be a sign of humanity and warmth instead looks like childish weakness.
All right, all right, there's other stuff going on in "Turnabout," I guess. While Spock catches on to Janice's duplicity fairly quickly (man, that mind meld comes in handy), both he and the real Kirk have a hard time proving their case. It's not a completely terrible idea that Janice is able to use the machinations of Starfleet justice to hold onto her power, and force an increasingly suspicious crew to follow her orders. The problem is, Janice is so clearly and totally out of her mind in Kirk's body that all the measured talk of the need for "proof" from Spock and the rest comes off as padding. The characters have seen enough complete insanity on their five year mission that a body-swap barely registers above hiccups on the crazy scale, and Janice is so clearly off her rocker that even if McCoy can't believe souls were exchanged, he has more than enough reason to question "Kirk"'s sanity. Stirring as it is to see Chekov and Sulu joining forces in opposition to the fake captain's demands, the episode would've been helped if Janice hadn't been so immediately and utterly incompetent. But I guess that's why women can't handle command, y'know?
There's also Dr. Coleman, Janice's begrudging co-conspirator. He helps her kill everybody, and then, once they're aboard the Enterprise, he demands to be put in charge of Kirk-in-Janice's body's health, to keep anyone else from getting too close. (This another blatantly implausible development. Would McCoy ever tolerate being pushed aside like this? And not just pushed aside—Janice-in-Kirk flat out forbids McCoy from seeing Kirk-in-Jance at all. This is an order that only makes sense if you're trying to hide something.) What, exactly, is Coleman getting out of this? The two were lovers when Janice had all her lady bits, but I doubt she meant for the body swapping with Kirk to be temporary. Did Coleman not think through what was going to happen once she got her wish? There was something about him getting fired for incompetence, so I guess you could argue that he just wants his old job back, but the gender change makes for some weird relationship dynamics.
And talk about your cop-out endings. At first it looks like Spock's going to work some kind of back-rub mojo to break the transfer between Kirk and Janice, but instead, the two are restored to their normal selves almost incidentally, like "Oh crap, we've got end credits and this can't be a two parter." And to put the final cap on Janice's humiliation, once she's defeated, nobody's angry at her. Killing the people she worked with, trying to kill a starship captain, essentially stealing a whole starship? Awww, it's okay. Poor sad crazy lady, she wasn't really in control of herself, so we'll just pity her instead of treating her like a human being with any reasonable responsibility for her actions. Blech. I love Star Trek, and one thoroughly wormy apple won't ruin the whole bunch for me, but man. Talk about going out on a sour note.
"All Our Yesterdays": B
"Turnabout Intruder": D-
- Spock's ""It should be an equation. I should be able to resolve this problem logically." is one of those "too close for comfort" lines, at least for me.
- Also, this is just brutal: "Yes, it did happen. But that was 5,000 years ago. And she is dead now."
- I've complained about McCoy before, but I love how he has absolutely no impulse control when it comes to criticism. He's so damned sure he's right that it never occurs to him needling an emotionally and mentally unstable Spock might not be a good idea.
- We don't see any of the secondary crew in "Yesterdays," and Uhura wasn't in "Turnabout," which makes "The Savage Curtain" her final episode. Trivia!
- Next week, unless there's some shake up, I'll be looking at Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.