Today on Star Trek, we're going to learn a very special lesson about friendship, and love, and not doing that whole thing where you cut somebody up with a sword. Yeah, that's bad. Partly because it leads to death, destruction, and a general unwillingness to make eye contact, but also because there are these blobs of light that hang around and totally get off on the bad vibes. To the point where they like to step in and manipulate people to make sure those bad vibes keep happening. Which makes the special lesson slightly less applicable, because if some murderous prism (hey, finally!) is pushing you to the dark side, that's not really a situation that the general audience can relate to. Still, hugs instead of, um, less friendly things. Amiright?
I've been trying to figure out just what it is about the third season that sucks so hard—the costumes are terrible, and the acting is hammier than before, but what's really suffering to my mind is the pace. I'm a big proponent of pacing, in television shows and hospital waiting rooms, and I don't think it's all that ridiculous to say that the pacing of a series is one of the most important elements in its artistic and commercial success. You watch a well-oiled warhorse like Law & Order, and you expect a certain rhythm to its structure, each scene hitting enough beats to give us a sense of place and character and provide us with whatever key information the scene was written for, before moving on. More adventurous shows are less predictable, but there's still an awareness of how the audience's attention has to be earned and manipulated at the same time; they have to see enough to justify their attention, but you have to know what to tease with and what to drag out to make sure that attention lasts the duration.
So far, the third season has been really rough from this perspective. There is a lot of padding—note the weirdly long elevator rides in "Day of the Dove." Every time a character does an action that isn't necessary or exciting for us to watch, it doesn't really belong on the screen. Obviously you don't want to cut too much out, but too many scenes of characters walking someplace after finishing a conversation, too many reaction shots when there's nothing new to react to, and the flow of the story starts to stutter. Even worse is the curiously straightforward nature of "Dove," and "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky." The openings of both have solid mysteries, but those mysteries are solved by the halfway point, after which there really isn't much in the way of twists or even effective suspense. Arguably this is more a scripting issue than a pacing one, but it still affects the episode's rhythm, because it means we're watching and receiving information that we expect to see. Basically, these are stories missing the third heat, that extra impact that makes the final act more like a gift than a payment.
"Dove" gives us another dead colony of Federation folks. At least, I assume they're dead; Kirk and the team beam down after a distress message, and nobody's around. The first assumption I made was that the light being (that never communicates with anyone, and is never actually given a name) destroyed them, or caused them to destroy each other, but that doesn't make any sense. We learn as the story develops that the creature has the ability to heal seemingly fatal wounds, and is invested in keeping people alive so they'll go on hating each other and giving it food. So why let the colonists die out? Either there was some kind of mass death that was too much for Shiny the Hate Sucker to process, or else the whole concept of a colony (made up of, as Kirk informs, a hundred men, women, and children) was a concept put into the minds of our heroes to get them to come to the planet. The latter makes more sense, but how powerful would a creature have to be to send out, what, mind waves to a space-ship light years distant?
Then the Klingons arrive, and the situation becomes more complicated. The Klingon ship has been severely damaged by an attack—one that the Klingon captain, Kang, blames on the Enterprise. It's never really confirmed, but I think we're supposed to believe that Shiny managed to waste Kang's ship, in order to force it to the planet, even though that doesn't really make sense, and then create an immediate enmity between the Klingons and the folks from Starfleet. Only, the ship was approaching the planet, which means that if Shiny did the (massive) damage, it would have to be powerful enough to attack from very far away. In which case, why the ruse with the planet at all? Was it necessary to get the groups together? Not sure.
So once again we've got a godlike being, and once again, that being's powers are ill-defined. Kirk ends up beaming the entire crew of Kang's ship onto the Enterprise to save their lives, which makes for a tense situation, as both sides despise each other. Kang believes Kirk destroyed his ship, Kirk blames Kang for the destruction of the colony, and Chekov has this obsession with revenging his dead brother. I'll give "Dove" points for that last development, as I was suckered in to believe it the sort of traditional, left-field character development that TV shows often engage in to provide secondary characters with more connection to the main plot. So it surprised me when a stunned Sulu tells Kirk that Chekov is an only child. Clearly, Shiny's been playing some head games to make his hate harvesting easier.
It's too bad, then, that Chekov's quest for vengeance leads to the episode's most profoundly ill-judged sequence. Chekov ends up wandering the lower decks of the ship with a sword (there's a power outage at one point, but we don't see him stalking through the dark, which counts as missed opportunity in my book), and finally encounters Mara, Kang's wife and science officer. Chekov makes quick work of her guard, moves to kill Mara as well, but then has second thoughts. Because she's pretty, and all. It's only the arrival of Kirk and the others that keeps Chekov from raping the Klingon—and that's just dumb. Shiny increases prejudice, pushes loathing and fear to the surface, but it needs pre-existing emotions, however faint, to be there in order to work. (This isn't explicitly stated, but if the creature is able to create rage out of whole cloth, what little thematic meaning "Dove" has disappears entirely.) So now we're to assume, for the rest of the run of the show, that Chekov, under the right circumstances, would rape someone? Or, even worse, are we to assume that this is just a base level for all men, that with just a little push, we all would commit atrocities?
I don't really buy it. And it may be the modern perspective talking, but the episode can't really support this level of darkness, at least not from a regular character who, apart from the awful Russia jokes, has never been mean or cruel. While the conflict in "Dove" generally stays above this level, and while it had the potential to exploit the pre-existing tensions between Klingon and human, this is all very surface level and toothless. It's more like a Captain Planet episode, one where all the kids get doused with some pollution that makes them even jerkier than usual. Having Shiny non-communicative also kills one of the great pleasures of the godlike being episodes; there's no one to gloat, or spout faux-Shakespearean dialog, or refer to Kirk as "puny" or "insignificant." I appreciate that once again Trek makes the effort to give both sides of the conflict a fair shake, as Kang is a decent guy, and in the end he and Kirk team up to laugh Shiny out of the ship. But the moral here was too on the nose, too simplistic to work, and there wasn't enough sugar to make the medicine go down smooth.
At least there was some urgency to the proceedings, though. "For The World Is Hollow, And I Have Touched the Sky" has an awesome title, a cool looking asteroid ship, aaaaaand a year's worth of time before any of this matters. It's another ep with a primitive civilization kept in thrall by a false machine god, and it's got an ark plot as well, the science fiction trope of a ship sent out by a dying civilization to find a new home so the entire culture won't die out. Of course, what culture we see on the asteroid of Yonada isn't all that impressive—hideous, thrift store outfits, and an arcane religion dedicated to keeping everyone from asking questions because if they did ask questions, Kirk wouldn't have anything to do. There's also a high priestess, Natira, who's hard enough up for love (or else deeply committed enough to her daddy issues) to put the moves on McCoy. No offense to DeForest Kelley, an actor as important to the show in his way as Shatner or Nimoy, but, well, he's not a young forty-eight. Nitara's attraction might be more believable if it isn't so heavily pushed as an at-first-sight deal. As it stands now, their initial tender moment looks like McCoy having a minor stroke.
I suppose that would make sense—McCoy is, after all, not a well man. Early in the episode, Bones explains that he's got xenopolycythemia (thank god for subtitles), a rare blood disorder that will kill him in a year. So, no rush or anything. I don't mind if the leads have their lives threatened every now and again; just because we know they'll get off in the end, safe suspense can be fun. This is flat out ridiculous, though. The disease has no relation to anything else that happens in the episode, meaning that McCoy discovers he has a rare fatal illness less than a day before the Enterprise stumbles across an ancient alien civilization which, despite being completely buffaloed by phasers, has the medical expertise necessary to cure what ails him. That's bad, bad writing right there. I mean, did anybody think the ep would end with him still sick? Was anybody, even when this first aired, surprised that the Yonadans were the answer?
It makes a kind of sense, though, if you view it from a character perspective. Once McCoy, Kirk, and Spock find their way into the asteroid (which has plenty of life forms on it, despite the instruments reading none at all; I'm beginning to think Spock just makes everything up to satisfy some weird Vulcan sense of humor), Kirk and Spock quickly realize that Natira is into McCoy, and urge him to distract her while they try and figure out what the heck is going on. McCoy is instantly smitten with Natira, and when she proposes marriage, he agrees, sending Kirk and Spock (who now understand the whole computer situation, but are powerless to do anything about it) back to the Enterprise while he stays behind.
Admittedly, it's the second or third conversation before McCoy goes full groom, and since he passes information back to Kirk and Spock later in the episode, he hasn't completely given up on his old friends. But I think his desire to stay with the young hottie who is inexplicably obsessed with him is sincere, and looking past the more prurient reasons, I think his illness is an acceptable motivation. Faced with his own mortality, with no real family to call his own, who wouldn't jump at a chance to go out like a king, shacking up with somebody who's devoted to you and riding an asteroid through the stars? It's a clumsy device, and it doesn't really work, because it's not given any time to work; we find out McCoy is sick in the second scene, and despite all of Kirk and Nurse Chapel's concern (in typical Nurse Chapel fashion, we see her freaking out at the doctor for not telling anyone), the threat of death is never dramatically sound. But it's easy to understand why it was used.
"Hollow" also suffers from a major deficit in urgency. In "Dove," once Kirk and Spock realized the danger, they also knew that if they didn't act quickly, the light being would become so powerful that not even an army of Care Bears could stop it. With "Hollow," on the other hand, we have two deadlines—the asteroid arriving at an inhabited planet, and McCoy's illness. McCoy's got a year; Yonada won't actually get anywhere for 396 days. So, um, who cares? That's more than enough time for a whole army of Federation ships to arrive, and plenty of time for Kirk to talk McCoy out of the wedding. We do get Starfleet command telling Kirk that he's off the assignment, but c'mon, when has that ever been an issue? The computer that runs Yonada is nasty, to be sure, but it never feels all that powerful, even when it kills an old man for saying the episode's title out loud.
This could've been alleviated by interesting characters, or a cool design aesthetic, but once you get past the concept of a world inside an asteroid, there's not much to see. And again, we have Kirk and Spock unraveling the mystery by the halfway mark, and then spending the rest of the episode on clean-up duty. You know McCoy is coming back, you know he'll be cured, and you know that the computer will be defeated. About the only question is whether or not Natira will make it to the end credits, and happily, she does—which means McCoy, unlike Kirk, isn't a widower. Then again, that also means we get a lousy joke at the end about McCoy getting to visit Natira again sometime for a booty call.
Both these episodes had potential in them—the conflict between the Klingons and the humans, a civilization trapped inside a giant ball—but both are hampered by scripts that fail to act on that potential in any satisfying way. Neither is completely terrible, and both are watchable in a "Well, why not" kind of way. But man, I wish somebody would've tried a little harder.
"Day of the Dove": B-
"For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky": B-
- When Kang explains, "This is my wife, Mara, and my science officer," we get an immediate cut to Kirk and Spock. So I guess that would make slash fiction writers happy.
- Scotty is delighted to find a Claymore in the new armory Shiny works up. A quick Google check confirms suspicions that what he's holding is not, in fact, a Claymore.
- McCoy gets married, has the "Instrument of Obedience" implanted in his skull, and then acts surprised when it zaps him for reporting to Kirk. So I guess his blood disorder also makes him forget cause and effect?
- When Kirk and Spock try and go for the computer's operating manual, the machine drastically raises the temperature in the room. I'm not sure this is an effective device, since it seems like it would damage the machine just as much as the people.
- Next week, "The Tholian Web" and "Plato's Stepchildren"