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Star Trek: "Is There In Truth No Beauty?"/"The Spectre Of The Gun"

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I'm wondering if I should try an experiment when we come back from break (in case you haven't checked a calendar recently, the next two Fridays are holidays, so no Trek till the new year)—maybe I should change the order I watch these episodes, or put more space between them, or, I dunno, get really drunk. Because once again, of the two-pack we're covering today, the first was lousy, and the second was, if not exactly a classic, at least highly enjoyable. I'm not sure if that's just coincidence, or related to the lowered expectations that inevitably follow a mediocre episode. You'd think my expectations would be at their absolute minimum by this point, but impressively, season three of Trek keeps finding new ways to disappoint.


Which is especially frustrating because "Is There In Truth No Beauty?" could've been good. With the exception of "Spock's Brain," I'm of the opinion that everything we've seen so far had at least some potential in the opening scenes, and "Beauty" starts very strong, with one of my favorite concepts in science fiction: the difficulties inherent in contact with alien races. The Enterprise has met their fair share of oddities, but the Medusans that we see in "Beauty" are, up until Spock mind melds with one, eerie, and inexplicable in a way that makes the concept of friendly relations seem not just ludicrous but practically irrelevant. McCoy has some talk about how the race's scientific advances could be of great benefit to the Federation, but what's the common ground? Any human dumb enough to try and view a Medusan goes immediately, violently insane. For the few glimpses we get, the creatures don't even have physical form, just a series of weird, flashing lights. Communication requires a shared point of reference to proceed, and it's hard to imagine what that could possibly be here.

Still, Starfleet has yet to take "unreasonably difficult" as an answer, and is sending an ambassador, Dr. Miranda Jones, to the Medusan home planet to negotiate a relationship between the two groups. Diana Muldaur, who plays Jones, also played the only Star Trek: Next Generation character to eclipse fan-loathing of Tasha Yar, Doctor Pulaski, a stand-in for Beverly Crusher who attempt to recreate the McCoy-Spock relationship by constantly dismissing, insulting, and condescending to Next Gen's break-out android, Data. She's a trifle more likable here, but only because the "Beauty"'s scatter-shot writing makes you feel like the actress is at least doing as good as she can by an playable character. Jones' obsession with her Medusan colleague, Kollos, has tremendous potential, because it's a relationship that can be tragic and creepy at the same time, but it requires a subtle hand to make us understand why Jones would care so deeply for someone she can't touch, and also understand how such a need might not be entirely healthy. So, that's not really going to happen here.

It's hard to follow exactly what themes this episode is pushing, anyway. There's the ever stressed contrast between Jones's beauty and Kollos's supposed "ugliness," although nobody really gets into just how relative such standards are even when they're not being applied to a different species. (Plus, not to be rude about it, but Muldaur, while pretty, isn't a stunner, and the constant references to her stunning-ness had me expecting a third act reveal involving her telepathy and some subtle mind control on the men around her. We did get a decent twist, but that was not it.) Watching Kirk, McCoy, and engineer Mavrick, who came up with Miranda and has some kind of desperate crush on her, throw themselves at the doctor's feet is bad enough, but the way each man in turn blames her for her supposed "coldness" is just irritating and stupid. We've talked about Trek's sexism before, and I have no doubt we'll talk about it again, but it's regrettable that such a generally forward thinking show would fall back on the old "If she doesn't want me, it's her fault!" cliche.

That's stating it too baldly—Mavrick is clearly unsettled even before he gets a glimpse at Kollos—but there is a basic understanding that there's something wrong with an attractive woman committing her life to working in an environment where that attractiveness will go unappreciated. Kirk lectures her about human contact, about want to be loved, and while there's something in what he says, the assumption that she hasn't thought this through before, that she has to be somehow damaged to want to do what she does, is unfortunate, especially in light of the episode's big reveal. We don't find out Jones is blind until after the half-way point, and that seems to resolve the question, because blindness clearly justifies her choices in a way that Kirk can understand. (In McCoy's defense, he knew all along, and still bugged her about it. So, he's consistent.)

Really, though, Jones contradictory character (or is it simple opacity? Muldaur manages to invest her with enough complexity that she isn't a complete waste, at least), isn't as much a problem as the script's refusal to focus. First we get the Medusans, which is already enough of a topic for an hour, then we get Mavrick driven insane by his unrequited love for Jones, deciding to kill Kollos and then going even more insane and screwing up the Enterprise's warp drive to launch the ship into unexplored space. (And hey, it's the barrier at the edge of the galaxy!) Spock has to merge minds with Kollos, who's the only being on board capable of successfully piloting the ship back to where it came from. (I've never really bought that the Sulu has that much control over the equipment, but whatever.) Then Spock gets his own glimpse of the creature, goes a little mad, and Jones has to bring him back, despite being terribly jealous that he seems closer to Kollos than she can ever be.

Summing it up, it doesn't sound so bad, but watching it, things kept veering all over the place, and Jones was never a strong enough center to hold all these impulses together. Nimoy's performance as the Spock/Kollos hybrid is passable (although it is always so damn creepy when he smiles), but the character talks in trite one-liners, and Kollos himself (?) is more a plot MacGuffin than a being, trapped in a box, alone among a race that he can't see or communicate with for fear of destroying them. Instead, all the pathos is focused on Jones, who just can't support it. It's more like a group of men who try and interpret the problems they assume she has than any conflict within her that drives the episode, and that makes the whole thing detached and frustrating to watch. Plus, Spock's IDIC medallion, a blatant attempt by Gene Roddenberry to move some merchandise, is just embarrassing.

"Spectre of the Gun" isn't free of the plot-holes that have plagued this season (well, okay, every season, but they seem a little more obvious these days), but it has style, and a strong concept, and that makes it a winner. It's the only episode from the third season I can remember watching before, as the set of the half-finished Tombstone, AZ, really stayed with me when I was a kid. I was worried it wouldn't hold up, but while the story cheats a little, and we're dealing with yet another race of god-like beings who've decided to screw around with our heroes (in the Melkotians defense, Kirk really is asking for it this time), the look and feel of the ep is so striking that I'm willing to cut it a good deal of slack.

Most eps of the original Trek—and, really, of any genre show—doe their best to hide or ignore the limits of budget and effects technology. Characters are steadfast in their inability to see rubber skin, nylon costumes, or that the rocks they're using as cover from enemy fire are the same rocks they hid behind last week, and the week before that, and so on. It's part of the deal the show makes with the audience: everybody knows this is made up, we'll give you as much as we can, and you'll agree to look the other way if the cave wall wobbles when someone leans on it. "Spectre" is striking because it requires no such concessions. Okay, the glowing kitchen appliance that the Enterprise first encounters on its way to visit the Melkotians is maybe goofy, and the floating brain with the glowing eyes that threatens Kirk doesn't really seem to move in any recognizable way. But once Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov are transported to the fake Western town, the store-fronts with no backs are clearly visible to everyone. The stated reason is that the Melkotians created the environment out of pieces from Kirk's mind, but like a lot of the set-up here, that's not really important. (Actually, it will turn out to be important during the climax, but that has it's own problems.) What's important is that for the first time, we find ourselves in a place that seems truly alien, because enough of it is familiar that you can't dismiss the things that aren't familiar.

Another aspect of "Spectre" that works well is the High Noon-esque feeling of doom that hangs over our heroes once they arrive in Tombstone. The townsfolk immediately recognize Kirk and the others as the Clanton Gang, the real life men who were gunned down by the Earps and Doc Holliday at the OK Corral. And wouldn't you know it, today just happens to be the day of the gunfight, and the Earps are really not open to negotiation. Kirk tries to talk his way out of the situation, but nothing works, and as the clock ticks closer to the 5:00 deadline, it becomes more and more obvious that nothing they do will change what's going to happen.

I'm not always a fan of fatalist plots. It gets boring watching futility for too long, especially if there's no point to the futility other than to remind us that hey, sometimes you just lose. (Really? I had no idea!) Here it's used to great effect. Obviously the Enterprise boys are going to find a way out of their situation; Chekov's "death" is surprising even now, but even if you didn't know he made it through all the movies, you'd still be comfortable in the knowledge that Kirk and Spock and McCoy would live to fight another day. But there's still that awful, shuffling death approaching, and our heroes are isolated enough that you don't feel that same safety net that direct contact with the ship (and by extension, the Federation) implies. The whole ep often feels like a dream, and while we've been seeing weird camera angles and editing the whole season (check out the fish-eye lens during the crazy fights in "Beauty"), here what were liabilities, or at least distractions, become strengths. "Spectre" is best when it stares down the vicious, hate-filled faces of the Earp brothers, or when the wind roars, or when Kirk pounds at the door of a Sheriff's office that's all one wall. It works best when it's easiest for us to imagine it as a nightmare we haven't yet had.

On the down side, the plot does get sticky. Chekov's stupid infatuation with a local girl, and Kirk's apparent willingness to indulge that infatuation, is par for the course with the show, and at least here we get the satisfaction of seeing Chekov punished for his immaturity. Kirk's insistence on making contact with the Melkotians even after being formally warned away is, again, typical, and it's not like his arrogance doesn't pay off in the end. The biggest hole is in Spock's solution to the problem of the non-working tranquilizer. Spock and McCoy put together a sleep grenade to use on the Earps during the showdown, but when they test the grenade on Scotty, it has no effect. Spock argues that because the tranquilizer should have worked, that means they are in a place where the physical laws only operate if Kirk and the rest believe they do. So Chekov "died" because he believed the bullets would kill him. So long as you don't believe in bullets, you should be fine.

This is a little lazy (and haven't we been down the "it's all in your mind!" road before? It's such a well-worn genre cliche that I can't imagine this is our first time), but it's actually directly contradicted by the very proof Spock uses. Scotty believed the tranquilizer would affect him, because they all said it was certain to work; therefore, by Spock's logic, it should have knocked him out. The only way it wouldn't is if the Melkotians were controlling the illusion and didn't want the sleep grenade to be effective.

So, I have to knock what would've been an A minus episode down to a B plus, for that inconsistency, and for a general looseness of the writing overall. But the final showdown is impressive, no matter how shaky the reasoning behind it, and it's nice to see the weird, arrhythmic vibe working for the show for once. Whenever a TV series starts to lose its center, it can be depressing to watch something that used to be glorious (or at least consistently entertaining) falling to pieces, but if you're patient, and don't mind sitting through some clunkers, there's nearly always at least a few bits and pieces that manage a certain dying glory. "Spectre" is one of those. "Beauty"… isn't.

"Is There In Truth No Beauty?": C+
"Spectre of the Gun": B+

Stray Observations:

  • Apologies if this recap is a little more confused than usual. I'm moving today, tomorrow, and over the weekend, and just spent an hour getting my cable re-connected, so I'm distracted, is all.
  • The fish-eye lens fights were cool, I'll give "Beauty" that much. The effect's been over-used, but it can work.
  • We're gone till January 8th, and then it's "Day of the Dove" and the awesomely named, "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky"