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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "Spock's Brain"/"The Enterprise Incident"

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It used to be tough to be a geek. Oh, don't get me wrong, it still basically is—both in the biting-heads-off-chickens sense and the social outcast with a tendency to obsess over intellectual (aka, "non-sexy") pursuits sense. But these days, whether or not it'll get you laid, geek culture holds sway. The biggest movie blockbusters are genre films based on toy properties from the '80's, books dedicated to giving lonely readers a world where they are valued for their dreariness, and, of course, re-imaginings of science fiction franchises at least a decade away from relevancy. This wasn't always the case. Once, geeks had to work to defend what they loved. Case in point: when fans learned that NBC planned to cancel Star Trek after the original series' second season, they organized a massive letter-writing campaign to convince network executives that the show was popular enough to warrant renewal. The campaign, which has become the stuff of TV legend (and is a model for any niche show in danger of getting axed), was successful, and on September 20, 1968, Trek entered its third season.

I can't even imagine the satisfied feeling those fans must've had, to settle in with friends and family to watch living (well, pre-recorded) proof of their commitment, passion, and enthusiasm. I'm sure even the title card had them excited. "'Spock's Brain,' huh? Neat-o! Spock is my favorite character, and he's incredibly smart, so it logically follows that I'll enjoy any episode that revolves around him and his central nervous system!" And then, the increasingly manic resistance to the truth. "Oh wow! This slow pacing really forces me to pay close attention to the storyline to keep from falling asleep! And that's a good thing, because this plot is so paper thin on the surface that it must have a deeper level that I'm missing, right?" Eventually, denial would cease, but with acceptance would coming the horrified understanding that not only did you spend a good month addressing envelopes, organizing, and making sure your demands were firm but politely phrased, just to make this episode possible—you also convinced everyone you know that the show was a.) worth saving and b.) something they should watch. So now, all of them are watching it. And some of them know where you live.

I'd like to say "Spock's Brain" isn't that bad, but it mostly is. The only real hope after the amateur-hour cold open—disjointed, flat, with rapid cuts that don't connect together logically—is that the remaining 45 or so minutes will at least be ridiculous enough to entertain, ala "Omega Glory." But it's a mixed bag. As an episode, this is lousy, with bad, repetitive writing and weak direction, and in terms of mockability, it's maybe a C, C+. Because while the hilariously awful moments really are as hilarious and awful as promised, there's a distressing amount of dead air between them. Not only does the script not make much sense, it's padded, and that makes it worse.

Once again, the Enterprise is moving through space, and once again, they come across a strange ship. Before they know what to make of it, a woman in a ridiculous outfit—ah, right, this is Star Trek, that doesn't narrow down the field. A woman dressed like an aerobics instructor/prostitute who doesn't like to change outfits between jobs beams onto the bridge. She incapacitates everyone on board with a wrist band, and then makes goo-goo eyes at the cranium of an unconscious Spock. When Kirk and the others wake up, Spock's down in Sick Bay, and as McCoy breathlessly informs the captain, "His brain is gone!"

TOS isn't really known for subtle acting, but the overblown style works will with the show's inherently pulpy nature. This isn't a realistic drama, and it works best whenever one's giving it a 110 percent, because it gives a heightened atmosphere to the cheap sets and chintzy effects. If William Shatner et al is taking everything so! Damn! Seriously! then who are we to disagree? Still, it's a surprisingly delicate balance, and when the show overplays its hand, it doesn't screw around. Shatner is just a few degrees more ridiculous than usual, but DeForest Kelley is out of his mind. I'd like to think that the actors realized how terrible the dialog was and just decided to have a good time with it, because honestly, watching Kirk and McCoy grimace, cavort, and snarl their way through their scenes is entertaining, if not exactly good for the "reality" of the episode.

But then, it's not like that reality was in very good shape to start with. Kirk decides they have to get Spock's brain back (duh), and that Spock will have to accompany them on the search. Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, because what else would he do? It's not like they can drop him off on Vulcan and get a new thinking cabbage installed. "Brain" is full of weird conversational fragments that dangle on the air and never really add up. There's a lengthy argument about where the ship that took the brain might've escaped to, which seems clever at first, but is soon revealed to be just another way to kill some screen time, since the conclusion Kirk comes to is the most obvious one. Then there's the scene when Chekov and a couple of red-shirts heat up a rock to keep themselves warm while waiting for Kirk and the others to return. Yes, it's clever use of the phasers (albeit one which we've already seen in season one), but since none of those characters are ever relevant to the plot again, why would we care? And why the hell not beam down some winter clothes, if they're going to stand watch?

The biggest time drain is the remote control rig McCoy works up to move Spock's brainless body around. It's a terrific gag (probably not intended as such) the first time we see it, but it wears thin, especially since the episode repeatedly forces us to wait with the rest of the cast while Frankenimoy slowly walks into place. As if that wasn't tedious enough, director Marc Daniels (who also helmed "Assignment: Earth," among many others) keeps cutting to Spock's expressionless, empty face during the episode's climax, despite the fact that, since the character doesn't actually have a cerebral cortex, he's incapable of responding in any way to what's happening.

Then there's the Morg and the Eymorg, the race of men and women who kidnapped Spock's brain in order to run their computers and keep them from having to think for themselves. The women, aka the Eymorg, actually did the kidnapping; they appear to be the ruling class, but have no true will or intelligence of their own, just the knowledge of their elders which is passed down to them through a plastic helmet that looks like the kind of thing a Cenobite would use for a really intense perm. What we have here is another in a long line of stupid people who used to be smart, but got stupid because their ancestors screwed up, and thank god Jim Kirk is here to fix things for them. In practical terms, this just means even more circling, monotonous dialog. The ladies repeat each line a good half a dozen times before moving on to the next. It's like a reading of sorority Twitter feeds edited by Philip Glass.

"Brain" has its funny moments—RC Spock is a hoot (and man, is that remote ever specific), the costumes are goofy as always, and there's a lumpy b-movie charm to some of the padding. And really, the basic idea is so hilariously misguided that it can't help but inadvertently generate at least some entertainment value. The climax, with McCoy trying to finally get Spock's noggin' fixed, is silly, especially the shots of McCoy looking increasingly distressed. It's not often you can watch someone assist at their own brain surgery, either. But as the start to the hard-earned third (and final) season of the show, this is not a very good sign at all.

Thankfully, "The Enterprise Incident," the second episode of S3, is more solid. It's got a sharp story, an excellent mid-point twist, relatively restrained performances, and, maybe most importantly of all, a brain-restored Spock at his absolute stone cold smoothness. It's not perfect, as the third act takes some short-cuts that weaken the suspense, but unlike the premiere, it's thoroughly defensible. Viewing this as a basic median of quality for the series, you could easily argue that Trek deserved a second shot.

Kirk's in a mood. It's so bad that the opening narration, traditionally the Captain's Log, is delivered by McCoy instead, explaining his concerns about James T.'s worsening mental health. Those fears are quickly confirmed, as Kirk is irritable, frustrated, and prone to snap at crew-members simply doing their jobs. Then he goes all mental and orders Sulu to plot a course straight into the Neutral Zone. Yeah, that Neutral Zone. Despite all protests, the course is set, and within moments of crossing into Romulan territory, the Enterprise is surrounded by three warships. (These warships aren't the same design as the one we saw in "Balance of Terror." According to "Enterprise," Romulans are now using Klingon ship models.) The Romulans demand that the Enterprise immediately surrender—or be destroyed.

I watched these episodes on CBS.com, and the "Enterprise" summary said, essentially, "Kirk pretends to be a Romulan in order to steal a new cloaking device." While basically true, this summary does a great disservice to anyone (like, ah, me) who hasn't watched the episode before, because this plot isn't completely revealed till at halfway in. Up until that reveal, the audience knows about as much as McCoy does. Kirk is crazy, the Neutral Zone breach is inexplicable, and when Spock betrays Kirk to the Romulan Commander (a woman. A really, really lonely woman), it looks like he's turning traitor and giving up his closest friend to the enemy. Now, given the trajectory of both characters so far, it's easy enough to realize that something about what we're seeing isn't right. But what makes "Enterprise" so cool, and what makes that summary such an unnecessarily revealing spoiler, is that it plays everything with a straight face for a very long time. There's a rising tension between the reveal we know has to be coming, and our suspicions that maybe, this once, we're wrong; maybe Spock is a bastard, maybe Kirk is having a breakdown. As suspicions go, those are in the "the friendly guy on the second floor keeps saying hello because he's eye-measuring me for his skin suit" range, but there's no hard evidence they're wrong until Kirk wakes up in sick bay and gives away the game.

"Enterprise"'s other strongest element is Spock's seduction of the Romulan Commander. Actually, it's more like she seduces him, but since it's in his best interests to keep her attention, he has to play things more consciously than she does. Their exchanges skirt melodrama—oh hell, they have a panting hemline that would get them kicked out of a strip club (jokes that almost make sense! You missed me, didn't you?), so your enjoyment of their scenes together depends on your appreciation of Nimoy's performance, and your patience with florid infatuation. As a long-time committed fan of both those things, I dug it, although even I was squirming at the end when Spock reveals his feelings for the Commander were genuine. Kirk generally has the seduce-and-destroy detail, so it's great to see Spock get his own chance, but having him fall for the Commander's over-the-top throbbing is a cliche. Maybe the better way to interpret their final exchange is that Spock respects an opponent, and wants to reduce her humiliation and embarrassment at falling for him.

As for why this episode is good-not-great, the frantic rush to steal the cloaking device, install it on the Enterprise, rescue Spock, and escape from the Romulans, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, this is an incredibly desperate plan by the Federation—assuming that Kirk could get onto a Romulan ship and get the device back, what's the guarantee that alien technology will work on a Federation starship? And even if it did, what are the odds of them being able to do all this before getting their asses handed to them by some very unhappy aliens? That Kirk's disguise manages to convince the crew long enough is a stretch (obviously we don't know how big the crews are, but since two distinct Romulans were sent as hostages to the Enterprise, should we assume that McCoy surgical disguise was intended to make Kirk look like one of them?), but the basic reason the Romulan Commander and her team don't just attack the Enterprise as soon as Kirk escapes with the device—at which point destroying the Federation ship should've been the only priority—is that, for some reason, she has to be present while Spock delivers his twenty minutes worth of final words. Why, though? There's no need to immediately execute Spock, and even if there was, couldn't she attack the Enterprise and record Spock's speech at the same time?

This may sound like nitpicking, but in order for a climax like this to work, we have to believe that Kirk, Spock, and the rest saved the day without any narrative cheats. The momentum and goodwill built up in the first half of the episode is enough to keep a weak ending like this from being completely lousy, but the cheats are there, and they're hard to ignore. There's also some hand-held camera work that doesn't do the sets any favors; much as I appreciate the immediacy that hand-held can provide, here it just looks like we're cutting to someone's on-set home movies. Season three started out under the gun, barely eked into existence by fan desperation, and suffered from a truncated budget (which was never huge even at the best of times). In order to compensate, we need the strong scripts that the previous two seasons had shown the series' writers capable of. We're off to a rocky start, but hope is not yet lost. The following exchange proves it:

Commander: Why would you do this to me? Who are you that you could do this?
Spock: First officer of the Enterprise.

Hell. Yes. (If that doesn't play, trust me, it's significantly more fist-pumping in action.)

(I'm at a loss with the new system. Should I average these out? Use the highest grade? Just leave it blank?)
"Spock's Brain": D
"The Enterprise Incident": B+

Stray Observations:

  • If you want to see a prime example of Shatning in action, check out Kirk's writhing when the Eymorg hit him with the pain belt.
  • Speaking of, the Morg that Kirk interrogates says the Eymorg give "pain and delight." I'm a little disappointed we don't get to see Kirk, Scotty, and McCoy shuddering with—actually, no, come to think of it I'm not disappointed at all.
  • "From the very first, I appreciated your ability." I think Kirk is being a sleaze here, but it's hard to tell.
  • "A child could do it!"
  • Another great Commander/Spock exchange: "Subterfuge is unworthy of a Vulcan." "You are being clever, Captain. That is unworthy of a Romulan."
  • Next week, it's "The Paradise Syndrome" and "And The Children Shall Lead."