Rob Watches Star Trek: Uhura, MLK, and the Power of Storytelling

***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy, decide to look at the Star Trek franchise for the first time with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***

SERIES: Star Trek
EPISODE: S2.E4 “Mirror, Mirror”
STARRING: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan
GUEST-STARRING: BarBara Luna
WRITER: Jerome Bixby
DIRECTOR: Marc Daniels
ORIGINAL AIR DATE: October 6, 1967
SYNOPSIS: A transporter malfunction sends Kirk, Bones, Uhura, and Scotty to a parallel universe. There, they meet twisted and evil versions of the crew.

By Rob Siebert
Trekkie-in-Training

Hindsight being 20/20 (50 years of it, no less), this should have been the episode to introduce the concept of alternate realities into the Star Trek universe. It has a hell of a lot more fun with it than “The Alternative Factor” did.

In that review, I’d pitched having Kirk and the crew meet alternate universe versions of themselves using body doubles and basic over-the-shoulder camera work. As it turned out, they simply had Kirk, Bones, Uhura, and Scotty switch places with their alt-universe counterparts. They didn’t even need to bother with  body doubles.

What I came away from this episode thinking about, outside of Spock’s beard of course, was Uhura. And not just because of her Mirror Universe uniform. That thing can’t be regulation, can it? Then again, it’s not like that leggy uniform she wears in the proper timeline is much better…

I’ve continuously been surprised at how physical Nichelle Nichols has been as Uhura. Whether she’s getting smacked across the face in “Space Seed,” or getting mixed up in the climactic fight in this episode, it’s jarring to see her physically combative with the male characters. Mind you, that’s coming from a 2020 perspective. I can’t imagine how it looked in 1968.

Still, she was a black woman standing her ground against a cast of white male characters. That counts for something. Let that serve as yet another example of the historical significance of the Uhura role. A role that, by her own admission, Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave during the show’s first year.

According to various interviews, Nichols originally had her heart set on broadway. Star Trek was simply meant to pad her resume. Thus, after the first season, Nichols told Star Trek  creator and producer Gene Roddenberry she wanted to leave the show.

Two nights later at an NAACP fundraiser, Nichols was introduced to someone identified to her as a big fan of the show: Martin Luther King Jr.

In a 2010 interview, Nicholls recalled that after mentioning her impending departure from Star Trek to King, he said, “Star Trek was the only show that he and his wife Coretta would allow their three little children to stay up and watch, because while they were marching, every night you could see people who looked like me being hosed down with a fire hose and dogs jumping on them because they wanted to eat in a restaurant. The civil rights marches were going on, and here I was playing an astronaut in the 23rd century.”

King added, “‘You’re part of history, and this is your responsibility, even though it might not be your career choice.’”

Nichols recalled when she told Roddenberry what King had said, he had tears in his eyes.

“I told him if he still wanted me, I would stay,” Nicholls said. “He took out my resignation, and it was all torn up where I had given it to him. And he put it in the drawer. I stayed, and I’ve never looked back. I’m glad I did.”

People have a tendency to overlook the great power characters and storytelling have in any medium. They shouldn’t. Stories can unite us in ways that few other things can. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that.

Email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com, or check us out on Twitter.

Rob Watches Star Trek: War and Peace

***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy, decide to look at the Star Trek franchise for the first time with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***

SERIES: Star Trek
EPISODE:
S1.21, “Return of the Archons”
STARRING: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei
GUEST-STARRING: Charles Macaulay, Harry Townes, Torin Thatcher
WRITERS: Gene Roddenberry (Story), Boris Sobelman (Teleplay)
DIRECTOR: Joseph Pevney
ORIGINAL AIR DATES: February 6, 1967
SYNOPSIS: The Enterprise discovers a planet on which all beings have been “absorbed” into the mind of a single ruler: Landru.

By Rob Siebert
Fanboy Wonder

What are the odds that an episode where Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Sulu get to dress up in 19th century outfits is actually about free will and humanity’s propensity for war?

Actually, on this show the odds are quite good.

Unfortunately, this is an episode where you have to work a little harder to get past the initial silliness. At first I thought we might have been introducing a new villain in Landru. Maybe a character that keeps trying to create hive mind societies based on “simpler times.” In theory, that’d be a great way to save money by recycling costumes from other productions. You could have Kirk and Spock in Victorian times, the Stone Age, or even the present (the ’60s). Frankly I’m surprised they didn’t go all out for this episode and have them just be cowboys.

Yet strangely this odd world they find themselves on isn’t Earth. Rather, an “Earth-like planet.” Pfft. Yeah, okay…

What we have is a story about a planet where individual minds have been absorbed into a single consciousness, otherwise known as “the Body.” The mind allegedly belongs to a man known only as Landru. But, SPOILER ALERT: We later find out Landru is a machine. This strange place is a computer’s logical, soulless idea of what an optimal human society should be.

MEANWHILE, IN FEBRUARY 1967: Operation Junction City is initiated by US forces in Vietnam on February 22. At 82 days, and it becomes the longest airborne operation conducted by American forces since Operation Market Garden during World War II. It is also the only major airborne operation of the Vietnam War.

As he conveniently tends to do, Kirk hits the nail on the head with these lines to a pair of rebels, who are suddenly too frightened to stand against Landru:

“You said you wanted freedom. It’s time you learned that freedom is never a gift. It has to be earned.”

It kind of makes you wonder, in a depressing sort of way, what Kirk and Spock would think of the world in 2020. Racially charged riots and protests. A pandemic. A president that is…well, what he is.

Not to mention the idea of how appealing such a hive mind might be to said president if he could be in the Landru role. And how humiliating would it be to be represented by him.

But hey! This episode is the first mention of the Prime Directive! So that’s something in the positive column, right?

Email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com, or check us out on Twitter.

Rob Watches Star Trek: Deja Vu, Parts I and II

***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy, decide to look at the Star Trek franchise for the first time with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***

SERIES: Star Trek
EPISODES: S1.E11 and S1.E12, “The Menagerie,” Parts I and II
STARRING: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy
GUEST-STARRING: Jeffrey Hunter, Malachi Throne, Susan Oliver
WRITER: Gene Roddenberry
DIRECTORS: Marc Daniels (Part I), Robert Butler (Part II)
ORIGINAL AIR DATES: November 17 and 24, 1966
SYNOPSIS: Spock abducts Christopher Pike, former captain of the Enterprise, over events that transpired 13 years ago on the forbidden planet of Talos IV. In Spock’s subsequent trial, Kirk must decide if his friend is still trustworthy.

By Rob Siebert
Fanboy Wonder

What the hell is a menagerie, anyway? I’ve heard that word before. But it’s not used often in common speak…

These two episodes have a unique distinction. Not do they make up what’s basically a two-part clip show, but they’re a clip show that’s not really a clip show.

By this point in the show, the financial requirements for Star Trek’s special effects were starting to take their toll. Thus, the decision was made to take the footage from the show’s unaired pilot “The Cage,” and use them in what ended up being a sort of “found footage” format. Thus they not only saved money and time, but created some nice continuity for the show.

Despite taking considerably less time to make than a standard single episode of Trek, “The Menagerie” is generally regarded as one of the best stories to come from the original series. I don’t know that I agree in that regard. But as someone who got to watch the original pilot beforehand, I admit my opinion may be slanted. But I can certainly appreciate that they didn’t discard “The Cage” altogether. They put it to good use and grew Spock’s backstory in the process.

If it’s not obvious, the guy that plays present-day catatonic Pike is not the guy who plays flashback Pike. Jeffrey Hunter, who was the lead in the pilot, did not come back for “The Menagerie.” Tragically, in 1969 he passed away due to a brain hemorrhage at the age of 42. A damn shame. Clearly he was a talented actor with a great “old Hollywood” sort of look. Also, given what Star Trek became, you’ve got to believe he would have reprised the Pike role at some point.

On the subject of actors, Malachi Throne plays Commodore Jose Mendez. But he also provided the voice for the Keeper, i.e. the lead alien whose head looks like a nut sack. So they used him to tie the “Cage” footage with the new footage. Incidentally, Throne also played False Face on the Adam West Batman show. His first appearance on the show was in March of 1966. Over 30 years later he’d do some voiceover work for The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond.

MEANWHILE IN NOVEMBER 1966: On November 8, Edward R. Brooke becomes the first African American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate.

I haven’t had a lot of story critique for Star Trek at this point. But the end of this episode feels like a missed opportunity.

So at the end of the episode we see the Keeper on the communications screen (using recycled footage from “The Cage,” of course) wishing Kirk well. They don’t have to change the central idea. But instead of simply saying goodbye, why not have Keeper say something like, “You’re always welcome here, Captain Kirk.” Then close with a pause and a close-up on Kirk. Yes, I understand Talos IV was portrayed as a good place for Pike to end up. But a line like that plants a seed for a future story as opposed to simply ending one.

Alright, Dictionary.com refers to a menagerie as “a collection of wild or unusual animals, especially for exhibition.” I’d say that checks out for our purposes.

Email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com, or check us out on Twitter.

Rob Watches Star Trek – Series Pilot: “The Cage”

***What happens when I, a 30-something-year-old fanboy who’s never seen a full episode of Star Trek, decides to take a look at the franchise with an open heart? You get “Rob Watches Star Trek.”***

SERIES: Star Trek
TITLE: “The Cage”
STARRING: Jeffrey Hunter, Susan Oliver, Georgia Schmidt, Serena Sande, Leonard Nimoy
WRITER: Gene Roddenberry
DIRECTOR:
Robert Butler
ORIGINAL AIR DATE:
October 4, 1988,
First screened in February 1965
SYNOPSIS:
The Enterprise picks up a near-20-year-old radio signal from Talos IV. But upon investigation, the Talosians subject Captain Pike to a series of bizarre experiments.

By Rob Siebert
The same Rob from up top.

If you’ve watched television for any significant amount of time, you know it’s not uncommon for shows to evolve or change between when a pilot episode is picked up to become a series, and when the series actually begins. For instance, in the pilot for Seinfield was titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, and the Michael Richards character was called Kessler instead of Kramer. The Elaine character, who would eventually be played by Julia Louis Dreyfus, was absent entirely.

“The Cage” is the first pilot episode of Star Trek originally shown to CBS executives in February of 1965. It was rejected by the network, and another pilot was ordered. Ultimately, that was for the better. But that’s not to say this episode isn’t unenjoyable…

Mere seconds into very first interior shot of “The Cage,” the original pilot episode of Star Trek, it’s evident this is not yet the iconic show we’re familiar with. The only person on screen we recognize is Leonard Nimoy. He’s still playing Spock (shown left), but it’s clearly not the Spock we know. His hair is a little bit longer, his uniform (like everyone else’s) looks a little too sweatshirt-ish. He’s also got an emotional side to him. It doesn’t get much focus, but it’s there.

But the only person on the Enterprise bridge that we really need to know is Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. The episode revolves entirely around him. He’s obviously the main character, so that’s not altogether uncalled for. But as we’ll see, he also gets a certain…uncomfortable focus. It’s because of that focus that the entire pilot doesn’t age very well.

So the Enterprise receives this 18-year-old radio signal from Talos IV, and the crew realizes there may be survivors. Pike takes a search party down to the planet, and is lured into a trap by Vina, a beautiful woman and supposedly one such survivor. The distress call was a ploy by the Talosians to lure the Enterprise on to the planet, so that they might capture a human to mate with Vina. Eventually, their offspring would be made into human slaves. The episode makes numerous Biblical references to the story of Adam and Eve.

So here’s the thing about these Talosians: Their heads really look like nut sacks. I’m sure I’m not the first to make that brilliant observation. But once I saw the shot on the right, that visual was all I could think about. I mean, what do they even need a male for? They’ve got testicles on their heads. They can just mate with Vina themselves!

MEANWHILE, IN FEBRUARY OF 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated during a speech on February 21. The iconic red and white Maple Leaf design is officially designated as the Canadian flag. 

Master illusionists, the Talosians and Vina desperately try to tempt Pike into giving in and accepting numerous false yet extremely enticing realities. When that doesn’t work, they abduct two women from the Enterprise, and attempt to place them in Vina’s role. They are Pike’s second in command known only as Number One, played by Majel Barrett, and a young lady known only by her Yeoman rank played by Laurel Goodwin (both shown below).

So from the Talosians’ perspective, because Vina was somehow deemed unattractive, two female crew members are brought into the story. We don’t know their names (though apparently Yeoman had one in the series proposal), and they are promptly judged by how they might be attractive to Pike.

See what I mean about  how this doesn’t age well?

What’s more, near the end of the episode, Yeoman has either the temerity or the stupidity to ask Pike, “Who would have been Eve?” As in, who would Pike have chosen between she and Number One? Number One quickly shuts the interaction down, and Yeoman walks off. Somebody’s jealous…

And what of Vina? Once the Talosians are defeated, it’s revealed she was the sole survivor of the ship that sent the radio transmission, and ultimately crashed on Talos IV. When the Talosians found her, they tried to heal her. But as they’d never seen a human, they had no frame of reference. As such, without the Talosians using their illusionary powers, she is old, hunchbacked, and gruesomely re-assembled. Instead of returning to the Enterprise with Pike and the others, she opts to stay with the Talosians and keep her illusion of beauty. As a consolation prize of sorts, the Talosians grant her an illusion of Pike to be with.

If you discount all the stuff I just ran down with Vina, Number One, and Yeoman, “The Cage” is actually a pretty fun watch. It’s got cheesy ’60s sci-fi aliens and monsters. Oddly enough, there’s also a viking. Many of the known and loved elements from Star Trek are there.

The Captain Pike character, judged strictly by his own merits, is fine. The problem is all the female characters in the episode are obviously drawn to him. Thus, their worth becomes largely based not on their merits as individuals, but on how attractive they are. Vina even decides to live inside a lie just so she can remain attractive.

Sadly, this pilot wasn’t turned down based on its sexist writing. Rather, it was deemed “too cerebral,” “too intellectual,” “too slow,” and without enough action. When NBC got to look at it, however, they made the unorthodox decision to pay for a second pilot. This one had William Shatner in what would become the iconic Captain Kirk role. It would eventually air as the third episode of the first season, entitled “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

One thing I want to note in closing: As I’ve indicated, the writing of the female characters in this episode really rubbed me the wrong way. Especially as the father of a young girl. But I can’t bring myself to be overly angry with series creator and the writer of this episode, Gene Roddenberry. In 1965, we had yet to really get into the heart of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Like all of us Roddenberry was a product of the times he lived in. Considering he’s largely responsible for what at the time was one of the most diversely cast television shows in history, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Email Rob at primaryignition@yahoo.com, or check us out on Twitter.