Monday, August 05, 2019

Star Trek Original Series: Re-Viewing the Third Season, Fifty Years Later

Fifty years ago, the summer reruns of Star Trek's third and final season were coming to an end.  Most observers consider this the weakest season of the series, limited by small budgets and the growing knowledge that the show was not going to be renewed, and everybody would need to be looking for new jobs.

This summer I watched most of those third season episodes, and enjoyed them.  The season overall may be the least impressive of the three, and several of these episodes are misconceived.  But the repetition of their reputation obscures the best of them, and the season overall.

An element missing in prior evaluations is new, for I watched the latest remastered versions that include new visuals: the CGI intro images, and typically new images of the planet of the week and space vehicles, as well as grander cityscapes and (where possible) planetary surfaces and features.  These and other improvements enhance episodes for the first two seasons, but they nearly transform the third season episodes, since they were skimpy on such effects. These new images that usually begin the episode encourage a fresh look at them, perhaps with the wonder that accompanied first viewing in 1969.

I was also reminded that when I tuned into Star Trek in syndication in the mid 1970s, many of the first episodes I saw were from this third season.  I watched these stories every afternoon, and the cumulative effect was pronounced.  It was the very nature of these episodes--tight dramas, character and idea-driven morality plays--that made me a long-term Star Trek enthusiast.

Another feature of this season is the final definition of the major characters of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  Kirk's romantic involvements may be many, but they are not merely the conquests that critics call them.  Taken individually, they make sense.  Taken cumulatively, these episodes demonstrates Kirk as the active principle as well as the principal character.  Spock is the reactive character, calm where Kirk is excitable, deliberate where Kirk is intuitive.  But when in command, Spock as well as Kirk is decisive, though with different factors in his decisions.  Fascinating.

Despite Leonard Nimoy's many acerbic comments about the third season scripts, his portrayal of Spock during this season is definitive. I'd watched episodes from all three seasons when they first ran, but sporadically. Since these episodes were the first I saw daily in syndication, they formed my idea of Spock.

The third season featured two episodes by Jerome Bixby.  I've written here at length about "Day of the Dove," a season highlight.  The other is "Requiem for Methuselah," the basic plot idea of which Bixby would use in the obscure but fascinating 2007 film, The Man From Earth.  A notable moment at the end of the episode is Spock, seeking to ease Kirk's pain in losing a woman he loved,  performing a quick Vulcan telepathic fix, by whispering "forget."  It is of course the counterpoint to the moment more than a decade later in the feature film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in which the dying Spock whispers to Dr. McCoy, "Remember."

Other highlights of the season might include "Is There in Truth No Beauty?," "Wink of An Eye," "The Cloud Minders" (in which Star Trek deals with class issues, a more common theme in classic Doctor Who) and "All Our Yesterdays."  "Plato's Stepchildren" made television history with the first interracial kiss.

Other usually derided episodes turn out to be not so bad, such as "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (in which McCoy gets the romance), "And the Children Shall Lead,"  even "The Paradise Syndrome," "The Savage Curtain," and "Spock's Brain" (which is silly but fun.)  I can't begin to defend the gender politics of "Turnabout Intruder," an unfortunate way to end the series.  (Ironically the worst episodes of the season were written by Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, who in prior years together created the character of Star Trek as well as many of its best episodes.)

But I also saw third season episodes that are hardly ever mentioned favorably, but were among those that first drew me to Star Trek.  They include the stage-set morality plays I still find fascinating: " Spectre of the Gun" and especially "The Empath."  If there is one episode I remember that got my attention when I saw it in syndication, it was "The Empath," a story told on essentially a bare set--yet with those challenging issues and ideas that set Star Trek apart from other science fiction.  That the character of the Empath communicates basically through movement was brilliant, and is still enchanting.

Yes, the costumes and sets are often laughable, but Star Trek often played near the edge of the absurd. I noticed something else when watching these episodes: the skill with which they built suspense, layering on the jeopardy.  I remember that also was a big attraction.

I appreciate again that the stories are actually about strange new worlds, and not Federation politics and personalities, or spies and warfare--easy devices to hold viewers, but not what Star Trek was about.

I also miss the relative modesty of the stakes.  The Enterprise and members of its crew were often in danger.  A planet that needed medical supplies, or was in the path of an asteroid, were crises enough.  These episodes didn't need to put Earth or the galaxy or the fabric of the universe in danger of extinction every week. They created drama on more of a human scale. They are a real relief from the meaningless and bloated clashes of superheroes invented for the purpose of creating jeopardy and adrenalin-surging CGI battles.

Another historical note: While these episodes were re-running, the first human stepped foot on the Moon.  It was the culmination of the US manned space program which had been ongoing for a decade, including the three years Star Trek was on NBC's weekly schedule.  But it came at Star Trek's lowest point.

The series had been cancelled, which until then permanently sealed the fate of a show.  William Shatner, not only unemployed but broke (due to a recent divorce), described watching the moon landing on a portable TV set, trying to hold its uncertain reception as he reclined in the back of his truck, which was his traveling home while doing summer theatre.  The fictional Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise watched the actual moon landing alone in an empty parking lot.

When the third season reruns ended, fifty summers ago, it seemed that Star Trek was nothing more than a failed television series, and would never be seen or heard from again.


costume guy said...

I've seen every Star Trek movie, all the TV shows from Star Trek the Next Generation but never ever got round to watching the original

Our Olive Green Home said...

Glad to see someone stand up for the 3rd season. There are some true jewels--"The Tholian Web" and "The Enterprise Incident." Great stuff.