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Monday, August 09, 2010
Retro TV Round-Up: Star Trek
"The Savage Curtain"
One of the interesting things about being as much of a Star Trek fan (particularly the original series) as I am has been reading all the "kiss and tell" books about what went on behind the scenes back in the day. For those of you who may have missed it, going in to season three NBC and Gene Roddenberry engaged in a high stakes game of chicken. After a huge fan write-in campaign to get the show a third season, NBC originally promised Star Trek a choice prime time slot in Monday evenings. In return, Roddenberry would be back in the big seat as executive producer and show runner (part of this was due to exhaustion of Gene Coon and his departure mid-way through season two).

Then Laugh-In wanted the time slot given to Star Trek and NBC looked at the numbers and moved Star Trek. To Friday nights. At 10 p.m. EST. In the days before DVRs or even VCRs. In many ways the time slot was the kiss of death for Star Trek. Roddenberry decided to fight back, saying he wanted the time slot originally promised or else he'd not be the series runner for season three. NBC didn't back down, calling the bluff and Roddenberry stepped away. This led to Fred Freiberger coming in as the producer and an even bigger budget cut for the original series, something that shows up time and again as the third season winds down.

I bring all of this up because in watching the final three episodes the series produced, it's interesting that two of three come from Roddenberry. Whether this was a case of Roddenberry coming back to the fold in a last ditch attempt to save the series or whether the ideas for both episodes had been kicking around for years and they finally needed to use them, I'm not exactly sure. In the case of "The Savage Curtain," the script feels like one that Roddenberry might have written as an attempt to show fans and the network what areas there were left to explore should a fourth season be made.

And yet, the story still feels like it's a greatest hits from a lot of earlier episodes.

"Curtain" starts out with a sequence that I used to see in my local station's promos for Trek back in the day--Abraham Lincoln appearing on the view screen. Whether he's the real former president of the United States or an image appearing because the aliens on the new world realize that Kirk has a fondness and respect for the sixteenth president isn't made clear right away.

What is clear is the Enterprise is scanning the planet for lifeforms where none should exist. But because of the environmental conditions on the planet, the crew can't beam down to check it out. Kirk is ready to chalk it up to an unsolved mystery and head on to the next assignment when the memory banks are probed and Lincoln appears.

Lincoln beams aboard the ship from a newly formed area that is hospitable to humanoid life. After a tour of the ship and some debate between Kirk and the senior staff, Kirk and Spock decide to beam down. It's interesting to see the debate between Kirk, McCoy and Scotty about whether or not Kirk should accept the invitation to visit the surface of the planet. McCoy and Scotty argue that it could be an illusion and that Kirk and Spock could beam down into a pool of molten lava and be instant crispy critters. Kirk reminds them that seeking out new life if their charge and he's beaming down. It's not quite the "risk is our business" speech from season two, but it's still effective.

Once down on the surface, Kirk and Spock encounter a rock creature. The creature says that his planet doesn't quite grasp the concept of good and evil as encountered in the Enterprise data banks and wants to set up a scenario to see which would win. Kirk, Spock and Lincoln are joined by Surak, one of the most influential figures in the history of Vulcan. They're pitted against Ghengis Khan, Colonel Green, Kahless and some other lady with badly done make-up who doesn't contribute anything. It's almost like she's thrown in to round out the sides. The rock creature says that the entire planet will be watching and when Kirk refuses to fight, the creature ups the ante. If Kirk and Spock win, the Enterprise is free to go. If not, it will be destroyed.

So, the reality show begins. Kirk and Spock begin fashioning weapons out of the available resources as the bad guys do the same. Kirk is the de facto leader, scouting out a base in the rocks and leading the good guys. Surak wants to negotiate for peace and does so, eventually getting killed and becoming the bait in a trap for Kirk and Spock. (It's explained that Spock holds Surak in the same esteem that Kirk does Lincoln). While Kirk and Spock attack from the front, Lincoln slips in to free Surak and is killed. Kirk and Spock beat out the forces of evil, who all flee. The rock creature says they're free to go, after Kirk makes an impassioned plea about the game and the nature of it.

"Curtain" was an episode that one of my friends with a VCR had recorded off the air and for about a year, he constantly referred to it as one of the greatest episodes he'd ever seen. I'm not sure if this was because he actually believed it or because he had it on video-tape. Looking back on it now I think it's more the former.

"Curtain" borrows a lot from other Trek episodes. But at least it does it fairly well. Yes, we've got the same set-up as "Arena" in some respects, but whereas that was a shades of gray (once we understand the Gorn's motivation), this one is more clear cut. It's good vs evil with evil assembled merely to be the token bad guys. All that is missing is the black hats and you've got your cliched Western bad guys.

However, one thing that interested me most is that when supposedly superior races put humans into some conflict to determine which side is superior, they rarely provide weapons beyond the most primitive kind. In "Arena" the tools were there for a cannon and here the weapons are spears and rocks. Given time, I suppose one side or the other could have fashioned bows and arrows, but since the ship is in peril, there's no time for that. Over the course of TOS and TNG, Roddenberry made a lot of statements about war, but it's interesting to see how time and again the superior races don't give the participants phasers, etc. but instead require them to rely on their wits and their minds to win the battle. I'm not sure how far this commentary extends here with both sides having virtually the same pointed spears (I wonder if a modern Trek might have Kahless fashion a bat'leth), but it's an interesting thought.

Another interesting aspect is Surak's portrayal. Surak is vehemently opposed to fighting and refuses to take part. Instead he heads to the other side to negotiate a peace deal which ultimately costs his life. It's fascinating to see a character who is willing to die for his beliefs and his devotion to the cause of peace. But it's also fascinating that while he's approaching the bad guys, Kirk, Spock and Lincoln still fashion weapons and prepare for war. They're hopeful of a peaceful solution, but still don't want to get caught with their pants down.

It makes me wish that we'd have a bit more of the shades of gray we got with "Arena" instead of the bad guys vs good guys mentality we get here. The episode makes me miss Gene Coon's leadership that much more because I believe he'd have given the story another pass or two to make it something more than what we get. It's not that this one is bad, per se, (it's certainly far more tolerable than "Way to Eden" or "The Paradise Syndrome") but it feels a bit like a missed opportunity when all is said and done.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 8/09/2010 01:45:00 PM | |
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