Posts Tagged ‘Gene L Coon’

Received wisdom, of course, is that it’s during the third season of the original Star Trek that the wheels really come off the enterprise (pun intended); but there’s also an argument that it’s during the back end of the second season that the problems start to show up. Innovation is replaced by repetition, which in turn becomes routine and then formula and cliché. All quite true, I will happily admit, and yet some of these very-nearly-reviled late second season episodes are amongst my favourites – guilty pleasures, perhaps, but still definitely pleasures.

Bread and Circuses is one of these. It’s the one where they go to the planet of the Romans, in accordance with Gene Roddenberry’s belief that visiting alternate Earths was a core element of the series. Unsurprisingly, Roddenberry (the Gene who created Star Trek) is one of the credited writers, along with Mr L. Coon (the Gene who really made it sing), which may explain why there are quite a few elements of this episode which do feel a bit familiar. The visit to the planet of the Romans is inevitably a little reminiscent of the visit to the planet of the Nazis (Patterns of Force, from earlier in the season), while central to the plot is the presence of a corrupted former Starfleet member in violation of his oath of non-interference (again, this distinctly recalls Roddenberry’s own The Omega Glory from just a couple of weeks earlier).

The plot, if you need reminding, goes like this. Having come across the wreckage of a ship which has been missing for years, the Enterprise traces it back to an inhabited planet with a technological civilisation roughly akin to that of Earth in the mid 20th century. It’s another one of those parallel Earths which are liberally sprinkled through the original series, which the crew blithely take in their stride, citing Hodgkin’s Principle of Parallel Planetary Development. Well, fair enough; good enough for Spock, good enough for me. However, on this world, the Roman Empire never fell and still rules – slavery is an institution and gladiatorial fights are broadcast on network TV. Alarmed to see that members of the missing ship’s crew have been forced to fight as gladiators, Kirk beams down with Spock and McCoy to see if there are any survivors still around – only to discover his old friend Captain Merik (William Smithers) has become part of the Imperial elite, and is determined that word of this planet’s existence will not be taken back to the Federation…

Original series Trek is dotted with episodes that get remembered for one particular moment or image – the one with the pizza monster, the one with the space hippies, the one with the bamboo cannon, I could go on and on. Bread and Circuses is, probably, the one with the televised gladiator fight (or possibly the one with the bizarre religious tag scene, which we shall duly come to), but there are other things about it I’m very fond of.

Of course, those gladiator fight scenes themselves, with their canned audience responses and the centurion snarling ‘Bring this network’s ratings down and we’ll do a number on you!’ is, obviously, meant satirically, and it’s satire with teeth when you consider Star Trek‘s own issues with network viewing figures at the time. The audience is practically beaten about the head by lines to the effect that this planet is in many ways incredibly similar to then-contemporary America, so this hardly qualifies as the most subtle subtext – there’s still something wonderfully understated about William Shatner’s delivery of the line ‘I’ve heard [20th century TV] was somewhat similar.’

Then again, by this point all the regulars know their characters inside out, so we get such cherishable moments as McCoy and Spock bickering even during a fight to the death, the later pay-off to this, and Scotty getting to play hard man while left in charge of the ship. Perhaps best of all is Kirk’s own super-coolness when forced to watch his friends in the arena – one of the themes of the episode is the difference between Kirk – a paragon, of course, of the improved humanity which Roddenberry believed so passionately in – and the flawed and failed Merik. Claudius expects Kirk to be just as weak, to crumble as his friends are threatened. ‘You find these games frightening, revolting,’ taunts the Proconsul. ‘Proconsul…’ Kirk permits himself a quiet smile. ‘In some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment which make this look like a folk dance.’ Even if Kirk is just playing poker, he’s doing it masterfully.

(And there is, of course, the moment – becoming something of an institution by this point – where he gets some private alone-time with one of the local girls. One American pro-fan made a bold attempt to de-canonise Star Trek V by suggesting the whole movie is a piece of fanfic made by the inhabitants of this planet many years later, led by the son of Kirk who resulted from this brief liaison. I suppose I’ve heard nuttier ideas.)

One aspect of the episode which is very, very Roddenberry, and not really touched upon much when Bread and Circuses is discussed, is that it is essentially about personal principles and honour. As we are repeatedly told, the Enterprise is quite capable of laying waste to the Roman planet – whatever perils Kirk and the others face arise solely from their dedication to the principle of the Prime Directive and their duty to the other members of the crew. This being Star Trek, naturally they stick to their principles even in extremis, and in doing so inspire Merik to regain a little of his own honour by assisting them in their escape.

And it is just an escape: unlike their visits to the planet of the Nazis or the planet of the gangsters from earlier in the season, things on Romanworld are left more or less unchanged by the end of the Enterprise crew’s visit. (This is one of those rare occasions where the Prime Directive is actually respected, full stop, no quibbling.) It should be a slightly downbeat ending, but it isn’t, and that’s of course due to the rather hokey revelation that the Sun worshippers they’ve been hanging out with all episode are actually Son (of God) worshippers – good job they stressed the (utterly implausible) fact that the Romans speak contemporary English, or this gag would be dead in the water.

You know, I’m prepared to bet that when and if Star Trek: Discovery appears on our screens, it’s not going to include scenes where members of the supposedly humanistic and (at best) agnostic Federation sit around marvelling at the explicit influence of the Christian God over interplanetary affairs. (Kirk almost seems ready to beam back down and start handing out tracts outside railway stations.) There are few things that drive home the cultural shift from Judaeo-Christian dominance to humanistic pluralism quite as powerfully as the fact that this scene, which seems so peculiar to a 21st century audience, probably felt quite unexceptional to many people watching it in 1968.

So there is, in the end, a weird clash of moralities going on in this episode – on the one hand, the studied moral relativism of the Federation, as embodied in the Prime Directive, where it is totally wrong to assume any single ethical perspective has primacy. And on the other, the will of God, which seems to be pretty much the same across the galaxy. (Actually, if we assume the existence of God, as the episode clearly does, it goes a long way towards explaining just why there are so many identical planets where people speak English in the galaxy – things don’t have to make scientifically rational sense in a theistic universe.) I expect this gives many people a good reason to dislike Bread and Circuses, but, to be honest, the rest of the episode is so strong in the particular virtues of Star Trek that the theological craziness just makes me like it a bit more.


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Out of Stock

At the start of this current trek through Trek, I decided I wasn’t going to be commenting in detail on each and every episode, mainly due to trivial considerations such as time, sanity, and so on. However, it has been a while since I checked in on this project – the last episode I wrote about was Errand of Mercy, at the back end of season one, and I am currently fairly deep in season two.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that it is difficult to single out particularly noteworthy episodes from this period, as the overall standard is simply so damn good. This was the point at which Trek dominated the Hugo shortlist, and deservedly so – episodes like Amok Time and The Doomsday Machine trot along on a regular basis.

This is not quite the same series that debuted, as I’ve said before: both the shift to lighter tone and the widening of the focus from Kirk alone really benefit the show as a piece of entertainment. The level of invention is also impressive – there’s a run of episodes early in season two which are virtually all bottle shows, largely restricted to the programme’s standing sets and featuring only one or two significant guest roles, but you really don’t notice this, as the Enterprise sets are ingeniously redeployed either as a parallel-universe version of the same ship, or a different starship of the same design.

On the other hand, they can also come up with a terrific episode in which the Enterprise itself barely features. Having been a bit sniffy about Gene L Coon’s Errand of Mercy, in the interests of balance I feel obliged to look at his Metamorphosis, which seems to me to be a great, rather underrated episode.


With the Enterprise off doing unspecified, plot-dictated things, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are travelling by shuttlecraft in the company of Commissioner Hedford (Elinor Donahue), a Federation diplomat. It is one of those funny quirks of genre TV shows that this type of character invariably appears as a plot-complication for the series regulars, and as a result career diplomats are usually a pain in the neck and some of the least diplomatic people in the series. So it proves with Commissioner Hedford, who seems to be in a permanent strop – although this is partly because a slip-up in the Federation’s vaccination regime means she has contracted a fatal disease, which I suppose anyone would get a bit stroppy about. Anyway, she is being rushed to get urgent medical treatment.

But wouldn’t you know it, things do not go according to flightplan, as a mysterious ball of energy drags the shuttle off-course to a remote planetoid. With engines and communications both inhibited by some sort of energy field, things look bleak, particularly for the Commissioner. Events take a strange turn when Kirk and company are greeted by a long-term resident of the place – Zefram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett), a famous pioneer of space travel who has been believed dead for over a century. Cochrane owes his survival and continued youth to the ministrations of an alien energy being, the Companion, which has now provided him with some new friends to stop him being lonely. Getting off the planetoid and saving the Commissioner will require Kirk and his friends to work out the true nature of the Companion, and its relationship with Cochrane…

Well, the first thing to say about Metamorphosis is that it steers almost entirely clear of the usual Trek stock plots – there are no alien gods acting like tools, no improbable metaphysical transporter accidents, no visits to parallel versions of Earth. The episode shows that you don’t need these things – all you need for a great episode of Star Trek is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, a difficult situation, and a decent twist. Thinking about it, Coon’s scripts tend to rely quite heavily on the same twist, that of things not being as they initially appear – the Organians in Errand of Mercy are not helpless yokels, the Horta in Devil in the Dark is not a mindless predator, and the Companion in this episode is not quite the inscrutable alien presence it initially appears. The tone and plotting of these episodes is sufficiently varied for the fact that they’re all built around the same idea is not immediately obvious, but one consequence is that once you know the twist some of the fun of the story is inevitably lost.

Nevertheless this is very competent stuff, touching on all the usual character beats and themes – Kirk beats his breast about his responsibilities to the mission on the ship, and McCoy tells him to give himself a break about it, while Spock is at least as interested in a scientific examination of the Companion as in escape (Kirk reminds him to keep his mind on the job). There is a bit of a departure, and arguably even a transgression of the basic rules of making competent series TV, in that the plot boils down to a rather unorthodox romance between two guest characters. ‘You spend so much time being a soldier you forget you’re also a diplomat,’ Bones tells Kirk, but that’s pushing it – in this story Kirk basically finds himself in the role of marriage counsellor, one in which you would not expect him to be a natural.

One of the things I am constantly finding is that Trek‘s reputation as the great liberal, progressive TV show of the Peace and Love era is not really supported by the episodes themselves – they can be sexist and reactionary, and you’re never far from a reminder that, for all their idealism, the main characters are members of a paramilitary organisation. However, Metamorphosis is one of the few episodes which bucks this trend to some extent – on learning that Cochrane has unwittingly become romantically involved with an alien energy being, Kirk and the others take an impressively non-judgemental attitude to it (much more than Cochrane himself does). It’s easy to interpret this as Trek coming out in favour of broad-spectrum sexual tolerance – perhaps a bit too easy, especially given that the episode resolves itself in very traditional, hetero-normative style.

Even so, this is a strong episode – and a rare example of Trek not only doing a full-blown romance, but one which is actually genuinely moving at times. It’s a great piece of TV and a great piece of Star Trek, and it’s a testament to the quality of the series at this point that it isn’t even one of the best episodes of the season.

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The last time I watched Star Trek in any great quantity was six or seven years ago when I was in Japan, and there sometimes seemed to be little to do down the internet cafe of an evening but enjoy a few episodes. I don’t remember choosing the episodes on any criteria other than my memories of them being really good and memorable ones: and so it is perhaps telling that most of the ones I ended up watching were from towards the tail end of season one – Tomorrow is Yesterday, Space Seed, A Taste of Armageddon, This Side of Paradise, and so on.

In short, the back end of the first season sees Trek hitting a run of consistently great episodes matched only by a handful of other fantasy TV series, and never for that long. Much of this, I think, we can put down at least in part to the shift towards a broader, more ensemble-based approach, with a hugely engaging vein of wry humour added to the mix. At this point the show is simply great fun to watch, and I suspect the main person to thank for this is producer and occasional writer Gene L Coon.

One of Coon’s episodes as writer from around this point is Errand of Mercy, which isn’t a particular favourite of mine. It is certainly a landmark piece of Trek, and quite possibly a classic piece of Trek, but I just don’t think it’s a really great piece of Trek.


Our story opens with the Federation bracing itself for war with the rival Klingon Empire (the Klingons’ debut on the show, of course) – negotiations are going poorly. The Enterprise‘s mission is to ensure the peaceful primitives of the planet Organia do not fall under the fiendish Klingon yoke.

However, the Organians seem strangely unconcerned by the building threat of war, or indeed the arrival of a Klingon fleet in the system. This forces the Enterprise to retreat, stranding Kirk and Spock amongst the weirdly passive yokels. Kirk finds their refusal to resist the Klingon occupation quite infuriating – and so, to be honest, does the Klingon military governor assigned to the planet, Kor (John Colicos), who would prefer to deal with people of backbone.

What follows is a bit like a Second World War resistance movie, with Kirk and Spock cast as the gallant resisters and the Klingons as the Nazi occupiers. This stuff is reasonably engaging, but the whole episode is clearly building up to – well, here’s the thing, it looks like it’s supposed to be a twist ending, but the whole thing has been so broadly telegraphed since the start of the episode that it doesn’t really have any twist value. Or perhaps I’m just viewing this episode with the benefit of hindsight, because on one level it boils down to another example of our old friend, Stock Plot #3: being with god-like powers behaves like a bit of a tool.

In this case, of course, it’s the entire population of the planet Organia who turn out to be god-like beings whose behaviour leaves a bit to be desired. I suppose I’m being a bit harsh in singling them out in particular, as the Trek universe seems to be littered with civilisations who have evolved to a god-like state but still have no real idea of how to comport themselves responsibly (there’s the Q, the Phasians, the Metrons, the Organians, Trelane’s species – the list goes on and on).

Now, if I were in charge of an alien civilisation recently ascended to omnipotence, it seems to me that there would be two obvious lifestyles available to me. Either I could properly and fully engage with the lesser beings around me on more-or-less a full-time basis and do my best to help them along in a properly paternal manner, rather like the Vorlons in Babylon 5. It does occur to me now that the Vorlons represent Joe Straczynski’s take on the classic omnipotent Trek alien, in which case it is telling that the Vorlon influence on the younger races in that show is ultimately presented as a negative thing. It would certainly be contrary to the spirit of Trek‘s own Prime Directive, which strikes me as a very sensible rule.

Which leaves us with the other option, which is to withdraw from interacting with the less-developed races at all and just let them get on with it (I suppose this is rather akin to the attitude of the Sublimed races in Iain Banks’ Culture stories). Unfortunately this does not make for very interesting stories, which is why Trek‘s alien gods seem incapable of resisting the urge to interfere with the lesser races, but only to facilitate plots.

Essentially, all of these characters and races don’t behave like credible alien beings, but rather like the plot devices that they clearly are: and slightly shonky plot devices at that. The story in Errand of Mercy is, at its heart, about hubris and arrogance – both Kirk and Kor express their contempt for the passivity of the Organians, the punchline being that this is actually an expression of their greater sophistication – but quite what the message of the story is seems a little unclear to me. Is it about the atavistic nature of violence? The inability of human beings to live in peace without the presence of God? I’m not sure.

Oh well. Looked at in those terms, you could argue that Errand of Mercy is a semi-remake of Arena, which I’ve argued was itself a bit of a rehash of Balance of Terror. Here again we see the same lines of similarity being drawn between Kirk and his adversarial counterpart – Kirk and Kor (note the similarity of their names) both disparage the Organians, and are both furious about not being allowed to have the war they’ve been gearing up for.

On the other hand, the Klingons are presented as the bad guys much more clearly than the Gorn were, and Kor is considerably less sympathetic than the Romulan Commander in Balance of Terror. To be honest, to a modern eye, the Klingons here are virtually unrecognisable as the rich, if slightly corny culture, that developed to be one of Trek‘s great achievements. Never mind the difference in their appearance – the fact that these early Klingons are generally played by Caucasian actors in blackface make-up goes curiously uncommented upon, it seems to me – these Klingons have slave labour camps, carry out mass summary executions, and – it appears – routinely torture their prisoners. Were they intended from the start as a recurring feature of the show’s universe? I don’t know.

Better episodes than this awaited the Klingons (though I must confess to a certain fondness for John Colicos’ turn as the gleefully evil Kor, which on some level must act as a dress-rehearsal for his role in Battlestar Galactica), as well as numerous encounters between Starfleet personnel and annoying alien gods. But, as I say, this episode seems to me to be competent but rather hokey, and perhaps just a little bit obvious.

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