Posts Tagged ‘Klingons’

Some friends and I were having a discussion just the other night about the virtues (or not) and place (if any) of serialised storytelling in Star Trek. I say friends, but most of these people I’ve only met (and by met I mean ‘have begun to talk to via internet audio messaging’, as we live in four different countries) recently and all we have in common, I suspect, is a shared interest in Star Trek and games related to it. Things therefore got a bit fraught when I suggested I’m not necessarily a fan of ongoing storylines; our DS9 fan strongly argued that this was the best of the Berman-era series, which inevitably rolled on into a somewhat heated debate about whether Voyager is, in fact, any good at all, and so on. I nearly had to step in and calm everyone down.

The odd thing is that while I’m not at all a fan of Discovery (or Picard, much), and these are shows which are largely defined by their serial nature, I do like Deep Space Nine a lot, mainly because it does have that big, overarching storyline running for most of its seven seasons. Am I just having another one of my little interludes of total inconsistency? I would like to think not. I think this is really a case of plot as opposed to meta-plot; in DS9, the meta-plot about the Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant powers is there from the middle of the second season, motoring along in the background, but most of the episodes are standalones without particular continuing threads. In the newer shows, pretty much everything runs from one episode to the next.

As it happens I was thinking about this just the other day, when I watched a couple more episodes of Enterprise. Why am I watching so much Enterprise late at night at the moment? Well, to be honest, under lockdown, I find myself watching reruns of the original series and TNG two or even three times a day on regular TV, while a run of Voyager recently concluded and my sense is that DS9 really demands a complete rewatch if you want to fully appreciate it it. Plus it seems that Enterprise still has a bit of a bad rep – our Voyager fan has never even watched it – and I can’t resist an underdog.

The episodes I watched were Affliction and Divergence, from quite near the end of the show’s run. The story starts with the Enterprise returning to Earth for the launch of her sister ship, the Columbia, to which chief engineer Trip will be transferring for personal reasons. However, trouble is afoot, taking the form of genial Dr Phlox being kidnapped by persons unknown.

Well, naturally, Captain Archer won’t take this sort of thing lying down, and sets off in pursuit of the abductors (that old reliable Trek plot device, the Vulcan mind meld, gives them a clue as to the species responsible), but things are complicated by the fact that tactical officer Reed seems to have an agenda of his own. His initial reports that the Orion Syndicate may have been responsible starts to look very suspect when the ship is attacked by a Klingon vessel – although the Klingon boarding party is a decidedly odd one, the warriors in question lacking their bumpy heads and looking like nothing so much as members of a post-grunge rock band under a lot of fake tan…

Phlox, meanwhile, has found himself in a Klingon medical research facility (Klingon ideas about medical ethics are quite as alarming as you might expect) and discovered the truth: a plague is sweeping the Klingon Empire and he has been ‘recruited’ to find a cure. What the Klingons don’t initially come clean about is that the virus is one derived from human attempts at genetic augmentation (the same ones that produced Khan, he of wrath fame, back in the 20th century) – but rather than genetically enhanced super-warriors, the result is a new breed of human-looking Klingons who quickly expire, although not before infecting those around them.

Naturally, the Klingons aren’t keen on telling anyone about their little mistake, hence the attack on Enterprise, which was mainly to sabotage the main reactor – it soon becomes apparent that unless the ship maintains a velocity of at least warp five, it’s going to explode, which is a bit of an issue given that’s barely below its emergency maximum speed…

I have to say that I find myself very ambivalent when it comes to this particular story, even at a conceptual level. The origins of the whole thing surely lie in the thirtieth anniversary episode of DS9, where there is a very droll gag about the difference between the original series Klingon make-up and the more elaborate prosthetics used ever since the movies got going (‘It is not something we talk about,’ declares Worf, deadpan). Prior to this, explanations for the difference had ranged from there being different subspecies of Klingons (bumpy-headed ‘pure’ Imperial Klingons and human-Klingon ‘fusions’) to there being no actual in-universe difference, just a presentational one. The motive behind Affliction and Divergence is basically to continuity-cop the difference in Klingon appearance away.

What it all really boils down to.

And part of me, the tiny hard-core Trekkie part, really likes and responds to this particular impulse. The fact that Discovery (and, to a lesser extent, Picard) break so profoundly with established continuity is not the main reason for my dislike of them, but it is certainly a factor. But on the other hand, there is also something slightly mad about devoting eighty or ninety minutes of your TV show to resolving continuity inconsistencies that have developed over the course of a nearly-forty-year franchise: this is not a question your average viewer would have been burning to discover the answer to. In the past I have been deeply critical of long-running series and franchises that became overly-obsessed with their own lore and continuity.

(Perhaps if Enterprise hadn’t been canned and the original series-style Klingons had made more appearances, and the ramifications of the ‘human’ virus had been explored further, the episode wouldn’t feel quite so niche. But this turned out to be the last major piece of Klingon-focused Trek of its era.)

Perhaps part of the problem is that the episodes just feel like a piece of continuity-copping: it doesn’t feel like there’s any other compelling reason for the decision to tell this story. The big high-concept set piece – Star Trek does Speed! – comes midway through the story; the conclusion is a very generic late Berman-era space battle (the kind where people stand around on the bridge shouting out percentages as CGI starships zap away at each other inconclusively) while Phlox tersely issues medical technobabble.

Most of the rest of it feels almost entirely procedural, and here we come to the issue of the serialised storytelling: this episode refers back to many previous ones, including such elements as Archer’s recent experiences carrying the soul of legendary Vulcan Surak, Trip and T’Pol’s personal relationship, Reed’s relationship with the enigmatic Section 31, xenophobia on Earth, and so on. All this is probably more acceptable if you’ve been following along with the series to this point, but it makes for a much less satisfying experience watching the episodes in isolation.

Perhaps I’m doing the final series of Enterprise a disservice, and the episodes aren’t intended to be watched this way – the fact the season is almost entirely composed of two- and three-part stories is probably a clue to this end – and I know that these particular episodes are well-liked, by the cast and crew at least. But I have to say that for all that I appreciate the impulse responsible for them, I enjoyed them rather less than the best episodes of the first couple of seasons. Perhaps in the end this, like DS9, is a show you really need to watch from start to finish to be able to properly appraise.

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The 23rd century used to be a very different place. I am old enough to remember when the Star Trek films were very new and rather exciting additions to the world created by the original TV show, a world which was enthusiastically studied and extrapolated upon by a generation of fans throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that point, Star Trek really belonged to its fans, and they happily seized upon every little point of lore and casual reference as they expanded the universe of the show.

The lack of any prospect of new Trek gave this project a freedom to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the TV show – not necessarily by dragging it into a mature readers ghetto of gratuitous sexual content and other graphic material (although there was certainly an element of this), but by treating the show like the serious SF it had always aspired to be. In the 1990s, certainly, Star Trek became the McDonald’s of science fiction, omni-present, reliable, safe, samey. But some of the early books from the 1980s are much more like the real stuff: they’re SF set in the Star Trek universe, rather than simply TV tie-in books.

Time moves on, of course, and while some of these books have lasted reasonably well, others have fallen foul of subsequent developments in the TV and movie canon. Looking at these books now is an undeniably odd experience – they often still have that authentic Trek feel to them, despite the fact that they are frequently totally at odds with the ‘real’ history of Trek.

This is particularly noticeable with The Final Reflection, a novel by John M Ford. This book was originally published in 1984, the same year that Star Trek III was released. One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek III is the fact that it’s the first movie that deals in-depth with the Klingons as we have come to know them today – although their presentation in the film is not exactly in depth, the ‘standard’ Klingon make-up debuts here, along with the familiar Bird-of-Prey ship design, and of course Marc Okrand’s Klingon language. Other writers, most significantly Ronald Moore, would take these things as a starting point and go on to develop the Klingon culture in much more detail.

The thing is, however, that John M Ford was there first, creating his own vision of how Klingon society functioned, and doing so with the approach of a fan rather than a professional. The makers of Star Trek did not explain the radical difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original TV show and those in later versions until the mid 2000s, but fans of the show had come up with their own explanation decades earlier – not being as adverse to genetic manipulation as their Federation rivals, the Klingons had re-engineered themselves into a number of different sub-species, some of which (the lumpy-headed ones) were more pureblooded, while the fusions (the ones more closely resembling human actors in face paint) had been created for the purposes of interaction with other species. This and many other things form the fabric of the story of The Final Reflection.

The story itself is partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a political thriller. There is a very brief frame story set aboard the Enterprise some time after the end of the TV show, but most of the novel takes the form of a story set nearly half a century earlier (TV characters are referred to or implied to appear). Krenn, an orphaned young Klingon, finds himself adopted into the house of a senior strategist, joins the Imperial Navy, distinguishes himself in border skirmishes with the Romulans, and soon rises to become captain of his own ship, no mean feat given the omnipresence of both rivals and Klingon Security.

This leads to him being given a singular mission: to travel to Earth and collect Emanuel Tagore, the first ambassador from the Federation to the Klingon homeworld. To say there are political tensions and factional disagreements on both sides regarding this is an understatement. Is Krenn’s mission even intended to succeed? Could it just be intended to provide a pretext for the war which some in both the Federation and the Klingon Empire seem to desperately want?

The Final Reflection is written with considerable elegance and skill, Ford skating through some potentially tricky areas (involved descriptions of space battles) with impressive deftness. I would have to say that the different sections of the story don’t quite tie together to form a thematically satisfying whole – the early chapters’ desire to provide an insider’s perspective on life in the Klingon Empire don’t really have a direct connection to the more involved plot of the rest of the book.

On the other hand, I imagine that many people reading this book will just be wanting to read about Klingons being Klingons, and Ford does not disappoint, expanding on the (actually really tiny amount of) information from the original series and The Motion Picture to create a rich and coherent culture. Ford’s Klingons have their own naming conventions, their own set of idioms (the seat of Klingon emotions is apparently the liver, not the heart), and their own pop icons – apparently the most popular entertainment franchise in the Empire is the suspiciously familiar-sounding Battlecruiser Vengeance, a long-running series about the exploits of a Navy cruiser and its senior officers. Central to all of this is the notion of ‘the Perpetual Game’, the idea – fundamental to their culture – that all Klingons are involved in an unending struggle for success and glory. The Final Reflection takes its name for a term from klin zha, essentially Klingon chess, which is a motif throughout the book (needless to say, rules for playing klin zha – though presumably not the most prestigious version using live pieces – are available on the Internet).

Most of this is created out of whole cloth, but somehow it all feels ‘right’ and convincing – for original series Klingons, anyway. Reading the book does remind you of just how much of what we learned about the Klingons in those initial episodes has been quietly erased from history – you can argue that references to Klingon slave camps are just hearsay based on faulty intelligence (in one episode a Klingon character seems equally convinced that the Federation practices slavery too), but we do see Klingons using personal torture devices on-screen, and the brutal methods employed by Kor in Errand of Mercy seem to be institutional, not just an example of one psychopath in a position of power. Certainly The Final Reflection acknowledges the existence of slave races within the Empire, and the paranoid, vicious nature of Klingon society (Vulcans travelling within the Empire, for instance, must consent to having the telepathic centres of their brains excised). One of the few criticisms I’d make of Ford’s world-building is that his Klingons do come across as, well, rather more Romanesque than the Romulans themselves, with their adoptions and slave-holdings and gladiatorial games. It’s difficult to think of an alternative set of cultural reference points, though.

Fascinating and thorough as this mostly is, virtually none of it meshes with the details of Klingon culture established since, mainly in Berman-era Trek (let’s not even get started on the Klingons of Discovery). The canon Klingons are almost wholly different – the inconsistencies in their appearance have an alternative explanation, and their biology is hugely different too – Ford’s Klingons mature and age more rapidly than humans, with sixty counting as a very ripe old age, whereas one of the biologically peculiar things about canon Klingons is that while they do grow to adulthood at a highly accelerated rate, compared to humans anyway (Worf’s son Alexander is conceived in 2365 and only ten years later is serving as weapons officer on a warship), they remain healthy and capable for a very long time (Kang, Kor, and Koloth are all senior officers in the late 2260s and are still around and active, albeit a bit elderly, a full century later).

The same goes for the Klingon language developed by Ford (he names the Klingon homeworld Klinzhai, by the way), which seems to be completely different from the entity unleashed upon the world by Marc Okrand. Okrandian Klingon translates the word ’empire’ as wo’, for example, whereas Fordian Klingon opts for komerex or kemerex (literally ‘that which lives and expands‘, thus providing another window into the Klingon mindset). It says something about the lasting impact of Ford’s book on the perception of the Klingons amongst a certain type of truly dedicated fan that even today you can find websites for a Klingon fan group calling itself Khemerex Klinzhai.

The thing about Ford’s Klingons is that they are subtle and nuanced and oddly ambiguous in a way which canon Klingons aren’t, really: canon Klingon society is basically just a red-lit room with a bunch of guys shouting ‘Honourrrrrrrr!’ and head-butting each other – easy to get a handle on for an hour-long TV show, I suppose, but probably less interesting as the protagonists of a genuine novel.

But then again, as I say, the influence of this book has been huge and enduring, although not always very obvious. One of Krenn’s more unexpected traits is his great fondness for fruit juice of different types, which is apparently not unusual amongst Klingons – this must surely be the source for Worf’s well-known love of prune juice. And, by one of those strange coincidences, literally hours after finishing The Final Reflection, I came across The Hidden Universe Travel Guide to the Klingon Empire, a – for want of a better word – spoof travel handbook for anyone planning a holiday in Klingon space. It’s all very much in line with Berman-era canon, but odd little things jump out at you – the Klingon star is named Klinzhai, for instance. The guidebook recommends visiting a klin zha parlour in the First City of Qo’noS. There is a box-out describing the enduring appeal of the Battlecruiser Vengeance franchise, and an advert for a Vengeance theme park ride. And page 94 is dedicated to a sidebar entitled ‘Appreciating The Final Reflection’, which tells of how a Federation anthropologist named J.M. Ford wrote his famous novel while living undercover in the Empire, basing it on historical events.

Not many three-decade-old tie-in novels are still well-regarded enough to get this sort of shout-out, especially ones which have no claim whatsoever to even apocryphal canonicity. Yet it seems entirely appropriate in this case – you can’t honestly claim that John M Ford wrote the book on Klingons – at least, not any more. But he did write a book on Klingons, and one which is still influential and entertaining today. Practically essential reading for the serious student of all things Klingon; a fine SF novel for everyone else.

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We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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If you wait for a really good episode to review before writing about Star Trek‘s third season, you could find yourself waiting a long time: the prevailing view that there’s a crashing drop-off in quality with the arrival of producer Fred Freiberger seems to me to be firmly based in truth. On the face of it, it’s a little difficult to discern just why the series is suddenly going rubbish – the episodes still offer up what seems like the same mixture of fantasy, action, characterisation and humour. Much has been spoken of the slashed budgets afflicting the final season, but this isn’t immediately apparent, except perhaps in the number of consecutive largely ship-bound episodes and scarcity of location filming.

I suppose what it all really boils down to is the fact that there isn’t much of anything underpinning the stories – or if there is, it’s been slapped there as an afterthought. Spectre of the Gun, for instance, is much more about its surreal western trappings than any particular SF idea or theme. Nevertheless, the odd decent episode still manages to slip through the net, and it’s interesting that when it does we find ourselves back in the reassuring world of Star Trek stock plots.

Jerome Bixby’s Day of the Dove opens with the Enterprise arriving at a Federation colony world (well… read on) in response to an urgent distress call – but the outpost seems to have been utterly obliterated! The appearance on the scene of a Klingon warship provides Captain Kirk with a prime opportunity for jumping to conclusions, but he is joined in this pursuit by the Klingon commander, Kang (Michael Ansara).


The Klingons are experiencing mysterious difficulties of their own, for which they are inclined to blame Kirk. Kang and his surviving crewmates soon wind up as unwilling guests on the Enterprise, and the bubbling hostilities between the Federation crew and the Klingons erupt into open conflict, assisted by loose objects on the ship (hand phasers, pot plants, chess sets, and so on) spontaneously transforming into melee weapons. At the same time, a vicious, belligerent psychosis seems to be afflicting everyone on board, and even Spock is not entirely immune to its effects…

Well, as you may be able to surmise, we are back in the comforting environs of good old Star Trek stock plot #3, in which an alien with godlike powers behaves like a tool – although, doubtless due to budget cutbacks, this week’s alien does not have any dialogue and is realised solely through a swirly not-especially-special effect. It definitely behaves like a tool, of course, and its malign effects on the crew make this, arguably, also an example of stock plot #1, in which a strange influence causes wild overacting amongst the regular characters (Jimmy Doohan and DeForest Kelley are the wildest-eyed offenders on this particular occasion).

As usual in this sort of story, the alien is a plot device more than anything else, and Day of the Dove is wide open to criticisms that it is very contrived and more than a bit implausible: the entity has vast and very versatile powers, able to affect the personalities and memories of the characters (planting memories of a non-existent colony, for instance), but also quite capable of transmuting a potted plant into a broadsword, rendering a bulkhead indestructible, or rapidly healing someone’s mortal wound. Its energy output must be formidable, but its energy source is simply… well, the power of hate. Boy, on the strength of this episode, hate is potent stuff, much better than dilithium crystals (perhaps this is part of the subtext of the story). On this evidence, all we’d need to do is figure out a way of hooking the Daily Mail editorial staff up to the national grid and the UK would have a big enough energy surplus to pay off the budget deficit in a couple of weeks.

I suppose the hatemongering alien is helped along a bit by the fact that the Federation characters and Klingons seem predisposed to hate each other to begin with. The presentation of the Klingons in this story is interesting in a number of ways. In most of their original appearances, the Klingons are cardboard antagonists, with no real identity other than as the antithesis to the enlightened and progressive attitudes of Kirk and his associates: they are aggressive and ruthless where the Federation aspires to be peaceful and principled. But there is just a moment in this story where it is implied that something else is going on between the two cultures – Kang’s wife Mara refers to the Federation’s ‘slave labour camps’  and various other horrors, which presumably don’t exist. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Bixby may be attempting to suggest that some of the Federation’s own preconceptions about the Klingon Empire (which also include slave camps, and so on) may be of equally dubious veracity. Certainly this story does more to flesh the Klingons out as a genuine culture than any of the other original episodes – Mara also provides an explanation as to exactly why the Klingons are so aggressively expansionistic (the Empire’s home system is lacking in resources), and the story also establishes the Klingon love for and tradition of using archaic melee weapons (though the entity declines to give them an advantage by providing them with any bat’leths or suchlike when it comes to the actual scrapping).

On the other hand, Bixby is swimming against the current: for all his attempts to rehabilitate the Klingons here, he can’t retcon previous episodes like Errand of Mercy and Friday’s Child, where the Klingon characters act like vicious scoundrels in front of our heroes. Even in this episode, the Klingons are equipped with their own personal torture devices, which are apparently standard issue to all crew members. (And I suppose one really has to mention, again, the fact that the Klingons are played by actors in blackface make-up – is blackface acceptable if you’re playing a member of an alien species? I would be a little surprised if it was, these days if not in 1968.)

Oh well. No matter the details of their depiction, this is one of the better Klingon episodes of the original series, not least because the performances of Ansara as Kang and Susan Howard as Mara are strong enough to stand up against those of the regulars. The actual plot may be hokey and its message not exactly profound (War: Bad, Peace: Good), but the action is well-staged and with slightly more grit than you might expect (at one point, an under-the-influence Chekov seems intent on raping Mara). It would really be stretching a point to say that this is premium Trek, but it’s pretty decent, and about as good as early season 3 gets.

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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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