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Posts Tagged ‘Metamorphosis’

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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.

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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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