Sunday, December 15, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 14--"The Slaver Weapon"

One of the strengths of the original Star Trek was its ability to attract established, big name science fiction authors to write episodes for the series. Richard Matheson, Norman Spinrad and Harlan Ellison each turned in one episode apiece, though Ellison, being Ellison, remains notoriously unhappy with his episode as filmed.  Theodore Sturgeon wrote two episodes, as well as, as I mentioned in an earlier post, a proposal for a third, ultimately unproduced, segment.  Psycho author (meaning that he wrote the book Psycho, as opposed to "psycho author," implying that he's nuts) Robert Bloch wrote three episodes, while Jerome Bixby leads the pack with four.  When the series was revived in animated form, this tradition continued, with Larry Niven writing "The Slaver Weapon," adapted from his own short story "The Soft Weapon."  From what I have gathered based on my research on the Internet, this episode is the only filmed adaptation of any of Niven's work.
The episode is also notable for being the first, and only, Star Trek episode since the original pilot "The Cage" not to feature Captain Kirk, nor is the starship Enterprise itself seen outside of the opening and closing credits sequences.  In casting the episode, Niven chose the closest analogs from the Trek crew to the characters in his original story.  Apparently, their  was no brash young starship captain among the dramatis personae of "The Soft Weapon."  Of course, it makes sense that the captain would remain behind on the ship while his officers handled what they probably originally believed to be a simple delivery.  Perhaps if this had been a live action episode, with its accompanying longer running time, there would have been some scenes checking in with Kirk and the Enterprise toward the beginning and end of the episode.
As it is, however, the story, which follows the plot of  "The Soft Weapon" pretty faithfully, focuses on Spock, Sulu and Uhura, manning the shuttle Copernicus, on a mission to transport a rare and valuable Slaver Stasis Box to Starbase 25.  Stasis Boxes are the only remnants of the Slaver Empire, which ruled the entire galaxy a billion years in the past until wiped out in a great war of revolt.  Stasis Boxes protect their contents from the ravages of time, even after a billion years, and the contents vary from box to box.  One such box contained a device that helped the Federation perfect artificial gravity for starships, while another contained an armed bomb that exploded on opening.  Thus, Stasis Boxes are considered extremely dangerous and unpredictable.
As the shuttle passes the Beta Lyrae system, the box begins to glow, indicating the presence nearby of another Stasis Box.  Diverting the shuttle to an ice covered world to investigate,  the three from the Enterprise soon find themselves prisoners of a trio of Kzinti, cat-like members of a warrior race that has fought, and lost, four wars with humanity in the past.  They used an empty Stasis Box to lure the shuttle in order to capture their Stasis Box, hoping to find within a weapon that will allow them to finally defeat the Federation.
Upon opening the box, the Kzinti discover a strange device with multiple settings, none of which are of any apparent use to them as they duplicate technology the Kzinti or the Federation already possess.  However, when they temporarily escape from the Kzinti, taking the Slaver device with them, Spock and Sulu stumble upon a hidden mystery setting that yields exactly the kind of weapon of mass destruction the Kzinti seek.  The pair are quickly recaptured and the Kzinti play around with the gadget and hit upon yet another hidden setting that produces a sort of talking hand-held computer.  The Kzinti ask the device how to get back to the weapon they saw earlier, but the computer, naturally suspicious of these unknown, and possibly enemy, aliens pestering it  with all these questions, directs the Kzinti to still another new setting.  This one causes the device to destroy itself and the Kzinti when they step outside their ship to test  it.
This episode suffers in some viewers eyes from yet another manifestation of director Hal Sutherland's color blindness.  The fierce, carnivorous warriors of the Kzinti are decked out in bright pink uniforms and fly around the galaxy in a pretty pink space ship.  Story editor Dorothy Fontana, in the behind the scenes featurette included on the DVD, says that she called Niven and apologized for this after the episode originally aired.  Personally, it really doesn't bother me.  This may be Star Trek, and the  episode may have been written by a Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of serious SF, but it is also a Saturday morning Filmation cartoon of the early 1970's, and odd,  often garish, color schemes were par for the course.  To me, the pink uniforms are part of the episode's appeal, giving it a sort of quirky, slightly off-kilter charm.
As for the story, Niven manages a nearly seamless  melding of the "Known Space" universe of his short stories and novels into the world of Star Trek.  The  result is one of the highlights of Trek's animated incarnation.   There are a few bumps.  Sulu states that the last war with the Kzinti occurred 200 years earlier.  While this doesn't directly contradict anything established before, or since for that matter, it does crowd the timeline a bit.  This would place the Kzinti wars sometime during the very earliest days of the Federation, at about the same time they also supposedly were fighting a war with the Romulans.  Of course, this really would only have been a problem if the Kzinti had become a lasting addition to Trek lore.  As it is,  other than a comic book story also written by Niven, this would be the last we hear of  these felinoid warriors.  Also, I can't help wondering how we know so much about the Slaver empire and its demise if the only remnants of their civilization are the ocassional  extremely rare Stasis Box.
Notwithstanding my nit-picky quibbles, "The Slaver Weapon" is an episode that manages to be  both good science fiction and good Star Trek, which aren't always necessarily the same thing.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 13--"The Ambergris Element"

A series of devastating quakes have left the planet Argo totally covered in water.  The Enterprise journeys there to gather information that may help another Federation planet facing the same fate.  The landing party, consisting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Lieutenant Clayton piloting the Aqua-Shuttle, are attacked by a giant sea monster called a sur-snake.  McCoy and Clayton escape back to the ship, but Kirk and Spock are dragged underwater in the Aqua-Shuttle by the sur-snake.
Days later, the two are found near the wreckage of the Aqua-shuttle.  They are uable to breathe, having been transformed in water breathers.   Kirk and Spock beam back down to the planet to find the people who did this to them.  Eventually, they discover an undersea race of intelligent beings who call themselves the Aquons.  The Aquons are suspicious of the outsiders, thinking them spies from their air breathing enemies, and refuse to help them reverse their mutations.  
Some of the younger Aquons defy the "ordainments" of the older Aquon Tribunes and lead the Enterprise officers to ancient ruins where they find old scrolls containing the cure for their condition.  With another massive quake about to hit the area of the Aquon city, Kirk, Spock and the young Aquons race against time to gather the venom of a sur-snake for the antidote.  
After Kirk and Spock are changed back to normal, Kirk uses the Enterprise's phasers to shift the epicenter of the coming quake away from the Aquon's city, saving their civilization.  In gratitude, the Aquons vow to allow the Federation access to the ancient knowledge in the old ruins. 
"The Ambergris Element," despite a somewhat ridiculous premise that stretches the suspension of disbelief almost to its limits, is actually surprisingly good episode.  Its basically a generation gap fable, a popular theme for the time the episode was produced, with the young Aquons finding the courage to challenge the preconceptions of the older generation and help the outsiders.  Of the five episodes, three for the original series and two for the animated revival, that Margaret Arman wrote for Star Trek, "The Ambergris Element" is, in my opinion, the best of the lot.