Sunday, November 24, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 12--"The Time Trap"

The Enterprise's assignment this week is to investigate the mysterious area of space known as the Delta Triangle, where hundreds of ships have disappeared since ancient times.   What they find is a Klingon ship that attacks them before vanishing.  Pursuing their enemy, the Enterprise finds itself in pocket of time where all the disappeared ships across time have ended up.  Accepting their exile in this timeless limbo, the crews of these ships have formed a society they called Elysia.  Captain Kirk and the Klingon commander Kor, however, refuse to accept their entrapment and, despite the warnings of the Elysian council that escape is impossible, make plans to return home. Spock devices a plan of escape that involves the Klingons and the crew of the Enterprise working together to combine their two ship into one, giving them the power to escape the time pocket that a single ship lacks.  Of course, the Klingons, being Klingons, conspire to destroy the Enterprise as soon as the two ships have effected their escape.  Naturally,  of course, the two ships succeed in returning to normal space, and the Klingon treachery is detected and the destruction of the Enterprise averted at the last possible second.  
The Bermuda Triangle, the legendary area of the Atlantic Ocean where many ships and planes have supposedly mysteriously disappeared over the years, was, as I remember, a bit of an obsession in pop culture back in the seventies.  Speculation about the mysteries of the Triangle inspired countless fictional explanations in movies, TV episodes and comics.  "The Time Trap" is firmly routed in that  sub-genre of science fiction. The Delta Triangle is clearly an analog of the Bermuda Triangle.   Writer Joyce Perry weds that real world inspiration to an intriguing science fiction premise to create one of the better episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series.  
My favorite part of the episode are the scenes showing the ruling council of Elysia.   The council consists of a mix of representatives of the various races that we've seen both in past animated episodes and in the original live action series.  In addition to a human and a Klingon, I could recognize an Orion, a Vulcan (or perhaps a Romulan, its not quite which he is), a Gorn, an Andorian and a Tellarite, all races seen in the original show, as well as a Phylosian and a Vendorian, from the earlier animated episodes "The Infinite Vulcan" and "The Survivor" respectively.  The inclusion of what appears to be a Kzinti is a nice bit of foreshadowing, as those felinoid alien warriors wouldn't be formally introduced to viewers until "The Slaver Weapon" aired three weeks later.
The biggest flaw of the episode is that it lacks suspense.  There's really never any doubt that our heroes, and our villains, will escape Elysia and that the Enterprise will avoid being blown up.  It seems to me that this is mostly due to the episode's twenty-two minute run time.  There is a lot of story and a lot of high concepts to fit into those few minutes.  Perhaps if this had been a live action episode, and thus twice as long, these elements could have been developed more fully.  Nonetheless, "The Time Trap" is still a very good and entertaining half hour of Trek.  The allusions to the Bermuda Triangle mark it as very much a product of its time, yet it also has a certain timeless quality, lent to it perhaps by its futuristic setting, that allows it to hold up even forty years later.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"...Not the One You Were Expecting."

No one expects the Eight Doctor.  His chief weapons are...
As a self-styled writer, I care about words; about what they mean and how they are used.  One thing that has always bothered me is the misuse of the word "prequel" when the writer clearly meant to say "prologue" or "prelude."  This particular folly shows up quite a bit in comic book solicitations, with Valiant Comics back in the 1990's being a particularly egregious perpetrator.
I've got a whole rant on the subject that I could regale you with.  However, my "Grammar Cop" badge is a little rusty and my soapbox has a whole in the bottom.  Besides, this really is neither the time nor place for such a screed. 
My real purpose for composing this post is to present and briefly discuss "The Night of the Doctor," the seven minute mini-episode of Doctor Who that popped up on the Wild, Wild Web a couple of days back.
"The Night of the Doctor" is being touted as a "prequel" to Saturday's fiftieth anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor."  In this case, however, the usage is entirely correct.  Taking place, as it does, amidst the backdrop of the legendary Last Great Time War, and featuring actor Paul McGann in only his second on-screen appearance as the eight incarnation of the Doctor ( a development that has had hard core Whovians wetting their pants with fanboyish excitement for a couple of days now), the short is in a very real sense a prequel; not to the fiftieth anniversary episode so much, but to the entirety of the current incarnation of the Doctor Who franchise. 
It can also be seen as a sequel to the Tom Baker era serial "The Brain of Morbius," as it features a return appearance of the Sisterhood of Karn, about whom I know nothing other than that they first appeared in that earlier story and what is presented here, which really isn't much.  Such foreknowledge, however, really isn't really important to grasping the events of this mini-episode.
"The Night of the Doctor" is also, not incidentally, really good.  I would go so far as to say that this, along with the earlier mini-episode "Time Crash," featuring the meeting of the Tenth and Fifth doctors and the main reason that Peter Davison's version of the character makes my list of Top 5 favorite Doctors, are the finest things that Stephen Moffatt has written for Doctor Who.  Maybe he should stick to writing stories no more than eight minutes in length.
Anyway, we have now come to the bottom of this post, wherein I have embedded the video of "The Night of the Doctor" for your viewing pleasure.

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 11--"The Terratin Incident"

In some of my earlier posts on Star Trek: The Animated Series, I've compared my impressions upon re-watching the episode to my memories of it.  However, I can't do that here.  Until viewing it again this morning, I had absolutely no memory of this episode.  That's surprising considering that the writer of "The Terratin Incident," Paul Schneider, also authored two of the finest, and most memorable, episodes of Star Trek's first season, "Balance of Terror" and "The Squire of Gothos."  Its also somewhat surprising given some of the bizarre imagery in this episode.  Honestly, I just don't know how I could have forgotten images like the one of Kirk and the giant communicator that accompanies this post, or that of a cadre of redshirts struggling mightily to pull a relatively huge lever on the transporter console.
Because I'm running behind schedule on this post, I'll take the lazy blogger route and skip trying to summarize the episode in my own words and  simply quote the Wikipedia entry for the episode:
"...(W)hile observing a burnt-out supernova, the Federation starship Enterprise picks up a strange message transmitted in a two-hundred-year-old Earth code.
The signal is traced to a nearby planet. When the Enterprise enters orbit, it is hit by an energy beam that damages its dilithium crystals and makes the crew begin to shrink (and apparently their clothing has also shrunk, because they are organic). The cause is the inhabitants of a miniature city called Terratin. Terratin is a lost Earth colony; its inhabitants have mutated, because of the supernova's radiation and are now all microscopic size. Chief Medical Officer Dr. McCoy determines that the crew will continue to shrink beyond their ability to control the ship unless a cure is found.
Captain Kirk beams down to the surface and finds that the transporter can reverse their size. Kirk returns to the ship, but the crew are now microscopic. Meanwhile, the Terratins have beamed the bridge crew down to their city, where the crew learns the Terratins' fate. The crew are beamed back to the ship and return to normal size. However, the Terratins have been small for generations and cannot be restored to normal size. Their planet is in peril from massive volcanic activity, so the whole Terratin city is beamed aboard the Enterprise, and moved to another planet."
This is another episode that had me laughing out loud at several points, although in this case, I don't think that's quite the effect Schneider was going for. 
In the famous essay "Notes On Camp," Susan Sontag notes that:
"In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve"
Using that standard, I would classify "The Terratin Incident" as pure, glorious High Camp.  The basic premise of the episode is utterly ridiculous.  It almost seems as if it could have been lifted from one of those dreadful Gold Key Star Trek comics, although the execution is better than those comics would have done.  That said, the sight of the shrunken crew members trying to operate the ship's relatively huge controls made me chuckle several times and the deadly earnestness with which the cast deliver their lines only adds to the unintentional hilarity.
Finally, I just want to say that "The Terratin Incident" is a really great looking episode.  The burnt out supernova at the beginning of the episode and the city of Terratin itself are wonderfully rendered, and the erupting volcanos on the planet's surface are quite effectively depicted.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 10--"Mudd's Passion"

His name is Mudd...Harry Mudd
Given third season producer Fred Freiberger's stated objections to comedy in Star Trek, its no surprise that Harcourt Fenton "Harry" Mudd, essentially a comedic character, did not return during the show's third season.   On the other hand, according to Trek wiki Memory Alpha, there were plans for a third appearance by Mudd in an episode to be entitled "Deep Mudd" which were scrapped when Mudd's portrayer, actor Roger C. Carmel, was unavailable.  Nonetheless, had Trek continued beyond its third season, it is probably inevitable that the show's only recurring "villain" (although perhaps "pain in the tuchus" would be accurate) would return to plague Captain Kirk and his crew.  Mudd, after all, was part of Trek from almost the very beginning.   As revealed in The Star Trek Compendium, when NBC ordered a second pilot produced, Gene Roddenberry submitted three story proposals.  While the network rightly decided to greenlight "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the other outlines were for "The Omega Glory," which was ultimately produced for the second season, and "Mudd's Women," Harry Mudd's debut, which became the fourth episode, counting the two pilots, produced and the sixth to air. Thus, when the advent of the animated series granted the series, as Dorothy Fontana phrased it in the DVD's special features, the "fourth season" that they had once been denied, it almost went without saying that Harry Mudd's long delayed return would follow.
Returning along with Harry Mudd were Roger C. Carmel to provide the character's voice and Stephen Kandel, writer of Mudd's previous two appearances as well as the aborted "Deep Mudd."
As "Mudd's  Passion" begins, the Enterprise is on its way to the remote mining planet Motherlode, where their "old friend" Harry Mudd is attempting to sell a love potion to the miners there.  Kirk and Spock take Mudd into custody and throw him in the ship's brig until they can turn him over to Federation authorities for trial.  Along the way, the ship is diverted to investigate an enigmatic Class M planet orbiting a binary star. 
Meanwhile, Mudd cons nurse Christine Chapel using the love potion to help him steal the nurse's Starfleet I.D. which he uses to escape the brig and steal a shuttle.  Taking Christine hostage, Mudd descends to the seemingly uninhabited planet, which turns out to be inhabited by giant carnivorous rock-like creatures which attack Mudd and Christine.
Back on board ship, it turns out that, to the surprise of everyone, most especially Mudd, the darned love potion actually works.   Spock falls madly in love with Christine, while the rest of the crew begins acting oddly after the potion gets into the ship's air supply through a ventilation shaft.
Kirk and the love struck Vulcan beam down to the planet to recapture Mudd and rescue Christine.  Kirk distracts the giant rock creatures by feeding them the last of Mudd's love potion, allowing the foursome to escape back to the Enterprise. 
Once back on the ship, Mudd goes back to the brig, while the effects of the love potion prove only temporary, leaving those affected with symptoms resembling a hangover and the side effect of temporary hatred for the former object of their drug induced affections.   Oddly, Spock seems immune to this side effect, or at least able to do a better job of containing his anger than he did of hiding his amorous feelings for Chapel.
Once again, this episode proved better on rewatching than I'd originally remembered it.  There are actually a couple of lines in the script that made me laugh out loud.  Fred Freiberger would have hated it. 
One thing in the script that surprised me was Scotty's reference to feeling like he had a hangover even though he hadn't drank any Scotch.  Its certainly not the type of line you'd expect to hear in a typical Saturday morning cartoon.
Overall, "Mudd's Passion" is one of the better installments of the animated Star Trek and a fine vehicle for the return of everyone's favorite interstellar con man, Harcourt Fenton Mudd.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 9--"Once Upon A Planet"

After half a season of contending with such menaces as sentient space clouds, fat pink tribbles, a Klingon super weapon, a shape shifting Romulan spy, a giant clone of Mr. Spock, and Satan himself, among others, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is ready for some R&R.  Thus, the ship heads back to the amusement planet first visited in the first season live action episode "Shore Leave." 
The planet, as you may remember from "Shore Leave," was constructed by an unnamed advanced alien race.  Overseen by the Keeper, a representative of that race, its underground super computer reads the thoughts of visitors to the planet and turns them into reality.
Things have changed, however, since the Enterprise last visited the planet.  The Keeper has died and the planet's computer has decided it is no longer content merely to serve others.  It begins attacking the Enterprise crew and kidnaps Uhura as a hostage.  The computer then begins to take control of the Enterprise so that the ship can carry it off the planet and out into the galaxy at large. Captain Kirk and Spock trick the computer into taking them into its subterranean inner sanctum.  Once there, Kirk, who's never met a computer that he couldn't talk into destroying itself, convinces the computer to abandon its wild scheme and go back to business as usual.  The computer releases the Enterprise and invites the crew to beam down for shore leave on the sole condition that someone stay and keep talking to it, a job for which Spock volunteers.
Of the Star Trek animated episodes that are direct sequels to earlier live action installments, "Once Upon A Planet" is the only one not to be written by the script writer of the original story.   (By the way, the episodes to which I refer are, in addition to "Once Upon A Planet," "More Tribbles, More Troubles" and "Mudd's Passion," which will be the subject of next week's post.  I do not include "Yesteryear," written by Dorothy Fontana, even though it prominently features the Guardian of Forever, as I do not consider th presence of that element enough to qualify the episode as a direct sequel to Harlan Ellison's "The City on the Edge of Forever." In both episodes, the Guardian is little more than a plot device and Fontana could just as easily have come up with an  entirely new method of time travel to get Spock where the story needed him to be.) According to the Trek wiki Memory Alpha, Theodore Sturgeon, the legendary science fiction author who wrote "Shore Leave," as well as the second season opener "Amok Time," actually did write a proposal for an episode with the working title "Shore Leave II" which was never produced.  However, Memory Alpha also seems to indicate that, while some unused ideas for live action episodes, notably David Gerrold's "More Tribbles, More Troubles" and "Bem," were eventually produced as animated segments, there is apparently no relationship between this episode's script, written by Chuck Menville and Len Jansen, and Sturgeon's unused treatment.  I've not been able to find any reason as to why Sturgeon's plot wasn't used or why he was not involved with this sequel to an episode he had written.
"Once Upon A Planet" is also notable for being the first segment of the Saturday morning cartoon version of Star Trek to be written by writers primarily known for writing Saturday morning cartoons.  From the late 1960's until Menville's death in 1992, Menville and Jansen would work together on a wide variety of properties for the two major producers of Saturday morning fare of the period, Filmation, producers of Star Trek, and Hanna-Barbera.  Their collaborative output includes, in addition to Trek, episodes of Speed Buggy, Hong Kong Phooey, and The Smurfs for Hanna-Barbera, as well as segments of Filmation's Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The New Adventures of Batman, and Tarzan-Lord of the Jungle.  They also worked on some of Filmation's live action children's series, including Shazam!, Isis, and Ark II.  "Once Upon A Planet" is the first of two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series that the pair would write.  Their other episode, the second season's "The Practical Joker," is most famous for its inclusion of scenes set in a holographic rec room on board the Enterprise which is considered to be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck.  To me, however, what sticks in my mind about that episode is the somewhat ridiculous sight of the Enterprise expelling a full sized inflatable replica of itself in order to confound the Romulans.  I shall have more to say on both of those points when I eventually get around to reviewing "The Practical Joker."
With the reappearance of the White Rabbit and Alice from "Shore Leave," it at first appears as if "Once Upon A Planet" is simply going to be yet another rehash of a classic original Trek episode, much like the earlier "More Tribbles, More Troubles."  However, the episode quickly heads off in a new direction as the amusement planet begins to pose a real threat to the Enterprise and its crew.  Unfortunately, the episode is marred by a rather weak ending.  Kirk's argument here is not as flawlessly logical as in his earlier verbal confrontations with rogue computers in "Return of the Archons," "The Ultimate Computer," and "The Changeling," and the computer's decision to suddenly just give up feels too abrupt and rather anti-climactic.
Once again, this episode demonstrates the advantages afforded by the animated format.  Whereas in "Shore Leave," all we saw of the supposedly advanced technology behind the shore leave planet was a little scope like device that seemed to be targeting the crew before their thoughts materialized, here we see flying robotic "nannies" that kidnap Ubura and take Spock into the computer's presence, as well as the vast computer complex itself.  Both of these would have been much more difficult, not to mention expensive, to realize in live action.
Overall, I'd place this episode somewhere around the middle of the pack among the episodes so far in regards to quality.  It's not bad, but it definitely could have been better.