A couple of days ago, Steven Lloyd Wilson over at the snarky entertainment site Pajiba sat down to watch some classic Star Trek (did I really need to link that? Really? Fine). Y’know, classic Star Trek, the kind with cheesy sets filmed in the late 1960s, young Kirk and Spock and McCoy, where all the women wore go-go boots and mini-skirts and most of the guys wore too much eyeliner and girdles under their primary-colored pajamas.
Man, I loved that show when I was younger. I hate to get all “get off my lawn” on you, but I remember back in the days before there were seventeen different Star Trek movies and a new TV series every couple of years. I remember when all we had was just three seasons (and an animated series!) of Star Trek to obsess over. I remember having fanzines full of deep philosophical discussion about every little nuance of every single one of the 79 filmed episodes, which were collected into books, which is where I read them because I never went to one of those fancy Star Trek Conventions I kept reading about.
Star Trek in the 1970s was relegated to weekday afternoon showings on our local independent station, Monday through Friday, with an extra showing on the weekend. Those episodes were cut down, edited from the original airing, to make room for lots of commercials. I’d have to fight for a chance to watch it because we had one TV for the four people in my house (mom, dad, my sister, me), and we had no way to record it and save it for later. Of course, in Portland we only had five channels which meant either a lot of competition or no competition, depending on what the other stations had to offer.
Because of Wilson’s Pajiba article, I wanted to sit down and watch some Star Trek. I had not seen an episode in years. So Kevin and I planned an evening. Kevin mentioned that he had never seen the ending to the episode where an alien babe steals Spock’s brain, which I knew, from all those books, was unanimously known as the single worst episode of classic Star Trek.
And so we did. And it was so very bad. The Enterprise crew encounters an alien ship with “advanced ion drives”, and while they are admiring it, a hot brunette in go-go boots and a miniskirt shows up on the bridge, puts everyone to sleep, and fondles Spock’s head. When they wake up (after the commercial break), Spock is down in Sickbay (how’d he get down there so fast?) on Dr. McCoy’s operating table. And he’s missing his brain but still alive, which is chalked up to his “Vulcan physique”… um… somehow. McCoy doesn’t really know, but he does know that if Kirk can’t find the brain, Spock will die in twenty-four hours. Everyone just takes that as a given, like it’s common knowledge that Vulcans can’t go without their brains for the same period of time that planet Earth spins on its axis and that’s not weird at all.
Oh, the cheese. Kirk and Chekov spend nearly ten minutes trying to guess which of three possible planets in the Sigma Draconis system could be the one that was home to a race with “advanced ion drives” (hint – it’s the one with the off-the-scale energy readings, guys!), and down they beam. They find a planet with giant bearded men on the surface, and the “Givers of Pain and Delight” below. And, oh, my, yes, Kirk has quite the wink-and-nod at the “delights”. Half the time he’s trying to find the women on this Ice Age planet, and the other half of the time he’s badgering the women into giving him back Spock’s brain. Poor Nimoy has to walk around like a zombie with a hot plate on his head (which gives McCoy remote control over his body, you see, because apparently in the 23rd century, people lose their brains all the time and need a doctor to move them around like life-sized meat puppets. I’m sure there are no ethical problems with this technology at all).
Luckily McCoy can take advantage of the advanced alien knowledge of brain surgery that is kept on tapes (yes, tapes) just long enough to get Spock back up and running, leaving just enough time for everyone to poke fun at how boring Spock is once he’s got his brain back.
We only had time for one more episode so I chose “The City on The Edge of Forever”, which was universally acknowledged as the best classic Star Trek episode.
The off-set battles between Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry are the stuff of fan legend and are well-documented so I’ll skip that aspect and focus on the show as filmed. But I have to say, with years between me and the last time I watched this episode… the years have not been kind.
Yes, the story is better-structured and there are fewer logical or plot holes. And Shatner reigns in some of his patented over-acting. And Joan Collins’ English accent seems a bit out of place in what is supposed to be 1930 Brooklyn. Wait, I slipped into the negative points.
Suffice to say, this is still a cheesy science-fiction show from the late 1960s, with all the flaws that that entails: low budget, poor acting, sterile sets. But the idea, the story… what a huge difference.
McCoy gets injected with some kind of super-drug, goes on a paranoid rampage, and beams himself down to a planet with a time machine on the surface. Wait, that’s not the idea yet – it’s the set up. I know, it bends probability to the breaking point. While Kirk and Spock and crew go looking for him, McCoy jumps into the time machine and ends up in Earth’s past, which changes something that eliminates the Federation and gives Uhura her big moment: being scared and looking to manly Kirk for reassurance. I know, I know, but that’s not the big idea yet.
Spock and Kirk jump back into the past to go looking for McCoy, stranding Scotty, Uhura and a couple of redshirts, and end up in Depression-era New York City. After stealing some clothes and beating up a policeman, they break into the basement of a soup kitchen and Kirk promptly falls in love with the proprietress, one Edith Keeler, while Spock gets snarky because he can’t build a 23rd Century computer out of stone knives and bear skins. Hang on, wait… that isn’t the big idea. Yet. They’re trying to find out what McCoy changed. Even though he’s not here (and by “here” I mean “at that moment in time”).
McCoy shows up after Kirk and Spock even though he jumped first (time travel is funny that way) and ends up in Edith Keeler’s basement but somehow never runs in to Kirk and Spock (I know, I know…). Spock finally gets his jury-rigged computer to work long enough to find out that either a) Edith Keeler must die (which Spock repeats a dozen times for the rest of the episode, I swear) or b) she goes on to found a peace movement which allows the Nazis to get the A-Bomb and win World War II. Of course, Kirk has fallen in love with Edith Keeler (who must die! according to Spock), so he’s got a difficult choice to make.
There. That’s the big idea. This pretty brunette with the peaceful lovin’ ideas has to die or the Nazis win and Kirk and Spock’s personal history will have never happened.
De Forrest Kelly gets a couple of great scenes; the one where he fondles a bum’s head and rants about him having the right amount of cranial development to account for the obvious illusion of 1930 Brooklyn is good, and so is his moment of laying in a cot and telling Edith Keeler (who must die!) that he doesn’t believe in her, either.
The writers and director teases the big idea with a little scene where Kirk catches Edith Keeler (who must die!) from falling down the stairs, and Spock scolds him. But the final moment is wrapped up almost too quickly, when McCoy, Spock and Kirk reunite and turn their back on Edith Keeler long enough for her to get fatally killed dead by a runaway car. Kirk remembers that Edith Keeler must die long enough to prevent McCoy (who has just come off a days-long bender on cordrazine so has no idea that Edith Keeler must die!) from saving her life by, I don’t know, running out into the street in front of the killer car?
Man, the look of almost-crying on Kirk’s face as he turns away from Edith Keeler’s now-dead body is so cheesy. Which is OK, because now they’ve played out the big idea.
The Enterprise command crew changes out of their period costumes, jumps back to their own time, and everything gets wrapped up in a neat little bow.
Just like I remembered it. Man, I loved those old Star Treks.