Star Trek 3.15 – Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

So naturally I picked the one with Frank Gorshin, because Gorshin was the Riddler. I see that Gene L. Coon’s “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” gets a little online stick for being heavy-handed with its message about racism, but heck, fifty-one years have passed since its broadcast and we’ve still got uncountable numbers of clods across the planet who clearly need to watch something as heavy-handed as this on a daily basis. On the other hand, our son got the “hatred is bad” message, but he didn’t quite catch the “racism is bad” part. Hopefully we’re raising him right, because he thought that was obvious.

Sadly, I really didn’t enjoy it. It seems very slow and repetitive to me, but full credit to the other guest actor in this one. I think everybody remembers that Frank Gorshin plays one of the aliens, but the other guy is Lou Antonio. He was never a big name or a Batvillain, so pop culture has largely forgotten him, but I’ve seen other actors fold when Gorshin goes full-throttle – just try to watch everybody opposite him in that episode of Charlie’s Angels he did – and Antonio matches him note for note. He’s terrific in the face of a tornado, hurling back every insult with conviction and power in his performance.

Also of note, for those of you who ever chuckled at William Shatner’s strange pronunciation of, er, “sabataage” on that wonderful old collection of celebrities at their worst, he didn’t know how to pronounce it in 1969 either.

Star Trek 3.9 – The Tholian Web

I don’t remember “The Tholian Web” very well from my youth, but I definitely remember my pal Trey enjoying it. One of the characters that he made for an ongoing comic that we made in middle school was “Interphase,” plundered from this story. I was guilty of the same pilfering. I needed some aliens for some other story I was doing and came up with “Thoimmulans,” which sounds like something from a variety show parody of Trek hosted by Jerry Lewis.

With Kirk out of the action for most of the story, Spock takes command of the Enterprise once the landing party returns. Spock says there are no records of any Federation starship suffering a mutiny. Give him a month, there’d be one. Leonard Nimoy, of course, walked away with the show every week, but Spock wouldn’t be a captain I’d like to have as my boss. Dude can’t even manage to conduct a memorial service worth a darn. Chief Engineer Scott doesn’t see the big picture, but I think he wouldn’t piss off the entire crew, either. He, Sulu, and Uhura would get the job done.

Our son enjoyed this episode. Before it settles on the interphasing shifts of space itself being the cause of madness among space travelers, he really wanted to deduce what was happening. “I think it’s the life support systems!” he hissed at one point. He wasn’t right, but it’s not like anybody else was going to guess “interphasing shifts of space itself,” really.

Star Trek 3.6 – Spectre of the Gun

I’ve got better things to do with my life than recount disappointments, but I promise you good readers that I spent something like a decade making a good faith effort to enjoy Star Trek. From middle school into college, I knew good people who liked and loved this show and its sequel, and I really wanted to like it as well. I just didn’t. I’m certain I watched more than a hundred hours of various Star Treks, which is a lot of freaking work to put into something you’re not enjoying, before giving up and telling people to quit preaching at me. There’s exactly one of those hundred hours that I love: “Spectre of the Gun.” This one is magnificent.

I’m not entirely sure why it works for me. On paper, it’s Trek by the numbers: a super-powerful race of celestial know-it-alls decides to punish Captain Kirk for his arrogance, and decides in the end that perhaps humanity is not as violent and arrogant as they thought. And it’s another trip to the Paramount costume and prop department for something from Earth’s past, and they’d done Nazis and gangsters and Depression-era New York already.

But something clicks with this and they worked magic in the studio. I freaking love the half-finished sets, and the eerie effect of using that red background. I love the clock that hangs in midair. They didn’t rent a western backlot; they created an unreal fever dream in a studio instead. And most of all, I love the actors who play the Earps and Doc Holliday. These aren’t the heroic Earps from classic Westerns. These are unblinking, gaunt zombies, their skin almost sliding off their skulls. That’s Rex Holman, who I singled out in this blog several years ago, before our son showed any interest in Trek, in the middle as Morgan Earp, with Ron Soble and Charles Maxwell as his hideous, demonic brothers.

Everything about this works for me. This is Trek done as experimental theater, a hallucination, a nightmare that could only have been made in 1968. Nothing else on television then looked so confident in its strangeness as this, but it also couldn’t have been made at any other time. It’s excellent and I love it, and while it certainly couldn’t have been like this every week – I once told a Trekkie this was the only one I liked and he said, disbelieving, that it’s “the worst one” – I’m incredibly glad they did it.

Our son was completely amazed by the gunfight at the OK Corral, in which the Earps and Holliday fire at our heroes, whose backs are to the camera, only to have the bullets pass harmlessly through their bodies to blast holes in the fence behind them. He asked to know how they did that, I guess because his school library doesn’t have any books about special effects, because he figured that since he saw the “impact” shots of the bullets in the fence, they must have fired real bullets into it. That’s great that he’s asking how the visual effects departments of the past pulled off the illusions that they did in the days before computers did it all. I hope he’ll always appreciate the work of the technicians who were behind shows like this.

Star Trek 2.11 – Friday’s Child

So naturally I picked the episode with Julie Newmar to watch, and naturally it was another disappointment. D.C. Fontana wrote this one, and it’s centered around a tribe of colorfully-dressed warriors. Both the Federation and the Klingon Empire want to negotiate for exclusive mining rights on their planet.

By far the most interesting part to me was the location filming, which it turns out was at Vasquez Rocks Natural Park. It’s absolutely glorious; I’ve probably seen it in the background of all sorts of television shows over the years (Shazam! and The Fugitive come to mind, maybe Route 66), but the great remastering job that they’ve done to these episodes – coupled, in no small part, by a desire to get out of isolation – makes me want to drive to California and spend all day hiking there.

As for the episode itself, while our son enjoyed the showdown with the tribe and the turncoat Klingon, he also got a buzz out of the B-plot. Scotty’s left in charge and the Enterprise has to leave the planet’s orbit to look into a distant distress call. To nobody’s surprise, it’s a trick, and when they get back, a Klingon ship has drawn a line in the sand, and the kid sat up ready for some special effects. Sadly, what happens next is resolved offscreen. I imagine the budget was probably pretty thin after several days of location filming and it didn’t even stretch to a good model of the Klingon ship, much less a space battle. Since I find Doohan, Takei, Nichols, and Koenig more watchable than Shatner and Kelley, I’d have liked to have seen more of this plot, honestly.

Oh, and this is the first episode we’ve seen with Walter Koenig’s character of Chekhov. Happily, he introduced himself to our son with a bit where he claims Russian credit of an old saying. Like McCoy and his “I’m a doctor, not a–” bits – an “escalator” this time – I think that’s something the younger members of the audience can enjoy. Our son thought his name was funny.

Star Trek 1.28 – The City on the Edge of Forever

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is the celebrated episode credited to Harlan Ellison, who spent the next forty years complaining about what those Hollywood finks did to his beautiful screenplay. It guest stars Joan Collins, and I enjoyed her performance more than anything that was in the script, whoever wrote the final draft. Our son liked it because there was time travel, but says that he liked “The Devil in the Dark” more. The grownups agree. Fifty minutes of Ellison ranting about what they did wrong would have been more entertaining.

Credit the Federation for at least being more civilized than Stargate Command and quietly leaving the planet after their mission to New York, 1930. If word got back to Cheyenne Mountain about what was living on that planet, Colonel Maybourne’s goons would have put the Guardian of Forever in a crate and shipped it to Area 51.

Star Trek 1.25 – The Devil in the Dark

The real star of “The Devil in the Dark” is the set designer. I was reminded in a very positive way of how the caves and tunnels in Land of the Lost, while obviously phony and built in a studio, always looked so darn good. The mines on this remote planet are blue and beautiful, with lots of objects and stalagmites in the foreground. Occasionally the illusion slips and you realize a wall is fabric or some vacu-formed material, and it never matters, because they put 100% into this environment, and it looks so good that you want to believe in it.

Marie picked “The Devil in the Dark,” which was written by Gene L. Coon, having remembered it from her childhood. I remember the name of the monster – a Horda – from reading it in some book about sci-fi monsters, but I’d never seen it before. It’s very ahead of its time. I kept coming up with other productions that used elements that this story did, and all of them – “The Sentry” on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, “The Stones of Blood” on Doctor Who – came later. It’s not a bad hour of television, and I liked it a lot more than the other two we’ve seen. I’m glad to report that our kid enjoyed it. Star Trek is really capturing his imagination generally; he’s built a little Lego NCC-1701 and designed some shuttlecrafts for it, just like he builds little pods for his Thunderbird 2.

Looked at from fifty-plus years distance, other than some dated production values and my personal dislike of some of the actors’ styles, the only real flaw in this production is that there’s not a single speaking part for a woman anywhere in it. Uhura doesn’t appear at all; neither does Sulu, for that matter. There are no women among the mining colony, and none among the security force who spread out to hunt the monster. At the end of the episode, everybody meets on the bridge for the requisite gag about Spock’s humanity, and there’s one woman in a red Federation miniskirt onscreen for about two seconds, which really reinforces that the casting director did not do as good a job as that set designer.

Star Trek 1.21 – The Return of the Archons

So it turns out that an evil supercomputer is behind the international communist conspiracy! Who’d’a thunk it?

I picked tonight’s episode of Star Trek because the mighty Sid Haig is in it. Alas, it’s just a henchman role. He plays one of the hooded lawgivers on a Paramount Backlot Planet (see comment). This one’s Small Town Main Street USA. All six of the main season one characters are in this story, even though Scotty and Sulu have very small parts. Since I’ve forgotten many of the details of this show and know more of its folk memory and stereotype, I was interested to see that the main three characters are accompanied to the planet by three other officers instead of the traditional one. None of them get eaten by a space monster behind a rock and one of them, Lindstrom, gets to have several lines.

The evil supercomputer in this one is called Landru and it represses individual thought, creativity, and free will, stamping all of that out for the good of society. It just leaves its brainwashed population mindless, happy, pointless drones until an occasional twelve-hour festival which is a curious antecedent of the much later Purge films, and all the young people go wild in the streets. It’s paced like a glacier and runs in place with about fifteen solid minutes of padding between the halfway point and the inevitable reveal of the computer. Naturally, Captain Kirk and Mister Spock talk the evil supercomputer into self-destructing, because that’s what happened in the sixties and seventies. We’ve seen this happen before, haven’t we, readers?

The kid says that he liked it. I have no idea why.

Star Trek 1.7 – What are Little Girls Made Of?

Surprise!

Some of my friends who follow this blog probably just did a double-take, because my dislike of and/or ambivalence to Star Trek in all its myriad forms is pretty well documented. But Marie’s father and brother both enjoy the series – her dad is quick to emphasize that he is only interested in the original run – and at Christmas, Daniel spotted his uncle’s latest addition to the line of Star Trek spaceship ornaments. It captured his imagination and curiosity, so I said we’d watch a little of it at some point. After all, the kid should make up his own mind.

So I picked a run of seven eight episodes, which are available to stream at CBS All Access. I picked the only one I’ve ever seen that I like, one that Marie remembers enjoying, the one that everybody in the world seems to like and which I’ve never seen, and four which seemed to have interesting guest stars. Hence Robert Bloch’s “What are Little Girls Made Of?”, which has Ted Cassidy as an android wearing one of my late Aunt Lera’s old blouses. Also, Kirk tries clobbering the android with a great big penis. If you haven’t seen the image, you can certainly Google it. I think the costume and prop guys at Paramount were seeing what they could get away with. On the strength of this episode, murder.

So I didn’t pick a very good introduction. Of the famous regulars, only Kirk, Spock, and Uhura are in this episode. Majel Barrett’s recurring character of Nurse Chapel is a principal character, because her genius scientist fiancĂ©, who has been missing for years, has resurfaced with a remarkable discovery. Much of the story is set in an underground complex that he has found, and where he has learned to build lifelike androids. The story hits on several familiar themes from the sci-fi of the age – can machines be programmed to love, do emotions make us inferior or superior, that sort of thing – and it’s a little interesting as a historical curiosity about how TV treated these themes in the 1960s. Sherry Jackson plays one of the androids. Is Captain Kirk so incredibly manly that he can smooch a robot into becoming irrational, emotional, and jealous? Of course he is.

The kid wasn’t completely taken. He thought it was pretty good, but he got a little restless and naturally he got tired of the smooching. After all, he’s seen these themes in more modern television already and you can’t expect eight year-olds to be really interested about how people fifty-five years ago saw them. He did get worried when the Ted Cassidy android started hunting Kirk, and he really does love the design of the Enterprise. Marie actually bought him a very small plastic model of the ship which snapped almost instantly despite his care. I went to eBay and got him a sturdier die-cast version from one of the eighties movies which can stand up to a little battering, but seeing the quasi-original version onscreen – these are the remastered episodes, with wholly unnecessary CGI replacements of the perfectly fine visual effects from the time it was made – made him want a great big Enterprise. He can save up his allowance for such a thing.

Barbary Coast 1.13 – The Dawson Marker

Well, here’s a pleasant surprise! The final episode of Barbary Coast was shown on January 9, 1976, meaning it was probably filmed in November or so. This was possibly Spencer Milligan’s first role since finishing the second season of Land of the Lost that summer. It’s not a large part – sadly, most of his roles until he retired were bit parts as toughs and heavies – but it’s impossible not to enjoy stories where one of the heroes replaces a villain in a secret meeting, only to have his identity blown. Even better, Barbary Coast went in for slightly more complex plotting than many adventure programs, and this complication, which could have been amusing enough on its own (see this fine episode of Buck Rogers for one satisfying example) turns into an even bigger mess.

There’s also this gag about the brass bell of a long disused school which guest star Udana Power ends up buying. Even if Barbary Coast had disappointed me, which it certainly didn’t, it was worth all thirteen episodes and the movie to get to that gag. Power didn’t make many television appearances in the seventies, but I note that like a couple of other actors on this show, she had appeared as a guest star the previous season in producer Cy Chermak’s prior show, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Sadly, Barbary Coast didn’t do well enough in the ratings to warrant any more episodes being ordered. It started the 1975-76 season on Monday nights, where it split the potential audience for lighthearted adventure shows with the David McCallum spy show The Invisible Man and both programs got clobbered by two top ten sitcoms on CBS: Rhoda and Phyllis. After episode seven, ABC made a curious decision and swapped Coast with another ratings-troubled show, a Jack Webb production called Mobile One, which had aired Friday nights at 8. There, the problem was on two networks: Sanford & Son on NBC at 8, and M*A*S*H on CBS at 8:30, but at least they weren’t splitting the audience potentially interested in an adventure show. ABC killed both Coast and Mobile One around November and they burned off their last episodes in January.

Westerns weren’t in vogue in 1975. Even the mighty Gunsmoke and The Virginian had ended by then. Coast was soon forgotten, not even serving as the butt of very many jokes. I’m very glad that I gave it a try, because I enjoyed every episode, and think that about three of them were completely terrific. Our son of course was pretty unimpressed. He liked this one, to the point of getting worried enough by the complications to temporarily leave the room with alacrity, and he liked episode ten, but overall he found this confusing and old hat, and greeted the news that we were watching the final episode of this show with a heavy sigh of “finally!”

I have assured him, however, that he is certain to love the next Western that we show him, starting in July. Stay tuned!

Barbary Coast 1.12 – Mary Had More Than a Little

The previous episode of Barbary Coast took an uncharacteristically serious tone, but this one was back to its lighthearted and silly and very busy self. Judy Strangis guest stars as the daughter of one of Cash’s oldest friends, in town ostensibly looking for a new home and a job. Actually, she’s got a rough boyfriend in tow, played by Kaz Garas. Their basic plan, after Strangis shows off her card-shuffling skills, is for her to identify marks leaving her table for Garas to mug outside.

But this plan goes up in smoke when the corrupt police chief, noting the increase in street crimes and people getting clobbered outside the Golden Gate, figures that Cash is himself in on it. This leads Jeff Cable to do a little snooping and not only does he identify the secret boyfriend, but following him in one of his disguises, he stumbles upon a much more meticulous and careful crime than a hotheaded tough like him could possibly plan…

I thought this one was terrific, but it required quite a few pauses for explanations. Our son was very attentive and inquisitive, starting with the opening scene. The camera breezes past a map on the wall of the Transpacific Shipping Company showing North America in the center. He’d never seen a map like that before and asked me to wind it back and explain it because “it looks backward!” (Of course, it makes perfect sense that a shipping company in San Francisco would want to show direct routes to Asia, which you can’t easily do on a map with North America on the far left.) But this is a very visual episode, with quite a lot of information provided through knowing glances and nods, and the camera tracking what characters see without spoken explanations. And Cable’s two disguises were so convincing that he had absolutely no idea who either character was!

Interestingly, this is the very last credit that IMDB shows for the veteran writer Winston Miller, who’d been working for films and television since the 1920s. He co-wrote the original Dick Tracy serial for Republic in 1937, contributed dozens of scripts for westerns and cop shows, and worked as a producer on The Virginian for a couple of years. Heck of a good script to retire on, I’d say. He died about twenty years later.