Sunday, 1 May 2016

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2.20 - 2.21

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch Star Trek, with the 1966 broadcast of "The Man Trap." With that in mind, it seems about time I got back on the Captain's Blog and finished my run down of season two of the original series, before moving onto season three. I'll roughly alternate these with Dandy's Space Blog while I finish that too.

2-20) The Ultimate Computer
Captain Kirk vs. Workplace Irrelevancy

The Mission: Test out the new M-5 computer, capable of running a starship with a minimum crew complement.

Planets visited: None, although the tests take part in orbit of Alpha Carinae II, an Earthlike planet. Alpha Carinae is a real star system, about 300 light years away. In actuality a red supergiant, Alpha Carinae, also known as Canopus and Suhail, is the second brightest star in the sky.

Captain James T: Isn't happy to be summoned to a Starfleet space station without prior explanation. He's even less happy when his friend, Commodore Bob Wesley, informs him the Enterprise will be testing out the new M-5 computer. Kirk expresses severe anxiety at the concept he will be rendered obsolete by the computer, and, not for the first time, wishes he were living an old fashioned captain's life at sea. He doesn't want to lose his command (or the prestige) to a computer. His confidence in Wesley means that he knows he won't destroy the Enterprise even when it looks like the only way to stop the attacks.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: He holds an A7 computer expertise diploma and holds Daystrom i the highest esteem. Of everyone, Spock unsurprisingly has the most sympathy for Daystrom and the idea that a computer could be the best at running a starship.

The Real McCoy: Bones instinctively distrusts the M-5 and has the feeling it is wrong in its decisions before any errors come about. It's almost a Spidey-sense sort of thing. As is often the case, he prescribes himself and Kirk a strong liquor to help with the stressful situation.

Killer Computer: The M-5 is the first multitronic computer, a new generation of computers created by Professor Daystrom. The M-5 has a certain human-like capacity for thought, which Daystrom created by using his own brain engrams (which was undoubtedly a very bad idea). The M-5 is designed to take full control of a starship, running it with a minimal crew of twenty essential personnel. The captain is not considered essential, with the computer making the command decisions. Unfortunately, both man and machine are completely mad. Given the task of showing off its capabilities in war games against four other Constitution-class starships, the M-5 puts its own self-preservation above all else, and fails to distinguish between the games and real threat. It first destroys a robotic ore carrier, the Woden, and then kills several hundred people when it attacks the USS Excalibur. It drains the Enterprise's power to improve its performance, cuts itself off and places a forcefield around itself. It even kills a crewman who tries to shut it off. Eventually, Kirk convinces it to self-destruct by getting it to admit to murder and therefore execute itself (presumably, the idea that murder is "a crime against the laws of Man and God" comes from Daystrom's own psyche).

Future History: Spock mentions that there's no technology that can replace a starship's chief medical officer. A hundred-odd years after this, in the time of Star Trek: Voyager, that will no longer be the case.

Dr, Richard Daystrom is considered a genius in his time, on a par with Einstein. He's also a dangerous obsessive. At 24, he invented the duotronic computers that run starships, which won him the Nobel and Zee-Magnees prizes. In spite of the ignoble end of his career, the Daystrom Institute and Daystrom Award are named after him (and presumably the Daystrom Conference in the alternative reality of Star Trek Into Darkness).

The four starships that go up against the Enterprise are the Hood, the Potemkin, the Lexington and the Excalibur.

Finagle's Folly is a green cocktail "known from here to Orion."

Trek Stars: William Marshall is excellent as Richard Daystrom. He's best recognised as Blacula, but had a huge and varied career involving directing and opera singing, for which he deserves to be remembered.

Cliche Counter: This is the fourth time that Kirk has talked a computer to death, after the previous occasions in "The Changeling," "Return of the Archons" and "I, Mudd."

Remastery: There is significant new CG model work in this episode, replacing reused footage used for the Woden, the Constitution-class ships involved in the war games, the space station and Alpha Carinae II with new images.

The Verdict: A strong episode with a good central theme. Kirk's fear of being replaced in his job by a machine is more relevant today than ever and is a better use of a villainous computer than the usual "computers are scary!" high jinks. It's great that Daystrom, the greatest genius of the age, is an African, even if he does suffer a complete breakdown and essentially reverts to villain of the piece. It's also good, as always, to see more of Starfleet, and Enterprise's place within it.

2-21) Bread and Circuses
Captain Kirk vs. the Romans

The Mission: Track the distress signal of the SSBeagle, missing for six years.

Planets visited: Planet Four, System 892: the nameless planet is the fourth in its system, with two moons. In spite of this, it is extraordinarily like Earth, with exactly the same proportions of land and water, atmospheric composition and density. However, the diameter of the planet is different to the Earth and the layout of the landmasses is different. In spin-off media, it's named as Magna Roma.

Alien life forms: 

The Romans: they're indistinguishable from humans, and, for once, this is a major point. In what is apparently a remarkable example of "Hodgkins's Law of Parallel Planetary Development," the culture on this planet has developed exactly as on Earth, up until around two thousand years ago. Here, the Roman Empire never fell, but has gone on to control much of the globe. But they don't speak Latin - they are explicitly said to be speaking colloquial twentieth century English. (This is probably done purely so that they can have the Followers of the Sun/Son gag). The Romans don't believe in other worlds. They've reached a twentieth century level of technology, with automobiles (such as the Jupiter 8) and television, on which they show gladiator matches involving barbarians. Rebels against the regime have a Christian brotherhood, and when Senator Septimus became a Brother, he was made a slave. It's not as bad as it used to be, though; slaves have social security.

Captain James T: Isn't too worried about flashing his technology, but says he is from a far-off province and has a ship at sea. He impresses the Proconsul, who considers him a real man, but is still sentenced to death. He doesn't give into threats. He's moved by the notion of watching Christianity become the dominant religion of this world.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: McCoy hits a nerve when he accuses Spock of being afraid to let his humanity through. He's far more worried about Kirk than he can admit. In the arena, he's the most effective fighter, saving McCoy and taking out his attacker with a nerve pinch.

The Real McCoy: He and Spock argue with each other even when they're fighting for their lives. He even thanks him with a sarcastic remark.

Great Scott: Left in command of the Enterprise, Scotty is torn between saving his crewmates and adhering to the Prime Directive. In the end, he reasons that "No order can stop me from frightening them," and messes about with the power supply in the city, creating a distraction at the decisive moment.

Prime Matters: Apparently people in Starfleet will sooner die than break the Prime Directive. This is obviously rubbish, especially concerning Kirk, although he does toe the line more than usual here. Merrick, once in Starfleet but who dropped out at the eleventh hour, captained the merchant ship SS Beagle until it was crippled by meteors. He and his crew landed on the planet, whereupon he inveigled himself into society as Merrickus, becoming First Citizen, next only to the Proconsul. He sold out his crew, his first officer, William Harrison, becoming known as the Barbarian and dying in the games. The Proconsul wants arms from Starfleet, and is keen to have Vulcans play in his games.

Sexy Trek: Kirk gets the Proconsul's slave, Drusilla, as his "last reward." We don't see what happens, just cut to him waking up alone, but it's definitely implied he did the deed, which is pretty bloody disgusting, actually.  There's a certain implication that Merrick is gay.

Future History: 37 millions people died on Earth in WWIII. The Roman planet is doing rather better, with no war for over four hundred years.

The Alternative Factor: The TNG novel Captain's Honor by Peter David catches up with the Empire a century later, when it is a member of the Federation and one of its citizens commands a starship.

The verdict: This is very much the period when Star Trek became less about strange new worlds, and more about time travel and alternative histories. The episode is a good romp with plenty of action-packed scenes, and for once, the fighting isn't focussed on Kirk. I've little patience for stories that suggest Christianity is some world-saving wonder faith, though, and all we need is to wait for the aliens to become enlightened. Kirk almost makes it sound like the Federation will be sending missionaries down.

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