Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Boldly Gone

We're watching the neighbors' guinea pig while their house is on the market, and although I am no softy when it comes to the animal department, I find the guinea pig ("Piggy") to be an oddly endearing little creature. Part of this is that I bear no responsibility for its care: the girls have to feed it, water it, clean its cage, give it timothy grass and apple sticks. I only encounter it when I go in the princess bedroom to sigh at the baskets of clean laundry that reside there, or to use the shower in that bathroom because we're not ready to do the extensive remodeling that would make the master bathroom shower useable. And when I do encounter it, I say, "Hello, Piggy," and this ball of fluff squeaks at me with the most adorable little chirps I've ever heard.

I told the girls, "Piggy's squeaks have the same effect on me as a Tribble cooing." And the girls get that reference now, because after Leonard Nimoy died, we showed them a few episodes of the original Star Trek. They already knew who Leonard Nimoy was, of course: Paris in the later seasons of the original Mission: Impossible. M:I is a show that's aged well. It feels very rooted in its time period in a classic way. It feels stylish. Star Trek, on the other hand... We picked three episodes which we though embodied what was mostly good about the show, and then the "killer pancakes" episode because Darwin made a passing reference to it and everyone was intrigued. I couldn't even sit through it, it was so painful. I'd forgotten all the philosobabble the screenwriters poured into the mouths of our heroes, the sort of drivel which you find amongst those who treat trolleyology as a serious moral quandry.

(Was there ever a trolleyology episode? The trolley problem was developed by Philippa Foot in 1967; Star Trek started in 1966 and ran for three seasons. I don't remember, but what I've forgotten about Star Trek is a goodly body of knowledge.)

The better episodes were "City on the Edge of Forever", in which Kirk and Spock chase a crazed McCoy back into the 1930s; "A Piece of the Action", 30s again, gangster-style; and naturally "The Trouble with Tribbles".

1. "A Piece of the Action" is funny enough on a surface level and makes absolutely no sense at all on closer scrutiny, either of human motivation or of how one civilization makes contact with another. It's canonical fan fiction -- "What would it look like if the crew were thrown into this other genre?" I picked it solely for a line which my dad quotes ("I hit Krako, Krako hits Teppo, Teppo hits me," spoken by the incomparably named Bela Oxmyx), and that was indeed the high point in the episode, though there were any number of lows. (Spock and Kirk knowing what a clutch was on an old car fell into that category, from the vantage point of 2015.)

2. I'd remembered "City on the Edge of Forever" as being more significant than it turned out to be. I pass over the McGuffin of an inciting incident, or the method of time travel (since all time travel in fiction is arbitrary anyway), and I look at the execution of the 30s portion of the episode. There's a compelling premise here -- if you knew you had to allow someone to die so that history could be restored (just take it as a given that history can be disrupted and restored), could you do it, especially if it's Joan Collins and you have developed feelings for her? -- but as played, it's just kinda silly. Joan Collins, as Edith, makes her soup kitchen bums pay for their meal by being subjected to a hackneyed speech about progress and man going to the stars one day and prophecies about the power of the atom.

I love the soup kitchen bum character actor; one thing we noticed both with this episode and with "A Piece of the Action" is that the character actors are more comfortable with their material than the leads. Also, Joan Collins's hair, said no 30's hairdo ever.

This episode includes the amusingly unfunny gag where Kirk tries, incompetently, to explain away Spock's appearance.

Darwin tells me that Harlan Ellison, the original writer, hated the final episode so much that he demanded that his name be taken off the credits. I feel you, Harlan.

3. Now we're cooking. "The Trouble With Tribbles" is entirely fluffy, entirely goofy, just over-the-top silliness -- and it's about as well-crafted as any fifty minutes of television. It's almost bulletproof situation comedy. I don't see why this couldn't become a stock piece of theater like "Arsenic and Old Lace" -- a troupe of fifth-graders could play it as written, and it would still work. It has stakes. It has bloviating bureaucrats. It has villainous aliens. It has a snake-oil salesman. It has insults, and a bar fight. It has Chekhov's running Russian gag... well, that's actually cultural deadweight that could be cut out entirely with no loss to the script.

There's the rub. There's nothing in this episode (except Chekhov) to rub our faces in the 60s. It actually transcends both its time and its setting to become something worth watching for its own sake. Every character is a stock character, and that's okay, because there's nothing wrong with stock comedy if it's well done. The Tribble itself needs no technobabble to explain its allure and its threat. Its very simplicity is what makes it timeless. The bridge may look like cardboard, and the lab equipment like plastic buckets, but a tribble is a tribble is a tribble, in 1967 or in 2015. The kids voted this one their favorite, hands down.

And so, Leonard Nimoy. Even when Spock didn't have a sense of humor (and he does have a number of lines which suggest that the writers believed he didn't), Nimoy did. The series itself, whether as much of a cultural touchstone of the late 60s as it's proclaimed to be, has little substantive to say to 2015 about race relations or women's empowerment or ending war or scientific anything. You watch Star Trek for Spock, and you watch Spock because of Leonard Nimoy. Who remembers Tuvok, the Vulcan from Star Trek: Voyager? Who remembers Voyager? Who cares? Star Trek was all downhill after man actually went to the moon. It boldly went, and now it's boldly gone, and the children of 50 years later, inured to the wonders of iPhones and iPads and all the technology that Gene Roddenberry couldn't imagine, only respond to what is authentic in the show: Leonard Nimoy, and the lowly tribble.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

The bar room fight scene in "Tribbles" is beautifully choreographed. (Or so it seemed to my untutored eyes back in the day.)I read that they planned the scene very carefully after first ascertaining what, if anything, they were allowed to break.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Oh, my! I didn't realize that was a link to the full episode. I haven't seen that in eons. It held up reasonably well for me, but I'm probably channeling my younger self when I watch it. On the other hand, I've just finished reading a couple of anthologies of science fiction from the '50s, so Star Trek seems really cutting edge by comparison.

Brandon said...

I've always liked "Balance of Terror"; it's the first time Romulans are shown, and is nicely balanced tale with some excellent acting. Also, since it's based on submarine war films, the plans and tactics actually make some sense (although sometimes more for submarines than spaceships).

mrsdarwin said...

I haven't seen "Balance of Terror" for these twenty years, but I do remember it as being one of the finest. Maybe we'll try that one out this week with the kids, though Darwin did suggest that we could just show them "Das Boot".

Joseph Moore said...

So, I gotta ask, especially after your express affection for your visiting hamster: does it not give you pause to imagine what happened to the tribbles after they are beamed onto the Klingon ship? Unless I'm mis-remembering, that's really a pretty horrifying ending, is it not?

Joseph Moore said...

Sorry, guinea pig, not hamster. Not that I'd know the difference.

mrsdarwin said...

Not going to lie: I don't know the difference either.

Knowing the Klingons, I'd guess they probably beamed all the Tribbles right into space. Nasty, but entirely believable.

We did watch Balance of Terror this week, and I'd say that dramatically it's a cut above the other episodes we've seen, due entirely to Mark Lenard and the crew of Romulans. (He went on to play Spock's father in the movies.) The science of it made me a bit batty, though, especially in regards to movement in space.