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Star Trek: "Friday's Child" / "The Deadly Years"

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I've talked a lot about the virtues of James Kirk and his stellar first officer, but I've been overlooking the third member of science fiction's most delightful of holy trinities: Leonard "Bones" McCoy, a simple country doctor who spends all the time when he's not healing people either wanting a drink or arguing. (Actually, he probably wants a drink all the time, so scratch the "or.") McCoy has never been a favorite of mine. Age mellowed him by the time the movies hit, but on the original series, he's too often pissy for no real reason, and his "good old boy" attitude can be embarrassingly anachronistic. As much as the casual sexism and mini-skirts, he dates the show.

And yet… he grows on you. DeForest Kelly is a likable professional, and by about the fifteenth time he aw-shucks his way through some medical mystery, it's easier to just give in and go with it. McCoy's passion for his job and his patients is obvious and helps to smooth over the spikier edges of his personality—like, for instance, his fair bit of bigotry when it comes to aliens. He's a good man at heart, and makes for a solid Id to Spock's Ego; and in a way, the off-putting aspects of his character are kind of refreshing. Movies and TV shows have long told us the importance of following our hearts, and it's nice, whether intentional or not, to have someone who exposes how ineffective a philosophy that can be. McCoy is never anything less than an excellent physician, but as an advice-giver, his record is spotty at best.

He does occasionally get a chance to shine, though, and "Friday's Child" is pretty much his. The Federation is interested in negotiating for mining rights on a new planet, and to that end, McCoy has spent some time hanging out with the natives, a warlike tribe called Capellans. Why the doctor is sent instead of, say, a sociologist is anybody's guess; it could be that the Capellans' culture would only permit someone as neutral as a medic to visit them without causing problems. (Hell, a minute after Kirk and Spock beam down, they've already got a corpse on their hands.)

Whatever the reason, McCoy gives a briefing on the Capellans before the negotiations get underway. They're big dudes, supposedly over seven feet tall (although that tends to vary a lot), and to them "fighting is more pleasurable than love." Also, they seem to be wearing costumes swiped from a forgotten Dr. Seuss movie. Really, it's just a sci-fi gloss put over some classic Indian stereotypes from Westerns of the time, but there's enough cohesion to the culture that it works okay. And hey, there's also a lot of barbarian in there too, and who doesn't like Indian barbarians from Whoville?

The rub lies in the fact that the Klingons also want mining rights on the planet, and when Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and a doomed redshirt arrive on the scene, a Klingon is already there, filling one of the locals' (an ambitious dude named Maab) ears with all sorts of anti-Starfleet rhetoric. The redshirt gets a knife to the gut—well, it's more like a toy glaive, but just focus on the fact that it's stabby—when he goes for his phaser, and things get sort of awkward for a while. The current head of the tribe, Akaar, is a decent enough guy, but when you're dealing with a race that values combat over all other things, how easy is it going to be to settle the issue with plain speaking?

Not that easy, it turns out. Maab throws a coup, killing Akaar,  and putting Kirk and the others in an even worse position; although they're a little better off than Akaar's very pregnant wife Eleen, who's life is forfeit because she's carrying a potential competitor for Maab in her womb. (This really is more medieval than Native American, isn't it.) Our heroes escape from camp with Eleen in tow, but that isn't the end of their problems. Their communicators are gone, the Enterprise is off chasing phantom distress signals, and they've got a whole mess of pissed off semi-giants who've spent their entire lives learning combat to deal with. Plus, Eleen isn't exactly thrilled to be included in the escape. Given the choice between death at the hands of her people, or bowing to the will of a group of strange aliens… well, it's not really much of a choice, is it.

"Child" is a collection of cliches, but it works well for all of that. Ridiculous costumes aside, the Cappellans are a credible threat; the Klingon's presence naturally increases the difficulties of the situation; and McCoy's relationship with Eleen, who grows to trust him only after he smacks her upside the head (she smacked him first, of course), is well-handled. The series often ends up as The Kirk And Spock Power Hour, so seeing McCoy play a major role is neat, and he gets in some great lines. ("Look, I'm a doctor, not an escalator!") It's also worth noting that, despite their growing bond, Eleen still knocks the doc out and escapes soon after giving birth to her kid (having grown up on sitcoms that waste whole episodes on deliveries-in-awkward-places, I was charmed by the fact that Eleen's delivery takes place off-screen, in about two minutes). She does try and save McCoy and the others when she meets up with Maab's group, but it's refreshing that she doesn't completely lose her own values and personality after being "saved."

The episode has a few demerits, though. The subplot that has the Enterprise distracted by a fake call for help is necessary to explain why they don't just beam down to the planet to see what's keeping the captain, but it makes Scotty look awfully dumb for taking so long to figure things out. (He makes up for it with a metal moment later on when the Klingon ship tries to block the Enterprise's path. Although it can't be that easy to block someone's path in three dimensional space.) Having the Klingons show up as a rival makes for solid continuity, but they seem awfully passive for what we've seen of the species. There's only one of them on the planet with the Capellans, and the Klingon ship that threatens the Enterprise mostly just hangs around. For all their fighting prowess, the Capellans couldn't put up much of a fight against,say, phaser bombardment. Why the pussy-footing? The whole subterfuge thing doesn't seem very Klingon, either. As for the Capellans themselves, how is it that a race that prides itself on its talent for combat could get its ass handed to it with such monotonous regularity by James T. Kirk? They guy doesn't even break a sweat.

Still, props to the ep for having the Capellans take down the Klingon themselves at the end, through a sacrifice play that actually holds consistent to their major philosophy. Maab puts the needs of the many ahead of his life, and after his death, Eleen's infant son is put in charge, with Eleen acting as his regent; it's a safe bet that the Federation will get all those "rocks" they've been clamoring for. You gotta wonder just how the prime directive works when Starfleet starts sending equipment and ships to a pre-tech planet (they haven't even invented bows yet—most likely because they're big on hand-to-hand). In arguing for the Federation over the Klingon Empire, Kirk promises that the Capellans will never lose the right to rule their home, and I think we can take him at his word. Even with that promise, though, it's a forced change. Maybe the whole Indian thing wasn't that far off after all.

If "Friday's Child" is McCoy's change to shine, then "The Deadly Years"… isn't. But then, nobody shines that brightly in an episode that tries for pathos and largely manages to achieve only dull discomfort. The high concept for this outing: a strange effect causes Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and one poor crew-woman to age rapidly. Apparently old age is still hell even in the future, as our heroes struggle with memory loss, increased physical sensitivity, bad tempers, and some surprisingly credible make-up jobs. It's an unexciting concept that hasn't been thought out very well, and the resulting episode, a few quirky moments aside, is a let down.

The Enterprise is visiting to Gamma Hydra IV to check in on a science expedition lead by Robert Johnson. All they find are some very old corpses, plus Johnson and his wife. According to Spock, no one in the expedition was elderly, but the corpses all died of old age, and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson themselves appear to be edging past the outskirts of the Matlock demographic, despite Johnson's assertion that he's just 28 years old.

Clearly, something went wrong. But instead of quarantining the facility on the planet and trying to figure things out, everybody beams back aboard the Enterprise. Since the cause of the rapid aging could very well be biological and contagious, and given that this crew has already dealt with its fair share of bad bugs (like in "Miri," where Kirk was smart enough to keep anyone potentially infected off ship until they could find a cure), you'd think our crew wouldn't be quite so blase about the problem. Sure, Kirk starts up a blue ribbon panel of experts—including a Commodore Stocker, who offers us some variation in Starfleet administrative personnel by being passively dickish, and Dr. Jan Wallace, a former flame of Kirk's, along with the standard peanut gallery—but it doesn't never occurs to anybody that the people who beamed down to the surface could be in danger.

And they are, they really are. It isn't long before Kirk, McCoy, and the rest start visibly aging (like I said, the make-up isn't bad, and it's surprisingly subtle, too; the changes start even before our attention is drawn to them), and with both of the Johnsons now expired, finding a cure suddenly became very, very important. Even worse, the Johnsons were crazy senile before they died, which means that in addition to no longer being quite as pretty, Kirk and the others have to deal with the knowledge that the longer they stay sick, the more their faculties will suffer. Not good for a doctor, or a science officer, or a chief engineer, but catastrophic for a star-ship captain.

There's potential here; it's not hard to empathize with a terror of growing old, especially before one's time, and while "Years" does exaggerate the effects of aging on the mind, it still stays generally within recognizable limits. Kirk forgets things, repeats himself, and whenever anyone points out his mistakes, he gets angry—as anyone who's ever dealt with a senile grandparent can tell you, that's not far off the mark. There are smaller touches as well, like Spock's increased sensitivity to cold, which makes a nice call-back to the heat of Vulcan mentioned in "Amok Time." And there's no attempt to mollify the harshness of the experience, either. Nobody learns a valuable lesson about how getting old is just a natural part of life.


Yet the episode never really feels all that personal. There are a few good bits—my favorite comes when Jan starts putting the moves on slightly older Kirk, and he realizes she's doing it because she has a thing for older men. ("What are you offering me, Jan? Love—or a going away present?") It's such a quirky, surprising scene, the wish fulfillment aspect being immediately undercut by the oddness of the lady's fetish. Jan never raises the issue again, and seems just as much interested in the young Kirk, post-cure, but you can't help wondering if their original relationship failed because Kirk still had all his hair.

Good bits aside, there's not much effort being put in outside of the make-up. What really kills things is the competency hearing that eats up a good chunk of the running time. Jack-disease strikes fairly quickly, and since we can't find a cure for it until the last act, we've got to fill the other acts somehow. "Years" chooses to fill them by having Commodore Stacker question Kirk's ability to captain the ship, forcing Spock to put his friend on trial and humiliate him in front of his peers. There's precious little drama in the sequence, aside from the occasional cringe, as we spend the whole thing having characters describe scenes to us that we've already watched. And honestly, Kirk should step down. It's not a criticism of his leadership abilities to say that being struck with a rare illness that makes him liable to forget stuff means he can't do his job properly; in fact, the only negative mark on his character here is his refusal to see the truth, no matter how many of his mistakes are pointed out.

Then there's Stacker, who starts off acting like a reasonable guy, and then turns into a moron as the script dictates. Once again, we've got an administrator who's on a schedule, so we hear the standard litany of complaints when Kirk refuses to leave Gamma Hydra's orbit. Stacker's polite about it at first, and when he talks to Spock about getting Kirk to relinquish command, it's hard not to see his point. But then he ruins everything by taking over the ship and ordering Sulu to set a course through the Neutral Zone. The hell? Are Commodores not taught basic space travel etiquette? You think they'd be even more concerned about maintaining proper diplomatic relations with an enemy than Kirk, and since we're never given any reason as to why Stacker's so desperate to get to Star Base 10 (I see we used up all our clever naming skills when we geniused up "Gamma Hydra IV"), he comes off as a tool, and a poorly written one at that.

The only reason the Neutral Zone even comes up is to give us some suspense at the climax. Oh no, the Enterprise is under attack! Oh no, the Commodore has no idea what the fuck he's doing! We need Kirk on the bridge, but he's just so damn old. Wouldn't you know it, though, McCoy and Spock have just discovered the source of the problem (GH passed through a comet's tail, and I guess they had a choice between zombies or rapid degeneration and decided on the one that didn't require cannibalism), and, seeing as how Chekov was the only person to go down to the planet and be unaffected by the radiation, they determine that adrenaline—Chekov freaked when he saw the first dead body—can stop the radiation. Never mind that this is more than a little ridiculous (was Chekov terrified the entire time he was down there?), or that the physical effects of all that oldness should take more than few minutes to throw off, we have our cure! And Kirk demands he get it first, in the middle of a battle that the ship is losing, because he's the only one who can save everybody.

The treatment works, Kirk rescues the weak-ass Commodore and the Enterprise from the nasty Romulans (in a clever moment, he re-uses a mistake his elderly self made earlier to trick the bad guys with an out-of-date code frequency), and Stacker learns a valuable lesson as to just how awesome Kirk is. A lesson that doesn't seem to have been needed, really; while he made some stupid calls, getting Kirk out of the captain's chair long enough to get cured isn't one of them.

"Years" is plagued by lazy scripting. The quarantine problem just becomes more egregious as the episode continues, since once the landing party starts getting sick, the risk that the illness is contagious would seem to increase tenfold, but nobody gives a damn. We get a lot of aging cliches, and while it's fun watching everybody ham it up as elderly versions of themselves (hey, is that Shatner's actual hair?), that's not enough to make the whole fifty minutes compelling. A more honest connection to the central problem, and less manufactured dilemmas, and, well… I'm not sure you could get a great episode out of this premise, but you sure as hell could have gotten a better one.

"Friday's Child": B+
"The Deadly Years": B-

Stray Observations:

  • McCoy's baby-talk leaves something to be desired, but Spock's reaction is worth the silliness.
  • Hey, we finally have an alien race that our heroes don't teach a valuable lesson to. Although McCoy does convince Eleen to care for her baby, and that means that the baby becomes head of the tribe, so… nuts.
  • Poor Lieutenant Galway isn't given much to do beyond get worried, get old, and get dead, but she does get one good line in: "That's a stupid place to hang a mirror." Why yes, yes it is.
  • Tune in next week for "Obsession" and "Wolf in the fold."

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