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Star Trek: "Patterns Of Force" / "By Any Other Name"

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It may be a stretch, but I'm starting to discern something of a theme emerging in the second season of Star Trek. We've got our Federation now, and we've got  the Enterprise dealing with less-advanced civilizations; and over and over again, we've seen both how difficult it is for our heroes to adhere to Starfleet's "non-interference directive," and how important it is that that directive remains in effect. Kirk's managed to do some good by punching his way through somebody else's problems, but in the past few weeks, we've been learning how it's nearly always better to leave well-enough alone.

"Patterns Of Force" continues the trend, to a degree that may render all future lessons superfluous. Here we have another society modeling itself after old Earth cultures, but instead of a bunch of goofy, slang spouting hoodlums, we've got Nazis. I can't really imagine topping that, can you? A world of devil-worshipers would have more class. When I told a friend I was watching "Patterns," he said he kind of wished Kirk had just leaned on the Enterprise's phaser button and wiped the whole lot of these evil mofos out. Having finished the episode, I'm inclined to agree.

The tone here is darker than it was in "Piece Of The Action," and that darkness doesn't sit well with Trek's essential optimism. There's something wrong about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Nazi uniforms, like we're supposed to take goofy pleasure in the juxtaposition of space travelling heroes and militaristic sociopaths. The Nazis here aren't just general purpose bad-guys like they are in the Indiana Jones movies; in "Force," we're reminded over and over of the hateful principles that defined the movement. We don't see any concentration camps, but we do see the German stand-ins hating on the Jewish stand-ins ("Zeons" with names like "Isak" and "Abrom"), and we even hear about a woman getting shot in the street and left to die while soldiers spat on her bleeding corpse. I can appreciate the honesty in not trying to white-wash what Nazis are capable of, but this is a bit much.

The Enterprise is trying to find John Gill, a historian who was suppose to be a cultural observer on the planet Eko. The Federation has yet to make direct contact with the natives; Gill's job was to study the Ekosians without letting anyone know who he was or where he was from. (We've seen Kirk and Spock integrate themselves into local cultures before, but never for extended periods of time. Gill's been on Eko for years, which makes you wonder how good he must be at blending in. Hopefully not the lost in his own museum type.) But nobody's heard from Gill in a while, so of course we send the Enterprise to go check on him.

Ekosians are supposed to be pre-space travel in their development, but when the Enterprise approaches the planet, a vessel is sent to greet them, un-manned, and carrying a nuclear bomb. Spock determines that the ship must've originated somehow from the nearby Zeon, a planet whose people have gotten into their launching things into the sky without having them explode phase. Of course, the bomb-vessel approaching the Enterprise is designed to explode, and it does just that, with Kirk and the others barely able to steer clear in time.

It's been a while since we've had a good "ship in danger" episode—and, okay, "Force" really isn't one of those, as the Enterprise quickly leaves the area after depositing Kirk and Spock on Eko. But still, it's good to see everyone on the bridge just a little worried about the oncoming nuclear bomb; just as it's good to get that moment of horror when Kirk and Spock beam down to the planet (both wearing clothes that look a lot like the clothes they wore in "City On The Edge Of Forever") and see a group of Nazi officers beating up on a guy. Whatever else happens, I'll give "Force" points for those two moments of shock, and for the extra edge that runs through the episode as a whole. It goes too far by the end, mainly because the quick-fix ending doesn't jive with everything else we've seen, but it's a pleasure to realize that the show still has the power to get under your skin.

Nazis, then. Kirk and Spock make an effort to infiltrate their ranks (Spock to Kirk: "You'd make a very convincing Nazi."), but fail miserably. Ostensibly it's because a commanding officer gets suspicious and has Spock reveal his pointy ears, but if I can critique the great James T.'s performance, he's really crap when it comes to undercover work. He never shuts up; it's like trying to make a spy out of Roger Rabbit. "Hi! Hi, guys? Guys? I'm a Nazi! I'm totally a Nazi! Isn't it great that we're Nazis? Guys? Go Nazis! Wooo! Hate rules." Since everyone else appears to buy the act, I can only assume they all think he's some higher-up's brother-in-law, the one who keeps getting promoted in spite of having his head run over that one time.

There's whipping, then, which would be graphic if the lash marks on Shatner and Nimoy didn't look like they were drawn in Crayon. (Spock's blood is green, in a nice continuity nod.) Surprisingly, the Nazis are a little into torture, and things might've got out of hand if a high-ranking officer named Eneg didn't step in a make up some excuse about giving it a rest. (Eneg is working for the Resistance, by the way.) Spock uses some mad science to laser open his and Kirk's jail cell, and they escape along with Isak, the Zeon they saw getting beat down in the street earlier. A quick stop to the laboratory for their equipment (Kirk tells a passing guard that he's taking Spock and Isak for "experimental work," which is freaky when you remember the  "experiments" the real Nazis got up to), and then Isak leads Kirk and Spock to meet the underground movement.

Some more backstory, then: the Zeons had come to Eko to try and help the Ekosians out, but then the Nazi party sprung up and things got uncomfortable for anyone not native born. Eko stole Zeon's technology, and is now getting ready to implement it's Final Solution, which will involve launching attacks on the Zeon homeworld. John Gill is apparently the Fuhrer of the new regime, which surprises the hell out of Kirk, and increases his determination to meet with Gill face to face. He'll need help, though, and luckily help arrives in the form of a cute blonde Ekosian named Daras working with the Resistance. After a quick trick proves that Kirk and Spock are with the good guys, everyone agrees to bust up a government party that night, when Gill is supposed to give his latest speech.

Things go about as you'd expect, with lots of running around and Kirk and Spock pretending to be a documentary film crew. McCoy eventually winds up on the planet, because Kirk and Spock have both seen Gill and they believe he's been drugged. (He actually delivers his broadcast from behind closed doors to a television camera, and, as Spock points out, his speech doesn't make any sense; it's just a random assortment of chest-pounding phrases.) Gill is eventually brought back to consciousness, and we find out that he brought Nazism to Eko because the society was divided, weak, and he thought that by taking out the anti-Semitic element, Nazis would be a perfectly peaceful way to bring everyone together.

This was not a good call. Kirk argues at the end of the episode that the big problem with the movement is the cult of leadership at its center, which makes it too easy for unscrupulous men to take control. That's reasonable, but it doesn't explain why the Ekosians took so much to hating the Zeons—and that's the real trouble, I'd say. At the end of "Force," Gill is dead, having revealed that his treacherous second in command was responsible for all the bad stuff that's been going on. We're supposed to believe that things will be okay from then on, but I'm not seeing it. You can't resolve Nazis in 50 minutes, and "Force"'s biggest flaw is that it grafts a standard Trek structure onto a subject that's too unwieldy, too rusted and jagged, to fit.

But hey, remember what I said about ship-in-danger episodes? Turns out we didn't have to wait that long after all. "By Any Other Name" puts the Enterprise at risk, in the face of a new threat that's looking for real-estate. Lots of real-estate, it turns out. A whole galaxy's worth.

Using a distress call to pull Kirk and the rest to their locations, a group of aliens in humanoid form manage to take control of the Enterprise and everyone on it in a handful of minutes. They've got magic belt buckles (sure, there's a proper name, but let's be honest, that's what they are) that they can use to paralyze anyone who gets in their way, along with a whole host of other nasty things. (I assume it's a whole host, anyway. We only ever seem them do three things.) They all hail from a place called Kelvan, in the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda is going to be uninhabitable due to radiation levels, and they've decided to take over our digs and move in.   

Their leader is a Richard Burton lookalike named Rojan. Rojan's kind of a dick. He spends a lot of time lecturing Kirk on Kirk's obligations as a conquered person, and when Kirk has the temerity to try and escape captivity (he, Spock, McCoy, and a couple of red-shirts are being held on a planet while the Kelvans modify the Enterprise's engines to fit their speed requirements), Rojan decides to take it out on the two red-shirts. First he has one of his men, Hanar, zap the pair with his buckle, turning them into polyhedron-ish sponges. Rojan explains to Kirk that the sponges represent the crew-members' "essence," and then he crushes one of them.

Surprisingly, the crushed, and therefore dead, crew-member turns out to be the female red-shirt. Before she was taken aside, the crew-member told Kirk she didn't want to die—and while this is manipulative as hell, it doesn't seem cheap, and it's one of the few times on the series I remember actually being taken back by a minor character's death. This also makes Rojan look like more of a bad-ass. If there's anything "Force" and "Name" have in common, it's that they both have villains that come off as actual threats. But while the Nazis are threatening more for their historical significance than for anything we really see in the episode, Rojan is smart, determined, and merciless.

Kirk comes up with a plan to get him and the others back to the ship—Spock fakes sickness by essentially putting himself into a brief coma—but nearly every other plan he comes up with doesn't go so well. Scotty and Spock can't interfere with the field generator that powers the Kelvans' buckles because the generator is protected by an indestructible metal; and when Scotty and Spock set up a way to blow up the entire ship, Kirk can't go through with it. It's hard to blame him. While it would be a small cost to lose four hundred people when weighed against the entire galaxy, (although given how often Kirk and the rest save that galaxy, I wonder how long it would survive without the Enterprise) self-destructing would mean giving up, and that's just not in Kirk's wiring.

Plus, it's going to be a long time before they arrive at Andromeda—a bit less than 300 years. The Kelvans have planned for this; it took them generations to get here, and it's going to take generations to get back. They don't seem to have a problem with this, because, as Spock notes after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to mind probe a Kelvan mind, the Kelvans have sacrificed everything that would get in the way of their superior intellect. Emotions and everything else that could distract is gone. Sounds like the Vulcans' end game, but the Vulcans aren't multi-tentacled, which, in their natural form, the Kelvans apparently are. The only reason we're not babbling like one of Lovecraft's scholars at the sight of them is that they've taken on human form to conquer the hell out of us.

If you've seen much Trek before, you should be able to figure out what comes next. And really, it's telegraphed early on, when Kelinda, the hottie blonde Kelvan, talks with Kirk about how impressed she is with flowers. It's the old, "seduce the aliens with the wonderfulness of human sensuality!" gambit, and it knocks the episode down a few points for me because, while it's done well here, it's just not that interesting an idea at this point. Especially not when it involves Kirk yet again seducing another hot blonde. I mean, that's not really exciting anymore, is it? It's not impressive. It's like eating a candy bar and it cures cancer, and then expecting everyone to think you're awesome. (Although I guess if you ate a candy bar and it cured cancer, it would be very hard to deny your awesomness.)

But hey, like I said, predictable or not, it's well done. While Kirk puts the movies on Kelinda (who, it must be said, is amusingly fascinated by the whole process; Shatner's surprised expression when she calls him on his technique is hilarious), Spock works to sow jealousy in Rojan, and McCoy starts injecting Hanar with something to make him really pissed off. The best of these bits is Scotty's attempt to drink one of the bigger Kelvans under the table. While Scotty collapses before he's able to bring Kirk the magic belt buckle, the succession of drinks he pawns off on the guy ("What is it?" "It's, it's um, it's green.") is terrific.

There are other things to enjoy here as well. The energy barrier between the Enterprise's galaxy and Andromeda is cool (also vaguely reminiscent of the barrier in Star Trek V, which is significantly less cool), and, as mentioned, the Kelvans are one of the better threats we've had. I like the dynamic that develops in the second half of the episode. Once the ship makes it through the barrier, the Kelvans decide that most of the crew is no longer necessary, and reduces everyone but Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty to the essence sponges. There's a great shot of Kirk turning a corner and finding a hallway littered with them. Stark, kind of silly, but kind of freaky, too. They're stuck in this big, nearly empty ship, with just some strangers and a bunch of blocks for company.

I also like how the episode ends. After Kirk and Rojan have a fight over Kelinda—who, in traditional human girl fashion, stands off to one side looking concerned and then gets turned on by the violence—Kirk suggests that maybe this whole 300 year trip is a bad idea. The current Kelvans are running on orders given out centuries before they were born. Why should they obey? Who knows what's happened back home; why spend the rest of their lives on the ship just to save strangers who might already be dead? Plus, being human is totally kick-ass, and Kirk promises the Federation will help them find a place to call home. It's a win-win that doesn't end in a bunch of dead aliens, and I didn't actually see that coming.

Lesson learned this week: never teach people how to be Nazis, but do teach them how to get drunk, get mad, and make-out.

"Patterns Of Force": B
"By Any Other Name": B+

Stray Observations:

  • That whole whipping scene in "Force" was a like a network-friendly version of Nazi-sploitation. (I was surprised that Daras's name wasn't Ilsa, but then, since she's really a good guy, that's probably for the best.)
  • Nimoy spends a good portion of "Force" with his shirt off. Enjoy!
  • I'll be on vacation next week. But be back for the first week of August for "The Omega Glory" and "The Ultimate Computer"

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