For all the crazy aliens the Enterprise runs into, there's an awful lot of death floating out there in the universe. It seems hardly a week goes by without Kirk stumbling across ghosts or remnants or the remarkably well-preserved security system of some long gone civilization. This is a convenient storytelling out, because we don't know what the dead race was capable of, but it's also creepy if you think about it too long. (And given how much time I've put into this show now, I've thought about nearly every aspect of the series too long.) Each new history of loss adds to a picture of a cosmos haunted by failures. It's remarkable there's room to move. And I can't help thinking of Poltergeist, and what happens when you try and building a house on top of a cemetery.
This week, we've got two different haunts assaulting the Enterprise. Neither one is intentionally hostile, but both cost lives. Now, it makes sense that contact with an alien race would present innumerable challenges, and that many of those challenges would be potentially fatal to either party. But at least when you're dealing with the living, there's a chance of shared of logic, of a connection. (Okay, if you go by Stanislaw Lem, it's an incredibly slim chance, but stay with me.) When dealing with automatons and left-over need, there's not a whole lot of mutual interests to discuss. Mercy doesn't enter into it, because mercy is irrelevant. Either you find a way to beat the system on its own terms, or you blow up. And even if you do win, you don't get to mack on any hot alien babes, which is a total bummer.
There is an alien babe in "That Which Survives," but going by what happens to the guys she manages to touch, it ain't worth it. The Enterprise finds a strange planet whose development doesn't suit its age, so what the hell, Kirk and a few of the guys beam down to check things out. Spock stays behind to run the ship, and after an earthquake that throws the Enterprise 1000 light years away, we get two parallel storylines running for most of the remainder of the episode: Spock and Scotty trying to get back to the mystery planet, and Kirk, McCoy, Sulu, and a couple of soon-to-be-dead guys trying to find a way to survive in a place where all the vegetation is poisonous and there's hardly a drop of water to be found.
There's a third story, actually, that connects those two, and in the end provides an explanation for both—the mystery of the lady in purple who keeps appearing on both the planet and the ship, and generally making a nuisance (and worse) of herself in both places. We'll get to that in a second, but for my money, the most exciting elements of "Survives" were also the most immediate ones. Star Trek only brings up practical concerns when it needs those concerns to create suspense, so it's still refreshing to see Kirk and the others so concerned about basic human needs. It doesn't play hugely into the episode overall, since the Enterprise returns before thirst and hunger can become too debilitating, but just having that pressure running in the background of a handful of scenes forces you to think more about how tenuous that five-year exploratory mission truly is. The Enterprise is a technological marvel, state of the art, full of medical equipment and machines so far beyond our current capabilities as to appear like magic. But take that away, have something go wrong, and all that fictional innovation is meaningless. A strange planet is as bad as a desert island; worse, because it's a lot harder to contact passing ships. It's good to be reminded how quickly a situation can turn deadly.
Admittedly, having Spock watch your back makes the deadliness a lot less oppressive. Another element of "Survives" that worked well was Spock's dickishness while in command. I've been frustrated before by episodes that try too hard to mock his stoicism, but this one managed to show the half-Vulcan at his best and his worst, his cool competence holding back panic in the crew, while at the same time his refusal to practice even the most basic courtesies pushing everyone's stress to its limit. Spock's rationality looks best when he's observing human foolishness while someone else gives orders. When he's in authority, his insistence on pointing out how foolish everyone else is makes him hard to like; and honestly, I think that's cool. Characters are more interesting when you have to work a little to appreciate them, and it's still possible to identify with Spock even while you cringe at his behavior. There's an outsider-type in a lot of TV, a lone member of an otherwise harmonious social group who constantly asks the most awkward questions and points out the often irrational behavior of everyone around him or her. This type is often easier to identify with than the so-called "normals," because everyone feels like an outsider to varying degrees, and most of us have struggled under the illusion that everyone is working off of some ridiculous system that we can't see for ourselves. So I like seeing Spock being dickish and cold every once in a while, because thought I can't condone it, I can relate to it, and that makes his moments of empathy and respect all the more earned.
And as for that third story… Well, apparently the Genesis planet of Star Trek III wasn't the first really, really big mistake in the universe, because the "ghost planet" that Kirk and the others are marooned on was created by a civilization that died out shortly after. When they created the planet, they created a deadly disease, which wound up killing everybody, and now all that's left is a really terrible vacation spot, and a security system that sends out drones (all of whom look like the same hot chick) specifically designed to kill certain targets. It's a neat concept, but it doesn't really explain why the supposedly "noble" woman who served as the model for the drones would create a system this aggressive in its destructive capabilities. What is there on the ghost planet to protect? And once the Enterprise gets thrown far, far away, why does a drone sabotage the engines so the ship will explode? I mean, there's a difference between hanging up on a phone solicitor, and driving to that person's house and setting it on fire. The flames might be pretty and the screams from inside might sound like music, but there's gotta be, like, a line, y'know?
Honestly, I just don't think these super-smart, super-dead races really plan very well for what happens after they're gone. Like how some people don't make out a will when they really ought to, only here, it's creating crazy powerful death machines, which there really isn't ever an appropriate time for. At least the machine in "Survives" is basically constrained to a single location. In "The Lights of Zetar," we've got a giant glowing cloud of "desire" that floats around the vacuum looking for libraries to destroy. That's downright unneighborly, like killing all the local dogs because your landlord won't allow pets. Or something. (It's very, very late right now.)
In addition to its clear grudge against shiny, floating things, "Zetar" is a character episode, giving one of the secondary leads a connection to the plot that gives them more of an emotional investment in the story than they normally would have. Here, it's Scotty, who's in love with the very pleasant Lt. Mira Romaine. I've made some disparaging comments about Scotty in the past, but while I still find him much more appealing when he's in the grandfather mode of the movies, he wasn't really unpleasant or anything here. His relationship with Mira was the sort of vaguely condescending paternalism you'd expect from the show (yeah, yeah, I'm a bleeding heart prat, lemme alone), but she appeared to enjoy his presence, and it really only worked out to him being super-protective of her. Oh, and he let some of his duties drop, too, which seems to be a running theme on the show. I get that it makes for good (or at least, easy to write) drama, giving Scott a goal that may run counter to the needs of the rest of the cast, but it's terribly silly the way everyone on the Enterprise drops everything whenever their heart skips a beat. Unless it's arrhythmia, let's see some professionalism.
The Enterprise is bringing Romaine to a library planet so she can begin her first big assignment. While she and Scotty make googoo eyes at each other on the bridge, the ship runs into a big, sparkly cloud that throws everyone into a state of panic. Various crew-members suffer in different ways, and Spock comes to the conclusion that the cloud attacks different parts of the brain in each person. Poor Mira gets the brunt of it, though. When the cloud hits, she comes forward to the ship's view-screen, and when the camera pans to her face, it zooms directly into one of her eyes, for a shot that will get repeated throughout the episode. It's not revealed until much later, but the cloud has basically mind-melded with Mira, taking over a part of her brain before it, well, takes over the rest of her brain. She'll get some psychic flashes, Scotty will be worried, and then, in the end, she gets stuck in the pressure chamber.
Whoa, missed a step. Right—the cloud heads to the library planet that Kirk and the Enterprise were going to, only the cloud gets there first, and kills everybody in the facility. (We only see four or five dead people, so clearly they're dealing with budget problems.) The one person still alive when the landing party beams down is a woman who makes some very odd growling noises—the same noises Mira made after the cloud attacked earlier. So then there's a long deductive period as the cloud chases the ship, and Mira acts strangely, and Scott continues to be concerned. Finally, after comparing some brain wave patterns and asking a few pointed questions, our heroes realize what's happened, and also realize that the only way they can defeat the cloud is by giving it a chance to completely invade Mira, and then squeeze her in the chamber.
It's a risky play, but it goes off just fine, and Mira gets away so that she and Scotty can spend the rest of the time before the credits end together, frolicking and doing whatever it is one does when celebrating a successful emancipation from an other-worldly force. Which is nice for them, but good lord, what's going to happen the next time this, um, happens? The only reason the Enterprise survived this time is that the cloud managed to "bond" successfully with Mira. According to Mira's Zuul voice, the cloud has been searching for a compatible host for a very long time. So, if there are other clouds, and that's not that unlikely if you think about it, what'll happen when the Enterprise, or some other poor bastard's ship, stumbles across the Sparkle Motion Mystery Tour without an appropriate crew-member on board to take the fall? Mira wasn't even regular personnel.
What I'm getting at here is, well, neither of these episodes were exactly terrific. The info dump at the end of "Survives" amounts to character round-robining their way through six or seven paragraphs of information, which is never good for a satisfying resolution, and "Zetar" has a mid-section slump, with a somewhat disappointing big reveal. But I like the bizarre implications both episodes lead to. And it makes you wonder, just what sort of impact does a civilization make when it dies? I'd say the odds are still in the not-entirely-promising area that humanity won't make it to the next millennium, and if our brief time upon the stage does end sooner rather than later, what horrible legacy will we leave behind? And will there be anyone for our lazy spirits to torment?
"That Which Survives": B
"The Lights of Zetar": B-
- "Please, Mr. Scott, restrain your leaps of assumption."
- Hey, it's Dr. M'Benga again!
- He doesn't name it specifically, but I'm pretty sure Sulu mentioned the Tunguska Event of 1908.
- Next week, we'll be taking a look at "Requiem For Methuselah" and (ulp) "Way To Eden."