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Under-rated episodes

"The Savage Curtain" (TOS)

This is the one where the Enterprise encounters Abraham Lincoln. Kirk and Spock beam down and meet up with Surak. It turns out that some rather interesting rock-aliens want to understand the humans' concepts of "good" and "evil" and have arranged a fight between four good characters and four historic villains. Kirk and Spock at first decline to fight, so the alien arranges that the Enterprise will be destroyed unless they beat the others.

One of the common objections to the episode is a simple chronological error. One of the villains is Kahless, the founder of Klingon warrior culture. In most of Star Trek he is a revered figure, so why is he a villain? Of course, these are not the real people but projections from the humans' expectations, so you can say that this is Kirk's anti-Klingon prejudice. But the real answer is that the positive view of honourable Klingons starts with TNG. The TOS Klingons are militaristic villains. We don't really know much about them, and we do occasionally glimpse things from their point of view, in which the Federation is the villain. But this is the first time Kahless appears. It's TNG and its successors that altered his significance. If you insist on a consistent "canon" then the "Kirk's-prejudice" explanation will do, but it is not reasonable to criticize the writers because their version isn't consistent with a later revision.

Another criticism is that Kirk is strangely credulous about Lincoln, when he ought to know this must be some sort of trick. But this is raised in the episode, with McCoy and others warning him. In particular McCoy notes that it seems quite a coincidence they created a replica of one of Kirk's personal heroes, and Kirk is the one who will be deciding whether to beam down. Kirk tells them that he knows it an illusion, but a Captain's Log entry seems to suggest that he finds it hard to resist the illusion.

It has got its faults, certainly. However, there are some very interesting aspects to the episode.

Possibly the most important is Surak. This is the first time we encounter him, and we learn a lot more about the origins of Vulcan thought. Spock does not believe it is Surak, of course. But, as with Kirk, he can't help behaving as if he did. When Surak refers to the emotion he saw in Spock's face, Spock apologizes. Barry Atwater's performance as Surak is striking. He has presence, he conveys intellectual and moral strength—and a touch of arrogance, the necessary self-confidence of the reforming leader who knows he has the answers. He tells Kirk of the devastating wars of the Vulcan past, and of how some went to the other side to talk peace. "The first were killed, but others followed."

Surak goes, to talk peace, and is killed. Lincoln, trying to rescue him, is also killed.

Kirk and Spock eventually prevail. The alien is a bit disappointed. Evil runs away, it notes, but in general good and evil seem to use the same methods and aim at the same results. Kirk ripostes that the others were fighting for power (which they had been promised) while he and Spock were fighting for their shipmates' lives. The alien says "I perceive", but it sounds like "Yeah, whatever."

At the end there is an interesting exchange between Kirk and Spock. Kirk comments how real they seemed, especially Lincoln (who had, we learnt earlier, always been one of his heroes). Spock points out that since the illusions were drawn from their own thoughts, they were inevitably just what they expected. This is worth thinking about. We construct our mental images of heroes, both present-day and historical, according to what we know but also according to what appeals to us.

"Spectre of the Gun" (TOS)

Some aliens are going to kill Kirk and the others in a simulation of the Old West, more specifically the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Kirk and his companions try all the rational options, such as negotiation or withdrawal, but nothing works. They build a knock-out bomb, but when they test it (Kirk insists), it doesn't work. Eventually Spock realizes it's all mental projection. Here the episode becomes quite sophisticated and raises issues from the philosophy of science. Spock doesn't just suddenly see that it's all mental, he reaches this conclusion logically.

Spock presents his argument very clearly, in terms of "uniformitarianism", the principle that the physical laws of the universe are the same everywhere. Without this assumption, science would be impossible. A scientist carries out an experiment in a lab, and we believe that the same thing would happen in a distant star. Unless we make this assumption then our experiments could tell us nothing about what is happening in other times or places. However, Spock points out, what they have experienced does not match the physical universe. The conclusion, therefore, is that this isn't the physical universe. Spock mind-melds with them to give them certainty of the unreality, and the bullets cannot now harm them.

This is some serious food for thought. There are in fact other logical possibilities. If what you experience isn't according to what you think the physical laws are, it may be that you need to revise your laws a bit. This is one way science advances. However we would normally only consider that after a series of observations. Another logical possibility is that the event is supernatural, but that is not normally considered an option in Star Trek.

Incidentally, it has been questioned whether the uniformitarian principle is really completely secure. But it's the best we've got. Philosophy of science is a very interesting subject. Try the book in the Very Short Introduction series.

The episode is visually memorable. The setting is positively surreal. The sky is red. Rather than a complete town, they are just walking around in a set of false fronts, the bits and pieces necessary for the events. You could say this eventually makes sense in terms of the whole thing being in the mind, but I think it is most effective just to accept it. The world they have entered is windswept, empty, not all there.

Not only is the eventual solution interesting in itself, it's symbolic. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" is the moral. The crew calmly face the onslaught. When the bullets fail to have any effect, Kirk moves in for a fist-fight (of course). He beats Wyatt Earp (who, significantly, does look afraid) but doesn't kill him, which impresses the aliens enough that they decide to welcome the Enterprise after all.

"The Alternative Factor" (TOS)

The Enterprise is orbiting an uninhabited planet when there is an inexplicable momentary event affecting the galaxy—apparent momentary nonexistence—centred on the planet. They find that a human being (with a miniature ship) has appeared on the planet. He is named Lazarus, and seems crazed, asking Captain Kirk to join him on his "holy cause", to destroy a monstrous being (humanoid in appearance) who can destroy worlds. It should be noted that Lazarus has some truly bizarre facial hair, a thin hanging fringe. What significance this has is never revealed, but it's memorable. At first Lazarus's clams seem nonsense to Kirk, except that it might connect to the strange phenomenon. Later Lazarus says that he and the enemy are time travellers, that he has pursued him across time, and that this planet was destroyed by the enemy. Periodically there is a whirling disorientation, and Lazarus (in photographic negative) seems to be struggling with someone else. Kirk and Spock begin to believe that there are actually two Lazaruses, from alternative universes, and that there is a sort of breach between the universes.

While investigating, Kirk gets too close to Lazarus's ship, and finds himself alone, in what looks like the same place, with an identical ship (it's for inter-universe travel), and an identical but quite uncrazed Lazarus, with identical strange beard. They're in the alternative universe. Lazarus explains that when his people discovered the existence of an identical alternative universe (though one is antimatter) his counterpart went mad, "He could not live knowing that I lived." If they meet outside the "corridor" between the universes it will mean the destruction of everything. Sane Lazarus proposes that Kirk should force his Crazy Lazarus into the corridor, and he will hold him there. They must then destroy the ship, and the corridor will be sealed, saving both universes at the price of sealing them in forever. (Apparently they will live forever in this state.) This is done. As the Enterprise leaves, Kirk ponders on Lazarus's fate, trapped in an eternal fight with a madman. The universe is saved, says Spock. "But what of Lazarus?" asks Kirk.

This raises deep questions. "Is it such a large price to pay for the safety of two universes?" Lazarus asks, but Kirk seems to wonder whether it may be. Would you do what Lazarus does? Should you? Could you? There is a well-known thought experiment about Utilitarianism ethics, the idea that the right choice depends on "the greatest good of the greatest number". Suppose you could achieve Utopia provided that just one innocent child is tortured and never allowed a normal life? This would surely provide a good result for the vast majority, so isn't that the right thing to do? But most people feel that this is not acceptable. This thought experiment was dramatized by Ursula Le Guin in her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", where Omelas is the utopia which somehow requires one miserable child. You may notice that although most people don't feel they could justify living in Omelas, the idea that something "must" be right if it benefits most people is often used in public discussion to justify torture and other immoral actions which supposedly have beneficial results.

The episode's ending isn't quite the same, though. In this case the victim is making the choice, and it can be taken as suggesting the self-sacrifice of Christ. On the other hand, is Kirk justified in helping Lazarus do this to himself?

The episode is memorable. Somehow the image of Lazarus, in that bizarre beard, staggering around the ship ranting about his enemy sticks with you.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the episode includes as a minor character one Lieutenant Charlene Evans (Janet MacLachlan), a stereotype-busting Black woman in Engineering. (I don't think we learn whether she is African-American, African, etc.)

"Wink of an Eye" (TOS)

This used the same device of accelerated time as "Blink of an Eye" (VOY), but less systematically. The Enterprise answers a distress call to the planet Scalos and finds an apparently uninhabited city. It turns out that the Scalosians (now a small remnant) were by some strange (but natural) process accelerated in time, so that are too fast for the Enterprise crew to see. Also, their men became infertile. They survive by catching passing spaceships and taking some males to mate with. They know how to bring them up to their speed but believe it cannot be reversed. The new additions don't last long: they are very vulnerable to injury, which causes them to age and die. Before that they become docile and resigned to their situation. The Scalosians treat their captives kindly and believe it is an unfortunate necessity: their need to survive justifies them. Deela, the queen, has selected Captain Kirk. Kirk delays things; they go back to his quarters, and then next we see Kirk pulling on his boots while Deela is brushing her hair... Spock and McCoy eventually manage to save the day; I won't go into details.

Compared to "Blink of an Eye" (VOY) the acceleration is not systematic. The time scale is impossible to make work. The normal-speed crew seem to have an impossibly long time to do things, and things are inconsistent. Some reviews and fan comments have regarded this as fatally undermining the whole episode. But, as is often the case with TOS, this shows a failure to look at what the stories actually are. If you want it to be the sort of SF where the time ratio premise is carefully worked out, then indeed you will be disappointed. But that isn't the point. It's a story about the plight of the Scalosians. They are not bad people; you can understand why they are doing what they do, and they try to be as kind as possible and make their captives happy. The relationship between Deela and her assistant Rael is significant: he is jealous of her liaisons with alien males. Deela retorts: "I don't care what your feelings are. I don't want to know that aspect of it. What I do is necessary, and you have no right to question it. Allow me the dignity of liking the man I select." Deela is excellently played by Kathie Browne: apparently a bit goofy, until we see the steel underneath. At the end, when Kirk asks Deela what he should do, she says, "Don't make a game of it, Captain. We've lost." As she points out, the Federation will warn off ships, and they will die out. She does not know that Kirk now has a way to return to normal speed (and he doesn't tell her, not wishing to gloat[1]) and tells him he can still come and live comfortably on Scalos. They part without apparent bitterness. Deela may be in the wrong—Kirk tells her their survival does not justify what they do—but she is a character you like and respect.

That story, those relationships, those characters, are what the episode is about. The acceleration provides an interesting setting, but we should not ask too much of it.

Note: In one scene, where Kirk has just been accelerated, he tries to stun Deela, but the beam moves so slowly that she can step out of the way. Some critics have complained that if the phaser shot is at the speed of light, this is absurd. But who said phaser fire is at the speed of light? (Maybe this was said later, but not then.) In TOS, in accordance with Rodenberry's principle that things should be used, not explained, we are never told the details of phasers. Incidentally, the TOS phasers had a marvellous special effect—when someone was hit at full power their body glowed briefly, frozen in position, and disappeared. Perhaps this was partly dictated by photography. At any rate, it is far more impressive than the effects used in later Star Trek. (This is also true of the TOS transporter effect.)


Footnotes

[1] Presumably for some reason it wouldn't work for the Scalosians, but I'm not sure if this is made clear.[Return]


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