Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Star Trek: The Corbomite Maneuver

Episode: "The Corbomite Maneuver"
Series: Star Trek: The Original Series
Season 1, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 10, 1966
via Memory Alpha

Since beginning this project, I've wondered what it is that works so well for this show.  Nearly half a century after the first aired episode, Star Trek remains a vital force in popular culture.  Trek was cancelled after only three seasons but is far better remembered than the more successful programs of its era.  The acting is stilted.  The stories are frequently hokey and formulaic.  And yet few programs in the history of American television have a legacy worth comparing.  I won't deny it.  I love it, too.  But why?!!!

Strength of characters?  Check.  Solid world (in this case, galaxy) building?  Certainly.  The same could be said for other shows.  What's so special about this one?  I think an episode like "The Corbomite Maneuver" offers a clue.

The Enterprise crew find themselves in a jam: they get on the wrong side of Balok, commander of an alien vessel who takes issue with the fact that our heroes destroyed his marker buoy.  Apparently, the offense is so severe that the Enterprise must be destroyed.  Testy!  Through cleverness, Captain Kirk & Co. wiggle their way out of harm, but leaving Balok's ship marooned, too far from the mother ship to even call for rescue.  And so, the inevitable dilemma: do our friends scamper off or stick around to help?

For Spock, the obvious, rational choice is get away while the gettin's good.  For Kirk, the higher purpose, "to seek out new life and new civilizations" takes precedent.  The risk of boarding a hostile ship is outweighed by their responsibility as galactic citizens.  A rescue party beams to Balok's ship and...

The writer (in this case, Jerry Sohl) completely drops the ball with the whole Clint Howard thing.  Oh well.

While set in the distant future, Star Trek is a product of its own era.  The mid-sixties were interesting times in American society.  The Civil Rights Act had passed.  The Vietnam War raged.  By 1966, the counterculture was getting noisier.  NASA was preparing to go to the Moon.  The message from Gene Roddenberry and his disciples was an important one: if we're serious about space exploration, we'd darn well better get our own act together first.  Mind you, Roddenberry was no hippy.  As an ex-cop and decorated war vet, he was well acquainted with the world's darker side.  His galactic future for humankind was predicated on moral advancement as well as technological.  Yes, we were going to venture to the stars.  We were also going to be better people once we got there.

That, I believe, is why Star Trek works.  It's certainly a big part of why it works for me.

*****
via Memory Alpha

Matt Jefferies (art director) was born Walter Matthew Jefferies on August 12, 1921 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.  He served in the Second World War as a bomber pilot, just part of a lifelong love affair with aviation.  Jefferies designed both the interior and exterior of the Enterprise, along with numerous other props and sets.  He served as art director for several other iconic television shows, including Mission: Impossible, Little House on the Prairie and Dallas.  Jefferies died July 21, 2003 of congestive heart failure.

via Trek Core

34 comments:

  1. Saw episode. Excellent. Remember, Roddenberry wasn't just exploring space and time. He was exploring whole new ways of existing. We needed a compass. The series was thematized by its construction.

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    1. I should have know you'd find a better way to say it than I did...

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  2. As much as the original Trek series was anchored in it's time, it's still loved today, and I think you nailed it when you said it was because of it's general theme--that we can be better. At least, that's why I like it too. And I love the friendship between the three main characters, Kirk, Spock and Bones.

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    1. I agree with you on the friendship. I'm not entirely comfortable with the new history being written with the two most recent movies but I like the fact that the friendship between those three is well-preserved.

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  3. 'Yes, we were going to venture to the stars. We were also going to be better people once we got there.'

    Excellent. As was your comment on Cyg's last post. I'd break bread to that.

    I also think a huge draw of this particular series were the actors who played the beloved trio. They were magic.

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    1. With all three, there is an admirable earnestness.

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  4. That episode lingers in my mind still. Clint Howard freaked me, a bit.

    The relationships between the crew members and their adventures fascinated me. They had a commitment to their "prime objective" and to each other.

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    1. The prime directive is, quite frankly, an ingenious literary device. The first mention comes up in episode 21, "The Return of the Archons." Count on a broader discussion then!

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  5. The Corbomite Maneuver was such a classic Kirk move! I don't think they dropped the ball with little Clint Howard, exactly...he was pretty creepy as tiny aliens go, way creepier than a Ferengi, I think. "Do you want some tranya?" Um, not! Not accepting drinks from creepy tiny aliens!!!

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    1. I should clarify. I don't actually object to the Clint Howard character himself. Child with an adult voice offering exotic drinks to new friends? Sure, why not?

      I think they dropped the ball with the narrative. He was testing them? Lame. A more mistrustful, surprised alien would have been more interesting. The twist is fun but it feels like a twist for twist's sake, as Cyg's comment below suggests.

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  6. Aw, how can you not love Clint and his Tranya? :-) (Said partially tongue-in-cheek, of course... it was goofy. More like the writer was trying to echo back to some of the more formulaic Twilight Zone episodes... Oh it's not X, it's the opposite of X... ooohh...)

    Great words from you, and everyone else, on the upward-looking moral message. People often say that dystopias are lessons on what NOT to do, and how they fulfill their purpose if we avoid their bad version of the future. But how much more useful is something like Star Trek, that explores the desirable possibilities?

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    1. I clarified my position a bit in my response to Michelle above. I do like Bailey offering himself up as an ambassador and admitting he's likely to make mistakes. Nice touch.

      Regarding your other point, we don't seem to learn the lessons from the dystopias either. Consider "Brave New World" - the social engineering which seems so creepy was nothing compared with the real world horrors that followed soon after.

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    2. Hey, Squid, I'm curious if you got my email from a couple of days ago.

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    3. I just did, and sent a quick reply as well. I don't check that account as often as I should. Thank you.

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  7. There are so many clever people in the world. Trekkies would love this post.
    All fired up for the Coffee House on Friday. Glad I popped over...I was thinking it was next Friday and was wondering how I was going to fit it in with Halloween postings...so cool!

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    1. I trust you're planning to join us? Looking forward to yours next week, too. I need to get cracking if I'm to have my story ready in time.

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  8. I like how the Enterprise series shows the evolution of the moral code that the chronologically later series would hold to.

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    1. Yes, exactly! It all ties together quite nicely.

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  9. I know that when it was on TV everything was new and exciting. I grew up at this time and I felt like I could do anything and did. It was also a strange time as you said with the war and counter culture. Certain wall were coming down but others were going up. But I feel like it was one of the last positive times.
    I don't know if that comes across now but their friendship does along with the idea to explore new places but trying to do no harm ?
    Don't know if this is coming out right. I am not a writer as you can tell.
    I am really enjoying these post.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. I missed the '60s. My most important window to that era is my parents' life. They jumped on board with the optimism of the first part of the decade, joining the Peace Corps in its early years. Regarding the latter half, I once asked my mother how it was. Her considered response: "It was all pretty weird."

      I see optimism in the show. Science fiction, especially of the Cold War era, is often fearful. The philosophy of Trek is to approach the universe best food forward.

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    2. You Mother said it better than I could have.

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  10. I think the thing that struck me about watching that episode again is that the folks from the Federation were represented as having such ultimately pure motives. This can be contrasted with today's world wide evil empires.

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    1. Absolutely. I expect it was also a strong challenge to the fear and mistrust of the Cold War.

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  11. Kirk's cleverness can sometimes be overlooked. Thankfully the whole idea behind the title of this episode is all about it. And he used it at once more to boot.

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    1. I really like his poker vs. chess exchange with Spock, too.

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  12. This post has inspired some of your best commentary yet. It seems to me you're just warming to some of your subjects. Happy to be along for the ride.

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  13. This episode always reminds me about what was great about Star Trek: TOS. Even at it's worst, it's still the best science fiction show ever.

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    1. I think worldwide, Doctor Who has a case to make but certainly for American TV, Trek is the standard by which all others are judged.

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  14. Sorry, I think I fell in love with the sex appeal of the show. I'm a total geek, and Star Trek was filled with smart, sexy people. You had to be a genius to fly a spaceship, right? And! They were all kinda adorable in my own twisted geek brain. I grew up on Star Trek--TNG and remember thinking Will Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) was tastier that a Ktarian Chocolate Puff...
    I probably had my first girl-crush on Dr. Beverly Crusher--a female medical officer, not a bimbo? *swoon*
    The mission and the morals (mostly) were on-point. Being a girl and seeing letch-captains get their freak-on with green-skinned babes was a bit off-putting. I was a kid unready for that overt sexuality. As a teen I had a great affinity for Capt Picard. He was brilliant, manly and moral, and that tweeked me just right back then.

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    1. Thank you, Veronica. That was beautiful!

      I was too young when I first discovered Trek for sex appeal to be a factor, not to mention the fact that there simply weren't enough women in the original series. TNG was definitely better along those lines. Gotta love Deanna Troi!

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