To boldly go where no man has gone before…
This is my second time a Star Trek disc has crossed my bench. Back in April, I reviewed Volume 8 in Paramount’s ongoing DVD series. That disc contained “The Menagerie,” one of the greatest episodes of the entire series. And to think, it was only the sixteenth episode! Here, with Volume 11, we still have not left the first season of the show, with episode 21, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” and episode 22 “The Return Of The Archons.” Both episodes are strong entries in the series (and one of them originates the time travel method used by the Enterprise in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), though not quite as memorable as “The Menagerie.”
When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to Desilu Studios (the production company founded by Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball, though by the mid-’60s the two were divorced and Lucy had bought out Desi’s share), it was billed as “Wagon Train to the stars.” In case you don’t recall, the 1950s and ’60s were the heyday of the Hollywood Western. In 1967, the year these Star Trek episodes first aired, John Wayne’s seminal El Dorado was released. The television airwaves were full of western-themed shows; over 100 different westerns were on the air in the ’50s and ’60s. But, despite the flood of campy sci-fi B-movies at the Saturday matinee, there was not much “pure” science fiction on TV. Star Trek was quite a gamble for Desilu and NBC, the TV network where it landed. It was canceled after three seasons, with a total of 79 episodes aired.
Gene Roddenberry’s intention was to produce a show with a social conscience. Social consciousness doesn’t sell well, so he packaged Star Trek as an action/adventure series, very much like the rough-and-tumble westerns or police shows that were popular at the time, only set in space. Both of the episodes on Volume 11 appeal to action aficionados, while also placing the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in environments familiar to kids in the ’60s.
“Tomorrow Is Yesterday” begins shortly after the Enterprise has been flung through time after an encounter with a black hole. (They call it a “black star,” but trust me: they mean “black hole.”) When the dust has settled and the fires extinguished, the crew finds that their ship is flying high in the atmosphere of Earth. And, to make matters worse, they cannot raise Starfleet on the communication system. Why? Because they have been sent back to the 1960s by a time warp. (The writers try in a vague way to connect the Enterprise’s futuristic history with current events, by making Captain Kirk say something like, “Didn’t man land on the moon in the late 1960s?” Of course, that event wouldn’t take place for another two years after the episode was filmed.) The United States Air Force, ever vigilant for UFOs and “little green men,” scrambles a fighter to investigate the strange contact on their radar. Kirk and Spock recognize that if a person from the 1960s sees the Enterprise it could alter the course of history. So, in a series of blunders throughout the episode, they beam the fighter pilot aboard.
At first, they plan on bringing the bewildered pilot back to the 23rd century. But, after Spock double-checks his calculations, they realize that the man’s son (who hasn’t been born yet) will play an important role in Earth’s space program. He must be returned, but how? He already knows too much about the future. This leads to a series of misadventures as Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew attempt to return the pilot to Earth, recover the evidence of the Enterprise’s visit, and travel back through time to their own century.
“The Return Of The Archons” is the next episode on the DVD. As most Trek fans are aware, the United Federation Of Planets has a creed named the “Prime Directive.” The Prime Directive states that under no circumstances are starship crews to interfere with the progress of a civilization. Though I don’t think the Prime Directive is ever mentioned by name in the episode, it’s pretty obvious that Kirk flagrantly disobeys it.
The Enterprise is dispatched to Beta III (gotta love those imaginative planet names) to investigate the disappearance of a ship that visited the planet 100 years before. Their landing crews find a peaceful society, governed by a being known as Landru. Landru’s enforcement agents exert their mind control influence on two members of the crew and assimilate them into “the body.”
When Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, and the rest of another landing party beam down to the planet, they encounter a man who is involved in a resistance movement. He helps them infiltrate The Body as they attempt to find out what Landru is and remove his influence over the people of Beta III. Considering that the planet’s society was built around Landru and his “teachings,” you can see how that violates the policy of non-involvement.
I’m going to discuss some elements of the plot now that contain spoilers. If you’ve never seen the episode and want to go into it with a virgin mind, skip the next paragraph. But, I give in to my film critic’s analytical side, so maybe you’ll want to read it after all.
“The Return Of The Archons” can be viewed in a few ways from sociological or philosophical contexts. If you look at Landru as a god and his followers as believers, you can interpret the episode as an attack on organized religion and the “sheep” that fill out their ranks. If you consider that Landru winds up being a computer, it can be seen as a discourse on the evils of allowing technology too much foothold in our lives. Coming a few years after the end of Joseph McCarthy’s attempts at controlling the minds of America, it can be an attack on government control of the public’s mind. Or, in the midst of the Cold War, it could be seen as a condemnation of the Communist virtue of a unified, like-minded population under complete control of the government. Whatever Roddenberry’s intentions, I must applaud him for innocuously slipping his message into prime-time programming.
Volume 11 exhibited the same high production values I found in Volume 8. Each of the Star Trek episodes have been digitally remastered, and they look as good as a television show from the 1960s can hope to look. The image is sharp and detailed with excellent color fidelity and no bleeding. The only problems with the image are inherent to the source material. The picture overall is a little grainy, particularly noticeable in special effect model shots, and can have a few blips caused by dust on the negative. During “The Return Of The Archons” I thought I detected rather severe digital problems around the Enterprise’s engine nacelles in one shot. If you’ve ever edited a JPG image in Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro, and you’ve selected a color range and wound up with a big blocky area that didn’t quite look like what you had in mind, that’s what it looked like. Like someone had been trying to clean up the black matte lines around the Enterprise, over-compensated, and wound up removing part of the gray surface of the ship. The audio has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. Keeping with its mono roots, sound is mostly restricted to the center channel. Directional effects are used for starship fly-bys during the opening credits, and nowhere else in these two episodes. The purist in me would rather have seen the mono tracks cleaned up and utilized, rather than an unnecessary remix. The only extra is the “preview trailer” for each episode.
The lack of significant extras is my only complaint about the Star Trek DVD series. It was a landmark series, and it would have been nice if Paramount had included some history of the show or of the particular episodes on the discs. Fortunately, the Internet is a hotbed of Star Trek fandom, so there’s plenty of nerds out there willing to tell you what they think about it (to paraphrase Homer Simpson). I’ve included links to the Sci-Fi Network’s summaries of each episode. They’ve included some nice tidbits in their synopses.
In the time since I reviewed Volume 8, I’ve had the chance to see Galaxy Quest. It’s a great spoof and I love the movie dearly, but geez, it sure takes the air out of your tires. It’s hard now to see the lame special effects and hammy acting of Star Trek without giggling to myself. Sigh.
At a suggested price of $19.99USD, Star Trek: The Original Series, Volume 11 is a good bargain. It’s not entirely essential to the collections of those who are not collecting the entire series, but it’s a logical choice if for no other reason than its social relevance.