The first season of Star Trek comes to an end with Operation: Annihilate. A curious title for a show so often focusing on hope. I mean here’s the deal: Starfleet says, “Jimmers, there’s an outbreak of mass insanity around your brother’s home on Deneva. Go investigate.” They have no idea what’s causing it, but when they find out that flying pancakes are the cause, they have to figure out how to stop them and that means annihilation! There’s no middle ground here! Spock doesn’t communicate with them to say “hey, chaps, this is the wrong way to do things”. These creatures don’t follow The Outer Limits creatures in The Invisibles (or Babylon 5’s Exogenesis). They are just there to connect to the nervous system and cause havoc. It’s actually a very effective story that’s quite unnerving and that becomes most apparent when Spock is attacked. But as good as that is, it’s not really a strong episode on most other levels. Let’s put our thinking caps on…
Let’s start with some observations about the crew. Scotty must be a remarkable engineer. Seeing a ship flying into the sun, Kirk asks if they can beam the pilot out. Scotty doesn’t so much as look at an instrument. He just knows they are out of range. (I’d have loved it if Sulu said something like, “Oh, whoops! I just had zoomed the image all the way out on the scanner. We’re actually right next to the ship!”) McCoy may be a great doctor but I suspect he needs glasses. He sees Jim’s brother Sam lying dead on the ground and asks “is this your brother?” If not for the trauma of losing his brother, how wonderful would it have been for him to say “No, Bones, that’s just a man who looks exactly like me, but with a mustache. My brother is a Black Asian Inuit with red hair!” Come on, Bones! Kirk meanwhile needs to learn the difference between “apology” and “excuses”. When Uhura loses contact with the planet, Kirk asks her to reestablish contact. Unsuccessful, she says “I’m sorry, sir…” but before she can say more, Jim blurts out, “I’m not interested in your excuses, Lieutenant.” Um… what was her excuse, exactly? If I knew “I’m sorry” was an excuse, I could have gotten out of so many homework assignments! (And I do think Kirk hates his navigator sometimes. At the end of the episode he asks Spock to “lay in a course…” This is clearly the navigator’s job, but I guess that’s why next season Chekov starts; they needed a navigator Kirk could trust!)
There are also some quirky lines: “They tried to brain us with these clubs.” Clearly this is a new verb. I guess brains were on his mind considering the creatures he’s up against. (Don’t groan! It was a good one!) “Fan out, follow me!” This means everyone run in a straight line behind the captain. And lastly, “I’m putting you gentlemen on the hotseat with me”. What’s wrong with this? Nothing if taken by itself. But note his audience:
For the sake of clarity, there are 3 women in the room, but Kirk only wants Spock and McCoy on the hotseat with him! Women don’t have to be on a hotseat.
The crazy thing is I really like this episode. Spock being attacked is frightening. He collapses and can’t control the pain he’s in. He even goes blind (although he has a get out of jail free card which I found lame)! The creatures themselves don’t register on sensors because they are individual cells. That’s a genius idea for a science fiction story. Here we have a creature that does what I love in SF storytelling: it’s not humanoid, cannot be reasoned with, and causes madness upon contact. That’s genuinely awesome! But for all that, there’s a lot wrong with the episode. My son pointed out that when the crew decided to sunburn the whole planet, they have to put floating satellites out to amplify the power of the sun. The ship has a crew of some 400 people, but has room for 210 ultraviolet satellites!!? Spock neglects to tell anyone that his species has an inner eyelid, and somehow McCoy didn’t know that either (even with 14 science labs on board, I guess some things slip past the medics of the future) and most insane of all: when they blast Spock with “1 million candles per square inch” of light (you know, because that’s how we measure light), he doesn’t even get a minor sunburn. (I mean, I’m a ginger; I burn with 1 candle per 12 feet, so maybe I’m just jealous!)
The worst part of the whole thing is that after they blind Spock because “the rest of the planet won’t have goggles” (as if that matters: the planet is as good as dead otherwise, but Spock would still be the “most valuable first officer in the fleet” if they don’t blind him first…), they realize “oh, all we needed was ultraviolet light!” Now, you might think: they were racing against time. Sure. If the answer didn’t come 2 minutes later. “Let’s subject him to high intensity experimentation since it’ll be a while for the autopsy results.” “Ok, Bones… but what’s ‘a while’?” “Maybe 2… 3 minutes? 10 tops!” “… sooooo, waiting wouldn’t be more prudent?”
I will always love this episode because as a kid it freaked me out and I still love the feeling I get while watching it. But applying a little thought really derails it. I guess the writer wasn’t worried about being on the hotseat, huh? ML
The view from across the pond:
In this episode Kirk finds his brother dead. You would have thought he might be a bit more upset about that, but he has a quick lean on a wall and then on with business. Mind you, his brother is none other than William Shatner in a fake moustache. I’m not sure laughter was the audience reaction they were going for at that point. But the whole family thing doesn’t quite hit the right notes, and not just because of William Fake-Tachner. You can see why the writer did all this: to add some emotion and raise the stakes, but we have never met Kirk’s brother before, his sister-in-law just screams a lot and talks about “horrible things” before popping her clogs as well (no attempt at CPR Bones? Just going to watch those dials heading south?) and “my brother’s son” (if only there was a word for one of those) isn’t even a speaking role. Plus, it’s almost as if Shatner realised the emotion of this wasn’t going to land, so didn’t really give it any effort. The reason for that is the episode already gives us something to care about, the fate of Spock. We already know and love him as a character, and the importance of Spock to his best buddy Kirk is very well established. We don’t need moustache man, screaming woman #12 in our Trek Tally, and a sleeping nephew to raise the stakes, because they are already raised.
Down on the “extraordinarily quiet” streets (all the extras budget blown on the last episode?) we get to see the monsters, which are yucky, flappy things that fly, making occasional parpy noises. Despite Yeoman Zahra’s comment about them not looking real (where was she when the Gorn or the Horta were around?) these squelchy things are for my money the most effective monsters this whole series, simple but very icky. The idea that they are single cells from an organism spread across the galaxy is also quite inspired.
So, Kirk ends up facing a choice, and it’s basically the same choice he has faced for the last couple of weeks: do the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few? Save the universe but condemn Lazarus to perdition? Save the future but let Edith die? Save billions of people by wiping out millions, including Spock and My-Brother’s-Son?
McCoy’s catty little lecture to Kirk about how the colonists are his responsibility and he shouldn’t just been focusing on Spock and Silent-Nephew comes across as cruel, and McCoy remains the only major character who doesn’t quite work in Star Trek, unless the vibe they were going for really was a bit of an idiot. If Kirk can help Spock and Peter he can help everyone. They aren’t two separate problems and his attention is hardly divided. And in the end his reaction is this:
“I will accept neither of those alternatives, gentlemen… I want that third alternative.”
And that had me punching the air. At long last. If anyone is still confused about why the previous universally-loved episode is actually below-par trash compared to much of the first season, here it is in a nutshell. We’ve sat and watched Kirk repeatedly faced with two nasty choices and picking the slightly less nasty, but here he actually takes a stand and insists on a third way. If only somebody had joined the dots and turned this into the character development it should be, with Kirk learning from his mistakes, it would have been even better, but other than that the writing here is streets ahead of The Alternative Factor or The City on the Edge of Forever.
OK, once Kirk has set his mind on finding a third way, it’s not the plain sailing that a similar course of action could have been in the last two episodes (e.g. allowing Edith to live but save her pacifism for a better moment, or even take her with them to the future). Spock is unnecessarily blinded for the sake of a bit of added pathos, thanks to some entirely flawed logic, with Kirk and McCoy reasoning that just because they can’t give goggles to the people on the planet they shouldn’t give them to Spock either, as if that’s going to have any effect on the result of the experiment. The idea that a very bright light can penetrate inside the body to kill the monsters seems silly, simply because the dialogue doesn’t quite join the dots in terms of the invisible ends of the light spectrum being able to do exactly that (so the writer takes something that does make sense and makes it sounds like it doesn’t). And I’m not entirely sure leaving people with dead gunky aliens inside their bodies wouldn’t be at least a bit of a problem in terms of their future health.
Despite those qualms, this episode ends the first series on a high, simply because Kirk finally become the hero who takes a stand and insists on a third way, and in doing so defeats the most effective monster we have seen so far, both visually and conceptually. So we have two consecutive episodes to end the season, one of which sums up why I walked away from Star Trek on my first attempt, and the other that sums up why I’m so pleased that I tried again.
We will be returning to Star Trek for the second season in the New Year, but before that it’s time to journey to the outer limits of our imaginations… RP