I’ve said on many occasions that Classic Trek is my favorite Trek, but that’s not to say I dislike any of the others. Well… maybe Voyager… But the funny thing about classic Star Trek is that I’ve also said many times that of the 79 episodes, there might be 10 good ones. I recently stumbled upon a very enjoyable website that gives a pretty strong breakdown of the series, here (external link). Using this as a ballpark guide, season 3 opened with the 3rd worst rated episode of the 79. Amazingly, just one episode later, we see an episode that only has 8 rivals. This may not be an end-all-be-all rating system, but it gives us an idea of what we are getting into with The Enterprise Incident and it shows us that there was still plenty of milage in the original Enterprise.
Written by the legendary D.C. Fontana, The Enterprise Incident opens with Kirk misbehaving. We spend half the episode really wondering if Kirk has lost his mind. What could possibly possess him to go into Romulan space and break the Federation Treaty? The truth comes out eventually: Kirk and Spock are operating under covert orders from the Federation to infiltrate Romulan space and steal their cloaking device. It’s a great story that relies on tricking the audience as much as the Romulan Commander. But this is still 60’s TV and long before the days where continuity would be a thing.
The biggest question of course is: what ever became of that device? Scotty got it to work but we never see another Starfleet ship with cloaking abilities. Seems like a grossly overlooked opportunity. And the funny thing is, the cloaking device is where the episode falls apart on a bunch of levels. Kirk takes it apart with his bare hands. (It’s clearly not the Ikea Cloaking Device which needs a screwdriver and an Irwin Allen wrench to disassemble!) After Kirk escapes with it, the Romulan Commander runs in and stares at a wall of lights before her subordinate identifies that the big orb in the center of the room is missing. And I always love Kirk’s commands, this time to Scotty: here’s a completely alien piece of tech but you’ve got 15 minutes to get it working or we’re all dead! (I can’t get a laptop from Ireland to work here without an adapter, but Scotty can rig a cloaking device into the ship in 15 minutes!)
There are very few other weak points though. I mean, the Commander’s dramatic chair spin to let us know that a woman was in charge was over the top. I could comment on the fact that her skirt was so short that even when she got up and straightened it, it did not cover her bottom… but I’ll accept that Romulan’s are more hot blooded than Vulcans, so maybe that’s just being playful. Or I might find Spock’s slow drawl tedious but I think he was trying to buy his friend some time. I’ll give it to him though, he has a good come-back when the commander asks, “what are you that you can do this to me?” “The first officer of the Enterprise!” Zing, Spock! I think the biggest shock to me is when Kirk needs a Romulan uniform, he tasks Scotty with getting one off their prisoners. One might consider that an act of aggression, no? In essence, go to the brig and strip a prisoner and bring me his clothes! (But it’s Scotty’s “It’ll be my pleasure” that really leaves my head spinning!)
I remember this episode fondly from my youth with my cousins at a Jersey shore house we used to rent during the summer months. My cousin Mike was sitting with me for this one. Good times… Maybe it was the dialogue he and I had around the title that made it stand out. Or maybe it was the “Vulcan death grip” or the fun of seeing Kirk made up like a Romulan. Whatever it was, this was exciting! As an adult, I find myself a little saddened by it. I see the sorrow that Spock betrayed a woman to get secrets from her. I see that he actually regretted it because he actually did feel something for her. I think there’s understanding in the end, between the two characters and I think that makes up for a lot. But now, more than the cloaking device, I really want to know what happened to her. Kirk offers to take her as a guest to the nearest Starbase but wouldn’t it have been so much better if this were the first step in the two races becoming allies? ML
The view from across the pond:
Kirk is in a grump this week, and it doesn’t make for a very promising start to an episode. Despite McCoy observing that his behaviour is odd, Kirk manages to take the Enterprise into Romulan territory without anyone stopping him, which seems a bit strange, considering almost nobody on the ship is aware of what is going on. You would have thought somebody would play the hero and take over command, but it just shows the extent to which the chain of command is fetishized in Star Trek. If the captain goes crazy and orders everyone to their deaths, apparently they blindly follow him.
Of course there’s more going on than that, and the twists and turns in this episode are magnificent. I was genuinely fooled into thinking there was something wrong with Kirk, and then I momentarily lost trust in the writing, assuming his behaviour was simply a weak excuse to put the ship in danger, but I should have taken better note of who wrote this episode. Of course D.C. Fontana would have a trick or two up her sleeve. She then had me believing that Spock had betrayed Kirk, and thinking nobody could blame him for that after Kirk’s actions, although this episode would have worked a bit better earlier in the run. It’s a bit late to suggest Spock might really be a traitor, although his adherence to logic above all else (or so he pretends) makes him always a potential loose canon. The Vulcan ideology of logic can be used to justify anything. I was only barely a step ahead of the writing when it turned out that everything was pre-planned by Kirk and Spock. This is an episode that keeps the viewer guessing, and does so very effectively.
It is also an episode that bravely refuses to show us clear cut heroes and villains. Our original assumption about Kirk’s irresponsible behaviour paints him as the villain, and then it’s Spock’s turn to be the villainous one, apparently a traitor to the Federation. When the truth is out, we arguably have justification for their actions: the Romulans have developed a cloaking device which, let’s face it, would allow them to conquer any enemy, including the Federation, so it is imperative that one of them is stolen in order to level the playing field. But the really clever thing is that at no stage, throughout any of these red herring or genuine motivations, are the Romulans really the bad guys. Yes, they have developed a powerful tool for war, but it is unclear how it will be used. Spin it around and imagine it’s something the Federation had developed and the Romulans had stolen, and everyone would be saying it was going to be used as a tool to maintain peace and the Romulans are the villains. So this is clearly a huge grey area.
Added to that, Spock’s betrayal of the Romulan Commander makes him far more of a villain than her. He gets more than he bargains for, because I think he genuinely does have his feelings stirred by her, and not just because of her “attire”, which “should actually stimulate our conversation”, and is probably stimulating something else. One thing’s for sure, though: the commander is deeply attracted to Spock, for reasons best known to herself. She couldn’t find a colder fish if she tried, and true to form he coldly manipulates her feelings and betrays her. This all hangs on the performances of Leonard Nimoy and Joanne Linville. Nimoy does the best he possibly can within the constraints of the character, showing flickers of troubling emotions. Linville is of course free to display the emotions of the situation more overtly, but delivers a beautifully subtle performance. Making us believe she is falling for Spock is quite a feat. She is the best thing about this episode, by a mile, although it’s also fun to watch Kirk sneaking around as a fake Romulan, and kicking the stupidest ever soldier in the face.
Just one question remains: what name did the commander whisper in Spock’s ear? It’s got to be something incongruous for a soldier, so maybe the name of a bird or a flower? Guesses in the comments section please! RP