Season 3 of Star Trek was really a step down from the previous two seasons. It wasn’t that Trek was consistently knocking it out of the park, but there seems to be more substance to the episodes of the previous seasons. And then along comes Spectre of the Gun, and substance flies completely out the window like a chair at a wild west saloon… yet it works perfectly.
I don’t know what Trek fandom typically thinks of this episode, but I think it’s brilliant. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been done in Doctor Who (with wonderfully comedic results) and Star Trek (with wonderfully surreal results) and I think I know why it works in both universes. To quote Jim Kirk, “There’s something about that date. October 26th…” Of course this was going to be a great episode! That’s my dad’s birthday. Ok, taking a practical approach, however, this episode is a dream come true for a guy who studied Ontology in college. How do I know I exist? The Enterprise crew is ordered to make contact with the Melkotians “at all costs” (though that seems like a strange order) and they find themselves back in 1881, doomed to repeat history at the battle of the OK Corral as they assume the roles of actual members of the losing gang. But when Chekov is shot dead out of sequence with what happened in reality, Spock begins to theorize that “history can be changed” because what they are experiencing is not history.
The scenery is marvelous. A blood red backdrop with the silhouette of mountains in the distance is all we have for the strange Arizona landscape. Buildings are facades while clocks and paintings hang mysteriously in mid-air. Walking into a building just presents the crew with a façade of the inside. Like everything else in this episode, it’s very dreamy. I’m also reminded of another cult classic, The Prisoner, with Living in Harmony. In that, #6 is forced to live out a virtual reality presentation of a wild west town. In this, it’s an alien’s interpretation of Tombstone Arizona. Yet, in this, there is a stronger sense of a video game, more like a virtual reality than The Prisoner presented. The crew are tasked with obtaining items to make a gas grenade and they go on their quest. It’s like an adventure game, but the payoff is lacking; after getting everything they need, they find nothing works because it’s not real… a virtual reality of sorts. And that’s when it really becomes interesting…
But first, observations! Killing Chekov must have been a big deal at the time. He was not enough of a main character that the audience would have seen through it, having only appeared in season 2. My guess is it was genuinely shocking to witness. Less shocking but very well done was the scene of the Wyatts coming together for the showdown, with one person in the foreground while two approached stoically from behind then they do it again to collect Doc Holliday. I thought the filming was surprisingly good. The actors are all perfectly mechanical. I found Kirk’s comment to the bartender, Ed, fascinating; he suggests Ed feel his clothing to identify that something was different about it. If I had one gripe about the episode it’s that Kirk tries to convince the Wyatt’s that he is not who they all believe him to be. Why not try instead to convince them that they changed sides? Anyway… while I find McCoy very racist sometimes where Spock is concerned, not trying to understand Spock’s culture, I credit Spock with being far deeper than McCoy gives him credit for. Not only does he derail McCoy’s jibes by reminding them all that he’s half-human, he later compliments McCoy (where McCoy actually does a double take). Spock may not “have emotions”, but he understands his crewmates more and more. For a show that didn’t do much to show any character arc, there is a sense that these people have been through a lot together and have learned from one another. This becomes exceptionally clear at the end of the episode when Spock asks Kirk if he wanted to kill, to which Kirk admits he did, but he fought that instinct. This ends up being the right move in the eyes of the Melkotians, securing the crew a meeting but it’s a brutal commentary by Spock; he wonders how mankind ever survived. Sometimes I too boggle over it, but I think it’s because people understand the messages in shows like this, that we need to be more than our base instincts. And with that, we can achieve greatness.
Back to the episode, the ontological element kicks in when Spock explains, “We judge reality by the response of our senses. Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules.” I wonder… And in those two words, I am reminded why I love Star Trek: it made me wonder! It made me ponder, think, speculate: “could everything we experience be a virtual reality?” Or to make it more Poetic, is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream? Are our senses like Spock’s sensors, unable to see a deeper truth; able to be fooled? Perhaps there is something that exists beyond our senses? I don’t know, nor can I give a definite answer one way or the other. On the side of the realist, of course reality is the only real thing. The input of our senses is the result of observing that reality. “No ghosts need apply.” On the other, perhaps dreamier side, perhaps there is a layer we can’t see; a virtual reality where we’ve barely scratched the surface and where our loved ones sit by our sides as we type on our blog and whispers in our ears, “there’s something about that date. October 26th….” Long may Star Trek make us wonder. ML
The view from across the pond:
The Federation clearly has little respect for territory or the right of people to be left alone. When Kirk is told by the Melkotian that he has encroached on their space and to leave, he hangs around like a bad smell and says he wants to establish friendly relations, like some unwanted visitor who just wandered into a house, was told to leave, and said “hey, let’s be friends”. When the Melkotian says, “you are outside; you are disease”, he could of course mean that quite literally. If there’s one thing 2020 showed us, it’s that a virus can get out of control very easily.
Kirk is rewarded for his persistence by being placed in a recreation of the O.K. Corral, along with Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov. I can’t say I’m terribly interested in this particular moment in history, and when Spock says, “I pride myself on my knowledge of your Earth history”, I was wondering why he would bother to fill his head with something that has virtually zero importance in the history of Earth. It is moments like this where Star Trek loses all pretence of being anything other than a projection of the USA into the future.
It is immediately obvious that the sheriff’s house is just a wall with no house behind it, and the rest of the town is “just bits and pieces”.
“Perhaps the Melkotians have insufficient data about this era.”
What, they don’t know there should be a building of some kind behind a wall that has a doorway in it? But the point of this is to give Kirk & Co a clear indication that where they are isn’t real, and then watch them forget that. The moment of realisation is when Spock figures out that the tranquillizer gas they have made doesn’t work, and yet that’s actually impossible. So they are in an impossible place. What they knew at the start, they forgot, and that’s because they got drawn into the narrative, something that is probably echoed by the reactions of the viewers, and this is a reminder that they are experiencing a fantasy. The leap from there to believing the bullets can’t hurt them is the tricky bit. Ever the illogical one, Spock fails to recognise the possibility that some things can be real in a fake scenario, and even fake things have the potential to do real harm. Luckily for him, he’s right about the bullets, and there is an attempt here to examine the nature of fear, which is quite effective despite being a bit clumsy. We do tend to fear things irrationally, even when we know they don’t actually pose a danger. And if Mike disagrees, he can look after my collection of spiders for a week.
Fear also plays into discrimination, of course, and that is on display here as well.
“My feelings are not subject for discussion, doctor.”
“Because there are no feelings to discuss.”
McCoy lashes out in his moment of misery, and is a racist moron as usual. You could attempt to excuse his behaviour towards Spock, who has to remind him that he is actually half human (not that he should have to justify himself), on the grounds that he is grieving, if it weren’t for the fact that being a racist moron towards Spock is McCoy’s default position. As usual, I can’t stand him. What function does he perform here? A completely useless doctor?
“There’s nothing I can do, Jim.”
How unusual. The other theme of this episode is the human instinct for violence. The Melkotians quite reasonably don’t want Kirk & Co hanging around in their territory for a cup of tea and some biscuits, because they assume they are violent twerps, just like their ancestors. They are right, of course, and the only reason they don’t end up shooting the Earps (who have been “blowing off all over town” – hold your noses) is that Spock figures out about the bullets. If he hadn’t joined those dots, they would have defended themselves. After some fisticuffs, Kirk shows a strong instinct to kill, and just stops himself in time. Bizarrely, the Melkotians seem to think that’s sufficient evidence for human pacifism. And at the end of the episode, writer Gene L Coon seems to embrace the reality of our violent impulses and almost to celebrate them, with Kirk’s smug reaction to Spock’s question about whether he wanted to kill his opponent or not. It’s deliberate irony, I think, so perhaps we are supposed to feel uncomfortable about his reaction.
“That’s the way it was in 1881.” How much has really changed since then? “Mankind, ready to kill.” RP
We will return to Star Trek in two weeks with Day of the Dove.
Spectre Of The Gun was a gem for the classic Trek’s final season. It was a useful mix of the return to the Wild West and the potential for simulated realities, much like Welcome To Blood City with the similar theme about humanity fighting its own killer instinct. In one way it’s most down-to-basics for a Trek story and in another way it’s remarkably complex. It especially proved how dialogue was for all intents and purposes the driving force for a Star Trek morality tale. Chekov’s pivotal drama with Sylvia (played by the lovely Bonnie Beecher), McCoy facing Doc Holliday and Kirk taking down the great Wyatt Earp are among the best examples of how sci-fi could creatively adapt to the elements of revisiting the past. It’s in league with Dr. Who’s A Town Called Mercy and Red Dwarf’s Gunmen Of The Apocalypse in that sense. Thank you both for your reviews on one of Star Trek’s best. 🖖🏻
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