The creative team hits full stride with a ship episode of gigantic proportions. Simply everything works. A worthy adversary is born, fronted by a character we grow to care about in a very short period of time (played by an actor we'll love to see again). A space battle is staged, and casualties are felt deeply on both sides. It is an anti-war message disguised as a war movie.
This is no small feat. Ostensibly based on a submarine movie, this battle of wits is tightly plotted, but not so much that the real message can't sneak in. To do that, writer Schneider wraps the main plot in a genuinely touching "lower deck" story which is unique to TOS, but beautifully realized by all concerned (including a most effective musical choice: Vena's theme). He then threads in a touch of fear and bigotry (in the character of Stiles) to fuel the animosity. By these, along with his wholly-realized Romulan characters, he lays bare motives and costs of the battle in personal terms, both for the Enterprise crew (where hatred, aggression, suspicion and senseless death are the result) and for the Romulans (where enemy characters we care about are destroyed).
It's worth considering that this tight plot has some definite holes. Even on repeated watchings, I'm not quite sure exactly how Kirk wins the battle (it appears that he fires phasers randomly and gets repeatedly lucky), and I'm not quite sure why everyone must (in the immortal words of Elmer Fudd) "be vewy, vewy qwiet." Nor is it even made clear why the Romulans attacked in the first place. But these holes are completely forgivable because of everything we are given to support them. Were there no holes, it might be better in some ways, but that is far from the point. The plot is just a carrier wave for characters and message, as in all great Trek.
Instead, much concentration has been given to making sure that the unnamed Romulan Commander is more than a faceless enemy. He is an experienced, battle-weary leader, with deep friendships and loyalties, ambitious subordinates, political pressures, a keen intuition, and in the end a sense of grace and acceptance in defeat. When he says that he and Kirk could have been friends, we believe it. That's a lot to accomplish in his handful of scenes, and it is done beautifully. That he doesn't have -- or need -- a name is in itself a powerful statement: The nameless enemy is still someone's commander, son, father, friend.
Credit for the character must be shared between Schnieder, director McEveety, casting director D'Agosta and Mark Lenard, who is perfectly cast and possesses a great sense of restraint and gravitas in the role. He is immediately believable as the captain of his vessel, with a crew not that different from the one on the Enterprise. From the start he is portrayed as Kirk's equal, and this fuels the battle as well as the palpable sense of loss when he is destroyed.
The regulars are also finding their stride. Shatner turns in a confident and clearly-defined Kirk. Nimoy manages to avoid all of the pitfalls he's hit previously while getting going in the role. Kelley, in McCoy's role as conscience, is passionate but restrained. His advice scene in Kirk's quarters is appropriately tender without getting syrupy. Even the supporting guests shine, including Comi as the suspicious (but understandably so) Stiles, and Baldavin as blushing bride/grieving widow. In addition, Warburton as the Centurian creates an admirable character whose death has real emotional impact.
Technically, the episode posed some interesting challenges. Some of these are well met, others not so much. The Romulan ship, complete with dramatic detailing, is the first welcome success, and this is followed by the very frightening glowing orbs it emits as a weapon. Film Effects has done a marvelous job of creating these, in addition to the Enterprise phasers (still settling into what makes a phaser blast and what is a photon torpedo) and the comet's tail. Unfortunately, sloppy editing mutes the effect of some of the opticals. The viewscreen scenes are certainly complex, but they have been assembled in a very klunky fashion and the edits are way too loose. For example, we continue to see the Romulan bridge long after the ship has been destroyed.
Additionally, there is some fundamental inconsistency in the Enterprise bridge lighting (watch the turbolift door to give it away, but it's fairly noticeable) which is distracting and uncharacteristic.
Theiss has created a memorable look for the Romulans, including hats which, though a bit ugly, do cleverly eliminate the need for scores of pointed ears. Jefferies' interior for the Romulan bridge is also a clever inversion of the Enterprise bridge (everyone faces inward instead of out). It's a nice touch which somewhat offsets the unfortunate rain of styrofoam late in the episode. The other new set, the chapel, is actually a clever redress of the briefing room, reoriented so everyone sits with their backs to the "outside" wall. It was the original idea that seeing such areas of the ship would become commonplace, and that we might have a new one each week. Alas, it was not to be as the network continued to demand more and more "planet" shows. Redresses like this give a very useful sense of the size of the ship.
The strength of this episode is in its characters, the situation, and the marvelous performances. The battle is exciting, but it is the human/Romulan cost of the battle which is left in the wake of this episode. By giving the Romulan Commander an extended death scene, by revisiting the new widow in the chapel, and by giving us a crewmember transformed, the point is very clear. This battle, like all battles, has personal consequences. With that message at its heart, this is truly great Trek.
Rating: Very Top (1)