It will be proven time after time during the series run that a well-written adversary, brought to life by a skilled actor, makes for some of the best Trek. On the surface, this is a routine trapped-on-a-planet episode. But the script by Paul Schneider and the performance of William Campbell lift it into the realm of the very best episodes.
The story gets a great deal of its strength from simplicity. The format for this type of episode is pretty straight-forward: Where am I? Who are you? Why won't you let me go? The more interesting the answers to those questions, the more interesting the episode.
The first answer (Where am I?) comes in the form of a truly magnificent set, beautifully designed by Jefferies and even more beautifully decorated by March. Without knowing for sure, I suspect that the previous week on location ("Shore Leave") allowed extra time on the stage to get this ready. It's a complicated set because it includes a gigantic staircase, a gigantic door (seen from both sides), a forest, a gigantic fireplace, flame (which must be controlled) and a gigantic mirror (which must be carefully shot around). It ends up being interesting to photograph in just about any direction, and the wide shots are especially effective.
The second answer (Who are you?) is every bit as provocative as the first. It is easy to imagine Campbell, a fine actor who probably had a good idea of his character before he arrived, stepping onto that set and finding the extra something he would need for his performance. Trelane is very well-written, but truly comes to life within these surroundings. For his part, Campbell resists every urge to take it over the top, but knows he must get as close to that edge as possible. He walks the line most effectively, and gives a performance which is utterly without a sour note.
Campbell's Trelane, while menacing, manages to exhibit the playfulness of a child, along with sudden mood shifts and a variety of non-sequitors. He also utters one of the greatest comic lines in Trek history: "Oh, Mr. Spock, you do have one saving grace after all. You're ill-mannered." His timing is impeccable, but it's important to note that the humor is derived from character interaction -- not super-imposed jokes.
The answer to the third question (Why won't you let me go?) is nebulous until the very end. And despite the fact that this amounts to a quick fix (Kirk is unable to extract himself, and must rely on the cavalry), it is provocative enough as a sci-fi concept to be easily forgiven. Here again, Campbell makes the most of his opportunity, revealing fully what he has kept cleverly concealed throughout. This is one episode that stands up very well under repeated viewings, and it is only by rewatching that you can catch the subtleties that Campbell uses to cleverly foreshadow his character's true identity. This is another way in which both script and performance triumph.
Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley all continue to show greater comfort in their characters' skins. There are a couple of moments (during the courtroom scene) when Shatner lets things get a little out of hand. In later episodes, this would turn out to be a sign that he didn't like the material very much. Hard to say if that's true here, because it's just as likely that Kirk, realizing he's dealing with a child, needs to make things a bit bigger to get his captor's attention. These are, therefore, minor infractions -- if infractions at all.
Guests are used very kindly. We've never seen these people before (DeSalle, Jaeger, and Ross) and yet they somehow all survive the episode! Including a meteorologist is a clever detail, adding depth to our impression of the Enterprise crew. Unfortunately, yeoman-of-the-week Ross does nothing to improve the standing of Trek women ("Oh, Captain, I was so worried.").
In technical areas, the on-set special effects (mostly fire) are quite nicely done. The bit with the noose is always creepy, aided by dramatic use of theatrical lighting. In fact, the lighting is another element which works to help define the Trelane character. It's risky because it can look hokey, but it never does here. In fact, it is used most discretely and adds depth to Trelane's made-up world.
The opticals, on the other hand, are a bit disappointing. This is the first of what will be many pop-in/pop-outs, which really are just about saving money by not needing a transitional effect. Unfortunately, Trek never got good at this -- at least not as good as Bewitched (which never really got that good at it either). Additionally, Gothos has a few holes -- literally -- through which stars can clearly be seen. Also disappointing is the sound, which uses Saturday morning cartoon effects to accompany the destruction of the mirror.
One interesting thing to note in this context is the versatility of Alexander Courage's score for the first pilot. Since there is no new score for this episode, all of the music is mined from other scores. Among the nuggets are "Pike's Punishment" (used when Kirk is exposed to the real climate on the planet), and Vena's theme (known by several names) which is used as Trelane is called home. These melodies, to be heard numerous times over the remaining episodes of the first season, will become integral to the fabric of Trek, easily as identifiable as Shatner or Nimoy.
No other captured-on-a-planet story will ever reach this level of quality in the remainder of the series run. In a sense, one can wish they had retired that category after this episode, where all the pieces fit so well together. What comes later would ultimately cheapen this very fine episode.
Rating: Top (2)