This episode runs the serious risk of being a routine sci-fi mystery, but thankfully that isn't a big enough story. To fill in the rest of the hour, character development is placed front and center. This time the question is: who will our characters be when they are old?
The answers are not surprising. Each character simply moves deeper into traits we already have seen. But the performances all around are outstanding. Most notably is Kelley, whose country doctor is not only believable, but will be retained as subtext and go on to color his portrayal of the character through the rest of the series -- including the movies and his memorable appearance in the TNG pilot.
The make-up effects are really only passable, but they are facilitators rather than the story itself (as such prosthetics would become in later series). What allows them to work is once again great attention to detail. For example, during the hearing, Kirk wears an ever-so-slightly ill-fitting uniform. Details like this fuel Shatner, and his performance here is once again amazing.
It is an open question whether Kirk, as a character, would so quickly lose sight of regulations as he ages. This is a decision which had to be made for dramatic purposes, of course, and it can be excused as such because it affords the wonderful opportunity to explore the great devotion the crew feels for Kirk. The scene is utterly heart-breaking as each crewmember in turn is forced to give damning evidence while trying to spare the commander for whom they feel such great affection. We have seen Kirk's loyalty to his crew many times, and here it is returned. The value of this simple act to the series as a whole cannot be overstated.
Of course, there are some strange moments. McCoy and Spock have a long conversation while separated by a plastic tube filled with crumpled tinfoil. What this was intended to represent is a complete mystery, as is the strangely shaped plate sitting in front of Kirk when Spock enters his quarters after the hearing. The short montage of test-tube pouring is straight out of 50s B-movies. And one cannot help but notice a rather unfortunate wardrobe problem with Uhura's uniform during the hearing scene.
Though the plot hangs on the outcome of a mystery, thankfully the mystery is not drawn out too long. The clue is there from the beginning, and the solution is found at the climax of Act III. Such an early resolution is always a risk, and it gives way to a lesser plot about a Romulan attack which is not interesting by itself, but does allow the guest star to shine. His character is taking something akin to the Kobiyashi Maru (and not doing well). Though it might not have been necessary, this turn in the plot actually is so well written that it feels integral to the whole. The other subplot, Kirk's former girlfriend, does not fare as well, and never rises above a distracting contrivance (despite her loveliness).
Again, however, the creative team has hit its stride. Everything simply clicks, and the result is certainly memorable.
Rating: Top (2)