The whiplash that is the third season now swings us in the opposite direction again. This episode hearkens back to the best of Trek, and very nearly reaches that level itself. The story is memorably simple and, except for its ending, hits all the right notes.
As an allegory, it is entirely successful. In its context it was about the perpetuation of the Vietnam war, as is evidenced by McCoy's tirade on the bridge. But it manages to avoid being specific, and thus applies itself to all human conflicts. The alien of this sci-fi story is just a stand-in for the blind hatred which drives so much of human conflict and war. The Klingons become the Other, the Enemy, and before long no one remembers how it all started or even why they are fighting. But atrocity begets atrocity. Murder begets murder. It's a familiar cycle to students of humanity.
It's a dangerous message, but in the context of starships and aliens, this is actually very safe material -- thus living up to what Roddenberry intended for Trek all along. And that is one of the ways in which this really shines: its subversive nature. The censors would not have read it as an allegory, and probably were only concerned with the depictions of violence. The network could have seen it as just fighting off aliens (and why shouldn't they? the suits might think). But the escalation of the combat is textbook, and only the reasoned calm of Kirk and Spock -- against what their instincts are telling them -- manages to diffuse this before it gets out of hand.
Mixed in to the proceedings are some wonderful character moments, and the boiling to the surface of low-level animosities which certainly would have to fester between crewmembers on long space voyages (the Enterprise is much like a submarine in that respect). Chekov gets the most to do, but Scotty and Uhura each have moments. The Klingons are beautifully played -- under-played actually -- and become something other than cartoon enemies. Bixby makes a critical decision by including a wife for Kang, then finding a way for her to (nearly) bring about the turning point. Without her, the testosterone would fly off the chart, and this would have become implausible, perhaps laughable. Though her character isn't well-developed, her mere presence helps make the story work.
The only major misstep is the resolution, which nearly undoes the wonderful tension the episode has created. I suppose it would have been worse to have them all sing a round of "Kum Ba Yah," but the ending we are given is not far off. Having Kirk yell at an optical blob which doesn't appear to have any ears is a bit undignified. More satisfying would have been to witness the entity weaken visibly bit by bit as adversaries laid down their weapons. It probably shouldn't have gone without a fight, causing one last surge of hatred, and then been dispelled only by a shaky truce which held just long enough. We could have then ended with mutual suspicion intact, and a fine foundation for later Klingon/Human difficulties.
First season Trek would have had the problem figured out by the end of Act II, the Klingons convinced by the end of Act III, then let the resolution play out through Act IV. Instead, we get a disappointing quick fix. This pattern, which would plague much later Trek (notably Voyager and Enterprise), can be summed up as follows: keep the tension bulding as long as you can, then release it quickly in the final moments. Look back at "Metamorphosis" for a beautiful example of how the earlier structure is so much more satisfying.
Bixby should be given special extra credit points for keeping almost the whole thing on the ship. That probably saved money, in addition to being a fine story point. As it is, he did many things right, including giving us believable Klingons, two very plausible bad guys (Klingons and the entity), and some very fine food for thought. And the acting is uniformly splendid. It helps that overacting really isn't possible when an alien is controlling your thoughts. But the temptation to go over the top is, for the most part, avoided.
A nod should also be made to Westheimer, who managed to blow up a Klingon ship, create a fabulous Klingon transporter effect, and keep the alien entity menacing while plausible. The effects budget probably took all of the money saved by using ship sets for everything, but that's how it's supposed to work. Theiss shows his love of detail by including two dashes of blue and orange in the female Klingon costume.
In a final crowning touch to the allegory, the alien is not destroyed, merely driven out of the ship. This means that it will continue to slink through the galaxy, looking for fueds to fuel. The message is clear, and elegant.
Rating: Top (2)