Something very good is trapped inside this episode and trying desperately to escape. Unfortunately, it cannot. And while this is a very ambitious outing, it is never satisfying.
The concept is very good and very Trek. It's timeless in the sense that there will always be priviledged classes and working classes. It utilizes the notion of an insurgency -- albeit a very mild one -- to propel the action, and tries to justify torture. Watched through 2005 eyes, it appears positively ripped from today's headlines. This works in its favor.
But the execution is very muddy, the characters are one-dimensional, and the central problem turns out to be geological, not political. The culture supposedly built around art is decidedly fixated on conflict and repression. Further, the solution involves a very un-Kirk-like action by our hero centering around the need to prove there is such a thing as noxious vapors.
There are also a couple of creative decisions which simply must be acknowledged. The city in the clouds is a beautiful idea, and beautiful metaphor for the issues to be discussed. But why place it in a red sky? It would have been so much more beautiful in a blue sky or, if it must be red, in a magic hour sky (see Return of the Jedi). The decision to do this with a model (with superimposed cloud) instead of entirely as a matte painting is unusually clunky. Second, the view of the land below Stratos is without anything to suggest its scale. It appears to be a river with tributaries, but it might also be mountain ranges with small rivers and a giant plain. These may simply be the limitations of network television at work, but the Trek problem-solvers usually did better with this type of thing.
Again the costumes are certainly memorable. How they got away with all the navels is a mystery (given Barbara Eden's problems of the same era). But the two gowns are sheer works of art (and engineering), in and of themselves worth the price of admission. Contrast them, however, with guards who look a bit like mad painter/chefs. There is also the matter of the mask on which the plot turns. In Kirk's hand it looks like a perfect prop. On Shatner's face, however, it looks like a most undignified candy dispenser. It is so distracting that any sense of drama which might have inhabited the scene is completely lost.
That isn't much of a loss, however. The three guest characters are played so broadly that you can almost hear Vanna say "bwa-ha-ha" when she double-crosses Kirk. Corey, a well-known acting teacher who numbered Nimoy among his students, may simply be doing the best he can with the garbage he's given, but that's being charitable. His character has only one note, and so does his performance. Ewing and Polite would essentially drop off the face of the planet after these roles, and there's nothing here that suggests anything inappropriate about that. Polite is well cast as the aloof Stratos-dweller, and there is some genuine chemistry between her and Nimoy (although deciding that Spock should be the one to fall for this week's guest star was most unfortunate).
Despite its aspirations, or perhaps because of them, this episode never quite gets off the ground (so to speak). It has all the signs of being written by committee -- a group with decidedly cross-purposes. The initial crisis is not character-motivated, and at no time do any of our characters have to make decisions about themselves. They function only as pawns in this highly plot-driven episode. We learn nothing new about any of them, in fact, at this point in the series run, they've really become caricatures.
To fix this script, one has to start by rethinking why the Enterprise is there. Perhaps the Federation was called in to help root out the disruptors. Upon their arrival, they are given a hero's welcome, meet Droxine and Plasus at a fine dinner served by Vanna (a servant), tour the mines and hear Plasus' theory about who the disruptors are (a theory which turns out to be correct, but seriously misstates the motivation). The viewers are led to belive that Vanna is the ring-leader. But the investigation reveals that Droxine is actually the leader of the disruptors because she hates the oppression of the miners. She is confronted by Kirk at a second dinner, at which time she convinces him that her cause is just. But Kirk's orders are to help Plasus rid his city of the violence -- regardless of whether it is justified. Kirk must decide whether to help her, reveal her, or kill her. Help or crush and insurgency which is just? Now THAT'S a good conflict.
Beyond all the script and execution problems, there's something bigger: This episode just feels empty. The city in the clouds has no inhabitants (extras). The planet surface seems like the average of all the planet surfaces which have gone before. The phaser effects seem gratuitous. The fighting looks cold and staged. The lighting on the bridge of the Enterprise is all wrong. The gallery set feels like a set and no imagination is used in the photography. There is no sparkle in the actors' eyes. These people look tired, and that's the most damning criticism of all.
Rating: Middle-Lower (5)