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The Corbomite Maneuver

Hailing Frequencies Open

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this episode must feel pretty good about itself. It became the model for so much later Trek, that it can actually be hard to appreciate. On the surface it looks a lot like the worst of Voyager and Enterprise. But the creators of this little masterpiece shouldn't be faulted for the lack of imagination in their successors.

It's important to recognize that this was the first regular episode filmed for the series. It came a full year after the second pilot, and two long years after "The Cage." A few things have changed, a few faces have been added, but the episode gets right down to the business of telling a great -- if simple -- story.

The opening scenes are some of the best examples of routine life on a starship that we would ever see. They set the tone so beautifully, that it was almost never necessary to go into such detail again (although many of these aspects would be fleshed out in the first season). We see star-mapping, battle drills, casual conversation, routine problem-solving, hailing frequencies opening all over the place, conversations among crewmembers about their superiors, etc. In short, this becomes the background against which the stories will be told. One could argue that the very slight plot of this episode makes the perfect framework on which to hang such important backstory.

Relationships are being established, and there are several wonderful scenes between Kirk and McCoy, and a few great ones between Kirk and Spock. Shatner demonstrates right away that he is capable of inhabiting the center seat, as well as bringing the other actors along with him. His performance is truly splendid, especially in the Bailey sub-plot. His reactions are subtle, but go a long way to establishing for us -- and for Shatner -- who this Captain Kirk is.

Kelley is perfectly cast as a foil for this Captain. By bringing the doctor character a little closer to Kirk's age, they got a collaborator without the overtones of parenting or wise old sage. The older doctors of the two pilots would be hard to argue with, but this one is a near perfect complement. Kelley also gives a fine performance which highlights the wide range of emotions that McCoy will provide. (As yet, there is no interaction between McCoy and Spock.)

The story is almost a non-story, but the script is so delightful that you hardly notice. The greatest moment of tension comes and then passes at about the halfway point in the episode. This is important to note because it flies in the face of much later Trek, which would keep the moment of greatest tension until just before the end, then offer a quick fix. Here the fix is anything but quick, and it is multi-layered.

Kirk displays a keen ability to manage on multiple levels, a testament to Shatner, writer Sohl, and director Sargent. This character is buffeted from all sides, including an inexperienced officer who falls to pieces. But Kirk takes his problems one at a time, and displays some steely nerve while he's at it. He's good at chess and poker, which says a lot about the character. The pacing and integration of the various small sub-themes in the script is nothing short of amazing.

A few clichés are firmly established here. Things such as the ship being buffeted about (6 times), its imminent destruction (in "10 Earth time periods known as minutes"), and the dreaded hailing frequencies (a misstep which happens 8 times). I call these clichés, but that's not meant as a derogatory term. These are the things which happened frequently enough throughout the series' run to become familiar and memorable. They ultimately played a major role in helping the series stick to the public's imagination. The clichés are the ribs of the original Trek.

The ship-in-danger model is one such cliché, and this episode creates the model and becomes the prototype for many later episodes. But it works. And that is because the writers recognize that the audience doesn't believe the ship will be destroyed in its first episode (or any episode, for that matter). They know it will survive, and just wonder how. More than that, they wonder how the characters will react, and then relate (or do not relate) to them on a deeper level. Writers who make explosion/destruction the central problem and then wait until the last second to solve it don't have much respect for their audience. Sohl gives us this nugget in the middle just to demonstrate what Kirk and his crew are made of. He even includes the countdown to destruction, done just about as good as it can be done (superseded only by the self-destruct sequence in the third season's "Last Battlefield"), with humor interjected. But the whole time the audience is with Kirk, who knows he'll find a solution.

A small point worth noting is that there is some sense of let down at the end when the threat turns out to be so completely benign. This is a function of the size of the threat: the bigger it seems, the bigger it better turn out to be. The audience can almost always imagine a bigger threat than the producers can afford, and this is why such setups rarely pay off. Building up the audience's expectations is relatively easy, but if they are built too high, there's no way the device will succeed. Again, however, Sohl anticipates this with his structure. The threat ramps up to its peak in the middle, then backs slowly down until it's time to board the ship. This doesn't completely alleviate the disappointment, but it is mitigated.

From a technical standpoint, it's clear that the production team learned what they needed to know from the pilots. Enterprise footage is reused to good effect, and the stock shot of the bridge viewscreen is created for this episode (it will be used in too many episodes to count, including the very last episode nearly three years later). The opticals are all fairly successful, but the alien ship gets a bit too big in comparison to the Enterprise. If it were twice the size, or even three times the size, we could have believed it. But at 100 times the size, it's a bit over the top. (Perhaps if it had turned out to be a blowfish in space we could have accepted it.) Beyond that, the opticals, including the first shot of the ship's phasers, are up to the standard the show would know.

The uniforms, save for their collars, begin to look like the finished version, and red is finally added to the mix. If you look closely at the two pilots, there are actually two shades of the gold uniform, one that is slightly pinker. The difference was barely noticeable (compare Kirk's shirt to Gary Mitchell's in "Where No Man"). Now it is obvious, and the show's color scheme has been completed. Lighting is also used to great effect in many places, including the alcove over the bridge turbolift door, and the sickbay.

The sets were moved to a different sound stage in preparation for shooting this episode, and the old briefing room set didn't survive the transition. The new briefing room debuts, but it is much more generic, which is practical (it will be redressed into many different things), but disappointing when compared to what has gone before. Also somewhat disappointing is the interior for the alien ship. It never actually looks like a ship, but rather like a sound stage with curtains drawn to hide the walls. I suspect it was cheap, and it shows (it was, in fact, a redress of the briefing room). It highlights the need to parse out the money appropriately -- something everyone was still learning at this point. This set looks like it was done as an afterthought, and after the money had run out.

Roddenberry stated in interviews that battling xenophobia (fear of beings different than ourselves, which includes different races, religions, and species) should be a big theme of the show:

"Intolerance in the 23rd century? Improbable! If man survives that long, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear. It's a manifestation of the greatness that God, or whatever it is, gave us. This infinite variation and delight, this is part of the optimism we built into Star Trek." Making Of, pg. 40

His optimism, however, essentially eliminated the subject from open discussion because it was just assumed as part of the show's universe. In the rare case where it did come up, like here in the Bailey character, it seems a little bit out of place. Anthony Call, as Bailey, gives a memorable performance as a young crewmember facing such fears. The character gives a face to irrational prejudice (which instinctively reaches for its guns, bombs, and phasers). Kirk speaks for Roddenberry in response:

"Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien life-forms. You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there's no such thing as the unknown--only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a life-form advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives."

With this as the attitude, there is no need to even discuss the subject. The characters don't go around saying things like, "I recognize and respect that you are different from me." It's simply evident by the way they treat each other and the aliens and situations they face. Assuming this stance, introduced in this episode, is one of the brilliant and courageous decisions make by the creative team. By setting the show in a society which does not struggle with issues of race and religion, which is beyond such empty and hopeless conflict, our own petty squabbles can be seen for what they are.

This idea is at the heart of Trek. And giving this idea -- wholly -- to the viewers is a very rare and great gift for a TV show to give its audience.

Rating: Top (2)