Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "By Any Other Name" (February 23, 1968)


Stardate 4657.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise answers a distress call from an uninhabited M-class world, only to be waylaid by an advance scouting mission from the Kelvan Empire, a powerful political force in the distant Andromeda Galaxy.

The Kelvans are led by Rojan (Warren Stevens), a commander who uses his people’s advanced technology to reduce the vast majority of the Enterprise crew to cuboctahedron blocks. These small blocks store their patterns for later restoration, leaving only the command crew intact.

Rojan’s plan is to take the Enterprise through the barrier at the edge of the galaxy, to Andromeda, a trip which will take 300 years.

However, to make this lengthy journey, Rojan and his people have assumed human form, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes that with human form comes human emotions.  With the help of his crew, Kirk seeks to sow emotional instability in the Kelvans and re-take the ship.

To that end, Scotty (James Doohan) introduces one Kelvan, Tomar, to alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile, Kirk sets his sight on seducing Kelinda (Barbara Bouchet), an act which stokes Rojan’s feelings of jealousy...


I can -- and will -- the count the ways that I absolutely love “By Any Other Name,” an episode from Star Trek’s (1966-1969) late second season. 

This season sees many attempts at overt humor (from “I, Mudd” to “A Piece of the Action” and “The Trouble with Tribbles”) but in some ways, this episode -- from Jerome Bixby and D.C. Fontana -- best transmits the series’ sense of humor without going overboard into silliness or over-the-top performances.

The episode’s good humor derives, specifically, from an acknowledgment of the crew’s human foibles, and the way that the characters deploy those foibles to extract themselves from a crisis.

To put it another way, the way that the crew defeat their enemies in “By Any Other Name” is to bring their own special quirks and gifts to the problem. We have seen this formula work again and again in Star Trek, in The Search for Spock (1984), The Voyage Home (1986) and recently in Star Trek: Beyond (2016). 

Here, Kirk, Spock, Scotty and McCoy each get to be at their mischievous, ornery, cunning, hilarious best in order to knock down the antagonists of the week. It’s true that aliens who don’t understand human emotions are a familiar trope in sci-fi TV, but that scenario nonetheless allows for some great comedy in “By Any Other Name.”  


Scotty drinks Tomar under the table, (and utters the famous line “it’s….green,” regarding some alien type of alcohol), and Kirk -- of course -- goes for the pretty lady, teaching Belinda to kiss.  This is a lesson he has taught before (see “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”)

Spock, meanwhile, dispassionately and logically gets to Rojan, spurring his jealousy and paranoia.  And Dr. McCoy enacts a little medical tomfoolery on Hanar (Stewart Moss) that has the poor Kelvan climbing up the walls and becoming a hypochondriac.



In the end, these efforts enough to retake the ship, and a thorough victory for Kirk and his crew.  The humor is adroit too, particularly in the climactic moment when Rojan hurls Kirk into Spock and Bones in the briefing room doorway 

They catch him, and Kirk says “I’m stimulating him.”

Delightfully, they heave Kirk right back into the thick of the fight, to continue his campaign of emotional overload.

But if the comedy works so well in “By Any Other Name,” and clearly, it does, the episode succeeds too on a few other fronts.  Namely invention and continuity.

On the subject of invention, this episode presents the unforgettable notion of transforming human beings into small cuboctahedrons which can store their biological information.  The special effects are powerful in the depiction of these (delicate) blocks, as we see beloved characters (including Chekov and Uhura) reduced to these powdery things.  

And, of course, we are introduced to the small blocks through one of the nastiest reveals ever to be featured on Star Trek.


Specifically, on the planet’s surface, Yeoman Thompson (Julie Cobb) and a security guard Lt Shea (Carl Byrd), are reduced to the cuboctahedrons, and one block is crushed by Rojan.  When the survivor is restored, we see that it is the male, Shea, meaning that the young, frightened Yeoman Thompson was the victim.  This moment carries tremendous impact both in terms of establishing Kirk’s feelings of responsibility, and the power of the Kelvans.

In terms of continuity, “By Any Other Name” clearly remembers a great deal of Star Trek history. For example, the incidents on Eminiar 7 (from “A Taste of Armageddon”) are recalled here, as Spock attempts to place a (false) thought into the mind of a captor, Kelinda. 

Later, the Enterprise leaves the galaxy, and encounters the barrier seen in the pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” This is an especially nice touch, from a continuity standpoint. The Enterprise looked different,  and the crew had different uniforms (and in some cases, different jobs) in that story.  This episode suggests, however, that they still take place in the same universe, meaning that Starfleet boasts a history of updating its technology, uniforms, ships and so forth.   The universe seems more "real" because of these developments, at least in my eyes.

I also find “By Any Other Name” worthwhile because of one particular scenario involving Kirk and his top officers.  They have all agreed that the Enterprise cannot remain in Kelvan hands. Accordingly, Scotty has rigged the engines to explode on contact with the barrier at the edge of the galaxy, when Kirk gives the order.  

When the fateful moment comes, Kirk does not give the order.

This could be interpreted as weakness, perhaps. The other officers are ready to make the sacrifice of their lives and their ships. 

But Captain Kirk does not ask for that sacrifice. Instead, he realizes that it is better to live to fight another day.  This strategic thinking is a key aspect of Kirk’s character, I would say.  Where some officers with more limited imagination would take the “safe” way out, and destroy the ship and crew, Kirk does not limit his thinking. He looks ahead to the possibilities, and the chance that additional time will give him a new option. He doesn’t play a zero sum game, but instead seeks…alternatives.

All the guest performances in this episode, from Stevens and Moss to Bouchet, hit exactly the right notes, and it is a pleasure to watch the Enterprise command crew get under the Kelvans' (thin) skins.  As for the series regular, in this case they manage some deft comedy without going overboard, or lurching into self-parody. The episode never becomes a lightweight comedy. Instead, "By Any Other Name" is a serious story with very real comedic moments and overtones. 

I know “By Any Other Name” isn’t generally regarded as a great episode of the series, but I still feel it’s an immensely accomplished hour of Star Trek, for all the reasons I’ve listed.

Next week, something totally different: “The Omega Glory.”


3 comments:

  1. John, proper review of “By Any Other Name” and I agree that this episode is important for the reasons you stated. On a minor note, I like the set decoration of Scotty's cabin because it reflects his character of Scottish heritage and ship's engineer[framed tools].

    SGB

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  2. John,
    How appropriate that this episode and your review should appear on Valentine's Day. Let me count the ways, indeed!
    I'll sing the praises of Jerome Bixby once more, who just seems to "get" the Star Trek Universe and had some of the show's best ideas throughout the three years of TOS. I wish more of his writing were available in print form, because he is truly excellent.
    I'll also send some love to Warren Stevens, who is a delight in every single genre show in which he appears. It's arguable that he plays the same note in every performance, but as a science fiction mainstay on the order of Alfred Ryder and Malachi Throne, he is always a welcome sight in whatever program he appears.
    You've really summed up quite well the suspense and horror captured in the moment of Yeoman Thompson's demise. I'm inclined to believe that Kirk bending over and actually putting his hands into the dust of her remains was William Shatner's idea. I'd need a script for proof of this, but it seems in line with the dynamic which Mr. Shatner continually brought to the series.
    Speaking of Star Trek Beyond, I've just ordered the Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack for that film, which includes all two hours of the music Michael Giacchino composed. The Deluxe Edition soundtrack for the 2009 Star Trek film is already sold out and hard to track down, so pick this one up while you can, Star Trek fans.
    https://www.varesesarabande.com/products/star-trek-beyond-the-deluxe-edition
    Excellent review, as always.
    Steve

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  3. Sheri3:44 AM

    "I'm stimulating him!" One of my all-time favorite lines in all of Star Trek!

    I rank this episode right up there with "A Taste of Armageddon" as one of those "smaller" dramedy episodes that really made Star Trek so good from week to week and yet never seem to appear on many Top Whatever lists. It makes us feel deeply and immediately the peril and suspense, and it is truly moving when poor Thompson is crushed in that manner. Watching it for the first time, I was REALLY ANGRY at what happened to her and truly scared of what would happen if the Kelvans were successful. Terrific use of music in this episode as well.

    Funny, I have always thought Warren Stevens to be a really good actor, but much better as a character actor than as a lead. There's just something not quite right about his appearance, which in a leading man makes him seem suspicious. If I recall correctly, Stevens was one of the names that popped up as a potential captain when a second pilot was being proposed--and casting him as a lead would have killed this series quickly out of the gate for the reasons I mentioned. Stevens was not a leading man.

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