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Sci-Fi Saturday #3


Welcome to Sci-Fi Saturday, a new column that is devoted to all things science fiction: film, television, comics, novels, video games, and local Metro Detroit events. If there is a topic you'd like to see covered in an upcoming column, email us at kinoclub313wsu@gmail.com!

This week I watched episodes 2 through 5 of Star Trek: The Original Series season 1. I also watched "The City on the Edge of Forever" (the penultimate episode of season 1), but more on that below. After my realization last week that at an episode per week I wouldn't finish watching the various Star Trek series for another 14 years, I've stepped up my game a bit. Maybe at my current rate I'll finish this little side project BEFORE defending my dissertation, even. One can dream, right?

Anyway, I started with "Charlie X," the official second episode of the season. The episode centers around an impulsive and dangerous 17 year old boy (the titular Charlie) who has incredible mental powers but no self-control in using them. After becoming creepily obsessed with Yeoman Rand, Charlie is closely watched by Captain Kirk who seems to be the only person the teenager respects. Angry that he can't seem to do anything right and that girls don't like him, future-MRA Charlie takes over the Enterprise and nearly wipes out the whole crew until Kirk figures out how to handle him. At this point Charlie is unceremoniously sent back to live with his "mean dad" - a giant floating head, because why not. This episode somewhat suffers from "old-people-writing-about-young-people" syndrome, but I do sympathize with Charlie in that adults *are* fucking weird and social mores tend to seem arbitrary, especially to a kid who hasn't been taught how to exist among adults. That being said, I just cannot get over the face Charlie makes when using his powers. The derp is strong with this one. 6/10.

In "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the Starship Enterprise passes through some sort of outer space barrier that has a bizarre effect on crewmembers with heightened ESP abilities. One of Kirk's oldest friends, Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell (played by guest star Gary Lockwood) suddenly develops hyper-intelligence, eidetic memory, and even telepathy and telekinesis. With Mitchell's new powers come a distance from, and disdain for, humans - he now views them as a god would view ants. To protect his crew from the increasingly powerful and increasingly agitated Mitchell, Captain Kirk plans to maroon his former friend on a remote planet. Calling on the help and humanity of Dr. Elizabeth Dehner - a ship psychiatrist who has also been affected by the ESP-enhancing wave - Kirk is barely able to escape with his life. Mitchell and Dehner, too powerful to be left alive, are killed in a rockslide and Kirk beams back up to the ship. The relationships developed between Kirk, Mitchell, and Dehner in this episode give it some gravity, and the exploration of how "absolute power corrupts absolutely" is well-executed and nuanced. 9/10.

"The Naked Time" centers on the transmission between crewmembers of a "virus" of sorts, picked up during the investigation of the deaths of a crew who had been exploring the surface of a dying planet. The virus (explained in the show as a chain of complex molecules that is transmitted by physical contact) lowers the inhibitions and enhances hidden aspects of the personalities of anyone who comes into contact with it. This premise leads to some pretty goofy moments, including half naked Sulu attempting to swordfight half the crew and Riley singing Irish ballads over the ship's comm system. As all of this is happening, Kirk and the remaining unaffected crew are trying to regain control of the ship, which is orbiting dangerously near to the dying planet, putting them all at risk. Of course, an equally risky solution is developed by Spock and they get away in the nick of time, simultaneously discovering the formula for time travel (which we can assume will come into play again later in the series). Apparently the episode was originally meant to be a two-parter, which helps explain why the time travel bit seems so tacked on at the end. Although the episode has its moments, I'd have preferred to see the longer, more fleshed out version. 7/10 + bonus points for my favorite line of dialogue so far in the series: when Sulu, in his frenzied state, grabs Uhura and says "I'll protect you, fair maiden" to which she glibly replies "sorry, neither" while giving him iconic side-eye. Uhura: 1, Sulu: 0.

In "The Enemy Within" a transporter accident results in Kirk being split into two after being beamed up from Alpha 177. Both the "good" and "evil" versions of himself end up on the ship, causing total chaos for the crew. Rather than risking additional evil duplicates taking control of the ship, Kirk and Scotty decide to leave the remaining members of an exploratory landing crew on the surface of Alpha 177 until the problem is fixed. The problem then becomes "good Kirk" losing his "will to lead" which is apparently mostly housed within his "evil" self. Kirk quite literally battles himself, leading to some truly Shatneresque moments of scenery chewing, sweating, screaming, and so on. The absolute best part of this episode, though, is the ~mysterious creature~ Scotty beams from the surface of Alpha 177 to test his "split personalities" hypothesis. This is the good side:

And the evil side (which has the exact same facial expression as my dog when I try to take away something she isn't supposed to eat):

Even if the entire episode was just fifty minutes of cross-cutting between these two creatures, I would have loved it. 8/10 for the story, 9/10 for sweaty Shatner, 10/10 for doggos. Ahem, I mean "aliens."

[Where I collect the most interesting and science fiction-y headlines from the last week]

When I found out that Harlan Ellison had passed away (late last week), my immediate response was to do some research into his work. Ellison was a name I had seen over and over in my research on science fiction, but I had somehow managed to go all these years never reading any of his work (although I've always admired the man's ability to develop the best titles). Although I plan on digging more deeply into Ellison's incredibly prolific writing career in future columns, this week I really only had time to scratch the surface by watching a few television episodes based on his teleplays. I skipped ahead in my Star Trek marathon to "The City on the Edge of Forever" (1967) and also watched an episode of The Outer Limits penned by Ellison titled "Demon with a Glass Hand" (1964).

"The City on the Edge of Forever" is rightfully acknowledged as one of the most brilliant original episodes of Star Trek, even though Ellison himself apparently hated it. In the episode, Kirk and Spock travel back in time to Depression-era New York City in an attempt to fix some damage caused by Dr. McCoy (who, in a cordrazine-induced frenzy, hurled himself through a time portal and majorly fucked up the past, thereby "erasing" the Enterprise from history). The stakes are high - unless Spock and Kirk can find McCoy, figure out what he did to alter history, and fix it, the whole crew will be stranded, their pasts and futures effectively dissolved. The twist of the story is that McCoy actually altered the future by doing something ostensibly good and noble - saving a young woman from being hit by a car. In this alternate timeline where she is saved by McCoy, that young woman, Edith Keeler, goes on to lead a pacifist movement that delays U.S. involvement in WW2 long enough for the Germans to develop atomic weapons. The Germans win the war, and the entire future of the human species on Earth is drastically altered. Although Kirk and Spock both admire Keeler's do-goodery and optimism, they submit that she is "right, just at the wrong time." In order for history to move forward, Keeler must die. Kirk, having fallen in love with her, hates having to make this choice, yet does it to preserve the lives of millions. The episode ends with Kirk, Spock, and Bones jumping back through the time portal and rejoining the rest of the crew, at which point Kirk says "let's get the hell out of here." Apparently this line was contested by the studio, as "hell" hadn't really been used in such a context on broadcast television before. I'm glad they kept it, because in that moment you can see both the defeat on Kirk's face and the perseverance with which he will move forward.

"Demon with a Glass Hand" - again, awesome title - also features time travel, although this episode completely takes place in the "now" with references being made to a far-distance future in which the human species is nearly destroyed by a race of invading aliens called the Kyben. The plot is a bit complex to get into in detail here, but basically a man named Trent has traveled from the future and is being hunted by the Kyben, who want to gain posession of his "glass hand" - a supercomputer with separate "lobes" in each finger. The supercomputer, once fully constructed, is capable of explaining how - in the midst of battle with the Kyben - every single human being on Earth has vanished overnight. Hellbent on destroying the human race, the Kyben need Trent's hand so they can discover where the missing humans are being hidden. Trapped inside a dilapidated office building with several Kyben, Trent runs into Consuelo, a woman working late in her garment shop. Trent and Consuelo work together to keep the hand out of reach of the Kyben, to find the three missing "lobes" (fingers) to reconstruct the computer, and to destroy the "time mirror," thus preventing more Kyben from transporting to the present time. After defeating the Kyben and ensuring the safety of future man, it is revealed that the human race has been electronically "stored" on a thin strip of wire which has been embedded in Trent, who is not a human at all, but a humanoid robot. Consuelo, who has fallen in love with Trent (in all of an hour - apparently people moved faster back then) is aghast that he isn't a human. She wordlessly walks away as voiceover narration intones that Trent - the demon with a glass hand - must now wait, alone and unloved, for centuries until the moment he is called upon to share his secret.

Both of these episodes are cleverly written, well-paced, and were important touchstones in helping develop modern conceptions about time travel as a genre convention in science fiction. Ellison's influence is so crucial that he was even acknowledged in the credits of The Terminator (following a lawsuit, and much to the chagrin of James Cameron). It is hard to image a science fiction landscape without "he was actually a robot all along" or "travelling back in time to fix a critical error" and I'm sure that's exactly how Ellison would have wanted it.

[Where I share upcoming and ongoing SF-centric events in the Metro Detroit area]

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