Friday, June 29, 2012

Star Trek TOS S1 Ep10: The Corbomite Maneuver

"Space opera ... never lost that element of risk. Anything that takes itself ... seriously is always just a whisker away from camp. When you aim for the sublime and miss, you miss big, and even Star Wars, in the end, couldn't hit it reliably. If you get it just right, you get Star Trek. If you're off by even a hair, you get Barbarella." -Lev Grossman, in his review of Prometheus for Into The Void: Prometheus Dives Into A Dangerous Genre - The Space Opera, Time Magazine [p.58]-

Whenever I sit back to take a closer look at a series like Star Trek: The Original Series, a series that helped define who I am, I get an almost fuzzy feeling. I'm probably the wrong person to look at this series objectively. It can rarely do wrong and when it does, like your child, you are forgiving and still love it unconditionally. But more often than not it succeeds as it does here.

With Spock clearly at the helm we plunge head long into the "evasive maneuvers" of Star Trek: The Original Series, Season One, Episode 10, The Corbomite Maneuver.

Captain's Log Stardate 1513.8. With the digitally mastered and enhanced visual effects in full, a sharply defined cube in full technicolor approaches the U.S.S. Enterprise. Anthony Call guests as Lt. Dave Bailey in a supporting role opposite Lt. Hikaru Sulu. Captain James T. Kirk, a role owned by William Shatner, is summoned to assist in determining the nature of this odd, geometric entity.

Initially, Kirk is in sick bay with Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, purely embodied by the late, great DeForest Kelley, for his quarterly physical. The svelte, then physical specimen that was William Shatner sweats profusely sans uniform for all the ladies to swoon. The Enterprise is placed on general alert by Lt. Commander Spock, as brought to life by the one and only Leonard Nimoy, because the object blocks the ship's forward progress. Seemingly, Kirk and Bones, or Shatner and Kelley, by this point, have developed a genuine chemistry and mutual respect for one another in character. Fans of the series are treated early on to this connection as they develop their own adoration for this perfectly selected cast. This natural interaction between the cast wouldn't normally be surprising at this point, except for the fact The Corbomite Maneuver was the first episode to be produced following the two pilots. Given this consideration, the casting and chemistry is all the more impressive.

Kirk jokes that Bones is killing him during the physical and Bones inquires if he is "winded." "You'd be the last one I'd tell," jokes Kirk.

This is a great moment that speaks to Bones confidence in Spock and the crew by not alerting Kirk to the ship's alert status. It may also be Bones' first "I'm a doctor, not a ..." moment, while not worded quite to the formula fans have grown accustomed. It clearly happens here in Episode 10, which was actually the first episode produced.

When Kirk does report to the bridge, the camera work is notable, almost documentary-like in style. There are also some terrific low angle shots to suggest genuine leadership from Kirk. This is a great approach for an establishing episode.

Bailey attempts to reason his feelings concerning the the crew's conundrum, but Spock recommends he remove such human emotion. Sulu laughs and quietly urges Bailey not to cross Spock. When it comes to intellect Bailey would surely be cut to pieces everytime.

Bailey advises blasting the cube with firepower. Kirk indicates it's not a "democracy." Bailey continues to provide unsolicited opinions and assessments unbecoming of a man screened for bridge duty. Red shirt or not, Bailey's role on ST:TOS will be ephemeral.

Even Bones is kind of impressed by the Shat. Kirk provides directives to break free of the cube, but to no avail. Even warp speed won't do it with radiation levels within the ship at a lethal level. Kirk fires phasers and the cube appears to be destroyed. The Enterprise incurs some damage. Kirk wonders whether to press forward or go back.

Kirk demonstrates yet again why he is the Captain. He calls Bailey and the engineering crew on the carpet for their less than expeditious response during the crisis. Kirk requested phasers be fired, but Bailey hesitated. That kind of indecision costs lives and the Captain knows this. He calls Bailey out, but does so firmly and professionally without attempting to embarass him. Kirk orders a series of simulated drills for Bailey and others to undergo until all are proficient with their respective duties. That is indeed a fair option considering helmsman Bailey exhibited conduct unbecoming and the potential to be removed from the helm is clear and present.

Upon exiting the bridge, Bones and Kirk have a conversation in confidence about Bailey and his suitability for the position. Bones wonders if Kirk doesn't see a little of himself in Bailey. Bones wonders if Bailey wasn't promoted a little too soon. Unseasoned or not, Kirk has faith in him and believes in him even after testing his mettle under the Captain's own scrutiny on the bridge. Is Bailey cut out for his assignment?

Spock reports a 94% success rate during drilling simulations for Bailey and crew. Kirk wants 100% and requests the crew strive for perfection. Second-in-command Spock agrees. I love the captain's pursuit of excellence. He's not pursuing mediocrity. He's not accepting average. He wants the best. It's a drive sorely lacking today in a society constantly striving for a middle-of-the-road acceptability.

Bones and Kirk continue to unwind and are interrupted, not by a general alert or a red alert, but rather a red hot smoking babe alert in the form of one Yeoman Janice Rand who delivers a dietary meal to Kirk compliments of Bones. Kirk admits he's none too pleased about having a female Yeoman. Bones asks him if he trusts himself. "I've already got a female to worry about. Her name's the Enterprise." There's nothing like a little male chauvanism to date ST:TOS, but you have to love that this classic science fiction series has documented such norms. Who knows maybe the future is much like the 1960s. There's more than enough unacceptable behavior coming back into fashion today so why not.

The cube returns, now more accurately a sphere, for round two. Phasers are on standby. The space encounter certainly reminds us of later encounters like the one at far point in Encounter At Far Point in Season One of Star Trek: The Next Generation compliments of the Q Continuum.

The view screen on the bridge is filled and overwhelmed with the image. The Captain requests the image be reduced, but Bailey is mesmerized almost hypnotized and Sulu intervenes to carry out the order. This can't bode well for Bailey's future. One really has to wonder how Bailey got through a psychological evaluation. Nevertheless, while Roddenberry created a sophisticated show it was still 1966.

Hailing frequencies are opened by Lt. Uhura. in an attempt at communications. The voice of Balock acknowledges the Enterprise as hostile and of a savage, primitive race responsible for an assault on the First Federation ship Fesarius.

Kirk spends a moment of contemplation assessing the dilemma. Kirk issues a directive and once again Bailey stalls. Kirk activates a recorder marker, but Balock destroys the device granting the crew just ten minutes to make reparations with thir respective and chosen deities.

Kirk submits a message to the crew of the Enterprise over intercom assuring the crew that "the greatest danger facing us is - ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. There's no such thing as the unknown only things temporarily hidden are temporarily not understood." Damn! With all of the unknown surrouning the crew in The Corbomite Maneuver, Kirk is a center of calm and cool and steady sagacity and wisdom, a true leader of men.

Kirk opens frequencies and offers, as an act of good will, to return away from their present location. Bailey is the direct opposite of Kirk, the epitome of indecision seemingly affected by the pressure of external forces.

An alien figure appears on the view screen, a strange creature that is nearly robotic in nature, as it turns out later entirely by design. The creature's appearance is obscured by an impacted, distorted signal also by design. Balock warns the crew it is not permitted to leave with just eight minutes remaining.

Bailey loses it and goes on a mental bender delivering a classic, delicious piece of Star Trek overacting - the kind we've all come to know and love. This was science fiction drama at its very best. There is something innately Star Trek in the moment too. Dramatics aside, these highlights always anchored the series establishing the dizzying unease of space despite the near antiseptic surroundings of the ship. Things may have been clean and orderly aboard the Enterprise, but how people behaved or responded emotionally to deep space travel and the life forms encountered was always an unpredicatable event on Star Tek.

Once again, Kirk reaches out to Balock in an effort at diplomatic understanding explaining the acts of the Enterprise as acts of "self-preservation."

Spock offers the analogy of chess and "checkmate" as a comparison to their predicament and as a way of ending the stalemate. A frustrated Kirk quips angrily, "Is that your best recommendation?" Spock responds cooly, "I regret that I can find no other logical alternative."

Considering this is an early outing for the regular cadre of Star Trek regulars, once again, Kirk and Bones demonstrate a surprising ability to open up as colleagues and friends in this scene. Kirk would later apologize.

Poker. Kirk offers Spock and his team the game of poker inspired by Spock's submission of chess. Hailing Balock Kirk explains Corbomite was a substance designed for Earth vessels. Kirk bluffs the fictional material allows protection of their vessel from any attacker. Thus, if attacked, a reverse force of equal strength is created upon the attacker. Corbomite has been in play for two centuries and no attacker has ever survived. Kirk's gambit continues as he informs Balock that he is annoyed at the "foolishness" of the game and orders that he stop waiting and simply attack the Enterprise now with just two minutes remaining.

With no response from Balock Spock concedes somewhat impressed, "however it was well played." Note this very early insight into Spock and, again, the almost natural camraderie between players in the entry including the follow-up to the relationship between Kirk and Bones noted earlier.

It's equally fascinating to note the moments of sheer silence between scenes as the bridge plays a waiting game opposite Balock. The only sound to break the unsettling peace is the sound of the ship's computers, a thing of real poetry to fans of the series. The stillness is made both eerie and comforting by those sounds as the team sweats out the maneuver.

With just 30 seconds remaining until Balock's deadline, Lt. Bailey returns requesting permission to report to his post. The potential end to their lives does put things in perspective and Bailey is granted his request by the Captain. The Captain demonstrates an unsurprising faith in his crew and belief that they can and will rise to the ocassion.

When the countdown is over, the bridge crew, James T. Kirk, Spock, Lt. Nyota Uhura, Sulu, Lt. Commander Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, a shaken and stuned Lt. Bailey and Bones sit in stunned silence awaiting what's next following the Corbomite bluff or maneuver. Spock breaks the silence, "A very interesting game this poker." This is classic Kirk implementing cat and mouse tactics to the delight of fans.

The Fesarius departs, but a small ship is dispatched from the Fesarius locking the Enterprise within its control to be escorted to a nearby planet. There, the Enterprise will be destroyed.

Kirk relents to the ship as part of a plan to exhibit "a show of resignation." Kirk hopes the drain of towing the Enterprise is too heavy a toll for the alien craft. He wonders if Balock will "grow careless" and make a mistake.

Kirk engages all engines to work against the craft putting the Enterprise at risk in an effort to escape its tractor beam or drain the alien vessel of power. The protracted effort places the Enterprise in critical danger and Spock warns their ship will blow. Kirk orders impulse power just the same and by some small miracle the effort proves to be fruitful, not futile, as the Enterprise breaks free and departs its constraints. All engines are cut. Scotty requests time to repair engines as the small Fesarius mini-craft sits dormant almost lifeless in space. Uhura intercepts a distress signal from the small craft to the Fesarius mothership. Though the Enterprise is not out of the woods herself, Balock indicates his engines and life support systems are inoperable.

Despite being the victor in the life and death struggle Kirk orders the Enterprise to go to the aid of Balock and potentially save the alien life form. Preservation of life informs his decision as they prepare to board the craft.

Bones intercedes, ironically, a doctor sworn to preserve life, skeptical of the decision to aid the downed vessel. Kirk is adamant that part of ther mission is to "seek out and contact alien life." This is followed by the rather cheesy refrain, "and an opportunity to demonstrate what are high-sounding words mean. Any questions?" Okay, we could have used an alternative to "high-sounding." Still, Shatner can deliver a line.

The boarding party will be Kirk, Bones ad Bailey. Bailey is surprised given his handling of the Corbomite events. Once again, those who would have issue with the rationale behind sending a ship Captain actualy begins here, despite having seen his departure planetside to date in Dagger Of The Mind, Miri, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Where No Man Has Gone Before and The Man Trap. This has always been a considerable sticking point for some, but as Kirk would have it, Spock, a rather solid second-in-command, is on standby here. Spock's request to join the boarding party is denied for that reason.

Before boarding Scotty provides a full scan of the air sample aboard the craft. Scotty urges the trio to lean forward and bend a bit as the alien craft is replete with a low lying ceiling. We can't have the men re-materializing inside a wall. Upon their arrival the trio discover the alien form of Balock, a dummy, before meeting the true form of Balock as depicted by a pint-sized Clint Howard. The choice of Howard is certainly inspired. He's clearly a strange-looking child as much as he was always an odd, quirky sort of character actor. He fits the role perfectly. Howard lip syncs marvelously considering his young age and a child is the last thing we expect.

As it turns out Balock has tested Kirk and his crew to determine if their intentions were hostile. In turn, Balock is alone, the sole operator of his craft and obviously often lonely. He requests the presence of a visitor for conversation and discovery. Enter Lt. Bailey who clearly doesn't seem fit for the bridge anyway. Kirk's hope is to have Lt. Bailey return as a better Lt. following his stay with Balock. His mission of personal discovery and intel gathering should benefit both. Seek out new life and new civilizations as they say. Of course, this is a one-way ticket as Bailey would never return.

In the end, Star Trek really does surprise in its approach to discovering new life, new civilizations and its observations on the human condition within the context of a science fiction landscape. It's easy to see why this series had to feel so refreshing and stunning in 1967. The Corbomite Maneuver begins with menace and suggests something truly frightening, but then ends in the arms of a child. The interplay between the Enterprise and the alien entity is filled with genuine tension and some fine character moments. The use of a small child truly spins convention and defies our expectations following the events that preceded those final moments.

It's also ironic that this alien life form should appear human, but like humans create a fabrication and illusion using an alien figure or construct that might resemble something straight from the nightmares of an Earth human. How funny Balock should think and visualize a creature as terrifying as we might.

SciFiNow noted The Corbomite Maneuver as one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series period. This is clearly a solid piece of entertainment and remains committed to memory from my childhood, but I'd like to think there are still at least ten episodes that I would prefer to see before The Corbomite Maneuver. Having said that, this is still a solid entry in Season One and continues a strong run out of the gate for Gene Roddenberry and his crew of science fiction engineers that laid down a classic for the ages. Spirit, mettle, courage, leadership. When faced with adversity and challenges are any of us ready for it and how will we respond? The Corbomite Maneuver plays with those questions through Kirk and tests the mettle of this man, while focusing on facing fear of the unknown through Bailey. If this were the first true episode of the series it would have succeeded in revealing a strong portrait of a true Captain leading his crew. This is a corker and easily as good as The Man Trap. Captain Jean Luc Picard of ST:TNG Season One please take note. The Corbomite Maneuver: B. Writer: Jerry Sohl. Director: Joseph Sargent.

Dead Crewman: 0 [No one dies in the Captain's true introduction]./ Dead Crewman To Date: 10./ Babe Alert: 0./ Babe Alert To Date: 10.

Actor footnote: Clint Howard [1959-present]. The brother of actor/ director Ron Howard has appeared in a ton of television. His credits include: The Courtship Of Eddie's Father [1963], Star Trek: The Original Series [The Corbomite Maneuver], Gentle Ben [1967], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [Past Tense] [1995], and Star Trek: Enterprise [Acquisition] [2002]. He also guested on Arrested Development, Fringe, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Seinfeld, Heroes, My Name Is Earl and Married With Children to name a few.

Additional commentary: If the episode's make-up seems a little out of sync with the previous entry, Dagger Of The Mind, it is,a gain, because The Corbomite Maneuver was the first episode produced following the two pilots. Surprisingly it still manages to work well within the placement order. It also makes The Corbomite Maneuver, though shown chronologically here as the tenth episode, an episode of firsts. It was actually the first episode produced to star Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Janice Rand, Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura and DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard Bones McCoy. It is also impressive just how natural the chemistry works particularly between Kirk, Bones and McCoy very early. That natural respect, trust and faith in one another is evident as the trio is unafraid to smile with each other or challenge one another under the microscope of pressure and adversity.

The Corbomite Maneuver while known for starring actor/ director Ron Howard's brother, Clint Howard, in the role of Balock. The voice of Balock was performed by Walker Edmiston [1925-2007]. Actor Ted Cassidy would handle the voice of the Balock puppet. Are you getting all this? Star Trek is unabashed in its use of lip syncing along the way too. Remember What Are Little Girls Made Of? also employing Ted Cassidy.

Jerry Sohl wrote the story. Sohl was also well accomplished for writing The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits. Sohl would return for ST:TOS Season Three, Whom Gods Destroy.

The episode was directed by Joseph Sargent [1925-present]. Sargent notoriously directed Jaws The Revenge [1987], but also directed The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three [1974].


Kellie @ Delightfully Ludicrous said...

Great review, thanks!

John Kenneth Muir said...


It's always a good day when I get to read a Sci-Fi Fanatic retrospective of classic Star Trek.

I think you nailed the review with this observation:

"It's easy to see why this series had to feel so refreshing and stunning in 1967. The Corbomite Maneuver begins with menace and suggests something truly frightening, but then ends in the arms of a child."

That brilliant story structure is reinforced in the dialogue that you also carefully point out; wherein Kirk describes the unknown as a "temporary" state of affairs.

This episode literalizes the idea of the unknown being fearsome; but upon closer inspection, being, to quote Mr. Spock..."fascinating."

This is such a wonderful view of humanity. We may be scared when confronted with something new, but we can learn, and face the unknown with courage and fortitude. I love that lesson. I love that spirit of adventure. And I absolutely love that a Star Trek episode can end with understanding rather than phasers firing.

You do a great job (as is your wont!) to excavate the pertinent points, and convey the nature of the episode reviewed.

Thank you for posting this. Your review made me want to go back and watch "The Corbomite Maneuver."


SFF said...

Kellie. Thanks for joining the five year mission here. Glad to have you on board. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Tku.


As always - thank you. Mission accomplished if you were reinvigorated to check out the episode again.

Additionally, thanks for underscoring [as you always do] some of those key themes discussed here and adding you usual laser sharp focus to some of them.

I always enjoy how you bring some things into that razor sharp focus.

Yes, the episode ends in understanding of all things. The bluff works long enough to generate a dialogue. It's a wonderful entry in the ST catalogue.

I'm glad I was able to facilitate something of interest to you with the morning cup of coffee.

Best to you both,

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

Sci-Fi Fanatic!

As always, your love of Star Trek TOS shines through in your review of The Carbomite Maneuver.

Your review inspired me to re-watch this episode and I was rewarded with it being even better than I remembered. One thing that “classic” Trek did so well was make the ship-centric episodes interesting with fantastic writing. You can tell Jerry Sohl was a veteran of TV, because the building of tension in this episode is amazing. You truly feel for Lt. Dave Bailey when he cracks under the pressure of their imminent doom. Heck… even Kirk and Bones get into it under the stress.

There are some great lines in this episode, as you mention. My favorite is in the early scene when as Kirk is exiting the sick bay at the call of the red alert Bones postulates, “If I jumped every time a light came on around here, I’d end up talking to myself.” Of course, he is now alone in the sick bay, so this line is subtly hilarious.

My only gripe with this episode and what bothered me even back in the day was the use of a child actor to portray the diminutive alien Balock. I understand what a difficult task they had of producing convincing aliens on such a small budget, but I still think that even using a small person would have been better than using a child actor with dubbed in dialogue. Still, this didn’t and still doesn’t ruin what is one of the better Star Trek episodes of season one.

Keep on Trekkin’ Sci-Fi Fanatic!

SFF said...

Thanks Doc!

Some really great additional observations here too about the dialogue being very lived-in. It feels very authentic as you note citing the Bones example.

How perfect it all feels with the chemistry and the natural way about the dialogue speaks to the episode's ease as it slips in and out of scenes.

I also really enjoyed Call's performance in the episode. As you so accuratly note, the writers and cast really amp up the tension and it is just filled with a sense of build.

Thanks for the additional insights. Like the others here, I'm well aware of your articulate read and passion for all things Star Trek. Cheers. sff

Maurice Mitchell said...

What a great analysis of this episode. I've seen it a hundred times, but it feels fresh when you put it like this.
- Maurice Mitchell
The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
@thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

SFF said...

Maurice. Thanks mate. Such a classic entry. As you say, well worth seeing countless times. The banter between charatcers is solid and The Corbomite Maneuver does a splendid job of delivering an entertaining story while juggling an ensemble cast quite faithfully.

Thanks for writing MM! best to you - sff

BTX said...

Came late to the party but I would be remiss in my scifi geekery to point out that in addition to Pelham 123 and Jaws the Revenge, director Joseph Sargent also helmed cult scifi cult classic "Colossus The Forbin Project".

SFF said...

Thank you for that BTX!