(This was, chronologically, my first post of notes and annotations I re-watched Star Trek TOS, The Original Series, beginning with this episode because it was the first broadcast is thus the first episode on the Blu-Ray set TOS that I bought a few months ago.)
In this episode: The Enterprise makes a routine visit to a planet occupied by an archaeologist and his wife, only to become prey to an alien monster that can change its form to look like anyone in the crew.
- The episode’s premise is odd, though not in a way any original viewer of this debut episode would likely have recognized: why is this huge starship, with a crew of 400+, making a stop at a remote planet to perform an annual medical check for two archaeologists? This begs the question of what the starship is for, its authority, its scope, and so on. Would a modern aircraft carrier stop by a remote Pacific island to perform an annual physical on a couple botanists?
- Kirk and his party beam down to meet Dr. Crater and his wife. The mysterious premise is established immediately: Kirk and McCoy are seeing different versions of Nancy Crater. And Crewman Darnell, an even different version! But it’s always struck me as implausible how, in the opening scenes, the monster can appear differently to three people *simultaneously*. (And what’s up with Crewman Darnell’s service discipline, that he should go wandering off into the wilderness to…shag a young woman who glances at him alluringly?)
- Trek physics: Trek displayed recurring patterns of intuitive (and wrong) physics – most visibly, the Enterprise in orbit of a planet, always seemingly *banking* inward as it circles the planet like a plane that is turning in the air. And, visibly arcing, as if the planet below is only a few miles in diameter. (Not to mention that there’s no reason the side of the ship need stay aligned with the planet’s surface below; an object in orbit wouldn’t constantly turn to stay in orientation with the planet below unless it were being powered that way.)
- Also, the planet is *visibly* rotating – both in original effects and in enhanced effects.
- And the most recurrent bit of pandering to intuitive senses of physics: the silly *swish!* as the Enterprise flies past the viewer, in the credits.
- All of these issues are not about the producers making careless mistakes. They are about the producers, and their special effects crews, making deliberate decisions, to make audiences feel comfortable with what they are seeing. If a plane makes a swoosh sound flying through the air, then a starship should make a similar sound flying through space. This entails the whole realm of intuitive physics — whose base example is why people assume a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one. (Though it doesn’t.) Science fiction — especially SF films and TV shows — is rife with examples of appealing to audiences’ intuitive physics. The original film Star Wars is one of the worst examples (spaceships flying like jet fighters!); the earlier film 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the best examples of trying to depict spaceflight as it would actually occur, though even it has minor implausibilities.
- The story develops as another crewman dies, and McCoy, in his lab on the Enterprise, discovers that the first crewman died of a complete lack of salt in his bloodstream…
- There is a nice scene as the monster changes itself into a black crewman, apparently not replacing anyone, but responding to Uhura’s imagination. The two meet each other, speak Swahili to each other… the monster apparently mesmerizing Uhura until they are interrupted.
- And then there’s a silly scene in a botany lab where Sulu is pursuing his latest hobby. (These early episodes, to give them credit, made more attempts to characterize the relatively minor recurring characters — Sulu with his botany here, his fencing in “The Naked Time” — than the last couple entire seasons did.) The scene is cute, but the plant that Yeoman Rand attends, Beauregard, is so obviously played by some guy under the table sticking his arm up into a puppet, it’s embarrassing.)
- The story has two huge implausibilities. First, how is it a creature needs (only) *salt* to survive? Second, how is it it’s the last one left? What killed them off? Dr Crater explains later that the salt “ran out”. How could that have happened to a race that had presumably evolved and lived for millions of years?
- On the other hand, there’s a striking echo here of our current awareness of the sixth extinction, and *why* the buffalo and passenger pigeon went extinct – because humanity expanded over the planet and killed them off. Too bad the scenario here did not suggest some more plausible reason for the extinction of these creatures.
- Kirk’s log entries are narrated in an oddly hushed tone, compared to those in later episodes.
- A nice touch: the low hum of background noise when on the planet. There’s no implied cause; it’s audio decoration to enhance the feeling of alienness.
- Uhura is a little dippy here, in her scene mocking Spock.
- One nice feature of early episodes like this one: there are lots of extras wandering around the Enterprise corridors, as if it really is a ship full of hundreds of crewmen. As the series went on, fairly quickly producers stopped paying for so many extras, and corridor scenes came to show only the main characters in each story.
- On the other hand, in several scenes we get the impression that all the crewmen know each other. Plausible? Maybe, if the entire crew numbers only 400.
- One of those quote I’ve always remembered: “She lives in my dreams, she walks and sings in my dreams.” Crater talking about his late wife.
- Another plot issue: why is the creature suddenly so ravenous? As Nancy she seemed fine when they first arrived, not as if about to starve. They even had a few salt tablets left! And yet, as the story goes on here, no sooner does the creature strike one person down, then it turns on the next.
- The ending here is muted and thoughtful (unlike many 2nd season shows where they felt the need to end on a joke of some sort) – Kirk thinking about the buffalo.
- When the Enterprise departs at the end – at warp 1 – the planet recedes fairly quickly, more quickly than similar shots in most of the rest of the series. As if the producers thought it not quite correct. Actually, if the ship is departing at the speed of light (warp 1), the planet would recede fairly quickly.
Blish adaptation, in ST1:
- Blish retitles it “The Unreal McCoy”
- Presumably following an early draft of the script, the adaptation names the planet Regulus VIII and the characters Bierce, not Crater – while Blish describes the encampment is being inside a crater.
- Blish uses the term “petachiae” to describe the mottling on the dead man’s face.
- Blish acknowledges that what Spock finds out about the “Borgia root” is only what the Bierces themselves said in an earlier report. (Otherwise, why would the Enterprise have details – and names – for every plant on every remote barely occupied planet?)
- This version avoids the shoot-out with Crater in the broadcast episode; instead Kirk orders both Bierces aboard the ship.
- Per Blish’s practice in his early Trek books, the narrative follows only a single character’s POV. Thus, Blish has none of the side scenes that we saw in the episode, with the creature changing into Uhura’s Swahili-speaking crewman, or the biolab scene with Rand, Sulu, and the silly plant “Beauregard”.
- Blish adds a bit of speculation about why the race died out: “It wasn’t really very intelligent—didn’t use its advantages nearly as well as it might have” referring presumably to the shape-changing. Spock comments: “They could well have been residual. We still have teeth and nails, but we don’t bite and claw much these days.”