Both Proud of Our Ships: TOS “The Corbomite Maneuver”

The Enterprise encounters an enormous alien vessel that blocks its path and threatens its destruction.

  • Now watching the episodes in production order; this one is production order #2, after “Where No Man Has Gone Before”; this was the first episode to feature DeForrest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura (wearing a tan uniform, though), and Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Rand. (And I have to say, in this and other early episodes, I’m impressed by the subtlety and complexity of Kelley’s characterization of McCoy. He was the equal of Shatner and Nimoy, even though he wasn’t given nearly as much to do.)
  • Along with “The Naked Time”, this has always been one of my favorite episodes, in part because it shows so much relatively routine interaction aboard the Enterprise; it details how things play out in a crisis, in ways elided in most later episodes.
  • Example of this: how systematically Kirk orders various changes to the ship’s speed – quarter speed, half speed, warp one, etc. – and thereby establishing the relationship between sub-light speeds and the warp speeds.
  • At the beginning of the episode the Enterprise is “star mapping”, a legitimate if rather routine task for such a big ship. Wouldn’t a smaller ship do just as well? Or automated probe? Also, with the stars, as usual, passing by the viewscreen pretty quickly, you wonder how it works when they time a star mapping shot to a particular moment. Aren’t they ‘filming’ or taking stills continuously? Bit of failure of imagination here, I’ve always thought.
  • Trek effects: the turbo-lifts a famous people moving devices, and the impression of the lifts moving quickly is illustrated entirely by the moving bars of light that presumably represent floors, or decks. But in almost every scene inside a turbolift, we see way too many of those moving bars that can be plausible, considering the number of decks imagined in the Enterprise – even before detailed schematics were developed after the show ended.
  • Bailey is a loose cannon, clearly unstable from the beginning, and I’m surprised how long he lasts. At first encounter with the alien ship, he says “I vote we blast it” and Kirk replies sardonically about the bridge not being a democracy. More to the point, this shoot-first and ask questions later attitude is typical of crude media science fiction, and one arc of this episode is how this attitude can be overcome – Kirk’s diplomacy and earnest appeals, trumping Bailey’s panic — into one of understand and mutual comprehension. [conservative fear vs. humanistic acceptance, one is tempted to think]
  • It’s fascinating in two or three scenes to see Kirk, not so concerned about the apparent danger from the alien ship, as he is curious about Bailey’s behavior, as Kirk eyes him.
  • At the end of Act 1, this is the first time we see the Enterprise fire its phasers. In typical Trek FX, the resulting explosion knocks everyone around aboard the Enterprise, and we see shots of crewmen in a corridor being tossed over to one side, and then the other.
  • In Act 2, more routine yet personal discussions, as McCoy counsels Kirk as they have a drink in Kirk’s quarters.
  • Yeoman Rand is introduced as bringing Kirk’s lunch, a “dietary salad” at McCoy’s direction. It was years after I first saw Trek before I understood that, in real life, a “yeoman” is not necessarily a woman. Kirk makes a remark here about how it’s irritating that he was assigned a female yeoman, but as the series went on, *all* the yeomen were female.
  • One of the great Trek FX shots is when the second ship, the Fesarius, approaches, appearing first as a small dot growing larger as it comes nearer… and keeps coming, until we realize that compared to the Enterprise, it’s *enormous*. A terrific sense of wonder moment. (Let me see if I can link to this image from the Memory Alpha page for this episode — though this isn’t as big in this shot as it gets.)
  • This episode has two great, memorable musical cues: the first, energetic and a bit frantic, when the initial cubical buoy is first seen; the second, a 2 by 4 note ominous theme, when the huge Fesarius appears. Music by Fred Steiner; I think the second theme may have been reused in later episodes, though I don’t think the first one was.
  • The enhanced graphics versions of the Enterprise, from various interesting angles, and the Fesarius, are terrific; though I appreciate how the original cubical buoy was left deliberately fuzzy and multicolored, growing more and more fuzzy as it spun faster.
  • Interesting though uncharacteristic compared to later episodes, are how Kirk, several times, makes general announcements to the ship’s crew reminding them of the Enterprise’s noble mission, how misunderstands can be overcome, and so on. They serve of course also to inform viewers of what this show is about, as distinct from most movie and TV SF before it.
  • Balok, the voice from Fesarius – seen as a weird white bald head, through a fishy lens effect – informs the Enterprise that it will be destroyed. And it says, “We make assumption you have a deity, or deities, or some such beliefs which comfort you.” And so it gives them 10 minutes to prepare. This line represents a key theme throughout most of Trek, where time and time again we saw stories about how ideas of gods were obsolete, or how entities once thought to be gods were actually aliens, or computers, etc. (Though there were occasional lines of dialogue in later episodes that implied an assumed monotheistic belief, as well.)
  • Kirk’s appeals to reason, to explain why the Enterprise is there, why they destroyed the buoy, and so on, grow frantic. “If you’ve examined our records… you know this to be true!!”
  • It’s nice how the Bailey/McCoy/Kirk character arc dovetails with Spock’s reference to chess, to inspire Kirk to another game, poker, which inspires the episode’s central conceit – the claim to Balok that the Enterprise is equipped with a special substance, corbomite, that reverses any attack on the ship to destroy the attacker. OTOH, his tone as he makes this claim (“We grow annoyed at your foolishness”) is so different from his earlier appeals, that anyone sensitive to human speech might immediately suspect some dishonesty.
  • Right after this there are a couple lines between Spock and Scott about Spock’s father and his human mother. One senses the insertion of these lines (likely by Roddenberry) to establish this key aspect of Spock’s character early on.
  • In Act 4 we see, again, a much more detailed rendition of an extreme ship event, in this case straining the engines, increasingly for several minutes, in an attempt to break the tractor beam hold from the alien ship towing them to their doom. Spock recites dangerous engine temperatures; everyone on the bridge shakes slightly, then moreso, as the ship vibrates dangerously; in the corridors, those crewmen fall over.
  • And so the threatening alien situation is redeemed: the Enterprise returns to assist the now disabled alien vessel that was towing it. The boarding party discovers that the weird white alien head was just a prop; the real Balok is a short little boyish creature. On the one hand, points here for supposing that the inside of an alien ship would not have the same dimensions as the Enterprise – the three who beam over and told to bend over, for the low ceiling at their destination, a consideration that I don’t think ever happened again in the entire series. On the other hand, the alien commander *assumes* that the humans would not have been frightened by his real form, thus the weird puppet prop – but surely it assumes too much to imagine what an alien race would be frightened, or comforted, by.
  • And while it’s striking to be told that this small Balok is in charge, without additional crew, of the whole Fesarius ‘complex’, we get no clue as to the purpose of such an enormous complex; or why Balok is suddenly so eager to recruit a companion for his travels. There’s a lot of unexplained backstory here – how big is his First Federation? When will they meet up again? And so on and on.
  • Yet the ultimate payoff is the comity between Balok and the Enterprise crew, representing the successful testing of unknown intentions and the defeat of xenophobic thinking, to the point where Balok offers to give them a tour of his ship. Last line: “Yes we’re very much alike, captain. Both proud of our ships.”

(Addendum: I have a soundtrack album of this episode’s music and will consult it, and perhaps update this post.)

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