The Enterprise discovers an Earth-like planet populated only by children, infected by a disease that doesn’t affect them until puberty, but a disease that affects the Enterprise landing party within hours.
- The initial scene has the Enterprise picking up an “old-style SOS” from a planet hundreds of light years out from Earth – then reaching the planet, and seeing it is another Earth, a sphere with exactly the same continents as our Earth.
- But no clouds! More like a globe than a real planet. A limitation of hurried special effects at the time, apparently. (The enhanced graphics version, linked above, adds clouds.)
- This is surely the most absurd, and needlessly so, coincidence in the entire series. Later in the series we got planets patterned after Chicago in the 1920s, and Nazi Germany, and Rome advanced to the 20th century, but a duplicate Earth is far more unlikely than any of those. And it’s a pointless coincidence, because the story that follows in no way depends on the planet being a duplicate Earth.
- Well, maybe except in a couple ways, implicitly.
- First – well, first, let me step back. When I was obsessed by this series, in my high school and college years, there were scant resources that explored the development and production of the series. There was Stephen E. Whitfield’s The Making of Star Trek, in 1968 (published before the show’s third season, and cancellation), and then in 1973, David Gerrold’s two books, including The World of Star Trek, published at exactly the right time for my obsession in watching Trek reruns five days a week. (And there were ‘concordances’, by Bjo Trimble, that compiled references to every person and planet and stardate mentioned in the entire series – as I already had been compiling on my own, to an extent.) I devoured these books and read them repeatedly. And then, as I’ve said, by the time I left college, I’d turned my attention to literary SF, and my obsession with Trek mostly evaporated. I did dutifully watch every Trek movie that came out…once… though I think I gave up after the first NextGen movie. I watched the NextGen series when it was on, once, and have never rewatched any of it (though I still might, since I think general consensus is that it was superior to the original in some ways). I’ve looked back on TOS, The Original Series, fondly over the decades since, and read occasional memoirs by the actors involved (Nimoy, Shatner, Takei), but only occasionally watched it.
- Now that I’m returning my attention to TOS, there are far more resources available, including detailed websites like Memory Alpha, and also, as I’ve recently found out, the immensely detailed books by Marc Cushman, These Are the Voyages, that document in detail the creation of the series and the production background of every single episode – from early drafts of each script, to how the scripts were revised, to the casting, to the production and how the directors worked, to the post-production issues about music scoring and special effects. And including the Nielsen ratings for how each episode fared, against the competition on the other two networks.
- So: only in recently reading such resources, have I learned that one of series creator Gene Roddenberry’s selling points, to pitch the show to a network willing to finance and broadcast the show, was a so-called “parallel-world hypothesis”, the notion that other planets would evolve species similar to humans, and their history would evolve similarly to our own, even to the extent of parallel societies — to justify the idea of filming episodes supposedly set on other planets using existing studio backlot sets of western towns or city streets. Because though the Enterprise was “seeking out new life and new civilizations”, we could imagine that these new civilizations would be so much like our own that the production crew could use existing sets to film episodes supposedly set on alien worlds.
- His pitch worked; the show sold, after a couple tries, to NBC.
- And I think that’s why this episode starts with the absurd premise that another planet, hundreds of light years from our Earth, might have developed in exactly the same way. That way, when the Enterprise crew beams down, they can land on a street that looks like a mid-20th century street – using the Desilu backlot, in Culver City. It’s cheaper to do that than to create an entire imaginary alien planet.
- Second – and also, to justify that the people on this planet speak English. Here’s another Trek cheat, that encounters with aliens invariably involve the human language English. We saw this first in “The Corbomite Maneuver”, wherein the alien Balok spoke English to the Enterprise, first via his scary puppet, and then in person – without explanation. We next saw an alien in “Charlie X”, as the Thasian appears on the Enterprise bridge, at the end – but the Thasians were advanced, cerebral creatures, and perhaps spoke telepathically (so that the humans on the Enterprise bridge only *thought* he was speaking English). Then there was “Balance of Terror”, in which scenes aboard the Romulan ship used spoken English, perhaps simply as a cinematic convention, until the end of the story, when Kirk and the Romulan commander speak directly to each other – in English. With no suggestion as to how this was plausible.
- Later episodes of Trek suggested the use of a “universal translator”, a cylindrical, hand-held device that would automatically translate the language of any alien being to English, and vice versa. But I don’t think that was invoked in the series’ first season, which – remarkably, looking back now – involved only another couple episodes, after this one, in that entire season, that involve visiting truly alien species, who might not be expected to understand English.
- Another resource I’ve recently acquired is La-La Land Records’ original series soundtrack collection, which I’m now following. For now, point is, this episode uses tracks form earlier episode, and has no original music.
- Back to this episode in particular. The early plot has the Enterprise crewmen beaming down onto this planet, seemingly in ruins resembling mid-20th century Earth, populated only by children who talk about “the before time” and “grups” and “onlies”; and then quickly becoming infected by the disease that has killed all the adults on the planet, leaving only children. This suggests a recurring problem that the show might have taken more seriously: how do our people from the Enterprise, beaming down to *any* planet, protect themselves from pathogens? Apparently they don’t think about it. (Actually, they did think about it in “The Naked Time”, and screwed up anyway.)
- The development of this story is reasonably intelligent – stuck down on the planet, infected and unable to beam back up to the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock and McCoy sift through records left by the deceased adults, and piece together the planet’s “life prolongation project” that led, 300 years ago, to the deaths of the adults, and the extended lives of children, who age only one month in 100 years. But as they do age, once reaching puberty, the disease affects them, and they develop blue sores on their skins, and quickly go insane and die, as we see two examples of in this story. As adults, the landing party quickly develops the blue sores …
- They beam down a couple portable computers – toaster-sized boxes with a couple rows of buttons across the top. As with the control panels on the Enterprise bridge, there was no thought, back in the mid 1960s, to the kind of keyboard entry we take for granted on our computers today—these boxes, and the Enterprise control panels, consisted of rows of on/off switches, or buttons to push. So it’s amusing to see Spock, hearing computations from Farrell over his communicator and then punching three or four random buttons on his box to somehow enter that data.
- This scene entails a bit of mathematical illiteracy – the line “12 to the 10th power”. What could that possibly mean?
- Noticeably, these scenes as the crew compiles data and deduces what happened on this planet are conducted in rather hushed tones – a directorial decision, presumably.
- And then the show depicts scenes among the “onlies”, the children who are hiding themselves from the Enterprise intruders, led by “Jahn”, played by the quirky actor Michael J. Pollard, who assumes, as they all do, that the adults, these new “grups”, are dangerous and must be fought. So he decides to steal the “little boxes” they use to talk to their ship. Which he does. This leaves the landing party, disconnected from the Enterprise, with only 170 hours, 7 days, to devise a cure for their infection, all by themselves, without the Enterprise computers’ help.
- Their mission is to devise a “vaccine” to cure their disease. Though script-writer Adrian Spies (pronounced Spees, I just learned from Cushman’s book) was an admired scripter in Hollywood at the time, neither he nor the producers were much studied in science. A vaccine prevents someone from acquiring a disease; it doesn’t cure someone who already has the disease. (Perhaps a vaccine would prevent the kids from developing the disease as they hit adolescence, but the problem at hand is curing the Enterprise crew, who’ve already acquired the disease.) See Blish comments below.
- And the plot develops with several dramatic scenes, as Miri’s crush on Kirk, compromised by Kirk’s comfort to Yeoman Rand’s infection on her legs, leads Miri to go back to Jahn’s kids, and plan a betrayal.
- Then follows several scenes in which these kids chant, describing Kirk as “lovey-dovey”, how they should “bonk bonk” him on the head. Miri develops the same blue sores. Kirk confronts the children, and they mock Miri’s advice: “Tell them Jim, tell them Jim…”
- But Kirk pleads with them, perhaps connecting with Jahn by pointing out that the food stores are gone, that they’ll all die soon, even if they won’t one by one get the disease. This is one of the great dramatic Kirk scenes, as he pleads with them: “Please let me help you”, and, “You’re gonna be *just* *like* *them*” he tells them, about their fear and hatred of the adults, grups, whom they still remember.
- McCoy manages to concoct the ‘vaccine’ anyway, even without communicators to double-check calculation using the Enterprise computers. He injects himself with it, collapses… and his sores fade away.
- The story finishes with the Enterprise departing, with reference to a medical team left behind to rehabilitate the kids.
- Of course a recurring Trek flaw here is that we are left to presume that this collection of children, 20 or so, on these few streets that the landing party visits, somehow represent the entire planet. Are there not hundreds or thousands of other children who have survived across this planet, given this scenario? We never know. Again and again, throughout the series, a single crater or valley or soundstage set is supposed to represent an entire planet, even though we know from our own Earth that any one location is hardly representative of the variety of locations and cultures that we know here.
With this story I’ve begun re-reading the James Blish adaptations of the Trek scripts, which he was contracted by Bantam Books to write, and which were published beginning in January 1967 – part way through Trek’s 1st season – even though the show was not yet shown in the UK, where Blish lived, and Blish’s stories were often based on preliminary versions of the scripts (again, as indicated by Cushman’s book), not the final shooting scripts.
I’ve mentioned before that my impression was that Blish often improved the scripts, especially in his earlier books. (In the later books – the books generally included short story versions of half a dozen episodes, and so extended through 12 volumes – he became much more literal about almost transcribing the scripts, rather than novelizing them, since that’s apparently what the readers wanted.) My hypothesis about this was temporized by understanding, via Marc Cushman, that Blish was often sent early drafts of scripts, and not final versions.
That might explain some deviations of plot points. But in rereading his version of “Miri”, I stand by my initial claim that Blish – as great a genuine science fiction author as any of those Roddenberry hired to write for Trek (Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Richard Matheson, and even, eventually, Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison) – did actually improve on the scripts he was sent. Reading, in Cushman, about how the scriptwriters we do multiple drafts based on producer feedback (mostly to make their idea consistent with the vision of the show and the characters), what Blish did was, in this sense, doing a final rewrite – or a rewrite based on some draft – that noticeably improved plot and scientific plausibility. (In particular, checking Wikipedia, Blish’s formal education was in biology.) Too bad he wasn’t at Desilu to help with the production of the show.
Case here—Blish’s “Miri”
- Blish jettisons the absurd notion of a duplicate Earth, replacing it with a much more plausible idea that the planet visited in this story is an early Earth colony (in particular, a planet around the star 70 Ophiuchi), which explains the resemblance of Earth architecture and the natives’ speaking of English. In his story, the landing party beams down to the “central plaza of the largest city” on the planet.
- His dialogue about the landing party’s investigation of the disease is more detailed and intelligent that the version that was filmed, and more likely than any earlier script. He discusses the idea of a “vaccine”, but then stresses the development of an “antitoxoid” to cure the adults.
- There is much more intelligent discussion of the details of the biomedical investigation – biopsies of the blue lesions; discussion of spirochetes as secondary invaders that cause the mania; reference to Koch’s postulates; discussion of antibiotics to treat the mania; discussion of virus reproduction; and so on. Blish’s training as a biologist lent this story especially some scientific credence that Hollywood scriptwriters could not provide.
- On the other hand, Blish tends to omit entirely scenes that don’t involve the Enterprise crew – here, e.g., scenes among the kids as they deride Kirk and wonder what Miri is doing with him. We get some of Kirk’s dramatic plea to the children, but only in a scene directly with Miri.
I’m going to be paying closer attention to the musical scores in each episode, and will edit or amend earlier posts with such discussion. I had not realized, until examining that La La Land Records soundtrack compilation, and reading Cushman, how relatively few Trek episodes had scores written directly for them – some 30 out of 79 episodes over the three seasons. As was the practice at the time, and may still be for all I know, musical cues written for one episode were usually recycled for later episodes, via a gradually growing ‘library’ of musical cues by various composers. “Balance of Terror” and “The Corbomite Maneuver”, for example, had custom scores, albeit ‘partial’; both by Fred Steiner, both with strongly identifiable themes, as I think I’ve mentioned.
Of course anyone watching all the episodes over and over in syndication, usually in random order, would hear familiar musical cues again and again, without being able to place where each theme ‘originated’. Only now watching the shows in production order, and having these other resources at hand, am I finally able to recognize certain themes as belonging to particular episodes, and composers.
“Miri” was a “tracked” episode – no music written especially for it, but with lots of music drawn from earlier episodes. In fact, the scenes in which the maniacal young man runs out to protect his broken tricycle is scored with the “Balance of Terror” theme…