The Need for Play: TOS #17: “Shore Leave”

The Enterprise visits a lovely planet where they discover that their daydreams and memories become instant reality.

  • This is a fun episode, but also sort of a kitchen-sink episode, in which many colorful things happen without much relationship to one another. You could swap out any of these independent storylines with any similar random events, and it wouldn’t matter.
  • This is a rare episode shot on location – not on a soundstage and not even on a backlot, like “Miri”, but away from the studio in a real natural setting. I didn’t know, until now, via Cushman’s book, where that location was. It’s a place called Africa USA, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marine_World/Africa_USA, north of Los Angeles in Soledad Canyon. It’s a wide spot in the Santa Clara river where an animal training compound was established in 1962. Coincidentally, I knew the area well, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when I was very into bicycling, and would ride long trips on weekends in every direction from the San Fernando Valley. I both bicycled and drove through Soledad Canyon many times; it was a backroad route on the way to Apple Valley, as well. (The area is also near where Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” was filmed.)
  • The compound was washed out in 1969, according to Wikipedia, and never rebuilt. As you watch this show, you see the river (not a lake) in several shots, and in the background, the dry desert-like hills on either side of this river valley.
  • A secondary location in this episode is the famous Vasquez Rocks (which was also used for two of the following three Trek episodes). Vasquez Rocks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasquez_Rocks) is likely one of the most familiar locations in TV and movie in history – those big slabs of angled sedimentary layers are instantly recognizable. You still see them routinely used in TV car commercials.
  • The episode’s story is familiar: the crew prepares to beam down to this idyllic planet to enjoy a shore leave after a weary three months in space, but strange things start happening: McCoy see a large white rabbit and little girl, straight out of Alice in Wonderland; Sulu finds a police pistol like one he always wanted; Yeoman Barrows meets Don Juan; Kirk meets both an old Academy prankster, Finnegan, and an old flame from 15 years before, Ruth.
  • It takes them a while to deduce the obvious: that these things appear in response to their thoughts about them, whether those things are imaginary or are memories from their pasts. And these things can be dangerous: both McCoy and a female crewman are apparently killed!
  • On the other hand, they all get some kind of emotional satisfaction from these events. Kirk has a five-minute brawl with Finnegan (surely the most spectacular fist-fight in the entire series), and realizes, at the end, that he enjoyed it – it was something he’d always wanted to do.
  • The story also features a recurring element necessary for story tension: the landing party gets cut off from the Enterprise via some convenient energy field, or radiation, or whatever. ‘Convenient’ because otherwise the landing party could just pull out their communicators and say “beam me up”! Time and again in these Trek episodes, you can see that such a random story element occurs precisely to prevent this from happening; otherwise the story would quickly be over. (We’ve already seen this in “Miri”, where the communicators get stolen; “The Galileo Seven”, where the effects of the “quasar-like phenomenon” cut off communications between the shuttlecraft and the Enterprise; and “Dagger of the Mind”, where a force field prevents a rescue party from beaming down.)
  • McCoy’s death in this episode was a legitimate shock, as Cushman points out. While in general, long before Game of Thrones, you could trust that the lead characters in an ongoing TV series could not die – if they seemed to, somehow it would be a trick, or they would be brought back – at this point in Trek’s first season, DeForest Kelley was not a named star in the series’ opening credits, and regular viewers had already seen one recurring character, Yeoman Rand, disappear from the show without explanation (as mentioned earlier, it was mostly about the difficulty of maintaining her suggestive relationship with Kirk). So anyone watching this episode when first broadcast might have legitimately been shocked by McCoy’s death. Of course, the guarantee of returning stars didn’t stop this gimmick from being used in future episodes – Kirk’s death, at Spock’s hands, in 2nd season “Amok Time”, for instance. You knew that Kirk couldn’t die, so the suspense was more about how his apparent death would be rationalized.
  • Cushman also describes an interesting production decision, by the film editor for this episode, Fabien Tordjmann. Filming of the show at Vasquez Rocks included numerous shots of Finnegan (played by Bruce Mars) taunting Kirk from various spots over the rocks, and when Tordjmann got all the footage, he had a hard time piecing it together to look like a coherent straight line action sequence. So he decided to emphasize the randomness of Finnegan’s appearances, adding a bit of surrealism to the show, as if various versions of Finnegan were taunting Kirk from different places. When the producers and director saw the result, they loved it.
  • At the end a kindly caretaker appears, a member of the advanced race that built this planet as a kind of ‘amusement park’. He explains that none of the effects are permanent: McCoy and Angela are just fine (and they both reappear, unscathed). It’s a planet for ‘play’. Kirk provides the key insight, and the central line of this episode: “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”
  • This is another example of how in Trek the human crew on the Enterprise encountered advanced aliens whose presences only incidentally overlap with human exploration of space. I think this was a constant theme throughout the series, one perhaps not as appreciated as the humanistic idea that mankind had solved its own internal conflicts and had built an idealistic society.
  • Cushman provides considerable background about the development of the script, written by the famed SF author Theodore Sturgeon but then heavily rewritten by Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry, the latter rewriting scenes on location as the show was being filmed. Sturgeon’s concept was over-the-top and potentially very expensive (showing, e.g., mechanical arms reaching up out of the surface of the planet to remove the dead or deposit imagined artifacts). And the network wanted the fantasy elements toned down. And the network didn’t want another ‘illusion’ show after “The Menagerie”, an obvious concept the crew might have considered anyway, but is brushed aside with a single line of dialogue.
  • The episode ends with another humorous tag, as the bridge crew chuckle about something Spock says; another Gene Coon touch, presumably, here more appropriate than most, as Spock repeats his objection to the idea of spending energy to relax.
  • The music is by Gerald Fried, his first for the series, and resembles the episode: a variety of interesting components that have very little to do with one another. I’ll discuss the score in a separate post about the first season TOS music.
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