Tuesday, March 30, 2010

TOS Season One Recap

Season One of TOS is in the books at Treknobabble. How did it fare?

Going boldly where many a nerd has gone before... but in blog form.

Kevin's Thoughts

The review for "Operation Annihilate!" has just posted, and with it, we have come to the end of the first season of The Original Series. As I type this, we are hip-deep in reviewing the second season, and before I get into a substantive review of the first season, I just want to say how much fun the blog has been so far. It's led to some fasicnating conversations. And, assuming they are who they purport to be, Mike Okuda and James Doohan's son Chris Doohan follow us on Twitter. I think that's genius.

I have to say that I had never really watched TOS the way I watched TNG and DS9 before starting this project. I had seen them, and was conversant in them, but did not get as into them as the later series that I grew up with. I remember thinking that I understood why people liked the show, but I honestly didn't see why it inspired such a passionate fanbase back in the 60s. I understood why TNG made me feel that way, but I didn't see why the same would be true for TOS fans. Having watched the first season with a critical eye, I no longer wonder.

TOS easily has the strongest first season of any of the franchise. The characters are well developed and interesting from the first frame of film. William Shatner deserves nowhere near the level of mocking he gets for his performance as over-the-top or his character as the fisticuffs captain counterpart to Picard's diplomat. He is passionate, certainly, but thoughtful, even philisophical. He may be decisive, but but he manages to convey all his own doubts and fears in a single glance before resolving to do what he knows he must. I am going to single out Leonard Nimoy for particular praise. He manages to play emotionless in such a way that it inspires, even compels, the viewer to feel what he does not. Normally when I gripe about Star Trek's lack of acting awards, it's me defending something I love for the sake of doing so, but here, it's a particularly legitimate complaint. Watch the scene in "This Side of Paradise" when Spock tells Leila that he can't stay with her. Tell me your heart doesn't break on his behalf. I dare you. You can't, can you?

We're gonna get into some serious nerd-style analysis of the season as a whole now, but before we did that, I just wanted to say that watching the first season gave me a new appreciation for something I thought I knew well. I initially kind of expected I would be phoning in my reviews against Matt's obvious fervent love for TOS, cooling my heels until we hit TNG, but not so. I would happily pit this season against any that followed on any show, and I bet it has an above average chance of winning. That being said, we shall now comence the nitpicking.

Matthew's Thoughts

Unlike Kevin, I had gone through TOS at least twice in a systematic way. So it wasn't a shock to me that  there was a lot to like. TNG is still my favorite series as a whole, for both nostalgic and more rigorous critical reasons, but TOS is a contender, and its first season stands among the very best 2 or 3 seasons of Trek.

So why does it work? Kevin mentioned how surprisingly well-fleshed out the characters were from the get-go. I heartily agree. I  personally think this owes more to the actors than to the writing (not to diminish the very good character writing of D.C. Fontana, who did an awful lot to make Spock what he was). From the reading I've done, it has become apparent to me that most of the cast was fighting tooth and nail to wrest screen time away from William Shatner. I think this is apparent in the final product. Every principal actor is clearly giving his or her all, really trying to inhabit and animate the character. No one is phoning it in. And Shatner is also doing it - he is fighting with every ounce of acting skill in his body to hog the spotlight - and don't get me wrong in that I think this is a bad thing. Good actors want to be good actors as much as they can, especially in the early, insecure parts of their careers. I think there is a lot of competitive fire in this cast: sometimes good fire, sometimes fire with animosity.

The main triad get the most writing, and they knock it out of the park every time a scene is given to them. Kirk comes off as complex, full of brio but also thoughtfulness, the perfect "man of action" married to the "man of mind." Spock is a tour de force, with a perfectly contained, simmering emotional turmoil. McCoy is irascible yet warm, equally capable of eliciting a laugh as well as moral outrage.

The more peripheral principals have an uphill struggle to gain the attention of the writing staff. But again, you can see each actor really trying to make the most of his or her scenes. Uhura has a radiant, independent quality, and it's easy to see why children the likes of Whoopi Goldberg found her inspiring. Sulu is invested by George Takei with a sort of smirking "yeah, I'm a subordinate, but I can see the humor" quality. Scotty is the tragedy, since such a fine comic actor was relegated to a more supporting role when Spock is the one who hit it big with the viewers.

So I definitely think there is a certain "lightning in a bottle" quality to the cast. A competitive bunch like this could have gone off the rails quite easily, so there must have been something else which lent itself to making Season One and the TOS as a whole a consistent, entertaining, inspiring piece of work. And that has to fall on the shoulders of the writers and producers. Without doing too much more research, it's hard to say who deserves credit. Roddenberry, of course, had the original creative impetus. But he has been known to contribute wacky and superfluous ideas as well as inspired ones. I'm going to hazard a guess that D.C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon exerted pressure on all concerned to make Star Trek hang together, to create and obey its own rules, to create a continuity and a universe that inspires both fresh stories and fan devotion.


Matthew: Just based on our ratings, it's obvious that "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Menagerie," "Balance Of Terror," and "City On The Edge Of Forever" are the highlights. "The Cage" also gets a mention, though technically speaking, it doesn't belong with Season One proper.

We've discussed these episodes in detail. All 5 would get easy inclusion in my top 10 for TOS (a list for another time). So what unites them?

In my opinion, it is the quality of the science fiction involved. All of Season One is united by dedicated performances by the principal cast. These episodes shine more brightly because that acting is married to science fiction concepts that are at least at the level of good pulp (the Heinlein-esque "Balance") and at best at the level of some of the highest concept stuff out there ("City" is of course penned by Harlan Ellison, albeit with substantial revisions, and "Cage/Menagerie" has the ring of an Arthur C. Clarke tale of an atrophied society.)

Kevin: The five episodes cited by Matt are certainly the best of the season, among the best for Season 1, and I would go so far as to say certainly in the Top 20 for the franchise as a whole. I agree with pretty much everything Matthew said, but I will add one thing. All 5 make great viewing apart from their connection to Star Trek. Good television, like good theater, is the art of combining different elements into a cohesive whole, and making it look effortless. Really good Star Trek is more than the sum of its parts. It's not just good actors and a good script; it's the unique combination that really makes an episode soar.


Matthew: "Charlie X," "Shore Leave," "Return of the Archons," and "Operation: Annihilate" suffer the lowest ratings in Season One. What unites them? "Archons" and "Shore Leave" are marred by deficiencies in pacing, grinding to a sluggish halt by their second halves. These episodes and "Annihilate" also show some glaring story logic holes. "Charlie X" suffers from a rather annoying guest star. Guest stars are always tricky if they have significant screen time. We will rarely see another guest star take up so much time as Charlie does.

In general, I think the weaker episodes of Season One suffer from a lack of "sci-fi cred." They may start with the nugget of a great premise, but that nugget is not developed into a full-bodied story that stands up against the best episodes of the season. "Archons" is a good example. How does "The Red Hour" work? Who are the resistance, and how can they resist at all when Landru has such pervasive control of the minds of his subjects? Similar questions abound in the other episodes above. How could no one have noticed the "Shore Leave" planet before, and wouldn't a person suffer some severe PTSD upon experiencing their own violent death?

Kevin: The bottom episodes evidence another common problem for me: they're boring. Just as I like great Star Trek for being great television, I am the most disappointed by Star Trek that fails at being simply entertaining. There are episodes throughout the franchise that may fail as science fiction, or may even suffer from plot or execution flaws, but nonetheless provide me with 45 minutes of enjoyable viewing. For the four episodes Matt cites above, by the end of the episode, I'm looking at my watch. Good Star Trek, even mediocre Star Trek is better, in I believe both Matt's and my opinion, than most television generally, but that doesn't excuse Star Trek from having to be good television, and if nothing else, these episodes fail at that for me.

That being said, there's a reason that there are no 1s in this season. None of them, happily, show the disregard for the viewers or the sheer lazy writing in later seasons and series that truly merit the dreaded "1."


Because everyone loves spreadsheets, here are our episode ratings.

Here are some things to notice:
  • Our ratings differ on 6 episodes out of 29. This either means that we're really boring, or we share a lot of opinions. 
  • Though our scores differ on those episodes, our averages for the season ended up being identical, at 3.4483. This average rating is well above the ideal 3.0000 bell curve peak.
  • Our combined scores ended up averaging 6.8966. Although we haven't gone through the future seasons yet, we are willing to predict that this is a rather high average. The simple fact is, Season One of TOS is really good.
The distributions were as follows:

As you can see, we did succeed in our goal to create a bell-shaped curve. Episodes with a rating of 3 are predominant. We didn't come across any stinkers with a rating of 1, but I think this has more to do with the overall quality of Season One of TOS than any sort of bias on our parts (also, don't worry, the Ones are coming...)

Combining our ratings into the final scale (2-10), the curve looks like this:
Imagine a line approximating a curve through these data, and you can still see that we approached a bell curve. We did display a proclivity towards the same rating, so of course the even numbers are dominant. This is the natural result of multiplying any Likert-style scale by two sets of ratings. We're just going to have to deal with it. We don't want to argue with each other over what an episode deserves since it is an inherently subjective enterprise, and we don't want to make it too easy by giving each of us a 10-point scale and then averaging them. Personally, and this is Matthew speaking: I like to think of our ratings as two sets of 5-point-scale ratings. I think that is the most informative way of looking at it. It gives you a rigorous scale with little mushy wriggle room, and it faithfully represents two peoples' opinions of the show. The combined rating is just a convenience tool, and no absence of distortion is expressed or implied.

Stat heads are welcome to argue for whatever scale they think is best. Heck, we might even agree and change to it. But for now, this is what we're doing.


TOS Season One was pretty effin' great. It came out of the box firing on all cylinders, unlike most of the other Trek series. TOS is an odd duck, in that (at this point this is prediction) it began on top and declined in a more or less linear fashion. Most of the other series demonstrated a more gradual improvement towards the middles of their runs and then a slight decline as they wound up.

Both of us have expressed a great admiration for the acting and characterization in Season One, and it seems fair to say that this, combined with a still-fresh set of sci-fi stories, has accounted pretty well for the high ratings handed out. Will it continue? Let's find out! On to Season Two...

1 comment:

  1. Well, Jonathan Frakes is following Mike Okuda on twitter, so I would assume that he is who he says he is! That's actually really cool!