Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Original Series, Season 3: Is There in Truth No Beauty?

The Original Series, Season 3
"Is There in Truth No Beauty?"
Airdate: October 18, 1968
63 of 80 produced
60 of 80 aired
Click here to watch on


The Enterprise is assigned the task of transporting the Medusan ambassador back to his homeworld. The Medusans are a peaceful people and the most skilled navigators in the quadrant. However, their physical appearance is so revolting to humanoids that seeing one drives a human irrevocably mad.  Travelling with him is his Dr. Miranda Jones, a brilliant, but aloof psychiatrist. Trained on Vulcan to develop her innate telepathic powers, she is travelling with the ambassador to a permanent post on the Medusan homeworld. Why would a human chose to live her life among such people? What secrets is she or the ambassador hiding? What unseen dangers await the crew?

They can send a man to the Galactic Barrier, but they can't design a visor with a nose-hole?


Kevin: There's a couple of nifty science fiction concepts at play here, and overall, I think they mesh well. The main plot thread is probably the weakest in terms of its sci-fi-ness. The idea of an alien so...alien...that even looking at him causes madness may be a little more fantasy/mythology than science fiction, especially with a name like "Medusan." It reminded me of a Lovecraft story whose name escapes me at the moment, but the gist was this ancient civilization in Antarctica was so alien that even the geometry of their buildings caused the narrator distress to think about. My major problem with this concept is that the mechanism of how a physical object can be so ugly as to cause madness is a little ill-defined. Setting that aside, the way they handled the idea was pretty good in my opinion. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Greek philosophy and whether good things must be beautiful. I'm sure Matt will agree it's always nice to see some philosophy introduced in Star Trek. The writers get extra points for making it an organic part of the dialogue and not a tacked on speech to make the choice of title make sense.

Matthew: Well, Spock has a way of working zingers like that in. I love that he said "a theory promulgated by your ancient Greeks." And you're right, it always scores points with me when references to great periods in human history are made, and not just to Ancient Greece. Star Trek is a pretty literate show, and we'll see in all of the series many references to great books, great thinkers, and great works of art. It's one of the things that makes the franchise rewarding, because it edifies as well as entertains. Well, before last year, anyway.  

Kevin: Two ideas that I really liked in this episode, and the ones that I think bolster its science fiction chops were the discussion of telepathic powers and disability in the future. A common trope of telepathy is that it is somehow listening to a discreet, coherent internal monologue, as if you were just listening to someone talk. In reality, of course, people's minds are a constant hum of thought fragments and images and having unbidden access to it would be disorienting, even damaging. Having Dr. Jones study Vulcan emotional control as a necessity adds some nice depth and realism to humanities potential psi talents and to why Vulcans came to eschew emotions in the first place.

Matthew: Yeah, this show is the first really deep portrayal of telepathy in the series, for the reasons you mention. I liked that people with these mental powers were still capable of having the same character flaws as the rest of us. Of course, we also get another "alien inhabits Spock" scene, too. This one has less impact than "Return To Tomorrow," though. To me, by far the best part of the episode was the chemistry between Spock and Dr. Jones. There was animosity from her, but also admiration and envy. Both actors played it well, but it was also a feature of the script.

Kevin: The sensor dress was a neat solution, especially for the time, of how technology might aid the disabled. I wonder to what degree it influenced the development of the VISOR in TNG.  It was also introduced in the perfect way. It is the obvious and most credible answer for how a human could choose to work with the Medusans. The questions as to Dr. Jones' motivations for taking her assignment and her obvious aloofness instead of being something sinister, turn out to be a much more personal and much more compelling reason.

Matthew: I thought the sensor dress, in addition to looking neat, was downplayed and then revealed very well. It was a genuinely surprising means of helping her navigate. I prefer it to what they might have done, saying it was telepathy or something. And her defense of how well she could use it was nice.

Kevin: Overall, my only major gripes with the writing was that Dr. Jones was written as too aloof. It makes the crew fawning over her and Marvick's passionate attachment too her a little less than credible. Also, I have come to accept that the Enterprise can leave the galaxy, like, a lot. That being said, when they are a few minutes outside the galaxy, you don't need a Medusan to find your way home, you need a decent pair of binoculars and an open window. That big blob of light that would surely be filling an entire field of vision? Go that way.

Matthew: Personally, the more the Enterprise punches through the galaxy's hard candy shell and/or penetrates its chewy nougat center, the less special it gets. I was annoyed that they didn't mention the psychic disturbances that breaching the barrier causes, which were at the center of a better episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Shouldn't Jones have become a superwoman? They could have at least mentioned that they fixed the shields or something in dialogue. I also agree that the problem of navigating back should not have been all that difficult, as it was in TNG's "Where No One Has Gone Before." It's the little things sometimes that make or break an episode. I'm not saying that these flubs broke this show, but I'm less inclined to be charitable because of them.


Kevin: Everyone did their usual great job. Nimoy did a pretty great job acting as the melded Spock/Kollos and crazy after witnessing the Medusan unshielded. My above criticism that Jones is too aloof feels like a problem in the writing rather than the acting. Diana Muldaur gives another strong turn, and in a character very far removed from her "Return to Tomorrow" character.

Matthew: Acting made this episode for me. There were some issues with the story (though not fatal ones), but the actors sold it. Everyone was completely committed to their roles, and they all delivered. This is one of those episodes where conversation was entertaining. The dinner scene was very well done. Kirk was unctuous, Spock earnest, McCoy was... Southern, and Scotty was his typically charming self.

Kevin: David Frankham does a remarkably good job as Larry Marvick. Issues with Dr. Jones' characterization aside, his scene professing love for her is moving and his descent to madness is particularly well done.

Matthew: Frankham's insanity was one of the two best portrayals of such in TOS thus far, the other of course being Dr. Van Gelder in "Dagger of the Mind." If he hadn't pulled off this task so well, it might have been hard to empathize with him since, as you said, Jones was written a bit too icy. But when Frankham acted it, we believed it.

Kevin: Historical side note: According to Memory Alpha, Jessica Walter aka Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development was originally slated to play Dr. Jones, but became unavailable at the last minute. I gotta say, picturing Lucille drunkenly causing emotional damage on the Enterprise is giving no end of amusement.

Production Values

Kevin: There's a reuse of the footage of the trip through the galactic barrier. I've never been the biggest fan of that scene, and I have a sinking suspicion the Enterprise left the galaxy so often just to make sure they got their money's worth out of that shot. The scene of the Medusan didn't quite do it for me either. You can't have a creature that causes madness on sight shown on screen. He wasn't ugly, so much as disco-y.

Matthew: Yeah, the buildup makes any attempt at an effect fall flat. Unless it drives us insane, how can we believe it? It's kind of like the newer Twilight Zone episode in which a madman happens upon the meaning of life, but anyone who hears it is driven insane (naturally, he escapes and broadcasts it on the radio... spoiler alert!). They left it unsaid, because anything they tried would just fall flat.

Matthew: As far as costumes go, both guest stars looked pretty good. Dr. Jones' attire was a perfect blend of femininity and austerity. Also, finally, an engineer didn't get a totally bland jumpsuit.


Kevin: Overall, this was a pretty strong outing for me. The actors all did a great job, especially with ideas and material that easily could have gotten ham-handed. I'm stuck between a 3 and a 4, and I'm going to give this a 4, if nothing else, on the strength of Nimoy and Muldaur's performances. Despite, or maybe because of her emotional detachment, I found her motivations and responses pretty compelling.

Matthew: There's something oddly hypnotic about this episode. I marked it as a 4 right after we watched it, and a few days later now I'm hard pressed to remember why. It must be the acting. Perhaps this episode has a very soap operatic feel to it. But it's a good soap, and perhaps this one just squeaks into the top quartile of shows. But now that I put it that way, I've compared this to past episodes that rated 3's and 4's, and I see several 3 episodes that I like better. This fact, combined with the Galactic Barrier flub, means I'm going to go against my initial gut reaction and give it the more sober, reflective 3. That makes for a total of 7.

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