Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Original Series, Season 3: Whom Gods Destroy

The Original Series, Season 3
"Whom Gods Destroy"
Airdate: January 3, 1969
72 of 80 produced
69 of 80 aired
Click here to watch at


Kirk and Spock are taken captive by a band of criminally insane inmates at a high-security Federation asylum. Leading them is one the Federation's greatest fallen heros, Garth of Izar. Once a fleet captain whose exploits were the stuff of legend, he snapped and attempted to commit genocide on a planetary scale. Will Garth and his followers find a way to get off the lonely, distant planet that imprisons them? Will Kirk and Spock survive the attempt?

They seemed like such a happy couple...


Kevin: This episode has a lot going for it. It obviously calls to mind "Dagger of the Mind," the Enterprise's last trip to an intergalactic nuthouse. If the episode has a major flaw, it's the comparisons to Dagger are tad too frequent. We have the one place in the Federation left to house the some number smaller than 10 who comprise the only insane people in the Federation. The Enterprise is to deliver or examine a cure, and that doesn't go so well, and Kirk ends up in a chair that screws with his brain. (And I'm pretty sure it was the same chair prop from Dagger, too). In fact, I believe Leonard Nimoy actually wrote a letter to Gene Rodenberry protesting the similarities. I'm making such a big deal out of this, because "shameless repeat of episode" is one of those signs a show is circling the drain, like in season one of Three's Company, the gang has to a hide a cat from the Roepers and some seasons later they have to hide a dog from Mr. Furley. It's how you really know the end is coming. That being said, this outing has a few things going for it over Dagger. Security on the Enterprise is way better. Call signs and countersigns and everything. No random tech getting judo chopped in the transporter room. They maintain the position that all criminals must suffer a curable mental deficiency, but harp on it way less. And the chair causes agony instead of subliminal programming, which is way more credible.

Matthew: I think it's fair to call this episode "Dagger Part Deux," because clearly there is a lot of borrowing going on. But the writers take it in a different direction, and I think it ends up being about something different. Dagger was about what makes criminals and whether it could be programmed away. This ends up being about Captains and what makes them good or bad.

Kevin: Matt has made this point before, and I'm going to let him discuss it in detail about the importance of the fallen starship captain in the overall Star Trek narrative. I will add here that I liked that they made Garth a fallen starship captain. It would have been easy to make him generically insane. Giving him a backstory that resonates for Kirk makes the story substantially better. But now over to Matt.

Matthew: Now that our reviews of TOS are winding down, this is a good place to really discuss the thesis. Diane Carey's novels inform my thinking, that the Constitution-class starship represents a huge leap forward that truly knits the Federation together as a galaxy-striding civilization. She suggests, but does less to develop, the idea that the Captain is the key, indispensable person who must harness and direct the energies of this breakthrough. The Captain has to be both jack of all trades and expert in many of them. He or she needs to be a combination philosopher/warrior/diplomat, because it is only at the helm of the Starship that the maximum impact can be made on the galaxy (actual diplomats and politicians are portrayed in various series as mush-minded bureaucrats who don't make the real changes). And so, in the same way that this show is really Shatner's show, it is, I think overall, a meditation on what kind of person should be at the helm of this sort of power. Kirk is it. Spock is a pale second. Other captains seem to crumble under the weight of the responsibility. Kirk says that Garth was the model, the prototype, during this episode. Well, think about it. The model and prototype of what? But I think the message of the show is that Kirk is the new model.

If you think of when this show was being conceived and written, it was at a time when our technology was going through rapid, exponential growth (like the Starship!) Because of this confluence of technology, the fates of civilizations hung in the balance, and those fates depended greatly on who was at the helm. I think the hero figure for Kirk is John F. Kennedy. Whether rightly or wrongly (a question for historians), he was seen as the quintessential warrior/poet - a man who had demonstrated amazing bravery in combat, but who tempered his violent instincts with a study of history, classics, wisdom. Kennedy saw us through the Cuban Missile Crisis with that mix of qualities. A different president (say, Nixon) might have led us over the brink. Viet Nam was another area where philosophy and reason needed to triumph over fear and jingoism, but did not. I think these historical questions and lessons were foremost in the minds of Roddenberry and the writers, and Captains were where these sorts of questions could be sussed out.

Kevin: I think the only thing Garth's storyline was missing was a little fleshing out of the incident that caused his crew to mutiny. Without context, it looks a little like Garth just snapped. It would have beefed up the story a little to show there was an actual conflict that Garth was trying to resolve and attempting to do so broke him. They had a few scenes of Kirk mourning the downfall of one of his heroes, but I think they could have personalized it a little more. When he encounters captains like Tracey in Omega Glory or Decker in Doomsday Machine, Kirk portrays a little self doubt as to how far from these men he really is. It would have been the perfect addition for Kirk to wonder for a moment at his own sanity after the things he has seen and done. This is nitpick though. It's an hour show, not Lord of the Rings. There is only so much plot we can handle.

Kevin: In terms of the other inmates, Marta is really the only one that gets any lines, and I have say, I thought she was a great character. I'm not entirely sure what she did, but I'm sure she looked damned good doing it. I really like her petulant tantrum that regardless of when Shakespeare wrote the sonnet, she wrote it independently yesterday, which, when you get right down to it, is technically possible, if not likely.  [SPOILER ALERT!] I ended up feeling actually sad and shocked when she got blown up. [END SPOILERS.]

Matthew: There were a lot of fun twists and turns in this plot. Instead of being silly, the body mimicry power ended up being suspenseful, when combined with the sign/countersign procedure for beam up. I loved the scene in which Garth mimics Spock in an attempt to discover the sign. On the other hand, the notion that Garth had the resources to invent the most powerful explosive in history is silly. Perhaps he was exaggerating.

Kevin: Scotty gets a few good scenes on the bridge. I always like it when the crew of the Enterprise is portrayed as competent. They were exactly as suspicious as they should have been from the very beginning. It's a credit to the characters and the writers. Another scene that stood out for me was when Garth tortured Cory to get Kirk to give up the counter-sign. It's one thing to be brave in the face of torture. It's another to stand by and watch it happen knowing you could stop it.

Matthew: I want to point out some continuity - Garth makes a speech about how warriors like him are still needed, and Kirk mentions the Battle of Axanar. Apparently, Garth went there in war, but Kirk returned as a cadet on a peace mission. Kirk says it was this mission that helped culminate in "making Spock and me brothers." This sounds like the birth of the Federation. It was later referenced in Enterprise and the birth of the Federation seems to have been pushed earlier, but it is wonderful dialogue in the context of this episode, making the government and the history of the universe feel real and alive.

Kevin: The final scene by far is the best of the episode. Kirk and Spock both played the scene perfectly and Spock blandly stating that he intended to shoot the winner assuming the real Kirk would lose was genius. The end with Garth actually being cured by the mystical medicine the Enterprise carried robbed the episode a little of its import. I would have liked the idea that Garth was too far gone to save. Also, having him forget what he had done was too easy. It would have been more dramatic to have him remember and feel regret.

Matthew: Definitely a highlight. Like I said, body doubles can be dumb. Here, it is played at perfect pitch. We don't know which is which, and we can't wait for Spock to decide, and to find out on what basis he made his decision. I agree that the resolution was somewhat weak, but I don't consider it fatal. I imagine if you put Charles Manson on strong anti-psychotics, you'd get a similar, though likely temporary, result.


Kevin: Everyone did a great job here. Shatner as Garth throwing a tantrum when he can't convince Scotty to lower the shield was good. Spock's demeanor in the final scene was fantastic. I want to particularly praise Marta. She boomeranged between kittenish and petulant and violent with the same ease as her dance movements.Yvonne Craig, who played Batgirl in 60s Batman, did a really great job of infusing the character with the right amount of manic energy to make her interesting but not grating.

Matthew: Everything you've said about Craig is right on - I'd just like to add that watching her cavort around in Orion slave girl gear is not at all disagreeable (if her picture is not on the Urban Dictionary page for "Bangin' Body," it should be). This episode definitely dispels any thoughts that she is a lightweight, which you might surmise from her turn as Batgirl (which was certainly more on the writers of that show than on her).

She bangs! She bangs!

Kevin: Steve Ihnat did a great job as Garth too. If nothing else he had the stage presence to keep me interested. His performance is on par with Morgan Woodward's in Dagger and Omega Glory. He definitely held his own against Shatner, and that's a short list of people who can do that. I think he pitched his insanity with the right amount of megalomaniacal delusion.

Matthew: "Stage presence" is the perfect way to describe it. It might be said that Ihnat is not rooted in the "method" acting school. Perhaps we never get an insight into the soul of the character, which a quieter method-acting performance might have given us. But doggone it if he is not relentlessly entertaining to watch.

Production Values

Kevin: I'm torn on this episode. A lot of elements, like the chair and the uniforms, are lifted right out of another episode about the same topic. The uniform patches I suppose bother me less as it makes sense that people in this area would share the patch. I still think it's a stupid patch, but at least continuity is served by the reuse. The reuse of the same chair prop is more troublesome, if only because it forces you to compare to episodes with similar plots as you are watching the episode. And really, after this, mental hospitals are going to have to ban chairs that recline in their facilities.

Matthew: As a redress of the Enterprise, the hospital is pretty effective. They changed the corridor sets just enough, and I think spaced them out further, so it truly felt like a different space, even though they were using the same props. The control room was nice, too, and I thought the window looked really good. I thought it was fun that we got sort of a rogues gallery of aliens (Orion, Tellarite, Andorian). I wish there could have been a Vulcan thrown in for good measure.

Kevin: The planet set was interesting. I think it looks slightly better than other planet sets because freed from the requirement that it looks like it could support life, they could really dress it up as much as they wanted. The explosion effect was a little hokey, but it was startling in its own way and really drove home how nuts Garth was.

Matthew: I didn't find the explosion all that hokey. I agree, the planet looked nice. It was a good mix of fog, sky backdrop, lighting, and rubber rocks.


Kevin: I am going to give this a 3. I really enjoyed watching this episode, and there is a lot there to keep the viewer entertained. I was tempted to give this a four, but I feel the artificially happy ending and the sense that we've done this episode before keep it from the upper echelons. That said, this is certainly a good episode, and rightfully in the fat part of the bell curve.

Matthew: I'm going to reveal something here which will lay bare just how nerdy Kevin and I are. A few years back, well before this project, I made an Excel spreadsheet of every series, every episode, and rated them 1 through 5. Then, I emailed it to Kevin and he did the same. Why? Just because. When I assigned the ratings, I did not watch every series over, instead I read synopses and estimated based on my recollections.

Well, most of the ratings have stayed the same. A few have gone up or down a tick (mostly up). But this one is the biggest gainer - I had it at a 2 on my original list. When I watched it again for this blog, I checked the spreadsheet and thought "WTF? What was wrong with me?" Perhaps I felt that this episode was a retread, as Kevin mentioned above. But reusing is nowhere near as big a sin as failing to entertain. And this episode entertains in spades. This is the third or fourth time I've watched it, and there was never a moment at which I felt bored, and there were times at which I was not only aggressively entertained, but thought "cool", "neat!", or "fascinating." The flaws mentioned above are real, but not fatal. Had various elements of the plot been more original, this might even contend for a 5. As it is, this is a 4 in my book. It excelled in acting, production was at least average, and writing was average to above average in spots. That brings our total to a 7.

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