Flying eggs, witches, and wizards oh my!
I don't need to tell you what Star Trek is. Well, maybe I will anyway, just a bit. Not only is it the crown jewel in the Paramount library, it is a phenomenon known throughout the world. This "Wagon Train to the Stars" became much more; a morality play and a vision of hope for the future in a world that did not know if they would survive the nuclear age and Cold War. It is also a phenomenon of the power of fan involvement in their favorite entertainment. After 79 episodes NBC pulled the plug on the series, which in most cases would result in only seeing it in a few local outlets if at all again. But fans were so dedicated, even fanatical (the very word "fan" comes from) that it came back; first in syndication, then films, then in 3 more series, with an announced fourth on the way.
But the first series which ran from 1966-69 started it all, and retains a great deal of nostalgia and still has legions of fans. For those fans, Paramount has been releasing the entire TOS (The Original Series, or The Old Show, depending on whose talking) on DVD, two episodes at a time, digitally remastered and with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. A fine effort, with a few flaws and less desirable factors. This is volume 15, which contains two episodes that were labeled consecutively but not aired as such.
Facts of the Case
The first episode on the disc is "Operation: Annihilate!" which aired on April 13, 1967, still in the first season. It was late enough in the season that the cast had begun to gel and Spock had already started stealing the show. Here the Enterprise arrives to the Denoba system after having had no contact with them in over a year. It appears that something has been causing mass insanity in systems along a linear route on other planets over the last 100 years, and now it has reached Denoba. Naturally all the highest-ranking officers must go investigate first, with a couple people you don't know in red shirts along as well. By now everyone knows not to ever go on Star Trek wearing a red shirt in your first episode, but apparently they decided to throw us a curve, since it is Spock who is attacked by the creatures causing the insanity, known as flying pizza bats or flying fried eggs among the Trek community. Unfortunately Kirk's brother George lives on Denoba with his wife and child, and is dead by the time they arrive. From Kirk's sister in law we learn the creatures control the people infected through pain, and that is the reason for the insanity.
Spock is infected, but due to his Vulcan discipline can control the pain somewhat and retain his grip on sanity. Since he is already infected, he alone must go back to capture a creature and learn how to kill them without killing the infected populace. Apparently there were no spacesuits or other hard-shelled protective gear anyone could have worn, but I digress. All they know about how to defeat the dreaded pizza bats is that one colonist had escaped their control by flying into the sun, and something had killed the parasite moments before the proximity to the son killed the host. Will Spock and McCoy figure out how to defeat them? Will Spock be permanently disabled from experiments in finding a cure? I suppose the fact that he's in the next episode might give that away.
The second episode on the disc is "Catspaw," Star Trek's Halloween episode that aired October 26, 1967 during the second season. The Enterprise arrives at the planet Pyris VII (these names always make me think our world should be called "Sol 3"), which has always been uninhabited with no native life forms. But when Scotty, Sulu, and a guy you never heard of named Jackson (not wearing a red shirt even!) go down to the planet they disappear from sensors and cannot be reached by communicator. Naturally the senior officers must go down to investigate, leaving assistant chief engineer Lt. DeFalco in command above. What Kirk, Spock, and McCoy find below is startling. A black cat, three disfigured apparitions moaning the captain's name, a cobweb festooned castle, a wizard and a sorceress. Apparently the sorceress is also the cat, and both her and the wizard have abilities that appear to be magic. Scotty and Sulu have been turned into zombies, and Korub (the wizard) makes food or gems appear on a table instantly. To further demonstrate their power, Sylvia (the cat/sorceress) hangs a toy Enterprise over a candle flame and the ship starts to burn up. Then to prevent rescue she encases the ship in a crystal.
When weapons and technology will not work, Kirk is left to his other strengths to succeed. In this case it is his superhuman way with women, and in the act of seducing Sylvia learns that their power comes from a device called a transmuter and that Sylvia and Korub are totally alien beings from another galaxy, and sensations such as pleasure were unknown to them until they took human form. Sylvia craves these sensations, and is willing to be cruel and savage to experience them. Here I am reminded of the very close ties between Star Trek and Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most famous and respected science fiction writers of the age. Heinlein once wrote "any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic" and it appears that is exactly what we have here.
Of course now Kirk must rescue his friends and overcome the aliens by destroying the transmuter. Will he succeed?
I am old enough to have been an avid fan of the first Star Trek series while it was still on the air, and certainly it fired my imagination for space travel. I know I am not alone; most NASA scientists and astronauts have also claimed to be fans who got some influence from it. Being something of a trivia magnet I also know an embarrassing amount of minutiae about Star Trek, in most if not all of its incarnations. So let me share a few fun facts about the episodes on this DVD.
In "Operation: Annihilate!": The writers broke their own pseudo-science by having the Enterprise moving at Warp 8 within a solar system. Supposedly a big no-no that would have dire consequences. That isn't truly noteworthy since the various writers for the show rarely tried to maintain any sense of consistency. Among the inconsistencies within the series is also the presence of money; in some episodes there are references to it, while in others it is stated that money isn't used in this age. In this episode there is one reference to money: Kirk tells McCoy "I don't care what it takes or costs, just help him." As if medical care from the ships doctor came with a bill.
In "Catspaw" there is another reference to money when Lt. DeFalco is attempting to break free from the crystal that the sorceress Sylvia has encased the ship: "I'll bet credits to navy beans we can make a dent in it." This episode is also noteworthy that it is the first episode where viewers saw Ensign Chekov (with a mop-top hairstyle). It wasn't the first episode that Walter Koenig performed in; the episode "Amok Time" was shot earlier but aired later.
Well, enough trivia. Neither of these episodes made the Sci-Fi Channel's Top Ten Episodes, but they are interesting enough. When the Sci-Fi Channel bought the right to air the original series, each episode was digitally remastered and these are the transfers that we get on these discs. Except for the special effects shots of the ship, the picture quality is startlingly detailed and bright; better even than when it was first aired. Colors are bold and vivid and if anything the detail is too sharp; in "Catspaw" you can now see the black strings propping up the puppets of the aliens' true form. The only real flaw in the picture quality comes from the special effects shots of the ship passing by or in orbit; both ship and planet are very grainy in each shot. I'm still not complaining on this front.
The soundtrack has also been digitally remastered into a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Sticking close to its mono roots, the track keeps most of the sound in the center and uses the rest of the channels for directional panning and ambient sounds such as the "Red Alert" alarms. Bass response has been enhanced to give extra punch where needed as well. Dialogue is intelligible and there is a high degree of clarity without hiss. I'm quite happy with the mix.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
We've been disappointed in the lack of extras on many Paramount discs, and these are no exception. Considering the wealth of information out there on this series it is a shame that the only bonus features are a preview TV spot for each episode on the disc.
There have been widespread complaints as well about only having two episodes per disc as well. The biggest problem as I see it is the amount of shelf space needed to contain 40 discs that the entire series will require. At a retail cost of $19.95 (less online of course) I see the cost per episode to be a bit high but not prohibitively so. So my main complaint is simply the shelf space requirements and the slow pace of getting them released. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" will be coming to DVD soon and Paramount is still discussing how to package them in terms of number of episodes per disc and whether to make seasonal box sets the way Fox has done with their X-Files series. I hope they opt for season box sets with four episodes on a disc personally.
After having watched all these episodes many times, seen all the films, and watched all three of the other series in their entirety, I am a bit jaded by the very quaint way in which these original episodes were made. I've always said the writers wrote themselves into corners as they invented technology for the show; and often suffered through inconsistencies in trying to deal with what they had written. The whole notion of the transporter, which is admittedly one of the favorite devices in this mythos, created scores of problems in a dramatic context. What sense of danger is there planetside when people could instantly go back to the ship? So they constantly had to come up with reasons the transporters and communicators wouldn't work. Exploring the pseudo-science of the transporter reveals that it is the ultimate medical device, and in many episodes like "Operation: Annihilate" it would have been the cure for Spock. So many "but, what if?" questions come up in the episodes (all the series are guilty of this) where the characters seemingly ignore obvious answers to their predicament to maintain some sense of drama. One such would be "why don't they just have communicators implanted in their bodies so every alien of the week can't take them away from them?"
In these specific episodes, there are plenty of problems in the plots. Spock foregoes wearing goggles when McCoy tests blinding light to see if the creatures will be effected in "Operation: Annihilate" even knowing he is likely to become blind from the test. McCoy uses Spock as a guinea pig without having done any sort of safer testing first. When the times call for it, our ultra-advanced heroes get awfully stupid. In "Catspaw," Sylvia uses her powers without having to touch the transmuter several times, yet seemingly is rendered impotent when Kirk gets his hands on Korub's wand. It is best to just ignore all the inconsistencies and plot devices that are less than convincing and just concentrate on the nostalgic charm of the show.
While these particular episodes are not the most compelling in the series, completists will be happy with the disc. The picture and sound quality are excellent, and the episodes entertaining enough.
Paramount is urged to put more episodes per disc and/or include extras with their Star Trek series discs and to release whole seasons at once instead of two episodes at a time. Otherwise they gain an acquittal for the quality of this DVD.
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