Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger goes where no reviewer has gone before... aww, who are we kidding. Even if he manufactured a fever dream about Uhura in an interdimensional love tryst, it has probably been written already.
Our reviews of The Best Of Star Trek: The Original Series (published May 12th, 2009), Star Trek: The Original Series: Season 1 (Blu-Ray) (published May 6th, 2009), Star Trek: The Original Series: Season 2 (Blu-Ray) (published September 16th, 2009), Star Trek: The Original Series: Season Two (Remastered) (published August 22nd, 2008), Star Trek: The Original Series: Season Three (Remastered) (published November 26th, 2008), Star Trek: The Original Series: Season One (published September 27th, 2004), and Star Trek: The Original Series: Season Two (published November 2nd, 2004) are also available.
"His brain is gone!"—Dr. McCoy
The boxed set of the third and final season of Star Trek is bittersweet, imbued with endings and beginnings. The season was an inherent failure for several reasons, most obviously that it culminated in the show's cancellation. It is just as clear that Star Trek is one of television's greatest success stories. Though they run the risk of beating a theme to death, Paramount has keyed in on these convenient themes and made the boxed set about genesis and closure.
If you're a Trekker, you already know what I'm going to tell you. For the casual fan, or the Next Generation fan wondering whether this set is worth a look, here is the bottom line. Season Three is not classic Star Trek; it has some of the worst ideas in the Trek Universe either before or since. It also contains some of the most memorable episodes in Trekdom. As a boxed set, Season Three capitalizes on this disquieting vibe of instability. Between the original pilot episode, words from Gene Roddenberry, and a handful of retrospective extras, there is plenty of juice in both the episodes and extras to keep Trek fans entertained.
Facts of the Case
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Nurse Chapel, and the rest of the Enterprise crew continue their explorations of deep space, where no man has gone before. (Except that they are constantly encountering men, or aliens who look like men, or men who look like aliens, but I digress.) In terms of the plot, Season Three takes a less cerebral and more surrealistic tone. In terms of real life, the series was in the hands of new producers with new ideas, which caused some quirks. The episodes aired in this season are:
My selfish heart is giddy, because Season Three contains the most memorable Star Trek episode ever. It might even be the one hour of television that coalesced my desire to be a media critic. That episode is the immeasurably bad, wildly entertaining season opener, "Spock's Brain."
Many a Trekker has bemoaned this clunker as the beginning of the end, and it has a secure hold among the worst Star Trek episodes of all time. Though I agree with these naysayers (it is a truly execrable bit of sci-fi fluff) I will not bombard the episode with waves of malignant energy. The truth is, "Spock's Brain" is one of the funniest things I have ever seen, and it commendably represents the heart of Star Trek.
In this episode, the crew is knocked out by a stun ray that emanates from the wristband of a silent intruder (clad in a purple velour miniskirt and go-go boots). When the crew wakes up, everyone is present and accounted for—but not quite whole. Spock's Vulcan carcass lies on the operating table in sick bay, and his…brain…is gone. Metabolomic processes keep his parts alive, but the CPU is elsewhere. This horrific circumstance leads to several pained outbursts from Jim, where he urges the crew that they must…FIND…Spock'sbrainimmediately.
To make a long story short, Scottie and Bones rig Spock's shell up to a svelte remote control device, beam him down to the planet that likely holds Spock's brain, and navigate him down into the depths of the underground caverns. There, the away team discovers that Spock's brain is the literal CPU for the underground city. McCoy puts a tinfoil-enhanced colander on his head and gleans the vast medical knowledge of the ancients, which he uses to put Spock's brain back in. "Let's see, I'll just reconnect his speech centers…Ok, let's work on the middle finger nerve now…" Words cannot express the hilarity of this ludicrous operation. It doesn't even make sense: Surely it would be more involved to construct the very remote they used to get Spock downstairs? They did that in an hour.
The epic proportions of this flop defy reason. Even in this, the arguable nadir of the entire Star Trek franchise, we find a campy blend of cool logic, testosterone, and mod chic that works; it has heart and optimism and drama despite the odds. Though it is true that "Spock's Brain" exercises our abdominal muscles more than our intellects, it still has the ability to draw us into a conceptual future that we find appealing.
If this wretched excuse for sci-fi can still entertain, imagine what they can do with honest-to-goodness stories. "The Tholian Web" ensnares us in a tense escape scenario while pulling our heartstrings with the death of James Tiberius Kirk. "The Enterprise Incident" introduces the concept of feigned mental illness as subterfuge, a technique that Picard and even Data would use in the next Trek series. Speaking of death, what about McCoy's spotlight episode "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky?" The name may be catchier than the actual episode, but it has an astounding amount of powerful moments crammed into the run time. I've always considered "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" to be one of the greatest Trek episodes ever, with its absorbable social commentary couched in an affecting human struggle. (By the way, I initially thought that the big difference between the two protagonists was eye color…what does that say about me?)
"Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" is not the only episode with pointed social commentary. The much-ballyhooed first interracial kiss on television happened right here in Season Three in "Plato's Stepchildren." Not only can Star Trek legitimately claim to have upped the level of social discourse on television, it can also demonstrate actual change. Fans of the show have a lot to be proud of.
Of course, the concepts and stories weren't the main reason people tuned in. No, that was because of the chemistry. The character actors and guest stars that spiced up each episode could fill a volume on their own (why, I believe they have!) but the anchors are Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, and DeForest Kelley. We can ponder how Spock, Kirk, and McCoy represent logic, action, and empathy, or how their interpersonal struggles reveal their humanity, but the only thing we need to know is that it works. Their eyebrows may be pneumatically enhanced, and they may have overdeveloped vogue responses, but these three charming melodramatists make their scenes resonate. Will it be Spock's brain or Kirk's fists that save the day? That question was enough to power many an episode.
DVD Verdict reviews of Seasons One and Two (linked in the sidebar) were in agreement that this series looks and sounds pretty good for its age. The new 5.1 mix doesn't add much aside from the occasional "swoosh," but it is clear and relatively distortion free. There is some distortion, but it's not like the source material was created in an über-high-fidelity environment. Pronounced grain, faded colors, and other artifacts betray the vintage of this series, but again it looks better than you'd expect.
The eight-disc set is this time shrouded in a security-red, tricorder-ish plastic shell with the octagonal spiral Starfleet emblem. I'm in the camp that feels this campy packaging works. It is somewhat annoying to pry the thing apart and dig out the disc you want, but coolness counterbalances much of that inefficiency.
The extras walk a broad line. Entries such as "A Star Trek Collector's Dream Come True" and the production art are primarily going to appeal to hardcore Trek fans. I'm guessing that the average viewer isn't going to know (or care) about the differences between a hero communicator and a regular communicator. On the other hand, hardcore fans aren't going to glean much from the interviews with Shatner, Doohan, Koenig, Nichols, Takei, or Nimoy. Of the bunch, Takei (who plays Sulu) is the most articulate and engaging, making clear that he has used Star Trek just as much as Star Trek has used him. He discusses Japanese-American relations and other tidbits that bring post–Star Trek life into focus. It is truly great to hear from as many cast members as we do, but the diehard fan won't learn anything groundbreaking.
Of the impressive slate of extras, two stand out. First are the textual commentaries on "The Savage Curtain" and "Turnabout Intruder." These alternate subtitles reveal authoritative and interesting viewpoints on third-season issues without intruding too much on the actual episodes. The second is dual versions of "The Cage," the pilot episode that later became "Menagerie" parts one and two. If you've never seen "The Cage" I don't want to spoil it for you; let's just say that it is fascinating to see this alternate take on the Star Trek we know and love. By including this extra, the producers of this set have brought us full circle. We now have the beginning and the end of Star Trek: The Original Series in one package. The contrast is intellectually engaging and emotionally moving.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Speaking of the end of Star Trek, it doesn't end in memorable fashion. In fact, "Turnabout Intruder" is more memorable for being the final episode than for being an inspired tale.
"Turnabout Intruder" is not alone. Although there is a solid block of good-to-great episodes in this season, many of them are either questionable or downright bad. In this season, the Enterprise crew finds Abraham Lincoln floating in space. They discover a hidden pocket of Native Americans, where Kirk gets amnesia and becomes their medicine man. Aside from the stunning face and body of his paramour (the delectable Sabrina Scharf) there isn't much to compel us to watch this one. The crew reenacts the gunfight at the OK Corral in what is among the most divisive Star Trek episodes. The list goes on, but the point is this: Criticisms of the writing, which is typically quoted as a strength of this series, are entirely valid. The creative team floundered and it is obvious.
[Author's Note: I really enjoy "The Paradise Syndrome," but
I've always considered it a guilty pleasure because of the inescapably cheesy
aspects. Feedback from other Trek fans has validated my enjoyment of this
episode, so feel free to strike it from the list of "possibly bad"
episodes if you enjoy it as well.]
Equally obvious is that the actors ham it up when regular hysterics would do just fine. I often wondered whether Shatner's joints had been physically rigged to fishing poles, so that stage hands could jerk him and contort him at their leisure. Do DeForest Kelley's eyebrows really arch that high? When everyone laughs at the end, is a director holding up a sign that says "Laugh Heartily"? I love this cast, I really do, but they can try one's suspension of disbelief at times.
This is the end of The Original Series, but as we all know it is not the end of Star Trek. With movies, conventions, spin-off series galore, video games, and other sequels, the cast and the ideals had plenty of gas left in the tank. It surprises us now that Star Trek's original run was only three years long, but second-guessing history is a rather fruitless endeavor.
This boxed set does justice to the series and sends it off in style. In fact, I have seen the Star Trek boxed sets listed among "DVDs of the Year" at other review sites. That enthusiasm is earned. Had there been a cast commentary or two, I might have done the same on my own "best of 2004" list. The simple fact is this: Turning down the lights and popping these DVDs into the player brings back the sense of wonder I felt watching Star Trek as a child. It is a special series, and though time has made some of it seem faintly ridiculous, it still has an optimistic heart, Kirk's warm smile, Spock's ironic head tilt, and loads of sexy alien women.
Corny, perhaps, but guilty? No way.
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Scales of Justice
• Unaired Pilot Episode "The Cage"
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