Tuesday, December 30, 2008

TOS Rewind #24: "The Devil in the Dark"

Today we have The Devil in the Dark (3-9-1967)  This installment is later than I anticipated, but the holiday season will do that.  Eric starts us out:

As it turns out, it is perhaps better that I’m so late with this review. “The Devil in the Dark" was the favorite episode of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (member of the original cast and Gene Roddenberry’s widow) who sadly passed away on December 18th. Now, in a way, this review can be a tribute to her.

I got to meet Ms. Roddenberry and hear her speak in 1992, a few months after Gene died. She impressed me in many ways, perhaps most of all by how upbeat and cheerful she was so soon after losing her husband. I was also impressed by her candor when asked questions by the audience. What was particularly memorable, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, was three of her responses. One was a reply to a question about Gene’s take on equality. She said he believed in equality in all things except his marriage. Another was her answer to a question about whether he truly believed humanity would survive and grow out of its current problems. Her reply was that toward the end of his life, Gene still believed humanity could evolve to fulfill its potential, but he had begun to doubt that it would. (This saddened me and it still does.) And finally, when asked what her favorite episode is, she replied that “The Devil in the Dark" still moved her to tears because at its heart, it’s about mother love.

I agree. In a bizarre, other-worldly way the theme “The Devil in the Dark" is indeed mother love. And it’s that bizarre, other-worldly aspect that is one of the most important functions of science fiction as a literary genre—it allows us to look at humanity and the human condition from another, completely different perspective. For much of this episode, we’re certain that the Horta, the silicon-based alien that looks like a cross between a shag carpet and a deep-dish pizza, is a murderous monster that must be killed. The miners on Janus VI and Kirk and the rest of the crew, except for Spock, are similarly convinced. But it turns out that the Horta is quite intelligent and civilized and was just protecting her young against the miners who were indiscriminately, albeit unknowingly, killing them. So then the problem becomes one of communication and thereby a peaceful resolution. Which is achieved. Mother love is reaffirmed and some of Star Trek’s most common and powerful themes are addressed:  that different is not necessarily bad, that we don’t need to fear the unknown, and that violence isn’t the only way to resolve conflicts.

So this is my modest tribute to the First Lady of Star Trek. Thanks for helping to make possible stories like “The Devil in the Dark" that captured my imagination and fueled my sense of wonder so powerfully.
Wow, I am so dense.  It didn't even occur to me to mention the passing of Ms. Barrett.  Good catch there Eric and a nice tribute. 

Speaking of lameness, I believe I wasn't feeling good when I watched this one, so no drinkie.  I'll try and correct that in the future! 

This episode is very very good.  It has some great science fiction ideas and a very positive message.  I think in the past that I had a bit of a negative bias towards this one due to the following:

1.  The cheesy moving carpet/plastic pizza-looking Horta costume.  This is odd in a way since I tend to be pretty forgiving of TOS's limited effects.  It didn't seem all that bad this time around, though parts of the creature do have the look of hardened cheese wiz. 

2.  Nimoy's dramatic mind meld scene.  PAIN!!!!!  I can almost imagine the director telling Nimoy to put himself in full-on Shatner mode.  I really don't have a problem with this scene, but in the past it seemed way over the top.  Maybe it still is, but there is such an earnestness about the way Nimoy does it that it still works.  You can easily see what he's trying to convey.

Okay, so the objections don't really get in the way of this story.  The solution they come up with is very positive and fits in well with the Roddenberry universal view of future goodness.  The idea that they're dealing with a being whose race dies off every so often and then reborn is pretty novel.  Some real thought was put into the story, no question.  Another good, if more conventional, device is the theft of the reactor part that gives the action more urgency and tension. 

The character writing is very good here with Spock rightfully getting the bulk of the fun.  There is a real sense of conflict between Spock's duty to Starfleet and his personal scientific philosophy about alien life.  He, more than anyone, feels regret at the need to kill the Horta.  Kirk has some interesting material, especially the scene where he is face-to-face with the Horta and has to decide how it will go.  His dealings with the revenge-seeking miners are good too.  Speaking of the miners, I got a real blue-collar vibe from these guys, more than usual in Trek.  The colony leader seemed like he could have been a union boss of a group of longshoremen or something.  The actor they cast definitely had that feel.  McCoy has some fun stuff, as usual, with the "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer" being a highlight.

I watched the remastered/enhanced version for this review.  There was the usual ultra-clean HD images and the new CG space/Enterprise shots, plus a re-done effects shot of one of the Horta-burned tunnels.  It was better, I suppose, but I never had a problem with the old effect either.  My opinion remains unchanged on the remastered versions:  interesting to watch, but not really adding much for most of the episodes.  The film footage that isn't replaced does look better than the previous DVDs, so I hope the eventual Blu-Ray versions (probably in 2009) include the old versions transferred in HD.  I'd totally buy that. 

One of the bonuses from the remastered episodes that wasn't included on the old DVD sets is the "Billy Blackburn's Treasure Chest Rare Home Movies And Special Memories" feature.  To quote from the Digital Bits review, " Blackburn was an extra and stunt performer on the series, and he appeared in many of its episodes in various roles. While on the set, he often had an old 8mm movie camera at the ready, and we get to see much of that candid, behind-the-scenes footage here, as he reminisces about his experiences".  This is one of the best Trek bonus features I've seen so far.  The footage is really fun and his little stories are interesting.  There is more insight in to the show's production than most of the other crappy bonus material out there.  It would be great to see Paramount put more effort into the quality of their Trek supplements and less into the cheesy menu screens.  So what, they're not going to listen to me, but what the hell! 

Next time:  "Errand of Mercy"

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