Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TOS Rewind #33: "The Doomsday Machine"

And now we get to one of the series true classics:  The Doomsday Machine (10/20/1967).

The podcast we did for this one can be found here:

This episode has always been a personal favorite and still is today.  The episode has a very entertaining action/sci-fi story.  Adding to this are some interesting concepts and decent performances from the cast.

Growing up, the whole idea of the wandering planet killer, along with seeing a copy of the familiar Enterprise was just irresistible.  Despite the fact that the wrecked Constellation was a cheap toy Enterprise model kit (it was an actual AMT kit) that they altered, it was enough to evoke visions in my imagination of a real wrecked Enterprise sister.  Sure, the planet killer looked like a glowing ice cream cone/wind sock dipped in cement (IIRC, that's actually what they used!), but it did the job.  Plus, the odd look actually works better than some design with a more conventional look.  The weirdness tends to make it more believable as an alien object (at least it always did to me).

Today, the episode still packs a punch and even has some interesting ideas behind it.  The scene where Kirk and the landing party encounter Decker aboard the Constellation has a couple of notable points.  One, when it's revealed that there is this planet killer/robot out there slicing/dicing planets, Kirk does some thoughtful speculation as to its origin and purpose.  That bit of dialogue helps the antagonist rise above the "monster of the week" thing and draws parallels to cold war issues.  The planet killer can also be interpreted as an environmental statement (thanks Lee for pointing that out) in that future generations are having to reckon with the destruction wrought by man-made machines.  Sure, aliens in another galaxy may have built this thing and could be long-dead, but *someone* has to clean up the mess.  This time, it just happened to be our heroes.

The other real point here is the scene where Decker reveals the fate of his crew.  Windom, the actor playing Decker, really goes all out in the scene and goes right to the edge of scenery chewing.  The performance, in the context of the material is right on.  The emotionally-charged lines along with his effectively haggard appearance come across as genuine.  Shatner is relatively subdued in this episode, which works well.  Nimoy has some very good material to work with.  In particular, his confrontations with Decker after he's assumed command of the ship are subtle and still dramatic.  The looks on his face really convey the logical realization that Decker's actions will almost certainly assure all their deaths.  This realization is even more effective after it's made clear that Spock can't prevent it, at least not yet.  There is also a compelling bit of a strategy game going on with Spock and Decker:  Spock's strategy will work, but only if he can relieve Decker of command before he kills them all.  Decker wants to destroy the thing at all costs.  If that means his own death, then so much the better at this point.

McCoy doesn't really get to do much, other than harass Decker.  Scotty has some good scenes repairing the wrecked Constellation including some fun interaction with Kirk (Scotty, you've just earned your pay for the week.").

It sounds to me like there were some new musical cues written for this episode.  The cues used when the ships are battling the machine sound different and are quite effective in an old-school movie music style:  dramatic suspense-building music.

I watched this episode on BD and came away impressed.  This is, by far, the best the show has ever looked on video and I liked being able to watch either the original or remastered effects.  I've generally been lukewarm on the new effects work, but here it really did make a difference, particularly with the shots of the Constellation.  There is real detail to the damaged ship and the debris field around it.  They really got this one right.  The new planet killer looks more menacing, though they went a bit overboard on the "molten" look of the interior.  I know Lee preferred the original 'killer, but I think its modern look was mostly an improvement.

And now, Eric chimes in:

We apparently have gotten to the point in the second season where excellent episodes alternate with execrable ones: "Mirror Mirror" (a superb classic) followed by "The Apple" (see our previous reviews/podcast), and now time we're up to "The Doomsday Machine," one of the best original series episodes. After this is "Catspaw" (not completely fetid, but not great either)--It's starting to feel like a roller coaster...

Anyway, on to "the Doomsday Machine," which is certainly one of my top ten favorite episodes, and may be one of my top five. Once again, I'm not going to rehash our entire podcast, but this episode scores high just about every respect. The director, Marc Daniels (who also directed classic episodes such as "the Menagerie," "Space Seed," and "Mirror Mirror") turns in what may be his best work. The acting is well above par--Shatner is good, Nimoy is excellent, and William Windom, who plays Commodore Decker, is outstanding. His portrayal of Decker's haunted anguish is both wrenchingly believable and moving. And the story, written by SF veteran Norman Spinrad, is both an interesting cold war analogy and a great science fiction yarn. In "The Apple" we weren't given any clues or tantalizing hints about the nature/origin/purpose of Vaal (the malevolent mechanism du jour), which worked to the considerable detriment of the episode. With "The Doomsday Machine," however, these questions are asked and some thought-provoking answers are suggested.

But the story is successful as more than an imaginative SF tale, it is also excellent action/adventure. As such, the special effects are extremely important. This is probably the most effects-laden episode in original Trek, and while the original SFX were good (for the time), this is the one instance when I recommend the remastered version. The new digital effects actually enhance the storytelling. The wrecked USS Constellation has always been an affecting sight and presence, but the version in the remastered episode is even more disturbing--it's like seeing our beloved Enterprise crippled and ruined. And the planet killer, always menacing, looks even more macabre and otherworldly.

A few interesting bits of trivia:

·      Commodore Decker is the father of Captain/Commander Will Decker in the "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

·      One of the Star Trek novels proposes that the planet killer was constructed by a race from  our galaxy as a weapon to fight the Borg.

·      Commodore Decker makes a subsequent appearance (yes, after his apparent death) in a fan-produced episode that takes place in the 20th century.

·      At Gene Roddenberry's request, Norman Spinrad came up with a design for the planet killer that portrayed it as a massive battleship, bristling with all sorts of evil-looking weapons. He was reportedly disappointed in the design the ended up being used, saying it looked like a "wind sock dipped in cement." Roddenberry's response was that they ran out of money for the episode and had to make do. I think the design actually is more effective--it's quintessentially alien and ominous.

So this is episode is a real gem: excellent direction, superb acting, and a great story. I just wish I could be as enthusiastic about the following episode...

Next time:  "Catspaw"

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