Tuesday, April 2, 2013

TOS Rewind #54: "Spock's Brain"

Welcome to Season 3!

Spock's Brain (9-20-1968)

Our award-winning podcast:

Eric did a fine job outlining the production background of Star Trek at this time of the series which puts the, ahem, quality of this episode into perspective so he goes first...

"Spock's Brain" has the distinction of being both the first episode in the third, and final, season of original Star Trek and one of the worst episodes in all of Trek history. But before delving into that particular miasma, a brief explanation of what happened between the second and third seasons is in order.

As I noted in my last review, at the end of the second season, NBC tried once again to cancel Star Trek, and once again, it was saved by a letter writing campaign by the fans. Not only was it saved, but NBC also promised Roddenberry a primetime slot in the Fall 1968 lineup, and on that basis, he agreed to be line producer for the third season. The network then (oh surprise!) reneged and put Star Trek in the Friday, 10:30 pm slot. (A death stroke for any series that targets the 18-25 demographic.) Roddenberry protested, but NBC wouldn't back down, so he walked away. This deprived Star Trek of its creator and Executive Producer. To make matters worse, one of the key producers, Gene Coon, had also left by the time the third season rolled around. This was when Fred Freiberger was brought in to take over the showrunner/producer role. And while I (and many other fans) have been inclined to blame him for the poor quality of season three, the Friday night death slot and a drastically reduced budget meant that he had little to work with.

That said, there really can be no excuse for "Spock's Brain." What is maddening, though, is that there is also no reason for this to be the case. It was written by the aforementioned Gene Coon (under the pseudonym Lee Cronin) who wrote several excellent episodes, such as "Arena," "Devil in the Dark," and "A Taste of Armageddon." And it was directed by Marc Daniels, who helmed some of the best original Trek episodes, like "The Menagerie," "Space Seed," and "The Doomsday Machine." I'm not going to bother with a detailed analysis of its many faults (e.g. painfully laughable dialog, blatant sexism, and extreme camp); we cover that quite well in the podcast. (Give it a listen.) But I still wonder just what the hell happened during the production of "Spock's Brain?" Were all of writers and producers incredibly stoned? Did Marc Daniels have a stroke? Maybe it was just the perfect (shit)storm of crappy TV. I don't know, but it's a shame--it could've been a good episode if it had had a decent script. I suppose, however, that it's better not to dwell on such things. Let's just clear our palate with the next (thankfully much better) episode.

I find it quite amusing that I write this on the very day day President Obama announced a new initiative to map the human brain. If only he'd opened his announcement with this line:

"Brain and brain! What is brain?!"

One of the most infamous lines uttered in all of Star Trek. Yes my friends, we have arrived in third season where the going gets rough. Sure, there are some decent episodes sprinkled about but beginning the season with something this awful indicates that something is just not right.

I can see why Eric wanted to focus his review on the behind-the-scenes action instead of the content. It's hard to really know where to begin.

I'm quite certain that ever since I first saw this episode, I knew it was a dud. Even 10-year-old John had better taste than this. I have memories of looking through my Uncle's TV Guide issues and groaning to myself when I figured out that Spock's Brain was coming up on TV that week. Sigh.

Is Spock's Brain the worst episode in the original series? Right now I'm tempted to say yes but I know there are other offenders waiting out there for us so I am going to hold off on proclaiming this THE WORST EVER.

There are a few positive things about this one, sure. Actually the opening scene, right before the mystery woman appears, is not that bad a setup. There is a tight sequence of the bridge crew going on alert, going about their jobs, seemingly ready for anything. Well, almost anything! Then the Amazon-go-go woman in a costume out of an Austin Powers movie shows up and swipes Spock's brain because none of their brains are up to the job. Well, okay I can buy that...wait, WHY AM I TRYING TO BUY INTO THIS STOOOPID PREMISE?!?!?!?

And the contraption (seems like the right word for the Zenith Space Command remote control McCoy has for him) that makes Spock run sans brain has to make this mechanical clock-like sound when it's running...yeah, sure. Actually if they hadn't done this silly sound, the sight of Spock walking around like a zombie might have had some dramatic impact or at least given this episode some kind of serious atmosphere.

Some of the ideas, like using a living brain to run machinery and whether or not the Prime Directive applies to a planet like this (wait a minute, why WOULDN'T the PD apply here???), are decent and perhaps well-worth exploring in a Trek episode, but there are so many ways in which this one goes off the rails that you really do have to wonder what went wrong. I've run across articles that claim there are rumors that this episode was written as a joke or a comedy episode, perhaps like I, Mudd. If this were true, the episode might have been more successful, if still as offensive. Of course if this was supposed to be a farce then why would you want to open the season, the time when you're trying to keep the audience tuning in for the new season, with something like this? Alas, I have no answers...

But this is what we're left with: a groaner of an episode to open a season that already had plenty of built-in disadvantages (time slot, network antipathy, reduced budgets). At least you can laugh at some of the camp and there are a few actual humorous moments. I believe there are some upcoming episodes of questionable quality that won't be as easy to sit through. When two Red Shirt security guys beam down to the planet and don't suffer even a scratch AND Kirk doesn't even try to seduce the alien female to get what he wants, we know something is wrong!

The remastered version serves up its usual HD clarity and slick effects. The space scenes are nice but never enough to take your...um, brain, off of this episode.

Next time: "The Enterprise Incident"

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