Tuesday, December 31, 2013

TOS Rewind #59: "Spectre of the Gun"

Up today:  Spectre of the Gun (10/25/1968).

The podcast for this one can be found right here:

There seemed to be this unwritten rule for many years that TV shows in years past had to have at least one episode set in the old West. Which lends the question...if a science fiction show had to set an episode in the Old West, the what if Bonanza had an episode set in outer space?!!!!  Ahem...  If The Prisoner could have one, then I guess why not Star Trek? I could see an argument either way as to whether this was just a convenient way for the show to use some existing props at the studio and easily insert the Western genre into the show to tell a story. The show manages to justify not only the setting but the sparse sets and props. Indeed, the odd look of the half-finished sets actually adds to the dream-like atmosphere of the episode. I read that they were planning on shooting this on real backlot or location settings but didn't have the budget. It's a good thing that they went with the interior sets instead.

Star Trek had a number of "alien test" themed stories but at least this one puts a fun twist on it. Once Kirk decides to beam down to the planet, he and the audience are inserted into the strange world the aliens create based on what we are told is Kirk's memories/imagination. Of course I have to assume this setting is based on some old movies or something; in any case, it gets the job done: a good symbol of Kirk's human (AKA "American") cultural heritage.

 The landing party seems genuinely bewildered by the setting they're thrown into. Sure, Kirk ignored the aliens' warning about not wanting any outside contact but it is fairly odd to have been thrown into this elaborate illusion. Is this to truly test the humans or is it an execution sentence that Spock manages to outsmart? In some episodes, the reasons and details behind the plots can be frustrating. In this one, the vagueness just allows us to imagine the why and the how. There is also no other "framing story" going on aboard the Enterprise. We don't know how long the landing party is missing or what the rest of the crew is doing. The action on the planet is nicely disassociated with the show's normal reality.

If I remember correctly, I was never overly fond of this episode all those years ago. Sure, I didn't really dislike it but I'm not sure my 12 year old self appreciated it as much. There are interesting ideas that reward a repeat viewing. Other than the somewhat-obligatory fight scene at the end, there isn't a lot of action.

Interestingly, the landing party has no expendable (AKA Red Shirts) characters to be killed off which is refreshing. Chekov's "death" must have been a bit of a shock at a first viewing though it's hard to see that with fresh eyes today. Somehow though, the dreamlike atmosphere makes his death seem less than real. Hindsight perhaps...

The guest actors are decent, mostly playing stock Western types:  the ineffective Sheriff, the bartender, the menacing bad guys, etc. The performances of the Earps/Doc Holliday are a bit subdued. I don't know if this intentional or the sign of a phoned-in performance, but like the half-baked sets, the characters fit.

The dynamic between the characters is running on all cylinders; there are funny lines between them all and watching Kirk and Spock figure out the "rules" of their Tombstone, AZ prison is entertaining. This is also another episode where there is a new-sounding musical score, this time by Jerry Fielding who also scored the classic 1968 Western, "The Wild Bunch".

Beyond the nice-looking picture and sound on the HD version of this show, the enhanced effects didn't really add much this time around. The alien fog shrouded head still looks pretty cheesy.

But don't misunderstand: this episode holds up well and is a real standout of Season 3.

And now Eric gets his turn:

Ah, the first review of 2014. As I write this, the temperature outside has reached the forecast high of -12 F. Positively balmy. With a wind chill of -33 F, I'm pretty sure it's literally cold enough to freeze the balls off of a brass monkey. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with our current episode, "Spectre of the Gun."

I'm not going to attempt a literary analysis of this episode. (You're welcome.) But I will say that I'm inclined to rank it among the best third season episodes. Admittedly, this is probably a case of damning with faint praise, but "Spectre of the Gun" works surprisingly well. As we discussed in our podcast, the budgetary restraints of the third season served to heighten the surreal feeling with minimalist sets and a featureless, red sky. Given that the scenario is drawn from Kirk's imagination and entirely academic knowledge of the 19th century American west, it is appropriate for the surroundings and characters to be incomplete and lacking in depth. In fact, this is what gives the episode its sense of unreality.

And the resolution is well done too. Spock--who else--deduces that their entire situation is an illusion, and thanks to his Vulcan mental discipline, is able to render himself immune to any danger from it. Of course, he has to mind meld with the others to instill in them his level of awareness and detachment. But it works: no contrivances and no deus ex machina. The only real error that I caught in this episode was that the town Marshal of Tombstone at the time of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was Virgil Earp, not his better-known brother Wyatt.

"Spectre of the Gun" does a delightful job of playing with our sense of reality. In fact, the only episode that deals as well with illusions and their inherent danger is "The Menagerie."

Next time: "Day of the Dove"

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