Wednesday, April 16, 2014

TOS Rewind #62: "The Tholian Web"

Up today:  The Tholian Web (11/15/1968)

Our podcast for this one is here:

Eric get the first shot:

As far as I'm concerned, "The Tholian Web" is the best episode from the third season. And although that isn't saying much, it is also among my top 15, if not top10, original Star Trek episodes.

I watched it three times, ostensibly in preparation for this review but really for no reason other than it's damn good, a favorite for as long as I can remember. The story is both great Trek and great science fiction. The premise of another Constitution Class starship caught in an destabilizing, interspatial rift cleverly allows the producers to use a credible SF concept to do what is in ways a ghost story (which Gene Roddenberry forbade, although I think he would've let this one slide).

One reason this episode is so good is that the characterizations are spot-on. In particular, Spock's eulogy at Kirk's memorial shows this in its simplicity and elegance: "I shall not attempt to voice the quality of respect and admiration which Captain Kirk commanded. Each of you must evaluate the loss in the privacy of your own thoughts." This is beautifully characteristic of Spock. And as I'm thinking about it, I realize it is echoed (at least in sentiment and simplicity) by Kirk in Spock's funeral scene in Star Trek II: "Of my friend, I can only say this; of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human."

Similarly touching are Kirk's last orders, which Spock and McCoy listen to after the memorial service. I can't think of a scene in any episode that better shows the depth of the friendship between these characters. Spock and McCoy are in a heated argument, but when they hear Kirk's voice, they immediately stop and are visibly moved. And Kirk shows how well he understands and cares for his friends when he accurately predicts the tactical situation, both with the enemy ships and between Spock and McCoy, and offers advice to help defuse both situations. This is the real beauty of the scene--the underlying affection and care that is so easily believable.

Finally, a point about McCoy came up in our podcast that deserves, I think, to be reiterated. At more than one point in the episode, McCoy is argumentative with Spock to the point of seeming mean-spirited or cruel. "[Kirk] was a hero in every sense of the word, yet his life was sacrificed for nothing," for example. Or "Do you suppose they're seeing Jim because they've lost confidence in you?" This can, of course, be attributed to the mental instability caused by the interspatial rift, but I think McCoy's "meanness" is actually a way of helping Spock. The barbs and insults are a conscious attempt to provoke an emotional reaction in order to engage Spock's human half, which is arguably where his intuition resides. (And as Kirk points out in his last orders, intuition is vital to being able to command effectively.) With this possibility, McCoy's irascible and crotchety nature becomes an intentional facade while the character takes on new depth, and we see just how true a friend he is.

So in the end, "The Tholian Web" is really a collection of excellent character scenes interwoven with a great story that reveals the power of true friendship. Once again, a damn good episode.


Eric's review is tough to follow but here goes...

I once heard Roger Ebert say, regarding the film Casablanca, that he didn't necessarily think it was the best movie ever made but that it might be the one he enjoyed watching the most (paraphrasing). I think this could be a good way to look at this episode. Taken as a whole, with regards to the entire series, I think it falls very slightly short of the very best but if I have to pick one episode to just randomly watch, when I want a Star Trek fix, this would be it. As Rob reminded me recently, this was always the episode I claimed to be the best as we were youthfully watching Trek.

This episode also happens to be the highlight of Season 3. The story is compelling and the familiar character dynamic is firing on all cylinders. The early scenes where Kirk and the landing party are investigating the interior of the Defiant are tense and chilling. The music and having the characters in space suits really ratchets up the atmosphere (or lack thereof, heh). These scenes take place without the usual shipboard sounds, just the music and the men talking to each other. The place just feels off.

Once Kirk has been lost, Spock is thrown into command with another crisis: the Tholians, a race we have never seen before. We discussed on the podcast how there is perhaps too much going on in this episode: the missing Defiant, the deterioration of the crew's mental condition, the combat with the Tholians, and of course Spock trying to keep everyone under his command in order. Looking back on this episode, I think it all works and I don't ever feel as though extra plot elements are being thrown in to keep things from getting too slow. The pacing is tight and yet most things don't feel rushed. The scene between McCoy and Spock in Kirk's quarters takes the time it needs, a moment of quiet reflection in an otherwise high-powered storyline that doesn't lack for drama. I like the fact that the aforementioned scene was included as it wasn't strictly necessary; the story would have worked without it. What the scene adds is sensitivity between two old friends, fighting not unlike a pair of stubborn, opinionated brothers.

Despite the fact that only the existing ship sets were used, the episode never feels cheap. The actual Tholian that is shown, only its head and a hazy background really, reveals just enough to make it seem alien and leaves much to the imagination. A little colored aluminum foil and good lighting can go a long way. The way the Defiant scenes are shot and lit makes it seem somehow different from the familiar Enterprise. The space combat and effects shots are very good, as good as anything they did in the series; a real standout in a season that often feels short-changed.

I really enjoy watching how Spock handles command in this episode. You get the impression that he has learned from his previous experiences and does rather well under pressure. Even though episodes like "The Galileo Seven" aren't referenced, I have to wonder if the writers were up to speed about how the character handled command then versus this time, two seasons later. Either way, it works. Kirk is absent for much of the episode but it really missed by the crew. Kirk's disappearance leaves a hole that some characters don't know how really fill.

Idea-wise, the episode is not really that original, but the concepts (space madness, alien contact, alternative universes, etc) are weaved together in such a way that the story feels fresh and not nearly so borrowed like other episodes in this season. The sad part is that I know that this is as good as it gets and it's only downhill from here in the quality department. Oh well, at least space hippies are good campy fun.

The new effects for the HD version of this one are very good but the old effects weren't too bad to begin with. Perhaps the added clarity of the new shots is the best thing: the old shots were optical process shots that tend to look a bit on the fuzzy side.

Next time: "Plato's Stepchildren"

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