Thursday, May 7, 2015

TOS Rewind #76: "Turnabout Intruder"

At long last we reach the end of the series with Turnabout Intruder

The podcast (surprisingly lengthy):


Eric starts us out (and gives me the last word, as it happens):

To quote The Grateful Dead (with a small change): What a long, great trip it's been.

And as I've said before (several times), I really regret that it ended with “Turnabout Intruder.” I rewatched this episode three times, once with my wife, to try to find something redeeming in it. No such luck. In our podcast, we raked this episode over the coals for being grossly sexist, a revolting, misogynistic polemic. I have no idea why or how Fred Freiberger (the third season showrunner) would have allowed this episode to be made. Even in the late sixties, I find it hard to believe it wouldn't have been seen as offensive and bigoted.

But aside from its stridently anti-feminist message, it's a poorly written and directed episode. Similar to the absurd plot of “The Mark of Gideon,” it's insulting to be expected to believe that Janice Lester could could obtain the detailed and confidential information necessary to convincingly impersonate/replace Captain Kirk, especially given how well the crew knows him. In addition, one would think that Starfleet would have some rather pointed questions about the questionable deaths of most of Dr. Lester's team.

The only thing reasonably positive I can say about “Turnabout Intruder” is that the acting is good across the board, especially considering the godawful dialog they had to work with. Bill Shatner also deserves a shout out for filming the episode while he had the flu. I was also impressed by the performance turned in by Sandra Smith, who plays Janice Lester. She actually sounds like a female version of Captain Kirk.

But even good acting cannot redeem such a hopelessly corrupt and bigoted story. It has cemented itself, in my opinion, as the worst episode of original Star Trek. Even so, I am loathe to end on a sour note: I want to say it's been a pleasure to rewatch every episode of Star Trek and talk about them with two of my best friends, John and Rob Knowles. Thanks especially to John for cooking up this crazy scheme!

In closing, I was born about a week before this final episode of Star Trek aired. It amazes me that that we're still watching and talking about the series after so many years. As John remarked in his written review of “All Our Yesterdays,” nostalgia can be powerful, and I'm certain it's at work with me and my fondness for Trek. But there's more to it than sentimentality. Despite blunders, and campiness, and the occasional laughable (or just plain sucky) episode, most of the stories are good. Several are amazing. They still capture and fire my imagination as they did when I was very young. I know my life would be different, probably not for the better, without Star Trek, so my eternal thanks go to Gene Roddenberry, the cast, and the crew who brought Star Trek to life. To them and anyone reading this, live long and prosper.

I seem to remember beginning each written review with a callout to what beverage I was enjoying at the time. Tonight it's some Irish Whisky...I'll take you home again, Kathleen!

So we reach the end of TOS with this POS. I can remember for many years having discussions with friends about what exactly is the lowest of the low for this show. For a while, I might have suggested "The Way to Eden" for its clumsy counter-culture commentary (hey, that's FOUR C'S!) or certainly "The Paradise Syndrome" with its supercharged Shatnerian performance as an American Indian reborn. My old friend Lee would always argue for "That Which Survives" as the low point. I would watch any of these instead of "Turnabout" anytime. All of the aforementioned subpar episodes have at least something to recommend them or are entertaining at times (intentionally or not). I can't really say this about this one. To remark that this episode is misogynistic is to do a grave disservice to misogynists everywhere. This is the time when you forget any hint of progressiveness that the show has ever possessed. Like the Star Wars prequels, I really find it best to just ignore this installment for no other episode tarnishes the brand of Star Trek quite like this one. 

"Turnabout Intruder" fails on multiple levels to tell any of its stories (expose on sexism in Starfleet, spurned ex-lover revenge story, etc)  except that it does portray a world where there is a definite glass ceiling (no one ever even bothers to dispute Lester's claims that the club of starship captains doesn't admit women) and that Starfleet is right to maintain it. The episode makes it pretty clear that women just can't be trusted with real power, for the only way a woman can gain power is by stealing it via a successful man's identity. The writers then refuse to allow Janice Lester to be a genuine villain by making her obviously insane. The story might have still been ridiculous if Lester had been just plain evil but by having her be batshit crazy AND incompetent, you can't take any of it seriously and you're left with a stupid story and heaps of sexist bullshit. 

It's a sign of lazy writing to make the regular characters act contrary to their nature or seem unusually incompetent. It doesn't pass the smell test that so many of the crew doesn't instantly know something is really whacked with Kirk, the way he's acting. Shit. And as much as people like to make fun of Shatner's acting, he's really just doing his job (while ill at the time this episode was shot, which doesn't show at all). Someone wrote this thing and approved it for production and that's where the blame should lie. I don't really want to spend much more time digging into this episode which I'd rather put out of my mind. So enough of the details of why the episode stinks. Watching it just makes me le sad.

I can only imagine how much of a bummer it must have been to be a fan of Star Trek in 1969, seeing this episode and knowing it was the end of the line. No one really suspected that the show would rise again and I would have taken this episode as a large NBC-Peacock shaped middle finger to end the troublesome series. I am only partway through the season 2 excellent Marc Cushman "These are the Voyages" book and look forward to his account of how the series ended. But from what I have learned, there were almost certainly other available scripts Fred Freiberger could have decided to shoot. Why, Fred, why?! We wouldn't be so hard on this episode if we didn't love the series so much. No one worries a whole lot about a rotten episode of Bonanza. We don't have the same high expectations of Star Trek's contemporaries. Of course a sign of a significant work of art or entertainment is its audience actually thinking about it beyond its success or failure as mass entertainment. 

Fortunately, this was not the end for Trek and while the show ended on a downer note, for me this does not diminish the high notes of the series at large. If you really love something, you have to accept it, warts and all. It has been rewarding to really dig into every part of this series that I've loved since I was a child. One of the highlights of this "little" project has been to watch this series in order in which it aired, something I had never done. The show doesn't really require that as it is very episodic, unlike much or today's television programming. I have some thoughts regarding the remastered effects but I think I'll work that in when we discuss The Cage.

While this isn't really the end of the line for this set of reviews (we're doing the original pilot, The Cage next), it is the end of the series. I can now sleep soundly knowing that much of the rest of the Original Series is great and the rest of the Trek universe is full of good (and bad) content. We have the current run of feature films, for better AND worse. And who knows, maybe Star Trek will return to the format where it really does best:  television. The time is right. Between the freedom to create new worlds and creatures using modern effects and the presence of high budget serious drama on cable, it could happen. There are plenty of creative constraints placed on television today but they are not all the same ones that made it so difficult for Star Trek to fulfill its mission. There is far greater creative freedom now and a guaranteed audience. Why not try something new?

Like Eric, I've greatly enjoyed going through this series (even the bad ones) with him and Rob. It's taken a LONG time to finish but we have. I am duly impressed that Eric sat through Turnabout Intruder three times; now that's taking one for the team. Once we record podcasts for the early episodes we didn't do the first time around, I am looking forward to continuing our discussions into other areas we all want to pursue. Thanks Eric and Rob, and anyone reading this. And now if you'll excuse me, it's almost THE RED HOUR!!!!

Next time:  The Cage

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