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January 25, 2011

TOS Rewind #44: "The Immunity Syndrome"

OK, back in the saddle with a real classic from Season 2: The Immunity Syndrome (1/19/1968)

Eric, Rob, and I did a podcast for this one. Listen or download it here.

I'm starting things off this time:

This episode falls into the classic formula where the Enterprise finds something out in space and has to deal with it. For me, this kind of story line is one of the core narratives in Star Trek and also one of the most appealing. This exploration narrative has some real science fiction meat to it; the ideas here are quite compelling. One of the aspects of Trek that I have always been attracted to is the idea of the Enterprise being out there in space, just exploring and sometimes they find some very bad things. In this case, the menace is a totally mindless and yet very deadly life form that must be destroyed before it gets too far into populated space. On the surface, this has some similarities to the challenge presented in "The Doomsday Machine," back in Season 1. Hell, there is even a prior failed attempt by another Federation starship. However, the way the crew goes about handling the creature in this episode is different.

Having the Intrepid, first ship to encounter the creature manned entirely by Vulcans is an interesting twist. The way the Intrepid is portrayed in the episode makes it a good addition to Spock's character and the entire Vulcan development on the show. When the crew of the Intrepid dies, Spock feels them die, even from a relatively vast distance away. This sense of connectedness is nicely used in the dialogue when Spock explains this to Kirk and McCoy with a comment about how humans just might have had fewer bloody wars if they had this kind of sensitivity; humans care deeply about individuals, yet can be quite indifferent to mass suffering. George Lucas would later use this idea in the first Star Wars movie when Obi Wan Kenobi (hey, did you know that MS Word recognizes "Obi Wan Kenobi" in its dictionary?!) feels the people of Alderaan cry out before they are blown to smithereens; Vulcan Jedi mind tricks indeed.

The pacing of this episode from when the Enterprise is trapped in the void of the creature is very effective. It is established that the crew is already tired and due for some down time. The fact that the creature saps energy from the ship and the people aboard is nicely integrated into the story and the way the characters act as the story plays out.
Perhaps one of the best things I see in this episode is the way that the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic is used, especially between Spock and McCoy. The way that the two fight about which one of them is more suited to go on the shuttle mission, which is sure to be a one-way trip, is handled very well. Not only are both of them driven by their scientific curiosity, but also in a last way to one-up the other and go out in a blaze of glory. Spock's human side is on full display this time. The most effective scenes are when Spock asks McCoy to wish him luck before he gets aboard the shuttle; McCoy says nothing, but wishes him luck after the doors have closed. Later, when it looks like Spock is doomed, he makes a last jab at McCoy, "Doctor, you should have wished me luck." Wow, that is actually very powerful stuff for those two. Between those lines and the reaction of McCoy and Kirk packs quite the emotional wallop. The character dynamic of these characters really didn't get much better than that.

This episode has always been a favorite of mine, even when I was growing up. There isn't any real space combat, but the dramatic tension, sense of danger, and space exploration ideas really worked for me. The addition of weird creature shots in space combined with the ships being menaced by a humongous space amoeba-like thing did the trick.

I once again watched the BD version with the new effects shots. I was pretty happy with the way they did the new shots although I always felt that the original effects worked remarkably well on this episode so I don't know how much there really was to improve upon. As always, the image quality was top notch.


Now let's see what Eric has to say on this one:

When I saw that "The Immunity Syndrome" was coming up, I felt a bit of trepidation. It had been years since I'd seen it, and I had to wonder if the premise of a giant space amoeba would hold up or be unbearably campy. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised.

All the usual plaudits apply: good story, acting, direction, and production. But what puts this episode in my top 20 (maybe top 10) is that it has heart. The script manages to be genuinely dramatic (no cliché or self-parody), and the character interactions, particularly those between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, are poignant and touching without being maudlin. My favorite line is Spock's: "Tell Dr. McCoy he should have wished me luck."

Another aspect of "The Immunity Syndrome" I appreciate is that it introduces some really cool SF concepts in an intelligent, believable way. My initial concern about the "giant space amoeba" element of the story was unfounded. The way McCoy describes the creature is simply to compare it to an amoeba as the closest analog in our science. And the idea that there could be an entity so huge that to it we're nothing more than microscopic particles is a delightfully mind-bending concept.

Thanks to John, I got to see the remastered version of this episode, and unlike some of the other remastered episodes, this one is a worthwhile improvement over the original. The new special effects of the creature and its interaction with the Enterprise are subtle but impressive.

For me, there are no real negatives associated with "The Immunity Syndrome." As fas as I'm concerned, we can chalk up another home run for original Star Trek.

Next time: "Return to Tomorrow"

January 13, 2011

"What we require now is a feat of linguistic legerdemain and a degree of intrepidity."

A long, damned time. Yes, it has been quite a while since I have written a single word on this poor, pathetic, neglected blog. The multitudinous cries of pain out there in the cyber-darkness confirm that it has been indeed far too long. Oh wait, that was something else...never mind. I will not bore you with the details surrounding my absence from this blog, which has been around in various forms for a number of years. The point is that it's now time for me to resume. I have thought about this a slight bit and as I sit here peering out the window of the MS Zuirdam (cruise ship) en route to Costa Rica. I do not intend to completely return to the old formula where I would list the new releases with occasional commentary. The "standard" entries will now be more focused on things I am actually interested in talking about which may include new video releases, but the blog will be much less comprehensive than it was. There are plenty of other sources for timely release dates for new video titles and I dare say that no one probably missed what I was posting in that area anyway.
Besides the catchall self-indulgent category of "whatever the hell I want to talk about," I am continuing the Star Trek Original Series survey. Eric, Rob, and I have had far too much and gone too far to stop that. Yes, someday we will undoubtedly finish the series, Spock's Brain be damned!
To get things rolling again, I am going to write about more Star Trek. There is another Original Series installment coming soon as well. I just know you are all breathing a massive sigh of relief!

I recently re-watched Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). I am not entirely sure why I chose this movie; perhaps it was one I had not seen in a long while, but in any case, it stood out. When Star Trek VI came out, it was something I had been eagerly anticipating for some time. Star Trek V was a disaster that VI promised to rectify. Nicholas Meyer, the guy behind Star Trek II, was once again running the show and, well it just HAD to be better, right? In addition, this was in all likelihood going to be the last call for the whole original cast so the bar was set for them to go out on a high note before the Next Generation cast took over.
I won't waste space recounting the story here, but the story and ideas behind VI center around late Cold War anxieties and hopes for the future. In this movie, Kirk and Chang (the grizzled veteran Klingon commander) are the soon-to-be obsolete Cold Warriors (there is even a line in the film where Chang refers to he and Kirk as kindred Cold War spirits) with a very uncertain future in Star Trek's version of the "New World Order." For me, this is one the better elements of this particular installment; the story nicely weaves the death of Kirk's son David (from "Wrath of Khan") into the character of Kirk. Chang is obviously Kirk's mirror image on the Klingon side, so we see how similar the two are in many ways. Even Spock finds himself questioning whether he has gotten too old and inflexible to be of use in this new age. I appreciate the way that then movie is willing to acknowledge the fact that the characters are not what they were and not immune to change. I understand that perhaps this particular set of characters might be best left back in their eternal prime, but if you are going to continue to crank out movies when the actors are in retirement age, it gets pretty ridiculous to keep on pretending that nothing has changed.
The screenplay's way of dealing with the themes of change and loss is handled less clumsily with the characters than it is as it relates to the actual narrative. The obvious desire here is for Kirk and the crew to do just one more heroic, save-the-day action before heading off into the sunset. One problem with the way this is done in the movie is that to make our beloved character's actions possible, the rest of the Universe is made to seem fairly incompetent. The non-Enterprise Federation people really don't look like the have their shit together and while the antagonists appear to be more on-the-ball, they don't seem to have much of a backup plan when Kirk gets involved. While I am on the subject of weaknesses, the character of Valaris (SP?) is just plain irritating. The character needed to be there in some form so that the beans could be spilled, but the way she is written often serves to be an annoyance to Kirk and Spock. She is not at all sympathetic, a trait that even Savik (another introduced character I was not fond of) occasionally had. It is so bad that I don't even recall feeling anything when Spock basically mind-rapes her. This scene turns the good old Vulcan mind-meld into a violation that I cannot imagine Spock or any other non-psycho Vulcan under any circumstances approving of. Yes, the scene is a convenient way of revealing the assassination plot, but it reeks of writer laziness; they could have found a better way to get this done.
The production values are a mixed bag. In some ways, the film just looks cheap. The sets are often just repurposed from Star Trek: The Next Generation and they look it. Not only are the similarities apparent, the interior shots have this look that is perfectly adequate for television, but is lacking on the big screen. I suspect the bulk of this movie's (and other Trek films) budget went to the cast. I can almost buy the argument that the ship sets are supposed to be as creaky as the characters, but isn't this Enterprise supposed to be relatively new (introduced at the end of the fourth movie)? The space effects shots looked fine however.
I watched the Blu-Ray version of the movie. One of the best things about the box set that came out last year is that all the movies are the theatrical cuts. All the previous home video and TV versions of VI were longer cuts that reinstated a few scenes as well as using the non-original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (or 4:3 if you were unlucky enough). The BD version plays in its proper 'scope ratio of 2.35:1. Having the theatrical cut is actually good here as I have never cared for the extra scenes that were added in the old video versions. I have no doubt that longer versions are forthcoming to spur more repeat Trek purchases. Some traditions never die. Like most of the other films in the recent BD set, the picture looks very good but has had way too much grain reduction and sharpening applied to it. I was able to spot this quite easily on a 50" screen and a good projector would make this even worse. The most glaring issues pop up on actors' faces; they take on this waxy, overly clean look is just wrong. Most of the older Trek films were shot on cheaper, grainier film stock and by over-processing them, they end up looking like this. Yes, the overall image is better than the old DVDs, but they could have done better; maybe next time. I did not have time to take a look at the new bonus materials they did for this set. If anything interesting shows up, I will be sure to post an update.