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TOS Rewind #47: "Patterns of Force"

What, you guys are still doing this Star Trek thing?

Yes, the project still chugs along, just at a slower pace. We'll get there!

Up this time: Patterns of Force (02-16-1968)

We did a podcast for this episode: Listen to it here.


Here's Eric's review:

I have been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember, and World War II has always been of particular interest. So it stands to reason that "Patterns of Force" would be one of my favorite original Trek episodes.

Yep, that certainly stands to reason, but after doing the podcast I got to thinking about it. In many ways it is a fun episode: there's lots of action and drama, and we get to see Kirk and Spock dressed up as Nazis. (As to this last point, however, both Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are Jewish, so I have to wonder how they felt about all the Nazi trappings.) Still, there are two glaring flaws that I find hard to overlook.

My first issue is with Spock's improvised laser in the Ekosian cell. Yes, Spock is a genius scientist, but the notion that he could create even a crude laser using a couple of crystals held in a bent bed spring is beyond ludicrous. Even if he could construct a such a laser, an ordinary incandescent light bulb wouldn't begin to provide enough power for it to operate at a level sufficient to burn through an inch-thick bar of steel.

And if that isn't bad enough, the very premise of the story defies credulity. John Gill is said to be a noted professor of history who had taught at Starfleet Academy. One would think, then, that he would be rational, intelligent, and very well-educated. So how could such a man, let alone an historian, conclude that a governmental/social system modeled on the Third Reich could be something other than bigoted, brutal, and sadistic? Nazi Germany was an ultra-conservative, nationalistic, military dictatorship with some elements of socialism and fascism. And their unifying forces were unbelievably arrogant pride in their own pseudo-race and hatred of any person or group that Hitler and his sick, twisted cronies proclaimed to be impure. It is totally absurd that an historian of John Gill's stature could think that such a system could be run benignly--its very basis, everything that made it powerful, was corrupt, immoral, and malicious.

I hate to be so hard on an episode I've enjoyed through the years, but upon re-watching, discussing, and reflecting on it, I am forced to conclude that it is seriously flawed. Strangely, though, even as I write this, I know that I will be able to overlook those flaws and enjoy watching "Patterns of Force" sometime in the future. Chalk up another win for cognitive dissonance.

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Ah, the "Nazi episode." Like Eric (and Rob), I had a great fondness for this one growing up. We were all into World War 2 stuff at the time (I used to build WW2 airplane models) and this combination was irresistible. The idea of the Enterprise encountering a planet so similar to Earth in the 20th Century is far better suited to contemporary storytelling and television budgets (you get to use the studio sets and backlot) than to any kind of sci fi credibility. At least in this one, they make an attempt to explain why this planet would bear any resemblance to our Earth; unlike an episode such as "Miri."

If you peel away the "let's make a society based on Nazi Germany without all the nastiness" ideas, you're basically left with an episode where we get to watch a 2 man commando mission (Kirk and Spock) infiltrate and take out the Nazis. That alone assures its attraction to 10 year old Eric, John, and Rob. There were many popular Hollywood movies in the 1960s that were centered around Allied heroes kicking ass on the Nazis ("The Guns of Navarone," "Where Eagles Dare," etc). I have to wonder if this had some influence on the writers of Star Trek. There were plenty of other times where there are influences.

The main premise, aside from commando Kirk and Spock, is interesting if flawed. As Eric pointed out on the podcast, Gene Roddenberry flew planes in WW2 and his experiences must have had some influence on his writing and ideas for Star Trek. The big problem with the kinder/gentler Nazi idea is that it seems hopelessly stuck in the 1960s, where apparently there was a popular theory among historians that National Socialism could have come out differently. I also think it would have been difficult to really address some of the seriousness of the Nazis on 1968 television. It occurred to me that an episode like this might have worked better with the style of Next Generation; more analytical, less censorship. However, it's hard to imagine this episode being made in the late 1980s...in the end though, the ideas are still fun and interesting. Sometimes even a failed story idea can have value. It certainly got all of us to think about it.

Yes, the scene in the jail cell where Spock makes his "laser" is very silly (I think I thought so at age 10) but I'm not sure it really hurts the episode for me. This scene fits in well with the idea of Kirk and Spock chewing bubble gum and kicking ass (and they ran out of bubble gum). Speaking of the jail scenes, how about the part where they whip Spock across his bare back? You can actually see his green blood on the whip marks. That's different and pretty graphic for Trek. As is typical for this kind of episode, things conclude leaving us to wonder what happened after the Enterprise left.

The writing for this episode is still very good. The script makes the most of the limits imposed on the subject and the main characters are given some very good dialogue. There are genuinely funny moments throughout the episode and the interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy feels right to me. Another element that was done well here is the way that the John Gill character comes across as sympathetic. The scenes at the end where he confesses to Kirk how his best intentions and ideas went horribly wrong have real depth to them. I find the whole sequence pretty sad actually.

There wasn't much to really see as far as remastered effects in this episode. The quality of the image and sound continues to be outstanding. I am looking forward to the similar treatment they're doing to The Next Generation episodes.

Next time: "By Any Other Name"