Having become an active fan of Cult TV (now there’s a phrase that’s fallen into disuse) in the 1990s, I often find myself clinging on to some of the received wisdom that was all the rage in that most judgemental of decades; for example, I still tend to think of the third and final series of the original Star Trek as, to coin another 90s phrase, a bit pants. I’d grown up watching Star Trek on the BBC in the 70s and 80s and couldn’t really differentiate between one series or another (partly because the Beeb had their own distinctive order of showing them) but the accepted perception of Star Trek among UK Cult TV fans in the 90s was that seasons one and two were great and season three was rubbish. Mainly this was attributed to the arrival of Fred Frieberger as producer, who later performed a similar hatchet job on Space: 1999.
But to what extent is this true? It’s been a long time since I watched Star Trek’s third season, even though I’ve had it on DVD for some considerable time, so I decided to give it another go and approach it from an angle of zero preconceptions. Sometimes you revisit something you’d always thought of as rubbish only to find that they’re every bit as bad as you remembered (coo-ee, Highlander 2: The Quickening!) but other times you can find out that you were being unfair; often led by peer pressure and received wisdom. The results were pleasantly surprising; I found myself really enjoying season three and finding that many of the elements that I remembered with such affection from my childhood in the 70s were all present and correct. Perhaps if I’d spent less time in the 90s reading DWB and more time watching Star Trek…
Okay, let’s not over-egg the pudding here; there are some bad episodes in Star Trek’s third season. Some really bad episodes. There’s This Way to Eden, in which teenage space hippies played mostly by actors in their mid-30s attempt to hijack the Enterprise and take it to the promised land; then there’s Day of the Dove, in which the Enterprise crew and a bunch of Klingons are forced to batter each other with plastic swords for the amusement of a coloured light. BUT season three is by no means unique in presenting such stinkers; the much more highly-regarded second season has The Omega Glory, which is a strong contender for the worst episode of Star Trek ever. Part of the problem, I think, is that season three is topped and tailed with two really poor episodes. It begins with Spock’s Brain, which many hold up as the benchmark for Star Trek awfulness, and ends with Turnabout Intruder, which tries to make a point about gender politics but ends up showing just how unreconstructed we were in the 60s.
Turnabout Intruder is also a classic example of how season three often tries to make a point about something but ends up slightly muffing it. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is a story about the futility of racial intolerance, where a race who are half black and half white live in utter hated of a race who are half white and half black. It’s a very clever idea and it makes a valid point, but it’s quite heavy-handed in its delivery. It also stands out as one of the most visually impactful episodes of Star Trek, with the half black, half white aliens being something that even a casual viewer of the series will be able to recall. Like a lot of this season, it aims high but falls ever-so-slightly short. Two episodes, Elaan of Troyius and Requiem for Methuselah, take Shakespeare as a starting point and, while never quite achieving the import for which they reach, still manage not to appear overly pretentious.
Spectre of the Gun, the western episode, takes the ‘out of time’ format and handles it a lot better than the previous season’s A Piece of the Action or Patterns of Force. Having the Gunfight at the OK Corral scenario as an illusion is a wise move; if they’d have gone down the route of having the Enterprise rock up at a planet where the culture is that of the old west, it would have all been rather crass and silly and wouldn’t have made for half as good an episode. Spectre of the Gun also uses the studio location in a way that would never be repeated in the series; it’s an almost German Expressionist Cinema set-up with the building exteriors as 2-dimensional flats, the interiors as wall-free sets and the sky an ominous blood-red cyclorama. Again, it’s a visually arresting episode that lodges itself in the mind of the casual viewer.
There’s a definite streak of sadism in some of the episodes of this season though. It’s not without reason that three of the four episodes that the BBC elected not to show in the late-60s and 70s were from season three. The Empath and Plato’s Stepchildren were withheld in the UK due to their scenes of torture (not, in the case of the latter, due to the interracial kiss, which was fairly commonplace on British TV in the 70s) and Whom Gods Destroy was withheld due to its insensitive portrayal of mental illness. They had a fair point with the latter; Whom Gods Destroy doesn’t set out to be offensive, quite the contrary in fact, but it is very naive in its interpretation of mental illness. Although erstwhile-Batgirl Yvonne Craig gives a nuanced performance as Marta, the other inmates of the facility on Elba II are doing overly-theatrical ‘mad’ acting. The idea of a medicine that would cure all mental illness is also childlike in its simplicity and I don’t think that this is a concept that would be tackled in any modern iteration of the show. The BBC also thought that Marta’s dance was too saucy for a family audience, but it’s not really out of keeping with this season, which features lots of bare flesh peeping out from minimal outfits.
The thing about series three is that although a great many of the episodes are a bit anodyne in their plotting, they always have something to catch the eye and occasionally something that stays with the viewer. The Cloud Minders has a singularly unimpressive story, but the episode is visually stunning in terms of design and direction; you wouldn’t expect a series in its third year to still be so experimental, but Star Trek is. Fondly remembered but unashamedly silly, The Savage Curtain gives us the Excalbian – the infamous rock monster that will go on to be perhaps the most referenced and homaged creatures in the history of the show. And the aforementioned Plato’s Stepchildren, in all other respects a cut-price retread of season one’s far superior The Squire of Gothos, earns a place in the cultural history of American television for that interracial kiss – not the first, as often misquoted, but certainly the most high profile.
The best episodes in season three are often those that are a little less visually striking and delivered with a subtlety the equal of earlier seasons. Straight after Spock’s Brain, we have Dorothy Fontana’s wonderful The Enterprise Incident, which is a sort of thematic successor to season one’s Balance of Terror. Only with added sexual politics. By showing the female Romulan captain as a woman with feelings and desires, it’s the first time the series portrayed one of its recurring ‘warrior’ races as anything other than shouty or devious and it adds a lot to the depth of the storytelling. The Tholian Web is quite rightly regarded as one of the big successes of the Star Trek and is one of a number of ‘bottle episodes’ in this season (whether this was a budgetary requirement or not, I’m not sure, but in some stories it works and in others it doesn’t). And, in at the last gasp, we have All Our Yesterdays; if the poor first episode of season three is succeeded by a very good one, then similarly its poor final episode is preceded by another classic. Rather unique in the original series, All Our Yesterdays sees Kirk, Spock and McCoy separated in different historical eras of a dying planet. It’s one of several stories in this season in which Spock gets a love interest and it’s quite a sophisticated script for 60s TV – probably the closest that the original series ever got to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I’ve been quite impressed by my re-watch of season three of Star Trek and it’s definitely changed my opinion of the series’ final third. There are a higher number of middle-of-the-road episodes in this season and it does occasionally retread familiar ground, but it’s no Galactica 1980 (if you get that reference, I feel your pain); there are a number of very good episodes and some visual treats that stand out in the series. Perhaps to the detriment of the other cast members, this season concentrates very strongly on Kirk, Spock, McCoy and – to a lesser extent – Scotty, with the others being excluded altogether from some episodes (Uhura is notably absent from the final episode Turnabout Intruder). This does mean that you get a lot of strong character stuff for the big three, however and it does feel that Leonard Nimoy must’ve had something written into his contract that Spock must occasionally get the girl. If, like me, you were hanging on to some pretentious 90s dogma that season three of Star Trek is rubbish, then I’d certainly give it another look. It’s just a shame that, bar the animated series, it would be another ten years or more before we saw the crew of the Starship enterprise in action again.