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Star Trek: The Corbomite Maneuver

Spock: "A very interesting game, this poker."

What is the Enterprise's mission? Seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before. Not take over planets, blow stuff up, and screw with the cultures of indigenous peoples.

This episode is a beautiful illustration of the core philosophy of Star Trek, the glory of a near-utopian vision of the future. It made Kirk look like a damned good ambassador-at-large for the human race; he made me feel proud to be human. Yes, he had to blow up the beacon to save his crew, but for the most part, he used brains, diplomacy and humanity. (And poker.) He also showed mercy when it appeared the "vicious alien" was in distress. And yet, he wasn't superhuman or perfect, by any means. It was clear that he was controlling his completely understandable fear, and he even had a nasty spat with McCoy about "promoting Bailey too quickly."

Balok certainly went too far with his intergalactic stress test. But in truth, the message he sent was a good one. It's dangerous out there. We can and will be outclassed. The next superpowered alien that plays with the Enterprise almost certainly won't turn out to be playing a practical joke on them. Let that be a lesson to you.

The main story was well complemented by the subplot about navigator Bailey, a snotty, passive-aggressive xenophobe. Bailey began by showing resentment toward Spock, and followed it with incompetence verging on mutiny when faced with real on-the-job stress. And yet, he learned his lesson and showed his essential worth – first, by choosing to die on duty with his shipmates, and then by internalizing and finally understanding the core mission of the Enterprise.

(In truth, I would assume a navigator as incompetent as Bailey would have been busted down to cleaning the nonexistent toilets on the Enterprise, not given a plum assignment learning about a new culture. Maybe Kirk left him on the Fesarius just to get rid of him.)

At any rate, this episode just works. And I especially liked the comparison of chess (which is clearly Spock's forte) to poker, a very human game.

Ben says...

Best Cold War episode! It is a story of rational (Soviet) chess versus bold (American) poker, It's fighting held at bay by threats (in this case empty) of mutual destruction, it's nerves of steel in the face of a terrible threat, and the terrible threats of puppets and babies as the ultimate enemy (wait, maybe not that last one, but the I think the first three make sense).

This presents, in sci-fi form, the West's argument for the future. It's not about cold rationality and a scientific order. It's about the thrill of the future and... well... boldly going there. It is also about well-armed people determined not to use those arms. I guess the puppet/baby thing was to suggest that really the ultimate opponent is fear itself, and that we are more likely to do something to destroy ourselves than fall to any other cause. It is about a measured and brave course.

Of course, maybe the puppet/baby thing was really making fun of the Russians, y'know. Calling them a bunch of well-armed babies. Khrushchev did kind of look like a big baby... okay, maybe not.

Come to think of it, what was up with the little baby alien?

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

— Stardate 1512.2. Star mapping expedition in an area of space the "United Earth Ships" had never visited before.

— Why did Dr. McCoy deliberately keep the Captain of his ship from responding to an alert? And why wasn't Kirk called to the bridge? (No whoop whoop this time. There should be a whoop whoop to prevent people from sleeping through an alert, huh?)

— (Maybe the sick bay scene was just an excuse to show us William Shatner's chest, as well as an opportunity to joke about salad. It was way too early for anyone to be acknowledging that Shatner's weight went up and down, which became noticeable later in the series.)

— There were several shots of the crew (except for Bailey) looking confident in Kirk's ability to get them out of their situation.

— For a moment, we got to see the sky-light-like ceiling of the bridge. I don't remember seeing it again. But it's been awhile, and I could be wrong.

— Even when I was a kid, the first thing I thought of when Balok offered them "tranya" was, yes, Balok's being nice and they can't afford to offend him, but what if it's poisonous to humans? Shouldn't they run a tricorder past it first?

— Balok was played by child actor Clint Howard, Ron Howard's brother. And Ted Cassidy (Ruk in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" and famous for his role as Lurch on The Addams Family) did the voice of Balok's scary puppet.

— Someone should have added a pronunciation guide to the script, because "Balok" was pronounced more than one way.

— Uhura was wearing a gold uniform again. And practically all she said in this episode (repeatedly) was "Hailing frequencies open, sir."

— Yeoman Rand's weird hair was up in, pardon the expression, a beehive. Better. Maybe because it looked more like a blonde hat.


McCoy: "What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?"

Bailey: "I happen to have a human thing called an adrenalin gland."
Spock: "It sounds most inconvenient, however. Have you considered having it removed?"

Bailey: "I vote we blast them."
Kirk: "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Bailey. When this becomes a democracy."

Spock: "Flypaper."
Kirk: "And you don't recommend sticking around?"

Spock: "Has it occurred to you that there's a certain inefficiency in constantly questioning me on things you've already made up your mind about?"
Kirk: "It gives me emotional security."

McCoy: "What are you going to do with that six percent when they give it to you, Jim?"
Kirk: "I'm going to take it, and I'm going to..."

Spock: "I regret not having learned more about this Balok. In some manner, he was reminiscent of my father."
Scott: "Then may heaven have helped your mother."
Spock: "Quite the contrary. She considered herself a very fortunate Earth woman."
Which really makes you want to meet them, doesn't it?

McCoy: "I thought the power was off in the galley."
Rand: "I used a hand phaser and zap. Hot coffee."

Four out of four intergalactic stress tests,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. --As always, an insightful and entertaining review, Billie!

    Ok, impressions. First of all that screen shot at the top of the review is gorgeous, I sure don't remember THAT level of detail from ye olde interlaced-scan TeleVisio magnaboxes of my youth! For that reason alone the new remastered DVD sets seem totally worth it.

    Then, the voices. Watching Gintle Bin's Clint Howard (before the fact of course, but reruns gave us among our first instances of the "heeey, isn't that the kid from...!" moment) as he mouthed the weird adult male voice, just freaked-us-kids-out. Not to mention that of Ted Cassidy's voiceover for the manquette alien (whose Outer Limits type face reappeared in every ep's end credits, freaking us out yet aGAIN). All of which makes for a nice reiteration of the story's themelet of Book versus Cover, among others.

    Which then leads me to "tranya". No, sorry; "trannnnnnnnnnn-ya". Jiminy, even the WORD freaked us out! Now, I know we've become a much more referential culture these days, with in-jokes inside in-jokes like Russian dolls nested down to the subatomic level -- but wouldn't it have been kinda sorta cool if a later Trek series had played with the idea of someone being hooked on tranya? Not covered it the way they often did with IMPORTANT, Very Special Topics in order to make a moral statement, the evils of addiction for instance. No, more of a simple toss in the pot, maybe a wino in the streets of Argelius brushing past Picard or other hero muttering "trannnnnnn-ya" and looking like a very old Bailey! That would be fun -- or maybe it tells you more about me than any of us'd prefer. :-)

    And finally, you can really sense that the writers enjoyed and let loose in the Spock interactions; some of the funniest, wry and insightful things are said therein! Smart -- with definite POV behind a seemingly innocuous, objective observation. (A true difference from the usual observations of Data, for example.)

    Good stuff!

  2. Thanks so much, Green Hornet -- I always enjoy your comments.

    Yes, the screen shot from the remastered version is definitely gorgeous. I chose it because it just seemed to beautifully illustrate the theme of the episode.

  3. the original episodes were all shot on film, tv's of that time of course degraded the image horribly, we now have a nice clear shot of the enterprise being threatened by a bunch of woodweaver salad bowls on wires, you have to love it just the way it is though, don't change a ting

  4. Always one of my favorites. It was the second episode filmed with the "classic" main cast, and the one in which Leonard Nimoy and director Joe Sargent "discovered" Spock's defining charcteristic: the lack of emotion.

  5. Great review(s) here. This is a favorite of mine, and in some ways feels a bit like a precursor to TNG's Q (a super powerful alien that the Enterprise has to deal with, not always as successfully as they'd like). The main cast is great here, and Kirk is especially good here I feel.

    I have to agree on Bailey too. I'm not a fan of xenophobia in the first place, and always play other races in video games (mostly Chiss in SWTOR, trolls and goblins in WoW, and so on), but between that massive issue and his other flaws, he shouldn't have gotten that test in the first place, hand him a plunger!

    I love it when the show does stuff like this; creates an interesting episode for both those that just watch it for spectacle, and those that want to go deeper. It's one of the best of TOS to be sure.


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