Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Doomsday Machine

From Wikipedia:

"The Doomsday Machine" is a second-season episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. It is episode #35, production #35, and was first broadcast on October 20, 1967. It was repeated on April 19, 1968. It was written by Norman Spinrad, and directed by Marc Daniels.

Overview: The starship Enterprise plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with an alien planet-killing machine.


So, you liked last week's episode "
Amok Time"? This one equals it.

"The Doomsday Machine" employs the tight pacing and breakneck speed mastered in the first season's "City on the Edge of Forever." Indeed, the teaser, that short scene always used to set up the episode before the opening credits in all Star Trek episodes, is actually three scenes in this one. It's like bang, bang, bang, let's go! You know right away that you're in for a real rollercoaster ride. The wildly successful exposition here, usually a problematic issue for television and movies in terms of dramatic tension, is fueled by a desperate question: what the fuck is going on here? After the Enterprise encounters rubble from several destroyed planetary systems, it happens upon the shocking image of another Federation starship, exactly like the one piloted by Kirk and crew, wrecked and drifting in space.

This is a theme played for all it's worth throughout the episode. What would it be like if the Enterprise met its match? What would Kirk do in the face of utterly devastating failure? The Constellation and Commodore Decker are a dark and twisted nightmare vision of an abrupt end to the five year mission. As the away team quietly searches their sister ship, while ominous music plays, the bridge, engineering, corridors, and other areas with which we have all become familiar on the Enterprise lie in ruins. The sense of "oh my fucking god" is palpable. It's like looking at Pearl Harbor five minutes after the Japanese Zeroes have flown away.

Of course, this is all a playground for Chief Engineer Scott. This is the episode where he really establishes himself as Scotty-the-miracle-worker, getting the Constellation's impulse engines and phasers back on line in spite of all the twisted steel. I'm not going to say that this is a Scotty episode because it's definitely an ensemble piece, but he is used extraordinarily effectively here, climbing in and out of Jeffries tubes, muttering curses to himself. He's also got some great line deliveries: "The warp drive is a hopeless pile of junk," and "thirty seconds later...poof!"

But the best actor award goes to William Windom as Kirk's dark parallel, Constellation commander Commodore Decker. Not since Ricardo Montalban's Khan in the first season's "Space Seed" have we seen an actor who so fully understands what Shatner tries to do with Kirk. Windom is big, charismatic, and in control. That is, he's in control when he's not freaking out over the loss of his ship and crew. And man, this guy knows how to freak out. His pain-face is easily as good as Shatner's. And the dynamic shifting between his commander persona and freaked out guy persona is nothing short of marvelous: it makes his Ahab-like doomed quest for vengeance all the more fun.

It is important to observe that Decker engages in the only fist fight of the episode. Of course, he's as good a fighter as Kirk, and it's a great fight--he takes out two red-shirted security guards with ease.

Nimoy as Spock is also great in "The Doomsday Machine." Much of this comes from his attempts to maintain control of the bridge in the face of an insane superior officer who wants to take command. The standoff gives rise to Spock's famous line, "Vulcans never bluff." But there's also some fun miscellaneous stuff, too. Spock wears a weird and conspicuous earpiece throughout most of the bridge scenes--it's just fun to look at with his pointed ears and all. And there's also a wonderfully dry comic exchange between Spock and Sulu:

"Mr. Spock! Somebody's opening the shuttle bay doors!"

"Shut them, Mr. Sulu."
But let's not forget Captain Kirk, also great. His desperate pleas for Commodore Decker to not kill himself are some of the most heartfelt and sincere work I've ever seen him do--indeed, in this moment, Shatner, with his acting alone, makes it clear that he has immense respect, if not love, for Decker; there's some unwritten backstory here which Shatner creates and takes full advantage of. Actually, Kirk is just brilliant throughout all the scenes in the Constellation's auxiliary control room, directing the show over his communicator while he tries to get the ship up and running again.

And, of course, he's brilliantly understated in the episode's dramatic climax. Really, everyone and everything is brilliant during the climax. Intense pounding music plays. The Constellation heads straight toward the planet killer. The self-destruct device ticks toward a thermonuclear explosion. Kirk quietly and repeatedly orders the Enterprise to beam him aboard. Scotty madly repairs the malfunctioning transporter. Sulu counts down to Kirk's impending death, while the scene cuts mechanically from him, to the bridge, to Scotty, to an exterior of the Constellation, to the Doomsday Machine, and back, again and again, with each passing second. Easily the most dramatic moment in all of Star Trek, a textbook exercise in the building of tension.

And when Kirk finally makes it out, running from the transporter room to the bridge, Spock's "Welcome aboard, Captain" is a massive and well deserved sigh of relief.

My god, this one is fucking great. If you don't watch it right now, you're an idiot.

The U.S.S. Constellation.