In the tenth episode of the first season of Star Trek, I am damaged forever. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
I am going to have nightmares with that kid in it, OH MY GOD.
I’ve largely stayed away from Googling anything related to Star Trek because I know it’s the easiest way to get spoiled. I write these reviews largely from memory because I don’t want to be inadvertently spoiled by episode summaries or Wiki entries or anything of the like. So I don’t know where this fits in terms of production, but I think the stardate is a lot earlier than some of the recent episodes. There are very subtle hints that this should have aired earlier than it did, but ultimately, it’s a moot point. I’m glad I watched “The Corbomite Maneuver” when I did. I was introduced to these characters, I got to know them a little bit, and then the show puts them through an intense and exhausting experience, one that has a dramatic effect on a newcomer to the bridge.
The thing is, I don’t know that I would have appreciated this episode quite as much if I’d not seen nine others before this. Narrative patterns and character behaviors had been established by this point. I understood what episodes usually felt like. I got a chance to understand how Kirk looked to Spock and Bones for advice. AND THEN THIS EPISODE IS ONE LONG AND SUPER INTENSE GAME OF POKER WITH AN ALIEN SHIP AND IT’S TOO MUCH TO DEAL WITH. This is so suspenseful, and it’s written so that it builds to that unreal conclusion. This is an exercise in escalation, as each new twist makes the situation worse than the last. I mean, there are so many things here that make “The Corbomite Maneuver” so intense!
Most of that intensity comes from the way that the episode taunts us with the unknown. By starting off with that spinning cube, we have no way of knowing what we’re dealing with. It’s an absurd image, one that makes no sense to us. The script is extremely light on clues, too. We know it’s solid and we know that it follows the Enterprise wherever it moves. THAT’S IT. There’s no way to communicate with it. There’s no other outside information. No one has ever seen it before. NOTHING. And as the crew engages with it over and over again, the result is the same. It gets closer. It spins more. THE END THAT IS IT.
In addition to this unknowable horror, Lt. Bailey appears to be unable to handle the pressures that come with being a navigator on the Enterprise. There’s a great scene where Bones confronts Kirk about the possible favoritism Kirk is exhibiting in keeping Bailey on the bridge, and I thought it was a great way to do a bit of character building for both of them. We’re also shown that Sulu is SUPER GOOD AT HIS JOB, since he has to do his and Bailey’s whenever Bailey spaces out. But it’s not like Bailey is an antagonist here. This looked like his first time on the bridge, and it’s during the most hellish journey imaginable. Could you imagine going through all your training and then being asked to deal with this? I sympathized with him greatly! I could tell he wanted to do a good job, but he was, frankly, terrified by the absurdity of the situation.
AND IT ONLY GOT WORSE. When Commander Balok finally makes contact with the Enterprise, it’s to inform them that the spinning cube was to mark the boundary of the territory of the Fesarious. And they blew up the cube. Which is an act of trespassing. Which means they’re guilty. Which means they now have ten minutes to pray to their deities before they are annihilated.
This is where the title comes in, and it’s a fantastic example of the kind of leader Captain Kirk is. I think he recognized that Commander Balok was serious about destroying them, so he bluffed with the only thing he believed would truly stop Balok: a warning about a substance in the ship that would rebound any attack. EVEN THEN, THE COUNTDOWN KEEPS GOING AND THEN TIME RUNS OUT AND… and then??? Oh god, I fall for countdowns all the time, I swear. It’s such a basic way of building suspense, but I don’t care. It’s used so well here. (My favorite countdown? Season 2 of LOST. It’s fucking terrifying.)
But look, y’all. This is a technical beauty of an episode. 95% of it occurs in one room. The horror comes from what we don’t know. So, revealing the mystery to the audience is always a challenge when you’re writing these kind of stories because you have a very high chance of disappointing people. Never in a million years would I have ever guessed what was really happening here, and even in hindsight, there weren’t many clues at all. Which is kind of brilliant in and of itself! By giving us almost no clues, the end comes out of nowhere.
TO UTTERLY TERRIFYING ME. I’M NOT SORRY FOR FINDING CREEPY CHILDREN TO BE SOUL-CRUSHING, BUT OH MY GOD, BALOK FRIGHTENS ME FOREVER. And jesus, y’all, WHAT AN ENDING. Balok used a dummy to give the appearance of an intimidating alien because he looks like a child. If I was Lt. Bailey, I would have immediately requested to be beamed back to the Enterprise. I don’t care if he’s helping better our understanding of other races. I DON’T CARE, YOU COULD NOT PUT ME IN A ROOM WITH THAT THING FOR MORE THAN A SECOND.
This was a fantastic episode, and Commander Balok will haunt me forever.
The video for “The Corbomite Maneuver” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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