The Good: Music, Acting, Light, fun performances, Interesting Plot
The Bad: Ultimately too light and silly for the suspension of disbelief
The Basics: When the Enterprise visits an alien world where fantasy becomes reality, menace and misfortune soon overwhelm the crew.
One of the nice things about Star Trek is that the series had a pretty diverse selection of episode styles. The series attempted to push science fiction beyond what it was usually perceived as. Instead of simply being stories told in outlandish settings, the series attempted to be intelligent, socially relevant . . . and not always entirely serious. With "Shore Leave," Star Trek attempted to illustrate how the enlightened crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise would kick back and relax.
"Shore Leave" finds the U.S.S. Enterprise arriving at a habitable planet that seems devoid of animal life. When Sulu, McCoy and a landing party beam down, though, McCoy notes that it appears like a setting from Alice In Wonderland. Shortly thereafter, McCoy witnesses a giant white rabbit hopping by, chased by a little blonde girl. When Sulu's mind wanders, he finds a classic firearm and is menaced by a samurai warrior. Kirk regroups the crew and orders them to restrict their thoughts, but McCoy is killed by a mysterious Black Knight and Kirk finds himself alternatively attacked by an Academy nemesis and seduced by a love he left behind. With the interactions between inexplicable phenomenon becoming more and more menacing, Kirk works with Spock (who is stranded on the Enterprise which is itself victim of a power drain) to figure out what is going on and how to stop it.
The answer, in true Star Trek tradition is clever and considered, based in thought and concept. The problem in "Shore Leave" is one to be overcome with reason, understanding and careful study. Famed science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon and director Robert Sparr create a piece that is a first in Star Trek, a light, often comedic episode of the science fiction show that so often trended toward dramatic. Unlike earlier episodes that had funny moments, like "Mudd's Women," "Shore Leave" lacks a social message, it does not try to counterbalance the science fiction comedy with something heavy and meaningful.
To wit, Dr. McCoy is - of course - not dead and when he pops back up, he is accompanied by stereotypically beautiful women. This leads to the true weakness of the episode, which is entirely in suspension of disbelief. As I mentioned in my review of the second season episode "The Immunity Syndrome" when the USS Enterprise was menaced by the giant space amoeba, the seasoned viewer of any television show has to make a judgment about just when and why a character will be killed off. Dr. McCoy, even though he was not a regular at this point on Star Trek, McCoy is vital enough that if he is to bite the bullet, the viewer knows it is going to be a good reason. Dying on a pleasure planet from something as absurd and random as a black knight is not going to be it. The viewer knows that.
The questions then become: Why doesn't Captain Kirk know it? and Why does Kirk act like he does? In short, the problem with "Shore Leave" as an episode of Star Trek is that Captain Kirk reacts to the death of one of his two best friends in the galaxy like it's just another day at the office. He engages in pointless fights with his academy nemesis Finnegan, he has romantic moments with Ruth, his academy sweetheart. He doesn't mourn, he doesn't fall apart, he just keeps doing his own thing.
I'm not saying that Kirk is unbelievable at compartmentalizing or anything, but "Shore Leave" goes too far. Kirk does not simply compartmentalize dealing with McCoy's apparent death until it is convenient, he ignores it and continues his somewhat witless exploration of the alien world as if it truly did not matter. So, while the viewer might be sitting watching the episode and saying "No way did they just kill off McCoy!" Kirk ought not to be acting like his best friend was not just killed in front of him.
But what Shore Leave does well is offer an episode that is solidly entertaining and actually insightful for the characters. Sulu, an avid botanist, weapons collector and fencer finds himself engaging all the various things that intrigue him. Kirk, never one to simply relax encounters both obstacles (Finnegan, the puzzle of the planet) and rewards (Ruth). This is a clever character study that actually effectively reveals more about Kirk than simple exposition could.
Moreover, "Shore Leave" is written with a fun sense of dialogue. Theodore Sturgeon writes the episode with the rare ability to maintain the characters and write them in a way that openly expresses something no prior writer has with this crew: they have fun. The crew of the starship Enterprise, up until this point, has encountered menaces that have threatened the ship, the Federation and the entire galaxy. Here, they have a simply puzzle, but largely they have the opportunity to have fun and react to stimuli that allow them to enjoy themselves.
As a result, McCoy is written with utter flirtatious attitudes, toward Yeoman Barrows. Sulu is overcome with wonder as he inspect antiques he finds laying around and even Kirk is forced to admit - after besting Finnegan - that he is having fun. McCoy still sounds like McCoy, but we are privileged to see another facet of his personality and that is thoroughly enjoyable.
What pulls the episode off and makes it an above average episode, even today, is the acting and the music. "Shore Leave" has a distinctive light score, which is actually available on c.d. which is very memorable. It utilizes light strings, flutes and other airy music with a lot of trills (the musical expression not the Star Trek franchise alien race!) and a very festive, fun feel. In conjunction with the wonderful outdoor shots that establish the alien planet, the effect instantly captivates the viewer and places them in an idyllic setting that is distinctly different from any other Star Trek episode before or after (though some of this music is reused in later, similar episodes of the series).
The acting is pretty impressive. Guest actors Bruce Mars (Finnegan) and Emily Banks (Barrows) make lasting impressions in the bit roles they are given. Mars makes Finnegan crazy and unpredictable fighting Kirk with almost psychopathic comedic dance steps. Banks becomes more than just a pretty face as Barrows, showing more raw emotion in reaction to the death of McCoy than Shatner's Kirk.
George Takei has the chance to loosen up and play Sulu with some actual joy as opposed to clinical study of the things he enjoys (as he does with fencing in "The Naked Time" and botany in "The Man Trap" and other episodes). In short, Takei brings joy to his portrayal of Sulu being engaged in his hobbies. And despite the poor reaction by William Shatner to the death of McCoy, the script dictates his actions and he otherwise does well.
It is Deforest Kelley who lights up the screen as Dr. McCoy, though. Kelley is energetic and given the chance to stretch out as an actor. Until this point in the series, he has essentially played a crank, a character cynical and angry, despite his humanism. Here he smiles, without making fun of Spock. It is Kelley who makes the character transition realistic and easy to watch. It's a pleasure and one that is a real treat now that Mr. Kelley is gone.
While this essential plot is rehashed on Star Trek The Next Generation with "Where No One Has Gone Before" and on Star Trek Deep Space Nine with "If Wishes Were Horses," "Shore Leave" illustrates that sometimes being the first out of the gate sometimes yields the best results. This is original, clever and interesting, even if it lacks menace.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into "Star Trek - The Complete First Season" on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.