Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Acting Sinks The Split Personality Of "The Enemy Within!"

The Good: Interesting idea, Moments of character work, Plot works better than execution
The Bad: Shatner's acting doesn't sell half the episode, Execution is poor, Idea works better as metaphor
The Basics: A good idea splits Captain Kirk into two distinct individuals, with mediocre execution that makes for a coin-toss episode.

Star Trek succeeded largely because it was clever and original and sometimes when it created something that had not been seen on television before, it managed to become the standard and highly imitated. Perhaps the strength of this idea comes with the originality of the episode "The Enemy Within," wherein Captain Kirk is split into two different people. The amusing thing about this whole idea is that when the idea is referenced, it occasionally is mixed with other episodes. So, for example, in the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer Xander Harris is split into two personalities like Kirk is in "The Enemy Within" and when he has the opportunity, he jokes to his friends, "Shoot us both, Spock," which - ironically - references the third season episode "Whom Gods Destroy." But the basic idea holds; "The Enemy Within" was largely original and unlike anything seen on television before it, lending it to being referenced or stolen by other works that followed.

Around a desolate planet, Captain Kirk is leading a landing party when he is beamed up to the ship after the equipment is exposed to a strange chemical compound. After he is transported up to the ship, he is dazed and taken to sickbay. The transporter reactivates and another Kirk materialized. While the first Captain Kirk is examined, the second, a feral version barks orders and assaults Yeoman Rand. When Rand levels an accusation against the Captain, Spock and McCoy are baffled. They soon realize that the captain has been duplicated as split portions of his personality. While Spock and McCoy work to find the other Kirk and figure out how to reunite them, the landing party struggles to cope with the fall of night on the planet below, a condition that might result in the freezing death of the three crew members there!

"The Enemy Within" is an interesting idea and there is a reason others have imitated it since; the duality of personalities is a very real thing. As a result, the idea of what would happen if one was split into their "good" and "bad" halves is an intriguing idea. "The Enemy Within" uses a science fiction context to explore this wonderful metaphor in a physical and real way.

The smart aspect of "The Enemy Within" is that it does not have easy answers, it does not dumb down the concept. As a result, the "bad" version of Captain Kirk is not truly all bad. He is aggressive, quick-tempered and lusty, but it soon becomes evident that it is from this portion of Kirk's personality that comes his ability to make fast decisions and his survival instinct. The "bad" Kirk does not simply run around as a homicidal maniac, despite his attempted rape of Yeoman Rand.

Writer Richard Matheson is perceptive to create a character struggle that is not so much a battle between good and evil as it is a divorce of passive and aggressive traits. The result is a character study that smartly illustrates the interdependency of those personality aspects within a functional person. This is, of course, heightened because of the heroic nature of Captain Kirk and his status as a leader.

The problem with "The Enemy Within," though is that it is a far stronger idea than execution. The aggressive half of Kirk is well-conceived and easy to understand. The problem is, the passive side does not quite work. So, for example, when he is confronted by Rand, that Kirk is able to insist that he did not attempt to assault her and he does it with some insistence. If the character is supposed to be truly passive, this does not quite fit.

It is difficult to describe in more concrete terms, but the passive Kirk does not work the way the aggressive half does. The aggressive half is a clear embodiment of traits and those traits are consistent throughout the episode. The other half is more nebulous and lacks a clear sense of distinct personality that would easily define it was a passive personality set for Kirk. In short, that half does not ring as true and the scenes that include him - outside a wonderful one where that Kirk listens to Sulu dying on the planet below - are difficult to reconcile with the rest of the episode.

Perhaps that is why actor William Shatner seems to be enthusiastic and capable in the scenes with the feral Kirk, but utterly lost in presenting the other Kirk. Indeed, Shatner degenerates into his usual Kirk performance a few time in the episode while playing that Kirk in a way that does not seem to fit the concept of the episode.

The b-plot, with Sulu and his team freezing slowly to death on the planet adds a reasonable sense of menace to the episode that works well. The problem is when the other time-sensitive element is introduced to "The Enemy Within." When Spock and Scotty replicate the transporter accident with the most ridiculous looking "space dog" of all time (not that there are a ton to choose from or anything!) the result puts a new ticking clock on the two Kirks and it just feels forced.

In other words, the episode works fine with the menace being Sulu and his team slowly dying, but when another reason is contrived to have Kirk put back together - if it's possible - sooner rather than later, it feels, well . . . contrived.

Indeed, the superlative performance in "The Enemy Within" actually comes from Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Rand. Rand is emotionally wounded by the actions of Kirk and Whitney convincingly plays that aspect and sells the audience on the menace of the other Kirk. But more than that, Whitney has to represent a character who has been victimized and she does that with a great deal of respect and realism. Her performance, the level of being shaken that she portrays, is quite realistic.

But ultimately, this is a good idea that does not live up to its potential in its execution. It's good, but the concept is great. "The Enemy Within" is not great, it is adequate and imitatable. It is intriguing, but it could have been brilliant. The result is something that ends up as very average.

[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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© 2007, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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