The Good: Generally decent acting, Excellent "message," Clever reversals
The Bad: Some mediocre acting for who the characters become, Abysmal dubbing, Details
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a giant hostile starship, the conflict rages outside and inside with the alien and a crewmember who is not keeping his cool.
Star Trek, despite the cult status it ultimately achieved, had rocky start. Actually, it had a few rocky starts. Following the first pilot episode, "The Cage," there came the rocky second try with "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (click here for my review!). The studio was finally sold with the third take, "The Corbomite Maneuver," all of the essential pieces were finally in place, including Spock illustrating minimal emotion and the presence of Dr. McCoy.
When the U.S.S. Enterprise is cruising along in space, exploring the unknown, it comes across a marker buoy on the edge of space claimed by the heretofore unheard of First Federation. Ignoring the warning and progressing into the alien territory, the Enterprise is almost immediately set upon by a massive starship unlike anything they have ever encountered before. The alien captain of the Fesarius, Balok, alerts the crew that the ship will be destroyed for its transgression, inspiring fear in a young crewmember on the bridge and insecurities among the crew over the youth of the captain, who is in a situation unlike anything he has encountered before. And given that, Captain Kirk decides to do what he does best; he changes the playing field to win the day!
"The Corbomite Maneuver" has elements to it that feel very much like a restart of the series that the prior pilot did not truly latch onto. Dr. McCoy treats Kirk as if he were a bit green and untested and Kirk's relationship with Spock is clearly still in its infancy. Kirk and Spock do not yet have the implicit and intense trust they come to develop over the course of the series (obviously). But while "The Cage" was clearly an episode of a story in progress, there are elements of "The Corbomite Maneuver" that feel like an experimental beginning.
Those elements are not limited to the story elements. The production elements are quite untested as well. The viewer comes to understand quite rapidly that the stakes of this encounter are life and death, yet it seems less like a function of the story and more a function of working on a soundstage that virtually everyone on the Enterprise bridge is perspiring heavily. Everyone seems sweaty in this episode! Moreover, director Joseph Sargent utilizes more audacious (high angle, for example) camera shots than the series ends up using for most of its episodes.
"The Corbomite Maneuver" is a clever idea and it develops as a tense situation that pits the crew of the Enterprise in a situation that is (at best) unenviable. It is here that Captain Kirk is established as an explorer who values life and would prefer not to fight his way out of every situation. Indeed, Balok and the Fesarius represent a situation that Kirk and his crew cannot fight their way out of (the Fesarius is massive!). The result is that Kirk is forced to rely on his wits and use strategy, not strength, to overcome his adversary.
This episode also sets up well the good-natured ribbing between Spock and Kirk, which eventually becomes more pronounced between Spock and McCoy. Spock has a more alien feel to him and he is cold and logical, the embodiment of what he is supposed to be as a Vulcan, despite having a curiosity that leads to one of the series' iconic images. It is Spock who manages to unveil Balok, the adversary who menaces the Enterprise from the Fesarius, and the giant headed-creature that is fairly recognizable from Star Trek is Balok.
The episode also focuses on character development by contrasting the cool Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk with Lt. Bailey, a navigator that Dr. McCoy is concerned was promoted by Kirk too fast. He seems competent at his job until the moment he is faced with a big honkin' starship that threatens to kill everyone. While Kirk and Spock work to reason their way out of the problem, Bailey does the human civilian thing; he freaks out. Completely. This, of course, leads him to be relieved of duty, but sets up the episode to work well on a metaphorical level, with the bridge appearing as a model of the unconscious (Bailey represents the Id).
What makes the relatively simple plot of "The Corbomite Maneuver" work is that it's smartly written and the focus on character plays out well over the course of the hour. Instead of degenerating into something completely silly or campy or problematic, "The Corbomite Maneuver" remains true to itself as a story of a crew of explorers exploring and working to survive in the harsh realities of space. And there's a clever reversal at the end, which has a good idea, but a very poor execution (the lip synch is terrible!).
But beyond that, the episode works because the acting is decent. Guest star Anthony Call is a bit over-the-top at moments as Bailey, but he keeps it just with bounds of reason and good taste. Call creates a memorable guest character by portraying Bailey as much of the audience no doubt would react. The result is that he sticks in the mind of the viewer well after the episode is over. Similarly, Clint Howard's appearance is a treat when he shows up as Balok and it sets him up for a later career return to the franchise in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Past Tense, Part II.” Howard does fine, considering his youth when this episode was made.
Much of the episode hinges on the performance of William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, though. Shatner establishes here his seriousness as Kirk and the somewhat contemplative and broken speech pattern that comes to be parodied so very often. It works well in "The Corbomite Maneuver" because Kirk is improvising, so it makes sense that he would not have everything thought out before hand.
More than anything, "The Corbomite Maneuver" establishes what "Star Trek" would become best known for, creating science fiction stories where thought was involved in the resolution as opposed to a military solution. Star Trek was thinking-person's science fiction and it cleverly works in this episode to create a situation where brains, not brawn, must be used to win the day. And it works for that.
[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.