Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Belaboring Toward Jack The Ripper; Evaluating "Wolf In The Fold"

The Good: Moments of acting, Good concept
The Bad: A lot of terrible acting, SLOW, Little real character development
The Basics: When Scotty is wounded and potentially becomes a murderer, the viewer must sit through a long wait of misdirection until Jack the Ripper suddenly becomes the culprit.

Star Trek attracted a fine number of actors, writers and directors to the show that worked well for the episodic series. It allowed Star Trek to push in several different directions, including straight science fiction, political commentary, humor and horror over the course of any of the seasons. Respected horror writer Robert Bloch wrote three episodes of Star Trek, the last of which was the second season episode "Wolf In The Fold." He ought to have stuck with his first Star Trek outing and then called it quits; "Wolf In The Fold," like the prior outing - "Catspaw" - is a bit of a dud. Unfortunately for this episode, it does not even have the camp factor going for it.

Scotty, having been hit on the head prior to arriving at the planet Argelius II, is enjoying the native sights of an ally planet where the Enterprise has arrived for shore leave. Watching a bellydancer gets Scotty all hot and bothered and he leaves the cafe with her, only to be found a short time later standing over her dead body with a bloody knife in his hand. Things look bad for Scotty, who the local administrator wants to extradite for justice and who does not remember killing anyone. Unfortunately, during a seance-like telepathic attempt to discover who the murderer is, Scotty apparently kills her. Of course, it's not Scotty doing the killing, it's Jack the Ripper.

No kidding. In the Star Trek universe, Jack the Ripper is an energy creature who feeds off fear and violence to women. That's Robert Bloch for you. He's a horror writer, so naturally, the unresolved murders in London now happen across the galaxy because Jack the Ripper was always an alien life form.

Now, I'm not mocking that idea. The idea that humanity's evil is actually caused by a nebulous red cloud that travels the galaxy preying upon various aliens by causing violence to women is remarkably clever. The idea is interesting, it's not entirely unfrightening, and it's - at its worst - something different.

The problem here is the execution of the idea. The idea is basically an epiphany, an "ah-ha" moment that the episode hinges on to keep the viewer interested, engaged and coming back to rewatch the episode. In this way, "Wolf In The Fold" is an absolute failure. Bloch and director Joseph Pevney create a story hinging on a pretty simple reveal, but they never build enough story up around it. In short, it's not much of a murder mystery from the beginning.

Despite having a backstory of a head injury, it's never terribly likely that Scotty has become a killer, so when the evidence keeps stacking up pointing toward him, the viewer becomes more and more unconvinced of the idea that Scotty is the culprit. It's like Scotty is such an incredible red herring that the writer and director have to keep pointing to him and the viewer never truly believes that Scotty could be the killer. Either way, the idea that the true culprit is a spiritual Jack the Ripper comes out of the ether pretty surprisingly.

"Wolf In The Fold" suffers from what I'm beginning to call House, M.D. syndrome. For those who have not seen it, House, M.D. is a series that presents medical mysteries each week. The reason to watch the show is not figure out the mystery because unless the viewer is a medical genius, they will never get the correct answer to the problem at the beginning. Seriously, the show is about the process of finding more clues to make a better diagnosis than the original stab in the dark. As a result, House, M.D. becomes a story where the viewer is TOLD everything. The viewer sits, watches and the doctors tell the viewer what is going on, what it all means and why things work the way they work. But it's not much of a mystery because the clues are never truly all available for the viewer to figure it out like a mystery from early in the episode. Instead, the viewer is on a ride that keeps twisting and turning and while one might take sides with one doctor's determinations at various points, the truth, the answer comes out of the dark, suddenly and definitively. This episode is structured the same way with Scotty being blamed, a few other suspects brought in, emphasis on Scotty, emphasis on Scotty, emphasis on Scotty, BAM! Jack the Ripper. There's no way to sit down, watch the episode as a horror episode or murder mystery and come up with the right answer using any of the rational, reasonable clues given to the viewer.

And it's not terrible scary. I mean, for a horror episode, the idea that it's Jack the Ripper's disembodied alien form killing Argelius II's citizens comes up pretty late. Which means, most of the episode, the viewer is looking at a somewhat bewildered Scotty and saying, "He's the killer? I could take him!" Jack the Ripper is supposed to inspire fear in women, Scotty just doesn't do it. The average woman would watch "Wolf In The Fold," see Scotty as the main suspect and say, "I wish I was there, I'd mace his ass!"

So, it's not much of a mystery, it's not much of a horror, and it's also not much of a character study. We learn nothing new about Scotty, Kirk acts like he always does, Spock acts like he always does, and McCoy acts like he always does. This could have been a big Scotty episode - a lot of people forget that Star Trek was not an ensemble cast, but rather dominated by Kirk, Spock and McCoy - but instead, everything we see about Scotty - other than him proclaiming his innocence in a kind of broken puppy way - is exactly what we already know about Scotty with nothing new to say "This character grew and learned this episode" or "Wow, now I know something about Scotty I did not know before!"

In order to make this unsuccessful episode work, the producers are forced to stretch the thin plot out for a much greater time than is believable and worthwhile for the idea. The only thing that makes it viewable at all is James Doohan's acting. Doohan is not given a lot of airtime in Star Trek and "Wolf In The Fold," while it might not be a character building episode, gives Doohan a chance to stretch his acting muscles. He plays bewildered, lost and hurt and he does it very well, with a slump in his body language. He connotes confusion, hurt and loss with his eyes wonderfully.

But it's not enough to come back to the episode. And in the big picture of the Star Trek pantheon, "Wolf In The Fold" is a failure because it makes Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home seem even more silly by comparison. After all, why is Scotty's relatively minor head injury treated as such a big deal when McCoy has a little handheld device that can completely fix brain damage?

Either way, this question is asking too much of the series, much the way "Wolf In The Fold" asks too much of the viewer to come back to.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Second Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the second season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page for organized listings!

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

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