Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"By Any Other Name:" My Sentimental Attachment To A Simple Abduction Tale Started My Love Of Star Trek!

The Good: Decent acting, Good idea, Interesting characters, Humor
The Bad: Somewhat generic villains, Very simple plot
The Basics: In a truly intriguing episode of Star Trek, the Enterprise is commandeered by aliens from Andromeda whose use of human bodies might well be their undoing.

Our first time at anything is special and memorable and no matter how good or bad it is, we often find ourselves attached to it in a way that distorts our objectivity. I remember the evening I first saw my first episode of Star Trek. It was the summer before Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was visiting my mother for a week and she was at work and my brother was out in the neighborhood trying his first cigarette. We both became addicted that night. My brother must have spent thousands on cigarettes by now. I've spent tens of thousands on Star Trek. Sigh. My first episode was "By Any Other Name" and it's still lodged in my mind as one of the best episodes the original series ever did.

The Enterprise is lured to a distant planet where they encounter a small band of people who call themselves Kelvans. They freeze the landing party as a show of strength and explain their dilemma to Captain Kirk; they are the advanced scouting party of Kelvans from the Andromeda galaxy and they are ready to report back to their empire about the Milky Way's weaknesses so the Kelvans can invade. To do that, they need a ship (their having crashed on this world some time ago) and the cooperation of key crewmembers. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty are kept alive while the rest of the Enterprise crew is reduced to freeze-dried styrofoam-like blocks. The Enterprise leaves the galaxy and the quartet must thwart the aliens who have the ability and intent to destroy all they care about.

The episode hinges on the idea of identity, as the name of the episode might suggest. The Kelvans, having taken human form bear human weaknesses. When our intrepid heroes realize that, they have a viable method for combating the enemy and they do it quite well. The scene in which Scotty drinks his adversary under the table endures as one of Star Trek's most memorable. Strangely, McCoy's medicating another Kelvan does not seem to resonate with people as much, but Stewart Moss's portrayal of a neurotic Hanar is pretty wonderful.

This is Star Trek doing all of the things one expects from Star Trek. Captain Kirk is "forced" to seduce a beautiful woman. There is a villain that seems larger than life, but our heroes cut them down. And like Star Trek tries often to do, "By Any Other Name" exhibits a peaceful, considered solution instead of senseless violence. Reason is the key to defeating the Kelvans and here reason plays an important part in liberating the crew.

In short, "By Any Other Name" does not degenerate into a simple "kill the villain" storyline. Cunning is used to defeat the Kelvans, but compassion is used to achieve victory. Star Trek makes that distinction and it's refreshing to see a solution that comes with something other than the outright destruction of an adversary.

To be fair, though, the Kelvans are pretty generic villains. Appearing as humans, for obvious budget reasons, Spock describes their natural appearance - thanks to a mind-touch - as gigantic, possessing many tentacles. It's a shame that the new "enhanced" digital version is unlikely to treat the viewer to a view of one. Interestingly, the Kelvans are referenced in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, where Worf mentions defeating one in hand-to-hand combat, though we never see them again.

Objectively, "By Any Other Name" contains some of the series' weaknesses, as well. Some of William Shatner's acting is a little over-the-top. As Kirk becomes frustrated with his crew being cut down by the Kelvans - transformed into inanimate objects who will not eat, drink, breathe or rebel on the long journey - he becomes frustrated and angry. This involves Shatner embodying an upset Kirk, which means there is pounding on a table and a lot of yelling. William Shatner adequately captures frustration and anger, but still his performance seems a bit much, especially in contrast to the understated performances of the guest actors.

The most notable of the guest performances is from Barbara Bouchet, who plays Kelinda. Bouchet's performance is critiqued by some as very stiff, but the character is intended to be. Kelinda is a Kelvan, masquerading as a human. As such, she is unfamiliar with human emotions, facial expressions and mannerisms. Bouchet adequately portrays that. Her performance IS stiff, awkward and inhuman and it fits the character perfectly.

What does not fit so well is the stupidity of the Kelvans. For an advanced race that is set to invade the galaxy, Kirk and his team take them out fairly easily. The idea that their humanity is a weakness is certainly a clever one, but as tacticians, the Kelvans seems somewhat dense. Honestly, given the level of technology the Kelvans employ, why do they need an engineer alive and awake? And Spock, useful as he is, is dwarfed by their intelligence. And Dr. McCoy could easily be reconstituted when there is a medical emergency, there's no reason to keep him awake and alert. Why would leader Rojan truly want the rebellious Captain Kirk functional for the trip? I mean, all he's going to do is organize the others and lead an insurgency . . .

On the subject of Rojan, the leader of the Kelvans is played by Warren Stevens and he gives a decent performance. More than simply a generic villain, Stevens embodies a leader, portraying a character that seems to have a very real sense of purpose and personality. Stevens manages to connote a backstory through the bearing he provides for Rojan. At the very least, he makes Rojan a compelling foil for Shatner's Kirk. Of course, Rojan cannot defeat Kirk, though Stevens gives a dramatic performance that rivals Shatner's.

Of course, without this flaw, there would not be an episode. Too brilliant the villain would prevent our heroes from being heroes. "By Any Other Name" is an episode where the crew of the Enterprise is actually heroic. The results make for good television. Indeed, seeing "By Any Other Name," it's easy to see why Star Trek was so successful. "By Any Other Name" is very accessible to anyone who has never seen Star Trek and, indeed, it may begin your lifelong appreciation of it.

I'm not sure if that's an endorsement or a cautionary warning.

[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 by clicking here!

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

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