Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Enterprise - And Star Trek - Get Blown Out Of The Stars With "The Doomsday Machine!"

The Good: Good acting, Moments of character, Plot, Generally the effects
The Bad: Decker's character problems are annoyingly recurring.
The Basics: When the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters an incredible planet-destroying machine, the ship faces wonderful conflict external and internal that may destroy the ship!

Perhaps the fundamental difference between Star Trek and Star Wars is the overriding concept; exploration vs. warfare. In Star Trek, there are remarkably few space battles. Indeed, by the time "The Doomsday Machine" comes along as the thirty-fifth episode of the series, there had only been one prior, on-screen space battle in the series and that was the first season's "Balance Of Terror." "The Doomsday Machine" presents possibly the boldest presentation Star Trek (the original series) made into the realm of space battles and the nice thing about the episode is that it is not mindless carnage, the space battles are a fight for survival and they are shaded with an aura of desperation throughout, making for a compelling hour of television.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is investigating a pattern of destroyed solar systems when it comes across the wreckage of the U.S.S. Constellation, its sister ship. Beaming over, Kirk and his team find Commodore Matthew Decker incoherent and barely alive. He is unable to articulate what happened to the crew of the Constellation, though it soon becomes clear when a massive planet-destroying device is found in the area. The planet killer begins to pursue the Enterprise and while Commodore Decker is transported there, Kirk is stranded aboard the Constellation. Decker soon reveals his madness in the form of a desperate pursuit of the planet killer which destroyed the planet his crew had beamed down to. With vengeance on his mind and no way Spock may relieve him of command, Decker begins a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an invincible foe while Kirk is forced to watch from the sidelines!

"The Doomsday Machine" is pretty much a straightforward political/war thriller. The Enterprise is hunted by a predator that is so massive and apparently unstoppable as to make the odds loaded impossibly against it. The crew is further hampered by the change in command when Decker takes over in lieu of the stranded Kirk. This is not an episode about communications; the weapon is headed toward the most populous region of the galaxy! This is an episode where the goal is simply to stop the enemy from killing more people, at any cost. And that goal is hampered by the guilt and fear one man has over his past dealings with the weapon.

"The Doomsday Machine" is essentially a rewrite of The Caine Mutiny with Commodore Decker playing the role of Captain Queeg. Within the episode this works especially well; Decker is a vividly demented character haunted by the demons of his failure to stop the planet killer before. He has gone crazy, arguably, but he also retains the knowledge of rule and regulations and a basic sense of strategy (even if it's a lousy strategy!) to insinuate just what he was before the breakdown. Commodore Decker is an intriguing character and his imperfections are a far cry from what we are used to seeing on Star Trek and it works to make him a character most can empathize with!

My problem with Commodore Decker is how he fits into the larger Star Trek mythos. Decker is the latest in a long line of people who outrank Captain Kirk or are part of the Federation political establishment that runs parallel to the more military StarFleet who is either insane, annoying, bossy, egotistical and/or utterly incompetent. That Star Trek presents such a wide range of characters in positions of authority who all suffer from the same poor character traits clearly indicates what was going through the mind of the staff at the time. The problem is, Decker falling into that same category undermines his character some for fans of the entire series. We come to expect Decker to be a failure, loser and basketcase because he outranks Kirk. To his credit and the credit of writer Norman Spinrad, Decker does seem to have more shades to him that insinuate that he wasn't always a crazy, bloodthirsty jerk. Indeed, it is easy to see from his performance why they used his son, Willard Decker, as the conflicted captain-turned-first officer of the Enterprise (though it's not made explicit in the film) in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Decker is quite well portrayed by actor William Windom and despite his character's unlikability, he is eminently watchable. His performance stays just on the right side of being over-the-top and he plays broken and disheartened extraordinarily well. His performance is everything one might want it to be, dramatic, emotional and memorable.

Windom gives the superlative performance of the episode, though Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley give decent supporting performances as Spock and McCoy. This is an episode where Nimoy and Kelley play off one another very well and it works to establish the real sense of desperation throughout the episode. Furthermore, William Shatner gives a good performance as his plays the anxious Captain Kirk, stranded away from his vessel. Shatner is often playing to a viewscreen and he has to emote as if he is seeing what is projected there and he does a great job at making the usually calm and collected captain seem quite agitated.

But beyond Commodore Decker and his momentous character struggle and losing battle with sanity, "The Doomsday Machine" is a bit light on character. After all, we have already seen Captain Kirk pine for the Enterprise and place its safety above his own, we have already seen Spock act efficient and be in command (or be the advisor to the commander of the Enterprise) and we've already seen Dr. McCoy get worked up over Spock not intervening into a situation that is dangerous. This may be the first time we see Scotty pull a genuine engineering miracle out of his bag of tricks, but for the most part, the primary characters of the series are simply reaffirming their characters with this episode.

"The Doomsday Machine" is easily accessible to anyone who has not watched Star Trek before and it is a wonderful episode to get people into because it is so exciting and does not have any over-the-top acting or sequences that seem campy or dated. Instead, it is a pretty tight episode and one that is bound to please anyone who likes a good cat-and-mouse chase story or high drama in general. This is a wonderful hour of television and one of the best Star Trek produced!

[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!

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

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