The Good: Interesting idea, Moments of character, Moments of primary actors' acting
The Bad: Tired, recycled plot, Terrible guest actors
The Basics: In a recycled plot, five of the main characters find themselves re-enacting the Gunfight At The O.K. Coral, though the performances make it hard for the viewer to care.
Star Trek had a way of bringing aboard impressive guest stars that could sell an episode, even when the premise of it was shaky. It could also accent a decent episode with decent guest stars. So, for example, Joan Collins appeared in "City On The Edge Of Forever," Kim Darby brought "Miri" to life, and Mark Lenard became Spock's father Sarek in "Journey To Babel" and subsequent film in Star Trek The Next Generation outings. Sadly, when the show has a premise that was borderline in its concept and the execution of it was looking doubtful, sometimes it failed to bring aboard guest stars who could breathe life into it. "Spectre of the Gun," the first new episode produced in Star Trek's third season (though not the first aired), suffers for exactly this reason.
When the U.S.S. Enterprise ignores a warning buoy advising them to avoid the territory claimed by the Melkotians, Kirk follows his orders to make contact with these mysterious aliens. A landing party consisting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov are accused by the alien, presumably a Melkot, they encounter on the Melkotian planet of trespassing and essentially sentenced to death. The method of their sentence; the quintet will relive the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, virtually assuring they will perish in a cheesy Western scenario.
The problems with "Spectre of the Gun" are numerous, but they are not so conceptually embedded that "Star Trek" could not pull it off with success. So, for example, the Enterprise had ignored warnings from alien species before and been tested by more powerful beings ("The Corbomite Maneuver" and "Arena" from the first season leap right to mind) on multiple occasions. Even the idea of a Star Trek western is not a terrible idea. In fact, Star Trek The Next Generation pulled off a Western quite effectively with "A Fistful of Datas." But the problem with "Spectre of the Gun" is that, just because it's possible to succeed with an unsure concept like this on Star Trek, it fails to capitalize on everything that could make this work.
Because we've seen other alien races toy with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise before, in order for the viewer to buy this set of circumstances, the enemy has to be suitably impressive. In their natural form, the Melkots are disembodied paper mache heads with glowing eyes and Star Trek seldom creates a less menacing villain. But far worse are the Earps, the family who will slay the Clantons, McLaurys, and Billy Claiborne, who the Enterprise crewmembers embody. Instead, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday are generic Hollywood cowboy stereotypes that are just flat, boring villains. There is no spark of Western excitement here because the villains (from our perspective, rooting for the Enterprise crew) are flat, listless and dull.
This is in large part due to the actors playing them. Ron Soble, for example, looks bored as Wyatt Earp for much of his time on screen. His performance is best described as flat and because his portrayal of Earp lacks any zest, it's hard to take the menace he represents seriously. Conversely, Bonnie Beecher is over-the-top terrible as the girl that Chekov finds himself infatuated with. Beecher makes every gesture and emotion bigger than life and she and Walter Koenig (Chekov) ham up the romance between them some.
Moreover, Chekov's emotional attraction to her seems forced and silly given that the crew is in mortal danger. When I've got less than a day to live, starting a relationship with an image is pretty much the last thing on my mind. The romantic concept here serves only to advance the plot as it leads to Chekov's death and Spock's realization that his character should have survived the Gunfight. Thus, Spock is able to conclude the outcome is not inevitable.
One of the few clever ideas in "Spectre of the Gun" involves the set design, but even that concept seems to be executed in a silly way. A number of the buildings in Tombstone are simply flat facades, like the studio sets they actually are. The reason given for this is that because Kirk's imagination was the source of the idea for the execution, the Melkotians were limited by what was in his mind. So, because his memories were not complete, Tombstone is not complete. Where this reasoning falls down is in the progress of the episode. It does not make sense that the setting would not flesh itself out as time went on (i.e. if the Enterprise crewmembers started to walk up unfinished stairs, their imagination ought to have built onto it, allowing the rest of the stairway to create itself based on their imagination). As it is, the sets remain static throughout the episode.
The regular cast of Star Trek does not give anything extraordinary in the way of performances here. James Doohan is somewhat duller than usual as Scotty, Walter Koenig plays Chekov as disproportionately happy, and even DeForest Kelley is a bit . . . bored as Dr. McCoy. Leonard Nimoy plays Spock with his usual emotional detachment, which is fine. William Shatner does not give one of his more memorable performances.
In short, this is a Western style episode that hinges on the idea that there is a ticking clock until some of the favorite characters from Star Trek are to be executed in a silly fashion by aliens we're only just meeting. But there's no genuine menace and the performers seem to realize that and perform, or underperform, accordingly. This starts the third season off on a wrong foot and is overall a disappointment.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third and final season by clicking here!
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© 2007, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.