Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Metamorphosis:" A Prelude To Better Star Trek (Franchise) Works!

The Good: Acting, Characters, Philosophy, Story
The Bad: Nitpicky things, Mostly the order in which things happen.
The Basics: Well-acted and populated by good characters doing what they do best, "Metamorphosis" succeeds as a Star Trek episode when carefully referenced in other Trek works.

"Metamorphosis" is one of those Star Trek episodes that is often neglected. It never makes the Top 10 Episodes, scenes are never put on collector's plates, there aren't any action figures exclusive from the episode. And part of that is based on the fact that it's not a terribly marketable episode. Star Trek was once condemned as being "too cerebral" (apparently even in the '60s, network execs were threatened by television making people think); "Metamorphosis" is, quite positively, a cerebral episode and that is its strength.

The episode focuses on a shuttlecraft mission that has gone awry. When Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy are headed back to the Enterprise with an ailing ambassador Nancy Hedford, their shuttlecraft is taken off course by a mysterious energy being. They land on a planetoid to discover another human there and from there, the episode delves into the mysteries of who he is, why he is there and what the energy being that is holding them there truly is. There's an air of desperation as Hedford is dying of a rare disease and time seems to be of the essence.

The troubling aspect of the episode is in plausibility. The most obvious is that none of the crew seems to recognize the human stranded on the planetoid right away. As it turns out, he's one of the giants of history (in the Trek universe). This is explained away by the fact that he has de-aged. While that's a neat and tidy answer, it turns out that the age he's reverted to is right around the same age as when he made his historic contributions. It's bothersome that it's Captain Kirk that figures it all out; it strikes me as something the scientist and vastly more intelligent Mr. Spock ought to have figured out within seconds of seeing him.

The other problem is the order in which things happen. A very dear friend of mine is a disciple of Gene Roddenberry's and his biggest criticism of the modern series' (post-fourth season Next Generation, all of Deep Space Nine, most of Voyager, certainly the films - save I and IV) is that they don't adhere to Roddenberry's ideal of humanity as an enlightened being. If you watch the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation (which I call the season of Philosopher Kings in Space), you'll see this very clearly. The truth of the original Star Trek is, it's not. Despite Roddenberry's attempts and my friend's strong admonishments of the current incarnations, the original series doesn't portray a terribly enlightened ideal at all times. In "Metamorphosis" we see this quite clearly. Kirk shoots first, asks questions later. Literally. It's only after violence fails that Kirk actually listens to the vastly more enlightened Dr. McCoy and tries being a diplomat/explorer instead of a soldier. McCoy has a great line to this effect in the episode. The disappointing aspect is neither of the two other officers (or our mysterious third person who seems generally pacifistic) try to convince Kirk to do anything before he tries the violent and backwards approach. I suppose the plus side of this is that his attempts to fight the energy creature fail while his attempts to communicate with it work. Good message.

The only other con is very minor. Elinor Donahue, who plays Nancy Hedford, goes off on a moralistic tirade about the energy creature being disgusting and unwholesome at one point. It's hard to tell if her tirade is poorly written or if this is one of the worst acting jobs done on the series. The rest of the time, her character is portrayed admirably, in fact, near the end, quite sympathetically. But that moment, well, it's just plain bad.

The pros of this episode vastly outweigh the cons. The greatest pro is in the form of Dr. McCoy. Both the character and actor give it their all and it shows in "Metamorphosis." McCoy is enlightened and he's dedicated to saving lives and doing right and while he theorizes the way to incapacitate the energy being (known as "The Companion"), he's the one who pleads with the being to stop hurting Kirk and Spock as well as proposes the nonviolent approach to everything. He's a great man. He's excellently acted by DeForest Kelley in the episode as well. Kelley uses the full range of his body and voice and facial expression to very convincingly portray McCoy. And what more may we truly ask of an actor?

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner give very good performances, but the acting - outside DeForest - is played best by Glenn Corbett. He plays the third man - who I'm not revealing because it's one of those pleasant twists - and he does it with great range and respect. The acting is good, despite the backwards nature of the characters, the characters are all good. Allow me to clarify; the characters in this episode, especially Kirk, are acting as we expect people to act and that's refreshing and realistic. I LIKE that about it. It's perfect to have McCoy being the enlightened voice, but I think it says something very real - if depressing - that Kirk pushes him around throughout the episode.

The true magic of the episode is what comes from it. Allusions are made in better works of Trek (most notably the novel Federation) and the ignoring of this episode brings the downfall of other works (it seems those who wrote Star Trek: First Contact didn't think anyone cared much for this episode when they mangled established facts of the series in that film). The reason they reference this episode? Because it's a big episode for the thinking part of the series. Kirk makes promises in this episode and exploring the character of "the man" becomes a point of fascination for those captivated with the series. It's often worth it. This episode deserves to be referenced more than it is. It's one of those episodes that, while cerebral, did what it set out to do. It tells a story and it tells it well and part of the theme is that when people get around to doing the right thing, they actually accomplish good things.

Accessible to all viewers, not just fans of the series.

[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!


© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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