Monday, October 4, 2010

Star Trek Closes Season 1 With A Bang, The Parasitic Invasion From "Operation: Annihilate!"

The Good: Interesting idea, Moments of character and acting
The Bad: Some campy acting from the extras, Plot-convenient Vulcan anatomy
The Basics: In the final episode of Star Trek's first season, Kirk is sent to rescue his family from parasites that have decimated a colony's population and threaten to spread further!

Star Trek, ever on the verge of cancellation during its tenure on NBC, went out with a bang in 1967 when its first season ended with "Operation: Annihilate!", a bottle episode that once again puts the fate of the galaxy in the hands of James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. In the recent wave of remasterings of episodes, "Operation: Annihilate!" fares well as one of the episodes with one of the fewest amount of alterations of any episode, which is interesting considering how the 1960s special effects were strained by having to create the flying parasites and yet they remain intact in the new version. As a result, the original version of "Operation: Annihilate!" seems to hold up well.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is investigating a rash of space madness that seems to have reached a colony planet, Deneva. Deneva, Kirk and his crew soon realize, may be suffering from the same outbreak of insanity as other planets nearby did before their populations all died, as witnessed by a Denevan flying his shuttle into the local star. Deneva is not just any colony, though, it is the home of Captain's Kirk's brother, nephew and sister-in-law. When the Enterprise arrives, Kirk's sister-in-law is agitated and infected with a parasite, as is Peter Kirk, Kirk's nephew. Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock begin to study the parasites and determine that they are essentially pieces of a giant hive mind and that their use of host's bodies drives people insane. Unfortunately, while attempting to recover one of the parasites for study, Spock is infected and begins to descend into madness himself!

The basic alien in "Operation: Annihilate!" was not even a terribly new idea when the episode first aired. Robert A. Heinlein had written a book called The Puppet Masters over a decade prior (my review of the film is available by clicking here!) which had essentially the same idea behind it. The idea of parasitic aliens that infect a host and get them to do their bidding was something Star Trek - the franchise - would return to, though this was an important episode as it was the first time the franchise would go there. Still, the elements of an alien infection like this hive-mind creature were done far better in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Conspiracy."

"Operation: Annihilate!" is a decent hour of television, though. It is entertaining, has generally decent performances by the main cast, and a decent plot. The devil, though, is in the details and that is where the episode falls down a bit.

"Operation: Annihilate!" asks the viewer to suspend their disbelief such that we have to accept that Dr. McCoy's medical scans of Spock have never revealed something or that McCoy himself is completely incompetent. The only other explanation for the resolution to the episode is that the Vulcan people have managed to not share, for over a hundred years, a full sample of their physiology and biology with other members of the Federation, a premise that seems ridiculous. As a result, the end of the episode feels like a cop-out and a cheap resolution to plot events.

At least as bad as the lame plot bailout is the acting of guest actress Joan Swift, who plays Aurelan Kirk. Her performance is the epitome of horror/science fiction camp acting, with her flailing around mumbling incoherently as an "infected" person. Her performance is over-the-top and silly and it brings down the few scenes she is in. Similarly, the extras who make up the angry mob running through the street with comically oversized implements to hit people with look ridiculous and just seem silly when one watches the episode now.

What works, in addition to the mood of suspense that is effectively retained throughout the episode, is the character work for Captain Kirk and the acting performed by Leonard Nimoy. Captain Kirk is faced with two significant character problems in "Operation: Annihilate!" While dealing with a planetary epidemic, he must compartmentalize and not deal with his brother's death and he must come to terms with the possibility that Spock, infected by the parasite, may not be able to function as his trusted officer any longer. Kirk illustrates his professionalism with the first and his humanity by being truly conflicted over the latter. It makes the big, galactic events very personal and worthwhile to fans of the series on an individual and character level. It is gratifying to see the writer and director chose to prioritize those aspects of the story.

In order to make the idea of Spock going insane - and other changes later in the episode - believable, the episode rests heavily on the acting prowess of Leonard Nimoy. In "Operation: Annihilate!" Nimoy must portray Spock as tormented and seething from an outside force in a way that differentiates this instance from his prior "lose control" moments in the first season, like in "The Naked Time" and "This Side Of Paradise." As a result, Nimoy must play Spock as a man in constant pain, always in danger of losing control and lashing out at the people and things near him. He performs that masterfully and the apparent effort Spock is exerting to retain control from the moment he is attacked makes him still seem like Spock, so Nimoy's acting is very careful and well-delivered.

But more than that, "Operation: Annihilate!" succeeds because, even with its faults, it has a wonderful sense of mood. Unlike many episodes of Star Trek, this one has a very real sense of uncertainty to it. Kirk is forced to consider destroying an entire planet in order to prevent the parasites from spreading off-world and as the clock ticks down, that possibility seems more and more real! The tension throughout makes this a pretty thrilling action-adventure episode!

Fans of traditional drama are less likely to be excited by "Operation: Annihilate!" than fans of science fiction. While the episode makes an effort to include character development, its priority is often on advancing a strong science fiction plot. Fans of science fiction and horror are likely to enjoy the episode, though, for its mood and genre elements that are fairly well-executed.

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


For other Star Trek reviews, please check out my index page!

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