Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Star Trek - The Complete Second Season: A Classic Progresses, But Isn't Perfect

The Good: Excellent, socially-poignant stories, Some character development, Some acting
The Bad: Chapter breaks on DVDs, Some true dog episodes.
The Basics: Star Trek remains a classic largely in part due to the quality of the second season which finds the USS Enterprise exploring space and the human condition.

Fans of science fiction and classic television often want to gloss over the bad when considering the good. Unfortunately, as a serious reviewer, it is hard to declare things perfect when objectively they are not. I mention this at the outset of my review of the second season of Star Trek because while it is the pinnacle of the original Star Trek and contains many of the best episodes of the series. At the same time, the second season also has some absolutely terrible episodes that push the envelope of just how campy '60s television can be. No matter how great the series gets, the repetitive nature of many of the episodes and a few real lemons do rob the season of perfection. While a dud or two in a season can still net a perfect season, the second season of Star Trek has far too many problematic episodes.

In its second season, Star Trek fully realized the phenomenon it was becoming. Now it is harder to talk about Star Trek because there are fanatics who are viewed as a fringe society and the latest incarnations of the programs (under the supervision of Brannon Braga) have gotten worse. But in the late '60s, Star Trek was a cutting edge show and now on DVD in a convenient blue boxed set, it's easy to see why so many people have become fans over the years and why this show has built an international following.

While less serialized than any other Star Trek series (i.e. the episodes have a tendency to not refer to one another), the second season is arguably the best season of this classic show. Indeed, this season opens with "Amok Time," the episode that establishes that Vulcans mate only once every seven years. It's a great way to open the season and it is much alluded to in geek culture (and pop culture in The Simpsons and Family Guy as well as a recent video by the Beastie Boys).

With twenty-six episodes, season two follows the crew of the intrepid Starship Enterprise on a myriad of adventures, including encountering the Greek God Apollo ("Who Mourns For Adonais?"), switching with evil alternate universe versions of themselves ("Mirror, Mirror"), encountering a brutal planet-destroying ship ("The Doomsday Machine") and discovering Jack the Ripper ("Wolf In The Fold"). But the second season also allows the franchise to explore the lighter side of space travel. From encountering furry menaces ("The Trouble With Tribbles") to confronting a planet where the inhabitants are all gangsters ("A Piece of the Action," my personal favorite for best episode of Star Trek), the second season of Star Trek allows itself to not be taken with utmost seriousness.

Yet, at the same time, series creator Gene Roddenberry does an excellent job of encapsulating issues of his time within the show using metaphors. "A Private Little War" is an excellent allegory for the Vietnam War and the strong arguments against the Vietnam War are cloaked well enough to get by the sensors. And the fear of the nuclear threat that dominated the sixties, is tackled directly in the intriguing season finale "Assignment: Earth."

Unlike the other Star Trek incarnations, Star Trek is not an ensemble show. Sure, the ship has peripheral characters like Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and (this season) Chekov, but this is a show about three people: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. This triumvirate is what makes Star Trek a great show and there is a reason the actors who portray them are the only three who appear in the opening credits. Here is how the second season finds the big three:

Dr. McCoy - takes on a bigger role in the second season as he acts as Captain Kirk's tether to humanity and balances the rational advice Spock gives him with emotion. In this season, he takes on multiple biological threats, from an aging disease ("The Deadly Years") to an immense single-celled creature ("The Immunity Syndrome"),

Mr. Spock - The intensely logical half-Vulcan has his chance to make more quips and save Captain Kirk more times than ever before. The season starts with a Spock episode probably because he was so very popular and intriguing. In this season, Spock hits puberty and reconciles with his estranged family,

Captain Kirk - The leader and explorer who just about every episode of Star Trek revolves around. Kirk spends the season using his famous skills at improvisation and his charisma to save the universe, save the starship Enterprise, battle his own demons, and have some fun with old adversaries. Kirk is the embodiment of both the human strengths found in great leaders and the weaknesses the plague most men. And he almost always gets the women he pursues.

In addition to the fabulous plots, many of which are still pretty cutting edge, Star Trek succeeds because of the acting, again held up by the big three. DeForest Kelley is added to the main cast in the second season and it is easy to see why. Kelley brings great passion to the role of Dr. McCoy, making him a viable individual that is both compassionate, competent and at the same time conflicted and made strong by his emotions. Kelley has the ability to turn on a dime between very strong emotions and his range is wonderfully revealed in some of the quieter reaction shots that the best directors of the series manage to catch. Kelley is a great talent and the second season of Star Trek give him a great deal more to work with.

Leonard Nimoy might well have enjoyed coming back for the second season of Star Trek. Episodes like "Amok Time" gave Mr. Nimoy the chance to illustrate more of his acting range. Instead of a monolithic logical performance (which itself was violated many times in the first season of Star Trek), Nimoy is allowed to play outright anger, passion and desperation in the second season. And while he often returns to his emotionless facade and is relegated to playing the straight man to his costars, Nimoy pulls it off admirably.

The show hinges on the acting of William Shatner frequently. In fact, in many episodes, what has been caricatured as Shatner's hammy overacting make the scenes and situations seem more plausible. His bodily contortions when possessed in "Return To Tomorrow," for example, completely sell the audience on Kirk being possessed. And Shatner's intensity as an actor is beautifully displayed in "Obsession." In "Obsession," Kirk becomes determined to kill a malicious bloodsucking cloud of gas. It is Shatner's intensity and focus on the human emotions in the episode that keep the episode vibrant and relevant.

The DVD set is nice with seven discs in a convenient package inside a bulkier annoying plastic container. Two of the episodes have text commentary, but there is no vocal commentary. The only real drawbacks to this set are that the chapter breaks are apparently random (which is very annoying when trying to simply pass the opening credits) and the price. This little package comes with a hefty $100 - $140 price tag. Is it worth it? Certainly, to anyone who loves great science fiction.

Knowing that the DVD box is completely unhelpful, I've reviewed the episodes contained in this boxed set as follows:

Friday's Child
Who Mourns For Adonais?
Amok Time
The Doomsday Machine
Wolf In The Fold
The Changeling
The Apple
Mirror, Mirror
The Deadly Years
I, Mudd
The Trouble With Tribbles
Bread and Circuses
Journey To Babel
A Private Little War
The Gamesters of Triskelion
The Immunity Syndrome
A Piece of the Action
By Any Other Name
Return To Tomorrow
Patterns of Force
The Ultimate Computer
The Omega Glory
Assignment: Earth

Please check them out to make the best possible decision on this set.


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

© 2010, 2007, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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