Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Star Trek's Most Comical Adversary To Date Returns With "I, Mudd!"

The Good: Well, the cast of Star Trek gets to mime . . . Moments of humor
The Bad: Ridiculous, Overdone plot, No real message, Nothing astonishing in character or acting
The Basics: When Harry Mudd returns, Star Trek recycles a plot used only a few episodes prior and manages to execute it even worse than before with "I, Mudd!"

It is only in my latest trip through the Star Trek seasons that I am truly catching some of the overwhelming themes and recurring bits. So, for example, I've been noticing more and more that Spock is characterized as logical and unemotional more by reputation than by how he actually acts. I've noticed that Eddie Paskey appears on the bridge as Lt. Leslie in almost as many episodes as George Takei does as Sulu. And I've noticed that no new technology appears on Star Trek without appearing overbearing, controlling or dehumanizing. The Enterprise takes on more computers and androids in its brief run than most series' ever do! The latest example, and one of the poorest, is "I, Mudd."

"I, Mudd" marks the return of Harcourt Fenton Mudd, the con man first seen in the first season episode "Mudd's Women" (click here for that review!). That episode might not have been all that great, but at least it had a message and a decent one. If anything, "Mudd's Women" promoted the positive idea that people do not need drugs to be happy and that beauty comes from within. Sure, it may sound hokey when put that way, but those themes are the only aspects of that episode that truly make it work in the lives of ordinary people.

The U.S.S. Enterprise takes on a bulky lieutenant in the sciences named Norman and shortly after Kirk expresses concerns about how he is (or is not) fitting in on the ship, Norman turns out to be an android. Norman hijacks the ship and takes it to a remote world where its crew is forced down to the palace/prison where Kirk learns he and his crew are now at the mercy of Harry Mudd. Mudd commands a legion of thousands of androids who exist to serve him. Mudd's plan includes taking the Enterprise away from the planet and stranding Kirk and his crew there. But when the androids con Mudd, Kirk must team with Harry Mudd to thwart the androids and get his ship back.

Wow, this is a stupid episode.

I wish I could leave it at that and still have this review be considered very helpful. Because all of the androids have numbers around their neck to indicate which one of the identical androids they are - like Alice 12, Alice 16 and John 8, John 927 - there is some debate among fans as to whether the title "I, Mudd" is a reference to Isaac Asimov's beloved novels "I, Robot" or if it is intended to be "Mudd One," as if Mudd had an android designation. It's pretty sad when one of the best things people can do to discuss an episode of Star Trek is nit-pick over the title. I suspect that is largely because most fans do not want to admit just how bad this episode is.

The majority of Star Trek's full ensemble cast performs a mime sequence in "I, Mudd." That troubles me. It's not that I have anything against mimes, it is simply that the sequence feels ridiculous and it feels that way largely because it is. This is all part of Captain Kirk's plan to thwart the androids by confounding them. By this point in the series, we have seen Kirk take on the robots and computers in exactly this way. Indeed, just a few episodes prior in "The Changeling" (click here for that review!) Kirk destroyed a robot using the exact same plan as he uses against the androids in this episode. Were people in the '60s really that dense that they didn't catch the show duplicating itself that close together? Or were they just that starved for television entertainment in color that they were happy to watch the same plot recast over and over again?

The problem with this particular recast is it is just plain silly. Star Trek has the ability to do humorous episodes, but what separates the two best humor episodes from the ones that fail (like "I, Mudd") is that there is a serious plot that works parallel to the humorous one. In this episode, everything is banked on the android plot and the humor (supposedly) of Harry Mudd having to work with the Enterprise crew.

The problem here is that Harry Mudd is a ridiculous adversary and he's completely the antithesis of empathetic as an ally. He is a con man and a parody of a swashbuckler or pirate to boot. He speaks with exaggerated vocal tones and he is very cartoonish. Yes, Harry Mudd is the living embodiment of a cartoon character in the Star Trek tradition. The thing is, as a fan of Star Trek, I expect the characters to conform to some semblance of adult behavior. I want my adults to be adults, not parodies that might amuse children. Harry Mudd is the ridiculous sent in to muss up the straightlaced crew of the Enterprise.

And we've seen that before from Mudd in his other appearance. Harry Mudd acts as an opportunist and swindler the first time we see him, this time he is a flat-out criminal and the viewer is expected to care about him when his plan goes sour. Given that Mudd has nothing genuinely useful to contribute even to the jailbreak effort, it is hard to care about him.

Furthermore, the androids that Mudd surrounds himself are the most shamefully stupid androids ever constructed. They become crippled by the Enterprise crewmembers acting irrationally. But it is how the "heroes" act irrationally that brings the episode into the range of ridiculous and just plain stupid. For example, two of the crew pretend to make a bomb out of thin air by simply pantomiming it and talking through what they are doing. This confounds the androids because they cannot see a bomb. And they are thwarted.

If it seems like I am belaboring how ridiculous and problematic the resolution of the episode is, there is a reason for that; the first act of the episode is wasted getting to the planet, the next act is wasted establishing Harry Mudd and having less-than-witty banter between Mudd and Kirk, the third act has Mudd stranding everyone and preparing to leave, and the last two acts find Mudd's plan thwarted by his own androids who simply live to serve him. After the build-up for the first three acts, the last act's execution where the androids are pretty effortlessly dispatched just makes the viewer feel like they have wasted their time on the earlier acts.

Roger Carmel returns to play Harry Mudd and he portrays him almost identically to how he played him in his first outing, as an over-the-top buffoon with aspirations to profit and survive whatever problems he has gotten himself into. Carmel does not truly stretch himself in the role, save to perform his part with a more physical comedy sensibility. Whereas his role in "Mudd's Women" began with him playing Mudd somewhat slimy and smarmy, here Carmel plays him with the most ridiculous affectations and gesticulations. Carmel seems like a vaudeville comic more than a television actor and it makes his character impossible to take seriously.

There is no character development among the main crew in "I, Mudd." They simply show up and go through the motions (much like the viewer does). Similarly, the acting yields nothing of note and most of the professionals who comprise the main cast and supporting cast of Star Trek come out of "I, Mudd" looking silly, like they are not part of an endeavor that strives to hold deeper meanings and engage its audience.

This episode fails and it is unlikely to entertain anyone who likes science fiction or comedy.

[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!

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

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