Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stereotypes About Aging Ring Through "The Deadly Years"

The Good: Interesting concept, Decent - if stereotypical - acting
The Bad: Plot is weak, Premise is shaky, Obvious sense of tension
The Basics: With terrible special effects and a silly plot, the command crew of the Enterprise is subjected to rapid aging with little to engage the viewer.

Star Trek started a few trends that were shaky science fiction plots that its spin-off shows tried to emulate. Indeed, both "Unnatural Selection" from Star Trek The Next Generation's second season and "Distant Voices" from Star Trek Deep Space Nine's third season could trace their origins to the second season episode of Star Trek, "The Deadly Years." In this classic episode of the original series, the viewer is treated to the geriatric incarnations of the primary cast of Star Trek as they encounter a deadly disease.

The U.S.S. Enterprise journeys to a colony world where the inhabitants have all died of old age. They find a pair of survivors on the planet, two people who claim to be in their late twenties, but look like they are in their nineties. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov and Yeoman C'mon She'll Be Dead By Act Three, beam back to the Enterprise where they begin to age rapidly. Chekov, however, does not age and the rapid aging slows down to accommodate a plot-convenient takeover of the Enterprise by the ambitious Commodore Stocker, who is just so eager to get to his new Starbase that he'll sacrifice the starship Enterprise to the Romulans to get there. As Kirk's condition worsens, Stocker decides that the best way to help the rapidly aging members of the command staff is to take a shortcut through the Romulan Neutral Zone, which leaves the ship in a bad place indeed.

Where to start on this one? The Deadly Years seems like it ought to be a decent outing, but almost everything in the episode serves the plot . . . and poorly. Instead of being truly insightful on what makes age or even what makes an individual, this episode is simply a cheap excuse for the special effects department to load up the primary characters of Star Trek with latex and make them look older. It's a special effects episode and it is ultimately a silly one at that.

First off, everything here serves the plot. All of the factors that make this episode anything are from the concept of the radiation that causes rapid aging. But this is an inconsistent thing and it works poorly in this narrative. The aging happens gradually, then it speeds up enough to incapacitate Captain Kirk, then it stops long enough for the hearing, then it moves forward until Stocker moves the ship into Romulan space and it's pretty much done. Even reading that description is silly.

This episode offers no real insight into the characters or into the aging process. Instead, McCoy develops an accent, Scotty becomes comatose and Kirk becomes forgetful. This is more generic than geriatric. I'm not saying necessarily that they ought to have dealt with Scotty's incontinence issues, McCoy's senility and public use of obscenities, and Kirk's impotence, but it couldn't have been any worse than the lame way this episode deals with the aging process. This is a parody of aging, something barely more sophisticated than having the afflicted members of the crew walking around with pants up to their armpits.

Outside that, the guest acting is fairly banal. Sarah Marhall, who plays Dr. Janice Wallace, is bland and seems rather simple. Commodore Stocker is a flat character and the actor portraying him is equally uninspired and flat, providing nothing to the role but a deep, commanding voice. He does not have the bearing of a leader and the character seems more silly than well-conceived. Underused is Beverly Washburn who played Lt. Galway, but the part was designed to be short, sweet and generally unmemorable. Washburn fulfills the scripted role.

Far more problematic are the central characters. Kirk and Spock do not feel like our familiar characters here. There is a conflict between them about Kirk relinquishing command, with Spock advocating that measure and it simply seems forced. Kirk's resistance seems more irrational and ridiculous than a function of aging and the entire hearing to relieve Kirk of command just fills time while the viewer waits for something interesting to happen.

It's funny, because watching the episode is nowhere near as unenjoyable as I'm making it sound. Rationally, this is a pretty terrible episode. Logically, the plot is stale, the characters are flat and clunky (the aged McCoy shines as the only one who is even remotely worthwhile and interesting in his geriatric form), and the make-up to create the older crewmembers is mostly just silly-looking. But what makes the piece bearable is the acting of the primaries.

Leonard Nimoy is not given much to work with here. He plays Spock quieter, softer, when the aging affliction hits him. DeForest Kelley, however, plays McCoy as flamboyant and enthusiastic, throwing subtle body language into the part, like a tremor to his hand and a looseness to his jaw when he's not speaking. Kelley becomes a master of body language in "The Deadly Years" and he steals every scene he is in. Hands down.

But it is William Shatner, as Captain Kirk, who once again pulls the episode out of the muck. Like Kelley, he uses body language to convince the audience that the implausible is occurring. Shatner does his best with what he is given as Kirk, but it's a terrible role. Shatner at least seems to give it his best and it is sufficient to make the viewer say "Shatner did well."

Alas, it's not enough to overcome the cripplingly bad plot or the overall predictability of the episode. This is surprisingly average (bordering on bad).

[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!


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

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