Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Alien Outside, The Menace Of Madness Inside, "The Tholian Web;" Star Trek Sans Kirk!

The Good: Most of the acting, Mood, Character, Effects aren't bad
The Bad: Little bits throughout, Very simple plot
The Basics: When Captain Kirk is lost in an interdimensional rift, Spock takes command of an Enterprise besieged with problems within and without and has only McCoy to turn to!

It's rather rare for an episode of television to take a "wait and see" attitude. Yes, most of us like characters that act, rather than those that simply react. It is seldom that a show involves much in the way of sitting around and waiting. And, truth be told, there are few shows that could pull that off. And yet, Star Trek does just that with the waiting game episode "The Tholian Web!"

The U.S.S. Enterprise comes upon the derelict U.S.S. Defiant in an unexplored region of space. While aboard the Defiant, Dr. McCoy notices that matter is not reacting normally, that it is out of phase, a fact he perceives when he puts his hand through solid objects like a table. The exploratory party beams back, save Captain Kirk, who is aboard the ship when it fades out of existence. Spock soon concludes that the ideal course is to wait and he has calculated the next interval when the Defiant and Captain Kirk ought to reappear.

Unfortunately for Spock, who is in command of the Enterprise, members of the crew begin to go crazy, hallucinating and flailing about in a manic manner. As individuals in the crew deteriorate, Spock is faced with an external challenge; the arrival of a Tholian ship. The Tholian commander agrees to wait the precise interval Spock says he will need based on his calculations. Alas, when the time expires, neither Kirk nor the starship appear and Spock has nothing to beam aboard! The situation gets even worse when the Tholian ship opens fire! With the Tholians spinning an energy web around the ship, the crew going mad and Kirk lost between dimensions and running out of air, Spock must choose to save the ship or Kirk, before losing both!

No doubt there is someone reading this and wondering, "Why can't Spock just leave and come back?" This is actually addressed in the episode itself and the answer is simply that Spock believes that with space being so unstable in this area, if the ship were to move, Kirk would be irrevocably lost. So there!

The science behind the "weakened space" in the Tholian Web is rather interesting and the tie in between the stellar and the physiological is a clever connected concept from writers Judy Burns and Chet Richards. McCoy's explanation for it makes some actual sense; if the space in the area is breaking apart and slipping into another dimension, this has an effect on the neurons in the brain, lessening the mind's ability to control itself and regulate the victim's actions. When McCoy says it, it actually sounds plausible!

But "The Tholian Web" is full of good ideas like that. They are so good that Star Trek: The Next Generation will essentially utilize the idea of what happened with Captain Kirk in their episode "The Next Phase." And while I am no fan of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Force Of Nature" on its own, in the context of the franchise it is made even worse. "The Tholian Web" clearly describes a phenomenon much like the ozone-depletion analogy phenomenon from the inferior Next Generation episode. In context that episode becomes even more ridiculous because there is hundred year old evidence that similar phenomenon exist, the reticence of the scientific community to believe it is unexplainable.

But on its own, "The Tholian Web" is a truly strange episode in that it actually succeeds. The Enterprise crew sits and waits. Scotty complains about the energy demands in keeping the ship still, McCoy complains about the crew going mad, the Tholians slowly build their web and not much of substance actually happens. We're waiting for Kirk to appear, we're waiting to see who goes crazy next, we're waiting to see what happens when the Tholians finish their web around the Enterprise, but against all odds, this simple-plotted episode works!

"The Tholian Web" succeeds because it keeps the tension ratcheted up. Spock is almost constantly counting off the time left to the ship. The Tholians are portrayed as efficient, punctual and ultimately inflexible. There is a real sense of danger promoted in virtually every scene. And when Captain Kirk is lost it is presented as a very real possibility that this time it's for real. I am an unabashed cynic when it comes to such things. Star Trek, traditionally, only kills off its big names for big events. The silly god-creature episodes don't hold water with me because the seasoned viewer knows that it's not going to be one of the ridiculous Star Trek comedies when a character like Kirk is killed off. If you want a show that messes with your head like that, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is for you, especially the fifth season.

But "The Tholian Web" presents odds that are stacked against Captain Kirk's safe return. There's a new adversary and were this a serialized show, the idea of Captain Kirk's death sparking a conflict with the Tholians would hold water. There's the deteriorating ship and crew; the idea that even if Kirk is out there, he might not be able to be recovered. The episode plays it all quite convincingly and it is very engaging, despite the limited plot.

Part of the reason for that is because the characters treat it so seriously. When the Defiant does not rematerialize like Spock predicted, Kirk is declared dead. There's a funeral, Spock and McCoy argue over watching the Captain's final message to them, Spock begins to get comfortable in the captain's chair. Spock, McCoy and Scotty all react exactly as we might expect if Kirk were dead and gone forever. Director Ralph Senensky effectively drags out the process of emotionally manipulating the viewers.

This is a good character episode for McCoy and Spock as well. Sure, there are the obligatory scenes where McCoy is yelling about Spock being an unemotional Vulcan, but this is an episode where the two truly gel and come together for the sake of the ship as well. McCoy and Spock, on a metaphoric level, may be seen as the Id and Super Ego of the Enterprise and in that model, the react perfectly the the death of Kirk (the Ego) and the breakdown between them is actually wonderful on the metaphoric level.

And in the literal sense, the characters become fresh and interesting again with the shakeup. McCoy can't simply stand around annoying Spock because he has a task he desperately needs to attend to. And Uhura is given the chance to shine when she fears for her sanity when she sees Captain Kirk after he is pronounced dead!

"The Tholian Web" spends much time playing Leonard Nimoy's Spock off DeForest Kelley's McCoy and the episode works as well as it does for one simple reason: Nimoy and Kelley are able to act! In this case, they act like two people who don't entirely like one another and given the friendship the actors shared, this is quite a convincing performance. Nimoy and Kelley have great on-screen chemistry and their performance in the taped message scene is truly one of the best of the series.

As well, that is one of the few scenes to contain actor William Shatner. Shatner's absence from most of the episode makes the scene that much more poignant and Shatner provides one of his most reserved and convincing performances of the series.

Fans of Star Trek will flock to this episode and fans of science fiction and "ticking bomb" stories are likely to enjoy the episode well enough, though they may not appreciate the depth of the character idiosyncrasies. Conversely, fans of character studies and dramas will likely enjoy "The Tholian Web" for its well-defined character moments and character interactions, even if the plot might seem a little too fantastic for them.

All in all, this is a strangely effective episode given that so little actually happens in it! Worthwhile for anyone looking for something different to watch.

It is worth noting that the Tholians are mentioned occasionally in the various Star Trek series that follow, though they only appear again on-screen in two episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise.

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


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page!

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