Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Argument You'll Never Hear Among Trekkers (Except Here!): Why "Requiem For Methuselah" Is Better Than "The City On The Edge Of Forever!"

The Good: Actual character development, Acting, Sense of pace, Intriguing concept
The Bad: Minor plot weakness, Franchise issue
The Basics: Kirk, Spock and McCoy journey to a distant planet to obtain the materials needed to save an ailing Enterprise crew, finding a mysterious man and his ward, a great love interest for Kirk!

For those sucked in by my title, which I know rarely happens, the idea that I'll be presenting is that the oft-neglected episode of Star Trek" called "Requiem For Methuselah" is better than the episode most fans consistently rate as the best episode Star Trek ever produced, "The City On The Edge Of Forever." To truly understand the premise of my unorthodox premise, it is certainly worth checking out my review of "The City On The Edge Of Forever" by clicking here. "The City On The Edge Of Forever" is often argued to be the best episode in the Star Trek franchise and I cannot think of a single major poll by Star Trek fans that did not have it in the top five episodes. I cannot recall ever seeing "Requiem For Methuselah" in the Top Ten, nor the Bottom Five. I imagine that most fans forget about it for its simplicity, but it's worthy of another look.

The U.S.S. Enterprise has succumbed to a plague, a virulent disease that is crippling the crew and fatalities are only hours away. In its weakened state, the Enterprise takes up orbit around a distant planet that initially appears uninhabited, until Kirk, Spock and McCoy - who are there to find ryetalin, the only substance that can cure the crew - are shot at by a robot. Destroying it in self defense, Kirk and his landing party encounter an old man, Flint, who is irritated at the destruction of his droid. Eager for the men to leave his planet, he promises to help them get the ryetalin they need and process it into the cure for the diseases.

While another robot tends to the ryetalin, the landing party visits Flint's mansion, a menagerie of priceless works of art that offer Spock an intriguing conundrum; he recognize authentic paintings by Da Vinci and a waltz by Brahms which has never been heard before, yet both - and other antiquities - appear authentic. While Spock delves into the mystery of art that is pristine originals by classic masters, painted using modern materials, Kirk meets Flint's ward, Rayna Kapec. Rayna is a young woman very curious about what exists out beyond the planet and Kirk offers her the intrigue of his explorations. While McCoy frets because the antidote is tainted, Kirk and Rayna fall quickly in love and Flint becomes terribly jealous. While the second batch of antidote is produced, Kirk and Rayna's romance blossoms and Kirk offers her a chance to come with him and the Enterprise. Kirk and Flint, then, find themselves engaged in a conflict for her heart and Rayna finds her world turned up-side down when she realizes that she is the source of the intense fight going on, a fight that could cost lives aboard the Enterprise!

First of all, it's very hard to do a romance episode in a bottle (episodic) show and have it be at all believable. "Requiem For Methuselah" is a romance episode and it is one of the few Star Trek episodes that works as a straightforward love story. But the reason it works is because that is what the episode is about. The basic plot has to do with the landing party getting the ryetalin and Spock figuring out who Flint truly is, but the first aspect of the plot is so simple, a robot handles it. And the second part interweaves with the love story.

And it's a simple love story, Captain James T. Kirk meets Rayna Kapec and both realize they share a common loneliness and a common yearning to explore beyond the limitations of the existence each of them knows. It's quite sweet and the episode is very Shakespearean in the depth and speed of the love. But it works! Indeed, it works beautifully because the episode spends as much time focusing on Kirk and Rayna as possible while still giving a plausible reason for the Enterprise to be there at all.

This is the first reason why "Requiem For Methuselah" is better than "The City On The Edge Of Forever;" the love story works. Whereas the fan favorite episode claims it develops the great love of Kirk's life, Kirk and Edith Keeler have almost no time together. She is introduced surprisingly late in the episode and all of a sudden, the fast-moving Kirk is declaring his love for her and viewers who are awake enough to notice, sit up and say "What?! Wasn't he just listening to her in a soup kitchen?"

The second aspect ties in well with the first: "The City On The Edge of Forever" is so plot intensive that rewatching it can be absolutely insufferable. For sure, by the time one watches "Requiem For Methuselah" three or four times, you'll be sick of the word "ryetalin," but despite the number of times the cure to all that ails the Enterprise is mentioned, the episode manages to focus more on the actions of figuring out Flint's identity - actions that include Spock playing the piano and understanding the musical significance of the piece - and Kirk and Rayna talking with one another and developing a relationship. Conversely, the "masterpiece" of Star Trek spends so very much time belaboring and repeating the concepts behind time travel and the altering of history that in the future, those watching Star Trek will have to assume that people in the 1960s were somehow especially dim. It is the classic difference between a plot-intensive episode and a character intensive episode. Character episodes win almost every single time!

And Rayna is an intriguing character. Flint tells the crew little about her, save that she is under his care and he has raised her. She is absolutely brilliant, rivaling Flint in intellectual debate, rivaling Kirk in billiards and matching Spock in intellectual curiosity. She instantly establishes herself as one of the most self-actualized young characters Star Trek ever created. Indeed, it will not be until Wesley Crusher is aided by the Traveler in "Where No One Has Gone Before" that the franchise sees a prodigy with such potential as Rayna. And, yes, she's hot so it's understandable that Kirk falls for her so quickly, whatwith being the deep guy that he is.

Spock's obsession throughout the episode with Flint and determining how all these mysterious artistic masterpieces came to be in his possession make the mysterious middle-aged man a subject of interest. Flint is a recluse, but is incredibly intelligent and while his initial establishing moments make him seem far more parental to Rayna, it is clear that he has a strong love for her that is complicated by the appearance of Kirk and his men. Flint is a man of extraordinary dignity, yet he becomes unflinchingly human when Kirk threatens the peace and sanctity of his household and he begins fighting. Given who he turns out to be, it is realistic that the older man manages to hold his own against Kirk!

Spock, for his part, illustrates far more realistic love and understanding of emotion in "Requiem For Methuselah" than he does in any other episode. Yes, Spock. Spock love Kirk and no, not in a slash fan fiction way, but rather in the same way one may objectively tell that Picard and Data share a love between each other deeper than any they share with anyone else; by their actions. Picard and Data, Kirk and Spock, they risk their lives, careers, their sanity, everything at one time or another for one another. Here, Spock sees how profoundly Kirk loves Rayna - despite how fast the relationship comes to be - and he takes a step (in the final moments of the episode) that is profoundly loving and intimate with Kirk. And he manages to do it in a way that is within character and we see the act as growth on Spock's part, as opposed to betrayal of his characterization.

Finally, Kirk clearly loves Rayna in a way that he does not feel for the lame-bikini-clad woman of the week. Kirk talks with Rayna, that sit and they talk and listen to one another. And it works! It works in part because William Shatner gives a very convincing performance as James T. Kirk in this episode. Shatner gives a good performance as Kirk taking it slow and he has some decent on-screen chemistry with Louise Sorel (Rayna).

Here's the third reason "Requiem For Methuselah" is better than "The City On The Edge Of Forever;" the acting. "The City On The Edge Of Forever" has some pretty decent acting, but the use of Joan Collins is a strange departure. Collins is great when one wants melodramatic and feisty, to be sure, but the episode she is in she plays a starry-eyed idealist who is characterized through a single speech and is not a terribly demanding performance on the part of Joan Collins. Louise Sorel, as Rayna, is given quite a bit to do as far as the acting goes. Sorel plays Rayna as an intriguing mix of young and inexperienced and highly qualified and educated. Sorel's acting challenge is to make that strange dichotomy work and she does it brilliantly. Rayna does not seem inconsistent ever, she seems sheltered, bookish in her way. And then Rayna has to emote love and Sorel comes through and Rayna has to be confused and Sorel comes through. Louise Sorel gives a performance of tremendous range and depth as Rayna and it only benefits the episode.

Similarly, James Daly is compelled to play Flint as both fatherly and like a mature husband, reasonable yet xenophobic, brilliant and emotionally stunted. Daly blows the role out of the water handling each aspect of the character's personality with nuance and grace. It's quite possible that he spent up until the last scene envisioning his back being supported by a rigid iron bar, so perfect is his posture, but it speaks to his character and works as a part of his performance.

Now, fans of "The City On The Edge Of Forever" might well complain that comparing an episode where Kirk and Spock have to save Earth and history as we know it to one where only the Enterprise crew is at risk and then only in a nebulous off-screen way is impossible to do. However, both stories are (allegedly) love stories and while "The City On The Edge Of Forever" is sweeping in a grand, "save the universe" way, "Requiem For Methuselah" is as big in an emotional way. It is the study of what makes us tick and because the stakes are so very high in the other episode, there is no real doubt as to how it will resolve itself; Kirk and his crew will save the galaxy. With "Requiem For Methuselah," the outcome of the episode is far less apparent and it still emotionally resonates today.

But more than that, both "The City On The Edge Of Forever" and "Requiem For Methuselah" ultimately may be argued to share one rare common thread in Star Trek lore: the decisions made are out of the hands of our heroic protagonists. While one could debate whether "Requiem For Methuselah" is Kirk, Rayna or Flint's story - this being a very Shakespearean and intimate episode, it is just the three of them, plus Spock, McCoy and the floating robot - I tend to weed Kirk out and I tend to lean toward it being Rayna's story. "The City On The Edge Of Forever" hinges on a plot point, an action that must not be taken as opposed to one of the heroes acting heroically. But the decision is not in their hands, they cannot make the choice they might want because history will be altered. In "Requiem For Methuselah," the episode hinges on Rayna's choice of whether she wants to stay with Flint or journey through the stars with Kirk and the magnitude of making that choice makes her a compelling character and the choice that much more interesting. And the episode stays true to that; Kirk is not in control (whereas in "City" he ultimately becomes in control when he restrains someone else from acting). It is a rare thing for Star Trek to be so daring as to create a circumstance where the heroes may want something but they cannot control the circumstances to get them.

And ultimately, it is the Shakespearean sense of universalism that pulls "Requiem For Methuselah" up over "The City On The Edge Of Forever." Science fiction fans and drama fans may get a kick out of "City," but both those groups plus all who love a truly good love story will enjoy "Requiem For Methuselah." It's a tough episode to outdo because it is all character work and it is intense and demanding in its presentation as opposed to specific and esoteric with technobabble. The Star Trek franchise had a real gem with "Requiem For Methuselah" and despite the many romance stories on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it is not (truly) until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "The Visitor" where fans of the franchise are granted another unrelentingly emotional story of love that works as well as this one.

It will be appreciated by anyone who likes a good love story and it is well worth your time and attention, despite being a little weaker on plot than some might like. That's it, now it's time for you to track down a copy!

[Okay, this next part is the other reason it doesn't score a perfect episode in my book, even though it's a 9 out of 10. BUT, it's an esoteric reason and it's something intended for fans of the Star Trek franchise only. And there's no way for me to bring it up without revealing one detail I've been good enough to withhold from my review. (THAT'S A SPOILER ALERT, SO DON'T READ FURTHER UNLESS YOU'RE PREPARED FOR THAT!) (If any of my readers know how to make it invisible except when highlighted, please Comment with the details so I can do that for this!  Thanks!)
So, this is intended just for fans who have watched other episodes within the Star Trek franchise and if you've already decided to pick up and watch "Requiem For Methuselah" go do that instead of reading this next bit, please!
So, Flint . . . he tells us who he is and it's no surprise that he has Da Vinci works in his house. Very cool idea, the concept of Flint as a great immortal is pretty kicking (and yes, it rivals the notion of the Nazis winning World War II because a peace movement broke out) but the problem within the franchise is that the producers never go anywhere with this idea. Indeed, Janeway reveals in the fourth season of Star Trek: Voyager that her hero is Leonardo Da Vinci and we are graced with a holodeck recreation of him. Given the resolution of this episode why Da Vinci is treated uniquely as Da Vinci makes no real sense and it's disappointing that the producers did not consider this on Star Trek: Voyager. And while I like John Rhys-Davies, who played Da Vinci on Star Trek: Voyager, he doesn't sell it at all like James Daly in this episode.
Even so, "Requiem For Methuselah" is a powerful episode that works far better and with greater emotional resonance than most fans acknowledge!]

[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 episode and film reviews, please be sure to check out my index page for organized lists!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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