Sunday, November 7, 2010

If It Weren't For The Plot . . . The Mostly-Fine "Whom Gods Destroy"

The Good: Fine acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Over-the-top interpretation of insanity, SAME tired theme as most of "Trek," Contrived plot
The Basics: When Kirk and Spock are trapped in an insane asylum by a vindictive, shape-shifting former starship captain they (and the viewer) are tormented.

When I first fell in love with Star Trek, it was very much an all-consuming love. My love for the series began when VHS was the only home video medium and right around Christmastime, the videos would often be reduced from their regular price of $12.95 + tax to $9.99 + tax. The difference was all the difference: three week's allowance versus four! That first year, when I still had not even seen every episode of the series, my video collection was growing and my father and stepmother gave me the video for "Whom Gods Destroy" and when we were all done opening our presents, I rushed downstairs to watch the episode and savor it alone. When the fifty-one minutes were done, I came back upstairs, beaming, thrilled I had just seen this new-to-me episode. I recall my parents being annoyed; I had disappeared for an hour and they had not noticed, but they were irked that an hour after presents were opened, I had already watched my lone video.

That seems kind of crazy to me. I mean, after all, why wouldn't I rush down and watch it?! It was one of the episodes I was most wanting to see of the series! The expectation that I would save it for a rainy day or never derive pleasure out of rewatching it, now that was crazy! And it's crazy that "Whom Gods Destroy" is all about!

The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Elba II, home of the last population of criminally insane people in the Federation bearing a medicine meant to cure them. Kirk and Spock beam down to the secure facility, where they are promptly captured by a shape-shifting inmate, a former StarFleet captain named Garth who was brilliant, but went insane following an accident. He assumes Kirk's form after locking the captain and Spock up and attempts to beam up to the Enterprise only to find that Scotty will not transport him without a code countersign that was prearranged. Garth, not knowing the proper chess move to respond to the current commander of the Enterprise, begins to torment Kirk, the warden of the asylum, and his own people in a desperate attempt to get beamed up and begin a reign of conquest through this section of the galaxy!

"Whom Gods Destroy" is a pretty straightforward "thwart-the-villain" storyline where Kirk and Spock must take on a man who is in many ways their equal. Garth, being a starship captain whose strategies Kirk studied, has all the training Kirk and Spock have in addition to a sense of creativity and strategy that made him a force to be reckoned with back in the day. Crippled by debilitating craziness that takes the form of delusions and violent mood swings, Garth makes up for his serious disadvantage with his ability to alter his form in a rather chameleon-like fashion. Garth's style of shape-shifting is most like that of Martia in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, so he seems limited to mostly humanoid shapes.

Garth makes for an interesting enough villain and he is accompanied by his psychotic Orion slave woman, Marta who fills the role of sidekick. Whereas Garth seems legitimately damaged, Marta is crazy in an inspired and unpredictable way. She flirts with Kirk and Garth, both of whom she becomes violent with as well. Garth keeps her in her place using violence and intimidation, though he seldom has to be overt with it. But where Garth is played as a man with seeds of sanity and the insinuation of former greatness, Marta is just played as batty, insane with no center to return to and that works when one considers that these are supposed to be the final insane people in the galaxy.

The problem here is that the portrayal of insanity is over-the-top in a theatrical/television way and it begins to lose its sense of balance and perspective quickly. Unable to maintain a reasonable presentation of insanity and keep the "Kirk and Spock need to escape" simple plot fresh, "Whom Gods Destroy" quickly degenerates into a very standard hour of television and a very cliche hour of Star Trek.

Why? Because as soon as the story has worn itself to the point where there is nothing new to do with the characters or the plot, writers Jerry Sohl and Lee Erwin whip out the standard plot device, er, standard prop device, in this case a chair that was designed to provide therapy for the insane inmates of the Elba colony, but is now twisted into a torture device. Yes, it's virtually the same plot of the only other insane asylum story in the original Star Trek, "Dagger Of The Mind." I suppose the producers and director were hoping fans would not notice because there are almost two full seasons separating the two episodes. But no, in context, this becomes a somewhat ridiculous rehash of the earlier episode.

What works on the character front for "Whom Gods Destroy" is the level of commitment Kirk, Spock and Scotty all show to their principles and the need to protect the ship and nearby planets from the crazies living on Elba II. Kirk watches others be tortured, killed, and is tormented himself to protect the people on planets nearby and he stands by his commitment to protect the ship and Federation citizens.

And what is he protecting them from? Mostly a terrible stereotype of mental illness. Sure, the argument could be made that all the realistically crazy people in the Federation have been cured, leaving only the theatrically ridiculous and over-the-top insane people left to fill out the episode. The problem is that Garth is able to assert his will on them, most notably a Tellarite and an (apparently cross-dressing, if the feather boa is any indication) Andorian which seems strange. After all, why the inmates would follow Garth as opposed to Donald Cory, the warden, seems unrealistic. Indeed, far more real would be that most would collapse from the lack of structure or all would violently compete for dominance. And my money would go on the blue skinned guy in the pink boa; he's cagey!

Despite its problems with plot and the obvious "good piece of technology twisted into a torment device" theme that Star Trek has done to death, "Whom Gods Destroy" has a generally good sense of pace and tension. To be sure, the viewer pretty much knows that Garth is not going to be able to take over the Enterprise and conquer the galaxy, but as the episode progresses, how many people might die before Kirk and Spock thwart the shapeshifter becomes a very real concern.

What makes an episode that is pretty legitimately campy even bearable is the acting. William Shatner acts against himself having to portray Garth playing Kirk and he manages to make it a performance that is distinctive and not just a rehashing of other doppleganger type episodes. Shatner seems to have studied Steve Ihnat to get a few performance traits to mimic and he makes the moments where he is asked to stretch his range work well.

And while Ihnat is interesting as Garth, it is Yvonne Craig as Marta who gives the performance to watch in "Whom Gods Destroy." She plays Marta as sexy, unpredictable and dangerous and she throws her whole body into the role. More than anyone else in the episode, she is convincing in her portrayal of an unstable mind and she makes the episode watchable.

Ultimately, though, it's still one that's not quite worth watching. Sure, I loved it when I was younger, but now as I have developed some sense of taste, it's hard not to see the many, many flaws in this, the most glaring of which is the question of how a man in a maximum security asylum would have time and resources to do weapons research and development! And the recurring dominance of technology issue here has become passe.

Who will like this? Fans of science fiction camp. Star Trek fans will want to see it and Buffy The Vampire Slayer actually alludes to this episode in the Xander doppleganger episode from the fifth season, but other than to catch the allusion, it's too tough a sell. Despite the good tension, the lack of real plot and substance will turn off non-genre fans.

Of course, it still beats spending time with the family on Christmas morning . . .

[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 by clicking here!

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

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