Sunday, November 7, 2010

We Get It: Black And White, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" Still Flops!

The Good: Great Message, Moments of acting
The Bad: Dull repetitive plot, No genuine character development, Most of the acting falls flat, Forced tension
The Basics: When the Enterprise is hijacked by white-black interethnic relations metaphors, the viewer is beaten over the head with a lesson on how alike we all are.

Sometimes television shows do not even attempt to be subtle. I tend to value shows that take real risks and speak truth to power and make a statement so strong people who see it will want to talk about that. The most recent example for me of something that was truly great and daring was the rant that began Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. It was sharp, biting and called out the culture of television in the United States since the September 11th, 2001 attacks. It was a real risk to make the statement it made. It might have been a similar risk when Star Trek made a commentary on interethnic relations with its episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," but what seems like it might have been an attempt at being subtle at the time now screams forth with a level of obviousness like Judd Hirsch standing on a stage railing about television.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is hunting down a stolen Federation shuttlecraft when it encounters what appears to be a unique alien with a hemispheric pigmentation differentiation. Half the beings body is white, the other half black. The Enterprise is soon joined by Bele, a law enforcer who is hunting Lokai (the other being) and Bele's color scheme is identical save that the white and black sides of his body are reversed in reference to Lokai. This single difference is the cause of hatred between Lokai and Bele which leads them to fight each other brutally, attempt to hijack the ship and make some of the most ridiculous arguments the galaxy has ever seen!

Star Trek, on its surface, appears to be a remarkably progressive series with an interethnic cast. The problem with the perception versus the reality is this: in its three seasons, there are only three regular cast members, all white males. There are four recurring guest stars relegated to the closing credits as "Also starring:" two white males, a black woman and an Asian man. My point with this is that even though the show is supplemented with two people of color, they are by no means treated - characters or actors - as vital components of the series. Star Trek was always the story of Kirk and/or Spock with Dr. McCoy thrown in. The others were very much second tier in terms of story, character development and opportunities for actors to shine.

So while different ethnicities had appearance on Star Trek, they were not given parity. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" seems to be the lame attempt to make up for that. The basic argument is the most obvious and liberal argument that can be made (then or now): skin color is simply a phenotype that does not represent anything significant in terms of intelligence, ability or fundamental biology. It is the most clearly available way to differentiate people, but it often lumps people together in ways that compel them to deny their common traits, interests and (here on Earth) humanity. With Bele and Lokai being obsessed with which side of the body is black, they make a fair hyperbole that resonates with viewers even today. The conflict between Lokai and Bele seems forced and stupid when reduced to such terms and this is an obvious, if overstated premise in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."

It is also the only aspect of the episode that consistently works. The idea is so simple that once it is presented, it is repeated frequently and it leaves the episode with a great deal of time to kill between the establishment of the thematic premise and the resolution to the episode. The problem with what comes in between is that it feels like filler. So, once Bele and Lokai are aboard, they begin fighting. They fight, Kirk breaks them up, they fight some more, Kirk breaks them up, Bele then tries to hijack the ship to take Lokai back to their home planet of Cheron, Kirk spends a good few minutes preparing to destroy the ship rather than letting Bele succeed, the crew goes on a rescue mission to a plague-striken planet (which allows Lokai time to spread his message of enlightenment to the crew, he and Bele fight, Bele hijacks the ship and starts chasing Lokai around it. The episode degenerates into long shots of Bele and Lokai running. They run, run, run, run, . . . . yawn.

The episode gets tiring rather quickly and it "reads" like a one line pitch that got picked up but never fully developed. Writer Oliver Crawford stretches the theme that Lokai and Bele are more alike than dissimilar well beyond the point of being fresh or even interesting. Director Jud Taylor does the best he can with the mediocre script, including playing with camera moves like having a few high angle shots looking down to make the show a little more visually interesting, but ultimately, the script is so blase that it fails on too many levels to engage the viewer and hold them.

From the outset, we get it. The guy with black grease paint on the left side of his face hates the guy with black grease paint on the right side of his face and to anyone on the outside, it seems silly and overstated. The problem is, just as the characters find it ridiculous, so too do the viewers who tend to be pretty savvy anyway.

The actors seem to get that they are in a remarkably dull episode as well. William Shatner, in particular, gives one of his most listless performances as Captain Kirk. Usually a very physical actor, in this he is remarkably restrained and he seems bored, save in the scene where Kirk initiates the self-destruct sequence and when he first grasps the concept. With Shatner giving a mediocre performance, one hopes Leonard Nimoy or DeForest Kelley might pick up the slack, but each of them gives, at best standard performances in the portrayal of their characters.

This is an episode with no real character development from the principle characters and it rapidly becomes an episode about the aliens of the week. Bele and Lokai are established as characters with rather monolithic characterizations that they simply continue to repeat. Bele, played by Frank Gorshin - who was disturbing and memorable in his remarkably brief role in 12 Monkeys - is a simple lawman and he represents the conservative law, full of ethnic prejudice.

All that saves this episode from the complete dog house (other than the worthwhile thematic elements that white and black skin truly ought not to matter) is Lokai and the performance by Lou Antonio. Antonio is intriguing as Lokai and he presents him as a social crusader with very realistic emotions and intonations throughout the episode. He is sympathetic and compelling and he plays the determination of the oppressed well.

But the one good performance and the honorable theme do not make up for how direct and bland this episode ultimately is. The Star Trek franchise takes on interethnic relations and caste systems in other episodes (most directly with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Far Beyond The Stars") but here it is just too obvious and the lack of finesse makes it seem as amateurish as an after-school special. We want more than that from Star Trek.

[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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