Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.10: Third Time’s A Charm

The Corbomite Maneuver

Star Trek The Corbomite Maneuver

“We have engaged the Disco-Borg.”

A new beginning. And only just in time.

“The Corbomite Maneuver” is often referred to as “the third pilot”, for fairly obvious reasons. It was the first episode to be filmed featuring DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, and Grace Lee Whitney. There have been some non-trivial changes to the characters’ uniforms. And, of course, Sulu is finally at the helm, meaning the show now has its third pilot, the one it will carry through to the end of its run. The unusually heavy amount of visual effects work “The Corbomite Maneuver” required ended up pushing it back to tenth in the running order, but this is clearly intended as an introduction to the new status quo.

It’s one that proved fairly successful, too. This is the last shake-up this ship goes through until the end of the series three seasons later.  Yes, we’re about to lose Rand (in fact she won’t get another line on-screen until The Motion Picture), and eventually Chekov will report for duty. Essentially, though, this is the finished product. Here we have the complete set of blueprints for what is to follow. When people think about the Original Series, they think about this.

Given all that, it’s not unreasonable to judge “The Corbomite Maneuver” according to how well it introduces Star Trek’s core concepts. We might be ten episodes into the show even excluding “The Cage”, but this is the moment it all finally clicked for the show, and in an episode commonly regarded as one of the show’s first unquestionable triumphs. So how well does this installment function as a primer to the show as a whole?

The short answer is “pretty well”. For sure this episode sells the show better than did “The Man Trap”. Deciding how it measures up to “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is a tougher job, but while that episode is possibly the more interesting, I’d argue what we have here is ultimately the better foundation to build from.

Obviously, though, I’m not going to settle for just the short answer. Let’s break this cookie wide open, so we can read the franchise’s future.

Doctor Who Gives A Damn

Let’s start by considering how “The Corbomite Maneuver” introduces its supporting cast compared with the tack taken by the previous pilot. One of the stranger facts about “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is that the episode ends with the characters who had the second, third and fifth-highest number of lines during the story all dead. As a fearless decision to blindside the audience, that’s pretty impressive. Had this episode not aired third, it might even have worked, although I suspect the surprise would have been somewhat spoiled by any promotion the network wanted to do regarding the show as a whole.

The flip-side of that though is that the episode concludes with two of the three characters we’ve got to know best being removed from the board. Aside from Spock and Kirk himself, those crew-members who survive get fewer than two dozen lines between them. The result is a story that sets out the show’s stall, only to set most of its wares on fire.

Compare this with our introduction to Bones McCoy. His first scene in his first episode has him ignoring a red alert because the captain still has thirty seconds left on his physical. When challenged on this decision, he doesn’t back down an inch. His priority is the physical and mental well-being of the crew, and he is spectacularly disinterested in anything else. Even the apparent certainty of an imminent death by hostile fire doesn’t shift that priority, not when someone’s health is at risk. Saving the Enterprise from alien vessels is someone else’s job, dammit. He has his own to do, and he’ll do it however he thinks best. Even if that means picking a fight with his captain who literally only has a few minutes to figure out how to save everyone on board. I love that moment, because it’s simultaneously a display of how totally he trusts Kirk to protect the ship and how happily he’ll yell at him the very moment he crosses the line in how he treats the crew. You’d struggle to find a better introduction to a character in Trek than this. Compare what we get here to the reworked Spock’s introduction in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, which involves him claiming his alien dispassion proves his superiority mere minutes after flying into a strop over losing a chess game.

What’s more, Kelley pitches all this perfectly, nailing McCoy’s grumpy compassion and curmudgeonly charm from the very first moment. With McCoy having so long ago become part of our cultural landscape I think it’s easy to forget how amazingly good an actor Kelley was. It’s simply a joy to watch him mix together the notes of concern and cantankerousness and cranky bewilderment that make up this character.  There’s probably no better demonstration of how incredibly powerful a combination of actor and character the show has here than how totally Enterprise failed in reconstructing him when creating and casting Trip.

It’s not just McCoy who works here, either. Both Scotty and Sulu (and therefore Doohan and Takei) are far better served than they were in their first appearances. Sulu in particular is great value here, becoming ever more exasperated as he has to cover for an unreliable coworker whilst simultaneously trying to process their rapidly approaching destruction. Setting up that countdown is a brilliantly fatalistic move, too, and Bailey’s exasperated response is probably my favourite moment in the whole episode.

Finally, let’s not forget Uhura and Rand. There’s not much I can add to the well-covered discussion of how wonderful it was to see a black woman on television in a role of responsibility without anyone making a fuss about it. I will however point out the difference between this and the constant belittling and second-guessing of Dr Dehner in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Rand is less convincingly a good idea, though that’s no fault of Grace Lee Whitney. In fact, the real problem here isn’t Rand herself at all, so much as Kirk’s reaction to her, which at least is called out by McCoy. As an opening to a planned ongoing story, it’s not brilliant, but it certainly doesn’t preclude good things being done with the character and her relationship to her captain. In terms of on-screen development, it’s “The Enemy Within” that completely torpedoes any possibility of this setup working, not Rand’s debut here.

The Scorpion And The Frog With Aposemetism

For all the strong work at introducing the new cast, though, the genuine triumph of the episode lies elsewhere, with the interaction between Kirk and Balok.

This isn’t actually as obvious a point as it might seem. It’s certainly easy to argue the episode’s central plot doesn’t hold up structurally. “The Corbomite Maneuver” seems to be almost unanimously hailed as one of the show’s first true classics, so clearly this can’t bother too many people, but it still seems worth noting almost every drop of tension generated by this episode is based on the lie that Balok intends the Enterprise harm. Forget the episode’s titular gambit; this entire story is a bluff. All Kirk achieves here is an extension of a crisis that turns out never to have existed.  If we can measure our captain’s success according to how well he can extricate himself from danger, this entire episode is nothing but a busted flush.

Happily, though, this is precisely the point. The fact the ship was never in any actual danger simply clarifies what the actual stakes are here, both in the episode and by extension the series itself. Sure, it’s important Kirk keeps himself and the crew alive, but that’s not the curve we’re supposed to grade him on. He makes that very clear with his decision to press forward after being forced to destroy Balok’s probe. Turning back would be the best way to keep the Enterprise out of danger, but safety isn’t the goal. Seeking out new life is.

It’s this that is at risk through the episode. Not that the crew might lose their lives, but that they might lose a chance to interact with and learn from a wholly new culture. This isn’t a stand-off, it’s an audition.

Kirk’s performance is very impressive, too. He waits until pretty much the literal last possible second before destroying an unmanned probe. He refuses to open fire on Balok even after all alternatives seem exhausted. Even his bluff is based not about his ship’s capacity to destroy its enemies, but about how its own destruction would take Balok along with them.

This realisation about how the corbomite maneuver functions is critical to the episode. The truth is that as an actual bluff designed to keep a hostile enemy from opening fire, Kirk’s gambit is actually pretty terrible. First of all, the sudden shift from pleading for his life to a contemptuous dismissal of death is pretty hard to credit, no matter how well Kirk sells the latter. More importantly, the basic supposed principles of the corbomite are absolutely ridiculous. Kirk is suggesting Starfleet is reliant on the principle of mutually assured destruction for defence, but keeps that fact secret until literally the last possible minute. This would be like the USSR developing nukes to match America’s arsenal but working to ensure the Americans never actually found that fact out, or 19th century Corsicans engaging in revenge killings but making them all look like accidents.

Nor is it just mankind who’ve worked out this is a bad approach. The very laws of nature tell us that hiding your ability to hurt aggressors is often a terrible idea. If a predator doesn’t figure out you’re a threat, you can be halfway down their gullet before they realise their mistake. That’s why poison frogs are so brightly coloured. Revenge from beyond the grave isn’t much use to you if you’ve already been the primary ingredient in someone’s slap-up meal of amphibian maniçoba. So they flout the rules of camouflage, thereby making creatures that would otherwise eat them instinctively avoid them instead. Hunters steer clear, either because of previous run-ins with similarly garish snacks, or because their family tree has long been stripped of the mindset that happily stuffs anything they see into their frog-holes.

Yes, there are some animals that only reveal their scary colours when threatened, like the yellow belly of the imaginatively-named yellow-bellied toad. These animals are otherwise well-camouflaged, though, revealing their warnings only when their initial attempts to avoid detection have failed. This clearly isn’t what the Enterprise is doing, given it didn’t turn round after contact with the probe.  An animal that strides around in plain sight without revealing its warning colours is refusing to make use of either defensive approach.

Starship captains aren’t frogs, obviously. Still though, it’s incredibly difficult to believe any vessel that actually had something akin to the corbomite device would behave by shifting from confident advancing to shameless begging before finally revealing the truth. Especially when stage three is only reached at the literal last minute. Even those hostile races willing to do the courtesy of offering a countdown to destruction are likely to open fire regardless.  Remember the parable of the scorpion and the frog? This is like rewriting it so that the scorpion suspects that if it stings the frog, its body might well still float. And every suspicious alien captain who gives a Starfleet vessel a face full of burning plasma death ends up caught in the centre of a corbomite-coloured explosion, and so gets to tell nobody that the apparent bluff was true after all. Kirk is pretending to be following a protocol that will lead to far more deaths than deterring.

All of this can easily be pushed back against by recalling how little time Kirk had to come up with the bluff. Dissecting it over a few hundred words in an essay I spent a week thinking about hardly seems fair. But then my argument is precisely that Kirk didn’t do badly at all. In fact he did tremendously well, by choosing to run with a bluff reliant not on the idea that alien life is fundamentally dangerous, but that by destroying the unfamiliar we damage ourselves.

Salt Vampires Suck

When discussing this episode on Twitter, a tweep pointed out to me that you could see Balok’s test of this crew as analogous to the one set by Q in TNG‘s own pilot. This is both a good point and a nice idea. Each captain needs to prove to a far more powerful species that they have the temperament to jaunt across the space lanes. As much as the comparison fits, though, I actually think the more useful juxtaposition is between Balok and the salt vampire from this show’s own first televised episode. Last year I yelled at “The Man Trap” for introducing Star Trek’s galaxy as a place of terror and death, where alien life is first and foremost a potential threat. That episode, I argued, got everything so backwards it perverted the show’s own opening narration, implying the Enterprise is seeking out new life purely so as to render it extinct.

Kirk’s speech over the credits, of course, was recorded for this very episode, and the narrative acts like it. Not all the way through, sure. It’s smarter than that. It’s structured as a bluff in itself. It pretends to be another story along the lines of “The Man Trap”, only for it to cast aside the disguise in the final minutes and stand revealed as something entirely different (just as Balok does). The result feels like Trek trying out an unsatisfying and problematic story template, only to publicly reject it as not something worth doing.

All this is further underlined by the characters. As mentioned above, McCoy hasn’t the slightest interest in shirking his medical duties just because Balok has promised to atomise the whole ship. Bones knows that terrifying alien threats simply aren’t what space-travel is about. Even better is the arc of Lieutenant Bailey. He shares the fate of Mitchell, Dehner and Kelso, insofar as he’s written out by episode’s end. Unlike those characters, however, he gets a happy ending, and more importantly, one that reiterates the story’s central premise. Bailey starts off wanting to blow the unknown out of the sky, but upon being given time to reflect he realises his mistake and takes pains to correct it. He remembers what the Enterprise is out here to do in the first place.

In doing so Bailey fully inhabits the transition from the gun-toting murder-antics of “The Man Trap” into the recognition of all life’s importance that we get here. Which is lovely, obviously. No less wonderful is him being nudged to this revelation by Kirk himself. By doing so, and by having McCoy suggest Bailey reminds Kirk of himself, the script makes clear what it expects of Starfleet captains. What it expects of this show.

This last-ditch effort at presenting the final frontier works almost totally, then. It’s so good that it would be tempting to suggest it’s a shame the episode didn’t get to be an opening flourish for the show. In truth though, I’m rather glad that “The Corbomite Maneuver” ended up where it did in the running order. At this point, Trek needed people to give it a second chance far more than it ever needed them to give it a first one. Fair enough, “Dagger Of The Mind” was actually rather good. But after a four episode run from “The Enemy Within” to “Miri” in which the badly flawed “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” was somehow the standout, the show needed much more than a clever set of literary allusions to prove itself worth sticking with.

This episode provides that reason. The corbomite maneuver itself might be a bluff, but the boost it provides to these earliest stages of the Trek franchise is entirely real.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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