One Of Our Planets Is Missing
“Ooopim”, as the kids are already calling it, is a slightly frustrating episode. It certainly isn’t actually bad in any major or specific way. On the other hand, there’s a sense of the show struggling to make the ideas it has for this episode fit into into the new, shorter runtime. Perhaps this is just Daniels struggling with the new brief, but the result is a story that focuses too hard on what barely matters, whilst consigning many of its greatest ideas to the margins.
Indistinguishable From Magic
The basic concept is solid enough – a giant cloud that descends on planets and consumes them. Trek has used something similar before, of course, but if “The Doomsday Machine” wasn’t the first instance of the “planet killer” trope being imagined as a giant spaceship, it must be among the first – I can’t find any earlier examples, anyway. If Trek wants to self-plagarise, doing it with an idea they may have had before anyone else seems like a pretty reasonable decision. Especially since this particular world-gobbler is actually a delightfully strange alien lifeform, which is more interesting than a machine for doomsdaying. And while a full discussion of that Original Series episode will have to wait for a hypothetical second run of this article series, I’ll note the conclusion to “…Missing” is much more up-beat, pleasant, and politically satisfying than its predecessor. “The Doomsday Machine” focuses on the ways people can be screwed up in their fight against the monolithic, all-destroying Other. “… Planets…” is about how seemingly existential threats can be defused so long as people find a way to communicate effectively.
That’s obviously a moral to embrace with the most bearlike of hugs. But with the revelation of the cloud’s sentience coming only in the closing minutes, the episode fails to give this moral the attention it needs. Instead we spend far too much time on a story about whether the Enterprise must be sacrificed to save almost one hundred million people. That’s a dilemma barely worth glancing at, for obvious reasons. The Enterprise will not explode. Point-one billion Federation lives will not be lost. These are simply indisputable facts, clear to anyone with the slightest experience of how fiction works. When the stakes get too high, they flip over into becoming irrelevant. I’m not saying plots where the ending is never in real doubt are inherently bad, of course. But you need to be saying something as you make your inevitable way through Scylla and Charybdis.
We don’t get that from “… Planets…”, really. There’s no there there, here. It’s not just the obvious fake dilemma of choosing between thhe deaths of dozens of millions and the death of the show itself. It’s all the time spent on the broken engines. Which is another foregone conclusion attached to nothing worth the saying, actually. What drama, tension or metaphor can be wrung out of whether Scotty can make a super-science box of science to stop the ship dying? The process is incomprehensible; the result inevitable. All of which is to say nothing about the silliness of the Enterprise having two separate reactors that both have to be kept working at all times. I realise I’m not a fictional space-scientist, but that seems like poor design work on Starfleet’s part. As a result of all this, the power crisis subplot manages to feel both too brief and too drawn out; a half-baked attempt at the sci-fi action people kept mistakenly thinking was all the Original Series had to offer.
None For The Road
It isn’t that the episode completely lacks for good ideas. On the contrary, there are a fair few of them. The problem is, they get squeezed to the corners or out of the frame entirely by all the time spent fretting about how the ship will die and what good that death would do. Perhaps Marc Daniels struggled to write for this new and shortened runtime, but what gets left out here interests me far more than what remains.
We’ll start with the most obvious issue: why insist the alien cloud returns to where it came from? That seems a rather unpleasant demand to make of someone – head all the way back home and no snacking until you get there. Absent further information you have to assume the cloud is munching heavenly bodies for sustenance, rather than the hijinks. Can our new friend even make it back without getting so hungry it can’t resist snacking on an inhabited moon or two? If Spock hasn’t managed to teach the cloud how to recognise when a planet has sentient life prancing around all over it, it’s grotesquely irresponsible of the Enterprise to just shoo it out of Federation space. That just makes its accidental genocides someone else’s problem. And if Spock has managed to give this new lifeform a working knowledge of how not to digest tectonic plates with people living on them, why send it away at all?
Think of what Starfleet could’ve learned from this strange new world-eater. How much more interesting would it have been had the Federation sent a Vulcan mission to open up diplomatic negotiations with the cloud? Someone to not only learn from and about this unique alien intelligence – and to teach it about ourselves – but to act as maitre d, whisking the cloud around the galaxy to offer it the finest dining experiences in barren planet cuisine. That would be a much cooler and more interesting end to the episode. Hell, it would make for a pretty great set-up for an episode too. What happens when negotiations go south with a creature that might eat your southern hemisphere?
In Loco Parentis
The other great missed opportunity here involves the crisis on Mantilles. I’ll start by saying I’m not really comfortable with the idea that you should only let 87 million people know about an incoming global catastrophe if you trust the (white) guy in charge not to bottle things. Setting that aside though, how much more interesting would this episode have been were some of the crew actually on Mantilles itself? Uhura for instance could have been much better used that way. She gets maybe four lines here beyond “Yes sir”, and only one of those couldn’t have been delivered by almost anyone with access to the interplanetary equivalent of a ham radio. There were clearly some exceptionally difficult choices going on down on the planet. Why not show us some? After all, it’s ludicrous to think that on a planet home to more than eighty million people that there are only five thousand children (five thousand and one including Katie). Someone’s getting left behind, and that means someone’s got to decide how to choose who’s getting left behind. It’s almost an inverted “Children Of Earth” (AKA “Torchwood: The Good One”) scenario – how can any society possibly be expected to choose which miniscule fraction of a percent of their children get to survive an attack? Who goes? Who stays? Do the children need adults with them, who will therefore also escape? Who decides who they get to be? Who decides exactly how many adults are needed, for that matter, given each one that escapes costs at least one more child their seat on the evacuation ships?
I’m not actually suggesting Daniels should have broken out a paint palette as dark as the one Davies used for COE(AKAT:TGO). That’s neither something you’d expect to see in a ’70s cartoon or the Star Trek franchise in general, at least until the ascendancy of Ronald D. Moore. Even then, I’m not sure the cynicism of RDM could quite match that of RTD. What this could have been is something quite different: a chance to show how a society as apparently enlightened as the Federation deals with the hardest questions imaginable. It could be flat-out inspiring to see people faced by so horrible a choice actually doing their damnedest to find the most fair solution possible under the circumstances. Certainly I can’t conceive of any way to argue spending a few minutes discussing the issue (all the run-time of the episode could allow for) wouldn’t have been worth dropping the question of whether Scotty could safely move about a red poo inside a fish tank. If you can’t actually make your sci-fi action sequences work worth a damn, why not try for something more interesting?
Reach For The Farthest Stars
Then again, “Why not try for something more interesting?” is basically my position on the episode as a whole. The result isn’t bad, as I’ve said, but it’s certainly a missed opportunity. The shortened run-time clearly plays a role here. It might remove the capacity for meandering padding (or at least it should), but it also cuts down the opportunities to say anything of any weight. Yes, there are genuinely things here I really like. The cloud itself is wonderful; pleasingly bonkers in design, otherworldly in dialogue, and well-realised by Majel Barrett. There’s something rather affecting in hearing a creature some eight hundred thousand kilometres across lament the fact that it is “too small” to understand the revelation that other forms of life exist in the galaxy. And I love that Spock’s suggestion they blow up the ship to save Mantilles leads to the crew discussing whether they have the right to kill the cloud, rather than complaining about their own fates. That’s proper Starfleet, that is.
Still, though. This isn’t quite working yet. I wonder actually if the model used in “Yesteryear” wouldn’t have been preferable, actually. Instead of trying to echo the older series with half the room to breathe, the Animated Series could have tried digging deep into one character at a time. Then again, doing that would rob the show of the crew interactions that were so important a part of its predecessor (though these were already going to be less satisfying now, as each actor recorded their lines in isolation). Maybe these are simply hard limits on the format I just have to accept. And certainly there would have been no decent way to present this episode on film. We may have lost 26 minutes a week, but we’ve gained a new way to deliver Star Trek’s sense of wonder.
1. Where No Man Has Gone Before
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman