Weekly Trek – November 7-13, 2016

As this 50th anniversary year winds down, I am going to spend some time talking about the way the various Star Trek series, both on television and in the movies, ended.  In most of these cases, the showrunners or filmmakers knew the end was coming and planned accordingly.  We may not always have liked what they came up with (I’m coming for you Star Trek: Enterprise!), but an effort was made to wrap up the characters and stories.

This wasn’t the case for the original Star Trek television series (TOS).  “Turnabout Intruder,” the last episode of the show’s third and final season, is really just another episode.

By the time Star Trek reached this point in its run, creator Gene Roddenberry had really stepped away from being heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the show.  According to Roddenberry, it was due to his continuing battles with NBC.  They had promised that Star Trek would air on Monday nights, which would attract a larger audience.  Instead, they put the show on Friday nights at 10PM, a time traditionally known as the Death Slot, since most of the series’ core audience, young people, would either be in bed or out enjoying themselves.  Because of this, Roddenberry walked away.

Many of the names that had helped shape TOS, such as Gene Coon, Dorothy Fontana, and Robert Justman, had also greatly scaled back their involvement with the show at this point.  Instead, Star Trek was in the hands of Fred Freiberger, who joined the show between the second and third season.  Freiberger is often blamed for the perceived decline in quality during the third season, but from interviews with him and others who knew him, he seems to be a man who was trying to make the best show he could within the confines of a decreased budget and major losses of personnel (the aforementioned Coon, Fontana, and Justman) on the behind-the-scenes side. 

Season Three contains what is generally considered to be the worst episode of TOS, “Spock’s Brain,” and frankly the final episode, “Turnabout Intruder” isn’t a hell of a lot better, in my opinion.  In it, the Enterprise is summoned to Camus II by a distress call from the archeological team working there.  Of the team, only Dr. Coleman and Dr. Janice Lester have survived, but Lester is dying from radiation. 

Or not.

Actually, Dr. Lester is one of Captain Kirk’s ex-girlfriends, and she has found a device on Camus II that will allow her to switch bodies with the captain, giving her two of her deepest desires: command of a starship and revenge on Kirk for their relationship ending.

Throughout most of the episode, William Shatner is acting as Lester pretending to be Kirk, and while his performance has its moments and some wonderful touches (which is even more remarkable considering the horrible flu he was suffering from during filming), the overall episode is silly…and seriously problematic in its sexual politics.

Lester makes many comments about her womanhood and that Starfleet won’t allow women into its world of starship captains.  Thanks to Star Trek: Enterprise (Which was admittedly made later), we know that there are female starship captains decades prior to this episode, and it’s hard to see the 23rd century of Star Trek being that sexist.  The “best” reading of many of the remarks is that Lester has a deep sense of self-loathing and has chosen to blame discrimination based on gender rather than her own short-comings.  She’s also just not stable.

The episode itself feels very small.  Outside of one set on Camus II, the entire episode takes place on the Enterprise, and it doesn’t seem like they were willing to spend much on extras.  The corridors are relatively barren of crew.  Uhura isn’t even in the episode because Nichelle Nichols had a singing engagement that week.

So why would they choose this episode to go out on?  Or to make it at all?  Well, the latter part comes down to Gene Roddenberry.  While he may have stepped away from the day-to-day running of the show, he was still Executive Producer.  “Turnabout Intruder” was his idea, and he wrote the early drafts of the teleplay (Arthur H. Singer) has the final teleplay credit. 

Also, they didn’t know that this was going to be the final episode.  NBC had ordered a 26 episode season, but during the filming of “Turnabout Intruder,” which was episode 24, the cast and crew received word that NBC had cut the order to 24, effectively cancelling the show.

Considering all of that, I find it remarkable that “Turnabout Intruder” is at all entertaining, and while it is not a great episode, the cast is doing the best they can with what they have to work with.  Shatner is obviously having a blast despite his illness, and Scotty gets a nice moment with Dr. McCoy. 

While “Turnabout Intruder” does not give TOS a fitting end, perhaps that was for the best.  I don’t know that Star Trek would have been any less popular in syndication if the series had ended with a final episode that provided…well…finality, but with the non-ending, everything was left in place for the future.  No characters were killed.  The ship wasn’t destroyed.  When Star Trek returned in animated form in 1973, the show was able to pick up as though almost nothing had changed.  And that series did not have a finale as such either.  I talked about its last episode, “The Counter-Clock Incident,” in THIS POST.

In the case of TOS, the series may have been cancelled, but the mission didn’t end.  In the minds of the fans, the five-year mission of the USS Enterprise was able to continue.  The fan film series Star Trek Continues literally did exactly that in a vignette that picks up right at the end of “Turnabout Intruder” and continues (see what they did there) from that scene.  You can watch it HERE.  Granted, that’s a much more recent example.

Throughout the 1970s, though, fans wrote their own stories, started holding conventions, and even petitioned NASA to name the first space shuttle the Enterprise.  Star Trek didn’t end, so the fans were primed and ready when their beloved ship and crew made the jump to the movies.

- Alan Decker

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