With this latest batch of Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs, we travel deep into the bowels of the show’s third season. Actually, “deep” may be an exaggeration; the four episodes on these two DVDs mean we’ve gotten nine of Season Three’s 24 programs on disc. Still, that places us near the halfway point, and the end of the line rapidly approaches.
Without any further ado, let's move on to my thoughts about the newest bunch. (Please note that the DVDs present the shows in the order in which they were filmed; the broadcast number provided indicates where each episode falls within that line.)
Volume 31: “Spock’s Brain” and “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”
Of all 79 episodes of Trek, “Spock’s Brain” (broadcast 56th) probably stands as the most infamous. I suppose it was a bad omen that NBC chose to lead off the third season with this show, as it set the tone for that year’s decreased quality. “Brain” starts when the crew of the Enterprise encounters an unusual ship that transports a sexy babe on board. (Did they ever meet any women who weren’t hot?) Once she arrives, she disables everyone with some sort of device, and she - gasp! - steals Spock’s brain.
After that, the chase is on to find the missing organ. Happily, Spock’s stern anatomy means that he can live for a while even without his brain, and McCoy hooks up some funky remote control gizmo that allows Spock to wander about and communicate with him as well. Following a ship pursuit, the crew locates the mystery woman’s apparent residence, and Kirk, McCoy and others beam down to get her and Spock’s brain.
When they find the women, they’re outfitted with nasty belts that can’t be removed and will cause them pain if they misbehave. Despite the sophistication of their technology, the women - led by Kara (Marj Dusay) - lack much intelligence. Other forces guide their actions, and they stole Spock’s brain to operate as their “controller”. It turns out something called the “teacher” tells them what to do; when melded to it, they gain advanced knowledge and can do cool stuff like remove brains. Eventually McCoy figures out how to use the device - though not without risk - and Spock’s brain returns from whence it came.
The main flaws of “Spock’s Brain” probably seem obvious just from this synopsis. It offered a terribly silly story that strongly echoed goofy sci-fi “B” movies of the Fifties. Nowhere did we find the intelligence for which Trek was known; this was nothing more than a tacky and dopey tale.
However, it wasn’t a total loss, for the show provided some of the most entertaining barbs thrown at McCoy by Spock. Even outside his body, Spock still got some good lines, and it was fun to hear him disparage McCoy’s skills, even though it seemed a little out of character; Spock displayed virtually no professional respect for the doctor, and that appeared odd. Nonetheless, the comments were witty, and they made sure that some parts of “Spock’s Brain” seemed interesting. Otherwise, it really was a pretty dreadful episode. I don’t think it was the worst of the series, but it was far down the list.
“Is There In Truth No Beauty?” (broadcast 60th) rebounded somewhat from the prior episodes lows. Here the crew of the Enterprise needs to transport Medusan ambassador Kollos. Although very mentally advanced and skilled, the Medusans are so hideous that one glance of them renders the human observer insane. Due to his Vulcan heritage, Spock can look at Kollos, so he gets the job to deal with him along with the counselor Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur); though human, apparently she trained on Vulcan, so she can tolerate the sight of the Medusan, albeit through the use of a funky red visor. Spock has to wear the latter as well. Jones is a telepath, so she can read the thoughts of many, though this isn’t a perfect technique.
In addition to Jones and Kollos, Larry Marvick (David Frankham), an engineer who helped design the Enterprise, also boards the ship. Apparently he loves Miranda and feels jealous of Kollos’ close relationship with her. During a dinner, she senses that someone wants to murder the ambassador, and when Miranda rebuffs Larry’s moves, she figures that he’s the one behind the potential attack. Unfortunately for him, he gets a gander of Kollos while he goes after, which renders Larry insane. He commandeers the ship, sends it horribly off-course, and drops dead for little known reason.
By happy coincidence, Medusans really know how to fly starships, but Kollos can’t do so on his own; hey, the dude’s nothing more than a ball of energy, at least as represented by the show’s special effects. As such, someone has to mind meld with him, and Spock gets the job, much to the jealous dismay of Miranda. Some additional conflicts ensue before Spock takes the task, and all goes well as Kollos/Spock returns the ship to its appropriate course. Unfortunately, Ko
llos/Spock forgets to don his visor before separation occurs
Naturally, this sends Spock insane, and the bitter Miranda - who turns out to be blind, by the way - states that she can’t help him. That’s a lie, and eventually Kirk convinces her to use her powers to restore Spock to good health. She does so, and all parties part in a reasonably harmonious manner now that lessons have been learned.
That’s one of “Truth”’s weakest aspects; at times it felt like I was watching an afterschool special about tolerance. Between Miranda’s blindness and Kollos’ ugliness, the show offered a surfeit of poorly-judged folks, but I didn’t feel that the program helped further any sort of acceptance dialogue. No one seemed to think less of Miranda due to her blindness; she was the one who appeared sensitive to the issue, not the others. As for the human reaction to Kollos, that looked like it was totally beyond their control. It’s not like Kirk and the others were intolerant of different species; frankly, the concept of something so hideous it would drive the observer insane seemed silly, and it felt like little more than a dopey plot device.
Some parts of the show worked fairly well. Despite some of the story’s flaws, it still moved at an acceptable pace, and elements seemed to be mildly compelling. Nonetheless, as a whole I found it to be a pretty weak offering. While not overtly bad like “Spock’s Brain”, “Truth” just felt uninspired and bland.
Picture/Sound/Extras: Volume 32 B-/B-/D-
Volume 32: “The Empath” and “The Tholian Web”
“The Empath” (broadcast 67th) didn’t improve on the situation. Inhumane, omniscient beings make up a lot of Trek episodes, and this one works along the usual lines. As the crew of the Enterprise tries to pick up scientific staff from the planet Menarian 2 - which orbits a star that will soon explode - the subjects vanish, and before long, Kirk, Spock and McCoy also disappear from the surface. There they meet a wimpy chick (Kathryn Hays) who can’t communicate with them. As they attempt to do so, two dudes from the Vion species appear and trap our heroes in a force field. After a brief encounter, they leave, and the woman - named “Gem” by McCoy - uses her powers to heal a wound suffered by Kirk. This reveals her to be an empath, which is good, since that’s the title of the episode.
Soon after this the crew finds what’s left of the other staff; they’re apparently dead and put into clear cylinders. They also see tubes reserved for themselves. A Vion comes back and seems to be disabled by Spock’s nerve pinch, but he faked this. Some additional tests of the Enterprise staff occur, but they’re actually meant to try Gem’s abilities and attitude.
Eventually we discover the root of the Vions’ sadism. Apparently they can save some of the planets endangered by the pending supernova, so they used Gem to test her willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of others. Unfortunately, their definition means that she actually has to die in the process, and they use the Enterprise crewmembers as bait. This leads to a long bout of selflessness among Kirk, Spock and McCoy - all of whom try to take the position as the one to be tortured so their mates can go free - but ultimately Kirk uses reason to solve the situation.
By this point in the series, the whole omniscient being concept had grown fairly stale, and “Empath” offered little to enliven the proceedings. Part of the problem stemmed from Hays’ performance as Gem. Since she couldn’t speak, she proceeded to blow up her other reactions to an absurd level; it looked like Hays badly wanted to make the most of some half-assed mime training as she gesticulates and emotes wildly. Gem became a really annoying character who openly detracted from the episode’s story.
Although some of the best Trek shows and movies deal with sacrifice done for others - like at the conclusion of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - the use of this theme in “Empath” felt forced. It seemed as though they did this mainly to generate cheap emotion about the characters. The torture enacted by the Vions appeared to exist not as a realistic device to determine their actions but as something to endanger our heroes and test them.
Still, my main complaint about “The Empath” relates to its guest actress. Without Hays, the show would have been acceptably interesting, but her presence really irritated me. Ultimately, “The Empath” wasn’t terrible Trek, but it definitely seemed like a very below-average outing.
“The Tholian Web” (broadcast 64th) wraps up these newest DVDs with the best episode of the bunch, though that seems like faint praise. At the start, the Enterprise tries to locate the Defiant, another ship that mysteriously disappeared three weeks prior. Oddly, they see the ship, but their sensors indicate that it isn’t there. After Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam aboard, they discover the entire crew of the Defiant has died, apparently due to a violent mutiny.
As they examine the place, they discover that their hands pass through the dead crewmembers; it appears that the Defiant has started to disintegrate into some sort of funky alternate time continuum. Problems aboard the Enterprise only allow Spock and McCoy to be beamed back; Kirk and the ship become stuck in that spooky parallel universe.
Spock determines the next time they’ll have the chance to recover the captain, but matters worsen due to two factors. For one, the weakening space fabric starts to send crewmembers around the bend mentally, and also some Tholians come a-knocking and regard the Enterprise in a hostile manner.
The Tholians think the Enterprise harmed their own fleet, but Spock convinces them to at least wait until after their next potential attempt to regain the captain before they escalate the hostilities. Unfortunately, their entrance into the scene disrupted the process, and they’re unable to beam back Kirk. The Tholians and the Enterprise exchange fire, and the former then join ships to create an energy web around the latter - there’s your title!
This sets up a ticking time bomb for the Enterprise. They need to regain Kirk and hightail it out of there before the web completes and they’re sitting ducks. Spock and McCoy don’t totally agree on the appropriate path, and they go at each other, a situation exacerbated by some sightings of a ghostly Kirk by various crewmembers. Ultimately, all works out well, of course, but not until matters become graver.
Of the four episodes found on these two DVDs, “Tholian” had the most potential. It was definitely the best of them, but I still found it to be something of a disappointment, for it should have been a lot better. Considering the variety of elements combined in the program, it possessed a great deal of natural drama and tension. The production exploited those possibilities to a degree, but the results still felt somewhat flat.
Take the conflicts between Spock and McCoy, for example. These should have generated some serious sparks, but instead they seemed oddly restrained and forced. The normal dynamics between the characters lacked the usual depth, and it appeared as though they bickered just because the script wanted them to do so; there was little natural antagonism at play.
Overall, I thought “The Tholian Web” had enough going for it to become a reasonably good episode of Trek. However, it suffered from the ennui that dragged down a number of Season Three programs. While it had little overtly wrong with it, the old spirit simply wasn’t there, and the results appeared less than inspiring.
These four Star Trek episodes appear in their original broadcast aspect ratios of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, single-layered DVDs; because of those dimensions, they have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the series’ second season showed stronger visual properties than found during their initial year, season three represented a modest step backwards, with some picture problems that made for erratic viewing.
On both DVDs, the first episodes were the least compelling but offered the strongest images. “Spock’s Brain” displayed generally solid sharpness. Some wide shots appeared slightly soft, but most of the show looked nicely crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused few concerns, but some print flaws marred the presentation. Light grain appeared throughout the show, and examples of spots, speckles, grit and a few nicks also occurred. These weren’t heavy but they popped up on occasion.
Typically, the Season Three episodes showed reasonably bright and vibrant colors, but they could appear somewhat murkier than during Season Two, something that affected “Spock’s Brain”. Colors varied from vivid and lively to slightly bland and runny, but they usually looked fairly solid. Black levels were deep and rich, and shadow detail was clear and appropriately opaque. On its own, I thought “Spock’s Brain” merited a good but not exceptional “B-“.
“The Empath” improved slightly on that image. Actually, it duplicated the same concerns seen on “Spock’s Brain” in regard to sharpness, colors and black levels; where it differed related to print flaws. Although “The Empath” showed a little grit and grain, it seemed somewhat cleaner than had “Spock’s Brain” and the other episodes on these two DVDs. As such, these minor steps up in quality earned it a solid “B” for picture.
Unfortunately, the other two shows demonstrated more substantial issues. Of those two, “The Tholian Web” provided the stronger picture, but it wasn’t up to the levels seen in “Spock’s Brain” and “The Empath”. “Tholian” offered moderately increased fuzziness at times; the sharpness didn’t look as crisp, though it usually appeared acceptably good. Colors appeared a little more bland and lifeless as well. The usual roster of print defects appeared; the grain, grit and other concerns showed up, though they were no more substantial than during “Spock’s Brain”. Nonetheless, the extra softness and murkier colors forced me to lower my rating to a “C+”.
Worst of the bunch was “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” which suffered from problems seen elsewhere as well as other issues. Colors looked moderately runny and vague, while sharpness never rose above the mildly fuzzy levels seen during “Tholian”. Print flaws also increased, especially in regard to grain; the image showed moderately high levels of that issue. Contrast seemed to be mildly weak at times, particularly during the dinner scene, which appeared to be too bright. In the end, “Truth” got a “C” for picture.
As has been the case with all of the prior Star Trek: The Original Series DVDs, these volumes featured newly-created Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. This audio came from original monaural tracks. In contrast with the variations seen in the four different images, the audio of these episodes remained pretty consistent. I guess after more than 30 of these new DVDs, their producers have settled on a regular plan of action
Overall, the soundfields remained pretty heavily oriented toward the center, but they also opened up a bit. For all four shows, music demonstrated reasonably solid stereo separation; while the score stuck in the middle for the most part, it did show some nice spread to the sides that broadened the spectrum to a degree.
Otherwise, most of the audio remained centralized, with the exception of some ambience. The hum of the Enterprise came quietly from all around the viewer, and that otherworldly ringing heard on various planets popped up nicely from the sides and surrounds. The usual ship fly-bys offered some good panning and split-surround material. None of these soundfields made the experience tremendously invigorating, but they broadened the original monaural track well.
Audio quality also appeared to be quite consistent, though one episode - “The Empath” - showed a few relative weaknesses. Dialogue always sounded a little thin, but speech seemed to be reasonably distinct and natural; I heard no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects lacked much power, but they showed few signs of distortion; the Enterprise “zooms” could be a little rough, but otherwise the elements were acceptably clean and accurate. Music sounded relatively clear and crisp, with acceptable bass levels for this material. “The Empath” showed less robust qualities, which made it seem a little less dynamic, but these differences were fairly minor. As a whole, I liked the new mixes and thought they complemented the shows.
The only genuinely unsatisfying part of these DVDs continues to stem from their lack of supplements. Each disc offers four "original broadcast preview trailers." These are one-minute ads that offered viewers a glimpse at what would happen on next week's show.
On each DVD, two of these trailers are readily found; when you highlight a particular episode from the main menu, the preview appears as an option on the next screen. However, in addition to ads for the two shows found on that DVD, trailers for the episodes on the next disc also appear. To see those, highlight and click on the Starfleet insignia at the top of the main menu. When you do that, you will gain access to all four trailers.
Other than these trailers, the DVDs are virtually devoid of extras. Each disc's booklet contains a few pictures, some trivia and production credits in addition to a DVD checklist. For the first 30 volumes of these discs, I griped about these omissions, and I don’t plan to stop now. No, they won’t change, but I gotta be me!
I’d always heard that the third season of Star Trek was its weakest, and based on Volume 31 and Volume 32 of the Original Series DVDs, I find it difficult to argue against that notion. Two of the programs - “Spock’s Brain” and “The Empath” - were pretty bad, while the others - “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” and “The Tholian Web” - had some good moments but seemed to be flat and uninspired as a whole.
While audio quality remained pretty consistent throughout the four shows, Volume 32 demonstrated strong visuals as a whole. “The Tholian Web” had some problems, but “The Empath” looked fairly good. “Spock’s Brain” also showed a reasonably positive picture, but “Truth” offered the weakest image of the bunch. Both DVDs included scant extras. None of the four episodes merits much attention; leave these for the Star Trek diehards.