Friday, April 28, 2017
Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) remains one of the most effective and terrifying horror movies made during the disco decade.
This statement is accurate, I reckon, because I knew the film’s punch-line before I ever saw the movie.
When I was ten years old, my beloved aunt Vivian would frequently regale me with horror movie stories at family gatherings. I just couldn’t get enough of these cinematic tales, which she recited in every fantastic and grotesque detail. Vivian told me, over the years, the stories of Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), The Fog (1980) and When a Stranger Calls.
So I actually knew that the film’s killer was calling “from inside the house” before I ever saw the movie’s first frame.
Yet when I finally saw When a Stranger Calls with my own eyes, my pre-knowledge of that crucial “twist” made no difference whatsoever. The movie scared the shit out of me.
Watching the film again for the first time since 1999 (when I wrote Horror Films of the 1970s), the opening scene still unsettled me, and left my wife feeling anxious and jittery as we turned off the lights and went to bed.
And yes, that’s absolutely the sweet spot for horror movies: the promise of a troubled night’s slumber as you turn out the lights and your head hits the pillow.
Based on an urban legend (the babysitter and the man upstairs…), When a Stranger Calls opens with a meticulous, self-contained set-piece of near perfect execution. A high-school age babysitter (Carol Kane) is inside a suburban house alone, and being tormented by an increasingly creepy telephone caller. The frequency of the calls escalate, and the police trace the call….
...And, well, you know doubt know the rest.
When a Stranger Calls undeniably falters some in its second act, even as it establishes the pitiable character of its boogeyman, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley). The film also explores the seedy terrain of late-1970s city life, but the movie’s lead, Charles During (as Det. John Clifford) proves pretty unappealing.
Finally, When a Stranger Calls pulls itself back together with a rip-roaring finale -- and one of the creepiest jump scares of the decade -- making the audience forget how listless some scenes in the second act actually are
So When a Stranger Calls is not perfect, perhaps, in the sense that a film such as Halloween may be. But the film nonetheless opens and closes with some of the scariest imagery in the 1970s genre canon.
“Have you checked the children?”
High-schooler Jill (Kane) arrives at the house of Dr. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to babysit his two children, who are already in bed and asleep. The good doctor and his wife leave for dinner and a movie, reporting that they will not return until after midnight.
Jill settles in, and begins to study in the family living room. But before long, she begins to receive disturbing, threatening phone calls from a stranger. Jill contacts the police, and they endeavor to trace the call.
Jill learns, to her horror that the caller is inside the house, using the upstairs phone line.
The police, including Det. Clifford (Durning) arrive and apprehend the killer, Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley), but not before he has murdered the children with his bare hands.
Seven years later, Duncan escapes from an asylum, and Clifford, now a P.I., resolves, with Dr. Mandrakis’s funding, to kill him.
Clifford follows Duncan’s trail to a city bar called Torchy’s, and to a barfly named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst). She has seen Duncan on more than one occasion, and allows Clifford to use her as bait to catch the killer.
Duncan escapes, however, and chooses different prey.
Jill, the babysitter he once stalked (and nearly killed), is now a mother herself, with two young children…
“It’s probably some weirdo. The city is full of ‘em.”
In 2017, iPhones and cell phones have perhaps made the central scenario of When a Stranger Calls feel dated.
Now, it is easy to call anyone, from any location, including the next-room-over. But by the same token, that caller’s name is identified on a screen, so it’s tougher to prank call folks too.
But the standing assumption in 1979 was that telephone calls were coming from an exterior location, from outside the house. When a Stranger Calls thus plays wickedly with the status quo, and intriguingly, does so in the very year that AT&T’s advertising agency coined the memorable slogan “reach out and touch someone.”
Curt Duncan is someone who has taken that idea all-too literally. He uses the telephone to psychologically terrorize his prey, and he utilizes his surprising position -- inside the Mandrakis house -- to “touch” (or kill…) them.
The film’s opening scene is elegant, simple, and beautifully shot and edited. Walton doesn’t over-gird the sequence with too many elements or too many competing ideas. Instead, the inaugural set-piece boasts a purity of intent, and allows the audience to proceed from the assumption of a mystery phone caller outside the house, and then, with increasing tension, pulls the rug out from that particular assumption. In other words, the movie tricks us.
I admire the way Walton sets the terrain for the battle too. We meet Jill and the Mandrakis parents, and then move into the living room, where the sitter does her school work. A series of long shots establish both Jill’s isolation and vulnerability, and then the shrill ringing of the telephone interrupts the solitude of the night.
Jill explores her terrain tentatively at first, a half-lit world of doors that are half-open, and freezer ice machines that make disturbing noises. This scene is true to life in a very visceral, literal sense. How many times have you heard something you can’t readily explain, and explored your house in the dark, seeking the source?
I have a couple of rowdy cats, so I feel like I go tracking down weird nocturnal noises in the dark at least two or three times a week. I don’t expect or anticipate finding anything weird or disturbing or dangerous.
But the thought that I could do so is always there in the back of my mind, lurking.
We then view Jill from outside the house, through the windows, and the visual impression is of a bird in a cage.
Another impression created by this composition is that Jill is being watched or stalked from the outside of the house. We thus mistake the perspective for a point-of-view subjective shot. Of course, this isn’t so. We are observing that Jill is in danger, trapped inside. There is no danger outside.
This is the film's "inversion" principle, which I love. When Jill locks herself in for safety's sake (on the instructions of the police), she is not saving herself, she is trapping herself.
As the scene progresses, and events reach a fever pitch, the phone seems to take on a larger stature within the frame. The device is seen -- looming ever-larger in the frame -- in insert shots and close-ups. The phone is the avenue by which Jill is terrorized, and so its importance seems to grow as the scene gears up. In Poltergeist (1982), the TV is the portal through which terror enters the world of the normal or routine. In When a Stranger Calls, it is the phone that introduces a sinister element to the real world.
After the killer’s down-right terrifying enunciation of a mission statement -- he wants Jill’s blood, all over him -- we then get the panicked police calling Jill and warning her to get out of the house…that the killer is inside the home with her. Jill runs for the door and the film cuts to the upstairs hallway, where light bleeds suddenly out of a bedroom, and a silhouette appears.
We see no killer, no weapon. There is no violence at all, actually, only a beam of light and that menacing shadow to suggest the presence of evil.
And the restraint works like absolute gangbusters. What we fear is not a particular person or even a particular pathology, but rather the Id-like specter that can, somehow, pierce the balloon of safety we have erected around our neighborhoods and our homes.
Uniquely, the second act veers in the opposite direction, making Duncan much more than a shadow or “Shape.” We see him hitting on Tracy (Dewhurst) in Torchy’s and getting beaten up by another bar patron. We see him living on the streets, in skid-row, trying desperately to connect to someone.
The malevolent silhouette of the first act becomes a hauntingly human – and frail -- individual in the second act.
In a sense, this is the way of all fear. It starts out palpable and urgent when we don’t understand it. But when it becomes recognizable or quantifiable, the sense of terror lessens.
I must confess, I have mixed feelings about this development in the film. On one hand, familiarity diminishes the sense of horror, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s. The more we see that Duncan is a slight-of-build, mentally-ill British man, the less fearsome he becomes. Horror absolutely thrives on the things we don’t know and don’t understand, not the things we do know and do understand.
Oppositely, it is interesting and ambitious that When a Stranger Calls doesn’t hew to a two-dimensional approach to its boogeyman. Duncan is not Evil Incarnate, but a deeply sick man whom society has abandoned. I suppose my real problem with the second act may be that Duncan seems no match -- physically or mentally -- for the portly, grave-faced veteran cop Clifford, a man who is willing to commit murder outside the confines of the law to bring his quarry to justice.
But even this somewhat deflated second act possesses moments of raw power, and more importantly, fear.
On two occasions, director Walton takes the audience on a night-time sojourn through the seedy city, from Torchy’s to Tracy’s apartment building. The camera seems to move further and further away from her as she walks home by sickly-green city-light. As the camera retracts, and Tracy gets ever smaller in the frame, one can’t help but get the impression of a world in which the city has been ceded to criminals, or to the sick. This isn’t a place of safety or security, and Walton’s expressive camera work expresses this notion well.
Again -- in the second act this time -- Duncan violates the safety or sanctity of the hearth, of the home. He hides in Tracy’s hall closet and leaps out at her when she least suspects danger. This scene is lensed almost entirely in close-up, which makes for a real and dramatic switch from the long, lonely, dark shots of the city streets. Walton’s visual approach and selection of shots seems to suggest that Duncan’s violation is highly intimate, even if his stalking grounds feel lonely, abandoned, and vast.
I suppose the real test of Beckley’s effectiveness in the role of Duncan is that the final act works effectively. Curt goes after Jill again, in her suburban home this time, and hides in her bed -- in plain sight -- as her sleeping husband. In extreme, warped close-up, Duncan looks sick and twisted, and attacks Jill, and the moment is utterly terrifying. Even when he know the killer, then, his disruption of our expectations of safety has a mighty impact.
Gazing at Walton’s visual technique, one might be able to detect a subtle message or subtext here. Society (epitomized by the cold, clinical Dr. Monk) has given the cities to the crazies, to the violent, to the wackos. And worse, those crazies aren’t satisfied with the territory that has been ceded to them. They are encroaching ever deeper into the suburbs, appearing in places that should be safe: the bedrooms of our most cherished family members: our children or our spouses.
This leitmotif may make the film sound paranoid, but the horror genre is not, largely, about reason or logic, but rather about the fears that won’t go silent, even when we know they aren’t entirely rational.
When a Stranger Calls is really about the crazy “outside” making in-roads “inside,” not just in your family room or kitchen, but inside your head too, in your very imagination.
The killer is inside the house already -- and has been for some time -- but you don’t know it yet.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
Near a small settlement of apes and human slaves far from Central City, Virdon (Ron Harper) loses the magnetic disc that can help the astronauts return home to their time period.
Unfortunately, the magnetic disc has been retrieved by the local ape prefect, Barlow (John Hoyt), who runs gladiator games in the nearby arena to keep the humans in his territory in line.
While Galen (Roddy McDowall) attempts to get the disc back surreptitiously, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon are captured attempting to steal horses, and slated for combat in the arena.
Meanwhile, a human father, Tolar (William Smith) attempts to teach his son, Dalton (Marc Singer) to be a warrior in the games, even though the boy’s mother was a pacifist.
“The Gladiators,” by Art Wallace is a not particularly memorable or scintillating episode of Planet of the Apes (1974), except for the presence of a very young Marc Singer -- future star of V (1983) -- as a pacifist human.
In terms of this 2017 retrospective of the TV series, I am looking in particular at not merely plot details, however, but the manner in which the episodes explore what I see as the key theme of the series: race relations on the planet of the apes.
Here, Prefect Barlow’s attitude towards the human race is very patronizing, but in a sense that’s to be expected, given what humans did, historically, to destroy themselves (and the planet).
Barlow notes, for example (much like Zaius did in the 1968 motion picture) that man is “the only animal that makes war on himself.” He believes that by giving the humans the blood they lust for in the arena, they can be controlled. “They’re waiting for blood. It’s their nature. Human nature,” he says.
The episode provides a counter-balance for this prejudice in the person of Dalton. Here is a human who does not wish to fight, even though his father wishes him too. Dalton is a reminder that Barlow subscribes to a stereotype, which might be defined as the failure to see a person as an individual.
Instead of seeing Dalton’s peaceful ways, and noting that they go against his perception of humans, Barlow hews to the stereotype for a long time.
And yet, Barlow does not seem like atotally bad person, despite his reliance on stereotypes. For example, he is also patronizing to the gorillas, noting that they have “no understanding” of either “beauty or culture.” So it is not as though Barlow is merely a racist towards human beings. He can clearly see that not all apes are wonderful people, either. At one point, he even likens the gorillas to children.
Of course, this comment is trading in stereotypes too, isn’t it?
Eventually, Barlow comes to understand the error of his ways and seeks a better way to govern his settlement. Although one does not sense that humans will ever be equal there, at least he has acknowledged, as one character notes, that “killing should stop.”
Barlow, as a character, seems particularly real. He has beliefs that are wrong, and yet is not “evil,” as one might conclude of another character: Urko (Mark Lenard). As this episode starts, Urko basically orders his subordinate, Jason, to kill the astronauts on sight. He does not want to “get to know” his enemy, or learn more about where they hail from. He wants them eliminated. His mind is closed. By contrast, Barlow's mind is, at least a little, susceptible to reason.
Galen, as usual, represents someone of very open mind and very few biases. When he learns that his friends have lost the magnetic disc, he puts himself on the line to help him. In this way, he reveals his “humanity.”
Intriguingly, the first scene of the episode establishes that Central City is not the Ape City from the movies (which was located near New York City). From a wall-map in Urko’s office, it is clear that the city is located in California. Later in “The Gladiators,” Burke notes that the fugitives are now somewhere “North of San Francisco.”
This episode also features the series’ typical McGuffin: the magnetic disk. It is ta plot device which gets the fugitives (Burke, Virdon, and Galen) into the story involving Tomar, Dalton, and Barlow.
Of course, as Burke rightly points out, there seems little way that the magnetic disk could actually prove useful to the astronauts. First they must locate a computer capable of reading it (and hence, reading their flight trajectory). Then, they would have to construct a spaceship which could return them to orbit (and the correct trajectory). I'm not certain how they think that could manufacture the necessary equipment.
Such an escape is the longest of long shots, but I suppose it is important that the astronauts on the series be viewed (by audiences) as purposeful and determined.They can’t just wander the countryside, and settle down. Instead, they have to be fighting to return to their world.
Finally, “The Gladiators” features a funny joke. Barlow is a collector of antiques from the distant past, and fancies himself an anthropologist/archaeologist of sorts. He proudly shows Galen a golf club, and mistakes it as some kind of ancient human weapon.
Next week: “The Trap.”
This Hugo Award-nominated TV pilot, which first aired on American television on January 23, 1974, represents another Gene Roddenberry attempt to craft a successful science fiction TV series after Star Trek (and following the failure of pilots including Genesis II and Planet Earth).
In The Questor Tapes, however, Roddenberry abandoned the "future world scenario" of Star Trek and both PAX TV movies and instead focused on the idea of an artificial man -- an android -- who, with great benevolence, would guide the human race through his troubled "infancy" in the twentieth century.
Thirteen episodes of the series were actually written, and NBC green lit The Questor Tapes, even officially granting it a time-slot: Friday nights at 10:00 pm. However, before the series could air, various behind-the-scenes factions fought a fatal tug-of-war, attempting to skew the fledgling series in a new direction, making it more like The Fugitive (1964-1968) or The Six-Million Dollar Man (1973-1978).
Roddenberry stuck to his guns...and walked away. His series was never produced. However, the pilot was novelized by D.C. Fontana in a book based on the script by Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry. And even today, many fans fondly remember The Questor Tapes.
The Questor Tapes opens at "Project Questor," inside a highly-advanced surgical operating theatre on a college campus, where Dr. Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell) and a team of scientists (including Majel Barrett Roddenberry) attempt to bring an android -- Questor -- to full consciousness.
This is a more difficult task than it sounds, however, because Questor's actual creator, Dr. Vaslovik (Lew Ayres) is missing and "presumed dead." The mystery man disappeared three years ago, without a trace. Questor, Vaslovik's child, is not well-understood by either the high-IQ Robinson or the other international scientists (James Shigeta, Fred Sadoff). Project Leader Darrow (John Vernon), fears that Questor is a "billion dollar pile of junk."
Questor rejects all programming tapes except the one created specifically by Vaslovik. Vaslovik's programming includes a background in "logic, law" and forensic medicine, among other things. Questor also boasts knowledge of "international laws and procedures."
Even after successful programming, Questor does not appear to operate normally. This vexes Robinson, who considers himself a "puzzle solver" and "gifted mechanic." A disappointed Darrow immediately seizes on the idea of selling Questor's valuable parts (like his stomach -- an amazing "nuclear furnace") to international bidders.
While unguarded and unsupervised, Questor (Robert Foxworth) activates himself, modifies himself to appear human (replete with skin imperfections), and leaves the facility. His overriding purpose is to locate his "creator," Vaslovik. Unfortunately, Vaslovik's programming tape was corrupted and now Questor does not possess human emotions, a fact he laments. "Is it possible, I was meant to feel?" He wonders.
Without programming to help him understand emotions and experience a sense of morality, Questor abducts Jerry Robinson and demands that the human being become his "guide" in such matters. Robinson isn't sure at first about befriending a "an ambulatory computer device," but soon realizes he has a responsibility to help the Questor "child" discover his creator, and find an "explanation" for himself.
Alas, Questor has limited time to complete his mission. If he does not locate the missing Vaslovik in three days, he will self-destruct...literally becoming a nuclear bomb.
After a jaunt to London in which Questor and Jerry meet Lady Helena (Dayna Winter), Vaslovik's courtesan, they proceed by jet to remote Turkey...to the very mountains where Noah's Ark is believed to have crashed. There, in a deep mountain cavern, Questor finally meets his creator, Vaslovik, and learns of both his origin and purpose.
Vaslovik and Questor are both androids of extra-terrestrial design. These androids (who build their own replacements before they expire...) have been protecting and guiding the human race in secret for 200 millennia. Questor is the last android of the line, because after his span (a duration of 200 years...), mankind will have outgrown a turbulent childhood and will no longer require safeguarding.
Unfortunately, Vaslovik can not provide Questor what the android desires most: human emotions. Although he would "trade anything to feel; to be human," Questor will have to continue to rely on his friend, Robinson, for an understanding of the human equation...
Had there been a Questor series, it would have picked up there: with Jerry and Questor "guiding" but not interfering with man as he broached international crises and problems that could threaten the human race.
In the pilot, we are introduced to what would have been an important set: Vaslovik's Information Center, a control room hidden in Lady Helena's wine cellar. From that location, Questor can monitor important locations worldwide (including the U.S. Congress), as well as private locations...like, uh, bedrooms...
The Questor Tapes is an almost perfect representation of the Gene Roddenberry aesthetic. There is (gentle...) criticism of 20th century industrial/technological mankind here, his "squalor...ugliness...greed...struggles."
Yet this damning view is balanced and tempered by an essential optimism about intrinsic human nature. Our "greatest accomplishment," declares Questor is "our ability to love one another."
Questor is a character much like Mr. Spock or Lt. Data -- an outsider who is nonetheless fascinated by mankind. The perspective as "outsider" permits Questor, Data or Spock to be both critical and positive about the human race, without any of it seeming personal, political or petty. Like Spock, Questor is dedicated to logic, and uses that word (logic) frequently. "Logic indicates the simplest plan is often the best," etc. And also like Spock, Questor is peaceful. He is not programmed to kill, yet he can incapacitate enemies with the equivalent of a "nerve pinch."
But if Questor is a child of Spock, he is also the father of Data. There can be little doubt of that. Questor desires to be human, just like Data, and wants to understand humor. "Humor is a quality which seems to elude me," he tells Jerry at one point.
Also, like Data, Questor is a sexual being, and this facet of his personality also conforms to an essential quality of all Roddenberry productions: kinkiness.
To get information out of Lady Helena Trimble, Questor -- an android -- makes love to her. Beforehand, he tells her that he is...um..."fully functional." Next Generation fans will recognize that particular turn of phrase from Data's seduction of Tasha Yar in the first season episode "The Naked Now."
In another scene from The Questor Tapes, Jerry and =Questor visit a European casino and Questor learns that the House is cheating, utilizing fake dice. The android is able to beat the cheaters by adjusting the balance of the dice. In the second season episode of The Next Generation titled "The Royale," Data does precisely the same thing.
The Questor Tapes has aged poorly in a few, minor ways...all mostly visual. For instance, a close-up glimpse of Questor's high-tech interior reveals a rotary telephone cord. And the very idea that "tapes" would carry an android's programming? Well, that is passe, of course too. Even Vaslovik's Information Center is obviously pre-world-wide-web.
Yet none of that matters in the slightest.
What matters here, and what grants The Questor Tapes a real "heart" is the relationship at the forefront of the production: the friendship between a human (Jerry) and a machine (Questor). There's funny banter and quiet affection there, and the relationship will remind you (in a positive, not derivative...) way of the long-lived Kirk/Spock friendship. It's different in that Jerry has no authority over Questor: he's a teacher in the subject of humanity, not a commanding officer. Despite the difference, there's definitely charm here.
I also appreciate the real and deep sense of compassion that Roddenberry and Coon bring to all their characters in The Questor Tapes. Lady Helena (Wynter), who is scandalously introduced as an aristocratic courtesan, is actually a woman of tremendous depth, intelligence and loyalty. And even the TV movie's villain, Darrow, is treated with compassion. When Darrow realizes that the military is going to discover Questor and dis-assemble him, Vernon sacrifices himself. He takes a tracer, flies Questor's jet...and dies when the air force blows it up.
Roddenberry watchers will also recognize other recurring themes here. The idea of an alien race peacefully guiding humanity out of his adolescence is straight out of Star Trek's "Assignment Earth" (story by Roddenberry; teleplay by Art Wallace.)
And the idea of a robot/android searching for his "creator" has been the core idea of original Star Trek episodes ("The Changeling" by John Meredyth Lucas) movies (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and Next Generation installments ("Datalore," "Brothers," etc.)
What I enjoyed most about the "search for creator" subplot in Questor was this notion that it is a metaphor for man's search for his creator...for our God (a plot point that forecasts Prometheus ). At one point in the pilot, Questor must grapple with the notion that his creator (Vaslovik) is insane. This possibility is suggested by Jerry. Interestingly, Questor turns the concept around on Robinson and asks him: what if our creator (God...) is insane too? Robinson doesn't have an answer for that.
Roddenberry might have gotten away with that subtle swipe at religion in 1974, but I wonder if Questor could get it by censors today. In fact, it is rumored that one of the reasons that The Questor Tapes never materialized as a series is that NBC executives were uncomfortable with the concept - stated here - that aliens, not a Christian God, were overseeing mankind's development. The network was apparently afraid that Questor would be deemed the "Anti-Christ" by some viewers.
In recent years, there has been some movement (after Roddenberry's death in 1991) to revive The Questor Tapes concept as a series. I'd still love to see it happen. Today, more than ever, I think mankind could use Questor's help.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
The press has today reported the death of Academy-Award winning director Jonathan Demme (1944-2017), the talent who gave us our first glimpse of Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter.
Mr. Demme directed The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and took home the Best Director Oscar for his work on that film. That movie, and its thoughtful, intimate approach to serial killers (and matters of good and evil) inspired a slew of films and TV shows throughout the nineties.
Mr. Demme's impressive career in cinema began in the early 1970's and he directed in a wide variety of genres. Demme directed comedies including Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988), and such documentaries as Stop Making Sense (1984), and Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains (2007).
Demme's dramatic films included not only the aforementioned The Silence of the Lambs, but efforts such as Philadelphia (1993), and Beloved (1998). In 2004, he directed the well-received remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Mr. Demme's work was not limited to the cinema, and he also directed episodes of the acclaimed series The Killing in 2013 and 2014.
Today, Mr. Demme's near-documentary filmmaking-style and empathetic approach to lensing close-up shots are widely considered influential to the up-and-coming generation of film auteurs.
My deepest sympathy goes out to Mr. Demme's family and friends at this time of grief There are no words to make such a feeling of loss go away. However, film is unique in the sense that it permits for something like immortality.
Mr. Demme may be gone, but The Silence of the Lambs, and many of his other works too, will be watched and appreciated for decades to come.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
The Enterprise is tasked with transporting Ambassador Kollos of Medusa to a Federation summit. Kollos, and all Medusans are non-corporeal life-forms who are renowned as the galaxy’s greatest navigators.
However, if a human should ever gaze upon a Medusan, he or she would be driven permanently insane. Fortunately, protective visors can prevent such happenstance, and allow the races to co-exist and cooperate.
Two other passengers beam aboard the Enterprise with Kollos.
The first is Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur) an accomplished telepath who has been selected to undergo the first human/Medusan mind meld or link.
The second is Larry Marvick (David Frankham), one of the designers of the Enterprise. His job, if Dr. Jones is successful, is to incorporate instrumentation aboard starships for linked Humans/Medusans.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) hosts Dr. Jones and Mr. Marvick at a dinner, but Miranda feels threatened by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who was the first choice to undergo the mind-link process. He intends only to honor her at the affair by wearing the Vulcan IDIC medallion, but Miranda is defensive and suspicious.
Things go from bad to worse when Marvick -- in love with Miranda -- attempts to assassinate Ambassador Kollos. Instead of succeeding, he views the Medusan without protection, and goes insane. He visits Engineering and while there seizes the controls, trapping the Enterprise in a strange, distant void.
Mr. Spock realizes that only an expert navigator, like Kollos, can help the ship to return to its proper place in the universe. To accomplish this task, however, he must mind-link with the ambassador, and Dr. Jones will be quite unhappy at the prospect.
Captain Kirk distracts Miranda with a walk in the ship’s arboretum, while Spock makes the link without her knowledge.
The ship is rescued, and returns to its original point in time and space, but an accident occurs after the transfer, which leaves a vulnerable Spock -- sans visor -- to view Kollos with his own eyes. Now Miranda, who has been deceived, must decide if she should help restore Spock’s mind.
“Is There in Truth No Beauty” is a good reminder of just how ahead of its time Star Trek (1966-1969) was when it first aired.
This story features a brilliant, complex female character, Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur), who is dedicated to her own professional success and doesn’t require or want the permission of a man to pursue her goals.
It’s true that Kirk, Bones and Marvick fall all over themselves discussing her “beauty,” but the episode’s teleplay is clear that Jones is an accomplished individual in her chosen field. Sure, she possesses foibles; just as Kirk, Spock and McCoy do, but Miranda is a three-dimensional character, not merely “eye candy.” The episode’s symbolism suggests that all roses possess thorns, and it’s easy to apply that ideal to Miranda and her fits of rage and jealously. But the intriguing there is that the comparison applies, in various ways, to Kollos, and even Marvick.
Kollos is a good soul, of course, not meaning to do harm. But his “thorn” is the damage his appearance can do to those around him.
Marvick is clearly a genius -- the man who designed the Enterprise and is working on instrumentation for Kollo -- but his thorn is also “jealousy.” He is in love with Miranda, and covets her.
Incidentally, Miranda is also blind, but she does not allow that so-called “disability” to stop her from achieving her ambitions. And, the sensor-dress that Jones wears in this episode is clearly a precursor to Geordi’s visor in The Next Generation (1987-1994) as well as a prime example of Roddenberry’s “Technology Unchained” theorem; the idea that advances in technology will improve all facets of human life.
It is easy, in 2017, to look at this episode and find it in sexist since Kirk, McCoy and Marvick are so concerned with Miranda’s beauty, not her intellect, or even her prerogative to decide her life for herself.
Marvick’s line to Miranda to be a “woman” for a change is absolutely sexist too (just as the term “mansplaining” or “man up” is also sexist, in today’s world), and Kirk and McCoy’s concern for Miranda’s happiness is a bit overwrought. I think that’s to be expected in the third season of Star Trek. Everyone seems to be falling in love, all the time, at a far greater rate than in the previous two seasons.
But right there, in the text of the episode, Miranda gives it right back to the men. When McCoy toasts Miranda, he asks if those attending the dinner will allow so beautiful a woman to be surrounded by ugliness her whole life. Miranda responds with a sharp toast of her own, noting that those in attendance should also not permit McCoy, so lively a personality, to surround himself by disease and death.
Miranda reserves for herself only the privilege McCoy reserves for himself: the right to choose how she lives her life, and pursues her dreams. That is what equality is; and that is what “Is There in Truth No Beauty” is about.
The episode also presents, for the first time, the Vulcan concept of IDIC. The story of the IDIC pendant is legendary, of course, an opportunity for crass commercialism.
But the concept behind IDIC -- infinite diversity in infinite combinations -- is beautiful in its thinking. In fact, it was one of the key ideas that makes Star Trek so worthwhile: the concept of people of different backgrounds, cultures, genders, beliefs, and attitudes combining their efforts to do something great, or worthwhile, like explore the galaxy. When one gazes at the various Star Trek crews from 1966 to 2005, we see the practicality, the necessity, and indeed, the beauty of the IDIC concept.
It is still amazing to me that this program that aired in the mid-1960s was so forward thinking about diversity, and its benefits to everyone.
During the Civil Rights movement, it brought us an African-American female on the bridge of a starship. During the Cold War, it brought us a Russian to the same bridge. And, when those with a long memory still hated the United States’ previous enemy from another war, it also gave us a Japanese helmsman. “Is There in Truth No Beauty” reminds us, additionally, that those who face physical challenges (like blindness), can also be valuable, productive members of society.
This was by no means a mainstream view in 1968-1969.
Even the idea that Kollos is accepted by Starfleet and the Federation -- while still considered “ugly” -- speaks well of Star Trek’s commitment to the concept of IDIC. Kollos’ appearance causes madness and death in humans, and yet he is nonetheless considered a valuable ally, one who, with the right precautions, would also have a seat on the bridge of a starship.
This episode is nearly never referenced when discussing Star Trek’s finest episodes, and yet consider what it accomplishes. It sets out the foundation of a beloved Vulcan philosophy (IDIC), and it forecasts the future of the franchise, with the sensor web leading to La Forge’s visor in The Next Generation.
It’s true that some elements of the episode seem over-the-top -- each time Kirk and McCoy are in the presence of Miranda, for instance -- and yet some moments are quite beautiful too, particularly Leonard Nimoy’s performance as the Kollos/Spock union. Muldaur, once more, is extraordinary in terms of crafting a fully-realized character who seems to have a history and background beyond what we see on the screen.
So, I suppose we can remember the episode’s point: every rose has its thorns.
Despite those thorns, I would still count this as a top-tier third season episode of Star Trek.
Next week: "Spectre of the Gun."