Retro Review: Star Trek — The Corbomite Maneuver

Between the return of Breaking Bad, the end of Eureka and spending far too much time looking at the newly released Next Generation Blu-Rays and going, “Ooohhhh…pretty!” I haven’t devoted a lot of time to my journey back through classic Star Trek of late.  But I’ve jumped back on board the starship Enterprise for the first episode produced after NBC picked up Star Trek.  

It’s the fantastic bottle episode, “The Corbomite Manuever.”  I’ll delve deeper into this classic episode of the original series just as soon as I figure out a way to have my adrenal gland removed…

Of the first dozen episodes of classic Trek, this may be my favorite.

Classic Star Trek (and all of Trek for that matter) is full of bottle episodes.  These episodes were designed to be less expensive for the production team since they all took place on the already standing sets for the series and they featured a relatively small guest cast.    In classic Trek, two of these episodes stand out as some of the best episodes the original series produced–the second season’s “The Doomsday Machine” and this one.

“The Corbomite Maneuver” plays to the strengths of classic Trek and while it’s not perfect and you can still see the cast and crew coming to grips with their characters and the universe, it’s still one of the most compelling and entertaining hours of the entire Trek canon.

It’s an episode with a lot of firsts.  It’s the first appearance of DeForest Kelly as Doctor McCoy, it’s the first appearance of Uhura and it’s the first use of the very familiar Fred Steiner musical score.  In fact, I’d argue that the musical score is what pushes this episode over the top from a really good episode to one of the all time greats.   Every time I watch it, I can’t help but have the score stuck in my head for the next few days and will find myself humming it.

It’s clear that Gene Roddenberry had a lot of time to craft and perfect this script, putting some nice polishes on it before production began.   While probing an unexplored section of the universe, the Enterprise encounters a mysterious cube that blocks its path.  When the cube begins to emit radiation, Kirk orders it destroyed and the ship continues its exploration mission.

The cube’s destruction brings in the Fesaurus, a huge ship that dwarfs the Enterprise.   The ship’s commander Balock is upset at the cube’s destruction (turns out it was a warning buoy) and orders the Enterprise destroyed.   Based on his study of the ship’s records, Balock decides the ship will have ten minutes  for the crew to prepare themselves for the inevitable.

The driving force of “The Corbomite Maneuever” isn’t Balock and his threats, but the crew’s reaction to them.  It’s a story of how various characters react to the face of the unknown.   Spock is curious to see Balcok, locking on to his broadcast and putting him image up on the view screen.   Sulu is obsessed with keeping a countdown to destruction and Kirk stresses as he tries to find a way to save his ship and crew.

The episode also gives us the one-off character of Bailey, a helmsman that Kirk could have promoted to the big chair before Bailey was ready.   Bailey’s a bit green and he doesn’t react well to the death sentence or the crew’s reactions.  Bailey’s promotion is a cause of strife between Kirk and McCoy, with McCoy contending Kirk pushed Bailey too hard and he can’t handle the pressure.  When Bailey cracks on the bridge, McCoy says he fully intends to make sure Starfleet is aware that he warned Kirk about his.

The bluff gives Kirk an idea of just how he could defeat Balock–by bluffing.  This is one of two times in the original series run that Kirk will use the bluff of a  “corbomite device” installed on the ship.  If the Enterprise is attacked, the device returns the fire upon the attacker, destroying both.  Kirk tells Balcok the crew’s “respect for life” requires that he tell him about the device, even though it’s not included in the ship’s records.

It’s one of the first examples in the classic series of Kirk not only changing the rules, but the game.  Presented with the un-winnable scenario, Kirk finds a way to change the game and come out a winner.  Balock bites on the bluff and Kirk and the crew are able to escape.

The ending finds that Balock is a bluff as well.   The image on the viewscreen is a puppet and Balock is a short, bald-headed guy played by Clint Howard.  When the Enterprise‘s escape of the Fesaurius’ tractor beam cripples the smaller ship, Kirk, McCoy and Bailey (who returns to duty in the final act) beam aboard for a “first contact” mission.    Again, it’s just the set of the briefing room dressed up a bit, but it works fairly well.

“The Corbomite Maneuver” has all the pieces of classic Trek on display, even if they’re not necessarily as polished as they’ll later become.   Spock is still a work in progress–he apologizes to Kirk at one point for not coming up with any options to defeat Balock–and Uhura’s only line (repeated several times) is about opening hailing frequencies.  But there’s still enough of the classic Trek feel and character study here that the episode is a solid one and one of the best examples of what Trek can do with limited resources.

There’s a lot of interesting trivia related to this one as well.   Watch the episode again and notice the uniforms appear a bit small on the actors.  Apparently, when they were sent out for cleaning, the uniforms shrunk a bit.   It leads to shorter skirts for the ladies and sleeves that don’t quite fit right for everyone.  Of course, it works well here since the episode starts out with Kirk in sickbay taking his annual physical and McCoy later changing his “diet card” because he was “up a few pounds.”

The episode also features Balock offering the crew tranya, a drink that he hopes the crew “relishes as much as I.”  Interestingly, in two separate behind the scenes reminisces, we get two separate accounts of what was in the bowl.   Clint Howard tolds the SciFi Channel Special edition showings that tranya was colored grapefruit juice while William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories says it was warm apricot juice.   Neither one sounds necessarily all that appealing.  But I do find myself wondering which version of the story is the correct one.

(I’m included both of the special edition sets related to this episode below.  The Clint Howard material is the same for both episodes while the Shatner and Nimoy material is different.  Again, I wonder why these can’t be included on the DVDs or Blu-Rays!)

It’s not something that will add or detract from the episode.

Looking back over my top ten list I created a couple of years ago, I’m surprised this one didn’t make the final cut.    That just means it’d hit my top fifteen, I guess.   Easily one of the original run’s best episodes, this one is worth watching again.

I will also say that the remastering of this one does some nice things while thankfully not giving into the temptation to do too much.   It’s one of a handful of classic Trek episodes that I think really benefits from the remastering, even if I still prefer the original effects.

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