Hello and welcome once again to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! After our recent examination of the early seasons of ‘The Next Generation’, it’s finally time to turn back to the original series, this time with our first look at the show’s third season. To that end, this week we’ll be focusing our attention on ‘Spectre of the Gun’, an episode that in many ways serves as an encapsulation of the third season.
Before we get too deep into the episode, we need to be clear about one thing: The third season of ‘Star Trek’ was never supposed to happen. The show was famously saved from cancellation at the end of its second season in part thanks to a letter writing campaign spearheaded by Bjo Trimble. Of course, they say no victory is without cost, and the costs of this victory were felt both behind the camera and in front of it. With Fred Freiberger taking over as producer, the season saw the departures of series stalwarts Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana, as well as the withdrawal of Gene Roddenberry himself from routine involvement with the show’s production. While this was unfolding, the budget was cut. Hard. Naturally, this was reflected in the finished product, as (for example) only a handful of episodes featured location filming and the season saw a notable uptick in bottle shows and other budget stretching tricks. More noticeable than this, however, was the shift in the writing, as the loss of Fontana, Coon, and Roddenberry combined with Frieberger’s own sensibilities combined to produce a shift that saw the show lean more heavily than ever before on what might generously be described as exactly the sort of boilerplate television sci-fi that Roddenberry had always tried to steer clear of (‘Spock’s Brain’ anybody?). But as bleak as that all may sound, the season is not without its bright spots. Is ‘Spectre of the Gun’ one of them? Read on…
The Enterprise is intercepted by a buoy. As it approaches, it transmits a message warning the ship that they have encroached on Melkot territory, which each crew member hears in their native language. As the crew is under orders to establish contact with the Melkots, they attempt to hail the buoy. When no response is forthcoming, Kirk orders the ship to proceed to the Melkotian homeworld as scheduled. Upon reaching the surface, their communicators cease to function as a Melkot approaches.
As punishment for disregarding the warning, the xenophobic Melkots declare the landing party shall be punished, and that as the leader Kirk will provide “the pattern of [their] death”. No sooner is this announced than the landing party finds itself in a surreal recreation of a late nineteenth-century American frontier town. In short order, they find that their phasers have been replaced with revolvers of the period and they come across a posting that gives the date and location: Tombstone, Arizona, October 26, 1881. Kirk finds this familiar, and an encounter with one of the townspeople jogs his memory. The pattern chosen by the Melkots for the party’s execution is that of a recreation of the gunfight at the O.K Corral, with the landing party in the role of members of the Clanton gang. A run in with Morgan Earp, in which Earp ignores Kirk’s attempts at reason and instead tries to provoke him demonstrates the the determination of history (such as it is) to repeat itself. After Earp leaves, Kirk speaks with the bartender, who remains oblivious to any effort to convince him of his true identity. He then pays a visit to the Earps, who insist that the duel proceed.
While attempting to “exercise the better part of valor”, the party finds the town surrounded by a forcefield. Failing an escape route, they decide they should have a few tricks up their sleeves to deal with the Earps. To that end, McCoy and Spock begin work on a tranquilizer and a delivery system, respectively. Chekov (as Billy Claiborne), meanwhile, is “preoccupied” with Sylvia, Claiborne’s girlfriend. When they are accosted by Morgan Earp, Chekov is shot and killed.
As the others mourn Chekov, Spock recalls that Billy Claiborne survived the historical gunfight, providing the first evidence that the “pattern” can be altered. Kirk speaks with the sheriff, hoping to rally the townsfolk against the Earps, only to told, in as many words, that the town and the law alike are content to look the other way as the “Clantons” deal with the Earps, with the sheriff urging Kirk to “kill them any way you can”. When the time comes to test Spock and McCoy’s tranquilizer, it is utterly ineffective. As the clock strikes five – the time of the showdown – Kirk vows not to leave the bar, only for the party to be immediately transported to the Corral, which is surrounded by forcefields.
Spock has deduced that belief is key to the effectiveness of their execution. That, in other words, Chekov is dead because he believed the bullets simulated by the Melkotians would kill him. Therefore, because Spock knows the bullets are unreal, they cannot kill him. Spock is able to eliminate any potentially fatal doubt from the minds of his crew mates through the use of a mind meld. As the Earps arrive and the battle begins, the landing party is now utterly unphased by the bullets. With this new advantage, they easily defeat the Earps, though Kirk refuses to kill when given the opportunity.
Without warning, they find themselves returned to the bridge (where Kirk speculates they have been the entire time), with Chekov at his station, alive and well. Kirk suggests that he was able to survive because “nothing was real to him but the girl.” They are hailed by the Melkots, who were impressed by Kirk’s refusal to kill. In response to this, the Melkotians invite Kirk to send a delegation to their planet.
‘Spectre of the Gun’ is kind of an odd episode, to say the least. In fact, it can be taken as representative of the third season as a whole, in as much as it was clearly produced on the cheap and in some ways even seems like it’s trying to reverse engineer whatever it is that makes ‘Star Trek’ work, as the plot includes very strong echoes of earlier outings. In particular, it feels like someone put ‘Arena’ and ‘The Corbomite Maneuver’ in a blender. But if it sounds like I’m about to slag the episode, think again. Because that’s part of its peculiar cleverness. Things that in any other episode would be these glaring marks of how cheaply or lazily made it was instead contribute to a unique and extremely memorable atmosphere. The fact that those same elements also allowed them to save money? Well, there’s no way it was an accident, but it’s certainly a nice bonus.
The prime example of this is the environment. The Tombstone setting and indeed, westerns in general weren’t exactly novel in the late ’60s, but the episode manages a rather unique approach to the familiar trope. But by declining to play it straight, the episode turns what could have been a crippling weakness – its cheapness – into a strength. And this subtle cleverness is a big part of what makes ‘Spectre of the Gun’ work as well as it does. After all, this surreal landscape isn’t Tombstone. It’s a Melkotian projection. Hence an environment replete with bizarre little details. The town is bathed under a permanent red sky, and buildings often have no walls other than the facade, an effect calls to mind a half-built set or the climax of ‘Blazing Saddles’.
Of course, it’s not all roses. As I pointed out, the plot does draw heavily on earlier, arguably better episodes. I can forgive that because it’s doing so in a way that plays to quintessential ‘Star Trek’ themes, but that doesn’t change the fact that “powerful aliens test the crew and are impressed when they prove their benevolence” is a well the series has gone to time and again. On top of this, the fact that the episode’s resolution hinges on a mind meld can’t help but feel lazy, especially at this point in the run. And then there’s Chekov. He’s basically just there to spend the hour making out with a literal dream girl and get shot. Also, while I’m not here to pick on production errors or wobbly sets (if I were, these columns would be a lot longer), I’ve spent enough time and ink praising the episode for turning cheapness into a strength that I have to call out the fact that they at times got a bit careless with their cheap sets. Namely, there are a number of wide shots near the end in which they don’t even pretend that their trying to hide the seams as the point where the backdrop meets the rest of the set can be clearly seen.
That about wraps it up for this installment. What do you think of ‘Spectre of the Gun’? Are there any episodes you’d like to see me cover? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to check back in two weeks when we return to pick apart another episode!